the incongruous spoon

It’s not just a spoon

People are interesting creatures.  We encode meaning and memory into objects, and frequently project our psyches into tangible things. There are some objects, which elicit the most pure and concentrated memories, laced — like an oatmeal cookie — with nostalgia.  A. and I came upon one such object on a Spring afternoon when we were running errands on foot.

The heat of the day was swelling, but it was still mild enough.  We cut through a shopping center driveway, next to Taco Bell, to get to the crosswalk.  We discussed art, the goings on of the world, and what was next on our list.  In the midst of all our chatter, a shiny object caught my gaze.

There, in the grass median between vast swathes of blacktop, rested a spoon.  It wasn’t just any spoon.  It was one of the ones you buy in airports or curio shops, the kind never meant to touch food.  The edges of it folded into a delicate scalloped edge.  A braid of metal made the handle, and atop the braid stood a keyhole, from which a trolley dangled.  San Francisco scrawled across the top, and also in its concave surface.

Meme.

That was the first thought I had upon seeing this bobble.  You see, my grandmother, being the practical woman she was, collected spoons from the places she visited.  Other people also collected them for her, as folks are wont to do when someone curates a blessed collection of curios and whatnots. What to get Mabel?  Of course, a spoon!

She displayed the spoons in a specially crafted shelf.  They would dangle from their hand-carved notches and behind them rested porcelain creamers from a less manufactured era.  They weren’t her prized possession, but they warmed her heart nonetheless.

I hadn’t thought about Meme’s spoons in years, and now I was on the verge of recalling when I had picked out one for her.  I shared all this with A. as I turned the spoon over in my hands.

“This one’s had a hard life,” I told him as I puzzled over the blemishes in the metal.  “That’s so strange.  I wonder…?”

an aberration

My mind was on the verge of teasing out exactly what had happened to this little kickshaw when A. found the next item in our macabre set.  Perhaps those of you who are more savvy have already conjured all of the possible uses of a spoon, including the sinister ones.  Alas, it took locating the hypodermic needle to fully elucidate its recent history.

This was a heroin spoon.  As in some had used it to cook drugs and shoot up.  Maybe even right there in the parking lot, or as they were driving into the shopping center, chucking it out the window when they were done.

Needy.  Addicted.  Selfish.  Dirty.  Sick.  Disposable.

Was that black tar on my hands? How much residue was left on the surface of the spoon I had just been fondling with all the genial fuzziness of my childhood and shiny goodness of sweet family memories?

“I think you should put that down,” A. calmly instructed me, as if instead of dropping a spoon he was saving me from a rattlesnake.

“Jesus Christ.  Seriously?”  A decorative, commemorative spoon?  Who in the hell does heroin with a trinket like that?  I held my hands away from my body until we could get to the nearest bathroom.  I felt robbed. The world had intersected with the memories of my grandmother in a way I could not have anticipated.  I had a very specific emotional and intellectual meaning wrapped up in “spoon”.  And here was this cruddy little shlock. Scorched from a lighter and pot-marked from a caustic heavy-duty drug.

It was aberrant.  Not only did it not fit, it was incongruent with my reality, and because we intersected, it became part of my experience.  Now “spoon” not only means Meme, summer visits, travel, and gifts, it also means addiction, desperation, disease, and decay.
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The Cookie Cutter Life

Confession: This is going to be a bit of a rant. 

I have been reprimanded. Quite soundly. I prefer not to go into detail in this all-comers medium, however I am really bothered by the whole incident. It has occupied more of my conscious life than I have the patience for, and has left me pondering this problem: does human life fit with a systems-based approach?  Turning the crystal another way, does the human tendency to construct rigid order (like micromanaging people, implementing draconian laws, etc.) stifle our creativity, our ingenuity, and some of the other more nebulous and subjective elements which help us feel happy and satisfied in life?

In design theory, constraints often serve to help designers. To take a over-simplified example, think of the last time you tried to coordinate a dinner, or plan an outing.  Big vague questions tend to yield big diffuse answers.

Consider this:
“What do you want to do this weekend?”
“Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe go out.”
Versus this:
“I’d really like to get outside this weekend.  What do you think?”
“We haven’t been to the beach in a while. Or we could go hiking.”

Here “get outside” acts as the constraint.  The response is still a little wishy washy, but it’s far more concrete than the other scenario.

In another example, the order and constraints imposed by roads is constructive in a lot of obvious ways.  Roads help prevent accidents (although poor design can foil this benefit).  They expedite travel, foster good will among people who would otherwise run each other over, protect the land outside of the roads from being trambled and eroded by the heavy-footed falls of thousands of human beings.  But… roads also tell us where we can go, and where we can’t.  The building of them can damage just as much as they protect, and irrevocably alter a landscape, a community, a planet.

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Edinburgh ©JL Colomb

In contrast, the fractal patterns of nature, the order derived from natural processes rather than human imposed structure, soothes and inspires us. To be outside of earshot of cars, alarms, sirens, to be out of artificial lighting and false days restores us.  It refreshes us, and makes us more sensitive to ourselves and the world around us.  At least, that’s what it does for me.

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Order and Chaos ©JL Colomb

But these are lofty considerations of order and chaos.  The real meat of my angst is the imposition of micromanagement in the name of attaining order to adjudicate a perceived problem, and the impacts that tack has on morale, productivity, and creativity.

Creativity and innovation are often touted as among the most important qualities of an individual or business environment; however, organizations often stifle, thwart and otherwise crush them through absurd policies, rigid thinking and other constraints. Business management and organizational change consultants, like Torben Rick, cite “internal process focus” and micromanagement among other obstacles to creativity.

