The Shale Giants

Marissa Lingen

We slide sideways.

You think you would see us, as big as we are, looming over the landscape, but the shale giants know how to slip quietly, one plane against another, and be gone into the fog. We like fog as we like all quiet things. Fog also comes in layers, and that makes us feel safe, at home, almost as safe as if we were still in our burrows.

We wait for our friends, our own kind. We come from slow waters, deep waters, quiet waters. Our friends take a long time to accrue, and too much pressure makes them hard, angry, someone else. Too much pressure makes us someone else.

To stay ourselves, we stand on each other’s shoulders. One upon another, we persevere.

For years the pressure that changes us happened accidentally, and we took it in good part, as we took everything in good part. There were no rituals to join with us, no offerings left for us. The turning of the year means something to the water, to the plants. Shale has no season.

We would take and turn the tiny creatures into parts of ourselves, in the quiet of time, in the seasons that meant nothing. We embraced and enveloped them, we encompassed them. No one gave them to us, but we sometimes offered them back. Sometimes we shared. Silently, with wonder. That was how we knew you warm living creatures best: through sharing the tiny past ones.

But now.

Now we have something you want.

You have taken note of our breath, you have breathed it in like gold, and you want it for your own. We want to slip sideways. You want to push us aside, steal our breath, set it alight in our lungs.

You want us to crackle and burn.

And we will burn.

We become something else when we are pressed, something hard but no less giant. Something that will not slip aside for you, and that will not slip into place for you. All of our deep waters have taught us, our cool waters have made us, and if you steal our breath, we will steal yours.

We are many-layered, and we are better than you at learning from each other, at standing on each other’s shoulders. We are vast. We want to be quiet. The thing we want most is quiet. The thing you want most to take from us is our quiet.

The shale giants have been. The shale giants will be. The turning of the seasons still means nothing to us. We can wait. If you want us to be hard and cracked and broken, we can turn those edges on you.

It may be time for you to think of offerings after all.

 
 
 
 

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Podcast Episode 1: Delta Marsh

Subscribe via RSS or on iTunes!

Welcome to the Reckoning Press podcast. Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. This podcast will feature very occasional poetry, fiction and essays from the journal, plus interviews with the authors. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher, and also the editor of Reckoning 2.

For our first episode, we’ve got Casey June Wolf reading “Delta Marsh”, her short story about mourning in suburban Manitoba that examines the commonality between civilization and wildness to be found in death.

You can find this story online at reckoning.press, where a new piece from Reckoning appears each Thursday, and interviews (and now podcasts) on Mondays.

I hope you enjoy. As Casey said on twitter, “Have a boo”.

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Delta Marsh

Casey June Wolf

The day after Mom’s funeral was cold for the season, rain heavy in the air but nothing actually spilling over, the sky a featureless silver-grey, and my whole body ached in sharp slivery ways. Her funeral was in Portage, where they lived, so I bussed out early from Winnipeg. Instead of going home afterward, I came back with Dad to keep him company and spend the night.

It was cold in the house when we walked in. There was a Mom-sized hole in everything. The frilly, faded cushions on her chair, piled together with a Mom-shaped dent in them. The clattering around that wasn’t happening. The not-invitation to sit down, put my feet up, tell her what’s been going on (keeping one eye on the TV while I answered). I stood by the front door taking in the emptiness while Dad made a beeline to his chair, without a glance at hers right next to it, pulled a beer from his jacket pocket, sat down and cracked it open. Then he picked up the remote and started clicking through the channels.

So he’d rather watch TV than talk. That’s Dad. This is me. I’d rather . . . I don’t know what I’d rather do. I watched him watching the idiots on the screen till my skin crawled and I decided to hit the sack.

I lay on my old bed looking at the ceiling for a long time. We lived—they lived—Dad lived on the edge of town right against the prairie, within spitting distance of the river. It would be half frozen by now. If I were to walk on its hardened edges they would squeak and crack and the river would slip around underneath like some water spirit, a drowned soul seeking release.

The brightness of the ceiling shifted now and then, when a car’s headlamps brushed it like paint across the shadows, or a silent owl for a second blocked the tall yard-light. Sometimes it was the light from the porch flashing on, to the sound of Dad rummaging in the icebox, and the clinking of bottles, and the door slamming shut. Then the light would die again.

I just lay there, a clamp across my chest, squeezing and squeezing, and dampness, just a little, around my eyes. Finally, I fell asleep.

 

I woke up early. Walked to the living room, sagged in the guest chair, a big lumpy thing that was hell on your back if you sat there long. The clock whispered every sixty seconds. Shh. Shh. Shh.

I had to get out. But go where? Not back to Winnipeg, that was sure; not back to work and questions and—I needed time. I didn’t need real life. I needed here.

An image rose in the back of my mind. Ducks rising off water, low sun igniting droplets as they fell, feather edges like blazing fans, trees black against the sky.

Delta Marsh. That was it. Wild as it gets around Portage. I could use wild.

Our marsh is famous all over the world. All sorts of scientists go there to do research, on the ducks and swans and the pelicans, too. It’s a special place.

I talked myself out of the deep, lumpy chair, pulled on a jacket and rubber boots and helped myself to the keys to Dad’s car. I filled the kettle and let it boil, poured hot water into a thermos and spooned in instant coffee. Took some biscuits off a plate on the counter, dabbed jam on them, wrapped them up and shoved them in my pack.

Gently opening the door to Dad’s room, I looked in to see how he was doing. He was asleep on his little iron bed, one arm hanging down, knuckles against the cold floor. His greasy white hair was scattered across his pate, his face was still. He was lying on top of his covers, funeral clothes disarranged, shoes dirty. Grey light came through his old sheer curtains, giving a cool lifelessness to the scene.

I withdrew. Walked away, my feet an inch above the floor, my arms no longer connected to my body. I pulled on my cap and left the house.

Their collie lay across the sidewalk. He looked up with faint interest as I stepped over him. Black poplars dominated the yard, leaves stiff and blotchy; a light breeze played them like castanets. I opened the garage, lifted the hood of the old Mustang, and checked the oil. Scrubbed the insects off the windshield and dust off the plates. Pulled the door open and slid in, starting up the car.

I like Winnipeg. But when I come back to Portage something uncoils in me, quiet and dark, like a garter snake waking up after a long winter sleep.

Winnipeg sprang up whole in an island universe of wild prairie; it squats on the land instead of growing out of it. Some day a big storm will clear it off, rake the whole mess of houses and trees and bright green lawns, the carefully tended gardens, the cars, the parking lots, take all the glass and steel and concrete and blow it all away. Blow, blow, blow, like giant tumbleweeds—far away, off the edge of the universe, back to the galaxy from which it came.

That’s what I hope for. I don’t even mind if it takes me with it. I just want the wild prairie back. But maybe Winnipeg’ll win the fight. That’s what frightens me.

What used to be endless aspen and wolf-willow, prairie sage and crocuses, wolves and bison and monarch butterflies, is now enormous squares of wheat, canola, rye, slashed down their middles with gravel roads. Porcupines, coyotes slip unseen. Wildflowers crouch knee-deep in the ditches. Aspens cluster in whispering, covert stands. And miles and miles and miles and miles of roads.

Once, when I was a teenager, Dad was draining a slough on his land. I’d known it since I was a kid.

It made me so sad. There wasn’t going to be anything left for the frogs and salamanders, or the birds that ate them. A bit of bush got sucked from the prairie every year. So I said, “Dad, what if all the prairie gets used up?” He just looked at me, snorted, and went back to work.

I was always the weird one, there.

I got the car backed out of the garage, steering around piles of machinery and tools and old bottles and cans, around chickens, coppery wings flapping as they scattered and squawked. I glanced back to see if Dad would appear in the window, then pulled off down the drive and onto the road to town.

Town had changed a lot, too. Spreading outward, fancier stores, more sophisticated people. But prairie breaks through around every turn. A tuft of grasses, a flicker of wings. Maybe the prairie would win.

I waved at Charlie Bouchet as our cars passed, and he waved back at me, smiling, on his way out of town to what I still think of as his parents’s farm.

You get born in one instant in ever-changing time and you think, this is it. This is what the world is like. But if you avert your eyes for a minute, you see the tail of it slithering away.

The prairie I thought of as endless, changeless. The people I fought with, played with, smoked with in the sandhills, the ones as idle and curious and mad at life as me, all moving away or stepping into their parents’ shoes and shifting everything around. The houses, the trucks, the fields. All ploughed up and planted with a whole new world. One I cannot understand.

I drove through Portage and continued past fields, farmhouses, great grunting machines bouncing over broken land, drove toward a low gathering of trees that extended over a large area and concealed the marsh, the prairie’s hidden heart.

As soon as I was there, I wanted to go the whole way. Not just peek at the marsh, but go to the research station. See what they were doing. What everyone was so excited about. I might have gone into science myself, if I had stayed in school. Studied the things these lucky people were studying. I was always very interested in the wild.

I steered the car up a short road that ended in a cluster of buildings. No one was visible. I sat there with the motor idling and looked at the dark buildings, the pale grey of the sky mirrored in their windows. I felt like an intruder, and certainly I had no claim to be there. What would I say if someone challenged me? “What the hell are you doing here? This is private property.”

I put the Mustang in reverse and drove back a ways to where there were some cottages, a couple of canoes left on their sides, and access to the public beach. I parked the car and climbed out, bringing my breakfast and walking along the path until I got close to the ice-fringed water. From the path I took, the marsh itself was hard to see. All I could catch was the occasional flat, reflected sky, with a view of ducks floating in conjoined pairs: one rightside up and the other upside down. Mostly all I could see were reed grasses and cattails, the dead of other years underfoot of the strong erect blades of this year’s growth, and some late-leaving red-winged blackbirds lecturing from the tips of the cattails. I walked along the wellworn path until I found a place to stop and look around. A flurry of feathered bodies scattered when I arrived, darting through the water, trailing black and silver Vs.

I drank some coffee, ate a few of the biscuits, listened to the chatter of the birds. When I’d been still awhile a wren came out of hiding among the rushes. A pair of gadwalls drifted by.

I thought about my mother. A long time ago she’d been jittery, excited, flaring up one minute and cheery the next. Other times she’d be staring out the window at the weather, her eyes large and questing, for months on end, it seemed. And then she’d be, “Come and sit with me, sweetie,” so I’d go and sit, but her attention would wander off till pretty soon I didn’t want to go to her anymore. Better to build castles out of popsicle sticks till it was time for bed. Better to look for empty bird nests, and mating snakes, and pitcher plants, their feet in muck, their pouchy faces open to the world.

I remember her, but it’s like a movie I saw years and years ago. No feeling, no colour even. Just that clamping on my chest.

A lady blackbird settled on the top of a reed. She was dull brown, pretty. I sat motionless till she dropped to the mud, scaring off the wren, and started kicking through the rushes. More blackbirds dropped down, or swooped in and clung to the tall brown stalks, or gathered in the bushes, clamouring.

This was it. This was where I needed to be. I felt that clamping ease a little. I breathed in the tart air. I was glad I was here.

At last the cold got to be too much, so I stood up stiffly, rubbing my hands together, frightening the birds away again. I walked back to the car, turned on the engine, the radio, the heat, and stared out ahead of me at fragile leaves on slender trees, paint peeling off the wobbly, incomplete fence, scratches against the bellies of the overturned canoes.

It was noon. Dad would be asleep still, most likely. I could go and wait for him to wake up. Try to get him to talk while he was sober. I could do that.

That dislocated, suspended feeling came over me again, like I was stranded in a bubble, floating apart from everything else. Nothing mattered; everything was bleak. I switched off the radio and headed back to the research station.

The buildings seemed deserted. I went from one to another, knocking loudly, shocked at the noise I was making, at the angry bludgeoning of my arm against the doors, but there was no response. I’d turned away from the last door, tears welling, and was walking away when a young woman stepped out from between two buildings. I waved at her, as normally as I could, walked up to her, smiled a thin, tight smile, said I was interested in their work, asked if I could have a look around.

She listened with a sort of forced patience, nodding. Of course I would be interested in their work. Their work, unlike everything in my world, was intrinsically fascinating. Above my level, probably. Over my head. But she decided to be nice. Or diplomatic. I imagined the cogs turning in her head.

She was a student, she said. She offered to show me around, which she did in a perfunctory way, with a half-smile, and then led me to a lunch room and gave me a seat at the table. A number of other students looked at me curiously as they came in with their food.

My brief, wild anger was gone, drained back into the marsh. I was deflated and regretted having come, but saw it through. I drank the coffee she made me, glad of its heat. I brought out the last of my biscuits and gnawed on them while the others ate their lunches. She sat beside me as if I was her guest, but we had little conversation, and she joked with the others about their research. At one point I asked what she was working on.

“It’s a little hard to explain,” she said, and they all laughed. “People don’t generally understand. But it’s going well, it’s going very well. Only problem is I’m running out of ducklings.” She looked at me with a grin and said, “I cut the tops of their heads off, and somehow they don’t last too long after that.” I stared at her, hoping this was a joke. She looked at a fellow across the table from us. “You got any ducklings I can borrow, Tom?” He shook his head emphatically. NO.

After offering to help with the dishes and being refused, I went back out to the car. I had a little trouble getting my key in the ignition.

I drove slowly through the rain, minding the traffic, listening without comprehension to the radio. When I got back to Dad’s I eased the car into the garage and sat there with the motor off, staring at the damp, unpainted wall ahead of me, the tools hanging there, the cluttered counter, the dirty windows. I stayed a long time, just breathing, barely conscious of my thoughts.

Dad was sitting in the living room when I finally went inside, the lights off despite the bleakness of the day. His eyes were bleary and he didn’t respond when I said hello. I pulled off the rubber boots and jacket and went into my room to change. I sat down creakily on the bed, then lay back and let my gaze drift gradually over the far wall. An old jigsaw puzzle hung there in its frame. Two wolves snarling at each other, blood dripping down one’s brawny shoulder, a smaller wolf, a female maybe, or a big pup, cowering in the background. On the dresser lay a couple of books, and some socks, nicely folded, that I’d left in the laundry basket some other day. When Mom was still alive. A small crucifix hung over the dresser. More death.

After a long while I heard a movement in the doorway beside me. Wondering if I had drifted off, I turned to look. It was Dad. His eyes still bleary, his legs a little unsteady.

