the night of imbolc

We are in war.  We sweat it.  We dream it.  It is in every step we take.  War.  Violence.  It sits heavy on the horizon, like the smoke of a forest fire.  It’s in my heart, my mind.  It’s everything.  All things.

Each morning we get up and climb the ramparts.  We look out over the kingdom, a quiltwork of fields stitched together by the pattern of their grains, and the delineations of their borders.  We look for them.  The evidence of them.  The marks they leave.

There they are, amassed down the hill.  Their skin is sallow, as ours.  Fatigue glazes their eyes, as ours.  The cold creeps into their metal, as ours.

We are bonded in this way.  This shared experience we drive each other into because it has been, and because it has been, it will have to always be.

I can’t recall how war even started.  The beginnings of it are so far buried they may as well be myth.  Some people say it doesn’t matter, their hate is so strong it overrides everything else. But there are vats of blood spilled out of bodies.  There are heads crushed.  There are limbs lobbed off and left on the battlefield like discarded garments.  There are hollowmen left.  They are specters lingering in the alleys, sitting slumped against walls and not-quite-staring at passersby.  They have forgotten themsleves while the rest of us see them in their before and after, and know the truth of them, which sets an ache in our hearts something like a rot spreading through our organs.  For all of these reasons, we should remember the why of it.

***

I am sent from the village, from my family.  I am to war.  I am my armor, my weapons.  We are us, and they are them.

Middle winter brought their retreat, but retreat is not enough for they are still a threat, because still they breathe.  Still they make weapons and plans.  Still they try to know our weaknesses. So we follow, and I learn how to strike, how to play dead, how to cut down horse and man.  I learn how to clean blood off my sword, and my armor.  My family is distant from my mind, but the hollowmen are constant companions.

***

I wade through the still waters of the house.  The greyness outside makes it dusk inside, and transforms the familiar into mystery.  I have looked for my wife, for my children and my mother, but they are hidden, and this place reminds me of pre-dawn on the field of battle.  It is like this.  Still and waiting. All the beds are made.

I finally find someone.  “Nan, I am home,” I say to Grandmother.

She says nothing, instead squats at the hearth with her knees up around her ears like a crude peasant. I stem the tide of words battering the shores of my tongue at this image.  It disgusts me, but she carries on as if it’s natural, as if her body doesn’t contain all these other meanings — whispering or screaming — in the shape it takes.

“Must you crouch like that?” The question leaks out.

Her answer is the thin clinking of wood as she arranges sticks atop each other on the charred stone.  It’s a servant’s job she does, even as I stand in her presence for the first time in weeks.  She can’t be bothered to look at me, though. Her grandson returned from the war.

Once the arrangement meets her satisfaction, she sets about tucking in the shavings of bark she’s saved off to the side.

“Are you building a fowl’s nest?” I ask, hand resting in the pummel of my sword.

“There is only one foul thing in here,” she says. Next, she takes a small pile of wool, and wedges it in near the edge of the construction.

“What mean you?”

She grunts, takes the flint and knife out of her pocket, and begins to shave off pieces of the metal into the wool.

My hand tightens on its own.  Sword and hand are well acquainted now.

With her back turned, somehow she sees it, and cackles like an old crow.  “Strike me, will you?  Strike me for truth-telling?”

“You insult me.”

Sparks dance over the wool, which smokes.  When its starts to catch, she breathes on it. After it’s lit, she unfolds herself to standing and turns to me. Lines streak her husk-like skin, more than I remember.  The flickering fire does magic with her face.

“Do you remember how to be any other way?” she asks me.

Her face transforms, takes shapes.  She is my mother, my wife and daughter.  Worse, she is the women of them.  The ones we killed and left on the battlefield, faces pale, and eyes open to the sky, and I see my women like that.  Deprived of warmth, of smiles and futures.

“Where is everyone else?”

She smiles.  “The beds are made, the fire is lit.  It’s time to join them at the well.”

“What are you saying?” I ask as she shuffles past me.  “Have you lost your mind?”

“It is Imbolc. We will all celebrate Imbolc together.” Grandmother claws her cloak from its peg, and drapes it about herself before stepping through the door.

“Stop this madness; I’ve come home.”

“Not yet.  But hopefully you will soon.”  She joins the trickle of old women doddering down the street.  As they find each other, they clasp hands and walk together out of the gate.

I run after her.  “What is happening?”

“We have remembered,” another woman says.

***

The thawing roads are thick with women. “Come,” they all say. “Come help us celebrate.”

