Apologies for the lateness of this month’s issue. It is testament to the power of the internet that it reaches you at all, in that it is being published not from my usual desktop PC in Australia, but a laptop in a cockroach infested, mosquito ridden hotel in South America (oh the joys of cold-water shaving).
All that aside, we have more great fiction. Emily Gaskin looks at love and all its dark recesses. Christopher Rowe completes his tenant as Featured Author with the incendiary “VFD Adventures” and an illuminating interview. We have more heated exchanges in Daniel J. Bishop’s “Noldus and Vespa,” while the sting in this months tales comes from Algernon Blackwood’s “An Egyptian Hornet.”
If you can get past my fever induced introduction, you’ll enjoy this month’s issue.
Mikal Trimm: Southern writers have a history of being a bit darker, even gothic, in their writing than those from other parts of the country (Flannery O’Conner, Tennessee Williams, even William Faulkner and Mark Twain in much of their fiction). Do you find that growing up Southern influenced your writing style?
Christopher Rowe: The question part of that question presupposes that my writing is dark and gothic, which I don’t think is entirely true. Though what I think of as my best stories can probably be described that way.
Growing up Southern…I don’t know. This reminds me of that bit in The Sound and the Fury where Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate at Harvard gives his ‘tell about the South’ speech. I don’t think of myself as a Southerner until pretty far down the list of identifiers, even the list of geographical identifiers. I think of myself as an Adair Countian, then as somebody from the Eastern Pennyrile, then as a Kentuckian. ‘Southern’ doesn’t show up until just before ‘American’.
That said, the circumstances of my raising, both cultural and geographical, certainly had a huge influence on my work (and on my personality, my world view, everything), but I think that’s probably true of all artists.
Mikal: What’s the story with you and crows?
Christopher: I’m not at liberty to say.
Mikal: How did …is this a cat? come to be?
Christopher: …is this a cat? is a one shot ‘zine, a chapbook really, that I put out early in 2002 through the small press I run with Gwenda Bond, The Fortress of Words. It sprang from a panel given at the 2001 Wiscon by Gavin J. Grant, Kelly Link, and Emily Pohl-Weary, all indie press editors and publishers of the first water. At the end of their very informative panel about the past and present of the small press — they concentrated on the genre small press mostly — Gavin issued a challenge to all the attendees, basically asking everyone to put out their own ‘zine by the time we all met up again in 2002.
So I was thinking about that when I remembered a conversation I’d had with Kelly earlier in the spring at ICFA. We were looking at some photographs, and I’d shown her one of my cat, Portnoy. She said, “That’s not a cat, it’s a child in a cat suit.” (He’s a bit large.) Having absolutely no other ideas, I made up an invitation, including the photo in question, and sent it out to 20 or so friends, asking them in kind of a mock serious tone to create what they would in answer to the question, “Is this a cat?”
I knew that was a pretty narrow theme, though, so I made it clear — I thought — that what I was really interested in was identity, perceptions of identity. My friends, being the freaks they are, mostly ignored that last bit and sent me stories and drawings and essays, even a comic and a crossword puzzle, almost all about my cat Portnoy. And they did great! I’m very proud of how the ‘zine turned out. There’s really good stuff in there — I’d start listing names but there’s a dozen or more folks on the masthead and they all deserve attention for their work in the ‘zine (and everywhere else their work has appeared). I think there’s still a webpage about …is this a cat? up at the Small Beer Press site over at www.lcrw.net.
Oh, as an aside, I wasn’t the only one who took up the Wiscon challenge. A writers group called the Ratbastards put out a great chapbook of their work called Rabid Transit (just reviewed in the August 2002 Locus, I think); Amy Beth Forbes and Beth Adele Long have launched a new ‘zine called Turbocharged Fortune Cookie, and I believe the new Problem Child ‘zine that Lori Selke is producing out of San Francisco has its roots in that conversation as well.
Mikal: Any more information on your future publishing plans?
Christopher: We had a lot of fun putting […is this a cat] together, and it met with a fair bit of critical and popular success. We’ve decided to keep going with our own semi-annual ‘zine, called Say. Each issue will be themed around a question (why mess with a good thing?). The first issue will debut at the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis this autumn. The question is “Say…Was That a Kiss?” and we’ve already lined up wonderful stories from Jeffrey Ford, Gregory van Eekhout and F. Brett Cox.
Mikal: It seems apparent from your discussion of …is this a cat that writing for you (as for many writers) is almost a group process, rather than a solitary pursuit. Would this be accurate?
Christopher: Group process, wow. No, not at all. I think writing — I mean here the actual creative moment, when it’s just you and the page and the grasping for the next word — is absolutely solitary. Maybe even terrifyingly solitary. So, I think a lot of writers — the writers I count among my friends at least — do everything they can to create these group activities you may be thinking of. Things like writers’ workshops and conventions, certainly, and sure, group projects like themed ‘zines or those old shared world anthologies that used to be popular. Workshopping is big among my particular gang of acquaintances, both over the Internet and in person…I’m including a lot of things in that term, ‘workshopping’. I imagine a lot of people are familiar with the idea of a local writing group that meets regularly and exchanges stories for critique, but that’s actually probably the one I’ve participated in the least (though I’ve done a fair amount of it); most of my writing friends are so dispersed geographically that that’s not practical. So you swap stories electronically, but also in person on weekend visits or when you see each other at cons, whatever. There are also the workshops that meet annually or semi-annually, modeled on the old Milford workshop. Lots of people have probably heard of Clarion and Clarion West (I went to West in ’96), those are kind of like master classes, with teachers in classroom setting. But there’s also Sycamore Hill and Rio Hondo. I think that there are some Clarion alumni who do a roving annual workshop they call GypsyCon.
Anyway, all this stuff points to how desperately we want it to be a group process. But to bring this ramble to a halt, and be clear (and I’m only going to be clear this once during this interview, so don’t get used to it), no, it wouldn’t be accurate to characterize my view of writing as a group process.
Mikal: I stand woefully corrected. Be that as it may, do you think that the advent of the internet, along with the profusion of online, genre-specific markets, has changed the way many writers approach their art?
Christopher: I don’t think the profusion of online magazines has really impacted the way I approach my art, though it’s certainly had a huge impact on the way I approach the business side of things. More ‘markets’ (and I’m really uncomfortable with that term for magazines or books or sites that publish stories — online or not, small press or large) is positive.
I guess that online magazines probably facilitate communities in a way.
Ideomancer, to use the obvious example, has its particular aesthetic and editorial stance. The sites where those things are strongly defined and well developed may wind up attracting like-minded writers, who may in turn come to think of themselves as ‘Ideomancer authors’. There’s a long tradition of that among speculative fiction writers — the Analog Mafia is a recent example. (Though hopefully if there’s ever a similar group here we won’t be expected to have a horn section.) I think you or Chris are better equipped to talk about this than me. Hmmm. I suppose we’d need a name — the ‘Ideomancer Instrumentality’? ‘Ideodancers?’ Write Chris Clarke with your suggestions, folks!