“Can I come in?” he asked me.

“Sure,” I said.

He came over to the bed and sat down gingerly. He stared at his hands, stained fingers folded together. He stared at the floor. He stared at the wall. Finally, he looked at me. He pulled himself up and put on his Grownup look, and said, “Well, I guess you’ve just got me now—” Somewhere around ‘just’, or ‘me’, his voice broke and tears came spilling out of him. I was shocked, but I didn’t move, betrayed nothing. He turned away sharply as if he was letting me down to see him break, as if the best thing he could do was what he felt he’d never quite been able to: stand tough and be a man. “I shouldn’t cry,” he said. “I just never thought she’d go.” Then he did the other thing he had never quite been up to. He put his arms around me and held me, a big sob tearing from his throat. I turned my face away and stared at the wall.

 

There is a moment when the electric light in my dad’s yard is caught up to by the wakening light of day. At this moment, my eyes struggle open. The curtains are wide. A snore, low and steady, comes like waves of comfort from the next room.

On the wall the perpetual battle ensues, wolf against wolf, wolf bitch/wolf child cowering in suspense.

A thin blade pierces a tiny skull. I feel it piercing: accurate, calm, unhesitant.

A peeling back of down, of film-slight skin and paper bone. Like a tiny plum, a brain is revealed. No pain. In silence. Death.

 
 
 

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Fourth-Dimensional Tessellations of the American College Graduate

Marie Vibbert

Alana’s ex-boyfriend, Steve, met her at the driveway to Windermere Farms, his three-acre orchard wedged between the Rapid tracks and East 15 Street. “Thank you for coming so fast!” He backtracked like an excited border collie, leading the way up the weed-choked brick driveway.

“Is it taxes?” Alana’s friends were always asking her to do math for them, like it took a degree in mathematics to calculate a percentage, and since Steve’s text had said “Urgent!! Need U ASAP!” she assumed he was in legal trouble.

“No. This is a real math mystery, I promise! With bees!”

Steve’s latest scheme involved buying different strains of honeybee from around the world. He hoped to solve global bee collapse and make enough money off honey to pay his rent. Neglect and white flight had left this farmhouse preserved and cheap. It was surrounded by chain-link fences topped with broken segments of barbed wire weighted down with wild grape vines. Vacant-eyed apartment buildings stared over it all.

“The closed ends of honeycomb are trihedral sections of rhombic dodecahedra,” Alana said. She loved the sound of the words, the hard consonants repeating like the repeating angles bees built into structures.

Steve’s beehives, like a miniature apartment complex, stood in three ranks on the concrete slab where the home’s garage had once been. “Huh? Yeah, you are so the only one who can solve this mystery.” Steve threw a bundle of mesh over her. Alana struggled with the netting while Steve lifted the wooden cover from a beehive. Then he knelt to unsnap clasps like old suitcase closures on the front. “Look!”

Alana felt a welling of feeling—of magic, sexual excitement, of fear. Like the feeling when you crested the first hill of a roller coaster and looked down the track.

“Well?” asked Steve. “What is it?”

Alana knelt. The wax was warm and sensual with glistening honey. Thin lines formed, not hexagons, but elaborate shapes, something broken, with polyhedral sections branching off and crossing through each other and seeming to undulate.

“It’s not even tessellating,” Alana said. “Honeycomb is supposed to tessellate.”

“I know!” Steve bounced on the balls of his feet. “Is it completely random? Do I have chaos bees?”

“I’m not . . . .”

“I took a section for you!” Steve ran to the house.

Alana stared. The shapes were impossible to track, but there was some order; it lacked the grace of pure chaos.

Steve pushed a Lucite cube at her nose. “This was a photo frame of my dad’s. Photo-cubes. He had them all over the house. Not the point. Look at the section. Is it fractal?”

Alana turned the cube. In motion, the seemingly random shapes tessellated—they repeated.

“Alana?”

“Hecatonicosachoron,” Alana said. Syllables locked into each other, building meaning like links build a chain.

She felt Steve move the wooden hive-door in the grass and kneel beside her. “You know what it is?”

“I think . . . .”

She reached out and poked a hole in the beehive with her finger. The hole closed. When a fourth-dimensional object rotates, it will seem to heal because not all faces are perceived in the third dimension. “I think it’s a 120-cell. A hyperdodecahedron. Maybe. Tiled with other shapes. I need a camera.”

“I already took some pic—“

She shoved Steve. “Quickly!”

“Hey, there’s no rush. It’s been like that for . . . .”

“Go!” She slapped at him until he ran for the house. She didn’t want to take the time to explain her fears. It wasn’t hot enough to melt the wax, but wax deformed with weight, with gravity. What if the shapes went away, like unobserved quanta?

By the time she got all the angle shots she wanted, she was sticky with honey from pressing close and pulling sections of wax apart to capture the structures within.

She looked down at the smeared camera. She tried to lift her veil and it got tangled in her honey-slimed fingers. Steve was standing near at hand with the smoker pot. “Wait, where are the bees?” she asked. The next rank of hives were covered in a soft, moving matt of bee bodies all along their fronts, but there were none on the open hive and only a few in the air nearby.

“I don’t know.” He laughed. “I haven’t seen a bee on this hive in months. I thought the queen was dead. I found the weirdness when I started taking it apart. The honey is just . . . appearing. Isn’t it wild? I was so scared there wouldn’t be enough honey to sustain the hives, or enough pollination for my grapes.”

Alana walked away from the hive. She had to think and she couldn’t look and think at the same time. The complex geometries and the inner glow of wax and honey were too mesmerizing. She sat down on an overturned tub. A police siren wailed in the distance.

A glass of iced tea, sweating, presented in front of her, attached to Steve’s hand. She took it. “So,” he said, “You still haven’t explained it—I mean, you gave it some names, but what is it? What could have made my bees do that? At first I thought it was disease or poison . . . the messed up area gets bigger each day. It’s jumped to the two closest hives. But the honey is still good!”

“It’s a fourth-dimensional shape,” Alana said.

The hollow tub echoed with the force of Steve’s butt dropping onto it next to her. “Whoa. Fourth-dimensional bees? Are my bees invisible? I could be stung by invisible bees!”

“No, it doesn’t mean that. We perceive three dimensions. Fourth-dimensional shapes appear to us as three-dimensional. It’s . . . if you poked your fingers into water, a being who perceives only the water surface would see five circles, not the one shape of your hand. We see what intersects our plane of existence.”

Steve shook his head. “Wait, wait—the fourth dimension is time, isn’t it? Fourth-dimensional bees sting you in the past! I’ve already been stung! My bees are dead! It’s a paradox.”

“The fourth dimension isn’t time.” Alana had to breathe out slowly and calm herself down. This wasn’t the fiftieth time she and Steve had had this conversation. Usually some movie or TV show was involved. “Look—this is—yes. Thank you. Fourth-dimensional geometry is my specialty. I never thought anyone would ever call me about my specialty.”

Steve smiled goofily. “What are you going to do?”

“Analyze the photos. Write a paper.”

“Okay, but I’m going to start advertising honey from beyond our dimension, like, yesterday!”

Alana’s current boyfriend, Huy, smelled of turpentine, as did his attic apartment on Hessler Street. Splatters of paint—a past resident’s work in a mathematically improbable evenness—decorated the slanted walls. A bower window looked out on the top of an oak tree and let in the smell of someone grilling on a porch below.

Huy was as excited as Alana. He propped the painting he had been working on against the sofa and put a fresh canvas on the easel. “Fourth-dimensional bees.” His fingers moved quickly, just a tremble, a quick wiggle, and golden lines formed on the canvas. “Bees change gender chemically, you know.”

“Only at birth, and you wouldn’t want to be a drone,” Alana said, lying on the bed, which was musty from not being changed, perfectly boy-like. “As soon as food was scarce, the hive would kick your gigolo ass out.”

Huy laughed with his tongue against his top teeth, which were white and strong and always set Alana’s heart racing. “You know, Steve is cute,” he said, teasing her back. A mutual attraction to Steve had been their first connection. Art was their second. Once Huy painted water on her with his favorite sable brush. It was a sweltering day, and what started as a cooling technique became breathless foreplay.

The same brush strayed through sunshine yellow and goldenrod and ochre. “What are they building, these mathematician bees? What do they think they are making?”

“Bees don’t understand geometry,” she said, “But they make perfect hexagons. These bees . . . they can’t know fourth-dimensional physics or what they are creating.”

Huy crawled onto the bed. He teased her with the possibility of brushing paint on her belly where her shirt lifted. “Blind, passionate instinct,” he said.

“So where have the bees gone?” Alana asked. “They aren’t dying. They are just . . . gone.”

He shrugged. “That is the weird question.” He bent backward, unfolding in a boneless way that made her want to touch him. Huy had been a dance major, first, before painting. It left him unfairly graceful. “What are you going to do?” He went back to his easel.

“Find them,” Alana said. She twirled a finger in her hair, locking the curls into a column. “No one else has published on this. I checked.”

“Better get cracking, then.”

Alana twirled another lock, then another. She remembered twisting her younger sister’s locks, making tessellations of little puffs of afro. She glanced at the cracked mirror above the dresser. Could she make a hex pattern in her hair? She was procrastinating. She picked the twists apart as she looked for her laptop. She only had an hour before her shift at the coffee shop, and after that she had a MATH 102 class to teach.

The oddest question was: why hadn’t the bees made a 24-cell? That could tessellate on its own in four dimensions. Mathematicians called the pattern “tesseractic honeycomb.”

Alana was in her favorite coffee shop—not the one she worked at—a reclaimed Victorian druggist’s, the teas sorted in tiny little drawers with brass label-holders. The corners were braced, making flat hexagons, and she unfocused her eyes, turning her head to appreciate the honeycomb of wood.

She stopped. She looked down at the photographs and notes splayed out in front of her. She had printed out perspective drawings of three-dimensional projections of hyperdodechedra and other hyper-objects. She had been laying these, on tissue paper, over the photos and marking similarities and differences. And there were differences.

She got up without paying for her second cup of mocha.

Steve didn’t answer her text, but he showed up shortly after she was arms-deep in one of the hives they hadn’t opened yet.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked. “Careful! Don’t waste the honey.”

“I’m . . . rotating it.” Alana huffed with effort. She did damage the honeycomb, and spill honey, and there was a terrible ripping sound of two layers coming apart, but then she had the comb turned. She sat back and licked a glob on her arm.

The tessellation was off. There were interruptions in the pattern. Of course there were—120-cells didn’t tessellate. They didn’t stack like hexagons; they needed structures between them. Joinings. Ligatures.

Wiping her hands as quickly as she could on the grass, Alana got the camera out and took pictures. “There’s . . . something in there. In the math. It’s not simple repetition, there’s chaos in it, randomness.”

Steve said, “Well, yeah, it looks random to me.”

“But it’s not perfectly random. Do you know what that means?”

Steve shook his head.

“It suggests intelligence. It suggests direction. It suggests . . . .” Alana almost couldn’t breathe. “It’s a message.”

“Cool! From who? The bees?”

“I don’t know!” Alana’s sticky fingers hung in the air in front of her face. Evidence of non-human intelligence dripped and sagged in front of her and she didn’t know how to prove her theory.

Steve guided her onto the back porch and sat her down. The screen door opened and shut with a yelp of springs and a slap of wood. He brought out a bowl of warm water and washed her hands and arms and face. The rag smelled of beeswax and lemons. “There we go. Easy. This was supposed to be fun.”

Alana sniffled. She felt so comforted. Why had she ever broken up with Steve? “I don’t know how to interpret the message. I have data . . . but is it language? How do I decode it?”

“Hey, you know who is a whiz at that stuff? Laurel. The programmer? Why don’t we call her and have her take a look?”

“Are you guys still dating?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “You’re joking. Laurel was before Christian.”

“Oh. Right. Is he around?”

“Alana. Seriously? Christian was two girlfriends and a boyfriend ago.”

Laughs bubbled up through Alana. She bent over. Misunderstanding, Steve set his rag aside and hugged her. “Hey, hey. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Alana got control of her breathing with a snort. “You have a repeating pattern,” she said. That was why she’d broken up with him. He didn’t get the joke.

Huy peered into the hives with all the absorption of an artist. “It’s more meaningful in three dimensions,” he said. “I should sculpt. Or just . . . heavy paint. Slather the canvas in dripping amber.”

He backed up into Laurel, who had been looking over his shoulder. She was taking a break to smoke a cigarette while her computer ran a dozen pattern recognition programs on the series of ones and zeroes Alana had interpreted from the presence and absence of ligatures in the honeycomb. Laurel was very well groomed. Her eyebrows were like black tildes marking her blue eyes as operators.

Alana didn’t like the way Laurel’s eyes travelled down Huy. Worse—he blushed and looked away.

Steve came out of the house with a tray of glasses. He puffed his chest up. “Who knew in undergrad we’d be unlocking the secrets of the universe at my farm?”

“The odds were good it would involve your exes,” Laurel said. She took a glass. The lemonade caught the sun. “Was there anyone you didn’t date? We could use a biochemist.”

“What for?”

“Alana thinks the honey might be alien.”

Alana felt everyone turn their attention to her. She hoped she hadn’t been scowling. She cleared her throat and sat up straighter on the hay bale. “It might be helpful to see if the honey was formed from different pollen than Steve’s other, normal hives.”

Laurel’s computer beeped. “Oo! That’s the compiler.” Laurel handed her lemonade to Alana and bent over her laptop, which sat on top of another hive. They were all ignoring the usual safety precautions around the strange hives. No one had been stung by an invisible bee yet.

The morning had been spent in figuring out the order of the message—how do you start and end in four dimensions? Top-bottom, left-right? Horizontal or vertical? There were 384 combinations in a fourth-dimensional grid. Steve presented the solution: time. “The fourth dimension!” he crowed, though really it was a first-dimensional solution. He talked endlessly of travel-stain and brood-comb—beekeeper jargon that helped track the age of each section of wax. Steve traced the ligatures into an order, oldest to newest. Alana had assigned each ligature shape a number, creating a string of numbers for Laurel to put in her computer.

