Necessary Evil

There was a full moon over the cornfield, lightening the night sky to a dark blue. Yet, the trees and houses and fields and valleys all lay in utter blackness. The headlights from two utility trucks pooled together in the center of a cornfield, cutting through the darkness as they met like a handshake. Two shadows fumbled in the cabs of their trucks, getting their equipment ready.
“Hell of a storm last night,” Earl said.
“What?” Henry asked, unable to hear him.
“I said it was a hell of a storm!” Earl said, raising his voice. “Imagine if Farmer Joe-Schmoe here hadn’t already cut his corn. It’d be a goddamn mess. Probably would have lost the Conduit in all of the shit.”
Henry had not heard half of what Earl said, but did afford the field a cursory glance, seeing the jagged remains of cornstalks in the haloed pool of the headlights. He pulled on his thick rubber safety gloves and walked toward Earl. To avoid looking at the Conduit in the pool of light, Henry stared up at the two power poles on either side of the field, barely discernible from the dark knobs rimming the horizon.
“Maybe if we had a stabler source of electricity…” he began to say.
“Don’t start that shit again,” Earl said, pulling on his own pair of safety mitts. His bald head gleamed in the light from his utility truck’s cab. “You know the boss hates hearing that shit.”
“It would not be so unreliable…”
“And I hate hearing it, too,” Earl put in forcefully.
Henry fell silent, helping Earl with the rolls of iron wire as he hauled them out of the truck. A lazy fog curled slowly up from a nearby creek, lounging over the field; glimpsed only where the headlights shone. Moonlight glossed the silver domes of the twin silos near the blackened house, burnishing them just enough to clean them of shadows and separate them from the sea of darkness all around.
The rolls of iron were heavy. Earl grunted, groaned, and let his end of the spool fall to the ground. Henry kept his end lifted, though the sudden imbalance jerked his arms and upper torso toward the ground, stooping him like an old man. He was eighteen years younger than Earl, but a hundred years ahead of him in other ways.
“Goddamn,” Earl swore, “I hate working out here in these bum-fuck boondock hick places. Can’t see shit, and everything smells like shit! And they are so goddamn pissy out here about their power! As if nobody else didn’t lose their power last night! Fuck, I pissed myself because I couldn’t see in the dark when I went to use the bathroom. So it wasn’t exactly paradise for me!”
Henry waited, still holding his end of the spool of iron wire, bent over and hoping that the sudden ache in his shoulder was not a pulled muscle.
“And they should know by now,” Earl went on, “that we get the city’s power back on first, then, eventually, if they are lucky and we feel like it, we get theirs back on. They should be grateful we don’t just let them live in the Dark Ages. Self-sufficient farmers, my ass!”
Henry did not say anything, but Earl gave him an outraged look as if he had.
“And don’t you start with your ‘Solar power and wind power is the solution to all of our problems’,” he said in an unflattering voice that was nowhere near accurate to Henry’s voice. “If we went to those, we would be out of a job!” Earl frowned, considering. “Probably.”
Henry waited patiently until Earl remembered what it was they were doing. With another grunt and groan and grumble, Earl squatted down and lifted up his end of the heavy coil of iron wire. They carried it— huffing and puffing—to the pool of conjoined headlights and set it near the Conduit. Earl squinted at the Conduit, a sour look on his face.
“Goddamn it,” he growled. “This one’s more than half-used up. It will need to be replaced soon, which means we have to come back out here again to stomp through cow shit. Probably in the Winter, by the look of it. Fucking hate this goddamn hick county…”
Henry did not like looking at Conduits, even if he had to install them everyday.
“We’ll have to order another one,” Earl continued, griping. “But for now we gotta use this one.”
The two utility men both knelt down beside the Conduit, the headlights at their back while they worked, readying the wire. Earl grumbled off instructions to Henry, even though Henry had been working for the company for more than two months now and knew the job as well as any of the old-timers. He was sharp to the uptake, even if Earl did not like to admit it.
“Don’t cut the old iron off until we attach the new iron,” Earl said. His wrinkled face was demonized by the headlights.
“I know how to do this,” Henry said, his blue eyes baffled by the white glare of the headlights. He kept his gaze to the side as he worked.
“Ouch!” Earl exclaimed, putting his finger in his mouth. It had been pinched between the iron coils as Henry unwound them. “Pay attention to what you’re doin’, dummy! What the hell’s the matter with you?”
Henry shrugged halfheartedly. “I don’t like to look at Conduits like this one,” he admitted.
Earl was apoplectic with disbelief. “Why the hell not?”
“They look like Cassie,” Henry said. “It just…just bothers me, is all.”
Earl raised his eyes to the heavens, shaking his head. “This Conduit’s a hundred years old. Likely even older! She ain’t some spoiled eight year old brat too mollycoddled by her momma to wipe her own ass. It’s just a goddamn Conduit. Jesus, man, try to be professional.”
Henry sighed heavily, then looked at the Conduit as he worked the wire. They unrolled the coil until they had enough, then cut it with a portable laser torch. Looming above them, the power poles stood tall, the old power line sagging between, snapped in two and laying in the cornfield like wet noodles. After a few moments, Henry sighed again.
“It’s just…it’s just she looks just like a little girl,” he said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
Earl was all utter slack-jawed disbelief.
It is not a little girl,” he said firmly. It is not a she. It is a goddamn fairy. All right? They’re not fucking human. I mean, she’s got goddamn wings. Have you ever seen a human with wings?”
“But they have feelings,” Henry said. “They are alive and sentient.”
“Whoa-ho!” Earl said. “Big word for a repairman to use. Don’t hurt yourself with it, now.”
“They can think, is what I mean,” Henry said. “Look at her! She’s scared!”
“I know what ‘sentient’ means, smart-ass,” Earl shot back. He shook his bald head like a dog breaking a rabbit’s neck. “But I can’t see that she thinks at all. Or that she’s scared. The goddamn breaker helm is covering her glitter-spitter face! Fuck, man, she’s barely alive anyway. She doesn’t even glow no more. Not like those that are used in the movies and shit.”
“I know she’s scared,” Henry said resolutely. He had stopped working the iron wire around the fairy’s willowy body. “I can hear her sobbing. There are tears on her cheeks! Look!”
