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.
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.”
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.”