Tuo bel cielo

August 8, 2010 at 9:30 pm (Skrifa) (, , , )

It is going to rain. Air that is sweet with the darkening sky kisses her bows and she remembers, dreaming, as she is tipped back and forth by ripples of brackish water. Look! Here, under the water line, a scar where a great fish, heaving against an enemy he couldn’t see, has dented her belly. At her stern, white letters spell her name: “Aida”.

A sea bird shits on her deck. He lands and ruffles his feathers, and stares over the water. She provides a good lookout for fishing, but he’d found a newly discarded pile of crab shells in the afternoon and later, a fried dinner that someone had left behind. He’d gorged on potato, on fish skin coated in batter that had been picked from the flesh underneath, bending his neck into the plastic basket with its fluttering red gingham wax paper so comically that a family of people sitting a few tables away had not bothered to shoo him.

He preens – combing each feather. He has all the time in the world.

The wind picks up. It blows a breath of salt from over the cold oceans of the wild North into the bay. Her cabin doors – on springs that have been weakened by salt and water – knock against her stairs. An adult man must bend at the waist to enter, but the seagull has no such trouble. He sees the rain coming to the bay. He’s been inside empty human dwellings before, and this one smells dank and unused. If he sleeps through the storm he will be able to weather it easily.

At first he beds down on the stairs, under the overhang. Once the rain begins, clattering over her glass and washing her deck, wet air sweeps down her stairs and musses his feathers. He shakes droplets from his head and beak. Her slatted cabin doors are open – their maple, varnished many times, glows even in the dim evening sunlight.

She doesn’t feel him enter the cabin; how could she? Her motor pulls her into the water half-an-inch more than she was built to lie. It is a working motor, started with a switch, not with a pull-rope, and was put there when her last motor had rusted so that the blades could no longer move, by a fisherman, who had bought her and restored her. It hangs above the water, a promise, a little menacing, rain water sluicing down its sides.

The seagull turns his head, not side to side, as humans are wont to do, but around: parallel to floor right, perpendicular, parallel left – his eyes aren’t used to the dim light. Nothing moves. He walks forward, this time turning his head on its vertical axis and back again. No, the cubby bathroom is uninteresting. But! There is a table.

He hops onto it, sharpens his beak on one rounded, metal-tipped corner. There isn’t any food in sight. He lies on the table, next to one of her gaping, sleeping eyes, settling his feathers. He sleeps, and dreams with her, peculiar dreams.

“What do you think, baby?”

“Yeah, it’s great. Real great, John.”

“Oh god, I love it when you wear lingerie-”

The girl rolls her eyes, and reaches over him to pour herself another shot of vodka, and she notices (she can’t help noticing) that he has a mole right under the slight overhang of his left nipple. His chest hair is white.

He doesn’t take his eyes from her breasts. She can make all the faces she wants.

“I do everything for you,” he says, breathing wetly into her stomach. She lets him do whatever, and concentrates on the clink of the ice in her glass. She stares out the porthole, glassily, stares at her car in the marina’s parking lot, at the bleached white bones of the docks, not really seeing, until there are hot pink pumps nearly in her face.

She starts, spilling vodka on him.

“Jenny, what the fuck?” he yells.

She scrambles off the bed, breathing. She hides under the table. She sees the hot pink pumps clack down the stairs, come under the swinging cabin doors.

“Oh god,” says her lover, more from disgust than fear. “What?”

Jenny is dragged from her hiding place by the elbow. Her lover’s wife spits in her face, then turns and says, “You’re an idiot, John.” She turns back to Jenny. “Did you even want my goddamn boat named after you?”

“No,”Jenny says. She likes his wife more than she likes him.

The seagull tucks his bill into the other side of his wings. The dreams don’t bother him. Outside, the rain is a sheet, churning the surface of the bay. He is lucky to have found her.

The sun sets sometime during the rain, but the clouds are still weeping violent tears. The seagull is not a night bird but after a few hours he wakes and sets about rummaging for food. There are cupboards, and they are within reach. The upper cupboards are closed, but one on the bottom, next to the floor, has come open.

He tosses aside a box of pancake mix. There is a hole in it, and it spills out over the linoleum floor. Behind that, crackers. These are open. He disembowels the box on the floor. The trash can smells faintly of fish; at the bottom there is a mostly eaten tin of partially rotten sardines, which he eats.

This time he sleeps on the bunk, bare of any sheets. It has only a foam mattress with a plastic green and white striped cover. He did not remember her dreams in his search for something to eat. They have continued in his absence.

He sees a man in sailing shorts, a striped polo shirt. The man’s hair is gold, parted on the side. A small girl clings to his striped kneesocks.

“Daddy?” she says.

“Mmm,” he replies. He is checking the compass.

“Daddy?”

“Just a minute, girly.”

“Daddy?”

He ignores her, putting the boat in a higher gear, altering course slightly.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Can I have some juice?”

“Ask Mommy, sweet pie.”

She turns around, not steady on her feet. She holds to his knees still with one hand. Her cheek is pressed to his thigh.

“Mommy?” she calls, over the spray and the sound of the motor.

