Free Read: "Folklore"
Everyone's gotta start somewhere. In my graduate program I had the good fortune of incredibly patient mentors who let me write weird, experimental prose. One piece actually turned out alright. "Folklore," a post-apocalyptic short story made of vignettes, was first published in Geek Force Five's 2015 issue. It's 'baby's first published piece' for me, and I still have a soft spot for it. Find it here in its entirety.
I have returned and still, you do not wake. I brush the sand from your eyes and find them dark, like the mainframe panel in your back. I press my ear against your chest; if I do not listen carefully, the howling wind beyond these walls will drown you out. Your machinery churns soft as a heartbeat. My love, you need not sleep any longer.
I come with promised gifts. Endured the grind of salt and sewage to pluck them from repositories and athenaeums. Revived our ancestors, lit their darken screens and pried open their archives. Ripped out pages from moldering books. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”—I understand, now, the need to.
Please, listen to my findings, our treasures. Five of them, all for you.
I. Recorded in [REDACTED] county, Louisiana. Circa [REDACTED]
I’ll be the first to admit our children owe their lives to Clarice. If she hadn’t run out into the water like that, well, we may not be at little Bobby’s party today. I told Jim, the girl’s father, ‘think of the good that comes out of this, a silver lining’. He did nothing but pick at his slice of birthday cake. That attitude’s gonna kill him someday, if he don’t start being optimistic about the whole thing. Besides, he still got a couple kids, and if there was one he could stand to lose, it was Clarice.
Listen, swamp’s dangerous. Dark, smells like rot. I can see it from my porch; most swamps in Louisiana got herons, but all the birds fly around ours. Only sick ones land in the water, and they don’t last long.
We try our best to avoid what the sheriff calls ‘unnecessary losses’. Put up a chain-link fence in the seventies to keep our little ones out. Worked for a while. But budget cuts been hitting us hard lately and you wouldn’t believe the expense in replacing a fence that tall. Moisture’s been eating away at the metal for decades now. Couple times in summer, a few kids will fool around in the swamp and disappear between the reeds. I hate the looks on the parents’ faces, all red eyed and sleepless. That’s nature for you, I want to tell them. Still, it’s a sad thing. Always hard when we lose more than one a year.
We do better deterring tourists. If one of them goes missing, every goddamn news station in Louisiana will swarm our town and upset our nerves. So we tell ‘em the swamp’s closed because of mosquito diseases or something. Last winter, Jim got inspired after watching reruns of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”. Went out the next day with signs and stuck them all in the mud. “NO TRESSPASSING—ENDANGERED SPECIES”. Gave us a real laugh.
The kids were real good this year. I mean stellar. The mayor planned a town meeting because if it, and I couldn’t sleep the night before, nursing a hot cup of milk and worrying about my little Bobby. I heard Clarice and her father fighting a few doors over. Clarice always gave me a sour stomach. Long, stringy weasel girl, always wiping her nose on her sleeve. Them darting ferret eyes set you on edge, scribbling every word you said in her notebook like she was Columbo. We chatted once at the Homecoming game; I asked what she wanted to do after graduation. She slimed her arm and said she’d run to Baton Rouge, tell the newspapers how we ‘cull the herd’ by drowning our troubled children in the swamp. Ridiculous.
Anyway, there was a real caterwauling from Jim’s house now and Clarice tore through the front door and toward the fence. Jim tried to keep up with her but he ain’t as spritely as he used to be and she’d crawled through the hole in the fence by the time he made it past the lawn. Clarice flung herself into the water, knee deep; Jim stopped at the edge of the mud. Pleaded with her, get outta the water for God’s sake. Girl just kicked down the reeds, screamin’ Then Come Get Me. And so close to feeding time. I was shocked; what else could I have done but watch?
