The Stars Burn

Today:

“The world turns. The star burns,” he said. He came back again. This time at night.

I held the cigar before my face in the hopes that the haze would shroud me from his view. I glanced away from him and asked what he meant by this. Why it mattered to him whether the Earth spun on its axis and the Sun boiled the space around it.

“It doesn’t. The Sun will die. And your life will blink out in a span of time nearly indiscernible to that of existence: a diminutive cacophony of myriad experience. Your consciousness will fall away into a great void.”

He ashed his cigar. “So do not let your pride, your anger, your disgust, nor even your love get in the way of what you know: that you exist now.”

And my cigar went out, and the grey wisps rose into the night sky, and his eyes burned through the ever-unfolding present.The old lips twisted, as though the devil spoke in words too wise.

“It doesn’t matter.”

And I knew then that he was right. It doesn’t matter.

Five Days Ago:

My old hometown was a musty mix of decrepit mineral processing plants, low-slung warehouses, and industrial parks that sprawled out across what should have been open fields. Whenever I returned, I always tried to picture what it was like before everything was there. I imagined different animals running through open fields, like some idyllic little scene out of a children’s book: a deer, or some other four-legged beast, running with long, elegant strides. Likely in a pack, like wolves on the hunt for berries. The images got confused in my head, mixed up. They’ve always kind of been.

Four Days Ago:

I went to my sister’s house. She lived on a good street in a bad town. The house was built in the early 1900’s. It went through a renovation in the 50’s, but it still had lead paint and asbestos. Or maybe just one of those. I can’t remember. Even though it was a good street, she found a needle while she was raking leaves last fall. Probably some junkie who ditched it in her yard. They’ve been looking to move to a different town since.

Her front door was a light green, the exterior a bright blue with white trim. It clashed. I found it odd. The old lattice-work along the rotted out front porch. The colors. The way the house seemed to be build too tall and not wide enough. Her husband greeted me. I didn’t say anything about their oddly shaped home.

“Hey Todd,” I said. I said “Todd” with a heavy “d” sound at the end. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. It came out strangely. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Hey,” he said. Then after a second. “So sorry for you, brother.”

He hugged me. I half hugged him back. Literally half. One arm went around his back. The other stayed in my pocket. 

“Yeah, thanks.”  And I went inside.

And my sister’s kids said a short hello to me, then went up into their rooms. I understand. It’s tough when your grandfather dies. I would have done the same if I had known mine.

Three Days Ago:

I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. 

As I walked to the lectern, the hard soles of my shoes rung out against the marble. All else was quiet and still: a great holding of breath, by humans who came to mourn, by the marble structure of the church itself. By me. From the first pew, twelve strides to the ambo. I counted them because they seemed to be the only thing commanding a presence in the room. My steps walked me: a marionette drawn on by the hands of a dead man.

I remember being in this church as a young boy at Easter Vigil. The whole church was dark. The font where I was baptized was empty. The tabernacle stood open, like some giant golden ostrich egg that had been cracked open in clean lines, the insides removed. And then the Paschal candle was lit. I loved that light, like a star burning in the heavens.

The words I spoke about my father were empty. My eyes only moved over the lines, and sounds poured from between my lips, meaningless, strange sounding: too many hissing “s” sounds and guttural “h” sounds and the transition from one sound to the next nearly made me sick. Each syllable rung out like the hollow echoing of my footsteps. 

I did not think of my father as I spoke. I only thought of that single burning candle from when I was a boy. 

Two Days Ago:

My car is a ’05 Nissan Sentra. I’ve never gotten it washed. The carpets have crumbs, dirt, pieces of something or other woven into them. The floor mats are gone. My heel has driven an ugly depression into the floor beneath the gas pedal. I don’t like to use the brake. I don’t like to stop. So I take the backroads.

I went to the Manor. I didn’t know where else to go. The Manor was my father’s place of solace. It wasn’t a manor in any way, just a three room shack built on an unnamed creek that ran through the pines. He went there often when we were kids. No one ever went with him. Not my sister, not my mother, not me. We all hated it. It was dirty, cramped, virtually unfurnished but for an old sofa and two creeky twin beds. One was always unoccupied. No electricity. No plumbing.The foundations were sinking into the creek. We always joked about how we thought he’d die there in his sleep. The house would just slip beneath the water, and he’d sleep into drowning. 

I wish that’s how he had died.

I thought maybe I could die for him that way now.

One Day Ago:

The next morning I sat on the sinking back porch of the Manor. It was pitched at a hideous angle, half below water, small, wind blown crests lapping weakly against the rotting boards. I sat in my father’s old beach chair, toes in the brown-clear tide water, my center of gravity low so that I wouldn’t turn over. I think the house was starting to fall in at that point, but I didn’t notice it. Or I didn’t want to.

I was on the fifth or sixth drink. Maybe the eighth or ninth. And I saw him then. He was sitting right next to me. Same position as me. Same beach chair. The one with the brown fabric and the lime green turtles swimming across it, the screw holes tinged by rust. 

A sea gull cut aimlessly across the sun. I tracked him through it, then held my sight on it. It burned. I was hoping that I would go blind, so that I didn’t need to turn and look at my father beside me. But I failed to burn my eyes out. I turned slowly to look at him. He was still there. A martini rose to his lips and he drank it in three long swallows. He looked straight ahead, out across the creek, toward the marsh and the trees and the distant power lines.

“You never did want to come here with me. I wanted you to. I wanted your mother to, and your sister,” he said. “But I wouldn’t beg you to. I was too proud.”

