Metempsychosis

 Cohis Brayhem stood at the edge of a pier in northern Ri’shurai. He was love-drunk and somewhat high. The waves of clean air awakened the small fibers of his skin, caressed his eyelashes, embraced him by the waist. He felt fulfilled in every way. Even the sun was sweet, like a mango resting in a dark basket. And the sky was cloudless and serene. Nameless birds arrowed traceless tracks close to the shore, up high. He had wandered there a thousand dreary nights, remembering her, remembering.
His lone shadow projected up the banks, to the city’s lowest markets. It was quiet there. He seemed made of dirt, as still and thin as an abandoned sign post. He visited the pier to make peace with tumultuous thoughts, and paranoia. The paranoia began when Imperial forces arrested his boss, Engul, and executed him, leaving the thieves in Ri’shurai with no obvious leadership. Brayhem worked for Engul for several years, and many jobs were entrusted him. Some would consider Brayhem powerful. But recently he took to raising chickens and pigs and butchering them and eating them. Not to procure a legitimate living (for he knew nothing of a legitimate living), but instead to avoid the poison of a potential enemy.
“You are no longer safe alone.” After years of working in Dream-tear, a city a hundred miles southwest, Istokleia, one of Engul’s distant associates, finally spoke to him directly.
“With every due respect, I was never safe,” replied Cohis.
“Granted. First things first. I need us on the same side.”
“I figure that,” said Cohis. He didn’t bother to face Istokleia. Although many young cutpurses rumored that to see her face would fatally hex you, he knew she marked targets for death by planting knives at their bedsides. He laughed, internally; that he owned no bed may have been a saving grace.
“For the connections you’ve established in Piraz-dai, Ataraxia — we hadn’t a foothold in those cities until you established them.”
“Sometimes I make myself valuable,” he said
“While I might express gratitude for cropping the path for me, Engul was a dear friend to me –”
“Not too dear, I imagine.”
“– and I can’t appear weak or naive.”
“You have already determined whether or not you can trust me.”
“Indeed. It’s true I don’t want you in this city any longer, coyote. In fact not even a night longer, only I wish to be fair.”
“Fair? You don’t know these streets, or its people. You have no authority here.”
“I payroll enforcers who would beg to differ.”
“As do I.”
“Where are they now?”
Cohis sighed. He pivoted nervously and glanced at Istokleia, except her face was hidden within his shadow. He discerned the melon-like scent of her oiled hair, and the tea on her breath, the grain ale. “I travel here alone,” he said, his voice suddenly quieter. He scanned his surroundings: in the distance, the strange silhouettes of men and women gathered. They descended from the markets, onto the shore. And waited well beyond the pier. They were not his soldiers.
“I told you, it is no longer safe.”
“Is this a threat or…?”
As Istokleia spoke, he interrupted her, and started pacing back and forth.
“Because they’re not close enough to save you, are they?” he hissed. “You’re a small fragile thing weighing against my wrath.”
“If you are at all wise — calm yourself,” she said. “Yes, they’re with me. But they will serve you at my say so.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You may know who I am, coyote, as well as I know you, by reputation.  I prefer low level criminals not know who I am. I need you to lead, in my stead, in my apparent absence. To speak for me, to communicate my will, to issue orders.”
“Aint shovin your fist up my ass to play me like some fuckin dummy,” he said and spat on her shoes. The people gathered on the shore approached the pier, slowly, a stone’s throw away.
“You won’t take the throne of the king even as it is empty?”
“I’m exhausted,” he admitted.
“Because you sleep with eyes half-open. With me, you would be untouchable.”
Cohis inhaled sharply. His limbs seemed to freeze in place. He shook his head, and tears lined his eye lids. What could she possibly know of his fear? Or loneliness?
“I am staying at the Engul’s estate, but a dark cloud descended upon that family and nothing seems capable of dispersing it. I’m overstaying my welcome, I can feel it, and have arranged a room at the Lunar Cradle, one with a warm view of the Myrrh, and sufficient privacy.”
She stepped away and bowed cordially, lifting slightly the hem of her elegant dark dress. Her face was startlingly beautiful to him, her skin honey-like and tanned, except for the scars. A circle the width of a fire poker dotted each of her cheeks.
In the company of trained killers whom he couldn’t identify, she left him then. Night time was close at hand and while the wind rustled the cypresses, and the gentlest waves sluiced through the sands, upon the planks Istokleia’s footfalls were perfecty silent.
*
Now the sun sinks into the horizon. Aurora rides atop a brown and white-spotted horse, with his cranky child Democricio stretching in his arms, all cried out. At night, the gates of Ri’shurai close, but a steep toll can briefly open them again. Aurora has a few coins in his pack. A change of clothes he tore to belt-like strips, a bit of water and milk and some fruit he crushed in its rind. There is also a secret gift from Princess Katreina: a key to a room in Ri’shurai, so that he and Democricio do not “live in squalor.”
Fortunately the gate is busy. He walks his horse to a stable and pays the man. At the gate he is asked his business and he answers honestly: artist, I paint mostly, to which the gatekeeper replies, there is no demand for your profession here. Aurora answers dishonestly: I have jobs set up already, and this seems to satisfy the gatekeeper and end the questioning.
On his initial visit, many years ago, Ri’shurai wasn’t as much of a city as it was the idea of a city, yet to be realized. Most of the planning was directed at stopping people from spreading sickness and disease so quickly in the poorer places of Ataraxia, but its multiplication in size and the diversity of its culture occurred mostly from northerners and eastern traders seeking a sedentary existence. There weren’t so many churches, temples, bars, gambling halls, hostels, or outdoor cooking huts. Shops open at dark was unknown then.
He hates this place, as it stands now or how it was then makes no difference, he hates the entire thing: its pervasive reek of fish feces and the salt of the Myrrh, the calmly suffocating mugginess that coats everything in an air of the dead and uninspired, a kind of hell where roofs leak and a shutter hangs off a hinge and flowers in the sills droop bug-bitten and ember-burned and sorrowful, it’s like the children don’t know how to smile, but they’re excellent scavengers — fatherless, motherless, they scuttle along the sand-colored streets with scraps of garbage in their mitts. As he passes by, they peer at him with the expressions of mischievous dogs.
Democricio sucks on Aurora’s milk-and-fruit drenched sleeve. The inn is quiet and well-lit and there are some strangers talking in a common room. Their room is up one flight of stairs and occupies a corner. Already awaiting him is a linen-lined basket within arms’ reach of a cot and there’s a wood-stove with a tidy pyramid of logs, and finally in the corner beside a window there is an easel, the sight of which warms his tense and swollen heart. He gently lets Democricio into the cradle and wraps him up in some soft linen so that finally the boy can get some rest.
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lammy and kayla

 

 

 

0

 

my shelter is the myometrium of a woman.

 

i am a placenta-wet baby, pink in the face, unable to breathe, crawl, or scream.

