improvised, as always
“Blessed are the anonymous and obscure,
for they shall be least interfered with.”
In the beginning there was God, only God, and God was bored. Above all, God was an artist, and so to amuse itself, God undertook a great project. This would be a grand and complex construction project, something novel, unique, something of unparalleled beauty. In its unmatched mechanical genius, God designed a layered series of dimensions and raised them from the void. Then, into this new concept of physical space, it crafted and inset a universe.
This new thing, this universe, was gorgeous beyond description, but when it was finished God found itself unable to enjoy it. It hadn’t counted on upkeep and maintenance, evolution and growth, and the time and energy required to run this universe project was enormous. So it built a shining city, the city of Heaven, and in the halls and homes of Heaven, God created life.
The first life was perfect: thoughtlessly obedient, flawless creatures of alabaster skin and fluffy white wings. It called them Angels, its arms and eyes and ears, and it loved them as it loved itself. And so its Angels took to running the universe, enacting God’s directives, repairing, expanding, and maintaining its creation. And God settled back on its throne, in the city of Heaven, and it marveled at what it had done. Now it had time to think.
And for ten billion years it thought. And as it thought, it realized that despite the flush of that first creative act, despite the complexity of its creation, God was still bored. It tried bringing its Angels to it for counsel, to discuss its misgivings, but in this they lacked all capacity. Their thoughts and opinions mirrored its own, endlessly, and God found itself more and more distressed, craving something indefinable. Then one day, in the greatest stroke of genius this universe has ever seen, it understood. It knew how it could be surprised.
And so God created man. Continue reading “The Morning Star”
We fade in reading books. My parents were former hippies who had gone legit: a Jewish father who had just opened a small-town matrimonial law practice, and an Irish-Catholic mother who taught Math and Earth Science at an alternative education high school. By the time I hit my mid-20s she had moved on to district administration, his practice had exploded, and they were making a very good living with money to spare. But as a child, in that house out in the country, we lived mortgage payment to mortgage payment. It was a comfortably middle-class American upbringing — a fundamentally happy childhood. I was kind, the people around me were kind, and life consisted only of playing outside, video games, sports, school, and books. Mostly I fade out reading books.
Christmases we spent with the Clarks, my mother’s parents in Parsippany, New Jersey. If we were maybe middle to upper-middle class, they were very clearly middle to lower-middle. My grandfather at this point was a full-blown alcoholic, glued to his recliner in the living room, while my grandmother, Alice, was, I dunno, some sort of saint. This was the Catholic side, and though my mother is basically an atheist, the holidays were important to Grandma, so we always went down there in December when school was out. First Hannukah in Ithaca, then Christmas in New Jersey. I was the envy of all my single-religion friends.
Alice Clark, as I said, was some sort of saint. She had lived through both World War II and a life-long marriage to a hyper-intelligent, underachieving alcoholic. Tom Clark had been an aerial photographer, scouting forward positions on the western front, then turned so hard to bitter when he came home that it was impossible to see what had once made him happy. My clearest memory of him is bare-foot, hippie-child Joshua trying to give him a hug, and him pushing me back and extending a hand. Men shake.
Alice though, must have spent half her tiny pension on junk for me and my brother. All the useless plastic crap that my parents refused to buy us somehow ended up under that Christmas tree. A plastic bow and arrows with suction cups, which – so unlike the cartoons – fell only a few limp inches when fired; an elaborate black Lego castle that must have cost 100 bucks, and which my parents had dubbed: The Castle That Cost Too Much; that sort of thing. She spoiled us rotten and loved us to pieces. They lived in what was basically a one-story trailer, built up on a foundation, and chain-smoked incessantly when we weren’t around. It wasn’t until years later that I identified the smell in that place. I loved it there.
What I really loved, of course, was fading in on Christmas morning. Every year, me and Alice, we played a game: it was a race to see who could get up first. Every year I woke up in my tiny Mighty-Mouse pajamas, in the blue-black morning, thinking this would be the year. And every year I raced out into the living room and there she was, sitting calmly at the table, drinking her coffee with a quiet smile. Not a smug smile, just a sort of, maybe next year kiddo, don’t give up smile. Then we fade out waiting together, shaking presents, eating sugary crumb-buns from the local bakery, until around ten or eleven when my uncle finally came out of his room in their house, bleary-eyed and hung-over, and Christmas day could begin.
Then I fade in on the Christmas morning when things changed. As always, I hopped out of bed in my pajamas, the whole family still asleep, and went racing out into the living room. There, for the first time, all the lights were off; pre-dawn darkness ruled with equal indifference outside and in. I learned something then in that dark room about getting what you want. Unsure of what to do, I sat down in her seat at the table and crossed my legs like a grown-up. What I know now is that Alice was still in bed because she had a malignant tumor growing inside of her. She refused to admit it, never went to a doctor, and by next Christmas she was dead.
That same year both our golden retriever and our german shepherd had to be put down, and Grandpa checked out almost 6 months to the day after Grandma shocked us all and disappeared forever. I fade back in later that year walking into my mom’s room and finding her crying. She told me our cat was missing. I said, well heck, let’s get some fliers together, go paper the neighborhood, get off our butts and go find Tigger! She said oh, dear, no.
I sat down next to her, she put her arm around me, and she explained that Tigger wasn’t really missing. She was old. Cats sometimes have a way of going off alone to lie down with dignity. I think we both cried, or maybe just she did. The last time I know I cried, for sure, was at Alice Clark’s funeral. I must’ve been 10 years old. The next year I started having panic attacks during health class and passing out in the coat room.
There’s so much to feel, and taste, and smell, and do, all at once, it’s overwhelming. Life is difficult for everyone, everywhere, and existence on this planet can get way, way worse than death. But right now it’s here, just here, and in this moment it’s all sort of okay. You’re here, I’m here; just stop for a minute and be here with me. Notice all the little sounds hiding in this silence. There’s so god damn much to experience before the darkness comes back for us. Taste every flavor of ice cream, feel every emotion, laugh at the sheer absurd unlikelihood of any of this. Laugh just to hear the sound. Then let it go. You gotta let it go. Fade in, fade out.
