Instant Rice, Instant Buddha Part 2 of 2

Ayumu laid still awhile as the world reeled slowly around him. He wondered if emptying himself of the self for his Ascension would be similar to the feeling that overwhelmed him while in the monk’s serpentine embrace. No, he decided. Hers was a negation that brimmed with nerve-spindled exuberance, whereas what he knew of the Buddha told him that the negation was one of hollow gulfs opening unto expanded awareness. Or some such summation. He was not entirely certain on the particulars. No one really was, and that was the point of his Ascension, among other purposes.
Eventually Ayumu’s strength returned to him, though his head felt as if it hung upon the stalk of his neck like a sunflower overburdened with seeds. Standing, he went to the pool once again and bent down, cupping mouthfuls of water to cure his thirst. The ache, however, did not abate, nor the stickiness in his loins. He dressed himself and continued up the mountainside, limping slowly upon his march, encumbered now more than ever by the buckets he took with him.
Fatigue hung heavy upon Ayumu. It was like a weighted fishnet draped over his body, and it ached as if all of the fishhooks had snagged in him, obstinately digging into the soft spaces of his body. He slipped on a mossy stone, dropping both buckets and almost dumping them. Growling in frustration, he kicked the treacherous stone and, consequently, hurt his toe. Amidst his shouts of fury there echoed the tittering laughter of someone else in the woods. Disquieted now, Ayumu searched the tree-columned slopes for the interloper. He saw no one. The laughter echoed all around him, as if in utter dislocation, reverberating chaotically from his left and right and above and below him. Raising his fists to the heavens, Ayumu opened his mouth to utter a profane prayer that would see the whole mountainside an inferno of vengeful fire. But before he could utter a single word he saw the old man in the red robe again. The spiteful geriatric was squatting upon a branch some thirty feet up in the crown of a tree. How the old man had climbed so high, when there were no branches rising along the trunk to provide for him a ladder, Ayumu could not fathom. And the old man crouched with an easy agility rare in most men even half his age; a temerity unknown to nearly all.
“You are a strange one for an aspiring Buddha,” the old man said, grinning. “I was not aware that lovemaking was a crucial step upon the Path.”
Ayumu said nothing. Silent, Ayumu pressed upward along the mountain slope, leaving the old man behind.
“And how rude you are, too!” the old man said, perching now upon a different tree. “Most other Buddha aspirants had manners, at least, even if they utterly failed the Path.”
Ayumu glanced back at the great span of clearing from the first tree the old man had been perching in and this second one. It was impossible that the old man had descended, overtaken Ayumu, and climbed this other tree. A few leaves drifted down from above, twisting and swaying slowly. They fell in ease, twirling, whereas Ayumu felt nothing except unease in his twirling stomach.
He feared the old man.
“What are you?” Ayumu asked.
“A devout Buddhist,” the old man said, his arms hanging heavily at his sides as he crouched upon the narrow tree branch. He watched Ayumu like a buzzard. “More devout than even yourself.”
“You are a demon,” Ayumu whispered.
The old man cawed with laughter. “So much venom in you! It is no wonder she was so adamant to couple with you. Her new brood will be strong.” The old man suddenly tipped backwards, as if to fall freely from the branch. Instead of plummeting to his certain death, he caught himself with his calves, hanging upside-down from the branch, and still grinning as his red robe puffed out with gravity’s pull. “You should stay here with her rather than Ascending. I know your mettle, and you would make a better lover than a Buddha.”
Ayumu’s temper flared and he forgot to be afraid.
“You do not know me. I will become a sokushinbutsu! It has not been achieved in hundreds of years, but I will do it!”
The old man laughed more loudly than ever before, his arms dangling below him and his black eboshi falling off his gleaming red head. He reminded Ayumu of his supervisor at the Mezame Instant Rice office building. That supervisor— like this old man—was dismissive, conceited, and mocked Ayumu for his ideas. And much like his supervisor, the old man inspired rage and resentment with every condescending word he spoke.
And fear.
The old man licked his thin lips obscenely. “It would be prudent, young man, that you cleanse yourself of your spilt seed before you defile the sacred temple. Why, the other sokushinbutsu would rouse from their arid dreams to reprimand you if you were to arrive with your loins bedewed with your lust.”
Ayumu started to walk again, with renewed vigor, trying to ignore the old man. He came to another copse of trees, and the old man awaited him there, grinning from atop his perch.
“Leave me in peace,” Ayumu said, “or I will invoke the Lotus Sutra against you.”
“Oh please do,” the old man said. “I should like to hear your recitation. It is bound to be amusing. Like a frog attempting a holy prayer.”
“I warned you,” Ayumu said. He slammed the two buckets down—sending red centipedes scattering from the leaves—and proceeded to make a flurry of impressive hand movements, as if prayer required such extravagances. Galvanized by his own gesticulations, he heatedly began to recite the Lotus Sutra, stumbling his way through it and misplacing the order of words, forgetting whole parts, and generally fumbling the proper gravitas as he became shamefully self-conscious while his flame of self-righteousness faded under his own scrutiny. By the time he fell to silence— beneath the uproarious laughter of the old man— Ayumu was wet with sweat from frustration and his cheeks were christened with tears of despair, his lips trembling at their own impotence.
The old man sat on the branch of the tree, kicking his feet in delight. One of his sandals fell, revealing a sharp-toed foot.
“It would be a shame for you to become like one of those old, shriveled fools in the temple,” the old man said. “You are much too entertaining to fall into their eternal silence.”
“Begone, demon!” Ayumu shouted.
The old man smiled at him, bemused. “You refer to me as a demon, but you seem more a demon than I. A kappa demon, I should think. Has someone turned you upside-down, spilling your brains from the top of your head?”
“I haven’t time for this,”Ayumu growled, lifting the buckets again. “If a demon is attempting to thwart me, then that must mean I am truly destined to be a great buddha.” He continued up the mountain, crushing centipedes beneath him as they stung his feet.
“If you say so!” the old man called after him. “But when next she returns to you, perhaps you might try hiding in a prayer bell! No man ever became a Buddha after becoming domesticated! Except for the Buddha, of course! And you are not him! Ha ha ha!”

Ayumu had worked at the Mezame Instant Rice Company for two years after graduating from his University. The office floor he worked on focused primarily on international shipments and logistics. It was Ayumu’s job— among a handful of others—to verify that the shipments around the world had been delivered on schedule, safely, and to the correct shipping yards, then to track them to their distribution points and verify the delivery through bills of lading. It was mind-deadening, thankless work. He input data fed to him by the computer, then fed it out and down the line. Spreadsheets, shipping routes, container summaries, and bills of lading were his life. It was bland, numbing work. It sustained him, financially, but it dispirited him, too. His life had become instant rice. It filled the belly, but had no love in its preparation or its consumption. And instant rice was an appalling thing to devote one’s life to, especially in Japan where tradition and mastery and mindfulness of one’s devotions were tantamount. But everything was “instant” nowadays, even in Japan. Instant rice. Instant noodles. Instant gratification.
And soon, hopefully, Ayumu would be an Instant Buddha.

He heard the soft susurration of rain upon the lofty canopy. Though it fell with musical insistence, not one drop dripped down to fall freely to the forest floor below. It was as if the rain struck some other sphere and remained there, on the other side of a veil. Ayumu could smell the scent of the rain in his nostrils, and he could hear its whispers in his ears, and he could even feel the coolness of it in the air, but the shower did not touch him.
She, however, did touch him.
“Hello,” she said, her hand slipping over his.
He refused to set the buckets down, and tried to continue his walk, but she stood in his way. He sneered at her nakedness, shaking his head ruefully.
“What is wrong?” she asked. The smirk in her eyes belied the wounded tone with which she spoke. “Do you not want my company?”
“You are a serpent demon,” he said.
“Am I?” she said. She took the bucket from his hand— with a powerful grip he could not deny— and then she placed his hand upon her bare breast. “Does not my heart beat warmly with love for you?”
Her chest was hot, actually; feverishly hot. Hot as desire itself. And yet her body was hairless from head to tail.
“Leave me be,” he said, his breath quickening with both fury and desire and despair. “I am set upon the Path.”
“The Path is a fool’s errand,” she hissed. “It is for those already dead inside. But you are not dead inside. I have felt you inside me, and I have sensed the warmth of you—the want within you that you hopelessly deny. You were never meant to walk the Path. That is a fool’s conclusion to the problems in your life. You wanted the wrong things in life, and that was why you were unhappy, whereas now I may guide you to want the right things in life. You will be happy with me. I promise.”
“You do not know what you want,” Ayumu said, pulling away from her, “except want itself. You are blinded by want, and so want is all you see.”
“And what is it you want?” she countered. “To want nothing? That is to be dead! Do you wish to be dead? To not have a heart pounding with life within you?” She struck her bare bosom with her fist. “Let the world testify that I am alive. With every breath and kiss and coital resonance, I am alive.”
“You are enthralled to the flesh,” Ayumu said, disgusted.
“And you are enchanted by the thought of your demise,” she snarled.
“You know nothing, you Naga witch!”
He lifted the bucket of pine needles and hurried past her. He did not know if it was the hiss of the rain he heard or the hiss of the monk woman behind him.

His heart had been pounding fast since he had lost sight of the monk woman. Now he could hear it echoing in the trees all around him. Or so he thought. As he rose higher up the mountain he caught glimpses of light within the distant trees. The pounding of his heart became louder, and shrill notes wailed in his ears. Was he having another panic attack? He used to have them all of the time when he first moved to Tokyo. Sometimes he did not go to class because the panic attacks were so relentless and debilitating. And even when he managed to force himself to attend classes he had to sedate himself with medication. During such instances his spirit seemed to float above him while his body lolled listlessly in his seat. His professors’ lectures washed over him like ocean waves, saturating him briefly before ebbing away, leaving nothing more than a damp spot at the back of his mind.
The drumbeat of his heart heightened, as did the shrill wail in his ears. The lights in the trees glowed brighter until they hurt his eyes to look at them. Dropping his eyes to the forest floor, he stumbled onward, not knowing if he would crumble to the ground at any moment, coiled in a fetal position.
Staggering into the ring of glowing trees, he found something strange. There were lanterns hanging from the boughs of the trees. They were big as pumpkins and glowed orange and red and yellow, lighting the sylvan hall as brightly as a Lantern Festival in Nagasaki. Ayumu winced from the radiance, the twilight now bright as midday. The drumbeat of his heart was deafening, as was the trilling in his ears.
Glancing up again, he saw a ring of mushrooms, and laying within that ring of mushrooms was the fat monk in the tengai. He was playing a hichiriki with one fluttering hand while slapping his fat, hairy belly with the other. Thus, Ayumu realized that the shrillness in his ears and the pounding of his heart was nothing more than the booming music of the monk.
Rather than speaking a greeting, Ayumu tried to hurry past the fat monk. But it was too late. The monk stopped beating his belly and took the flute away from his lips.
“Hello, friend,” the monk said. “Come to appreciate my festivities, have you?”
Ayumu sighed and, in resignation, set down the two buckets he was carrying.
“I was curious about the lanterns,” Ayumu said. He still could not look up at them, for they were too bright. The lanterns’ glow, and the music, reminded him of all of the festivals he had avoided when in Tokyo. They were too noisy, and not quiet enough, for him to listen to the music that they played live. The one time he went to a festival— to listen to an acclaimed koto player— he could not hear her over the sound of two ecstatic Americans talking loudly about how much they loved Japanese music while taking selfies and videos for their online fans. It ruined the one thing he had braved the overcrowded streets to appreciate.
“The lanterns glow with heavenly radiance,” the fat monk said. “Or near enough to it to not matter. Who needs Paradise when there is so much beauty here on earth?”
“The Buddha would disagree with you,” Ayumu said, though as friendly as possible. The fat monk was, if anything, friendly, and Ayumu did not wish to be rude.
“The Buddha was a spoiled brat,” the monk said, “who had everything and valued nothing.”
The audacity of the monk’s words provoked Ayumu beyond measure.
“How dare you say such blasphemies!” he shouted. “You are the spoiled brat! Lounging in the woods, playing music and eating stew and pretending as if you know what is beautiful in this world! This world is misery! It is sorrow! The only cure is liberation! Ascension! Moksha!”
The fat monk sat up with greater ease than Ayumu would have assumed. In one quick motion he was on his feet. For a moment Ayumu flinched, thinking the large beast of a man would resort to violence. Instead, the fat monk held the hichiriki in both of his hands, angling it under the rice straw dome of his tengai, and blew a sweet melody that was as gentle and calming as the a Summer wind at dusk. The world fell to silence and, much to Ayumu’s surprise, there were tears rolling down his cheeks.
When the fat monk had finished, he lowered the flute.
“That is the beauty I have found in this world,” he said. “Or a small scrap of it, anyway. Why would anyone need Paradise when a mere scrap of earthly beauty can transform the life into a more resplendent thing? There is a chrysalis in every corner of the world, waiting to rebirth the world anew in your awareness. You need only see it for what it is.”
Ayumu was quiet for a long time, overcome with awe and emotions that had been dormant, if not dead, within him. Yet, he shook his head in doubt.
“And who do I know you are not some demon sent to lead me astray?” he said quietly. “How do I know you are not trying to trick me from the Path?”
The large monk sighed from within the withe helmet he wore. “Because I told you sincerely that I do not believe in the Path, and so there is no trick to it. I am being forthright. The Eightfold Path is a sham. It is falser than tofu hamburgers.” He shook his head and growled like a beast. “Oh, but the glorious Shinto days! My friend, if only you could have seen them then! Many believe Buddhism abided and even complemented the Shinto Way, like the Tao did! But Buddhism subjugated it, and impoverished it. Eating meat is a sin? Preposterous! I knew Lao Tzu, and she loved to be filled with meat— in more ways than one.”
The fat monk laughed and adjusted his belly in an obscene manner. It was then that Ayumu realized that the hairy man’s gut was not, in fact, wholly a gut. The swollen droop between his legs was gratuitously overlarge.
“But then the beautiful prophetess ate the wrong mushrooms and fell asleep for eternity. Similar to Buddha, I suppose, with his mushroom dish. But that begs the question as to whether she was truly a prophetess or not. Doesn’t it? Either she willfully ate the Eternal-Sleep mushrooms or she was not such a prophetess after all. I believe she knew what she was doing, and knew that her glory days were soon to be over. Buddha had seen to that. She was not a dumb one. She was the arbiter of her own fate. Or at least one reconciled with fate. She leapt upon me readily enough, and with unbridled passion, I must confess. Mortals are often so conflicted, as you well know. What they desire they also dread. Desire and dread leap in your hearts. A strong dichotomy of spices, I suppose. Much as you are with your lover.”
The monk’s face remained unseen, and yet Ayumu could sense that the strange beast was looking upon him with empathy. The yokai felt sorry for Ayumu! That was not something Ayumu could abide. Lifting the buckets once more, he stomped up the slope, squinting as the lanterns burned brightly overhead.
The chubby monk called after him.
“That one in the trees wishes to taunt you! Be wary of him!”
“He fears that I will become a Buddha,” Ayumu said, pridefully. He stopped and turned about, as if to gloat. Yet, something in the monk’s demeanor deflated Ayumu’s pride.
The fat monk shook his head. “No, he taunts you toward the Path. He wishes you to succeed. Do not mistake his mockery for discouragement. It is a ruse. More Buddhas in the temple would please him.”
Ayumu gawked in disbelief. “That is not possible,” he said. “He is a demon. Demons do not want more Buddhas.”
The large man shrugged. “He delights in plucking out eyes as a delicacy. Third eyes, especially. He is misleading you with his insults and dissuasions. He speaks as a contrarian to his own intentions. It is a game to him. And he is winning when you believe you are winning.”
Ayumu shook his head furiously. “None of you make sense,” he growled. “You’re all wicked spirits seeking to thwart me.”
Turning away from the large man, he continued upward. In his periphery vision the large fat man lifted his tengai, and watched him with black-rimmed eyes within a furry face.