 

this is an alcohol-induced seizure.

 

i am twenty eight years old and have a sixty-six percent chance of dying.

 

the sirens wail. flashing ambulance lights fill my pupils like rushing rain water weighs down loose canopy.

 

i re-awake in the emergency room with no memory of how the night passed, or why i’d become so reckless.

 

temporarily i am frightened, self-loathing, cold. i am a dog with no owner to claim my ashes should i die.

 

in the morning i feel nothing in particular.

 

a pair of doctors condescendingly scold me for losing my place at the half-way house.

 

for now i am homeless.

 

my clothing and body have been cleaned of bile.

 

my cigarettes, photo id, and pocket knife are arranged on an aluminum night-stand.

 

i’m

 

“free to leave”

 

 

1

 

the reading streets swell like a bubble of dried blood, the swarm of mongers form one body the way cells create a fabric of skin. i am wounded, i ache, my skeleton shrinks and expands, i am insatiable. i pray.

 

my home is a red duffel bag i carry on my back, which i unfold like a tent beneath a creek-stone archway on sixth street, where vehicular traffic is no longer allowed, and where over the course of an hour i blow on the tip of a black man’s curved penis in exchange for a night and morning’s worth of ativan i crush with the handle of the knife and snort from underneath my overgrown pinky nail.

 

it is mid-winter, but the city street is remarkably warmer than i expect. the sky is a mud puddle devoid of star and moon. boys with puerto-rican accents are playing futbol in a field of slushing snow, their voices exhausting to incoherent murmurs, like the unsteady hum of a turned down radio. my mouth is dry. i feel snake-bitten. i relax like a corpse, wrapped in a chrysalis of sheets and blankets.

 

2

 

once upon a time i was a poet, like a shaman with no tradition, spelunking the dyed caves of my proto-hominid heart. i investigated stone-carved artifacts and, with resurrected spirits to guide me by lantern light, imposed meaning upon random arrangements.

 

this is how i became receptive to the vast external, and engendered ecstasy.

 

time. my destroyer. my body dissolves and forces my poetic spirit to escape the genocide of the drug.

 

3

 

i walk a windy path from the city of reading.

 

bask in a pre-dawn glow.

 

the mountains, pale blue during the day, are indigo like the chapped faces of american slaves.

 

4

 

once upon a time i cast a shadow

 

once upon a time i held a reflection

 

these were my best and closest friends.

 

perfectly entwined lovers, whose love i secretly coveted, and so vowed to annihilate.

 

i lacked compunction for the murder of my secondary and tertiary selves. i lacked compunction when i left no evidence my spirit imbued a body, my body imbued a soul.

 

5

 

what is the sound of a sunrise? i hear sirens, police cars and ambulance. take me to the hospital, i’m sick again.

 

the city of reading is dark now, in the daytime. the streets clutter with soundless people. at the bus stops, filthy with starbucks, pretzel factor wrappers, lak graffiti. this is a reading of sorts. i peer down at the time: seven in the morning. i am supposed to be on my way from one job to another, but i’ve abandoned both. miserable places. the boss at the warehouse said i’m through, and he calls the shots. go home and sleep, he said. it’s true i don’t sleep very much. not for weeks now.

 

on my wrist are little stick drawings, little heads with stilts for legs. we are holding hands. i think you drew them when we met. i retrace them every day in dark ink. you call them lammy and kayla. i believe they’re cute, or they used to be.

 

like you, they are as i imagine them now, and perhaps nothing like this when you drew them. i have a good memory but my memory doesn’t serve me. for how long did you say you’d be away? somehow you are in my home, in my heart and among my books, the tufts of sheets. in my home, and never meant to leave. this is torture. i can’t sleep because i imagine your scent on the linens. i wash the sheets in pouring rain, i’ve washed them several times. and will it rain, again tonight? you left me a note in french, but i speak no french.

 

6

 

the clouds will disperse with rain. it’s rained every day for two weeks. i hang beneath the archway for a while but the street’s become ugly. shadows cling to the pile of carhaarts and thermal underwear, ceramic shards of coffee cups swiped from the 9th street cafe.

 

each day opens like a raw scab, in reverse. “time is no healer; the patient is no longer here,” wrote eliot -and you carried the quartets the day we met, uttering how it’s the prettiest prayer you’d ever read. but i have to confess: my wounds are no christian wounds. this is no stigmata. in our dance, i cannot lead, only follow. like a dog lost and big-eyed, i sniff the trails and tracks of the places you used to roam.

 

the library, rundown and sad. teachers stand in mud puddles as if rooted trees climbing from a snake-like river, unmoving and unmovable in the drifting walls of rain. i slosh upstairs and down, my head tilted low around other people.

 

impossibilities compel me. you are not here like you were.

 

7

 

i stare at a book until the clerks lead me out and i skulk into the night. a strong wind sweeps away the clouds, revealing a white ash moonlight.

 

if kayla is a spirit and a body, she and i may still share a soul.

 

i am drifting. over slick black streets. golden and disparate lights glow under a dense fog. i float through el barrio: rime with the dogs barking, rime with the children crying, flit to the red light blinking green light yellow red light blinking.

 

8

 

memory is a fog now too. sit down.

 

there is a church with a jesus sculpture. he is as gentle as a lamb. what is it you want me to do?

 

i am piping but there is no dance.

 

9

 

“darkness is god / nothing distinct”

 

10

 

i care no more about god than my own body. i want you if it destroys me.

 

in the silhouetted willows of the park at night, i conjure your locks of hair, flattened in the wind. benches and cigarettes. i sit and i stand. i pace and patrol the alleys. i follow our footsteps, those when we were younger. i erase our steps so i can retrace them again. i follow our steps again. i watch kayla while i follow the steps again. she watches me retrace the steps, then somehow soon sleep embraces me.

 

what do you want me to do for you? says jesus, as gentle as a lamb.

 

11

 

i am a person

 

am i not a human being

 

12

 

how would romantic love fit into god’s mosaic, my weeping friend?

 

how am i happier without you than i am without her?

 

should i desire anything, or anyone?

 

sleepless night bad dark eyes caves brown blue green i change as you tell me to. something in my blood knows what you want.

 

hope is intangible: i cannot observe hope in any form. and when i cling to the intangible, i always end with nothing.

 

if i feel no pain now, may i say the same of love?

 

kayla washes off my arm, for the rain’s come again. i am left paralytic beneath the alley bridge like a heap of laundry. and every time i close my eyes, i find you. was there ever a wonder i’d so soon pray to you? for you? my eyes close. you. i want you here, so i’ve brought you here, i beg for you. you’re with me in all ways. i beg. i will close my eyes and allow the darkness. i will be abused by poverty. i will go hungry. i will piss myself, and drink until my eyelids flutter and the eyes bulge and swell from their sockets. kayla is gone and somehow she will have to return.