Mikal: Many of your stories have a strong folklore influence. Do you strive for that feel, or is it even a conscious decision on your part?
Christopher: Yeah, it’s conscious. Fairly early on, when I was just a little baby writer (I think I’m a toddler now), I got the “Mocknapatawpha” out of my system by creating Cane County, where I’ve set many of my stories. I went a little bit over the top, maybe, ordered maps from the United States Geographical Survey and kind of carved Cane out of parts of four real Kentucky counties and then flooding a big part of the area with a lake that’s not there. I’ve set probably a dozen completed stories there, have fragments for at least that many more, and have notes for one horror novel and one mystery novel set there.
I was going to say something about how I’ve been working with the Cane County stuff (and the crows) less these days; but I just remembered that the sf story I was working on as recently as this morning concerns both.
Anyway, when I first began writing fantasy stories set in Cane County, my rationale was that I was writing the folktales that people in Cane County tell one another. And I’ve been fairly shameless in ripping off other people’s source material and putting my own local shine on it — a time-honored tradition in folktales. I’ve got a story called “The Children of Tilford Fortune” based on a tale the Grimms collected — that’ll be in a Simon & Schuster YA anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Teri Windling due out next year, My Swan Sister. And a story I had in Realms of Fantasy a couple of years ago called “Sally Harpe” was strongly influenced by the book of the ballet Giselle, at least in terms of plot. So folklore, sure.
Mikal: The creation of ‘Cane County’ sounds like King’s ‘Derry, Maine’ in some ways — a fictional creation that begins to have its own life in the mind of the author. Do you have residents of Cane that exist outside the needs of the story (i.e., recurring secondary characters, etc.)?
Christopher: Heh. That looks like a big sweeping question but it’s actually very specific. And the specific answer is ‘sort of’. I have a recurring primary character named Japheth Sapp, who’s played various roles in various stories. The Cane County timeline, the way the stories relate to one another…I’ve left that stuff intentionally vague, inserted intentional contradictions in the stories. Japheth, for instance, first showed up in a story called “Baptism on Bittersweet Creek” (this was the second or third Cane County story to be published), wherein he’s a man in his twenties in a story set in the 1920s. His ‘origin’ is told in “Kin to Crows”, which you guys recently reprinted, and which was my first fiction sale. There, he’s probably around 15, but it’s set at about the same time. There’s an oblique reference to him as an old man in another story set in the 1880s titled “Sally Harpe” that I mentioned earlier. And I’m working on a story now that features a mid-forties Japheth set about fifty years in the future.
I mix things up like that for a few different reasons. First, I wanted to stay true to the idea that these stories are at least in part the folktales of a real place, and folktales are self-contradictory. I also didn’t want to have to keep track of all the families of characters I’ve developed — Coys and Roys and Sapps and so on — didn’t want to be tied to any particular way of writing about them.
Mikal: You described yourself as a ‘toddler’ in writing. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Christopher: I want to make a living writing stories and books which I enjoy reading and writing. That’s the internal goal. Externally, I want to earn the fabulous wealth, glory and fame that so many others have achieved through writing about slack-jawed yokels with super powers.
Noldus came to Vespa on the last hot day of the boiling Earth. The sun loomed in the sky, quivering with anticipation for the nova that would engulf it like an orgasm. Today was the day. The last day. Dark clouds crossed the sun’s red surface. The world — those who could not afford passage elsewhere — sank into a fevered sweat and waited for the end.
It was not that Noldus could not afford passage. He could one hundred times over. He could have gone to bright Zirnish or the colonies that beaded the rings of Amarath like glossy pearls. It was by choice that Noldus came to Vespa, to be with her as the world burned away.
What fires she had awoken in him. His flames rose in flickering patches of tenderness and rage. She had promised to awaken passion in him, beyond his ability to endure.
The doormen were gone. The doors were open. Their sliding mechanism had failed in the oppressive heat. Noldus let himself in. The lifts were inoperative, but his power suit assisted him up the dizzying flights of stairs, kept him cool as he approached Vespa’s lair close upon the engorged sun.
These things that she could never have afforded on her own, hers now because the world had been abandoned.
Noldus found her at the tower’s bright zenith, lying naked in the hot bath. The cold tap was turned all the way on. Though the machinery had long ago lost maximum efficiency, it still kept the water from boiling. Vespa had shaved herself bald trying to keep cool, but her skin was blistered by the relentless sun. He could see the needle marks in her arms. Noldus released the catches on his face mask. The furnace atmosphere sizzled across his face.
The heat stole his breath, and his lungs steamed. When he could speak, he called out her name. In times past, she would have fought him, or run from him. Now she just waited, languid in the water, as he approached. Looking down at her, he felt his blood quicken. After so much pain, so much time, he still wanted her.
He knelt beside her, and injected a stimulant into the bruised interior of her elbow. It took several minutes for the stimulant to work. Eventually, Vespa’s head rolled slowly toward him, and her eyes met his. Noldus saw that she recognized him. Her voice was slow and thick with painkillers.
“Have you come to take me away?”
“No. The last ship left, hours ago.” He paused. “Would you have gone?”
“Not with you. But I would have gone.”
He crouched down to touch the water, but to his gloved finger everything was cool. He peeled one glove off to feel the heat. His skin was thatched with fine scars. He could feel the sun burning the skin on his face. It would not be long now, and he could endure it.
“I never meant to hurt you,” Noldus said. “You know that.”
“But you did.”
Her voice sounded clearer now. The stimulant was working.
“Yes.” He began to remove the suit. The heat broiled him, piece bypiece, raising blisters across his shoulders. “Time and again.” The hair onhis arms and back shriveled, spicing the stink of boiling skin and scorched concrete.
“Even now, being here..” Her breath caught. The stimulant he had administered was wearing away her anesthetic drugs. The heat came again like a solid wall of pain.
“But time has run out, and I’ll never hurt you again.”
There had been so many betrayals, the ever-widening gap between his riches and her poverty, until any hand he reached to her was a purchase, any hand she might have reached to him was a pleading.
Naked, he settled next to the bath, waiting for that moment when the heat would burn away pain, and hatred, and love. Waiting for her to reach for him. Waiting to be with her, once more, before the erupting sun engulfed the world.
“That stands for volunteer fire department, y’all.”
Sure, it’s hot in August down in our part of the country. But if you grow up around here, and I did, you get used to it. And if you’re a firefighter, and I am, then ninety-six degrees don’t seem like much. And humidity? Don’t even talk to me about humidity.
