Peyton approached the crossroads excitedly. She couldn’t remember exactly how the legend went, but she hoped she knew it well enough. She buried her stuffed toy dog from when she was a child—her most prized possession—in the crossroad, made a wish, and waited for the demon to arrive to grant it.
It wasn’t a demon who approached, but a woman who looked just like Peyton. She couldn’t tell if it was her twin, Patti, back from the grave, and her wish was granted, or if it was a demon masquerading as Peyton herself. She waited. The demon/twin sure was slow in her walk to the crossroads.
As the demon/twin got closer, Peyton could tell it was Patti. She knew she had to stay in the road for the wish to be granted, and she realized that she had traded her soul for it, but it was hard not to run toward Patti as she neared.
Beelzebub had decided to handle this one himself. He was all for gathering souls, but this seemed particularly unfair, so he approached warily. He had made himself look like Patti, who since she was an identical twin to Peyton, looked virtually the same as her. This one just seemed too easy; he preferred a soul that was more of a challenge.
As he got to the crossroads, Peyton jumped up and grabbed him, hugging fiercely. “You’re back!” she hollered.
“Wait. Just a minute,” he said in Patti’s voice. “I’m not really Patti. I just want to be sure you really want to go through with this.”
Peyton looked at him. “Yes, I’m sure. I want Patti back.”
Beelzebub sighed. “You can have her back any time you want. You don’t need me for that.”
Peyton looked at him quizzically. “That’s why you’re here, right? To grant me Patti back and take my soul?”
He rolled his eyes. “Like I said, you can have her back without my help. Just turn to your mind, like you did when you were little.”
He could tell Peyton wasn’t following him, and as easy as this was, and as eager to give his boss her soul, he was a demon high leader, not some amateur newbie who would take just anyone’s soul to score points with the boss.
“Come on now, Peyton,” he said, exasperatedly. “Just take Patti back. You know how to do it. Just wish her back, don’t sell your soul for her.”
Peyton squinted her eyes and glared at him. “I’m not afraid. I want Patti back. It’s all I’ve wanted since she died when we were four.”
He thought he’d give her one more chance, then he would go ahead and sign the contract with her. “You were four when she went away.” He sighed again. “Went away.” He looked at her uncomprehending face. “Four? Left? Didn’t die. Get it?”
“She did die, and I’m here to trade my soul for her. I’m ready to have her back,” Peyton said adamantly.
“Okay, okay, but this is just too simple. You sure you don’t want to reconsider?”
Peyton shook her head.
A contract and quill pen appeared in his hand. “You know how this works? You have to sign with your blood.”
Beelzebub pricked her wrist with the sharp point of the feather, let some blood seep up the quill, then handed the contract and pen to Peyton, who eagerly signed it. “Okay. When you turn around and walk that way,” he pointed south, “she’ll meet you in 100 yards.”
He watched as Peyton walked away from him, then began talking to the space beside her, hugging it and speaking animatedly. He shook his head. He hated taking souls for giving back invisible friends, or in this case an invisible twin.
He looked for another moment, then thought, “Well, the boss will be happy.” He retrieved Peyton’s stuffed toy dog, then disappeared.
Elizabeth Glass holds Masters degrees in Creative Writing and
Counseling Psychology. She is the recipient of grants from the
Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council, and is
winner of the 2013 Emma Bell Miles Prize in creative nonfiction. Her
writing has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of journals and
magazines including New Plains Review; Still: The Journal; Writer's
Digest; The Chattahoochee Review; and New Southerner. She lives in
Lorilee ate herself, a habit that her father considered to be a consequence of pure desire and gluttony. As a baby Lorilee would put her hands in her mouth and suck and chew on them until the skin blistered and peeled. Her tiny fingers looked like smashed raspberries, but Lorilee never cried or grimaced and her parents rightly concluded that the chewing and gnawing was painless. They took her to a pediatrician in the city, an hour drive from Phillips County, who prescribed gloves, “tiny white ones with frills so she can soothe her sensory needs and still look like a little lady”, but that only encouraged her to bite her lower lip until it was shredded and bleeding.
“That baby will eat herself to death,” the father said, blaming his wife for Lorilee’s oddness. “Your family is consumed with nervous tics, stuttering, bad manners and foul words. Your sister, case in point, is a woman known to take meat out of her mouth and squeeze it soft so she can chew it better.” He had seen other signs of ill-conception in his wife’s family and was convinced that moral weakness came down the line through her genes. Lorilee’s mother agreed that certain members of her family were tainted, but they were minor flaws that did not muddy the true intent of a person’s heart and soul. “I’d rather sit down to dinner with an ill-mannered saint that politely sip tea with the Devil,” she liked to say when he got wind behind his judgements.
