The provincial house
When he appeared at her house, the opening seemed vacant. He waited beside the long steel gate, adorned with the Baroque insignia of demonology. He grazed the gates with his fingers, gripping the gates and running his palm down the length of the spire. He held the steel rod in his grip as his hand reached his waist, and he pulled himself forward, so as to rest his nose to within the gate, as though he were smelling through another world.
The entrance to the estate, a wide and stretching canvas, stacked with lemon trees and a surrounding tangerine grove, seemed dry and sad. The trees looked sharp, like they had been cared for, but the ground was not tended, as piles and rows of leaves lay scattered along the floor, and the fruit looked pale, like it had been planted well but not picked. At the far end of his vision was a fountain, that sprayed its water from the mouth of a towering angel child, who stood on the shoulders of a small, golem figure, himself lying awkwardly on the wings of a hawk. The sight of heroism expanded from the golem’s eyes, and the hawk seemed vengeful, resolute, determined to accomplish some sacred task, while the child, with his short, waves of curls, and a curl that ran down each side of his head, looked playful, and happy, his eyes beaming with joy and anticipation. But the water was not spraying from his mouth, nor was the fountain itself tended, evidenced by the brownish muck that accumulated in the moat, and the decay of the once polished marble and stone.
His vision to the house itself was slightly obscured by the trees that separated the two prisms, but from where he stood he could see the broken callouses of the frames, the panels that had shuddered under the weight of winter, and the color of the building, once giant and engrossing in its pure white, now a stifled sheet of damp grey, with errant lines of black mold having carved into the outer surface, the only ( ) the emerging arms of vines, clamped against the eroding shell of the villa.
He waited a while before deciding to climb the gate. As he reached the height of the spire, he pounded a pocket of soil over the thin and precise spikes, so as not to be caught by one of the arms as he lifted his trailing leg. Pulling himself over the tip, he made two slow leaps downwards, and jumped finally to the ground. Suddenly, as he landed, he caught the eyes of a stranger a few feet away from him, breathing heavily, loudly, staring at him in a state of terror. He jumped back, alarmed, frightened, but as he fell on his feet, holding one palm against the earth, sheltered from the soil by a layer of worn and dried leaves, he calmed down, finding the figure’s eyes for a moment, holding their stare together, one. The figure, a small creature, with a hunched back, was completely naked. He was so thin, so emaciated, that his skin seemed to collect in certain areas, like his belly and his elbows, where it was stretched so tightly on the rest of his body, that it hung in loose balls. He could not see his feet, but he imagined them to be large feet, that gripped through the layer of leaves onto the soil surface.
The creature stood in his place, without moving, inching back and forth in a rocking motion, one palm turned towards his guest, the other, turned towards the ground.
Something soothed the pilgrim in that moment. It might have been, that after traveling so far, he had finally stepped foot in the estate, and after staring in through the wired fence, had climbed over the protective wall. It might have been the air, the late afternoon breeze that swallowed the contents of the day and cleared the way for the evening. The smell of his surroundings reminded him of a cemetery he used to go to for silence, for meditation, at a time where silence had to be sought, when it wasn’t the constant of his life.
He didn’t fear the creature, and this must have sent a signal to the creature to trust him, because within a few seconds of his taking a deep breath, and smiling, the creature too smiled, and walked steadily away, galloping on all fours like a horse. He seemed to be wounded in the leg, as he limped on his gallops, running forth.
The pilgrim looked over at the house, a few hundred meters away. Between him and the fountain, the disappeared outline of a paved path. He let his head fall against the earth, and sighed.
Opening his eyes, he found that evening had fallen, and he pulled himself together, walking between the two clouds of trees, a solitary figure among the open ashes of an unswept flame.