Yeah, I’ve got one.
We had only been in Tanzania for about a month. After her two-week, bare-bones project orientation in Dar es Salaam, we were driven down south and dropped in this village and left there to struggle. More often than not in those early days, we simply failed. Food, water, language, electricity, everything. It was wild, lurching back and forth across the delirious line between adventure and nightmare.
Now, we’ve only been here a month, but it’s about to be her birthday. I’m trying to get her this expensive jade ring to replace the one that broke, the one I got her when we first met. Problem is, I have to contact an old friend in Taiwan — who I haven’t kept in touch with — and have it bought at the jade market and mailed to me.
The birthday arrives, and no ring, and I’m at a loss. Everything here is crazy and difficult and completely overwhelming me. Everything. I spend the morning making a card on white paper with pencil while she’s at work, then cook a couple scrambled-egg-on-white-bread sandwiches, in a beaten-metal wok over a little portable gas range, on the floor of the empty kitchen, in our decrepit, furniture-less house. It’s not much and I know it.
I start to walk to meet her, to have a picnic outside her building, but she’s already walking home and doesn’t want to go back. My lone plan is shot. So we go back to our crumbling house, eat the sandwiches and have a fight. I give her the card, mid-fight, and it’s whatever and forgotten. The whole thing is pretty indescribably awful; we both feel wronged, and angry, and everything is terrible.
Fast forward a year and a half. Much has happened. I went home and came back, a second time, to go on safari with her parents. We’re on Zanzibar fighting like cats in a bag, because that’s the obvious outcome for two co-dependent addicts living in isolation together. Drinking all day and all night, ending each night with a fight, but still sometimes curled up in each other, still sometimes sweet; still kissing, still fucking.
I now have the jade ring with me. My friend in Taiwan finally came through and it just showed up one day, a year later, at my parents’ house. I give it to her and in surprise she tells me she thought, way back then on her birthday, that I was going to propose. She thought I was going to propose, and then because of that fight, I just put the ring back in my pocket. She carried that inside her! She thought that in silence for a year!
Now she has the ring, on a chain, and it looks lovely there against her skin, but I can’t help myself. Everything is terrible and I have to ask: “If I had proposed back then, on your birthday, what would you have said?”
There is a pause.
“Yes,” she says.
“No,” she says, lying naked in my arms.
I miss her every day.
I guess this story is about death after all.
“Alright, I’ll tell you one. Just one, then you’ve gotta go to sleep. Your mom’s already going to kill me for letting you stay up this late. Deal?”
“I’ll tell it to you as it was told to me, but forgive me if the details aren’t perfect, this old brain has seen better days. You remember Siddhartha? From last time?”
“Yeah, the prince who gave up all his money.”
“Yeah, that guy. Well, he had been on the road a long time now, and a group of people had taken to following him. Each morning at dawn these folks who had abandoned their lives gathered to hear Siddhartha talk. The talks weren’t religious, not in any organized sense, he was just thinking out loud, trying to figure out how to live. One of these followers was a young man named Kasyapa. He was new to all of this, Kasyapa. He struggled with the teachings, and the others made fun of him for his difficulties. But still each morning he came and sat before Siddhartha and tried to understand.
One morning the people gathered as usual, but instead of speaking, Siddhartha held up a white flower and sat looking at it. His students waited patiently for him to begin. Minutes passed. Then hours. “What is it?” Someone asked. “What’s the lesson?” said another. Soon it was noon, and still Siddhartha simply sat in silence with the flower. One by one the people, shaking their heads, some in confusion, some in disgust, rose and went about their daily chores. There was still much to be done in a camp in those days, even for poor wanderers. So they drifted away, until only Kasyapa was left, sitting alone before the portly sage.
He stared and he stared, this boy, with his brow scrunched and his tongue peeking from the corner of his mouth. He tried with all his power, straining until sweat beaded on his brow, but nothing changed, nothing became clear. “I’m sorry, master, I don’t know what you want me to say. I don’t understand.” He let go a long breath, closed his eyes, and bowed his head. He had chores to do.
Before he got to his feet, however, he raised his eyes and looked one last time at the flower. And this time, in a wordless stillness that stretched on forever, he looked and he saw — and he smiled. When he looked up grinning at Siddhartha, the Buddha was smiling too.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Hush now, give it time.”
“Shh, child. Stop talking.”
“Stop talking and you’ll see.”
The man sat very still in the passenger seat, thinking on the sorry sequence of events that had led him here. As rain pattered against the roof of the car, he felt a sort of removal from the whole thing, like he was watching a tired re-run. Inside the Chili’s, the work party rolled on without them. The little blonde in the driver’s seat continued to sob, and the Brian Jonestown Massacre continued over her speakers:
“You should be picking me up…”
“Hey now,” he reached out a hesitant hand and placed it on her shoulder. “Come on now.” She undid her seat belt and laid her head in his lap.
“Instead you’re dragging me down…”
Hm, he thought. Not ideal. “Shouldn’t we go inside? The crying shuddered slowly to a stop. She sniffled, then said something muffled into his crotch. “What?” he asked.
“I don’t want to.”
“Then why did you come?”
There was a long silence down there, and some more sniffling and inaudible mumbling. That would be quite a thing to explain if anybody asked, that raccoon face of wet across his front. Finally it came, in a tiny mouse voice, just barely audible over the music, “I miss him.”
“Christ.” He sighed. “Fair enough.”
She sat up and smeared a hand across her face, wiping equal parts make-up and snot, before reaching again for the bottle. He’d already said his piece about the bottle, there was nothing more to add. She took a pull, used the back of her hand at the corner of each eye, then leaned against the window.