When Lorilee was two she surprised her parents with words that tumbled out of her. At first the words were one syllable, but then she expanded them to two, then three, and she could name almost everything in the farmhouse. At the age of two-and-a-half she composed her first rhyme “mommy and daddy and Lorilee, a lovely family that makes three.” She liked to find words that were tenuously linked and then expose their dissimilarity. “’Hiccup’ is not an animal like ‘hippopotamus’.” Her father worried that Lorilee would learn all the vulgar words and embarrass him at the hardware store on their twice-monthly visits.
Lorilee did not have many friends. The physical isolation of a Kansas farm and her father’s reluctance to allow intrusions into his aloofness kept Lorilee out of social circles, containing her within the square of a small family. Their nearest neighbours were the Turners who lived a mile away from the twin posts that marked the end of her laneway. The Turners had one son, Nate, whom the entire county thought of as a boy whose mind was seriously askew, off kilter and mentally deficient. “That boy doesn’t have the intelligence to tell a cat from a dog.” “If he plowed his daddy’s farm, the corn fields would grow in the shape of the letter S.” Nate would wait by his twin posts for the school bus and trip his way up the vehicle’s stairs, catching his bag on the safety rail, and sit beside Lorilee in the front seats.
Lorilee and Nate were two sides of the same coin as far as the people of Phillips County were concerned. Many wondered if something was wrong on the farms. Maybe herbicides were getting in to the wells? The Von Issers, who had a new red roof on their stately Victorian farm house and a blue-green swimming pool in their lushly landscaped backyard, stated that “those two families must have swapped partners and God is simply showing the rest of us what might happen if these unnatural games are played.” Dr. Ames, who hadn’t yet left his family practise for richer patients in the city, overheard the comment in Fitz’s Grill and suggested that if anything, this would increase genetic diversity and improve the stock of the county, which was sorely needed. He’d examined Lorilee a few times, mostly for the minor maladies of childhood and adolescence. Her folks had politely asked him if it was normal for their daughter to enjoy the parts of her body that naturally sloughed off and Dr. Ames suggested that self-ingestion was not unknown in many cultures.
“That boy has the smarts of a brick, and that girl, smart as she is, just isn’t normal.” The comments flew like newspaper in a Prairie storm. “Did you hear that Nate drove his daddy’s truck right through the barn door? Couldn’t read the letters on the stick shift.” “I hear Miss Smarty Pants is entering the state spelling bee. I guess her daddy won’t be able to talk to her anymore now that she knows all those big words.” Nate and Lorilee were the endpoints on a line along which the county measured their own children. Their children were normal, in the middle of that spectrum, and anyone who got too close to either end of that line was doomed to destructive and incorrigible behaviour. Nothing good could come from being different. Bad luck was earned and rumours said that the Turners were bankrupt and Lorilees’s farm had diseased livestock.
As Lorilee grew up, her fleshy menu broadened and the flavours deepened. She believed that the simple act of devouring the sleep from her eyes connected body and earth. The relationship she had with her brain was an easy and utilitarian one—all IQ and answers—but the one she had with her body was pure sensuality. She loved the taste of herself. The granular crust from her eyes was like grains of sea salt and each crumb dissolved on her tongue like morsels of sponge toffee. At night when she slipped her hands between her legs and raked her fingers between her labia, she would smell each fingertip and imagine the ocean. In the summer her skin would burn and peel and Lorilee would suck on each piece that she’d carefully ripped from her shoulders, melting them under her tongue. In the school cafeteria heaps of food were slopped onto students’ trays but Lorilee chose to sit alone with her packed lunch and pick at scabs that she slipped into her mouth like tiny chocolates. Compared to the other girls Lorilee was womanly, with a figure that cast an hourglass shadow in the afternoon sun. On her tenth birthday her mother gave her a bra and by thirteen Lorilee had breasts whose nipples pushed against the fabric of her blouses, revealing their circumference. The boys called her Miss Mountaintops. She was pretty in a conventional way; she could have won third place in a county-wide beauty contest. Her only visible imperfection was the generous splattering of pimples across the upper half of her breasts. She liked to wear tops that showed her cleavage and when she bent forward the boys, both enticed and repelled, could see the faint line of her areola. Lorilee would constantly ask her teachers for permission to use the washroom and then alone in a stall she would squeeze the pimples along her chest, wipe the white pus along her lips and sweep it into her mouth with a flick of her tongue. If the pimple was large and angry, the pus would ooze from it like a drop of breast milk.
