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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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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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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Rumplestiltskin

Jane Elliott

Once upon a time,” I tell my son, “a foolish peasant boasted of a daughter who could spin straw to gold.”

My child starves. Day after day, his eyes grow larger than his shriveling stomach.

“Drink water,” I say when I leave him. “But not too much. I don’t know when we’ll have more.”

He barely nods. Almost, I think he will speak. In the darkness of our half-collapsed basement, his lips curl around something like a question.

“I’ll bring food today. I promise.”

Tucked in insulation, he reminds me of his infant self or of Jesus bedded in a manger of hay. We do not have hay.

“I promise,” I say again and leave him, perhaps, to die.

Our streets were not bombed. We did not flood or fall sick. The black horse, Famine, brought with it the most essential of wars. We fought daily battles with pitchforks and butcher knives. When our grocer was gutted and left at the intersection, it did not matter that the larger world also collapsed. As grand as we built civilization, its death was painted in the blood of 6 billion small tragedies. So it has always gone.

I stick to shadows. I hide in tattered clothes. As a boy, I stood outside this bakery window counting eclairs. When I felt the end nearing, I brought my own child here. Despite everything, we still believed in retreat. We thought we’d saved pockets of pastoral peace.

Other shadows slip from ruin to wreckage. We keep our eyes fixed on nothing. There aren’t many left who remember my name. Silence sounds my survival. Unknown, I believe I am safe.

Last night I fed my son boiled leather. I told him a story while he gnawed the pockets of an empty wallet.

“Once upon a time, a foolish peasant boasted of a daughter who could spin straw to gold. But the girl could not spin straw to gold. Her father had lied for vanity, so when the prince demanded the girl fill a straw room with wealth, she had to ask help of the devil.”

My son asks endless questions. “What’s vanity? Who is the devil?”

“The girl didn’t know who the devil was.”

“Then why would she ask for his help?”

“Just wait and see.”

The sun seems closer than ever. I find a white cloth and drape it across my blistered scalp. If we could plant seed, it would only bake in dry dirt. If we found enough water to feed it, we’d be slaughtered for the wealth. Some days, I truly believe that sterile seeds plays only a bit role in the larger drama.

Two weeks ago, I found the corner of a burlap sack in an empty yard. I dug with my bare hands. I dug too fast through hard earth. My nails split pulling the cornmeal from its grave.

We broke our windows ages ago. We hid what we had and hunted for more. Now, when we see each other slip over shattered glass and under broken eaves, we keep our eyes fixed on nothing. We have nothing left. We don’t know where to look. I think I see a rat and dive to the ground. I skin my chin on pavement. I grope in the dark under a rusting car. It bites my hand between thumb and first finger before I can snap its neck.

Once upon a time, people spoke of food deserts. We laughed, we architects of this great civilization, when we listened. Those deserts were full of food—our food. Once upon a time, children grew lettuce on rooftops and tried to fight us with planter boxes. They wore rough wool knits and used straw as mulch, animal bedding, thatching, fuel. We built them sparkling cities, but these children wanted to play at the hard lives of peasants. Until we took away their seeds.

I close my eyes and imagine the taste of green. The acid of phantom leaves stings my arid lips.

“Please, I just want some rice.” I’ve been mumbling for days, maybe months. “Please. Please. Please.”

Once upon a time, this corner was a market piled with satsumas, pineapple and persimmons in the fall. I took my son here Saturdays for fresh-baked pierogies. He cannot explain, now, how it felt to bite boiled pastry. Sometimes, he asks for the story of our lunches.

“What is dough?” he asks. “What does it sound like to chew on duck fat?”

“Please. Please. Rice. Please. Please.”

Last night I told my son stories. “‘I will turn your straw to gold,’ said the devil. ‘And in return I’ll have your firstborn son.’ But the girl did not want to give the devil her son, so the devil made a bargain. ‘You can keep your boy,’ he said, ‘if you can guess my name.”

“His name?” my son asked. “What does his name matter?”

“Rice,” I say. “Corn, wheat, rice. Please.”

The man under the counter laughs at me. He does not know my name, so I do not mind laughter. I do not mind the black mold that eats drywall. I do not wrinkle my nose at the smell of rot. The world is rot. We’ve gotten too hungry to be human.

“Rice,” he says. “Rice. Please. Rice.”

He’s a fool, babbling and thinner than me. Was I just so? I consider, for a moment, that he’s not there. That I only see myself in some fragment of glass. I haven’t had grain for weeks. Whoever he is, I will leave him to die. I spit at his feet, not because I hate, but because my hands bleed and my boy starves.

“Rice,” he squeals, and in his lunacy, he pulls a small bag from his pocket. “Rice.”

I know this strain. I recognize the length and color of the grain as I recognize my own hands. We fed it to starving countries before our own fell to pieces. A child could survive on half a cup a day. My eye, still discerning, calculates the neutered life in his bag.

“What do you want?”

“Rice?” He holds the bag to the street and giggles.

“What do you want?”

“Rice? Please? Rice?”

Someone could come. I cannot wait for the shadows to separate, for other hungry eyes to see. He was days from death anyhow, if not hours. Like the rat, he bit my hands.

Last night I told my son stories.

“Once upon a time, a man spun straw to gold. He spun and spun until he had rooms made of gold. Whole cities, even. But the man was a fool, for soon he had nothing but gold and nowhere to lay his son.”

“I thought the devil spun gold,” said my boy.

“The old tales get mixed up sometimes,” I explained. “I know it sounds strange, but sometimes one person can be the prince, and the girl, and the devil.”

“What’s the devil?”

“It’s hard to explain something that’s all around us. The devil is friends who murder each other for food. The devil is thirst with no water. The devil is starving children. The devil is a world of seeds with no life. Grain we can eat but can’t grow.”

“I’m hungry,” he told me.

“Once upon a time, you didn’t even know those words.”

I tuck the rice deep in my rags. With my head down, I hurry toward home. I feel the shadow rise before I see it. It’s hard to know who’s watching in a world full of ghosts. The edge of a blade presses my throat. I cannot swallow. My son is hungry. We ate boiled leather for dinner. A hand gropes against my ribs and draws our life away. Perhaps I should be grateful he wanted only the rice. Perhaps I should be grateful he did not guess my name. I am not. I fall to the pavement and weep.

What good is gold? That’s the joke we forgot. The daughter spins straw to shining ore. Her father beats her and screams, “What have you done with my straw, you little fool? Where will we bed the animals? What will we use to cover the fields and heat our home in the winter?”

Once upon a time, I spun wealth from seeds. My beautiful wife glittered with rare metal and stones. In good time, she bore me a child.

“He’s the most precious thing I’ve ever seen,” she whispered.

My son blinked at me with eyes like oil wells.

“We’ll name him after his father.”

I would not have told you so then, but I knew this future. I knew what I twisted through my fingers. In return for all my wealth, I’d made a deal. I took fertile seed from the land. I brought it to workshops where clever fingers spun its twining strands anew. We took its life in return for gold.

At night, I tell my son stories. “When I was your age, blood was never messy. It was written in numbers, either black or red. A long time ago, we had so much food we turned it to soap and diapers and ketchup. We had so much food we threw it away.”

“What’s ketchup?” I imagine he asks me. But he does not. He does not speak or move or heave a breath.