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Stacks ©JL Colomb

Not only is it a barrier, but articles on micromanagement detail its deleterious effects, such as demotivation, loss of trust, decreased confidence, and related emotional and economic stressors.

You know what?  They’re right.  It’s been quite some time since I’ve felt this demoralized and humiliated by another’s control over me.  I realize rules and structure have a purpose, however for people who care, who work hard and pour some of themselves into everything they do, dogmatic environments are insulting.

I like routine, I like structure, but not when it’s dictated to me without a cogent, rationale dialogue and mutual agreement.

And the impact on creativity?  We’ll have to see in the longterm. In general I think it’s responsive to constraints, however not to an engineered, and overly fabricated and regulated mode of existence.  I’m a wait-and-see kind of person.  Often problems resolve themselves, but if they don’t I am the architect of my own life, and change is always an answer.

hangry in Antigua

As my boyfriend and I walked down the cobblestone streets and alleys of the ancient capitol of Guatemala, a dusty, colorful and quaint remnant of Spanish colonialism, I grew quiet.  Everything around me faded as if the world beyond a five-foot diameter was an undefined white miasma.

Then I blurted out: “Just to let you know, I’m going to need to eat in the next five minutes.”

The ‘oh-shit’ look transformed his features as we embarked on a not so pleasant adventure to find the closest eatery that had: 1) food; 2) vegetarian options that wouldn’t cause vomiting or severe intestinal cramping; and 3) had a chance of being delicious and heathly.

Here’s the confession:  I am one of those people. You know the kind. The ones who go from 0 to scary in five minutes if they don’t receive immediate nourishment.

It’s embarassing, and causes its share of problems. As my boyfriend has pointed out, food is the source of 95% of our arguments.  Considering we don’t fight often, that’s  significant.

So what is it that drives me to become the explosive ice queen whenever I get hungry?  Or ‘hangry’ as some people call it.

As it turns out, there’s a science-backed answer in the giant morass of the great intergalactic library called the Internet.

That’s right … Science is on my side.  (And my physiology is to blame.)

Hungry is an emotion

Some things are happening in your body when you get hungry.  The concentration of glucose in your blood is depleting. Once it achieves a certain level (from 3.8 to 2.8 mmol/L), your brain, which survives on glucose, initiates a desparate cry for help.  A progressive SOS goes out to the pituitary gland, pancreas, and adrenal glands who in turn respond by releasing growth hormone, glucagon, and adrenaline and cortisol, respectively.  The body releases these hormones in stages.  Early stages are supposed to trigger glucogenesis, a process whereby the body converts amino acids into glucose so that your greedy, gluttonous brain doesn’t have to stop bingeing.  Adrenaline and cortisol come into play when the glucose levels further drop.

Being low on glucose is a bit like being drunk.  Muddled thoughts, slurred speech, and difficulty concentrating are some typical symptoms.  Being really low on glucose is dangerous, and can lead to seizures, coma and death.  Seriously.

The link between adrenal, cortisol and anger seems obvious, however it’s not the only thing driving this irrational behavioral response.  You know how genes provide the basis for our programming.  Well, the one controlling hunger also controls anger. Neuropeptide Y (benign name for such an implement of destruction) is found to be significantly elevated in the cerebral spinal fluid of some lucky individuals, together with a higher incidence of the Y1 receptor. [ASIDE: Neuropeptide Y, like many things in the body, has  different functions, and can induce various responses to diverse stimuli.  For example, it plays a role in obesity, aids in dealing with PTSD, enhances performance under stress, and may provide protection against alcoholism.]

Is anger ever a good thing? 

Evolutionarily speaking (because who doesn’t like gazing back on those knuckle dragging days with misty-eyed nostalgia) increased aggression while hungry probably served a very important biological function… like making sure you beat out the competition and didn’t die of starvation.

As it turns out, my irritating habit of losing my rationale mind when I get hungry may have been beneficial in some kind of yesteryear.  I imagine my ancient self racing across a muddy savannah, flecks of earth sailing through the air like miniature bombs against the smoke-filled sky.  Spear in hand.  Prey trying to escape me, but turning its sharp tusks at me once I finally corner it.

*sigh*

It’s no excuse, nor is it fair to my amazing friends and family to become she-hulk when my blood sugar drops.  How do I combat evolutionary biology?  I haven’t quite figured that out yet.  Some basic tricks are always having a healthy snack on hand, no matter where on the planet I am.  Maintaining blood sugar levels requires a bit of vigilence, as well as a deeper knowledge of our own internal bio-rhythms.

Perhaps the main thing is to remember a moment of hanger is temporary, and to stay grateful for my boyfriend, who is so patience with me, and keeps an internal map of all the closest eateries.

30 degrees from normal

I’ve been waitin’ for a day and an age for you to say sumpin’ to me, but all there is is static and a growing pile of dead batteries.  The ones to the bottom have burst open, spilled their corrosive guts all over the damned place, and now even the air tastes like metal.

I should probably stop.  Give up, you know, and just stop this damn game.  ‘Cept I’m not sure where that would leave me.  Who the hell am I an’ what the hell am I doing here without you ta talk to?  Even if you just a ghost, and you ain’t never comin’ back.But that’s too personal, i’n’t it? I’m only s’posed to give the news.  Talk data.  Things what could be useful for whoever’s on the outside and lookin’ in on this.  The sense makers.  If they even there.

Well, here it is, then.  The report.  I take the measurements like I’m s’pose ta. Every hour of every damned day.  Down to my last pencil, if ya care to know.  I’ve been saving the coals from the fire, when I’m feelin’ brave enuf and cold enuf and lonely enuf ta do it.  Make that big bold signal that near anyone with eyes ta see it can.  You can smell it, too.  Wood char and dung roasting in the air like some kind of delicacy when it first gets goin’.  But then it hangs.  It lingers and sinks inta things and stays and stays.  But the coals, those will be my writing implements when the other supplies are gone.  And when the papers done too, I figured I just pick up a sharp rock and scratch my recordings into whatever will bear the mark.

