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.

beneath my feet, a glittering road

the ceiba tree

the ceiba tree

A bolt of ornate woven fabric hung in the doorway of the shack.  Our guide swept it aside and ushered us into the darkness.  Streams of light cut through the space.  Cinder blocks stacked like puzzle pieces to make up the walls, and the corrugated metal roof had been stabbed a multitude of times to let in a confusion of light.

“Ba’ax,” said a man in the old tongue.

The guide, Xavier, bowed to a shrouded corner of the room, and rattled out a reply in the same  language.  As my eyes adjusted to this other world, I saw a man sitting in the corner opposite the door.
His square face turned to me. “Está aquí,” he said, as if we had agreed to meet at this place, this time.

“Sí,” I said.  Scott placed his hand at the base of my spine.

“Está buscando algo.”

“Las histories.  Sí,” I said.

“No,” the old man said.  “Tiene preguntas.  Busco algo.”

Xavier grinned at me, and introduced us.  We were Annabelle Maize and Scott Young.  Wanderers, seekers, and social anthropologists.  We were traveling through Central America gathering oral histories from anyone who was willing to share them with us. We had talked with milky-eyed abuelitas, shy young women, giggling children, and stern patriarchs. The children had monsters, and the women had honor.  The men had glory, and the grandmothers had wisdom about the beginning and ending of things.  The man sitting in that dark shack was the first genuine elder we had encountered.

I bowed my head. “We are honored to spend time with you. To learn from you.”  But beneath the surface of my words, the old man’s assertion was corroding me. It took away the anchor of my intention—that I was here to collect the stories of the surviving Maya—and planted something else in its place.

He laughed in dusty exhales.

Scott took out the recorder, and gestured at it. A pantomimed request for permission.

“Do what you will,” said the guide. He slipped through the darkness and sat in the empty corner in the same cross legged pose the elder held. Rigid spine, like the spired trunk of a Ceiba tree; chin tipped up in a simple assertion of superiority.

Blank faces stared at us. Hostility seemed to shine in their eyes; but just as quickly it was gone.

Scott placed the record on the floor. “May I start?” he asked.  And without waiting for a response he continued: “What are your most important stories?”

“Es la pregunta?” the elder asked me.

“We’re here for your stories?” I tried to say, but it came out like a question.  “You know that.”

The silence of people filled the room, accented by the noise of the jungle.  Howler monkeys grunted and screamed in the distance.  All around insects shrieked.

“He doesn’t want to talk to us.” Scott’s mouth barely moved.

“Maybe we offended him,” I said.

A shadow passed over the roof, and darkness rippled through the room.

Go back to the beginning Annabelle.  That’s what I told myself.  “Stories are the fabric of us.  They give us history, they give us shape and purpose.  They give us identity.”

“You need a story to tell you who you are?” the old man said in English.

“Don’t you?” I asked.

“Stories are guides.  It is life that tells me what I am, and death that tells me who I am.”

Fear gripped my bones.  “Do you know who you are?”

He just smiled and nodded.  The guide echoed the movement.

Scott turned to me and muttered, “What in the hell is going on here?  I thought this guy was an elder.”

The fear spread from my bones to my capillaries, veins, and arteries.  It seeped into my muscles, and oozed through my organs.

“No lo ve,” said the elder.  And for a moment, pinpoints of jewels glinted from his grinning teeth, and giant jade plugs stretched the lobes of his ears.

“What don’t I see?” Scott asked.

“It is not something to explain.  It is something to feel,” said shape-shifting, fear-conjuring elder.  “You want something for your memory box? Here.  Die violently, die gloriously, else face the black obsidian of Xibalba.” The old man cackled.

“I want to leave,” I said.  Scott was already backing out of the cramped shack, toward the entrance.

“But your questions,” Xavier said in his thickly accented English.