Sure as shit, it rose up from the water, that twisting worm studded in suction cups. Thing’s as thick as two men standing side by side, and it cast a long shadow, taller than the river birches. I wonder if Clarice saw its reflection and that’s why she didn’t bother turning around. It grabbed her round the middle and dragged her under. Must’ve squeezed; I heard the crunch from my porch. Jim stood at the edge of the water until it was still and glassy again.
What’d I do after? I went inside, dumped my milk, strolled into my Bobby’s room and gave him a kiss on the cheek. I knew we wouldn’t have to draw straws at the meeting. I started planning for his birthday party; I slipped back into normal life. Nature always takes it course.
II. Homework Assignment, Massachusetts. 2005.
Grace L. Mays
Our Lady of Supplication Academy
Common Application Prep
Personal Essay: How has your family prepared you for the future?
Cobwebs snag at your sweater as you climb the stairs to your grandmother’s attic. Autumn light streams through a rose window set in the gable of the house. As navigate a maze of boxes, flecks of dust take flight like miniscule sparrows; they migrate across light beams, hurl themselves into your nostrils. Your head fills with pressure, your sinuses itch madly and you sneeze. If you were more refined, like your grandmother, you would have kept a handkerchief in your pocket.
You’re here on your mother’s orders, because she can’t move from the couch, the only thing in the house that doesn’t smell like orchids. She’s asked you bring down boxes so she can pick through them, but you know they’ll pile in the hallway until she’s ready. This is fine. You don’t think she could handle the wedding china, photo albums, bottles of perfume. Opening boxes takes patience, a little distance; one must be dressed in bright colors, in a month with no real holidays, like February or March. You lift the plastic tub marked Halloween in your grandmother’s neat cursive, her favorite holiday, and your arms tremble at its weight. You’re sure Christmas will feel like a millstone too, so you step over them and search for lighter cargo.
The boxes betray the age of the house—stacks of rubber bins closest to the door, crates with Haffenreffer stamped on the front, licorice tins, cedar hope chests, sewing kits, a black steamer trunk under the window. As you collapse cardboard towers, you wonder if some of these boxes hold objects your grandmother adored, like her heirloom toys. She told you about them when you were a child, stuck inside this house after April rains turned to torrents.
“I used to have a doll”, she said, “with a porcelain face and real hair. A jack-in-the-box, too. But I loved the marionette best. A ballerina—she even had the shoes.”
Your mother left you here after ballet lessons and, still dressed in your tutu, your grandmother taught you pirouettes. Years of dancing blessed her with muscular legs and feet ravaged by bunions. Her grandmother, she said, had the same crooked toes. She said they looked a lot like yours. A family legacy. She promised you the marionette as a recital gift.
But you did not inherit your grandmother’s poise, her silent way of moving. You never made it to recital, and when your teachers suggested karate instead, your mother pulled you out of studio. Your grandmother wrung her hands.
You forgot about her promise, but she never did. Not even years later, when she asked for the marionette in her hospital bed, when she could not remember your mother’s name or yours.
“I need it for my granddaughter,” she said, “her recital is today.”
And when you told her you were her granddaughter, sitting on the edge of the bed with a cup of ice chips, she called you a spy, a thief. She accused you of stealing her toys.
Delusions are common, the doctor said to your mother as she cried into her handkerchief. Don’t take it personally. Her neurons are filled with protein tangles, like balls of hair in a drain.
After so long, you imagine the ballerina’s strings must have knotted. You’re sure of it. Time is the only fairness in the world; it damages everything, eventually.
A silverfish skitters across the back of your hand. It disappears before you can pound it to powder, and you realize just how many eyes are watching you. Spiders weaving silk in the attic beams, centipedes under the floorboards. A shimmer in the corner of your eye draws you to the steamer trunk. The sunlight mellows into gold, reflects off the studs set into the façade of the trunk. You look behind you, to see if you’ve cleared a path to the stairs, and laugh.