Codes. Line up a string of numbers. Guess that the three represents an E because there are more threes than other numbers. You start to see two numbers always before 3, they are T and H. You’ve accomplished the code-breaking of middle school passed notes. Alana had thought—and gotten excited thinking—that she would have to write new algorithms to detect patterns, but the business of code-breaking was well-trod ground for computer scientists and Laurel hadn’t even had to download any new software.

Laurel stepped back from her computer. “Huh. Um. Crap.”

“Did it not work?” Steve asked.

Laurel frowned and typed furiously, ash scattering from her cigarette still held between two fingers.

“What is it?” Huy asked.

Alana tried to see over Laurel’s shoulder. Lines of text scrolled up the screen.

“I don’t like that look. That’s a bad look,” Steve said. “She looked like that when we broke up.”

“Shut up,” Laurel said. She picked up the laptop and carried it to the porch.

Alana, Steve and Huy followed. Alana drank the lemonade. It was too tart and cold.

Laurel had the laptop balanced on her knees. Her cigarette burned down, forgotten between two fingers. Alana was amazed at how she carried it like a ring, tossing smoke curls as she gestured. “There’s a pattern, all right. I’m sorry, guys. I don’t know how else to interpret this.”

“Is it a message?” Alana asked.

“Yes, and the message is: Danger. Quarantine.”

“Are you sure?” Steve asked.

Laurel gave him an insulted look.

“But who is the message for?” Huy asked, “Is it for Steve? Humanity in general?”

Laurel flicked her brassy hair away from her tildes. “We’re the ones who are killing them off with pesticides. It’s a warning to other bees.”

Alana got out her phone. “Steve dated a biochemist. I’ve got him on twitter.”

“Maybe we won’t need him,” Huy said. He opened Steve’s refrigerator. “I was researching honeycombs and color for my project. There was this wild story. It was in Salt Lake City. Suddenly, all these bee hives were producing red honey, in three different counties.” He stuck his head deep in Steve’s refrigerator, pushing and sorting jars and take-out boxes. “Dude. Clean up now and then. Anyway . . . yes.” He straightened, brandishing a fat jar half-full of red liquid. “Turns out, it was a maraschino cherry factory dumping its wastes. The bees would fly past miles of flowers just to eat corn syrup and red number five. Or . . . whatever is in this.”

Steve and Laurel had gone back onto the porch, talking over each other. “That’s idiotic,” Steve said. “Alana! Do you know why she’s interpreting this message that way? Semaphore.”

“It’s a beautiful visual system.” Laurel leaned in the doorway. “What would you use to communicate across languages? Shakespeare?”

Huy pushed between the two of them. “It’s certainly human to jump to the conclusion that everything is a warning. Everything is out to get us, so spray the bullets and the chemicals!”

“Easy, art school,” Steve said. “This is about data, not emotion.”

Alana helped Huy lay a cookie tray in the middle of the hives. The cherry juice shone like stained glass in the sun, like it had depth beyond the scratched tin sheet.

“The pattern repeats in a perfect checkerboard,” Laurel said. “It’s exactly the semaphore signal for danger or quarantine, minus the color.”

“Maybe it’s not a message at all,” Huy said. “Maybe it’s art.”

“How long until we can tell if the invisi-bees are eating the cherry juice?” Steve asked, argument forgotten.

“Invisi-bees?” Huy said. “Really?”

“I haven’t patented it or anything, dude.”

Alana stopped at the corner store after work and loaded two jars of maraschino cherries in her backpack alongside her laptop. She had wanted three, but there wasn’t quite room. As it was, she worried about the clinking sound when she went over potholes on her bike.

Huy and Laurel were already at Steve’s, playing cards with him on the screened-in porch. A jar of de-juiced cherries sat in the middle of the table, like the eggs of some alien insect.

“Hey,” Steve jumped up. “Do you think it’s been long enough to check the hives for red honey?”

“No,” Huy and Laurel both said, glaring at each other. They glared like the rest of the world had vanished. Alana felt uncomfortable. Steve ran into the kitchen. Alana followed.

Steve lifted an old-fashioned microscope onto his counter. “They’ve been arguing all day. I think they like it.”

Alana bit her lip. She set her backpack, laptop, and jars of cherries on the counter that separated the old butler’s pantry from the kitchen.

Laurel swung the screen door open with a bang of her hip. She held two glass slides and a lit cigarette aloft. “Anyone who looks at the math can see the pattern.”

Alana opened the file of data.

“Hey, you can’t smoke in here. We’re doing science.”

“Oo, so commanding.” Laurel bumped Steve with her hip, too. She played at holding the slides away from him.

“Quit it. You’re getting ash on the science.”

Huy shouted from the door, “Is anyone going to help me clean up?”

Steve waved Laurel away like she was a fly and bent to the microscope, adjusting the knobs. “Yes! There’s red in there. So is this one the weird hive or the normal hive?”

“If I tell you before you check both samples it will bias you. Here’s slide B.”

Alana had been trying to concentrate and listen at the same time. Something jumped out at her in the numbers and she stopped listening. She checked her figures. “It’s tessellated.”

“What?” Laurel said. “Shut up,” she said, when Steve tried to tell her about the slides.

Alana said, “The message—the pattern you found. It’s not one pattern, it’s a repeating pattern of a repeating pattern.”

Laurel nudged Alana out of the way and nearly burned her with her cigarette. Laurel said, “Loss-prevention. Redundancy. That’s why it looked like a checkerboard. They really cared about the message coming through.”

“Makes sense,” Steve said, “If you’re sending a message through beeswax. I mean: one fire and kaplop.”

Alana nudged Laurel out of the way as she saw her about to mess up a perfectly good formula. “I’ve been doing work on tessellations and fourth-dimensional geometry. Wait . . . stop.”

Laurel tried to push her aside again, then stepped back. “Okay, but don’t forget the second-order changes.”

Alana felt even more anxious than the first time, higher on a steeper roller coaster. A clean line of numbers formed. “There it is. Our message.”

“But . . . .” Laurel’s tilde eyebrows were tighter, almost square-root signs. “But what does it mean? What language do we decode it to?”

“How about English?” Steve asked. Alana realized she’d forgotten about the boys. Steve shrugged. “I mean, these are American bees, right? What other language would they have seen?”

Huy shouldered his way into the kitchen with the honeycomb separator and eyedropper. He pushed Alana away with his elbow when she tried to touch him. “I’m sticky,” he said. He bent over the kitchen sink.

“I love a man doing housework,” Laurel said, luxuriating on every vowel she spoke like it was the dirtiest joke.

Huy gave her a heated look. “Thanks for not helping, assholes.”

Alana left without looking at them.

Alana stayed in her own apartment that night, a joyless single-bedroom box all in cream and taupe. She wanted to move in with Huy, but for now she was glad she hadn’t. Math was a better boyfriend. Numbers didn’t care if you understood them, didn’t get angry or jealous. They just were.

She had dozens of texts. She didn’t read any but the one from Steve saying that both populations of bees had fed on the red cherry juice and to please stop buying cherries. She’d read it because she saw it was cc’ed to everyone.

There was a knock at the door. She ignored it. Then there was the sound of a key in the lock. She put her pillow over her head.

Rustle of paper bags. “I brought Chinese,” Huy said.

Clink of plates being set out on her table. She was not going to give in. But she was hungry and now she could smell ginger and soy sauce. She burrowed deeper under the pillows to block the delicious smells with her own hair-oil and sweat.

Huy touched her elbow. “Come on. I got dumplings. You love dumplings.”

Alana made a muttering sound she hoped could be interpreted as both ‘go away’ and ‘thanks’.

Huy sat next to her. The mattress dipped toward him, creating a gravity well she could easily fall into. She wanted to wrap around his comforting solidity. She held firm and scooted toward the wall.

Huy plucked the pillow from her face. “I flirted with Laurel. Laurel, I think, flirted back. It was childish and stupid. I’m sorry.”

Alana wanted to stay mad so she scowled and stayed put. He backed up, pulling her off the bed. “I’m not interested in her. Be more worried about Steve. Or dumplings. There’s your smile.” She fell against him naturally. His hand on the small of her back, he rocked her in a four-step. He started singing, “Dumplings . . . dumpling dance come dumpling dance with me.”

Alana froze. Huy frowned. “What?” he asked.

“Dance. Bees communicate through dance.”

Huy laughed as she clambered over the bed to get to her laptop. “I thought you were mad at me!”

“I am,” Alana said. “Bee dances are all about repetition and angle.”

Angles. She had been treating the ligatures as binary—presence and absence. Then she had tried shape—thin, fat, hourglass. What if it was the angle of each that mattered? Relative to what? The center of the polyhedron? She scampered to her dresser and found her initial photos and drawings still laid out.

“I’ll put the food in the fridge,” Huy said. “And call Steve.”

Laurel was at work, so they met in her research lab. “All right, I admit, I was totally wrong about the danger flag. It’s English.” She frowned at Steve’s smug grin and said, “Hush. Anyway, the language predictor said 98% chance of English, so I did the translation assuming that, and there are, like, sentences.”

She laid a tablet on the table. “This is real arm-hair-raising shit.” She backed away.

We have gone where you cannot kill us. You see us but we also see you. We could take our food. We could starve you.

“I . . . need to check your math,” Alana said.

“Please,” Laurel said. “But once I saw there were 26 distinct angles, I just assigned a letter to each and brute-forced it. I cold have done this on a napkin with a pencil.”

“We chased them into the fourth dimension,” Steve said. He slumped against a slate counter. “Guys? Humanity just got dumped.”

“There’s more to the message,” Alana said.

Laurel said, “I wanted to be sure. There’s about fifteen percent more, if I got the punctuation marks right.”

“It’s not going to end with ‘lol kidding’,” Steve said.

“Have a little faith.” Huy put his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Let’s get coffee while the girls get their math on.”

An early winter storm lashed the storefront as they gathered four months later. Laurel chewed her nails, staring hard at the “no smoking” sign while Steve fetched their combined coffee orders.

“To us!” Steve declared, holding a glass aloft over the magazine spread on the table. It was as glossy as a freshly painted nail. Real print. Huy’s painting graced the facing page at the beginning of Alana’s article. They were all co-authors.

“I like Margot,” Huy whispered, glancing at Steve’s new girlfriend. She was a rubenesque beauty with a passion for organic foods. “But I’m not going to grow attached. Seeing him with a new partner is like seeing a kid with a new goldfish.”

Alana poked him in the ribs and he kissed her bicep.

Laurel said, “What gets me is the large size of fourth-dimensional space. It’s huge, right? Way more room for way more bees. Enough to build a hive mind larger than ever before. Forget writing us messages—these bees could be creating singularities! We could have a whole other article on measuring hive-intelligence.”

“What gets me,” Steve said, marveling at the article, “is how the weird hives stopped. I mean, for a while there . . . .”

“We should have taken measurements,” Alana agreed.

“More weird hive by ratio each day,” Steve said. “And now . . . it’s steady. Maybe it’ll shrink.”

“Maybe they know their message was received,” Huy said.

All four friends grew quiet, reading the displayed page. Above the technical title, “Fourth-Dimensional Aperiodic Tessellations in Geometry of Honeycomb,” was the text of the bees’ final message, as near as they could figure, in English.

The end of the message made Alana’s heart clench. Made her squeeze Huy’s hand under the table.

“We love you,” it read. “We forgive you.”

 
 

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I’m the Villain, Ok?

Mary Alexandra Agner

I want to sit in my SUV

combust dead dinosaurs

into aerosols as tangible as need

I want the Monsanto magic

    for my lawn, my Big Boy tomatoes

I want to wait in the drive-through—

    engine roaring, gas escaping,

    invisible music pumping into my box

    sealed and thus safe from the outside—

    for my chicken made of corn

    my shake made of sugar (made of corn)

    my fries fried in corn

What matters is this moment

    the right tempo to tap my fingers to

    phone surfing, wifi filling space

        from here to Saturn as the years drag on

    to know no matter how much I cut

    myself off from touch, taste, smell

    I am not alone

 
 
 

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The Complaint of All Living Things

Joanne Rixon

This is a memory: a white-washed picture frame around a needlework bouquet of roses. It hangs on a wood-paneled wall in the only direct sunlight in the room, a thin sliver of bright coming down the stairs and slicing in half the wall, the roses, the pull-out couch’s thin, raw-springed mattress.

I am holding myself very still, on my back, thinking about needlework. I think about Midwestern farm-kitsch, about the musty smell of old cardboard rising off the boxes stacked here beside the couch in his grandmother’s basement. He moves over me, inside me, making wet sounds—this blanked out space of a person I’ve almost entirely erased.

I still have a few of my thousands of memories of him. His dirty dishes left on the coffee table, the way his jaw tightens when I ask him a question, the way he threatens to break up with me even though, he says, he doesn’t know where I’d go if I wasn’t staying here with him in his grandmother’s basement. I let him fuck me because he’s right. I don’t know where I’d go either.

I hold myself very still. He grunts and sighs. His movement moves my body and I think about doing laundry so there are clean rags, so that when my body recovers enough from this that I can stand, I can dust the picture frame, the needlework roses. This is what security looks like: the way he moves hurts my injuries but he never takes that long. The dust on the picture frame bothers me. I’m supposed to keep the basement clean—I clean because I don’t pay rent here—and I worry that in my fog of pain I’m not doing a good enough job.

Five years later, this is not yet a memory: I crouch down and pick up a three-legged sea star out of the wet rocks at the high tide line. Its pale orange exoskeleton is rough against the pads of my fingers, the sand wet with the kind of thick, grimy water you only get on the Gulf coast. The irregular, broken-off stubs of two of its legs show signs of re-growing, the budding of recovered flesh slowly reforming into something new. When so much is broken, the re-growth must form an entirely new creature, I think. I wonder what it remembers, if it can still feel the missing leg-tips like ghosts attached to it forever.

I feel it in that moment, not a ghost but whatever makes a ghost before it dies: the sea star as vast as the ocean beside me in its small perfect broken shape. For a long time I don’t feel anything else. I cradle the sea star in my scarred, crooked fingers and it makes me as vast as itself, as perfect.