In the corner of our basement, I keep a locked box filled with stone. While my son lies stiff, I twist cold ore with bleeding fingers, wishing it would turn back to grain.

“Guess my name,” I whisper to the silence. “Please, guess my name.”

 
 

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Written in the Book of the Woods

LJ Geoffrion

I’ve never been lost in the woods, so of course I didn’t think I was lost now. I’d simply misplaced the trail. Eventually, I’d find it, because it was around here someplace. It wasn’t until I had stomped around for about an hour that I began to get the creeps, and not because I was lost. It was the sun.

It hadn’t moved; it just hung there in the sky at about twenty degrees above the western horizon. I sat down and lined it up with a cedar branch and watched it through the needles. I watched it until my ass was numb and it stayed there as if the tip of the cedar was holding it in place.

A wind moved though the woods, making the cedar and the tamarack next to it sway. The tamarack had begun to change, and a few of its soft yellow needles drifted to the forest floor. A single, red maple leaf landed on the back of my hand. I started and picked it up, twirling the stem between my fingers. Time was passing, the leaves were falling, and I realized that I had to pee. It wasn’t like time had stopped. Just the sun.

I stood, swaying a little bit until feeling came back to my glutes. A red squirrel was surprised by my sudden appearance and chattered at me from the maple. I popped my jeans open, slid them and my undies down and squatted to pee. The smell of urine and the dusty dead leaves swirled around my face and I hung my head down and then rolled it across my shoulders, thinking.

I picked a direction, but after walking for an hour, stumbled over the same butt-flattened spot I’d started from. I rested and went out again. And again. No matter where I began, I came back to my spot and the sun still balanced on the tip of that cedar.

There was a little spring around somewhere. I’d seen it last time I was out this way. Grimacing at the sun, I licked my lips and turned in a circle, my feet carrying the circle into a wide spiral, and found the spring just west of my spot.

The ground rose and a wall of black rock thrust up a hundred feet, an ancient mountaintop buried in forest leaves, small cedars growing in the cracks of its shoulders and red mountain ash scattered across its crown. Water seeped down the face of the rock and pooled at its base. I knelt and touched my lips to the pool, sucking in a long, cool drink.

Drinking down that water was like drinking down the world. I could taste the rock, iron and deep and dark, and the earth, moist and rich. Lightheaded, I leaned my shoulder to the rock. A dribble of water dripped down my chin, landed on my chest, and slid cool between my breasts.

It was dim in the shadow of the rock. A dozen staggering steps from the spring, a pile of freshly fallen autumn leaves had collected in a hollow. This wasn’t the first time I’d spent a night in the woods. I pushed down the panicked voice that was urging me to run and burrowed down into the leaves. Piling the leaves over me, I slept, coming awake once or twice in the shadowed late afternoon light, but drifting off again to the sound of wind in the pines or the buzz of a bee, and always the soft, warm crackling of fallen leaves.

Sleep flowed across me, warm current of contentment and a strong feeling of place that held me safe. I knew where I was and it was all right. I dreamt of sunlight falling softly across a pale blue autumn sky and the last falling petals of late summer flowers. Sleek bears rooted under logs, and bucks in rut blew steamy breaths at each other across evening meadows. I dreamt of a girl picking frost-touched choke cherries on the lee of the ridge.

Until I startled awake and it was night. I blinked in my leafy bed, eyes wide in the darkness, listening to what had woken me.

It was night. The sun had set.

Something moved in the darkness and I felt the hair lift up on the back of my neck. I slid out of the leaves and the whisper that they made was no louder than the wind in the trees. My jeans and shirt hung on me in ribbons of flannel and denim, and autumn leaves tangled my hair. I crouched there, my mind skipping from the leaves to the water to the earth beneath my bare feet. This was all that my mind could hold. A breeze pushed against my face and I turned into it. The air was crisp with a hint of coming frost but there was a fetid stench that came in wisps; a rotting smell, like old garbage or road kill, like brutality and grief. I turned toward it and breathed it in so I would know it.

A full moon hung low in the west, about twenty degrees above the horizon. I grinned at the moon and then turned my eyes back to the smell, finding it in an inky spot, black upon black, a thing that shouldn’t be there, didn’t belong here in my place. I didn’t know what it was, but that didn’t matter. I had no words, no thoughts. Looking at it, I knew what I had to do.

It stilled as it sensed me, but latent violence tingled against my skin. With a crazy shiver, it launched itself, black limbs wide and a dark gaping mouth. I screamed as I met it and we came together in a flurry of claws and teeth. I gagged, the smell of its fur like rancid grease on the back of my throat. Its teeth snapped in front of my eyes and I squeezed where I held it and then threw myself forward, using my own teeth.

It was nasty, but I ate it. I ate it right down.

I staggered away from the place of blood and torn ground and collapsed into the pool, the water clearing the taste from my head. I came to half lying in the pool, shivering with cold. A late day sun sent a shaft of golden light through the trees and across my legs and I pushed away from the spring and into the sunlight. Without thinking much, I stood and began to wander around my wood, picking a few late blueberries, running my hands over the trunk of a massive beech, and pulling up a bunch of purple loosestrife. I walked for hours and finally fetched up near the swamp and sat in a patch of rose mallow, combing my fingers through my hair.

I stopped and looked at my hands. My skin had taken on the pattern of the leaves, bronze, brown and yellow, and my nails were sharp. They were strong looking hands, good hands, but not the hands that had driven my truck. I squinted down at them, trying to remember.

Only small things came to me. My truck? I remembered the feel of the shift knob as I put my truck in gear. Coffee, bitter and rich, I missed with a sudden physical ache. Did anyone remember me? Almost, I could hear the sound of my lover’s voice.

My chest felt tight, sadness welled up, and tears ran down my face. I sat in the swamp grass and watched the rose mallow sway in the breeze. Rose mallow is a beautiful flower. I cupped one in my hand. The petals were soft and cool. A yawn cracked my face and I shook my head, bleary with tears and sunlight. With another yawn, I rolled over in the grass, curled between the flower stems, and fell asleep.

I woke to the sound of singing.

Grass had grown up through my hair, and the rose mallows grew around me like a circle of pretty girls. High and sweet, someone sang a wordless aria. I looked up and over the flower tops. Some feet away, a light sparkled in the air. It hung above the ground, dancing to and fro, shining now gold, now yellow, now new-leaf green. As it bent to a flower, it became infused with the delicate pink of the mallow.

The light pushed forward into the circle where I lay. It was an odd sight; as the light moved toward me, a face came toward me as if someone were pressing into a sheet of color-swirled plastic. First a nose, then forehead and cheekbones and a small, delicate chin. The sunken eyes glowed pastel blue and the eyelashes fluttered. The light skipped back and the face disappeared, but it came again, pressing against the barrier, the eyebrows raised.

I pushed myself up, hugging my knees with my arms, pulling them to my chest. With a sigh, I propped my chin on my knees and considered her. One of her hands pressed in next to her face, fingers spread wide.

Words came through the music. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

I was never a person who liked much company. I mean, some people are fine, but I can only take them like potent liquor, in small sips. Looking at the face with its outspread hand, I realized that I did not want this face, hand, or any other part to come into my world. The song and the light were lovely, but I did not want them to join me.