 

can you find me again, love? for you i am homeless

Solivoz and the Secret Heart

A Moribund Tale

The winding Path of Enlightenment bisects the City of Ataraxia, north from the eight villages, south through the three underground cities, and out to the canyon-cave dwellings. Sister Synthi awaits upon a bench where there is a white-budding cherry blossom tree and seeds scattered flatly at its base, attended by a flock of red-breasted, hook-beaked birds who carry the seeds to distant trees like customs passed from one generation to the next. She enjoys the scents of spring, the wisteria and dandelion pollen floating in the waves of breezes like breaths over soft brook rocks and fresh uncut wheat; the faint pine-needle and perfume smokes wafting from one of the Garden Snake havens, where whores mend the wounds of their criminal knights.

Only the marketers and their prey, chatting and chirping on the streets like linens on a wire give a quaint fullness to an otherwise empty, cobbled street. Sister Synthi opens wide an updated acupuncture anatomy text book, with special attention to body manipulations of pressure points. Within its folds is a crinkled up loose-leaf of a map indicating the hills outside of Ataraxia, and an unassuming gathering of cottages that furnace themselves from the Forest of Angels. Rumor express that under the blood moon their songs echo like the transient images of ghosts manifest out of the corner of an innocent’s eye.

Most are ignorant of Sister Synthi’s trade, which she plies frequently for no money, considering those who seek the cult’s services are impecunious, and suffering excruciating diseases, such as severe skin disorders, madness, and dementia.

Yet rarely advances of funding arrive furtively and anonymously from lonely, despairing widows or mentally-ill soldiers who can no longer endure their consciences, and therefore search for immediate finality, as a method of redemption. The cult of Medusa is like an alchemical fusion between the business of whores and the echo songs of angels of an ancient forest: one must firstly rely upon hearsay to believe in them and, secondly, engage a blind trust to enact their services.

“Lives with no meaning are worse than lives lived in constant fear: the worst tyrant is a void/an eternal void or vacancy of significance,” scribes Sister Synthi in the narrow margins of the map’s accompanying letter entitled, Instruction of Desire. Soon one of Synthi’s fellow sisters will break bread and offer to walk with her to the site, ensuring her safety but also verifying the geographic accuracy of the map; until then she collects enough change from her pocket to purchase sliced overripe papaya from a shopkeeper of timorous disposition, since aggressive merchants are like burrs that cling to your clothes, prickly and difficult to remove without sticking your hand.

In appearance, she is or could be a shopkeeper herself, a thief from the night, a fletcher, a tailor, or a noble with a secret dependency. Her clothing is neither very dark, nor very light, neither gleaming like the towers of the Palace, nor cloaked in the coal cakes of a miner’s daily excavation. What would be odd to an outsider is that she is vegan, which is rare among her people. Close inspection of her sandals reveal wood and thin ropes of hemp. The necklace pendant that sits visibly upon her chest resembles an eyeball with dramatically long lashes, but this is an accidental random forming from obsidian glass. Now she fingers the pendant with one hand, with the other bringing fruit to her lips like others might smoke from the stem of a pipe.

Killing suicidal human beings isn’t the profession Sister Synthi imagined when she was a child, but knowledge she fulfills the wants and needs of a minimal clientele makes the actual moments of inflicting death facile if not pleasurable, so that she can’t sleep the night before an execution – but this pleasure she guards like it is the password of a royal treasury. She fears judgment of her character, and doesn’t think of herself as perverse.

Eventually, after an hour or so, Sister Lorena rounds the corner on horseback. Her dark eyes are watery. Her thin lips are curled at the corners, her cheeks sucked in as if empty of air, the frozenness of her glare – conveys a solemn amusement. She steers her steed gracefully, and stops amidst a small dissipating throng of potential buyers who glance up and down the gray-furred beast, appraising it as if another sale item on the racks. “I have an appointment in Vulture,” she says simply. Her sandals are similar to Synthi’s, except the insides are padded with strips of cotton.

“Need we stop in Vulture before the mercy?” asks Synthi. She closes her book and lifts it into her hands.

“Evidently you are new to the order. Asking yes or no questions of me is prohibited, because limiting in its potential responses. Sorry. We could. It makes no difference when I arrive, for if the business were pressing I wouldn’t be here with you.”

“So let’s go,” says Synthi. “As you see the ride seems longer than it really is, because of the terrain we cross.”

“So few can travel where we’re going, isn’t that correct?”

Mounting a horse proves difficult for Sister Synthi. She is neither from nobility,
nor does she descend from a lineage of farmers. She is tentative reaching for the saddle, made of wood, straw, cloth, and every bit as uncomfortable as it seemed to her. Creatures of this raw mass have the capacity of rearing back their heads and snapping off whole hunks of flesh, or it might kick her from one side of the Path of Enlightenment to the other.

Yesterday was a farmer’s festival foreign to Sister Synthi and, while slowly trekking through the basalt-stone northern gate, crossing the great bridge over the city’s moat, she gazes upon the farmland, reminded of an old cemetery the way soft wreaths of white and red roses hang upon street signs and lamp holders, cottage porch railings. Currently the peasants till the fields, in certain places, and, on all fours as if searching for a misplaced ring, yank weeds leeching off newly-planted corn stalks. Not one looks up or waves, or gives a sign of recognition. Despite the chill unique to early spring, sweat glistens upon their faces and drips into the soil. The town closest to the northern gate is “the Village of the Falcon” and is home to a medicine man, his apprentices, and a quiet hostel.

Sister Lorena steers her horse off the main path, circumventing the village, heading toward a lonely three-story tower where a reclusive, though well-known philosopher of princely wealth resides, composing his letters aimed at Ataraxia’s metro-powerhouses and high-ranking guilds. Another resident of the estate, a masseuse in service to the healers of Falcon, who’d been trained at Castle Constitution, sits outside the tower. Her dress is pale pink and she wears a silk violet scarf. At her feet is a leather purse, which she nudges forward. She stands up, enters the tower and slowly closes its rose-wooden door. She leaves the purse behind.

“Pressure point treatment of this magnitude requires a particular set of needles. They are or should be arranged to correspond to the points expounded upon within your text,” Sister Lorena explains coldly. “She isn’t involved with us exactly, but is called upon when we receive money, because her lover is respected politically, and his coin trusted as ours could never be.”

Immediately, Sister Lorena dismounts from the horse, innocuously jogging toward the purse. Synthi instinctively looks backwards at the city of Ataraxia to make sure they aren’t being followed. The Infinity Lotus, the zenith of the palace, radiates a halo of broken prismatic colors upon the obsidian, basalt, and dark indigo bricks from which the city is forged, and six geysers spill into the moat, making the city seem like the apparition of a mountain-sized, silhouetted willow tree. There are outriders on the road, but not within earshot.

Returning, Sister Lorena opens the purse then abruptly closes it again. “She has also provided us with the vials of Sol, but you will need to apply the drug to the needles first, let them dry. When it comes into contact with the blood stream, then the drug will begin to take its effect.”