Then I set it down again and keep walking, settling the memory of the sea star in the socket in my mind that used to hold needlework roses. The sea star pushes out the picture frame and unbalances the rest of the memory, dulls the bright stab of sunlight to something a little more bearable. That feeling of peace, that huge, cool depth, echoes through my ears like I’m underwater, like I can hear the crabs scuttling along the bottom of the Gulf. Even hours later, when I limp back to my car, I walk with a joyful swagger only half caused by the way my cane catches in the sand.

Padre Island Seashore is a good place to camp. There are plenty of people who stay out here, even in the winter—if you can call this winter, this balmy south Texas January. I’ve stayed worse places. Rest stops, gas stations and Walmart parking lots are full of people who want you to hurry along, who measure your stay in hours not days. Same with municipal parks. State parks are sometimes alright, but more often you have to pay steep fees to stay there, sometimes $25 a night.

High-density residential areas aren’t bad, but relative anonymity is balanced out by sidewalks and the high-strung apartment-bound dogs that people walk along them at six a.m. And even if the parking isn’t metered and you’re careful to park in different spots from night to night, eventually people corner you and ask what you’re doing there.

Rural neighborhoods are the worst. People spread out in houses on wide acres shouldn’t care, but they’ll call the cops on you if you park there for even a minute. Half the time I can play Nice White Lady and get the cops’ sympathy. But then there’s the other half.

No, national parks are the place to be. And Padre Island Seashore is a good one; pay twenty bucks for the annual pass and they’ll let you camp on the beach for free for two weeks. Then you leave for two days and come back for another two weeks on the same pass. And so on. In some national forests, you can camp without breaks, for free, but here not only are there toilets, there are free showers. Cold water, but clean is clean.

Today the cascading water reminds me of something: I was in east Texas, near Nacogdoches, in Angelina National Forest. This was maybe two years ago, and I was spending a couple of weeks in the woods. One night a thunderstorm rolled in fast, hot like a swollen belly, the sky crackling. Long red-brown pine needles caked the forest floor, inches deep and so dry. I had the seats down in the back of my car so I could sleep flat, and I swung my head around so I was looking up at the sky through the back window even though I was parked on a slant and the front end of the car was higher. I lay there, all the blood waving inside me like a jostled coffee cup, and watched the storm break the sky open, wondering if I was going to burn alive in the middle of falling water. Half wishing I would, just for the thrill of the fire.

After my shower, I re-park my car on the sand up away from the high tide line and then pull out my worn little notebook. “Lightning in Angelina” is written in the middle of the second-to-last page; it’s relatively recent. Many of my notes are like that, good memories. Even more of them, I no longer understand. I keep those on purpose, I re-read them. Not every day, just sometimes. Just when I start wondering if I could live differently.

“Endlessly talking, red and blue lights harsh on his face.”

“He held my hand while they picked the fragments of glass out of my thigh.”

“The bathroom with the cornflower tiles on the wall behind the toilet.”

“The IV with the kink in the line.”

I don’t know what they mean. I don’t want to.

I settle down in the passenger seat of my car, flip on the solar LED lamp attached to the dash as the sky darkens into night, and make myself a peanut butter sandwich with the fixings tucked into the crate in the footwell. Then I dust sand off the spine of my newest paperback from the fifty cent bin and get lost in the complicated betrayals that plague this band of Scottish highlanders.

The next morning I wake up as the sun rises. Already there are a scattering of other people awake and out on the beach, retirees mostly. They like Padre Island for the same reasons I do, even if for them ‘cheap’ means they park here in their fifty thousand dollar RV, not a 2008 Toyota Yaris with tinted windows so no one can see me sleeping in the back. One gray-haired man walks with his pant legs rolled up as a fluffy white dog gallops through the surf nearby. A woman sits in front of her RV a dozen meters down the beach in a folding chair, sweatshirt hood up to block the wind, drinking coffee.

I do wish I had hot water. I’ve thought about getting something, maybe a tiny kettle I can run off my car battery. But I’ve been wary about anything that drains my battery ever since—ever since I can remember.

I drag on my own sweatshirt, hunch my way into the front seat and resign myself to air temperature instant coffee shaken into the water in an old plastic water bottle, like I do every morning. Looking out the window, I realize that the memory I’d been thinking of setting loose today—the heaviness of July air in St. Louis when the AC in my car went out, the hunger-nausea in my belly, the way I sat paralyzed in the hospital parking lot for an hour wondering if I could sleep there beside the hospital safely or if they would call the police on me—isn’t right for the day. The beach is littered with blue blotches. I could squint and still not see them well, but I know what they are: man o’ war, freshly washed up onto the sand.

I drink my coffee and think, letting the echoing from the sea star memory yesterday strengthen my bones. Man o’ war are special. As the sun rises, my certainty grows: it’s a sign. I’m here, in the right place, in the right time to rid myself of a major thread in the mess of my old pains.

I leave the car as the sun leaves the horizon, sinking a little into the sand as I walk down into the water. Ankle deep, I turn southwest, into the Mexico-end curve of the coast, and start wandering. The waves suck at my feet, and I go very slowly.

This coastline isn’t as impressive as the cliffs of Oregon or the white sand beaches of South Carolina. Dull brown sand, not a tree in sight, ugly sponge-scrub bushes that hug the dunes, sand flies buzzing in the air above them. But nothing can make the ocean ugly, not even the trash tangled in the brown, rotting seaweed that washed up with the man o’ war.

And the man o’ war are magnificent. Blue so bright it looks like plastic, root-vegetable shape with long tentacles trailing off the thickest end, rippling crest the sun shines through. As they die and deflate, they lose their beauty, but it’s early and they’re still damp and glowing in the sunlight. They look like aliens. The first time I ever saw one, I didn’t think it was real, but I loved it.

After half an hour of poking along, I find what I didn’t know I was looking for: a pair of man o’ war, tipped up against each other, tentacles tangled. When the waves set them here, they grasped at each other. I squat down beside them, toes inches away from being stung. From this angle, I can see down the beach through the nearest man o’ war’s glassy sail.

I fill my lungs with the humid smell of decomposing seaweed and salt.

I breathe easy these days. It wasn’t always like that.

I draw the memory down into my fingers: I’m flat on my back, holding myself carefully motionless under the bright lights that are shining down on me. Masked figures bend over my body below my ribcage, moving over me. I can’t feel exactly what they’re doing to me, because they’ve used a local anesthetic, but when they cut deep enough the sharpness of it lightnings through me.

Worse, whenever they cut away a piece of tissue, at the end of the cut, there are wet noises and tugging, pulling the flesh tight so the scalpel can slice cleanly. That tug panics me. I start to shake and can’t stop, can’t breathe because my chest won’t work right. They’re taking me apart.

I don’t know how they can perform surgery on my stomach when my chest is heaving like this, my limbs trembling.

Somehow I hold myself very still on the table. I don’t bolt. I don’t pass out, either, though I get lightheaded and dizzy from the way I can’t get my breath. A long time passes, and somewhere in the middle of it, one of the nurses turns to me and says, absently, “It hits some people this way. Mostly it’s the toughest old men who cry during surgery, isn’t that funny?”

She laughs.

I breathe in the salt air.

Squatting slowly, I examine the man o’ war as close as I can get my face to them. In a way, they’re like the physical embodiment of a laugh: I’m in love with their impossibly blue-purple glossiness, their asymmetry, their shape like nothing else I’ve ever seen, the clutch of their tentacles: holding on and holding on. The world is so big; it contains such strange things; it contains so much love.

The man o’ war are a better memory, of course. I pull it into me, letting it crowd out the other thing: the sound, the sense of desolation. The echo of a laugh falls away the way wet sand dries on your skin and then is brushed off: leaving the faintest of after-sensations but nevertheless completely gone. The memory of the man o’ war, in my mind and also still in front of me on the sand, lifts me up like sunshine in my blood.

I go along the beach a little while longer, trading a brief flash of a silent waiting room—doubled over, pain-sweat itching between my shoulder blades—for a purple-cream seashell half worn away by the waves into the shape of a minnow. I exchange the constant beep of a monitor for the wing-flick of a gull that screams as it flies away from me. For mouse tracks on the sand underneath the dune grass, the persistent, rhythmic twang of old mattress springs.

Too many exchanges in too short a time: my mind rebels, leaving an aftertaste in my peripheral nervous system, a creeping malaise. I lie down on the soft sand, hiking up my t-shirt and edging down my track pants so my soft, scarred belly is naked to the sunlight. Sometimes when I lie flat the scars pull; sometimes the stress on the sliced nerves makes them tingle and spark with pain. But the sun’s warmth makes up for that. I plop my forearm over my eyes and let myself drift, neither awake nor asleep.

Sometimes living like this is terrifying: whenever I see a police car my heart jerks nervously, whenever I park somewhere I’ve never been before I can barely sleep because I can’t settle off high alert. Having nothing between me and the world but a car window and whatever basic decency a citizen might scrape up for someone like me—it rattles my head.

But other times being homeless is everything I’ve ever wanted, and this is one of those days. The sun is crayon yellow in a watercolor sky, high white clouds blurring softly into the blue. The old man with the dog is fishing, far enough down the beach that I couldn’t hear him over the white noise of the waves even if he shouted, and other than that, it’s just me and the sea birds, in love with each other, in love with ourselves.

A week later, I return from two days parked on the side of the road near an intersection with four apartment complexes on adjoining blocks. Nobody gave my car a single suspicious eyeball, and I had a chance to spend time in the public library. Of course I can’t check out books without an address, but I got online and checked my bank balance to make sure my disability benefits, all $350 a month, haven’t been mysteriously stopped. They turn off the direct deposit sometimes, if they try to deliver me mail and can’t, but this month everything is ticking along, and I have money for gas and food.

I’m lucky. Plenty of street people have to panhandle, but I never picked up a habit, and I eat light.

The next morning I wake up early so I get out and sit on the hood of my car to watch the sunrise. Something about the way the birds wake before the sun does, the way they start talking to each other, sends shivers of happiness through my muscles. Even on nights when I can’t sleep because of the pain, my heart lifts a little when I hear how interested the birds are in every single new day. And then the soft pearl of the sky as the light begins.

Today is a good one for birds. They’re migrating, of course, though I’m honestly not sure if they’re going north or south. It’s late January—it seems like it could be either. I don’t know. All I know is that a congregation of many different kinds of wings surrounds me. Little shorebirds with stilt-legs, gulls with wide nasty beaks and attitudes to match, a few bulky brown pelicans. They settle down in the fresh tide, picking through the seaweed and shallows as the water recedes.

Even this far south, the air is cold this early, and my muscles are tight. My mind aches, too, memories all tangled up, stuck to themselves and other things, sticky adhesions like a wound healing wrong, stitches only half dissolved. Blank spaces in the middle of everything, connections reduced to feeling, not knowing: this is the price I pay for living only in the present moment. Shapes cut out of my brain and replaced with the stunning loft of redwood trees in Six Rivers National Forest out in California. I can see the arc of the memories, where they used to be, but those spaces are filled with the softness of moss and ferns in the middle of a dense, dark wood.

This is a memory: I’m standing in front of a desk covered with papers, leaning heavily on my cane as a man speaks sternly to me about the consequences of pretending to be injured when I’m actually fine and need to go back to work.

This is a memory: the man whose grandmother lets me stay in her basement snaps a question at me, irritated. He wants money—my disability benefits, I think. He was working part-time, but lost his job, or quit. I’m not sure; I haven’t asked. He wants to know if I’m planning on contributing anything at all worthwhile to this household or if I’m deadweight. I don’t know, I say, very quietly, no breath to speak with, and he slams his way out of the room, disgusted with me.

This is a memory: a medical exam room is instantly recognizable by the posters on the wall urging flu vaccination, hand washing. I’m frozen on a pneumatic exam table covered in paper sheeting. There’s a distinctive smell to these rooms, like they all use the same brand of antiseptic cleaner, and it terrifies me.

I close my eyes, then open them and lurch off the hood of the car, aiming myself down the beach where the sand is wet enough to be solid. Holding myself still only makes the memories stronger, so I move even though it hurts. I stumble over wet sand—I’m not walking very straight, my hips are all wrong—I fall on my ass. My hand lands very near the shallow waves. When I lift it up, water seeps into the handprint like a mirror. It’s enough. Grateful, I let the smell of antiseptic slide away from me into the salt damp.

I sit on the beach until the sun is high and I’m sweating, t-shirt sticking to my back. Memories wash in and out of my mind like waves, and I let them. Down the beach, four or five gulls squabble over something they’ve found in the piles of brown seaweed. The wind is coming in off the water, a steady rush of noise that smooths me out like my mother running a brush through my hair.

That isn’t a memory; I read it in a book, but I like the idea of it.

I rest for the remainder of the day, getting up to eat soup from a can when I remember, in the middle of the afternoon, that I haven’t eaten. My milk-crate storage bin is full of soup cans, bought when I was in town. I won’t eat them all for weeks, but I can’t handle not having food with me. It makes me feel crazy, precarious. The cans take up space in my car but I just have to know that I have enough food around me even when hunger gets lost in all the other pains in my body and I lose track of eating. I’m not proud of this, this animalistic need that makes me feel homeless in a way sleeping in my car doesn’t, but it’s not a memory; I can’t send it away from me.

I creak the next morning, making coffee slowly and indecisively, poking around my car trying to decide if I want to go to the laundromat. I don’t need to, but I consider doing it anyway. I’m avoiding the memories crowding in on me: I’m holding myself very still. My lungs stutter so I can’t breathe. There is a very bright light in the corner of my eye.

I step onto the sand, feeling like a loose tooth about to come free.

I’m holding myself very still.

A dog runs up and down the beach, barking at the gulls as they fly away from him. Further along, a giant motorhome wallows in dry sand as the driver pulls out, leaving early. The bright light in the corner of my eye is only the rising sun. I rub my palms along my hip bones, pressing where it hurts to remind myself that this is my body. I am here, now, in the warming sunlight, smelling the salt-fish tide.

I just want to be done with this whole tangled mess. I’ve been working away at the knot of it, the helplessness, the despair. But it blurs together. I can only exchange one scrap of memory at a time, one detail for one detail. Now I don’t know: is there one arc of memory, or two? Much has been cleanly excised, and some of what I haven’t replaced is almost funny: the ER nurse scolding me viciously for not peeing in a cup for tests she needs to run, me in a ball on the floor too tight with pain to straighten even enough to sit on the toilet. Her primary-color scrubs signal allegiance to some football team I can’t identify, and she stands so close the matching shoes fill my vision. Matching shoes! Like a clown!