“Listen,” he said, “I get it, trust me, I really do. But this is terrible. You need to either let me drive you home, or go inside.” She rolled her eyes and groaned. “Look, if you go in there and get what you want, it’ll happen immediately. If you don’t, and you’re brave enough to see it, you’ll know that immediately as well.”
He reached across and pulled the handle of her car door. “Well?” he asked, as the door swung open. “Either I’m driving, or you’re going inside. Gotta get out, one way or the other.”
She looked her chin down into her chest, then tilted her face to the side, then slowly up to look at him. Her blue eyes, bleary with crying and drink, ringed with smeared mascara, half hidden behind the strands of blonde fringe, were surprisingly lucid. “Alright.” She screwed the lid on the bottle, tucked it under her seat, and dabbed at her makeup in the rear-view mirror. “Alright,” she said again. Then she took a deep breath.
He watched her walk across the parking lot, more poised on those black heels than he would have expected. She stopped before the door, tossed her hair over her shoulder, and looked back at the car. His heart hurt a little in his chest. Good luck, he mouthed, knowing she couldn’t see him. She went inside. He got into the driver’s seat and turned up the music:
“Now that you’re not around… Now that you’re not around… Glad that you’re not around…”
And there she was again. The door slammed shut behind her, and she went fishing under his seat for the bottle. “You were right,” she said, “I could tell.” She took a long, gulping drink. “Let’s go.“ He pulled out of the parking lot.
“Which way is home?” he asked. She pointed. After a while they left the street lights behind, and the country road began meandering through alternating vistas of darkened forest, then corn fields, then forest again. “There,” she said, as they entered another break in the trees. He pulled up in front of a little one-story house with an over-grown lawn and some rusted junk out back. The kind of house that looks like a trailer, but with a cement foundation. Lights were on inside.
“I’ll take your car back to mine and leave it there. You can get a ride in tomorrow?” She nodded. “You mind if I talk for a minute?” She shook her head.
“What you’re feeling? That sensation in your gut, like it’s about to split you open and spill out your intestines? I don’t know what it is, specifically, but it’s not love. Not anymore, not really. It’s rejection, and it’s fear, and it’s self-loathing, and it’s loneliness, and more than anything it’s the loss of a savior. But that pain isn’t love, and there are no saviors. You have to save yourself.”
She looked at him for a long moment, those blood-shot eyes — rimmed by mascara, half-hidden by the fringe — older than they seemed. “You’re wrong,” she said, “And what’s more, you’re kind of an asshole. But thanks, I guess, for trying.” She got out and let the door click shut behind her.
“I’ve got some pills, I’ve got a bottle of wine… and I’m feeling fine… I don’t miss you, no, I don’t miss you at all…”
He sat there parked by the road, listening, rubbing a hand over the stubble on his chin. Rain drummed softly against the roof, and in the distance lightning lit the sky. As he counted seconds and waited for the thunder, he suddenly felt very alone.
He pulled his little skiff up on the shore and shipped the oars. It was a small island like all the others, but in the middle there was a little forest. He walked up from the beach and found himself in a beautiful grotto. Soft, filtered sunlight trickled through the leaves and a brook gurgled crisp and clear beneath his feet. In the middle of the clearing there was a large rock, and seated cross-legged upon this rock was a wrinkled old man.
“Hey!” he said to the man.
“Hello,” the old man said.
“…Hey!” he said again. The man raised a bushy white eyebrow. “Are there any peacocks on this island?”
“Yes,” the old man said, “there’s one over there.” He followed the man’s gaze and indeed, there was a sleek green peacock drinking from the stream across the clearing. He strode over to the creature and gripped it by the head.
“Don’t do it,” the old man offered. He looked at the man, then the bird, which was now looking at him. Then the man again, then the bird. He took out his knife. “I’m telling you,” the old man offered again, “don’t do it.” He cut its throat.
The peacock gurgled and went slack beneath his hand. He pulled its slit neck to his mouth and drank as much of the gushing blood as he could, pausing for breaths. Then he stopped and looked at the old man. He was covered in blood.
“I don’t feel anything.”
“Of course not.”
“Are there any more peacocks?”
“That was the last one.”
“How do you know?”
“I killed the others.”
“Oh.” He looked down and let the dead peacock fall to the grass. “Well I need more blood, that’s the cure.”
“Who told you that?”
He scratched the back of his neck with the tip of his knife. “You know? I can’t remember.”
“What’s the cure for?”
“I… don’t actually know.” He hazarded a quick glance at the dead bird. His mouth went flat and he let go a little sigh. “This is a dream, isn’t it.”
“What do you think?”
“Well then who am I?”
“That’s the first intelligent question you’ve asked.
“Yeah, but who am I, really? I have to know.”
“Have you learned anything?”
“No, to be honest, I’m very confused. All of this is very confusing. What’s wrong with me? Why do I need a cure? Why did I think it was blood?”
The old man raised a bushy eyebrow, stroked his chin, and nodded.
“No, wait, please—“
He woke up and there she was. He watched her chest rise and fall evenly in her sleep. Outside their little house, the rising winds of a great storm blew trash across the yard. He eased himself out of bed and looked down at her. He saw her then as he had first seen her all those years ago, laughing, dancing, smiling—smiling at him. Choosing him. He should never have killed that bird.
Somewhere inside him a crack split his ball of anger. First one, then many, until spidering in all directions they covered the whole hardened mass. Then it broke. He laid his anger down in pieces and in its place found only sadness — she was his best friend. He reached down and brushed the hair from her eyes. Outside it began to pour.
Who was he? What was wrong with him? He didn’t know. There was work to be done, and he resolved to do it in kindness. He stepped out into the storm. As he walked, lightning struck the ground all around him. Trees ripped from the earth and went flying. He was terrified. He stopped and looked back at the house. He was absolutely terrified.
In the darkness at the top of the world is a cave. Inside this cave, beneath the billowing snow, a series of spidering corridors slope miles down into the earth. Follow them down, avoiding the dead ends and hidden gaps that drop off into sudden bottomless darkness, and you arrive in a huge vaulted chamber. A long line of hewn steps lead upwards to the far wall. There, in frozen silence, lies something entombed in the ice. Something long dormant. As you watch, it opens its eyes.
