It’s always uncomfortably warm here, regardless of the season. We’re in this same boat, myself and the others (sometimes one, sometimes two, depending upon the wind). One of us always eats my bread. At midday, less than a tenth remains for myself. The others are here to help take me down to the pier, sleep in their eyes, dripping from the low ceiling of the sky, droplets becoming people or droplets still. As soon as they begin to fall, the boat fills and they start to take shape. I take buckets full of them—lungs and hearts and bits of flesh—and send them back into the water where they disperse. Those not bailed out in sufficient time begin to talk and eat. There is nothing I can do but let them stay. Even a bag of saltwater gets a seat at the table now.
Henri’s left shoulder approaches his ear while his right shoulder is near his waist. This is uncomfortable for me. When Henri walks (we have not always been in this boat though it is becoming hard to remember what that time was like) his gait is difficult. I watch as he awkwardly rolls forward: shoulder to ear, shoulder to waist, shoulder to ear, shoulder to waist. People point at Henri when they see him, but he ignores it. He must be in pain. Each time he turns his head, he winces a bit.
When one of us talks the others listen. Henri says he feels older here. I ask if he would feel younger on the salt flats and wonder if I feel older now. I tell Henri that a salt flat is like an old ocean, or what’s left over from when the oceans were young. Our boat isn’t moving anymore (does it ever?) and Henri isn’t responding. At this point, I begin to worry that I am slowing us down, though I seem to be doing all the rowing. I can’t see the pier anymore. It seemed so close from the land.
Henri asks for more to eat. “Haven’t I already fed you?”
“Not right now you haven’t.” I do as he asks for fear that he might wrench my arm from its socket. We find ourselves among cruel taskmasters, demanding attention for an eternity this night.
There are millions of us now, running from point to point. There are the ones going under the arch and those going over, and there is no preventing the arguments between them. We are standing in an old office in a place that could be called home (strange phenomenon), though it is an unfamiliar space completely changed from its previous self so far as to not know its own past (I do not know its past). Those who intend to go over the arch insist on the river’s northerly placement, while the under camp claims the river is to the west.
Henri is hungry again (as am I). We decide to take the map off the wall and return to the water where one of us will fish (which one will be subject of a lengthy debate). The wall holds on to the pin, so I put my all into its removal. Looking down, I see its plastic end jutting out under the skin of my forearm. Sensing no pain, I remove another pin with the same result (repetition is surprising). We are all shocked by this experience (it always is a shock), so we leave the map hanging by one corner on the wall.
It will soon be light and we will be free of many of them (desiccation is an industrialized process here. The day after a heavy rainfall, all of the factories are busy). As we row onwards (down the wrong streams for this location), Henri (who is at this point a dog) decides to draw a new map to guide us. This new map settles all debates regarding the location of the river. Some of us are lost (there is no more bread until tomorrow). Henri insists that we are all here. I look around and realize that we are only three now (myself to row, Henri to navigate, and the other to eat).
“Do we have much farther to go?” I am tired of this night and certain that my arms move too slowly to get us there before the next storm.
I’m crimped. No more food, just water on this plain. I’m so hungry and out of space here. I think he’s seeing things again: things not there and things not here. We’re drenched, drenched and never going to be dry again, no matter where. I just want something to eat.
My left shoulder approaches my ear while my right shoulder is very near to my waist. This is uncomfortable. When I walk, I have the appearance of an accordion. People point at me when I’m on the street. I ignore them and continue on my way, slowly and with discomfort, thanks to a shooting pain in my left side. I believe there is a string secured to my collarbone that runs down to my hip where it is firmly attached at my pelvis and then continues on down my leg to the last toe of my foot. This is where the pain stops. Movement is understandably difficult. I turn my head left, I turn my head right, I remain still, pain. All of this provokes insults from my nerves. Each one yells its own personal epithet after being abused by my movement or non-movement. It is generally noisy inside my head. Because of this, I find it difficult to know where I am. We are here together, and he will make sure we get where we need to be.
I don’t feel my age tonight. This upsets me. I wonder if I would feel younger someplace dry. He tells me I should try going to the salt flats, and I ask what they are. He explains that the water we’re on is old and that the salt flats are what’s left over when old waters go away. If I wait here long enough, then maybe they’ll come to me. I’ve decided that I’d like to try visiting them, after lunch.