Don’t talk to me, either, about your automobile fires or your house fires or even your big old raging wild fires, the kind that take a few thousand acres of the federal land by the lake every dry year. I’ve fought all of them. Beat them, too, with the good people of the Stone’s Camp Fire Squad, Squad Number One of the Cane County Volunteer Fire Department.
How come the big boys down at the county seat in Jericho don’t get to be Squad One? Get to ride first down the street in the Fourth of July parade and take the light duty — serving coffee — at the pancake breakfasts? Well, that would be because the founding chief of the entire Cane County VFD founded Stone’s Camp Squad first. That’s Mr. Hezron Stone and he’ll come into this story directly.
Story, oh yes. What kind of man would shrug off house fires and wild fires both if he didn’t have some kind of story to back up his shrug?
It was about eight in the morning and I was doing the payroll at the Bybee Sawmill — that’s my day job, keeping the books out there — when the call came in.
“Vic?” It was Constance Coy’s voice squawking out of the two-way radio I always keep clipped to my belt. She’s the co-captain at Stone’s Camp. Co-captain, dispatcher, bookkeeper (I learned double entry from Constance) and principal equipment maintainer.
“This is Firefighter Vic Sapp,” I said, thumbing the transmit button. I try to follow the protocol for radio communications when I think of it. It’s easier to think of it when I’m sitting in my air conditioned trailer at the sawmill than when I’m speeding down the road or calling for backup.
“Vic, I’ve already called Bert.” She meant Gilberto Silverado, the other Stone’s Camp firefighter who worked at the mill. “He’ll pick you up.” And there was Bert’s truck, already sliding to a stop outside the office, throwing up a cloud of dust that would only remind an amateur of smoke.
I turned up the volume so I could hear Constance’s instructions as I rushed out of the trailer and into Bert’s Chevy. He’d thrown the door open so I didn’t have to break stride, just dove right in.
“It’s Tommy Asbury’s place,” Constance said. “And it’s bad.” Then she was gone, which was understandable. She was probably hanging off the back of the Squad One engine the whole time she was talking to me, and Little Bill Coy would have been driving. Little Bill is Constance’s husband, the other co-captain and a fearless man before a fire or behind the wheel.
Bert, he’s civic minded. He drove fast but sensible, didn’t say anything until I was buckled in. “Asbury. I know him. I visited his house before the election.”
Bert was the duly elected magistrate for the third district of the Cane County Fiscal Court. He’d run as an independent, kiss of death usually, even if you’re not a brand new citizen in a part of the country that’s not known for rolling out the welcome wagon to immigrants. But he’d had a string of luck since he left Chihuahua. Came up to work in the tobacco fields and wound up at the Coy farm. Decided to stay, learned English better than I ever hope to know it, got citizenship then ran for election the same year the Democratic candidate got caught wife-swapping with the Republican candidate.
He was also the first member of the Cane County Volunteer Fire Department (not just our Squad, I’m talking about the whole department) who wasn’t trained by Hezron Stone. Chief Stone had retired about a year before Bert came on board, so Bert’s training — and the training of all the other firefighters in the county — fell to his local chief. But since Bert’s local chief was actually two chiefs — and they were the Coys — I figured he’d had the next best thing to genuine Stone training. Hezron Stone…there wasn’t anything that man didn’t know about putting out fires.
Like he said, Bert had been to the Asbury place, so he knew the way. Hell, everybody knew the way to Tommy Asbury’s. He’s been the biggest, richest bootlegger in Cane County for the past thirty years. There wasn’t a dry county within seventy miles of us, and that’s a fact that made more than one old boy an illicit living. Lot of profit in bootlegging. In high school, I remember paying eighteen dollars for a case of Sterling beer, warm Sterling beer, warm Sterling beer in cans. Like I said, that was high school.
All that money had built Tommy a big house off Sand Creek Road, one of those cookie cutter ranch jobs out of a magazine, but set back in the woods. Big house, and Lord was that a big fire. I saw the Asburys all huddled under a quilt in a stand of birch trees off to one side as we pulled up. Other trucks and cars were squealing up at the same time, and Constance and Little Bill already had the helmets and boots lined up on the ground with the other gear.
The engine was parked at least thirty yards back from the blaze, but the heat made it feel more like five feet as we suited it up. The high pressure hoses on the engine — I saw that they’d laid the intakes right down into Sand Creek — are made for three men to handle when they’re going full blast. There was Little Bill, laying down a pattern of spray across the second floor with one hand while he waved at us to hurry with the other.
When most people meet Little Bill and find out his name, they think it’s one of those joke nicknames, like when a short man gets called Stretch. But that’s not it at all. Little Bill was a second string defensive tackle up at the University of Kentucky in the fifties — played under Bear Bryant — and while he was there another old boy named Bill Coy was on the team that was even bigger than ours. Our Bill is six foot eight if he’s an inch, must weigh 300 pounds and there’s only a little bit of that that forty years back in Stone’s Camp have turned to fat. That other Bill Coy must have been a hoss.
“Y’all hurry and get suited up!” shouted Constance. “The house is past saving but we’ve got to keep this thing from spreading!”
It sure looked like it wanted to spread — to the garage, to the trailer out back where one of the Asbury girls lived with some man from Ohio, maybe even to the woods. That was a huge fire, a hot fire, an angry looking fire. Smoke and tongues of flame poured out of every window and we could see the waves of heat rolling out, sucking the water from the air. A fire like that doesn’t get put out, it burns itself out.
Sometimes. This time, though, there was too much feeding the flame for us to relax even a little bit. We could hear little explosions as the cases of beer and bottles of whiskey Tommy stored in the basement fell to the heat. The fire kept growing hotter and higher until….
Well, until the thing that happened next happened. How did it happen? Where did he come from? Well, there’s what you might call schools of thought on the subject. Bert, he’s a Catholic, right? He says it was a demon that got called up by all that heat and liquor. Chief Stone wound up figuring it for some kind of fire creature created on the spot by the flames of what must be said to have been the hottest fire that ever burned in Cane County — combined with the alcohol. Seems like it amounts to the same thing to me, what you want to call it. Amounts to a hell of a lot of trouble.
Constance saw it first. I was standing right behind her, feeding her hose, so she blocked off the view. Little Bill was a big man, sure, and he’d married a big woman. They went off to school together and there’s people that say if it’d been her instead of him that played for UK then Cane County could boast a first stringer under the Bear instead of a second stringer. That’s not really fair, since her game was basketball. UK didn’t have a women’s team when she was there, but if there’d been one, she would have been a star. Hell, she would have been a WNBA star if they’d had that back then, either.
So, if a normal sized man had come lurching out of that front door just then, I might not have seen him at all. But this fellow had to bend over double to even get out the door and you’ve got to figure a door frame is at least what, seven feet tall? Even on one of those new houses out of a magazine.