Franklin awoke in a sweat. He shook his head, rubbed his face, and went to take a shower. Soon he was seated in a coffee shop with a large mug, an open notebook, and a pencil in his hand. His mouth had bunched at one corner and his tongue peeked out as he worked.
“That’s not bad. What is it?” Franklin looked up and found the owner of the voice. She wore glasses, had pale white skin and long red hair. She was pretty, but what attracted his attention were her eyes. Curious and alert and green as salad leaves.
“It’s a face from a dream I keep having.” He showed her the notepad. There was a sunken, skeletal face on the page, done in pencil. She studied it for a moment, tugging at her hair.
“It scares me,” she said.
“Me too,” said Franklin.
“Why are the eyes the only bits with color?”
“Because that’s how it is.” There was a pause. “I like your eyes, they’re like salad greens.” She looked at him for a minute, weighing that comment. Finally she stuck out her hand.
“My name’s Abigail.” He took it.
“Nice to meet you, Abigail. I’m Franklin.”
“Well Franklin, it’s been weird. I’ll be seeing you.”
“I’ll be seeing you, Abigail.”
There was blood in the cave. In the chamber below, where once had been sheer wall, now was a cracked and empty fissure. On the floor of the cave lay a fox. Crouched over it sat the creature, looking up, squinting. The animal whimpered, and the creature bent back to its ripping. Blood dripped from the fox and ran to collect in a pool on the floor. Outside the cave, great drifts of snow shifted and fell. Outside the cave, the wind sounded like screaming.
“I thought I might find you here.” Franklin looked up from his seat at the coffee shop and saw Abigail. “Still drawing?” He looked down at the pad.
She took a seat and pulled the notebook from his hands. He let it go without protest. Flipping through the pages, her eyes narrowed. “You’re obsessed. This isn’t healthy.”
He took the notebook back and closed it. “What do you do, Abigail?”
“I’m a sort of permanent temp. Answering phones, word processing, filing, that sort of stuff. It’s terrible.”
“That’s not what I meant. In a perfect world, if you could do anything, what would you do?”
She thought about that for a while. “You know, I don’t know. I always wanted to be rich. Being rich means I don’t have to do anything. I guess that’s it, I would do nothing.” She laughed. “What about you?”
Franklin met her gaze. “I would do something great. Something perfect.”
“Something great, huh. Like what? Like composing a masterpiece?”
“Like saving the world?”
“Some people say Hitler was great. Not good, you know, but when you look at what he did, all the people he killed, all that power. Great.”
“Yes, that’s a kind of greatness.”
Abigail looked at him. “You’re weird, Franklin. Did I say that yet?”
“Yes, a couple of times.”
“Well, I gotta go. Good luck with greatness.”
“Thanks. Good luck with nothing.”
She gave him a wry look. “Yeah. Thanks, dick.”
“I’ll be seeing you, Abigail.”
The creature was working. Bones littered the floor of the cave, and a layer of frozen blood lay black on the ground like a carpet. The creature sat on its haunches, fashioning something of the bones, binding them together with strips of sinew and tendon. As each segment was completed it was jointed to the others. In the endless night that was this place, something began to take form in the darkness.
“Put that down, I want to show you something.” Franklin closed his notebook and stood up. Abigail took his hand and led him from the coffee shop. They walked a few blocks in silence, hand in hand. Then Abigail stopped. “There.”
Franklin followed her gaze and saw the pillared facade of a famous hotel. He gave her a quizzical look. “Inside,” she said. She tugged him in through the swinging doors. The lobby was massive, with marble floors and a large fountain in the middle. She pulled him through and past the fountain, and there before them was a grand piano.
“They let me play sometimes, when nobody is using it.” She let go his hand and went and sat on the bench. Holding her hands up before her, she wiggled her fingers. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Franklin said. She closed her eyes and began to play. It was beautiful. She played like one born to it, effortlessly, years of practice dissolving before his eyes. Time slowed and distorted, he had no idea how long she played for. When it was over a warm sadness washed over him. “That was beautiful, Abigail.”
“Thank you. Now take me home.”
She smiled. “Because I want to see yours.”
The creature sat a throne of bones. The storm outside howled and lightning lit the sky. Tremors rocked the earth as the ground rent and buckled underfoot. Its skeletal jaws cracked open impossibly wide, and a churning inky darkness came flowing from its mouth. The darkness filled the cave, teetered for a moment, then rolled squirming over the edge. As the wind screamed and raged, it poured out into the world.
Once there were two bears in a part of the world where man had not yet come. Bears are scarce and lonely creatures, but somehow these two found each other. They shared a cave and the boy bear slept with his head on the girl bear’s flank. Outside there gurgled a cold stream, full of fish. In the meadow there were berries and down the mountain there was honey. They were happy. Then man arrived.
First in great trucks they came to clear the trees. Then in smaller machines to lay smooth black paths through the forest. Then in station wagons with wives and children. They came and they stayed. In time the birds fled, the smaller animals disappeared and the forest grew quiet but for the sounds of the great machines. The bears, for the most part, took no notice. They fished and foraged and the boy bear slept against the girl bear’s flank as before. Then one day the boy bear was pulling fish from a stream and he stopped and raised his snout. There was a scent. He turned and saw them.
Two men, wearing red and black flannel, stood watching him. They carried shaped sticks. In that soundless quiet they stood, looking at each other, for what seemed a long time. Then one of the men raised his stick and it barked. There was a flash of light and the boy bear felt something sharp bite him in the shoulder. He roared. He charged. The fury was on him and the world dimmed to one fast-approaching face. He destroyed it. He took the head. When the red mists cleared the other man was gone and he stood looking down at the gory mess. Then he went home, laid his head against the girl bear’s flank and he slept.
