story 6 : betty, butter, sun

bbs-cover

 

One day, Betty couldn’t stand it anymore. She reached up with her butter knife and cut out a slice of the sun. It trembled like pie filling on the edge of her blade.

She walked back to her cottage, sat down at her kitchen table, spread it on a slice of homemade pumpkin bread, and put it in her mouth. Immediately her lips caught fire. A wave of flame broke over her entire body until she was nothing but a smoldering mummy.

Her neighbor Agatha knocked on the door shortly after, because she’d noticed the sky had gotten a little darker, and she was worried. There was no answer. She went in anyway, because she knew Betty kept cookies in a red jar on the stove. Agatha had already crossed the room and taken a cookie when she noticed, first, a burning smell; and second, her burnt neighbor.

Agatha dropped the cookie at once. Then she felt ashamed and picked it up off the floor and held it in her hand. Then she felt silly. Betty looked dead, so Betty couldn’t see her. Agatha wandered outside, cookie in hand, so that she could think more clearly.

The sky was definitely darker. The other two villagers, Clare and Diane, had come out to the village green to investigate.

Pointing back toward the cottage, Agatha said to them: Betty the Baker is dead.

Diane blinked and said, What happened?

I don’t know, said Agatha, but she looked all burnt.

Well, that explains it, said Clare, folding her arms and looking up at the sun.

They all looked. They could see that the sun’s brilliance was indeed dimmed now, lacking just a sliver on the top edge; so slight, but it ruined the otherwise perfect circle. None of them were tall enough to reach the sun unless they were standing on a box or unless, like Betty, they used a knife.

I think that Betty overreached a bit, said Diane. She was always sticking her spatulas where she wasn’t supposed to.

The villagers stood near each other, but not together. Their cottages waited for them, one on each side of the green. Diane’s was outfitted for her station as Deacon; Clare’s, for her station as Chemist. They all had work to get back to, except Agatha, the Adulteress, who merely floated from cottage to cottage asking the others to do things for her even though she had her own cottage with all its own amenities.

We’ll have to bury her, said Diane. I’ll dig a grave.

Where? said Agatha.

Here, said Diane, pointing down. There’s nowhere else for her to go.

The three villagers stepped back to survey the ground beneath their feet.

I’ll help, said Clare.

So Diane and Clare dug, while Agatha watched on the grass with her cheek on her palm. They dug an arm’s length down and then debated whether it was deep enough. No one had ever died before, so they’d had no need to bury anyone. This was all new.

They decided the grave was deep enough. Then they went into Betty’s cottage. That which had formerly been Betty had not moved from its final position, so they agreed she must be dead. They wrapped up the body in a quilt and carried it out to the grave and dropped it into the grave.

Now, said Diane, I’ll say a few words.

The other two nodded. Diane was a Deacon, so it was only proper.

For Betty, said Diane. She overreached. But she made the best cookies. Ah-men.

Ah-men, said the others.

Then Diane and Clare covered her up with dirt.

Then Agatha said, Will someone please make me lunch?

Diane sighed and said, I will.

So Diane and Agatha went off to Diane’s cottage, and Clare went to her own cottage.

Doors closed.

The sun hung where it had always hung, though now it was maimed.

~

Agatha was the first to notice the pool. It was a puddle of inky black liquid welling up through Betty’s grave.

Agatha fetched Clare. Clare went back to her cottage to pick up her chemistry kit and came back out. She crouched at the edge of the puddle and pulled out various instruments.

What do they measure? asked Agatha.

Opacity and glint, said Clare.

Then Clare plucked some grass and threw it onto the surface of the black water. At once the liquid swallowed it. There was no surface tension. It disappeared just as quickly as though it’d been thrown into a shadow.

Interesting, said Clare.

They called for Diane to join them at the side of the black pool. They threw various things into it. All were swallowed. Agatha wandered off and came back with a little paper boat, hastily made, and set it to float on the surface. But it sank just as quickly as everything else.

I don’t suppose we want to find out how deep it is, said Diane.

Clare retrieved a staff from her cottage. The staff was six feet long. Holding it as high as she could, she dipped it into the pool. It made no ripple as it slid in.

The others held their breath as the staff continued to drop, as Clare lowered it, calmly, hand over hand. It was already deeper than the grave they’d dug.

That’s enough, said Diane. Draw it out again.

So Clare stopped and tried to pull it out. But then she cried out.

It won’t come, she said.

What do you mean, it won’t come?

It’s stuck, she said. She yanked up on the staff to demonstrate. It didn’t budge.

Try lowering it down again, said Diane.

Clare did. And it continued its descent, smooth as ever.

Let go, said Diane.

Clare did. The staff was swallowed by the pool.

Everyone took a step back.

Where does it lead? said Agatha.

No one answered her.

The villagers looked up at the sun and then down at the pool. They didn’t look at each other. They adjourned for dinner in their separate cottages. Neither Clare nor Diane would take Agatha in this time, so she sat at her own kitchen table and remained hungry.

~

A bit later, Agatha noticed that Betty’s empty cottage was inhabited again. She tried to remain circumspect in her walks back and forth across the village green, but finally, her curiosity got the best of her, and she made her way to the cottage doorway.

Hello, she said to the woman unpacking a box on the kitchen table.

Hello, said the woman.

What’s your name?

I’m Elizabeth, she said. She extended her hand and Agatha shook it.

What do you do? said Agatha.

I’m an Economist.

That’s good, said Agatha. Clare is a Chemist, so you’ll get on well together.

Elizabeth the Economist shrugged and continued to unpack.

Aren’t you going to ask what I do? said Agatha.

I wasn’t going to, said Elizabeth. But I guess you want to tell me.

Yes, said Agatha. I’m the Adulteress.

Oh dear, said Elizabeth.

Can you make me lunch today?

Elizabeth laughed, but it was not a friendly laugh. If I have leftovers, she said, I’ll leave them out.

Okay. Thank you, said Agatha. And she went back out onto the village green.

~

Agatha sat by the edge of the pool and watched as it continued to grow. She had no reflection in it. Nothing did—not even the sun.

Also, she’d begun to notice forms at the edge of the village green. At first she thought she must be seeing things, and blinked and shook her head. But they were still there. They coalesced in the periphery of her vision, then dissipated as soon as she looked at them head-on. No one else had noticed them; or if they did, they hadn’t said so. They were too busy with their work. But Agatha just spent every day pacing the village green. She had time to look, time to notice.

The sun continued to hang in the sky, same place as always. Agatha looked up at it. She thought it looked like a nibbled cookie. Just a little, from the edge, with a clean cleavage plane.

And then she missed Betty’s cookies.

She missed them so much she actually got up and snuck into Elizabeth’s cottage when she wasn’t there. She rummaged through the recipes that Elizabeth hadn’t yet thrown away. She found dozens of cookie recipes. She pulled out her favorite—cranberry chocolate chip—and took it to her own cottage and started pulling out bowls and cookie sheets and measuring cups. She’d tried to cook before, but it always went badly. This time, though, she felt different—like she really might be able to do it without anyone’s help. She followed the recipe as precisely as she could. When the dough was ready, she thumbed buttery lumps of it onto the cookie sheets and put them in the oven. Then she set her timer and waited at the kitchen table.

There was still ten minutes to go when the oven started smoking. She pulled it open and smoke poured out of it. When the smoke cleared away, she saw that each of the cookies had burnt to small, charred lumps. She sank back into her chair. She looked away from the oven. She wandered out of her cottage and sat by the black pool again and cried.

After she wiped away the last of her tears, she looked up at the sun. Looking at it made her feel both better and worse at the same time. It distracted her. If she stared long enough, she could start to see what looked like a gold tadpole and a silver tadpole chasing each other, endlessly, in a circle. She could never quite tell whether the tadpoles were moving of their own accord, or whether they were an artifact of her eye. Either way, they seemed to swim in a rhythmic pulse, each so close to touching its front to the other’s back, but never quite. Never quite!

Agatha looked down. She drew up her legs and put her head in her arms and spent a long while in the darkness of her lap, blinking her eyes until the afterimage of the tadpoles was gone. Then, through a crack of light under her elbow, she again saw shadowy figures coalescing at the edge of her vision. She went very still. This time, she didn’t try to look at them straight on. She let them remain in her peripheral vision. She could only see their legs, but it seemed that the figures did not see her. They were streaming past her, on both sides, in both directions, and passing each other too.

Agatha made a decision.

~

Clare and Diane and Elizabeth were spending more and more time in their own cottages, and Agatha was spending more and more time by the pool, right under the sun. When she was sure she wouldn’t be seen, she set down a mixing bowl from her kitchen, stood on top of it, and reached up toward the sun with her butter knife.

She was surprised how soft the sun was—not like a cookie at all, but easily sliced like a ball of butter, except that each slice glowed bright like lava and immediately hardened upon contact with the air. She dared not touch the slivers. She shook them off her knife and dropped them into the black pool. Like with the staff and everything else, the slivers dropped into the pool and disappeared, as if it were a pool of air.

She only carved out little slices, one at a time, so that the others wouldn’t notice. It had to be gradual. She told herself she’d stop as soon as she could see the shadowy figures as much as she wanted to. When the sky had gotten infinitesimally darker, she stepped down off her mixing bowl and tried to see out of the corner of her eyes. The figures were indeed still there, and beginning to coalesce into real matter, with distinct outlines instead of dancing fuzzy ones. She could make out heads and arms and feet.

Agatha was sitting by the pool when Clare came out of her cottage.

Hi Clare, said Agatha. What are you doing?

Experiments, said Clare.

I’m hungry, said Agatha. Will you make me dinner?

Maybe. You expect so much. What are you doing?

Looking. I’m seeing new things.

What?

I can see differently. Different things.

Clare laughed. I don’t see any different things, she said.

Well, you’re not looking for them, said Agatha. That’s why you don’t see them.

Clare suddenly frowned. What I do see, she said, is the sun. Look at it! It’s getting smaller. Doesn’t it seem smaller to you?

No, Agatha lied.

Clare called Diane and Elizabeth out of their cottages.

Doesn’t the sun seem smaller to you? Clare asked them.

It does, now that you say so, said Diane. But how could that happen?

How would I know, asked Clare. I’ve been doing my experiments in my cottage all day.

Well I don’t know, said Diane. I’ve been writing sermons all day.

Nor I, said Elizabeth. I’ve been collecting data.

They turned to look at Agatha.

What have you been doing, Agatha? said Diane.

I tried to bake cookies, said Agatha. They didn’t come out right.

Is that all?

Yes.

You’re lying. I can tell because I’m a Deacon. What have you been doing, Agatha?

Trying to see, she said.

And?

And taking slices of the sun, she said.

And putting them where?

There, she said, pointing to the black pool.

The other three fell silent. Agatha could feel their stares boring into her skull.

You’re nothing but a burden, Diane said at last.

You expect too much, said Clare.

Stupid girl, said Elizabeth.

Agatha didn’t answer.

The other three stood apart from Agatha. They spoke to each other in low tones. Then they returned to Agatha.

Give me the butter knife, said Diane.

Agatha handed it over.

Diane took it and reached up and sliced off a full third of what was left of the sun, balancing it on the blade. She carried it into her own cottage, walking very slowly. The door closed. Then Clare returned with her own butter knife and carried off another third. Her door closed. Elizabeth took the last third for herself and closed her own cottage door. Each of their kitchen windows glowed with new light.

Agatha stood in the middle of the village green. For the first time, there was no sun overhead. For the first time, there was twilight. The sky was a tawny pinkish color, and beneath it, figures were passing her, on all sides, on all planes, up and down and sideways, distinct and on their way.

~

Agatha didn’t go back to her cottage. She just stayed by the black pool and watched the figures stream past her. She hadn’t tried to communicate with them, not yet; anyway, they didn’t seem to notice her.

But she had another problem: she was hungry again. Despite the day’s developments, she did the only thing she knew how to do: she went to Clare’s cottage and knocked on the door.

There was no answer.

Agatha feared that she would open the door to find Clare just like she’d found Betty. But when she pushed open the door, she saw Clare sitting on the edge of a chair at her kitchen table, knees drawn up to her chin, looking at her bit of sun, straight on and then sideways, alternating.

Don’t stare too long, said Agatha.

Hush, said Clare. The tadpoles are trying to tell me something.

Trying to tell you what?

They have a language, said Clare. I’m sure of it. I’m working on it.

Agatha saw that Clare’s kitchen table was covered with papers full of diagrams and equations.

That’s great, said Agatha. Are you making food?

What? said Clare.

Food? said Agatha. I’m hungry.

Get your own food, said Clare.

I want your food.

I don’t have food.

But everyone needs food.

I don’t, said Clare. Not anymore.

Agatha watched her a minute more. Maybe Clare wasn’t hungry anymore because she had the sun in her cottage.

Agatha left, still hungry.

She went to Diane’s cottage. She knocked and there was no answer. She let herself in. Diane was not in her kitchen. Agatha went to the cupboards and rummaged through them. There was no food left.

Agatha peered around the corner and saw that Diane was in her bed, napping, beneath her third of the sun, which was stuck to a cast iron pan suspended from the upper corner, like a lantern. Agatha looked away quickly so as not to see the tadpoles.

An idea came into her head. She acted quickly.

She went back to the kitchen and fetched a butter knife and came back into the bedroom and poked it into the sun, like poking a skewer through a sweet potato. Once she had it, she tiptoed out the door and closed it behind her as quietly as she could. She held the sun on the knife away from her at arm’s length and shielded her eyes so that it wouldn’t spoil her new sight. She made her way to the black pool in the middle of the village green.

She was just about to drop the chunk of sun into the black pool when she heard a scream behind her. She turned around. Diane was charging out of her cottage. Agatha cowered, her wrist trembling.

Give it back! screamed Diane.

No! said Agatha. You can’t have it in your cottage—you’ll never want to eat again! We need to eat! I’m hungry!

Diane reached Agatha and seized her by the arms. They struggled. Agatha fought to keep the knife out of her hands. She wrenched herself away so hard that the force of the motion pushed her back, and she fell, arms wheeling, into the black pool. It swallowed her without a ripple.

~

Agatha sank through clear liquid, so icy it was hot. Below her she saw a great square table, and benches to each side, and dark forms huddled along them.

She landed on a bench, in the lap of a great feast.

A bowl dropped in front of her. Viscous, jelly-like lava sloshed out and slid down the sides.

Have some, said a voice.

Agatha looked up. Betty was across the table from her, just as they’d buried her. Her blackened skin was peeling off the bone and her nose had burned away to reveal a white trident. Her eyes had burst and melted down her cheeks.

Have some, said Betty again, standing up. She picked up Agatha’s knife and brandished it and a sheet of flame uncurled in its wake. Then she tossed the knife over her shoulder and picked up her own bowl with two charred hands and drank from it. Rivulets of lava coursed down her cheeks, making new tracks, fresh blood sizzling on contact. Agatha could see, through gaps in Betty’s chest, the lava dripping down her throat and pooling in her thorax and oozing out from between her ribs.

Betty slammed down the bowl and said, More.

Agatha was afraid. She began to push herself away from the table, but Betty noticed, and leaned forward.