And there he was. Twelve or thirteen feet tall, nearly that broad across the shoulders, and on fire. Looked like he was carved out of the blackest coal, with eyes like rubies. You know what he looked like? Like that statue that the University of Louisville uses on their coat of arms, The Thinker. I’m a UK fan myself, and their little symbol says, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” just like on the seal for the whole Commonwealth of Kentucky.
There’s four hoses that run off our engine, just about all that the fourteen of us can handle. We were united just then, all right, when we turned our hoses on the giant. Little Bill, busy as he was, was keeping an eye on the younger guys, Bert included. He was shouting instructions and so on. That’s Little Bill’s way, always teaching, even when things get grim. He got that from the Bear.
I don’t know how we knew that the giant was the bad guy in this particular situation, but nobody questioned it for a second. Maybe it was the way he looked. I mean, a thirteen foot tall flaming giant made from coal, roaring out of a bootlegger’s house with glowing red eyes and a bottle of Early Times in his hand, what would you think? I’m a Maker’s Mark man, myself.
All four hoses on him, then, and what happened? Steam. Water with that much pressure behind it should’ve knocked over anybody, even a body that weighed as much as that one did, but the water never even touched him. It rose up in billows of steam before it even got to him. And he carried on like he enjoyed it.
All those Asburys went scattering when the giant headed over to the little copse they were standing in. But he wasn’t headed after them. He reached up and pulled down the biggest branch off the biggest birch tree, dropped his whiskey bottle and took the branch up in both hands. It set to blazing as soon as he touched it, but birch is pretty tough, and it looked like it was maintaining structural integrity pretty good — better than the Asbury’s place at any rate.
We all drew back, figuring he was getting ready to lay into us. Sure enough, he drew back with the branch. But then he kind of turned it over with a little flick of his wrists — or as little as wrists big around as saplings can flick — and started beating himself with the branch. And laughing.
“You know, I believe that son-of-a-bitch is making fun of us,” said Little Bill, and he motioned for us to cut off the water. The steam died down right away, and the giant threw his branch back into the woods. It was still on fire, and we could see the brush back there starting to take the flames.
“Shit,” said Little Bill, then detailed six of the boys to go prevent forest fires. “Anybody got any ideas?”
The giant, flickering still, wheeled around like he was listening to us, but then set off up the road. Big flaming footprints sprung up in the blacktop after him. He moved at a pretty good clip, probably twenty-five of thirty miles an hour and that was at a walk, not a run.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Constance. Constance always had good ideas. “I’ve got two or three of them.”
We gathered around.
“When that bunch there finishes up with the brush fire,” she said, gesturing to the half dozen stalwarts of Squad One kicking out the fire set by the flaming branch, “You have them spray down what’s left of the house — “, and there wasn’t much left, the Asburys were milling towards us, finally, looking a bit stunned, ” — then follow old ornery up the road there. He’s going to be setting more than one little blaze.”
“Me and these here,” she continued, “are going to take the van down to Jericho and borrow their foam truck.” There’s some kinds of fire that water won’t touch and our boy looked to be possessed of one of those kinds.
Bert and I started toward the van with the other guys, but Constance said “Now hang on.” We stopped.
“There’s one more thing that needs doing. I don’t know about any of y’all, but I never had to fight a giant flaming man before.” The two of us couldn’t really say we had either.
“So we need some help, need to get somebody down here that can figure out how to send this one back to wherever he came from.”
Remember, Bert was fairly new, but I knew who Constance had to be talking about. “Come on,” I told him. “You drive and I’ll show you the way.”
“Where are we going?” he asked.
I told him. “We’re going to fetch Hezron Stone.”
The Stone Farm is on a high, rocky ridge above Bittersweet Creek. The turnoff is easy to miss, since it’s just a little washed-out place beside the main road. You have to drive right down into the creek, then follow it for about a hundred yards to a locked gate. The key to the padlock is in a coffee can nailed to a stump on the other side of the gate, so I had to get out and climb over for it, shooing away a crow while Bert locked in the hubs on his four wheel drive Chevy. He didn’t have to get out of the truck, they all have those automatic gizmos now.
I got back in and he turned down the radio so he could concentrate on the clay gully that passes for a drive leading up to Chief Stone’s house. Hunkered down over the steering wheel, he talked out of the side of his mouth. “I had no idea anyone lived up here. This road reminds me of Mexico.”
See, there’s Bert doing his magistrate job again. All that area around Bittersweet Creek is technically in his district, but he didn’t have any luck meeting folks up there when he was running for election. Those people don’t vote and they don’t partake of any of your public services except maybe the one county maintained road in that stretch of country, the one that we’d just turned off of.
“It’s pretty secluded,” I said. “People up here don’t even call the fire department that I know about.”
Bert had heard all the stories about the old Chief. “Maybe Hezron Stone puts out all their fires.”
“Maybe he does,” I said. “Look, there he is now.”
We’d reached the top of the road, where it spread out into a little gravel lot between the wood frame house and the old fieldstone silo. Hezron Stone must have heard us coming because he was standing in his front yard, gray and stooped, already had his hat on.
We got out and he greeted us, said, “Vic Sapp. How are you doing, boy?”
“Very well, Chief, very well.” I started to tell him why we were there but he’d already turned around and was looking at Bert, looking at his rubber boots and VFD jacket. “Well, well,” he sighed. “First of a new breed.”
Bert drew up straight and said, “It’s a great honor to meet you, sir. My name is Gilberto Silverado and I —”
The Chief put a hand on Bert’s shoulder and whirled him around, kept that hand there while he hooked his other hand in my arm and started us walking towards the truck.
“I know who your are, young man. You’re my new magistrate. And a firefighter, too, so you need to be in more of a hurry.”
“Did Constance call you, Chief?” I asked, waiting for him to climb into the cab. “Tell you we were coming up here to get you?”
He just kind of laughed. “Look at you boys,” he said. “Red faced, smelling like you do, wearing your gear. Hell no, she didn’t call me! But I can see out of these old eyes yet. I figured those Coys got into something they can’t handle.”
“You got that right, sir,” I said. “There’s nothing in the book about giants made out of coal setting fire to the countryside.” When we say book, we’re generally talking about the manual the Chief made up for all the squads before he took his retirement.
“No,” he said, slowly, serious now. “No, I didn’t put anything in there about that. Sounds pretty serious.”
As we eased back down the ridge Bert and I filled him in with what little we knew. He just nodded, taking it all in, said, “Woman’s smart,” when we told him Constance had gone for foam.
As we pulled up out of the creek, he asked, “What’s the weather man hollering?”