A woman comes out of the cabin, hitting her shoulder on the door frame, and exclaiming involuntarily. “Yes?”

“Are you okay, Mommy?”

“I’ll be fine. What is it?”

“Can I have some juice?”

Her mother nods. “In a minute.” She puts her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “How’s she doing?”

“Beautiful,” he says. “What a beaut.” He thumps the wheel affectionately. “Our Aida.”

The little girl is grumpy. “What about me?” she says.

He looks down at her. “She’ll be yours when you’re old enough, goof.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“And then you can name her whatever you want.”

“No,” says the little girl. “That was a pretty name, the one you said was pretty. I wish that was my name.”

In the morning, the gull suns himself on her deck. The cabin, though it had been safe, was damp. The bay is olive green in the bright sun, but there is some ocean blue mixed with the rich mud, where the clams lie and crabs jerk their limbs, swimming with the current that sweeps in and out with the ocean. At about ten o’clock, the seagull leaves her. She doesn’t notice his departure. He flies out to sea, out to the deep waters, where the storms can kill him, where he must sometimes sleep on the ocean, tossed about like a toy over the waves.

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Competition Piece – Descent

May 2, 2010 at 1:40 am (Skrifa) (, , )

Informal forum writing competition entry.

Prompt (which I took very literally):

Piece:

Descent

At the front of the bowl-shaped crevice, slick with moss, there is a small pebble. I must push it a little to the side, so that it falls. It is rough-surfaced, not smooth. I shift my index finger over, press it against the pebble – which tilts a bit, and doesn’t move. Again. The pebble rolls over once. Again. The pebble falls.

My next task is to wedge my index finger into this crevice. It stretches the tendons in my hands a bit, but I manage. My fingers would shake had I not stuffed them, with great care, into cracks in the rock. The grit on my ruined skin provides traction.

My middle finger will not come out, and I have to move it. If I pull it violently, it will come, but will be useless to me. I guide it left, right, and it is free. About two inches above my index finger is a crack I intend my middle finger to occupy. When I have pushed it into the crack enough to feel the rock biting my bones, I begin to move my third and fourth fingers. There is no space big enough for my thumb.

My left hand is secure. I could hang my entire body from it if my fingers were not pulled from my hand. I do not know whether they would be.

I shake my head, tilt it back on my shoulders. I have no hands free to move my hair from my eyes, so I must wait until the wind takes it.

I set about moving my right foot. The rain gets in my eyes, and I blink them rapidly. I will wait for the wind to change direction. It is rare that I find a gap in the rock big enough to fit my feet, and my right eye does not see clearly; its surface has been damaged by the ends of my hair thrashing against it. I must search for a crack with my foot. My toes are senseless to gentle touch: the meat of them has long since been exposed. I must hit the rock roughly to feel any gaps.

I am lucky. I find a crack big enough to fit my first and second toes. I look up, to my right hand. Gravel hits my forehead. I close my eyes and pull back, instinctively, but thankfully do not dislodge either hand or foot. Above me, the horse paces.

“Leave!” I scream at him. The wind takes the words from my tongue. I spit out gravel.

I pull away from the rock face, now that I know it is safe, and turn my lips to the rain. I manage to catch a few drops.

My right hand is bleeding. I must wait here for the blood to thicken. If I try to move it now, it will be too slick to hold my weight. It is difficult to wait. If I relax, I rely only on the ability of my flesh to remain coherent to save me from plummeting to the water below. I shift some of my weight to my right foot, and inspect my hand. My fingers are mostly hidden in the rock, and so I cannot see anything.

When I remove my middle finger, I find that I have dislodged the fingernail. At first I do not know what to do. My other fingers are suitably situated, and I do not want to free my entire hand; the thought terrifies me.

When first I began my descent, I relied on the strength of my fingers rather than their substance. I am low enough now that the rock is slick with not only rain, but the spray of waves.

I curl my finger under itself, and press my fingernail against the rock. I push it back into place as best as I am able. It is not secure, but if I am careful I will avoid losing it altogether.

I turn my face to the darkened sky. It has not cursed me with a tempest, for which I am grateful. Through the scratches on my right eye shines a warming breath of filtered sunlight, but it is even so too bright, and I close my eyes for a moment, letting the sun warm my cheek.

The thick rain clouds rush in to close the gap, and I turn back to my busywork. Another ten feet, and there is another slight shower of sand and pebbles. Perhaps it is not the horse. It has been so many hours; I have removed his saddle and bridle. He will have left to graze. Perhaps it is a sea bird. Perhaps someone has come to steal the horse’s abandoned tack. They are welcome to it.

I must be careful next I move my left foot. There is a sharp outcropping of rock that will otherwise shear open my bare leg, already so scratched. I am careful, but it is not enough; I am tired and uncoordinated. I slip. A gash opens in my leg.

I wedge my foot in the crack I had intended for it before I look down. When I do, I am unable to see the extent of the cut, but it is very bad.

I take a breath, and I shout at the rock – without any words. A door opens.

A door, in the rock? A doorway, but no door. It is a few feet to my left, and if I am able to reach it, and if it is there, I will be able to sleep.

