That Forgivable Lightness

Fair Warning:

What I write, at its very best, is some illegitimate hybrid of South American magical realism and Southern Gothic I like to think of as Southern Fabulism. Here, I will be periodically posting a few short stories, as a little taste of my forthcoming novel, A Curious Matter of Men with Wings, which will be available through SFK Press in September 2018.   

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It was Desirina’s brother who taught her to sleep. And in that, he made her a saint. Saint Desirina, holy patron of lonely sailors in need of dreams. Saint Desirina was how they came to know her. Saint Desirina was how she came to be known.

Her lessons started when they were still young, and their father, having burnt down his barn at the height of harvest season, sicked his dogs on himself. Her brother took her first to his grave while it was still empty, only to return there with her, night after night, for nearly a month, because “at night,” he said, “the graves are fresh.” He said, “Six feet down, and the ground is best.” He said it had something to do with funerals. He said, “Sleep then is best.” So together, they scoured the obituaries and ventured into cemeteries, discovering, there, the kind of rest one discovers in sleeping side-by-side in a burial plot. He took her next to the riverbank and tucked her in on an alligator slide, and there, she learned to dip her feet in the water. There, she learned to sleep soundly in the mud.

It’s easy to see what came of her lessons, even now, well into her teens. It’s easy to see why water, to her, became synonymous with sleep. It’s easy to see why she stayed, even after a great ocean wave came crashing ashore one fateful day and washed away her entire town.

That was years ago, and still the waters had yet to subside. Having lost their homes and no dry land in sight to rebuild on, the town was abandoned, save for a few brave souls, here and there, who managed to fashion homes out of boats or erect some semblance of shelter in a tree. That was years ago. And now, it seemed, everyone was gone.

Desirina, however, Desirina had stayed.

By some twist of fate or plain blind luck, her house was the only house left standing. So she stayed. Even her brother left. But not Desirina. Desirina stayed.

It didn’t take long for Desirina to reconsider her decision and, at times, openly regret it. It seemed they had a shortage of everything, everything except the dozen or so lonely men who were either brave enough or stupid enough to stick it out so long. The loneliness occurred to her first when they appeared on her doorstep. It was the sight of some explainable something behind their eyes. It was the presence of someone yielding to the past.

The second time, she felt it. It was the night of her nineteenth birthday, and overwhelmed by a need to make her day special, Desirina fished her red wagon out of the attic. She remembered how bright and almost cosmic it looked in the storefront window. She remembered how they begged and pleaded with their father, until he finally gave in and bought it for them. The first thing they did when they got it home was break the shell off the light that hung in the shed. She remembered the brightness like it was a flood, and she remembered thinking that she could’ve drowned. Later that night, they fastened that light to the front of their wagon, plugged it in and pretended it was a guide to stormy seas. To them, it was always less of a wagon and more a boat, so they each stole a broom from the broom closet, took turns being captain, and for years, they rowed that little boat against the currents, circumnavigating the globe and all seven seas of their remarkable childhood home.

It was her birthday, and alone now, years later, Desirina felt like she was paddling for her life. All she wanted was someone to ride along with her. They could even be captain, if they wanted. All she wanted, really, was some company in that house, someone to talk to, to listen or, at least, pretend to. So the next day, she drove her little johnboat up the coast to a neighboring town and, there, bought herself some fireworks. And almost nightly, whenever she got lonely and couldn’t stand it anymore, she just climbed up on her roof and shot a few off into the sky. And that did the trick. That got their attention.

One by one, the dozen or so men, who were still in town, began to stop by. Curious at first. But with time, their visits became more and more frequent. It appears they took quite a liking to her, and she took quite a liking to playing host. Sometimes, she would cook for them. Other times, she wouldn’t. Mostly, they just sat with her and shared a few stories.

By trade, they were fishermen mostly, having spent the majority of their life trolling the seas alone. Life on a trawler, she came to realize, was a lonely one, which should have prepared them for the solitude of their existence. But it didn’t. It didn’t, and this baffled her. It would take her years to fully understand this. What Desirina would have to discover for herself is that no man is prepared for the loneliness.

Over time, the men began to bring her gifts, explaining with a shrug that “it would be impolite to keep coming by empty-handed.” They were small gifts at first, like hair-ties and midnight snacks. Then, gradually, the gifts got bigger and bigger. Some brought her gasoline for her boat, while others brought her fish, and before long, she was getting jewelry and flowers and pretty dresses that had been salvaged from the wreckage of their houses or their failed marriages. Once, in passing, she mentioned she had a craving for blueberries, and just like that, bushels upon bushels of blueberries started to appear at her door.

In getting things, she began to want things; she began to want more and more things. She had developed a particular fondness for a guy named Craven. She enjoyed his stories, yes, but it was more than that. She enjoyed him. His skin tasted salty when she kissed him. She liked that too. It was like he had arisen from the sea. It was like he was the sea. So she started calling him Salty Mike, for fun. The night they made love was a longtime coming. Afterwards, they sat on her porch and dipped their feet in the water. It was hot, and they were naked. He was saying something about reflections, and she was skipping rocks. She was staring out across the lunar landscape on the water when she was overcome with this almost insatiable hunger to feel always like this. And this gave her an idea.

The dozen or so men left in that town came to know fireworks as signals. Desirina, you see, she wanted things, so she traded herself for want of those things. Fireworks were how she said what she wanted as payment. Bottle rockets in flight meant she was lonely. Blue meant bring jewelry, bring clothes. Red meant I’m hungry; bring dinner. The color yellow had them smuggling over oranges and apples and baskets of fruit. And when there was white in the sky, it was meant for Craven.