He pushed through the crumbling door, two immense white panels of stone that wore dents to their makeup as though they had been bulldozed, pummeled through. The remains of a barricade withered to the floor as he slid the wilting structure open. He stepped over the beams lying in their sanctuary state, eroding in a pool of wet and soggy moss. The floor of the entire entrance was flooded, and in the uncomfortable distance he saw the tail end of a snake slither into the warmth. As he stepped down three steps into the wet grounds, the water stood up to his knees, so he had to push his way through the unchartered water, holding his nervous eyes to the place from where the snake had risen. Walking several feet forward, he came to a point in the large ballroom like entrance, where he could see, on either side of him, an immense tunnel of rooms, sheltered by high, nine meter ceilings, curved and painted in crusted hologram depictions of mythical rites. Further forward, two large staircases ascended from the ground and lost themselves somewhere in a thickening spiral of banisters that met squarely in the center of the hall, before diverging again in their usual directions. The centerpoint, which hung like the podium of an emperor, shielded on its front and rear sides by carved sculptures that rose above the standing height of any person, had lost the stone that held its center full, and from that hole he could see, straight through, to the impressive dome in the ceiling, twice higher than the ceiling of the tunnels and the hall itself, that opened like a door into the sky.
He continued forward. Darkness enveloped the room, and he found himself drifting forward in the way a man moves desperately through a crowd, his arms pushing through from side to side, waving away the ghosts that compelled him.
Eventually, he heard the sound of the crickets and the night owls, and before long could smell the effervescence of the jasmine, the pine trees that stood in the distance as a forest of their own, and the lavender that lay wilting in the passage leading into the garden. Stepping out into a field of wet moss, he embraced the surging coolness of the evening air, reforming his vision under the moonlight.
That evening he slept soundly on a dry patch of mound earth swallowed by the drooping feathers of a tree. He dreamt that he had been walking through ruins of a city, a city that looked much like his home. He ran his hands along the shattered glass, bracing the emblems of marble and concrete chipped in his hands. He stood in the presence of an older woman, who had been braiding the hair of a younger boy, speaking to him without looking. Her eyes were caught on the horizon, and the boy’s focus was not on the woman, her voice, or her hands running through his hair, but on a beautiful, slim golden necklace that he wore around his neck. Later, he watched as he held the hands of two strangers and escorted them into a large suitcase, where he explained, again and again, “I don’t do these things,” saying, “I don’t do these things.” He saw a snake, and he imagined the snake biting him. He pictured the old woman, speaking to him again. Eventually, he woke up.
Her chamber lay in the center of the garden. A mound of white sand, amid a circle of small elder flower trees, and on the opposite side of her, a quiet lake. When he found her body she was lying on the floor in white garbs. She had painted the area around her in ash, and smeared the garbs over the ashes. The smoke of incense burned from several corners.
As he approached, she rose to her feet, collecting herself calmly, stretching her arms, cracking her lower back, pulling her knees up to her chest, and letting out an enveloping sigh. Her cheeks puffed outward, and with the release of her breath, relented. She looked calm, at some sort of ease.
Before she noticed him arrive, she pulled herself to her feet and walked over to a small ottoman table, where she poured from a kettle of tea into a glass. She stirred the key with a tiny spoon. She raised the glass to her face, and swallowed the fumes. She remained like that for a moment, her eyes closed, breathing in the fires.
He didn’t want to interrupt her, or to frighten her, so he remained cautiously still. He watched her, her eyes closed, her breathing slowing down. She looked older than he expected, yet so vibrant. She was older now, but more beautiful. Her skin was deeply tanned, and her complexion seemed luminescent. She had healthy, thick curls of hair stretching down her back, that swayed so subtly in the wind.
Finally, she looked up from her place, and looked into his eyes.
After serving him tea, she took a seat beside him on a seating area of handwoven pillows. He had pulled his pouch from his jacket pocket, crumbling some small pieces of hash in a tiny ceramic bowl, mixing it with dried tobacco, and rolling it into a joint. He aligned the hash so that it encircled the tobacco, so it would smoke more fruitly, easily. She spoke, a raspy voice, that told of a long and meaningful life of experience.
“It’s good to see you again,” she said. She spoke calmly. They held one another’s gaze. “It’s always so nice to be visited by some of you, from then.”
“You still mean a lot to us,” he said, speaking before she could continue, so as to ensure she believed his words.
She laughed slightly, smiling, drawing away her smile and looking away. She was embarrassed, and it surprised him, as he had never really seen her embarrassed, had never thought of her to be capable.
“It was different then,” she said. “Everything was different.”