I bared my teeth in an almost smile.  “We have what we are looking for.  Thank you.” I bowed to both of them.  “Dyos bo’otik.”   When I turned, Scott was gone.  A vast pool of water lapped at the threshold of the doorway.  Its farther shore lingered just beyond reach.

“What is this?”

Xavier shrugged, and the old man laugh.  Then a pattern on the dirt floor, made by the light coming through the perforated roof, came into focus.  The water shimmered, and extending from it was a glittering path of light.  Three wavy lines intersected it before it reached a crossroads.  One branch still glimmered, while the other two diminished into darkness.  At the end of the bright path, twelve dots lined up behind one slash of light.  Throughout the entire scene, the faint line of nine concentric circles hummed.

“Es una mapa,” the old man said.  “Es su mapa.”  A slight smile curved his mouth and his head tipped back.

I turned from him and stared into the water, its surface like hematite.  “I do have a question.”

“Of course you do.”

“Do you avoid the abyss, or do you embrace it?”

“Leap.”

Before my brain could think about it, my body acted.  I took two long strides and jumped.  My hands broke through the surface first.  Then the water wrapped itself around my arms.  It swallowed my head and the rest of me in one cool gulp. Falling through the water.  A rustling of leaves transform into the rattle of bones, and I couldn’t tell in which direction I traveled.  Was it up, or was it down?  However I moved, there was no amicable drifting.  Just a constant driving force.

Lights swarmed, and crashed into each other.  Some winked out before they made it to the first gathering place, which was on the other side of another pool of water.  I smashed through the pool’s belly of creamy alabaster and its surface of flat black onyx.

There we stood.  All of us.  Strangers on a dismal shore.  And from that shore stretched a single road, on which a cascade of souls traveled.  So many people—the road ceased to look like a strip of hard packed dirt, and instead resembled a river of skulls.

Crush them, I imagined the old man saying to me.  I imagined splinters of bones, and sprays of blood, and I ran.  Bodies fell away from me as I moved, like a spear, down the road.  I crossed rivers of scorpions and rivers of blood, born on a raft of bodies.

Finally I reached the crossroads, where a man stood in a white suit, complete with a white vest and top hat.  He was an immaculate giant, rising up over the perpetual grey of the landscape, at home among the thin forest of barren ceiba trees. “Greetings traveler,” he said as I approached.

No words this man had to speak were worth hearing.  Licking the sweat and gore from my lips, I spied a fallen branch.  I grabbed it, and without slowing, I struck the man’s head.  Felt it give beneath the blow.  Flame ignited from the desiccated wood.  Without slowing, I chose the right spoke of the crossroads.  I had the map, those pinpoints of light stuck in my mind.  And now there was a torch in my hand.  Instead of dull darkness, Xibalba glittered.  Obsidian covered its entire surface.  One shard called to me, and I plucked it from the pool of blood from which it grew.  Xibalba in my hand.

The horizon lightened.  Flames danced in the distance.  Gradually, a jagged line condensed into a banquet table, at which the court gathered.  And he stood before it.

A jaguar paw batted at my heart, but I continued to run, and didn’t stop until I stood before him.  Death 12.  His face was a mask of everything I hated and feared.

He sneered at me.  His hollow, insect-infested orbits saw everything I was.  Everything I wasn’t.  “You,” he said, drawing it out in one long breath, which smelled of necrotic flesh and rancid fat.

I held the torch high, and inscribed a circle around his face with the obsidian clutched in my hand.  Pus dripped from him, and I tore off his raw and bloody facade.  Even with no eyes, he seemed to glare at me, dissolve me.  Shadows and images of violence glimmered inside his crystalline skull, and from the depths of his feathered cloak he extracted a barbed spear.

I slashed at him with the torch, and set fire to his garb.  He did not howl.

He grinned.

The spear hurtled toward me.  It pierced my skin, ripped through my intestines.