Night after night, she lit up the sky in brilliant monochrome colors.

She saw them as fireworks.

Only Craven saw them as distress signals.

Craven found he wanted to love her. From his tree most nights, he would scour the skies, hoping for his color. Most nights, he hoped in vain. Her house began to resemble a ship, there in the distance. A ship, he feared, that was lost at sea. He’d seen his share of stormy weather and rough waters. He himself had to be rescued once, and he understood the danger in rescuing others. People are ships, if people are anything, he knew, and life on the sea is a cautionary tale.

He knew what it was to be with her, and he knew what she was selling. It was the way she slept that told him as much. Just lying there beside her, the sensation of her body against his, just the chance to be quiet, to listen and breathe, it felt so impossibly true that the very existence of a man like him could be brought into question. Craven knew what she sold was not sex at all, rather the levity of her dreams, the forgivable lightness that comes in dreaming.

Soon, he would not wait for her signal. He would go to her without her calling. He would kiss her on her doorstep, tell her he’d trade everything he had to watch her dream. She would show him the wagon and plug in its light. They would go paddling around and around and around the rooms of her house, until they were exhausted and collapsed on the floor in a fit of unexplainable laughter. He would notice then, for the first time that night, where their exploring had gotten them. He would look up from the floor and feel for himself what it was to be drowning in light.

He would take her by the hand and lead her to her room.

And later that night, tangled up in her sheets, Desirina would teach him to sleep.

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Night-Swimming

Fair Warning:

What I write, at its very best, is some illegitimate hybrid of South American magical realism and Southern Gothic I like to think of as Southern Fabulism. Here, I will be periodically posting a few short stories, as a little taste of my forthcoming novel, A Curious Matter of Men with Wings, which will be available through SFK Press in September 2018.   

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She can count the number of times she’s been kissed on only six fingers.

Seven, she thinks, is her lucky number.

Outside on the streets, other women too are in heat. Strays, she calls them. Night strays. Out there, other women are so hot for it the whole world feels cold. Inside, however, he wants only to make love to her, while she wants only to make a life.

And so they nestle in so close to love that it punctuates the finality of their sentence.

There was a time when the kinky texture of her hair was enough to fascinate him; tonight though, he has other things on his mind, and he makes love to her, the way he wants to. Rough, and sort of soft around the edges, like the faintest hints of passion and compassion still has a future there. When he is through, he collapses into the pillows, content as ever to think of himself physically as some metaphysical vandal.

He lets his silence echo through their barren house, then curls in on himself, like a newborn with a habit of the womb. He looks so small, as he dozes off beside her, that she finds she is holding her breath, for fear she might breathe in once and swallow him whole.

Her nightgown is so impossibly soaked through with sweat she feels pregnant with water. She smokes a cigarette in a declaration of crystal ringlets, ghosts with eyes that were made for the dark, in hopes of seeing herself through this point in her life.

Already, he is four-fifths asleep, riding off on a westbound train to California, where the golden skies of a golden coast make good on golden bodies.

“Honey?” she says.

Her voice is what wakes him.

“Honey?” she says, though she does not finish.

On the wall hangs a landscape as familiar to him as the water-colors of a faraway dream. He speaks of going back there, some day. She nods and sort of mentions a country home outside of Paris, where the paths are made for bikes. She wants a bike, even perhaps a bike with a basket. “Honey?” she says. “Won’t you buy me a bike?” All she ever really wanted was to find a man who would buy her a bike that she could ride. She does not think it wise to tell him this. “Forget the bike,” she says. “Ride the man.”

“Attaway, dear. That’s the spirit.”

She does not think it wise because he does not give her gifts, though he brought her a gift, the night they met. He had stolen a pink plastic flamingo from his neighbor’s yard and dragged it, beak-down, all the way across town to her house. He was drunk when he knocked on her door, and she could smell it. Still, it was the way he presented it to her, legs first, that made it seem like a confession of his love. That, or penance for some wrong he had yet to commit.

All five oceans might’ve poured from her eyes across all seven continents of her face, were she ever to consider the reasons for this. She wonders instead how many times a woman can lose herself before daybreak, while there’s still so much danger here in the dark. She thinks, if she dies, she’ll die on a Friday, while their kids are at school, so Saturday can be a day of forgetting and Sunday can come and bring them prayers. She thinks of her own death and whispers, “Take me.” She whispers, “Take me peacefully. Just take me.”

“What’s that, my dear? You say something?”

Merely by her silence, he knows what she is thinking.

Always, to him, she was an estuary, something watery and libidinal like a tidal pool, and that’s where he gets the idea to hold his breath and go under. “Look-a-here, my dear. Come on now. Jump on in. The water is fine.” He knows she loves the water, trusts it completely. He knows too, the very idea of water, she cannot resist. And he knows he is right.

She just pinches her nose and dives right in.

And that night, the two of them go swimming around in the sheets.

“So many fish,” she says. “See ‘em all?”

“What?” he mouths. “I can’t hear you. Sort of sounds like you’re talking underwater, dear. What? What was that? What did you say?”

He motions her up to the surface.

They come up gasping.

He asks her again. “What’s that you say?”

“Fish,” she says. “Fish! Can’t you see them?”

He suggests they go even deeper, this time. “Way, way deeper. Come on, dear, let’s troll the ocean floor. See what we find.” And with that, he takes her hand in his, takes a big deep breath, and together again, they dive down deep.