We’d been listening to the radio in the truck on the way over. Station I listen to is out of Green County because they’ve got a real meteorologist over there that writes up the weather instead of the dee-jays just reading it off the teletype out of Louisville. We hadn’t heard the weather, but the Chief was just asking kind of academically anyway. He could see out of those old eyes yet. There were big thunderheads piling up in the western sky, so I told the chief, “He’s hollering rain.”
But it hadn’t started raining yet when we met back up with the rest of the squad. Little Bill and his bunch had followed the monster about eight or ten miles from the Asbury place, putting out little brush fires the whole way, until the creature finally holed up at the Rural Electric Co-op substation hard by Lacey Independent Baptist Church.
He was in there when we pulled up, pulling apart transformers and dancing around, sticking wires in his mouth and glowing blue from all the electricity he was drinking. Little Bill had the engine crew wetting down the church just in case and Constance and her bunch were still setting up the foam gear.
The Coys saw us and came over, making noises about getting Hezron Stone into some gear. But he waved them off, staring at the coal giant. “This is one big ugly son-of-a-bitch, ain’t it?” said Chief Stone, kind of summing up the situation.
“We’re ready to go with the foam,” said Constance.
Chief Stone looked kind of worried, shook his head a little. “Well,” he finally said, “Looks like the RECC boys with the computers have shut off the electric. You’d better go ahead and try it.”
The juice had stopped running out of the electric wires the giant was holding. He kind of shivered a little, still crackling with left over lightning, then looked around.
“He’s fixing to light out again!” called Little Bill. “Foam him up!”
I ran over to the help out with the dispensers along with Bert. We laid down a big X pattern of foam over the whole substation, coating everything inside the chain link fence in a thick coat of the white stuff. We paid particular attention to our peculiar problem, made him look like the giant snowman the Jaycees always put on their float in the Christmas parade.
And it stopped him. At least for a minute.
After all that noise, the giant hollering, the electricity crackling, the water hitting the wooden siding of the church, the Coys shouting instructions and encouragement; it was a strange silence that settle down. Even the thunder left off.
Then the big snowman started bubbling. “Y’all better get ready to move,” said Hezron Stone.
The stuff melted away from the giant, his usual yellow and orange flames back now, flickering all over. The boys with the water hoses started to swing around, but Chief Stone waved them off, watching — learning I guess.
“What’s he doing now?” asked Bert.
We all wondered, because the giant hadn’t leapt out of the enclosure like we expected. Instead, he yanked a piece of tin off the roof of the little utility shed they have in all those substations, then ripped a long piece off one edge with a wicked shriek. Whether it was him or the tin that made the noise, I don’t know. He waved it around a little bit like a sword, and it did look sharp.
But then he bent over to the ground and gathered up a bunch of foam in one hand. You could see the flames along that arm dying down as he did it, the foam not melting now. And the flames of his face died too as he spread the foam across his chin and cheeks.
“You know what I think?” asked Hezron Stone.
The giant picked up his piece of tin — it must have been just as sharp as it looked — and started scraping it across his face, little bits of copper wire flying off every direction.
“I think that son-of-a-bitch is making fun of us,” finished the Chief.
And sure, the giant started howling, sort of guffawing I guess, and jumped out of the enclosure, plumb over the fence, plumb over the trucks, plumb over Lacey Independent Baptist Church. I don’t know that he was making mock exactly, though, because I’d seen the bristles on his face and he kind of did need a shave. I only have to shave every other day, myself.
Everybody started moving as soon as the giant hit the ground, trying to wheel around and get some water on him. He was doing some kind of little dance, shrugging his shoulders and shaking like a Louisville drunk. We could see then that there was something different about him from before. Big bulges had come up on his back, glowing white with heat.
“Now what’s that?” asked Little Bill, keeping one eye out while he wrestled with a hose.
Hezron Stone shook his head again. “That’s more trouble, Little Bill.”
Then the giant did a little shimmy, jumped into the woods, and was off again.
Everybody started rolling up hoses, piling into the trucks. The rain finally started and Little Bill had to shout to be heard. “Same drill, you bunch follow him on foot if you can and put out any fires he starts. This rain’s the first break we’ve had.”
And Constance had some last minute instructions, too. She’s always thinking. “Listen up!” Everybody stopped. “Y’all know these Lacey Baptists are a little touchy, right?”
The pastor of Lacey Independent preached against liquor and taxes and generally raised a lot of Cain. Everybody knew not to argue doctrine with that particular bunch of believers.
“Well, then. Y’all know better than to tell any of them that a drunk giant fire heathen was dancing in their church yard, don’t you?”
That Constance, she’s full of good ideas.
That was a long day. “Old Ornery,” as Constance had us all calling him, led us on a chase over half of Squad One’s territory. Luckily, we had a couple things working for us.
The thunderstorms subsided into a steady soaking rain, looked like weather that was settling in to stay a while. That kept the little fires he set down to a manageable level.
The other thing that helped was Old Ornery himself. He slowed down considerably as the bulges on his back got bigger and bigger. You could even kind of keep up with him as he loped along, if you could handle a dead run loaded down with fire fighting gear. We’re all in top shape on Squad One, not like the pretty boys in Jericho. We do calisthenics and everything.
Hezron Stone coordinated the activities. He was on the horn all afternoon, tracking the movements, calling in backup from the other squads, setting up something special. Little Bill had a big map spread out over the dash of his van, marking the path.
Finally, Old Ornery must have got tired, because he holed up again, this time in an old pole barn near the Clover Quarry. The Clover family leased out their tobacco to somebody pretty industrious, because the barn was already hung full of curing burley. Sweet blue smoke curled out from the barn, but we didn’t see any flames yet.
We’d been there about ten minutes when the last of the other Cane County Squads arrived. It was the first time I’d ever seen them all in one place except at parades or suppers or the softball tournament. The Jericho Squad was there with all their shiny new equipment; Cindy Sparks (that’s her real name, Sparks, and that’s a pretty good name for a firefighter) had all her daughters up from Lonely Oak, where the seven of them make up the whole squad; and the Dry Creek Squad and the bunch from Taylor Road; all fifteen squads.
The chiefs gathered around Hezron Stone, who stood staring at the barn. They were waiting for the word, and finally, Chief Stone gave it.
“I’ve got Tommy Clover in on this, setting up an extinguishing trap back at the quarry.” He waved down the hill, where the Clovers had big limestone pits carved out of their land. “We need to get our targets down into the number four dig.”
The Taylor Road chief said, “Targets? I thought you said there was only one of them.”
Just then the god-awfullest noise I’d heard all day — and I’d heard some pretty god-awful noises that day — rose up out of the barn. There was a howling and a shattering noise, like Old Ornery had broken down some of the tiers the tobacco hung on. The big doors shook, then they bulged, then they flew open. There he stood — looking himself again, no bulges — grinning crazy and puffing on a big cigar he’d rolled out of the tobacco and an old burlap sack. He had a bunch more cigars in his hands and we all ducked when he threw them at us.
