Sparks

I live in a world where to die is to burn. It didn’t always used to be this way, some say, but maybe it did. That might be a dream. In the same way, there’s the legend of the phoenix. It’s a bird that bursts into flame and burns to ash, dying, but from those ashes a new one is born.

We’re like that, except we’re no phoenixes. We flame out, and there’s no rebirth. Just ordinary death, flickering until there’s nothing left. People sometimes ask if it hurts, but there’s no way to know. When you touch something too hot, it hurts, but that might be different. We don’t have a lot of heat around anyway. When you’re flammable, you tend to avoid fire.

Some people carry matches around. Just to be exciting, I guess, to show how tough they are. Every once in a while, that’s how someone dies – to get set on fire by someone else and burn to a crisp as they watch you wither. That is a nightmare.

The crazies go around with gasoline. Obviously, it’s a banned substance. But you can get hold of it, there’s a whole black market just for things to catch on fire. Sparks, they’re called, usually. Gasoline’s a bit more than a spark, but it’s in the same category. Anyone carrying any kind of spark is arrested right away, because that’s much too dangerous to go around. The problem is that the ones with gasoline usually set a whole town ablaze before anyone gets the chance to stop them.

Nobody knows what happens after you burn, either. It happens so fast, and often so suddenly. But there’s so much speculation about people after they dissolve into cinders, and leave only the smell of smoke drifting into the air. Some like to think that there’s a soul, and that stays. The soul is the middle of the flame that burns searing blue, and when the flame goes out the soul becomes part of something – the stories are different. Most people like that the soul goes into the sky, which makes sense to them. There are stories too, though, of ashes floating on the wind and watching all that happens below. I don’t really think any of it makes sense, because once you go up in flames there’s just nothing left of you. The fire burns you away, soul and all.

Lots of people think it’s a holy experience. They spend their lives preparing to burn, hoping that their flame will last as long as it can. Something like that, anyway. They’re kind of like the suicides, the self-immolators, who are exactly the opposite. They despair, because if you could catch at any moment then they don’t see why to live at all. As in, if life is something that can be eaten by fire in a few seconds, they don’t want it. The religious nuts and the suicides often burn in public, to show everyone with a flash of light that they believe. Either in the meaning of life and death, or in the complete absence of meaning at all. When you see someone burning on purpose, you at least know they believe one or the other. They do at least usually burn far enough from anyone else that nobody else catches fire. Sometimes they do it together. But mostly alone, mostly on the corner of a sidewalk or the middle of a town square. They burn so bright, the flames reaching up and grasping at nothing until they die out completely.

It’s strange to live when you can die by fire. It’s difficult, sometimes, because even though you want to live so much before you catch, it’s hard not to despair. It’s hard to live without wanting to choose, only once and so deliberate, to spark and flame so bright you’re blinding, until you’re gone.

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(An Odyssey Story)

She’s going to tell you a story – as she so often does – about O’Dean, a man she might have met on his travels. He was a bit of a wanderer, that one. A strange one, riddling and shifting from one shadow to the next. She’s going to tell the story well. Probably not the way he would tell it. She’s a good storyteller – he is, too – but she’s not going to lie, or embellish much, and she’ll remember most of the bits where he was a fool and leave out some of the others. She just weaves the story, in a time long enough ago that you can’t quite imagine it, far enough away that you’ve never been. She’ll tell the story much better than he ever could have even if he weren’t long gone. She tells good stories in her singsong voice – listen.

His name was O’Dean, yes, and he was a wanderer. The longest he’d ever stayed anywhere was in the home of a woman, in a town with a name he’s forgotten. He stayed nearly four months. The woman was one of the few he remembered, later. Her face drifted through his mind sometimes, and it made him yearn for what could have been a home. He had meant to go back to her someday. He would have found her, sweet face more lined but smiling, and the child he’d left her with, whose life he’d never learned of. He never did go back. Instead he wandered. One town to another, down one dirty street and up the next. He accumulated a gang and they followed him around, for a while. One town threw stones to drive them out. O’Dean had insulted someone quite badly. Three of the gang fell and bled as the rest fled with O’Dean, and he laughed. He was always laughing. Joking, telling riddles. Lying with a glint in his eye. He was almost always charming enough, dark hair and craggy face grinning, for long enough to be believed or humored. Long enough to wander away unscathed.