He sipped quietly from his tea. The cup was a little small for his hands, even though he had always felt he had innocently fragile hands. He felt soft, like he could fall asleep at any moment, but he wasn’t tired, he could listen to her speak for the entire day.
“Do you think we’ll ever go back,” he asked, rather dumbly, knowing it was a question he asked in order to exchange a sober kiss of nostalgia, and not for any real point.
“Go back where,” she asked, sadly.
“To that time.”
“I don’t think it’s possible. Besides. What for?”
“Things were simpler then.”
“We were ignorant. It had already happened. A castle isn’t overrun overnight. It takes years of preparation. We were too stoned.”
“Still,” he said. “I prefer it.”
She went quiet, too. He thought for a moment he might have upset her, and he felt sorry for it. It was the last thing he wanted, to hurt her. She didn’t deserve the hurt. She had hurt enough.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
He nodded his head.
“I didn’t want to assume, but. Whereto?”
“Maybe back to the civilized world. London, maybe. All summer I thought I missed the cold, and I wanted to exchange this desert for a cloudy day. But everything is lying in water now. Maybe I can finally do it back in New York.”
“You were there a while.”
“Fifteen years. The biggest mistake I made was coming back. I won’t do it again.”
“It’s not easy to start over somewhere else. It’s easy for a couple months. But then the season changes and you start to wonder why you’re not at home.”
“It doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
She lifted the lid on a silver tray and served him some spelt pastries, topped with agave syrup and chestnuts she picked from her garden. She served him a savory pastry of bread with dried thyme, pine nuts, and sesame seeds. They ate quietly together. She walked over to a tall standing wooden cabinet, that sat perched perfectly on its hind legs, leaning against the ledge of an elder flower tree. He watched her as she threw some things together, pulling certain ingredients from little towels, rinsing them in the air and putting htem into a bowl. He realized she was making them a salad. She returned with the bowl, a large glass bowl that she cradled in her arms.
“Do you want to add the dressing.”
He rose to his feet.
She handed him the pitcher.
“I’m going inside to get some lemonade. I’ll be back in a minute. Do you want anything else to drink? We have some beer as well. Some wine.”
“Lemonade sounds good.”
They smiled at each other. She walked away. He walked over to the wooden cabinet hanging on the tree and searched inquisitively for some further dressing. He found what he was looking for, a tiny pot of sumac, and another with cinnamon. He brought them over to the table and added a lot of sumac and a tiny bit of cinnamon to the salad. He went back to the cabinet and found a lemon, cut it in half and brought over the half. He squeezed the lemon over the salad. He went back to the cabinet and found the salt and pepper. He brought them back and, adding the salt, he ground the pepper, watching as the little grains disappeared into the mix. He finally mixed the salad, white onions cut in long, tributary like slices, tomatoes and cucumber, rocca leaves and parsley. He mashed them all together, adding sumac and salt in little more bits. He drenched the salad in olive oil.
She returned with two glasses and a pitcher of lemonade, with ice and a few strands of lemon floating inside. She pulled a tiny bottle of pastis from her pocket.
“A tiny shot goes really well with the lemonade.”
She garnished their drinks with rosemary. They each drank a sip. The flavors sat tirelessly on his palette, and he licked his lips in pleasure. She smiled at him.
They returned to the table, pouring the salad into bowls. Finally, without saying a word, they ate.
After the meal they washed the plates in unison, him drying the items while she washed them over with a small sponge and water and soap. He watched her mechanically lift the item under the water, then turn it over on its side and then dip the remainder of the piece under the water to remove the last bits of soap from its place. They were quiet. It was quiet. The afternoon had ended as quietly as it came. Somewhere in the woods he heard the rustling of a few wild dogs, taking their baths in the covered water.
“Should we move inside,” she asked.
He turned back toward her house. The pieces bunched together like a soap bar that’s been patched up with its own remains.
“I don’t live there anymore.”
He laughed, embarrassed at himself.
“I was wondering.”
She pointed to a small shed in the distance, just ahead of the opposite building that looked identical to her own.