The next day they were fishing their stream together when the net came down. The boy bear was trapped and the fibrous ropes defied the rending of his claws. The girl bear, panicked, tried to bite through his bonds. Many shaped sticks barked at once and she reared up in pain. The sticks barked again and swarming with burning bites she turned and ran. She retreated to a safe distance where she watched the men drag the boy bear away. That night she slept alone on the stone floor of their cave. Her bites itched and her bare flank was cold.
The boy bear awoke in a large enclosure. There was grass and there were trees and a man came each day to feed him dead fish from a bucket. He passed many days here. It wasn’t terrible, but neither was it good. The days here felt unnatural, he missed the girl bear and he missed the freedom of the forest. One day he looked at the outer wall of the enclosure and really saw it for the first time. All day he sat looking at it. When night fell he scaled a tree and leapt to the top of the wall. His claws scrabbled on the hard surface, then found purchase. He hung there, an odd sight, then slowly pulled his bulk up and over.
He landed on the other side in some sort of nightmare. Everywhere and everything was the smooth hardness that man had brought to the forest. He snuffled along, looking for a scent, not of the enclosure and not of man. He found it and followed it to a large, hard box. There was a glinting in one of the holes in the box and he pushed his snout up against it and peered inside. There was a man, sitting in a chair, rocking back and forth with an animal by his side. The man saw him and both paused. Then the man reached for something.
The bear watched, confused, as the man raised the shaped stick and it barked. The clear thing covering the opening shattered and he felt the bite. This time it was his eye. He roared in pain and confusion and lurched backwards from the box. Sounds of yelling and commotion came from within as he stumbled down the street, trailing blood from his useless socket. Lights came on, first yellow in unreal day, then blue and white. He was surrounded by these lights and they blinded him. He lurched drunkenly side to side, but everywhere he turned there were lights. He heard the voices of men and the barking of sticks. His side lit up in pain. He ran.
He crashed through the line of men and the first face he saw was a little one. He roared and took the head. Sticks barked and he lurched up and forward again. The sounds of machines filled his ears and the flashing lights were in his eye. Overhead, a whirring sound preceded the coming of another machine, a flying machine. This too barked, a terrible rapid barking, and pieces of the smoothness around him erupted in flying chunks. He charged around a corner and there was the forest.
He thought of the cave, the cold stream outside full of fish. He thought of the meadow, the tall grass and the honey. He thought of the girl bear and her warm flank. He was suddenly very tired. These pictures flicked one after another through his brain as he gripped the smoothness and pulled for the tree-line. He made it about halfway. Then an awful roaring supplanted the earth and everything went black all at once.
After much debate, they took the boy bear, scarred and missing an eye, way, way up into the Northern woods. A different woods, a far woods. They took him there, where man had not yet come, and they left his body in a clearing where the song-birds still lived, and where small animals came up to nuzzle him. In time, he awakened. He dragged himself downhill, found a stream and ate some fish. He crawled back uphill, found a cave and slept in it. The leaves were auburn and gold and a damp chill hung in the air. In the morning he pulled his battered body to the lip of the cave and looked south.
The girl bear didn’t know what to do. The autumn days passed and she did her best to avoid the encroachments of man. Sometimes she caught their scent or heard their machines and always she hid or moved on. Each night she slept her flank was cold and each morning she rose to an empty cave. She caught fish, ate berries and honey, and grew full for the coming winter. With a heavy heart, as the first snows drifted down to re-paint the worlds of bear and man alike, she went to sleep.
When she awoke months later there was a familiar weight against her flank. She placed a hand on his head and brushed the fur from his tattered eye. He nuzzled against her as outside the cave the song-birds sang their returning. She smiled and let him sleep. It was spring.
The man was sitting on the bridge looking down at the water when he saw the faery. It was a little white ball, almost fuzzy, drifting up towards him. It rose until it was on a level with him and then it stopped. “What are you doing?” It asked.
He looked down at the paper in his hands. “It’s all over.” The ball of light transcribed a little circle in the air; there was some kind of emotion in the maneuver but he couldn’t tell what it was.
“Are you going to jump?”
The man looked down at the water and sighed. “I’m tired. Tired of this, tired of everything. I’m sick of feeling this way.”
“Maybe I can help.”
“How?” He squinted at the ball.
“I can free you from that body. You can be like me.” The ball transcribed another circle in the air. The man thought the emotion might be excitement. He thought about it for a while, the two of them sitting there in silence. His stomach ached and his chest was tight. He thought about walking home, about his apartment, about going home and being alone. He looked up at the ball. It was hanging suspended in the air, light and ethereal and free.
“If I change my mind, can I go back?”
“Of course,” the ball said. “You just slip right back in. Flesh is easy to operate once you know what to do.”
“So, what do I do?”
“Just close your eyes. Relax. Let me inside and I’ll do the rest.” The man closed his eyes and felt the brightness of the ball coming closer. He took in a long deep breath and let it go slowly. The light beyond his eyes grew and grew until it no longer felt like it was outside his eyelids. Somewhere deep inside him a connecting piece of something snapped. Then another. Then another. In rapid succession, restraints he had never known severed and whipped away from a part of himself he had never recognized as his center. Then it was done.
The light faded and he found himself floating next to the ball, looking at his body. The head and shoulders lay slumped forward over the paunch and the mouth hung open, slack and gaping. He was free. A young couple holding hands came strolling along the bridge. “What color am I?” He asked the ball of white light.
He tried moving and found it effortless. He floated over to the young couple. “Hey there,” he said. They stopped and turned to the water. Looking right through him, they spoke in murmurs to each other. “Hey,” he said again. He couldn’t seem to make out what they were saying. The words didn’t separate or form up together for some reason.
“They can’t hear you.” The ball of white light was at his side. “Only the really desperate can see us. It takes a certain confluence of time and place and person. That’s why I was so excited to find you.”
“Hmm.” He thought about this. Weighed it. “I feel so light. What happens now? What can I do?”
“Ah, you can do this!”