When we looked up, there were three more Old Ornery’s about half the size of the first boiling out of the barn. Hezron Stone said, “There was. There was only one of them.”
Little Bill shouted out, “Cut loose on them!”
The assembled squads kicked the valves open on their hoses. The rain started falling even heavier and there was steam everywhere, but we could see that we had more of an effect on the little ones than on their — well, I guess you’d say their daddy. Or their mama.
Whichever he was, he stuck with those little ones (if you can call anything that’s seven feet tall little) as we moved the trucks, herding them down the hill. A couple of the boys stopped to pick up some cigars. They were huge, but I’ve seen other proud daddies handing around some almost that big. Bert offered me one but I declined since I don’t smoke that hand rolled stuff. I’m a Camel man, myself.
Four flaming coal men, then, herded into a played-out quarry by fifteen squads of firefighters. We knew that he could leave anytime he wanted and he growled at us quite a bit. But he wouldn’t leave his children. We were buffeting those boys around pretty good with the pressure hoses, drawing our water from tanker trucks first, then from the deep, cold reservoirs of the quarry pits. The little ones must not have been as hot as their old man because the water didn’t turn to steam until it actually hit them.
And hit them it did. Turned them left and right until after a hard half hour we had the four of them dancing into a limestone cul-de-sac cut out of the old bones of Cane County. No way out of there except straight up the walls slick with rain, straight through a determined bunch of firefighters, or out a crack in one wall just wide enough for two or three Baptists to crawl through at a time.
Somebody must have leaked word to the good people of Lacey Independent about the dancing drunken fire heathen.
Bert and I were on the left point, scrambling over rocks and dragging hose behind us, bracing up against the wall when we had to and really laying the water on those boys. That kind of situation — flaming demons getting chased down a manmade canyon by better than a hundred volunteer firefighters, trucks struggling through the mud in a heavy rain — well, in that kind of situation you don’t expect a pair of Sunday School teachers to kind of pop out of the wall in front of you and set towards the demons, singing hymns and trying not to slip on the rocks.
And after those two came two more, then three, singing at the tops of their lungs (my grandmother, a Methodist, always said that Baptists make up in enthusiasm what they lack in pitch — she was a paragon of Christian charity), egged on by their pastor who was kind of going back and forth between singing and exhorting the way a lot of those old preachers do. We couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, and Bert and I were trying to pick out the Coys or Chief Stone, hoping they’d get us some directions.
We were on our own in this particular crisis, though. The little ornery closest to us had spotted the crack in the wall and was leaning into the jets of water aimed at him, making his way straight towards us — and straight over the flock from Lacey. Bert scrambled past me, cutting off his hose and roping it over the fissure to prevent any more believers through. Two or three of them bunched up against him right away but he had that hose wrapped around an outcropping and a determined look on his face. They were hollering that they were there to sing down the glory, they were going to pray those demons straight back where they came from.
Who knows? Maybe it would have worked, but I couldn’t take the chance. I had a half dozen civilians in a fire zone with seven feet of nasty bearing down on them and no time to wait for backup. Going after Sunday School teachers, can you imagine? Those were some vindictive sons-of-bitches.
The preacher and the five of his followers that had made it though had kind of bunched up right below me, down on the flat part of the quarry floor. They seemed to be screwing up their courage, getting ready to meet the giants head on even with the rest of the congregation being blocked by Bert. You’ve got to respect their resolve.
There’s a lot of trust involved in fire fighting. You’ve got to trust your equipment, you’ve got to trust your training, and you’ve got to trust your squad mates. In this case, I was trusting that the main body of firefighters had seen my predicament by now and they would handle the demons while I handled the Baptists.
I trotted out to meet the little one shambling towards us, turned the pressure in my hose as low as it would go, and turned my back on him. Then I opened up on the Baptists, kind of easing them back up the side towards Bert.
My trust was rewarded, the squads laid into the little one behind me with all they had, driving him back to his fellows while I drove the civilians back up to theirs. Bert saw them coming and got out of the way in time to let them back through the crack. They had their hands up over their faces and they were carrying on like it was me they’d come to exorcise.
I’d be hearing about that particular decision — made under a great deal of pressure, I’ll remind you — for a long, long time. But I didn’t have time to worry about it just then, as the main body of firefighters rolled past us and Bert and I rejoined the fight.
We finally had them where Hezron Stone wanted them, and he stopped our forward motion. Through the rain, I could see some Clover boys backing a tanker truck up to the edge of the bluff above us. I guessed that it contained the old chief’s surprise.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the plans you draw up to fight giant coal men work out just the way you figure them? I knew Chief Stone was too savvy a hand to expect everything to go perfectly, but even he looked shocked when the big one turned around, jets of water not quite reaching his back, and started laying into the limestone walls. And having an effect.
He gave that wall some mighty blows, and up above, the Clover boys were shaking. They’d backed that tanker up so close to the rim that the rear valve was sticking out over the edge above the targets. The tires of the rearmost axle were resting on almost as much air as they were rock. And it was more air by the second as each blow into the wall caused more and more limestone to tumble down.
There was a lurch and the whole lip of the pit gave way. The Clover boys scrambled back, tried to get to the cab of the truck, but a big crack was widening between them and the truck. Those old boys had done a good job, but they were out of the fight, now. Their truck hung over the crumbling edge, the rear wheels spinning in the rain.
“This don’t look too good,” said Little Bill.
But Hezron Stone still had a card to play. He shouted for Constance and as she came running, he bent over and pulled up a little round rock, a little bigger than a softball.
“See that valve up there, Constance?” She looked at the valve, looked at the rock in her hand. The creatures were roaring and the big one had started to climb.
“That’s a long shot, Chief,” she said, but she was pulling off her gloves.
Little Bill saw what was going on. He took in the distance and said, “Hell, you’ve hit further, honey.” And she had. Who doesn’t know about Constance Kincaid (she was a Kincaid before she was a Coy) and her last second full court shot against the Russell County Lady Lakers to win the District Finals in 1951?
“Hey, Constance,” I said. “Time’s running out and you’ve got the ball.”
“And we’re down by one,” said Chief Stone. Like a lot of old timers, the Chief didn’t hold with the three point rule.
So Constance nodded, took the stone, and shot. Turn around jump shot, no look. Nothing but valve. WNBA for sure.
And the valve opened, and a trickle of something dripped out. A trickle, then a spray, then a flood.
“Masks!” shouted Hezron Stone, and we all pulled up our masks. Constance scrambled for her gloves and even the old Chief pulled on a greatcoat and headgear.
“What is that stuff?” shouted Bert.
“Acid!” said Chief Stone. “A lot of it!”