“It was used as a night watchman’s house. At first it was a little room, with a window cut in to all sides. But then they built a ladder step and another floor, to see from a higher view. And after the war began they put it yet another floor, to see even further into the distance, at least to have a warning if something came our way. But then the watchman took a wife, one of the girls from the village. She was twelve at the time. They thought they would see out the war and go back to their village. But it lasted so long, they built themselves a little house. I’m staying in there now.”
“Have they gone?”
“A few years ago now.”
They walked together toward the house. As they approached, it appeared smaller and smaller, but at the final step into its little patio, a small roundabout that was surrounded by well behaved chestnut trees, the house suddenly seemed larger, like it was looming over him. As he took a few steps around, he realized the house was built on unequal ground, so the front was standing on a flat surface, while in the back, the wood had been carved into a thick mound of earth, and dug deeper under the ground, like the roots of a tree, but that the entire ground had shifted upwards, so that it kind of hung, leaning over itself, like a car slowly turned onto its side.
Inside, the place was just a two rooms on each floor, so six rooms in total. One room that fit a couple chairs and some appliances, and another longer room that was wider and had space for more. She had a kitchenette area laid out in the bottom floor, and the sleeping area on the second. On the third floor, a room that operated as a prayer room, a drawing room, and a reading room. The three smaller rooms were all used to store certain items, giving the bigger rooms more empty space, and space to move around. In the highest of the smaller rooms, he found a rocking chair sitting facing the window, where he could see into the immeasurable distance. She noticed him gazing over the chair and taking pleasure in it.
“I like to read there in the morning.”
“My mornings are sacred too.”
He sat on the rocking chair for a while. He heard her coming and going, ordering some things. After a while, he realized he had dozed off, and when she returned, it was pitch black outside. She sat next to him, her legs curled to the side. She wore a white sleeping gown, a different one. He could see her breasts from where he was sitting, through the opening of her shirt, as he sat above her. He was embarrassed and tried to look away, but he held his eyes there as long as he could. He realized then how attracted to her he really was, and how much he missed the intimacy of love.
“I made a bed for you inside, on this floor,” she said.
He was grateful, but also a little sad, as he had begun to hope he could sleep next to her, if only to hold her through the night. If only to sleep next to her and to feel her warmth, her strength, flood into his body.
“Thank you,” he said, in a quiet voice. He hoped he didn’t sound sad or resentful.
Through the gaping window he could smell the gentle breeze gifted with jasmine, the fabled pines, the almond trees he could finally recognize, the lavender and in the distance, a surging scent of citrus that climbed into his muscles. He realized how luscious the land had become, how fertile it still managed to be, and yet how fluid the departures became, how empty the place now seemed.
“You seem tired,” she said. “Do you want to go to sleep.”
He looked longingly at her. For the first time that day he looked at her with a sense of wishing, and unease. A sense of panic gripped him as he realized his eyes were not telling her of waning strength or enthusiasm but of loneliness, of a quiet, subtle pain, of dread for crawling into bed alone. She understood his expression without his needing to say the words. She held his hands. She pulled herself to his level and kissed him on the side of the cheek, and on the neck. She held her face beside his cheek for the briefest moment. He could smell the perfume of her hair, and the oil she had applied to her skin, the few freckles on her tanned shoulders attracted him.
“I’ll make us breakfast in the morning,” she said. She kissed him again on the cheek, and moved away, pulling her body up with her knees, both legs simultaneously, and taking a few steps toward the ladder before descending downward to her room.
That evening he dreamt of the garden. He dreamt of his movements through the expanse. His hands waving him forward. His bare feet sagging into the inviting earth, in her cool wetness, in her naked glance. He dreamt of the creature he encountered after jumping the gates. He dreamt of his host, the woman he so admired, the woman he had hoped endlessly to impress. He dreamt of her lips, the way her upper lip curled and the way her nostrils opened and tightened while she was lost in thought, addressing something in her head, curious. He dreamt of the raging forest, the empty plains, the quaint luminescence of her extraordinary garden. He had come so far.
Faces and voices pulled him from his ethereal trance. He caught the image of the dung quarter whores he spent his first nights with on shore. He found himself masturbating in the presence of a court. He found himself tasting a whore’s feces, and tasting his own. He woke up drenched in his own sweat, and right above his hand, he saw the dangling figure of a furry spider.
