Stephen V Ramey
One of these days, we will wake to explosion and poison gas, Sarin perhaps. We have to know that entropy demands this. We just hope to get enough life in before the end.
Audrey and I live in the forest now. Even from here, we see it happening. Politics settle across the world like radiation fallout, economic classes separate. Even a skim of oil is enough to deprive a lake of oxygen. We do not speak of this, but we feel it. We make love every night. In the morning we weep.
The brain is the first organ to go. Reason. Rationality. Altruism. Jesus becomes a brown-skinned boy holding a trout half as large as him, and his foot is on the water, and the water has become bedrock. And we, the common ones, the ones who matter, argue over which to worship, the boy or the fish, the miracle of water turned solid, or the reality of brown skin on our savior. We become Sumo wrestlers throwing salt, throwing pride, and the fat that forms us droops about our hips, our knees, touches the ground. As we drip away, we rail against those who outlast us. “Jesus boy,” we pray, “Please destroy our enemies, take them deep into the Earth’s fire and make them suffer.” It’s inevitable, this breaking apart, this falling apart, this sagging away of what was mighty.
I creep to the forest’s edge and look out over fallow fields awaiting Winter. Breath condenses from my lungs. In the distance, factories with rusted-sheet sides belch smoke into the aluminum sky.
Industry’s puffing breath, one small slide down entropy’s decline. So long as that stream continues, Audrey and I will live another day, and that is what matters.
A twig snaps. I turn. Audrey has followed me. So beautiful, that shocking orange nest of hair, high cheekbones, full lips, the way her eyes light when they recognize. I feel an upswell. What was lost becomes real, the certainty of my worldview, the unbreakable armor of my love, the knowledge that reality begins and ends with my life. Brown Jesus’ fish was meant for me.
The factory belches, burps, and goes still. A bubble releases from the sponge. I blink and I see clearly again. Audrey’s hair is a tangled mess, her skin covered in sores fresh and scabbed. As is mine, as mine will always and ever be until the end. Until now.
She moves beside me. Supple fingers wind through my stubby ones. I want to embrace her, cover her, insulate. Too late. My nose runs, my chest pulls in. I cannot breathe.
Dissolving, I turn to Audrey. Her eyes are watching too.
And This, Our Life
I stood within my mother’s tree shadow, and the brook told me a story about good and evil, how I must always follow the higher path.
“There you will find sweet berries,” it said, “both red and black, and you will eat of them and drink of their juices, and your life shall be fulfilled until the end of days. But follow the path of evil, the easy way of weeds, and you shall find only the sour berries, and their juices shall leave an echo of regret in your throat, an aftertaste of doom on your tongue forever and for always.”
I trembled then, for my mother’s crucified form blocked the great yellow sun that had guided me through carefree childhood. And my father? He was gone, pursued by whatever devil he had drawn.
My instinct was to distrust running water. Had I not been taught to avoid moving things: buses and windmills and love? Yet, without some countermanding voice, what choice did I have? Either I must lend credence to the brook’s tale, or invent a life-moral of my own. On that way lies the madness of self-doubt and second guesses. No, better to listen to another.
I set out along the higher path, graveled and well-marked with signs. Gradually, trees engulfed me. Still, the path led upward, and arrows pointed me on.
A breeze blew cold upon the nape of my neck. “Who did this to your mother? Who transformed her flesh into bark, her blood into sap, and condemned her to stand leafless and alone?” I thought of Father’s axe rusting in our basement.
I listened for more. The breeze was gone, the brook incomprehensible at this distance. Not three strides away, a weed-cloaked path angled down into sunlight, a meadow of yellow flowers. Curse the water’s sermon, I told myself. Wind comes from a higher plane. I took the slanted path.
No sooner had I started down than it urged me faster, faster, faster. I tumbled into the meadow fringe, and there was Father lying with another woman. Her hair was lush, her face smiling.
“Come,” she said. “Sit with us, reunite with your father. I am your mother now.”
“Why does he not greet me?” I said.
The woman twittered like a bird. “It is the nature of relationships that people change.” She flapped her arms, and feathers fluffed. She dusted off a spot on my father’s flank. He had turned into stone.
My stomach fell. “The brook,” I said. “It said to take the higher path.”
My new mother laughed. “The brook is always saying that. What matters is that you listened to your heart. It led you here.”
I sat on Father. The warmth of his hardened skin surprised me. I touched his shoulder, his arm, his hand.
“Can he speak?”