She is doing backstrokes, before long, while he plugs an ear with one finger and speaks into his thumb. “Submersible M-47 reporting to dry land. M-47 here,” he says, “Reporting from 10,000 feet below sea level. Roger that,” he says. “Yes, Captain Sara McCown here is doing just fine. Roger… Roger… Roger that. This is First-mate Richards, over and out.” He turns to her with a kind of boyish grin on his face, the kind schoolboys get accustomed to when they’re looking for trouble. “They said I should check your vitals, Captain.” And he takes her naked breasts in his hands. “Just following orders, Captain. Can’t fault a guy for following orders.”

She loves him for his playfulness, how good a father it means he will, some day, be.

“Vitals check out,” he says after a good firm squeeze. “Yessir, Captain, all vital signs are a go. Though I really should be thorough and listen for your heart.” And he does. He places his ear to her chest, and he listens. He thinks he can hear it thrumming and makes certain he is right, before radioing back the all-clear.

They come up for air, but only on occasion, only to plug their noses and dive back down, and each time they go, they go hand-in-hand. And in the depths of those covers, on that very night, they both get a sense for how love survives underwater, for how it must evolve to breathe without logic or lungs. Outside, the moon is hanging lopsided in the sky, and caught up in all its lopsided tides, they take up their oars and paddle their way across the wide and unruly seas of their bed, having discovered finally that, to go forward sometimes, you must learn to row back.

 

 

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All Good Things

Fair Warning:

What I write, at its very best, is some illegitimate hybrid of South American magical realism and Southern Gothic I like to think of as Southern Fabulism. Here, I will be periodically posting a few short stories, as a little taste of my forthcoming novel, A Curious Matter of Men with Wings, which will be available through SFK Press in September 2018.   

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Gregory Maroney was not a hero, not even to himself. You might even say he was the quiet type. Simple, yes. And quiet. He mostly just passed the time, the in-between time, with his shotgun. His father had taught him to shoot, when he was young, and Gregory Maroney believed the one thing he was ever really good at was shooting things.

So that is what he did. He shot things. He took his shotgun out of the closet, went out to his porch and shot squirrels out of the trees and the possums in his yard. He did this mostly on the weekends and mainly at night. He did this because he couldn’t think of anything better to do. He did it to pass the time. If the neighbors complained, he took it inside and shot at things around his house. He shot roaches and mice and any other critters he found creeping around in the shadows. One night, he even went as far as to shoot out all the streetlights on his block, after the one outside his bedroom window kept him up all night.

Yes, Gregory Maroney was a quiet and simple man. He enjoyed the calm of his solitary life; he enjoyed his porch late at night, and he enjoyed the dangerous company of a loaded gun. All he ever wanted was to be left alone. All he asked was that he be allowed to practice his shooting whenever and wherever he liked. Other than that, he only really wanted one other thing: Sarah Lynn Boyle, his neighbor down the street.

He never imagined, in all his years, that it was possible; he never imagined that he, of all people, could come to know and love a woman at first sight. Then one bright Sunday afternoon, the unthinkable happened; he came across Sarah Lynn Boyle on his way to the store. She was out in her yard, tending to her flowers. One glimpse of her was all it took, and Gregory Maroney swerved right off the road. He nearly killed two boys in the middle of a spitting contest, before he crashed his car into a telephone pole.

It didn’t take him long after that to find out that, in the afternoons, Sarah Lynn Boyle was always in her yard, and every day, he took advantage of the opportunity to see her, venturing out immediately after work to jog the neighborhood. He would wave to her, and she would wave back, but he could never quite bring himself to say anything to her, not even hi. What made their daily encounters so odd was that Gregory, as awkward and in love as he was, never once thought to change out of his work clothes. Having thought about her incessantly all that day, he’d be so eager to see her by the time he got home he’d simply go racing off down the street in his shirt and tie and, more times than not, a suit as well. As you can imagine, this made for quite a spectacle. Sarah, of course, was intrigued by this, by this odd apparition appearing, almost inexplicably, on her street afternoon after afternoon, and while she never said it (nor would she ever, seeing as she was polite and all), the mere sight of him, huffing and puffing and sweating so profusely in his business attire, well, it made her smile.

Sarah had a moat of flowers around her house, which is what brought her outside every day. In fact, she called it that – “a moat of flowers” – the first time they met. She had tried for days to get his attention, and did finally, but only after she cornered him in the middle of the street. “Water-lilies,” she called them, though they were far more than lilies. There were foxgloves and roses, jasmines and petunias. “A flood of petunias, by the looks of it,” he said. “Petunias… huh. Petunia’s a good name for a girl.” And with that, Sarah touched her belly, as if referencing something, and Gregory realized, for the first time, that she was pregnant. He glanced away into her yard. “So much water,” he said, nodding at her flowers. “Kinda makes you wonder who opened the damn.”

He thought this was funny.

His name was Gregory. (He would want you to know that.) And it didn’t matter if you were his closest friend; he simply refused to answer to anything else. “My mother named me Gregory,” he would say. “Gregory. Not Greg. Greg is a four-letter word. Especially not Greg.” To him, Greg was an amputation, a single solitary limb without a body, his whole person cut clean at the torso. And yet, when Sarah Lynn Boyle called him Greg, he did not mind it so much. Actually, he kind of liked it. Actually, I kind of like it, it occurred to him. It was the way she said it, sort of soft and cool, like she was taking him apart letter-by-letter and piece-by-piece.