“Can I have some more to eat?” and he says I’ve already eaten.
I make myself big like an ox until he feeds me because I know I haven’t eaten anything in a long time. No one’s keeping me from my meal.
Now that we’ve arrived at the fork in our path, where the water has dried up, he’s thinking things about the land and which direction to go. The only way to go is forward and I don’t know how to change his mind. There are rivers everywhere and I just want to get to my bed so I can sleep. I’ll snore until the sound wakes me and then wonder what it was that woke me up. But first, he has to find my bed for me.
We stop to consult a map. He wants to take the map with us but the buzzing in my head says to leave it alone. The map tells us to go in the same direction I’d said to go in the first place. Working my way toward the river I knew was adjacent from the start of the night, I push long needles into my knee, behind the cap. It’s a painful process, but it quiets things down inside my skin.
He continues to argue with me regarding the location of the river. I’m so hungry now that all statements do nothing but offend me. I draw a new map that shows where the river is (just ahead of us) and where my bed is (just by the pier). He sets back to rowing and says he still feels lost. I can’t help him any more than I already have. I point out the way and hope for my bed and a huge dinner.
I ask how much farther away we are. He’s taller than I am so he sees farther than I can. I wonder if we’ll get there before dawn.
Henri is dancing again. I call it a dance but I’ve learned that others don’t see it that way. Sometimes it makes the boat wobble from side to side and other times it makes the sidewalk buckle, depending upon the sway in his step. There he is, back and forth, performing his spasmodic dance. The others do not seem to notice, twinkling eyes in the dark, perhaps not even seeing his hip come at his ear at all the wrong angles, even for his gnarled form. It is at these moments that I begin to understand Henri’s affinity for trees.
There is a ginkgo down a road with which Henri is particularly enamored. We go there, when the others have dissipated into a barely present mist, and Henri stares for hours, as though waiting to be told something, waiting to hear something from the knots on the bark and the maidenhair leaves. There is another tree nearby of the same sort but much younger. I realize that though this tree has a trunk nearly a foot in diameter, it has none of the grace or character of its much older neighbor. I ask Henri if he thinks the tree has anything to tell us and he laughs at me.
What good is telling you anything if you aren’t paying attention?
This seems like a valid point. As I ponder this statement, I notice that Henri is dancing again and that we are far from the trees and I then wonder who led us here to this place, this plain platter of a country that we inhabit. There are stars so numerous I can’t begin to find the only constellations I know. Henri sees my distress (how often has he noticed such things? I can’t seem to recall another instance, but I know that I must have just forgotten them.) and tries to pacify me:
Calm down. You can’t do this. Calm down now. Stop it. Right away. Calm down immediately.
You’re solid, understand?
This does nothing to assuage my fears. I notice Henri is poking about trash cans and I forget all about the stars—Nothing til tomorrow little one, I say. Henri lets out a small cry and we continue down whatever path it is that Henri is following, has been taking us down. I feel hungry because the others took all I had before promptly returning whence they came. I wonder how they do this. Food is so substantial yet they are so insubstantial in their comings and goings. I am angry, but the object of that anger is nowhere to be seen, only felt as a damp presence.
Just when I have reconciled myself with this fact, a gang of them walks up from behind. Never fully gone and never fully present, just an atmosphere or two behind me and Henri. I feel pity for them and notice that Henri is gnawing at one of their legs.
Henri is at my side and we are walking down a street and see colors bursting in the sky under a full moon (I am assured that this moon is special and happens only rarely), but it is less fantastic than the explosions in the sky in front of us. They appear to mark the beginning of the carnival season, in spite of it being autumn. Hemmed in by police barricades, Henri has become very small, ignoring the fireworks. I don’t need fires like that. I think he might just not be able to find them (pride is his greatest sin). There is tripe enough to eat, even if you have to fight the gulls to eat it. Henri, however, hasn’t even noticed the food or the revelers. He is preoccupied with the fireworks. Each time he hears a mortar pop, he looks in the wrong direction to locate its source but is hell-bent on finding the individuals responsible for all these lights in the sky. He informs me frequently that he will find them as soon as he sorts out where they might be. To my right maybe left I think they’re behind in front of me, yes that’s where they are. Look! Look! You have to at least try to pay attention if you’re going to be of any help. Henri is mad that I am not helping. You may as well go home since you won’t do anything to help, not even point out what’s right in the open. I laugh. Henri pouts but finds a new distraction to occupy his time and moves on. He has never been very good at holding a grudge. I have never been very good at being an assistant.