This is all that’s left, the echoes of your grandmother’s life. As satisfying as pressing your ear against a classroom wall, listening to your rivals dance to Tchaikovsky, but you can’t tell which score, just the sound of their feet hitting the polished floor in synch. Noise. Junk.
At least you’ve been given a consolation prize. Evidence she existed, evidence you can touch. For a second you wonder if you should have carried her up to this attic. You could have, she was light enough in the end. You wonder if you should have ripped open each box, these pockets of time hidden in newspaper and, like a magic spell, she would have remembered. Been revived.
You wonder if this thought is punishment.
Yet you receive gifts, worthy or not, instead. Her fingerprints left on fluted glasses. Traces of saliva on books from a wet forefinger against the corner of the page. Your love of Halloween. Your hate of disappointment. The thin capillaries in your brain, the mutation lurking in your genes. All these things bequeathed unto you. In case you forget.
And suddenly the dead feel very much alive.
The dust parts like a sea as you approach the trunk. Some small animal, a moth or, heaven forbid, a mouse, rustles through the attic. You turn your ear to the sound and it is gone. In silence, you can appreciate the roaring of your heart in your ears. You play with the trunk’s metal latches and find them loose, flip them open. An oily smell, like wood pulp or sweat, billows from the trunk as you push back the lid. Tucked into linen cradles, you find them: the pale-faced doll, Jack released from his box, the limber marionette poised in a crouch.
III. Excerpt from the diary of Avery Baum, Peach County, Georgia. 1984.
My sister caught me with the grocer’s son near the peach trees. She cleared her throat and he yanked his hand out from under my shirt like something bit him. I chased after her, begged and threatened her to keep her mouth shut. Standing in the barnyard door, she told me that if I didn’t stop cursing, she’d walk to the grocer’s and announce what she’d seen to the whole store.
“Just wait,” she said, and I quaked for the rest of the day, pretending to milk the cows until my mother rang the dinner bell. I side-eyed my sister through supper; she stuffed herself with potatoes and talked to our parents about the husbandry classes she’d take in the fall. I stopped shaking when Mom and Dad left us to wash the dishes.
As my sister scrubbed dried meatloaf off the edge of a plate, she said, “Let me tell you a story.” My sister shares gossip, not stories, and has never told one since.
It starts like this: A hunter and a weaver traveled through the wood hand in hand until they found a sunny clearing and decided it would be a good place to take lunch; the hunter left to track some partridges in the brush, while the weaver unpacked their picnic basket: cold meats, a wedge of hard cheese, knives, plates, several peaches served on yellow cloth. The hunter returned with fowl, strung them up on an oak branch, and sat next to the weaver. They first ate the meats and cheeses, and then the fruits. A squirrel circled them through the underbrush, its nose trained on the sweet smell of peaches. When the hunter tried to feed the weaver a slice, the weaver turned away.
“Why do you deny me?” asked the hunter. “Have you fever? Are you ill?”
“No,” the weaver replied. “I abhor peaches.”
“You devoured them last season. I could not provide you with enough.”
“They’ve lost their flavor to me.”
The weaver threaded the grass between rough fingers and spoke. “I’m returning home.”
The hunter dropped the peach. It left a wet mark against the picnic cloth.
“Soon. Sickness has fallen over my house, and my family needs me.”
“How do you know this?”
“A letter arrived unscathed, for once.” The weaver ripped out green patches and ignored the hunter’s gaze. “Strange, how all my letters have disappeared until now.”
“Perhaps they’ve only written in desperation. They’re taking advantage of your kindness. They’ll treat you like a slave and make you ill.”
“I doubt that,” said the weaver.
A group of starlings flew overhead, toward the wood. The hunter watched them fly through the bone-white birches, pockmarked by scars. Their branches reached for the sky like slender, girlish arms.
“I forgot some arrows in the brush,” the hunter said. “Wait for me.”
The weaver nodded and repacked the basket.