He pulled his hand quickly and the spider shot off into a run. He jumped from his place and looked around, careful as he leapt forward not to hit his head on the panel that held the leaning walls. He let his feet rest on the cold and hardened wood, strengthened by its reinforced steel. He sat there a moment, thinking.
He hadn’t really observed the room before going to sleep. He had drifted so languidly, carrying his cumbersome body from the rocking chair to the bed. He wondered when he had managed to move, if he had remained in his seat for a while gazing up at the moon, or sleeping soundly to the rhythm of rocking back and forth. Or if he sprang from his place with arduous sight, using his palms to guide him safely under the ceiling panels, through the lowered entrance and onto the freshly made bed in the tranquil room.
He remembered then that he had been sad at her departure. He wondered if she took notice. He felt a tinge of embarrassment at his behavior. He remained still. He heard something scratch a wooden surface, a break in the noise, and then a fall. He felt the breeze gorging in through the panorama opening in the wall ahead of him. It was still dark outside, incredibly dark, but for the gazing luminescence of the moon.
He awoke in the morning to the blazing rays of sun entering the corridor of the room, and the sound of dishes clanging somewhere downstairs. He dusted off his face, rubbing his eyes, pulling the thin blanket off his body and dropping his legs to the ground. He stared at his feet for a brief moment, staring at his toes, a little dirty from the long and tiresome walk. But they would get dirtier, he figured.
He rose from his place. He put on his pants and a shirt he found lying beside the bed, and walked under the panel connecting the two rooms, giving the rocking chair at the window a little glance before taking the ladder down. As he reached the bottom floor, he caught the glimpse of his host cleaning dishes at the sink. She had her wet hair slung back in a knot, and she wore running shorts and a sports bra on top. For a woman her age, he was impressed.
As she turned around to acknowledge his impending presence, he felt the urge to walk up to her and kiss her, calmly, letting the moment pass without giving it much significance. But he resisted the urge and kissed her on the cheek.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling wide, “Did you sleep well?”
“I did,” he said as he turned around, taking a seat at the dining table behind her. She returned her focus to the dishes on hand. He felt suddenly that he should help her, drying the dishes or doing the washing himself. Somehow finding her way into his thoughts, she spoke before he could move another inch.
“Don’t worry. I’m almost done. The water’s going to be out in about an hour, for the rest of the day. Do you want to take a shower?”
“Sure,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“It might not be back tomorrow either. Sometimes it comes back for an hour or two in the morning.”
“Yeah. I’m not surprised.”
She rubbed forcefully the inside of a large pot, that looked like it had been stained with some sort of tomato sauce. It must have sat there for a while, he thought, as she had to dig her fingers into the pot and scrape each rusting crust singularly.
“After you shower we can go for a walk.”
“I’d like that.”
She turned around to him, letting the pot quietly down without turning off the running water.
“You’re leaving today, aren’t you,” she asked, the disappointment obvious in her voice.
“I think so,” he said, without much conviction.
She turned back around to the dishes. From where he sat it appeared as though she were wiping the edge of the pot with her own hands, having let the sponge fall into the sink. The water pressure was lower, and he could see her gently running her two fingers along the edge of the pot. A steady stream of sunlight seeped in through the lowered blinds that harbored her from the outside world. He watched as the light illuminated her arms and draped over her shoulders to extend his vision onto her lower back. He watched as her dimples tightened and released, alternating at the rhythm of her collecting forearms.
He rose from his place. Standing a foot away from her he could feel her light breathing. He restricted his own so that he would not be heard. At times, he was embarrassed by his own heavy breathing. It seemed to him as though his breathing intensified when it was most quiet.
He walked passed her body and stopped at the edge of the room.
“Is there a towel I can use?”
She turned toward him and smiled. He wasn’t able to hold her gaze, and he dropped his eyes immediately.
“Underneath the bed where you’re sleeping, there should be some clean towels. Don’t take too long. The water will run out.”
He looked into her eyes again and they smiled. She turned off the faucet and shook her hands in the air, and then dried them with a towel hanging at her waist. As she walked toward him he turned outward and climbed the ladder up to his room. He heard the screen door close behind her as he pushed himself upward onto the third floor.