I see the first man on the road. “What is this?” I ask him. “We keep to the town for Imbolc.”

He smiles. “This is leap of faith.”

“What does that mean?”

“The old ones have come out of slumber to remember something. And they hope, we all hope this will stop the war.”

Senseless. What do women know of war? Of making it, or stopping it?

“You doubt,” he says. “It’s good; there’s much to doubt.”

At the crossroads ahead, more women join the procession from the east and the west. “They are them,” I say. They are the enemy women, coming from villages, which are not our own.

They smile at us, and take the hands of our women as if they are sisters.

Ahead, the road winds to the top of the mountain where the Old Hall sits. Its builders and use have passed out of memory, and yet smoke curls out of its chimney and torches light the pathway.

A woman no higher than my elbow keeps pace with me. “You think I am different from you,” she says.

“You are them.” It is a simple thing. Us and them.

She laughs. “It seems like that, doesn’t it? Yet we have the same habits, we honor the same traditions. We even come from the same source.”

“We are enemies,” I say because it comes to my mouth involuntarily, like a reflex.

She doesn’t respond to the comment. Instead, she says, “We will celebrate this Imbolc with our Fathers and Brothers. Our husbands and sons.” And then she is gone

***

I can smell the colcannon, the bannock and barm brak. These are the smells of Imbolc.  Tables, which are full of women, fill the hall.  Women rush around with platters of food and pitchers of sowens.  Their chatter rattles the rafters, and it is so strange to see them all here.  Enemies and family, except now that they are commingled, it is more difficult to tell one from the other.

All of the women and children are here.  In the middle of the room I finally see my own, and seeing them makes my heart stomp like a charge horse. I make my way to them. “We must go,” I say.

“We must stay,” says my wife.  “Everyone is invited, so everyone is coming.”

“We are in danger.”

She nods, and tears make her eyes sparkle.  “That is the risk.  But this war has gone on too long.  And the truth of it is, we all come from the same place.  We are all of the same tribe.”  She begins to laugh.  “All this time, we’ve been killing our own.”

Archers march in. The music, the laughter, the clinking of cups and the serving of food continues as they line the walls, and draw their bows.

“This is supposed to be peaceful,” some men shout.

Arrows flood into the assembly. Blood erupts in clouds from the bodies of the women who are struck.

There is screaming.  There is crying and fear, but the women sit closer together instead of running from the Great Hall.  The archers waver as they see their own wives and mothers and sisters clumped together.

“Fire,” the commanders of the opposing sides each call out to their men.

The women hold hands, and each other.  They begin to sing.  It’s an old song, but each previous word elicits the next from memory.  The melody weaves together as another volley follows, this one more sparse then the first.

Some of the men have started to sing, too.

“Fire,” the cry comes again.  This time, instead of firing into the hall, the archers whose bows are still taut fire at the commanders.

 

***

This story was inspired by a dream I had after watching a PBS documentary about the first humans and Mitochondrial Eve.  The dream was just the last scene in the Hall, but the feeling of it was so strong I wanted to build a narrative around it.

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judgement (& absolution)

When they first put on the blindfold, they ask me, How do you see?

Not well.

I shake, though I’m in my own home.  I can hear them rummaging through the dresser my grandfather had made for his new bride decades ago.  Furniture falls to the floor.  Breakable things are broken in a horrific cacophony of loss. There is no music here.  Only discordance.

I can’t see at all.  The darkness stifles me, and I whip my head around to wherever I can hear noise clattering, and it clatters all around me.

They laugh.

I become dizzy, like an ever-spinning top, and stagger with my hands outstretched in a hopeless attempt to catch myself before I fall.

A foot catches my leg and helps me crash to the ground.

A hand tourniquets my arm and brings me to my feet.

Silence.

The silence is worse than the noise.  It’s flat and endlessly deep at the same time. Silence is the kind of landscape in which you become lost, in which you can forget you ever were at all.

Out of the nothing, a fingertip touches my cheek, barely pressing on the skin, it could be a fly or my imagination.  And I flinch.

Other hands emerge from the ether to grab at mine and cinch them together with a wild and biting wire.

They remove me from my home, bound like this, like a criminal. 

I trip and stumble on my stairs as a newly born blindman. We— I presume there is still a we though I only know them as the detached hands touching me and the footsteps indicating there are feet and legs and bodies attached to them, though unproven in this dark space—we descend to the front entrance at the street level. 