Have some, said Betty, or the others will see you’re not having some, and they’ll take it from you.

No, said Agatha.

She’s not having any, Agatha heard whispered around the table.

You were always so hungry, asking the rest of us to make you food, hissed Betty. Eat or there’ll be trouble.

No! screamed Agatha.

A body flew across the table and landed in front of her, charred fingers reaching for her bowl. The bowl scudded down the table, sloshing lava. Chaos followed. Bodies piled on top of each other in an attempt to reach the unclaimed bowl. Agatha pushed herself up and away from the bench and stumbled and fell and sat on the floor and watched. The bodies were tearing at each other. A hand went flying and dropped onto the floor. A head rolled down the table, jawless. One guest reached up through the hole in another’s throat and squeezed her brain.

Then the melee came to an end.

The survivors gathered around the pile. They picked through the charred parts. One who was missing an arm found a new one, attached it. Another who’d lost both hands found one of them, and tucked the stump of the other under her armpit. When they vacated the center of the table and went back to their benches, a motley assemblage of body parts was left. The others didn’t look at it, as if embarrassed for it.

More bowls of lava fell from above. They were seized and drunk.

Agatha, forgotten for the moment, watched the pile of body parts draw together as if they were iron filings attracted by a magnet. A form took shape. It did not have the correct number of parts, nor in the right places. It had a leg for an arm and a hand for a leg, and its head was attached only by a single tendon, and so was tilted to one side in a perpetual question.

It made its way down the center of the table. The guests ignored it. It shuddered to a stop in front of Agatha.

Hello, said the head that was tilted to one side.

Hello, said Agatha.

DON’T SPEAK TO HER! Betty bellowed, leaping from her seat. SHE’S NOTHING BUT A BURDEN!

Betty lunged for Agatha. Agatha jumped out of her grasp, and found that she was weightless. She jumped again, and found herself floating upward. She kicked. She accelerated up. The guests had been scrambling for Agatha, but now they descended upon the motley girl in their midst, tearing her up all over again.

~

Agatha broke the surface of the black pool and clawed for the shore and pulled herself up. She bent over in the grass, coughing up black bile, but the bile turned to mist as soon as it came out of her mouth.

She heard the sounds of a fight and looked up. Clare and Diane and Elizabeth were struggling, bracing against each other with butter knives in hand, clutching at one another’s throats.

Diane must have tried to steal the others’ pieces of sun, thought Agatha.

But then she realized she no longer cared.

Instead, she rolled over and stared up.

There were tiny pinpricks of light in the tawny-pink sky. Agatha thought them very pretty. Her breathing became slower. She closed her eyes and heard, beyond the grunts of the fighting villagers, a papery whispery sound.

Agatha sat up. The shadowy forms were back—more distinct than ever before, almost solid. They were passing through the corners of the village green, diagonally in a great big X-shape. Agatha had no idea where they were going or where they were coming from. What existed beyond the village? They had to be coming from somewhere. Were there other villages? Did those villages have food?

She fell in with them, and began to follow them toward the corner of the green, beyond which she knew not what lay.

As she was leaving, she saw someone else arriving, with luggage. This person arrived at the doorway of the cottage that had been Agatha’s cottage. She looked inside, looked around, took note of the villagers wrestling each other to the ground.

Agatha thought to herself, Maybe her name is Fiona. And maybe she is a Falconer. Or perhaps a Fool.

Yes, she thought. This village could use a Fool.

And Agatha passed out beyond the corner of the green, looking for a meal.

THE END

This work was made possible by the generous patrons at PATREON.COM/MONICABYRNE.

~

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wedding days : letters from ethiopia, india, and the south pacific

me-kerala

Leaving Aranmula by autorickshaw, March 2009. Photo by Linda Hitchings. All other photos by Monica Byrne. 

~

Wedding Days: Travel Letters by Monica Byrne
Ethiopia, India, Fiji, Samoa, and the Cook Islands
January-May 2009

(PDF)

January 10, 2009

Hello dear friends and family,

I’ve done everything I can, Stateside. I have a beautiful color-coded itinerary, four kinds of insurance, microfiber socks, and my Tweezerman. (If any of you are Tweezerman enthusiasts, you know how precious they are. I’m afraid mine will get confiscated in customs and I’ll faint.)

Since everything is done, these last few days have been spent in waiting. I feel ambivalence about my upcoming adventure—a natural defensive reaction, I’m sure. “What’s so great about Ethiopia? I’m so happy here, with my boyfriend and family and friends and wi-fi wherever I go. What’s so great about Fiji?” …as if I haven’t been dreaming and planning to travel for years, exactly like this, on my own terms and purely for the sake of my writing! It’s laughable, really, all the reasons one comes up with to Not Go. In fact, they’re similar to the reasons to Not Write: “But I’m so tired.” “But I’m so comfortable.” “But I wrote a lot yesterday.” The trick is to ignore the grousing ego and just get on with it, because I know, deep down, what a good thing this is.

I bought a wedding ring for my trip. I’ve read that it’s a good idea for solo women travelers, to at least stem the flood of catcalls, hustlings, and proposals I’m undoubtedly in for. I went to Wal-Mart and got their cheapest ring, a silver-plated band that is actually quite beautiful. And when I see it on my finger, I can’t help thinking: now I am my own husband and my own wife, united in purpose, despite my cold feet.

I hope this letter finds you well.

Love to all,
Monica

photo-45

January 20, 2009

Dear friends,

There’s a beautiful lightning storm over Addis Ababa right now. I just got back from watching Obama’s inauguration at the Addis Hilton—boy, there were a lot of grinning expats there! And after he was sworn in, a little old man in a green polo shirt jumped up and led us all in a cheer. It was stupendous. I’ve never felt so grateful to be American. So please, love our country for me, while I’m away.

I’ve been one full week in the capital of Ethiopia. The city is huge, dusty, and full of blooming jacaranda trees. Yesterday was Timkat, the Ethiopians’ celebration of the Epiphany, during which they hold mass baptisms—I wish you all could see it, the rivers of people in white—and the priest swinging a hose back and forth over them with a certain ennui. Nevertheless I walked toward it, moved as everyone else was moved, but the crowd was so tight I was actually lifted off the ground and carried by my neighbors’ bodies. Finally I got spattered, and shrieked, and broke away laughing.

But when I found some breathing space, I noticed that my left side pocket was unzipped. I’d forgotten my camera was there.

After a frantic search in my bag, I just crouched on the ground and started crying. I cried a long time with my head down. When I stood up, I found myself in the center of a circle, three people deep. Their faces were sad, for me, and very kind. One woman hugged me to her chest (soaked, cool) even though she didn’t know what was wrong. I was walking away, still wiping my eyes, when a boy who had followed me called Let it go! Forget about it! Listen—they are singing to Mary! And on the street ahead of me there was a line advancing, step by step, beautiful youth with bright faces, arrayed in white, hunched and cupping their hands as if to catch water, singing Hail Mary, You are mother to a King!

I went back to my guesthouse and spent the day resting. I’m certainly not the first person this has happened to, but still, being robbed feels like a slap in the face. My heart constricts—when I know the antidote is to do the exact opposite, to open my heart that much more, cut it up like an apple and give it out. So I’m trying to do that.

Despite that episode, I’m very well and healthy, much more than I thought I’d be. Tomorrow I depart for Lalibela, which by all accounts is the eighth wonder of the world.

I hope you are all well.

Much love,
Monica

P. S. Please don’t feel obligated to write back. But if you do, know that I am *overjoyed* to hear from you, and will write you back as my Internet connection speed allows 😉

cosy

February 6, 2009

Dear friends,

After hopscotching around the north of Ethiopia, I’m back in Addis, and very happy to be so. It’s wonderful to be “home” at my guesthouse—endearingly named Mr. Martin’s Cosy Place—and to be within five minutes’ walk of a good Internet café, friendly grocery store, and excellent juice bar. Except here, “juice” means a three-layer smoothie of mango, avocado and banana, with blood-red syrup drizzled on top. Delicious!

One of my stops was Simien Mountains National Park, in the northwest of the country. I hired an official scout for a day hike—and scouts carry a rifle, in order to protect their charges from wild animals. Of course, being me, I had to imagine he’d use the rifle to rob me, or quiz me about Ethiopia, or make me jump off the escarpment just for fun. Morbid thoughts—but when you’re traveling alone, you’re your only protection, and I’ve found it pays to be paranoid.

But he showed up at my hotel ten minutes early, wearing an ironed, sage-colored suit. His name was Meret, and he had thick eyebrows and a kind face. He immediately offered to carry the bag of peanut butter and crackers I’d brought for our snack—so I decided things would be fine.

It turns out, he was more than fine. He was wonderful. This countryside was his home. Every few minutes he stopped to greet sisters, cousins, neighbors—carrying firewood on their heads, or children on their backs. He would stop, adjust his rifle and then show me a particular herb or flower—”this is for a bad stomach,” “this is an Ethiopian rose.” We hiked up and up, and finally the trees cleared. Meret waved for me to come closer. We’d reached the edge of the escarpment.

I really wasn’t prepared for it. It was a sheer thousand-foot drop into nothingness. The rest of the visible earth was miles distant, and so pale—as if painted with a brush full of water. I heard my father’s voice in my head, telling me about those medieval monks who jumped off cliffs, believing they could fly. So that’s why, when Meret turned back around, he saw me sitting twelve feet from the edge with my legs wrapped around a tree.

Unperturbed, Meret pointed to a trail along the escarpment. I followed his finger. The trail looked about as wide as my shoulders, with no barrier to the thousand-foot drop except empty space.

I said, “I am afraid.”

He laughed as if I’d told a joke. But when I kept a straight face, he looked at me again, considering. “You are afraid?”

I nodded.

“Okay,” he said, smiling with not a little amusement. “I will show you another landscape.”

I’m glad he did. What followed was a long, magical walk into another world. He led me down through a gully we’d passed before, into a eucalyptus forest. The leaves were papery, whispery, made a slippery carpet on the ground—and the air smelled like heaven, of course. He led me further, across rolling tawny pasture lands, and shepherd girls yelling out their echoes, and horses drinking from sparkling streams. We passed through a garden, where flowering baby trees were potted in circles of stone—I imagined that some woman came there with her daughter, that it was their haven. He took me to the edge of the escarpment only once more, to point at a tiny speck of a hut on a tiny stamp of land, far below and miles away. He told me that’s where he’d been born. We rested awhile there. It was its own place, unanswerable to any other.

When we finally got back to the town, I expected it to be dinnertime. But when I looked at my watch, it was only noon. I couldn’t figure it.

Sometimes I think there are other universes everywhere, and it’s just a matter of choice, or belief, whether we pass into them or not.

I hope this letter finds you well and healthy. Much love to all!

meret

February 12, 2009

Dear friends,

I’m recovering from an Affliction, so I’ve been spending my last few days in Ethiopia just resting and reading and eating rice.

It’s too bad. I’d wanted to go back to the Addis Sheraton for one more afternoon. This is no ordinary Sheraton. Only the wealthiest stay there: African leaders, diplomats, international contractors. My first day here, my Ethiopian friend Sisay took me there to show me around, and made sure I used the bathrooms in particular. Each stall was like a black marble sarcophagus. It was wonderful. There were ballrooms and fountains and vined colonnades. There was an unfinished playground and a sprawling gnome garden. The gnomes looked, as I did, over the wall onto the vast shantytown right next door. As a writer I feel very drawn to the place, because it’s such an absurd concentration of wealth in the middle of such a poor country—and as such I find it deeply haunted. (I told Sisay about my attraction to it. “I knew you would go back,” he said, “for the bathrooms.” And that’s also true.)

Travel in Ethiopia has been a mixed bag—good days and bad days. It’s often been difficult. In particular, I had no idea how much my experience would be circumscribed by my being female. In America I have the luxury to ignore that fact, or the freedom to celebrate it; here, though, it’s the first thing I am. Instead of identifying as a “Byrne, Artist, Spiritual, Woman,” here I am “Female, Alone, White, Faranji.” And related to that, I had no idea that the invisibility of Ethiopian women would be such a daily sorrow to me. By far, men are the dominant ambassadors of social and public life—those with benign intentions, along with those who only want to harass and question me.

This was true in my travels up north, especially. Which is why meeting Netsanet was all the more powerful.

For a long time, we weren’t even sure that was her name. My Canadian friend Arlene had asked her and shouted it to me, as best she could, over the pop music expo that had set up camp right across from our hotel in Debark. We’d gone, and found a whole lot of dancing—mostly teenage boys who moshed and then rushed at the stage to kiss the singer in mid-song. We had a wonderful time, joining in, attempting our best at Ethiopian dancing, the shoulder-shuddering and neck-twitching.

There was a woman in the crowd, though, who danced with such abandon that she drew my notice over and over. She saw me watching her and drew me out. She was tiny and gorgeous, with a heart-shaped face, dimples, thick smears of eyebrow and a gigantic smile. But she was most beautiful for all the life that was in her, that seemed to renew itself every moment. I tried to keep up as best I could. Then at one point she pulled her necklace right off her neck and pushed it toward me; then her scarf, too, she whipped off and cradled my head with, like a bonnet. She was so ecstatic, so resplendent, and so unlike any other woman I had yet seen in Ethiopia.

Finally I got side stitches and stumbled away to catch my breath. My friends’ guide, a local man, had been watching and pulled me aside.

“She’s crazy,” he said in a warning tone of voice.

My smile faded. “What do you mean?”

He shrugged. “She’s crazy. She went to Sudan to look for work, and then when she came back she wasn’t right in the head.”

I looked at her again, dancing, this woman who’d been so generous with me. It’s true that I don’t know the full situation, but I was so angry with him for saying that. She’s crazy? Why? Because she dances so joyfully? Because she’s having a fantastic time? Because she showed me such love? I wanted to say, Surely she’s saner than you.

I kept the necklace. It’s a strand of cowrie shells, plastic balls, and red and black beads. But I left the scarf in my hotel room, smelling as it did so strongly of her—a tang of meat, iron and sweat that I couldn’t wash out—it felt too powerful to bear.

Back in Addis, exploring for a day, I came across a beautiful new hotel still under construction. The lobby was tiled in cream, and the furniture all elegant black wire. The manager showed me around and I asked her name. “Netsanet,” she said. I got very excited and told her about the other Netsanet. She smiled and said, “You know what the name means? ‘Liberty.'”

I keep thinking about the women of Ethiopia, of whom I still know so little.

Tonight, I fly to Mumbai. Send me good wishes for my journey as I send good wishes to all of you, for yours!

Love,
Monica

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March 15, 2009

Dear friends,

I’ve been one month in Kerala, called God’s Own Country, in the south of India. The thing is, I feel like I’ve always been here.

After the dry season in Ethiopia, stepping into humid Mumbai—warm as the womb, even at 5am!—was such an unexpected relief. I took a taxi to the home of Leena, my gracious hostess. She made us chai and then fixed her daughter Shreya’s hair for school, into adorable braided pigtails, as the sun came up over the city.