I take my time reaching it. I cannot make a mistake. It is really there; when I put my hand inside, I feel smoothness. I will not be able to enter the doorway if the rock is entirely smooth; my strength is gone. The sun is setting. I will scrabble uselessly, unable to find a purchase, and fall.

It is entirely smoothed, but I do not fall. The rock itself is porous, and provides some grip. I am able to slowly maneuver myself inside the chamber.

I do not care that the surface is bare rock; I fall asleep immediately, my face where the wall meets the floor, my stomach in a puddle, my toes only inches from the edge.

I dream of the crinkles by her eyes. I dream that I am stuck in a deep pit and cannot climb out, and that someone is pouring water over the lip.

In the middle of dreaming, I discover that I am awake, and sitting at the edge of the doorway. The ocean boils. I hear her wailing and I leap to my feet. A bird wheels over the water, and I am convinced that it will grab her and take her to its young. I must leave. I must find her and save her. I kneel on my savaged knees, begin to lower myself to the rock face.

There is a hand on my shoulder. I stand, and turn, but it turns with me. Little mother, it says. Be calm.

“Too late,” I reply. I turn in the other direction. The hand remains.

Yes, you will die in turmoil.

“As I must!” I say.

As you ought.

“Then I will not be at peace.”

Be calm.

I do not fully wake. I cannot feel my fingers, nor my toes, but they have held me securely. I can feel my wrists and my elbows unknit. My shoulders seem to be stretching, but are perhaps not yet entirely dislocated.

My right eye is swollen shut; I suppose the side of my face hit the stone when I lost consciousness. I pull myself up a bit. The dark rock is warm, heating my face uncomfortably. It is sunny. Morning. The blood on my face is dry. My hair is dry. I look up the cliff, and I cannot see the top. I do not have the strength to climb up. Patches of green moss dot the surface of the rock.

I am calm. I twist around, look out over the choppy sea. There is a steam ship, not far from shore – people walking about on deck. It is a beautiful sight. I look down. I can see no pieces of ivory terrycloth, only boulders bathed in spray and the churning water.

I wrench my hands from their holds and launch myself out into the rocks and the sea. I was right. I can still rescue her. I made a mistake. I will come. Wait for me.

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Ten-Minute Story – I only have ten minutes before I have to get dressed and go to class.

April 11, 2008 at 9:30 am (Skrifa) (, , )

“Sing to me, Montag, of the pain you have suffered.”

I respond, “Oh, oh, no, not that, it wasn’t like that,” and a woman across the bed hears me, but because I’m sleeping it sounds like, “Oh, oh, oh, not not not that, no.”

I wrap myself in the bedclothes. “Montag,” it calls. I refuse it. I say, “Go away.” The woman shakes me, but she can’t wake me up.

I dream of food. When I wake up, my belly is bloated with hunger and piss. I brush the woman off, direct my cramping feet to the toilet. “Montag,” it says.

I get myself some tea. I stare at the knives. “Tell me of your pain, Montag,” it says.

“I have no pain! My life is fine! My life is happy! Go away!”

The woman comes into the kitchen, fully dressed. She refuses tea, and leaves. She heard me clearly this time. I told her I sometimes have over-reaching dreams. She leaves anyway. I leave after she does, to get away from the flat.

“Montag.”

I have formulated a theory, that my genes are faulty, that there is something so wrong with my DNA that my subconscious has been recruited against me. My life is happy, I am young, artistically fulfilled, academically successful. I have my dream career, a lovely flat. I’m saving up for retirement. This is not the hollow emptiness of consumerism. I am full. I am a heavy stone, squatting comfortably in a river.

It calls me. “Montag.” Unceasingly. Fine, I’ll kill myself, just to shut you up.

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Teaching June Bugs to Swim

March 1, 2008 at 6:51 pm (Skrifa) (, , )

Momma found her, like she found all of us, and took her in, and kept mum about her, and the rest of us. It wasn’t like Momma was breaking any laws by taking us in; I think one of us may have even been the Sheriff’s, over in town; but you only learn what you hear, and my ears were too small to catch all that was being said, if you get me, anyway, if one of us was the Sheriff’s, that one wouldn’t have been the Sheriff’s wife’s, no-how. It may have been Sarah, it may have been Baby, or Miranda; it may even have been me. I was told, not in so many words, that Momma was doing the town a service; what I knew was that for Momma, it was a labor of love.
Anyway, back to Sarah; she’s the reason I’m telling this story, to keep her in my mind. She was so spindly that Momma used to say that she had to tuck the ends of her overalls into her shoes to keep the pant cuffs from swallowing her toes. She had a thin face, engulfed by dark hair, unless she pulled it back, in which case her nose and mouth suddenly leapt into relief. She wore old two-toned shoes and flowered blouses. The heat of a perpetual summer shone out of her skin, even when she was dead. She smelled like sweet grass and haymaking, and of the cricks out in our little patch of the backwoods.
Her eyes were the color of overripe strawberries, a deep gentle, juicy brown. She let the sky watch over her when the heat was up, baking herself golden like a true flower child, but she never spoke of politics, or peace, or love. Well, she never spoke, but if you knew her, you would get to know what she did next, because she was a drifty kind of person, efficient, but slow.
She made kaleidoscopes, with bits of shiny foil and paper tubes, and hung them up in our house by long bits of cotton string, reachable even by the little ‘uns. She hung them by the windows; Miranda pretended they were telescopes, that would let her see into distant places. Baby always used to grin and remark on this, in his own kind way.
She could also milk cows and tend chickens, but Baby did not like her to work too much. He said her hands were too fine for grunt work. She was good at milking; she whispered to the cows, but not too low, because cows don’t like snakes and if you hiss at them the milk will sure as anything go sour. The chickens followed her like a messiah; she multiplied grain like loaves and little fishes. Whenever I did the chickens I always managed to scatter less grain than she, though we both started with the same grit in a paper sack. I used to watch her run, because she could run like anything and Momma often sent her lolloping after the cows when they decided that Miss May’s farm over yonder was tastier than here.
Baby fished her out of the river after the storm. We can’t say much more’n that. We all went to bed, and said our prayers, and she was gone by the time the lightning hit the tree outside the farmhouse.