Ignorant of such drugs, Sister Synthi can only silently defer to Lorena’s advice.

The cottage is two miles away, where hills begin to take form upon the skin of the earth. Like the philosopher’s tower, it is set apart from the local villages and contains its own guarded flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens, on the eastern side of the cottage. A cow and a goat have separate pens on the western side of the cottage.

“Milking cows marked most of my adolescence,” whispers Sister Lorena. She remarks upon the old age of the cow and its relatively healthy shape, how she appears well-fed and maintained, perhaps more so a pet than a source of food. “I will meet you round the tower a day from now. If the job ends before then, I bid you safe travel.”

Arms full, Sister Synthi stands nervously watching Lorena about-face with her steed, urging her into a pace she was spared herself, not being used to riding. Already Synthi’s loins ache, burn, sting –from splinters stuck in the backs of her thighs. She pats down her clothing of dust collected on the road.

Letting down gently the purse at the stone and thatch-roofed cottage, she raps upon the door and, with her fingernails, combs out knots from her hair.

Only a moment later does the door creak open half-way.

“To stand there like a fool!” Synthi hears from inside the cottage, which swathes sweet warmth over her. “Honestly, come in, you are expected after all.”

Hearing the lady’s childish voice makes her feel like a fox, the scent of a fallen nest of eggs rubbing its snout. A sensation of wicked suspicion climbs her spine like a ladder between heaven and hell. “I hope I’m not late,” says Synthi courteously, stopping for her equipment again.

“Eleven years too late, I’m afraid,” the girl answers, meeting Synthi at the threshold. “Please, come in, and take comfort. I’m fixing a soup as we speak.”

Rarely is Sister Synthi’s breath taken; rarer still that beauty should be the source of the theft. “Pardon,” she says mousily. “I figured you would be…” and she shakes her head backing slowly from the door.

“An adult? An old woman?” says the girl and her smile is as wicked as the sensations rapidly removing themselves from Synthi’s body. The girl is of the Vedic bloodline. Her eyes are emeralds and her body thin and limber, the color of river sediment. Her bones are like the strings of a lute, her hair longer than an invincible night, and her voice the symphony of mockingbirds imitating a solitary nightingale.

“Maybe I am mistaken. I’ve come to the wrong place,” says Synthi.

“I’d be offended,” the girl replies, “if you continued to think so, and did not accept my hospitality, for what it is. There,” she nods at the bed in the corner of the cottage. “On the night stand, you see with the lantern. Set up there. And… oh, nothing… it will have to wait.”

Drawings upon an easel catch Synthi’s eye as she looks for the most convenient place to seat herself. The girl, who appears no older than twelve she would surmise, clicks the cottage’s door into place. She is barefoot, even though the floor is just dirt.

“Every now and then sister, I dream of you. Dream. There you are. Awkward and speechless, eager to begin, eager to finish – and so am I. Your desire for me to explain myself is as evident as the light beaming through my window each morning. From psychic sorcerers, I understand that recurrence within dreams is always a foretelling of an event—as opposed to, for example, a memory of an event. Do you know anything about clairvoyant dreams?”

“Veritably nothing,” says Synthi dismissively. “And I doubt greatly you’ve ever seen my face or form or know who I am, either. Now—I’ve read your Instruction of Desire, in which you request, in addition to a service of mercy that I scribe a dictation, but you don’t describe what I’ll be scribing exactly.”

“Oh, I’m not forcing you to cast a curse upon yourself!” the girl’s eyes bulge playfully. “Ugh,” she says. “You’re so uptight! All about business! You won’t even ask me my name.”

“Tell me your name, then,” Synthi answers, rolling her pant leggings up to her calves. The fire caresses her skin. The soup boils.

“Ew! No. Not after you’ve exhibited such poor manners. You are hereby punished of my true identity, and no matter what you will never know my name.”

Dressed within an olive and tan patchwork snakeskin gown that drags behind her, she hustles from the kettle over the stove to the round stone table where there are three empty clay dishes, two empty cups the size of her slender palms, and a rather dull cutting knife. She then finds a bunch of pages and assembles them haphazardly into a pile and tosses them onto the table under Sister Synthi’s nose. The girl bends sideways. She sticks her tongue against her canine tooth and picks up a well of thick ink, and a swan’s feather sharpened enough to spear a boar. “Now listen,” she whispers. “Close your eyes, and write precisely what I say.”

“OK. First of all, young lady, whom I serve with the utmost dignity: If I close my eyes, I will not be able to see what I’m writing. Second of all, I will write what you say, but you must ready yourself by resting, on your back, in bed. There is a favor I ask of you. To fulfill your request in totality, I must make use of your fire.” As the girl nervously curls herself in her bed, Sister Synthi dips certain needles into the Sol, setting them next to the open furnace. “The needles and the drug numb you for when you decide that you wish to bleed out. The intoxicant will give you psychic bliss, and should cause both euphoria and visual hallucinations. However, since the numbness and intoxication have onset times, it is in the waiting that I will be able to comply with your Instruction.”

“Hallucinations?” the girl says. “I hope they don’t frighten me or distort my mind. How will I tell the story if my mind is warped?”

“A little bit at a time, I suppose.”

Voraciously the girl crawls to the edge of her bed, as if Synthi is withholding from her the last drop of clean water in all of the earth. “That’s an impossible way to tell a story.”

“Excuse me, but I don’t believe there is an alternative. You can’t experience a peaceful death, and enjoy the capacity of speech simultaneously. I’m very sorry.”

“No matter. No worry. I’ll adjust. I’ll adapt,” the girl says. “But maybe while the needles dry I can begin!”

Opening the ink vial and inspecting the feather’s end, Synthi says, “Fine then, but you must relax and go slow. I’m no great scribe or woman of letters. Go on, then. How does your story begin?”

“That’s something I’ve thought I’d never hear,” the girl states happily. She stares down the assortment of needles and their relative similarity to knitting implements, only with long, thin, cylindrical points. “But I don’t know.”

“Here I am, quill in hand. You must try at least!” says Sister Synthi, holding her hands to the heat of the furnace.

“Ah yes… In the land of the dreamers,” begins the girl, leaning back in bed as Sister Synthi applies the first needle. “Hey! Aren’t you writing this down?”

“Not yet. You would be pleasantly surprised by the strength of my memory,” she says. “I need you to relax, because the first is meant to numb your shoulder.”

“Great!” she says with feigned enthusiasm. “In the land of the dreamers,” the girl continues irritably. “Ouch! That stings!” and her fawnish eyes glare at the needle as it is removed from between muscle and bone, drawing the faintest of dark blood in beads. She breathes as if exhausted. She says:

“So the myth goes that the heart of a virginal peasant girl is possessed of such a magic its power could defeat an army of a million, no matter how well-armed, disciplined, paid, fanatical, or determined.

