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.

30 degrees from normal

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

No wind.  No scotch.

***

No wind.

***

No wind.

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

Wheels screech to a halt outside.

Wheels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Follower

The Spell of the Night

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

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Fire ©JL Colomb

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

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

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

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Night at Plaskett Creek ©JL Colomb

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

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

She waited for the daylight to come.

 

The Spell of the Dawn

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Desert Sunrise ©JL Colomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Spell of the Wandering Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She scurried away from him.

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

“What do you want?” she asked.

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

She stared at him.

“For now I would settle for a friend.”

 

The Curse of the Survivor

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

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

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

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Anza Borrego Desert ©JL Colomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two lost souls,” Aldebaran said.

 

The Spell of the Follower

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

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

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

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

“There?” She pointed at it.

He bowed to her.

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

“I feel safe now,” she said.

“Still, I stay here.”

The night descended, and left them blind.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fingers Crossed

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

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

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

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

She held out her hand.

He hooked his index finger to hers.

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Anza Borrego Desert ©JL Colomb

 

~~~

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

Sister and the Thunder Beings of the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Close them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Remember what we talked about.”

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

“Remember?”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?”

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

“It sounds big enough to swallow you up.”

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

I squealed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

“I wish it would stop.”

She went on smearing white goop over the patch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sister?”

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

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

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

“Go away,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop,” I told her.

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

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

The storm stopped, but her laughter echoed.

Star Gazers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maxentius,” Leonhart said.

My eye lids drifted open.  “Aye.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Step forward, Maxentius.”

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

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

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