Plum Sky

Casting a line off the edge of a barge micronation somewhere off the Adriatic, plum sky undulating like some childhood experiment with oil and water, and all of a sudden that seems so long ago, that 1990s childhood spent tinkering with PC parts, putting together your first computer, and now here you are thirty years later, in unclaimed waters, undisclosed location, starting some religion, maybe a country, you haven’t gotten that far, it isn’t clear yet, but it’ll be something different, whatever it is, so you return to these old practices and prepare the precepts for the initiates who will be here next day, their boat is coming in then and will promptly be destroyed upon their arrival, because there will be no need for transportation when everything they could possibly need is right here on this constructed island, when all of their needs can be met by the Almighty Godhead and all that he provides, on this barge that’s been assembled from the repurposed garbage floating aimlessly through the ocean, you’ve gone to great expense to have it collected, and you’ve studied all the major religions to make sure that you’re not treading over tired territory, that you haven’t accidentally plagiarized Zarathustra or anything, and you haven’t, not that you can tell, so you will now establish this colony in the ocean, this empire everlasting with yourself as omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent leader who will rule for now and all of time, for you have teachings prepared on the nature of time, you’ve presented them to the internet and have been brutally ridiculed, but that’s the measure of a great idea, isn’t it, the ridicule of small-minded people, and that’s what convinced you that you were doing the right thing, convincing others to worship you as a god on a barge of garbage floating out in the ocean, this is what you’ve been working toward all your life, the unadulterated adulation of others, the drowning in their praise, happiness everlasting, it is all yours to take as you prepare your vestments you’ve created, a robe also made of reconstructed refuse, it still stinks even, but that is the last stink of the world to be washed clean from you, you’ve prepared the sermon, you can visualize the rite even now, with you and the others dipping into the ocean to rid yourselves of the scent of the world, to replace it with something unsmelled and unknown heretofore, it will be a glorious birth of a new state, a new state of mind and of being, you’re sure of it, or else you wouldn’t have sunk all your savings into this construction, wouldn’t have sold all of your things and left everyone you’ve ever loved behind, so you need to make something of that sacrifice, now, and here, you’re sure it will be worth it, so you look once more over that plum, undulating sky, that dark mass that will be either your salvation or damnation, and you sit on this barge, and you wait for the coming day, and you hope beyond hope that they will come.

 

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The World Underneath

In the mornings after a rain she’ll forage for berries from bushes sprouting through sidewalks, dewy rubble sliding away, some of it turning to chalky mud between her toes. She’ll climb the wires that the old levilator used to use and reach the top of the building she uses for water, cups and pans and buckets and pails and upside down umbrellas and helmets filled with rain. She’ll inspect them carefully, look for any trace of contamination. All it would take was to drink from something that’s been soiled by the birds and she’ll be gone.

Gone. Gone to where? Mother always said that when you left this world you were taken to the world underneath, that that’s where everybody went. Mother said it was a place of peace and calm, and mystery. Mystery because no one who had gone to the world underneath had ever come back. And you were supposed to stay in this world here as long as you could, because… Because. There never was an actual reason beyond the because. The because I said so. You were to stay here as long as was your appointed time, then go away. Forever.

Forever. For ever. The way Mother used to say it, it was like the way the sun always peeked across the sky, chasing away the darkness only to be pursued again. That was forever. But couldn’t even the sun die, the girl wanted to ask? Wouldn’t it? She didn’t ask then, and now she couldn’t at all. Some things really do slip through your fingers.

So she’ll look for the world underneath in the cracked and cracking features on the city’s swollen face, the scars of buildings healed over by tissue in the form of vines and wires of green, leaves intruding past shattered windows, erring into the darkness within, retreating and angling up the sides of the glass towers, reaching up high for the sun, a mirror image of themselves beside them, shining in the light in the minutes that the sun can be seen, before it hides once again from view, behind not so much cloud as it is interstitial haze, fog coming from somewhere human eyes have never been, will never go, even in their dreams. Hanging thick, choking the air of oxygen, sticking to the rags the girl will have to wear forever, the coils of her hair, the muddy grass now tinged black at blade tips, from this haze, whatever it is.

She’ll explore.