In their senior year of high school, when Nate was allowed to drive an old pickup truck his daddy could forgive losing, he’d give Lorilee a ride. He’d found his skill in driving after plowing his daddy’s truck through their fence. Nate vowed to learn so he put the truck right up to the barn windows and rocked the truck back and forth, first and reverse gears, a hundred times, clutching and braking, until he was sure he’d never again go through any fence or wall. He’d take the truck at night and cruise down the dirt roads that cut the prairie into farm-sized pieces. On moon-lit nights he’d pull onto the shoulder, cut the engine and listen to crickets in the fields and dream of Lorilee’s body. He knew about her habits, looked forward to warmer weather when she’d reveal her body. Sometimes when she got into the truck he’d sniff like a dog. He didn’t want to have sex with her; Nate fantasized about kissing and licking her blistering shoulder or running his tongue along the bumps on her chest. The boys at school teased each other about whether or not Lorilee would have anything left to eat by her wedding night. To him she was like the dead soccer players whose plane crashed in the Andes, who gave their bodies to save the living.
“Have you ever let anyone taste you?” Nate asked her when they sat together in the school cafeteria.
“That’s vile. I’m still a virgin and every part of me is unavailable until the right guy shows up.”
“That’s not what I meant. Not that. I meant, have you ever wanted to put a piece of your skin in someone else’s mouth?”
Lorilee had wondered about sharing her body this way. Would their tongues taste the cells in the same way her tongue did? It was like questioning if everyone saw the identical scene through different eyes.
“Maybe. I’d do it for you, but only because you’re brave enough to ask and not insensitive.”
Nate felt that his desire to consume a small part of her beautiful body was noble and mature.
Every Sunday, spring to fall, Lorilee’s daddy would do a crop tour of the neighbouring farms. Most often she’d come along in the truck just to hear his cantankerous rants about the farmers who were more or less successful than himself. If her mother came they’d squeeze onto the bench seat in the truck and set drinks along the dashboard; rye and coke for her parents and plain coke for her. Lorilee drank it so frequently that canker sores inside her mouth were a perpetual distraction. She’d chew inside her cheeks and pool the trickle of blood on her tongue before swallowing it. Then she’d swish the coke in her mouth to etch her wounds, the acidity burning the torn skin and rinsing more blood onto her tongue.
Tornados were a hazard that everyone planned for and her daddy assured her that in two decades of tours the odds of it happening were worse than his chances of winning the lottery. He was wrong. Lorilee had done research and found that they had a one-in-seven thousand chance of dying from a tornado. The county was famous for its wedges and stovepipes and in eighty years a dozen serpentine funnels had swept the fields clear of crops, livestock and humans. Lorilee had seen the sickly green clouds that bred tornados and heard them roaring like beasts hidden in the corn, bellowing with hunger and anger. Once she’d heard nothing at all, a silence so profound that it seemed as if everyone and everything had died and gone to heaven, even the singing birds. In school and at home the children had been taught to fear this silence, to look for leaves and broken branches floating up into the sky, and to measure the sting of hail on their skin as an omen for what might come. They read stories about deadly tornados and practised running to shelters. They made classroom posters that showed stick people lying in bathtubs or under mattresses, as if they were already dead and not just trying to hide from the storm.
On this Sunday, just before they started the tour, Lorilee’s father dragged the bodies of two dead goats onto the soft earth outside the barn doors. Anyone passing by the farm could mistake the bodies for children in thick spring jackets. The goat’s stomachs had ballooned and black-green flies trampolined on the stretched skins. Some undiagnosed disease was killing his animals but he was sure that quarantining the goats would stop it and the vet would not be needed. Vets were salespeople, not healers; they were always trying to get you to lay on drugs and remedies that drained your wallet even when the animals were sure to die. He called Bio Disposal, a company that advertised they’d be on your farm within sixty minutes of your call and winch the body into their bin within twenty minutes of arrival. Nate had gotten a weekend job with the company driving the truck and loading carcasses.
The crop tour was half done and they’d seen most of what demanded commentary. “Look at the corn on the Jacob’s farm. It’s smaller than my leg. From ankle to knee is all it is.” He drove the truck slowly, both to avoid upending the dashboard drinks and to heighten the drama in his opinions and extend her boredom. Classic country played on the truck radio. Freddy Fender and Waylon Jennings was music that meant something and spoke to hardened men like her daddy and other near-bankrupt farmers. Most of what now passed for country music was just “city boys whining and preening” and he would not allow any radio stations other than what he’d set on the dial. “I hope that boy got to the farm before those goats explode.” He always called Nate “that boy” and in person he didn’t call him anything.