And I smiled, too, as I brought the torch down on his head.  If bones were glass, this was the sound they would make when they were breaking.  Then I sawed through his neck and he drilled into my heart.

golden roads

Light danced over my eyelids, and with it warmth.  I could smell the jungle all around, and in the distance a warped recording of an old man’s story played back through fuzzy speakers.

And I knew who I was.

The Music Box

(Dear reader, please imagine the narrator speaking with an accent typical of the Deep South in the United States.)

My fingers snaked through the air.  They reached and just before grazing the surface, they shied away and retreated to the warmth of my body.

I’d been at this dance on and off for about a week.  It was idiotic.  The box was just a box.  Dust coated it, thick as a second skin.  It was a plain box.  No scrollwork, or exotic designs curled across its surface.  Its sides did not curve with a gracious bulge.  The edges were straight.  Simple. It even lacked varnish or stain.  It stood squat and naked in just about its most natural state.  By all reason, it should not have been as captivating as it was; but there I stood again, barefoot in Granny’s basement.

My body swayed back and forth.  It’d happened the last time I’d come.  I had been ready then.  My heart had been steady, my breath measured.  My hand had been about to close over it, like a palm to a baby’s skull.

“Damn it, Child.  Don’t you know pickles from tomaytahs.” Granny shrieked down the stairs, and shattered the moment.  She said it like that, full of the South.

Well, at this moment she was gone getting her hair done, and then going out with “the girls” for bridge and roast beef.  Or maybe it was chicken fried steak.

She was gone now; that’s all that mattered. And I was standing before the box again.  My heart felt hummingbird frantic.  It raced.  It darted.  I couldn’t touch it like that, so full.  I don’t know why I thought this, but I had to be empty to touch it.

My gaze bounced around.  I was in a secret basement room, complete with cobwebs and dead rats.  A broken down bed slunked in one corner, falling into itself sinkhole-like.  Lichen and moss covered some parts of the wall.  A hurricane lantern rested on its side in the middle of the floor.  Shards of glass spilled from it, like the guts of a possum on the road.  A rocking chair sat crooked in the corner.  All around it were snowdrifts of termite plugs.

There was a wash basin, a pitcher, and of course the ladder I had dropped through the trap door in the basement floor.

Looking up was like peering through a fog into a bit of clear sky.  The world there was fresher.  Life stirred through it.  The shelves were constantly depleted and refilled.  The one hiding the opening hung from a track.  I would have never known it slid back to reveal to a trap door had I not been leaned against while fooling around with Bobby Andrew.

Even still it wasn’t all that obvious.  The grain of the door and the rest of the floor blended perfectly, and the cracks just looked like the end of one plank and the beginning of another.  A naked bulb hung overhead up there.

This room, at some point in time prior to electricity, had been made, dug out of the earth.  And hidden.  It had purpose.

My gaze returned to the box.  As plain as it was, it was the only real personal thing down here.  Much as the other things had the stamp of human on them, the box itself seemed to breathe.  It was body.  It was soul.

I returned to it in full, took it in by sight, absorbed it through my pores.  Through the simple passive act of respiration, it came into my body.

The swaying started again.  I closed my eyes, and sunk into the rhythm of the movement.  There was sweetness here, in the stillness of this place, in the silence that was not quite silence.

An almost sound traced the outside of my ear, licked the rim of my ear canal.  I hadn’t stopped swaying, and my arms were raising, hands drifting, floating away from me like a bubble.

I felt the box before I actually touched it.  Electricity arched, sang through my fingertips and along my nerves until my whole body, from the smallest structure to the largest system, vibrated from it.

My fingers grazed through the dirt and grime.  The sound of flesh against wood rasped through the air.  My thumbs ran along the front edge, where the lid met the body.  They flirted with it, brushed over that lip once, then twice, long against the barest of gaps.  The hinge, noiseless, eased open.  The room oscillated and a low deep moan broke across me.