“That’s dew,” Earl said. “This fucking fog is all clammy as three-day old piss.”
“They can sing songs, you know,” Henry said, rallying. “Beautiful songs, like a choir of children.”
Earl snorted. “Never cared much for songs.”
“But you watch the movies with them. You just said so.”
“Sometimes I do,” Earl said gruffly. “So what? I also masturbate to porn with them in it. Doesn’t mean nothing. Doesn’t mean I want to marry one and let it vote.”
A silence fell between them. The silence subsumed the entire county and its dark neighborhood. In the nearby house, on the other side of the field, the sound of fumbling and cussing could be heard. A flashlight split the darkness in the house, glimpsed through the lightning flash of an illuminated window. A fat face appeared through the pane, and a flash of fire as a candle was lit. The face was porcine and disgruntled, like a beady-eyed boar ready to charge with its teeth gnashing and its tusks aimed to gore. It disappeared into the darkness once again.
“Maybe we should just let it all stay dark,” Henry said. “All of it. Everything. Leave it dark for everyone so we don’t have to do this anymore.”
Earl laughed wryly— humorlessly. “And for little Cassie, too?” he said. “What if she needs surgery? What if she needs to have her appendix out? Use the old ways? No modern tools and anesthetic and all of that shit that saves eighty percent of the population from dying slow, miserable deaths by age forty?”
Henry wavered, not saying anything. He could only stare down at the fairy. He knew the wetness streaming from under the breaker helm was not dew.
“Not to mention,” Earl added with a rogue’s relish, “all those people that would start burning other people at the stake just to stay warm, or to ease their hearts, or just for a single fucking laugh in an otherwise joyless grind of existence. People do fucked up things in the dark when they don’t have electric toys to distract them.”
“It doesn’t have to the Dark Ages,” Henry said. “Just the 1700’s. Or the 1800’s. Before industrialization began to poison the earth…”
Earl rolled his eyes, and continued rolling iron around the fairy. “And how exactly is Farmer Joe-Schmoe over there going to process enough food to feed everybody? It takes a lot of electricity to plant a cob of corn, harvest it, and bring it to precious little Cassie’s belly. Power for grocery stores and trucks and processing plants. Fairies power it all. If they didn’t, we’d have to use Brown people again.” Earl grinned like the Cheshire Cat about to pounce on the White Rabbit. “But that’s a big No-No nowadays. We can’t have Colored people out in the fields, picking cotton. I guess we could use White people to do it. You and me, I mean. Why not? Every color’s been used throughout history. I’m a little biased in favor of the fairies, though, because I wouldn’t make a good slave, myself. I’m too ornery.”
Henry shook his head. “There has to be another way…”
“And Winter’s on its way,” Earl said thoughtfully. “How many people would freeze to death without power? Or die of pneumonia? Lot of lives on your hands, Mr. Crusader.”
Henry could say nothing else. The immensity of the dilemma overwhelmed him. The argument was too big for a single man to grasp, and the problem enormous beyond comprehension. After a few moments, he took up the iron wire and continued binding the fairy. When she squirmed or whimpered, he paused, exchanging glances with Earl— the former distraught, the latter sardonically resolute—and then hurried to entwine her in accordance to OSHA safety standards. After a while, Henry spoke.
“I guess fairies are kind of backwards,” he said. “Like Neanderthals. And they all died out because of it.”
“That’s right,” Earl said with a sly smile. “They’re not even Stone Age. It’s almost a favor to them, really. What would they be doing otherwise? Just playing around like stupid fucking kids forever. Totally meaningless. At least now they’ve got a purpose to their backward lives.”
“Yeah,” Henry said. “It’s…it’s a necessary evil.”
“Not even an evil,” Earl said. “Just necessary.”
The two utility men finished binding the new wire around the Conduit, then cut off the rusted and snapped strands of the old wire. They spread the Conduit’s arms out at its sides, spiraling the new wire there, too, then Henry climbed into the lift on the back on his utility truck and they began to string the new wire—and the fading Conduit— up between the poles. They worked efficiently and had no problems following protocols. Henry was proving himself a very competent utility repairman. Even Earl was impressed.
The sun rose hesitantly above the foggy horizon, as if averting its gaze. Inevitably it spilled its light over the knobs and farms and fields and sins and guilt. Before leaving, Earl and Henry glanced up at their work one final time—the fairy T-posed in the center of the power line—and Henry was reminded of someone. Who it reminded him of, he dared not say.

Venom Pies Part 10

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Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne were sitting by the hearth, surrounded by peasant women and children. The explosion shook the whole castle to its bones. Women and children cried out and clung to one another. The Lady of Lorwynne paled and instinctively grabbed Iadne’s hand.
“They have breached the castle!” she gasped.
They rose to their feet unsteadily, expecting Crows to come flooding into the dining hall at any moment.
“The Crows will not spare women or children,” Iadne said. “Where can we go? There are too many for the men to repel for long!”
Lady Lorwynne glanced about in a fright. “Perhaps the crypts will be of some protection. They are as a maze beneath the castle, and we may lose them below for a time. My husband once said there was an escape route through the maze, though he had never ventured far enough to find it.”
Iadne remembered the thing she sensed down in the dark; the thing that was neither animal or beast. “Is there no other way?” she asked.
The Lady of Lorwynne shook her head. The screaming of war cries and death shrieks made her quiver. “My son!” she said. “I cannot leave without him!”
“I will fetch Eseus,” Iadne said. “He is mine now. He will come with me, or I will kill him myself.”
While the women and children followed the Lady of Lorwynne out to the crypts, Iadne sprinted toward the fray. What she saw upon the main stairs gave her pause.
The outer wall smouldered. It had been an unnatural explosion that destroyed it, the stone strewn out amidst malodorous black smoke that reeked of fetid death. A hemorrhage of Crows bled inward, slaying all those who stood before them with their ugly blades of butchery.
“The breach!” Eseus cried. “Stitch the breach!”
Iadne watched as Eseus threw himself upon the breach, staunching the hemorrhage with his sword and shield, bleeding the Crows that rallied within that fissure. Loyal men bolstered his fury, overwhelming the forces that had attempted to fight their way to the winches of the drawbridge and the portcullis. Yet, though they staved the flood, it was not destined to last.