The forest fell away, the tall trees receding as small shrubs took their place. The mossy floor became patchwork and the soil thinned to rock, then to snow. The sky opened above him, and it was twilight yet, the sun winking in the West. Beyond the mountain the Sea of Japan rolled calmly. Farther above, he could see the silhouette of the temple with its back to the darkening sky.
Seeing the sea reminded him of the moment he nearly stepped off the roof of a skyscraper in Tokyo. It was New Year’s Eve and the city was awash with a sea of people that overflowed from one street to another. The jubilance of their cheers, and the radiance of the fireworks, overwhelmed him. He felt anger and despair, longing and resentment. They all seemed so happy— the whole city— and yet he felt nought but misery. Could they not see how depressing the world was? How tiring? How meaningless their lives were? Were they all willfully blind to the futility of their own existence?
Even there, atop that skyscraper’s roof, others were watching the fireworks; crowding him in his moment of loneliness. Shoulder to shoulder with strangers, he had to wait until they were distracted by the fireworks before he could climb over the railing and step off the edge. It was when a firework bloomed like a phosphorescent weeping willow that he attempted to kill himself. But he had not fallen. Instead, his salary suit jacket had gotten caught on the railing, holding him up while his feet dangled over one hundred meters of empty air. Before he could slip through his jacket and plummet, several bystanders rushed to grab him and haul him up from the railing. He did not fight them. He was too embarrassed. Dragging him away from the edge, they all gathered around him to chastise him. They told him he was foolish and dumb and that he should not throw his life away. They told him many generic things that would not have been good on a motivation poster, no matter how many kittens or Hello Kitty’s were plastered all around it. The police were called and he was taken to jail. After a brief evaluation, he was assigned to a psychiatrist and was scheduled for a mandatory evaluation on a weekly basis. The psychiatrist was overworked, often rushed Ayumu, had too many patients, and never seemed to really care about Ayumu’s problems. He told Ayumu that Ayumu had a good job, lived in good part of Tokyo, and just needed to get out more and meet friends. Possibly get a girlfriend. Ayumu stopped going to see the psychiatrist after the second appointment. The psychiatrist was always looking at the ticking clock on his wall.

He could see the temple now, its curved, reticulated roof outlined sharply against the twilight sky. It was old, he could tell, and did not boast many ornaments as the other shrines and temples did in other parts of Japan. His stride quickened up the snowy slopes.
And yet, though he was elated to see the temple, he knew his journey had only really begun. Now came the difficult part of his Ascension. What was required now was discipline and faith and devotion. Asceticism. His journey hitherto had been merely the tourist hike, and he did not intend to be a tourist. He was an aspirant. Moreover, he would succeed in becoming more.
He saw her beckoning from the black mouth of a cave. Her body was hairless and sinuous, the pit of her sex like the eye of a viper.
“Come be with me for eternity,” she pleaded. “There is nothing beyond here but dried old husks of skin in the imitation of holy men. Their worth is nothing. Come shed the waste of them with me, and live for lovemaking and pleasure.”
Ayumu merely shook his head and turned away. In his peripheries he could see her sleek, lustrous coils slipping away into the dark bowels of the cave. Sobs echoed deeply. He felt regret, but it deepened his resolve.

The old man perched atop the edge of the temple’s roof, grinning down at Ayumu. Black feathers crowded the interior of his voluminous sleeves.
“You are no sokushinbutsu,” he told him. “You are instant rice. You have the patience of a microwave, and the thoroughness of one, too!”
“I am Ayumu,” Ayumu said. “And I shall be the next Buddha of Japan.”
The old man caterwauled wildly. “You are no better than the foolish unwashed tourists from America, venturing all over to gawp stupidly at that which you cannot and will not ever comprehend. When this season is finished, so will you be, though much sooner. Perhaps by the weekend you will become disillusioned. And bored. And plaintive.”
“I am the next Buddha of Japan!” Ayumu shouted.
“Oh, you are a chittering monkey,” the old man said, grinning with unfaltering assurance. “Restless upon the branch and soon to fling your own poo.”
The sky above was near-dark. Entering the temple, Ayumu was plunged into full night. He walked on, and seemed to walk for a long time, hesitating here and there in the darkness. The temple seemed to go on forever, like the gulfs of space. Eventually, a light flickered in the dark, and to this light Ayumu was drawn as if a moth. It was a beacon flame, and sitting around it were five hooded monks, their legs crossed and their backs slightly bent forward. They did not move as Ayumu approached them; they did not speak or even breathe. Coming closer, he saw that they sat on simple straw mats. A mat awaited Ayumu, empty, and he set his buckets down beside it, then sat down in similar fashion to the monks. He stared into the flame. He knew it was time to become a sokushinbutsu.
He choked on the pine needles. He gagged on the resin. He could not even keep the nuts down. The dark, silent temple echoed with the discordant sounds of his failure. He waited until the echoes died, then refocused himself. Thinking he would need to be starving, first, before he could partake more fully of the Mokujikigyo diet, he turned his attention to meditation upon the flame. Its billowing light was mesmerizing…until it was not. Rather, the glow illuminated the faces of the monks seated around it. Seeing their faces, Ayumu gasped.
Dried and withered, their skin was morbidly stretched and their faces distorted with age and decay. Shriveled in darkness, their eyes but pitted shadows and their mouths twisted into sneers of morbidity. These were not ascetics of faith and devotion, but victims of self-torture and imprisonment within flesh. Mummified within themselves, they were frozen forever in taut-wrapped masochism; mannequins of bone and skin rigidly inert with calcified creeds. They were scarecrows on the threshold of oblivion, the all-consuming abyss in their unflinching gaze.

Ayumu fled from that place. Stumbling and slipping and falling and scrambling upward again, he fled. From the monks in the dark, and from the snow-capped mountain, from the bare rock summit and the forested slopes, he fled. He realized he would have plenty of time for death when he was dead. To welcome it so soon, and so willfully, was horror made utmost manifest. He did not stop for anyone; not the snake monk and her glistening flesh, nor the ring-eyed fat monk with his food and music and festivities, nor the angrily cawing tengu flapping above him, decrying him as a failure and an apostate and a meal too soon spoiled. Returning to civilization, he took whatever money he had left to him and he went South, journeying to the islands. He went home, to a small town in Nagasaki.
There he bought a modest boat and took up the life of a fisherman. He lived quietly alone, fishing for his meals and occasionally selling his haul for money to buy other necessities. It was a life of silence, and he enjoyed it. The sea lulled him at night to sleep, and the silence of the sea was different than the silence of the mountaintop temple. It was rhythmic and lively. The sun rose upon the waters, gilding the waves with a wondrous beauty wherein it seemed the day was made anew in molten light, his life blessed by Amaterasu. He was less a Buddhist now, and more a worshiper of life. He read from the Kojiki myths sometimes, after a long day of hard work. Death, it said, was the ultimate impurity, and he knew this to be true. Life was beautiful, if a person could only find the right life for them. He ignored the Yamamoto politics in the stories, for he knew politics were just a crude form of religion with life at its center rather than death. He read other books as well; the Tale of Genji and the Kwaidan and other classic tales. Sometimes he did not read at all, but stared at the shimmering water for hours, letting the empty solitude fill him up, subsume him, and inhabit the spaces where his sense of self receded.
It was during the Nagasaki Lantern Festival that he was visited by a beautiful woman who smelled of saltwater. Ayumu had contemplated coming ashore for the Festival, but then felt the stress of the milling people in the glowing lights. They reminded him of centipedes— long lines of centipedes undulating amongst the glowing lights. And so he stayed on his boat that night. The strange woman sat beside him on the deck of his boat, watching with him the moon rise into the night sky. She said she was the Dragon King’s daughter and that she wished to spend time with him, if he would allow her. He did not object. She was quiet and pretty, and when she did speak it was with the music of the waves on the shore. Sometimes he saw her out of the corner of his eye, and she looked like a scaled dragon, or she undulated like the sea itself, sparkling with the sun and the moon on her swells and vales. Sometimes she took his hands in hers and gazed deeply into his eyes as they enjoyed the sweet silence of the sea together. This was a meditation of Life. It was much better than a meditation of Death.

Instant Rice, Instant Buddha Part 1 of 2

The torii gate was faded gray and green between the vines that grew from its poles and lintel. It was not maintained like those on Mount Haguro or Yudono with their fresh red paint and ritualistic upkeep. There were no shrines here for tourists to visit and crowd around, week to week, milling like ants on a hill, bustling about and chasing away whatever peace and sacred silence once inhabited there. Ayumu chose this Northern mountain because it was abandoned to the spirits.
It was dangerous, they said.
Haunted, they said.
Forsaken, they said.
Perfect, he thought.
He had taken a train from the overflow of Tokyo out to these isolated mountains to escape the too-treaded paths of a world overpopulated with people and thoughts and lights and sounds. He could disappear into these mountainside woods, inhabiting the silence and letting the silence inhabit him until his very self disappeared, fading within the foliage and the bushes and the shade where twilight dreamed on, even at midday.
A crow cawed from atop the torii gate as Ayumu walked through it. He glanced up to the lintel from the other side, but the crow had gone, and so he continued slowly up the overgrown trail of the leisurely-rolling incline, the buckets in hs hands not so heavy now that his spirit seemed so lightsome. He was Ascending.
Ayumu had shaved his head. He had abandoned the shelter of his apartment for the mountain, and forewent his salary suit for the robe of a Buddhist monk. It felt good. He felt alive for the first time in a long time. He felt like he had shrugged off the weight of the world and was soon to lighten his spirit even more. For the mountain would shoulder him, and weightless would be his earthly presence forever after.
It was to be a long hike, he knew. The mountain was tall and hard to navigate. That was why the temple crowning it had been abandoned for so long. No tourists came here, nor many holy men. Ayumu might have been the first person to venture its wooded slope in years. Who knew?
But he was not as alone in the woods as he had thought. He came to a clearing beneath tall, slender trees where stones were ringed in a circle. In the center of this circle sat an old man in red priestly robes. Atop his head was an eboshi, its black plume darker than any shadow in the forest.
“Hello,” the old man said.
It was too late for Ayumu to circle around the priest without giving offense. Reluctantly, he approached the old man.
“It is rare to see a pilgrim on this mountain,” the old man said. He sat cross-legged, his eyes closed. He appeared to be meditating, but there was a smirk on his thin-lipped face. His hooked nose overtopped a small cup from which he occasionally sipped.
“I am seeking Ascension,” Ayumu declared. His voice seemed very small in that vast forest, and he felt foolish. He set down his two buckets beyond the ring of stones. “I am to become a sokushinbutsu.”
The old man smirked more broadly, and sipped his drink quietly. He did not open his eyes.
“That is why you carry pine needles and resin,” the old man said. “Mokujikigyo. You will be a tree-eater.” He opened his eyes. They were dark black in the shade of the tall trees. “But there is more to becoming a holy man than shaving one’s head and putting on robes and making a meal of trees.”
“I am prepared to do what is necessary,” Ayumu said, testily.
The old man nodded. “We shall see.” He set aside his own cup and reached behind himself, another cup grasped in his knotted hands. His fingernails were long and sharp as he offered the small cup to Ayumu.
“Habushu,” the old man said. “To celebrate your Ascension.”
Ayumu stared at the cup, and its dark yellow liquid. He had never had habushu before. Drinking alcohol was never something he did. But he knew about habushu, or snake sake, and so he took the cup in hand and stared at it in the overlapping penumbrae of the forest. The small cup appeared bottomless with deep shadows.
“Come, come,” the old man said, impatiently. “Drink up! It is privilege, that wine. Not many will taste of its like.”
Ayumu sighed, then downed the cup in one gulp. The sake burned and he doubled over, coughing and gagging, his hands on his knees as he dropped the cup. The old man laughed loudly, his caws eaten with static like a crackling radio station.
“It burns,” Ayumu said, still coughing.
“Pungency is important,” the old man said. “It reminds us that we are alive.”
Ayumu was angry, and opened his mouth to retort. But through his tears Ayumu saw that he was alone. Still reeling from the drink, he straightened himself up and glanced around the forest. The old man was gone. Only the ring of stones remained.

No light penetrated the trees to dapple the forest floor. All was blue shadow and a ceaseless twilight dream. Night never came, nor morning. Ayumu may have been hiking only for a few hours, or for several weeks. Time held no dominion here in the stillness of this sacred land. There were no clocks, no schedules, no deadlines, no expectations.
He did not miss Tokyo. To the contrary, the thought of its loud, bustling heights and depths inspired anxieties in him anew. The silence of the forest assuaged these anxieties and he focused his mind on appreciating Nature as it sprawled around him.
He saw the monk at a distance. The monk wore an orange robe, like a Shaolin, and walked with graceful surety in every step, no matter how treacherous the dirt or the grass or the fallen leaves. Ayumu slowed, afraid he would intrude upon the monk’s solitude, and that the monk would intrude upon his own solitude. To his great disappointment, the monk suddenly stopped and waited. Ayumu slowed, too, and then stopped. The monk looked back at him, hands on hips, and Ayumu knew it was no good to linger longer. He approached the monk reluctantly.
“I am not following you,” Ayumu said. “And I did not wish to interrupt your walk.”
“Was it that you feared interrupting my walk, or that I might interrupt your walk?” the monk said.
To Ayumu’s surprise, the monk was a woman, her head bald and her eyes gleaming in the veiling shadows of the trees. Even bald, she was beautiful.
“I am seeking to Ascend,” he said stupidly.
She looked at the buckets in his hands, filled with pine needles and nuts and resin. “You are a follower of Buddha, then?”
“I aspire to be one of his greatest followers,” Ayumu said as modestly as he could.
The female monk gave him a small, knowing smile, then gestured farther up the trail. “Let us walk together,” she said. “And talk of Buddha and the Path and other such wonderful things.”
Ayumu accepted this offer, walking beside the monk up the lounging mountainside. The air was fresh and clean here, redolent only of earth and grass and wood. They walked in silence for a time, but he could not focus on the hike itself. He was distracted by the female monk. She reminded him of someone, though he could not recall who.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like a rice cake?”
“Yes,” he said. “But it must be the last earthly food I eat before I commit myself to the diet of the ascetics.”
“Of course,” she said.
Much to Ayumu’s dismay, the monk parted her robe and reached between her surprisingly large breasts, withdrawing a rice cake. Ayumu could see her translucent bra within her robe, and her nipples poking through that thin material, as she handed him the rice cake. She was slow in covering herself once again. The rice cake was warm with the heat of her bosom.
Distracted, Ayumu nibbled the rice cake absentmindedly. His lips and tongue caressed the rice cake as if it was the woman’s breast. Eventually he shook himself out of his sensual stupefaction and ate the cake in a succession of hasty bites.
“The Path is a hard one,” the monk said. She smiled at him sidelong, her dark eyes like black almonds in the shade of the forest. “You must have a vigorous spirit to dare such a destiny. It is not for the weak-willed and the…impotent.”
“I will not be deterred,” he said. “I will be the next Buddha. This I vow.”
Ayumu puffed his chest out, unconsciously, as he continued to walk, holding the buckets up higher than before.
“Yes,” the monk said, eying him steadfastly. “You are quite…virile in your faith. I can see the strength in your spirit…and your body.”
Ayumu’s pride swelled, alongside something else. The heavy robe he wore only partially concealed his manhood and he began to slow his stride, physically uncomfortable and greatly embarrassed by his body’s impudence. Amidst all of this discomfort, he suddenly remembered who the monk reminded him of. There was a young lady in Tokyo who was lovely and kind to him, and he visited her once a week, paying for her attention in the Soapland brothel where she worked. Ayumu had never had a relationship with a woman, but visiting her was quite enough for a salary man such as himself. The bathhouse brothel was quiet, refined, and discreet, but the young woman was the superior personage of that establishment. Within the steamy silence of the private room she would tease out all of the anxieties and stress that knotted into his core, slathering and slithering along his rigidity with her supple manners and motions and manipulations.
It was a marvelous place, mostly. The spa music had trickled on koto strings, and the crushing wall of Tokyo’s panorama was sealed away behind cool, tranquil lighting and lapping water and the mesmerizing feline eyes of the young lady in the kimono as she undressed, stepping out of her silken skin and burnished and laquered in oil and steam and foggy lights. Yet, heaven had no place in Tokyo. Ayumu often felt the presence of thousands of men crowding that soft-chiseled space between spaces; a thousand men riding every square inch of her naked body, crowding him out until he was an outcaste in his own session of massage and sexual release. He could not escape the multitude.
And as she dragged her petite body up and down his own— her swelling curves filling up the shallow flatness of his slight frame—he felt not joy or lust nor relief, but the weight of a million people pressing down upon him with their demands and anxieties and expectations. Moaning, he had shoved her off of him and floundered like a broken-backed demon on the slick, inflatable mattress, his hostess shrieking for help.
“Something wrong?” the monk asked.
“No,” Ayumu said. “I was only thinking.”
“About what?” She eyed him suspiciously, her eyelids hanging heavy over the slits of her eyes. She did not have a very pronounced nose. It was more like two slashes in the smooth snout above her wide lips.
“About Tokyo,” he said. “And my life there. It was not a life. It was a death. I hated it. That is why I am here.”
“What is wrong with Tokyo?” she asked.
He frowned pensively, then sighed. “Everything.”