Nate had arrived at the barn and called out three times before knocking on the farmhouse door. The goats were rising like loaves of bread in the heat and he couldn’t wait for anyone to return. He’d wear heavy rubber gloves and hip waders, with a mask over his face, then cut the goats’ stomachs and let the coconut-milk liquid spill onto the porous ground. He stuck the knife deep into them and sliced down their middle with box-cutter deftness. Each animal deflated to living size and he secured the winch strap around their hind legs. You had to drag them slowly or a leg could rip off as easily as the drumstick from the Christmas turkey.
The NPR weather forecast said thunderstorms might happen around this time of day. Winching dead weight that was soaked would hamper the company commitment of speedy removal. Nate kept his eyes on the sky and wet his finger. He stuck it into the air to judge the wind, but felt only air resisting his wave. The stillness was broken by birds flying past the farm, as if in migration, and Nate saw a bowl descend from the clouds, an enormous inverted gray lake. It spun slowly, and clusters of birds swirled around its axis and then, as if God flicked a switch, the bowl spat out a whirling funnel. It whipped the ground with lashes that flicked trees into the air and ripped both stories from the Von Isser’s home. The funnel moved neither right nor left, staying perpendicular to Nate, but coming towards him. He figured it might be five miles away, but like judging distance over water, he could not be sure if the measure was right.
Lorilee’s father had also seen the tornado and measured the gap between the storm and the farmhouse, where they could get underground. His wipers could not clear the hail on the windshield fast enough and the pinging against the truck drowned out the lament of Willy Nelson. He was driving seventy miles an hour, almost too fast for the truck to stay attached to the earth. Gravel catapulted from the wheels, the rocks colliding in midair and then ricocheting off the truck bed; her daddy would be mad about the paint damage. Lorilee put her hands under her shirt and felt bumps along her breasts. She wanted to squeeze them and rub her fingers in the sticky pus.
They passed Nate near the twin posts of the lane. He was running towards the ditch that ran along the farm, against the road. The ditch was no more than four feet deep in places and two feet in most. Nate would be lucky to end up in a spot that gave him any protection but if he landed midway between the right post and the second fence stile he could dive into the depression made where a large boulder had been cleared out the previous summer. “I’m not stopping for that idiot boy. He better run back to the farm if he wants to live.”
Lorilee’s daddy stopped the truck at the front porch and yelled at her and her mother. “Goddamn it, get into the shelter. Now.” Lorilee stood fixed to the ground, judging the danger. She wanted to run to her bedroom and get a locket in which she kept the first tooth she’d lost in case the house was peeled away from its foundations. In the field she saw a cow impaled by what looked like a kitchen-table leg. The animal was rigid, its tail hanging flaccidly, then the cow fell onto its side that contained the spear, not fully, now propped upright at an angle to the ground.
Her father was pulling the cellar door open, struggling to get the weight off its frame. Her mother ran down into the dark and her father went next, but only two steps on the steep stairs and turned around to raise an arm to help her. Lorilee reached as if to meet his hand, then grabbed the door and lifted it in an arc to close it on the shelter. A punch of wind smashed the door down on its clasp and she pushed the bolt into the cylinder locking her parents in the ground.
She ran towards the ditch, towards Nate’s voice. He was yelling at her, though she could only hear the bits of speech that slipped through the rushing flow of air. Nate stooped at the bank of the ditch, waving his arms to bring her to the shallow valley. Spring rains drained from the farm and found their way along this path; a bit of water still trickled along the rocks. He pushed her into the ditch. They lay face up, side-by-side, on either side of the stream. The air around them was frothy and the rain came at them in bee stings. Lorilee slid over the water onto Nate. Her breasts touched his face. She felt lazy, languorous, like being in the bathtub on a rainy afternoon. She stroked Nate’s head and opened her shirt, then put a nipple to his mouth. She took his hand and put his finger into her mouth. As the tornado descended on them, she bit his cuticle and stripped it away. In her heart a maelstrom of emotions subsumed the terror and Lorilee closed her eyes, tasted his body and listened to the voices of Phillips County.