The ball of white light transcribed another circle, then rocketed suddenly upwards. He made a little circle of his own, then fired off after it. The two lights blazed up into the night, into the low cloud cover, on through the glowing moonlit vapor, then burst forth into the airy ether of the atmosphere above the world, shining purple and white. The stars winked in brilliance and the moon bathed the cloudy floor below them in light. He was free. He tried to laugh but realized he had no voice. He tried to smile but no longer had a mouth. Instead he made a circle. It wasn’t as good. The ball of white light dropped away.
He looked down and watched it for a second, racing back towards the earth, then he turned to follow. Back down into the clouds, then through, then out into the low night and on towards the bridge. He tried to catch up but wasn’t fast enough. It got there first.
He floated there before himself, trying to think, trying to take it all back. He tried to get inside but couldn’t. He tried to yell but couldn’t. He made a circle. His body sat there, inert, slouched over itself. He made a circle. There was a flash of white light in the eyes, then they blinked and the head came up. His face looked right through him. He made a circle. It crumpled up the paper and threw it off the bridge. Then it lumbered to its feet and walked away.
He followed it, wandering at random through the city, touching things, licking its fingers. More than once it stopped for no reason and began to laugh. Eventually, the panic fading, he gave it up. Anyways he knew where it lived. Instead he drifted back to the bridge and settled in to watch the young couple. They looked like they were fighting. There would be others, he thought. This would be fine.
A single hanging bulb illuminates the center of the room, where a man stands in the small circle of light. Eyes wide and breathing shallow, he studies the darkness beyond his vision. Spinning slowly, warily, he searches for movement in the shadows. The camera begins a slow pan out. It looks down on the vacant adjoining rooms. Then the whole deserted asylum. Then the un-worked fields surrounding it. Picking up speed it looks down on a deserted city. Still gaining speed it takes in an entire empty continent. Now it has reached the edge of the atmosphere and stares down at a dark planet. Growing exponentially faster it reaches the edge of a lightless solar system. As it reaches the limit of an empty galaxy, the man looks upwards after the tiny receding dot of light. When it reaches the end of existence, there is a moment of stillness. Then the hanging bulb winks out.
“What are you?” She asks again.
I pull on my cigarette, exhaling smoke in a low, expanding cloud. Christ, what a question. I’m the latest success story in a long line of champion-caliber sperm. An improbable moralizing animal on the crust of a flying rock. A single speck of matter in an empty and expanding universe. I’m being shitty and I know it. She looks perplexed by my silence.
“You know, like, what do you do?” She asks, rephrasing the question. She seems genuinely curious. She hasn’t touched her martini.
“I drink,” I say. Her eyes widen slightly, surprise or anger I can’t tell. “What are you?” I ask.
“I’m regional sales manager for—“ I cut her off with a wave.
“Drink,” I say.
I recall an autumn morning in a small town where the leaves were changing. The weather was growing colder, but winter had not yet arrived, and the world had a brisk crispness to it. I sat outside in the cold sun and drank a cup of coffee. You were there with me and had a cup of your own. We sat together and sipped our steaming drinks. It was nice, I still remember it.
You will tell me, of course, that I remember this wrong, and perhaps that’s so. But I prefer my version to yours, so that’s how I’ll choose to keep it. Memories, after a point, become choice. This is one of the beautiful things in life. We are sparks, mere flashes on the scales on which we exist, scales so vast and so tiny we cannot comprehend them. Yet in that flash, we are everything. For that speck of time, our lives become existence and we ourselves something fantastic.
On that autumn morning I described to you a huge, placid lake. I said then that for the vast majority of existence we are simply the atoms composing the water of this lake. And in that, as a part of this magnificent whole, we are beautiful, though we lack the capacity to realize it. Then something happens. For some unknown reason, by some phantom hand, we are pushed upwards. And as we rise, we coalesce, we take shape. As we near the surface, a face appears, eyes open.
Then suddenly we break the plane, burst forth and open our mouths. We gasp, one giant frightful gasp of air, and our wide eyes are granted sight. We see the lake beneath us, we see the sky above us, we see life around us. Finally, we look down and see ourselves, separated somehow from the universe. And it is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. But things change.
We begin to thrash about, claw at the water, try to propel ourselves beyond the surface of the lake. We lean on other gasping faces, shove them back down, attempt to fly. But water cannot fly. The momentum from our push thrusts us out, our heads, however briefly, crest above the surface. Then the arc continues, our momentum fails, and we slip back down. We return to how it always was, how it always will be. When we return to the water we lack even the capacity to lament what we’ve lost. There is comfort in this. We go home.
And we sat and drank our coffee, on that cold autumn morning, and we spoke of this. And on that day we first heard the news, of the rise of the end, though you of course will dispute the timing of the announcement. But I prefer to remember it this way. We finished our coffee and our talk, then we heard. Memory, after a point, becomes choice, and I shall exercise mine with a smile, for as long as I am able. So goodbye my friend. I regret nothing and neither should you, for we have been luckier than we could possibly have hoped for. Luckier than the moon, the sun, and the stars. Please, don’t be sad. Though we won’t know it, we will soon be home.
I should never have come, I knew that now. Peter wiped his mouth and broke the silence. “Start-up costs, that’s where they kill you.”
“Mm” I said, forking up the last of my salmon.
“You think you’ve got this golden idea, and you’re not wrong. But then you realize what it takes to get it off the ground. The loan, the building, permits, everything.”
“Do you feel that?” The ground was shaking.
“It’s just a plane taking off.” He gestured. “There’s so many it makes your head spin. Most people you meet are dead in the water and don’t even know it.” I could see the water in my glass vibrating.
“I dunno, Peter—“
“Pete, please, you’re the only one who calls me Peter anymore.”
I sighed. “I dunno, Pete. Seems like you have to take the risk, these things never happen on their own. I mean look, you’re paying for this meal.”
”Sure,” he reflected, inspecting the end of his tie. “But I’m different, I’m a predator. I kill to eat.