He spoke honestly, as if even my pain couldn’t touch him. He pulled a cigar from the chest pocket of his shirt, a Havannah style button up, none of the buttons closed, replete with the same lime green turtles swimming across a brown background. 

“But I wasn’t proud enough. I took women here. I went to the bar, Scooter’s, you know it. Just down the road. And I took them here.”

He placed the unlit cigar between his lips.

“And then I would kick them out afterward,” he let me fill the details in in my own mind. The creaky bed, the smell of vodka, the nakedness of my father. “And each time I did it, I felt like I was sliding off this damned dilapidated dock. Not because I was, but because I wanted to. I was too proud to do it. I just thought about it. All the time.”

My toes weren’t really there anymore. My legs weren’t either. Nothing felt attached. Not me, not my father, not my father’s memory, not my sister or my mother, not my past. 

I curled forward, a lifeless lump of flesh, and fell headlong into the brown, cool water of the creek. Then I came back up, paddled to the edge of the sinking porch, swallowed the rest of my martini, and floated down the creek until I reached the bay.

Today:

“The world turns. The star burns,” he said. He came back again. This time at night.

I held the cigar before my face in the hopes that the haze would shroud me from his view. I glanced away from him and asked what he meant by this. Why it mattered to him whether the Earth spun on its axis and the Sun boiled the space around it.

“It doesn’t. The Sun will die. And your life will blink out in a span of time nearly indiscernible to that of existence: a diminutive cacophony of myriad experience. Your consciousness will fall away into a great void.”

He ashed his cigar. “So do not let your pride, your anger, your disgust, nor even your love get in the way of what you know: that you exist now.”And my cigar went out, and the grey wisps rose into the night sky, and his eyes burned through the ever-unfolding present.The old lips twisted, as though the devil spoke in words too wise.

“It doesn’t matter.”

And I knew then that he was right. It doesn’t matter.

I felt something like a continuously churning cosmic crucible, burning away all souls, reconstituting them with the souls of others, and burning them away again. And in one iteration, my soul was joined with that of my father. A random occurrence, no more significant than any other iteration that I felt. But in it, his sin was burnt away in me, of me, by me, for me. And the ghost of my father became disconnected from me, and I from it, and I from all the world, and the world from all of me. It became easy to forgive.

I held onto the doorframe to keep from falling into the rising water. It was rising to my loins at this point. I took a breath as it rose above my waist—that shock of water that only hits home at that point on the human body. 

I let go the frame, floated easily into the current of the creek, and swam to shore. Soaked in the ashes of my father, which were now inert, now forgiven, now burnt in that cosmic crucible, I listened to the Manor die. It creaked once, a long, struggling call into the world, then a crack, and it slid, in one hulking mass, into the creek. It drifts by me now, still proudly upright upon the waters, on its way to the sea.


Note from the Author: This is a short story built of parts that I write in separate sittings. Each sitting is essentially a short, quick exercise. My hope is that I can string these little portions together to form a cohesive story over numerous parts. In order to accomplish this, edits will be made to the previous sections in order to attain continuity. It’s an experiment of sorts into the writing process through flash fiction.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Thanks to Jerry

The old man’s smooth hair was dark, nearly black. Flecks of silver showed heavily at his sideburns, but they never intruded farther up than that—the top of his skull sanctified of old age. And his manicured mustache held the same silvery tightness as his sideburns. He sat upright in his chair and his fingers followed the tangible line of aging as they pushed the hair behind his ears—darkness above, silvery light below.

A glass of red wine rose to his lips, and he stared down his driveway at the approaching headlights. The truck came down the lane and pulled up slowly. The engine died and the headlights snapped shut, throwing the garage door into darkness: a pale ghost in the night. A small light fixture stood beside the front door, casting rebellious shadows across the porch.

“Whatta you want?” the old man said. “A beer? I’ll grab’ya one.” He didn’t wait for an answer from the figure in the car. He rose with ease and walked inside to retrieve a can of Coors Light. When he returned, the man, forty-six years his junior, was seated in the chair opposite his, looking out into the dark front yard, listening to the cars quietly slide by beyond the treeline. He reached out a hand to the old man and took the beer.

“Thanks Jerry,” he said easily. The old man took his seat again, joining the other in gazing at the differing blacknesses beyond the glowing rim of the porch light. The man across from him sat leaning forward, elbows on his knees, the can of beer resting lightly in his hands. His left foot tapped the wooden boards quickly: tempering his release of energy so as not to destroy the world. He was thick, square, and clean shaven—a sturdy traveling trunk made man. His skin was weathered from the sun and his hands stained by the earth.

“Got any tomorrow?”

“Yea,” Jerry said. “A guy from over on Spruce Street, Ed Parnell. You probably never met him, he was an older guy. Didn’t go out much. I don’t know if you would’ve seen him around.”

“I’ve heard the name, but yeah, never met him.”

“His family is devastated. I feel bad for them.”

The foot tapped against the boards. It stopped and he lifted the beer to his lips.

“Well you are a different man than I, Jerry.” He took another swig. “You can’t feel bad for every family you see. You’ll feel bad for the rest of your life. You do how many funerals a week? Sometimes two? You’ll die of grief if you feel bad for every family that survives a dead man. And there are many men in line to die.”

Jerry took a sip of wine and looked down at the younger man’s wide feet: dry dirt was integrated into the torn leather and the thick rubber sole; the left boot was tapping again. His eyes moved to his own immaculately shined shoes, the required footwear of a funeral director. Dirt, four hours old, clung in morbid mounds to the shiny black. He loosened his tie and unfixed the top button of his shirt.

“How was the one today?” the man asked.