Miranda loved to crawl in the small spaces and tell stories in her quiet, little voice. She would tell me of things long past, when knights and ladies still roamed the kingdoms out back. She used to mix cows and chickens in with the stories, so that the privilege of being a prince was not mucking out the barn. Her stories kept me in thrall; because of Miranda, my childhood suddenly became a fairy-tale. Even though she was so much smaller than me, she held some sort of mystical sway, a pigtailed swami, constantly sticky from the vast amounts of thick cut orange marmalade she consumed.
Now, this all happened when I was six or seven, so maybe Miranda’s stories mixed up in it all, anyway, I’ll tell you how it went, the only exciting thing ever to happen here.
This farm has a history of boredom, one which it proudly nails up over the porch, for all to see. My granddaddy (well, Momma’s daddy) got so stir crazy he used to try n’ teach June bugs to swim in his water glass. They’d get waterlogged and he’d dry them out before they drowned, with a corner of his checkered handkerchief. Momma told me about that, cause granddaddy died in the War, when he was still young, too young to die, only just thirty. I tried to make the June bugs do cannonballs in the water but they just bobbed at the surface, upside down, waving their legs like ship signals. I guess granddaddy never succeeded in making them do the breaststroke.
I can’t remember in what year, or on what day exactly this story really happened, but I do recall that we had just had what momma sarcastically called “the Reckoning”: good old-fashioned, Noah’s Ark type weather, which was usually in October. Anyway, on that night, Miranda woke me up at about half-past three in the morning, a good two hours before Baby got up and milked the cows.
Unless my memory is mistaken, she was wearing a floppy straw hat that fell over her eyes and about seven pairs of underwear, and she had pulled a pair of Baby’s firecracker-red woollen socks all the way up under her skirt. She poked me in the arm and shoved something very slimy and smelly, covered in cheesecloth, into my hands. I dropped it onto my quilt and rolled over, brushing her away with my fist. She poked me again with her fat finger and handed the slimy thing to me. I sat up and held it in my hands, looking at her with that perceptiveness kids can get before they forget how.
“Do I have to carry it?”
“Yep. ‘N git dressed! Momma’ll hear us. Be quiet.”
“Okay.”
We took the old cheese that Miranda had been storing under the porch and crept up to the attic. She was just a bit too little for the stairs; Baby made them to his own scale. I had to wait for her at the top, not daring to offer help, watching her hoist herself up with both hands on the banister. She got to the landing and took the cheese from my hands, cradling the hulking bundle in her arms because otherwise she’d drop it.
Baby was of indeterminate age; a boy momma picked up on the road when he was nine or ten perhaps and then raised. She called him her baby, baby. He was huge, and gangly, and quite a disciplinarian when we were being too big for our britches. His bedroom was at the top of the landing, and so we crept along, convinced of our quietness, not wanting to have our bottoms tanned. In reality, we must have sounded ridiculous; Miranda, by virtue of being five, thought whispering was just talking without the music; she sounded like every young child when it attempts to whisper: really loud. She shoved the old cheese into my hands and crouched down to talk to me (like Momma would do), but I was taller than she, and so it seemed like she was pep-talking the line of ants marching purposefully across the floor-boards towards the bathroom, where the soap must have been dropped. I never understood why ants eat soap; sure, it’s got glycerine in it, but they must have funny tastes, because pork-fat soap sure doesn’t taste like bacon (I tried it).
Miranda said: “You have to buck up, Charlie. We have to do this for her. She told me to look-out for her, and if she didn’t come back, to tell Momma.”
“Miranda, she don’t talk.”
Miranda sniffed, self-importantly. “She talks to me.”
“Yeah? How?”
“I know what she wants.”
“Yeah, well I’m older n’ you, and I say she don’t talk to you.”
“And I say she do.”
“What’re we doin’ up here, anyway?”
“She wanted me to look for her; she says she was in trouble. The ogre got her, now, he got her. This time every week. She’s a Princess. She has to go to the ogre every week, until a Prince can break the spell. And she said, don’t tell Momma. Momma wouldn’t believe, anyhow.”
“We watchin’ from the skylight?”
“Yeah. This…” and here she shoved the very fragrant cheese into my nose, “…is fer food.”
“What about to drink?”
“Don’t be addle-brained, Charlie. We won’t need to drink. It’s only until the cock crows we have to watch.”
This childhood logic made less sense to me at seven than it would have at Miranda’s age, but as you may have guessed, Miranda’s personality was like a whirlwind; at present she was only a little dust-devil, a zephyr blowing on the corn tops, but she would grow into a typhoon of a woman, that was for sure. So, I didn’t press the point.
For reasons still mysterious to me, I was commissioned to hold the cheese while Miranda, as stealthily as she could, manipulated the squeaky doorknob to the attic. I guess she was in charge, and wanted to seem less scared than me. I think she needed someone to be more scared than her, because otherwise she wouldn’t be able to go through with it. I remember the attic always gave me the willies after that night, and I’m sure it would still, forty years on.
The attic was a mess, but only because the space in it was over-used. Momma, the perfect constitution to keep five kids and a young man in check, was the soul of order. She kept everything of importance, and perhaps some things that weren’t so important to us but were to her, in that attic. It was stacked high with every type of container and carton under the sun; it weren’t easy to get made-to-order boxes where we were, and so Momma was forced to keep her precious things stored in orange crates and her momma’s jewellery in tin cans.
Granddaddy built Momma a window seat, under the huge skylight in the attic, so she could look out over the wood that afforded protection to our little house from the elements, and so that he could play with June bugs while watching the sky for bombers, hoping he wouldn’t get drafted. At present there were old gingham cushions on the window seat, and luckily for us, the night was clear.
After your eyes got used to the dark, you could see the backyard, the chicken coop, and the dark line of trees from the skylight. There was a path, through the trees, over the crick, that led to the road, a mile or so distant, and it was this that Miranda instructed me to watch.
I half believed her, that there was an ogre, and that Miranda had been instructed to look over Sarah. I know that Miranda would never lie to me. I know now that what must have happened was that Miranda, excited by a nightmare, had come to the attic to sit, and that was when she saw something that scared her. The attic was her refuge; she made up all her legends on the gingham cushions, using her kaleidoscope telescope to see neighboring kingdoms. Miranda had seen something that had scared her, and she had come back every night since to watch for it. When it happened again, the next week, she resolved to take me along the following week, so that, like I said, she would have someone to be more scared than her.