“In time,” my new mother said. “In time you will hear his voice.” She pressed a berry to my lips. For a heartbeat I resisted, then I opened my mouth.
Our mother was a good wife. She kept the house spotless, cooked three squares a day, made the beds, beat the rugs, taxied two boys to soccer practice. These things everyone knew. She was an icon in our neighborhood, the go-to guru for young women setting up households.
What people did not know was that these tasks were secondary to her true purpose in our home. They did not see how she serviced my father, how she debased herself nightly after she sent us off to bed.
It always began with Mom coming inside with Percy, our pet pig, tucked beneath one arm. He would wriggle and snort. Crusted dirt would fall from his legs and I would think how she had so carefully wrapped the cord around the vacuum cleaner and tucked it into its niche in the kitchen cupboards. I would think of her going out into the muddy back yard in her clean apron, bending to take Percy up with her manicured nails.
She would step around Dad’s chair, Percy clutched tight to her hip. His eyes inevitably went to the pig’s. They both seemed terrified in that moment, the pig writhing its back quarters, blood draining from Dad’s cheeks. And she would change the channel on his big screen TV from whatever soapy drama they’d been watching to something Sports. The room would change tone, from lilting voices to the harsh reality of men mashing.
Dad’s head would pull back into the cushion. His eyes would glance at the screen, recoil, see the struggling pig, look back, look away. Not knowing what to do with my hands, I’d grip the stair railings in my fists and press my face close.
Mom would shift Percy forward, the harsh vee of his snout moving toward Dad’s rounded mouth. Now Dad would close his eyes. His features would relax.
And Mom would say, “There, there. You see? It’s not lost to you.” And Dad would nod. For the only time all day he seemed content, though I could have been misreading things. It was a little confusing.
Mom upended the pig, set him head first onto the coffee table. His legs stopped their flail, his snout snapped shut, and there he was, an inanimate pig on the coffee table. I have to admit this part of the ritual was a little fascinating. It was hard enough to think of Percy standing still, let alone standing still on his head.
“Ready?” she’d say, inserting a funnel into Percy’s butt. I used to observe this funnel when I wedged my cereal bowl into the dishwasher in the morning. It gave me the creeps.
Mom would squat beside Dad and unlace his shoe. His gaze fixed on the television, but I could tell he wasn’t really watching.
She removed his sock, exposing a starkly veined foot, white toes. I found myself lifting onto my own toes, even though I should never have wanted to see what came next.
Pressing her lips tight, Mom twisted Dad’s little toe. A crack louder than a baseball bat, and it pulled off in her hand. A pinkish liquid came out, glittering as it flowed. She placed the empty shoe to catch it.
When the shoe was full, Mom would pour that pink liquid into the funnel. I could see the pinkness flushing outward from Percy’s potbelly. Several shoe-fulls later he was entirely pink.
“All done,” Mom would say. She’d replace Dad’s toe, replace his sock and shoe.
Dad’s countenance would be different now, gruff and angry. He’d stare at the television like it was all that mattered in the world. “Get me a beer,” he’d say, and Mom would nod meekly and get up from her knees. She’d remove the funnel, and Percy would hop off the table and follow her docilely to the kitchen, hips swaying side-to-side.
This was normally when I slithered back upstairs to my bed and closed my eyes in a pretense of sleep. You didn’t want to be out of bed when Dad caught you. He wore a belt for a reason, he would tell us.
There was one time, though, one time when I braved it and stayed behind, hoping to see the end of this bizarre ritual that went on in our house night after night. I was the oldest boy after all, and a certain courage was expected.
Dad’s face swiveled to the stairway. His eyes were deep, dark pools, his mouth a tight line. I ducked back, but not fast enough. All warmth drained from me in an instant. I could feel it splashing down the stairs.
His hands squeezed the arm rests until I thought the stuffing would burst out. I’m sorry, I thought frantically. I won’t do it again. Even in that moment I knew that I would.
“Go to bed,” he said. “Go. To. Bed.”
As I scrabbled up the stairs, something surfaced inside me, a voice whispered across the empty space between me and my dad, a glimmer down deep in the wells that connected us. See, boy? This is what life holds in store for you.
Even as I plunged into that heap of rumpled bedcovers, even as I hid from what I’d seen, what I’d done, I knew it was true. This was what life held in store.
Stephen V. Ramey
lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, home of not one, but two pyrotechnics powerhouses. His work has appeared in many places. His first collection, Glass Animals
, is available from Pure Slush Books
. He edits the annual Triangulation anthology
from PARSEC Ink
, as well as the twitterzine, trapeze