Years and years and years ago, in the strange savage land of the dreamers, a legend grew of a secret heart that granted its beholder eternal life, but had fallen entombed within an icy resting place, where dead villages sunk beneath mountains of snow.

Now a petty thief is at the brink of starvation. For weeks he is without food and can find no shelter from the rains. In his mind rings the belief that all legends, like petals of a flower are connected to roots nourished in the earth, are rooted in a ground of factuality. His sights are set upon obtaining the heart of immortality. He is penniless. He is depressed. He is scared. One night, in a rush of desperation he robs a duke of his gambling money. See, the duke had been too drunk to identify his assailant, and thus the thief, unknown and undistinguished from all the other beggars and bone-picking street scavengers, got away with his crime. He skips town with his belly brimming with mead and his pockets lined with coins. In the new town, he is suddenly a somebody: Solivoz, a traveling man of obscure bloodlines who can now bathe, trash half a roasted swan, pay for the town’s drinks for weeks. Soon he finds himself earning money, but nowhere near enough to keep up his guise. There, it comes to be a secondary mission, to recruit men who by necessity remain cloaked in shadow, who are reborn constantly from shadow. Thieves like him. Thieves like he had been: skilled, but without money to reflect their skills. The hidden goal is to hunt down the legendary heart and sell it to some power-hungry wealthy man, so full of pride he’d wish never to die.

Within months, through petty stickups, Solivoz turns a band of six into a gang of nine, and this gang of nine becomes a troupe of twenty-eight. They are successful robbers who travel back north to steal jewelry, clothing, fancy weapons and fancy armors, selling the loot to whomever. But the men and women become quickly disgruntled. The pay isn’t up to the risks. It’s as if their targeted city is an overly-tended and therefore depleted garden, from whence derives their name, “Serpents of the Garden.” Solivoz nervously awaits the day he can propose a score that could leave him comfortably retired at an early age, so he may step down from his leadership of the thieves and pass the torch to one of the original recruits, given that they be reliable and intelligent. All that stands in his way is a lack of proof of the heart’s existence. But, he returns to a position of similar destitution as before he set off, so decides to announce his idea to the gang of thieves. He says, “The greed of man can no longer be defined by the amount of money he wishes to earn, but by the time he wishes to subordinate his fellow humankind.” Fascinated, his culling of thieves agree that if nothing else, a fresh place to target may serve them better than trying to squeeze water from desert sands.

With almost all of their remaining money, they barter for llamas to store belongings, especially water from the unpolluted streams far, far from any city. Solivoz knows the legend stems from a ruined pyramid city along the frozen coasts far, far south. Between here and there is a fish-town of ill-repute, supposedly under the puppet-control of murderous sailors, who locals nickname “the strangers,” and an arid land that at its hottest cannot support a blade of grass.

Only half of the men are able to make the expedition south. Not enough food, water—and morale is too low. On foot they start down from the city, men who weeks ago wore pleasant soft linens and silks and cotton are forced into ratty furs and old, stiff leather armors too large or too tight to protect from the spears of frigid weather.

The fisher-folk’s town, when they arrive, appears like a handful of lightning bugs. Lanterns lighting the town wink in and out against bitter winds. One of the men they carry to the healer’s cots, to treat frost-bitten blue feet. There Solivoz sneakily asks a priest of sallow sunken cheeks and cynical disposition about the ruins, and the whereabouts of the heart of immortality.

“Nobody knows where it is, goodly man, but it’s real, as real as this man’s amputated foot! Most agree the cemetery is buried beneath dunes of snow. I’m afraid your friend will not be fit to travel and in fact may die without weeks of close care. I must ask, what interest is the heart of immortality to you?” The priest squints behind the dim glow of a candle that accentuates his white whiskers.

Solivoz replies: “We’re historians in service to our city-state and my benefactor wishes to bring home a symbol of pride.”

In the center of the healer’s hut, an old woman gestures for Solivoz to quiet, raising her fingers to her lips. “Allow my men to keep watch over their fellow, I’ll return in a moment.” The woman looks recently resurrected. Very thin, like a newly frozen icicle and with skin rich like a night sky. “Don’t bother with him,” she says to Solivoz. “He is as ignorant as a boulder.”

“But you can help me?” says Solivoz. He rubs his hands together fiercely, to keep them warm.

“I don’t believe anybody can help you, forgive my saying so, dear. You’ll find what you seek, though. He’s wrong about the snow having buried the cemetery. For there is no cemetery. The ruins of the city is what he means to say.”

“Why should I believe you rather than him? And why if the heart’s whereabouts are common knowledge has no one ever recovered it?”

“Because our people let legends and myths be myths and legends—and thieves, you see, are so often without imagination! You’re no thief, I understand. In service to a string of lords, I understand!” Now when the old woman winks she appears to Solivoz as a senile trickster trying to get her jollies off.

Having traded some food for picks and shovels, Solivoz and his men depart by morning, a band one less than the night prior.

In Solivoz’s distressed and restless mind, the doubt of his own leadership hacks away at him. The fires they build provide sufficient warmth, so he prays. The landscape is blindingly white, like an ocean frozen amidst a tidal wave. A sparse array of trees is like the fins of whales. And the men, in two paralleled lines become drifting mounds of snow. Snow in their beards. They are grim-faced and silent. To breathe too much air is to accept a piercing of the lungs. They travel at least sixteen days without seeing the faintest trace of wild life. No birds, no wolves, no bears. A volcanic mountain impresses the horizon and reveals the southernmost tip of land that disintegrates into an island chain. The ruins are somewhere near to that mountain.

On the very next night, Solivoz smells smoke before their own fire takes shape, and figures his imagination is playing tricks on him. But then – after his comrades have tucked their chins and closed their eyes to sleep – he spots the impossible aura of light emanating from the destination. At that distance, Solivoz assumes the fire could warm no more than five men, and he shutters to think of the sort who would travel all alone in this treacherous territory.

“A deeper shadow is cast,” says Whisper, Solivoz’s second-in-command, “to the east of the mountain. IF that shadow is from the high point of a temple, we may as well turn back. Better to return home empty-handed, than not return home at all.”

“The high point of a temple fallen is yet low to the ground,” says Solivoz. “We press forward,” he orders, having looked skyward and seeking naught except a clear sky and egglike moon. “Leave the leading to me, and go back to sleep.”

Now the least expected thing happens to Solivoz: in the dead silence of a clear night, he hears what at first h takes to be the beat of a muffled drum, but oddly, when massaging cramps from his wrists he realizes the beat he hears synchronizes completely with that of his very own pulse. The twisted-knife hunger pangs in his stomach buckle him to the snow, to the point he almost regrets eating less food than his fellows, but he doesn’t know how else to regain the unity among he feels he’s lost.