Outside, she pulled an axe from beside the door and flung it over her shoulders. She walked over to a stump with some wood piled next to it. She grabbed a piece of wood and placed it on the stump. Without giving it much thought she slung the axe over her head and dropped it onto the wood, splitting the piece in half. She pushed the pieces to the side and pulled another. After three pieces of wood had turned into six, she piled them under her arm and put them next to the door, where she also dropped the axe. She opened the door slightly and grabbed a white shirt hanging by the door, then, without giving it much thought, she walked away from the house, into the orchards.
She walked for some time. The orchard was designed so that at the very center of the grid was a an empty space with a tall fig tree standing in the middle. The fig tree was surrounded on all sides by a circle of other trees. From a distance the grid looked straight, but at the center she had put the eye, a place where she came for thought.
She sat under the tree. She had wanted to read but she didn’t know what she felt like reading. It was always like that. You get into a rhythm and then someone shows up at your house and you lose it all. She had been doing well until he showed up. She hadn’t thought of her losses or her gains, she hadn’t compared those days to today. But somehow she had expected him. She had sat waiting for her guest like a sage expects a visitor climbing over the ridge, banging at the door. On the nights preceding his arrival she hadn’t slept, sitting outside with a shotgun at her side, a joint she puffed on from time to time, a bottle of red wine and a plate of her own black olives. But he hadn’t shown up at night, like she expected, expecting the figure to walk in through the dust and carry his naked footsteps into the light.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted him there but his imminent leaving scared her. She would have been better off alone, she thought, alone without any guests or wanderers dropping by. When someone came they inevitably left, and when they left they rarely, if ever, returned. She had enough of that waiting. Waiting for someone else to arrive.
He hadn’t mentioned her daughters, it troubled her. He hadn’t asked about her, if she recovered. He pretended like they were old friends, like they’d slept in the same bed before, drank from the same bottle. They weren’t friends. He had been in love with her daughter until she killed herself. He didn’t know the other daughters. He never did.
Of course, they were linked by more than the child. They shared a similar interest as well as a similar loss. Her poems had been collected in magazines over the years, while his circulated through a series of otherwise meaningless publications. Still, they liked each other’s work.
She understood that his work had yet to find its maturity while hers was slowly losing its wind. She had lost the fire. She didn’t want the fire anymore. The fire belonged to death and she had eaten death. The fire infested in wounds and she cleared her body of wounds. She didn’t write poetry anymore. She cooked, she ate, she cleaned, she slept. She tended to her garden, a magical forest of wonder. She put her heart into the soil and it returned the gift with life. But the garden would soon collapse, she knew it. This season or the next. The water was already running out. Even if she stole above her rations, which she already accepted she would do. Even if she bribed the local officials, which she had already mastered doing. Even if she dug her own well with her own two hands. The water was going to dry. It would not rain for more than six or seven days a year, when before it rained for fifty, sometimes sixty days. She accepted that she would lose the garden. But for now she had some time.
Earlier in the day, before he had woken up to the sound of her cleaning, she had woken up at exactly dawn and gone outside for some fresh air. Standing in the midst of a galloping autumn breeze she rode the sensation of breathing in her lungs. Returning inside to take a shower, she had considered, momentarily, to walk up to his room and sleep beside him. The idea hadn’t occurred to her, ever, but she noticed the moment he had considered the kiss just the evening before, as she rose from her place on the ground and went off to sleep. She thought about sleeping next to him, but she couldn’t do it. She didn’t even know if she wanted to do it, but she knew for sure that she didn’t do it. She almost knew she wouldn’t do it, but she didn’t know if she would or she wouldn’t, she only thought she knew she wouldn’t, primarily because of their past, their unfortunate bond. But suddenly, after all these years, after the immeasurable descent, after the entire mess, he came to her. And she saw it in his eyes as she rose from her place, the look of longing she saw so many times in the lonely men that surrounded her enclave. Men who had lost their wives, their whole families, to some unfortunate brutality, or to abandonment, in response to their neglected curse. It was enough that he had come to her, she thought.