Meanwhile, the peasant men scrambled to regain their weapons. The Lorwynne soldiers scrambled to issue them. Those that took possession of a blade or axe immediately engaged in battle. Their frantic flailing was dangerous, however, and Iadne feared that Eseus would just as soon fall to a peasant’s undisciplined blade as much as the wild frenzy of a Crow. She had to help him survive as the windmills of blades tightened around him.

***

The Crow clan did not fight with honor. They were a tribe of the moor, and a tribe of the moor did not dabble in luxuries like honor. Their crows swooped down upon the Lorwynne men, and the Lorwynne men—erstwhile distracted—were shredded by the Crow clansmen’s cruel weapons. Eseus saw this unworthy tactic befall many of his men, and so did not succumb to it himself. Left and right he hewed through the Crows like a woodsman through saplings, ignoring the crows as they squawked above his head.
Yet, however well he fought, Eseus could not fight forever. His injured shoulder ached, and soon betrayed him and his shield. It slowed him, and distracted him with pain, and so became an enemy also. He flung the shield into the face of a Crow woman, braining her, while he cut the legs out from beneath a Crow man vowing vengeance. It was all a butcher’s work, however reluctant he was to do it. And death-dealing wearied him emotionally as well as physically. So many lives ended by his bloody hands— he could scarcely face the enormity of the generations he had severed with the thrusts and slashes of his sword.
Eseus feared death. He was not so taken away with the steel song of battle to not fear such an absolute thing. But he feared more the death of his mother and of Iadne than his own. He feared more the failure to serve the memory of his father. And so he fought on, and on. He saw his men fall, and he saw the violation of the castle was his home. He saw enough bloodshed to slake the monsters of a thousand nightmares.
And then he saw the worst nightmare come true. Iadne was running in amongst the death-dealing madness of the green. She ducked and slid and fell and rose, scrambling to get to him. At first, the Crows did not notice her— so enthralled were they with killing other men—but when they recognized the Spider clan girl a great rage overtook them. No superstitious fear would restrain them now, for they had the bloodlust upon them.
Eseus fought his way toward Iadne, and away from the breach. She was surrounded by Crows by the time he reached her. He stabbed one Crow in the back, and beheaded another who was raising his taloned blades against her. The final two turned as one toward him. But before the two of them could overpower Eseus, Percevis met the second, and so Eseus took the first. Eseus slew the first, but the second scored a severe slash upon Percevis’s chest. The Crow raised his talon for the killing slash, but Iadne grabbed hold of his black-feathered cloak and pulled him back with a savage yank. The Crow toppled backward and Eseus drove him to the ground with a downward thrust.
Iadne helped Percevis up to his feet. His wound bled between his armor plate. Iadne supported his weight beneath her shoulder.
“Eseus, we must go!” she pleaded. “Retreat to the crypts!”
Eseus turned stubbornly toward the breach once again.
“No!” he said. “I will not forsake my men!”
“You can do them no good dead,” Percevis said, groaning. “Come, lad, the castle will be overrun before long. We need a leader. Save their women and their children. Lead them to safety!”
Eseus oscillated between conflicted duties. All around him he saw his men falling. Peasant, soldier— their blood mingled together amidst the carnage. The Oxenford forces had not yet entered through the breach. All was doomed. His preparations were for nought.
“What hope have we in the crypts?” he demanded, sneering with rage. “To die in the dark like rats?”
“Your mother says there may be an escape passage below,” Iadne said. “Please, Eseus. We need you. I need you. Come with us!”
Eseus looked upon his dying men, and the Crows still entering the fray. He killed two more Crows, and felt no victory in their deaths. It was all meaninglessness against the gods of inevitability. Sighing in defeat, he hurried alongside Iadne, helping her support Percevis as they headed to the crypts and entered the innards of the earth. The massacre behind them, Eseus wondered how much of a failure, and coward, he would be in the eyes of his father.

***
The crypts were dark, dusty and smelled of Time. They ran like a maze beneath the House of Lorwynne, their twisting walls peopled by the dead. Each corpse was swaddled in moldy fabric, grim with their silent secrets. Eseus saw them in the flickering light of his torch and felt as if they were judging him; damning him for his cowardice as he passed.
“How large are these crypts?” Iadne asked. “They seem to go on forever. Or are we walking in circles? It is confusing. Perhaps I should have let a spider thread follow after us so we would know where we have passed and where we haven’t.”
Percevis laughed— a weak, painful laugh unlike his usual guffaw. “The walls of the Labyrinth always seem large to the young, but they narrow as you grow older. The corridors press upon you, little by little, and you begin to crack. That’s what wrinkles are. Eventually, the Labyrinth entombs you. For it is Time.”
Iadne felt Percevis’s forehead with a hand, thinking he might be suffering a fever.
“I’m not out of my wits, girl,” Percevis said, not unkindly. “Just waxing lugubrious and philosophic. That’s what happens when bad things happen around you. You try to salvage some worth from so much wreckage. Structure the ruins with some kind of meaning. And there aren’t any ruins like those of the dead, both above and below.”
Whatever carnage was being wrought above, it was deafened by the thickly packed earth. The passages descended along angled ramps beneath the earth, spiraling out wider. It seemed to Eseus that it was an underground ziggurat spiraling down into the earth, tiers unto tiers expanding upon their descent. Yet, as it descended, the corridors narrowed , as if to strangle all the very idea of light until extinguished.
At last, they came upon the women and children in the chthonic maze. The throng was as a subterranean river, flowing hesitantly in the crowded darkness and narrowing catacomb corridors. The flow ceased, then parted, letting Eseus and Iadne and Percevis pass through to the front where the Lady of Lorwynne awaited them. In the torchlight Eseus saw the pale, troubled faces of his remaining people, and the tearful fear manifested there mirrored what Eseus felt. Terror, hopelessness, grief. Yet, there was a defiance, too, in this last desperate plunge into darkness. They had now buried themselves alive in the crypts rather than let their corvine enemies pick among their corpses. At the very least, a greater feast would be denied to the Crows, lest such creatures dared to fly belowground.
“Eseus!” Lady Lorwynne exclaimed. She rushed to him in relief, but did not embrace him. He was the Lord of Lorwynne now, and so had to stand apart as Lord. “I feared I had lost you!”