He started stopping by, at the end of his jogs, and with time, their little talks took on a certain kind of ease. With her in his life, everything seemed a little crisper. How he moved, walked. The air. Even the light along the edges of the sky. He felt he didn’t have to go anywhere by himself anymore. He never wanted to, but he felt he had to. He felt he had to go everywhere by himself. But not now. Now, he didn’t.

He started to study up on various flowers, even spent his lunch breaks at the local flower shop, talking the florist’s ear off. He wanted to impress her, yes, but it was more than that; he wanted to know her, and this seemed to be the best way. So he began with A (as in Alyssum and Asters) and did not stop until he’d learned all there was to learn about Violets. One day, he asked her, “What’s your secret? I might be mistaken, but the Evening Primrose doesn’t typically bloom this late in the year.”

She looked around, as if to be sure that no one was listening. “Wait here,” she said, “And I’ll tell you.” And with that, she headed around back and returned, a moment later, with a primrose for him. “First, pinky-swear you’ll never tell. I mean it. Pinky-swear. Okay. Good. The secret to the primrose is you plant it at midnight. Don’t know how or why it works, but it works. Now, take good care of this one, okay? This one’s special. Put it someplace nice. Plenty of water, plenty of sunshine.” Then she gave him the flower.

He took this as a sign. (He took everything as a sign.) He loved her, you see. And it’s hard for a man to break that habit. So he broke into her house, late that night, and watched her sleep. And he continued to break in, every night for the rest of that week. He liked to watch her breathe, the planes of her body rising and falling with each breath. He liked to picture himself in the moons of her eyes. He wanted to touch her growing belly like a father would. He liked to picture her playing with her daughter in the twilight of her dreams, where there would be wildflowers, he imagined, wildflowers at dusk. But mostly, he liked to think of her as a mother with all the vapors of joy that would come with a daughter. In that room, it felt, to Gregory, like she was the world and the tectonic plates were shifting, continents aligned.

Typically, Gregory was not the kind of person to go and do something as crazy as break into a person’s house. Even he understood how strange this sort of behavior was. Just, he couldn’t help himself. The mere thought of her lying alone in the vacancy of that bed, just the idea of all the ways she could say his name, it dogged his mind and badgered his dreams. Sometimes, he would hear her voice over the intercom at the office. Sometimes, he would hear her whispering in the wind. No, typically, Gregory was not the kind of person to just go and do something like this, but the simple notion of her breathing, the sound he heard in her dreams, simply the notion that they could ever be apart, it made him want to teethe on his own tongue.

And so he did break in to her house, for several more nights, and he did crouch into the corners of her room and, there, take up residence with her sleep. He felt like he was creating something, and the act itself was something beautiful and lasting and not at all what he deserved. And so he did go back there, night after night. And he did continue to, for nearly a week. And yet behavior like this is neither right nor wrong for a man in love. Not entirely. Not in and of itself. If we were to be honest with ourselves for just a moment, what we’d have to admit is that Gregory was right about one thing, at least: Creation is an exploration of the unknown. And Gregory Maroney… well, he was just exploring.

He stayed in the corner, the first night. He bowed his head and prayed that God would watch over her and her baby. He hid silently away in the darkness, all that night and the next, until he worked up the courage, one night, to move a little closer and stare into her mouth. Not long after that, he was unveiling her toes; he was startled by how intimate just seeing them made it all seem. More than anything, he wanted her to be happy, so he started whispering happiness to incite her dreams. “Petunia,” he whispered. “Gregory. Or Greg, if you like.” He whispered the words Mother and Love, while he twisted her hair in his fingers, like a Boy Scout learning to tie knots. “Petunia,” he said. “Petunia.” All good things. He liked to kneel down beside her bed, put an ear to her stomach and listen to her womb. He thought he heard something when he did.

Gregory Maroney did not love his mother, but like all men, he found himself returning always to the womb. He’d read somewhere that a common opinion among psychologists is that the male sexual drive can be explained this way. Gregory, of course, considered it preposterous, “a bunch of blue-blood malarkey,” as he put it. Still, for the life of him, he could not explain why listening to her stomach, just once, had affected him so. He thought he’d heard something when he did, and his desire to hear it again was slowly consuming him.

Gregory Maroney loved Sarah Lynn Boyle, but more and more, he began to love her for the mother in her. He was certain he would make a good father some day, and Sarah’s daughter, of all daughters, deserved a good father, good enough, at least, to raise her to think only of dolls and dresses and frilly little things, while wanting for her all the things she could have in abundance. Not so much the rain boots or the umbrellas as the rain and a chance to play in it. Already, he wanted to give her everything, all the things she could treat like a candle and kill with a single breath, like any small good thing. He wanted for her all the things we take for granted until they are gone, things like light and electricity, things that just up and vanish on you one minute, only to return the next, when all the lights in the house flicker back on, as if Jesus Himself had returned.

And so it was that, later that week, Gregory Maroney bought Sarah Lynn Boyle a gift, a beehive to pollinate her flowers. He sealed the hive in a cardboard box, wrote her address on the top and fully intended to mail it to her. But he did not mail it. He did not. No, Gregory Maroney kept that box of bees all for himself. He heard the buzzing coming from inside, and he did not mail it. A constant drone filled his house, and he liked it. Sometimes, in the morning, he would give the box one good shake, and then he would listen. He never reopened that box, left the bees inside. He kept it close, on his nightstand, in fact, until all the bees had died. He simply could not bring himself to part ways with it. Only he knew why. Though I’m fairly certain that, every time he pressed his ear to that box, he thought he heard a heartbeat in the infancy of a womb.