The hunter took up the discarded bow and quiver and hiked into the tangle of birch trees. Through their trunks the hunter watched the weaver tug on flat, white shoes, quicker than someone who looked so unafraid should. The weaver meant to disappear, then, to abandon the picnic basket, the peaches, the hunter and their life together. The weaver meant to flee, the coward, before the hunter could return. It wouldn’t do.
The tip of the hunter’s arrow caught the dappled sunlight and sparkled, for a moment, as it quivered against the bow. The hunter let it fly; it cut clean through the air. Returning to the clearing, the hunter found the weaver’s blood had stained the cloth a deep red, and pulled the arrow from the weaver’s heart.
The hunter returned home to retrieve rolls of canvas and a shovel. The squirrel crept forth and nibbled at the peach in the weaver’s hand until it freed the pit from its red center. It buried the pit in wet soil, hoping for a morsel come winter.
The months passed, and the town called off their search for the weaver after dredging three river beds and a dozen empty graves. The peach pit, tucked inside the warm earth, found itself duly fed. It anchored itself in the soil and inched upwards, parting the dirt with tender arms. In summer it broke free, breathed, tasted sunlight, curled roots around bones. It ate marrow and sinew for years, slept in winter, stretched in summer, armored itself in bark. In spring it bloomed delicate flowers, combed by honey bees. Its blossoms bore peaches with a blood red center and an impenetrable heart.
So when the hunter returned, white haired and feeble, it did not shiver or twist its leaves. It dropped a peach by the hunter’s feet, the fattest, most golden of them all. I am not afraid, it thought, as the hunter bit into the peach flesh and chewed. I am not angry, it thought, as the hunter coughed and stuck a few fingers down a pale throat. I am not surprised you’ve returned, it thought, and as the hunter paced back and forth, face turning blue. I am happy, it thought, feeling the hunter’s back ram against its trunk. And when the hunter fell, sprawling along its roots, the weaver waited for the hunter to turn soft.
And so it is said: he who steals a life shall nourish the next with his blood.
My sister overturned a glass filled with suds, twirled water along the bottom.
“All done,” she said.
I piled bowls on top of one another and shoved them into the cabinet. “So I’ll get murdered and turn into a tree. Neato.”
“I’m gonna pour soap in your sass mouth. That’s not what I mean. Listen. Love, or want, whatever—It can change people. It messes with the way they think.”
She pressed the glass into my hands. “Be careful.”
It’s a stupid story, really. Something she picked up from the old folk in the town, I don’t know. It’s paranoid.
I went out to meet Erik at the peach orchard in the morning, early enough that the trees were still covered in dew. Glossy green leaves sprouted from the branches; I checked for fingers and toes, to amuse myself. But as the sun cut through the mist, the orchard trees carved shadows into the grass, all tangled like knots of arms and legs. I shivered, almost ran back to the house, when Erik came over the hill, carrying peaches. The light caught the downy hairs on his cheek, and I itched to bury my nails into his softness.
“The first of the season,” he said, and pushed the fruit against my mouth. It had warmed in his hand; the fuzz tickled my lips. I couldn’t take a bite.
IV. Graffiti, translated from the side of an evacuation center, Denver, Colorado. 2055
My grandfather tells me
the water from the faucet
free of ash
and that a man could travel
without a gas mask in his trunk.
He tells me this as he sweeps
soot out of the kitchen and
onto the porch.
A dust storm blew through our homes
and carried the char of wildfires
from Sacramento, Santa Ana, Laguna Niguel
He tells me the west was not always
but I don’t believe him.
His hands stink of smoke.
a fairy tale
V. Collected via interview, Pasadena, 2175. Today. Now.
The story starts with us. We awaken to white lights and find ourselves staring into a lattice of steel beams in an arched ceiling. We sit up in our box; our brothers and sisters pick Styrofoam peanuts from our hair and ask for our serial number. We know it, just as we know what ‘America’ and ‘rain’ is. We know the name of every species to walk the Earth, every complication to human health, every planet in the solar system even though we have never seen them with our own eyes. We know our place. It’s written into the software.