I’ve felt such an affinity for India. Which is not to say that it’s somehow “accessible” in the way that many Westerners want to believe it is, but simply, that I really like everything I see. Kerala in particular is a steady rain of blessings. The colors alone are overwhelming. Electric lime-green fields. The houses that spring up from the ground, shell-pink and lily-blue peeking out from under coconut palms. Also, I’ve been told that people in Kerala are known for their kindness, and I’ve found it to be true—especially the schoolchildren who elbow each other out of the way to say “Good morning” to me!

Since I’ve been here, I’ve dreamt about home literally every night. And by ‘home,’ I mean the actual house I grew up in, a beautiful old Victorian house in Annville, Pennsylvania. It’s been sold to a new family who’s renovating it from top to bottom. So it’s no longer really the house I grew up in, the house my mother died in, the house where gravity had a little less hold on me than anywhere else in the world. But every night in my dreams, we’re there again, playing catch in the backyard or having a costume party in the attic.

I think it’s because Kerala itself feels like home. And—in talking with other travelers—I realized that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to traveling. I’m looking for home. I’ve always been fascinated by people who find it far away, in a place they’ve never been before, but their universe reorients on the spot and they live there happily ever after. I’ve always been half-excited, half-afraid that that would happen to me.

Last weekend, our Ayurveda teacher, Sarath, invited us to his family’s home for the day. After a delicious breakfast of sweet dosas and stew, we went to see his family’s oldest house—empty of occupants now, but kept and beloved in the family. It’s three hundred years old. Sarath gestured me down a hallway and unlocked a door that opened out onto scrub and coconut palms. It was very quiet, except for a Hindi love song floating from somewhere across the fields. Sarah pointed at the stone floor and said, Here is the place where my grandmother read to me. I sat in her lap. Can you feel the breeze? And I did. I felt like I remembered the place, generations forward and back. It’s the same feeling I’ve had all during my time in Kerala: that my mothers have come here before me, and my daughters will follow, after.

I’ll be very sad to leave Kerala, but my itinerary calls me on—next to Madurai, home of the Meenakshi Temple. In the meantime, I hope you all are well and healthy! Happy spring 🙂

Much love,
Monica

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March 25, 2009

Dear friends,

Early tomorrow morning, I take a bus to the town of Hospet, a passenger train to the city of Hubli, a sleeper train to the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai, and finally…a plane to Fiji.

Which is quite a long way from Hampi, where I am now. Hampi is a temple town built on the ruins of the ancient city Vijayanagar, once the capital of a vast medieval empire. I’ve wandered here for days. It’s what I imagine the surface of Venus would look like: crumbling temple ruins, tumbled boulders along a hot river, under a hot sun. Yesterday I was exploring the royal enclosure when a thunderstorm came up. I climbed a nearby hill and took shelter in an ancient guardhouse, where I sat on the ramparts—there was a lot of deliciously cool wind and lightning and rain-spattering. The storm passed to the west.

I’ll miss India. I love it here. I’ve been so happy. I’ll miss having idlee for breakfast—steamed rice cakes shaped like flying saucers, with spicy stew to soak them in. They’re what I crave for breakfast now. I’ll miss the lovely humid heat, and the old ceiling fans in every hotel room. (Though I admit I’ve been paranoid this whole time that one would spontaneously detach and shred me to ribbons in my sleep. I’m happy to report this hasn’t happened yet.)

But, most of all, I’ll miss the trains. It’s strange for me to say that—I’d been anticipating claustrophobia, lost sleep, hassles—but now, instead, every time I’m on the platform it feels like Christmas morning. My first train trip was 26 hours long, from Mumbai to Kochi, and I felt as if I was in a church whose rituals I didn’t know. How did everyone know when the bunks came down? Or when to unwrap their dinners? How did they know which station it was when there were no signs?

Many train rides later, much is now clear.

It’s essential to have a window seat, of course. From there, the passing world is completely absorbing: laundry lines, chai carts, stately homes, road crossings, children pooping, lone motorcycles, rippling saris, rice fields, coconut palms, gravel quarries, and cows with pretty eyes and painted horns. If possible, it’s even more interesting at night because all the houses have their back porch light on—which means that each of them appear as a diorama, for one instant, this household’s life frozen in time, before it’s replaced by the next. Once, on the night train to Madurai, we entered pure countryside and all the hills and fields were lit by a heavy-lidded moon.

As a light sleeper, I can’t account for how well I sleep on the trains. Maybe it’s the feeling of being rocked, or being surrounded by the peaceful sleeping bodies of other women, of whole multigenerational families on the move. Or maybe it’s that all the saris I bought, rolled up in a sack, make an excellent pillow. Or that, when I wake up in the night, I can peer up through the window and pick out a constellation before nestling back down on my luggage. And then at 6am, the first chai-wallahs come through, and I sit up and wipe the sleep out of my eyes and pay five rupees for a little paper cup of steaming chai.

Like I said, I’ll miss India.

Keep me in your thoughts for all the transitions ahead. I’ll be sure to enjoy my last train ride, believe me! As for you, I hope spring has arrived—or at least, is on its way—to wherever you are.

Love,
Monica

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April 6, 2009

Dear friends,

It’s the rainy season in Fiji. This is an understatement. The night I got here, a thunderstorm began. Two days later I saw the first patch of blue appear over Wayasewa Island. So I mustered the ambition to walk twenty meters down to the beach, and stand in the surf for awhile….I was so happy and relaxed, I just wanted to lie face-down in the sand and fall asleep, ocean-as-blanket.

I love it here, but it’s complicated.

In Ethiopia, it seemed like they’d only begun to figure out tourism in a way that would benefit more than a handful of people. In India, tourism was just one of the bazillion things going on all the time. But in Fiji, tourism is the number-one industry—and they’ve gotten very, very good at it. But that also means, as a Fijian resort manager told me in a frank conversation, “We’ve had to make a lot of compromises.” And I want to honor that. Ever since the first days of my trip, I’ve been thinking about what kind of white tourist I am.

Before I left for my trip, I think I had some idea that I could reduce my conspicuousness in the countries I was visiting—that I could allay or even cancel my whiteness by, for example, buying and wearing local clothing. But I was very quickly disabused in Ethiopia, where I learned that, as far as anyone was concerned, I was no more enlightened or well-intentioned than anyone else—I was a rich white American female tourist, the end. (I did buy an Amharic dress, but I think if I’d actually worn it on the street, in terms of attracting attention, I might as well have set myself on fire.)

One day in India, I was engrossed in an exhibit at the Gandhi Memorial Museum when some teenage boys came up and asked me for a picture. I sort of laughed uncomfortably and obliged, and one of them draped his arm over my shoulder and the other held up his camera phone. Picture taken, I went back to the exhibit. But they followed me. They approached me again, asking for another picture. I said no. The third time they asked me, I told them that they were being incredibly annoying and reflecting poorly on their country and I wanted them to leave me alone. They did. But it left me feeling queasy—that they hadn’t wanted to talk with me at all, but just capture whatever it was I represented to them as a trophy to show their friends.

So, I can’t imagine how Fijians must feel.

Such a well-oiled tourist industry attracts a different crowd of tourists. Not the more savvy, thoughtful, engaged travelers I met in Ethiopia and India…but European gap year kids who seem determined to be disaffected by everything, or jaded honeymooners, or tattooed thrill-seekers. In any case, most seem intent on using their cameras constantly—as if to confirm to themselves that they are experiencing something, that it is real. During the mekes (songs and dances) performed for us on the islands, I could hardly see the show for all the camera flashes. I wanted to tell everyone to put their goddamn cameras down for five minutes to accord the respect we accord to a performer anywhere—by being present to them, by meeting them in their vulnerability—instead of documenting them as one would an anthropological exhibit. It made me crazy.

And yet, the manager also told me, there are those who come to him after seeing the meke and tell him that they want to experience “real” Fiji. As if the meke, and those who performed in it, were somehow not “real.” This seems like aggression: asking for what is not freely given. Asking for more, beyond these beautiful mekes, these pearls of Fijian culture that they’ve plucked and presented to us, because it’s their livelihood and they own the land and they know exactly what they’re doing and because they want to—how is that not real?

Fiji is quite real, to me. Everyone I’ve met has been very sweet. Women call out “Bula!” in two long syllables, like a lullaby. Men sing to themselves as they work. And it’s absurdly beautiful. The moon is waxing, brighter every night, passing through the mottled galaxy. I go down to the beach at night and watch the spindles roll in. Sailing back to Nadi yesterday, we were caught between a golden sunset in the west and a towering rainbow in the east. Beauty and kindness are real. And they’re enough for me.

I invite any of you to write me back about this and share your thoughts or experiences. Because I include myself in this criticism—God knows I can be self-righteous sometimes, and hypocritical—I take pictures too, after all. I’m just trying to figure all this out. Every white or Western tourist who’s thoughtful about their approach has their lines, and their reasons, for what is and is not appropriate. I should also say that I’ve met a lot of travelers in Fiji I really like.

Tonight I fly to Samoa. The whole country is Christian, so I hope that means I can find a good Easter Vigil service to attend, and wear—!—white.

Much love,
Monica

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April 20, 2009

Dear friends,

Talofa and kia orana, from the South Pacific! It takes four hours to fly between these tiny dots on the map—can you imagine how the ancient Polynesian explorers found them by canoe!? It boggles the mind.

All along the coast of Samoa are fales. They’re pillared, open-air houses, iterations of which is the traditional Samoan home. The juxtaposition of pillars-and-ocean was tugging at my mind for hours until I realized why…A Elbereth Gilthoniel. When I was fourteen, I made a painting of a young woman sitting between two white pillars, looking out at the moon rising over the ocean. The title is a hymn from (what else?) The Lord of the Rings. Of course, the painting was a young effort, and might now be called tacky, but it’s been dear to me over the years because it was so important to my self-conception. So, as soon as I was in Samoa, I was right in my painting—right at home.

I spent a week at Lalomanu Beach. Time moves very slowly there—as if the air is made of jelly. There’s very little to do besides read, write, swim, tan, and eat. (For breakfast they serve that traditional Samoan staple, fried Spaghetti-O sandwiches. Surprisingly good.) So the mind invents things. I was preoccupied with minutiae—like the proper name for leprosy (Hansen’s disease) or the name of the illiterate girl in A League of Their Own (Shirley Baker) or how long it would take to fall down the south face of Everest (about 15 seconds, assuming you don’t scrape your head along the way like Mola Ram). The time slows your mind in other ways, too—it confuses it, like a strong cocktail. Tasks are gently subverted. I’d set out for the bathroom with every intention of brushing my teeth and then, twenty minutes later, find myself examining my toes on the beach and think, How did I get here?

I had a mattress right at the edge of my fale, and my fale was right on the surf. I spent a lot of time just looking at the water, trying to describe its color. Iridescent-melon-turquoise came close sometimes. I started an ‘element diary,’ a thrice-daily record of the ocean, clouds, sand, moon, stars and sun—just writing down what they look like to me, regardless of how ‘pretty/ugly’ the words might be. Learning to see things in ways others haven’t. I just read a book about Van Gogh—how when he got to Provence, he was so delighted at how much other painters had “left behind.” And of course, now that I look, each element is very different each day, turning a different face, and begging different words to describe it.

I spent my last three days on Manono Island, a tiny lump of extinct volcano with a population of 1,300. There are four villages and the children attend one of two schools, and wear either red or blue uniforms. I passed them in the morning on their way to school. Sometimes they stopped to talk to me—brave adolescent girls who took deep breaths and looked away before asking each question, to make sure they have their English straight in their heads. A path encircles the entire island; it takes an hour to walk if you hurry, and two hours if you linger. It goes past fales, churches, ancient blackened platforms. It winds through gardens upon gardens, and always by the sea. It’s best to walk at dawn, because it’s coolest, then—and the rising sun shone through all the red leaves and green palms and fuchsia hibiscus.

I hope this letter finds you all well. Right now I’m on Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands—the beginning of the end of my trip. It’s all bittersweet.

Much love,
Monica

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May 2, 2009

Dear friends,

On the fifth-last night of my trip, I pulled out my diary from Ethiopia. Whoa. Talk about vertigo! On my first morning in Addis, I was dazed and nauseated and arguing with my taxi driver, who claimed she was “lost” and needed more money. Now, four months later, on the other side of the world, I was sitting on the porch of my beach hut, carving up a coconut and eating the pieces off my knife, as if I belonged nowhere else.

Rarotonga is the main island in the Cook Islands. It is tiny, spherical and immaculate. Two buses circle the island at all times—the Clockwise and the AntiClockwise, like matter and antimatter (and every time they meet, the drivers make faces at each other). Having circumnavigated the island by bus, I decided to bisect it on foot. I took the Cross-Island Track, a path up through the craggy center of the island, beginning in the northern town of Avarua. The ascent took my breath away, literally—climbing hand over hand, up ladders of tangled root, which were so thick the island seemed to be made of them. I lost the trail a few times (whose brilliant idea was it to make the trail markers dark green!?) but always found it again, by luck or bushwhacking. Finally, I knew I was on track because I passed the ruins of the Sheraton. Years ago, construction stopped abruptly because its investors bailed out. But the buildings are still there, ghostly, the color of dirty bone, deep in weeds. I remembered the Sheraton in Addis—its opulence and majesty—and felt like here, I was seeing its future. (Maybe all of our future.) Then finally the forest spat me out on an asphalt road, bitten, muddy, scratched and soaked, wearing my bikini top and cargo pants. Two men at a picnic table raised their Heinekens to me. Bisection achieved!

I spent the last week of my trip on the tiny island of Aitutaki. I went to their church, two centuries old, for services last Sunday. A strong wind blew in from the sea, across the pews. I’d been told the singing was spectacular, but I wasn’t prepared for what that meant. As soon as the minister stopped speaking, the congregation heaved up, the song already begun and splintered into a dozen harmonies, into calls and answers that echoed and overlapped and got louder and louder. One little old Maori woman in front of me, in a purple house dress and flowered hat, sang in a voice that would put Bjork to shame—belting into the stratosphere, taking the highest harmony, lifting and glorifying all the others. I had to focus on keeping my feet beneath me.

This is what it’s like at the end of the world.

It’s as if, through my trip, I’ve been led into Dante’s rose of Paradiso—and Aitutaki was the purest, innermost, and loveliest—so loud the silence. My last night there, I sat on the beach with a cup of tea, watching the moon set over the sea, thinking, Beauty like this is always too-much and never-enough, all at once.

Today is my last day, my last look, my last breakfast at my favorite cafe where they put extra starfruit in my mueslix. Tonight my plane leaves for Los Angeles at 11:59pm. I’m coming home.

Much love,
Monica

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May 17, 2009

Dear friends,

I’ve been home for two weeks. Mostly hiding out in Chatham County, where the world is small and manageable. At Melleray, my family’s farm, Dad is looking for four-leaf clovers all the time, and now he’s got me looking for them too. I have a little cabin on the edge of the woods with a desk, bookshelf, and plenty of candles. And spring is in full bloom—actually, past full bloom, as if the greenness of the world were a given and everybody’s over it.