 

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Tunnel Visions

Fair Warning:

What I write, at its very best, is some illegitimate hybrid of South American magical realism and Southern Gothic I like to think of as Southern Fabulism. Here, I will be periodically posting a few short stories, as a little taste of my forthcoming novel, A Curious Matter of Men with Wings, which will be available through SFK Press in September 2018. 

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Carey Chesterfield saw visions in the sky. She couldn’t say when they started exactly, seeing as she could never really tell the difference between what she saw and what was there. Seeing a flying chariot pulled by white horses was as ordinary an occurrence as looking up and seeing clouds. Everywhere, the trees had faces, hands, mouths that spoke to her. The sunset over the water became Moses parting the sea. Fish bubbled up to the surface, sprouted wings and flew away. The marsh reeds twisted and turned in an origami of fingers; fingers became heads and torsos, and those torsos became people, ships and masts, disciples en route from the Nile to the Promise Land. At times, shadows would appear where before there were none, dark silhouettes and ghostly figures of people she'd never met before and yet felt somehow she knew.

Even from an early age, she had always felt a certain kinship with the John of Revelations, but not for the reason you'd think. Fact is, Carey had always felt isolated, like she too had been exiled to an island her own.

It didn’t help that she matured faster than all the other girls her age. She was in the sixth grade when a large pair of spherical shapes inexplicably bloomed from her chest. All the boys in her class noticed, of course. (Of course, of course they noticed.) And all the girls… well, all the girls were jealous. Chesty Chesterfield is what they called her. An alliterative rhyme for what they all desired or envied.

But there was nothing to envy about the life Carey had to endure. She looked on haplessly, as her visions took everything away from her, one-by-one. When she was eight, she fed her dog Sparkles to a nest of gators, sunbathing on the riverbank. She loved that dog, to be sure, but she had a vision, and seeing them as Sparkles’ long-lost family and not the hungry alligators they were, she walked that poor dog right out to the water’s edge, unclasped its leash and said, “There they are, my friend. Aren’t you excited?! We found your brothers and sisters. Go to them, Sparkles, go!” And I don’t think she ever realized what she had done. In fact, she went skipping home that day, so certain that she had helped her beloved Sparkles find her family.

The only thing she ever loved more than that dog was her friend Sal and a man she would meet and fall in love with, the year she turned sixteen, the year she died. All the girls, in those parts, fell easily for big men with big cars, and he was a big man with a big car. In fact, his car was so big and so white and so clean it seemed to hover down the highway, and in Gulfport, Mississippi, cars that big were the currency of love.

She, however, learned this lesson far too late. And so, when it was all said and done, Solomon was, really, the love of her life. Sal to her, and Solomon to his friends, the boy next door was the only one who understood her.

They had met, the first time, out back in a field. It was his father’s field. A clean, wide open blackberry field. Solomon was crying, and she followed the sound. When she found him, he was hiding his face, kneeing ruefully in the shadow of a scarecrow. There were acres and acres in every direction, and yet Solomon had the look of someone who had been cornered.

“Say, what are going on about, little boy?” she said, as she approached him.

Solomon couldn’t even look up at her.

“Never seen a boy shake so hard,” she said.

Still, he said nothing.

“It’s just a scarecrow, you know? No need to go on blubbering about it.”

Solomon peeked through his fingers, but did not look at her.

“That’s right,” she said, “Look at him. He’s just lonely. That’s all. He’s probably just glad to have the company.”

“He looks… He looks so –”

“Wait! Hush,” she interrupted him. “He’s telling us something. He says… He says he didn’t come for you. He’s here for the crows.”

“Then I feel sorry for the crows,” Solomon sort of whimpered.

Carey glanced around the field. “Well, they don’t seem to mind. Heck, they’re having a time of it, out there.” She crouched down a little closer. “Ya see, it appears he’s not a very good scarecrow. To be honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was afraid of his own shadow.”

Solomon glanced up at her. “It does get dark out here at night,” he said.

“Then imagine how he must feel, all alone out here, night after night.”

She sat down beside him, leaned back and sort of whispered something in his direction. “I think he might like some company for a while,” she said. “What do ya say? I’ll stick around, if you do.” And she took his hand in hers, and he let her, and quietly, they sat there together, until the sun went down and the shadows grew taller and taller and came lurking in from the nearby trees, creeping in on their tiptoes, like dusk does, until they were completely surrounded.

At some point, Solomon asked her how she knew what the scarecrow was saying. And she told him. She told him about the sight she had been given, the visions she had and the things she could hear. And he did not laugh at her, like everyone else had. He merely nodded to himself, thought it over for a moment or two, and then he asked her what the moon was saying. He asked her if all those twinkles in the sky looked up to him, as if the moon up there were really more of a star. And that night, they shared something rarely shared by two people. They were only nine or ten years old at the time. They had just met. And yet they felt, in a way, as if they’d grown up together, spent an entire lifetime together, even though it was just approaching midnight. And that is how they knew, almost without knowing, that they would be friends.

Side-by-side, they learned to be kids. They played together. They cried together. They made sandcastles at the beach and mud bombs on the river, discovering, with one, the power to create, and with the other, the need to destroy. In time, the scarecrow joined their company. “A third wheel” was the joke. Yes, they did everything together, and together, they lived the way kids should live: free and winged, without a care in the world. It went on like that for years and years, until they were well into their teens and it seemed as if their childhood would never expire. Love, it seemed, was simple, in those days; it lived as a sort of unspoken presence between them, that known quantity between friends.