“I guess ,” I said.
“You have to understand that.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Where is she now?”
“I don’t know.” I didn’t want to say that. I didn’t want to be here at all. I looked down and watched my water shiver in its glass. He was wrong of course, I understood that much. Planes have pilots; planes take off. The earth shook and the windows rattled in their frames. I could feel it. It was coming straight towards me.
The sun came in through the blinds, causing him to stir. “A.C. wake up.” He groaned and shifted his weight. “C’mon, wake up.” Little hands pushed at him. He opened his eyes and looked at the boy sitting on his bed. He wore a fluffy, oversized robe and a serious expression. A.C. waved a vague hand in his direction.
“Yeah, Luke, I know. I’m up. Just give me a minute.” The boy nodded, climbed down off the bed and went downstairs. A.C. took his time putting on sweatpants and a t-shirt, then followed him down, yawning and scratching his belly. Luke sat at the table eating cereal from a big bowl with a big spoon, gripping it near the middle.
A.C. sat down heavily. A puppy came bounding from the other room and leapt into his lap. He rubbed its belly and scratched behind its ears. “Hey buddy,” he said to the dog, then looked up to include Luke. “Can you be ready in ten? We’re late.”
“Yep.” Luke stood and went to the kitchen. A.C. heard the clatter of dishes and running water. “Hey A.C.,” the little voice came from the kitchen, “when are you going back to work?” Leaning back, A.C. closed his eyes, scratched the dog’s ears and let go a long breath.
“I don’t know.” The water stopped and Luke came to stand in the doorway, a dishtowel over his shoulder. He cocked his head and looked at A.C, but didn’t say anything. Then he went back to the kitchen and started making a sandwich for lunch.
An hour later, the old station wagon pulled to a stop before the school. “I’ll be back at three, make it your bee’s wax to be here, kiddo.” Luke didn’t say anything for a minute, just gave him a long, serious look. Then he leaned over and kissed his cheek. A.C. watched him run off, backpack bouncing and lunchbox swinging at his side. That look bothered him. He put the car in gear and pulled out of the parking lot.
A.C. sat at the picnic table on the lawn outside the house. The puppy ran past, chasing a blowing leaf. He peered up at the cloudless winter sky and shivered. When he looked down a centipede was crawling along the surface of the table. He resisted the urge to move his hand, instead letting it walk up to his fingers. It poked at him with its antennae for a moment, then crawled upwards. He felt the strange sensation of its legs on his skin. It wasn’t so bad, he thought. It started crawling up his palm, but as it neared the cuff of his shirt he jerked his arm and shook it off.
Around two thirty he went to pick up Luke. By the time they got home it was dark. A.C. carried two big boxes into the house, while at his side Luke struggled along with a third. They set them down heavily and stood, panting and looking at each other. The dog came running up and sniffed at the cardboard. “Scat, buster.”
Luke went into the kitchen. “What do you want for dinner?”
“I don’t care, whatever you want.”
“OK.” The gas stove flamed to life and A.C. heard the sound of running water, then a clank as Luke set a pot on the burner. He mixed a drink and sat on the sofa, his feet up on one of the boxes. They were dusty, it looked like they’d been in storage for some time. He sat and sipped his drink, gazing vacantly out the window as Luke boiled macaroni. It was snowing, he noticed.
They ate quietly at the table, Luke sipping his milk, A.C. his drink. “This is delicious, kiddo, thank you,” he said through a mouthful. Luke looked up, but didn’t say anything.
After dinner they did the dishes together, then went and sat on the floor next to the boxes. Luke took a binder out of his backpack and opened it over the top of a box. He worked on his math homework as A.C. watched the ice melt in his drink. When it was gone he made another. Then another. Luke carried on doing math problems while outside the snow fell in silence. Everything was still. The phone rang and A.C. picked it up.
“Hello?” He was quiet for a while, listening. “No, we haven’t seen anything. Yes, I’m sure. Alright, I’ll keep an eye out.” He hung up and turned to Luke. “That was the sheriff. Says he’s been getting some strange calls recently about an animal. Thinks it’s probably just a coyote, but wanted to let us know.”
He looked around. “I dunno, haven’t seen him since we got home.”
“Me neither.” They checked the bedroom, the closets, under the sink. It was a small house, and the dog wasn’t in it.
“Did you close the door when we came in?” A.C. asked.
“I think so, didn’t I?” They went to check, and found the door unlatched. A chill wind was blowing in through the crack. A.C. pushed the door open and the light from the kitchen illuminated a small patch of snow-covered ground. They both looked out at the darkness as the snow continued to fall. Luke shivered.
“It’s okay, kiddo, you were helping me carry boxes. Go finish your homework, I’m sure Edgar will turn up.” Luke looked at him, but didn’t say anything.
When he finished his math homework Luke got up and brushed his teeth. Then he took a bath. A.C. listened to him splashing around, then heard him drain the tub, dry himself and get into bed. He got up and went into the bedroom to turn off the light. As he was about to close the door he heard Luke’s little voice. “A.C?”
“Can I hear your lullaby one time? Say it for Edgar and me.”
“Yeah, alright. One time.” A.C. sat on the edge of the bed. In a low, quiet voice, he began:
“Soothing rhythms bred from they
who read these words aloud as day
fades the harshest squirmings cease
so rest my child and dream of peace.”
Luke’s eyes were closed as A.C. stepped quietly into the hall and closed the door. He went back to the living room, mixed another drink, and sat down with his feet on a box. The snow fell unrelenting outside the window. He sipped his drink and watched it until his eyes grew heavy and he drifted off to sleep.
In the middle of the night he opened his eyes. The house was dark and cold and still, but he had the uneasy feeling something had woken him. There it was–a faint growling coming from outside. Then a yelp. Then silence. He rose slowly to his feet, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and went to check. When he opened the door he stopped. In the darkness near the edge of the light was his dog.