She will, in her time, make her way down to the sewer cover she’s seen before, the one that Mother steered her away from, to the other side of the street, beside the plastic people dangling from an old shop’s broken pane, no pain on these plastic faces, charred even, one of them with a handprint of old and faded blood on its cheek, colored brown in the sun, crackling in spots like dead paint on a wall that hasn’t been seen in generations. She will make her way to this sewer cover, and she will turn around to see if there’s anyone watching her, but there will be no one. No one but her. Forever. She will pry at it with dried-mud hands, but it will go nowhere. She will have no grip on it. She will go to the shop with the blank plastic faces and find in it a crowbar. She will picture in her mind a crow perched on this implement, this foreign tool that holds no significance to her. She will take this tool and pry the cover with all of the strength she has inside of her, and it will come free, crowbar tipping over, falling as the lid comes clear of the hole, the tool tipping, spinning, falling, still not making a sound, and before she can think of what is happening, the girl will be pushed, from behind, tipping over and forward, through the hole, to chase the tool she will have dropped down there.

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The People Who Aren’t People

On the shore, all you can hear is the sound of the tide coming in: wish-wash, wish-wash. The sun is a brillo-scuffed marble suspended behind a steamy shower door. The birds circle inky water, waiting for the divers to surface for breath, when they will peck at already-scarred scalps and sustain themselves off of the flesh they find there. There’s no other food for them.

An unincorporated bedroom sits at the spot where sand meets water; the waves lap in under the bed and tease open the doors of the armoire, where mildewy clothing hangs limply on rusting hangers. It all smells of salt. Nothing of the rest of the house remains, except an ascending corkscrew staircase that leads from the bedroom door up into featureless sky. At the top of the stairs stands Abel. Sea foam clings to the rags that clothe him, plastered to his frail body by the mist that hangs over everything. He looks out past the shore, hand over eyebrows, for a sign of something–anything–other than endless water. His son, in the bed on the floor below him, calls “Papa, Papa” in a parched singsong, like a scarecrow who just learned how to talk. He goes to him.

Abel’s son collects discarded video cards, filament-less light bulbs, bits of frayed copper wiring. Right now the pieces are collected and connected in the form of a tiny automaton, with diodes for eyes and AV cables for limbs. He stifles a cough, pulls the robot up to his ruddy face and breathes warmth onto it to keep away the incessant mist. Far away and behind the boy a diver surfaces, gulps air, dives again before any of the birds can attack.

“Tell me about the people who aren’t people.”

The bed is the type with taffeta curtain running around it, thin enough to turn everything beyond it into a dusky golden version of itself. Abel encloses himself with his son, tries to ignore the pained screams of a diver too greedy for air to dip again in time.

“You are sick. You should sleep.”

“But I want to hear the story about the people who aren’t people. I’m not too sick to hear the story, Papa. I promise.”

A gust of wind eddies the sand, sends it onto Abel’s bare feet. He kicks the grains away, but some of them stubbornly cling to his sole. His toenails are yellowed, dog-eared pages in a book that hasn’t been read in years. He takes his son’s robotic homunculus and sets it on the scuffed nightstand. His eye sockets are darkened graves.

“A long time ago, before the mist and the flood and the broken buildings, there were people everywhere. People so numerous you couldn’t even count them all.”

His son’s eyes go wide. This happens every time, no matter how often the story is told.

“The streets were filled with people. There were so many people that they had cars to drive themselves to where they needed to go. There were too many people for them to walk, even. There were so many people that they sent them up in great ships out past the sky and into the stars. There were so many people that they sent the bad ones to islands in the sea to starve. There were so many people that they took down buildings with people in them and built more buildings over the ones they took down. There were so, so, so many people.”

“How many people, Papa?”

“So, so, so, so, so, so, so many people. So, so many. So many that they needed to figure out who among the people weren’t people, so they could get rid of them.”

“How could they be people, but not people, Papa?”

“Anything can become true if enough people say it is. So they found the people who weren’t people, and they killed them. But there were still so, so, so, so, so many people.”

“How many people?”

“So many that they decided there must be even more people who weren’t people than they first thought. So they broadened their definition and killed many more people. They pushed the people from cliffs. They hanged them. They shot them, until the bullets started to run out. But there were still so many people.”

“How many people, Papa?”

“So many people that they took the souls of people and put them into stone, where they could be locked up until there was more room for people again.”

The robot shifts on the nightstand. The taffeta curtain rustles.

“When they put their souls into stone, their bodies were burned or set into the sea or buried up where they’d never be seen again.”

“And that’s where mother is? In the stone?”

Abel’s beard brushes against his caved-in chest as he nods, at the place where the rags give way to skin, the transition indefinite and hazy as the fog all around them.

“We’re going to bring her back.”