I don’t think Sarah would have spoken to her actually, but Miranda was keen-eared enough to hear words unspoken, especially if she heard them in the place where she wove stories, especially if she heard them at night, after a bad dream. I have comforted Miranda after a bad dream, and let me tell you, talking to her was an experience I never could compare anything to, until I saw a man having a bad LSD trip, when I was much older, and even then, he was an adult; he had done it to himself, and deserved what he got. Miranda, on the other hand, was a victim of her own imagination, and especially when she was young, it surrounded her and almost ate her alive sometimes.
She wasn’t imagining this, though; I was sure of that. Something had scared her, and bad, too. I put the cheese down by the window seat, downwind, so that I wouldn’t be distracted by it, and stared out of the glass, straining my eyes to see. Miranda clambered up beside me, and reassured me that I wouldn’t have missed anything; what we were watching for was regular as clockwork, at five minutes to four, or thereabouts; Miranda hadn’t ever thought to bring a clock, just knew at what time she had got up, the first time she saw it.
She was right, too. My eyes had adjusted well enough to the dark by the time something happened, but when I saw the first movement in the trees, they overcompensated, real quick. I saw it all, crystal clear. When the brush rustled first, I was convinced, for the longest second of my life, that there was an ogre in the trees. He would be the color of hog shit, all draped over with moss and pine needles, and he would have a girl’s leg in one hand, like a piece of chicken, and a huge greasy lump of cornbread in the other. He would be looking for dripping, to dip his food in; he would find me and Miranda, and make sauce from our bones.
A slim white arm flashed out from the trees. It was Sarah. I looked at Miranda in relief, but she was wide-eyed, not relieved. The arm was followed by her dark head, and finally, all of her. She wasn’t moving with the kind of grace you expected from her; she sort of staggered across the grass. And then she stopped, to tie her shoe. She bent down like an old woman with shaking-sickness; I bet she had trouble gripping the laces.
I wanted to ask Miranda what Sarah would do next, as though everything she did was part of some ritual that Miranda knew by heart: next, she’ll scratch her nose, on the left side, and then, she’ll tighten her belt by one hole, and then, she’ll hop on one foot, until she gets to the chicken coop, and then…
I saw that the moonlight was making her skin white as a ghost. I became convinced that this was not the same girl I knew. This was Night-Sarah, in the thrall of magic, freeing Day-Sarah from entrapment in a cell. Maybe Night-Sarah talked; Whole-Sarah had split in two, and her Night-Self needed her voice, to incant magic spells, and call for help. Day-Sarah need just be happy; no need to talk to those who already understand you; so she had given up her voice to her unhappier, weaker Night-Self.
Up until now, everything she did was ordinary, which I found frightening in its own right. I mean, you’re not supposed to care about whether your shoe is tied right or not when it’s cold out and you’re dressed in a thin shirt, you’re staggering around as though drunk as a skunk, and you’re a thirteen year old girl returning home from god-knows-where at four o’clock in the morning. But then, after only four steps across the grass, she bent down and untied the very same shoe, and pulled it off.
She did the same with her other shoe. And then, both socks. She unbuckled her belt, tossed it on the ground. Then her jeans, and her shirt came off. Her skin, lit by the faint glow of the porch light and the moon, glowed a white that blended her into the rest of the night; she looked like a silver birch hit by moonlight rather than a person. I became more convinced than ever that this was Night-Sarah. Day-Sarah was golden, her sunburned back the color of red corn.
She was wearing underpants, and nothing else. This did not seem shameful to us; the situation was so unfamiliar, we wouldn’t have been ashamed had she sacrificed a chicken on a makeshift altar, fashioned from the woodpile, to some hoary night-god. She gathered her clothes, and walked to the pump, dropping her clothes in a pile next to it, not caring that they landed in the mud. She stood there for a brief moment, then stripped off her underpants and added them to the pile.
Then, she turned on the pump, and began to wash. She washed everything, starting with her hair, and her face, in between each finger, in between each toe, even though they were smeared in mud from the pump-puddle. She washed in between her legs; this she took a really long time to do. She even stopped in the middle of it, to reach for the soap hung up on a nail on a post next to the pump. She looked, to me, like a water nymph, replenishing her life, not shivering in the cold, because she could not feel it.
Beside me, Miranda was obviously feeling as confused and scared as I was. We felt that this was not something for us to see. Maybe that was why Miranda included the part about not telling Momma; maybe that was why I believed that Sarah wouldn’t have wanted us to tell Momma.
Sarah picked up her clothes, leaving her pants and shoes behind, and walked, naked, to the bare patch of earth next to the chicken coop where the soil was fouled because of chicken waste. She dumped her clothes down there, and walked around the side of the house, I presume to the garden shed. She was gone for a short while; Miranda didn’t move, and so I kept watching.
She came back with a red can, the one I recognised as Momma’s lawn-mower gasoline, sprinkled her clothes, and set the can down beside her. In her shoe, she found a small square object, and fiddled with it until she had a small flame. She threw the cardboard match onto her clothes, which burnt readily enough, being cotton soaked in gasoline, and watched, buck naked, as her clothes were quickly reduced to black scraps and a burn mark on the soil. The brief but intense light from the clothes slid over the bright red gas-can in a way that really unnerved me; it didn’t touch Sarah, either. She stayed pale and ghostly; the bright light of the fire didn’t reach her because she was Night-Sarah; the moon was her mother. When her clothes stopped burning, she put on one of her shoes, and scuffed the ground where the fire had been, to cover the burn mark.
“Miranda, she’s got no clothes! We should take her something…”
Miranda shook her head, and I understood. If we revealed that we were watching to Night-Sarah, she would vanish; the wind would blow through her and she would be dispersed, like smoke. Besides, she didn’t feel the cold.
I was still enthralled with what I was seeing when I felt Miranda crawl down from the window-seat. She picked up the cheese, which, surprisingly, we hadn’t touched, and began to walk towards the attic door.
“She’s just going to return the red can and go inside, Charlie.”
“But what can we do?”
Miranda, for the first time, looked truly puzzled. “I don’t know, Charlie. She needs a Prince to break the spell. Until then, she don’t want us to tell, I know.”
“What about Baby?”
Miranda handed me the cheese, and reached with her foot for the first step on the staircase, using both hands to lower herself. “He’s not a Prince, Charlie.”
I followed her down, craning my neck to the left and right to see around the cheese. “We need to find one, or else tell Momma.”
She looked up at me, from a step or two below me. “If we can’t find a Prince, we’ll tell Momma. Okay?”