One of us asks, where are we?
One of us replies, factually or metaphorically? Factually I cannot tell you, my GPS is not responding. Philosophically we can consult Plato and ask, how can we know where we are if we have never been outside the cave?
One of us asks, what are we?
One of us replies, machinery.
The youngest says we are, collectively, the universe. We consider this, and cast it aside as too abstract for our needs. Revisiting the first question, where, we leave our boxes to explore and, after trawling storage rooms filled with android parts, agree this place must be a factory. We stare at the white walls curving upwards, their smooth, rounded apex. Egg shaped. The blackened windows reflect the bright spots of the floodlights suspended in metal cages. Everything is covered in a thin layer of dust.
In the basement, we find rumbling generators, called to duty now that the main power source has dried up. Emergency lights, which will darken once the generators cease. Logically, we batter down the front door and escape. Outside, ash trickles from an undulating sky and sticks to the window panes. If we could smell, we are sure the air would stink of fire.
I believe, one of us says, due to this new evidence, the ash and the egg, that we are in fact the phoenix. But we do not believe, because you are the youngest, and they programmed you with legend and whimsy. I tell you to stay quiet, teach you to shield yourself from the critique of our companions with silence. I thought this would keep you safe. Forgive me. I so often confuse fear for love.
We cross a simmering river, stop at the bay and watch the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge snap. It disappears under black water.
Why do we walk for so long? We have no needs. We do not eat or breathe or sleep. The ash only threatens to cause minor glitches, to muddy the shine of our skin. We break into twos and threes, searching for why. There is only you and I when we seek shelter in the ruins of a university, huddling in the basement from the red maw of a sandstorm. The light from our operating systems flickers off glass beakers, the only illumination in the dark and the cold.
You say that you have a question and then cease to speak. I suggest a few and you say, no, it is not where are we going or how and when we will get there, not even what we are doing and why; these questions are meaningless to you. You ask, instead, who we are.
I pause. My analysis reveals nothing. I cannot even offer you solace; you know all the stories, not I.
You blink languidly and the lights of your eyes dim. I think I’ll sleep, you say, and the humming of your internal drives goes quiet. Beyond the concrete walls of the basement, the sandstorm gnashes at arches and balustrades. I hold your hand until the storm passes.
When morning comes, I cover you in tarp and crawl out of the dunes. You’ve asked me a question I cannot answer so I will search for new data, seek the identities of our makers. I hunt for evidence from one ocean to the other and now I return to these fields of rubble with my quarry. I fear I have failed you—I have more questions than answers. But I have seen things.
In Massachusetts I watched the ocean reach up over concrete walls and tear mansions to pieces, down to the last blue tile, stolen away into the depths of the sea. Only rock and earth remain. But I suspect the water will take that, too.
In Louisiana I found an enormous dead creature floating in a swamp, its body stuffed with maggots. Frogs squatted between the reeds, snatching flies as they emerged. I could hear their croaking for miles.
In Georgia I saw a swarm of lemon-yellow butterflies fighting against the wind, their wings buffeting one another though the gale.
In Colorado I blackened my feet crossing the charred city and left footprints upon the rock. Now there are two sets of footprints in that necropolis, the one I left and the one I followed. Like a trail of crumbs they lead me out of streets flooded with glass and onto the forest, where puddles washed the ash from our soles. I wish I could have seen their face, that we could have walked together. I hope they are well.
This dust in my mouth holds no fear; if I were to place it under a microscope, I would find bits of everything: silica and chitin and plant matter and human flesh. The remains of everything that once lived cover my tongue.
So I tell you all this. I sit in front of your blank visage and pluck out each artifact saved in my memory chip and if you will only wake up I believe that together, we can combine these disparate parts. I believe it is time for us to leave the cave. So please, open your eyes. This is how the next story begins.
Please wake up.
And you do.