Don’t make me leave, I’m saying. He sneers. Why would I keep you around if you’re not going to put out? It seems like a fair question. Not fair to him to try to keep this relationship going under false pretenses.

No, that’s a memory. This is real: I hobble down the beach—my knee is bad today, I slept wrong. The birds are flocking this morning, hundreds more than I’ve ever seen, making a tremendous noise. The little brown stilt-walkers are my favorite. They dance with the waves, always moving in and out to keep the water just up to their knobby knees, the white foam painted pink by the sunrise.

The salt air smells like that one brand of antiseptic, smells like old cardboard, but I stop and watch the birds. The early morning cool plus the wind coming off the water make me grateful for my sweatshirt. I sit on the slope of a minor sand dune and breathe. There’s something, some seaweed smell, that layers under the particular regional smells that make beaches different. There’s always something that smells the same. It’s comforting, that the Gulf holds some similarity with the swampy beaches of South Carolina, the salt deserts of California. The wet Oregon coast, too, rocky and cold, has that same smell, that ocean miasma rising up from the deepness.

That makes me think of the redwoods, the way it felt to camp there the summer I drifted down the West Coast. I have a lot of memories of them now, stewing in the mess in my brain. The straightness of their trunks, the way they take up space in every dimension, unafraid to have mass.

I wonder, sometimes, where my memories go when I release them. If they fill up the redwoods, festering inside their trunks in some mirror-process to the gentle blossom of new memory in me. I don’t think they could. Maybe a tree could take on a memory, but how could a sunset, how could a particular turn of a half-wild rabbit’s head, the flicker and crash of lightning in the east Texas sky? No. I think the world composts my old pains, turns poison into fertilizer, into fundamental elements that grow something entirely new.

The birds flee a large wave and then instantly return to the surf. I begin to pick gingerly at the lump of memory that I’ve been chipping pieces off of for years. It’s much smaller now, but more prone to splintering. In the past I’ve been too abrupt with it, cracked it and let it bleed. This time I’m determined to treat it more delicately.

It’s slow going. By the time the sun is a quarter of the way up the sky, I’m sweating, and I have to take a break to find some shade. I stake a sheet between my car door and some sticks of driftwood, settle in the patch of shade with a box of crackers and get back to work.

The tendrils of memory are fragile, like little white roots crawling through the cracks of the bricks of the better memories I’ve built up around it. I pull gently on each one without snapping it off, rolling it up and pressing it into the main body of the memory. Tiny shivers of guilt, wavers of confusion, layers of contradictory facts that will shatter into sharp shards if I put pressure on the wrong edge.

Sometimes I slip, and the memory takes hold of me: I’m on my back, holding myself very still as someone moves inside my body. It hurts in a sick, tugging way that is unique to pains deep inside, where the nervous system is different. I tremble, and try to hide how scared I am.

I put my hand on the sand beside me, outside the patch of shade. It’s hot, almost painful, after hours in the Texas sun. The sting of it grounds me in the present and I keep on.

Finally, I hold the mass of it. It’s heavy, sticky, constantly trying to send out new shoots to re-attach itself to me. But I herd it together, balancing it.

I no longer know if this is one memory, or many. It doesn’t matter. I’ve gone through it, out the other side, and kept going, to the Gulf coast, to the ocean. To the man o’ war, in all their alien beauty. To the gritty brown sand and the small orange sea stars and the gulls flying low over the dunes.

Outside my mind, the sun is setting. Red and coral-orange soak the sky, the clouds like sponges absorbing the color. The waves coat the sand with a thin layer of water that reflects the colors of the sky for a moment and then sinks down into the sand. Over and over: orange to wet-brown, orange to wet-brown.

Two sandhill cranes stalk through the waves toward me. The red feathers of their crests rise off their heads into the sun-red air. Long, narrow beaks plunge into the shallow waves. I’m sitting so still that they don’t notice me, coming as close as the water comes to my feet: maybe two yards away.

I watch as one catches a crab. The other tilts his head, reptilian eyes coveting the tiny struggling thing. The crab must be mostly shell, small as it is. The crane gulps it down and the other makes a low noise, complaining.

I breathe in the salt air. When I exhale, my mind expands beyond myself. For the space of that breath, I am as big as the ocean. I extend into the atmosphere, into the heavy cumulonimbus clouds that hang in the sky and above them, through the breaks that the sunlight streams through. We—the rays of light, the cold clouds, the water, the cranes with their naked legs and gray wings—move on the same wave, expanding and contracting, like the pulse of blood through a heart, like the pump of blood out through an open wound.

When I contract again, the memory I was carrying doesn’t return with me. This moment, these two sandhill cranes teaching me the complaint of all living things, rests comfortably in the hollow I’ve made for it, already growing thin, tender roots into the matter that surrounds it. I feel so light I could rise upward on the road made by the sunset streaming through the damp air. The crane memory isn’t quite enough to take me up, but I’ve never been so close to the true soul of the world, so close to the love and forgetfulness that rests at the center of all things.

 
 

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Girl Singing With Farm

Kathrin Köhler

Lulu liked being in the barn with Papa on counting day. The air smelled of that comfortable mix of manure and sweet hay that tickled her nose. Usually she counted the feed sacks Jamie had pulled for the week, and Papa counted what was in storage. But today Papa’s face was all shadows and he didn’t ask for help—Jamie hadn’t pulled any feed.

Lulu sat on a hay bale and kicked her legs out, one and then the other, letting them fall back. The straw poked and scratched and she kicked her legs out again. “Why do we kill ’lupes and ferrets, Papa? Green Girl was worried we were going to kill her. I told her killing is wrong and we wouldn’t ever do that. I told her farmers take care of farms. Right, Papa? We’re farmers and we help farms.”

Petrus didn’t answer his daughter. He was busy frowning at the inventory sheet. He’d been frowning at it a long time before he wrote something down. He walked back to one end of the stores and started counting all over again.

“Papa!” Lulu shouted, louder than she needed to. It was a game she liked to play—to shout loud enough to fill the barn with her voice. She’d never gotten close. “Why. Do. We. Kill. ’Lupes. And. Ferrets?”

Petrus kept his eyes on the sacks and the pen on the paper. “To keep them from killing the chickens and stealing eggs. You know that.”

Lulu considered Papa’s answer. “But that’s what we do.” She swung her legs out again, letting them fall back against the bale, the hay muffling all sound.

Petrus didn’t respond. He just stared at the sacks, a look Lulu would have wilted under.

Jamie peeked his head through the open door that led to the back acreage. “Want me to harvest the rest of—”

Petrus cut off his eldest with a sharp wave. He turned to Lulu. “Why don’t you go see what your mother’s up to. Better yet, tell her you’re going to come with me, help pick out a new farm.”

Lulu jumped off the hay bale and ran to him. “Really?” She hugged his legs in a fierce embrace. “I can come with?”

“Yes, yes. Now go on. Tell your mother so she doesn’t worry about you when you don’t show up for lunch.”

Lulu disentangled herself from Papa’s legs. “I get to see where the farms came from!” she sang.

“We went through this farm too fast, didn’t we?” Jamie said to Petrus as Lulu skipped by.

Jamie had interrupted her time with their father, but Papa hadn’t been in a good mood anyway. Plus, she was going to see where farms came from, which meant she was going to help pick out a new friend for her and Green Girl.

When Lulu came running out of the house, Petrus and Jamie were already hitching the trailer up to the truck.

“Mama made us sandwiches.” Lulu held up two paper sacks filled with their lunch. “One’s for me and one’s for you, Papa.”

Petrus frowned at Jamie. “Get one of the neighbor boys to help if you need, but get it done before we get back.”

Lulu bounced up to Jamie. “Get what done? Aren’t you coming with?”

Jamie opened the passenger-side door for Lulu. “Can’t,” he said. “Got lots of chores.” He pulled one of her pigtails. “Hands in.” And he closed the truck door. “Come back with a pretty one, okay?”

“Silly. They’re all pretty.”

He chuckled. “Just like you.”

Petrus got in and slammed the rusting driver’s side door.

“Green Girl is going to be so excited to have a new friend. You won’t tell her, will you Jamie? It’ll be a surprise.”

Jamie didn’t reply. Instead, he looked at Petrus.

Petrus nodded. “We’ll be back after supper.” He put the truck in gear. “Five hours, Jamie.”

After a quick wave Jamie jogged toward the barn for his tools. Five hours to harvest the farm. He had to shear its hair, which Mama would use to re-stuff the comforters. He also had to harvest its nodules and nubs, and carve the last of its meat. The bones and fat he would render later, and of course he would need to clean up the spilled blood.

Lulu chattered the whole way to the farm dealer’s. She was six and everything interested her. She told Papa the story about how she picked mites off the hatchlings last spring, then she remembered that Mama had said not to forget to stop by Stoddard’s and pick up some thread-sealing tape. Then she sang a song from a long time ago when people hadn’t yet learned to farm. Papa said she was making it up as she went.

She wasn’t making it up, though. It was a song she had learned from Green Girl. “Those Who Are were ripped from their home by the stinging people, who were very little, but so many and with pincers, like ants.” The stinging people were something like people people, as far as Lulu could tell. And Those Who Are were farms. “That’s how farms became blind, because when Those Who Are weren’t together anymore, when the stinging people separated them with the painful pincers, how could they see when they’re not together? And the stinging people tore out their souls like if someone tore your skin off and pulled out your insides. That turned Those Who Are into farms instead of—”

“Enough!” Petrus said in a voice that left very little room for Lulu, made it so she couldn’t breathe. “I told your brother to stop telling you ghost stories. That boy’ll be doing extra chores for a week.”

Jamie used to tell her stories about things like why seeds grow into plants, and where frogs go in the winter, but never about Those Who Are. Besides, now that Jamie was old enough to work the farm on his own he didn’t have time to talk with Lulu.

If Lulu remained quiet, Papa might go back to driving and talking like everything was fine and she could breathe normally and smile. But then Jamie would get in trouble. Lulu took a deep breath. “Jamie doesn’t tell me scary stories.”

Petrus’s hands flexed on the steering wheel. “Are you getting this stuff from some neighbors’ kids?”

“No.”

She didn’t understand why the stories made Papa angry. Since she’d learned she could talk to the farm she’d spent all her free time with Green Girl.

With what felt like a hundred moths fluttering in her throat, Lulu whispered, “Green Girl told me.”

Papa clenched his jaw. “Stop lying.”

Lulu felt tears coming, so she kept quiet.

“Do you understand me?”

Green Girl was so big and beautiful, so calm and kind. She had all the patience in the world to listen to Lulu and explain things to her. And Green Girl taught her songs. Those Who Are had songs for everything. Those Who Are sang like she’d never heard anything sing before—their songs were real. When Green Girl sang about grass growing, the grass grew. She could feel the songs in her mind.

“Answer me when I talk to you.”

“Yes, Papa,” she mumbled.

Petrus grabbed her chin with one hand, the other still gripping the steering wheel. “Louder.”

Tears spilled from Lulu’s eyes and ran down her cheeks. Petrus pulled the truck over, stared out the front window, and waited. His silence rippled and grew heavier. Lulu had to answer before she couldn’t breathe at all.

“Yes, Papa,” she said through a hiccupped sob.

Petrus put the truck in gear and got back on the road. They drove on in silence.

Lulu held tight to Papa’s hand as they walked through the lot. She loved Green Girl and had been so excited to meet more farms, to find one who wanted to be their friend. These farms were nothing like Green Girl. Lulu couldn’t hear them. They were giant and strange. It was if as if they were both there and not there at the same time.

Petrus stopped in front of one and read from the specification sheet posted in front of the mountain of silent, still farm.

“She looks sad,” Lulu said, pointing.

“It’s a farm. It can’t be sad.”

“Is her name on there?”

Petrus raised an eyebrow.

“What’s on there if her name isn’t?”

“This tells me where it was found. Tells me the exact measurements, weight, and whether there was a harvest of nubs when it was captured or whether it’s matured a full crop during captivity.”

Lulu touched the farm gently on its nose. The warm, leathery nostrils twitched, but only a little. Green Girl had taught her to hold her hand out to Those Who Are so that they could smell her and know who she was. It was the polite way to approach them. None of the farmers on the lot did this, though. They just poked the farms any old place without saying hello. This farm didn’t snuffle her or touch her back, but its heavy lids parted slightly. She could see the farm’s eyes had rolled back.

Lulu snatched her hand back. “She’s sick.”

“Tired, maybe.” Petrus stepped closer to the farm. “They’re sedated.”

“What’s ‘se-dated’?”

He reached up and pulled one of its ears forward and inspected the neck where the nubs grew thickest. “It’s when you give something medicine, so it feels sleepy.”

“Why do the farms need to be sleepy?”

“Farms are wild things, Lulu, they’re not used to being around people. People scare them. They’d fight or run without thinking if they weren’t so sleepy, and they’d get damaged. Maybe even hurt someone.”

“You mean they’d get hurt? Like when I run and fall and scrape my knee?”

“Something like that. Except farms don’t think as much as you do, so they would keep running or fighting and hurt themselves badly. It’s better for them if they’re sleepy.”

Green Girl liked talking to her—she didn’t seem afraid of Lulu at all. Why would Green Girl teach her songs and sing with her if she was afraid of Lulu? If Green Girl was frightened of her, Lulu wouldn’t scare her more by touching her and keeping her nearby. She’d sit quietly and let Green Girl make up her mind if she wanted to be friends or not. “Why do people catch them then, if farms are so scared to be around people?”

“Because that’s how it is.” Petrus waved his hand, dismissing Lulu’s slew of questions. “Go see if you can find the dealer or one of his boys. We’ll buy this one.”

Lulu tilted her head to one side and looked doubtfully at the farm. “I still think she looks sad.” And she ran off to find the seller.

Lulu trembled, rooted to a spot in the middle of the large empty pen behind the barn where Green Girl should have been. She thought she might throw up. Something bad had happened to her friend and no one was listening.

“Green Girl would never leave without saying goodbye!” Lulu had been so excited on the ride home. It took longer than on the way there, Papa hauling the new farm behind the truck, having to drive slower and more carefully so the bumps wouldn’t upset the farm. Lulu hadn’t minded. She was going to have two friends to talk to, to sing with. But when they pulled up to the house and Papa backed the trailer up the gravel path that led behind the barn, the pen had been dark and empty.