“Sad. As they always are.” Jerry brushed the hair behind his ears, rubbed his mustache with delicate fingers.

“Jerry, you need to learn to stop feeling for these people. Show some empathy, start feeling from higher up.” Four hour old dirt? Or two thousand year old dirt? Or eighty-one year old dirt? “You need to realize it’s only death.” His foot stopped tapping as his energy went into words. His left hand raised off the silver can and reached out toward Jerry, suspended momentarily in the void between them. “You’ll go through it too one day. I’d’ve thought that in all the years you’ve been a funeral director, you would have gotten more callused to death. I don’t know how you do it—how you still feel like that for these people. You need to dislocate a little bit, see everything from a higher perspective.”

“Is that what you call empathy?” his black eyebrows raised; his silver mustache smiled. “The ability to see everything from a higher perspective?”

“Yea,” he shrugged, then took a long gulp of beer as the tapping began again. “Don’t put yourself in the shoes of another, put yourself in the shoes of the world, of Everything. Death—it happens all the time, it’s part of living, you can’t let it kill you each time you see it.” He leaned back in the chair and let out a long sigh.

Higher up, feel from higher up.

“Brent, as you said, I am a different man than you.” He pushed the hair behind his ear and scoffed with respectful restraint, a horrid laugh from his lungs. “And Brent,” he paused, hesitating on the brink of the question, “what did you feel when your mother died? Do you forget that I directed your mother’s funeral? I saw how you were.”

The smell of freshly dug ground. Two years ago, Jerry thought. Brent had just moved to town with his mother. She was all he had: given life by her, raised by her, and cared for by her until she was too old to do so. Then Brent had nothing but a hole in the ground and a coffin. The smell of earth: Her earth? Ed Parnell’s?—not in the ground yet. Are they both the same?

She died after suffering a massive stroke, leaving Brent alone for the first time in his life. Jerry was the first person Brent came to know in town, not out of shared interest or a sense of friendship, but out of the bindings of the living burden of the dead. His mother’s funeral was attended by Brent, Jerry, and two old women from the church. It probably rained earlier in the day, or the smell of earth wouldn’t have been so strong. The two women of God said nothing; they made an appearance on behalf of the town. Perhaps on behalf of their own souls. They stood like stoic symbols of grief: unapproachable and transcendent. As they lowered his mother into the earth, Brent wept softly into Jerry’s shoulder. He had met him only three days before.

The diesel of Brent’s truck lingered around the porch; Jerry looked into Brent’s eyes. Instead of tears, he saw piercing clarity. His face was steady, and the sting that Jerry had expected did not manifest on Brent’s face. Brent’s foot tapped rapidly before ceasing at its apex; he lowered it slowly to the floor.

“I don’t think I wept for my mother that day,” voice far away. “I wept for something much bigger than her. I wept for the world. And for death itself.” Sigh. Contentment.

“My mother always told me, ‘Don’t cry for me when I die.’ She didn’t say it in a mean way, you know? She just said it in a way that made it all seem alright, like it was supposed to happen. You can’t cry about things that are supposed to happen. So I cried for death itself, not for my mother. She wouldn’t have liked that.” He let out a short laugh, lifted the beer halfway to his mouth, then let it drop. Perhaps a dead woman’s coffin dirt smells different if her death is supposed to happen.

“You can’t cry for everything, because none of it is any different from you. What makes me better than the next guy? What makes me better than a child or an old man? In each of us there is the seed of life, a spirit, or whatever you want to call it. But the spirit in them is also in you. It’s in each of us. If you cried for everything with that spirit that died, hell, you’d be crying your eyes out 24/7.” Lean back and sigh, you great philosopher. Contentment.

The two men sat silently, the only noise the rapid tapping of Brent’s thick foot upon the boards and the occasional white-noise hum of cars on the road. Jerry swirled his wine and Brent looked at the shiny silver of the porch light reflected in his can.

“Well Brent, sometimes you need to feel something as an individual. You can’t live in the world as God. It’s arrogant.”

Jerry rose from his seat, his glass of wine half full. Brent drained his beer and handed the empty can to the old man.

“Maybe so.”

“And Brent,” he paused in the door’s threshold. “I hope when I die, you weep for me; not as some symbolic spirit of the world. But I hope you weep for me because you are my friend, because I am something important, something significant to you.” He looked at the younger man steadily, trying to pull an oath from his bowels. “Goodnight Brent.”

The screen door shut with a clatter. The storm door followed. Brent walked down the porch steps, stepped into his car, and backed down the long driveway to join the road beyond the trees.

***

“Brent,” Jerry said over the telephone a week later. “I need you to drive me up to the doctor. I’m not feeling well.” His voice was wet and labored.

Brent found Jerry in bed. Jerry croaked out a greeting, his hand rose a few inches, then fell back to the sheets. A fever ran through his body: the sheets were soaked in sweat and the room smelled of corpse dirt. Jerry shivered under the covers and coughed up thick mucus. He spit into a coffee can beside him. Reminds me of my father, can and spit, spit and can.

“Jerry, I need to bring you to the hospital,” he said quietly as they staggered down the stairs with the old man’s fleeting weight upon his frame. “I need to take you right now. You don’t look good. We can’t go to the doctor.” I spit into it because it still smells of coffee, still smells of my father. Can and spit, spit and can.

The pneumonia was severe. It sat deep within Jerry’s lungs, displacing the air needed for life. Like corpse dirt thrown atop an open grave. Brent sat at Jerry’s bedside, waiting for doctors, waiting for others.

“My family should be here tomorrow,” Jerry coughed. “They are flying in from New York. They should get here tomorrow, so I just need to be here until then.”