But like all good things, this too came to an end. Carey would later curse herself for not seeing it coming. Then again, no one did. She considered the big man with the big car. Love, she thought, it really is blind.

The prognosis was more of a doctor’s shrug. “Too advanced” was how he put it, that day in his office. “Maybe we could have done something about it,” he said, “had we seen it earlier.”

Something on the brain, behind the eyes.

“Whelp, that explains a lot,” remarked Carey in her usually jovial way.

But Solomon didn’t buy that. “It’s not an illness,” he admonished. “You see things. That’s not an illness.”

In a matter of a few short months, Carey could no longer go outside. She spent all of her time in bed, with the curtains drawn. Sunlight, she said, hurt her eyes. So she chose instead to live in the dark. Eventually, her father had to tape off the door because even the tiniest light that slivered through the cracks pained her. And soon, Solomon was told he could no longer visit her. “It’s for her own good,” her father explained. “You know it, and I know it too.”

Solomon would hold vigil outside her window every night. He would pray. He would ask the moon and the stars to pray. He would pretend he could hear them praying. Night after night, he would walk the scarecrow from the field and ask it to knock at her window. Together, they would try and peer inside, through a crack in the blinds that was not there. And when that didn’t work, it was the scarecrow that gave him an idea.

Out in the barn was where his father kept all his tools, hoes and shovels and buckets to carry away the dirt. He spent three weeks digging a tunnel from his room to hers. It was a Monday when he broke through the wooden floorboards under her bed.

“Hello?” Carey called out. “Hello? Is someone there?”

“It’s me, Carey. It’s me. I’m under your bed.”

“Mister Monster? It can’t be. My daddy got rid of you years ago.”

Solomon growled and rapped on the box spring. “Raaaar! Well I’m back, little girl. I’m back, and I am hungry.”

Carey sat up in her bed. “Oh no, Mister Monster! Don’t eat me!”

“Yep,” Solomon growled. “I’ve come for your fingers, but I’ll settle for your toes.”

“Oh no! Oh no, Mister Monster! Not my toes!”

Solomon couldn’t help himself, and started to laugh.

“Sal? Is that you?”

“None other,” he replied.

“How… what… how did you get down there?”

“Well I’d take all the credit, but it was really the scarecrow’s idea. He said he liked hanging out with me fine and all, but it just wasn’t the same. All we do, nowadays, is sit around staring at each other because I can’t, for the life of me, understand a word he is saying.”

Carey chuckled.

And Solomon missed that chuckle.

“I tell you what,” he said, “I’ll bring him by tomorrow, so he can say hi. He’s missed you quite a lot, ya know?”

Solomon imagined that Carey smiled right then.

“I miss him too,” she said. “I miss him too.”

Solomon kept his promise and returned the following night with their friend the scarecrow. “Well hello there, little lady,” the scarecrow said, peeking out from under the bed. “Is it safe to come out? No crows up there, right?”

“Na,” she said. “The coast is clear.”

So Solomon and the scarecrow joined her on the bed that night, and the three of them talked and laughed straight through till morning.

It was Solomon who had the sight to see she was dying. It was a Tuesday, and it was early in the morning. He had brought her a breakfast of fresh blackberries that he picked from the field, and he sat at the foot of her bed while she ate them. 

“Ya know,” she said, “Scarecrow’s right to be afraid of the dark. It’s lonely in the dark.”

Solomon was quiet for a while.

They both were.

“Maybe you should open the windows,” she said.

And so he did.

In an instant, sunlight washed up the shores of every wall and every corner, pushing back a tide of shadows and flooding her tiny room in a surge of milk-white light. Carey winced a little in pain, blinked twice and then shielded her face.

“Close your eyes,” he said. “It’s okay. Close your eyes. Tell me what you see.”

She was silent for a while, and then she began to describe the tractor lumbering across the field. “The tractor is crawling now. It’s been brought to its knees.” She described the papery shapes of heads and sails rising slowly from the marsh. “The sea is opening to them,” she said. “It’s time for them to march.” She began to smile a little smile to herself. “And yep, there she is. I can see Sparkles too, plain as day. She’s with her family, and she looks so happy.” She said she could see their friend the scarecrow too, standing out there in the middle of the field, so relieved for the daylight. “He knows the darkness,” she said. “He knows too the good side of light.” Her eyes were closed, and still, she could see things that others could not.

And his eyes were closed now too. “I see sunspots,” he told her. “I see a chariot and a team of white stallions pulling it along. I see it flying. Yep, there it is. It’s flying. I see it flying higher and higher into the clouds.”

 

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And We Return As Crows

Fair Warning:

What I write, at its very best, is some illegitimate hybrid of South American magical realism and Southern Gothic I like to think of as Southern Fabulism. Here, I will be periodically posting a few short stories, as a little taste of my forthcoming novel, A Curious Matter of Men with Wings, which will be available through SFK Press in September 2018. 

 

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When I arrived, she was out front, vacuuming her lawn. She was my sister, and an odd one, to be sure. Aside from her unusual habit of vacuuming the yard, she fancied herself a seamstress and spent the majority of her adult life fashioning costumes for all fifty-eight cast members of a play she never wrote. She took equal pride in her garden, so much so that she painted both of her thumbs green every morning. Of course, the garden itself was no less strange: equal parts perennials, equal parts herbs, equal parts pork chops, tire irons and a drum of oil. (She likely had a little bit of everything buried out there.) But as her name would suggest, Vinyet was a short story (a very short story). And really, this is not her story at all.