She looked over the expanse that lay before her. She never had the chance to say goodbye, to those of her life who passed over, from one little vacuum into the next. At least with the garden she knew it well. She knew what would be coming and would be prepared. She probably wouldn’t wait for the seasons to cull all her children. She could do it herself. Poison the soil, poison every inch of ground. Or she could set fire to the entire mess, do it on the most beautiful day, on a day where the garden shone with such indescribable beauty that it deserved to die. A woman of uncommon ritual. She would perfect the act of the last rite.
She counted slowly the days that had passed since she’d last spoken aloud. He was the first visitor in a long while. The workers who used to calm her company had all abandoned their posts, moved on to the raging mountains to take part in the conflict, or herded their families together and fled as far as possibly away. She had told him she would be leaving, too, and he hadn’t been surprised. Leaving had become the norm. Even those with land like hers, with possessions like hers, even they left. Leaving had once been for those in dire need. It had become the indiscriminate norm.
In the distance she heard the firing of a rifle, followed by the crack of another. Hunters, devouring the last living remnants of migrating birds. She thought she heard a car pass somewhere nearby, the familiar wave that hollows in the wind before suppressing her echoing sound. Another rifle fired off. This time she was calm. She hadn’t seen the birds in a while. She knew there were no birds.
In the morning that rises in the calm. The day had started as any other might, but for the fact that he had woken up in the strange enclosure of her palace. As the day rose from her heels, the fields grazed under a blazing sun. The wind that had accompanied his walk had disappeared. He found himself sitting amidst the dullness of a wood colored room, monitoring the approaches of a breeze. How could he learn to describe the heat, he wondered, without first describing his thirst. Recognizing the thirst that accompanies a scorching day, finding the resolve to inhabit it.
The garden sat in the center of a long, maze like expanse. Densely wooded forest surrounding a tall grass prairie, a landscape he would grow accustomed to. From the center of the garden can be viewed a circular series of sculptures, all classical, heads bowed, pertaining to a certain myth. In the very center of the garden the fountain raises its sprout to the canopy’s height. Underneath the immense showers, there are little faucets, rusted over time, for the orderly to wash, drink, and cleanse.
He washed his hands beside the fountain. He looked over through the early evening glare, lights towering over the grassy plain, from where he dug his feet into the muddy earth. He’d taken off his shoes to clean his feet, and to feel the earth beneath him. To give them a rest, he would say to himself, but he rarely, if ever, wore them.
A crumbling lighthouse pierces the azure. From where he stood he could look straight through the sculptures, into the forest, and expect that within two, three hundred meters he could see into the sea. He turned to address a few passers, young, well dressed, sober. They looked in his direction and turned away. They must have expected it would be empty, he thought.
Moments later he wet his face in the water, pausing to let the coldness of the water ease into his skin. He rubbed his eyes, licked his lips, raising another handful of water to his face, bending low enough so as not to lose too much water. The hair on his forehead was wet, and he drew his head back to remove it from his face. He cleared the sides of his eyes, clearing with two fingers the wetness of his nostrils. He dried his hands off in the air, turned and walked away.
He would be waiting at the pier, rising under an autumn shower, waiting, like he had promised. He had expected to see him first, before entering the city, to see his grieving mentor one last time, before they traded places. He thought of his mentor impressed on the image of the archetypal sea, the mother of all his dreaming. The sage sells perfume, he thought, once, twice to comfort himself, he sells perfume for the soul.
As he walked through the grass, the ends of towering weeds grazing against his legs, tickling his elbows as he passed through them, focused on the sound his feet made running against the earth, on the sound the weeds made when they were stepped on, abused, pushed down to the earth in a scrambled mess, returned to the weary creator. He heard the evening symphony rise, the day ending like any other day, crickets delivering their sacred psalms, fireflies lighting up the sky. He felt a ladybug rest in between two fingers. Do they live at night, he thought to himself.
Reaching the cover of darkness, the end of the prairie, he stopped. Turning around, he noticed the garden had emptied. the fountain rose like an upended stream. He counted, One, two, three…He continued counting until ten, breathing, slow, breathing. He turned back around, and with a slow, deliberate twist of the arm, he rested his palm on the first batch of branches in his way. He held the twig, the branch’s stem, biting it with his fingers. Slowly, calmly, he lifted the branch, one by one, passing through.