Henri has disappeared again and I am walking down the street. There are beautiful babies and dogs. The dogs sit attentively by their owners with slightly panicked expressions on their snouts. I notice their thin leads on the ground next to them. The babies are silent. A man in a suit is talking to two women with a serious expression on his face. There is fresh tar on the road and broken pieces of car bumpers on the sidewalk. I begin to realize that the man is here to provide some sort of service to these women and I wonder what use he is, and where the police are, and where Henri is, and why the fireworks have stopped, and how the sky was, and how pleasant it would be if I could sit and watch the fireworks, and then I see red and blue lights in the distance. A bee is hovering around my head and I begin to feel inconsequential in my largeness, a beef bouncing from patch of grass to patch of grass.
Henri asks me whence this plain came. I stop to think back to the possibility of an epoch before the current one. In that possibility there are mountains reaching beyond this space, volcanos and oceans stretching out far and farther to the other side of this sphere. A time of variety of ones and others, when things were young, when we were young yet. I recall the capacity of colors to inhabit our world of sounds hidden visually, of something different. I look back to Henri and tell him of the mountains shifting out and away, of eruptions and tremblings, of an eventual calming down into this place now, where we are, where we seem to have always been. Henri wants to know how and why and I have no answer that could satisfy his curiosity. He is sad because of this and goes off, finding a weasel and a hammer, a vase and an eel. I watch with pleasure as he strikes. The flesh does not hold, only the hammer.
They appear to be confused, paralyzed, stuck in their little eddy below. I call it their eddy because their flow formed it. They made it. It could just as easily have been my own, though I have yet to learn how to melt down into a state such as they have, all together, shapeless, nameless, present. If only I knew how, I would join them in their hallucinatory being. Henri has never appeared to be bothered by this. Indeed, he has never seemed to want to join in the first place. How can he desire to remain himself out here when in there is an unheard of unity? All this individualism will be the death of me, I say to Henri, who has climbed a tree. Though not desiring to join them, Henri never seems to tire of observing them.
I admire his tireless watching. Perhaps one day I will gain this ability to appreciate at a distance.
—What do you see down there?
—All of them, all of the other ones, the only other one.
I don't understand so I just nod. Below, they swirl and flow into one another and I am jealous.
Henri runs around me in circles, pushing me in every direction. I don't understand this sudden aggression, what have I done to deserve such treatment? Everywhere I turn, there is Henri, his thick mitt knocking me to the ground. I begin to contemplate some form of retaliation. I ponder Henri's boney legs, their knots and twists constantly return to my field of vision. I think of what might happen next if I wrestle this beast to the ground. What will it mean for Henri? For me? Will Henri throw me down to the others? What would that mean? I catch Henri's eye, searching for information that might help but find it blank and just as quickly gone. It would seem I am finally alone here.
I have learned little about them. Henri has taught me most of what I know and his
understanding of them is perhaps not reliable. Just now, Henri tells me of one he saw while hiding under a leaf in the park one day. (A day when I was not there? How can such an impossibility have taken place?) He tells me that while keeping himself hidden, he heard one of them, alone:
I don't need my son if he doesn't agree with me. If any of you had a third of what I got you'd be shitting all over time. They put Ophelia with my mother Theresa. Don't try son. We don't have to talk about that. Were you born today or yesterday? You touch me with that dog I'll kill that damn thing. Right there on Robbins street. Most prejudiced people I ever knew. Skin. Black white and red. And now we gotta change. Michael? Sister Marion yes. Did you see your mother? One now and one at six. What is this I don't look glamor in the business section? Just a minute I have to go. Don't call me.