Old Ornery and his brood didn’t care too much for being showered with hydrochloric. The little ones set to howling even louder, then just kind of slumped down. They started puddling up into coal colored goo. This upset their daddy something terrible.
We could see that he was losing hold of himself, and I don’t mean just his temper. His shoulders, which had been so blocky, were going soft and round. We couldn’t see the glow of his eyes any more because bits of his forehead kept melting over them. He jumped away from the spray, shaken now by our high pressure hoses. And he started marching straight for Chief Stone.
We poured more and more water on him, but he kept coming. Thirty yards, twenty, fifteen, now he was out from under the acid rain and coming faster. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was Little Bill. He gestured at me and Bert, yelled, “Turn this on me!” Then he handed off the hose he’d been handling all by himself.
When he said it, we couldn’t guess what he meant. But then we saw what he was trying. Little Bill Coy, hell, Big Bill Coy, shrugged off his coat, hunkered into the mud, then went for the tackle.
It was a sight. Bill hit Old Ornery low, which was the only way you could hit a thirteen feet tall flaming giant. He kept his arms up, finding the creature’s center of gravity. He hit it so hard we could hear the crack of his collar bones going, then hit it again. Driving the thing back, throwing it for a loss.
Everybody turned their hoses from the creature to Little Bill. Acid and fire, mud and water, those were field conditions even Bear Bryant couldn’t have handled. But Little Bill Coy did. He drove the giant back into the last drops of acid, then collapsed at the edge of the pool of the stuff that had formed at the base of the wall.
Old Ornery staggered against the melting limestone wall, then finally gave himself up. He fell like a poleaxed demon, or fire creature, or whatever. The black goo of all of them ran seeped into the mess of acid and limestone at the base of the cliff.
We dropped our hoses and sprinted for Little Bill. Constance beat us there, but she stepped aside when the boys from Jericho roared up. They’ve got a whole EMT kit setup in one of their vans and I must admit I was impressed when they went to work on our fallen co-chief. He was a sorry looking site, but he was breathing, and by the time they loaded him into the back of the van, Constance at his side, he was conscious enough to give us a thumbs up. Always encouraging us.
Then all that was left was the clean up, and we were talking, the way you always do after a fire. Bert was quizzing Chief Stone. “How did you know about the acid?”
The Chief shrugged, muttered something about adding a page to the manual explaining what happens to alcohol when it’s exposed to acid in an aqueous solution. “See,” he said, “I’ve heard of Demon Rum. But you strip the alcohol out of his veins and what you got left is ethyl chloride. And who ever heard of Demon Ethyl?”
I punched Bert on the shoulder, said, “I told you, there’s nothing that man doesn’t know about fire.”
It was going to be hard to go back to work the next day, and I thought I’d call and let the boss know he’d have to get somebody to fill in for me doing the payroll at the sawmill, while I covered for the Coys at the station. See, there’s keeping books and there’s putting out fires and when it comes right down to it, I’m a firefighter, myself.
Before another one of you kneels by my waters and begins your tired song, before you praise again the man who conquered all that you knew of the world, let me tell you the truth. Let me tell you how he left me in the river.
It is no rare thing to know warriors. There were many before him who came to my village. Each with a weapon, a restlessness, a hunger, moving in and out of our town like the water of the river, a bloodline that we, most of us, watched without interest.
Though but a girl then, I could already read in their faces the hours of their deaths and the next meaningless theft of our throne. I would have none of them.
I was sixteen before a man came whose face foretold not his death, but the death of all those around him. Bathing with my sisters in the river, I saw first his reflection caught between the waters of drifting lotus. He was on horseback — not unheard of, not even then, but certainly a sign of some success. I stood without shame, a heron blazing naked in the sunlight. From the opposite bank he watched me, also without shame. His face was smooth, without scars, but he had not grown a beard to hide this fact, so confident was he that time would work this honor on him.
His eyes, blistering coals, told me he would not leave the river without me.
And I knew the man had finally come, the one I dreamed about since I first slept in the arms of the banyan tree, the one who would take me away from the still brown waters of my home and all of its tired farmers, dreamless widows, and forgotten children. The one, I knew, who would give me the world.
Because my father had died long ago in one of the many occupations, it was my mother who negotiated my price. My proud lord scarcely listened, scarcely took his gaze from my face. My mother did not like the bold way he looked at me, the bold way I looked back. When we were alone, gathering my things for my journey, she struck me for immodesty, but confessed I had found my soul’s match.
I left behind me six cattle, a bolt of silk, exotic spices, and a prayer rug woven by a blind priest. I left that, my sisters, and all my memories, and rode into the world with my new lord.
He conquered me in one night. Then he conquered the peninsula.
My joy was boundless. I tasted victory in his mouth like a god’s opiate, dying in anticipation of his next triumph. Every conquered territory a jewel he placed on my body. He swore he would give it all to me and die; this was his ambition. In a weaker man, I would have hated him for it. How foolish to give away power for comfort, affection. False things, purchasable things.
But my lover was no fool. Hatred grew in him like a festering twin. His destiny was to despise the world, its pale cowardice, its slavish failure to lift itself out of mediocrity.
Anything that he could destroy, he would, obliterating where he could the disease that made man ever less than he should have been.
He would trample down the world and give it to me like a bauble. This was his disrespect. This was his ultimate gesture of defiance, of scorn. He would gather up the nations of the world in a gown to dress his insatiable whore.
Victory came so easily then — or perhaps it only seemed so, because we had not yet known failure. Because I expected nothing but his star rising up his, his greatness so unequivocal, the world so unworthy to challenge it, the first scar on his face hit me like a whip.
His beautiful, broken army rode all night, dragging our camp of women and wounded from lights that followed in the hills. I can still smell the sweat of his horse where he had my face pressed down in its mane, for miles, into darkness.
That night he did not stop making love to me. I cried out until I drowned in my silence.
The next morning, his men looked like children. I wanted to strike them, for the cruelty of their cowardice. How dare they let him see such shameful looks. How dare they take his strength away? Such loyalty! Such nobility of spirit! I could have poisoned all their wine and saved the enemy the trouble.
I could see my lover thought much the same thing, and crawling to watch from our tent, I expected to see his sword drawn, bright with their blood. But he did not kill them. Again, my lover was no fool and new better than I. He had no wish to start over. Why begin again with naive men, simple fools who believe in their courage because they have not yet tasted pain or despair? No, these men were tempered now, would fight all the harder, would come together at his feet, ferocious. Loyal. Like dogs.
He brought in a priest. He wanted their faiths in him affirmed. He consulted all night with the old sage, one who had seen fate twist on men like a deadly snake. And always, there was my lover, looking for the angle, the path to destroy destiny, to claim the world.