With studied care, I unfolded my arms and legs and rocked forward onto my feet, crouching now, with my fingertips just brushing the ground and my head tipped back to look up into the face. I thought of the black thing, with its smell and its bones crunching and how it never had the chance to scream. My lips lifted and I licked my tongue over my teeth, meeting the wide blue eyes, staring into them and letting them stare into me.

I blinked, and the face was gone.

The song faltered, then rose again with upward slides of curiosity. The light danced back and forward but not to the edge. Was it her edge or my edge? If I looked very closely, I could see the shape of a girl there within the light. Shaking my head so that my hair flew, I stepped over the rose mallow and away, back to the wood, leaving the light and the song behind.

I slept and woke and slept and woke. When the black things came, I ate them; they never got away. I could sit for hours watching the birds flutter from ground to branch or squirrels building their leafy winter nests. Once, a bear sow wintered on the south lee of the black rock and birthed two cubs. I helped her raise them and they come to me still.

The sun or the moon were always in their place, round and full, about twenty degrees over the western horizon.

Of course, she came back. She. Sometimes I could see her shape, wreathed with light. Or she would again press against the barrier that separated us. A girl, a woman, and then a strong-faced elder, white hair in simple braids pinned across her crown. She would sing and I would growl and when she came too close I would lift my lips into something that was not a smile.

Once when she came, her song was dim. I don’t know if she was sick in body or spirit, but I could see a blackness, a place of nothingness, pulsing at her center. I didn’t think; I snatched it out and gulped it down. Her song faltered and for a moment I thought I had extinguished it. But I guided the song and the light, guided her, with little pushes and pinches and waving of hands, to the black rock with its seeping water and the pool. She drank and the water swirled into her, deep green and fecund brown and hot red iron. I could see her clearly then, flaming beside the pool, a woman in her prime with work-roughened hands and smile lines at the corner of her eyes.

“What are you?” her song asked.

“A woman,” I said. “Just a woman.”

Her smile was soft. “No.”

I visited the pool later and found a pendant of agate, worked and polished, and wrapped all around with a fantasy of silver wire. It glinted up at me from the bottom of the pool, an offering or just a gift of thanks. It is there still, shining in the sunlight and the moonlight.

When I saw her again, her face was creased with years and her back was bent. She pressed tight against what stood between us so that I growled a warning at her, teeth bare. She lifted her own lips to me and showed me her teeth and I blinked and nodded with respect. At that, she laughed so hard that she clasped her knees, rocking back and forth. I laughed with her and leapt up and danced for a moment to her song.

I slept next high in the branches of the beech and I woke to the moon and something wicked moving in my woods. It smelled ugly and mean, of shame and willfulness and the desire to hurt. I slipped from my leafy bed and slithered down one branch to another until I crouched over a darkness so profound that my eyes slid past it, unwilling to linger. I noticed that my shoulders were up around my ears, my head tucked down.

I shook my head, impatient with myself. I was awake and it was night; there was a blackness in my wood and my mouth at least, dripping with heat and saliva, knew what to do. The black thing moved closer to the beech, drawn toward me, I think. I stood on the branch, stretched out my arms and fell upon it. It whirled, mouth wide, and scored me with hatred, a poisonous, acrid bile that it spat like fire. It scars me still, but who has not been scarred by hatred?

It thought that I wanted to win and that was its mistake.

After I consumed it, I staggered through the wood. Half of my face was eaten away and my left arm hung down uselessly. I collapsed amongst the blueberries near the black spruce. With my good eye, I blinked up at the moon, the moon that hung just twenty degrees over the western horizon. It is never about winning or losing. It is about risk and joy, leaps of faith and wonder. I closed my eye and all of reality ceased.

The taste of the pool seeping past my lips startled me awake. Something touched my face, a cool, wet cloth. One edge lay across my eyes, softening the gore that was caked there while the other edge trailed across my lips, leaking soothing moisture onto my tongue. After a moment the cloth went away. I heard movement in the grass, time passed, and then more movement and the cloth was back. I sucked at it, rock and earth, towering trees and delicate flowers, buck and bear and buzzing bees. It went away and came back again, three times, maybe four.

I could hear singing now, beautiful, more beautiful than I had ever heard. Tears came to my one good eye and the cloth brushed them away. I sat up and took the cloth in my own hand and carefully worked over my face. The wounds had closed up but the left eye was gone. I opened my right eye and looked into the face that peered at me from the light. She was very old, toothless and thin.

“I had to hear your song once more,” she said.

I shook my head. “I have no song.”

She laughed, shining so bright that it hurt to look upon her. I stood and made my way limping to the pool and she followed, the two of us staggering and weaving through the ferns and small brush. I slumped down on the pool’s edge, the ground soft and cool, and touched my lips to the water. When I could take no more, I rolled away and sought the hollow with its bed of new autumn leaves.

I woke, blinking up from the leaves. There is a cedar across from the pool, and the sun balanced there on the tip of a branch. I lifted my hand and it trembled. Light-headed, I rolled out of the leaves toward the seeping rock. And stopped.

There against the blackness of the rock was a damp pile of bones. I could see a femur and several vertebra. The skull rested on its side, a few feet away. There were finger bones in the pool next to the blue agate pendant.

I gathered her all up and carried her across the woods to lay her in the ring of rose mallow. I go to her on spring evenings when the sun has not set and we listen to the forest sing. I go to her on lazy summer evenings and watch the bees as they buzz around the mallow. In the autumn, I bring her red maple leaves. I bring her water from the pool, cupped in my hands, and when I drip it upon her, her bones melt into the earth. Together, we sleep the winter away.

Sometimes her light comes and I dance to her song but mostly it is just me and the bones. I don’t know where the light goes. It tried to get me to follow it once, but this is my place. I know that I am not what I once was, though I cannot guess at what I am. I just am. The one in the wood, the one who keeps this place, the one who watches. I am mineral water and blueberries and the full moon and a quiet spring gloaming. I am the one with teeth that the blackness fears. If you come to the place of the rose mallow, or the frost-touched choke cherries, or the weeping black rock, maybe you will see me. I am here. Listen to the wind and the crackling autumn leaves. That is my song.

I have never been lost in the woods and I am not lost now.

 

 

 

 

Read Michael’s interview with LJ about “Written in the Book of the Woods”.

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Behind the Sun

Justin Howe

Protocosmo found me as it finds all its inhabitants: the lost, the lonely, and the wayward. I was stranded for twenty-three hours in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Round about hour seventeen and in the wee hours of the night I took to pacing the long empty hallways past their inert coffee and fusion cuisine franchises. An attendant found me sleeping on one of those airport couches built to maximize subtle discomfort. He told me there was space available on the flight to Protocosmo, and possibly I could make my connection from there. I said, “Yes” and that was that. I was ready and on my way.

Little did I suspect where I was headed, nor can I relate exactly how I “flew” there, for Protocosmo sits within the Earth’s core, but there I landed.

The “sun”, as the Earth’s core is termed locally, never sets but simply smolders down to a cinder once every twenty-four hours. There are cities there in Protocosmo connected by mine-train and falling-bicycle. Its atmosphere has an unpleasant but refreshing spice that turns bitter things sweet. But these are all minor attractions. Protocosmo’s true attraction is that it is home to the terrible worm, the infeci, as they’re termed.