Henri tells me she was sitting in a wheelchair and had a waiting room around her. A trip to the doctor's office, a water cooler in the corner, unread and uninteresting magazines on the table, an aquarium to the left stocked with freshwater fish from tropics that never existed. He describes a world that seems impossible, but what else is the world? Henri says she rambled on and on and tells me exactly what she said. This string of language makes no sense, and as Henri is prone to lying, I doubt the veracity of his statements but find the recollection to be, if nothing else, an interesting con.
They are headed south toward the river. They will find the edge of the river to be more real than their perception had anticipated, water being so wavering and confused, they cannot understand its collection into a body. They will realize that they are bodies, formed from a body they cannot know because they have no memory of experience before the experience of the bodies. They are far-reaching and interminably small. They suffer from myopia. They have no contradictions in their politics—they are of one mind. They will find a way to cross the river. Many of them will meet their ends in this body of water. This will provoke no reaction from them. Others will join them later. They are neither aware nor unaware of the loss of one or of the joining of another. These things are felt but not known. They know hunger. They know labor, in their way. They build upon themselves with themselves.
They are approaching what passes for a mountain here, a cathedral of sorts, a promontory in the air. They have stopped perceiving and do not see what is in front of them. They approach from all angles, reaching up to try and consume. Scores of them are stretched too thinly and disappear into the sky, which opens up and pours its contents onto them. Arms, kidneys, nerves, and tendons melting and falling, forming, deforming, splattering on the ground, against buildings: a wet and solidifying mess. They do not notice their dissolution and reformation, only continuing along their way. Those to the north continue their approach and dissipation, those to the south begin their way south away from the river. This is the same action.
Here’s one, he’s dressed himself in black trousers and a short-sleeved black shirt, a yellow card sticking out of his breast pocket (truly a resourceful one). He’s talking to us others—Have a good day—and he stops to marvel at the structures protruding from the ground. We are lucky to have such companions here: folks to notice that things are such as they are. He continues to wander aimlessly around these grounds, then under the arch and is gone. We are alone again and Henri is unhappy. This was intended to be a happy occasion but nothing can satisfy Henri’s appetite. From here, he wants to pace the balcony of a nearby house (I have not yet even noticed its existence when Henri expresses this desire). We go where Henri wants to go. From the house, he wants to walk the plain; from the plain he wants to go to the pier; from the pier he wants to be on the boat; on the boat, he wants me to row. “All the indignities are here.” I wonder what Henri means by that. His face spasms into a million overlaid fragments, his voice a stutter. Is this a moment I know how to endure? Are we even aware of it? We wonder where we will go next, though I point out that we’ve yet to really go anywhere. Looking around, I realize that we are only two: Henri and myself. Where has the world gone?
One of them bubbles up from the deck of the boat. I try to toss him out. Henri barks at me to make it stop. Too late, deformed, this one will stay. Only one arm fully formed, his humerus terminating in a round button of flesh, twitching in the light. This will not do. Already we are spread too thin and my arms will not carry us any longer. Henri is pouting again. “You’ve let us all down,” and there is so little bread and so many thousands of us to feed. I am beginning to lose hope. Our deformities are numerous. The water is not safe to drink. The fish, not safe to eat. Henri, a string pulled taut on his cheeks, grins. Gallows humor, I suppose. We debate what to do with our latest acquisition. Henri, many feet taller, after conducting a lengthy trial with many witnesses but no defense, calls for his execution. It is then that we notice this new one is disembarking, a young girl skipping through a crosswalk, avoiding a puddle and falling deep into the next.
I see one, standing atop a pile of snow, twelve feet tall and broken in half. A man sliced into lateral portions, emitting inarticulate sounds.
While it would appear as though Henri and I are traveling around a single plain, my studies have indicated that we are in fact roaming about a series of plains. The others are plate glass intersecting with what may as well be their world. Henri and I watch them fracture from our vantage point above them on this plain. How swarm-like they are. A sea of roe.
Glass is, of course, liquid or very nearly liquid. Even when it shatters, the sharp breaks are slow spigots. The others only appear liquid when heated by the air. Their solidity seems not to be linked to absolute temperatures but to rates of change not measured in hundreds of degrees. At the appropriate rate of change, they reduce to pools of red and yellow mixing into orange.
David Emanuel was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He then lived in Chicago where he went to school, worked, and wrote before moving to Providence, Rhode Island for more schooling, more working, and more writing. He is an editor for Anomalous Press.