Odysseus bei den Laestrygonen

Odysseus bei den Laestrygonen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were so many small adventures. After the stones, they had gone to an old fishing town, reeking with brine and creaking old damp wood. They had found the tavern there more than adequate. It smelled strange, but the whiskey was good enough to ignore that. O’Dean flirted with the barmaid as his companions got heartily drunk, guffawing and yelling. They had retired for the night, to various places, and gathered again in the morning to squint against the bleak pale light.

As O’Dean led them all down past the wharf, an old sailor started forward. He asked them, raspy and belligerent, who they thought they were. What were they doing in this town, and hadn’t they better leave, then. O’Dean had a way of making himself welcome, and he clearly wanted none of it. He scowled at them, face twisted behind an eye patch, words ringing in the salty air. O’Dean spun, and glowered. His answer was contemptuous, as he grimaced at the bony old man; “Nobody to concern you, old man. We’ll do as we like.” The old sailor staggered forward, fists clenching, and O’Dean swung to clap him across the face. The sailor slumped back, curling over, until he could look up from behind a protective hand to glare at O’Dean with his one good eye, already red and swelling. He muttered, “Go then. Curses of the sea on you – go!” O’Dean scoffed and turned, waving his hand for the others to trail after him uncertainly over the slick cobblestones.

They left that town soon after. Most of them, anyway. Several stayed, consumed by something or other – O’Dean was never sure. He never quite bothered to find out. He just kept going. He kept on, to a crowded town bustling with merchants, gamblers, thieves. They stopped first at an inn, on the outskirts. It was run by a formidably busy woman, a middle-aged spinster who gave the impression of condescending to speak with any person at all. They stayed a week, enticed mostly by her cooking – though, admittedly, by her sharp-edged allure too. O’Dean left half his men there, still gorging themselves like pigs at her table. He had no taste for her cooking, and he’d lost his taste for her after so long a time. They went on, now only four others with him.

In the midst of town, O’Dean and the few with him hung around the edges of a bar with a card game planted in the center, watching the gambling. O’Dean held back, clung to the shadowy corners and the dusty tables. His men were less able to resist the whirl of money and anticipation, and they were drawn in. He escaped the gambling hall with two of his men. They left to explore the streets again, to hear the music drifting from the windows and the eerie silence of the darkness of the streets too late at night. They were drawn to the bustle and brightness of a tavern nestled in the corner of two streets, wings fluttering to the flame of loud voices and the smell of meat cooking. O’Dean stayed back again, and watched warily as his men jostled their way into the room. He joined them, after a minute, at the corner where they were already draining their mugs of beer. They called for meals, and he watched from his corner, dark eyes in the shadows and mouth twisted in apprehension. He knew not to trust anything, and the tavern-keeper had a shifty look to him – O’Dean didn’t like anyone who thought himself stronger than he was. The person didn’t exist who could outwit him, that he’d yet seen. So he stayed quiet, and shook his head at the steaming plates. His companions ate eagerly, without further thought. After another minute, he stood to leave – not before cutting the purse from a belt or two. It didn’t cross his mind to wonder whether the proud tavern-keeper would be angry at the men, once they found themselves without money to pay for all they had just taken. He left, swinging the door shut behind him and closing off the warmth and light. He started down the street again, comfortable in the softness of the cool dark.

He spent another few days wandering those streets. There O’Dean met a woman, a beautiful whore, down a dusky corridor in the upstairs of the brothel. She drew him in and cared for him tenderly – or tried to. She wanted him to stay, promised him forever. O’Dean sometimes had that effect on women. He wanted none of her forever – he left after a week, tired of the need to stay.