As is common with all recently arrived visitors to Protocosmo, I spent my first days in bed with fever. Natives name these endemic illnesses as if each were a fondly remembered melody. The Wilting Shivers, for instance, is accompanied by the scent of oranges and the sensation of the world sliding suddenly to the left. My first fever was called Conquistador, a type reminiscent of a failed jungle expedition while encumbered by a full suit of plate armor.

Outside my windows at counterpoint to my illness, a festive atmosphere prevailed. It was a kite-flying holiday. The air beneath the smoldering sun fluttered and glittered with kites of wormhide and multi-colored streamers. Every now and then a spark would set a kite aflame, a sight welcomed by an eager cheer. The trick was to pilot the burning craft through the pockets of noxious vapor about the core and set the chemicals alight, so that they burned with brief multicolored radiance.

Despite the attentiveness my landlady showed in administering to my health, I could hardly summon the enthusiasm necessary to enjoy the spectacle.

She was a native born Protocosmotic and wore on this occasion a brown blazer atop a green hooded djellaba with a blue hand-knit scarf about her head. Her shelves overflowed with Agatha Christie novels and she had a tic about her eyes that made her irises vibrate, as if the simple act of focusing on anything held the entire reservoir of her attention.

She brought me a lemon ice and listened to the recitation of my symptoms.

“It’s time you tried the worm,” she said and motioned me to follow. She bade me sit in the kitchen while she prepared her tincture. The rattle of the spoon played ten-pins upon my occipitals, and I swore I heard the drums of cannibals in the distance. Finally, she returned from the cupboard with the glass.

“Drink it down,” she said. “No complaints.”

Sick and weary and wishing I was far and away from there, I did as commanded.

The drink proved temperate, flavored with lemon juice and coffee. I expected to retch, but the opposite happened. My thirst slackened while my fever slipped away. When the glass stood empty upon the table, I could hardly keep myself from staring at it.

The taste no longer solely resided upon my tongue but suffused my entire body, pungent yet clarifying. The very air about me seemed stripped of all impurities.

“That’s infeci?” I said in disbelief.

My landlady, that radiant angel in tattered djellaba, smiled and shook her head. “That’s only infeci powder. When you get well you should find the real thing.”

Just then another shout came from outside. The two of us went to the window and saw a kite trailing green and yellow sparks across the sky. Overcome with a calm I can only describe as beatific, I ushered my savior from the apartment. Together we followed the music uphill, my fever falling further into memory with each step, my landlady’s hand pressed in mine.

Beneath the cinder of the smoldering sun, we must have danced ninety-nine times.

Upon recovering my health, I decided to explore Protocosmo and hired a falling-bicycle. Such a journey must be undertaken at night, lest the canopy of the craft catch fire as we passed the smoldering sun. Yet still we tumbled so close to the core I might have reached out and lit a cigarillo. My pedaler, a lean man covered with wiry yellow hair scorched down in places to pink freckled flesh, focused on the beacons ahead of us.

“What do you know of the infeci?” I asked him.

“Had a touch of fever, did you?” he said, his face aglow with the light of our lamps. “Was it Clora’s Drift or The Dewy Ague? Did it have spiders, snakes, and creepy-crawlies?” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “I can tell you about the infeci. I worked the tiles for a bit, saw them up close, worked a hook, and pushed them into the glass pits.”

We tumbled into a valley and steadied into a glide. The mesas in the distance sat upon the curved horizon like tilted pyramids. Patches of shadow covered the ground beneath us, dense in spots amid the ashen gloom. He eased back on the pedal, and our craft tilted. The maneuver afforded me a view of one of these shadows. Our lights barely penetrated the darkness. I saw nothing.

“Those are cracks in the Earth’s crust,” my pilot said. “All the rot from the surface collects in them. Infeci eat the stuff and grow. Might take a metamorphosis or two. (Months in Protocosmo were termed metamorphoses, as years were called resurrections). Pretty soon there’s no room in the cracks, only the infeci. When they reach the crack’s lip they pour out, full of poison and madness.”

“How then do they become such a boon and healing mechanism?”

“That’s a trade secret.”

“But there must be some way to stop them,” I said. “If they grow that way, they would take over all of Protocosmo.”

“You have to starve them. Lure them to a hole lined with fused sand. A glass pit. They can find no sustenance there, and they starve. It’s tough work, but we all take a turn doing it.”

Our vehicle righted. My driver nodded at the fissures below. “These are dormant,” he said. “Cleaned out. Won’t be a swarm out of these holes for some time. The most recent outpours have been in the East, where you’re headed. Take a cart down to the floor, and you should find some tile-work.”

In a city square somewhere under the Alps I bought lunch from a leaking refrigerated cart. I wrote postcards home explaining my disappearance (a task only slightly more difficult than explaining the decision that had led me here: pursuing a prestigious degree from a nonaccredited university), after that I sipped my coffee while reading a pamphlet on infeci put out by the Protocosmo Office of Tourism:

 

The adult infeci is a large, segmented worm as tall as a single volume of the 1923 edition of the Encyclopedia Britanca and as long as at least three adult golden retrievers tied nose-tip to tail. Their skin consists of twenty to thirty interlocking keratin plates behind a smooth dome-shaped head. Legless, the creature winds itself forward via vigorous undulating movements that manage to propel its bulk through the dirt and leave a furrow behind it that smells faintly of rotten broccoli.

There are neither male nor female infeci, simply a single androgynous gender that reproduces through violence.

The infeci diet consists wholly of poison—filth that seeps down to Protocosmo from the surface world. In this way, as the poison is refined within the terrible worm, the infeci serves a beneficial function in our planet’s ecosystem.”

 

A voice called my name. It was my pilot, eating his lunch at a café tent. I joined him.

“I bumped into an old friend,” he said. “A fellow I knew back when I was a tileman. He stuck with it. Told me there will be an outpour flowing past. Get down to the floor tomorrow morning and volunteer. They can always use spare legs for tile work, and you’ll get a chance to see the worms up close.”

He pointed at the pamphlet and formed a skeptical expression with his singed-pink features. “Words can’t describe it.”

Well, I would see, I said, and asked about this friend.

“Esteban’s a strange fellow, writes operas in his off moments. Heartbreak case, he gave up life on the surface and came down here. Said he wanted to retire. Strange way to retire: going toe-to-toe with infeci. But to each their own.” He shrugged. “As Cain said, I’m not my brother’s keeper.”

By the following morning, the cafes were all a-chatter with news about the approaching worms. Men and women lined up to volunteer, most of them only a resurrection or two out of school. I joined a line and was told by a civil-servant to appear the next day at a mine-train station.

The morning was clear, with light flakes of ash falling from the sky. Carts were running down to the valley floor in stages. I waited my turn while a winch squealed rhythmically. Every face about me was soot-streaked. We were a nation of the besmirched. The people around me conversed, and I heard talk of “eggs”, “dust”, and “bulls”: common terms invested with unfamiliar weight.

Soon we were on our way down the mesa, our train zig-zagging until the broad plain of the valley came into view. Far in the distance, a white and red river stretched from mesa to mesa: the infeci. And facing this river, the tiles.