They rested on two smooth rocks that stood side by side beneath a cherry blossom tree. The pink petals hung over them. Strangely, it was the only cherry blossom that Ayumu had seen upon the mountain. All the other trees were cedars and oaks and such. Framed by the pink foliage, the monk woman’s profile was beautifully picturesque. Such an image would enchant all of Japan were it captured in a photograph, and would be subsequently debased as a tourist greeting card sold in shops all over Tokyo. It was a depressing thought.
And yet Ayumu’s eyes were distracted by something in his periphery vision. Turning away from the monk, he saw white tattered bags from a distance. Garbage! All the way up here! Amidst so much sacred purity! It was sacrilegious! He was about to give word to his fury when the monk suddenly rose.
“Why do you carry those buckets?” she asked.
“For my Ascension,” he said.
“So you can become like those men in the temple,” she said. “Those dead men.”
“They have reached Nirvana,” Ayumu said. “That is the ultimate goal of the Path.”
She snorted. “Tell that to their husks,” she said. She began to walk away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To make water,” she said. She gave him a knowing smile. “You can make your own, I am sure.”
She said nothing else, but disappeared behind a copse of trees. Ayumu looked away, lest he be taken for a pervert, and returned his eyes to the garbage snagged on some bushes and roots. Standing, he went to pick them up.
But as he approached the crinkly white scraps he saw them more clearly in the perpetual twilight of the forest. Bending down to one knee, he discerned that the scraps were large tatters of snake skins shedded off along the forest floor. Not garbage at all! He picked it up and turned around. The monk woman stood there, looking aghast. Before he could say anything, she bolted through the woods and disappeared.
She was gone. Ayumu had not even inquired after her name. Strangely, her bra remained behind. He knelt and picked the thin, translucent material up from the forest floor. It was scaled like snake skin.

Ayumu hated Tokyo. Among the crowd his heart quickened, the anxieties running riot to the war drum rhythm in his chest. Sometimes he loosened his tie and forgot about its slovenliness until his supervisor reprimanded him halfway through the workday. Sometimes he wished to strip free of all clothing and spend the rest of his days meditating beneath an ice-cold waterfall, its downpouring roar drowning out the inane noise of the world.
Traveling through Tokyo was the worst necessity. He slept in his office every other day, returning to his small apartment only to take baths, and despising the jostling railway train where he was packed in among other people like grains of rice in an overstuffed bag. Solitude was nowhere to be found, yet loneliness was everywhere. It was a terrible paradox that defined the city. His cubicle was a place closed off to the world and open to the world. He was never alone, yet always seeking the peace of a recluse. Most days he just worked, from sunup to sundown, the time of day told by the small scrap of light that touched his cubicle wall through the windows on his office floor. He never had a break from the long spreadsheets that wallpapered the prison of his life.
And so he thought becoming a sokushinbutsu would be easy. The pine needles would not be much worse than the noodles he often ate while working through his lunch breaks. The sedentary meditation would not be worse than the endless glare of the computer monitor that stared back at him from his desk. The mountaintop solitude would be wonderful compared to the loneliness of his life in the city. Everything would be better in the end.
Or so he thought.
“There is a venom in you, and it brews deliciously.”
Ayumu was so startled that he nearly dropped his buckets with jumping.
The old man in the red robes was right beside him, grinning. Ayumu was too flabbergasted to speak.
“Like habushu,” the old man said. “But how will it be prepared? Will you drown alive in the wine or will they freeze you and gut you, day to day, slowly, keeping you half alive and half dead on ice, and then thaw you out in the future, when you will startle awake and strike, once, in desperation before you die? Either method is good for a tantalizing drink.”
He grinned mockingly, his teeth sharp beneath the hook of his long nose.
“You scared me,” was all Ayumu could say. The rest of what the old man had said made no sense to him.
“You are just like all of the others,” the old man said, grinning. “You think you are special, and that you deserve recognition and honor and a place in history, but what have you to merit such distinctions? You will climb halfway up this mountain, grow bored, and then return to your life, ungrateful for the world you live in.”
Though taken aback, Ayumu was slowly understanding that the old man was mocking him, and it angered him.
“I will Ascend,” Ayumu said, trembling in anger and fright. “I will follow the Path to its culmination. I have the faith and the discipline.”
“A faith and discipline built upon hatred,” the old man said. His eyes remained closed. His face was mottled with age spots, but also red with splotches. It was a long walk for an old man. “I know what kind of man you are. The venom brims in you. It will overflow.”
“What sort of petty priest dismisses a man seeking higher realms?” Ayumu demanded. “Leave me be, you crazy old man. I came to this mountain for solitude, not for company from doddering fools.”
“You seemed fond of that woman’s company,” the old man said. He opened his eyes, and they were blacker than night. “Anyone could see that.”
Ayumu flushed red, but whether with anger or embarrassment or both, he did not himself know. “You befoul this sacred silence here,” Ayumu said. “Go elsewhere and ramble. I am tired of listening to you.”
The old man had gone, as if vanished into thin air. Ayumu felt disconcerted and anxious. But he pushed away thoughts about the weird old man and continued walking, focusing his attention to the moss underfoot, and the trees overhead, and the fresh air in his lungs. He would not allow himself to be disturbed by an old coot lost in the wilderness.
His thoughts drifted, but now they drifted to Nature to Nature. He thought of the other mountains and forests around Japan where he had hoped to visit someday. Mt. Fuji. Mt. Asama. Mt. Aka. He had wanted to visit various natural goshintai, too: holy objects such as rocks, trees, waterfalls, and even mountains themselves. He had deeply contemplated, too, visiting Aokigahara and Ascending there, as thousands had before. Yet, their ghosts would not have let his rest. It, like most of Japan, was overcrowded with other people. He wanted a place of solitude and silence unto himself. But even here, in this abandoned wilderness, there were madmen to intrude upon his much-deserved tranquility.
How he hated Tokyo! His coworkers were nothing but red-faced Oni bullying him about, as were his neighbors and all of the people on the streets of Tokyo. Aggressive, loud, jostling and bustling and tiresome, snorting and frowning and judging. They were an Oni parade marching out of an endless nightmare. His neighbors in his apartment complex were the worst. He had been arrested once, for a crime he had not committed— the kidnaping of a little girl, no less— and though he was proven innocent and released after the real kidnapper had been caught, his neighbors nonetheless persisted in treating him as a guilty pervert. They would not speak to him— and shunned him in the hallways and on the stairwells like a plague. One of his neighbors was a coworker, so the rumors of what had happened had also spread to the office. He nearly lost his job and had to procure a statement from the police declaring his innocence. Even so, everyone looked at him askance, suspiciously, glaring like demons whenever he passed them in the halls. Soon afterward he shaved his head, gathered his bucket of pine needles and tree resin and prepared for his trip to Northern Japan.
Ayumu smelled delicious aromas upon the air. His mouth salivated and his stomach churned, growling plaintively about the emptiness aching within its pit. He was woefully hungry at the scents that wafted through the mist-skirted woods. Stepping through a cluster of dense trees, he found a clearing wherein a man sat, huddled next to a fire. The man wore a tengai and a straw cloak. Ayumu could not see his face, beneath the rice straw dome, and wondered how the large man could eat while wearing such a hindrance atop his head.
“Welcome, stranger,” said the man from within the dome. “Please, sit. There is enough food for the two of us.”
Without thinking, Ayumu set his buckets down and sat on the other side of the fire. A pot hung above the flames, and a stew bubbled redolently within it. The delicious smell of the stew was entrancing. Ayumu had difficulty focusing on the man on the other side of the fire.
“You are a pilgrim,” the man said.
“Yes,” Ayumu said, staring at the stew. “I shall become a buddha.”
“Ah,” the large man said. He stirred the stew with a ladle. “I once knew that old dream.”
“You are an adherent to the Buddha?”
“And aspired to become one, yes,” he said. He snorted. “Not worth the bother, to be honest.”
This bit of blasphemy focused Ayumu’s attention on the man once again. Staring past the stew, Ayumu saw that the man was large, chubby, his big gut hanging out of his robe with uncouth abandon. His face was still hidden behind the interlaced straw of his tengai, but Ayumu could sense the man’s hidden eyes watching him. His hands and gut were very hairy, as were his feet. He wore straw sandals that looked old and worn with walking.
“But Enlightenment…” Ayumu said.
“What of it?” the man countered. “I can find peace right here on this plane of existence.” He held up a bowl and ladled some stew into it. “Would you care for a meal? Rabbit stew with shiitake mushrooms. Fresh ingredients, too. Ginger. Wild onions…”
“No,” Ayumu said, his voice cracking almost unto a wail. “I am on the Path. I must…I must not partake of such delicious fare.”
The large man shrugged and lifted the bowl to his face. Tipping the tengai back, he poured the scalding-hot stew into his mouth; his mouth obscured now by the bowl. He slurped the stew down with a guttural gurgle in his swelling throat. When he had finished, the tengai concealed his face as before. He sighed long and loudly, making Ayumu peevish. The way he ate, and the tantalizing smells of the stew, reminded Ayumu of all of the foods he could never eat in Tokyo because the restaurants and vendors were always too crowded with other customers whenever he went out for his supper. More often than not he had settled for vending machine noodles while everyone else around him— not suffering from his social anxieties— ate very filling meals that he could only appreciate vicariously. Resentment bubbled up in his bilious throat.
Ayumu stood, taking up his buckets again.
“May the Buddha watch over you,” he said. “And lead you again upon the Path.”
“Going so soon?” the man said. “Good luck upon your Path, then.”
Ayumu turned away from the fat man— and his seductive stew—and plunged up the mountainside, through the towering trees and deeper into that eternal twilight.

The cataract hurled itself from the overhanging crags like a frothy, pearl tongue, splashing amidst the pool to settle into serene idleness. Ayumu saw a kindred spirit in that desperate act and hoped to become like that pool as he himself rushed headlong toward the tranquility of the Path.
Feeling so much kinship so keenly, Ayumu decided to take a dip in the calming pool. He set aside his buckets, stripped off his robe, and waded into the cool green waters of the pool. It was deeper than he had thought, the ground disappearing suddenly beneath his bare feet. He floated like a lotus upon the tranquil depths.
He drifted for hours, it seemed, surrendering himself to the weightlessness and the mist that breathed over his face from the waterfall. The gentle roar was purer than any white noise or music or insect chatter. It filled up his senses and he could have simply accepted the waters into himself, sinking like a stone to the bottom of the pool and never surfacing again. It was a peace of selflessness— of Zen negation.
And then something bumped against him in the water. Thinking he had drifted upon the embankment of the pool, he pushed himself off of it sluggishly with his languid muscles. It was not the bank. It was like a tree trunk, but flexible as rope. And it was moving Suddenly something grabbed him with a thick, corded coil, entwining him and dragging him under. His peace gave way to terror, but he had succumbed to darkness before his last gasp of bubbles had broken upon the pool’s surface.

He did not wake all at once, nor remember himself or acknowedge what was happening to him but in smattering glimpses of images and sensations. He had vague impressions of pleasure, and horror; of surrender and struggle. He longed for the climax of death, and was embraced by it— in a manner of speaking—at last emptied unto oblivion afterwards. He became like a dead root within firm soil; numb to all things and tied down to the earth.
After a time his eyes cracked open, reluctantly like clams clamped tightly shut, and he saw through the bleary twilight the forest floor, glistening wetly all around him. He himself felt hot and damp. Torpid, he moved his head only slightly and saw the monk woman slipping her naked, gleaming body into her orange robe, her long coils disappearing into the folds of her garments. Dressed now, and human, she approached him, kneeling beside him and putting a cold palm on his flushed cheek.
“Do not seek the Path,” she said, her voice a susurrous sibilance in his ear. Her long forked tongue in and out between her lips. “Stay here with me and let us seek pleasure until the end of all earthly days.”
He tried to speak, but his numb tongue rolled ineffectually in his mouth— parched, lax, half-dead with the expenditures of desire and dread. He managed only a mumble.
“You will rethink it all before it is too late,” she assured him. She then walked away, her body swaying left to right with a serpentine swagger that belied the simian subterfuge of her stride. She disappeared into the misty woods.

Husk

Content Warning:  Mature readers only.

Scout stood in front of the cornfield, her red Summer dress bright as a cardinal against the blue-green shadows of the corn. The moon hung in the midday sky, impassive as the pale eye of a corpse. The wind rustled the corn leaves into Wake-whispers, reminding her of the funeral home, and her frayed, knotted hair streamed across her face like the yellow yarn of a ragdoll. She stared down, at nothing, while her friends tried to coax her into looking up for the photo— not smiling, but at least looking into Cynthia’s black-eyed camera so it could obliterate her and recreate her with its pretentious photons.
“Come on, Scout,” Emily said. “Let’s see those pretty blue eyes.”
Scout did not remember buying the red dress, or even putting it on. Emily and Cynthia must have Barbie-dolled her up in it at the last motel room they stayed in. They treated her like a mannequin to be assembled and posed for their cross-country trip pictures. At times it was like they were trying to alleviate their own sadness rather than hers. But grief had her cocooned in its web, and had liquefied her inside until she could feel nothing at all— not even sadness. She hadn’t been eating or taking care of herself, and looked like a haggard, frayed doll left out in the rain. Had a tornado twirled toward her and lifted her up, she would have accepted it with the indifferent resignation of the dead.
“Next stop, more cornfields!” Cynthia joked in her deadpan way.
“So boring out here,” Emily sighed in exasperation.
“What do you expect in Kansas?” Cynthia said.
“Tornadoes, maybe. Scarecrows.” She glanced around. “Like that one!”
Emily pointed toward the corn on the other side of the highway, her jangling bracelets gleaming in the overhead sun. She had dark caramel skin and curly black hair. By and large, she was considered the prettiest of the sorority trio, and could get by wearing any type of dress in any color with any accessories she wanted.
“That is a weird scarecrow,” Cynthia remarked, grimacing. “Girl needs a makeover.”
“So does Scout,” Emily muttered. She went to Scout and put an arm around her shoulders, walking her to the other side of the road. The highway was not very busy right now.
“One more picture for the road,” Emily said.
The scarecrow was behind them as Emily and Scout looked into Cynthia’s camera. The scarecrow was a vague bundle of straw with a straw hat and a chequered dress, crucified on two wooden poles; indifferent to its own pain.
“Say ‘Cheese’,” Cynthia said.
“Heck no,” Emily said. “I’m on a diet.”
She smiled nonetheless, whereas Scout’s face remained vaguely devoid of feeling. After the photo had been snapped, they returned to Cynthia’s bright pink Prius. Piling in, they drove deeper into corn country.