“It’s just pneumonia Jerry. Don’t say that.” He touched the stitched edges of the sheets, brushing them back under the frame of the hospital bed. “I’ll stay here with you tonight until your family comes. Then I’ll get out of your way.” His eyes flickered at Jerry, then to the medical machinery; it blinked back. Corpse dirt. “I’ll be here, just let me know if you need anything from me.” He pulled his dirty hat down over his eyes and leaned back in the chair. “Just give a yell. I don’t sleep that heavy,” he smiled at the old man from under his hat. His foot began to tap. It rung loudly against the floor of the hospital, carrying out into the hallway like the clicking of a metronome, like corpse dirt thrown too quickly upon the coffin.

***

The next morning, a man, his wife, and two daughters entered the room. Jerry’s son leaned over him and hugged the frail body, racked by the effort of a thousand nocturnal coughs. The infection was not responding to antibiotics. One day, 24 hours, the doctor has given. Or is it four hours, or two-thousand and fifteen hours? Or no hours at all?

“Brent, this is my son,” Jerry said weakly. The two men shook hands.

“Nice to finally meet you Brent.” The son’s face was quiet, but the eyes spoke. He pursed his lips, shook Brent’s hand, and pulled him forward in a hug. I love them.

“No, it’s my pleasure,” Brent said. “Jerry, I’ll leave you guys alone now. I’ll head home, but I’ll come back tomorrow to check in on you.” He bit his lip—a lie. Jerry looked at him; a boy caught red handed.

“Don’t be a fool Brent. I won’t stay ’til the morning.” He turned his palm upward and beckoned Brent closer with his thin fingers. “Stay here with my family to see me off.” He coughed. “I want you to be here today with me, and tomorrow if need be. The farm can wait. The corn will still grow. The sun will rise. The dirt will hold and nourish the plants. But for today, I want you to be here with me.”

The floating and soft speaking white-coats made Jerry comfortable. Clear drugs flowed into his veins and they gave him pillows. His granddaughters sat upon the bed with him, making jokes and talking about their memories. Ten years ago? Tears held like icicles in his son’s eyes, and his daughter-in-law touched the old man’s hand often. What of this flesh? Five years ago?

Jerry smiled often and spoke little. Brent left the family alone for a couple of hours, wandering the halls of the hospital, pacing the white lines of the parking lot, looking at a blue sky with pillowed clouds above him. When he returned, Jerry asked for a moment with Brent. The man, woman, and children left. The door clicked shut. Brent took a seat beside the bed.

“Brent, I wish you had lived here when my wife passed away,” he said thinly. “I was a lonely old man then. She was sick for so long,” he stopped talking, inhaled, and coughed. “For three years. She clung to the bit of life that remained in her. She was in pain for three years. I could do nothing about it but sit at her bedside. Tell her that it would be alright. Kiss her goodnight as though. It would be the last time.

“The world became sad for me. I lost faith. Couldn’t find God anywhere. Or in anything I did. When I went to work I put on a mask. A false smile. Sympathized with each mourner, because I was like them inside. I didn’t know what we were doing it all for. I wasn’t sure if there was any Being. One to receive souls. Souls of these bodies that we care for. On earth.”

What of the flesh. What of the soul?

“But you have helped me. To see something beyond my blindness. And sadness. Brent—I don’t care if you don’t weep for me. I know I will be dead tomorrow. There is nothing you can do about it. Nothing I can do about it. It does not matter whether you weep for me or not. Because you are right. There is so much more in the universe. Than the individual death. The death of an old man.”

Corpse dirt smells like star dust.

The coughing quieted as he spoke. A silver smile creased the weathered face and the eyes spun glistening webs.

“Thank you. For being so near to me this past year Brent. I was a sad man. But you were my friend. It helps, in the end. To have a friend like you. I can’t thank you enough.”

Brent sat still: the next movement would break the cosmos apart. A single jerky motion: he grabbed hold of the old man’s hand and embraced him with his mighty frame. Jerry whispered a final note of thanks to the younger man, and Brent left the room.

***

The next day, at 6am, Jerry McGovern died of complications from pneumonia. His son, daughter-in-law, and two young granddaughters were at his bedside. In the corner, Brent stood respectfully, watching the last tangible acts of earthly love. Jerry’s last labored breaths passed from his body and into the world, and the machines harmonized a single haunting note. Brent reached out and touched the naked foot of his friend—what of the flesh? He turned, left the hospital room, and walked slowly down the hall.

The watery marks that dotted the bone white tiles were a prayer to his friend. They followed him down the hall as he heaved in a heavy breath, filling his chest with the air that Jerry had given forth. He held it close within him. Brent wept, his arrogance falling to the earth with each cascading tear. He spoke a word of thanks to Jerry McGovern.

The Pilgrim

When I first saw him, I had just finished making camp beside a small spring; the water gurgled from the rock as I screwed the cap onto my water bottle. I straightened up as he came down the trail. His eyebrows were strung together like sutures, drawing his face tight across his temples and cheeks; but the ghost of a smile licked at his lips as if he enjoyed it. He stopped abruptly in front of me, inches from my face. Drops of sweat clung to his curly dark hair and his teeth were nearly as brown as his skin.

“Hey, you got any water?” He pointed with a lame arm at the water bottle that I held in front of me, the only buffer between us.

I glanced sideways at the spring beside us. “Yeah, right there’s a spring,” I said as I turned toward my tent, hoping to create a bit of personal space between us.

“Well do I like need to treat it or anything?” he asked as he moved closer, his feet pattering at the dusty ground.