One need only view the paintings of Paulo Ucello or read about the tactics of the Roman testudo to gain some concept of the tile. Armored men and women form square formations often thirty persons thick. Each carries a tower-shield that might become ceiling or wall, depending on the direction of the flow. Hooks and spears are used to prod the infeci towards the waiting pits. The professional Tileman, or Tileteer, since all genders may take up the occupation, maintains the “edge”, while the bulk of volunteers staff the middle and use their muscle as a brace against the brunt of the attack. In this way they form an island that serves to direct the flow and course of the crawling river. From the center of each, a captain peers through a periscope and shouts directions. From a distance, the maneuvering of the tiles displays a stark, formal quality, like the squares of a chessboard come to life and attacking the pieces.

Our cart came to a stop at the foot of the mesa, and I asked the attendant where I could find the pilot’s former companion.

“Esteban?” she said. “He’s still in his tent, but his tile is preparing their formation. Follow this group here.”

I fell in line again and marched where I was bidden. There was a cloud of dust on the horizon. Already some tiles had stepped into action.

We stopped at a supply cart where a plump woman handed out spears and sealed suits with tall boots and visors. Maneuverability was key, but also cleanliness. It was dangerous to come into contact with infeci in their squirming form.

Once we’d dressed and formed up, professional Tileteers moved among us, straightening our posture and adjusting our grip upon our spears.

“Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all,” one said, pushing my shoulders back. “Step closer to your left. Your shoulders should almost be touching.”

I bumped against the young woman at my side. She had a shaven head, a merry spark in her eyes, and she displayed a marked skill with the spear that made my own improficient efforts seem a newborn’s fumblings.

A tileteer barked us to attention and marched us through maneuvers, teaching us the commands required.

Bull—the massed push made with interlocking shoulders.

Egg—closing ranks shield to shield so we formed an island.

Dust—spears out and stab.

Eventually I caught on to the intricacies of the movements. By then, Esteban had emerged from his tent. A wide man with a deep, melodious voice and long hair, he cradled a daschund in one brown hand. He passed her on a waiting attendant and without a word donned his captain’s gear, armor similar to our own except for a bent contrivance hooked to his chest: the periscope from which he could look out over our island.

We parted solemnly to afford him passage to the tile’s center and marched as a square, spears balanced horizontally upon each other’s shoulders.

Tiles covered the valley floor. They bristled hooks and spears and made walls of themselves. The infeci collided with them, their mad twisting and flailing sounding like thunder in the air.

We were positioned near the edge of a pit, a sinkhole of fused sand. Our task would be to push the stream into the hole. Esteban ordered the shields mounted. Our spears formed a support that held up this ceiling. All was darkness. Chinks of light illuminated profiles and tufts of hair as the dank smell of human sweat filled the crowded space.

“Bull,” Esteban shouted, and down we marched, the weight of our numbers providing us with momentum.

I had no concept of where I was going and bumped clumsily against my fellows. It was insufferably hot, quite like a fever of a kind. I thought of Conquistador. The scent of so many confined bodies and stale breath closed upon me. I could little but trust to inertia and the experience of others.

“Easy, now. Steady.”

We came to a crashing halt, the recoil of which brought me into the back of the fellow before me.

“Bull!”

Groans and cries came from the edges. I leaned forward, each step taken against a weight as insurmountable as gravity.

“Egg!”

We strained to get our shields up. A cry escaped my lips. The woman beside me grunted. A great terrible wet flailing echoed in the darkness like we were being flogged by fouled laundry. Flickering shadows cut the light, and the air stank of rot and vegetation.

“Bull right,” Esteban ordered. He must have been close by me, because I heard his chanted whisper of: “Position. Position.”

The press of our opponents was constant. Each muscle stretched only to remain frozen as a steady rain of impacts and blows beat against the shields. Voices groaned in the dark. The ground shook, and my body vibrated as taut as a rubber band.

“Dust!”

From within our square, hooks and spears sprouted. Vibrations coursed down the length of each. Once or twice a snap and cry pierced the gloom. My grip held firmly to the cross braces. Dust roiled in the shafts of flickering light as a black, pitch-like substance dripped through the gaps.

“Careful,” my fellow tileteer said, “that’s poison.”

“Bull!”

We pushed at Esteban’s command. The balls of my feet dug into the earth. Each foot lifted to take a step would hang frozen in the air, and then the weight against it would lessen. The step would land. Another step forward, and another, and another, as if we were wrestling a river into changing its course. With a shout, Esteban ordered the spears set to construct a shield-wall. A cheer rose up as the weight against us turned fluid and drained away. Our task was done, the flood detained, and the worm tide averted into the glass pit, where it squirmed and seethed.

skull_green_scenebreak

A festive mood reigned in the camp. I found myself milling from group to group, a stranger made kin for a time by our shared ordeal. A hand grasped my shoulder, and I turned to find myself face to face with Esteban. Once more his faithful dachshund was with him. He asked if I was a Russian. I told him no. He sighed and gave a toss of his head so that his curls danced lightly upon his shoulders. He motioned me to follow and led me back to an open-air kitchen.

Fires crackled beneath great steaming cauldrons. Smaller infeci had been corralled to one side, guarded by hook-wielding handlers. One at a time the beasts were taken and hefted into the pots, where the air beneath their contracting carapaces escaped in a screaming hiss.

“Would you like a taste?” he asked.

“But aren’t they poisonous?”

“Only if left to their own devices,” he said, passing me a plate. “It’s our labor that purifies them.”

Infeci flesh was succulent, similar to lobster but also unquantifiable. An aspect of the taste lay just beyond recognition, like a word dangling on the tip of one’s tongue. It recalled an unformed idea, and with each swallow I believed I came closer to its source.

“It’s the poison that gives them their healing power,” he said. His hand scratched the dog’s chin, and the creature gazed lovingly up at him. “We gain strength and a deeper appreciation of goodness by ingesting it.”

Nearby someone laughed. Esteban paused and let out a thunderous sigh before walking away. His stare matched his dog’s: downtrodden but free of despair. I realized he was a profoundly religious man, although what creed he might profess if any I could not imagine.

Another laugh drew my attention. I saw the woman who had stood beside me in the tile. She was with the falling-bicycle pilot who had flown me so far. She smiled, pointing to the empty glass in my hand, and the pilot waved me over. I took another bite of infeci. Words I couldn’t remember haunted my lips. The ashen sun cooled. Behind it lay my passage home. I doubted I would ever think of it again.

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The Hole in the Reef

Benjamin Parzybok

Across the flat horizon: only blue, no sign of other boats, of anything at all.

“Row row your boat, row—”

“Come on.”

“—this goddamn thing.”

The line and anchor had become entangled with something below.

“Pull like this,” Oliver said.

“Nope,” his father said. “Tricksy widget. Snake charmer. Battle slug.”

“Drink much?”

His father yanked back and forth on the line with an older-man’s violence, unsteady on his feet. His father’s dog, Crappy, yipped encouragement at his heels.

“Sit down, I’ll do it.” But he could not free it either. He looked again for sign of police, or sign they weren’t so alone.

“Nobody’s out there,” his father said. “Trust me. Here, have a nip.”

“I’m going to have to dive for it.”

“Of course you are, you fappy hucker. It’s got my goddamn logo on it.”