He went on to a place further on, another town with streets that looked the same and alleys with the same shadows. Every place seemed to have the same shape to it, after a while. It was easy to forget where he was – he’d been everywhere, for so long. He was a wanderer. Sometimes he thought of staying in a place, but the restless heart in him balked at the idea of settling. The face of the woman he had almost forgotten rarely surfaced – and when it did, he could remember that he had no home. He was meant for the roads, the streets, the new corners of places far away. Always finding an adventure didn’t leave him anywhere to return to, and he liked it that way. It was just him and the stones beneath his feet.

The next place he went was his favorite. It was a village filled with noble, decent people – gullible. O’Dean didn’t trust kindness either. He pronounced them all fakers, and went on without scruples. He stayed among those fake, kind people for a time. It was comfortable there. He slept in clean crisp sheets, and on his last night he dreamed that his adventures were grand. He dreamed that he fought off the impossible to do what he’d always thought improbable, and at the end of his dream he went home, to a place he couldn’t quite imagine. There was a woman there with a familiar face, and he knew just what to do and how to be. He always did, of course, but in his dream he grasped a sliver of contentment, of some strange far-off place he’d never been. In his dream he returned after his wandering, and he triumphed over those who wanted his place, and after that brutality there was a warm body and a fierce pride.

When he woke, he gathered his few belongings and slipped from the inn before its owners awoke. He started down a new road, feet finding the patterns that led to someplace unknown. The dream was already fading from his mind, and he set his face toward the distance, to keep on, to find an adventure, to wander and nothing more.

Short and Sweet

A man was once in love with an apple (she was a Pink Lady). He cherished the gleaming curve of her rosy skin, and the soft succulence of her tender hidden flesh. They lived a blissful life together, the man and the apple, until it happened. One day, the man looked at his beloved, and felt the stirrings of a new hunger in the pit of his abdomen. He craved the taste of her, longed to feel his teeth sink into her. So he ate her. He crunched and gobbled and then licked his dripping fingers with regret, but relish.

He mourned his darling love, the loss of her rounded shape and the beauty she had brought into his life. Then a week later, he was in the produce section, and a certain Golden Delicious caught his eye —

Because of “A Telephone Call”

There’s no reason for it. I just wanted to. I mean, I couldn’t ever have tried before, and why not? After all, it’s not hurting anyone. Did you think I was? Of course I wasn’t. Just because you think you have to be so careful with everything you do, it’s not a reason for me to be afraid of stepping on someone’s toes every time I move. I’m fine, clearly, and they’re all fine. Completely, totally fine. Doing well even. I doubt anyone even remembers me anyway. I’m not so huge an event, I mean it wasn’t exactly an occasion to remember. Well, what I mean is, it’s barely worth mentioning anyway. I don’t know why you’re even talking about it.

Anyway, I think it’s really perfectly silly that anyone would bother getting upset. It’s certainly not worth it for any reason, is it, we might as well go on and think of other things. There are a lot of wonderful things, and everyone’s attempting to do wonderful things, are they not? There, you see, I’m attempting to do something wonderful. I thought it would be wonderful, there wasn’t any reason to believe anything else. Well, wonderful for me certainly, but you know it might have been wonderful for fairly everyone. That is, even if it wasn’t perfectly wonderful, it’s not all bad, it’s never all bad. You oughtn’t be such a pessimist. It’s not such a thing to bother over, after all. It’s merely a trifle, something to forget. It’s nothing important, nothing about which you need inquire. You needn’t know why it happened, or what for. Those things simply aren’t important, as it did happen, has happened, and anyway it’s all right now, isn’t it? Of course it is, clearly it is. You’re not doing any good by asking what for and why, and how did it happen, and how could this happen. There’s no reason for it.

Pictures of Memories

A man with a long-handled paintbrush colors images on his skin. He paints pictures on every shape and every muscle, every strain of sinew and each concave curve.