“All may be lost,” Eseus said, “but I remain, for whatever consolation may be found in such an impoverishing exchange.”
“Eseus, do not assume the guilt as if it was your own…”
His mother attempted to console him, but Eseus would not accept it.
“As heir it all falls upon me,” he said. “And even if I somehow throw every one of those carrion-feeders out of the House of Lorwynne, they will have yet glutted themselves overmuch on our dead. Were I to purge the All Ways of them, they will have accomplished more against our people than I could ever avenge were I to kill them a thousand times over, for but one of our men is worth a thousandfold more than their whole misbegotten bloodline.”
He was in a fervor, the hateful bloodlust rising in him anew. He relinquished his aid to Percevis—letting Percevis’s wife, Edea, support her husband—and preoccupied himself with leading the throng through the subterranean maze. Meanwhile, Iadne explained to Edea her husband’s wound, and Edea saw to it immediately, bandaging it with a spider-silk cloth. Another woman—stouter than Iadne— came forward to help shoulder the old man’s weight as he limped along. He was the only remaining husband among either peasantry or soldier.
Eseus raised his torch and continued through the labyrinth, his mother to one side and Iadne to the other; his remaining people following close behind them in a whispery bustle of shoulder-to-shoulder silence. Eseus said nothing, his mouth shut like a dragon-trap. No one else spoke, either, for many of them feared the dead and wished not to disturb their slumber. The curve of the maze began to unwind as it descended, becoming a long corridor without corpse or coffin. It was a long hallway made of stone. Eseus knew, instinctively, that it cut beneath the moat and extended out into the moor. But the passage did not rise yet, but was even, cut as flat as any castle hall might be. The floor was cobbled darkly with obsidian.
There was a wall— a spiteful wall promising only despair. It permitted no one further passage, its rebuff as deathly silent as the grave. This was the end of hope. The wall was the accomplice of the Crows and the Oxenford men in their slaughter of the remaining survivors. Women wailed while children sobbed. They all knew what the wall meant.
Yet, there were runes upon the wall. They were runes Eseus had never seen before, but somehow he understood them. He read them aloud, his tongue speaking the self-evident translation without his mind comprehending the means which bestowed this newfound talent.

“To ford the stars enfolded
in their abyssal depths
pass the door herein molded—
by daring, by words, by breaths.”

Eseus did not understand the riddle, but more puzzling was his own comprehension of the runes. He was ever more confused when the wall rumbled, breathing dust from its corners, and began to slide noisily to the side. The way was now open.
The corridor continued its descent, and the remaining people of Lorwynne had no choice but to follow. At length, the corridor came to a post-and-lintel end, opening unto a vast, circular room. At first it seemed an empty darkness inhabited this cavernous room, but something moved within the shadows. It was massive, and as it moved the whole of the crypts shook with its rousing power. Iadne trembled as she held onto Eseus’s arm. His mother gasped.
“It is the thing I feared,” Iadne warned.
Deep within the manifold darkness there emerged a broad, horn-crowned head. The face was furious, its large nostrils looped with a glowing ring the size of a shield. Behind the head came a neck—thick as an ancient tree trunk— and beyond that neck a massive body with pale flanks that were wide and powerful, like the bulwarks of a great ship. Taken all together, it could be comprehended as a large ox, and it stood before them in the center of that circular expanse. The size of a dragon, it stepped forward, its hooves shaking the earth and making the throng of women and children cry out. Its dark eyes gazed upon them like the swallowing depths of Night. Within its eyes were stars— countless stars that shone like a memory of the stelliferous sky. It snorted, and the force of its exhalation resounded through the crypts like a gale from a seastorm.
“That is what I sensed beneath the castle,” Iadne shouted, striving to be heard beneath the bellows of the Bull. “We must turn back!”
“We cannot turn back,” Eseus said. “To turn back is to die! To stay is to die! We must press forward! There is a way around the beast! And if not, much can be improvised when the will provides!”
The Bull bellowed again, as if to challenge Eseus on the matter.
“Be ready to flee to the other side,” he said. “Seek egress as soon as I distract the beast.”
“This is deathly foolishness!” Iadne said, holding him by the wrist. “You mustn’t…”
“I must!” he shouted.
Could Iadne have paled more, she would have. The Lady of Lorwynne paled enough for the both of them.
“Son,” she said, “this is not the path to take. We can…we can all rush to the other side. Together. It will be like taking lots. Drawing straws. A game of chance and knuckle-bones…”
“No, mother,” he said, gravely. “It will be fixed in my favor. How could it not be? I am faster than all of you. And how many would die were that beast to trample through them? I will not allow it.”
Eseus, undaunted, stepped toward the post-and-lintel threshold. He was too determined to be thwarted now, for if he did not help the wives and children of the men that had died, then he had truly failed at everything. Closer to the threshold now, he saw that the runes carved into the lintel above his head. For some strange reason he knew what they meant, even if he could not read them for what they were.
Iadne pulled him back, pleading with him.
“I will try to Will it away,” Iadne said. “Please let me try!”
Eseus was too astonished by the runes to argue with Iadne. He nodded and waited while she closed her eyes. The struggle to reach the mind of the beast was written with tremulous wrinkles upon Iadne’s high brow. Swooning, she opened her eyes, leaning now on Eseus.
“I cannot touch its mind,” she said. “It is not something of this world, but a creature beyond. Perhaps not even a creature. It is something much older…much more…elemental.”
Eseus told his mother to see to Iadne.
“Be prepared to run,” was all he said as he stepped beyond the lintel. He did not unsheathe his sword. He knew that such a weapon would do little against a beast that so easily dwarfed a manmade blade. But he nonetheless had his torch, and this he held aloft, wondering if the preternatural creature would fear flames, or light, having been condemned to the darkness for so long. Perhaps he might blind it so that his people could scurry past it silently without being trampled to death.
“Eseus, come back!” his mother pleaded.
It was too late. He approached the ox. The words of the runes echoed in his head. And he felt himself drawn toward that gigantic beast. He felt the power of that elemental creature threading its way through his own being, pulling at him like a spool winding round tightly.
The ox snorted and stomped. The gales nearly knocked Eseus to his feet. The stomp brought him to his knees while flames sparked from the obsidian cobblestone. Yet, Eseus stood and steadied himself, holding the torch aloft. As he approached the beast he spoke the words on the runes. These words bound him and the Bull together. Somehow, they were like the words of Fate herself. Irresistible. Irrevocable. Inescapable.