Vinyet never left our childhood home. She grew up there, outlived our parents there, and she stayed there, even into her forties. She had lived there alone for a good many years, but she was happiest when she was alone. Alone and in that house. She was strange like that. Everyone thought so. Though being strange in a town like ours was far from strange.

Cozy, Alabama was almost a character itself, a leather-bound hymnal of a town, where people were named after the prophets but went, instead, by nicknames. Mister “Return To Sender” Cinder, for instance, had a nasty habit of writing letters to Negro League sluggers, seventeenth-century monarchs, Victorian poets and all of his deceased relatives. Ezekiel “Blue Gums” Malone, for another, hated all white people for enslaving his ancestors, and he refused to ever wear cotton, just to prove it. Malachi “the Cropduster” swore by the sensation he got while pissing from his car, while Micah became “Formica” after he buried his whole family under the countertops. Yes, we even had a giant named Andrew “the Green” Bryant, who stood an unwieldy seven-feet-tall and suspected that every last doctor was just out to steal his bones.

No one knew why, but crows took quite a liking to Cozy as well, seeing as thousands upon thousands of crows called Cozy home. And the rumors about where they came from made Cozy even stranger. I’m not sure when exactly the rumors started, but they started, and for generations, the people of Cozy (right down to the person) were all still crazy enough to believe that these crows were somehow special, that these crows were really the souls of the dead, the souls of our loved ones, come back to live among us.

Sounds strange, I know. But strange is also a way of life in certain parts of the South.

It was a bit of bad luck that brought me to her door. It was a cruel coincidence that led me to catch my husband of ten years cheating on me with some top-heavy intern. It was anger, indignation that led me to kick him out. And deep in the throes of what would become a truly nasty divorce, I found it harder and harder to be alone. I was frightened of myself when I was alone. So I called up my sister one day and, the next day, moved in.

It wasn’t long after that that Vinyet lived up to her name and died.

 I found her out back, down on her knees, slumped over the bench in her garden, as if taken in the act of praying. Taken perhaps as a result of praying. Finding my sister there didn’t feel like it does in the movies. I didn’t scream or cry out to the heavens. Instead, I allowed myself one long deep breath and then knelt down beside her. I was stroking my hand through her hair when I discovered a bit of birdseed in the palm of her hand.

Right then, the young boy who lived in the neighboring house appeared at his back door. And thinking of him, I hugged my sister under one arm and pretended to pray, just loud enough for the boy to hear. “Lord, it’s us again, Licia and Vinyet. Don’t you think we are due for some rain? It sure would mean the world to Vinyet and me. Her flowers need it so.”

The boy popped his head over the fence and was about to say something when I lifted a finger to my lips. “Shhhh. We’re praying.”

So he lowered his voice and asked, “Can Miss Vinyet come out and play?”

“Not today, okay? Miss Vinyet isn’t feeling well. Maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay.” And with that, the boy skipped off into his house.

Every day the following week, the boy appeared in much the same way, emerging head-first at the fence, eyes bright and green. And every day, he would stand at that fence, up on his tiptoes and wait on my sister for nearly an hour. You couldn’t help but feel for him. I did. I felt for him. So I would peek out the door whenever I saw him at the fence, and he would ask me, “Miss Licia! Miss Licia, can Miss Vinyet come out and play?”

Always, my answer was the same.

“Not today, okay? Try back tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow, okay?”

It took me a good two weeks before I could offer him anything more that this. It was a Monday, I think, and the sun was climbing its ladder into the sky. “Miss Licia!” he called from the fence. “Miss Licia, can Miss Vinyet come out and play?” his eyes bright with anticipation.

“Play?” I replied. “Play what?”

“Oh Miss Vinyet and I, we play lots of games.”

“You do? Like what?”

He didn’t waste a second before listing off their games. “Let’s see…sometimes, we play Sun-Gun Death-Run out there in the woods. (That’s when you have to run around as fast as you can without getting killed by the sunlight.) And sometimes, we play Shoot’em Up, Poot’em Up and Name That Cloud. But the game I really like, Miss Licia, is Capture the Rabbit, as long as I get to be the rabbit. (Miss Vinyet says I make the best rabbit because I’m fast, like super-really-fast!)” He had to stop to catch his breath. “Oh and sometimes, sometimes when Miss Vinyet is watering the flowers, she lets me play Chase the Rainbow, which is like my especially favorite game of all because I can get all wet and stuff and can jump like super-duper high. But she likes to play Count the Crows with her eyes closed, best of all. And oh! Oh! When I get all A’s on my report card, sometimes Miss Vinyet lets me pick out names for her crows.”

What I still can’t admit to myself is how badly I wanted a son like him, a son I’d name Max and be Wild Things together. (“I’ll eat you up I love you so!”) What I still can’t admit, even to myself, is that I would never be a mother, that I could never have children of my own, and that this could be the reason for my divorce.

I guess, in a way, I got used to seeing him at the fence. It was even – dare I say – strangely comforting. I started watching for him out the kitchen window, those big green eyes and small boyish hands accosting the wood slats and peeking into the yard. But he eventually gave up and stopped coming. So one day, I decided to go out to him.

I peered over the fence into his yard, cautiously at first, so as to keep from being noticed. I was stunned by what I saw there. The boy was down on his hands and knees, crawling around on the ground. Bowls and pots and pans and even a few rubber basketballs, cut in half, had been positioned (almost strategically) around the yard.

Strange, I thought.