By the morning, Solivoz is sleepless. His eyes are pink and watery, the lids encrusted with icy dust. His men are ready to move, but he says, “We stay here. The heart is here. I’ve sensed it.” “But the woman from the healer’s hut said…” “She doesn’t know if she’s lying or telling the truth. It’s here, beneath us. Ready the picks and shovels.” “The city’s ruins, she said. It was with your insistence –“ “We can’t waste a single moment,” says Solivoz. “You don’t sense it, do you? I hear the thudding, it’s like a caged dove’s wings against the bars, it’s like…” “The only thing I hear is you speaking non-sense,” says Whisper. “Hand me the pick and shovel,” says Solivoz. “With a day’s work we’ll know if we’re standing atop a burial site.” “No,” the man says. “We’re going towards that temple, it’s the only solid lead we have.”

“Don’t leave me!” Solivoz barks. “To leave now may mean your deaths, and not by my hands!”

“That’s a bluff, and you’re above attempting to intimidate me.”

After all, the men side with Whisper, wanting to live.

I do not blame them.

Instead of making for the ancient temple, they decide to lay siege to a town of relatively defenseless men and women, stealing their white bear pelts, and their ores, the few pearls they owned, their brandies.

But at this time the zinc-like, quicksilver scent of the heart and its blood overwhelms Solivoz. He is torn between chasing after Whisper and the other comrades — thinking of forgiveness– and trusting his gut instincts. “If it’s here,” he thinks, “I’ll retain every profit.” So – as Whisper and the others travel north, Solivoz stabs through a layer of snow and ice, though his body is weak and each heave sears his stringy malnourished muscles. He feels kinks in his joints, his elbow is especially sore. Beneath the ice is a denser-snow. Little by little, he digs a crater towards the earth. Soon he uncovers an indecipherable stone – his shovel clinks and clanks against the stone; the ice pick does not shatter the stone.

The drumming of the heart becomes more evident, like great footfalls in an empty house. He digs away a radius, madly. He is mad, now, and machine-like, a mill. The wind flays his back, he fights against the harsh nipping gusts not to redo what he’s already done.

By night he rests among or atop the invisible dead. He uncovers eight headstones, like lumps of stale moldy bread. With the shovel he forces one loose. He shifts it from the dirt like a rotted tooth from a jaw.

The tangy zinc scent of blood.

The stone sticks to the leather of his gloves it is so cold, with inches of ice encasing the stone. Now he drops to his stomach with his ear pressed to the earth, listening for the heart beating.”

*

“So he finds this heart of immortality?”
“Indeed, for it is isolated from any organic living thing. It breathes. It beats and sings…it’s almost begging for…
I surmise you may think this tale should end happily.
Our starved thief finds precisely as he sought in life. Ah, two-fold, for the trickster at once sells the heart to a greedy high priest for endless riches and – as a thief – steals it back before the old man knows what hits him.
Solivoz establishes himself well away from the dangers of the law, well away from the dangers of his former comrades, well away from any trace of his former identity. So he believes.
But material wealth, as it turns out, is insufficient to foster an honest to goodness happy life. What Solivoz possesses in riches, he lacks in family, in friendships, in love. His heart becomes what it was before, emptying out and emptying only.
In the cities people revere but envy him, not knowing the pain of loneliness he feels every day and every night. And so when a new, rich merchant family moves in, looking to strengthen their family’s finances through a wedding, he appears to be the perfect suitor.
And he is!
Their daughter is very young, yes, and he is beginning to age, faster because of the toils of his youth, yes, but nonetheless they fall in love. It’s love without sex, yes, because he is too coy or suddenly too much of a gentleman to display his sexual lusts for her in any capacity. They fall in love but it is a friendship made passionate through the exclusion of every other aside from each other, and this is a mark of love, that all others aside from the lovers become insignificant for a time, during those moments when they fight to attain genuine intimacy, and mutual knowledge. Their sensuousness is kissing fruit, and prolonged gallivanting through the gardens of the city; taking long swims in the river; star-gazing and sharing prayers.
Time seems to them limitless, and why shouldn’t it, when love is itself evidence of the eternal?
But then…

Now listen to this.

I’m sorry, I can’t

A thief thinks like a

They capture

but he

with the heart

#

Sister Synthi slides into the young lady’s cot, where she finally fades into a deep slumber, her eyes gradually closing. The drugs have taken full effect.

Her body is like a child’s witch-doll. Needles in her shoulders, hands. Needles through her knee caps, two for each toe, two for each heel, she looks like a frightened small bird, its neck feathers ruffled, her collar bone and chest are stuck stacked with so many needles.

From the base of her neck to her pelvis, there are eighteen needles, and rivulets of drying blood that smear down the side of her ribs. The final needle enters next. Synthi heats its tip in the fire soon to extinguish from lack of lumber, then when the embers continue to crackle like an old man’s wheezing laughter. For a second she think she follow the anatomy manual, which shows a needle penetrating the space at the center of her forehead, but then, having considered the young lady’s story, places her arm above her head, elbow up with needles jangling together, yanking skin and stretching skin. Beside her breast, tracing the curve of her arm pit, like a distant lightning bolt there is a barely visible scar. She gasps and covers her mouth. She leaps up and checks the windows, but there is nothing near, except for a goat and a milk cow.

Greed takes her by the hand. Curiosity by the nose. Soon she is overcome. In a haste she rummages through her belongings. Her hand cramps. She finds a butcher knife among the young lady’s former belongings.

To test the sharpness of the knife, Synthi drags the blade over the pads of her toes. Is it some mystery that she bleeds and the bleeding isn’t so very hard? Synthi stabs the young girl, can’t stop herself, there’s a crunch through bone, and she saws along the line of the scar, can’t stop herself, the young girl’s body twitches and flops like a shored fish, but the drumming of her heart doesn’t cease. First the tops of her finger follow suit with the knife’s end, parting the bloody flaps of flayed skin, and clawing deeper towards the heart itself, grasps the meat of it, the wet leather hot and stringy of it the heart. Her catatonic heart. And she hold a heart in her hands. The weight of it. She sinks slitheringly, red moths of blood unfolding wings upon the floor, where she falls to her knees. Her heart feels like a liquid metal, a silvery liquid meat, and it breathes gentle hisses. At eye level to the bed once was an impossibly young and impossibly old tortured lady is now ash and dust and a ribcage and a swordlike femur and a sickle-moon-skull, behind the black and white clouds of her ever-living hair. The needles hide in the ash. Her skull is splintered, her jaw fractured, eroded as though gnawed upon, her eye sockets are lightless, and hollow.

“noah’s ark”

Noah tumbles from his bed as though he neither tossed and turned all night, nor dreamed bad dreams.

He shares a room with his brother, Daniel, and must be quiet while he slips into his denim shorts, an over-sized Penn State t-shirt, and a frumpy white fisherman’s cap that’s become beige from the nicotine of his father’s smoke.

