Sean awoke to a sound that he usually paid for. He tried to focus to get his money’s worth, but he felt nothing. Slowly he realized it was too far off to be personal, but it still raised a primal instinct in him. He ran his tongue over the roof of his mouth, mimicking the sound and it echoed back across the dim room. He stared into the twilight shadows and finally saw the young woman sitting there, the babe suckling at her small breast.
The stirrings in his mouth reignited the bitter taste of iron on his tongue. He recalled his last meal, and not in his usual detached way. He found himself in a strange, calm clarity—the kind the meds promised but never delivered. How many times had he watched them dive down the toilet? He’d rather have his own rituals than the numbness prescribed by others.
“I have nothing else to feed you,” she said softly. “The boy you scared off usually brings me food.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You made sounds.”
“I—I was trying to figure out where I was.” He rubbed his eyes. “That kid was like from some friggin’ fairy tale.”
“He’s my baby brother.”
“Clarinet,” she corrected. “Let’s focus on his talent, not where it came from.”
She sighed, and the baby went after the release through her breast.
Sean brought his teeth together, tasting again the meaty vessel that had supported the baby but was ultimately ejected. A detached voice told him he was crazy—his father’s voice.
“I’m not crazy,” he said aloud.
“Not anymore,” she murmured.
Sean straightened up, a move that caused the latest star in the constellation on his back to burn. He tried to smother the fire by pressing his back into the wall.
“Is your latest cigarette burn bothering you?”
He sucked in a breath of surprise.
“You think a bunch of whores can keep a secret?” she asked low and cool. “That cratered map of California on your back is too crazy good to keep quiet about.”
“It’s no secret.”
“True, but only you know its legend.”
Sean covered his thoughts with his hands. The silence between them ended with the baby gurgling like a jug filling nearly to the top.
“How do you know the toothless black dude?” he asked through his fingers.
“Everyone in Chico knows him,” she sighed. “But he wasn’t crazy enough to take my offering. I suppose he just handed it off to you, taking you for a sucker.”
Sean dropped his hands. “But you said he killed your man.”
“Yeah. He’ll probably laugh himself to death. Who am I to question the methods of the universe?”
Night had fallen and now only the whites of her eyes shone in the darkness. Occasionally they looked straight at him, but more often were a pair of happy little moons looking down.
“You don’t look Indian,” Sean said, contradicting his thoughts.
“That’s what happens when generations of Irishmen pile themselves upon your family. But don’t go thinking it washes out the spirit, though. You can ask those three figures you returned to me.”
“And your man?”
“Irish-American, for all I know.”
“If you start telling me shit about the Dry One eating him for dinner…”
Sean swore he saw her shrug as she said, “All I know is that he sells shit—the worst meth in town. You’d be better off huffing some fumigant found in a barn.”
“Why not kill him?”
“You think no one has tried? Look, I’ve made mistakes, but I’m blaming no one for them—including myself. I only have the here and now to direct my future. My baby. I guess you needed my placenta more than he did.”
“But if you meant to kill him, why feed him?”
“Shh. Listen within.”
“I’m no cannibal.”
“Shh. Don’t break the peace.”
Sean finally shut himself up. And listen within he did. His stomach churned the chewed up bits of placenta, pulling out all the mystic essences—starry matter that swirled up into his brain and made him feel rather high. It dulled the cutting edge of his father’s voice.
“My father was an asshole,” Sean blurted out.
“Everybody has an asshole,” she murmured back.
“Yeah, but they usually pull their pants over it. He was always dropping his.”
She waited, smoothing the downy hair on the baby’s head.
“The towns on my back are all the places I lived with him—all the places where I tried to get rid of him.”
When the silence drew long, she offered: “The stars have their own sense of time.”
Sean looked out a broken window at the evening star, bouncing low in the atmospherics of the western horizon. People unaware of the phenomenon often called it in as a UFO.
“He never let me forget where I came from: my mother.” Sean’s voice became thin and high, as if he was six again. “He called me by her name when he did it. Called me his bitch.” He broke down into sobs.
She let him go for awhile until the tide of tears started receding. “Tell me more.”
“I can’t,” he choked.
He heard her shift her position in the dark. “I’ll have to read your back, then.”
“In the dark?”
“I’ll touch a scar, and you’ll tell me its story.”
Sean found himself strangely hopeful, willing. He turned his back in her direction and she lifted his shirt, running cool fingers through the burning constellation. She held her baby tight with her other arm, its bubbly breaths and fecund odor breathing new life into him. Her hand slowed just northeast of the small of his back, her index finger stopping on a scar that almost shone in the starlight.
“How did you know to start in Ridgecrest?” he gasped.
She pressed down firmly.
“No, Daddy,” he whined. “Don’t.”
She did not stop, though, and neither did Sean. The stars peeked through the window and passed on and his voiced aged as she traveled his back. It wasn’t until the room lost its womb-like warmth that he realized he was only talking to the darkness. She had settled back against the wall, holding her baby in a primordial clutch against her chest, a soft song of sleep escaping her parted lips. Somewhere beyond his father’s voice he felt his rage slipping away, and he reached out for her knowing fingers. Her hand instinctively tightened around her babe but she did not awake. An unfamiliar sense of peace settled over him, and he let his hand fall away. He was sure her worldly compassion would resume at dawn.
Sean curled up beside her, his head nestled on the carry containing the three mystic figures, and slept.
by Daniel Nauman