“You think someone’s going to find it?”

“Weirder things happen.”

“And if they did—”

“Certain jail time. I don’t make the rules, I just break them.”

“You are a cliché machine.”

“Don’t bother with that ugly face nozzle, it’ll take you thirty seconds, down and back. I can see it right there.”

“You can’t see it. You see the rope, it goes into nothingness.”

“Over the side with you, lout fish.”

“Just need my fins. Stay above me, right? I don’t trust you with an oar.”

“I was born to oar. I’m ad-oar-able. I will oar-rate to you while you fish that thing out.”

“Just stay seated.”

 

The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.

When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.

He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.

It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.

At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.

At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.

 

“Oh hey, it’s Oliver,” his father said. He had settled down into the bottom of the boat, his dog Crappy curled in the crook of his arm.

“Thanks for your help, you sonofabitch.”

He clung to the edge to get his breath back.

“What help could I give?—I was staring into the sky, you were diving into the ocean. Here, have another drink.”

“I couldn’t make it. It’s fallen into a hole.”

“The hole at the bottom of the sea, dee-deee-de.” The song ended in a deep cough, like wet sand sloshed about the bottom of a tin can.

“What should I do?”

“What do you mean what should I do? Go get it. Get back down there. Without it we will be forever adrift. Like wee bits of pollen floating on the ocean, colonizing undiscovered lands, et cetera.” The ‘et cetera’ ending in a wet cough that continued for several moments.

“OK, old man.”

“Have another nip. Fortitude.”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Have it!”

“All right—but watch. In case I get to drowning I don’t want you falling asleep up here.”

“What would I do?”

“Dive in and pull me out, I suppose. Aren’t you the master at all this?”

“I’m half blind. I don’t know struggle from hello. It’s the sharks I’d worry about.”

“Nice. Thanks.”

“These ones just bite you and spit you out. Taste test. Nobody gets eaten.”

“Like I said.”

He lowered his snorkel back to his mouth and then tore the thing off his face; it was useless if he only dived straight down.

“Maybe don’t lower your goddamn anchor into the reef again?”

His father shrugged.

 

Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded. He was here to spend some time with his father, the master diver, the expat. But instead found him as drunk and as belligerent as always. If not for the anchor, they would be on their way back, taquería-bound.

He scanned a moment too long for the movement of sharks. Tiburónes. He knew how their gray skin merged with the deeper blue of ocean distance, so that it appeared a shadow pursued you, a blue ghost. His father was afraid of no shark.

By the time he made to the bottom of the reef canyon— one reef wall a collage of vibrant oranges, pinks, maroons, the othera deadened white—and within view of the anchor—his air was finished. The anchor rested on a circular shape, three-four feet in diameter, tangled with some other bit of metal there. It was not part of the reef, and his first thought was: Some old ship has sunk here.

He turned and fled, kicking hard through the dim blue into the bright.

As he raced toward the surface he saw clearly that something was being poured out of the boat, its watery contents making a queer snowflake from below as they hit the water. He wondered if in the interval his father had had second thoughts about a life of drinking.

But as he came closer he saw instead that his father stood at the edge of the boat, pissing over the side.

 

“You’re such a prick. I’m in here!”

“Hey, don’t rock the boat!” His father produced a low chuckle. “It’s all fluid. You think they don’t shit in this water too?” His father pointed at the sea.

He maneuvered to the far end of the boat. “Anyway.”

“Let’s pretend you got the anchor.”

“It’s tangled with something.”

“We will put it in the boat and make our way home, under the glorious sunset.”

“There’s something else down there. Like a ship or something.”

His father zipped and sat. “There’s no wrecks under the reef. It’s another anchor. Pull that up too.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can.”

“They ask: How do you dive so deep? You dive deep. That’s how,” his father said.

“You goddamn do it then.”

“You’re already wet.” His father stood again to look over the side, then took another draught. “You need to learn it.”

“It’s not my life calling, you know? I’m not ever going to be as good as you.”

“Learn it anyway.”

“If we just cut it, they’ll see both anchors, think a storm took them or something. I’ll buy you a new one.”

“Too late for that. I want to see what other son-bitch is anchoring up on my reef.”

 

First, to super-oxygenate his lungs, he hyperventilated, then he took an enormous breath and dove. He was stronger this time, and on the way down his ears hurt less. He’d gotten the lecture before. How he lacked inner fortitude, the ability to withstand pain. You’re as soft as a goddamn jelly fish. You’ve got no grit. Instead of following his father’s renegade path further into the remote and the wilds, he’d become a magazine writer and lived in a city. He married, had children (his father declined to visit); all of whom remained at home while he visited his father deep along the Central American coastline. By every normal measure—if you did not count his father’s opinion of him—he was successful. But it was hard to remember this, in his presence.

An enormous gunwale-gray fish passed across his vision, taking its muscular time, blotting out color, so that his descent experienced a hiccup of forward motion.

Within reach of the anchor, his feet dangling toward the surface,his head seeking further down, he grabbed the other metal first, which turned out to be something other than metal. Stone, or bone, or he wasn’t sure; it was covered in a slippery film of algae, which when scraped away revealed white. It was not an anchor, but a large looping handle that curved into the sea floor. He pulled hard and dust rose around the circular area where it lay. Like a plastic ring you might acquire at a carnival, he thought, only enormous. Its face sat against the sea floor, the girth of the stone handle that of his wrist. He gave another pull with all his strength and felt it give the slightest budge. The monstrous fish swam above him now, casting him into shadow. He thrashed away at an angle and shot for the surface, where he could see the shimmery image of his father leaning over the side of the boat. His lungs began to crush inward and then he breached into sunlight.

 

“You came back. Started to worry about you.”

“Really?”

“No, not really. I started to worry about my anchor. And that I might have to get out of this goddamn boat.”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“I saw a huge fish.”

“He won’t hurt you.”

“And there was a handle. It’s attached to a circular thing, like a big portal fallen off a ship.”

For a moment, his father’s eye caught on the horizon, but he himself could see nothing in the direction he looked.

“I said there was a sort of handle.”

“I heard you. Neverthelesset, is there or is there not an anchor.”

“I’ll get your anchor.”

His father nodded and sat heavily in the boat.

Oliver grabbed hold of the edge and pulled himself halfway up the side, so that he could dangle and rest his legs. The bottle was empty in the bottom of the boat. His father leaned slowly backwards, but then he swung forward and began to shout what may have been a song, if his father had anything to his voice but pea gravel:

“The hole at the bottom of the sea!

You’ll find it and that’s all there’ll be!

You’ll find it when you’re old and cannot see!

No one knows!

What’s inside the hole

in the bottom of the sea!”

His father leaned all the way back in his seat now, so that his back lay across their gear and his head wedged in an uncomfortable position at bow.

“What the hell was that.”

“What you were talking about. The ocean’s plug. I heard tell it’s around here somewhere.”

“That makes no sense.”

His father closed his eyes. “El agujero en el fondo del mar.

“What am I supposed to do with that?”

“—”

 

As he kicked downward with his flippers, his body felt eleven years old, to match the age his mind became in the presence of his father. His adolescent muscles frantically flailed with defeated inefficiency. But as he got deeper, his adulthood slowly returned, and his strokes downward became stronger and more self-assured.