Light presses bluely through the drapes.
Beneath his stocking feet,
the floor is soft static electricity.
His heart beat hastens
thinking of Erie’s Sunday morning streets:
the gray-blue post-industrial streets,
with paint-peeled brick buildings
rusty dented cars in muted parked positions,
sloppily-stitched graffiti on abandoned shop walls,
the street’s orchestra of source-less whirs and clanking clanks,
its symphony of sea-shelled chatter,
and choir of unexpected silences.

In an excited rush, he forgets the black zipper-up fanny pack hanging on his bed post. When he straps the utility pack around his waist he feels important, like batman, or a pathologist carrying highly-necessary contents: The bugs and bird feathers he catalogues can be combined to cure ebola and old age, but he’s already traveled twelve minutes from his Aunt and Uncle’s front porch—too far to return and retrieve the belt over which he berates himself for the next couple of blocks, feeling stupid.

To reach the horizon-wide steely Erie Lake, it takes him over an hour, but he remembers the way by heart. His final step lands his bare feet in frigid water. Sand like cold grits mushes up to his ankles.

At 6:15 a.m., the shore is empty but for his black sneakers and knee socks, and the towel with a three-pack of sweating Heineken bottles belonging to a pair of frat boys fishing sleepily from a canoe the color of a rain cloud.

Sometimes, the great steely lake and densely coniferous forest awe Noah, how thoroughly the mountains and lake and forestry pre-date and predict him.

For a moment, Noah stands in the water inhaling deeply the clean-cut spring air.

A dripping shrill cry makes him squeeze his toes together and it feels like his calves are blossoming mountain laurels suddenly exposed to the sun.

He removes his beige-white cap and swats the air to keep the gnats at bay.

The people stationed in the canoe look like the wax statues of civil war soldiers.

He can’t spot any fish and this frustrates him.

The gnats are simply a pesky nuisance.

With a small fuss, he backs from the water, the tentacly fringes of his shorts soggy, and he traces the familiar shoreline towards his right, where brown aluminum Nature Trail and Conservation Warning Signs are nailed through the bark of an old oak.

First he jogs, following along the trail, then sprints so fast that when briary vines singe the tops of his feet, he flinches but doesn’t stop. The screeching sound echoes from the foggy darkness of the forest and freezes him solid.

Leaves crinkle. A gentle breeze. A blue-jay flutters from its nest.

The sun shines bleakly through dissipating fog and web of limbs, and there is an uninviting darkness ahead of him. He bends forward and, leading with his hand, swings beneath a pine tree, and heads off the trail.

Noah’s sun-freckled peachy arms feel a surface cold. The little needlelike punctures in his foot begin to feel bloated and stretched and burning, so he limps. He smears dirt on his forehead with his arm.

At the base of another pine tree with a strip of cloth dangling from a branch and pine cone, there is a wooden milk crate that he’d placed there weeks ago and covered with an extra t-shirt.

Inside the milk crate are: two voles, two field mice, two frogs, and two baby rabbits, piled upon each other, all dead, stiff, and decaying.

Again he hears the haunted wail, this time much closer, and worries someone might be injured, but the voice isn’t human.

He replaces his t-shirt over the milk crate and tip-toes in the direction of the high-pitched yooeeaaaaoowling hiss and finds a tree recently fallen and climbs upon the high-point of the log thinking over what he’d heard and dismissing reasons why he’d become so immediately obsessed over this shrill suffering animal sound.

He feels ten times his weight he is so dizzy. He tightens his eyes and opens them

— sunlight, shadow, sunlight, tree. sunlight, shadow, sunlight, tree —

and he realizes the tree he sits upon is rather odd, that it grows not up, but bowed down like a turtle shell, into the earth.

A red-fleshed millipede clumsily advances from the dirt and he snatches it and the millipede tickles his fingers and simultaneously he drops his hat with the millipede. He glares down the trunk of the tree, where it’s splintered and frayed. He inches towards a flowing tuft of fur or brown burrs that shakes like a little bee hive.

Instinctively, as though arming himself against attack, Noah snaps off a gray dead tree limb and hops off the log to strike a rotten part of the tree, to investigate what’s beneath. When he lands he slips over wet leaves, and crashes.

A suffocated whimper: The landing bursts open a belly like an egg-shell water balloon, snaps a baby fisher cat’s toothpick-like bones.

No birds in the trees. No insects to gather. No sun, no rain, no wind from the heavens. No breath in the kit’s lungs, no pulse in its veins, no light reflected from its eyes.

Noah falls, panting, to his back. The wet leaves and lifted-dirt receive him like a sleeping bag, and he stares into the slices of sunlight, his chest pumping like an old piston.

“My god.” He sits up. He exhales. He removes his oversized t-shirt, crawls dragging through caked dirt on all fours beside the dead creature, towards the bowed-down tree. He breathes heavily. He clicks his tongue. “C’mere. It’s OK,” he whispers, but the fisher cat doesn’t even flinch. He reaches into the shadow until his hands fill with the tough greasy fur. He scoops around the little mass and brings the kit between his knees and atop a stone. He pets its dead hind paws, its ridged spinal column.

The kit’s ears are wide and round like gray tulips, its mouth a little O.

II

Six months ago mother complained to daddy of stomach pains that eventually affected her to the emergency room, where she ended up dying.

I need time to re-adjust, to be seen in public. I hope I didn’t die with her.

My daddy Walter, my brothers Daniel and Noah, and I live in a dark three bedroom house two miles from Erie, which is just south of a great lake.

Oak and maple trees in the front yard shade a fifteen year old un-polished porch. The porch overlooks a wickedly curvy back road that, towards the right winds into a warren of intersecting rural roads and, to the left, descends to a sleepy coal town in Crawford.

Sometimes Daniel and Noah stay with Uncle K, in Erie, so they can be boys and play at the lake.

The family mechanic Roy visits to fix the lights and dashboard of Aunt Chrissy’s white Granada, which is parked at our house and needs some work to fix wiring the rodents have chewed through, preventing the car from starting. The man who arrives is quite heavy, and white, with military-associated tattooed arms and a handle-bar stash and beard. He makes good money, because he does good work for reasonably fair prices.

He jacks up the car, he wants to replace the brake pads, switch the oil and rotate the tires, might as well. Do something else involving words I don’t understand. He is present for ninety-two minutes and now the car is operant; as quickly, Uncle K and Aunt Chrissy are gone till tomorrow. They take Noah and Daniel with them till dinner and daddy takes me to the grocery store.

Place smells like Lysol products, potpourri.

Housewives with green hand-baskets. A house wife’s sun-bleached bangs ride her hot-pink-rimmed shades. She is so beautiful it hurts.

To follow her.

First to the bakery, then the cake mix aisle— it’s someone’s birthday! There is a picnic at her house!