We had another storm, in mid-November. The old oak tree next to the house, one that had been there before the land had been cleared for our farm, lost a limb in that storm, due to lightning. Of course, this wasn’t what killed Sarah. Maybe she wanted out of her magic spell once and for all, maybe she got pregnant. Maybe the ogre didn’t want her anymore, and tossed her away like so much trash. We never knew who the ogre was, suffice to say he wasn’t anyone I knew, and I never entertained theories about who he was; those wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. I never knew how Miranda, in her small way, had got to the heart of what was going on; maybe she understood more of what she heard than I did, but that would mean that Momma knew what was going on, which she didn’t. Some time after, I found some money of Sarah’s, more than Momma had ever given her to buy food and clothes, but I don’t like to speculate where it was from; I know well enough. It was in an envelope labelled in Sarah’s round and happy writing, simply: Abroad.
We grew up, and I began to realise that Miranda’s voracious imagination would claim many lives over the span of her life; not the least being her own. Miranda would always be victim to it, it would shape this event and others, so that all she remembered would be nightmares. I eventually told Momma what happened, and she wept, and wished that Miranda and I could eventually forgive ourselves, because we were children, and knew not what we saw, but I knew that if Miranda hadn’t understood so well what was happening, it wouldn’t have been this way. Maybe if she hadn’t known so much, maybe if she hadn’t seen Sarah’s shame shining out through her like a beacon, maybe it would have been different, but I can’t change what happened, and I can’t live my life thinking about that. I am not ashamed, and neither is Miranda.
I was there when Baby fished her out of the water, with his own two hands, and I remember thinking that the water-nymph he had found was Night-Sarah, dead at last, and that Day-Sarah had been set free from her magic, this farm, us, our small life, and the endless, eternal, fields of bright, waving corn.