Stars were burning up holes in the sky when he at last took me into his tent, as if to make love to me, before crossing the river once more, to face the foe that had beaten him. He laid me down in silks — the finest silks he had then, plundered from a caravan of weaker men — and looked at my whole body not with a sigh, but with eyes so dark they plunged one into the final nights of the world. I wondered what those men thought, those generals and priests, who were unfortunate enough to see those depths. Did it mean only death to them? Did they go with rage or with terror? For me, that darkness was the way he loved. It was the oath taken at beginning of a poem, the dedication to a goddess, words that wrapped around and around me before we ever touched. I closed my eyes, awaiting his touch.
But he did not make love to me. He parted my lips with his thumb and placed into my mouth a lotus blossom. I tasted the bitter green stem and accepted it like an offering, moaning.
And the silk wound round. Gently, he wrapped the silk about my body, shaping another, luminescent skin upon my landscape. Willingly I slid into it, its buried scents of spice and incense, its aching, delicate tapestry of nerves, little knowing how it would soon wrap tighter, how it would catch the air in my lungs like a song bird, how everything I knew of my body would become bone, sharply cutting into bound muscle.
At first I was not afraid. It was another one of his cruelties. Before battles, his energy was always dangerous, a tiger on the verge of springing forward. His passions sought release at any cost. With that focus of blood, everything, even I, carried the scent of the darkness of the world. It would be such a night, I thought, that I would sink down into myself, hide my eyes from his furious gaze, and pray to the gods that tomorrow, it would not be his head on the enemy spear, that he would come back again safely with his sorrowful gazes, his slow, apologetic lovemaking, his remaking the world again into something beautiful. Something ours.
The silk drew tightly, and he pinned it with a silver crescent, pricking my skin. A few drops of blood blossomed under the silk. I opened my mouth to cry out, and the lotus fell deeper into my throat. I feared suffocating. My eyes darted wildly, betraying my panic. But his eyes did not meet mine. He sat kneeling beside me unrolling a bundle of gauze like a prayer scroll. The gauze of funeral masks.
He said, To take the world, the world first takes you.
To give you the world, my soul, my love, I give the world my most precious thing. My soul, my love.
Struggling now to right myself, I thrashed my head from side to side. He took it into his large, murderer’s hands, and, reciting lowly to himself, tenderly, skillfully, wrapped my head in gauze in the manner of priests, preparing idols for burial in the river.
For me it was no different. He left me in the river.
And as he went on to conquer the world, the walls of time closed over me.
Many years passed, and I did not accept it. I refused to dwell in the river as if it owned me, a mere dead thing. I moved in the rushes. I hissed in the breeze. I scattered the reflections of every army that brought its horses across the shallows.
My own death was inconsequential to me, his killing me not the crime that made me stalk the waters like a deadly serpent.
That he left me behind, that every village, every city, every nation he would claim in his years on earth, he would claim without me by his side, without me, afterwards, in his arms when he said, I have taken a piece of the world, and I give it to you.
I will give it to you until there is nowhere left that does not know my name.
That was the betrayal, that was the sin which earned him me, haunting him forever. His soul, his love.
I remembered from the days when I had a body, a name, that there are lakes and pools so sacred and still, that they hold starlight like mirrors. There is nothing of this serenity in a river. No stars reflect in the moving of a river.
I was the star, ruined in the river.
I wondered always where he was. Where he was riding his horse in the dust. Where his next enemy died with his name on his tongue. Where he lay that night in his tent, lying back on the pillows, his hair loose, a dark river. Touched by what lips as he again made peace with the world. Did he remember my name? My heart broke again and again and yet was invisible.
Everything weeps in a river. A river is the world weeping.
At last I found a rock in the middle of the river and settled there. I made it my temple of pain and let everything that moves erode its foundation. Let all memories rush by me. Let him be forgotten to me in the currents.
A river carries a thousand histories. I attempted to learn them, as a substitute. When the fish move with the seasons to spawn and die. When the mountain ices have melted, flooding all with the cold taste of rock salt. When a village has grown up near the shores. When disease flows from it silently, and when the waters clear again, once the plague has lifted — or the village is dead.
But the river carried, too, his history. Unable to stop myself, I guessed where he roamed by clues, snatches of fact from the world, and thereby made a map of his devastation. I knew where the women washed blood and sickness out of cloths from the wounded camps. I knew where the fish grew fat and multiplied because there were no men left to hunt them. I knew the echoes of his warrior cry and how it rippled in the waves.
I knew when he, in the furthest north, collapsed to his knees by the riverbank and dipped his stained blade in the water, calling my name softly. If I could have slowed my own blood, the pulse of a river, I would have stopped to reflect his face. I would have showed him back again a face of hatred. I would not acknowledge his pain.
Instead, I abandoned him as he abandoned me. I chose other sites. Places of uncompromising banality. Children splashing in the water. Old men in skiffs for catching fish. Young lovers clinging to each other and nearly drowning from inept lovemaking.
I went to these places and left him every time he approached my river. Every time he called out to me the name of a city, a dead king.
I found a sanctuary on the bank, hidden from many, far from even his reach. The ascetics came out at sunset to wash their feet. Where the toes dipped in the water, I could taste the soil of all the places they had been, the pilgrimages they had taken through forests, in mountains, on riverbanks. I tasted their weariness and their joy as ghosts do, as something new,something forgotten to one who exists as just one emotion.
In the morning, they sailed lotus blossoms down the river, in thanks.
I was contented in this shared knowledge. I liked how these priests, too, rejected the world of men. I was learning to forget the world of blood, and I was contented.
Then one day there were no lotus blossoms. One day there were bodies. They floated down the river. Bloated and stinking evidence of love. Love poems from a butcher.
My warrior, my lord, my history of flesh. I knew his brutal artistry in an instant. In that moment, I was no longer a star obliterated in water. I became the hard white moon, so hot she burned like knives, cutting up the river in waves.
I flashed everywhere. My fury heaved up upon the banks. I found all of his cities, all the places where the praise of his name hung in the air like pestilence, and I rose. He would have none of this because of me. I drowned them all.
He left me in the river. I left them all in the river.
Triumphant in destruction, I knew him better than I ever did alive. And knowing him, I found him again, after years of pain, twisting in the river.
He was waiting in the priest’s sanctuary. He wore the robes of a king. These fell from his shoulders, and he stood naked, tall and brown in the sunlight. He was much older, the years carving his face more than daggers. Involuntarily, against my anger, I ached to hold his reflection, his dreadful beauty in my palace of waters.
But the river moves.
He knelt at the water’s edge. He cupped a lotus in his hand.
I have taken the world, he said. There was nowhere that did not know my name.
He placed the lotus in the water.
And now you have taken it all from me.
He smiled. And dove into my river. Again, my soul, my love.