He twists his wrists into angles and contorts his limbs to reach the small of his back where he paints the moment that a hand slipped over that stretch of skin during his first kiss with his first love. The soles of his feet, where he paints the pounding run to the subway stop trying to be on time for an interview that could have changed his life, if he hadn’t gotten lost. The curves of the insides of his thighs, where he paints the story of the first time he had sex, slightly drunk and confused in the tumbled sheets of a bed that was not his own. On his knees are the ragged colors he remembers of being a child, of tripping and climbing and shouting. On the back of his neck he outlines the breath of wind that made him shiver, that night he lost his keys. Below his ears are the colors of everything he’s heard, the gentle whispers and the gasps, shouts and screams, moans and cries, murmurs and barked commands. Down his chest he shades the way his mother used to hold him, and the ache of a breakup, and the breathlessness of having run too far. He twists his arms to paint his shoulders, where he marks the hollow where a head sometimes lay and the almost-forgotten soreness that a backpack left every day until he graduated high school. On one cheek he streaks the skin with the print of smiles.

He paints his life on his skin, and when his body is colored and shaded and marked and cross hatched with the pictures of his memories, he puts the paintbrush down.

Escape

She had been a little girl who loved to play pretend. She hadn’t loved to play “house” though. There were no games in which she played the benevolent participant in a perfect fairy world. She played princess.
Sometimes she was a princess, and her brothers had found some reason (false, of course) to hate her. They were chasing her from their kingdom of good and plenty, from her land of milk and honey into a ravaged place of terror and loneliness. She fled on her wooden horse, rocking back and forth in her stationary playground as her heart beat with adventure.

Sometimes she was a princess trapped in a cave. The stone cut at her, and the ridges pressed hard into her skin. She had to wriggle out of where she was wedged. She would be scraped and sore as she climbed underneath the slide, clambering toward the light from above and panting in exhilaration.

Sometimes she was a princess oppressed by an evil queen. She shrank into the swing as the queen leaned in to threaten her, away from the knife at her throat and the foul breath warm on her face. She felt, almost, the sharp tip of metal pressing into the skin at the tender indent behind her collarbone. She almost felt a thumb pressing into her windpipe. She squirmed with glee, and her pulse sped with almost- terror.

Then she would jump off the wooden horse onto the platform, or pull herself over the slide’s edge and sit on it, sucking the cold air into her lungs, raw and tender. She would slip off the swing and tear across the lawn, toes pushing off the damp grass and soft dirt with quick desperate steps until the evil queen was left clawing at the woodchips, writhing in the playground a whole house away.

She never played the princess content with her fairytale kingdom. She liked the stories of escape best. She brought a napkin and two Oreos to the playground. Once she’d galloped the wooden horse until the creaking of the ropes was monotonous, she jumped off onto the ladder and curled on the platform. She ate the cookies one broken-off crumbling bite at a time. She had to ration the food that she had brought from home as she hid from the wicked ones who were chasing her. Her chest heaved over her pounding heart as she lay folded against the sunlit dusty wood, holding breaths in shallow and tight to keep from discovery.

She reveled and cringed in the delicious fear of pretend.

Snow (last bit)

The prince wanted to marry the girl from the forest. He was a dreamy type, but practically too he must wed, and she was certainly a suitable bride. Forest notwithstanding, she was of noble stock – of some sort or other, probably middling well – and she was such a shy sweet little thing, she’d do very nicely. He did rather love her, and that was rare enough. He’d loved several women by then, quite fiercely, and he thought himself perfectly lucky that this one might hold, being well-bred and beautiful as she was. He could imagine spending time with her – as much as he would have, being king – and loving her, and growing old with her.

The queen started out from the castle, innocent of the huntsman trailing her with worry creasing his brow and muffling his footsteps. She hurried into the forest, feet uncertain over the uneven snowy ground and eyes searching the darkness between the trees. The huntsman had told her where to go, and she set her course – she’d brought a compass, for she was nothing if not practical – and began bravely through the thicket, away from the glimpse of her castle.

The princess was sitting with her prince, close together on the bench just inside the door, her sewing forgotten on the ground. He was sitting very near to her, his hand resting on her side. It was clasped at the base of her spine as he gazed ardently into her eyes, and she looked back at him without taking her mind from the uneasy awareness of his fingers low on her back.