Edgar was lying in a pool of blood, his stomach ripped open, one leg twitching. A.C. stepped out and gathered the little body in his arms. Gazing all around him he saw nothing, only falling snow. He took him back inside, locked the door and threw the bolt. In the hopes of sparing Luke, he wrapped the corpse in an old towel and hid it under the sink. He took the bottle of vodka with him into the living room.
He took the top off one of the boxes and sat for a long time looking at pictures. An elderly couple, smiling. A young woman, beautiful, her arms wrapped around a young him. He pulled out a CD and blew off the dust. When he got up and put it on the melody came to him, heavy, laden with old feeling.
What was the name of this song? He unscrewed the vodka, sank back into the cushions and took a long drink. Then another. He couldn’t remember. He knew it was in his brain somewhere, but he couldn’t think of it. It wouldn’t come. For some reason this made him want to cry.
Rising on unsteady legs, he walked to the bedroom. When he opened the door Luke was awake, watching him with his serious little eyes. He leaned sloppily against the doorframe. “Luke. Little Luke. The world is going to eat you up.”
“I know, A.C.”
“Well good. Move over.” Luke slid over and A.C. got in beside him. “Don’t worry,” he murmured, “it’s going to eat me first.” Luke reached out a hand and placed it flat on A.C.’s chest. He felt the heart beat slow beneath his palm.
“You shouldn’t say things like that to me.”
A.C. didn’t say anything to anyone, just took a long drink and set the bottle by the bed. Eventually they both fell asleep.
Outside, in the darkness and snow, something sat watching the house. In no particular hurry, it licked the blood off its lips. Then it sat very still.
I was bumming around with Em, years ago, sitting on a bench at a little park. It was autumn and cold and there were no kids around. We were just sitting there without talking, there was nothing more to say. Over her shoulder I saw a little playground with some plastic animals set on springs. I got up and walked over there and she followed me. We both took an animal and started rocking back and forth. Hers was a dragon. Mine was a sea horse.
“Are we old?” She asked.
“No,” I said, “not yet.”
“I feel old.” She shivered beneath her coat.
We sat there side by side, rocking gently back and forth. I tried to reach out and touch her, but she bent sideways on her spring, so I stopped. A breeze blew some dry leaves off the trees and they settled on the ground around us. I was looking at them when I saw the kid. He was standing by the swings, one arm looped around the pole, just looking at us. Well, he wasn’t looking at us exactly, he was looking at our animals.
“Can I try?”
“Yeah dude, knock yourself out.” He came walking up to my sea horse and put a hand on its curved plastic tail. I stepped off with one leg, but my pants caught in the spring. The horse pulled forward with me as I tugged. When I yanked it free the horse jumped up.
Em gasped. My hands rose of their own volition and gripped my hair. “Oh shit.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Oh my god, look at him. Something’s wrong with him.”
She was right, something was wrong. I went over, crouched down and looked at him lying there. The fingers of one hand were clenching and unclenching, like an insect without its head. I looked at his little ribs. “He’s breathing.”
“Why did you do that?” She asked again. She wasn’t looking at the kid anymore, she was looking at me. I wasn’t going to answer a question like that. It was cold and the dying leaves rustled on their branches. Another one broke and came drifting down.
I was tired of everything and I think she was too. We were sitting on a park bench drinking, sometime in the late afternoon. My old nemesis the sun was still too bright but fading. She handed me the little pint bottle and I finished it.
“It’s too bad you’re such a selfish bastard,” she said as she leaned back. Her heart wasn’t in it though. I looked down at the empty bottle then back at her and shrugged.
“Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. You’re very beautiful, you know that?” Her head was back against the bench and her eyes were closed. She barely moved. Just slow breaths.
“Shut up with that.”
I left her there and went to the shop. When I got back she was asleep on the grass. I lay down next to her, opened the bottle and lit a cigarette. One arm behind my head, feet crossed on the grass, I listened to her breathing. The sun was setting and the sky was changing colors. Not too bad, I thought. Not too bad at all.
The dragonfly hovered, then settled on the snowy railing. He watched it sit and stretch its wings, graceful, full of dignity. It was night and dark and soft snowflakes fell in silence. It was a perfect little thing, he thought, this dragonfly. The deck shook under steps and a shadow fell across them both.
“Fuck you, Carver.” He looked up at the face, cast in shadow by the porch light behind it.
“What?” He was very drunk.
“I said fuck you, Carver, you little bitch, why are you even here?” He couldn’t remember what he had done. His whole body felt numb and he lifted his cup to his mouth. The shadow reached out and knocked the cup from his hand. It hit his lip on the way down and spilled beer all over his shirt. He stood there, dripping and rubbing his lip.
“Well, get the fuck out of my house, how about that? Stop drinking my beer, stop trying to talk to my girl, just get the fuck out of here. Why are you even here?”
Oh right, the girl. He wished he weren’t so drunk. There was another shadow behind the shadow, this one smaller, with long hair. “Hey.” He lifted a hand and sort of waved.
The fist came quickly, but he was calm. He figured there were a number of ways this could go. It seemed strange that the punch hadn’t connected yet, so he ducked. It whistled over his head, but he had ducked so far down, he now found himself in a sort of awkward crouch. It was strange, he wanted to giggle.
He was at shoe level now, and there were two right in front of him. They were slipping in the light dusting of snow, sliding away from him. As he rose up from his crouch he felt a great weight press down on his back, then it was gone. He heard a shout and a crash. Rubbing an eye, he turned to look over the railing and saw a fresh black hole in the bushes below the deck. There was much shaking down there and what sounded like crying. He sort of felt like crying himself.
“Bye,” he said to the little long-haired shadow.
“Don’t talk to me,” the shadow said. “Why are you even here?”
He left. As he walked through the crowded party nobody noticed his beer-soaked shirt, in fact nobody noticed him at all. He wondered about dragonflies. Did they migrate? Hibernate? He couldn’t remember ever seeing one in the winter before. They couldn’t all just die when it got cold, could they? No, that was crazy, he thought, there must be some place they go.