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Ulysses

February 26, 2008 at 7:16 pm (Skrifa) (, , )

I bade them tie me. Tightly, with scarring rope. I told them, I need to bleed, all over this rope. One man, the man who knew the most about anatomy, worried aloud about my abilities as a captain, were I to injure my wrists. Will he, in fact, be able to steer the fucking boat? I think, were his words.

I said, If I break free, it should be after I have popped the delicate bones in my wrist like grapes. If I break free, it should be after I have unstrung my tendons, and made them twang. If I break free, it must be with the strength I would need to stride across the deck swinging my ripped veins and stringy flesh as though I had hands there. If I break free, I should have to abandon my hands, my fingers twitching the frayed ends of the rope used to imprison them back and forth: a distinctly nervous gesture, you understand, strictly benevolent.
If I break free, I am not fit to be captain, I said. Get someone else to steer the boat. The rope was not the tarred kind, which might have preserved the integrity of my skin. Even the most hardened tough is delicate under the hand, or in the crook of the elbow, or in the hollows at the back of the foot, above the heel. The rope they used chafed, and cut, and was the type to shrink when drenched, which this rope would be. It would slowly shrink over the hours, drawing more blood, wrenching my shoulders.

I offered my arms backwards. They tied me. If I pulled, not only would I twist my wrists and cut into my already exposed flesh, I would wrench my shoulders out of my torso. I screamed at them until I could feel blood trickle over my fingertips and could smell it, and then it was tight enough. I tossed my head. Good. They couldn’t hear me.
What?
Good, I said!
What?
Good! It’s tight enough!
What?
Good! It’s Good! The Rope is Good! And Tight!
Oh! then, Well, that’s Good. Then. Isn’t it…?
Yes!
Right! Good! Then.
Okay!

They rowed. For a very, very long time. I was counting on something to take my mind from the pain, and counting on the pain to take my mind away from something. With nothing, there was just pain. You’re a hero, I thought. Be heroic. You should be mulling over the state of the human condition. That really hurts.
I felt a sweat drop roll down my side, over a graze. It tickled, and itched, and the salt stung. The blood from my wrists stopped dripping over my fingers, but they were cold, so I suppose the sudden wind dried it, or made it divert its course. Above all, there was pain. My tendons were wrenched and my shoulders were stretched and the heat made me miss the lost blood. The ocean smelled like pain: a bag of salt. Thinking about being in it was inevitable, and painful, because it would be cold, my wrists would be on fire, and I would scream, and my lungs would fill with pain. Wavelets played against the side of the boat, little bastards they were, in league with the breeze, both filled with salt. Spray from the bow was the worst, it was a fine mist of pain, making it seem as though the surface of my bleeding wrists ate into the flesh beneath, like it was all dissolving.
Maybe the ocean is not evil, but pure, tries to purge itself of this sickening substance. Maybe there are hills, valleys, islands of salt, where the ocean has coughed it up. This is why the ocean is constantly moving, it’s in pain, itself. That’s it, the salt makes it writhe constantly in pain, the salt is not just resting on its skin, like it is on mine, it’s in the veins and body and blood and bone of the ocean, above its surface, in the air surrounding it, a poison, making the ocean a mean-spirited creature, breathing its foul salt-tainted breath in your face, into your lungs, so that your palate tastes of rotten vomit. I could imagine swallowing salt water by accident, and it made me want to retch, the taste would be horrible. A sailor is in constant fear of drowning, but the taste of brine, it tastes like death.
Then, I noticed the splash of the water, a regular splash from the oars, oh the sort of salt that would bring, if my wrists were conveniently placed under the oar. I couldn’t stop thinking of it. It would be an offering. If my wrists were placed under the oar splash, I would be, well, hovering over the water, subject to the sting of the spray in my eyes. My eyes stung, not just my wrists, I just realised, and then I realised that were I to be hovering over the water, with my wrists under the oar, in all likelihood I’d have forced my shoulders to turn over, wrenching them out of their nests, and pushing them back in, so that I could hold my hands out over my head, under the oar, so that my eyes were staring at the water, stinging from the spray, so that the rest of my body itched from the salt. Salt was bone white, I should have known it was painful, not like this though, it was dissolved into the deepest blue, with sea monsters to chew me, of course I would be well seasoned for chewing, with salt.
I screamed. The salt, I would never eat anything with salt in it ever again, oh please, no more, I can’t bear thinking of the salt, and the itching, and the pain. There were these pins, wherever they pricked existed, that rest of my body was a ghost, all that existed was the pins, my wrists were bushy with them, they swayed gently in the wind, when I moved, they were driven in deep, they were covered in salt, twisted ones, writhing in my shoulders, silver worms, laying eggs of salt granules, the ache was salty too and then when they ran all over my bare skin they made me itch, salty footprints everywhere and even under my eyes when they rolled up to the sun which sent pins to pierce the back of my orbs shining with tears and tears are salty

I

No no no no no no no oh that hurts oh no please ok ok better oh no nono no nononono it’s coming back no no no

I’m ow ow ow! Oh please

I’m looking at my feet. They exist.