He was talking – she struggled to hear him, for he often talked for a long while before she heard anything she wanted to answer. It worked, usually, for he didn’t often seem to expect an answer, talking to her about whatever it was and stroking her cheek. She smiled at him, and let her mind wander. He was so very handsome, quite a perfect prince, and his conversation – the discussion he was having now – showed him to be such an intelligent young man. Of course, he was absolutely wrong about many things, but he was young and that could change. So thought the princess, forgetting that she at fifteen was several years younger than this crown prince. Still, she watched him talk affectionately, and listened to his enthusiastic plans and ideas. He really was very dear.

The queen saw the cottage in the distance after two hours. Her thighs were sore from walking, and her back ached. The sun was beating through the trees to sink slow and painful into her skin, while her skirts dragged upon the ground still damp with melting snow. The light was bright and fierce on the drifts of white along the forest floor, and the drooping branches coated in snow and ice. Still, she kept on, and her heart sped when she saw the outline of a small house, just as the huntsman had described it to her.

In another half-hour she was there. Her pulse was thumping in her throat, and the sound of a crackle to her left made her start. A young man was riding away; he paused, and looked quizzically at her, before continuing. The prince dismounted, not far from the cottage, suspicious of this strange nervous woman. There was a route he’d often taken, and he did now. It was useful, as he could double back to the cottage and watch the princess against the side of the house from a cluster of trees nearby, unseen. He leaned against the crook of a branch, and waited.

The princess at the window knew that her time had come. The queen was coming for her, and her stepmother would try – she didn’t know what, but she was afraid. She had been found.

The queen knocked on the door, lightly, her hand almost afraid to hit the wood, as if hovering in the air before it would preserve that moment, and prevent any misfortune. The princess heard the tapping, as she’d heard the huntsman, through a blur. She was still sitting on the bench, her skirts still spread around her in the sunlight, the warmth of the prince’s presence still slowly fading. She stood, stiff, and started to the front of the house to meet the queen.

The queen didn’t hear her until she wheeled, frightened, to the princess standing before her. The girl was taller, her eyes large and shadowy dark, her hair long and black and flowing around her shoulders, and her skin deathly white as always. Her face seemed to gleam in the sunlight of the forest, as if her skin was translucent and there was nothing but bleached bone beneath. She was nearly as pale as the snow behind her spotting the forest, shining blue-white in the sun.

The queen took a breath, and let it out slowly, and composed her face. The princess was still, a carven statue of the winter.

After a moment, the girl said, “Why are you here?” – as if she didn’t know.
The queen looked at her, eyes wide, as if she were surprised. Her voice was scratchy when she answered, “I needed to know you were safe. Needed to bring you home – if you wanted to come.”

The princess’s shoulders tensed at once, lines sharp in her neck. “If I don’t?”

“Then I’ll know you’re safe.”

The princess looked at her stepmother in wonderment, and slowly, steps precarious and tentative, she stepped forward. The queen almost flinched, but her stepdaughter turned and opened the door to the cottage. It swung open, to the inside dim and warmly lit. The princess stepped through the door, and still facing away from the queen she said, “I suppose you want to come in?”

The queen stepped in after the princess, and shut the door behind her. At the thud, the princess walked forward, and the queen followed her into the kitchen. They sat at the rough-hewn wooden table, the queen stiff and the princess faint with bewilderment.

Outside, the prince crept closer, secreted near the window and peering in at his love and this strange intruder. The huntsman watched him warily, and kept a worried eye on his queen.

The two women sat in silence for a time. Finally, the princess interrupted the quiet to say, “Have you eaten?”
The queen shrugged, and pulled out the food she’d brought. It lay on the table, meager, but her stomach grumbled. She was polite, though; she picked up a piece of bread, but before eating it she asked the princess if she wanted anything.

The princess tilted her head, without speaking, and the queen plucked the apple off the table and offered it to the princess. The girl held it up, and nodded, and the queen bit into her bread.