Don’t even feel strange to have that kind of thought now.  I’m not sure when I crossed over that point.  I am sure I don’t care to know it.  I’m here now.  There ain’t no other place I can be but here.  Now that may change in time, but there ain’t no goin’ back, that’s for sure.

I guess that may still be to damned personal for you.  Whoever you are, what’s actually pickin’ up this signal.  You want the report?  Well here it is.  The measurements haven’t changed for going on 36 months now.  This is still a dead zone. And I think there ain’t no amount of tinkering what can fix it.  Put that in your cap.

***

I was out to the south station just 20 minutes ago, recalibratin’ the instruments.  Barometer. Anemometer. Vanes and gauges.  It was really hard to concentrate on those bodies of plastic and steel, though.  And I didn’t care much about getting anythin’ right.

See, the one mile an hour wind that’s been plaguin’ us for the past three years just died.  It’s still as a dead horse around here.  If ever I did complain ’bout the nothingness of this place, I reckon I ought naught have.  I had no right, because this, right now—I can feel it in places I didn’t know I still had to lose.

You know how from south station, you can see the north station vane.  Instead of it’s gentle whirrin’, it stood useless.  Across that landscape where rock, wind, water and time have converged for millennia, there was no wind, and I remember you a hell of a lot better than I remember water.

I’m sitting hear now, wasting away my lead drawing trees and birds and clouds cuz even if they’re fakes, I need to see something else besides the gold hued rocks against the relentless sky.

I even opened up the bottle of scotch I been savin’ for your return.

Remember when the wind would turn, an age ago?  South winds carryin’ rain in it’s mouth an’ all.  There ain’t no wind no more.  Nothing to carry in omens. There’s no truth sayers on the horizon in any direction, and that means there ain’t nothing comin’.  There ain’t nothing more to be said.  Which means listening is just as obsolete.  The data logs.  They pointless.  All of it.

I think about packin’ up what’s left and headin’ off in the same direction you did, but then I fear comin’ upon ya.  Or what’s left of ya, and I ain’t ready to give that up, too.  Not now.  Not yet.  And the other direction’s been a dead zone for longer’n I’ve been alive.  There ain’t just two ways ta go.  I know it.  But it’s hard sitting’ here and lookin’ out in 360 degrees of nothin and tryin’ to imagine something.  Anythin’.
Bottoms up, darlin’.  Wherever the hell you are.

***

No wind. Got three quarter’s a bottle left and half a pencil.  I think I’ll harvest the skeletons of the cacti, make somethin’ of them.

***

No wind.  No scotch.

***

No wind.

***

No wind.

***

I’m hearing voices. Nondescript little voices whispering through the slats of this old shack.  They’re whisperin’ ’bout the ocean.  I can’t recall a genuine ocean.  I just have this idea of what it should be.  More endless, like the sky is here, ‘cept more inhospitable.  Mile wide and miles deep of salty water that’s both life bearing and life taking in the same damned moment.  It ain’t nothing you can drink.  The salt near kill ya and it’s just as much of a wasteland as this place is here.  It sounds purty, though.  Idyllic an’ something what soothes a tattered soul.  If it don’t bring sustenance, it brings the promise of other places better’n than one you in.

The voices even smell like salt.  When we first married we had fish n’ chips at the reception.  Everyone thought we damned crazy for doin’ such a thing in such a place, but that was how we met; on the sea at a shack what served the most succulent and crunchy fish ‘n chips.  They only know we went away.  They didn’t know we experienced, that we changed.  We saw somethin’ of the world that was.  Glimmers of what it could be.

We came back to this place, though.  Came back and stayed when everyone else left.  Maybe them voices are askin’ me why we stayed, and why, when it came time, I stayed and you left.

It’s dark out. I never broadcast at this time, but the scotch is gone and the voices are callin’ me, and when I first heard them, I thought this damned thing might actually be working.  I ran over here, tripped on the dining bench and landed head-first on the corner of the table.  Got a good gash in my head, if ya care ta know.  Bled, too.  You know what I thought when I saw that bright splash of red? I am still beautiful.  I’m still capable of beauty.  And pain.

I ain’t dead yet.  Maybe I ought ta be, but I ain’t.  And that has ta count for something.

***

I am hunkered.  The steady recording’s I been making are gone ta shit.  I feel a loss now there ain’t no routine.  I’m sittin’ here surrounded by my stacks of notebooks, and what do they mean?  These are the markers of my life for the past three years.  Dutiful recordings of outside, but there’s an inside, too.  And all that is drifting away from me during these transmissions. There’s no tangible evidence that this person’s innards ever was.  Only measurements of barometric pressure, wind direction and speed, temperature and humidity.  Five senses of the earth.  Maybe. But five senses of a human being, my emotional landscape that’s completely different than what’s skulking around out there.  The pathetic crush of time turning behemoths into sand particles.  Well that ain’t me.

‘Cept maybe it is.  I used ta be gardens. I used to be the fat blooms on yucca.  Coneflower and elderberry.  Your prairie rose.

Them voices won’t stop.  They go so fierce, they even move the air.  Act like breath in my hair.  This place has been my own sensory depravation tank until now.  Incessant whispers pinpoint all my nerve endin’s and blow fire into them.

Ya know how I know you never comin’ back?  My mind made up voices.  My mind basks in the glow of my spilled blood and calls that beautiful.  And my landscape is full of sand.  That’s how I know.