Inside the confines of my home the relative quiet gets bigger.  It sits on me with a long face full of judgement. 

Outside, chaos reigns. 

I am shoved onto a surface, which is alternating hard and soft, and the soft parts breathe.  An engine roars.  Exhaust peppers the air with greasy smoke. I jerk against the other men who presumably share the bed of the pick-up truck with me, and thus share my fate, as the truck stutters into motion. 

I’m not even sure the men closed my front door.

There is shouting.  There is screaming.  There is angry, terminal dissent, and righteous indignation.

When we stop, it is like we are propelled into another time and space.  This is not my country.  These are not my people.

We are extracted and lined up and stripped of our blindness.

The square is full of people with angry faces.  Mob, this is what a mob looks like.  They are boiling with rage and hungry for violence.  That is the only way to pacify them, to bring about some kind of resolution. Give them violence.

Men in military fatigues, men carrying guns grab me by the shoulders and force me to my knees.  Pain explodes in me as I make contact with the stone.  They proclaim I am impure. They boast how they will save others by getting rid of me, as if a human being was a piece of trash to be crumpled and thrown into a landfill.

The children in the crowd launch stones at me.  They bludgeon my head, and peel with laughter at each precise strike.  Women scurry up to spit on me. 

You are judged, I am told. By God and by his good and righteous People.

I am aching rot.  I am prostrate.  I am humbled.  I am shaking so badly I only see the world around me in strobed blurred images.  And then she appears.  She walks away from me, away from this tableau of endings, and she is the clearest thing in my world. Even though she walks away, she quells my shaking. 

Just before they blind me again to take me away to wherever the impure infidels are kept (if we are kept), she turns and gazes at me.  Her almond-shaped eyes, the color of obsidian, hold kindness.  They hold grace and strength and hundred other things that can’t be named, but felt.  She rotates her arm so her palm faces me, and she uncurls her fingers in one graceful movement.  The beautiful arches, swirls and patterns of words lay hidden there in her palm.  I alone see them.  I alone read them.   

[blink] you missed it (a life in vignettes)

[one second i’m connected feet on the ground and racing across the road there’s a little taco shop on the other side a florist and a drug store.]

She sweeps my hair back from my face, and presses her lips to my forehead. “Be a good boy,” she tells me.  Her breath stings my eyes.  “And don’t you go outside.”  She shakes me as she says it.  “Don’t tell anyone, either.”

But I thought we were going to play tonight—I want to say the words, but they’re too big and my throat is too small.  She promised.  She promises a lot of things when sunrise lights the windows and trails dusty fingers into the room.  When all she wants to do is sleep away the night before.

“You hear me?” Her voice is hawkish and I shrug.

A knock rattles the door.  She goes.

[i don’t hear it I don’t see it it just happens one second i’m connected and the next i’m suspended looking up and wondering when the sky will turn blue]

The florescent lights flicker overhead, and rows of desks look like an industrial landscape of fake lacquered wood.  An assembly line whose product is molded brains and good citizens.  I bounce my pencil against the desk, spin it and bounce it off the lead.  Tiny dots soon cover the desk.  A constellation of graphite and boredom.

The door opens, and in steps the TA.  Her red eyes shine.  “I’m so sorry.” She sounds like rain on glass.  “There was an accident, and— Anyways, welcome to poetry.  Let’s start with Dylan Thomas.”

I didn’t want to be here before.  And now, I don’t want to be anywhere else.

[i’m leaping through a million years of evolution my body hurtles through space and i swear i know i’m flying and for a moment it’s magic]

Trash trucks roar down the alley, spearing garbage cans with metal arms.  You sink under the covers with me, block out the light with the long thin veil of your hair.  Your cheeks plump with gravity as you smile down at me, trace your finger across my chest.  Birds whistle their announcements outside.  Floorboards creak above.  I try to drown it out because I want to be here.  With you.  Your lips follow the path your fingertip took.  A phone rings, and an unheard conversation plays in my head.

“Tell me what you like,” you say, pulling me back to you.

“You already know what I like.”  When I smile it comes out as sadness, because the other thing distracting me is the calculus of when you’re going to leave me.