“By the threads I found you. By the fabric I bound you. By the threads I found you. By the fabric I bound you…”
The Bull bowed its head. For a moment Eseus feared it might charge him, but instead it awaited his command. Dismayed, Eseus motioned for his people to pass. Iadne entered the vast, cavernous room first; then the Lady of Lorwynne, and soon the rest of the women and children. Percevis, Edea, and the stout midwife hobbled lastly, moving like a three-headed chimera with its legs all wrongwise. The survivors circled around the room, allowing a wide breadth between themselves and the Bull. The Bull paid them no mind. There was another post-and-lintel aperture upon the other side of the room. The throng of women and children entered it, following the Lady of Lorwynne. Iadne stayed behind, waiting for Eseus. But Eseus was mesmerized.
“Eseus!” she whispered, loudly as she dared for fear of startling the Bull. “Please! Hurry!”
Eseus had stopped speaking the binding words, and yet he and the Bull were as mesmerized as before. Iadne went to Eseus, taking him by the arm, gently, and leading him from there. The Bull watched them leave from within its rounded tomb. It was as patient as the stars.

***

Having seen the Bull, Eseus felt a great power within him. It was maddening, this power. It beckoned him to plow the world with his Will. Leaving the Bull behind made his heart ache. He sweated as he fought off the impulse to run back through the dark corridors and return to the Bull once more; to release the Bull upon the world. It had a hold on him— a yoke which he could not shrug off. Yet, he had Iadne and his mother beside him, and the women and children afore him, and he had to continue on, farther and farther from the Bull, even as the yoke of urgency grew heavier upon him with the distance. His stride began to falter. He stumbled along, Iadne helping to steady him.
“What is the matter?” she asked. “Are you injured?”
“It is the Bull,” he said. “It…it has a hold on me, as I have a hold upon it.”
“It is not a natural beast,” she said. “I do not know what it is. Whatever it is, you must resist it. We must escape to the moor.”
Eseus rallied himself, though his heart was rent with the rigor of his efforts. The darkness of the labyrinth pressed closer than ever to him, regardless of how close he held his torch to his face.
“Eseus!” Iadne growled. “Wake up! You are behaving as thick as bog peat.” She grabbed the torch from him before he could burn himself. “Give me the torch lest you turn yourself into a swamp wisp.”
They continued on, though Eseus’s stride slowed. Eventually he began to hesitate, sweating and breathless. The farther from the Bull they ventured, the more arduous the struggle to continue.
“Hurry, Eseus!” Iadne commanded, yanking on his arm. “Your people need you! I need you!”
“The Bull…” he said. “With the Bull I can destroy all of our enemies. The Crow Clan. House Oxenford. Even the Valorian Empire to the South. It is only a matter of time before they aspire to conquer our lands. They must be stopped, and the only means by which to expel them will be to exterminate them. The Bull…it has the power to do that…and more.”
Iadne’s hand slapped Eseus across the face so sharply that the throng of women and children paused, gazing back as the echo resounded sharply all around them.
“I need you, Eseus!” Iadne said. “Our daughter needs you!”
The revelation struck him harder than her slap ever could. He could scarcely speak.
“Our…daughter?”
“She will come,” Iadne said, “if you help all of us through this darkness! Please. Hasten your feet! She will need both of us, and I will need you!”
The reins of power were abandoned; the yoke thrown off. Eseus took the torch in hand once more and hurried to the fore of the throng, leading them once again. The corridor ascended slowly— at a lax incline— and they walked what seemed miles in the dark. Soon their torches began to fade, having burned overlong, and now extinguished, and the women clutched the children to them, fearful they might lose them in the dark.
“Join hands!” Eseus shouted. “Everyone join hands and do not leave anyone alone beneath the earth!”
Through darkness they walked, hand-in-hand, and, in time, Eseus came to the end of the ascending corridor. Still holding Iadne’s hand, he felt a cloak of grass brush against his face, and fall aside, and then the moors expanded all before his eyes as he emerged from the side of a hill. The Gray was there to greet them. The Oxenford army greeted them also.

Wish Come True

You boys need to sit a spell. It’s a helluva swelterin’ day to be out river-raftin’ and I reckon you could use a moment in the shade to cool yourselves off. I’m sure them rapids will still be waitin’ for you in an hour or so. They ain’t goin’ nowhere, ‘cept forward, of course. Funny how the river moves on, but remains in place. Even that turbulence. I’m sure it’s all wear-and-tear on the arms, fightin’ those currents and that mean old spittle of the river. Me, I couldn’t do it. Maybe in my youth I could. Then again, I ain’t so old as I appear. I know, I know. Time ain’t been good to me, but really it is the genes that are to blame. The bad blood in me. Too much inbreeding where I come from. Ain’t good for the specimen, or the species for that matter. That’s why I married me a girl from other parts. No need to have the branches entwined with the roots, if you get my meaning. Anyhow, yessir, I’ve been a chewer most my life. Chewin’ the leaf helps me chew the cud. Mastication, they say, means to chew things over. And I’ve a lot to chew over as I become an old man too soon. It ain’t a bitter leaf, mind you. And if it is, well, that’s just the type of flavor you like in your old age, however premature it may be in comin’ to you.
Yeah, you whitewater rafters have your skin in the game for sure. The river can be mighty fickle as it runs along. He’s a merciless daddy to piggyback on. But when I was a boy growin’ up in Appalachia, the thing most folks said you had to fear wasn’t so much whitewater as silent, still, stagnant water. My daddy’d get kidney stones all his life, and that was because there was a limestone spring where he grew up at, and he and his folks would get their water from it. Yessir, water and minerals all in one gulp and go, and then kidney stones later on. Damn near killed him, those kidney stones. Like givin’ birth for a man. Almost dropped him with a heart attack. But he’d pull through.
Anyway, what you really had to fear was stagnant water fed off from the river. Watershed lakes, is what I mean. You see, it is true that whitewater can chew you up and spit you out as bad as any black momma bear, but still water can devour your body and soul, inside and out. And I ain’t just talkin’ ‘bout chemicals and pigshit and the other stuff that enterprisin’ individuals like to flush down-river; I’m talkin’ ‘bout the history in the bottomlands and their watersheds. I’m talkin’ the torrent of history that bleeds off and gathers in little pools that are so silent and still that people forget about them until they find themselves steeped up to their chins in them, or else drownin’.