The enormous fish made tight, sentry-like turns along the bottom of the sea floor, between the coral canyons.

The fish would not hurt him, his father had said. Still, they were two there in the space near the anchor, two consciousnesses, two planetary entities. The fish clearly the larger of them by several factors. When it swam in his direction, he did his best to acknowledge it by looking it in the eye and giving it a grim smile. A single bubble escaped from the corner of his mouth. The fish’s eye tracked its rise, and then it resumed its sea-floor pacing.

The idea of a plug for the ocean was preposterous. A ship’s hatch, a chucked-overboard he-didn’t-know-what. Did his father think it let the ocean out or let it in? If the ocean drained out, where did it go? Into the center of the Earth? And who put such a thing there?

This time he wrestled with the anchor, whose rope had tangled with the handle of the thing. The old man did not have many years left, and he worried that the plug was more evidence of his father’s slipping grasp of reality. You should go see him, his wife had said. He wondered if any of this mattered to his father; if they were closer for it.

The fish brushed too close for him, and the anchor would not come: between the rope and the anchor, it had looped about the handle a few times, as if someone had wanted them there. Around the anchor were the remains of the coral it had broken off as it descended and scraped. The dead coral peppered the sea floor, the ocean’s gravemarkers. His chest began to throb and pull for oxygen. He pushed off with his feet and shot like an arrow for the surface.

 

As he came alongside the boat he heard the sound of his father’s snore.

“Old man,” he said. In sleep his facial muscles were slack. He looked terribly old. His face wrecked by sun and sea. He looked away so as not to see his father’s face any more, nor to be caught looking while he slept. “Hey, I’m working here.”

His father awoke into song: “Working nine-to-five. What a way to make a livin’.”

“I can’t get your goddamn anchor.”

“Of course you can’t.

“—

“City boys can’t dive.”

“Lay off, man.”

“Going to have to row back in the dark. You know how to navigate?”

“—”

“Case and point.”

“It’s caught on that thing, tied around it.”

“I ought to sink this boat, make you swim in.”

“OK,” Oliver said. “Seems like you might have a little more to lose than me there, but go for it.”

“I’m tired of waiting here!” His father stood unsteadily in the boat and glared down at him. “I’m drunk and I’m bored.”

Oliver snorted, and in the process inhaled seawater, so that he spent a moment self-consciously coughing.

“You get back in the boat, I’ll go down.” His father put his diving goggles on, so that he looked like a mad aviator.

“I’ll go with you.”

“Whatever you want, jelly fish.”

 

His father leapt from the boat’s bench seat and arced into a dive, all of the rotting muscles and slack skin finding sleek purpose in the sudden transition to water. Once under, his father did not surface for air.

Crappy barked at his master’s disappearance and ran between sides of the boat.

Oliver took a breath and followed him down, feeling the exhaustion of the previous dives in him.

He swam through the turquoise, glistening with the slivers of exotic fish, and down into the dim world below, where the enormous fish continued its lonely swim near their anchor. His father’s feet, gnarled and calloused, receded into the distance, and he wondered how the old man swam so fast without fins, as drunk as he was.

By the time he caught up, his father stood on the sea floor, the strange handle in his hands. In the current his father’s thin hair stood loose and undulated like a groping bit of seaweed.

His wife had said: The reason you go see an estranged parent is to not be like them, and he understood what she meant. His job was to reacquaint himself with the peculiarities of his father, to check those against his own, to figure out which had been blooming unbeknownst within him, passed down silently from generation to generation; a sly violence, a desire to be left alone, a way of poisoning conversation, every compliment loaded with barbs.

His father ran his hands along the handle, clearing the slick of sea sludge from it, which revealed the bone-white underneath. Then he looked up at Oliver and grinned.

Oliver’s air had begun to run out, and his father pointed them back to the surface, and then passed him on the way up as well, his body half-seal, carving between the molecules of water.

That they had not fetched the anchor meant more deliberation, and at least one more dive down to discover whatever it was that lay below. He wished only to be rowing home.

With one arm gripping the side of the boat Oliver leaned his head against the side and let the ocean’s movements jostle him for a moment. He was exhausted.

His father’s face was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Oliver thought: this will be the moment he has a heart attack.

 

“Ho! It’s the goddamn plug. It’s the hole in the ocean.”

“You didn’t get the anchor.”

“Other fish to fry, peckerwood!”

His father hoisted himself halfway up and rummaged around in the boat. “You drink the rest?”

You drank the rest.”

“Son of a bitch,” he turned to wink, ever-enjoying the curse’s claim upon his ex-wife.

“Listen—it’s too dark to be doing this. Let’s mark the spot. We’ll row home.”

“You don’t understand what I’m saying.” His lifted his goggles up, baring the red pressure rings around his eyes. He gripped Oliver’s bicep with one hand, his other hand held the boat. His eyes bulged wide: “It is the hole in the ocean.” A sputtering of sea-salt spittle followed.

“What does that even—?”

“I don’t know yet, boy!” he released Oliver’s arm and tapped his own temple. “How will we know until we open it?”

His father’s head disappeared below the water, leaving Oliver alone for a moment to sigh and cuss. Then he dived after him. But his father was not ahead; there was no sign of him. He glanced toward the surface and saw his father’s legs on the other side of the boat. Oliver doubled back.

His father rummaged about in the thick layer of detritus at the bottom of the boat—”I’d chuck this shit overboard if you weren’t along.”—Socks, fishing line, beer cans, old plastic bags from long-eaten snacks, and the fish they’d speared, having breathed their last breaths. From it emerged a half-drunk bottle of Rosé.

“Ha!”

“You sure that’s still good?”

With the cork off his father took a healthy pull off the bottle, and followed it with an uneven expression.

“It’s gone bad, hasn’t it.”

His father scowled at him. “Wine doesn’t go bad.”

“Pretty sure it does. That one started bad. Can’t have improved much in the bottom of the boat.”

“It’s a little bit bad.”

“Can I just talk some sense into you for a moment.”

“Here—” His father re-corked the wine, and then disappeared below the surface again, and reappeared next to him. “Have a drink.”

Oliver measured the partial drunk his body already worked, alcohol and exhaustion and sun all laying their claims upon him. The sun sat just above the horizon now. The turquoise below him had dimmed. He took a drink anyway.

“A fine vintage. Sparkling nail polish remover.”

His father laughed and slapped him on the back. “Snob!” He was clearly having a good time now, and Oliver was loath to interrupt it. The two of them companionable in the golden light, each with an arm on the boat, smiling at each other as they floated above some strange new discovery in the waters below.

“That is the largest goddamn Grouper I’ve ever seen.”

“— that fish?”

“That sonofabitch knows something. Where’s my diving light?”

 

After his father disappeared below the water, Oliver dipped his head below the surface to watch him descend, until he could see him no more. Crappy ran from edge to edge of the boat, as he did every time the old man went below.

“Hey Crappy,” he said. “That’s enough.”

To his surprise the dog calmed and stared down at him in the water. Perhaps the dog did not worry, with his small frantic mind, but only performed the duty he’d been taught, and having been excused of it he was free to ponder other things. It was hard not to apply the analogy to himself. In an unsettling moment of introspection he wondered how many of his own habits were simply his replaying back the chords he’d been taught.