At the end of my trip, I felt like I needed to take account of everything. To compose credits, like at the end of a movie. For example, I want to thank each item of clothing (for example, “To my yellow-striped sarong, you were everything to me…my shawl, scarf, headscarf, top, skirt, dress, blanket, bath towel, beach towel, pillow cover, dust rag, toilet paper, and gas mask.”) Or to award superlatives, like in a yearbook (for example, Samoa wins for Prettiest Money). Or to make lists (for example, I read twenty-six books and filled four notebooks and cried in public only six times).

What’s clear is that the trip was a magnificent success—that travel is everything I hoped it would be, spiritually, personally, creatively. That even though at first, I was often scared I’d crash and burn, that fear melted away until all that remained was pleasure and wonder and quiet. And I planned to come back in May—the beginning of summer—so that after the end of my travels, I’d be entering this, the most green and fertile corridor of the year.

But as soon as I got back, the real world came crashing back in—beginning with a court appearance for a speeding ticket from December! (Actually, it was a thrilling civic adventure. And the judge was very nice.) But now I have to figure out a new job, new apartment, new life…though I wish I could just rest. I keep wanting for something to happen, and for nothing to happen at all.

Regardless, I do want to thank all of you for your companionship these last few months. Having friends to write to kept me grounded, wherever I was. So do stay in touch, and I will do the same, especially when I get something published 😉

All my love,
Monica

~

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story 5 : birthday girls

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“Birthday Girls,” edited by Kat Howard, is published exclusively for Patreon patrons, August 2016. Photo credit: Citona Marie Rygg.

~

Corporate worked on the ninth floor. The secretaries worked on the eighth floor. There were seven floors below them, all empty, which Frieda knew because she’d scouted them for candy bowls on day one, and found none.

The morning of her birthday, Frieda arrived at work before any of the other secretaries. She ducked into her cubicle and scanned it for any birthday paraphernalia. But there were no flowers, no silver pillow balloons, and no cards propped up on her keyboard. She sighed in relief. No one knew it was her birthday. She was a very private person.

Frieda drew a curtain across her cubicle opening and sat down. She depressed the little green button of her computer. While it warmed up, she took off her coat, undercoat, scarf, hat, mittens, earmuffs, and balaclava, and hung them on pegs in descending order. She wrung her wrists to get the blood flowing. She was very tall, so thawing was a long process. Her tallness marked her apart, as did her accent. Her fellow secretaries would corner her and ask her about her native Norway (are there windmills? tulips? communists?), until Frieda edged away, nodding and smiling.

Frieda glanced at the clock. 6:54am. The other earlybirds didn’t usually come until 7:00am, so she had a few minutes.

Time for the first expedition.

She got up from her swivel chair, which yawed in a circle below her.

She was so tall she could see over the top of her cubicle into the grid of all the other cubicles. In another hour, it would be full of secretaries murmuring on the phone to other secretaries, snug in their nests of seasonal garlands.

Frieda swept her curtain aside and made her way to the wide central aisle. At the potted plant, she took a right, walked down a corridor, turned left at the bulletin board, then took another right. At the end of that corridor was a door of frosted glass with a nameplate that read:

 

GERTRUDE GRUBER

SENIOR SECRETARY

 

And outside the door was an enormous bowl of candy.

There were chocolate footballs, peanut butter cups, and fez-shaped caramels, all wrapped in foil of seasonal colors: red, green, gold. Frieda gazed down at them, wavering in place. She could smell the chocolate through the foil. She liked to imagine that Mrs. Gruber dropped this candy at the end of every workday in preparation for the next, like a hen laying eggs.

Frieda scooped up two handfuls of candies—not too many, so they wouldn’t be missed; five in one hand, seven in the other—and released them into her pockets. She hovered at the bowl a moment longer, wondering if she should take more while she had the chance, but she told herself be reasonable and began the journey back.

Only once she was safe back in her cubicle did the candies see light again. They fell from her open hands: an excellent harvest. She separated them by kind, and then again by color. Doing so calmed her. She arranged them in a circle, as in a compass, and began to eat her way in a clockwise direction, starting at due north. The first candy was a fez-shaped caramel wrapped in bright ruby foil—how indulgent, to begin the circle with a caramel instead of end with one!—but it was her birthday after all, and this was a day to mix up the routine, to surprise herself. She turned the caramel upside down and loosened the matted foil on the bottom; extraction without destruction was part of the ritual. When the foil was loose enough, she drew up the caramel as if drawing a grub from its molting, and pressed it to her tongue, and moved it in tiny circles with her fingertip, until she felt the bottom begin to melt away.

There was a knock on her cubicle wall.

Frieda jumped and spat out the caramel and dropped a binder on the rest of the candy with a muffled thunk.

Hello? she said, coughing.

A golden-ringed hand drew the curtain aside. Two squinting eyes peered in.

Frieda, a voice rasped.

Oh hi, Jewel. Frieda coughed one last time, swallowed her chocolate-flavored saliva, then folded her hands in her lap. You’re here so early. Can I help you?

Can I come in, Jewel said. Her voice was naturally raspy, like the sound cats made when they were trying to produce a hairball. Frieda thought it polite not to ask why.

Sure, said Frieda. She nudged her trashcan out of sight; it was full of denatured candy wrappers.

Jewel came in and leaned her bottom against the file cabinet. She wore a red cardigan stitched with white snowflakes.

How are you, said Jewel.

I’m fine, thank you, said Frieda. How are you?

Not great. I wanted to talk to you. Because you’re the only other foreigner here.

You’re a foreigner?

Canada. I’ve told you that.

Right, Canada.

I’m never going back.

Frieda nodded.

Why did you leave Norway?

Frieda squirmed. She didn’t know how to talk about it.

She said, I wanted to start over.

Jewel nodded. Do you like it here?

Frieda picked at her skirt. Yes, so far, she said, not looking up.

Well that’s good, said Jewel. But I think it’s cold in here. Too cold.

I thought you were from Canada.

Why do you think I left?

Oh, said Frieda. But then why did you come to Alaska?

Jewel fidgeted, shifting her butt against the file cabinet. I thought it’d be warmer here, she said. But it’s the same everywhere. I bet it’s the same in Norway, too. I know. I don’t even have to ask you. It’s the same old bullshit. Every day you find yourself back at your desk somehow. You know, when I took this job, how long I told myself I’d be here?

No.

One year.

How long has it been?

Nineteen.

There was another silence.

I think, said Jewel, that they’re turning down the heat.

Who?

Jewel stabbed her finger up.

Corporate?

Jewel hunched and gave her an evil look. Ssshhh! They could be listening.

Frieda covered her mouth with her hand. Sorry, she whispered, between her fingers.

I think the Senior Secretary is in on it, too.

Gertrude?

Yep. She likes to watch people, haven’t you noticed?

Frieda felt uneasy, thinking of the candy bowl. No, she said.

Well, I have. I think Gertrude knows I’m cold and she keeps the heat low deliberately so she can watch me shiver. Don’t you feel cold? I feel cold. I feel colder all the time. I think they’re turning down the heat a half a degree every day. I put in a request to Facilities for a thermometer to put in my cubicle and I never got a reply so you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to bring one in of my own. So I can prove it.

Jewel stood up on tiptoe and looked around. Anyway, I gotta go, she said. But don’t tell anybody what I told you.

She slipped outside.

Frieda leaned over and drew the curtain close again. She turned back to her desk and lifted up the binder. Her carefully placed candies were now flattened discs, chocolate and foil intermingled, everything ruined.

~

By 10:00am, all the secretaries had settled in at work. The air hummed with the purring of phones and the patter of keys.

Frieda was almost recovered from the morning’s debacle. She tried not to feel angry at Jewel for ruining her birthday. She reminded herself it had only begun. She made some copies. She mailed some documents. She faxed a dietary request that specified No refined sugar. Upon reading the words, her heart beat a little faster.

Frieda glanced at her watch. It was almost time for her second daily expedition. She tapped her foot, waiting for the fax to go through, then grabbed the sheet hot from the tray and folded it under her arm. There was only a short window of time when the candy bowl in the far northwest corner of the building was unwatched. Frieda was already two minutes late. She strode forward and kept her head down, to discourage approach from other secretaries adrift on errands of less purpose.

Again she swerved onto the main aisle. Good morning, Frieda! someone called, and Frieda lifted her head and smiled sideways at the salutatory party, then strode on. There were more secretaries out and about. More than usual, it seemed. The aisle had become crowded with clusters of them.

Frieda took the last corridor, then rounded the last corner. A second too late, she registered another body hurtling around the same corner, and the two collided and recoiled like bumper cars.

Oh! the woman shrieked, and her coffee surged out of its mug.

Frieda’s heart sank. It was Gertrude, the Senior Secretary. What was she doing all the way over here in this quadrant?

Well hello, Frieda! she said. How nice to see you here!

It’s good to see you too, said Frieda, shifting her weight to appear casual. She’d have walked on, but the circumstance of their near-collision now demanded an engagement beyond pleasantries.

Can I help you find something? said Gertrude. I know you’re still getting your feet around here and I want you to feel welcome.

Frieda did a quick calculation in her head. Either invent a professional need of some kind, or be honest and take the candy. But she hated being watched. Especially after what Jewel had said that morning.

I just came for a little—

Gertrude followed her gesture toward the candy bowl. Oh, yes! she said. That’s what it’s there for, just a little sweetness for your day, just like the bowl outside my door! Help yourself!

I will, said Frieda.

But she didn’t want to move. She wished Gertrude wasn’t standing there. She’d be able to take far less than she usually did. How could Frieda explain that she needed far more than what she was expected to take?

Frieda moved over to the table. The bowl was full of peanut M&Ms. She only took one of each color. Her hands shook. If she wasn’t being watched, she’d take more. She’d take half the bowl. She’d wanted to redeem the disaster of that morning but now this was all going wrong, too. Her birthday was horrible so far. She could feel Gertrude’s eyes on her back, unblinking.

I hardly ever see you, said Gertrude loudly, Being in that little cubicle of yours, behind that curtain! You might as well still be in Norway!

Frieda wished Gertrude would keep her voice down. But she turned around and nodded in an semi-apologetic way.

Gertrude stared at her hand. Aren’t you going to eat them?

Frieda was incredulous. This couldn’t get worse. Her joy from sugar was personal, private. But she put one M&M in her mouth to placate her, and tried to smile as she crunched it between her molars, like a savage.

Gertrude seemed to relax, watching her. There you go, she said in a dreamy voice. We want you to feel welcome here, and the candy bowls are part of that. Did you know that we have a birthday today?

Frieda’s eyes went wide, and terror clambered up her throat like a wild animal.

Mine! Gertrude said. It’s mine!

Oh! Frieda nodded, breathing deep, telling her body to stand down and disperse the adrenaline. I didn’t know that. Happy birthday, Gertrude.

We’re having a little celebration in the ninth floor lobby at lunchtime. Sponsored by Corporate. I ordered cake! Everyone likes cake. I’ll see you there, all right?

Frieda bobbed her head. Okay, sure, maybe, she said.

Gertrude made a show of punching her waist with her fist, like a mother scolding her child. Maybe? she said. We all need a little rest and relaxation sometimes! And what better way to do it than with delicious cake? If you like candy, then you must like cake!

Frieda nodded again in a way she hoped looked more reassuring. Okay, we’ll see how much work I can get done before then. Definitely. Okay.

Gertrude swatted her hand in the air. Oh, I won’t hardly get any work done today, she said. It’s my birthday!

Frieda had been edging away this whole time, nodding at everything, wanting to stone Gertrude with the M&Ms for detaining her, but instead she said, Yes, I know, it’s so exciting, okay!

Okay! Gertrude called after her, waving.

Frieda headed back to her cubicle, speed-walking, flush-faced.

Of course Frieda had had no intention of attending the “little celebration.” Office birthday parties were her idea of Hell. An enormous sheet cake was brought out, and all the secretaries sang the birthday song, and the birthday girl had to cut it and serve each person, each one of whom specified loudly that they wanted a middle piece, no, no, much smaller than that, because no one wanted to be the one who claimed the corner piece, and then they would move away from the cake, eating their tiny squares with plastic forks, and once they were done with their piece they’d hover near the cake and urge each other to have another.

Go ahead, have some more!

Not for me, I’m full!

That’s too bad!

Look at the little rosettes they made!

They did a good job with it, didn’t they!

That’s some good cake!

Well why don’t you have some more?

Not for me, I’ve got to watch the calories!

Oh, live a little!

Easy for you to say!

Frieda hated it. She hated the way they treated sugar, no matter what form it came in. That’s why she ate hers alone. Of course she would eat some, but it would be in private, later, when everyone was in a meeting, or had left for the day, and she could take it from the fridge without anyone seeing or commenting. But in the midst of that vile masquerade? Impossible.

Frieda’s thoughts were interrupted by a rising, shuffling, squeaking sound.

She looked up. A phalanx of secretaries was rounding a bend of the main aisle. All of their outfits were slightly altered from business casual. Instead of flats, they wore sneakers. Their collars were unbuttoned and their sleeves were rolled up. They were a wave of pumping elbows, jack-in-the-box clowns lurching side to side.

Keep going ladies! called a woman at the front. We can do it!

Frieda pressed herself to the wall. The sea of secretaries broke past her, after which Frieda stepped out into the middle of the aisle to watch their rears disappear around the bend. In their wake, there was silence.

There was a furtive movement in Frieda’s peripheral vision. It was Jewel, who made eye contact, then mimed elbows pumping, then pointed to herself, then hugged herself as if to warm herself, and mouthed, COLD. Then she pointed down the aisle to where the secretaries had disappeared. And then she herself disappeared back into the warren.

Frieda herself did not feel cold, but wished that someday, Jewel would get warm.

~

Frieda made her way back to her own cubicle, and then was startled to see Gertrude standing outside it, as if waiting for her.

She ducked behind a partition, heart pounding.

What was going on? How had Gertrude gotten over here so fast? Did she want to press her invitation to the office birthday party? Did she want to watch her eat the rest of her M&Ms? Or had she finally figured out who’d been taking so much candy, every day, more than any one person should take, and wanted to talk to her about it? She couldn’t bear to have that conversation.

Frieda thought fast. She could go to the bathroom and wait there awhile. It was her other safe haven.

She doubled back and slipped through the warren and made it into the bathroom. As soon as she was inside, the temperature increased by ten degrees. The bathroom was the hottest part of the building. There were baskets of lotion set beside each sink, smelling of apple cider and roses. Frieda felt at peace.

She entered the farthest stall and sat down on the toilet. She felt the cool water through her polyester skirt. But she hadn’t come to pee. She’d come to escape Gertrude; moreover, she still had her M&Ms. She squeezed her thighs together, dug into her pocket, and let the M&Ms fall into her lap. The shells had melted a little but could still be salvaged. Frieda licked her palms. Should she start with the red one or the brown one? Today was her birthday; today was a day to mix things up, to surprise herself. No one could disturb her now. Her breathing slowed. She prodded them apart and then lined them up in the crevice of her legs, ready for eating.

Is that you, said a voice.

Frieda jumped, then snapped her thighs back together. The M&Ms all plopped into the toilet water. She could have screamed in frustration.