She will visit family or friends and doesn’t want to arrive empty-handedly. Mid-thirties, probably self-sufficient although married and a mother of two or three or four children who anxiously await her return. She makes eyes at my daddy, who is oblivious, as usual, purchasing potatoes, carrots, celery, and fresh parsley for dinner, and on impulse, chocolate cupcakes and bottles of water.

Daddy is a non-stop workaholic, can’t be in two places at once like he wishes. He overworks himself, and then can’t do much of anything for a couple of months.

On the way back home over the Old Road, he idly taps his fingers to some Rolling Stones song and smokes a cheap cigarette down to the filter.

He pats my kneecap, something he’s only done after disciplining me.

At home, when we’re organizing the groceries, daddy keeps bragging about the strawberries Uncle K brought over a whole week ago, and pestering me to try them, when I explain even if I wanted to try them I’d be busy with homework and I don’t have much of an appetite for fruit— but I lie to him.

I plucked a strawberry from the jar the very night Uncle K brought them, and it was too soft and bitter for me, rotting and smelling like peroxide. After I ate a couple of the strawberries, I vomited a little and my face lost feeling.

He’d been sucking them noisily at night watching classic Penguins games all sunken-eyed sinking into his favorite chair. That beaten-down thing is so dirty it gives me the icks.

It’s probably got bed bugs or scabies, not to mention the crumbs are just thrown about, mostly pretzel niblets. They’re so shiny they don’t even look real. He fixes a paper plate full of those shiny pretzel niblets and mustard for himself, but then forgets to make dinner for us, his children.

But dinner hadn’t been his responsibility.

Years ago, my mom cooked, cleaned, disposed of the garbage, purchased the groceries, washed dishes and laundry, cared for the lawn. Daddy worked a couple of shifts at the prison and said he didn’t do anything there except sit and that’s why he gained the weight.

Since she’s died, I’ve taken over her job. Without me, Daniel and Noah would have to fend for themselves. Neither of the boys can even microwave Raviolis. Daniel is scared of the dark and anything hot and Noah is scared of sharp things, like knives, automatic can openers, and especially scissors, because one time a barber nicked Noah’s ear.

We eat a late dinner. My bread is buttered and toasted, with melted parmesan. The soup is thick and salty. After the adults drink an ice-cream kalhúa, Aunt Chrissy offers to take us to Erie, explaining that it’s calling for rain tomorrow around lunchtime and throughout the rest of the day, so her Sunday shift will probably be cancelled.

Daddy agrees it would be good for the boys, and while they don’t argue, I decide to stay with him to tidy up the house and keep him company.

Our home feels empty without Daniel and Noah. They are responsible for our family’s daily rhythm. I’ll be awake early tomorrow morning to dress them in fresh clean laundry, to toast waffles and heat the butter and syrup, and while they wolf down breakfast, check that the proper books are in their respective backpacks, review the completion of their homework assignments, tie up their shoe-laces and comb their hair so they don’t look ratty, unkempt, or neglected.

Then daddy, exhausted of his apathy, sleeps on his favorite chair, his rough calloused hands pinned over the remote controller, grubby fingers over the pause and play buttons, the television the only light in his dim den, re-running a family video in which Mama is dressed in a lime-green gown and splashing sparkling champagne from a crystalline glass, smiling widely, on the precipice of laughter, her stomach petitely pouch-shaped, pregnant with me. Her wrists are slender. I realize how little I resemble her sixties’ flower-girl look, the wavy full hair and environment-tone powdery make-up, slight hues of pink to complement her gown. I approach the television to turn it off, but daddy says, “I’m watching that,” which startles me.

“Your eyes were closed, I thought—”

“I’m resting Abby,” he grumbles.

“Doctors say it’s not good to dwell.”

“Not good to forget, either.”

The den surrounding him is a suffocating clutter. Heaps of medically-labeled bills, fishing rods with tangled line and loose hooks, clothing in unorganized stacks, Hershey’s chocolate wrappers, coupon clippings and glossy advertisements from months and months ago strewn about like he’d left a window open to a terrible thunderstorm.

“I’ll clean up, sweetie,” he says. “Just haven’t gotten around to it.” As I’m about to leave the den, he says, “Hey. This is the best part. Help me up.”

I bend into him and he takes me around my neck and wobbly stands. He turns up the television. He drops the remote onto his chair. “What’s going on daddy?”

“This song, sweetie. Played at a festival when your mother proposed we marry. C’mon let’s dance. It starts off fast and then suddenly slows down, it’ll be fun,” and he tugs me inward by the waist. He smells strongly like chicken broth. His eyelids are violet and swollen.

“Dad, I have chores—”

“They can wait, sweetie.”

I don’t remember which song was playing, only that it was very long— never seemed to end.

*
After some contemplation, Noah lets his brother Daniel in on his little secret. While Chrissy, Uncle K, and Abby sun-bathe and talk of empty subjects, Noah walks Daniel into the woods near the lake, speaking like a magician, in high haughty tones, about how, “what I’m about to show you will rock your cradle, totally blow your mind, you’ll never think the same way again, but you can’t tell anyone what you see or you’ll ruin everything,” and Daniel soaks everything up, his eagerness outweighing fear over the heavy responsibility of a secret.

“I don’t like this place,” says Daniel.

“This place don’t like you, because you’re retarded,” says Noah.

“You’re not supposed to say retarded.”

“But papa says ‘honest is best.’”

The milk crate, set against the base of a tree, is just like Noah had left it, except now it contains a stiffened fisher cat kitten and tiny birds he shook from their nests and collected.

“You know how to tell a female bird from a male bird, retard?”

“Kinda bird is it?”

“Don’t matter what kinda bird it is,” says Noah. “One has a little thing on it, and the other doesn’t. Every animal is the same.”

“Well my teddy ain’t got a little thing on it and he’s a boy.”

“Your teddy ain’t a real animal,” says Noah. “Cover your mouth now,” he says, “Like when we play cowboys and Indians.”

While Daniel crushes his nose with his t-shirt, Noah swipes the cloth from the milk crate, loosing a storm of flies like chaos from Pandora’s Box, and then reaches into the milk crate.

“These are mice,” says Noah, holding in his palms a couple of walnut-like voles. “C’mere, man. Look at em. See the one’s got a little thing right there. See it?”

Daniel nods. He pinches his nose.

“Now look at this one.” Noah points at the dead female vole. “Nothing. They’re totally different.”

“That’s disgusting, Noah, they’re dead. I think I should tell ma—”

Noah looks askance at his younger brother. “Aww it’s OK. That’s what I wanted to show you. This is how they like make babies,” and then Noah directs the dead stiff vole penis towards the dead stiff vole vagina the dead stiff vole anus the dead stiff vole mouth the dead stiff vole eyes the dead stiff vole ears,

And Noah cymbals the dead stiff voles together, the sound of smashed up dead voles sounding like chewing too much food —

“Noah? Daniel?” cries Abby. She marches along the lakeside Nature Trail. “Where you’d you boys get off to?”