[until i come down to earth hit slam into it]

The grass wets my feet.  She said to not go outside.  To never go outside by myself.  When she’s gone.  But she’s always gone, and I’m always looking through the living room window at this world on the outside and never touching it.  So I strip down to my underwear, ease the door open, then shut, and tiptoe into the shadows.  Crickets fill the night air with chirps.  Something hoots from the treetops.  Plates clank in sinks.  I slink across lawns, hide behind rough sturdy trunks.  There’s a swimming hole nearby.  All the kids at school talk about the old tire hanging from a tree limb, about how they harness momentum and launch into the air to fly even for a second, with the water to catch them when they fall.

it hangs, listless.  The new moon sliver glints against the still surface of the water.  I wait for it to breathe, but everything stays the same.  For the first time since stepping out the door, a shiver shakes me.  The water is black and still.

I rub my hands over my arms, feel the rough peaks of gooseflesh there.  The world presses on me.  Somewhere overhead, and beneath my feet bugs are doing what bugs do.  People hide behind walls.  Things linger in shadows.

Scaredy ghost.  That’s what they call me in school because I’m so pale.

The rubber of the tire is cold and stiff beneath my hands.

[meredith]

You sit up.  Morning light paints your skin.  “You’re nothing like her.”  I’ve said it a hundred times.  Your lips press into a certain smile when I say it.  As if you already know I’m trying to convince myself.  Hoping this time I finally do.

[breathing is torture when your lungs are full of bone shards]

I shove the tire.  The rope creaks against the tree limb as it swings away from me, and sails back. I wanted to push it again, instead my feet shuffled and I latch on.

[…]

I soared high above the black pond, into the night sky where the stars outshone the moon and the dark wings of an owl cut out the light.  And then I hovered, suspended above the world.


a note regarding this story

about a month ago, I was running errands with my boyfriend.  A perfectly banal task for a perfectly banal day.  Coming to a stoplight, I glanced to the left to check for oncoming traffic. Lights from cop cars flashed, but weren’t moving. In the lane near the median, a BMW was parked, its driver outside next to a cop.  There was a person beneath the car.

We surmised the following: someone had been jaywalking, was struck by and trapped beneath the car.

Sirens sounded in the distance.  I figured the best thing I could do for the situation was stay out of the way and move on to leave room for the paramedics, and the professionals already on the scene.  This next point is contentious in our home.  My boyfriend thinks the victim perished, saw the cop pull a blanket over his head.  I’m still unwilling to accept it, but the possible death, witnessed by us, stays with me.

I know nothing about the victim, except that he had a life. Comprised of vignettes and relationships.  He was a person with a past full of moments.  Some people leave a legacy, but everyone takes with them their unique compilation of experiences, the impact of those pieces of life, and the perceptions surrounding them.

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.

short fiction :: take care of her

“Deliver this,” the bearded man said.  He placed one heavy hand on Ava’s shoulder as he pressed the rolled parchment to her palm. “As fast as you can.”

Her mother was struggling against the bed sheets and the torments of some unseen demon.  Purple and red splotched her face, and sweat made her hair stick to her head.  Myrna, Ava’s older sister, stood there, dabbing Mother’s forehead with a wet clothe.

“Will this help her?” Ava asked. The parchment crinkled as she squeezed it.

“Just go, Ava,” Myrna said.

So she scurried down the stairs, burst out of the front door and went.

Wagons crowded the cobble stone street.  Nervous horses stamped their hooves against the ground as broiled faces screamed at each other.  Those who were not fortunate enough to have wagons and horses, or even donkeys and wheelbarrows, plodded down the sidewalks and through the congestion with their belongings strapped to their heads, and shoulders and dragging behind them.

“Move, damn you!  They’re coming.”

The whole city surged toward the Western gate in one massive flow.

“Excuse me.  Sorry. Please move.” The confusion swallowed Ava’s voice.

A woman grabbed her and bent down to meet her eye to eye.  “You are going the wrong way.”

“No, I have to deliver something.”  She tried to tug her arm free from the woman’s grip.

“I can’t let you.  It’s not safe. You have to come with me.”  She started to pull Ava in the opposite direction.

“Let go.”  When the woman didn’t, Ava sat down and let out a piercing, sustained scream, just as she had been trained to do.

Faces from the crowd turned toward them.  People dropped the reins, dropped their positions, and came for the woman.  Just before the first person reached her, she let go. Ava stopped screaming, and the people blinked back to awareness, back to the moment and their plight.  Everyone returned to where they had been, and continued onto wherever they were going.

Ava squirmed through the press of bodies until she arrived at a glossy black door of a flat grey building.  The door had no knocker, or knob.  There was no chain dangling from a hidden bell.  She slapped at the door with her hand.  She rapped it with her knuckles.  After kicking it, yelling at it, and resting her forehead against it, she sat down on the sidewalk again and faced the door.