But instead she forced her voice to be calm and said, Hello?

It’s you, rasped the voice. I knew it was you.

Jewel?

Yeah, it’s me. We’re alone, but keep your voice down.

Frieda stayed silent. She stared down at the M&Ms, now bleeding trails of dye in the toilet water. She wanted them back. She wanted to eat them, to consume them entirely, to push them up further between her legs, all the way up.

Can I tell you something? whispered Jewel.

Okay, said Frieda.

It’s my birthday.

What?

It’s my birthday.

I didn’t know that.

You’re the only one I’m telling. I trust you.

Why?

Because you’re a foreigner.

Oh.

I come here all the time, said Jewel. At least three times a day, about the same time, when no one will miss me. I just come here and I sit and I warm up and I think. It’s warmer in here. Can’t you feel it? I just come here and I sit on the toilet and I think about getting warm. Like, really warm. Like sitting close to a hot fire, or even curling up in an oven and closing the door and getting baked. That’s what I really want. But I feel like, if I told anyone that, they’d think I was crazy. You know?

Frieda did know. In listening to her, she forgot all about the M&Ms.

She knew exactly what Jewel meant.

Jewel? she said.

Yeah?

Frieda took a deep breath and said, I left Norway because once, at my job there, they held an office birthday party for me with a sheet cake in the shape of the Norwegian flag, and I took a piece from the corner, actually it was the whole lower left red quadrant, and ate it, and then I went for seconds, for a section of the blue-and-white cross, because I was still hungry, but by then all the secretaries were staring at me like I was crazy, and one of them was crying, and another one was comforting her, and I left and never went back, and I know I’m not crazy, but that’s how I feel, all the time, like everyone else will think I am. No one can understand how much sugar I can eat. It scares them. But Jewel?

Yeah.

Frieda smiled at the stall wall and said, Today is my birthday too.

The toilet flushed.

There was silence after.

Jewel…? Frieda asked.

No answer.

Jewel?

Frieda leaned down to look into the next stall.

No feet.

Jewel? Frieda said again. She knocked on the stall wall. Are you there?

Nothing. She was gone.

~

Fifteen minutes later, Frieda slipped out of the bathroom.

She’d looked for Jewel. She’d looked for evidence of her. She’d even gotten down around the toilet bowl and sniffed for her. But there was no trace.

It had been Jewel’s birthday.

Did Corporate know?

Frieda sidled up to the door that opened onto the lobby. She peered around the corner. There were groups of secretaries there, gathered and waiting, she imagined, to take the elevators up to the ninth floor lobby for the “little celebration.” At the mere thought of cake, Frieda’s stomach rumbled. But she had to focus. She had to find out what had happened to Jewel.

She leaned out a little more, to see if she could catch sight of her in the crowd, but she didn’t. Was Jewel on the ninth floor? Frieda took off her flats so as not to make noise, and crept along the wall toward the elevators, hoping she wouldn’t be noticed.

Frieda! someone called.

It was Gertrude. Again, Gertrude.

Frieda broke for the elevators.

Some of the secretaries followed her. They were hailing her, speeding up. Frieda looked behind her and saw that they’d all fallen in line, eyes wide, fists pumping. Then she turned back ahead and saw that another flank had cut her off: a line of them, in front of the elevators, their faces frozen with smiles.

Here she is! they cried.

Frieda made a hard left toward the first door she saw and flung it open.

She was back in the cubicle warren now, in the main aisle—easily seen. She turned left, right, right, left. But the secretaries had followed and were matching her, turn for turn. They were calling her name. They’d definitely trained for this. But Frieda had the advantage of longer legs. Her cubicle was no longer safe—the curtain offered no protection. There was only one place to go.

Frieda sprinted back to the bathroom and reached it still running. The full impact of her body blew open the door and her stockinged feet skated on the tile. She did a full half-turn reversal, and then pushed the door closed. It had no latch. She leaned against it with all her weight. Frieda heard a susurrus of thumps on the door. Then silence.

She waited, panting, listening. It was so hot in the bathroom. It was like a sauna. She began to sweat.

The secretaries were outside. They were murmuring, consulting with each other. Then one voice rose over the others.

Frieda? said the voice. It was Gertrude.

Frieda waited, listening.

We know you’re in there! the voice continued. Listen—there’s no need to be so bashful—we just wanted you to know that we know it’s your birthday!

Frieda leaned her forehead against the door and closed her eyes.

—and we made a cake just for you! So come on out!

They knew. How did they know? She’d taken such pains for them to not-know.

How do you know? she yelled.

More murmuring. More consultation. Then Gertrude yelled back, Because we care!

For just a second, Frieda thought she might be being unreasonable. She cracked the door just a little and looked out. There were secretaries as far as the eye could see, their eyes rolling in their sockets and their tongues lolling from their mouths.

Frieda closed the door again.

She tried to think.

But it was getting hotter. Sweat was coursing down her temples. If she got out of this bathroom alive, she could try to get to the ninth floor again, to see if Jewel was there.

Or she could try to leave altogether.

But that was unthinkable. That’s what she’d done in Norway—leave—and now she found herself in the exact same situation, here in Alaska. And this was a better version of it. Even though she’d been here for only ten months, this job had many more species of sugar than the last: not only the plentiful candy bowl stations and leftover sheet cakes, but the “things to get rid of” after holidays—tins of bourbon fudge, platters of sand tarts, boxes of mint cordials. Frieda made a killing. This job provided a plentiful and diverse diet. A new job might not.

Her skin was prickling with heat now, the sweat stinging her eyes, the door handle hot to the touch. She had to get out of here.

Frieda took a deep breath.

She pushed open the door as hard as she could.

But she had no chance. The secretaries surged forward and surrounded her and gripped her arms and pushed into her back, steering her forward. As they did so, they chatted to her.

Aw, Frieda!

Don’t you know you don’t have to hide from us?

There’s nothing to be ashamed of!

That’s what it’s there for!

You’re going to love your birthday cake, I just know it!

You can even take some extra and take it home with you!

You just go ahead and eat however much you want, okay?

Frieda kept thrashing, trying to break free, but the more she moved, the tighter they pressed.

They carried her to the elevator. The gleaming stainless steel doors rumble apart. The throng moved forward, crowding in. Frieda was pressed to the back wall. All of the secretaries crowded in and climbed on top of each other.

Pardon my arm!

Watch your leg!

You comfy?

Great!

Gertrude slid right under Frieda, fitting her head beneath her chin. Frieda strained away, but Gertrude spoke, a hot moist mouth moving on her throat.

Don’t you worry, she said. You’re just going to love what we have planned for you. We’ve been planning ever since you arrived.

Frieda pulsed like a cornered mouse.

The elevator doors slid closed. There was a slight lurch, and all the secretaries exclaimed Woo! very softly.

An eon passed.

The elevator doors slid open.

Frieda blinked as she was carried out. This was Corporate. They were in Corporate’s lobby. It looked exactly the same as the eighth floor lobby except with blue-grey walls instead of grey-grey walls. The secretaries tugged her forward to a plastic chair at the head of a long table, on which there was an enormous oblong covered dish. Frieda felt pressure behind her knees, forcing her to sit. She collapsed onto the chair and then, all at once, the secretaries blew back like a fog in wind.

Frieda sat still, trembling, her sweat freezing on her skin, staring at the covered dish, and the silver spade-shaped cake server, and the paper plate and plastic fork.

Then, incredibly, the secretaries began to leave. Each one passed with a little wave, an encouraging word, or a clap on the shoulder. Frieda didn’t look any of them in the eye. The elevator dinged over and over, as the cars took down load after load of people, until everyone was gone.

Frieda couldn’t believe it. Were they really leaving her alone at last? After the last ding, she turned around and surveyed the lobby. It was true. The whole room was empty. At long last, after the morning’s disasters, they were letting her be.

She turned back to the table. She stood, grasped the covered dish with two hands, lifted it up, and let it fall to the floor with an enormous clang that made her cover her ears.

Under the dish was a life-size cake in the shape of a woman wearing a red frosting cardigan with white snowflakes.

Frieda covered her mouth with her hand.

Jewel had gotten her birthday wish, after all. And now Frieda was getting hers.

The smell of warm vanilla sugar came off the cake in waves. She bent close. Yes, this was the kind of frosting that had a stiffness to it, the contours like dunes hardened by exposure to air, the edge so easily crushed by the smallest pressure of her finger. She picked up the cake server and sank its shining silver edge into the cake—just into the toe, just to look—and parted it from the foot, hearing the crinkle of broken icing. Oh yes. It was an airy black chocolate cake with firm sour cream frosting. The very best kind. She sagged against the edge of the table, her eyes full of tears. She cut higher, at the ankle, to take off the whole foot. She got the cake server under the piece to leverage it on her plate. With all the toes, this piece had so much coastline, so much extra icing; it was like a corner piece ten times over. And a ridge of icing had collapsed in the wake of the cut, and Frieda used the cake server to wipe it off on the side of her plate, ivory frosting mixed with black crumbs, like a smear of entrails.

She sat back down and used the side of her plastic fork to cut the first bite.

As she lifted it to her mouth, she noticed the camera at the far end of the table, the little light blinking red.

 

~

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THE END

story 3 : free fall

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“Free Fall” was first published in Outlook Springs, Volume 1, Spring 2016. Photo: aerial night view of Baghdad. Credit: Robert Langdon.

~

Battista flew in a moonless sky.

At 10:14pm Baghdad time, her plane bucked from enemy fire, her seat was ejected, and she hurtled up so fast that the skin on her cheeks was sucked down, making red deltas of her eye sockets. Then the air slowed. Her cheeks warmed. She was cresting, reaching her maximum height, like a ball in a high school physics problem.

Her parachute should have deployed. It didn’t.

She began to drop. Her axis listed sideways. She flung out her arms. As she tumbled, the view of the city came around and around again in flashes. A grid of golden grains. But she was headed straight for a swatch of blackness, where there were no lights, no contours, nothing.

As Battista fell towards it, she thought, I bet there isn’t even anything there.

She was right.

She plunged through and the grid inverted, as if she’d plunged into a pond and was now looking at the surface above. She blinked, but the view had changed, now, and couldn’t be seen any other way. She continued to fall. She watched the huge city of Baghdad contract into a golden galaxy.

~

“I want to get out of here,” said Battista, drunk.

“Get yourself pregnant. Or dead,” said Hanlon.

“I think we’re as far from home as it’s physically possible to be.”

“Really? What’s on the other side of Baghdad?”

“I bet it’s Hawaii.”

“Close enough.”

~

Now Baghdad was a single bloom of light, connected by threads to other blooms of light. Some were gold, and some were bright blue—Tel Aviv, she guessed, and Dubai. Their contraction was the only way she knew that she was in motion.

She felt about her waist and located her belt buckles. After a few snaps and clicks, the straps fell away. She gave the chair a shove with her foot, and it revolved away and was lost. The helmet was next. She unbuckled the chinstrap and pushed it away with one finger. It, too, floated into the darkness.

~

Hanlon drew a circle—quite well, Battista thought, for how many beers she’d had—and then an oval spanning the circle. The upper half was dashed and the lower half was solid, to indicate a sphere. Then she drew an arrow straight down, bisecting it.

“How long would it take? To fall through the earth?”

“You mean, if it were hollow?”

“Yeah.”

“What is the earth filled with? Air?”

“No, peanut butter.”

“Mmmm, peanut butter. When’s your next care package coming?”

“No, air. At ground-level psi.”

“A gal can dream.”

They did the calculations, on the actual back of an envelope.

“After reaching terminal velocity…about twenty-three hours.”

“Almost a day.”

“A whole day. Damn. About as long as it’d take to get home by regular old plane.”

“Tough landing, though.”

~

Now Battista understood that matter was infinitely suggestible, and always had been.

She folded over into a dive. She fell that way for awhile. An eternal dive, never reaching the pool.

Then she turned over onto her back again. The lights on the surface of the earth had grown more faint, but the extent of them was greater now; nets of lights draped over the curvature of space, like the lattice of veins on a pregnant belly. She felt peaceful. She might as well have been resting on a bed of black silk. She crossed her arms behind her head. The air made a pillow.

She closed her eyes and slept, for the first time in weeks.

~

“It wouldn’t really be a landing. It’d be more of a…surfacing.”

“On the other side of the planet?”

“Yeah. In Hawaii.”

“Tough surfacing, then.”

“Or maybe you’d just keep falling.”

“Through the whole universe forever and ever—”

“We’re mostly space.”

“—amen.”

~

Battista dreamed of Hawaii. She’d been there once, on leave.

She stayed at a resort on the northern coast of Kauai, at a special military rate. She was alone. She liked taking vacations alone.

She also liked the bartender at her resort. He called himself Gauri. He was of Maori-Mexican-Japanese ancestry—a child of crossroads, as she herself was; though she didn’t know where her roads had come from or where they led to, only that they had crossed, once, when she was conceived.

After he got off work, they went down to the beach and drank mai tais. She told him she was a Navy pilot. He told her he was a pacifist. She said, “That’s okay.” And then when she was on top of him, she thought, Maybe I’ll become a pacifist. After they were done, they had a little nap on the sand, the sweetest sleep Battista had ever known.

That is what she dreamed of: sleeping.

~

They clinked their bottles and took drinks.

Then Hanlon said, “We on tomorrow night?”

“Yep.”

“Cuadros said we hit a madrasa last night.”

“Surprise surprise.” Battista peered at the label on her bottle.

Hanlon shrugged. “We hit what Intelligence tells us to hit. I sleep fine at night.”

Battista laughed. “Yeah.”

~

Battista awoke to faint light. The cities of the earth were so far away they were stars, now, swirled across the surface of a bubble.

Her eyes, now sensitized to the darkness, could also see a faint glow beneath her. She turned over to look down. Very far away there was a point of light. She felt excited. She thought it might be the core at the center of the earth, that glowing pulsing ball in every cross-section of the Earth in every science textbook ever made. She was falling towards it. Not rapidly, but gently. An easy approach. A soft landing.

She reached her arms forward so that it seemed she held the core between her hands. As it got bigger, she spread her hands, to accommodate its growth.

~

Battista continued. “Madrasas, hospitals, weddings, bat mitzvahs—or whatever it is Muslims do—whatever. I don’t care anymore.”

“Nor I, comrade.”

Battista lost a handle on her bottle and it clonked to the table, rolled over, fell and shattered on the floor.

“Ah, shit.” She got up and tried to sweep the shards into a pile with her foot.

“Let it go,” said Hanlon. “That’s what the staff is for.”

“You’re a cunt sometimes.” Battista bent over to pick up the pieces with her bare hands.

“You’re the one who dropped the bomb on the madrasa.”

Battista sliced her finger on a shard of glass. “Fuck me,” she muttered.

“What was that, sweetheart?”

Battista showed her the bleeding finger.

“Ah, shit. Want me to get a towel?”

“No, it’s alright.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s fine.”

“You’re gushing. Don’t you feel it?”

Battista stared at her finger. “Nah.”

~

The core was huge now. Battista couldn’t spread her arms wide enough to accommodate it. So she just folded into a dive and let herself fall, down toward the core, as if toward the calm of a pool at rest.