I looked at his pack; it bulged with gear that I couldn’t quite place. The pack itself wasn’t so much a pack as it was a lopsided duffle bag—the two handles acting as shoulder straps that cut into his oddly bulky shoulders. A long, black case dangled from the bottom of his pack, striking in dancing steps upon the ground as he moved in place. His eyes were wide, as though his eyelids were sucked back into his brain, and the pupils stood large and dark against the tight, tan skin.

“I mean,” I hesitated to answer. “You could drink it straight out of the rock. It’s probably fine. It’s coming right out. But I’d treat it if I were you.”

His neck jerked sideways with a convulsive tick, then his eyes shot toward the trees above us. The branches and leaves stood out harsh and green against the slanting rays of fading light.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

I took a short step away from him, momentarily aware of the fleeting feeling that something was watching me. I looked quickly up at him, but his eyes were lost in the foliage above us, absorbed into a state of nothingness where the greens and yellows combined into something sublime.

“I was hoping I could get some of yours,” he quickly returned to the topic of water as his head snapped to my level and his eyes closed in frightening meditation. It was quiet for a moment except for the tinkling of the spring beside us. His eyes opened slowly, and as they did, I extended my water bottle toward him. I shuddered as his lips met the rim.

“Thanks,” he said. He shuffled around me, brushing shoulders in an intimate, sorry sort of way. As he retreated down the trail, I could see a pistol secured to the outside of his pack alongside a large hunting knife. Both hung loosely in the webbing of a makeshift pocket of paracord, jostling against each other like a junk box full of violence. The mysterious black case swung like a hanged corpse from the bottom of his pack; it clattered against a rock and opened. He stopped quickly, carefully reinserted the violin into its housing, and continued walking. I realized then that my hands were sweating, and that I was holding my empty water bottle.

Two hikers camped near me that night. I asked if they had met the curly haired man. They had; they called him the Pilgrim. Through sympathetic smirks and frightened laughs, they told me that no one really knew where he came from or how long he’d been on the trail. The story goes that he came out after some vaguely described family tragedy, but others contend he simply saw a documentary about long distance hiking, picked up a duffle bag and some hiking gear, and set out on the trail. They say he fell out of a tree while hanging his bear bag in a highly unorthodox manner, injuring his arm. At one shelter, he apparently offered magic berries to anyone who would take them. The next night at 2am, he boiled his magic berries on the second level of a shelter. He knocked the pot over, sending scalding hot liquid down upon those sleeping below. His bulky shoulders were supposedly due to the fact that he wore women’s shoulder pads to protect himself from the straps of his pack. And he carried with him what he called his Medicine Chest, apparently full of all manner of things besides medicine. I laughed with the two hikers during these stories, but at night, I had trouble sleeping. It wasn’t exactly fear—it was something more intimate than that.

In the morning, I packed up and set out on a twenty-four mile day. The clouds accompanied me as I walked, eager to shed their heavy rains for the earth. Around noon, it rained for an hour; I had lunch under the protection of a shelter. I pushed on harder after the storm, determined to hit my twenty-four mile mark at Blackbird Gorge, a few miles short of Wharton Road. Clouds still held in the sky, but they had lost their maliciousness and the sweet smell of rain-soaked earth rose upward: half life, half decay.

I was behind schedule as the first signs of dusk came on: that time when everything gets both louder and quieter, brighter and darker. I had the feeling of being watched again, and as I rounded a bend in the trail, a single gun shot range out. I wasn’t afraid; I somehow knew what had happened. Ahead of me on the trail, the Medicine Chest was cracked open, exposing its myriad contents of mind altering pills and liquids. Down feathers swam in the air as I stepped into a small clearing at my right. A violin stood against one of the saplings that grew within the shortly grassed circle. And there, his face draped in a sleeping bag and his legs caught up beneath him, was the Pilgrim. I lifted the thin sleeping bag away from his face. I saw the halo of red that stained the green grass; and at the halo’s source, crimson liquid glowed like quenched fire. Crests of broken skull, perfect in their whiteness, peered through the carnage of grey matter.

The clearing contained too much to be left alone that night. I staked my tent right outside of the clearing and kept vigil over the Pilgrim’s body, keeping the birds and nocturnal creatures from disturbing him as night came on. I tried not to, but I must have slept for a while. I dreamed of a world that we were all happy in; it was a world where white reminded me only of the clouds and the snow and things that were pure and good.

In the morning, the sun was out, throwing the canopy’s greens and yellows across his body. The Pilgrim seemed to reach back toward it with his outstretched arms, so that I couldn’t tell where the sun’s light ended and he began. I hiked out to Wharton Road to flag down a car. I left a note beside the Pilgrim’s body: Gone to get help. It’s too late. He’s dead.

But I wanted to write so much more.

The Makeup Artist

Rebecca came home for the weekend for her cousin’s Communion; it was an inconvenience. Normally, she’s in Hollywood tending to the faces of the rich and famous — she’s a makeup artist. You probably never heard of her, but she did the makeup for that girl in that ballerina movie; the one that made her look like a colorless monster. But they said it was good, she won some acclaim and kind words for it. It’s not my kind of thing, but she’s good at it. She gets her name in the credits of movies and stuff.

This morning, she was yelling at her brother: “What are you doing in there?” she called slyly, eyeing the bathroom door as she pulled the cap off of her eye liner. The eyeliner was aggressive for a Holy First Communion, but you know, she’s a makeup artist. So I guess you need to display your wares wherever you are — even at Holy Communion.