***

“I love your car,” Emily said, sitting in the backseat with her sandals off and her barefeet out the window. The wind tickled her toes and she was grinning like the Queen of Sheba. “It’s just so…pink.”
“I told my dad I only wanted a pink car,” Cynthia said, barely paying attention to the road as she drove. “It had to be new and it had to be pink. People love it when I take it to weddings. I still think it is one of the reasons I get so many wedding jobs. Well, that and because I take the best photographs for wedding albums.”
The wind billowing in through the open window deafened Scout, but not enough. She rode shotgun in the passenger side seat.
“You do,” Emily agreed. “The best. When I get married— if I ever do— then I am going to hire you.”
“You don’t have to pay me,” Cynthia said. “I’ll do it for free.”
“I was going to have dad pay for it,” Emily said.
“Oh,” Cynthia said. “Then I will have to charge double.”
They both laughed, and looked to Scout expectantly. She did not laugh. Their laughter subsided.
“I guess we shouldn’t talk about that stuff,” Cynthia said. Her dark brown hair grazed the low ceiling of the Prius. She was the tall sorority sister, and was unusually tall even by that standard. “It’s not…appropriate.”
“Yeah, but, Scout, Tyler really was a shit stain,” Emily said recklessly. “I swear, he came onto me once at Brian Lauder’s party last year. Whenever he drank, he just became a different person.”
“Or showed who he really was,” Cynthia said. She sounded a little jealous. Not one of her sorority sisters’ boyfriends ever flirted with her inappropriately. They were too intimidated by her height, and too turned-off by her plain-Jane face.
“I need to pee,” Emily said.
“All right,” Cynthia said.
The pink Prius came to a stop at the side of the highway. Emily hopped out of the car, after putting her sandals on, and then waded into the cornfield. While she squatted, Cynthia stared out at one side of the cornfield. Scout stared at nothing.
“Is that the same one?” Cynthia said.
Scout looked toward the cornfield on the other side of the road. A scarecrow was crucified here, too, with a straw hat, chequered dress, and vaguely humanoid straw body.
“Maybe just the same Wal-Mart special,” Cynthia concluded, doubtfully. She rowed her window up and turned on the A/C. When Emily returned, she told her to do the same.
“But I like the wind between my toes,” Emily said.
Cynthia never argued with Emily— she envied her too much— and so she relented and rowed her window down, turning the A/C off, and taking the Prius on the road again.
They drove for many more miles through corn country.

***

“Tyler really was an asshole, Scout,” Emily said, her window now up because she had tired of the wind being between her toes. The A/C was on in the Prius, and the radio was down low, Katy Perry’s voice a wavering whisper beneath the acrid conversation. “A total asshole. Michael told me that Tyler called his dick the ‘Patriarchy’ because he said he had fucked over so many women with it. I shit you not.”
Cynthia involuntarily laughed. She coughed self-consciously, falling to silence.
“He was an asshole,” Emily said, twirling a curl of black hair around her finger. “He wasn’t a frat boy. He was a scat boy.”
Scarcely heard above the A/C, a rustling-grass sigh left Scout’s lips.
“Anyway,” Emily said lightly, “it’s no big deal. I mean, we’re on a road trip! No boys! No parents! No school! Just us!”
Cynthia grinned and nodded exuberantly. Scout remained silent in the passenger seat, staring at— and feeling— nothing.
The sudden blaring of a horn ripped through the quiet cab of the Prius, as did the roar of an engine and the rowdy shouts of voices. Speeding alongside the Prius, a large four-door truck kept apace with the smaller car. The truck’s windows were down and some local farm boys were hanging out the windows like Jack-in-the-boxes, grinning and shouting and gesturing like mad.
“Hey baby, baby, baby!” they shouted.
Emily bounded for the other side of Prius— not wearing a seatbelt— and rowed the window down.
“Hey darlin’!” she crooned in a put-on Southern drawl. “You boys are givin’ me the vapors!”
“We’ll give you more than that!” the passenger-side man said. He wore a Dale Earnhardt hat and a red-and-black flannel shirt. His arms were brawny and tanned— almost as dark as Emily’s legs—and his cheeks pitted with dimples and dotted with stubble.
“Sorry,” Emily said with a feigned pouty face. “Girls’ club only.”
“You sure, baby?” the man said. “I got a big present for you.”
The other young men in the truck hooted and hollered.
“If I want something like yours,” Emily said, “I’ll just jump a baby carrot.”
Emily laughed. She was the only one in the Prius that did. Cynthia looked very worried, eyeing the men as if they might swerve her off the road. Scout merely stared at nothing, the emptiness enveloping all things that her slow eyes crawled over.
“Bitch,” the man said lightly. “Let me tell you something…”
A vehicle was coming in the opposite lane. The young men withdrew into the cab of the truck and the driver slammed the gas. The truck’s engine roared, spewing black diesel fumes behind it as it pulled ahead of the Prius and moved over, in the nick of time, to avoid a head-on collision with an old station wagon. The station wagon’s horn went wild with fury, like a rabid gander with a hunting dog sniffing near its nest. The truck blew another dragon-plume of fumes as it accelerated down the highway, leaving the Prius behind in its black fury.
Emily tittered. “Silly redneck boys,” she said.
“You get off on that, don’t you?” Cynthia said, accusingly. She had slowed the car down to half the speed limit, letting the truck disappear into the distance.
“Blueballing little boys?” Emily said. “Yeah. It feels great.” She stretched her arms over her head, smiling broadly and relaxing in the backseat, laying down. She still had not put on a seatbelt. “Somebody’s got to cut them down to size.”
Cynthia sighed as if exhausted, shaking her head slowly. Scout watched the sun glare through her window, indifferent as it burned her unblinking eyes.

***
“Oh!” Cynthia said, slowing. “An old barn! I love old barns! They look wonderful in black and white!”
Cynthia slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road, backing up against traffic until she had returned to the barn they had passed by a few hundred feet. Hurriedly, she took her camera out and went toward the barn. It was an old broken gable type of barn, its two sides slanted at a bell curve outward, as if both wings were sinking into itself, the conceit of wood soon to collapse. It sat out in a field of green-and-yellow grass, a sudden break between fields of corn. Two large silos stood near it, their silver sides gleaming in the sunlight. They were obviously much newer than the barn itself.
“I need to get an angle so those metal things aren’t in the picture,” Cynthia said, ignorantly. She walked across the property, her back to the corn stalks. The camera clicked every few feet she walked.
“Boooooring!” Emily moaned melodramatically. She then yawned and fanned her breasts with her tanktop, flapping it against her bra.
Scout said nothing. She stared at the scarecrow in the field. It had a straw hat and a chequered dress. She then looked at the barn, seeing the ruinous sides and the moaning mouth. She felt something of kinship in its dilapidation. The difference was that there were cedars growing in the dead depths of the barn, whereas Scout had nothing lifelike growing inside her. There was only decay. There were only vacant shadows.

***

“Missy totally fucked Michael,” Cynthia said, offhandedly.
“No, Michael fucked Missy,” Emily said, an impish smile on her face. The wind through the window fluttered her black hair against her face, and she rolled her head to uncover her smile from the curls. “I heard he likes going in the backdoor.”
“That sounds painful,” Cynthia said, grimacing.
“Only if you don’t prepare for it the right way,” Emily said.
Cynthia gawked in disbelief.
“And if the dick isn’t too big,” Emily added for good measure.
“You mean like Tiny-Dick Teddy?”
Both girls laughed.
“Not that small,” Emily said. “You can do bigger, if you prepare first. Lots of lube, otherwise it will hurt. Sure. But Teddy probably couldn’t please a midget. I mean, it is so small. Or that’s what I’ve heard, anyway,” she added quickly.
“He’s got a nice body, though,” Cynthia said.
“Oh hell yeah he does. Ripped. And such a nice guy, too. Could be the full package if he had…you know…a fuller package.”
“What’s the biggest you’ve ever had?” Cynthia said. “Be honest.”
Emily’s crescent smirk was that of a girl who had been knowingly naughty. “Ten,” she said.
“Ten?!” Cynthia said, drifting into the other lane. No one was coming.
“But I couldn’t fit it all in,” Emily rushed to explain. “I mean, I am not that big of a hole.”
“And you know for certain it was ten?” Cynthia said, skeptically.
“Oh yeah,” Emily said. “The guy was a big dick and had a big dick so of course he had to prove it to me. He even brought a ruler with him to prove it.”
Both girls laughed loudly until a semi blew its horn and Cynthia had to jerk the Prius away from the opposite lane. After a breathless moment, she spoke.
“So how good was it?” she asked.
Emily shrugged. “Kinda painful, actually,” she said. “Like I said, he was a big dick with a big dick, so he didn’t really care so much about how I felt during sex.”
“Okay,” said Cynthia. “Then who was the best you ever had?”
Emily rubbed her chin pensively between her glitter-lacquered fingers. “Hmmm. Some are good in different ways. I guess if I could have it right now, and choose who, then it would probably be Greg. He was sweet in the sheets, and very concerned about making me happy. Plus, he had a pretty good size on him. Above average, but not too big above average.”
“How big is that?” Cynthia said. “And what is average anyway?”
“Average is just average,” Emily said. “But he was about eight. Not too small. Not too large. Above average. And he knew how to use it.”
“Oh,” Cynthia said. She looked enviously at her friend through the rearview mirror. “And what happened to Greg?”
Emily tossed her head left and right, biting her lip. “I kind of slept around on him,” she said. “Didn’t realize what I missed until he was gone.” She shrugged, then perked up. “But did you hear that Christy’s gone to Paris for the Summer? She’s already eaten a Frenchman’s croissant, if you know what I mean.” She shrieked with laughter.
“How was it?” Cynthia said with mild interest.
“Uncircumcized.”
“Ewww.”
“She’s pretty sure he was badmouthing her the entire time. But her French is shit, so he could have been saying anything.”
“What’s the French word for ‘ginger’?”
“Hell if I know,” she said. “I took Sign for my foreign language credits. It’s funner. Like Jazz hands.”
“Show me some,” Cynthia said.
Emily flipped her the middle finger.
“Har, har, har. Very funny.”
Emily shrugged a single shoulder. “It’s a promise,” she said meaningfully.
Scout remained silent in the front seat. Their conversation had drifted over her from a distance, faint and mostly indistinct. She remembered Tyler and their time in bed together. He had filled her up, but not just sexually. He made her feel whole. He made her laugh. When Emily told her she spotted him with a mutual friend, part of Scout had died. It had dried up to nothing and fell away, like rotten leaves. A vacancy remained; a hollowness immeasurable.

***

“Anorexia is not a good look for you,” Emily said, her mouth full of chicken nuggets.
“She’s right, Scout,” Cynthia said between bites of a fish sandwich. “You’ll be nothing but skin and bones if you don’t eat anything.”
Scout sat with her sorority sisters at the table in the McDougall’s restaurant, a carton of nuggets in front of her, untouched. She did not feel like eating anything, especially here. She and Tyler always went for lunch at McDougall’s when they had time for it. Now it just smelled like the leftover grease from yesterday.
“Come on,” Emily said, picking up one of Scout’s chicken nuggets. She held it up like she was feeding a toddler. “Here comes the airplane!”
The nugget zoomed around in Emily’s glitter-lacquered fingers, swooping in for Scout’s mouth. The latter did not open her mouth to receive it. It left a little oil on her lips which burned. She did not feel it.
Exasperated, Emily ate the nugget herself. “Hope you’re happy, Scout. Now I’m going to put on weight.”
Cynthia just shook her head and sucked soda through a straw. Scout did not even drink from her soda. Her lips were chapped and dry and cracking. The skin on her face was loose with dehydration, starting to become rough and wrinkle like a burlap sac.

***

P!nk was blasting on the radio as the sun settled into the corn like a bird into its nest. They had driven the last thirty miles without saying much, letting the music on the radio fill the silent spaces between them.
The corn fell away, revealing a small cluster of houses and fast food restaurants, all hemmed in by the fields. They came to a Pilot station and pulled in for gas. Shadows stretched long from the fields only to be obliterated by the bright lights of the lampposts and pumps. Cynthia got out and paid for gas with her credit card, then began pumping. Emily got out to stretch and to go inside to use the restroom. She dragged Scout along with her.
“Yuck,” Emily said upon entering a stall.
While Emily struggled to squat over the toilet seat, Scout stared at herself in the grimy mirror. She was hollow-eyed beneath the tumult of her blonde hair. Her red dress glowed luridly in the fluorescent lights, looking too real to be a thing hung on the tenuous unreality of her body. She felt as a phantom, and expected a wind to blow her away, the red dress slumping to the scuff-marked floor.
The toilet flushed and Emily stepped out of the stall, looking peeved.
“Goddamnit,” she said. “Don’t any of these mother fuckers know about bleach?”
She washed her hands, then took scout by the arm and left out into the lobby. Emily bought a Diet Coke for herself and a Mello Yello for Scout.
“You look like you could use some sugar,” Emily said. “And caffeine.”
Scout took the cold can that was handed to her, but did not open it. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew she was dehydrated and needed to drink, but the predominant voice overruled all others with its proclamation of earthly futility.
They exited the Pilot’s lobby and returned to the Prius. Cynthia had finished pumping gas and was standing around, waiting for them.
“What’d you get me?” she asked.
Emily cringed. “Sorry, I thought you didn’t want anything.”
Cynthia exhaled in aggravation and rolled her eyes. “Guess I’ll get it myself,” she said, walking off in a huff toward the Pilot.
While Cynthia was gone, Emily and Scout waited outside, spotlights carving the parking lot sharply out of the dimming dusk. Emily leaned against the car as if she was posing for a magazine photo, drinking from her Diet Coke with slow rotation of her head. She did not go unnoticed.
“Hey, it’s that prissy bitch!” a voice exclaimed.
The growl of an oversized truck came closer, roaring as it stopped in front of them. The young men put their windows down.
“Oh gawd,” Emily said in disgust. “I thought you boys were busy fucking pigs.”
“Oh ho, ho!” the man in the Dale Earnhardt hat said. “Girl, you have no idea what you are missing.”
“Bet she’s a dyke,” his friend said from the driver’s side. “All of ‘em are, I’ll bet.”
“Bunch of carpet-munchers!” laughed one of the passengers in the back-cab.
“Better than trying to get off on your tiny dicks,” Emily said, taking another swig of her Diet Coke. She smirked and folded her arms over her chest.
The man in the Dale Earnhardt hat opened his door and climbed down from the elevated truck. He walked with an easy, almost exaggerated, gait toward the Prius. Emily grew visibly alarmed, but Scout watched the imposing man approach with the same blank gaze with which she would have watched a fly crawl across a windshield. Even as he leaned over Emily— his hefty, haymaker arms to either side of her friend’s small frame— Scout could not muster an iota of fear or alarm or even concern for the situation.
“Get away from me,” Emily warned him quietly. “Or I’ll rip your balls off.”
The young man grinned, towering over Emily so much that the fluorescent lights of the pumps were crowded out by his height.
“I don’t think you will,” he said. “Not a little girl like you. Now, you better be nice to me. I’m a helluva guy, you know? You can ask all of my friends and girlfriends. One helluva guy.” He grinned at his friends. “Ain’t that right?”
“Helluva guy!” his friends said in chorus.
“Get away from me,” Emily said, her nose crinkled like a cat with nowhere to run.
“That the best you can say?” he said. “What happened to that smart mouth of yours? It sure is a pretty mouth. Shame it’s wasted on sucking butch twats.”
His friends back at the truck made obscene sucking noises.
“I don’t waste it on butch twats,” Emily said. “The only butch twat here is you. That’s why these lips will never go anywhere near you. I only like prissy twats that know I’m in charge.”
There was a long silence. The man in the Dale Earnhardt hat laughed. He laughed loudly and freely, as if he had never laughed so hard in his life. He then leaned back, upright, and stepped away from Emily. He rejoined his friends in the truck.
“You and me both, sister!” he said, still laughing. “You and me both!”
The truck roared to life and pulled out of the parking lot and down the highway.
Emily sighed. She was trembling, but whether from fear or relief or anger, she did not know. Cynthia came out of the Pilot sipping on a straw in a large Slurpee. She looked at Emily and Scout, back and forth.
“Something happen?” she said.