Kevin Bray writes and teaches in Toronto. He studied at the
Humber School for Writers and the Vermont College of Fine Art. His essays often
appear in the Globe and Mail and other writing is found in Airplane Reading,
The Barnstormer, The Healing Muse and Biostories. His essay, “The Fragmentary
Blue of a Butterfly”, is contained in the anthology How to Expect What You’re
Not Expecting (Touchwood Editions). He blogs at www.insidethereadingbox.com
Grazing Teeth, the disowned child of an Inuit chief, catches your eye across the crowded mess, uses her salesman's touch so you feel like she's talking only to you as she makes her pitch to the crew of the Navy Supercarrier. She was the obvious choice to represent the local community, as she's one of its few bilingual tribesmen, most having cheeks too swollen with extra molars to be feasibly taught High English, better suited to grind leafy vegetation and, occasionally, the tenderest of seal meat. Their primitive language, the low, only has one word for sex and its multiplicity of stages, acts, and endings. And they have wide set eyes, practically on the sides of their heads, presumably a result of generations of skittishness, though the herd mentality seems to be a sufficient defense mechanism, the compared reports from the outer limits reassembled to allow for depth perception on a far greater scale, an early-warning inversion of the pincer movement, the extent of the hive mind constrained by the time it takes to spread the word versus the relevance of the data thereafter.
"Aren't you sick of lobbyists trying to shove the agenda of Big Condom down your throat? The pervasive propaganda of after-school special interest groups, grotesque pictures laser-inked onto the walking and bouncing billboards of conscripted cleavage, taking precedence over missing children no less? Vivid, adjective-ridden descriptions of highly unlikely contractions? Even the attack ads against one brand by another are schemes to get you thinking about which kind you should use, making you forget that you have a choice at all, a choice not to use them: Ice Breakers or Destroyers, Fibbed for Her or Lambskin Outfitters, each a false dichotomy. Look at the posters that you've allowed your walls to be draped with, demonizing loose women with scare-tactic suggestions that they might actually be transvestites or are or will be carrying sexually transmitted infectious diseases. Think about those free samples forced on you on every corner, that they're giving it away all the more suspicious. The pull out method works, is the point, if you're lucky enough to find yourself a nice Inuit girl," she winked; part of the allure of going native is that they don't take birth control, only receiving incidental medical attention from the state if they're impregnated by a sailor, some combination of being adopted and grandfathered into the healthcare system, the third world tradition of children born for their parents' sakes, "so you don't have to muffle that most ultimate pleasure, sheath and deaden the one thing that makes us humans, the shell or shed skin of a condom like a translucent apparition you've been conditioned since childhood to fear when you turn on the lights to check if it's still there. You don't have to deprive yourself of the sheer contact that is the logical end of your desires." The reason for the state's hyper-vigilance is the continued spread of a pill-resistant STID that wreaks havoc on women's reproductive systems, an epidemic that may in fact have been introduced as an act of biological warfare, nicknamed Ovarian Leprosy because its most notable symptom is eggs periodically falling out. It's grown more resilient, able to survive for days at a time once evacuated from its host body, which led to a scare in the laundry room of this very ship, rumours of an outbreak caused by variously soiled sheets co-mingling. They've begun to use dark lights as a precaution, jettisoning stiff socks into the hostile abyss. It's particularly prevalent in the fringe community of young heterosexual couples, sitting somberly in doctors' offices with their heads tilted together upon hearing the news of being afflicted with that which will slowly but surely tear them apart, mourning the loss of lives they'll never have. "And even if you do catch something, there's always the traditional home remedy." The Inuit have the privilege of raking sparse strands of seaweed from the shores of all major urban centres along the Hudson, hard-fought-for like stringed beads dangled in proprietary negotiations, the extracts of which are sold back under the guise of a rapidly disappearing panacea.
The walls are plastered with the weary disappointment of Lucy Lipschitz, the new official face of the folks back home, the superfluous mother figure of grownups. She eschews coddling for a demand that you finish what you've started, charged with keeping the subs sinking on schedule and dissuading what seems like the last of an entire generation gone AWOL, sailors having been consistently coerced into abandoning ship, returning to their loved ones, and hunkering down until the inevitable consequence of keeping people in close quarters comes to fruition. The excruciating monotony of near-daily referendums, tuned out by all but the most avid citizens, in conjunction with the mandatory opportunity for all military personnel to vote has resulted in a de facto Junta, direct democracy meeting chain of command. But Lucy can't actually tell you what to do, passing the shotgun-sprayed buck back down to the voters. Democracy is necessarily devoid of values, the system an empty vessel for the whims of the people, captained by drifters, a freightless boxcar without tracks or lighthouses to guide it. It needs to be an island of accumulating shipwrecks stumbled upon by unimpressionable young nomads who've packed up their bindles and run or swam away, following in their parents' footsteps along the constantly lapping shore.