“Just getting ready,” her younger brother’s voice came through the door. He had been in the bathroom for ten minutes, the water running in the shower the whole time. The water cascaded against the white tub in solid drops and splattered against the shower curtain with a hollow pop. But Tommy wasn’t going in; he stood over the sink, staring at a twenty two year old boy in the mirror.

“I don’t even know what you do in there,” Rebecca continued, more to herself than anyone else. Her dress was a little audacious for a First Holy Communion as well; a bit too short in my opinion. ”It’s not like you’re putting makeup on. You always take so long in the bathroom; it’s insane.” She paused as the pencil drew a heavy line inside her eyelid. “Or are you?” She stopped and smirked at the door. “If you are, I’ll come in and help you. I’ll make you look all pretty and then you’ll be done in, like two minutes. Then maybe we’ll make it there in time to do whatever we do there.”

Tommy turned the sink on. He stripped off his shirt and ducked his head into the stream of water. Both hands worked through his hair, soaking each line to the root; no shampoo or anything, just water. He turned the faucet off and reached for a towel. The cool droplets fell onto his shoulders as he wrapped the towel around his body, shorts still on. He threw back the curtain and turned off the shower. He looked in the mirror one last time, making sure he was there, then walked to the door and opened it. Rebecca popped her head out of her bedroom.

“Finally,” she smirked. “Let me get in there if you’re done.” She brushed by him, saddled up to the mirror, and continued her facial artwork. “Now hurry up in your room. You take forever to get ready!”

“Tommy, are you almost ready?” his mother called from down the hall. “We need to leave in a few minutes. We can’t be late. Are you ready?” Her dress wasn’t as inappropriate as Rebecca’s, but it was gaudy. It was black with golden material flowing across it, like the ripples in a lake.

Tommy pushed the door to his room shut. He stripped the towel and his shorts off and threw them to the floor. He pulled on a pair of tan dockers, wrinkled and too big. He threw on a shirt, horizontal blue and white stripes — much more appropriate for a Communion. He clicked his deodorant up three clicks, swiped, three clicks, swiped. Outside of his door, he heard Rebecca bounce down the stairs.

“Hey Daddy,” she said from the kitchen. “You all ready?”

Tommy sat down on the edge of his bed.

“Yes darling. I’m all ready. How does my tie look?”

“Perfect,” she said without looking. “Where’s Mom? Is she almost ready?”

“I’m here,” she called from the stairs. “I’m all ready. Let me just grab my pocketbook, and then I’m all set to go. Honey, do you have your jacket? Don’t forget your jacket. Becca, where’s your brother? Is he ready?”

“I don’t know. I told him to hurry up.”

In his room, Tommy stooped forward and pulled on a black leather shoe. He laced it, then reached down and found the other. His fingers worked confidently over the limp strings: looping, pulling, and drawing them tight. Then his hands rose stiffly to his face, and his head sunk down to meet them.

“Well go tell him again,” their father said. “We need to get going.”

“I don’t need to tell him again. He’s a big boy.” She pulled a dangling string from the high hem of her dress. Then she snapped up, as if realizing some horrible secret. Her voice fell to a whisper that carried through the foyer; it seemed even louder than her normal octave. “What’s up with him lately?” Neither adult answered. “Know what I mean? He’s so weird or something. He’s closed off; he’s odd.”

“I don’t know, just don’t mention it,” the parental pairing said.

Back upstairs, Tommy stood up and walked to his dresser. There were only a few things left to do. Then he would be ready for the day. The tasks that he already completed were easy: shower, check (sort of); brush teeth, forgot that (but who cares); dress in stupid clothes, check. He sprayed a dash of cologne onto his neck. Cologne, check.

There was quiet in the kitchen as he went through his checklist.

“Well, whatever. We need to go in like, two minutes. Get him going,” Rebecca urged her father with wide eyes.

Again, Tommy found himself staring at a twenty two year old boy in his mirror. This was the toughest part; this was the part that required no water, no toothbrush or toothpaste, not even some good smelling cologne to hide the fact you hadn’t showered. It required patience, a change of perspective, a sense of grace that wasn’t allowed. He looked at himself in the mirror: the deep set eyes, the purplish lips, the thin, hay colored hair.

If there was one redeeming feature, I always thought it was his eyes — sort of. They weren’t exactly something pretty, but at least they were interesting. Tommy’s mind was fixated on them. He couldn’t seem to get the final chore done. The eyes were so dark, nearly black, and in them he saw himself, powerful, strong, and assertive; in them, he was ok. A knock came on his door. “Can I come in?” his father asked. “No, I’ll be out in a minute.”

It’s funny. Because they don’t know why Tommy takes so long in the bathroom. They wouldn’t understand really. Becca should know, she spends so much time making people look different— better than they really are. But for some reason, she never sees it. Tommy’s makeup isn’t a fine, thin line under his eyes that makes him look more attractive; nor is it some red on his cheeks to make his face look nicer, fuller, happier — although he had tried both. Tommy is a true makeup artist; probably better than even Rebecca, even though he never had his name in the credits. Tommy could hide his true face beneath one that looked decent; just not with powdered minerals and pasty concoctions. The problem for Tommy, however, was that the application of such a face didn’t come too easily.

“Let me come in, Tommy,” his father whispered. Tommy picked up the bottle of cologne, tastefully shaped like the body of an ancient god-man, and squeezed it tightly. The thick, smooth glass felt heavy in his fingers; warmth descended from his chest. His arm twitched with a beautiful urge to hurl the glass across the room. But he never looked at the bottle, just at his eyes in the mirror. If you were there, you would have seen what he saw — a beautiful nothingness that seemed to sap away all the pain of life, like the void in the middle of a noose. His eyes were like that: a deep, welcoming void.