~

Hanlon got a towel for Battista anyway, and Battista wrapped it around her finger to stop the bleeding.

“Better go to Medical for that,” she said.

Battista shrugged. “I’ll go in the morning. After I sleep.”

“You’re actually sleeping now?”

Battista smiled, bitter. “After I pretend to sleep.”

“You need to go to Medical for that too.”

“What are you, my mother?”

“No, just your copilot.”

Battista put her feet on the table and leaned back in her chair. “Then shut up.”

Hanlon laughed.

~

Battista began to see features on the core. It wasn’t just a sphere. It had a topography. There were oceans and mountains and clouds. She was still falling terribly fast, but she didn’t feel afraid. She was headed right where she needed to be. She saw the undulant Persian Gulf, the shining veins of the Tigris and Euphrates, and the grid of golden lights that was Baghdad. She saw the cluster of buildings in the Green Zone, the common lounge in her barracks with the throbbing neon lights. Just a short stop on her way home.

She landed in a chair across from her copilot, and looked up from her beer.

“And what do you think is in the center?”

“Of what.”

Hanlon waved her beer bottle up and around, looking at the room. “The hollow earth, bitch. The one we just established.”

“Eh. More hollowness.”

“And you just keep falling.”

“Yes. Through to Hawaii.”

“But how do you brake on the other side? How do you say, ‘Here-wait-I’m-home-I-need-to-stop-here’?”

Battista let her head hang back over the top of her chair, and closed her eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe you have to want it enough.”

“But you can’t want it too much. Otherwise you’ll plummet through the crust and drift out into space forever.”

“That would suck.”

Hanlon looked away.

~

Battista dropped through the floor.

A film reel of rooms, floors and frames soon turned to darkness, and she was falling again through empty space.

She curled into a cannonball, holding herself and looking up. She felt all right. She was still falling, that’s all. Clearly she just hadn’t reached Hawaii yet.

She began to hear a whistling sound, which then split into many whistles, soft hurtling notes. She couldn’t see anything in the darkness. But she could feel the presence of others around her. Then she began to see them—little pixels materializing in the darkness, suspended points of light, all around her. They were getting closer. She was in a shell of people falling, one shell in a thousand shells contracting, in an endless succession of contracting spheres.

A brighter planet rushed up to receive them.

~

“I had a dream about Baghdad,” said Hanlon. “It was a new Baghdad.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, it wasn’t spice and shit and dust like the one we know. All the buildings were made of mica, except, like, gold-colored mica. So the whole city glittered. And the streets went over the city—like, all the walkways to get from one place to another were across the tops of buildings, and if you ever wanted to go into a store or a butcher shop or someone’s home, you would have to descend a set of stairs to get underneath.”

“So the city was hollow.”

“Yeah, sort of.”

~

Battista alighted on the roof of a mosque in Baghdad. She knew where she was. She could take this path left to go to the carpet bazaar, or she could take the path right to go to the river. She went right.

She walked along the sparkling ramparts. Those who passed her had bright faces—they were the ones who had fallen with her, the meteor-people, now remembering where and who they were. They carried parcels of meat. They smelled of sandalwood. They all had dinners to attend and guests to prepare for. They smiled at her, kohl-lined eyes crinkling, and she smiled back.

As she approached the river she saw her son come running to her, calling Mama, Mama. Gauri was right behind him, shielding his eyes from the sun. He kissed her cheek and said to her: Battista, come home.

Battista went home with him.

They had a dinner of lamb, with guests.

They had a daughter and two more sons.

She worked as a mechanic and he taught martial arts.

They watched their children grow and marry.

They retired to Hawaii, where the sea was more blue than Battista believed possible, blue like a Clorox cocktail.

She said aloud, “This, too, is mostly space.”

She fell through the sand, and on again into the universe.

 

~

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story 2 : blue nowruz

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“Blue Nowruz” was edited by Neil Gaiman and commissioned by Chris Anderson, curator of TED. It was performed live at TED on March 18, 2015; and at Arcana Bar and Lounge in Durham on March 31, 2016. Photo by Brad Doherty of The Brownsville Herald.

~

Audiobook, 13:39

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 Deposition to the United Nations Commission on Blue Nowruz.

Name: Nefertery King.

 Origin: Brownsville, Texas.

 ~

I will tell you, as clearly as I can, what happened the day of the protest.

You know where I got my implant? At the Earring Tree at the mall. You sat down to get your ears pierced and you got the implant for free. They even used the same piercing gun, just a different attachment. I remember thinking it looked like a grain of rice in my arm.

My Mom explained to me that it encoded my name and nationality. That it acted as a passport to wherever I wanted to go in the world. And that only a very few people in the world had the power to cross borders like Americans did. I was four, so I asked what a border was, and she said, “It’s an invisible line that we all agree is real.”

When we got home, she made me watch Barack Obama’s speech at Selma from fifteen years ago. I can’t tell you how many times I watched it in the years after. A hundred or two hundred. He said, the American character is to shake the law until it reflects our inner truth. That that is who we are as a nation. And that became really important to me. As I was growing up, in general, it felt like the world was turning faster and faster, like the international date line was a jump rope that would arrive again even before it left.

And in a world like that, we had to hold on to who we were. That was my American dream: to protect the American dream.

My circuit was twenty miles long, along the river in Brownsville, Texas, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. In a typical shift, I’d drive along the border to watch for illegals crossing over, catch them, process them, get them sent back. It bothered me. Personally. Even in my days off I’d park on the access road, and get out, and walk, and look for signs of passage on the river bank, like hairs caught on tree branches, and call it in.

The thing is, I hate lying. I hate it more than anything. We’d apprehend some illegals, knowing there were more in the brush, getting away, and I’d ask, ¿De donde sois? ¿Qué hacéis aquí? And they would lie and lie and lie, giving me one story or another that I knew wasn’t true, oh I got lost, oh I was just fishing, oh no I lost my passport, and I’d feel my chest get tight, because I fucking hate being lied to no matter what the reason. But then we’d take them into custody and process them and that made me feel better.

I loved doing it. Like part of me wanted to be lied to in the first place.

I was really happy when the laser perimeter went up. We had to check it on patrol. There were emitter posts along all two thousand miles of the border. I remember when we first tested it, we were just in awe. If you had the implant, the laser recognized you and let you pass. If you didn’t, the laser changed to excite the iron in your blood, which meant you showed up on sensors like a supernova. We’d drive out. Pick you up. Done. It made our jobs so much easier. It was a big deal, because now border enforcement was near perfect, and not just for us—the technology was about to spread to the rest of the world.

But then there was this protest. Not where I was patrolling on the U.S.-Mexico border, but on the other side of the world. It’s even strange to call it a protest, because it was just a picnic. In the desert between Iran and Iraq, on the Persian new year, hundreds of people put down picnic blankets right on top of the border, and put flowers at each corner of each blanket, and unpacked the traditional Nowruz food, eggs for rebirth and apples for beauty and sprouts for the coming of spring, before the soldiers moved in.

Soldiers from both sides.

All the picnickers were saying to their governments was: This line is imaginary.

And the governments were saying, No, it’s real, and we’re going to redraw it, with your blood.

And so what happened there became known around the world as Red Nowruz.

I didn’t think it would have anything to do with the U.S. But that’s the funny thing about the jump rope world: the movement had already arrived.

Now there were border picnics being planned for all over the planet for the next Nowruz, and the protestors said they had one simple demand to the United Nations: enforce your own Declaration on Human Rights, Article 13: that any human has a right to leave their country and to return. Which means we must open all borders, between all countries, because free movement is a human right.

I felt like, as a border patrol officer, it was part of my job to understand these people. So I stood in front of the mirror and tried to get in their heads. Tried to think like them. Tried to reverse everything I believed just to see how it sounded.

Like, I believed that borders must be respected.

So I’d say aloud, in the mirror, “Borders are arbitrary.”

Or, I believed, Nation states are sovereign.

So I’d say, “Nation states are inventions.”

Or, I believed, Freedom is not free.

So I’d say, “Freedom IS free.”

I sounded ridiculous to myself. Like a child. And so that’s how I came to see the protestors, too, like stupid children. I got really aggressive at work. My walks along the border got longer. It’s like, walking made the border real. My body was real and so I was making the border real with my own body.

The day of the protest, the first picnickers arrived to put down their blankets right at midnight, both on the U.S. and Mexican sides. And the protest wasn’t just happening in Brownsville, it was a continuous line all the way to Tijuana. We’d done special training for it; but so did the protestors, of course, in nonviolent direct action—they took open courseware from Amnesty International. Four million of them. Even if it were just our border, it was going to be the biggest protest in history.

We could see the line of lights on the Mexican side, across the river, which wasn’t very deep because of the drought, maybe a few feet. But nobody was crossing. They were just folks, just picnicking. Some were students from UT-Brownsville and they brought Oreos and Doritos. Then someone backed up a truck and started roasting a whole steer. Other people brought their versions of Persian food, in honor of Red Nowruz, the symbolic eggs and apples and so on. There was music, too. Around one in the morning a man with a guitar went up and down the line playing love songs. At dawn there was a gospel choir from Houston. In the afternoon there was an all-female mariachi band. And everyone kept checking their phones to watch the streams from all over the world. Al Jazeera was on site at the Iran-Iraq border, occupied by ten times the number of people who’d gathered that first time, and instead of Red Nowruz they were now calling it Blue Nowruz, after the app that assigned you a location along your border and made your smartphone pulse blue when you approached it, and then go steady once you were on top of it, and that’s all it did.

Or, that’s what we thought at the time.

One hundred and ninety-six countries in the world. One thousand borders. A picnic on every one. Even the island nations, like Iceland and Jamaica—there were picnics on the beach, with bonfires.

And there’d been no violence. The protestors had explicit instruction not to cross the borders, just to sit next to them, and in every stream you saw, that’s what they were doing.

But beyond them, in the shadows, were the police with guns.

Including me.

I’d almost gotten through the whole thing, too. I was waiting out the last few minutes, leaning against a palm tree on the access road, with a big crowd of onlookers that had been gathering all day. But at ten to midnight, all the picnickers on both sides of the river stood up. I put my hand on my firearm. They weren’t doing anything threatening. They just stood up and faced the river, with their phones glowing blue, hanging on strings around their necks, so that their hands were free. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought oh, it might be some kind of prayer, like a Muslim prayer, another kind of tribute to those who died on Red Nowruz.

But then they interlocked their hands and started to advance, down the banks, into the river itself. I started to get that feeling, like when I knew I was getting lied to, like my chest was getting tight. They were getting closer to the actual border, they were technically in it, in the river, the real and actual thing, that I spent my life defending, and I heard the bullhorn saying Cease and desist, but I’d already drawn my firearm and was running through the brush right into the river, and pointing my firearm and yelling for them to halt where they were, and I could see some of them looked scared and pulled at their hands, but there were others who kept saying, Don’t break the line, don’t break the line, over and over. The two lines were in the middle of the river now, knee-deep, raising up their arms, and I was almost on them…

And then came the crush from behind.

That crowd on the riverbank? Not just onlookers.

I got pushed forward, I was forced to bend double, my firearm was knocked out of my hand and dropped in the river, and then I was squeezed beneath the archways made by the protestors’ arms, and suspended between the two lines, just for a moment, and it looked like a tunnel of stars, or like being inside the double ropes of Double Dutch when I was a kid, and then I was on the other side, and fell hands-first into the mud, but this one woman pulled me up saying, estás conmigo, hermana, and I ran up the bank with all the other crossers, just running because everyone else was, and stripping off wet clothes, because everyone was wet but no one was cold, into the streets and alleys of Matamoros, the town on the other side, which, despite living within sight of for ten years, I had never set foot in.

I’d never set foot in any other country.

And of course the dirt was still dirt, the birds were still birds, and the stars were the same as before.

A few days later I tried to get a room, but the owner scanned my implant and said it was blank. I said, That’s not possible, I’m American.

Can you believe I didn’t get it, even then?

The protestors had hacked all the borders. Crossing it had erased my implant. I had no nationality.

Most of those who crossed had just done it as a statement. They returned to the U.S. and paid a fine, did some jail time, had their implants reprogrammed.

But some didn’t.

Some ended up in a café in Buenos Aires, where they were picked up by UN Peacekeepers for questioning. And I came with you quietly. And I’ve told you my story honestly. Like I said, I hate lying. The American national character is to shake the law until it reflects our inner truth, right? What if my American dream is the end of America as we know it?

You want to know how I got here, nine thousand miles away, with no identification?

I walked.

 

~

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story 1 : for my wife, navid

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“For my Wife, Navid” was commissioned by Kelly Stoetzel and Chris Anderson, curators of TED, and performed live on 18 February 2016 at the TED Conference in Vancouver. Photo by Monte Marcum.

~

Do I look real to you?

I hope so.

I have no way of knowing if you’re seeing me, but I’m just going to look ahead and trust that you’re there. I’ve drawn a semicircle in the sand in front of me, so I don’t go past it and look like I’m floating in mid-air.

Right now, I’m standing in the open air, on a beach, under a palm tree; in the exact spot where your stage used to be. I have twelve minutes with you. I set a limit. My wife Navid once said that infinite possibility is a creator’s worst enemy. For example, when she made this dress, I’d asked her to design something a priest would have worn in 23rd century Cairo. But the only fabric we had was a beautiful duvet cover another resident left behind, and we needed it in three days; but she did it, and it’s perfect. She said: “Proof of concept. Creation needs constraint.”

So with these twelve minutes, I’m going to tell you about my greatest discovery.

~

For my whole life, my obsession has been eternal life, as I know it is so many of yours. You might be happy to know that your research will pay off. I am three hundred and eighteen years old. The average human lifespan now is four hundred and thirty-two years. My work has been to extend the human lifespan indefinitely.

I’ve always thought that someday, we’d reach a point where we’ll be content. But the opposite keeps happening! The longer we live, the longer we want to live; the less we want to die. Who can blame us? The universe is so big. There won’t ever not be more to see. Just yesterday I was reading about how you can take out a sailboat on Europa, and go from island to island all over the planet, and some of the islands have villages where you can stay and visit overnight, and sleep under the shadow of Jupiter; but there’s another where just one songwriter lives and plays mandolin for the ocean; and on others, there’s no one at all, and never has been, so you go just for the pleasure of touching your foot to sand that no foot has ever touched before.

You could spend four hundred years doing just that.

Right now the moon is rising in the northeast. I can see the cities on it with my naked eye—they’re connected like nerve clusters—Mariapolis on the south pole, Ramachandran on the equator, New Tehran in the Sea of Tranquility. That’s where Navid and I met. We were both artists downtown. The day we met, we were walking past each other in Azadi Square and we bumped shoulders and I turned to apologize and, without saying hello or introducing herself at all, she said, “Why do you think we didn’t just pass through each other?”

First I thought, “Who the hell are you,” and second, the question annoyed me because the answer’s so simple. I said, “We didn’t pass through each other because elementary particles have mass and because the space between the elementary particles is filled with binding energy that also has the properties of mass and we’ve known that for eight hundred years.”