***

I went outside today, and damn near got blown sideways.  Not cuz I was drunk or hungered.  Not cuz it was so bright outside, the sun tried to sear my eyes useless.  It was because of the wind.

That’s right, ya heard me.  Wind.  Blowin’ at 30 miles an hour and suspendin’ the desert in the air.

I stripped done ta nothin’ and stood with my arms spread, embracing the feeling of the earth breathing all over me, dustin’ me with the smell of salt, fried onions, and swamp water.

This means somethin’, doesn’t it?  Something’s comin’.

***

Wheels screech to a halt outside.

Wheels?

I get up ta see, but the door opens and you’re—he’s standin’ there, lookin’ around the inside of my shack, fixin’ he gaze on them batteries, the blood I ain’t bothered to clean up, and maybe the worn nobs on the transmitter.

“What in the hell, woman?  What you been doin’?”

I should know his voice.  I should know the feel of his hands, what side of the bed he sleeps on, but fact is he’s like a stranger, a myth materializin’ in my doorway. “Transmittin’,” I tell ‘im. “Just like you told me to, every day mornin’ and night from the time you left until this moment.”

He wraps his arms around me.  They’re fleshier and more muscled than when he left.  His skin is nice and pale, and some of his lines ain’t quite so obvious no more.  “Damn fool,” he says. “There ain’t been no working receiver for years.”

I know as much.  I know my reasons for doin’ what I did, but I can’t tell ‘im that.  “There’s someone been listenin’ to my prattle. It made a difference somewhere.”

He kisses my temple, and I can feel him grimace from the grit on my skin.  “Come on.  Transport’s waiting.  We’ll get you clean and fed.  And you and I can get on with things.”

My drawings are tacked up on the wall with old barbed wire.  My bed’s neatly made, and stacks of chronologically ordered notebooks form half walls around the little room.

He’s frownin’ at me, wonderin’ what’s taking so long, no doubt.  “Come on,” he says.  And what can I say to him.  That I ain’t goin’ cuz he’s not you?

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The Follower

The Spell of the Night

Thuraiya shivered beneath the tattered rags she used as blankets. It was always coldest at this moment, when the near endless night was the darkest, except for the brilliant orange flares occasionally flickering through the clouds, and at the edges of the skyline.

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Fire ©JL Colomb

Booms thudded in the distance. Flares in the sky. They faded. The night returned to black, and there was no difference between night and her body. Her limbs stretched over the horizon, and she floated over the notion of cities and mountains, drifted through doorways, hovered over graves. The arc of the atmosphere prevented her darkness from slipping into the galaxy, where there was something; where satellites spun around the earth and planets orbited a sun, where the moon was, glowing its pale radiance, and where stars still existed. Long ago and far away, but still alive in the way they speckled the night sky, fueling our dreams and our myths.

It had been a very long time since she had seen the stars.

Another boom. And there it was, the light, a flicker of orange. It was just enough to see the faint outline of her hand, her arm, the edge of the floor where it dropped off into nothing. She smiled, even as her eyes stung from keeping them open for so long, because the afterimage stayed, reminded her.

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Night at Plaskett Creek ©JL Colomb

“Why are you still here?” she asked herself out loud. Her voice didn’t belong in this place, though, where the only other sounds were of crumbling concrete, wind, dust particles, and detonations. All dead sounds. Except for her sound, which reminded her of so many things. That her family was gone. Her friends.

She pressed her face against the concrete floor, felt the grit there. This was the day. It was time to leave.

She waited for the daylight to come.

 

The Spell of the Dawn

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Desert Sunrise ©JL Colomb

There was silence and dust, and colors beginning to burn the sky in the east. In these brief times of light, she gorged herself on everything there was to see. Pressing her cheek against the jagged wound in the concrete, she looked out over the city. It sprawled across the valley like detritus washed upon the beach after a storm.  Tiny square plugs of buildings made up the flesh of the city. And the gorges of its streets channeled the flow of life living there.  At least, they used to.

There on the corner, beneath tons of concrete and bodies, she had enjoyed the most succulent kebab, which was rivaled only by the kibbeh they made each day. Apaya sold lavash next door, fresh and hot enough to burn your mouth, but you’d eat it like that anyway because it tasted so damned good.

These ghosts lingered everywhere she looked, even though her city was awash with rubble.

Cities weren’t supposed to vanish so easily, and the roots of home weren’t supposed to be so fragile. But there Thuraiya was, perched on a middle floor of a building, the exterior walls of which lay scattered in the street below. A great portion of its height had collapsed on itself.

But the silence; it was just as consuming as the darkness.

Thuraiya listened. On a normal day, she would have heard motorcycles and dogs. Vendors would have called out the delicacies they had as they wheeled their carts down the street. Adhan would have sung from the heavens, and enticed followers to pray. On a normal day. Before this.

She curled up against the column, wrapped her arms around her legs, and rocked herself as she stared. Her lips twitched in constant movement, but she wasn’t chanting Allahu Akbar. “Today is the day you have to move go go go get up you stupid girl.” These words. Again and again.

“Move,” she shouted as she slapped her hands against the floor. Plumes of dust rose, and her voice echoed in the ruined city.

She slid against the column as she stood, as if it propped her up and kept her from falling. Her first step came next. The world twisted, righted itself, and she shuffled forward to the place where slabs of her building sloped down to the street. Her face twisted out of her control, and tears dripped down her face. This was the place she had played with her sisters, sung, hugged her mother and father, and marveled at them both.

“Go.” She screeched out the word, clenched her fist and beat her chest with it.

Inching down the concrete, the rebar groaned and trembled, and the whole building swayed like a boat. When she was finally on the street, she tried not to breathe too deeply, or look too closely. She followed the long deep chasm of the street to the north, to Jabal Qasioun.

