ROUND ROBIN FICTION Round One, Part III

The woman—hardly more than a girl, really—attended to the business of swaddling the baby with a length of soft clean fabric, hardly displacing it as it nursed, and installing the wrap as a carry at the front of her torso. The room swam with motes of dust that danced curlicues across panes of incandescence in the derelict space; the contrast between the darkness and the piercing light made Sean dizzy. With one hand holding the woman’s offering, he held the package in the other and felt his mind disjoint and float, as it did more often than not. “Logic and proportion”: those were measuring sticks from someone else’s toolbox. His contained only the road, the angry buzz of the tattoo machine, painful illuminations; a stop-motion treasure hunt. Strobe flashes burning in isolation as he threw himself bonelessly into the dark strange waters—his life now. Maybe it had been forever.

 

The package seemed to alternate between feeling leaden-heavy and floating, weightless, out of his hand. He looked across the room at the woman again. With her head down, her dark hair and skinny arms suddenly reminded him of the whore he’d left some hours ago. But this one was burning with purpose; in what was almost certainly a state of shock, she radiated calm and attended to herself and her child with a preternatural air of confidence.

 

“The father’s dead.”

 

She spoke as she finished drawing her pants up with one hand, balancing on one leg while cradling the infant in the carry with the opposite arm. “It’s all right, though. There’s uncles. And I’m not afraid.” This last phrase spoken as she turned her eyes on him, the full truth in her stare. “You have the object.”

 

He held it aloft, heard her sharp intake of breath. The baby caught her excitement and let out a choppy, fitful cry. Sean’s meal finished, he walked slowly to her and bowed to set the package at her feet, aware of his gesture of supplication as he bent before her. She in turn made obeisance to him as she picked up the package, unwrapping it with reverence.

 

Three figures of diminishing size: whisper-dry, made out of some ancient plant fiber reminiscent of cornhusk. The dizzying air seemed to swim and dip around them.

 

“Now I can put these back. It’s been a long time since things were right this way.” She gently wrapped the figures back up and stowed them among the folds of the carry. Once finished, she turned her unsettling eyes back to his. “Do you know the Dry Fella? He killed my man.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, all this.” She waved her hand at the baby, the package, him—a sweeping gesture to indicate the totality of the morning’s characters and events. “He doesn’t sweat. Or bleed. Now he’s a homebum with a swastika on his neck.  Sometime he’s a white man in a suit. Sometimes he’s black. But he never sweats and he only drinks his own, from an army canteen. I think he’s afraid of the unsifted village, ‘cause he won’t drink with the park rats by the Amphitheater or the creek there. What do you call him?”

 

Some things exist out past the rim of language, the comfort of human tongues. “Dry Fella’s as good a name as any.” The chain that wrapped around his heart tightened, links forged by cigarettes on flesh, the visions. Yes: that one was dry, the driest; a dessicated thing with an endless thirst for life in all its forms. A vacuum, and Nature abhorred it. Had he sought it his entire life? Had there ever been a childhood, a process? Introspection was impossible now. At the periphery of his insect-like single-mindedness, he was almost conscious of being closer than he’d ever been.

 

She said a word he didn’t know, then. “Wetigo. A cannibal.”

 

“You have to be human to be a cannibal.” The words came out before he could stop them and they hung in the air, strung on his discomfort. “Anyway, he has something that belongs to me.” He stretched, his back popping like firecrackers. He thought of the man who had traded Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat with him, and the words that the old man spoke to himself—words Sean had heard as he moved inexorably towards his next assignation. TrainDoc didn’t have the right of it, though: it wasn’t his storm that blew him from town to town, collapsing lives and leaving ruin. It was the Dry Fella, destroying his backtrail with a monstrous joy.

 

And that this road should end in one place on his life’s and body’s map, and not the next—why not Hemet? Or Turlock? Or Ridgecrest? Perhaps things came to a head here, was all. The dance of the cigarettes and hearts, like a bomb exploding to suddenly illuminate a landscape—this time all the lights were green, all the arcane locks were yielding to the keys he’d tried in other doors with insistent, fruitless desperation. Who would he be when the final door opened? Could he stand that pitiless truth?

 

He became aware of eyes at his back and turned to face the boy, who held the clarinet down and slightly out from his side, thumb forward, wrist loose enough to whip the instrument off whatever threatened to trouble him. Sean raised his hand in a Hey-Buddy! gesture and the boy—who was striving for as much badassery as a ten-year-old could muster—sensing no threat, broke and ran to the woman and the baby. Sean moved to the doorway to look back outside at the verdant path he’d come down, the blown flowers and fecund nightshades. He heard the woman talking quietly with the boy; he fancied he heard her saying that she’d given the stranger the gift of victory with her blood, as he’d returned something stolen that would strengthen and protect their family, their people. Well, that was all right.

 

Cradling the baby in its wrap, she walked slowly and carefully to Sean as he stood in the doorway. The smell of dry rot, of lavender, of attics, was sharp in his nose as she stood to his side, looking out with him. Presently the coppery smell of her blood joined them there.

 

“My man died, but my family has been dying here for a thousand years. I’ve got people going back for a thousand years up in the Buttes, and the Dry Fella has no one. But now he has you. I don’t think he wants you much.”

 

by Julia Murphy

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