After offering a sampler-platter preview of what's in and out and in this season in the counterculture, demonstrating her practiced and perfected feminine touch, the pendulum of attention paid to parts of the anatomy swinging year to year and port to port from head, clit, shaft, or G-spot to balls or cervical threshold or asshole, overhyped and neglected depending on highly subjective analyses of pleasure reported to people dressed as nurses on a scale of one to ten, Grazing Teeth's allotted time is up, to the frantic sputtering of her flushed and engorged volunteers. She leaves her business cards, double-sided, this meal brought to you in part by one face offering shore leave accompaniment and the other Sunday-morning-after counseling and medical options. As she's ushered out and dicks are ordered swabbed, she moons the mess and exposes a cluster of oozing abscesses, one final exhibition as she squeezes a single drop onto it from a syringe, and it immediately begins to hiss and shrivel, reduced to minimal scar tissue in a matter of seconds. "Just think of that next time you're struggling to maintain an erection while fumbling with a condom."
You row in from the Supercarrier to Detritus, the amorphous mass of garbage drifting across the Arctic Ocean once a continent everyone was trying to lose but now prized for its natural resources, the dichotomy of sound alarmism regarding unseen icebergs and quixotic opposition to windmills made irrelevant, the designation of intervention or adaptation a slippery one. You poke at its surface before hoisting yourself over the edge of the dinghy. Semi-intact screens glint, dusted with dried seagull shit and pebbles of crumbled Styrofoam and zigzagged by the residual paths of protruding muskrat tails. The ground is constantly shifting as discarded fads settle like fossilized footprints through layers of sediment: adopted and co-opted tartans; yarmulkes and schmucks; monogrammed his and hers accessories, themselves but slices of the longer-standing cycle of chosen and renounced names; torn denim washed in the acid of improperly-disposed-of batteries. But the bulk of the landmass is the remains of crashed satellites, it being more profitable to mine them for raw materials than keep outdated equipment in orbit. While they once splashed down and coalesced organically through the currents formed by the polar void, they're now directly aimed at Detritus to speed up the recovery process. The risk of Inuit casualties is mitigated by keeping the targets fairly consistent, which has led to a miniature mountain range known as the Noradiques or, more casually, the Business Moguls. Small blue collar communities trail behind the rotation of target peaks, and the Inuit congregate in turn. Your job is to goad them across Detritus, appealing to their nomadic heritage and explaining via charades that the Sino-Russian oil rigs in the now fully widened Bering Strait are encroaching on their land, so to speak. Few if any of them are actually Inuit; it's a misnomer along the lines of "Indians", entering the political vernacular in sync with the whole of North America's First Nations populations being herded and cajoled beyond the Arctic Circle, now being deployed as a proxy army. They've grown accustomed to life on the subcontinent, making habitats that, while called igloos, are more like a combination of gopher holes and beaver dams. Sometimes sailors will stumble across what are affectionately known as "garbage-patch kids" in pockets of refuse just beneath the surface, presumably being kept safe from the elements, not planted like crops, you hope.
You hear screams from behind you and to your sides, individually distinguishable at first but quickly rippling into a din. Attempts to further the Inuit migration often regress to incited riots, terror at the feigned emergence of a hybrid bear from the wave-rustled shore or the urgent need to disperse your weight. There's no way to know what's made up or a drill or a real, live scare. The Inuit bound towards the horizon in the syncopated stagger they've cultivated to move effectively across the unstable ground, whereas you and the other sailors almost immediately resort to crawling. Thankfully this bear isn't accustomed to the landscape either, stumbling splayed-legged behind you. You can't remember if the hybrids are infertile or just generally adopted the Panda's stubborn abstinence (though certainly not its picky eating). It would be a shame for the most dangerous land predators of the human era to be an evolutionary dead end, all for not if the top of the food chain cannot produce an heir. Perhaps that's the kind of singular existence that makes something if not a teleological arrival, at least an end by definition, that which cannot be aspired beyond or further selected from. Although you might be thinking of the koala-raccoon pests that infested high rise balconies after the last influx of Australian refugees. You do recall something poignant about their terminally empty pouches, despite having no problem exterminating them.