***

“Damn it, Scout,” Emily said, “you should have said something. You shouldn’t have just let me deal with the pig-fucker all by myself.”
“You did kind of start it,” Cynthia put in. “And Scout’s in no condition to handle anything like that.”
“You’re one to talk!” Emily snapped. “What were you doing in there, anyway? Blowing truckers? You took forever!”
“I couldn’t decide what I wanted to drink!” Cynthia said defensively.
“It’s all syrup water anyway,” Emily said. “It shouldn’t matter what you drink. Unless it’s diet.”
“Are you saying I should go on a diet?” Cynthia said quietly.
“Of course not,” Emily said. “The only weight you need to lose you can’t, because nothing works for losing height except taking off your high-heels.”
Cynthia glared at Emily through the rearview mirror.
“You know I don’t like it when you talk about my height,” she said. “Besides, you’re the one always on your high horse. How’s the weather up there in your own ass?”
Emily made a dismissive gesture with her hands, flicking her fingers outward as if shooing away a crow.
“Synth, I’ve told you before, you’ve gotta go to one of those Tall People dating sites.” She made a disgusted grunt. “I mean, can you imagine dating a guy shorter than you? Gross.”
“I wouldn’t care if he was shorter than me,” Cynthia said. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
“But it will matter to him,” Emily said knowingly. “It’s emasculating.” She smiled mischievously. “And, you know, the whole penis-to-vagina ratio will be really out of whack.”
“My vagina’s no bigger or smaller than average!” Cynthia nearly yelled.
“But if he is going to hit your G-Spot…”
“Then he has to be about average size,” Cynthia growled. “I’m not a cave down there. And I’ve had sex with shorter guys. Some have average penises. Some have smaller. Some have big ones that fill me up too much.”
Emily frowned at her friend skeptically. “And when did all this happen? I thought you were a virgin.”
Instead of answering her, Cynthia accelerated the Prius along the road, as if trying to get away from this conversation. They left the conversation like roadkill back at the mile marker and let silence be their entertainment. Scout did not notice either way. She felt empty, through and through. Twilight drew its gray pall over the world.

***

“Oh joy,” Emily said, joylessly. “A Murder Motel. Just where I wanted to stay.” She grumbled and folded her arms childishly. “Next place we stay is going to be a 5 star in the city.”
“Easy for you to say,” Cynthia said. “Your dad’s not the one paying for this trip.”
Emily waved away Cynthia’s words with a limp hand, her jewelry jangling. “Oh, your dad has enough money to buy a hotel chain.”
“He offered to rent an RV for us,” Cynthia said.
“Gag me with the gearshift,” Emily said, finger pointing to her open throat. “I’d rather hitchhike.”
They pulled into the parking lot and parked. The Corn Silk Road Motel was a humble L-shaped run of small rooms. A small clerk’s office stood out in front, near its red-lettered sign that flickered on and off fitfully. Cynthia got out and went into the clerk’s office, bringing her purse. Meanwhile, Emily blew bubbles with her chewing gum, the pink spheres expanding and popping at impatient intervals. Scout stared out the window, lost in the receding horizon of cornstalks and sky. The cornfields stretched on forever here, a sea of black shadows. Scout saw amidst their darkening waves a familiar figure, buoyant in that sea. Its straw hat had been blown away by the fervid winds, and now only the stringy yellow straw hair hung from its bowed head.
Cynthia returned with their motel card, driving around the L parking lot and coming to the middle of the wing. They parked and got out, taking their backpacks with them. Clouds rolled in heavily from the West, black as soil and rumbling as if pushed slowly by gigantic bulldozers in the sky. A storm approached. The air was cooler now than it had been all day and the wind pulled at Scout’s hair and skirt. The first droplets of rain fell tentatively, as if practicing before committing to the heavy downpour.
“Jesus, just in time,” Emily said, shielding her dark hair against the rain with an upraised arm.
Cynthia swiped the card and the brown door clicked open. They entered the small motel room as the sky boomed with thunder and the parking lot was blurred by the sudden outpouring from a cloudburst overhead. The darkening day shimmered with silvery rain like a fish’s scales in the motel lights. They were glad to shut the door in the storm’s face.
The motel room was bare and basic. There was a bed, a recliner, a dresser and a television set. Since they kept only the bedside lamp on, the white walls and ceiling of the room were gray or black. Emily plopped down on the bed and took up the remote control for the television. She turned it on and flipped through the channels.
“What kind of hick motel has only twenty channels?” she groaned. She cycled through the channels a few times, finding nothing worth watching.
“Check the Weather Channel,” Cynthia slurred, her mouth foaming with toothpaste as she brushed her teeth. “So we can know what it will do tomorrow.”
A frown of disappointment on her face, Emily flipped to the Weather Channel. The weatherman said the rain would clear off by tomorrow afternoon.
“Ugh,” Cynthia growled. “I hate driving in the rain.”
“I can do it,” Emily volunteered with a grin. “If you don’t want to.”
Cynthia nearly gagged on her toothbrush. “No. I am the driver. It is my car.”
Emily mouthed Cynthia’s words back at her, tossing her head left and right with sass. She turned the television off and then flopped back on the bed, spreading her arms out and exhaling a disgruntled growl of boredom. Cynthia returned to the bathroom to spit out her toothpaste and rinse her mouth out. She took a shower and Emily sat up all at once.
“I need to take a shower, too,” she said. “But she beat me to it.”
She looked at Scout. Scout sat in the room’s one and only recliner, staring at nothing and thinking about nothing. She did not want to think about anything ever again.
For a while the only sounds in the motel room were the cadences of the rain, the boom of the thunder, and the hiss of the shower. After a few minutes, Cynthia emerged from the bathroom wearing a towel around her body and her hair.
“About time,” Emily said, rushing into the bathroom and stripping down. She took much longer in the shower than Cynthia had. By the time she had emerged— her torso and her head wrapped in a towel— it was nearly Ten.
Emily took up the remote control again and turned on the tv. Flipping through the channels, she found a reality tv show playing.
“Oh!” she exlcaimed. “‘The Bachelorette!’ I love this show.”
Emily and Cynthia watched the program until it went off an hour later. After that, they could not find anything worth watching.
“I’m boooored!” Emily moaned.
Cynthia nodded from the other side of the bed. Then she reached for her backpack. “Hey, I know what can liven the mood.”
Unzipping her backpack, Cynthia dug out a small plastic bag of what appeared to be brightly colored sugar candies. Emily saw what she had and leapt forward, kneeling beside her on the edge.
“Are those…?”
“Yes ma’am,” Cynthia said.
Emily’s green-hazel eyes sparkled. “The real thing? Nothing cheap?”
“I bought them from Doug,” Cynthia said, opening the small plastic bag. She pinched a small pill and dropped it onto Emily’s upturned palm. “They are the good ones.”
“Awesome,” Emily said. She stared at the purple pill for a moment, smiling at the smiley face imprinted on its side. Leaning her head back, she dropped it onto her tongue and let it dissolve. “Fucking awesome!” she said for emphasis.
Rain fell heavy, the puddles in the parking lot glowing red and green beneath the neon sign. Footsteps sloshed and raindrops pattered on umbrellas and windows. The constant thrum of the rain created a white noise interlaced occasionally with the brief sound of tires slicing through pooling water. Thunder boomed at a distance now, having moved on with its temper-tantrum elsewhere.
They gave Scout one of the colorful pills. She looked at it as it lay in her palm. It was small and yellow and smiled with more genuine feeling than she could ever muster. Reluctantly, she popped the pill into her mouth and waited to see what would happen. Part of her hoped she would die. Part of her hoped it would erase her memories, if only for a time. Part of her hoped it would make her feel happiness while the other part feared to feel anything again. It did nothing for a time, and she wondered if she had been given a SweeTart instead. She remained in the recliner for a while, the pill dissolving on her tongue. Meanwhile Cynthia and Emily rolled around on the bed, bare-skinned, their towels flung onto the floor. They cuddled and began to kiss, giggling. The giggles gave way to passionate kissing, and caressing, then stroking and stronger touching in private places.
“Let’s fool around like we used to,” Cynthia cooed.
Emily, entwined with Cynthia’s arms, nestled between the taller girl’s breasts. She showered her with kisses, then rose and went to Scout, pulling her toward the bed.
“Come on, Scout,” she said, coaxing her. “We don’t need silly boys to have a good time.”
Scout laid back and let them strip her. They kissed her breasts and licked her lips above and below. But she felt nothing. She sat up, after a minute or so of their teasing and fondling, and sat on the edge of the bed, stolid and indifferent. Her two sisters did not pay attention to her after a time, too preoccupied with their own pleasure to mind her. Cynthia, being bigger, laid on her back, knees steepled and spread, while Emily, being smaller, squatted down over her face, then sat down, leaning forward on all fours and plunging her mouth down onto Cynthia’s lips, making a Sapphic meal of each other’s sex. Their moans and puckering slurps were faraway in Scout’s mind— like an underground grotto where ocean waves lapped. She sat naked in the minimal lamplight, staring at nothing; feeling nothing. She could not even feel shame or embarrassment when the boy and his mother passed by the window. The careless curtain had not been completely closed over the glass, spread only so much, like labial folds to reveal a vista onto the lovers on the bed. The boy stared, wide-eyed, while his mother pulled at him in irritation until she glanced into the window. Her vexation exploded into horror with a shriek and she yanked her son away and dragged him through the dark rain. None of it mattered to Scout. Her mind was faraway.
Scout remembered how her ex-fiancé could make her laugh. He was so funny. But he was also romantic. He could make her feel the strongest of emotions about the littlest of things. Joy, regret, anticipation, lust, love, betrayal, anger, sorrow. Now things did not seem to happen to her, but around her; life echoed hollowly within her like water dripping from a stalactite in a vast, dark cave.
But she did feel something at last as the ecstasy coursed through her neurons and electrified their senses. It was a deep longing—a vacancy that was so perfect that it ached for form and motion. She saw something, too. She was in a vast field, and that field had been furrowed deeply with an inexorable blade. Her ex-fiancé lay within a furrow, silent and unmoving. Before she could wake him, the earth folded over the trenches, enveloping his inert body until only soil and grass remained. Then a field of corn grew up from where he lay; vast and pointless, bearing husks upon husks of insignificance that somehow assembled themselves into a familiar figure. The figure was a scarecrow crucified upon a cross, its head bowed as if in mourning over the grave from which it sprang. The scarecrow had a willow basket over its head; a weeping willow basket like a bridal veil. Scout walked toward its corn husk body, reaching toward that willow-woven veil. Removing it with trembling hands, she saw herself beneath the cage of withes. Her face was devoid of all emotions, its burlap vagueness an expression of resignation.

***

Scout woke the next morning on the edge of the bed, still sitting up. Cynthia and Emily were both naked, still, and nestled into one another. Scout stood up—wobbly at first and sore—and went outside. The storm had passed and ears of corn had been blown across the slick road. The stalks that remained standing were bent or broken in half, their cobs shucked from the plant. The scarecrow leaned in the field, indifferent to its wet dress and frayed body and tottering cross. Through the dark black clouds the sun glared, as if the glint of an eyeglass from which a child looked beneath the lid of his box of broken toys.
“Fuck you, God,” Scout whispered.
She knew she needed a bath— as she knew any abstract concept, like the numerical value of pi or the formula for Pythagoras’s theorem—but she did not care. Tyler had said he liked her natural smell. He said he did not care if she shaved her underarms or not, or anywhere else for that matter. He liked her soul. Or so he claimed. Now she felt like she had no soul. It had flown the coop, and she did not care if it never returned. Actually, she would have shooed it away had it returned, for it was nothing but a bothersome pest, like a pigeon roosting where it was not wanted and shitting all over the clean emptiness she wished to inhabit.

***

An awkward silence followed the sorority sisters out of the motel and down the road. They did not listen to music. The wind through the windows deafened them to everything but their own thoughts and frets. Emily and Cynthia would not look at each other. Awkward embarrassment was their fourth passenger, and would let no one get a word in edgewise. Beyond the car, the cornfields were battered and beaten and broken, though many of the stalks still remained standing in their confounding multitude.

***

Emily pressed her face against the window in dismay.
“Was there a tornado last night? It looks like there was a tornado.”
The devastation in the cornfield had provoked them to speak. They looked out upon the storm-blasted scene as if they were traveling through an apocalyptic country.
“Maybe,” Cynthia said. She slowed the car down as the pink Prius rolled its wheels over the green debris strewn along the highway. “Maybe three or four tornadoes.”
“Just like the Wizard of Oz,” Emily said.
“There was only one tornado in the Wizard of Oz,” Cynthia said, stiffly.
“I always liked that movie,” Emily said. “I always wanted to be Dorothy.”
“I always wanted to be Dorothy Parker,” Cynthia said.
“But I’d be the Tin Man,” Emily said, tapping the side of her head. “Because I’ve got no brains.”
“You mean the Scarecrow,” Cynthia said. “The Scarecrow had no brains and the Tin Man had no heart.”
“The scarecrow has no heart,” Scout suddenly said. Her voice was whispery and coarse, like wind through rough straw. It was the first time she had spoken to them in a week.
“I am pretty sure it’s the Tin Man that has no heart,” Cynthia said adamantly. “But he probably didn’t have a heart either since, you know, he was made of straw.”
Scout was not listening. She was staring at something out in the cornfield.

***

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Cynthia said.
Emily’s eyes lit up. “You mean…?”
“Yep,” Cynthia said. “Colorado.”
“All right!” Emily said. Her excitement mellowed out, however, as she saw the cornfields still stretching on seemingly forever. It was still corn country. “It doesn’t look like Colorado. It still looks like Kansas.”
“Just wait until we hit Denver,” Cynthia said. “It will look different then.”
“And then on to California!” Emily said in bubbly excitement.
“We still have a while before we get there,” Cynthia said.
“Pull over,” Scout said.
“How much farther until we get to California?” Emily said.
“Pull over,” Scout said.
“Next week at this rate,” Cynthia said. “I wanted to stay a few days in Denver…”
“Pull over!” Scout shouted.
Alarmed, Cynthia slowed and pulled onto the shoulder, parking.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Instead of answering, Scout unbuckled herself and flung her door open, nearly falling out of the car to scramble out into the cornfield. Her long blonde hair disappeared into the blue-green clutter.
“Shit,” Cynthia said. She and Emily hurried after Scout, but lost her in the cornstalks. “Do you see her?”
“You’re the tall one!” Emily said. “If you can’t see her, how can I?”

***

Scout’s fiancé Tyler had cheated on her— with a mutual friend—and so Scout had called off the wedding. Though she was very upset, she was also conflicted. She had loved Tyler more than any other person she had ever dated. Part of her was jilted and part of her was ready and willing to reconcile. So, they spoke over the phone for the next few weeks, slowly working toward reconciliation. Then she had accepted an offer for coffee and had gone to the shop to wait for him at their usual table. But Tyler never arrived. Feeling angry, she went to a bar later that night and struck up a conversation with some random guy. They had a one night stand, which she enjoyed as much for the vengeance as for the sex. She could not remember the random guy’s name.
The next morning, while the stranger was still in her bed, she received a phone call from one of her friends. She said that Tyler had died in a car crash the previous morning, likely on the way to meet Scout at the coffee shop. Hearing this, Scout wept hysterically and the stranger in her bed— confused and afraid— left in a hurry. She cried on and off throughout the week until the funeral. While at the funeral home she saw Courtney, their mutual friend. Courtney was wailing as much as Tyler’s mother. The family comforted her while avoiding Scout. She had not known why until she overheard one of Tyler’s uncles say “It’s her fault he’s dead.” Scout was so outraged that she attacked Courtney in front of the viewing casket— closed casket, as it were—and then left the funeral parlor, her fingernails still full of Courtney’s brown hair.
Grief had justified many things. Impatience, anger, apathy, self-loathing, It freed you from many things, too: expectation, hope, happiness, the Present. In the cold wash of grief she had become numb, as if soaked too long in the ice water of a river in February, and she floated in it, insular in her ice cube; contained, impenetrable, apart and drifting carelessly through the chilly void.
Scout found the scarecrow waiting for her in the midst of the corn. Its vague face was a thing of easy relief— no personality or emotions stitched across its burlap head. Void of all human pretense or burden, it shrugged the world off as it slumped down from its cross.
“It will not hurt, will it?” she asked it. She shook her head, as if in answer. “It does not matter. A little pain and then Nothing. It is a fair trade.”
Scout lifted the scarecrow off of the cross, setting it on the ground. The effigy was surprisingly heavy, and she felt a twinge of guilt for her friends— briefly, then it was gone. She then ascended the cross herself, nailed to the boards as if she had always hung from it, the pain familiar, yet faraway. She let the weight of everything pull at the nails, but they were firm and held her grief up without fail. Hanging there, she felt finally lightsome and free; a thing floating above and apart from the world.
Her guilt crucified, the straw woman rose, then, to her newfound feet, feeling the wakening of life in her fibers, her newly-freshened nerves, her quickening heart and veins. She walked toward the Prius—stiffly at first, but loosening her limbs more naturally as she neared Emily and Cynthia.
“There she is!” Emily exclaimed, pointing.
“Thank God!” Cynthia said, her hands on her hips.
“And she’s smiling!” Emily cheered. “That’s what I like to see!”
“About time,” said Cynthia.
They greeted their newfound friend as she emerged from the corn, her chequered dress billowing softly in the wind. The new Scout tossed her blonde-as-straw hair with a shrug.
“What happened?” Cynthia asked. “Did we upset you?”
“No,” Scout said. “I just wanted to go out in the field.”
“Had to pee, huh?” Emily said.
Scout said nothing.
“Well,” Cynthia said. “Let’s get going! Lot’s to see! Lot’s to do!”
Scout smiled so broadly that her two friends looked at her in bewilderment.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Emily asked. “You look…odd.”
“I’m fine,” Scout said, her voice coarse as wind through straw. “I am just grateful to be alive.”

