That Forgivable Lightness
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.
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.