I’m talkin’ ‘bout myths. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the Pitcher Woman.
Where do I start? The bottomland was a place where the sun never looked in none. The floodwaters brought thick soils with them that grew them trees tall and taut together, like bundles of giant broccoli, their foliage a roof in a great columned hall. Moss carpeted the ground there, if anything, and lichen and mushrooms grew in fairy rings like portals between worlds. And they were portals between worlds, mind you, though the worlds were nothing you’d ever want to visit.
It waited there, in that stagnant lake, eating frogs and water fowls and whatever else wondered into that forgotten lake, save for when the floodwaters opened the way for the river to bleed prey into that natural cesspool. Deer disappeared there, too, and it was said that a family of slant-eyed tourists had died after eatin’ bad mushrooms near the lake. But that was not true. Their bones joined the others at the bottom of that lake, their souls long gone before that. No one picnicked on bottomland, even eccentric tourists. But you know how drunk kids are with youth. Piss and vinegar can wash away fear faster than a spilling river from a broken dam. And that dam bled freely in our hearts.
And by we, I mean me and my cousins. Not yet teens, but we thought we could rule the wilderness. We went walking along the river every weekend in that Summer. This was back when Summer break was a good three months or so, so the farm boys could help with the harvest. But me and my cousins weren’t farm boys. We was River Rats. Our kin lived our lives along and in the Birchpike River, like muskrats. Fishing, boating, noodling—my granddaddy had lost three fingers to an alligator snapping turtle while trying to pull out what he thought was a flathead in a hole. Didn’t matter to him, though. Said it was the best soup he ever tasted.
Anyway, my cousins and me often explored the backwoods and the backwaters. Hell, they was our home! Elm, oak, and birch were as much our kin as any of our distant cousins (and no cousin back then was really distant since we all lived near the same town).
But I’m gettin’ lost in the thicket. My cousins and me, we liked to push our luck in that treacherous maze of Nature. Cottonmouths and copperheads lurked under every root, rock, and clover patch. Fiddlebacks webbed the underbrush and scrambled through the decaying leaves of every Fall that had come and gone since we had been born. But we was intrepid— foolhardy, you might even say—and armed ourselves with youthful laughter and rusty machetes to clear a path through that riverside wilderness. Everyday of that Summer we cut deeper into the cluttering chaos of countless plants and silver-barked trees. We pressed on beyond the higher land near the river and crossed a muddy wash-out ravine, using an uprooted tree for a bridge, and then descended slowly toward the bottommost bottomland. I remember like it was only yesterday.
Just me and my cousins— Andy, Trevor, and Nick. We were all roughly the same age, give or take a few months, and so nobody was really a leader. We just sort of decided things, and had an accord. An unspoken compact. We would go as far along the river as that Summer would let us. It was a binding pact, too, and one none of us would renege on. Now, you have to understand something: we were all Christians reborn in the blood of Jesus Christ, but that didn’t mean the Irish threads in our souls had forgotten the pagan vagaries and mysticisms of the old country, even here in America. We were prone to our own moments of daydreaming and fancy. What’s more, the Cherokee threads pulled at our sense of awe, too, and so the exploration was as much a pilgrimage as it was a preoccupation to pass the time. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we were men; strong, brave, and independent from our mommas and daddies. Course, if one of us had been snakebit we would’ve realized how make-believe all that shit was in our heads. I guess it was no different than when we pretended to be cowboys shootin’ at Indians.
Actually, it might have been better had one of us ended up snakebit. Then perhaps we would have never dared to go so far along those bottomlands.
It all seemed like harmless fun, though, and so we kept at it for weeks. Chopping underbrush with our machetes, joking about the dummies at school, and talking about the cute girls that we liked, and laughing about how dumb the teachers were. It was how we passed the time when we weren’t fishing or helping dig lateral lines or shingle roofs or whatever. Back then I was too young for chewing tobacco, so I settled for candied ginger root. My cousins thought it something funny, me chewing ginger, since I was myself a ginger. Can’t tell it now that I’ve gone all gray squirrel, but I used to be redder than a fox squirrel in my youth, and speckled worse than Easter eggs. That fiery color’s all extinguished out of me over the last few years. I guess settling down with a woman— no matter how pretty and good she is, or how happy she makes you— will do that to a man. Anyways, ginger is good for ya. Good for allergies and sinuses and breath. Ginger and horseradish. They’re the twin doctors of good health. Maybe I ought to take them up again. Couldn’t hurt me. The good life seems to be killing me. Nowadays, tobacco is my only bad habit. Maybe it’s what’s agin’ me prematurely. Could be the chemicals they use in ‘em now, but I doubt it. Otherwise others would be agin’ like me, too. Nah, it’s just my bad blood. Stagnant to the point of sickness.
We didn’t see the lake until we were almost on its banks. The trees were thick here, too, and rose up around it like a half-assed wall. The lake was congealed thickly with duckweed and green algae. It stank of stagnation. Water that sits tends to do that. Blood does, too, if you know what I mean. That was one of the reasons I got me a wife from Boone County— far enough away to be wife, but close enough to be family without being actual kin.
As I was sayin’, the water stank, and the algae was slimy and green, like mucus in a pneumonic lung. Naturally, my cousins and me wanted to poke at it with our machetes. Each of us started to stir our machetes into the shoals, cocooning the algae around our rusty blades like spools of green gossamers.
Trees rose from out of that stagnant lake, same as they did in all other parts of the bottomland, and so the shadows stagnated too; long-lingering shades heaped black and deep. We did not see the waves when she rose from the center of the lake. We did not see the wrinkles or the rings or hear nothing. One moment the lake was a solid spread of algae and the next she stood upon the water, easy as Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. I’d say she just appeared outta’ nowhere, but that ain’t exactly true. No, it was more like we looked at her without seeing her— like looking at a snake in the bushes without knowing what you are looking at, and then, all of a sudden, you see the snake after being blind to it for so long. There she is! If she was a snake she would’ve bit me.