Mute Melody

20150120_230827-1-1

The lampposts along the boardwalk pinned back the heavy, wet curtain of night, the rainy darkness swelling against their small, sketchy dots of light. He stepped into the seaside bar, shrugging off the rain and the shadows from his yellow raincoat. The bar was deep-sea dark. Jarred candles lit glasses here and there upon the round tables, their little blooms of fiery illumination hinting at anglerfish duplicity. Bodies slumped around the tables, slouching in chairs or littering the floor in careless sprawls. Others laid face-down on the bar, or had tumbled off their stools. The bartender was behind the bar, awash with spilled beer. The scene looked like a forsaken opium den. All of the men’s and women’s faces were surrendering gradually to eternity, their eyes closed and their smiles lax on their euphoric faces.
The speakers on the karaoke stage were silent. No one stirred at the bar, even at the thrum-drum beating of the winds against the outside deck’s awnings. The hammering of rain on the windowpanes was like restless claws tapping on glass. Waves crashed against the poles on the boardwalk, shaking the planks. Nothing else could be heard in the bar except the faint sound of a lullaby song.
He approached the karaoke stage. The woman did not move. She used no microphone and the lilt of her soft song scarcely hinted at itself upon the sounding chaos of the sea. When she saw the man her song did not cease, but hastened, a defiant scowl upon her pale face. She had oily black hair that hung down her back and over her breasts. She wore nothing and her body was as pallid as a fish’s belly in the murk, glowing blue in the dreamy blacklights of the karaoke stage. A disco ball turned above her. Shattered-and-scattered stars glinted off of its silver mosaic sphere, reeling as the waves rocked the boardwalk and the bar.
To see such a scowl, and hear such a song, would have driven most men mad to appease her in any way they could, but he paid neither any mind. He could only see the long scar that split her lips to the right corner of her mouth. Guilt snagged in his heart, but he dismissed it as he raised his hands. Silently, he signed to her to come down. She snarled, revealing a jagged jigsaw of shark teeth between her lips, and continued singing. Some of the people sprawled out in the bar lolled in their chairs; those on the floor groaned in ecstasy.
Stepping closer to the stage, he signed again to her, imploring her from within the revolving twirl of the disco stars. He held his hand up toward her. Reluctantly, she took his hand into her webbed hand, its six vaguely humanoid fingers cool and wet. She stepped down from the stage, but she did not stop singing. He gestured toward the dark room with its multitude of limp, listless bodies, and shook his head, pointing to himself. A resentful frown curled her pale lips, and the ragged scar darkened to a sullen crimson. He touched her face, gently tracing the scar with his finger. He was a tall man with big hands, his fingertips calloused by a life at sea, but his touch would not have woken a baby from its sleep. Her eyelids fluttered at his touch, the dark gleam of her black eyes losing focus. She quivered, then shoved him angrily with her small hand. He stumbled upon a table, knocking over glasses and spilling beer into the laps of a man and woman. They roused briefly before nodding off into surrender to her song once again.
He signed urgently to her, but she turned her back to him, folding her arms. Slowly he approached her again, stepping over a man spreadeagled on the floor. Cautiously, he enwrapped her in his arms, hugging her from behind; tenderly. She quivered furiously, but did not pull away. He tried to sign again, his hands in front of her face, but she caught his big hands in her small ones, halting them and interlocking them over her heart. She smelled of seaweed and fish and brine— all smells familiar to him since he was a boy; smells beloved to him. For he loved all things of the sea: its smells, its vistas, its touch. But he had never heard the sea’s song, and for that reason he sometimes wept at night. He could feel the sea in her body when they made love. It tickled in his toes like the playful froth, and it relaxed him like wavelets upon an arid day. Her lips were as soft as wet sand on his chest and her teeth were sharp as coral on his fingers. Her tongue lapped deeply at his own when they kissed, an eel seeking his heart from the grotto of her mouth. Her fingers— long and lithe and fast— were as an octopus subtly scurrying across his skin. When they climaxed together it was a painful joy after which they both lay inert, his nerves stinging sweetly as if encoiled in jellyfish tendrils.
The sea had taken his father with its passions. It giveth and it taketh away. Of course the sea would claim him, the son, in time. To love her was to drown alive. And he had needed a break; a moment to catch his breath. A return to dry land. No one could love the whole of the sea without it sweeping them away with its riptides and dragging them below with its undertow. And its daughters were the same as their mother. They gave much, and they took away everything.
Like father, like son. Like mother, like daughter.
She continued singing. Her song was not a song in the meaning that most humans knew for a song. It was not a thing of aesthetics to please, but an instinctive tool. As a squid using its beak to crack shells and shred the flesh within, her song pierced the hearts of her prey so she, too, could feed. But her song had not worked on him when he had reeled her up from the sea, and she was human enough to want what was difficult to chase. He was so astonished when she emerged at the end of his marlin fishing line that he forfeited the fight. Yet, the hook had caught in her mouth, and she could not free herself. Kneeling beside her on the deck of his boat, he attempted to unhook her mouth. She fought him, flailing and clawing at him as he tried not to hurt her more than the hook already had. Even now his scars were tiger stripes along his forearms.
When he finally withdrew the hook, she hissed at him, then leapt away onto the railing of the ship, squatting there like a cat ready to pounce. The sun shone down upon her with unsquinting luminosity, yet the stygian depths remained in her eyes and in her oily hair. She had opened her mouth, revealing her teeth, and he had flinched to see their sharp edges. She then began her song, singing to him with the currents of the wide oceans. He could not hear them. Clearly perplexed by his immunity, and angered, she dove into the sea. He ran to the railing to look over larboard side, but did not see her.
She visited him every night thereafter, singing her song with a torn mouth. He remained immune to her song, but not to her dangerous beauty. He fed her from the fish he caught with his nets, and she ate his offerings raw. Eventually there came a night when she crept below deck, finding him asleep on his bed. The jagged fissure in her mouth had almost sealed itself shut. Laying atop him, they spoke to each other in rapturous silence— with limb and loin and wordless lip.
He had taught her to sign, and she had taught him more about the sea than any man had a right to know. He had recoiled from her truths, eventually, and stayed ashore. She remained in the sea, and felt the longing of his song in her heart; that song of silence that he carried with him. His mute melody. It called her ashore, and so she went. Now he was here. Now he would leave with her. He promised he would be with her forever if she would free the others.
So they walked to the door, and out into the thrashing storm. It subsided as they went together down to the shore, leaving the human world behind. The winds died and the rains lessened to the playful pitter-patter of fairy feet. The waves sighed and then loosened in their thrashing clashes. Like a great herd of beasts after a stampede, they slowed and came to an exhausted gait, gradually laying themselves down to sleep. The two figures disappeared into the still waters, taking with them her song and his silence.

The men and women began to rouse, sitting up in their chairs or sluggishly rising from the floor. The storm, the sailor, and the siren were gone. The world was drawn up and hauled out of the fathomless night and into the wakeful glare of daylight— wet, half-drowned, and shivering sickly. A fog thickened around the bay like a vague feeling of sorrow, and the people in the bar wept openly, though they did not know why.

 

 

Change (In The House Of Flies)

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Dedicated to Deftones

She came in at eight in the evening.  It was midsummer, but the shadows of the city had plunged my little tattoo parlor into early night.
“Sorry, but I already have a scheduled appointment tonight,” I told her.
The fluorescent light overhead was buzzing again. Its filament was going bad, probably. It was giving off that sickly yellow color that would have been cool any other time, but was a pain whenever I was trying to color-match somebody’s tattoo to their requested image. And the buzzing really got on my fucking nerves.
“I need it tonight,” she said. “Before sunrise.”
She did not look like she could have paid for a tattoo, honestly, or a sandwich, which she badly needed. Actually, she looked like an anorexic vamp scouting for twenties. She was emaciated and pale, her bones showing through her short black halter-top like a radiator’s ribs. The downcast light hollowed out her cheeks and eye sockets, and the black contacts covering her whites made her head look like a skull. Her scalp was shaven to the skin, but here and there sprouted long shoots of coarse black hair, somehow missed when she was giving her dome a weeding.
“Not tonight,” I said. “As I said, I already have someone scheduled. We can set up an appointment for next week, if you want. I’m booked up until then…”
She reached into the pocket of her frayed denim shorts and pulled out a fistful of Benjamins— crumpled and dirty, but real so far as I could tell. BJ money, I thought. Drug money, probably, too. Maybe even blood money. I didn’t know. Didn’t ask. They scattered across the silver tray like windblown snakeskins. Counting them at a glance, I saw at least thirty, maybe even forty.
“All tonight,” she emphasized. “All in one go.”
Normally, I wouldn’t have accepted a job like this. Too suspicious and too mysterious and too fucking presumptuous. But the gaunt-faced bitch seemed decided, and had the money to back it up in cold-wash sums. A lot of money. A lot more than what Joey One-Shoe was going to pay to have me touch up his OD’ed girlfriend’s portrait on his chest. To tell the truth, I dreaded hearing the asshat drone on and on about her while I touched up the blues and blacks. The bitch died at a blow party with the jizz of three different guys up her babymaker. And the dumbass sang the gospel about her like she was a goddamn saint. He could really bring you down.
“Give me a second,” I told her. I pulled out my cellphone and called Joey. He sounded so happy to hear from me that I felt guilty for a second— just a second— and then I told him I couldn’t touch up Jackie tonight.
“I’m just not feeling good, man,” I told him. “Maybe I can do it tomorrow. I won’t even charge you. How about it?”
Joey agreed, and I instantly regretted agreeing to work on his tattoo for free. Hell, sometimes it seemed like he was paying me to be his therapist rather than his tattoo artist. The only cure for his fucked-up head was a shotgun slug. I turned to the woman again, putting my phone away.
“What do you have in mind?” I asked. “Hello Kitty?”
It was a joke. I was being facetious. I could tell by the piercings and the ink that already decorated her body that this bitch was hardcore in her bones. Her sleeves showed dia de los muertos women among spiderwebs and syringes and mushrooms and anatomical flesh bisected to the bone. A pony galloped across her abdomen, almost as white as the translucent pallor of her skin. The most prominent tattoo, however, was the sow’s head drawn large upon her left thigh. Decapitated, the beady-eyed head was impaled on a stake, the blood still flowing.
She handed me a wadded-up sheet of paper. Uncrumpling it, I found what looked like a cross with bloated flies swarming around it. The drawing was crude and childish in its scrawl.
“Do you really want this?” I asked. “I mean, I can add some…um…depth to it, if you want.”
“If you want,” she said. She picked up my tattoo gun from my silver tray and pressed it into my hands. “Blow me away,” she said, smiling as if it had a double meaning that I didn’t understand. I looked at the bends of her arms, and saw heroine scars. Her teeth did not seem to be rotten, but then again they had seemed too perfectly white in the artificial light. False teeth, maybe. Her face— once pretty, maybe even beautiful— was a minefield of bright red welts and scabrous meth sores. She had seen some shit, and done shit to herself. A lot of shit.
She took out a glass capsule of what looked like black ink from her shallow cleavage. “I want this mixed in with the ink.”
I couldn’t get a fix on this bitch. Was she crazy? Too many trips into the medical dumpster? Sometimes I had sad cucks come in and try to get me to mix blood in with ink to tattoo them to remind them of some girl that broke their hearts. Sometimes couples asked me to use each other’s blood. I would, if they signed a waiver beforehand, but this black gunk didn’t look like blood. It looked like some kind of fucking nasty ichor.
“I can’t use this,” I said. “I don’t know what it is. It might be unsafe and I don’t want to go to jail for inadvertently killing you.”
Instead of accepting my refusal, she reached into her other denim pocket and pulled out another wad of Benjamins. These she added to the bills already littering my silver tray.
I considered the money, then sighed in resignation.
“You’ll have to sign a waiver,” I told her. “For legal reasons. Whatever happens, it’s on you.”
She signed the page promptly, impatiently. I pocketed all of the bills she had heaped up for me and she laid down on my tattoo bed, face down. Evidently she wanted the tattoo on her back. She wasn’t very specific in what she wanted; only insistent.
My tattoo parlor used to be a dentist’s office. The bed I had was actually a dentist’s chair that reclined out flat. As I prepared the ink, I stared at her torso, trying to plot out how the tattoo would look best. At the back her halter top was nothing but a narrow strap at the nape of the neck. The rest of it was open, revealing the bony knots of her spine and the ridges of her narrow ribs. Her veins were blue beneath her pale skin. I mapped out the revised drawing that I had improvised upon her back with a marker, then I mixed the capsule she had given me with the ink. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.
The ink and the gunk worked well enough on her. Whatever the stuff was, it didn’t compromise the ink. In fact, it helped the stain. But it also stank. Badly. Very badly. It smelled like a rotten carcass left out in the July sun for a few days. Distilled roadkill. Liquid decay. But she did not seem to mind. I knew I would have to throw the gun away after I had finished this tattoo. No amount of alcohol or bleach would clean the gunk from it.
For hours I worked on her tattoo. Pale skin, black ichor, sallow fluorescence. Dizziness came and went, and sickness, too. My eyes ached from strain and the sickly light. But I soldiered through with a cramped claw-hand. She did not flinch or complain, and she wasn’t into small talk. The needle etched over bone-stretched skin and she seemed a cadaver on the dissection table— motionless. It was quiet in my parlor. I did not often listen to music like other tattoo artists because it distracted me. The silence could get on some clients’ nerves, but I preferred the silence. Or the silence that inhabits the city, anyway. It reminded me that there was a world alive beyond the door, and not an apocalyptic void left in the wake of nuclear holocaust. You could hear cars occasionally whooshing by, and the voices of pedestrians walking down the street; druggies begging for money from alleyways. The buzz of the light above my head. The whirr of an industrial fan that pumped fresh air into my parlor from the Summer night outside.
I had to take a moment and step over by the fan, letting the fresh air blow in my face. Nausea squirmed in my stomach like maggots.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” I asked her. “Or to get a drink?”
“No,” was all she said.
I took a piss in my studio restroom, and drank a Sprite from my little fridge. Leaning on my counter where I kept all of my paperwork and receipts, I took a breather again. The nausea subsided only a little. My stomach was like a leaky boat that was slowly taking on water, and the passengers were bailing it out, but only enough to keep it afloat. Eventually I might be sick and have to throw up. The light in my parlor was intensely yellow now. Hungover, beer-piss yellow. The woman laid so still upon the black dentist chair, in the honeycomb light, that she looked like an insect in amber. The dentist chair was shaped like an insect, too, I realized. Head, abdomen, and long thorax. Looking at it made me more nauseated.
Emptying the soda can, I threw it in the trash and took a deep breath, then manned up and went to war with the ink gun again. Despite my sickness, I made good progress. The gunk in the ink was strong, but not too overbold for gradients and finer details. The tattoo was very large in proportion to her back, but her back was so narrow and sunken that it was not too big a tattoo to complete in ten hours.
I was adding details to the cross when she suddenly spoke.
“Do you have any addictions?” she asked.
It was not a question I had never heard before.
“No addictions,” I said. “I only take for fun, and not that often.”
“I have used everything,” she said. “But nothing beats what I am on now.”
She said nothing else. She just laid there, dead to the world.
The hours seeped on slowly, like pus. My hand hurt, and my stomach was queasy. I felt tired and dizzy. Had I eaten anything, even a candy bar, I would have hurled. The Sprite had helped a little. I needed the sugar for my concentration, though the aftertaste was like syrupy sap in my mouth now.
It took me a while to realize that the buzzing I heard wasn’t only the faulty light overhead. There were flies in my parlor. I mean, there were always flies around, buzzing and getting stuck on my flytraps, but there were a lot of flies in my shop; a lot more than usual. They mostly flitted around the sickly light, or crawled along the full-body mirror in the corner, or furiously struck the windows looking out into the neon-lit urban night. Some died on the bugzapper I kept in near the back, screaming their sweet agonies as they fried. Living in the city, you had to have as many things to kill vermin as you could get.
But one fly kept buzzing around my ear. I tried to shoo it away, and then I tried to swat it. It was persistent, landing on my earlobe, tickling it, echoing in my ear canal, and even flying through my ear gauge like it was part of a circus act. Pissed me off.
“She thinks you taste good,” the woman said.
I frowned, but didn’t dignify what she said with a response. I had heard a lot worse things from my clients over the years. Drunken sorority girls had the filthiest mouths on the planet. Then again, their upper shoulders weren’t pockmarked with meth sores, either. What she said irritated me, almost as much as the fly.
Finally, the fly landed on my forehead and I swatted it fast and hard, hammering my brow with my palm. The fly was a pulp that peeled away with my hand, and a juice that remained on my brow. Disgusted, I set aside the tattoo gun.
“Give me a second,” I said. I went into the bathroom to clean up, feeling irritable and sick. Reeling a little, I splashed water on my face and tried to breathe through the sickness. The world continued to reel as I returned to work. Everything in my parlor— the tattoo art hung on the walls, the dentist chair, the tattoo tools, the yellow light—overwhelmed me. I felt like I just wanted to lay down and die.
I told myself to suck it up and trudge on. Picking up the gun again, I resumed where I had left off.
“You killed a part of me,” the woman said, her voice barely audible above the buzz of the tattoo gun. “It’s okay. Part of me dies every day. Smashed by careless hands. Burning in bright lights. Born again in the corpses of believers…”
She trailed off. I hoped she had fallen asleep. My head wasn’t feeling great and I was not in a mood for listening to drugged-up nonsense. I just wanted to finish the tattoo and never see this bitch again.
Eventually, I was almost finished. It was six in the morning and I only had a little touch up work to do here and there— primarily just smoothing over the shade transitions and adding highlights with some white ink. Overall, it wasn’t a bad tattoo, especially for being improvised from a rough sketch. I wasn’t going to take a photo of it for the Wall of Fame, though. Wasn’t even worth keeping it recorded in my portfolio. I just wanted to take the money and let the memory of this bad night die away.
I finished, finally, and told her she could sit up. As she sat up, I gave her the usual spiel about treating the tattoo at home, and what not to do, and everything else. She didn’t seem to be listening. Instead, she stood in front of the full-body mirror, gazing at the tattoo while hugging her arms in front of her, so it stretched her translucent skin. The sickly yellow light embalmed her in a weird moment that seemed to last forever. The flies wreathed her reflection, embroidering her like black satin fringes beneath a corpse.
“My transformation is almost complete,” she said.
She looked at me and smiled emptily. I realized that she was not wearing black contacts— somebody had dyed her eyes jet black. That was something I never dared to do. I didn’t trust the dye, or my hand. Blinding people was not the reason I became a tattoo artist. What good were tattoos that you couldn’t see?
The buzz of the light became louder. I flipped the switch for a small lamp I kept by my desk, by the counter, and then turned off the overhead light. The buzz persisted, louder than before. The crackling of flies in the bugzapper intensified.
She walked toward the door, then paused. She did not look back at me as she spoke.
“I saw the Devil once,” she said. “I looked at the cross, and I looked away. He was there, waiting for me. At the burning bottom of the world, where the dung is piled high and the souls are on fire, Ba’al Zebub spoke to me. Blessed me with his essence. In Phlegethon. The river of filth…the river of plenty.”
Beyond the window I could see sunlight bleeding between the buildings and the skyscrapers. Cars passed by as the world roused to a new day, its blood quickening with the dawn. She said no more. She stepped out and the doorbell rang in a way that seemed to wake me up from a long dream. Alarmed, I watched her walk from the sidewalk out into the busy street.
She dissolved as soon as the truck struck her, blooming into a swarm of flies that scattered out upon the city.
I watched her change.