The apple glistened red, stark against the princess’s face, like the curve of her dark lips on her pale skin. She bit into the apple, and the sound was loud in the silence of the house.

The queen’s eyes were dark and deep, and she looked at the princess full of longing and ill-gotten love. The princess turned her eyes to the queen, and her eyebrows drew together. Her mouth was still closed on the bite of apple, crisp and fresh. She could not understand the queen’s expression, serious and sad. In a moment, the meaning of it shifted and for one heartbeat she understood, and she gasped.

Then she was gasping, heaving for air, her eyes round and panicked and her hands fluttering, clutching her throat. The apple fell from her fingers, and bounced off the table, and rolled across the floor to rest against the wall. The princess tried to cough, and gagged, and hacked against the fruit lodged in her throat. She turned her wide eyes on the queen, frozen with the bread in one hand and the other reaching out, helpless. The princess glared, choking, angry eyes full of betrayal and her gasping mouth trying to scowl, or to cry. The queen’s heart beat fast in her chest but she could do nothing. The princess’s eyes accused her, even as she struggled to breathe. She gagged one more time, and fell from her chair just as the prince burst into the room.
The princess was stretched across the floor. The queen thought she might have struck her head, and she was lying, so still, her arm reaching over her head and her face tipped up. The prince bent over her. He had no time for this stranger, evil as she may be, unmoving and staring though she was. He bent close to the princess, kissed her slack lips desperately, clutched her shoulders. She was breathing, but barely, and the air came shallow and labored from her lungs, as if her body fought against its life.

The prince shook her, and held her, and called her name, to no avail. The queen sat with tears streaming down her face, watching this strange man love her dying stepdaughter. She almost couldn’t feel when the huntsman’s arms gathered around her shoulders, and drew her slowly up and out of the room. She only tried to stay with the princess, a strangled sound escaping her, incapable of words.

He pulled her, gently and insistently, out of the cottage door and into the forest, where the afternoon light was dying and the snow glowed unearthly blue in the shadows.

She walked, numb, over the forest floor. She tripped and stumbled, but he caught her. The huntsman kept the queen close, and she walked in the warmth against his shoulder through the darkening forest, over the shadowy snow, while the light vanished and the cold crept in.

When they reached the castle, the huntsman let go of her. She felt the chill of the snow rise up and cover his absence, like a cold shawl around her shoulders. They walked through the hall, through the rooms of the court, and up the spiraling stairs. The huntsman fended off the maidservants, the ladies, the courtiers. He was quiet, and firm, and once or twice he was very angry. He brought the queen to her chambers, still blank with horror and distant. He sat with her there, while she shuddered and wept against his chest, and he stroked her hair.
In the cottage, the princess was lying pale and still on the floor, spread across the wood planks while her prince clasped her to him and sobbed. When he heard the footsteps outside, he thought the huntsman had come back, or the queen, and he gathered his love into his arms. He carried the princess, head cradled on his shoulder and limbs hanging limply, and staggered from the kitchen, past the small men filing in through the door, and outside. There he set the princess very carefully on his horse, and vaulted up behind her. She was barely moving with the wisps of breath that escaped her lungs. He leaned her body back, heavy in his arms, and gently he pressed his lips to hers before clutching her to him, and beginning to ride.

The queen, in the castle, shaking and weeping, saw none of this. She knew none of it, and barely guessed. She wondered, and her throat was raw and sore with grief. She struggled against the huntsman, in spates, but he held her firm, and finally she calmed. She was too far, and she would not see the princess. So she leaned against his shoulder, and let her eyes close so that she saw not at all.

The queen learned to hope that the prince saved her stepdaughter. It was possible that he’d kissed her, and that he’d shaken her, and that eventually he’d knocked loose the apple, or blown air into her lungs. He could have brought her back to his kingdom, and married her. Perhaps the queen herself could believe that, and be happy in her own castle – eventually – despite everything. Perhaps the princess was safe, and well. Perhaps she had a happily ever after.