Abel lifts his son from the bed and slings him over his shoulder. His feet sink into the sand as he leaves the bedroom behind, the birds still circling and the tide as it goes in and out, wish-wash wish-wash, over and over and over.

And over.

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MORTAL COIL

CRACK.

Was it a branch this time? One last holdout felled from the burnt-out husks of the saplings that encircled the area? He was foggy, and he couldn’t remember anything. What did he need to remember? His brain was on fire with the effort of recall.

The ropes dug into his wrists. He couldn’t see their purple hue with them behind his back, but he figured as much from the tight, blinding pain. His hands were swollen to double their size. But what did he need to remember?

He looked out over the field, and it was madness. There were great shrieks coupled with the staccato of merciless laughter. There were men’s bodies beaten and bruised beyond repair, and the agents that did it, in their black uniforms. He could remember.

He looked away from the bodies of the men, repulsed. His eyes trailed the shimmering deep red of the water in front of him. It was a pool of some kind, made filthy with the blood of the men who were dumped there. It was a stinging smell, but it didn’t come all at once. It waited for the view to be taken in in its entirety. There was death here. There was destruction.

The water led to the statue. Bold in its design, it left the witness paralyzed with the fear of what it represented. A stone arm stretching high into the heavens. To dizzying, impossible heights. And at the top, a clenched fist. It could be that of God himself. But God wouldn’t support this. No, he couldn’t believe that a creator would ever support this.

But whatever Joshua thought next, he… Wait. Joshua. That was his name. His head was on fire and his wrists burned their own bitter melody, but he knew his name. Was that what he needed to remember? No, there was something else. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he did. The black shirts were making their rounds, he wouldn’t have time.

Out beyond the burnt-out sapling husks, beyond the pool of red and the clenched fist, there were the charred remains of the buildings that once stood. Now they were nothing more than hunks of stone and glass piled atop each other, but they were once assembled into magnificent shapes. In the old days, people used to live there. Not in the dirt and brambles, like they did now.

There was something else. Something about the buildings. What was it? Its shape came to him in waves, his brain on fire with the effort. There was one among them that stood. One building that the black shirts overlooked in their rise to power. It was surrounded by the trees before they were burned down, by the water before it was turned red with the blood of other men. And she lived with him there.

Who was she? She was important, he knew that much was true. Why couldn’t he just remember it all? The black shirts were coming, and he wanted nothing more than to remember before they got to him. It would set him free. Free from their death squads, from their psy-ops tactics and misinformation. He could know things as they truly were.

The black shirts set up a smoldering fire right in front of the pool. They laughed mirthlessly as they tossed the ruined bodies into it. The smoke billowed up to the heavens, to the place where Joshua thought God might be. But not God as the black shirts thought of him, as the state and as absolute power. Not the concept he defied, the reason he was tied here in front of this tree in the first place.

He thought of a cool wind on a warm summer’s day, with his lady beside him in the last building standing. Her name… Mary. That was it. It was Mary and he knew that. He knew it with as much certainty as the blinding pain in his wrists, the searing of his mind deep in thought.

There they stood in the building, as if it was yesterday. He remembered the steam against the window, how Mary spelled her name upon the glass. He remembered her flowing hair, how it smelled as it brushed against his cheek. He remembered the slam of the door as it gave way. The pounding of boots as the black shirts forced their way inside. How they made him watch her die, even after he shut his eyes and struck out at them.

And then he remembered what she told him. That nothing could keep them apart, not even this mortal coil. She told him of the stories from long ago, how even the black shirts would fade from memory in time. That they’d have their place in paradise, in this life or the next.

Joshua’s eyes filled to the brim with stinging tears. He remembered. He knew what he needed to know. The black shirts were approaching. And as they did, something else came to Joshua. That fist wasn’t always there. In the old days, before the black shirts carved it, it stood for courage, and honor, and sacrifice. It was a monument to a man. A man named Washington.

The black shirts approached, they grabbed at Joshua forcefully. But even so, he felt nothing.

CRACK.

Off in the distance, a gunshot left one of the other men motionless. And then it came to Joshua. His one last memory. He remembered that first CRACK, what it really was. It wasn’t a branch from the husk of a tree. It was a bullet plunging into his own brain. He remembered this as the blood dripped slowly from the wound over his right eye.

They tossed him into the fire with the rest, but the bullet prevented him from feeling any pain. Instead, he was wrapped up in the warm embrace of his Mary, ready to rejoin her in another time and another place.

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