Already the sky dimmed, heralded the coming of the night; but the city still loomed around her. She gathered up the rags draped about her, and ran as fast as her wasted muscles would carry her.

 

The Spell of the Wandering Souls

Jabal Qasioun had as many caves as grandmother’s tea had sugar cubes. From one of them, Thuraiya peeked her head out into the waking world. The day came much sooner than it usually did. And instead of the slow dim crawl through sunrise, the sun was sharp and bright in the sky, like a magnifying glass to scrutinize everything in its domain.

Her city stretched out in front of her, took up too much of the horizon.

Then the shadow of a helicopter twirled over the rubble, and two canisters tumbled from it.  They started off silent.  Their bodies gyrated through the air like falling maple seeds.  As they approached the city, they whirred, and hit and exploded. Those last two things happened almost simultaneously.  What was left of the city shook.

She waited for the helicopter to drift on to another target. Only when there was silence did she tiptoe out of the cave.

Above her, a man stood on the ridge line.  A real man wearing a hem-stained thawb.  He was squinting his eyes against the sharpness of the light cutting across the valley. Wind ruffled the thawb against his ankles, and teased tiny granules of earth up from the ground, called on them to dance in the air.  They nestle into the weave of the fabric, and joined the other rich tawny particles of dirt.

Thuraiya gasped, and ducked back into the cave just as he looked in her direction.

Blood surged in her veins, threatened to burst through its channels. She had not seen a man in weeks. Or maybe it was months. And she knew well enough that just because he was flesh and blood, real and breathing and living, that did not make him good. It didn’t make him worthy of trust, or safe.

Sweating and shivering at the same time, she paced in the cave on careful silent feet. She had to stay hidden.

She listened for footsteps, displaced pebbles, and prayed for him to disappear. After peeking out again, relief seeped through her. He was gone. She waited a little longer. Thankfully the sun did not gallop through the sky, like it usually did. It strolled upward, slowly climbed to its crescendo before it would slip back down.

When her feet tingled from their constant worrying, it was time; she peeked once more and saw no one. Breathing deeply through her mouth, she called on the air to give her courage and overcome her inertia. She started up the path, to get to the top of the mountain, to go over it and move ever steadily westward.

She turned a corner, and almost collided with him. Screaming, she stumbled backward, turned and ran.

He chased her. “Wait,” he called out, his voice hoarse as if he hadn’t used it in an epoch. His hands grabbed at her trailing rags and tugged. They tumbled, and scraped themselves bloody.

Thuraiya cowered on the ground, pressed herself into the hard rock despite the pain. Melt. She wanted to melt, and disappear into it. His hands hovered in air above her, descended, hesitated and scattered.

She scurried away from him.

The man didn’t come after her. Instead, he backed away, sat cross legged and looked not at her, but the ground before her.

“What do you want?” she asked.

No emotion trickled into his features, but he said, “For the world to be right. To have back everything I’ve lost.”

She stared at him.

“For now I would settle for a friend.”

 

The Curse of the Survivor

“I am Aldebaran,” he said, still not looking at her.

She inched herself to the edge of the path, where it would be easier to throw herself from the mountain.

He winced as she did it, and scooted further away from her. Blood dribbled from his temple, brilliant red against the grey of the city, and the sulfur-colored mountain.

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Anza Borrego Desert ©JL Colomb

It was the most beautiful thing she had seen in a long while.

“I come from the North,” he said, as if that explained everything.

And it almost did. She had to stop her head from nodding, and fight to keep the frown on her face as empathy warred to take its place.

“My home. Gone. My family. Gone. I’ve almost disappeared, too. And maybe I have, because I’ll never be the same after all this. It’s impossible. To go back.”

Yes. That was it exactly. “Do you want to go back?” Thuraiya asked.

His hands twitched on his knees. He examined them, and rubbed them together, skin rasping. “I don’t know how I can.”

The sun hovered overhead. It felt like it had taken two whole normal days and nights for it to reach its zenith. And more, it gave warmth, just enough to cut through the sting of late autumn.

“What are you doing out here?” He asked. ‘Alone’ was implied in the question.

The truth came out of her mouth, whether or not she wanted to speak it. “I’ve lost everything, too. For a while, I wanted to stay. To wait for them. But the longer I stayed and didn’t go anywhere, the more I wondered.” She dabbed at the scrape on her chin. “But they are gone. And the pain of staying has outweighed the pain of leaving.”

“Two lost souls,” Aldebaran said.

 

The Spell of the Follower

Thuraiya glanced over her shoulder at Aldebaran, who trailed behind her. He had insisted she walk far enough ahead of him that she felt safe. Now the distance felt more like a burden. She could hear only her feet scratching against the ground. Only her breath marred the silence of the air.

“What do you wish to do next?” he had asked in his quiet voice.

“Leave this place.” More helicopters had come to bomb what was left of the city. They flew closer to the mountain, as if they could destroy it, too.

She did not wish to go alone, and he did not wish to see her leave. So they left while they still had the daylight. The sun now approached the horizon in the west. Color soaked the sky. She spotted an alcove just ahead. The carbon of fires past stained the floor and walls and ceiling black.

“There?” She pointed at it.

He bowed to her.

Once they arrived, she nestled into a crook in the alcove, but he stayed outside.

“I feel safe now,” she said.

“Still, I stay here.”

The night descended, and left them blind.

Just as she thought he had gone, or perhaps had never been there at all, he said, “I heard a peculiar thing about crossing one’s fingers.”

“Oh?” She curled on her side, rested her cheek against her hands, which were pressed together, as if in prayer.

“You cross them for luck, you know. But originally, it was two people. Not just one.”

“Why?” she asked as her eyes drifted closed.