He very much doubted there existed such a thing as a hole in the ocean. To ponder it was to upend reality. Did humans put it there? He could not imagine why or how they could. The hole’s existence implied some other’s intention. Amidst all of the slow, wild processes, here was something that was a fabrication. It suggested he lived in a playground, a test bed, a Petri dish. Where the light of the lab might be turned off at the end of the work day.

What was a hole in the Ocean for? It seemed more akin to

The knot in a balloon

The cork in a bottle of wine

The pin in the grenade

It was no finishing touch on some design, it was the kill switch. A terror crept into him. He felt incredibly small, a tiny, insignificant dot, treading water above the opening, in a wide, open sea. At the moment, he did not know in which direction land lay. The sun lay half in the ocean, half out. He lowered his face into the water to search out his father and saw a glow deep down.

Lifting his head up he said: “Crappy?”, and the dog perked up. “When given a choice, I have only ever known him to take the worst one.”

The dog barked his agreement.

He turned and swam hard for the light. The water’s turquoise hue had gone, leaving a murkiness with hints of large creatures at the edges of his vision.

Following the anchor rope he passed the coral canyon walls, now ominous objects in his periphery. Further down, the dark form of the grouper paced in the narrow box over the portal, and he swam hard to miss its trajectory. The diving light sat at the hatch’s edge, the anchor remained tangled with the handle. There was no sign of his father.

His air dwindled and Oliver flipped and swam hard for the surface, bursting into the air as the last tip of the sun hovered at the water’s horizon. He called out and the dog answered, but his father did not.

He gulped another, insubstantial breath of air and then dived again, wishing he’d not left the diving light on the sea floor. The panicked breath did not hold. He floundered mid-way between the sea floor and the surface, scanning frantically, and then returned to the dwindling light. Without the iron will of his father there, the sea felt endless. It was not only his father’s safety that crossed his mind.

This was how his father would go, he thought. This was the only way. His father brought him down here specifically to disappear into the wild, down some hole, to lose himself even further. And Oliver was here to clean up whatever mess he left behind.

He held onto the boat’s edge and panted. As the sea darkened, the diving light below shone more brightly. He knew then he would have to open the ocean’s plug and peek inside.

“Crappy,” he said.

The dog whined in answer.

“Fuck knuckle,” he said, hoping to divine some part of his father, “shit nozzle. Crutch sucker.” Then he took the proper breath and dived again, using the anchor rope to hand-over-hand his way into the depths and toward the light.

He retrieved the light and trained it on the grouper above him, who continued its relentless pacing across the space. The fear was burning all his oxygen; his breath was finished and so he rose.

At the surface his exhaustion pummeled him. He tried to strap the diving light to his wrist while he treaded water and could scarcely keep his head above the surface.

“Dad!” He yelled out into the dusk, and the old man’s dog answered with a reciprocal yelp.

There was no time to waste. With the diving light on, he dove again, pushing his worn muscles hard to reach the bottom. He knew what he must do.

He gripped the bone-white handle and pulled. The hatch was heavy and did not move. He braced his feet and pulled harder. Stubbornly it swung toward him until it was fully open.

But what lay below it was only sea floor. A shellfish skittered away; something retreated further down a small, rough hole. His chest had begun to convulse but he ignored it as he searched the circular indentation left by the hatch at the bottom of the sea, hoping somehow his father might manifest where there was no space to do so. He swung his light in an arc, but no body floated unconscious at its periphery.

Then with deft, brute force he freed the anchor and swam hard for the top.

He clutched the edge of the boat and heaved. He’d swallowed some water, and it came out of him along with the Rosé and Tequila and whatever other crap he’d put down there over the course of the day: Central American convenience store fare, packaged in small neon-colored bags, which his father had purchased for their outing. With the diving light he continued to strobe the water, below and above, but there was no sign of the man.

“Crappy,” he said, but the boat was quiet.

He wearily pulled himself up the side and there found his father passed out at the bottom of the boat, his small dog asleep next to him.

“You sonofabitch,” he said. He pulled himself the rest of the way in, vaguely aware he emitted a low groan, the sound of an exhaustion. Once in, he began to haul in the freed anchor.

“You selfish drunk bastard,” he said. “You selfish sonofabitch.”

His father made no response, other than the buzz of his snore.

After the anchor was onboard he sat and stared down into the water. The night was still.

He realized suddenly he could not leave it there.

His reasoning was difficult to parse out. It would make his father angry, to see the thing that had so stalled them in his boat, and there was some impetus there. But his desire to remove it contained elements of their lifelong petty war, over what you keep and what you throw away, what you guard and what you leave to wreak havoc. He himself was a sort of throwaway. He vowed that thirty-five years hence, when his two small offspring were grown and thought of him, their own father, there wouldn’t be a hollowed, rotted acorn in place of their hearts, their real ones having been left abandoned at the bottom of some ocean.

But he also just wanted it, a massive souvenir from the ocean’s floor.

He untied the anchor from its rope, lowered his goggles, and turned the diving light back on. Then he slipped over the side into the water, trailing the rope down into the darkness with him.

His arms ached with every stroke.

This time the grouper seemed to stop and observe him, its enormous black eyes reflecting the glow of the light, its behemoth undulating body paused.

He had all the breath in the world now. Or perhaps time had stopped without his knowing, the universe paused to observe this unexpected act, to see what would happen next. He heard little in the dark movements of the reef, the sea calm above, the boats all gone home but one. He looped the anchor rope around the handle of the fallen hatch and tied it fast. Then he swam for the dark surface, following his own bubbles in the diving light for cues to direction.

 

“You got something on the line?”

“Your ocean plug. Hauling it out.”

“But what if—anyway, what you want that for.”

“Help.”

His father sat up and lent a hand. They both strained against the line until the object surfaced, heavy and metallic. The weight of it pulled the edge of the boat lower.

“Cut it,” his father snarled. “Let’s get out of here.”

“It’s coming with us.”

“What the hell are you going to do with it?”

“It’s my business.”

“It’s my business,” his father mocked.

They heaved and pulled the heavy disk into the boat. Crappy barked and ran to the far end. After the exertion, they panted and did nothing for a moment.

Don’t anchor your fucking boat on the reef again,” Oliver said, “or I’ll cut your balls off.”

His father did not reply, and the comment stayed over-harsh in the night, a bit of venom from the younger snake, taking cues from the older. Instead his father lay back in his seat, and a few minutes later he heard his snore again.

“Please,” he whispered much later, too late for his father to hear it, uncomfortable still with the harshness of his request.

Crappy came to sniff what they’d pulled from the sea, and then returned to sleep next to his master.

“At least he loves you,” Oliver said, not sure whether he referred to the animal or the man. But the bitterness of it instantly faded. He would fly back tomorrow to his own family, where the subject of love was not a question. He put the oars in the oar locks and began to maneuver the boat in the direction he believed to be land, caring less about getting there by night’s end than he expected.

As he rowed toward his father’s home, the stars filled in the black canvas above.

The moon rose, slivery and delicate, a dark yellow hook at the Ocean’s edge, which he pointed his prow toward. And in the dim light, he watched the cargo of the boat gently rock with each oar-stroke, the old man, the dead fish, the small dog, and the glistening hatch that had covered the hole in the bottom of the sea.

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