It stared as something animal and senseless, and moved to holding raw meaning in its arms. A rhythm emerged.  It reminded me of a rickety plywood shack we’d driven by once on a visit to Granny ages ago when Mama thought Granny couldn’t be trusted with me alone.  When Granny was full of hellfire and damnation and the gospel of Jesus.  The plywood shack rattled with music.  Through its one narrow window, the silhouettes of people swayed.  Their voices penetrated through the walls, through the metal and glass of the car.  The sounds they made were exalted and mean, low as the belly of an ant, and high as a satellite.  Their sound was full of the delicate light of the moon and bursting with the richness of pecan pie filling.

Song.  Song poured through the room.  It washed the walls.

I opened my eyes, expected to see blood pouring from the box, to see people struggling over its rim, spilling out and expanding into the room.  It was empty.  Its insides was as its outsides, except for a tiny pair of initials branded on the underside of the lid, near a corner where they could barely be seen.

A soft warm glow supplanted the dim light of the bulb whispering down from above, as if the lantern was upright, unbroken and lit.

Still the song continued.  It was a woman’s voice, deep and rich, full of life and longing.  The cadence of the song changed.  It quickened and jerked, like a rock tumbling down a mountainside, eager to get where it was going. There were words in the deep emoting of her voice which were lost to me.

Footsteps scratched overhead.  Voices got caught in the thickness of the walls, came through muffled, without shape or form.  But they sounded through the room like thunder.  Like a fist falling.  Like a threat on the edge of moving from word to action.

“These damned stations.”  The words were dim and diffused.

Hands still on the box, my gaze drifted around the room, to the hole in the ceiling.  It was as if it wasn’t open at all.  It was as if I was down here and trapped, with both the hatch shut and the shelves swung into place.  The footsteps were the claws of a predator pawing around up there.  Scratch, scratch, scratching.  Looking for edges, searching for leverage.  The wheels screeched along the track and I could feel the weight of them standing on me, could sense the flesh of their muzzles pressed against the opening, sniffing and snorting, drawing in the scent of her.

Her song changed.  The box shook in my hands.  Sorrow spilled through the room and her voice trembled. Then it grew quiet and steady and full of strength.

“Come on out, you coon.  I can hear you moaning down there.  That awful wailing y’all do.”  Laughter howled.

A fire of goosebumps lit up my arms, crawled down my back, his voice was that cold.

“There ain’t no Promised Land for you.  You ain’t got nothin coming to you ‘ceptin some punishment like you deserve, and some good ol’ work.  Now you’d best comply.”

With the future so clear, and the punishment, too, still she sang, as if she was singing the world into being.  Or out of it.

As the phantom sound of the hatch scraping open cut into the room, her voice grew louder.  Her words sparkled with clarity, though I still couldn’t understand them.  She was singing in French, or Creole.  Whatever it was, I could only sense the meaning, the intention behind them.

“Stop your Voodoo, Woman.”

My lips curled into a bitter smile, because hers had in that moment.  At those words.  A shadow of a ladder slipped through the opening.  Wood thudded against the hard packed dirt. Feet slapped on the rungs.  The ladder creaked.  Wheezing filled the room.  His breath filled the room.

Stay calm.  Finish the song.

Even with all those shadows, real and imagined, the only thing I cared about was her voice, her feelings, and the sense of purpose she had in the singing of her song.  She had to have had her flesh on the box, been facing it.  She had to have been gazing into as she sang, even as they broke through the illusion and entered into this space that was supposed to be secret and safe.

It was not possible, but her voice sounded like two voices, one lapping over the other, building, growing on top of each other.  Her sound magnified. It grew shrill until it was high and sharp enough to break glass and pierce of eardrums.

I could feel her there, ripping apart my ears.  I could almost feel blood trickling down my neck.

It stopped.

My hands shook.  The box in them shook.  It was no longer on the table.  I was holding it close to me.  Then my body played out a ritual it somehow knew.  I exhaled into the box, hummed a tune nothing like what she had sung, and at the same time like nothing that was within my knowing.  I closed the lid, wiped a space clean along the front of it.  There I delivered a kiss unto the box.  A promise.