There's a whale that lives beneath Detritus, Mobius Dick, a horrifying mutant with a leagues-long penis that dangles behind him. He's classified as endangered, which, while technically, numerically accurate, is a loophole that violates the spirit of the law: he's not endangered but a freak, the last of his kind but also the first. He's an outcast of the cliquey whale community and so spends his days swimming in circles, chasing the proof that though a monster, he's still a mammal, two-headed but one-eyed, the blind leading himself forever in one direction, after the gratification of giving and receiving, almost unified, so close. The distance of the chase varies widely, circumference depending on the temperature of the water. If he ever gets there, he'll sift his semen with the krill he incidentally collects in his constantly wide open mouth and spit both out, the caught and released making for effective agents of pollination. The only thing the Dick family has in common is their capacity to reproduce, every last one of Mobius's ancestors having procreated, left to live up to the legacy of his father and his father's father before him. But he's big game for poachers, too. When the time comes, it won't be much of a fight, Mobius cooing and crooning at the sound and warmth of what he hopes will be a new friend while they drown him, which isn't an absurd death for a whale, just an anti-climactic one.
The stampede comes to an abrupt but momentary halt with the cracking, bubbling surfacing of a submarine, the potential for this huge, horizontal phallic structure to go back down at any moment apparent, the dwarfed bear raised aloft by then sliding helplessly down its periscope and curved hull, tumbling amidst the stirred up debris. Lt. Stern was once Lucy's most devoted follower, happy to lead from behind in her stead or be made an example of: you couldn't help but see yourself in his orthopaedic shoes, stripped and strapped to the bow as a figurehead, his ample breasts a suitable replacement since female soldiers were banned from going topless after the most enthusiastically celebrated examples of liberation and self-expression were revealed to be coercive in nature, or in his assigned heritage month costume, his fear of heights losing by individual shimmies and humps to the gym-class-reminiscent jeers beneath him as he worked his way up to the newly erected crow's nest (also the source of Lucy's quickly retracted "fagship" pun). But he's since gone rogue, the unlikeliest of mutineers commandeering a sub. He only re-emerges to spread rumours of her alleged master plan, a coming "boom", saying that she is in fact a mole burrowed deep.
Stern used to be her mouthpiece, condemning pragmatism as not compromise but the placing of all eggs in the present, proclaiming that she alone perceived four dimensions, dividends-yet-paid no different than the far-off bell of a tool-sharpening truck that sends people running with scissors. "Ladies," only a pacing, jaw-jutted, overcompensating voice to the troops he urged forward, "and gentlemen, this is a woman who, when others would knit or weave or crochet, was always sowing, plotting to leave a world that her children's children would someday reap. Once a dissenter -- she protested and was maced and had to have a steel plate put in her head and still went back to put a stop to the polluting of the marsh by the unnaturally hot springs where rubber-booted kids would hide in the reeds and watch all manner of depravity in the acid baths -- she's always maintained a grandmother's sole concern with the youth of tomorrow, that they might experience the simple pleasure uncomplicated by afterthought or regret that she never had, her hope for a future generation that will only think of themselves and say, 'I will not follow.'"
The sailors rush towards the sub en masse, undeterred by the yelps of those who plunk into Inuit caverns. Stern, apparently still craving approval, half appears in a hatch to welcome them aboard, and you're left to decide whether to lead the charge against and amidst the deserters or to use the opportunity to abandon altogether what Lucy only refers to as "the cause". The memory of her suspiciously simple first order reverse psychology, the ease with which you cohabit her thought process, looms over you, her weary relenting last time you saw her, waving off the entire division, that if you don't care about your duty to take or hold beaches against threats both foreign and domestic, then by all means....
You’re rudely awoken at the switch from advertisement-strobed swaying to flat expanses of less valuable real estate, where an urbanite’s absorbed lurches become a commuter's rheumatic jostling between satellite cities and the underground connects with the end of the line. A tumbleweed crumples and flexes like a flat tire as it skids past you; it isn't actually a weed but a mobile graveyard, a pocket of entropy perpetually on the move, gathering a congregation around an oasis for a reprieve from the exhaustion of life's journey, increasing the size of the Order until it reaches critical mass, taking a sip in unison and collapsing and leaving a circle bodies. You see the pall of a bar's single, buzzing neon light on the other side of the tracks. The alleyway entrance is manned by Oscar, an old drunk who's sat slumped between refuse for years without moving, a mascot, landmark, and naturalized doorman, scaring away stiffs too far off the beaten path. He's either the laissez-faire proprietor or a regular grandfathered into a position of esteem from back when it used to be called "The Business End", where men would tell their wives they only went to do their business. He doesn't even give you the courtesy of a puff of fogged breath as you walk into its current incarnation, "The Island of Misfit Boys", which the sign spells out for you.