But despite her walkin’ on water, she seemed a broken woman. Her back was bent and her knees bowed outward in a squat, almost like a frog as her long arms held a clay jar as she hunkered over it. Even so, my grip on my machete tightened.
My cousins and me looked at each other for a second— all with the same gobsmacked look on our faces—and when we looked back at her, she was standin’ on the edge of the lake, close enough to grab us with her long arms. But she didn’t grab us. She just eyed each of us in turn, as if she was our grandmother and knew something we didn’t about how we reminded her of some other relative she might’ve known once upon a century ago, and she tilted her clay jar, or pitcher, toward us. We looked in, being boys, and couldn’t see no bottom. It was all dark as night in the pitcher. But lookin’ in it made me feel like I was fallin’ forever in a dream from which I couldn’t wake up. When I came to, my cousins and me were leanin’ awfully far over the mouth of the pitcher. We shook our heads and turned away from that jar, or pitcher or whatever it was. I could feel my blue blood all sloshy with ice in my veins. Later I’d wonder why I hadn’t run away, or cut at the pitcher with my machete, or at the old woman, but no story ever comes true if you get up and run away from it, now does it? Death is the only exception, and that is only because every story has to end.
Anyhow, the old woman spoke to us. Her voice croaked up out of her corded throat like a bullfrog’s imitatin’ a woman’s speech, and to hear it was to feel it in the deep of your chest, where what they call the fight-or-flight reflex is stalled and stays at the “or”, unable to do nothing but hammer the heart until a cold sweat leaks from your every pore.
“I am Pookjinsquess,” she croaked, “your dear Aunty Pookjinsquess, and you dear boys deserve your heart’s content. A boon for my dear, dear boys! For visiting your Aunty of the Old Waters.”
We were too scared to move, and overawed by the fact that the woman didn’t sink none, nor her pitcher, as she stood upon that filthy water. She was a sight to see, even if you don’t believe me. She was copper-skinned, humpbacked, and had an old man’s warty face full of spindly, long spider hairs. Her drooping breasts were so warty that they looked like mushrooms growing up out of overfull leather sacks. Her white hair had a radiance all its own that shone even in that darkness beneath the trees, and it was long and damp, thankfully covering part of her naked body. Seeing the ugliness of her made me want to fly, but I was like a damn rabbit fixed by the stare of a wolf. Goddamn I used to think rabbits were the stupidest animals I’d ever seen, but now I was the rabbit. Or maybe I was the fish hauled up from the river, hook in mouth and gawping like an idiot with my eyes wide. What a haul for her, too. Though my machete was tight in my grip, it was all but useless as my hand refused to move.
“My dear, delicious boys,” she croaked. “How lovely you all are! In your prime! Bones cloaked in your strength. Meat draped with perfect skin! So lovely, all of you!”
With startling speed, the old hag snatched a snake up from the water— a cottonmouth slithering toward my leg— and bit its head off with a quick snap of her long, crooked teeth. Crunching bone and meat, she looked dead-eyed into the distance beyond us. The sound of the serpent being reduced to pulp in her jaws must have stirred me and my cousins to move. Or maybe that old hag thing lost focus on us for a moment. But the moment didn’t last long enough for us to get away. We stepped back, but her attention snapped right back to us, and fixed us in place like nails to a board.
“Oh my dear lovely boys!” she mumbled, her jaws still working at the bone and meat in her teeth. She swallowed the cottonmouth’s head, her Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in her hairy gullet. “For spending time with your Aunty I will give you each your heart’s desire!”
“Our heart’s desire?” Andy said.
“Really?” Nick said.
“Of course! Of course!” the old hag said. “Anything you want!”
It should have been hard to believe that the old hag could give anyone anything, except leprosy, but I knew it had to be true. I knew it had to be true, just like I knew the sky was blue and the grass was green and I was a child dear in the heart of Jesus Christ.
“What’s the catch?” Trevor asked. He was always to the point.
“Oh, no catch!” she said. “No catch at all.”
This was not true. We were the catch. Her catch. She was hauling us up as she spoke to us, all of us caught in her net.
“Just a sweet little kiss,” she said. “A sweet little kiss for your Aunty.”
All of us shivered. I could feel the bile rising like hot vinegar in the back of my throat. None of us dared to kiss that hideous face. Would have rather kissed a pig’s muddy ass.
“Or,” she said, “if you can’t give me that, Aunty wouldn’t mind a little spit-shine on her pitcher. It is so dirty, and some boys like you could clean it nicely.”
The pitcher was as filthy as an outhouse shitter. Green and brown gunk clung to its fat flanks and the rim of its mouth.
“Why doncha’ just use the water here?” Trevor asked.
“We could take it home and clean it there,” Nick said.
“No!” the woman croaked. Then, in a quieter voice, “No, it’s got to stay with your Aunty. And the water here is no good for cleaning things. Just…just a little spittle is enough, my little darlings. A little spit in the pitcher will work wonders, and I will work wonders for you.”
I wanted to leave, but then Andy stepped forward.
“Can you stop my momma and daddy from gettin’ a divorce?” he asked, his voice all quavering.
“Of course, my poor dear!” she said. “My poor, poor, sad dear.”
We all knew about the fighting that was going on between Andy’s momma and daddy, and we all heard the whispers about them gettin’ a divorce. It bothered Andy more than he wanted to let you know. And none of us knew how to talk to him about it.
Before we could stop Andy, he leaned over the pitcher and spat into its mouth.
“That’s what I want,” he said. “For my parents not to get a divorce.”
“That is not a problem for Aunty,” the hag said, nodding. She seemed to stand a little more upright now. Andy teetered a bit, as if he was tired, but he didn’t fall. Boys recover fast at that age. The drowsiness lifted from him soon enough.
Trevor scoffed. “I think this is a bunch of hogwash,” he said.
The hag eyed him in her knowing, grandmotherly way. “There must be something dear that you desire, my boy. Don’t act all high and mighty and lose this chance. Aunty only wants to make your dreams come true.”
Trevor’s brow crinkled angrily, as it always did just when he was thinking, or when he was about to hit you in the arm. “What have I got to lose?” he reasoned aloud. He went to the pitcher and spat in it. “I want to be rich.”
“And you will be, my dear boy,” she said. “You will be.”