That hurt.

I’ve thrown up, I thought. That hurt. It hurts. I raised my head to hear a rhythmic noise, and the smell of seaweed on the wind, even though the wind blowing across my wrists made me writhe in agony, and I could still smell the salt as it ate away at my skin.

For the love of all that is holy, just

I spat out some residual vomit, careful not to move too much, not to strain the wet rope against my wrists.

The rhythmic noise is the rowers, rowing.

The sea got choppy, and I thought Rain. There was none. Only waves slapping the side of the boat to check its ripeness. It made a sound like a melon; it was full of ale and human flesh. They slapped harder. Now the boat was a breast, a woman beaten. It creaked in distress.
I moaned in anguish, worried that the timber would shatter and I would be plunged into the water, howling, my hands tied and radiating an aura of agony, drowning in malevolent salt. The crew paid no attention to me, or to the worrisome creaking. One wave got excited; it slapped the boat on my right side and drenched me. It was a closed-palm slap, more like a punch, with a fistful of salt. It was cold, and I shivered. I blinked. My wrists stung, wreathed in fire.

I spat out more vomit.
You there, I said. Where are we?
Four miles clear of it, he said.
There was a pause.
You were out for a while, he said. Very wise of you, sir, to make us tie you so strongly. You’d have given in to your primal lusts, sir, if we hadn’t. A pause. He hadn’t moved to untie me. Didn’t think you had that sort of thing in you, sir.
I don’t.
I don’t think you quite just remember yet, sir, that is to say, only you did ask to be untied a lot.
I don’t remember everything.
You asked to be untied. A lot, sir. The crew are right proud of you, for not trusting in your willpower to overcome the unnatural.
Oh?

A lot of men have died, running off the boats, running to them. Apart from that one; he was bedding a woman.
Died, did he?
Well, pleasantly. With a smile.

I winced; he had advanced for my wrists. I thought he would spend hours working at the knot, what agony. He got out a knife. Or a knife, I thought now. That would be worse, accidentally slit with a knife. That would hurt.
I wasn’t slit by accident, and it didn’t hurt. My shoulders groaned, returning my arms to my sides was difficult. Bones are like saplings when tied; they don’t quite want to return to their normal state, but their tied state was unnatural; it hurts too. Everything hurts, to some extent; nothing’s right for a while. My wrists were clotted. Hot. The damage wasn’t that bad. I didn’t want to touch the wounds, but it was alright to swing my wrists around exaggeratedly, getting the cool air on them. I couldn’t bend them just yet. I hid my aches and pains from the crew. What sort of pansy captain, they’d say, would cringe at bending a wounded wrist? Or a punctured ankle? Really, all these leader types are there because they can’t handle being stabbed. They prance around in the background, on their horses, and what have you, prow of the ship, reading maps, oh there’s a good chap just take an arrow for me if you please, while I go over here and strategise, and they get paid more, too, all the glory, I’d rather be a grunt and get the actual heroing done, thanks, rather than pretending to do all the leg-work, spot of wine and some bread and oil will do me fine, don’t need any of that fancy cheese or roast whatsit. They’re decent sorts, really, it’s not like they want you dead, just not cut out for actual hardship, if you know what I mean.
If that message were levied at me, and it wouldn’t be, because even if your leader is a pansy, he can still have you killed, I would have to admit its truth, before condemning its bearer. I can say to myself, Alright, hop to it and improve humanity, but I’ll also be thinking of dinner, as an undercurrent. I’ll be wondering how I should go about improving humanity best, by war or exploration or taxation, or by writing down verbal codes and making them law. I chose exploration, for the monsters.
I don’t want to be a hero, a lot of the time. If you’re not thinking of something interesting and grandiose, or performing feats of great strength, you’re not heroic. If I hadn’t been tied to the mast, I would not have jumped in the water, I would have hid in the storeroom and sobbed. I didn’t even get to hear the music. The most perfect music in the world, an exaggeration of lust, making men throw themselves into the sea in wanton desire, and I missed it.
A siren’s music, I reasoned, would be the most perfect music in the world, short of the harmonies of the sun, interpretable by any man, fitting any doctrine, affecting every listener. What, then, of men who are incapable of lust for the female form? The music would be imperfect then. What of the captain in the process of coitus? He should have traded one for the other, should not have been content. What of me? I was in too much pain.
The most perfect music would be a conduit for feeling. The life of a soldier is bloody, and terrible. What if they weren’t swimming towards the sirens, but away from their boats, in fear?

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