In his hand, the ancient god-man withstood the crushing force of his probing fingers. The warmth dried up in him, and the elusive act was consummated. The sinews of Tommy’s hands relaxed; his arm fell loosely to his side, then rose mechanically to straighten his tie. He opened the door, his father’s face greeting his with thin, tight lips.

“How’s the weather outside?” Tommy asked his father. “I hope it’s not too hot.”

“I’m not sure. It may be a bit muggy.”

“Oh well,” he said as he walked toward the stairs. He checked his makeup in the hallway mirror; it was immaculate. In the kitchen, he beckoned his sister and mother outside with a smile. “Ready? Sorry, had to do some things real quickly. But let’s go, we’re going to be late.”

As he walked to the car, the curves of the god man’s body flitted in the void of his eyes.

The Balsa Airplane

The girl wound the rubber band propeller of the balsa wood airplane. She examined the small aircraft: the right wing had a small chunk missing, the red propeller was gouged deeply, and the thin line of the belly was splintered. She looked sidelong at her little brother, his eyes wide.

“Can I throw this one?” he asked.

“You just threw it, like five throws ago.”

“Yea, but you threw more than me.” The girl held his blue eyes in hers until he bowed his head, trying to concentrate on the dinosaurs that ran up and down the sleeves of his shirt. Her red hair burned in the glowing sun and her eyes didn’t move from the top of his head. Her long finger wound the propeller.

“Of course I threw more than you. I throw it better.”

“Yea, but I just want to throw it. Mom said to let me throw it sometimes.”

“Fine, you can throw this next one. Just don’t break it or anything. Just throw it across the grass there, not toward the trees, or the school, or the playground. Just throw it that way,” she pointed at the open field.

She stretched her hands out, her right supporting the wooden fuselage and the left holding the steady tension in the rubber band. “Take it!” she yelled.

The boy’s hands shot clumsily forward. She jammed the plane towards them. For a moment, the propeller unwound, whirring open and sending the rubber band’s energy into the ether.

“You idiot! Hold the plane! You need to hold the propeller!” The boy stood with the plane in his upraised hands as she spun the propeller back to full power. She crossed her arms and looked out across the patch of grass. “Throw it you spaz. Hurry up!”

He loaded his arm back and released the tension in the propeller. The plane whirled past his ear and ahead of his hand, his small body unable to keep up with the physics of the vehicle. It flew wildly from his hand, gaining altitude at a high angle and floating toward the line of trees that bordered the schoolyard. It climbed nearly vertically, rolling over on its right side as it drifted toward the tall pines. It pulled a rolling backflip, dove toward the ground for a moment, then shot upward, higher than the trees, where it’s rubber band power was exhausted. It stalled, and fluttered like a dead bird into the upper reaches of a strong pine.

“You are an idiot!”

The girl broke into a run across the yard and leaped into the tree. Her lithe body moved upward, as if being drawn on a string. Her feet pranced off one branch, then another as she made her choreographed ascent. Halfway up the tree, she turned and looked down at the boy who stood below her.

“You coming up or what?”

The boy didn’t answer. The girl snapped her head around, her fiery pony tail lashing out behind her as she scaled the tree higher. Her freckled face was round, not chubby, but solidly round. Her hands, although thin, were strong for a child of nine, and her quiet coldness was that of a woman who scoffs at smudged silverware.

“Come on,” she hissed at the boy. Her eyes grew wider and sharper. “Mom will see you if you’re just standing there. Either climb up here, or go away! Go hide around the corner of the school before Mom comes out!” Her eyes held his.

The boy kicked at the ground and the smooth skin around his eyes grew puffy. He swung his arms, seeking solace in the dinosaurs. Finding none there, he turned around, hoping to find another child, or an adult, or anyone else in the schoolyard.

“What are you doing?!”

The girl caught glimpses of his tortured, reddening face through the pine needles; she refused to release him.

“Do something! Just go away!” the girl cried from above. She heaved an animal sigh and sent an unspeakable word down to her brother. When he heard it, his nervous motion halted and his eyes swelled. He rubbed his shirt sleeve across his face; a green triceratops with a toothy smile soaked in his quiet tears. Noiselessly, he turned from the base of the tree and ran toward the school.

The girl watched him enter the heavy double doors before turning back toward the plane. She climbed, her body being supported by thinner and thinner branches as she reached the upper canopy. The thinning trunk began to sway with her weight, gently leaning away from the breeze before snapping supply back upright. The canopy of thin needles obscured her view of the plane, and the sun rained in on her through fluttering gaps. Her strong fingers reached out to the plane, hung on a tuft of green needles; she nudged the red propeller that lay just out of reach. The wind swam softly through her red hair, floating it into her eyes. Her fingers nudged the red propeller again. She wedged her foot higher into a small branch and pushed.

“Alexandra! You had better not be where I think you are!” her mother’s voice rang up from below. She was unseen at the base of the tree, but the girl could picture her: her brown hair was swept back, exposing the dangling, gold earrings. The neckline of her modest shirt plunged, exposing her ornate necklace. And she yelled through her thin lips without her face moving much.

“Get down here right now!”

The young boy stood at his mother’s side, looking into the tree that had swallowed up his sister. The delicate skin around his eyes was red and swollen.

The girl felt a slight sway in the tree. She pushed harder into her foothold. Her body tensed as she floated with the breeze toward the balsa wood plane. In the next moment, she reached it and was flying along with it. The upper bough broke with a silent crack, and the red haired girl fell through the thin branches of green needles. She rolled sideways over the first thick branch she encountered, then plummeted headfirst past another. Her legs struck the trunk beside her, and she turned over. Her mother screamed and her brother held his breath as the limbs moved above them. She came tumbling into sight, legs scraping branches and her free hand grasping at air. Her body rolled over, her back arched over a thick, low branch, and her trembling legs found another. She stuck there like a piece of bologna on the cafeteria floor.