Chris shrugged and stepped forward. He spat into pitcher. “I want to be famous.”
“And you will be, my dear boy,” the hag said. She then looked at me. I won’t deny that part of me wanted to take my machete and lop off that ugly bitch’s head, and I won’t lie and say that it was the larger part of my mind. No, I was thinking about my wish and what I most wanted. A ginger like me was luckless with girls, and knew it would only get worse as I grew older. My daddy warned me so. He said I got the freckles of my momma, and that’s fine on a woman, but it is unmanly in a man. So I was afraid I would be alone for the rest of my life.
And me, I was a sucker for romance. Even then. I always wanted a woman of my own. This desire was stronger because my daddy told me I wouldn’t ever find it. But he was a bitter old coot after momma left him, so, that factors in, sure.
So, what did I do? I told my cousins to scram. I didn’t want them to hear my wish and mock me for it. And they would’ve, too. Sure as flies on a sweaty hog, they would’ve. So, when they had given me enough space, I leaned over that ugly woman’s pitcher and I spat into it and I said, “I’d like to find me a woman to love and marry till the end of my days— a faithful woman who no man would take from me.” Or something thereabouts. And that hag’s face crinkled all over something monstrous as her jagged brown teeth shown between her warty lips. Took me a moment to realize she was grinnin’. Somehow it scared me worse than the first time I had seen her. Again, if I wasn’t so scared I might have hacked at her with my machete.
The old hag winked at me. “Be seein’ you, darling.” She then raised her voice, croaking like a bullfrog. “All of you lovely, lovely boys! Your wishes will come true, I promise!”
Me and my cousins left without another word. Her spell had let us go, finally, or perhaps our nerves had had enough. We were four boys with four machetes, but it was like they had been dulled on our nerves. We stumbled home, feeling exhausted. We never returned to the bottomlands, and rarely went to the river after that.
And then the wishes started to come true. At the end of that Summer Andy’s parents were close to filing for a divorce. They fought constantly, and worked up a storm between them. But then came the car wreck, and both of ‘em died after swerving off the road and plummeting off a gorge. Some people think they were arguin’ in the car. Regardless, they never did get a divorce.
Me and my cousins never talked about what happened down at that stagnant lake. I don’t know if we was spellbound and couldn’t talk about it or if our own cowardice kept our mouths shut. Maybe we wanted to forget about it all. Maybe we wanted to act like it never happened, especially after what happened to Andy’s momma and daddy. I told myself it was a coincidence, a fluke of timing, and I am sure my other cousins told themselves the same. One thing’s for certain: we never followed the river into the bottomland again. Besides, life started to accelerate after that. The whitewater rapids of puberty hit each of us, and those craggy rocks of Middleschool, and then Highschool, and the plunge of the waterfall into the adult world. It was all right at first, mind you. We had mostly forgotten. Willfully so.
It took some time after the car wreck for the other wishes to come true. When Trevor hit sixteen he started working at a fast-food restaurant. There was a freak accident and an electric fire from one of the grills burned him up all over. His parents sued the franchise and won him millions of dollars. But he didn’t enjoy it none. He lived in pain for three years after the accident and then died. He had a closed casket funeral, which should give you an idea of what it was like for him while he was living.
It was a year after Trevor’s death that Chris was murdered by an exgirlfriend while he was at the mall. The security camera caught it all on film as the crazy bitch cut him up with a cleaver, loin to throat. It was ruled a crime of passion. The video leaked to the News, then found its way to all of the broadcasting networks. It was horrific to see. Gruesome. Horrifying. His wish had come true, albeit as twisted as a worm on a hook.
Shit washes downstream. Fish wash downstream. Bodies wash downstream. Why not other creatures? Why not terrible things? I’ve tried to look for answers, but all I’ve got is more questions. What can be said of it all? Things run far in the river. They wash off to the sides, too, and carry a long way off. Feelings do, too. Resentments. Old hatreds. They flow out and shed off and stagnate in areas. Maybe she was an old resentment for the Natives long ago, and now, stuck where she was, she hadn’t anything but to brood and stagnate and bless with her resentments. Baleful boons, I suppose they were. Curses in the guise of gifts. Whatever the case, she got almost all of us good.
Almost all of us. For whatever reason, I was spared. My wish came true without any fishing line attached to it. Maybe it was on account of me being so good-hearted with my wish. My cousins wanted material things, where I was always keen on love. Don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Then again, Andy only ever wanted his parents to stay together, so that can’t be it, neither.
There were times when I thought maybe my wish wouldn’t come true. Maybe, I thought, I hadn’t spit enough in her pitcher, or maybe my curse was that the wish wouldn’t come true. Too good a wish to come true. I tried to convince myself it was for the better. Maybe I feared that what happened to my cousins would happen to me. Maybe my wish would be all twisted and grotesque, like the corpses of sparrows hung in a dreamweaver.
And then I saw her by that lake in Boone County. She was squatting down in the shoals, looking at her reflection in the water. It was love at first sight for this boy, I tell you what. I saw her and thought she had to be the prettiest damn thing in the whole of God’s green earth. And it had to be destiny, too, because I went right up to her as if the path had been laid for me and I said, bold as a shotgun with the safety off:
“Whatcha’ doin’ darlin’?”
And she smiled and said, “Waitin’ for you, darlin’.”
And by God if we haven’t been together every day ever since! We are absolutely perfect for each other, too. She likes for me to call her “pookie”, and I don’t mind it at all. It is old-fashioned, I know, but it’s better than “babe” or “darlin’” or “sugar pie”. People stare at her all the time when we go out for groceries or go see a movie. They just can’t believe how beautiful she is. And how considerate the angel is! She’s always bringing me a fresh pitcher for my chewing tobacco whenever the old one is close to overrunning. That’s love for ya’! Even your bad habits don’t matter to the love of your life.
That’s not to say that I’m not still haunted by that hag in the water. Sometimes I have dreams at night— nightmares, really— about that moldy old witch and her bottomless pitcher. I dream that she’s caught me in the big clay mouth and I can’t escape, and she laughs and laughs as the thick black swamp within her jar swallows me up. But when I wake up my wife tells me, “Shush, my dear lovely boy. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Give me a sweet little kiss and lay your head down to sleep. Be happy. Be content. Everything is a wish come true.”

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.