“Because every wish needs two things. Someone to want it; and another to believe in it.”

 

Fingers Crossed

When Thuraiya woke, Aldebaran was standing, looking away from her to where they had been the day before. Even laying on the ground, she could see the plumes of smoke rising from the city. She stood, walked to him. “I didn’t hear the bombings.” Nor did she feel remorse over missing the glimmers of orange. There was more light in her life now. Real light.

“What is your wish for today?” he asked.

She turned to the west. “I thought I wanted go to the sea, and sail north. Now I understand. I just want to see the stars again.”

“I will try to make your journey safe. I will leave when you ask me to.”

She held out her hand.

He hooked his index finger to hers.

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Anza Borrego Desert ©JL Colomb

 

~~~

DISCLAIMER: “The Follower” is not meant to be a faithful reproduction of the world we currently live in. It is a shadow land, a patchwork.

Sister and the Thunder Beings of the West

Sister stared at me with those eyes of hers.  Like big black pools of nothing.  “Blackhole,” I called her. “Ain’t nothing gonna git outta them.”

“Event horizon,” she called me back, with her words all refined they was enough to make me rub at a spot of dirt on my thumb.  “You appear to go no where, skimming the edge of things, but really you’re already on the other side of it.”

I swept my toe through the grit on the floor and drew a picture of a heyoka.  Its face was just as lopsided as a rotten apple and one of its horns pointed straight up, while the other teeter tottered toward the ground.

Just then, the thunder ground rocks in the sky, and the front door swung open so hard the nob stayed stuck in the wall.

“Shit,” Sister said, her voice all grownup and severe.  She grabbed my arm, pulled my back to her front and shielded my eyes.  “Close them.”  I could feel her leg swing around me, and heard her foot scuffing over my picture on the floor.

But the footsteps still came. They fell so heavy the whole house trembled with each touch of foot to ground.

“Damn it, Grim.  Why do you always have to do this?”

Her fingers clawed my shoulders and she hauled me back to see if my eyes was closed.  But my silver viewfinders were still drinking in light and shadow.

“Close them.”

“I don’t wanna,” I said, looking at her nose ‘cuz I just couldn’t look in her eyes.  A stinky wind was running thru and ruffling her hair.  I could feel her eyes going all wide.  That’s when I closed mine, and I kept ‘em closed, even when she shoved me across the room.

Laughter, like the high-pitched screech of a coyote, sliced through the room.

“Hello brother Heyoka,” Sister’s voice said from a place where she was not a moment ago.

More laughter shook the house, as a whoosh sucked all the air out of the room.

I couldn’t help it no more.  I opened my shutters and looked around.  A tuft of hair drifted across the planks, along with a big black feather.

“You gonna tell me just what’s going on?”

Sister just stood there, staring into nothing, not blinking, not even once even though her eyes looked about as dry as beach glass.

It took her a while to get unstuck; it always did.  When she did move, it was to close her eyes and fall into the nearest piece of furniture.  “Grim.” Soft, barely heard over the rain that was starting to pummel the roof.

I didn’t move, even though I wanted to pick up that feather, so big it coulda been a whole wing of a bird.

“Remember what we talked about.”

After mom and dad, she meant.  After they went and never came back.

“Remember?”

“I didn’t do it,” I said.  Though I wasn’t altogether sure what I was denying.

She just watched me.  “We’ll talk about it later, then.”

~~~

Sister is a sad sort.  She’s always telling me just what I can and can’t do.  Writing letters is okay.  Drawing pictures is not.  Taking photos is ok; playing pretend is not.  No dress up.  None.  Reading is sometimes not okay.  The only time it is, is when the book is so dang boring I don’t want to touch the thing anyways.

She says it’s for my own good.  Sometimes she gives me this look.  It’s the kind of look you’d give to a sickly pup that ain’t got no chance of making it.  Inevitability.  That there’s a big word.  Inevitability and the weight of it.  She looks at me with that heavy sad of hers.  It comes just when I get the itch to do something I oughtn’t do.

“One day you’ll understand,” she says.  “And then you’ll know why I’m like this.”

She ain’t always been like that.  Sister used to smile.  She used to take me in the fields and show me the bones of animals.  How to track a deer.  How to swim.

One day Ma and Pa said, “Git.  Go on now and play.  We gotta be grown up right now.  Ain’t no cause for you to suffer with us.”

So we got.  Sister packed up some sandwiches, and I threw in some cookies, and off to the woods we ran.  Trees stood at the edge of the field, which was full up of lush green blades grown way past my head.  Some were so heavy with flowers, they bent back towards the earth.  And the ones with fat bumbles stumbling around their innards were compelled to nearly touch the ground.  We could get lost in that field, and play a mean game of hide and seek.

But not today.  We stomped our way to the forest and the straight trunks waiting there.  They seemed like thin black lines against the day, and far above the leaves shimmied, as if they were all competing to wave the best hello.  I waved back, and hollered up, “How do ya do?”

“Grim.” Sister rolled her eyes at me, and took off.  She was a roman candle zooming around those trunks.  She made sounds like an engine, and said, “Look at me.  I’m displacing air.”  She zigged and zagged, disappeared and reappeared.  A bird, she carved through the air.

I had to run as fast as I could to keep up with her ole Hawk self.  The ground swallowed up most of the noise my paws made thudding on it.  I skidded around big rocks and roots, and vaulted over the smaller bits.  And I was breathing so hard I felt like half of me was missing at every exhale, that’s how much my body shrank, and how much air my body drank.

Sister circled around me, her arms outstretched.  “Come on, Grim.  I can’t show you the surprise if you can’t keep up.”

So I grit my teeth, and pumped my arms and legs until they blurred with motion.