“Alexandra! Are you alright!? Alexandra, say something!”

The girl pulled herself up, tears rolling rapidly from her eyes. Pine needles clung to her hair as she swung down from the low canopy and into the arms of her mother.

***
Their mother drove in silence, her thin lips pursed.

“How are you feeling? Your back doesn’t hurt too much?” She rubbed the girl’s back and caressed her scratched, stinging arms.

“I’m okay,” the girl whispered as she looked out of the passenger window.

“Ok, we’ll get home and give you some ibuprofen and put some ice on it. And we’ll get all those little scrapes cleaned up.” Her mother cast a glance toward her before pulling through a stop sign. “It will be ok.”

The boy sat in the back seat, his eyes cast forward through the front windshield. As his fingers ran silently over the broken body of the balsa airplane, he found himself wishing that something else had happened. He wondered, for the first time in his life, what it would be like if he didn’t have an older sister.

August William Orange

August William Orange woke to the clatter of angels bowling, as his mother used to say. A storm had rolled in while he slept. It threw down its white fangs to the earth as it rolled across the low country that he called home. The drops of rain clanged on the tin roof in tight, hollow taps. August slipped back down into his cot and pulled his single wool blanket up around his chin.

The atmosphere teemed with fury, slowly collecting the energy of a million atoms in the dark sky. A bolt of lightning peeled out of the clouds, ripping into the huge, old oak that stood next to August’s small shanty. August’s eyes shot open as he scurried to the window. Looking out, he saw a large branch swing wildly from the wooden monster, break free, and plummet to the ground beside the window. Looking back up to the glowing embers of the canopy, August could make out the altered physique of the decimated tree. The core was split open, a wide crack ran down the middle of the trunk, and the flaming upper reaches bowed outward, away from the clean, crisp cut of the bolt. The oak groaned under its new strain, fighting to keep upright. The fire in the upper reaches soon went out with the falling rain, and all that remained was the wounded tree, teetering above August’s only home. It is not angels, August thought, but the devil who bowls tonight.  

August crossed his shanty in five steps to the front door. He threw it open and ran outside to inspect the threat. The devil’s bolt had inflicted a devastating wound upon the large oak that shaded his plot of land. He silently cursed the bowling devil as he mentally calculated the probable angle of descent; the tree was bound to fall. It swayed with the flowing winds, and screamed out in pain with every movement. It transformed before August’s eyes from a wounded protector of the shanty to a possessed creature of hell. He turned away from the black-barked horror and set his mind to the salvation of his shack.

Wheels! Why didn’t I build wheels onto this little shack! August lamented. Rain dropped onto his balding head and soaked his ratty clothes. His left hand went to his chin in thought. I could pull it out of the way, maybe, if it had wheels. Could I put wheels on it now? Is that possible? 

The tree groaned its mocking disapproval above him. More forks of lightning shot down from the sky, illuminating the other trees that stood around his property. They seemed to be waiting, like morbid soldiers, for their oaken commander to commence the attack upon August’s shanty.

August thought over his options: Try to roll the shanty over, pushing it out of the way? No, impossible for an old man, maybe if I was younger. Take out the valuables in the shanty? No, I’d have to leave them out in the rain; they’d be ruined anyway. Let the tree fall on the shanty? No! I can’t just give up!

Wheels! he cried out again. Why did I not put wheels? 

August looked up at the oak in despair. He could have done so much if he had put wheels on his little shanty. He could have hooked it up to a truck every once in a  while and moved all around the country. He could have seen so many things: Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Rio Grande, the Black Hills, the Pacific and the Atlantic. He could have gone anywhere he wanted. Now he was stuck on a plot of worthless land in the backcountry, helpless and immobile. He grew old in a place that meant nothing to him. He saw nothing new, did nothing special, and felt nothing inside. If only I had put wheels on this thing, he muttered. I could have been happy.  

A hollow crack split the air as the tree’s gaping chest wound opened wide. Droplets fell from the jilted leaves, sending down an advance army of blinding rain into August’s eyes. The giant oak began to bow toward the shanty — a hideous servant of Satan. August shielded his eyes from the onslaught, but a smile of hope grew on his face. I could still put those wheels on, he thought. Get wheels, move around, see things. I’ll cross this land from Pacific to Atlantic. I will be happy. He hobbled like a wounded crusader to the base of the tree, placed his hands against it, and pushed with all his elderly might, hoping to divert the course of the oak away from the shanty. His feet dug in to the muddy earth, his veiny hands pushed at the black bark, his head pulsed with the blood of exertion. The tree began to twist upon the axis of its wound. It spun like a tortured demon breaking free of its chains; howling and turning, it made its unholy descent toward earth.

August didn’t just push against a dying oak, but the designs of the devil who bowled in the realm of angels. He pushed until he lost his footing and slid beneath the towering trunk. The tree plummeted toward earth, falling along the cursed line of descent that August had fought to alter. The shanty’s tin roof dove in upon itself, crumpling to the ground along with all of August’s earthly possessions.

The storm passed east over the open country, floating toward the Atlantic. A neighbor, out to survey the damage the next morning, found August. A smile crossed the face though the body was broken. They scattered his ashes to the wind; August William Orange was carried on wings of angels across the country, from Pacific to Atlantic.

 

Image courtesy Library of Congress; Old oak trees: MN Moran