For the remainder of the night he disappeared into the darkness.
Twenty minutes over the crest, there’s a valley, high in willows, waterlogged. That whole river from where you came travels into it. Now, you’re right, it’s more of a bog if the leaves are cut. If the branches are worn during winter. The whole roof looks life its been carried down. When you walk, your up to your neck in water. The submissive tip of the willows disappears into the surface flesh. In July, the valley is a place of death. The air is thick. The water’s gone. As the humidity rises, the mosquitos drop down, even the birds. Patches of the surface break apart from the lack of water. In other parts, the heat is so intense it causes the ground to wave. The moonlight trail disappears. Coordination, navigation, the processing of information are depleted. The place is so dry, the air doesn’t circulate in your lungs with enough speed. Confusion is inevitable. Without a compass, you get stranded walking in circles.
Under the last line of pines he woke with the sun in his face. He spent some time coming into himself. In the wild, obscenity is in the soul.
He walked back toward the settlement. He thought of the crowd, recovering with the basics. Claiming a piece of land, settling there, calling it home.
He found him sitting with some of the dogs, cutting a small piece of wood.
“I was taking a nap. Under the pines. You guys should put a treehouse up there.”
“The blues is everywhere, but there’s no swamp.”
One of the boys had lost one of his arms to a spinning blade, and he was in charge of cooking the tea.
It had happened to him before. But then, he came to his senses. He saw it. He dug in his right foot, jerked his knees, caught the blade without moving his elbow, pivoting on his legs.
He pulled the kettle from the fire, pouring each of them a cup.
He broke off a branch with two of his fingers.
“When we go hunting, deep into the forest.”
He cut a slab with his knife, and pulled it, like a film sprocket, to his teeth, to run along the enamel, like a spool.
“We never come back alone.”
The elder woman was braiding the hair of a younger native boy, speaking to him without looking, her thick arms brooding around the boy’s body, seated on the damp forest floor.
As the group moved forward, they passed several of the ruins the settlers left behind.
The Penguin spoke again.
“When we get to the lower marsh, we’ll take some time to rest and cook up a fire. Right now, I don’t want to get bogged down by a storm, with a few hundred feet to descend.”
They continued walking along the road.
“The provincial life was preferable for a long time. I would’ve loved to have grown up out here.”
Three of his men, Habi, Aleyva, and Shonah, caught up with them from behind. They’d been checking the woods, scouring for food, and seeing if they could pick up any trails.
“Most of the villagers have gone. Their houses stood fine for a while. You could see them, passing through or camping for the night. But after sitting still for so long, people took notice, started cutting them dry. Looting everything inside, then breaking off the panels and the frames. For winter, for supplies.”
He stepped over what appeared to be a large, redheaded beetle, his foot stopping in midair for a split second to agonize over the impending death of the insect, before jutting forward a little slightly with his carrying knee.
“Can’t say I blame anyone. If I needed it, I would’ve done the same.”
After a while, where the afternoon sun gave way to the clouds, the shadows of the foreign fighters scattered along the leaves settled into the monochrome hues of the earth, and the early cricket songs played over the crisp cries of a pair of hawks, the men, gathered in a straight line, stomping their way through the forest, came upon a large expanse of grass, leaving behind the wooded frames, looking upon the openness as though it were the sea. The grass had not been tended, wild as it was, and the appearance of large shrubs running along the tall weeds like a paved wall gave the men the impression it was their way.
There was a momentary shift in the silence, when a thick mass of rainclouds formed above their heads, and descended upon them, hanging so low the pilgrim felt the sweaty moistness of his breathing, the taste of the air sitting in his lungs.
“Watch out for the snakes,” the man in front of him called.
“They’re hungry,” said another.
The men walked, a few hundred meters, so that the grass leveled as they reached what then appeared to be a short plateau, from where they could see that the stretch of canvas that looked like a horizon was indeed the end of the grounds they had come, the culminating colors of the forest. Ahead, the grasses fell in height and stature, as though the entire field had been mowed just recently, though of course that was not the case.