2019-08-09 17.46.04

Venom Pies Part 9

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The House of Lorwynne relied severely upon several wells on the green for the collection of rainwater during sieges. Since the inhabitants could not access the ponds and lakes and the other wells beyond the walls, these large wells were crucial for survival. And someone had defiled them. Since they were normally covered with heavy wooden lids until it rained, and could only be raised by a man within the castle, Eseus knew the sabotage had to have happened from within. Twenty people died from tainted water, and another forty were sick with the taint, suffering effluvia. None of the wells had been spared. Now the people of Lorwynne were reliant upon the rains for drinking water, and they were slow in coming. In the meantime Iadne alleviated the shortage by directing the peasants to arrange cloth above pots and buckets. When the dew gathered upon the cloth, it was wrung into the containers. This yielded little drinking water, but it was better than none.
Since the moors were ever overcast, there was no reliable omen when there might come a cloudburst among so many gray clouds. It stoked both hope and cynicism within the people of Lorwynne, for it promised much every hour and did not deliver. Yet, the next morning a great rainstorm came. Peasant, soldier, and noble alike stood in its chilly downpour to collect rain in pots and buckets and in their mouths. While many were happy with the relief, a few among the elderly died from the flu afterwards. Eseus had the forethought to have had new wells dug prior, and posted guards to protect the new wells and their limited store.

***

A cold wind rose, slithering into the deepest nooks of the castle and spiraling around those whom it touched, like serpents made of frigid air. It skirled and wailed and seemed the spirits of the peasant men slain upon the green, risen to bemoan their deaths and clutch at the survivors covetously. The women and children huddled in the dining hall, the hearth ablaze. Lady Kareth tended to them. The peasant men sat around the little fire pits they had dug in the green, warming themselves and grumbling and eyeing each other hatefully. Their weapons had been taken from them. They were not to be trusted with any blade or spike unless the invaders penetrated the castle’s defenses. Their fires smouldered, but their eyes blazed wildly.
The sentries suffered the worst from the cold winds. They huddled around the braziers, risking arrows from the Crows in the open spaces away from the leather tarps, for the wind bit hardest upon the battlements. Eseus stood among them, commiserating with their plight.
The Crows were untouched beneath their raven-feathered cloaks, as was Iadne beneath her spider silk robe. Edea and Percevis accompanied the young lord and his lover. The elderly husband and wife wore spider silk clothes also, and were thus better prepared than the other folk of Lorwynne. Nonetheless, the cold wind made Percevis shiver and grimace. His muttonchops billowed wispily. His wedge-shaped nose was raw and red.
“Only Autumn now and my bones feel as icicles,” he said. “It is going to be a terrible Winter.”
“Any Winter survived is a good Winter,” Edea remarked.
“Haven’t survived it yet, woman,” he said. “Hasn’t even arrived! But its convoys are a pain! That much is true!”
“Continue to speak to me like that and you will not even survive the Autumn,” his wife retorted.
“I have survived your cooking for decades,” he said, grinning. “What can Autumn or Winter do to me?”
“For that you shall be the next dish I serve,” she said, crossing her arms and giving him a knowing smirk. “Gelded jackass roast.”
Percevis blinked in disconcertment, then guffawed loudly. His donkey laughter rivaled the Crow clan’s as a whole, and many of them scowled up at the battlement, resenting his thunderous braying.
Eseus did not speak his way into the husband and wife’s playful fray. He was in no mood for playfulness. Rather, he was in a foul mood. Half of his soldiers now had to remain upon the green at all times, watching the peasant men and assuring that they did not slay one another. He was ruling a divided House, and felt the pressure of the capstone in his heart. He wished his father was here and well. He wished he, himself, had stronger resolve. Had he the steel needed in his soul, he might have promised executions with some sort of credibility. But he had not yet hardened enough to dole discipline with steel, or even speak of it with sincerity. And, moreover, he knew that many of his peasants were mostly innocent in this contrived blood-feud that had broken out betwixt them. Sometimes he wished he had a crow’s eye to circle overhead and watch the men at night for whoever was weakening the foundation of Lorwynne from within.
He looked to Iadne, who had been quiet all day. Her hands were withdrawn into the large sleeves of her robe. He knew that she clutched the clew to herself deep within the thick folds. Even at night, while abed with him, she would clutch the clew to her heart.
Percevis’s laughter echoed well after he had finished in a fit of coughs. The Crows shot arrows upon the castle wall, so vexed were they with his impertinent amusement. The single volley struck the thick leather tarps and were largely halted. A few penetrated here and there, but had lost velocity upon the impact. More importantly, they did not wound anyone, but struck castle stone. These arrows were added to the heaps already collected on the battlements. Eseus considered them a boon and was glad he knew now what vexed the Crow clan.

***

With evening came the stars, but also a celebration within the castle. Eseus arranged for music, with harps and lutes and lyres all raining melodies into that moonlit night. The peasants danced and sang in the inner sanctum of the castle, making a great clamor upon the moor. Meanwhile, the sentries descended from the battlements and the ramparts, lingering at the castle’s entrance. Several hours passed, and the peasants became exhausted. Still, Eseus demanded they sing and dance and make merry. Their lives depended upon it.
It was in the witching hours that the crows flew over the castle. They carried steel hooks made from the claws of hoes and attached to ropes. Silently they affixed these claws to the crenelations. The ropes were drawn tautly by the Crows in the camps. Ten men from the Crow clan then climbed the angled ropes over moat and castle wall. Seeing that the ramparts and battlements and the green were indeed all abandoned— and hearing the mirthful ruckus deep within the castle— the Crows descended the stairs and came upon the green. Eseus waited until they were nearly to the portcullis before giving the order. The Lorwynne soldiers then spilled forth from the castles with their arrows nocked and unleashed a rain of death upon the invaders. It did not matter that they could not see well within the half-mooned murk. Such a downpour did they unfurl that the whole of the green was riddled with arrows.
Eseus waited until the next day had dawned— in all of its drab dimness—before he ordered the bloodied bodies brought up to the ramparts and thrown into the moat below. The Crow clan did not hide their rage. Crow men and women alike spat curses upon the House of Lorwynne and its descendants. Yet, as wrathful as they were, they did not retaliate. They did not act. Instead, they waited. They watched. They were patient.

***

And then the Oxenford army arrived, their long caravan procession taking with it  wagons steep with planks of wood for bridging the moat and building ladders and siege towers. Eseus was dismayed at the size of the army. There had to be three thousand men in all.
The Crow clan cawed loudly at the House of Lorwynne as they were joined by the caravan. Another Oxenford Commander approached upon horseback. It was one of Eseus’s cousins, Malteus, and Eseus knew upon seeing him and his army that the House of Lorwynne stood not a chance. For the army hereto gathered was comprised of all of the minor Houses of Oxenford. Every standing army had been called to lay claim to Lorwynne on Kareth’s behalf. Eseus shook his head in disbelief. Was it a deceit that gained Kareth their devotion or a simple promise of power? No House sided with his own, it seemed.
Malteus approached the castle. His hair was long, and faintly brownish-red. He wore silver plate armor that gleamed proudly. The sigil of a hart splayed its antlers upon his breastplate. Raising a hand, he directed the Crow clan to act. At first, Eseus thought it would be the first salvo of the battle, but instead the Crows sent their black birds into the air, each of them holding a rolled-up scroll. With these they littered the green. There were hundreds of them, but they each said the same thing:
“By order of Queen Kareth, of the House of Oxenford and rightful ruler of all Houses on the Moors, the criminals responsible for her beloved father’s death shall be surrendered forthwith for imprisonment, trial, and summary execution. Those fighting on behalf of these traitors will be shown no mercy and shall be promptly executed without trial or consideration of extenuating circumstance, whereas those who lay aside their arms and surrender without bloodshed shall be spared and beloved of their new Queen.”
All of the soldiers could read, and so could many among the peasants. Eseus’s father had decreed that it was crucial that they be able to do so to learn and therefore strengthen the House of Lorwynne. Yet, now that strength was being used against the House of Lorwynne, for Eseus could see the confusion and doubt in the eyes of his people. Some tore up the scrolls; others let them dangle limply at their sides.
A lone peasant stood upon a rampart overtopping the green. He called out to the peasants below.
“We should parley with them!” he said. “There is no hope in fighting them! They will be merciful to us! I promise you all! Swear yourselves to Queen Kareth and share in her glory!”
Eseus’s eyes narrowed. He knew this peasant. His name was Aletus. He had extended family that lived among the Oxenford peasants, as did many peasants among the House of Lorwynne. Yet, he visited his family often in Oxenford, spending many Harvest weeks there. Here, at last, Eseus had found the traitor. Seeing the man lit a flame within his soul that tempered his rage with a molten flow. He approached Aletus, and Aletus recoiled.
“You cannot win, milord,” Aletus said. “They will pardon you, too, if you only surrender to them. There is no dishonor in it. They promised me that no one would be harmed…”
“You would poison our wells,” Eseus said, “and squat over a grave and befoul it.”
An innocent man might have been puzzled, but Aletus merely smirked. “Better someone else’s grave than my own.”
“You will be buried where you belong,” Eseus said.
The steel had hardened at last in his soul, and with it his fist, and so Eseus struck the man with a blow that sent him reeling around and falling upon his face. Eseus then grasped the man’s hair and dragged the weed up to his feet.
“What are you doing?” the man slurred, his mouth full of blood and broken teeth.
“If you wish to join them,” Eseus said, “go to them.”
Eseus shoved him off the rampart. Aletus screamed until the moat silenced him.
Heaving with rage, Eseus spat and found himself angry enough to do such a thing again, and again; a thousand times to vent his fury. When he looked again upon the faces of his people he saw the horror of what he had done. Even Iadne and his mother were aghast at his brutal act. His father had warned him that vengeance was never wise with its rulings. But the traitor had cost his people many good men with his insidious sabotage. And, to the last, Aletus had cost him the trust of his people. The capstone had faltered and fell, and with it the House of Lorwynne. Sighing, Eseus addressed his people.
“I have no excuses anymore,” he said. “If you wish to seek the mercy of the enemy— however much she might mete out to you—so be it. Only, remember that they ally themselves with those who slew my father. Remember that they will not govern you with a kind, fair hand as he did. As savage as I have been just now, toward an avout traitor who plotted you against one another, they will be much worse. I promise you. But then, to stay is certain death. “ He wiped his sweaty forehead, and swayed as if lost. He could not feel the strength of the castle’s stones in his bones. It was all dissembling dust. “Perhaps…perhaps she may be lenient after all…”
Eseus felt himself deflate, like a breathless dragon sinking in the air. As the old song went, Despair is an anchored crown, and it weighed him down, down, down. Looking upon his people, he lamented their fate, and the fate of his mother, and Iadne. But if he surrendered himself perhaps the armies would spare his people. Perhaps they would spare his mother and Iadne. He walked toward the portcullis, feeling numb. Iadne met him upon the green.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Surrendering myself,” he said. “Perhaps I can exchange myself for the promise that no harm will come to anyone else.”
“Do not be a fool, Eseus!” she snapped, grabbing hold of his wrist. “They will spare no one. The Crows will feast on everyone here.”
“Then what can we do?” he said. Even now he could hear the Oxenford army busily hammering nails into planks, building their bridges and their siege towers. By next nightfall they would have overtaken the castle’s walls. “If I surrender myself, you will not be butchered. You will live to see another day.”
“Piss upon that!” shouted a man’s voice. “Piss upon surrender and piss upon this ‘Queen’!”
It was Percevis. He held his sword above his head, and his beloved wife, Edea, smiled with pride. His children, and his children’s children, also took up the rallying call.
“Piss upon the Queen! Piss upon the Queen!”
“ Does the heron fly freely into the cage?” Percevis said, addressing his fellow countrymen. “No! He stands on his towering legs and he stabs down at those who would think themselves tall!  He is a bird that shits in their eye!”
While Percevis rallied the soldiers and the peasants, Iadne rallied Eseus’s spirits.
“Come, Eseus,” Iadne said, “I will not lose another family as soon as I have found it.” She took his hand in hers. “And your child needs you to use your head.”
“My child?” Eseus was as dumbstruck as a man waking to find himself in a field of fairies. His astonishment soon fled, giving way to a hard-bitten resolve. “Yes,” he said. “I must use my head. We both must. Together. Come with me.”
He ascended to the battlements once again, gazing out over the armies that had come to destroy everything he knew. Iadne followed him, wondering what was his plan.
“I need distractions,” he said, “and the best of our archers.”