I was a wolf train.  A coyote torpedo.  I was a mountain lion missile homing in on my target.

Sister laughed, and it sounded like raindrops on glass.  She slowed, and then stopped.  Her eyes was closed so her ears could be wide open.

I gathered up my torpedos and trains and missiles, and tiptoed up next to her.

Sweat dripped from my hair, and my breath was wheezy, but Sister waited patiently for the run to dry up outta me.  As soon as I was motionless, I could hear it.  It sounded like a million plates being broken, and those pieces swept up in a tornado where all the tiny bits kept bashing together in an endless process of breaking.

“What is that?”

“Do you want to see?” Sister asked without moving nothing but her mouth.

“It sounds big enough to swallow you up.”

Sister grabbed me in a big hug and blew some monstrous raspberries on the back of my neck, in the exact spot that gave me the most creepy crawlies.

I squealed.

“It is.  So you have to mind me, now.  If I lose you into some big black nothing, Ma and Pa won’t look on me too kindly.”

“You can’t lose me.”  I stared up at her.  I meant it. We was blood.  That was part of it.  But something else, too.  We was locked together.

Her eyes seemed to get darker as she stared back at me.  “Come on.”

We followed a faint trail, left by animals, to the sound.  It got louder and louder until my ears was all full on it. The air started taking shape.  Specks of water oozed all around me.  And then I saw it.  A massive wall of water churned over the edge of the cliff and crashed down with so much force, the water couldn’t decide if it wanted to be liquid or vapor.

I stripped off my shoes and rushed in. The cold of it shot straight up my legs and set me teeth to chattering.  Sister grinned at me, but didn’t come in.  She strolled along the shoreline, moving closer and closer to that soaking wet wall of rock.  Only when she came to some boulders stacked on some slabs of rock did she make her feet naked.  She glanced back at me and smiled, before she climbed on the first body of granite.

There was a message in that smile.  And a secret.  If she had told me, ‘Come on, Grim, you have to see this’ I might not have been quite as compelled as with that smile.

I waded through the water to where she was hopscotching on the rocks, and climbed up.

Them rocks was slick with wet, but had these perfectly shaped chunks carved outta them, something like a cereal bowl.  I grabbed the edges of the bowl and hauled myself up.

Sister put her finger to her lips, pointed to a gap where there was not water and no rock.  Then she went, slipping through the space like a specter, or a spirit animal—all full of intent and knowing.  I paused; that there was a passage to another world, a place of dreams, and underworldly critters.

I slithered in as quiet as I could, even though the roar of the water would have swallowed any noise I might have made.  At first it was black and unknowable.  The light came in tiny dots reflected off water droplets, then slowly gathered to reveal the space.  There was deep crevice in between two sweeping veils of rock.  A little pedestal seemed to grow right up outta the floor.  Sister sat, cross-legged and calm as a Buddha, like the space was meant for her and she had been there all this time in body, and it was only her spirit self I had ever encountered.

The walls of the crevice had been etched with pictures and symbols.  I orbited around those walls, and acted out every single thing I encountered. Sister started singing.