But she must have been in one of those moods where she likes to mess with strangers, or maybe she was just flirting with me, because she said, “Yeah, I thought you’d say that. Think deeper.” And then she touched her belt—this belt I’m wearing now—and said, “Our universe is built so that elementary particles have mass. Without that, we’d have passed through each other at the speed of light and never even known.”

And that’s how our romance began.

Navid and I never ran out of things to talk about. Never. It was incredible. It’s like we were climbing up into a mountain range together, and kept arriving at new vistas, and these perfect constellations of words came out of us to describe them, and we’d forget them as soon as we’d made them and throw them over our shoulder and go on, up, to the next thing. Or—one time Navid said our talk felt like we were always making bread, adding more water, more flour, folding it in, and turning it over; even though we never got around to baking it.

If my obsession was eternal life, Navid’s obsession was touch. She had a genius for it. All her work revolved around it. My body was like a canvas for her, and she would draw her fingertip down over my face so slowly that I couldn’t feel it moving at all—she was obsessed with the exact moment when I stopped being able to tell the difference between her body and mine. Or she would just lie across me and grind her shoulder down into mine and say, “Pilar. Why does this feel so good.” And I’d say, “I don’t know.” And she had a lot of facetious answers to her own facetious question, but the one I remember today is, “Because the universe chose its constraints, and we are its art.”

~

It’s always funny what you think the future is going to be like, versus what it turns out to be.

In your time, scientists thought humans could freeze themselves and wake up in the future. And they did. But then they died.

In your time, scientists thought that humans could replace organs, to extend life for hundreds of years. And they did. But then they died anyway.

In your time, Earth is the only place people live.

In my time, Earth is the place people come to die.

So when Navid started to show the signs, our friends assumed I would do what everyone does—send her to Earth, so that no one would have to look at her or think about her or her failure to keep living; and we could keep living our beautiful lives. More than anything, they didn’t want to be around her actual physical body. They kept saying it was “declining” …but she herself was fascinated by it, the changes it was going through, following the rules of its nature, day by day, independent of her will.

I did send Navid to Earth. But I came with her. Right before we left, a friend of ours said to me, “I just think it’s arrogant, like the rules don’t apply to you, like you think your love is that special.”

But I did.

So, even here on Earth, I kept working on extending life. It didn’t occur to me that there could be any other response. I went back to the thing Navid said to me that first day in Azadi Square—that, without that basic constraint, a universe that granted mass to matter, we would not exist. But this is another rule: all mass is subject to entropy. And there’s no way to be in this universe without mass. I know. I tried everything. I tried creating a photon box where the Higgs field was altered. I tried recording all subatomic movements in a body and playing them back on a closed loop. Nothing worked.

But my final innovation was to create a coiled dimension whose boundaries were a body, in which time moved infinitely slower, even though its projection would appear to move in normal time. That body would then appear in our universe as a hologram—here, but not here.

When I realized I’d done it, I ran to her room, so happy, to tell her I’d done it; moving through space almost normally to all eyes, even to my own, and went to lie down next to her, and forgot, and fell right through her.

I’d found the answer to eternal life, at the expense of the one thing Navid loved most: to touch and be touched.

She threw me out.

I still got to watch, though.

Humans live four hundred years, now, and death still comes. When it does, the dying still pick at their bedsheets, and still break out in blue and violet blooms on the insides of their arms; their breaths get farther and farther apart, like they’re falling asleep.

I’ve always thought that what gives a life meaning is adventure, and death is just a problem we haven’t discovered the solution to yet.

But maybe a life has meaning only because it ends. Maybe that’s the paradox: constraints don’t constrain. They allow perfect freedom.

~

There was a thunderstorm here this morning, and there’s another forecast for tonight, but for now, the sky is clear. I can’t feel the wind, but I just asked one of the caretakers who passed by what it felt like, and she told me it felt warm, like melted butter. An answer worthy of my wife.

I have to find my way back to the flesh.

For now, I take up no space but the space you give me.

 

~

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story 0 : gustus dei

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This story is a free sample of my work. Want to read more? Sign up at my Patreon. Stories are a dollar apiece in any e-format you desire, including this site (all other stories here are password-protected). Gracias.

~

“Gustus Dei” was first published in The Baffler, February 2015. Reprinted in Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, January 2016.

~

The convent sat on a waterless plain.

Sister Theresa rested on a bench at the edge of the convent garden. She looked up at the clouds. She imagined them thickening, curdling, manifesting. Manna would drop slowly and drift to the ground like snowflakes. She and her sisters would gather them up in the folds of their skirts and place them into their mouths and then feed them to each other.

She saw Father Dykstra lurch into view. He was coming up the rise from his cottage, kicking up dust from the dry earth. In response, Sister Joan, the garden mistress, roused herself from the cabbage bed.

Having seen her, Father Dykstra halted. He waited, head down, his mouth pursing and unpursing. He was small and wiry, with a red leather face. His hands were clasped behind his back. One held the other at the wrist, and the free hand flapped like an injured bird wing.

Sister Joan stopped a stone’s throw away from him. She had a face like a benthic fish, with a boxy jaw and beady eyes. She looked beyond him. The nun and priest were like two crows, perched askance, biding time. They had a ritual.

“Wind’s from the west!”

“Yep, squash is late.”

Silence followed. Sister Theresa watched them from the corner of her eye. The two still gazed past each other, like tango partners removed.

“Hear about them Indians?” he said.

“Can’t say I did.”

“We gotta keep ’em out—”

“Do we.”

“—keep our eyes peeled.”

Father Dykstra was paranoid about the Indians. He was a grandson of westward-bound pioneers, a child of ambushes. Sister Theresa had once been in his cottage and seen maps all over his desk: Wyoming, North Dakota, Minnesota. Indian territories were marked up in red.

“Be an early winter!”

“Don’t I know it.”

Father Dykstra seemed satisfied by this last exchange. Sister Joan lingered a moment longer for his sake, looking hard out over the plains, as if spotting for gophers. Then she turned around. Sister Theresa looked away, trying to be unseen, to melt into the dust.

But Sister Joan had caught sight of her. In a few steps, her shadow lay across Sister Theresa’s lap.

“Don’t feel like workin’!”

It was a statement, with a tinge of sympathy Sister Theresa did not expect.

“No,” she said softly. She didn’t look up. “I feel a little tired.”

“Mmmm.” Sister Joan looked up at the sky, heavy as a blanket. “Been feelin’ tired a lot lately, haven’t you.”

Sister Theresa said nothing. Her hands lay limp in her lap.

“Why don’t you go see Mother, eh?”

Sister Theresa nodded. “Yes, Sister Joan.” She swung quickly off the bench and marched towards the convent, head down.

Sister Joan watched her go, fists balled on her hips. Then she turned back to her work.

~

Sister Theresa came to stand in the doorway of Mother Anne’s study. The abbess seemed startled, but then cleared her throat, fussed for her glasses, and folded her hands neatly.

“Yes, child, hello.”

Sister Theresa looked at the floor.

“What brings you to my office, child?”

“Sister Joan told me to come here.”

“Instead of working in the garden?”

“I felt tired, Mother.”

“Oh. Tired again.” Mother Anne sighed. “Come sit down, child. What kind of malaise is this?”

Sister Theresa sat down. She said nothing, even though she could feel Mother Anne waiting.

“I have noticed,” Mother Anne continued, “that you have not taken Communion for several weeks now.”

Sister Theresa swallowed and studied the crucifix on the wall. It was a gift from the founding home of their order in France. The wounds gleamed with tiny bloodstones, beaded along the cuts.

“You do understand that Communion is essential to our community? That God is the bread of life, and to share it means—” Mother Anne took a breath. “You do understand, daughter?”

Sister Theresa nodded into her lap. “I understand, but—”

Mother Anne nodded, urging her to continue.

“The last time I took Communion, the wafer tasted like . . . nothing. Like dust. It’s supposed to be some kind of transcendent experience, but it’s not, for me. It hasn’t ever been. I know it should be and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

Mother Anne looked at her in surprise. “I don’t know how you think it’s supposed to taste,” she said. “It’s just wheat. It is pure so that it can be a vessel for God.”

Sister Theresa’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t understand why the vessel has to be so bland if it’s God,” she said. “God created the universe! He must like colors and flavors. And it’s not just that. Everything is the same here every day. I miss home . . . at dinnertime, when Mama would make c-c-custard—” Her voice became thick and she stopped speaking. Tears ran down her face.

Mother Anne leaned forward, her voice trembling both with compassion and zeal. “But Daughter, that is how life is supposed to be here: pure! uncorrupted! We live in purity because God is pure—because that’s how we can come to know him.”

Sister Theresa only heaved and hiccoughed.

Mother Anne leaned back in her chair. “There was a girl I knew here, long before your time,” she said. “She came to Our Savior of the Plains when she was only sixteen. Not much younger than you are now, child. I liked her very much. But she was very restless.”

Sister Theresa looked up, finally meeting Mother Anne’s eyes.

“She thought life here was so dull. Nothing could please her. She wanted a convent in the city. In Sioux Falls, or even St. Paul. She would say, oh, I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that. She even ran away once.”

Sister Theresa’s eyebrows rose. “She what? What happened?”

“Well, after two days on these plains, with no food, she came back. And, she’d had a vision.”

“What vision?”

Bright yellow sunlight broke through the clouds and sprayed through the windows, lighting every dust mote.

“Jesus. In the flesh. He told her to come back to the convent.”

Sister Theresa’s eyes went wide.

“That’s it? And she came back?”

“She did. You can ask her about it, too.”

“I can?”

“Of course. She is our beloved Sister Genevieve.”

~

It was late afternoon, a little before suppertime. Sister Theresa walked through the living quarters. The last room belonged to Sister Genevieve, and faced west. Zinnia-red sunlight poured through her open door.

Sister Theresa knocked on the doorframe.

Sister Genevieve looked up from her kneeler, a rosary dripping from her hand.

“I’m sorry,” said Sister Theresa. “I’ll come back another time.”

“Oh no! Little Sister Theresa!” Sister Genevieve’s face had cracked into an ecstatic smile. “Come in, child.”

Sister Genevieve coaxed Sister Theresa from the doorframe to a small table by the window, which had two seats, one for her and one for a visitor. In her very old age, Sister Genevieve bent to the right like a stalk of willow. It suited her; she had a great capacity for pleasure, and her body seemed to be always in mid-swoon. She bent in pleasure to sip hot soup, to welcome a visitor, to see an autumn bouquet at the altar. In the face of such sweetness, Sister Theresa always felt shy, even embarrassed around her.

“I was just praying for you,” said Sister Genevieve, winking.

“For me?” said Sister Theresa.

“Yes, child,” said Sister Genevieve, fussing in a drawer of her bedside table. “I always think of you. I think how hard it must be, being so young! And you’re so pretty! And all of us are such old birds. Out here on the plains like a bunch of Jane-the-Baptists. We’re used to it. But you have such soft hands!”

Sister Theresa blushed, and put her hands away, smiling.

Sister Genevieve straightened up. She had an apple-red ceramic jar in one hand, and two spoons in the other. Sister Theresa knew what it was. More than anything, Sister Genevieve loved honey, and loved to share it.

She sat down and lifted the cover. “Now come, take this spoon, child. This is from a harvest early last spring. It’s reddish, see? See that red color? That’s because of the Indian paintbrush growing wild on those hills in the north. They’re everywhere.”

Sister Theresa dipped into the jar, and drew up a spoonful of honey. Her other hand came out to cup the air beneath it as she leaned forward to guide the spoon into her mouth.

Sister Genevieve watched her, eagerly asking, “Isn’t that good?”

Sister Theresa closed her eyes, now, and tasted the honey. It was sweet beyond hope. She tasted longer, rolling the honey in her mouth. Her whole mind was wrapped in it. She felt suspended in midair. In her mind came a vision of the South Dakota sky, wide and cloudless: here in this honey was the wind, the sun, the earth. She could even taste the particular redness of the Indian paintbrush: the flower, the petal, the pollen. Warmth flooded her skin, filled her stomach, and sank to her toes. Her heart was beating faster. When she opened her eyes at last, she did not see the same world as when she had closed them.

“Yes,” she said in answer.

Sister Genevieve’s face relaxed into a smile. “Sister Marie gave it to me as a gift from the hives, because we had too much. ‘How could we use all this honey?’ she said. And I said, ‘Well, Sister Marie! I can put it to use for sure. For sure!”

Sister Theresa smiled, mostly to herself. Many of the sisters knew that Sister Genevieve loved honey, so they made any excuse to supply it to her.

Sister Genevieve put a hand on hers. Her fingers were long and thin, and translucent skin coated a lattice of blue veins. “I am so glad you’re here,” said Sister Genevieve. “As soon as I saw you, I thought, ‘Now that girl. That girl is a warrior for the Lord!’”

Sister Theresa laughed out loud. “What?” she said.

“You remind me of myself at your age, child,” said Sister Genevieve, suddenly grave.

“Yes,” said Sister Theresa. “Mother Anne told me that when you were my age, you wanted to leave.”

Sister Genevieve nodded.

“Did you really see Our Lord?”

“Clear as day,” said Sister Genevieve. “Clear as day. I’d been lost. I was so cold and hungry. I was walking over a little rise when, there he was, sitting on a branch of a lone sweet gum tree. Little sister, he had on a beautiful scarlet robe, the brightest red you’ve ever seen, with every other kind of color in it. Oh, I wish you could have seen it! And he said, ‘Dear heart, where are you going?’ And I said, ‘My Lord, I wanted to get out of that place and get out into the world. But I’ve gotten lost.’ He said, ‘What will you find out in the world?’ I felt a little silly, but I said, ‘Lord, I want to stop all this purity nonsense; what is so bad about rich things? or wearing ribbons in my hair, or city lights?’ He said, ‘Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.’ Of course I knew that was straight from the Book of Isaiah, but I didn’t know what he meant. I was feeling impatient, so I said, ‘What on earth do you mean?’ Then his face collapsed a little, like he wanted so badly to explain something to me, but couldn’t. Then he said . . .” Sister Genevieve seemed to lose her train of thought, and stared out the window towards the setting sun.

Sister Theresa searched her face. “He said what?”

Sister Genevieve was silent for so long that Sister Theresa thought she hadn’t heard her. Then she pulled her gaze away from the sun, and looked Sister Theresa directly in the eyes. “He said, ‘Everything is corrupted, always.’” She said it with a laugh in her voice, as if she were telling a joke she didn’t understand.

Sister Theresa frowned. “What a terrible thing,” she said. “What do you suppose he meant?”

“I don’t know, child. I’ve asked him again and again in prayer but I never seem to get anywhere.”

“Maybe he means that the world is corrupt and we have to be pure. That’s what Mother Anne says—?”

Sister Genevieve smiled and swirled her spoon in the honey jar. “Perhaps, child.”

~

Sister Theresa ascended the wooden steps into the confessional and sat down. She heard Father Dykstra clear his throat on the other side of the partition.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been seven days since my last confession.”

“Mmm.”