***

Iadne did a simple thing at first. She willed one horse into the moat. It chewed its rope and then wandered away from the other horses. Oxenford man and Crow clansman alike saw it with disinterested glances and thought no more of it. But when the horse leapt into the moat headfirst, drowning itself in the filth, quizzical glances multiplied quickly. Then Iadne willed another horse into the moat. After that horse, another horse followed. Soon the Oxenford men and the Crows were struggling with their horses, pulling on their reins and trying to mount them and veer them away from the stinking circle. Some men were kicked to death; others were merely thrown and injured. Some fell into the moat with the horses and drowned.
While the enemy was baffled and distracted, Eseus had his best archers loose arrows upon those nearest to the moat. Over a hundred men died that day, and nearly every horse died also, clogging the moat with their bodies. Iadne was so exhausted by the effort that she lost consciousness and did not wake for a day and a half. Eseus fed her himself and tended to her while she remained in bed until she was strong enough to rise without aid. In the meantime their enemies were disconcerted and rebuffed. They buried their dead, or attempted to, only for the Lorwynne archers to heap more to the multitude. In the end, the dead were abandoned. The stench was profound, and the flies gathered in large clouds. The men along the ramparts lit arrows and set the corpses on fire. The flies buzzed and bit at the foe, disgruntled by the smoke and unable to reach the dead in the moat and on the land surrounding it. The flies were a minor inconvenience, but when paired with the losses of their horses and their cavalry, morale within the enemy ranks was very low.
Malteus cursed Eseus and had his archers launch several volleys into the castle. Most of these arrows were squandered, the peasants retreating into the castle and the archers along the walls taking cover beneath the wax-layered leather tarps.
When Iadne had recovered, Eseus requested a simple task of her. There were many animals upon the moor which she might have used for various means of undermining their foes, but he thought the modest skunk was the next champion in their efforts against the enemy. Using her natural gifts, Iadne summoned a skunk from the moor. Under cover of night, she sent him into the tents where the foodstuffs and provisions were being kept. She then willed the skunk to befoul the food with its spray. Not one ounce of hardtack was spared, nor cured meat or bundle of rice or grain. All was ruined. By the time guards had realized what had happened at one tent, the skunk had moved to another, and then another. The skunk even managed to escape unharmed, returning to the moor from whence he came.
The Oxenford men began to look with great distrust upon all animals, including the familiars among the Crow clan. Indeed, a rift of distrust existed between Kareth’s forces prior to the ruinous infiltration of their foodstuffs, and now had split wider as a schism while the uneasy allies turned upon one another, blaming each other for the misfortunes that had so far visited them and then, at last, hemorrhaging as a skirmish betwixt the tribal warriors and the condescending soldiers.
It was as Oxenford soldier and Crow clansman cut each other low that Eseus felt hope rise in his heart. Here the tides of battle turned, and flood came upon the moor as if ancient gods had risen from the Wakes and slaked themselves anew. Eseus might have regretted so much bloodletting as what he saw from the battlements had it not been the means by which his people might be delivered. As a leader he had to be a butcher of men to be a protector. It was an uneasy realization, and he could not find it in himself to hate the foes below as they gutted each other. There was nothing for him but pity.
“It is a bloody thing,” he remarked to Iadne. “I can take no pleasure in it.”
“I can,” Iadne said, looking on the battle with her red irises. Her eyes looked like bloody eclipses. “And so should you. The Crow clan killed your father. They killed my clan, with the Oxenford men’s help. To see them slaughtering each other is as beautiful to me as a field of flowers in bloom.”
Eseus turned toward Iadne, looking at her as if beholding a stranger. “I do not wish to hear such things from you, Iadne. It makes me feel as if I love a witch…or a demoness.”
Iadne slipped her arm around his hip. “Witch, demoness, lover, and the mother of your child. I am all such things, and more. You may dread being a butcher of men, but it is necessary. We must be ruthless against all who would hurt our child. I will not lose this one. I have already lost Immedea, and I wish to lose no more children.”
They became silent, watching as Malteus tried to reestablish peace among the tribes and his own soldiers. He was nearly slain himself when a Crow woman leapt atop his back with her taloned weapons at his throat. It was then that a great voice deafened the camps of the enemy, as well as the inner walls of the House of Lorwynne. Eseus recognized the voice, unnaturally amplified upon a large silver bell carried like a litter by four men.
You fools win the war for our enemy! Prepare for the siege! Let the dead lay and concentrate on the walls. Make ready the ladders!”
Men scrambled, then, to continue, their former brutalities forgotten. The bloodletting now staunched, the Oxenford and Crow armies set forth with their bridges, laying them across the moats. Eseus’s archers killed a few men, but not enough to stop the covering of the moat.
Eseus shouted orders.
“Let fly!” he commanded. A volley of arrows pierced the enemy like an airborne iron maiden, dropping many shadows to waste upon the earth. “Men, wherever a ladder be raised, go meet it with arrow and blade! Do not let them overtake the wall without paying dearly for it!”
And they did pay dearly. For the corpses of the Oxenford men and the Crow clansmen were heaped as they attempted to raise the ladders along the walls and ascend to the ramparts. The dead fell like overripe apples from the boughs of an Autumnal tree. They crashed through the bridges, adding themselves to the glutted moat, or else lay in piles around the castle walls. It seemed a desperate act, and Eseus could not understand the desperation that compelled them in such disproportional measures.
“It makes no sense,” he said, grimly. “These gratuitous losses all for the sake of this castle. She loses more men than she should ever hope to regain in victory. And yet she persists. Were she truly vengeful for the death of her father, then perhaps it would be an explicable exertion, but she was pleased by his death; not forlorn or vengeful. This is irrational. This is a vain victory by means of heavy losses. What can she hope to win by such an exchange?”
“Perhaps she does not care about the expense of men because she wants something else,” Iadne said.
“But what?” Eseus said. “What could she possibly desire so badly as to sacrifice so costly a number of lives?”

***

All day and well into the evening the invading army attempted to overtake the walls of the castle. The stench of death clung to the air stubbornly, and not even the heavy rains in the evening could exorcize its ghost. When the rains left the fog rose, breathing thick from the moor as the Gray encroached closer upon the House of Lorwynne. A fog rose from the moat, with its fetor, and encoiled the castle like a primordial serpent. Eseus did not sleep, nor did Iadne. They remained upon the battlements as his men slew countless invaders still attempting to ascend the walls.
“It is madness,” he said, exhausted by his vigil and by being witness to so much needless death. “Bloody madness.”
Quite suddenly— as the moon rose overhead in the starry sky— the invaders halted their efforts. They retreated from the castle, withdrawing into their camp all at once. The large silver bell gleamed in the pallid moonlight, having been set down reverently in view of the castle.
“That bell is an evil thing,” Iadne warned.
“It is a Resonating Bell,” Eseus said. “Some wizards use them to speak across great distances. I did not know that my cousin had such things in her possession.”
“It is an abominable thing,” Iadne said. “And it will bring us nothing but misfortune.”
Iadne attempted to summon a horse near the bell, thinking she might draw it away. But as soon as the horse came close to the bell, she lost control of it. She tried other animals and insects also, but could maintain no power over them as they approached.
Since the invaders had ceased their attempts, Eseus and Iadne retired to his tower to sleep a few hours. They were exhausted, but even so, sleep did not come easy to them. Rather, the stench of the moat, and of the many dead horses and men that had accrued all around the castle, grew fouler with passing hours. When morning came, the stench was unbearable. Many people became sickened by the stench, including Eseus’s mother. They burned fragrances within the inner sanctum of the castle, at the hearth, hoping to fight off the charnel stench. It allayed it only a little.
Meanwhile, Eseus rotated the sentries upon the battlements and ramparts. The exhausted men gladly retired to the green for food and rest. He and Iadne ascended to the battlements once again to look out upon the camp of their enemy. Their enemy stayed at a cautious distance. Perhaps, Eseus thought, they had been bled of nerve in the previous profligacy. Perhaps they were only biding their time.
The stench intensified, and many men became sick. Iadne had to retreat to the inner sanctum, joining the Lady of Lorwynne. Eseus covered his mouth with torn cloth, and had the sentries do the same. It was as if the very air had become an enemy.
It was at noon— when the day became the hottest—that four Oxenford men carried the large Resonating Bell closer to the castle. They were too far away for arrows to hit with certainty, so Eseus gave no command. He only watched them, curious. He hoped that perhaps his cousin wished to parley, even though he knew such a hope to be naive at best.
And yet his cousin did speak through the Resonating Bell, the cadence of her voice was mellifluous as it chimed within the vibrations of the Bell. The words she spoke were conversely grotesque and vicious.

Bloated guts,
carrion air,
decay that gluts
and gases aflare,
become a doom
that shatters bones,
a carnal bloom
to break these stones.”

The fetor of the moat and the mounds of bodies became unbearable. Behind streaming tears Eseus retched as he watched hundreds of corpses exhale a terrible cloud of gas from their bloated bodies. The seepage rose into an amorphous bubble, a tawny stain upon the air which floated next to the castle wall. Eseus tried to shout a command for the sentries to flee, but could only gag. The gas cloud wound itself tightly, then erupted into a flashing explosion. The castle wall burst inward, the shattered stones raining upon the green while the dust flew up alongside smoke and the limbs of the unfortunate sentries who had been standing upon the blasted wall.

Wanted: Dead And Alive

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He roasted the horned moon over the billowing tongues of his little campfire, burning the crescent unto a sullen orange— hot as a cattle brand—to sear the purple Western twilight. Shadows hung heavy over the mesas, recalling a parlor where a casket had been draped in heavy black cloth long before Sherman marched through Savannah’s streets. The emptiness of the dead lands echoed within him. It was cold, and yet he did not feel it.
A pale horse nibbled at wispy, dying shoots of grass sprouting here and there from the rough throated pass. Coyotes yipped laughter from among the hills. Winds whispered along the capstoned brows of the mesas. A man laid next to the fire, unmindful of the flickering light that stretched and shrank shadows across his still, silent face. To the man tending the fire this silent man was the most precious thing left to him in this darkening world. Yet, now having him in his possession, he felt neither peace or relief or even that hateful joy of a wrong avenged. Instead, he looked out upon the stars and thought of his wife’s eyes— darkling and sparkling in a tearful agony between life and death. He felt the reach of yesterday’s shades plunging the night itself into a deeper gulf wherein it drowned. All the world was a hollow victory.
Night arced overhead, from horizon to horizon, and embers flitted up like dying fireflies in a futile quest for stars. The last drip of the bleeding blackened scabrously at the outer edge of the world. Numb, he unsheathed his bowie knife and sliced the nose from the still man’s face, all with a quick sawing motion. The latter did not flinch or cry out. The man with the knife then threw the cartilage and skin into the crackling flame, dissatisfied with the measure of his revenge.
“You should have lived longer,” he admonished the corpse.
His voice was a hoarse croak; a halting, stiff thing risen from the dead. He had not eaten or drank or slept in three days. Such things were for the living and he did not think himself alive.
“Should have lasted as long as my wife did,” he continued. “But you was ever a coward. One little gunshot to the leg and you bleed out with your pleas and your fears. No fight in you. Just wickedness and sin and prayers to Christ. As if Christ’d do anything for someone like you. He did nothing for Jolene, did he? Jolene, now…she had goodness and fight to spare. Even after what you did to her, she fought on to try to live. She had more fight in her than Robert E Lee and the whole of the Confederacy combined. Was that why you did it, you maggot-bellied bastard? Envy of her strength?” He sneered without feeling. “Told you I wanted no part in your war. The South could lose the war well enough without my help. And what did you do? Brought the war to my doorstep…and to my marriage bed. You couldn’t even have the decency to die in Savannah. Had to shed your pride and run off, like a salamander without its tail. And after all you done…”
He broke off into a choking silence, holding back the grief and knowing the futility of words given to the dead, as well as to the living. The priest had tried to offer him words. The Word, in fact. But what good was the Word to him? He had healed the best he could, though. His gunhand was a mangled mess after the hammers had their say, but his peacehand learned the ways of the gun aptly. Meanwhile, he had plotted, and he had hated, and he had asked around, contemplating the hungry, unsatisfied graves of the earth. When it was time, he aimed for the Devil’s horns, eventually uncrowning him to wear those horns himself. Many he killed, and here was the second to the last bounty he had left to seek. And while wearing the Devil’s horns was a burden, it was lighter than the most lightsome halo any saint ever wore. His conscience had been clear, and still was after all this bloody harvest.
The third man sat cross-legged beneath the horned moon, across the fire from the vengeful man. He had a headdress of Raven feathers and was shirtless and without pants, his loins covered with a limp blackbird. He grinned like the grinning dead who know the terrible secret which awaits us all.
“A good Hunt,” he said, gesturing toward the dead man without a nose. His eyes did not leave the living man, nor blink in the firelight.
The living man nodded. He felt the eyes of the Raven-headed man peering past his face, and deeper. He did not care.
“But not the Hunt you desired,” the Indian said.
The living man shook his head slowly, slightly— shook it only once.
“We have the Hunts we come upon,” the black-feathered man said. “We find what joys we can in them. They are all we have. Nothing else matters.”
The fourth man squatted down next to the fire, on the living man’s left. He was an Indian too. He wore a cloth of rabbit skin over his shoulders, and a loincloth of prairie grasses. He did not smile. He seemed troubled.
“We should seek out only needful prey,” he said. “Hunting one’s own shadow brings no good to anyone.”
The black-feathered Indian continued to grin, and did not look at the other Indian. “We Hunt whatever we find,” he said. “And if we can find nothing, we Hunt for Nothingness.”
The hare-cloaked Indian kept his eyes on the living man as well. He did not blink, his eyes a dark black. “Sometimes it is best not to Hunt at all.”
“But the Hunt is all that matters,” said the Raven.
“Only to those who cannot forage for a better life,” said the Hare.
“There is no fun in foraging,” said the Raven. “No Game. Games are important. They are all that matter. And when the Game is over, what does it matter? Enjoy the Game until the very end.”
“Sometimes the Game can only be won by not playing,” Hare said.
Raven cawed with laughter. “Remember what happened last time you chose to forage among the Hunters? Remember when you refused to play? They found Prey of their own, and your wife was that Prey. They were Hunters, for what is War but a big Hunt? What is the Hunt but a Game? Choosing not to play is the same as playing, only you are playing to forfeit. There is no escape from the Hunt. You must Hunt. There is no other Game in this world.”
Hare’s nose twitched as if he might sneeze. He did not sneeze. “Sometimes peace is when the Prey escapes the Hunt.”
“No escape,” said the living man. “No escape for any Prey. The guilty must eat the bullet.”
Taking his revolver from his holster, the living man aimed the barrel at his final mark and pulled the trigger, ending the Hunt at last. In the echo of the gunshot could be heard the cawing laughter of a Raven, and the mournful hop of a Hare.
The little fire flickered out beneath the endless dark. The burning brand of the moon lowered upon the body of the man who had taken his own life. His Hunt was now finished.

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