Inside, amidst spinning lights and suspended balls waiting to drop again, an irregular pulsing in your chest stops you in your tracks, throbbing bass articulated with a girlish inflection, some of the chorus of voices speeding up with unbridled enthusiasm while others anally try to keep the beat, tapping their fake nails and rolling their eyes like real bitches. It's a countdown. So they're pagans, sun worshippers, ritualizing elongated and shortened days. You've heard of such people but never actually believed in their persistence. They fold their fingers one by one then do it all over again, the meticulous hedonism of party-planning, unable to contain their excitement but still having hours to go until Daylight Savings Time begins. Out here in the sprawl, the far reaches of the temperature-testing toes of city boys and bowls-of-warm-water-dipped fingertips of the passed out, where shift workers shiver and trudge to outer-ring bus lines that arrive at inconvenient intervals, natural light still matters. Daylight Savings Time is an excuse to stay up and out even earlier than usual, closing time delayed so they can fall back to their primitive origins. They turn their attention from fanning fingers to look you up and down, a square amidst round pegs, but somehow you fit right in, or vice versa.
Mother Hen is wearing a feathery flapper's dress with a boa thrown over his broad shoulders and, in a cage in the centre of the bar, appears to be the leader of the party fowl. This is the last outpost before you continue South and you'll need food. “Nonsense,” Mother Hen says. Even crouched down you're aware of his formidable height, legs up to his ass no doubt, because if they went to his neck he'd be a quadruped. He'd been given a nickname in high school because of his enormous penis, the object of jaws slack in the shower and locked in the bedroom. It was a destructive force in his relationships before he'd come out, hard to fit in and nearly impossible to pull out, which led to multiple home-alone-in-the-afternoon panics and girlfriends sent to live in the country for full terms. Until one day, sick of it all, he'd carefully drawn dotted lines on it, a cry for help, some combination of butchery and cosmetic procedure, and proceeded to lop and pare and whittle it down to the average of the average dimensions he'd found online. He was at long last a normal person, two-legged and feather-adorned, packing a member lacquered with a film of puss, the knotty-fibrous texture of innards turned skin deep.
He twists a lock of the shag carpeting that lines his cage, slips off his heels, and dances within his confines, grinding the balls of his feet without ever really moving them. His hair begins to stiffen and rise, static bringing component parts to life, standing alone, a product of electrons rather than synapses, displaying the ragdoll rigour latent in all people, the capacity to decay as a mere collection of carbon. But then you realize, trying to not stare at the shocking reveal, that it's a wig. Mother Hen has alopecia. He likes to tell people that he's more evolved, but in the early evening, before he's put his face on, he looks like a very self-conscious Neanderthal; eyebrows are the line drawn in the sand between knuckle-draggers and flipper people, mouth-breathers and those with gills, washed away before bed every morning or night. He touches a cage bar and zaps himself, and the wig tumbles back down. He sinks to his knees and sucks the finger, showing off his gaunt cheekbones. "Eating," he says, "is out of vogue, so yesterday." He turns his nose up: this is far more refined than the brute immediacy of the tongue, clumsily lapping; this is where true taste comes from. It leads you across expanses, not just in space but time, snaking through your skull’s sinuses, where linked memories linger like a fart. It is the seer, the medium that peers into more than a crystal ball, cupping instead the dual orbs of the hourglass figure, its eroded funnel hurried by and hurrying the passage of time, the widened middle of age, the product of seconds gone back for. Ghosts yet to come breach its deviant septum, waft over from the other side, butterflies a gut reaction to the obvious symmetry blotting the wings of chaos, knowledge of the inevitable as clear as day. "The past," he says, "is at once inescapable and inaccessible. Is there something you're running from, or looking for?" He passes you a platter through the cage bars and you're off to the powder room, the night henceforth a blur, finding yourself bent over in a stall, physically unable to sit, crippled by fear of a toilet seat that may as well constitute a sexual partner and entranced by the quote some vandal has scrawled in an arc over the entrance or exit of a glory hole, source and all, the self-fulfilling prophecy of reading material in the bathroom: "Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus. --The Importance of Being Earnest".
David Haslett lives in Toronto and will be starting an English M.A. in
the Field of Creative Writing at U of T this September. He recently
returned to Ontario after spending a year and a bit in South Korea. He
likes the Toronto Raptors and meals microwaved in plastic dishes.