Jamie didn’t say anything when she asked him where Green Girl was.

A black feeling spread inside her. She could almost hear it—it sounded like mice feet skittering through the walls of their house late at night.

Petrus kept working on the trailer and hitch like nothing was wrong, undoing the hoisting rope and getting the winches ready with quick, efficient movements. “Go take Lulu inside and get back out here,” he called over his shoulder at Jamie. “And don’t dawdle. This sedative won’t last forever.”

Jamie took Lulu by the hand and led her away from the barn.

“I don’t want to go inside! I want to find Green Girl!” Lulu said, but Jamie kept walking and kept holding her hand tightly. “She’d never leave without saying goodbye. Didn’t you see who took her?”

“No.” Jamie walked too fast and he was pulling on her arm too hard. “No one took her.”

“Why would she leave? Green Girl lost her family. And she was hurt.” Lulu let herself go limp and collapsed in the middle of the yard.

Jamie pulled her through the dirt courtyard for a couple steps before finally letting her go.

“She’s lost, Jamie. We have to find her. She’ll be scared.”

Jamie avoided Lulu’s panicked gaze and stared at the barn instead. “I was in the field when she left. She couldn’t have told me anything.” He drew aimless patterns in the dirt with the toe of his boots. “Don’t tell Papa I said this, but, I think another farm happened by and found her and they left together.”

“She could have told you to give me a message.” Lulu’s voice was going shrill.

“Well, she was probably too tired, like you said, and too excited about the other farm.” Jamie talked in his kid voice, like she was a baby. “She probably just thought you’d know. Like when you go wandering and forget to tell Mama. Mama’s worried about you, right? You go walking because it’s what you do, you know it so much you forget to think to tell Mama. But you don’t mean to upset her. Okay? Now let’s go inside, Lulu.”

“You think Green Girl went for a walk with that farm and they’ll come back?”

“No.” Jamie’s voice fell flat. “I think she went home. She’ll miss you, but she needed to go home. Okay?” He kicked a rock. “Now, you need to go to bed. I’ve got lots of chores to do.”

Lulu beat her fists on the ground. “You’re not listening to me! Green Girl is not okay!”

“I don’t have time for this.” Jamie stooped and just picked her up like he picked up sacks of feed and strode into the kitchen with her. He dumped Lulu onto a chair and left, letting the screen door slam behind him.

Lulu dragged herself upstairs and onto her bed. She didn’t bother taking her clothes off, though she knew she’d get scolded for it in the morning. Green Girl was missing, and no one cared.

The sun wasn’t yet up when Lulu woke. She had early morning chores to take care of, which she did without prompting. She decided to check on the new farm on her way to the chicken coop, the empty egg basket banging against her legs as she ran to the back of the barn.

Jamie was already up and whacking at the stakes that held down the farm. He was using the big mallet, the one Lulu couldn’t even move it was that heavy. A glancing blow caught him on the shin. Jamie cursed a crude slew of words she’d only ever heard Papa say when he thought no one was around.

“I’m telling Mama you cussed,” she yelled.

Jamie startled and turned. He scowled at her. “And I’ll tell Papa you bothered me and the farm. Go take care of the chickens.”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “I wanted to say hello to our new farm, tell her where she is so she doesn’t get scared. Maybe she knows Green Girl.” Lulu swung the egg basket back and forth. “What’s her name?”

“It’s a farm, Lulu. It doesn’t have a name. Hay bales don’t have names, the barn doesn’t have a name, and farms don’t either.” Jamie punctuated his list with mallet swings that landed on the stakes with loud metallic ringing.

“Yes, they do.” Lulu stomped her foot. “Our farm’s name is Green Girl. Actually, her name is much, much longer than that. It’s bigger than yours! It would take all night to say her name. Green Girl is what I call her for short.”

“Called, not call.” Jamie raised the mallet high overhead. “She’s not here anymore.” The mallet came down hard in the dirt near the farm.

Lulu clenched her hands into fists. “For someone who wants to be a farmer you don’t know much about farms.”

Jamie turned his back to Lulu. “Know more than you,” he muttered and kicked one of the farm’s legs toward a strap.

Lulu gasped.

He kicked harder. And kicked again.

Lulu couldn’t watch. The feeling of blackness bloomed inside her again. She thought she’d drown. Lulu squeezed her eyes shut and shouted for Jamie to stop.

It was the worst sound Lulu had ever heard. It felt as if the world stopped and poured itself into the moment of that sound. There was nothing else. It was like she wasn’t anymore. It felt like teeth shattering, like bones tumbling to ash inside her body. It felt like she would never be whole again.

Somewhere beneath the piercing rumbling, she heard a thin wail. A familiar sound.

Jamie.

Then, both sounds stopped. For the tiniest moment it felt peaceful, like sun pouring out of the sky and a field of grasses and flowers smelling sweet and warm. But then the silence fell apart and everything lurched, and she knew where she was again, knew she did not want to be here.

Lulu squinted through barely opened eyes. She did not want to look.

The farm had broken out of most of its bonds. It sprawled across the crushed fence. A few lengths from the destroyed fence lay a crumpled a heap like a fallen scarecrow.

Petrus came up behind her, shock prod in hand. “Get back,” he shouted as he ran past her.

The farm raised its head, a rumbling like boulders grinding. Petrus thrust with the prod. The farm’s giant frame jiggled and it foamed at the mouth. The horrible rumbling turned to shrieks before the farm finally fell silent.

Jamie lay very still, his left leg bent at an odd angle. Petrus looked from his son to the farm and back at Jamie.

Lulu stared, horrified. The farm’s twitching in complete silence was worse than the desperate shrieks. Lulu clamped her hands over her mouth. She couldn’t breathe. She’d never breathe again.

“Lulu,” Petrus called. He’d started harnessing the farm already, face set in grim lines. “Run to the house. Tell Mama. And grab a blanket. We’ll move him on that.”

Lulu nodded but didn’t move.

“Any blanket.”

There was something quiet in his voice that made Lulu run.

Lulu’s feet and her thoughts were moving so fast she didn’t remember running at all, didn’t remember telling Mama anything.

Suzanne sprinted past her. When Lulu reached the barn and turned the corner, Suzanne had already gathered Jamie up in her arms. Petrus was still re-harnessing the farm, cinching the straps with quick, violent strokes.

Lulu sat by the farm, hugging her knees to her chest and rocking herself back and forth, waiting for it to wake. She’d cried herself out hours ago. Of course she worried some for Jamie, but the doctor said he should be fine. She didn’t know if her new friend was going to be okay.

Mama and Papa were at the house with the doctor, and Jamie lay in bed. He hadn’t woken up yet. He was hurt worse than the time the cow had kicked him. The doctor said Jamie had a concussion and broken bones, but the bleeding inside had stopped so he should heal given time. Petrus had asked how much time. The doctor took him to a corner of the room and talked with him quietly. Lulu couldn’t hear. Petrus shook his head a lot. He kept taking his hands out of his pockets then just putting them back in again. He looked like he didn’t want to talk to the doctor anymore, but they kept talking and Petrus kept shaking his head.

Lulu asked the doctor to check on the farm, too, when he was done with Jamie. Petrus yelled at her to leave the house. He’d been in the corner still, with the doctor, but his voice seemed to make him grow, and Lulu thought he’d slap her from where he stood. She tried to tell him that Jamie had started it, that it wasn’t the farm’s fault, but Suzanne told her not to come back until they came and got her.

The morning heated into afternoon. Still, the farm did not wake. Lulu brought it water, dribbled a little over its mouth but it did not drink. She shooed flies off it. She pressed her cheeks against its neck and stroked it very carefully, very gently, whispering “I’m sorry” over and over. An aching grayness crept into her thoughts.

Finally, deep in the afternoon, the farm sighed a little—a tiny sound barely more than humming bird wings Lulu wouldn’t have heard at all if she hadn’t had her face nestled up against its giant neck. A little “oh” of surprise escaped Lulu and she scrambled up to run around to the farm’s head and press both her hands on its snout. It didn’t feel as warm as it should have. The skin on its nose was dry and cracked.

Lulu heard the farm the way she’d heard Green Girl—not at all with her ears, but in her head like thoughts in a voice that wasn’t hers, but not just words. When she talked with Those Who Are it was more than talking and it wasn’t talking at all. It was everything.

But the new farm hurt and its thoughts split her head open like lightning—explosions of fear followed by deep, rolling sadness—feelings so heavy they crushed the breath from her and burned through her screaming before she could make a sound. And in the next heartbeat, pain and confusion that roared and swallowed her right up and drowned her into blackness, and into dark snippets that flickered but shed no light, snippets that made no sense and had no place, like remembering a dream. And then a tiny voice, a little glimmer that was warmer than the flickering. It was kind and she wanted to swim toward it.

Lulu recognized her own voice.

She whispered to the farm, her hands still resting on its snout. “I’m sorry about Papa and Jamie. Please be okay.” She dribbled water over its mouth again. This time, the farm parted its lips.

Lulu introduced herself and sang the song of welcome Green Girl had taught her. Very faintly, the farm sang its name in response. There were so many sounds in it. Lulu heard worms burrowing and roots growing, she heard the sun’s rays heating mountainside and water burbling, she heard rock being born and bones decaying.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” Lulu said. “I’m sorry, I can’t say all that.”

Call us what you remember most.

It was exactly what Green Girl had told her, when they’d first met. Lulu sat silent trying to catch hold of the images she’d seen. “I remember mountains, tall, beautiful mountains tumbling down.”

Mountains Falling warbled approval. We are hurt, Lulu. We are hungry.

Lulu sat up. “I can help,” she said, wiping her cheeks with her shirt sleeves. She scrambled through the fence and ran around the corner. When she came back she was dragging one of the feed sacks.

Mountains Falling made the sound for gratitude. She ate three more sacks before asking, Why are we here? We carry life. We must leave.

Those Who Are did that, talked about themselves as if they were many. Green Girl had done the same. Lulu couldn’t get her to understand that she was alone, she was only one farm, and one was “I” and “me,” not “we.”

“You’re here so we can take care of you. We’re farmers. We take care of farms,” Lulu said, because that’s what Papa and Jamie did, they tended farms—brought them food and water, groomed them. But Green Girl had grown smaller and weaker despite all that.

And today had happened.

What is Farm?

“You. You’re a farm.”

We are Those Who Are. We do not understand Farm.

Lulu didn’t understand either. She sang the song for comfort. “Do you know Green Girl? Can you hear her?” Lulu asked. Those Who Are talked to each other over great distances. Lulu couldn’t, she had to be right next to the farms to hear or talk with them.

We are too weak to hear anything but the closest. We are not close. We are in empty silence. Except for you, Lulu, We are alone.

The house hung with gloom and fragile silence for the two days before Jamie woke up. Lulu hadn’t had any problem visiting with Mountains Falling—Petrus stayed out in the fields until late and Suzanne stayed next to Jamie’s bed. Lulu was left to herself.

On the third night, Petrus watched Suzanne as she came down the stairs with a bowl full of mashed potatoes.

“He’s still not eating?” Petrus’s voice was quiet.

Suzanne shook her head before turning away and disappearing into the kitchen.

Lulu had never seen the house and everyone in it so quiet before. The farm was usually alive with sounds and movement. Lulu felt the weight of it, and she’d tucked herself into a corner and waited for dinner before she’d sneak back out to sit with Mountains Falling.

“I can’t believe they sold us a rabid farm.” Petrus rubbed his hands over his face. “I’m going back and exchanging it tomorrow.”

Suzanne came out of the kitchen with a pot of boiled potatoes. She set it on the table and handed Petrus the serving spoon. “I’ll stay up with Jamie tonight. You get some rest.”

Petrus shook his head. “I’m sleeping in the barn. With a gun.”

“What’s going on?”

“ I haven’t fed that monster since. . . We’re short eleven sacks, Suzanne. At least three weeks’ worth.”

“What?” Suzanne sat down but didn’t fill her plate.

“I didn’t want to worry you. Imagine if I’d been feeding that farm this whole time. With the sacks that were stolen, we’d have nothing left.”

“You meant to starve Mountains Falling?” Lulu’s voice squeaked. Papa hadn’t fed the farm on purpose.

Petrus turned to Lulu. “What did you do?”

Lulu stared at Papa. She didn’t like anything she saw on his face, but her eyes wouldn’t look away. “She was hungry.”

“You’ve been feeding that thing?” Petrus shook like a tree in a storm.

“Please Papa, Mountains Falling can’t help she’s hungry. She’s growing a baby.”

“Enough!” Petrus erupted into motion, stood so quickly, his chair fell over and clattered to the floor. He grabbed Lulu by the shoulder and pushed her into the kitchen. “Enough lying! Enough stories!”

“I’m not lying,” Lulu said, but her voice shrunk like a mouse hiding in a corner and was easily drowned by Petrus’s anger.

He knocked dishes off the counter searching for a bar of soap. When he found it, Petrus grabbed Lulu and shoved the soap into her mouth.

Petrus continued to shake. “That’s for stealing from your father.”

The soap bit at her mouth and throat. Lulu grabbed at the bar of soap. Her teeth had sunk into the soap and it stuck in her mouth. Panic swelled in her throat.

“And this is for lying.” Petrus grabbed whatever was within reach—cooking pots, plates, cutting board, and potted plants—and threw them about. Some flew against the wall and shattered, others clattered on the floor, and some fell in the kitchen sink, spraying Petrus and Lulu with dishwater. “There are no pregnant farms—never have been, never will be. You can’t make believe some story to excuse what that rabid beast did to Jamie, you stupid girl!”

Lulu fell to the floor amidst broken crockery and mangled plants. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. No sound, no air.

Petrus’s shoulders shook. He clenched and unclenched his jaw. He picked up his chair and sat down, picked up his knife and fork only to slam them down again. Then Petrus covered his face with his hands and sobbed.

It scared her more than his yelling had. Lulu had never seen Petrus cry before.

Every sound startled Lulu. She crept through the courtyard, but she couldn’t walk quietly enough. Her heart beat so loudly she wondered that Mama and Papa hadn’t heard her and come thundering out the door to find her. But step by step she made her way to the back of the barn without anyone noticing.