That was how it used to be.  Before Ma and Pa left.

~~~

“It’s still raining,” I said as I peeled back the lacy curtain.  I wiped the fog from the inside of window and peered through the glass.  Our driveway was a river, and everything outside was grey. “It’s been raining two doggone days.”

Sister crouched on the wood floor, and was trying to fix that hole made by the door knob.

“I wish it would stop.”

She went on smearing white goop over the patch.

“Maybe the thunder beings are trying to tell us something.”

“Grim.”  She finally spoke, but it weren’t no friendly talk.  That there was a warning.

Before I knew it, the clouds was gathering and forming shapes.  The darkest grey of them condensed into a great big bird with broad wings.  The lighter clouds weren’t no less of a threat.  They boomed just as loud, and let out a torrent just the same as the nearly black mass.  A head grew out of each of the two triangular bodies.  They flanked the bird, and together the three figures sprawled over the western skies.

Loud booms erupted, and shook the trees outside, and the house and us folk inside.  The booms even caused the raindrops to take a jagged path toward the ground.

Sister’s arm fell, and the putty knife clattered on the floor.  She sat on her heels.  “You pictured them, didn’t you?”

Maybe I did.  Maybe I pictured them with thunderbolts clutched in their hands; for the bird, in his claws.  Maybe I imagined them with chest plates of woven lightening.  Maybe I even heard them whispering.

Sister tilted her head back.  Her lips moved without sound, and she started bashing the floor with that putty knife, getting white goop all over herself, the floor, the wall.  Her thumps coincided with the thunder outside, and became layered with more sound than what should have been.

“Sister?”

There weren’t no response in her; at least none she was interested in giving.  But her lips kept up their furious motion, and she had abandoned the putty knife and was bending her whole body forward each time she slammed her palms against the floor, playing it like a drum.

Three separate bolts of lightening put the house in darkness at the same time they lit up the sky outside.  Sister jumped up.  Instead of using her hands, her feet stomped on the ground to keep the rhythm, and change it.  She danced the dance of ancients, and slowly, as if her voice was connected to volume control, the motion of her lips found their sound and became louder and louder.

The door swung open of its own volition.  Three creatures in shaggy garb, and with strange faces, stood just outside.

“Go away,” I said.

They didn’t move.  They said nothing.  Their presence and the threat of what they were oozed into the room.

Sister didn’t haul me to safety, or tell me to close my eyes.  Instead she extended her arms, and swooped in circles, stomped in circles, and called out in circles.  She danced her way right out of the house, and into the storm.

The creatures made room for her, and mirrored her movements.  Lightening cascaded all around, like a thousand arrows falling from the sky, and turned them to black figures against the hills and trees and rain.

People was gathering in the distance.  A whole crowd of them.

“I didn’t mean to do it,” I shouted.  “It ain’t my fault.”

No one could hear me, though.  And if they had, I’m not sure they’d care, ‘cause while Sister’s eyes was still closed, something inside her set to laughter.  Her cackles had the sharp crack and brilliance of lightening.

Then everything stopped.  The dancing.  The rain drops froze were they was.  The jagged slash of light cutting through the sky stayed like a great wound.  Only Sister, full of body shaking laughter, moved.

“Stop,” I told her.

But she couldn’t.  She opened her eyes, and they weren’t black anymore.  They was silver, and outta them spilled a Heyoka, just the same as what I’d drawn two days past.  A wolf leapt outta them next, which is what I had pretended to be last month.  After him came the twins playing unkcela pte; I had dreamt them about three months ago.  Out of her poured all of my imaginings, and they were as real as I was.  They had weight and body.  They had desires and purposes.

The last thing Sister released was a cloud of fireflies.  Then she and the thunder beings resumed their dancing.  They draped a shaggy costume around her.  Over her face, they placed placed a mask, which had a wide, grotesque mouth, a long pointed nose, and sharp eyes.  Lastly they crowned her with crow feathers and buffalo horns.

The storm stopped, but her laughter echoed.

Star Gazers

Watch. You have to watch the sky, day and night, because you’ll
never know when they have been, when they’ll be, or when they are. 

The cabin stood at the edge of the sea. Wind and water had evaporated the tannins from its planks, and it and the sky and the water were all expressions of the same hue.  Grey mixed with blue.

We followed, one after the other, to the cabin’s porch. Leonhart turned; his magenta robes dusted over the grey ground.  “Come.” He swept his arm out and across, the gesture gathering us in a semi-circle around him.

“I need not remind you of the oath you took,” he said while gazing into each of us.  “This place, these lessons.” He inhaled deeply.  A shimmer of electricity seemed to dance over the exposed flesh at his hands, face and neck, and blurred beneath his clothes.  “What you are committed to do is sacred. Honorable, though it is not honored.”

We bowed our heads under the weight of what he said, under the weight of what was to come next. We have no choice, my lips formed the words.  I closed my eyes for a moment, and relished the shelter of darkness the action brought.  The silence of sight, and the subsequent expansion of the self beyond the shell of the body.

The sea air touched me.  In it, I tasted eons.  Bones, scales, ships and wrecks, tears and fire.   Calcium, sodium, potassium, and hundreds more minerals.

In the distance, wolf pups called out, tuning to one another.  The wind rushed over the glaciers.  At the edges of things, I could hear plates clanking against tabletops, and the hollow sound of a lid scraping over a cast iron pot.

A hand, hot, wrapped over the bony protrusion of my shoulder.

“Maxentius,” Leonhart said.

My eye lids drifted open.  “Aye.”

“You will be the first.”  He pulled me forward, and bade me stand at his side, right in the middle of hardened mound of silver and cobalt.  It felt like layers of dried paint, but looked like thick slabs of skin. “Your robe,” he said in a stern tone, which invited no argument.

I pulled the drab burlap over my head, and placed it in his outstretched hand.  How many others had worn it?  How many others would come to dwell under its meager shelter?

He folded the shift into a perfect square and set it down on the ground.  Then he gripped a rusty ring of metal, which was recessed into the wood floor of the porch, and yanked the covering free of its seat.

The hole hid a 5 gallon bucket, and a carefully wrapped brush.  Grunting, Leonhart pried the lid of the bucket free.  He handed me the brush.  “Here.  You must do it yourself.  There is no magic in it if I do it.  And cover everything, except your face.”

The brush trembled in my hand for just a moment.  For just a moment, the faces of my peers bobbed before me like pale lights.

Maxentius the First, I thought as I dipped the brush into the metallic syrup.  I stroked the loaded bristles across my collarbone, and down my arm. I painted the liquid between my fingers, forced it under my fingernails, and dragged it all along the line of my jaw.  I even coated the very bottom of my feet before it was done.

The liquid felt like armor, and it squeezed the breath from me.

Leonhart looked me over and nodded.  “Good.  It is good.  You must all do as Maxentius has done.”  He opened the door to the cabin, which was less like a door, and more like straps of steel woven together.  Something you couldn’t get into.  Or out of.

“Go,” he said.  That was all.  There were no formal proclamations, or renunciations.  There was no glory stomping.  Just one simple, single syllable word.

I looked up at Leonhart and with a smile, I said, “Gone.”

That rebelliousness faded as soon as I stepped inside the cabin.  The door shrieked shut behind me, and with its closing it banished the sound of the outside world.  Inside, all I could hear was the electric ticking of the sea.

I walked toward the trickle of pale light.  The entire wall was gone where the cabin faced the roiling water.  Waves crashed against the opening, but some invisible barrier kept them from rushing in.

“Step forward, Maxentius,” a deep voice uttered the command.

I stopped just before the opening, and stared out into the violence.

“For your crimes against The Common, you are hereby sentenced to 100 years of star gazing, in service of The Common.”

“But I’m just a boy,” I said, as if it would make a difference.

“Step forward, Maxentius.”

Lips sealed, I tried to close my eyes as I stepped through the invisible wall, but they would not shut.  The sea closed around me.  My body did not bob or float. It sank to the bottom in mere seconds.

Faces stippled the sea floor all around me and into the distance.  Wide-open eyes gazed up through the water.  Into the heavens.  I tiptoed through the vast field of them, and searched for an empty spot.

After what seemed like a lunar cycle, I finally found my place just before the edge where the shelf dropped off into an abyss.  I nestled under the sand and silt, and stared up.