He was whistling a song under his breath, and it was high and twittering. He crouched down in front of a pot, placed a scattering of birdseed inside and then crawled over to the next one. It wasn’t so much the look on his face that said he was sad. Actually, he didn’t look sad at all. He looked rather happy, in fact, out there in a world all his own. But he was sad. He was sad, and I knew just how sad he really was by how lazily he dragged that bag around behind him.

The number of containers he set about the yard multiplied daily. Each filled and then refilled with birdseed. A week went by, and there were too many to count. So he took to spreading some seed around the base of a tree and then whistling up into its branches, trying to coax its residents down to the ground. His plan worked, of course (crows, like us, being creatures of need and all). And soon, the fence, the tree and the entire back yard became a haven for their kind. It was all I could do to hear the television or the phone ring with all that cawing and squawking and flapping around outside.

Though, honestly, it wasn’t as bad as all that. And in no time flat, all their noise was just another part of my day, settling gradually into that happy medium between what we accept and what we decide is acceptable. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, the mere presence of those crows continued to eat at me, until one day, I had had enough. I don’t know why. But before I knew it, I had marched right up to that fence and was yelling to him across the yard. “Say! You aren’t the famous Haslip boy that everyone’s talking about, are you?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said with a nod. “Clay Haslip’s the name my mama gave me.”

“So tell me, Clay Haslip, do you and Miss Vinyet play lots of games together?” I asked. “Yes, let me see if I remember correctly; you said Chase the Rainbow’s your favorite, right?”

Inspirited by the very idea of that game, Clay bound over to meet me at the fence.

“I tell you what,” I said, “I could play with you, at least until Miss Vinyet gets better.”

He considered my offer for a moment before shaking his head. “No thank you.”

“What? Why?”

“I only play with Miss Vinyet. But thanks!” he yelled and scurried back across the yard.

“Wait!” I called after him.

“Yes ma’am?”

“Won’t you play with me, just this once? Your games sure sound like a lot of fun.”

He paused to think and scratch at his knee. He glanced back at the tree then said, “Sure!”

And so, for the better part of that afternoon, we played together. I had fun, to be sure, hearing him laugh and giggle like boys do at sinister things, seeing (in him) the child I had forgotten to be. So it should come as no surprise that, upon waking the next day sensing a new childlike anticipation in my bones, I rushed outside, hoping to find him in his yard.

He was there, of course, same as he always was, sending birdcalls into a tree.

“Hey there!” I said. “Can little Clay Haslip come out and play?”

He didn’t so much as look up at me. “No ma’am,” he said. “Clay Haslip is real busy.”

Over the next few days, all of our conversations went exactly like that, almost verbatim. I’d offer him an ice cream sandwich, some war paint for our faces and even the permanent title of all-time rabbit, if he wanted it. But nothing worked. In a matter of days, he stopped responding to me altogether, so I decided it was best to leave him be.

Day after day, I watched him from the window, watched him busying around the yard for hours on end. It was late in the evening a week or so later, and I was sitting in the garden when I heard the gate unlatch behind me. To my surprise, Clay appeared. He sat down on the bench beside me and just waited there, looking off into the woods.

“That one there is Isaiah Jenkins,” he said, pointing up into the tree. “And the one beside him is Sarah Boggins. Miss Vinyet thinks they’re in love or something. I think she’s gross.”

“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to another.

“Oh him? Don’t mind him. He’s grumpy all the time. Kinda like my dad. My mama told me about a man named Balthazar who used to jingle bells around town and yell, ‘Does this make you happy?!’ I don’t know his name, but that’s what I call him.”

“Goodness me,” I said. “Doesn’t he sound pleasant?”

The wind stirred the trees, and for a good long while, we both just listened.

“Miss Licia?” Clay said, after a time.

“Yes?”

“Miss Vinyet isn’t coming back, is she?” he asked, as if he almost understood what he was saying.

I didn’t know how to answer him.

“It’s okay,” he said and placed a small hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Miss Licia. I’m a big boy now. I can ride my bike all on my own. So it’s okay. I know she’s not.”

And I’m not sure if it occurred to me then, or if (in a way) I had known all along, but a murder of crows leapt from the fence and escaped into the sky, and somehow it all made perfect sense, right then. The yard full of containers. The containers full of seed. The crows. The tree. And the boy who took up a task (as men do) to withstand the grief.

I couldn’t sleep that night or the next. I couldn’t sleep until, at last, it came to me, and I leapt from my bed and spent the next few hours searching the attic and Vinyet’s sewing room for the supplies I needed. A bit of cardboard I could fold into a beak. Some orange paint. Some black paint. A knee-length dress I could balloon to size. And finally: feathers, lots and lots of feathers. Of course, finding feathers was the easy part. Every yard within a two block radius was covered in them, thanks to Clay, and just yesterday, the old man across the street was out in his yard, raking up piles and piles of them.

After gathering what I needed, I spent a solid two days, hard at work, fashioning the makeshift beak and a costume of feathers. And when the suit was done, I tried it on, waited till dusk (when the light can be tricky) and then climbed the fence into the Haslip’s yard.

You should have seen the look on his face, the mix of utter shock and disbelief that only happens when a child comes to believe in the beyond-belief. “Who…who are you?” Clay asked.

“Caw, caw! You know who. You know who.”

“M-M-Miss Vinyet?” he whispered, like he might have woken up in a dream.

“Wanna play a game? Caw!”

There was a smile.

And that night, Clay and I ran wild through the woods, howling away at the impending moon, the slivers of light that could kill you, with one misstep. We closed our eyes and spread our wings as wide as we could. Then we leapt higher and then higher into the air, until it seemed we didn’t have to pretend to fly.

 

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