The scene.  The intruders.  Her.  It was left unfinished.  A sketch.  Like her voice, shape without form.

In the next moment, the aluminum ladder clacked beneath me.  I clutched the box to my chest and climbed with one hand.  The ladder danced, leaned backward onto me.  I closed my eyes, hummed a melody in my throat, and threw my weight forward to reseat it.  She belonged there, in my hands and close to my heart.

The sounds around me changed from a hushed breath heard by pressing an ear to the deep womb of the basement, to the bright sounds of birds and barking dogs and the electrostatic drone and garbled talk of a television.

When I blinked, Grandpa’s old work bench appeared before me.  The box waited.  I wiped a clean cloth over its top, its sides.  With firm strokes, I ran the cloth along its underbelly.  I wrapped my fingers around its legs, freed them from the grime and dirt, too.

Then I found some beeswax and orange oil.  As I slathered it over the wood, the box seemed to sigh in my hands.  Once I was done tending it, I hid it again.  This time in my bag.  Granny didn’t need to know.  She wouldn’t understand anyhow.  I could see her now, calling on the preacher to deliver me from possession.  That was hardly the case.

 

When I came to myself again, I was standing on a bridge.  A boundary marker was a few dozen feet in front of me.  Canada, it said.

She was in my hands, still patient but growing weary of the box, which vibrated and strained. I eased the lid open for the first time since the basement.

Her voice flowed into the air and drifted north.

A Walk in the Park

Adelaide tripped over her own feet as she tried to keep up with the flouncing white bustle.  It was always thus with Sophie.  Wait, wait.  Hurry, hurry.

“Come on, child.  We’re going to be late.”  Of course she blamed it on Adelaide.

But the truth was Sophie took forever and a day to get dressed for the afternoon walk.

It happened like this, after lessons, Sophie commanded Adelaide to sit on her hands, quiet and still, while she riffled through her employer’s wardrobe.  In the time it took a black speck to crawl across the ceiling, from one end of the room to another, Sophie had finally chosen the dress.  Another age passed while she layered on the garments, and arranged them just so.  A few precious minutes were spent rouging her cheeks and lips.  By then, Adelaide’s hands were numb, and she was drifting to sleep.

Next came the rush.  Sophie directed them through the alleys, which were not always the most pleasant places to be.  Between the drunks, the waste, the vomit, and eager women plying their trade with vacant or calloused gazes, it made Adelaide’s tongue tingle.  Her stomach fluttered.

They had to go that way, though, because Sophie couldn’t be seen wearing the clothes of Adelaide’s mother.

They marched a quick tempo.  It was Springtime.  Sweat glossed Adelaide’s brow, and her lungs filled with wheezing.  A boy walked beside them as they crossed the bridge.

“You seem to be in a hurry,” he said.  A thick accent wrapped around the sounds he made.

Adelaide glanced at him.  His skin was a deep brown from all the time he spent outside.  He was dressed head to ankle in white, and his garments were closer to those of peasants than anyone with any sort of rank or honor in society.  His feet, bare, slapped against the stone.  Yet a silver chain jangled around his wrist. A vial filled with opalescent fluid dangled from the chain.

“For now,” she said.

Sophie hissed.  “Don’t talk to gypsies.  Nothing but trouble.”  She walked faster.

The boy grinned, kept up with them. He hummed a strange tune Adelaide had never heard before.  After they crossed the bridge, he waved to her and veered right into the man-sized grass that was supposed to be the garden.

“Good riddance,” Sophie said.  Just before the last little slope, she stopped, spun around to Adelaide.

Adelaide had expected this, and was already waiting.