There was chaos in her mother.  Chaos was overrunning the city.  A few blocks to the East, red lingered in the air like dust.  The people all around her looked crazed, but the cries coming from there sounded lost and defeated.

Her breath shook her.  Silence was approaching, and that red dust.

Ava’s reflection in the door stared back at her.  Her dark blue dress and black hair were indistinct, but her pale skin and the parchment stood out stark and crisp.  She unrolled the thin hide.  Black marks scratched over its surface.  Unable to read them, she showed the words to the door.  Leaning forward, she gathered herself on her knees, and pressed the parchment to the black surface.  The hard stone grew fluid and viscous, like oil suspended.

Men were marching down the street.  Their armor still glinted, even though much of it was covered in red. Grey gazes snagged on her, but she melted through through the door and into a narrow dry corridor.

The parchment was gone.  So was the door and any notion of outside.

An elderly man dressed in white robes stared down at her.  “Welcome,” he said. “We will care for you, until the time comes.”

“But I had to deliver the note.  To help my mother.”

He smiled a small smile.  It was the kind of look adults get when they were about to reveal something disappointing and life altering.

see, purr, meow

Mr. Mittens stared out the window.  A bird, some finch or other, bounced along the branch just outside.  Sweet little bird.  Crunchy, tough, yummy little bird.  Mr. Mittens licked his kitty maw, and stared, and stared.

In the sliver of a second before he was going to pounce at the glass, Mr. Mittens lost his head.  He could still feel his tail twitching, his hunches wiggling in anticipation, but his head—  Well, that drifted through space, through galaxies.  It reminded Mr. Mittens of the time he’d played with a garden snake.  When it was tired of playing, he had dragged the snake, a full four times as long as he, through the grass in the yard.  It was a difficult task, but he loved the snake so, and he wanted to introduce it to the family.  It felt like that.  A long journey stumbling through the grass.

Mr. Mittens watched.  The stars did not twinkle out here.  They emitted, like pinpoints of lasers. Hot, bright spots in the cold space. They glared at him and he glared back.  What did they taste like?

His brain ached; it spit out commands in fragments of energy, neurotransmitting in spurts.  His tail was a memory, a ghost that lingered.  He gave a little meow bark.  How was he supposed to be a kitten if he couldn’t play?  Maybe his eyes could grow claws.  It wouldn’t be as fun, but it would be something.

One blob winked at him.  Mr. Mittens yawned.  He wasn’t tired.  It was this aura of light, this great eye in space; it did something to him.  The feeling coursing through him was better than curling up in a pool of sunshine.  “Brrryao?” he asked.

It extruded another ring of light, and the whole eye glowed pink, and blue, and green.

Mr. Mittens stopped moving.

A deep sound poured through space.  “Meow,” it said.

His eyes widened.

“Thank you for coming,” the eye said.

The tone of its voice made Mr. Mittens feel something.  It was like when a bird was gone, except for a few feathers.  Or like when friends didn’t want to play anymore.  Empty.  If he had had his paws, he would have kneaded the soft squishy overflow of the eye.  A sigh blew across his face, and stirred his whiskers.

“I am dying, little star.  I am called NGC 6543, and I get lonely in these final eons.”

Mr. Mittens closed his eyes, and flicked out his tongue, raspy, to lick at the eye.  He purred and the eye roared a purr in return.  They nuzzled for a moment, stared at each other, and came to an agreement.

The first star they pounced on burst sweet juice into Mr. Mittens’ mouth.  The galaxy was a nest full of them.  Captive toys.  Sometimes he used his eye claws, sometimes his teeth.  Each star was a wonder.  Each star had its own peculiar flavor, and when it finished playing, it tore holes in the curtains of space.  By the end, a huge drain sucked at the center of the galaxy.

“It was a good play,” NGC 6543 said, purring.

Mr. Mittens licked his kitty lips.  Yes.  It was.

He returned home soon after.  His head felt wide and diffuse like the sky, but his body— so tiny and small.  Constricted, he felt as if he was contained inside a box.  It took a great bit of effort to move away from the window, where his body had been waiting that whole time.  He staggered to the fireplace, where a baby star sputtered.

Once he settled next to the warmth, he felt something squirm in his teeth.  He snatched it with his tongue.  NGC 6543 glowed over his taste buds.  He swallowed it, he loved it so.

 

For those of you not familiar with Mr. Mittens Big Adventure, here and here are the triggers for the story.

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).