Sister Theresa could picture him leaning towards the screen, straining his old ears. She tried to clear the image from her mind: across the screen was not a dark confessional, but a royal hearing room. God was a king, a majestic copper-skinned man with a flowing white beard. His brow was decked with rubies. He leaned forward from his throne and his eyes sparkled, inviting her to speak.

“Father, I have not been joyful of late. I have been sitting out my work in the garden.” She swallowed. “This hurts the community.”

“Mmm.” An acknowledgment.

“Also, I stopped taking Communion. It tasted wrong. I’m sorry.”

There was a silence. She heard Father Dykstra’s feet scrape the floor.

“I talked to Mother Anne, and she recommended that I come confess myself. And also that I begin working in the kitchen, not just to help with the meals, but to make the wafers for Communion. To make them as pure as possible. She says this work will help me understand the need for purity in our lives.”

There was another silence. She was about to launch into the final prayer when Father Dykstra spoke.

“Don’t keep it in your mouth.”

Sister Theresa made a face, then was grateful for the darkness. “Pardon?”

“Communion.”

“Oh?”

“Don’t want to spoil it.”

“It . . . spoils it if you keep it in your mouth?”

“Got to swallow right away. Don’t taste it. Don’t chew it.”

“That’s what I’ve been taught. But . . . why?”

“Gets corrupted.”

Sister Theresa wished she had Sister Joan’s patience. “Why does it get corrupted?”

Father Dykstra heaved a long sigh, stirring in his seat. “God is God. You’re human. Keep God’s flesh on your tongue and God will leave you.”

“Oh!” Sister Theresa had finally gotten more than a few words, but felt no less confused. “I won’t, then. Thank you, Father.”

“Mmph.” He was finished.

She said her final prayer. Father Dykstra muttered an absolution. She stepped back into the echoing silence of the sanctuary.

~

Sister Theresa opened the door to the kitchen. She smelled earthy potato, tangy onion, and the pale odor of milk. Two other nuns were there. They kneaded dough with muscular hands and grabbed handfuls of flour that hung like incense, cascading down the air. Sister Theresa unhooked an apron from the brass hanger on the wall, and pulled it on hurriedly, like a little girl pulling on a new Sunday dress.

At dinner tonight, Sister Genevieve had said to the table, rather loudly, that Sister Theresa had a “gift.” At this, Sister Theresa swallowed and looked to Mother Anne. Nuns were not supposed to be “special” or, even if they were, be recognized for it. Nevertheless, she was happy in her new work.

One night, she served the potato soup with starbursts of dill. Another night, she made chicken legs in a white wine sauce. And tonight, the bread had arrived with a modest strawberry compote, for dipping. Sister Theresa had watched the sisters out of the corner of her eye. Sister Genevieve drew attention to the compote, nudging the nun next to her to recruit her into her sense of admiration. Mother Anne acknowledged it with a small smile, but did not comment on it. Sister Joan stuck her finger in it first. Father Dykstra just stared at it.

After dinner, Sister Theresa cleared the table, and began work on the Communion wafers. They had to be baked fresh every night. The ingredients were simple, but the process was laborious. She had to ensure purity. It was her daily devotion.

She ground the flour and salt three times, picking through for foreign particles. She carried up fresh cold water from the well. She dropped tiny dollops onto a tray and marked each of them with a cross, using a small knife she sharpened every night, and saved only for this purpose. The oven door swallowed them up in the final purification of heat. She imagined them puffing up, their crosses deepening.

One night, when the wafers had been made and put away, Sister Theresa stood surveying the kitchen. She was alone. Near the table’s edge, there was a bowl of leftover strawberry compote. Her mouth watered at the memory of its taste. She pulled a small jar off the shelf and spooned in the rich red sauce. She could keep it in her room for a special treat, just like Sister Genevieve kept honey. Tucking it under the folds of her cloak, she then damped the lamp and left the kitchen in darkness.

~

Every morning, Father Dykstra celebrated Mass for the nuns. The little community only took up two rows of the old stone sanctuary. Father Dykstra moved slowly from one end of the altar platform to the other, muttering the Mass. He held the wafer aloft, his Latin reaching stentorian pitch.

          Hoc est enim corpus meum!

The wafer was now transformed into God Himself. Father Dykstra descended the steps, crabwise, to the little congregation. Sister Theresa stood in line to receive. Father Dykstra fumbled for a wafer. She held out her hands, one cupped inside the other. Father Dykstra muttered Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi and pressed it into her palm. She could not help but think: This is the work of my hands.

Sister Theresa slipped the wafer into her mouth. She began to swallow.

But then, she stopped herself. She could not say why.

She sat back down, glancing back at Father Dykstra to make sure he wasn’t looking, and sucked at the wafer. It collapsed. It began to break apart. She kept her head down.

As soon as Mass was over, Sister Theresa strode out the door in the back of the sanctuary. Her steps fell heavy on the flagstones. She reached her room, whirled, and shut the door. She sat on her bed. Having kept her tongue still for so many minutes, she released it. Saliva flooded in. The wafer tasted sugary; it had begun to break down.

Sister Theresa leaned over, reached beneath her bed, and drew up the little jar of strawberry compote. She opened it. She scooped up the glaze and kissed it off.

She leaned back on her bed and closed her eyes and listened for flavors. First, the taste of the compote: fresh strawberries, brown sugar syrup, and a trace of the ancient rum she’d found hidden on a back shelf. Then the more humble, earthen notes of the bread itself: flour, salt, and well water.

Sister Theresa squeezed her eyes shut even more, and a new darkness washed in. She saw herself drawing the tray out of the oven, and setting it down on the table to cool. She felt such pride. She admired the wafers, sighing back to a flat shape. Their heat made the air ripple. Holding the tray in her hands, Sister Theresa swept open the door to the refectory. There, seated at the long table, were all the people of her convent. They sat up smiling. A thousand candles were lit around them. Everyone was talking, touching each other, hands upon head and shoulder and cheek. In their midst was a great turkey, hot-crispy-golden, stuffed with sweet potato bread. Then Sister Theresa could see that each of them had a supper dish piled high, each with different foods on her plate. On Mother Anne’s plate there was a great shank of lamb next to a bowl of thick, creamy soup. Sister Joan presided over a plate laden with steak and potatoes. Sister Genevieve talked excitedly over a huge slice of meat pie and a pot of honey all her own. She was talking to Father Dykstra, who may or may not have been listening to her, because he sat with an expression of speechless joy at the enormous plate of cheese before him.

“Ahhh, little Sister!” Sister Genevieve had seen her. She rose from her chair and approached her, heralding her, with arms wide open. Everyone was glowing, expectant—a hush had fallen. “You have brought us the bread of life!”

~

Once Sister Theresa knew how to procure these visions, she could not stop.

Merely holding the wafer on her tongue was no longer enough. She took to stealing the consecrated wafer from Mass altogether. She found a way to tuck the wafer into a fold of her wimple. After Mass, then, she did not have to rush. She merely found a quiet moment to slip away to her room. Sitting on her bed, she withdrew the wafer and stared at it in her hands. This is God Himself. God incarnate in a little piece of bread. Flesh straight from the Cross on Calvary, and it’s sitting here in my palm.

And then she would reach under her bed to select a jar, one of five or six she now kept under her bed.

Her visions had become more extravagant. Yesterday, Sister Theresa had dipped the wafer in maple syrup before eating it. Then she leaned back and watched the vision unfold behind her eyelids. She always began in the kitchen, and then entered the refectory through the swinging doors, bearing a golden dish of warm Communion wafers. Now, at this table of her dreams, the sisters no longer wore habits of black, but great gowns in autumnal colors: vermillion, mustard, soil-black. Of course Sister Genevieve wore a regal gown of deep honey velvet, and amber earrings dripped from her ancient ears. They stood together, clasped hands and raised them together. They took the wafers and distributed them amongst themselves. There were no plates of food now. There were only bowls covering the long table, dozens of bowls, holding every color and consistency of sauce, puree, glaze, dressing, compote. With great reverence they dipped their wafers into the sauces and fed them to each other, and each one tipped her face to the ceiling with eyes closed. They were having their own visions, now. Behind their closed lids, they sat down at their own communal tables. The people at those tables fed each other too, and their heads tipped back, and then they were seeing even further tables, and so on, until all of humanity was attending the feast, dipping the bread and feeding each other.

One day Sister Theresa came back with the wafer as usual. She reached under her bed and withdrew a jar of leftover deviled egg filling, rich and creamy and folded with bright red paprika. She unscrewed the squeaky metal lid and plunged her finger down into it. Then, balancing the wafer in one palm and the filling on her finger, she moved awkwardly to position her head on the pillow.

There was a knock at the door. Sister Theresa froze. She had left it unlocked; ajar, even—how could she have been so careless? She heard Mother Anne’s voice coming to her as if in a dream. “Daughter Theresa?” she called. “Are you—”

Mother Anne opened the door and looked in. Sister Theresa was half-lying on her bed, the Holy Eucharist in one hand, and egg paste in the other.

Mother Anne stood in the doorway. Sister Theresa remained silent and frozen. There was no way to explain anything. Her face drained of blood.

“Daughter. What is the meaning of this?”

Sister Theresa grasped for words. “This is—I just—”

“What is this?” Mother Anne’s voice trembled.

Sister Theresa was aware of her finger still hanging in the air, the egg puree still sitting on her fingertip. She said nothing.

“What is that? What are you doing?” Mother Anne’s lips had turned white. “Please tell me. Please tell me the meaning of this.”

Sister Theresa lowered her hands until they rested on the bed. Tears filled her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said.

~

Father Dykstra’s head popped above the horizon. Sister Joan got up and ambled in his direction. He stopped. She stopped. They waited.

Father Dykstra made the first gambit. “See them clouds?”

“Looks like rain again.”

Silence followed. The wind blew between them, creamy and cold against their faces.

Father Dykstra’s one hand flapped in the grasp of the other.

“Saw an Indian fellow in my apple tree.”

“Did you now.”

“Just sittin’ in a branch.”

Sister Joan lifted her head to sniff the wind, looking beyond Father Dykstra’s bowed head towards the west, where the sun was falling towards the horizon.

“That girl. Locked up?”

Sister Joan lowered her head to regard him coolly, with cornflower-blue eyes, the one lovely feature in her primordial face. “Nope. In seclusion.”

Father Dykstra cleared his throat. “Ain’t come to Mass.”

“She will again. Might tomorrow, even.”

Another silence followed. Then, at the same moment, each of them began moving again. Sister Joan turned back to the garden: four long bars of brown dirt. Nuns bent over, digging with canvas gloves. Father Dykstra took his daily tour. He walked the rows to see what had been sown.

~

Sister Theresa stepped into the sanctuary and looked up. Shafts of morning light interlaced like fingers in the open air. Dust hung and sparkled. She looked down again, quickly. She focused on the cement between the flagstones. She took a seat in the second row, near the outer aisle. She would have chosen the farthest position, the most humble, but Sister Genevieve was sitting there. Sister Theresa sat down next to her. Sister Genevieve whispered, “So good to have you back, young one,” squeezing her hand and holding it hard.

Sister Theresa nodded and looked away, quickly enough not to let Sister Genevieve see her eyes fill with tears.

For the whole Mass, she could not focus. She could only replay Mother Anne’s discovery of her. Caught, shamed. Now she only wondered whether her punishment had been enough. Whether she had stayed in seclusion long enough. Whether her confession to Father Dykstra had been genuine enough. She dared not even look in the direction of Mother Anne. She kept her forehead pressed to her folded thumbs.

When the time came for Communion, the nuns got to their feet. Sister Theresa did not budge. She was not pure; it would be inappropriate for her to even approach the altar. She must wait until her own corruption had faded away. She stayed within the dark cave of her folded arms. She closed her eyes.

A cry echoed with in the sanctuary. Startled, Sister Theresa looked up.

It was Sister Joan.

Sister Theresa blinked. She could not believe what she was seeing. That big old pillar of a nun was jumping up and down, her habit billowing around her with every little hop. Her arms were spread to her sides, her hands scraping the air.

But Sister Joan was not the only one. Father Dykstra was rocking back and forth on his heels, palm holding his own skull, almost tenderly; the golden dish of wafers swayed precariously in his other hand. Sister Genevieve had swept one hand across her heart, clutching at the railing with the other. “Oh God! Oh God!” she cried as she collapsed.

Sister Theresa got to her feet, heart pounding, and shoved herself out of the pew. She began to hear words.

“Bon-bons! I only got ’em once! My brother stole ’em for us and we ate ’em behind the general store!” exclaimed Sister Joan, stringing more words together than Sister Theresa had ever heard her utter in a day.

“Pine nut bread!” called Father Dykstra. “The Shoshone woman made it for me! I’d forgotten, I’d forgotten!” Tears were streaming down his cheeks.

“Honey! I taste honey! Oh my sweet Lord!” moaned Sister Genevieve, collapsing onto the floor.

Sister Theresa hurried to her, dodging out of the way of all her sisters who were swaying about, as if in a dance. “Goat cheese from Millie!” “Real Belgian chocolate!” “Peaches, summer peaches, from the tree in my garden!” They staggered towards each other, holding out their hands, beseeching.

Sister Theresa dropped to the floor where Sister Genevieve lay, now still and panting. Her eyes fell upon Sister Theresa, and her face softened. Her frail body relaxed against the flagstones.

“I taste honey,” she said.

Sister Theresa nodded. “I know, Sister Genevieve. I can hear you.”

Sister Genevieve took her hand for the second time, and said, “God corrupts everything.”

She laid her head down.

~

Father Dykstra picked his way down the grassy hill from his cottage above. Sister Joan strode to meet him at its foot. The river thundered at her back.

As they came within a stone’s throw, as if by silent agreement, they stopped at the same time. Grasses of green and gold flowed around their legs. The verdant mountains rose up all around them, violet, ale, and sage in the rising sun.

“Magnolia’s blooming.”

“Yep, out by the barn.”

Father Dykstra shifted from one foot to the other. Sister Joan had her fists planted on her hips, staring upriver, where the valley’s green mouth opened eastward.

“I got something.”

“Do you now.”

Father Dykstra swung his arm around front. He was holding a burlap sack full of round objects. He held it out at arm’s length, like a fisherman’s catch.

“Apples,” he explained.

“For what?”

“For the girl.”

“The girl?”

“The one who cooks. She can use ’em.”

“Mmm.”

“The Indian feller gave ’em to me.”

“Did he now.” Sister Joan tucked the sack under one broad arm.

“Just sittin’ there in a tree. Wearin’ green.”

“Mmm.”

“He was all in green,” he pressed.

“Green?”

“Green like—” Father Dykstra waved his arm, gesturing at the earth.

“Grass,” said Sister Joan.

“Grass!” Father Dykstra chortled. “If it’s grass it’s like no grass I ever seen.”

There was silence between them. The river flowed on behind them. Its thundering had thrown water into the air, and the vapor cast rainbows, crossing and interlacing in the light.

“Grass with every kind of other thing in it,” said Sister Joan.

“Yes,” said Father Dykstra, nodding violently. “Yes.”

They both stood, heads bowed, contemplating the grass for a long while. Then, as if a train had passed and the crossbar lifted, they turned and went their ways.

 

~

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