Mountains Falling lay in her pen. Lulu opened the gate and ran to her friend. She flung her arms about Mountains Falling’s neck with a wild ferocity and relief. “We’re going to leave,” she whispered, and unharnessed the muzzle and the collar. Lulu pried at buckles and undid straps. Some buckles were pulled too tightly and she cut her hands trying to unlatch the metal clasps. The cool evening air and her wet clothes brought her to shivering.

When Lulu could do no more she rested her forehead against the farm’s snout.

Mountains Falling nuzzled Lulu, puffed softly. The air warmed her. It smelled like a spring day nodding toward evening, earthy and hinting of moss.

There were only a few straps left. “Can you to break through these?” Lulu asked.

We will find a way out. Lulu will join us.

Lulu woke to a rhythmic, swaying gait, nestled on Mountains Falling’s back in the dell between her shoulder blades. She was singing. It was a song Lulu had never heard before.

We sing the walking song and the seeking song. We sing only when we do, Mountains Falling explained before Lulu could ask.

“You can only teach a song by doing whatever it is the song is about?”

Mountains Falling made a sound of encouragement.

Lulu bent down and hugged her giant friend. Green Girl had never explained the songs that way. She just sang them and repeated them for Lulu. Now that she thought of it, all the songs she’d learned were about things like watching the night fall or lying down to sleep or songs of comfort, songs about things she and Green Girl had done together.

“Green Girl said that Those Who Are don’t fight or hurt each other.”

It is rare that we do. Disagreement hurts us. It is pain. Mountains Falling walked quietly for some time. Conflict is disharmony. If there is hurt we come together to make it right, to make our music beautiful again.

Lulu curled up and dozed as Mountains Falling walked on. When she woke again, she was in pain with hunger.

On our neck ridge. There we grow ripest.

The back of Mountains Falling’s neck had sprouted nodules the tawny color of mushrooms tinged underneath with pink.

“I won’t hurt you?” Lulu asked, touching one of the soft caps.

It is how we feed our young.

Lulu’s stomach rumbled. “But your baby will need them. We should save them for her.”

We can grow more if we choose. We will grow more.

Lulu plucked a nodule and put it in her mouth. It tasted fresh like the air after rain, smelled of grass and earth and life.

Mountains Falling began singing again. Lulu hummed along as the song nudged at her, like rising bubbles, each bubble a different note. The individual notes seemed to burst, and when they did, the music wasn’t just something she sang, it was inside her. But it was more than that—the song was a part of her and Lulu knew she was a part of the song. She knew that Mountains Falling was a part of her too.

As they traveled, Lulu peered at the landscape, endless about her. Clouds scurried overhead just as they always did. Mice and squirrels rustled in the tall grasses, flies buzzed. It was beautiful. But it was different. There were no lines. There were no rows of crops, no fences.

Lulu huddled close against Mountains Falling as a wind tinged with autumn sighed across her skin. It felt as if it had been weeping.

 

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The Bull Who Bars the Gate to Heaven

Zella Christensen

The bull who bars the gate to heaven

remembers you from an instant

ago, when he stepped onto a New Mexico road

and you failed to hit the brakes.

You’re still adrenaline-charged as you confront

him again: flesh so hard it crumpled

your sedan’s hood, a skull that made

glass snow of your windshield,

and horns that pinned your hand

to the leather seat. Nobody but him

is fit to weigh your heart,

but he only stands at heaven’s gate, still

as he stood on the lonely road,

daring you, now and then, to make a move

and knowing you can’t help but barrel on.

 
 

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A Ghost Can Only Take

Justin Howe

It starts with me in a frozen parking lot in Detroit “on vacation”. I’m scanning my phone, looking at my friend’s facebook pictures from his vacation in Thailand. “Here’s me at the beach. Here’s me riding an elephant.” The barrage of social media sunshine gets under my skin. In retaliation I share a picture of a snowdrift at the edge of the iced over lot, its surface crust gray from car exhaust.

“Wish you were here.”

Weeks later back home with my wife in South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or the RoK) the jetlag kicks in and I’m wide awake at 4AM. It’s still January and dark as pitch outside. I bundle up against the cold and take to walking so I can watch the sunrise. I settle on a route alongside the river, a winding sand path between the raised bike trail and the river’s water. I snap a picture with my phone each day, a way to document my passage. No one need notice. No one need care. But I was here. I saw this.

When the jetlag stops I keep the habit, a daily ritual to celebrate the mundane.

It’s a four bridges walk. Bridge one takes you to the steel mill. The mill dominates the city’s skyline, and most mornings looms large in the gray dawn like some architectural nightmare out of a Piranesi etching got it on with a Bladerunner backdrop. A skyline of neon-lit chimney-stacks, spewing smoke and flame at all hours. I often refer to Pohang as lovely Pittsburgh-by-the-sea. I’ve come to love this place.

The mill’s the lifeblood of the city and has been since the sixties. Some point to the mill as the industry that kick-started the RoK’s economy in the decades after the war. You could argue that there’s literal blood in its foundation. Not only from work-related injuries, which allow for a range of prosthetic limb shops in town ranging from the upscale to the downmarket, but also the fact that part of the mill’s seed money came from grants funded by the USA, payment for Korean troops used during the Vietnam War.

A bit more history with a caveat: everything I’m about to tell you comes from hearsay and Wikipedia.

An old map shows Pohang as all marshlands and islands at the mouth of the Hyeongsang River. During the Silla Dynasty, the ancient Korean kingdom that traded with Persia and Rome, Pohang’s the port for the Silla capital down the road in Gyeongju. But when Silla fell, the centers of power drifted west and north, and the city declined into neglect.

Old pictures from the end of the 19th century show a decrepit fishing village with a convent hospital where the steel mill would eventually be built. Then during the Japanese occupation the town staggered into the 20th century. Whether it did so collaborating or dragging forward a powder keg of resentment remains a hotly contested subject to this day.

Late in the 1950s, during the Korean War, the frontline wove its way through the city. One high school in town still commemorates the battle fought on school grounds. Another battle fought just outside the city involved child soldiers. Their slaughter will go on to generate a ghost story that persists to this day.

Stone markers near the river show the limits of the Busan Perimeter and the Walker Line. Often when I cross the park I’ll wonder whether I’m walking atop a mass grave.

After the war the city is rebuilt, and the steel mill gets founded. Pohang becomes a hub for conservatism and gains a reputation as a gangster town. In the 1980s, a decade of social unrest in the RoK as the democracy movement emerges, a lot of the forces used to quell the movement came from this region. More unpleasant history no one wants to talk about. Just like no one ever discusses the prospect of another shooting war with North Korea, despite the fact that the industrial infrastructure and nearby munitions plants (that play “Give Peace a Chance” during their lunch breaks) mean the town’s definitely a target. But so’s everywhere else in the RoK. You learn to deal with that, whether by exercise, substance abuse, religion, or screaming your anxieties into a hole in a bridge pylon like I do.

It’s possible to find odd pockets of nature on the mill’s margins. Wetlands running along the verges, cherry trees blossoming in the gaps between railroad tracks and factories, tucked-away gardens, and even a farm or two surrounded by rice fields.

Now as the 21st century dawns, the city’s attempting to rebrand itself as an eco-friendly tech center. One with a giant, fire-and-smoke-spewing factory sitting across the river. The bike trails are nice, the countryside beautiful. Sorry about all that thyroid cancer.

As strange as it is encountering the city’s human history, it’s stranger still when I insert myself into nature’s pre-existing cycle. I have to shake off the prejudice that my first encounter with the river was with its correct state, that since I began paying attention in the winter, winter is the river’s correct state, all other seasons intruders. That requires some metacognition, some acceptance, some convincing.

As I go out more and more and see the landscape change I start getting caught up in its patterns of growth and decay, winter’s barrenness giving way to green vibrancy. Ducks sass about. Pigeons browse the dirt. And the cranes think murderous thoughts in their needle-slender heads. Crabs, lizards, snakes, and rats all make their appearances along with snails, mantises, and crickets as long as my index finger. I’m no naturalist. No truffle-grubbing mushroom hunter who approaches a hike in the woods like a trip to an outdoor buffet. (Don’t get me wrong, some of my dearest friends are truffle-grubbing mushroom hunters.) Early on I’ll think about downloading an app to identify flowers and plants. But if you wait long enough such urges pass. At first I referred to most every flower I saw by color.

“The yellows looked really nice today.”

Fun fact though: your average South Korean child knows the names of the trees and flowers local to them better than their USAian counterparts. After walking the river’s path for over a year now and posting my pictures, I’ll be taught what flowers I’m seeing. Cosmos. Morning glories. Roses of Sharon.

Bridges two and three are right beside each other and mark my walk’s halfway point. One’s a traffic bridge, the other for trains. Just beyond them are two small islands covered in tall grass and home to ducks and cranes for much of the year. This part of the walk gets lonesome and empty. Beyond the bridges the grass grows tall year round. It’s always whispering at you. The support pillars of the train bridge have washed-down vegetation strewn all across their platforms.

I’ve come to start thinking of these as the Suicide Bridges. There are ghosts here.

More hearsay, less the Wikipedia kind, and more what gets passed around the table in the “exotic” foreigner bar late in October. The story goes like this:

Back in September 2016 a woman abandoned by her husband walked with her two kids here to the traffic bridge and jumped. She survived. Her children didn’t. Later an incoming English teacher will get shown an empty apartment for rent, and by a series of strange happenings, flickering lights, strange smells, learn it belonged to that family.

When I heard this story I asked my wife whether we should light a candle under the bridge, you know, for the souls of those two kids. She vehemently forbade me from doing so, because as she put it, “ghosts can’t give, they can only take”.

Those two small islands past the bridge where the cranes and ducks make their nests: I’ve come to associate them with the dead kids.

Despite the ghosts this bit is my favorite. By now the factory rumble has dimmed, and there’s less traffic here because it’s away from any neighborhood. It’s the part where all the elements converge: the wind across the tall grass, the fires above the mill, the water flowing past, and the earth beneath my feet.

Predawn, it’s an obvious spot for ghosts to gather. The quiet here is tangible. And quiet is key to a decent morning walk. At this hour I am distinctly preverbal. At best I can muster a Blutoesque subvocalized monologue. Nothing ruins an early morning walk like a chatty companion. People should be trained to silence themselves at the sight of an arched eyebrow. I’ve largely chosen this whole route because I can walk it without seeing another soul much of the way.

The English language needs a word like shortcut, but instead of it being for the route that saves you the most time, this word would be applied to the route that avoids the most people.

And the people I do see walking at 6AM?

We just nod at each other, conspiratorial.

Late in the year, the chest-high grass will make screens around the walking path. Old men and women (mostly women) will veer off the path to harvest the grass-stalks for some purpose I can’t fathom. They’ll be a common sight, covered head to toe in veiled pastel bonnets and tracksuits. They’ll bound up the embankment and browse amid the tall grass, plucking herbs and leafy greens. On the opposite side of the embankment, they’ll have dug gardens on the edges of parking lots.

All those plants I see old men and women harvesting: I have no clue what those are. Mugwort? Hemlock? Marijuana? Could be anything.

I’ve begun to suspect a low-grade feud between the city and these elderly harvesters. A day or two after seeing them amid the grass stalks, a work crew will appear to mow it all down, only to have it all sprout up again next year, a civic-minded cycle.

The best time of year to walk is between October and March. That’s when the least people are out and that asshole the sun is still beneath the horizon at 7AM. Holidays are a different matter. I like the holidays that get people outdoors to pay homage to either celestial orb.

The morning of the solar New Year, the embankment will be crowded with people greeting the year’s first sunrise. Two months later they’ll be back again to greet the first full moon after the Lunar New Year. On rare occasions I’ll spy some mudang shaman conducting a ritual. They’ll be chanting over a fruit-laden altar or waving around bundles of dried herbs near the river’s edge, beating a drum or clashing cymbals. It’ll be done from the back of a truck or beside the open boot of a car, covert and secret.

What cycle are they tied into?

Bridge four is my turning point. It separates some parkland attached to the sewage treatment plant and a new high-story apartment complex. Further upriver the wildflowers grow thick and the river wends its way between hills. On the opposite banks of the river are small neighborhoods far-removed from any development, each of them technically part of the city but resembling country villages.

My current job has me working up here, teaching English to corporate executives. One day we’ll get into a long conversation about mountains and rivers. One of the executives will say living near rivers is dangerous. I’ll dig, trying to get him to speak more but also wanting to get at what he’s saying.

Is he talking about the risk of flooding?

No, he’s referencing some superstition about how rivers affect your mind. He mentions recent suicides in the nearby apartment complex. I think of other superstitions, all those ghosts and supernatural beings that crop up where civilization meets water.

At some point over the past year I’ll be in another town. My wife will tell me it’s where courtiers used to change their horses when riding to the capital. As part of my daily routine walking to and from work I’ll take a picture of a tree. Post that online. #Oldtree. Amateur phonecam photographer run amok, trolling the extraordinary with the mundane. Back in Pohang people will tell me how they started to care about that tree. They’ll admit to the intensest feelings for it. But the tree’s not special. Or it is, but so is everything else if you take the time to look at it.

The trail continues on, but most days I don’t. I head back, the sun up by now and directly ahead of me behind the factory, the sky hinting at the weather to come. The wind picks up, making the grass whisper around me. I know I’m going in reverse, but really it’s only a change in perspective.

All told my walk’s only about 5 kilometers give or take.

 

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To the Place of Skulls

Innocent Ilo

What do you take to the Place of Skulls?

Your head, brewing with the thirst for adventure. Your empty stomach to remind you when to come back home for lunch. Your spindly legs, dragging your chapped feet.

Who will you meet on the road to the Place of Skulls?

We don’t know. But we know if we see any simé-simé person; those ugly ones with a big mound of nose sitting between their eyes and mouth, we will hurl stones at them.

What will you do at the Place of Skulls?

We don’t know, let’s get there first.

What will keep you safe on your journey?

Our laughter. Our face smeared with innocence. Our heart bristling with vigor.