“God, child.  You’re a mess.”  She mopped up the sweat with a dingy kercheiff.  Her own.  It would not be seen again on this outing.  “Your skin is aflame.  It looks like you ran for kilometers to get here.  What will Mademoiselle Constance think?”  Sophie pinched Adelaide’s chin, and shook it. Vigorously.  Her painted lips twisted down.  “You will follow far behind me.  Do not address Mademoiselle Constance.  Understood?”

Adelaide nodded.  The instructions hadn’t changed from the last time, or the time before that.

Sophie transformed in the last twenty meters.  Instead of stomping, she glided.  Instead of frowning, a gentle smile turned her mouth.  And then all things stopped.  After the rush to get there, things moved as if they were underwater, or in some little fantasy.

“Mademoiselle Sophie,” the other woman drolled.  Her dress was the same as the one Sophie wore, except it was black.

“Mademoiselle Constance.” Sophie inclined her head slightly.  The game had begun.

Paris glittered behind them like a backdrop.  Their gazes swooped over each other, recorded each detail with frightening accuracy.  Adelaide would hear all about it on the walk home.  The hem, the dye of the material, whether Constance was suited to the dress, or the dress to her.

The women turned their backs on the city, as if it didn’t interest them.  As if it was so basic and commonplace as to not warrant attention.  Instead, they fluffed the ruffles on their dresses.  A well-placed breeze fluttered a bit of tulle trailing from their handsome hats.

There was jealousy.  There was envy that tasted like longing.  It was what they came here for.

Adelaide sighed, turned away from their little charade.  She stood, still, hands clasped in front of her, and stared into the field.

The boy stood in the middle of it.  He took stalks of long grass in his hands, crouched and cut them close to the ground.  Over and over he did this, until he had not one pile, but several that were taller than he.

The constant chattering of the women, of the latest stores opening, of poor Marie, who had been seen without a bustle, and in a voluminous wide skirt, buzzed in Adelaide’s ears.  It was all the same.

And he was different.

Once he had a sufficient quantity of long grass stalks, he grasped them.  Sometimes in bunches, sometimes one by one.  Each time he laid his hands on them, no matter their number, he stroked them, the way Adelaide would have petted her grey tiger-striped kitten, Max.  The texture of Max’s fur was singular.  Soft, rich.  The feel of him was a wonder, a symphony of sensation.

The boy wove the stalks of grass into exquisite, finely textured spires.  They reminded her of onions, the way they bulged near the ground, and curved, narrowed at their tops, to a perfect, pointed peak.

He smiled up at his creations, and strolled around them.  Then he started dancing, slow at first as he leapt from the ground to twirl in the sky, arms outstretched, one lazy revolution and his face was bliss.  Beaming and bright.

The movements were methodical.  The placement of each step, precise.  He gained speed after his first full circuit, and began to weave a pattern around the three spires.  In and out of the center.  Around the edges.  Sometimes he stamped one foot and then the other against the ground before erupting in a bowl-legged leap. The way the Indians were said to dance.  Primitive.  Not quite human.

He bowed to the earth, then showed his face, neck and belly to the sky.  He twisted and spun. He pranced, and became frenzied.  Sweat made his skin shine, turned his clothes translucent. The vial on his bracelet glittered.  Waves of iridescence streamed from it.  Green and blue vapor, and orange and red wafted around the spires.  Set each one of them aglow.

It was only then she began to hear the music.

It started as trickle.  Flutes.  Then the sound thickened, grew barnacle rough, and beat, beat, beat.  Her toe tapped on its own.  Her eyes watered from looking at him for so long.  Her knees went next.  They bent, and straightened.  Bent and straightened. Her body matched the sound of the drums.  That was what they were.

She drifted closer to the field.  He was there.  His dancing had disturbed the earth, which was raised all around him like curtain, marking one space from another.

She had only to pass through the fence.  It wasn’t a hard feat.  It was much like passing through a diminutive door.

 

Author’s note: This story is inspired by the painting called View of Paris from the Trocadero (1871-1872), by Berthe Morisot.  I saw this at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art last weekend (July 7, 2013).