We are going to the Place of Skulls; Saro-Wiwa, Babbe, Gokana, Ken, Nyo, Ueme, Tai and myself. For you to know, this is not the place Bro Lucas said Jesus was crucified when he was spitting into my face from the broken lectern during his sermon, last Sunday. The Place of Skulls is where a stark reality stares us in the face. We all have after-school exhaustion, Babbe’s diarrhea has worsened, Gokana is still nursing the burns on his legs from our last visit and Mama will yank at my ears if she hears fim about it, but we must go. The Place of Skull is that important.

The ground under our feet grumbles, like it’s annoyed we are threading on it, as we run down the crudeoil-soiled paths of Oloibiri. We stop running only when we get to Exxon Bridge because the bridge is rickety and too narrow for us to run across at the same time. Nobody wants to slip and fall into dark mass left of River Brass. I cross the bridge first, my arms spread wide, like petals in the sun, for balance. My friends follow, carefully, not to tread too heavily on the broken planks. I look into River Brass when I get to the other side of Exxon Bridge and it seems my Basic Science textbook just flung open to the page on immiscibility:

“In a mixture of two immiscible liquids (e.g. oil and water), the less dense liquid (oil) floats over the denser liquid (water).”

The water is black-black with heavy punctuations of lobster and fish carcasses. Poor things, they must have struggled to the surface for fresh air and then drank death. Mama warned me never to dream of eating anything from River Brass. We only gather the carcasses to fuel the cooking fire. The crudeoil-saturated lining of the fish’s intestines made the carcasses burn brighter than wood.

“It’s like burning food to make food!” Mama calls it with mock laughter on her pursed lips.

It is mid afternoon by the time we get to the broken fence of Ompadec College where we go to school. From the road, we can see the emptiness of the classrooms gaping through the broken louvers. The desks they brought two years ago only stayed long enough for the Government Inspector to take pictures of us sitting at them for their campaign poster. The desks had disappeared when we got to school the next morning. Tai hurls a stone at a rascal peeing on the wall of headteacher’s office. The little boy sticks out his tongue and scuttles off. Tai picks another stone and aims carefully. This time the stone strikes the poor boy’s head.

“Your mother’s toto!” the rascal yells. He pulls down his flimsy shorts and splays his buttocks. “Your father eats my black ass.” His voice soon fades when he corners onto the road leading to Exxon Bridge.

“Haha, your mother has no toto!” Tai calls after the boy.

We cackle up with laughter and continue our journey to the Place of Skulls.

Our next stop is Nddc Hospital. A wide stretch of muddiness separates the hospital from Ompadec College. Mama said I was born there. That was long before the expatriate doctors and nurses and midwives and all those people who wear smart clothes sewn with calico white fled Oloibiri during the kidnapping spree. The once gleaming white wall of the hospital is now coated with creepers and mistletoes and vines and nasty weed. But we love the hospital. Maybe because the traps we set there catch meaty rodents. Today, only Ueme’s trap caught something—a humongous squirrel. I pick up a wooden club and put our prey out of its misery. We shove our catch into Babbe’s old school bag and vamoose from the hospital.

Just when we are about to hit the road again, Nyo notices that Saro-Wiwa is not with us. Gokana says that we must have lost him at Exxon Bridge. Ken, Nyo and Ueme nod in agreement. This is why we never like going out with Saro-Wiwa, he keeps scribbling on his notepad, slowing the party down.

“Where did he wander off this time?” Babbe groans.

“Maybe to the sky,” Ueme scoffs.

“One day, he is going to get lost in books!” Nyo intones with biting sarcasm.

We laugh even as our eyes dart round the bush looking for any sign of Saro-Wiwa. Babbe whistles. Nyo screams his name. Ueme suggests we continue our journey without him but we don’t listen to him. He is not the strongest among us and so cannot dictate what we should or shouldn’t do.

“Eureka!” Saro-Wiwa’s voice came calling from the bush. “I just finished this piece of fine poem. It has been in my head for a month.” He waves his notepad above his head. “See, let’s read it together!”

We cluster around Saro-Wiwa and read aloud:

They came with new voices,

They said the former was old,

They came with so many tales,

About wealth and brewing gold.

Our faces remain blank when we are done reading. This makes Saro-Wiwa’s glowing eyes dim, he wanted the poem to liven up our faces. It is such a shame we don’t seem to get Saro-Wiwa, the chap behaves like someone living in another universe. I, for one, cannot understand why he would spend so much time coming up with that poem. A month. It took a month for the medicine man to remove the bullet in Aunty Esuene’s calf. And when they brought it out, it was a shiny silver thing unlike Saro’s poem, which is neither shiny nor silver. Nyo wrinkles his nose and yawns, Ueme and Babe exchange knowing glances, Gokana and I try to suppress our laughter. Only Tai pats Saro-Wiwa on the shoulder and says: “I might not understand all of it but I think I know who they are.” Saro-Wiwa’s face brightens. I wish I was the one who said those words.

Opec Estate throws its gates open as we approach. The two soldiers at the gates are snoring away the little life that is left of the afternoon. We tiptoe pass them, holding our breath. If we wake the soldiers up, they will fling us as far as their bulky hands can. The estate has the kind of serenity even heaven could die for. Willowy trees line up the pavement of the tarred roads, intricately patterned terracotta fences guard the huge white mansions and fat, ugly dogs bark all day on the well-tended lawns. This is where the oil workers and their families live. They are mostly purple-haired, red-nosed and they all have an enduring nasal accent.

Tai says he is going to live in the estate, with his Indian wife and biracial children, when he becomes an engineer. Gokana mocks him and mumbles: “Before then, you must have inhaled enough air in Oloibiri to give you lung cancer.” Tai hears this and makes for Gokana’s jaw. The blow misses Gokana by hairsbreadth and lands squarely on Saro-Wiwa’s jaw. Saro-Wiwa holds his jaw. He says nothing because he thinks, in his small head, this is the price to pay for peace to reign.

We continue our march.

“I know the fastest route,” Saro-Wiwa announces out of the blue when we are at the middle of Opec Estate. This is the first time he is offering to lead the way. We are not quite sure of his claim but we still follow him. Maybe this will make him forget Tai’s blow.

Our feet tingle in the sensation of walking on the marbles of Nnpc Street. The little children playing catch on the balconies of those white mansions point our direction like we are dirt, like we are not wanted here. We ignore them, this journey is more important than spoilt-faced children’s melodrama. We continue. This time we waltz through the cobblestones of Chevron County. With the same slippery ease, we saunter down the glassiness of Mobil Lane until we get to the golden streetlights of Shell Close. We dust our feet and make our exit out of Opec Estate.

The world wears a different shade outside Opec Estate. The air here is different, it’s not even air at all. We can see the many amorphous flakes of carbon sailing through space and collecting at our nostrils. The earth under our feet is hot like we are walking on plugged-in hotplates. Our eyes begin to itch. We rub them to a reddened soreness. The Place of Skulls must be very close because my skin is on fire. It is melting on my scrawny bones and I can almost hear its drip drip doing tyang tyang on the boiling earth. I reek with burning death. Confidence loosens its hold on me. I want to run back home and play jara with Dokubo, but we have come too long a way for us to go back.

Now, we are running fast to ease the baking heat of the sun on our naked soles. A thick smog envelops the horizon, darkening our path. Saro-Wiwa is still in front, eating up the hills like a plate of moin-moin. We round up another bend, shooting straight into Pipeline Alley where the crudeoil is pumped out from our veins. We feast our eyes on the web of leaking metal pipes. Plink. Plink. The black liquid deepens into the ground. We don’t linger for too long at Pipeline Alley so we will not end up like Uncle Biriye. They shot him here last Easter. They said he was trying to cut the pipe open and steal liquid gold.

Our hearts start beating in ferocious rhythms, stop and then continue to beat when we enter OBJ:1999 Express. The road is still covered with blood and corpses, lying in mildly contorted poses. The sky here is also dripping red with blood—blood of the townspeople who marched to Abuja demanding a clean and unpolluted environment. They said men in rickety trucks, wearing forest-green uniforms, rained their bazookas on them. Mama told me that was the day Papa was shot dead. Sometimes I imagine Papa; all trimmed and fine-faced, dying with chants of “Give us clean water! We need clean air!” on his lips.

“Look out, on the tree over there!” Nyo points at an eerie-looking tree on the other side of the road.

We stop dead in our tracks. I whimper and hide behind Babbe. Horror stares into our faces when we look up to the tree. Seven men are hanging on the tallest branch, their lifeless bodies swaying to the tune of the wind and buzzing flies. At the foot of the tree, a signpost reads: “The Ogoni Seven: May We Know Them. May We Be Like Them. May They Live On.”

“They share the same names with us!” Ueme shouts with fingers darted at the name-tags nailed to the heads of the dead men.

“Isaac,” Babbe turns towards me. “They don’t have your name, why?”

I look away, not answering the question, sulking that none of the men hanging on the tree bore my name. I shrug my shoulders because somehow I don’t feel left out of the fight. I was named after Isaac Adaka-Boro; the big-big man who started the struggle. I came before the men hanging on the tree. This is what Mama told me but I will not as much as dare to tell my friends, they will laugh my bones to powder.

Fresh energy is filling up my lungs, so much that my feet spring up and start running on their own. My friends join me, begging me to slow down. I don’t know how to slow down because in my mind, I am the wind. I want to be the first to reach the Place of Skulls.

At last, we are at the Place of Skulls. It is in Gelegele, just a stone’s throw to Kolo Creek. A tall-tall fence surrounds the Place of Skulls the way a set of teeth guides the tongue. This is where Phat Oil pumps bright yellow gas into the clouds. Puff. Puff. We sit on the dry mud and watch the long pipes deface the clouds with the yellow gas. Here, the sky is not the sky at all, it is like a slush pile of cotton wool soaked in tar. The fire in the Place of Bones is burning like the hell Bro Lucas talks about during Friday Bible Study. Still, Bro Lucas is not too right, people don’t have to die to go to hell, they just need a trip to Gelegele.

“The tanks over there look like silos,” Tai says. His eyes are gesturing towards the huge metal tanks peeping out at the edge of the fence.

“Taaa! Silos store grains of food,” Babbe refutes Tai’s claim. “This one only has death inside it.”

“How do those oil workers survive working inside there?” I ask, torn between awe and confusion.

“They must have huge AC’s to filter and cool the air,” Saro-Wiwa suggests.

“Do you know that as the gas flares, it bores a hole in the sky?” Babbe chips in.

“That is what Miss Makinde, the science teacher, calls ozone depletion,” Nyo adds as he brushes a fly off his knee.

“I want to stitch the hole in the sky with the words of my writing,” Saro-Wiwa drawls dreamily.

“I don’t think words are just enough,” I clear my throat. “The hole needs to be rebuilt. When I become an architect, I will design the plan.”

“No,” Tai proudly disagrees. “I will be the engineer to build efficient and less-polluting machines.”

“Don’t forget that I am the doctor that will cure your cancer,” Gokana guffaws, dampening the proud smile on Tai’s face.

“I will be the teacher that would enlighten the young minds on the Green Economy,” Ueme adds with so much enthusiasm.

“Don’t you all forget the Human Rights Lawyer who will fight for our cause,” Nyo quips in a matter-of-fact tone.

We all turn to Ken. He does not talk much ever since an oil well exploded near his home. He says he still hears deafening explosions. He looks up now and nods his head; a way of telling us that he would also like to stitch the hole in the sky.

The swallows are coming back home so we know it is also time for us to go. We stand up, dust our clothes and hit the road before the security men start hurling their mean batons at us. They broke Ueme’s nose last week, when we wasted time leaving. All the way back, we are laughing, we are chuckling, we are mimicking the whistling of burning flames and we are nursing dreams of stitching up the sky.

It is almost twilight when we arrive at Oloibiri. The bleating goats are just settling in their pens. We huddle up in Mama Babbe’s kitchen to grill the squirrel Ueme’s trap caught. We light the fire and place the meat on a rusty wire mesh. Babbe brings palm oil sauce for eating the meat. We keep our voices low as we eat. We don’t want to share our food with the girls playing suwe in the next yard.

After the meal, we run off to the latrine at end of New River. We all enter at once, surrounding the pit with our dried-out buttocks. We start off at the same time, the little lumps of our shit going thaump thaump as they sink into the river. Sometimes we brag about whose shit sounds the loudest or smells the foulest. Gokana always wins. Gokana always wins things like that. We head to the other end of New River to drink to our fill. Because we are very thirsty, we don’t seem notice that the water tastes of so many things apart from water.

Soon, darkness starts to call on us in jet-black voices.

I relish the splendour of nights when the moon is in full glistening, the stars in steady twinkle and crickets chirping away the velvety darkness. I lie on my straw mattress, counting time, waiting patiently for Mama’s bedtime stories. Her stories are always unpredictable. Today it’s about Edumare and Chuku battling over the universe, tomorrow it’s about the great tribal wars between Benin and Bonny. This night, Mama’s story is about the rains; endless streams of crystal-clear watery pellets that fall from the sky. She calls it Edumare’s tears. The fields suck it up and ripen into a bountiful harvest. The children play in it for good health. Ma tells this story in a sing-song, like a dirge of the caged bird, with tears tumbling down her cheeks. She talks about how they always prayed for the rains to come.

Me? I don’t want the rains to come in Oloibiri. What’s the use of the misery? It’s like plague falling from the sky. Miss Makinde said it’s acid rain. If the rains come, it will rust the new zinc Mama put up last week. The rains will flood the leaking oilfields and wash into our farms and New River. We never play in the rains because it causes skin yama-yama. Once, we made fun of Saro-Wiwa that he was going to die because the rain beat him on his way home from school. “The acid will eat deep into your stomach!” We taunted at him in ghostly shrills.

Something unusual happens tonight. I dream of myself, Saro-Wiwa, Babbe, Ken, Nyo, Ueme, Gokana and Tai, stitching up the sky in our own way. For the first time in forever, I also dream of the type of rain in Mama’s story—clear, fresh and invigorating rain. It is cascading down the hills of Gelegele, quenching the flaring gases, it is washing the bloodied paths of OBJ:1999 Express, it overflows the banks of River Brass and spurs the fish and lobsters to life, it purges the crudeoil-soiled farmlands and the cornfields sizzle with the greenness of life. I smile in my sleep and tuck my dream under the pillow where nobody can steal it.

 
 

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