THE CLEARING APPEARS IN THE 2018 ROCKY MOUNTAIN FICTION WRITERS ANTHOLOGY, "FALSE FACES."
John spends his summers in a shady forest clearing making new... friends?
The sage forest flickered green in the speckled light. The piney trees and the flat clover leaves. Even the cool water of the shallow pond, the muck at the edges, a deep moss. Only John knew all the shades. Only he saw all the shades. After endless days of visitations and contemplations, he had imagined, but not exactly expected, this seeing. This knowing.
John lay every day of vacation on his slender back near the quiet, still pool, on the high ground where it was dry in the summer. His new favorite but already smelly emerald tee shirt lay over his small chest, three golden triangles decorating the front. He had found and claimed it for his own, right here, months ago.
Below the shirt lay holey, faded blue-jeans over skinny legs. Finally, dirty bare feet. Sneakers somewhere nearby. He didn’t bother with socks.
Occasionally a leech snuck into his shoes when he was happily squishing through the sucking, oozy pond goo and discovering. Once he’d made it all the way home and chucked off his sneakers and taken a step. Only then did he discover the sucker on the bottom of his foot. Brown and so gross.
Gross, because only and all things green were his favorite. The slippery salamanders he’d come to hunt long ago were deep chestnut, or mottled midnight black, or shining gray with a cherry-red racing stripe. He had been fond of telling adults - teachers, his parents, that the salamanders were his favorite, the reason he always returned to the forest. A wonderful lure, yes. But they weren’t favored anymore.
Now the forest itself, the clearing within, was his favorite.
The cycle of abuse is destructive in ways we can't - and often don't want to - imagine.
I’m not used to handling real guns. Growing up in Oklahoma, my brothers had spindly B.B. guns we all played with. Their rifles weren’t for me. But the B.B. guns, that was fine. Mom was okay with that. We shot up pop cans and chucked their riddled aluminum bodies in our creek to see how long they could float. But a B.B. gun and a Glock 9mm are different.
The Glock is really heavy, resting on my thigh, even though it’s only two pounds. Not quite, anymore. Because there are two bullets gone. I bought a Glock because my brothers Jimmy and Ricky were both in the Army, Iraq and Afghanistan, and they always swore that they’re reliable. “When your primary’s down, you gotta be able to count on your backup,” is what they’d say. I needed reliable. But what happened with the first shot wasn’t the gun’s fault. It was mine.
My palms were damp when I walked into the gun store, after I dropped the boys off at school this morning. I searched on my phone and there was one just a couple blocks away from the house. We live in Pueblo, Colorado now, instead of home, because that’s where the work is. I told my husband I didn’t want to come here. I didn’t want to leave Stillwater. I didn’t know anyone out here. It’s just me and the boys and their dad. Like it was with my dad and my brothers at home after mom was gone.
I snuck through the door like you do in high school when you’ve been out after curfew with your girlfriends. Even if you didn’t do anything really wrong, you’re still breaking the rules. I knew I was going to break the rules today though, so I guess that’s not quite right.
I didn’t know how big the place would be. A warehouse without windows, full of buzzing white lights. I was overwhelmed. I started pushing my wedding band around my sweaty finger. There were literally hundreds of choices. Oak and glass display counters with wood-grip handguns like you see in westerns, midnight matte automatics like you see in cop shows. Steel racks on all four walls covered with shotguns and assault rifles.
The old saying "life isn't fair" is hardly a complete sentence.
I don’t know how the bus missed me. I know a man, a stranger, shouted at the last minute. Not the last minute. The last second, the very last second, split second, when I had time to look up, then stop. Even then it was damn close. I hadn’t planned to stop and my body wasn’t ready to hear the message. My mind said stop but the rest of me nearly carried the whole package forward off the curb and smack into the eastbound 187.
That’s my body for you. Betraying me at every turn. Gangly and lean in the wrong places. Bulging and limp in the wrong places too. Where it ought to be fat it’s skinny. Where there ought to be nothing, there’s always something, and the other way around.
The bus, the near sight and acrid smell of it, roared by inches from my nose. Road grit bit my eyes. The orange and silver on the side became a smeared streak broken by a colorful collage that was probably an ad for the California Lottery. Or Planned Parenthood, or the local news. It was so close to my face I couldn’t make it out as it sped past at thirty miles an hour. Another flash of metro colors, a hot gust of dry diesel fumes that tipped me back in my red Chuck Taylor hi-tops, then nothing. It hadn’t even had time to slow down.
I lived for couple reasons. First, the warning shout. The fact that the guy hadn’t been totally absorbed in his phone like I was and had actually been looking at the world go by. Add to that his ability to choke out a noise during a moment of extreme horror. I mean I’m sure he saw it all go down in his mind the split second before he alarmed. Pictured me not stopping and pictured me – what? Plastered to the front of the thing? Folded over the commuter bikes mounted on the nose like wet laundry over a drying rack?
Since 2016, the Chechen government, under Sharia law, has been abducting, torturing, and murdering gay men.
I have stepped outside to the balcony to smoke, and to cry. Inside the apartment, the American journalist makes hurried notes. The small woman he has brought with him to translate sits perched on the edge of a metal folding chair, leaning forward, staring at nothing. Her legs are neatly crossed. Her hands are grasping her knees and her fingers flutter now and again against them.
In the alley three stories below me is a girl of maybe ten. There is a brown, long-haired dog as well but it is just passing through. The girl is not wearing enough clothing. It is March and she has no coat, only a ratty red woolen sweater, which is no good, because it has been snowing and the sweater looks heavy with damp. She is squatted on her haunches, skirt covering just to her dirty knees. With a stick, or maybe a chalk, she is scratching something on the street that looks like a heart, while singing to herself a song, which is simple and repetitive and must be a nursery rhyme. It is unfamiliar to me. It would be tempting to say, that with her dark hair and disregard for the cold, she reminds me of my dead sister, but she doesn’t. She is unfamiliar to me. Everyone and everything in Moscow is unfamiliar to me. It is not that I want to return to Chechnya. It is only that everything now is unfamiliar, and the strangeness is like always hearing one side of a conversation.
The cylinder of ash on my cigarette is precarious and long. I flick it and the gray powder falls and collides with a snowflake before disappearing. The cigarette was supposed to outlast my desire to cry, but it hasn’t. It was supposed to calm me, but it hasn’t. I have not smoked long enough for that to be the effect. The nicotine is still the arrival of a rattling train through my nerves coming to a shuddering, jerking stop at the center of my chest with every pull.
I opened the cupboard and bent down to grab the bottle of dishwasher soap. On one of the sticky pads the exterminator had left under the sink, was a mouse.
I’d had misgivings, ideas about this particular development when he’d left the traps. But we were tired of finding tiny rodent craps all over the kitchen.
“Nothing, hun.” I didn’t want to tell my wife. She’s tender hearted. Not in a saccharine way, just one of those people you don’t like to tell sickly things to, in the same way you wouldn’t want to tell your grandmother in detail how women smuggle heroin across borders. There’s no point to it.
The whiskers on its slender nose twitched as it poked its gray toward the light. It wasn’t alarmed by the sight of me. Seemed to ask with mild black eyes, “Hey there, could you help me out? I can’t seem to get free.” Its long tail was stuck completely to the pale-yellow pad, and all four tiny paws. It wasn’t panicked. Yet. Just confused. Sort of, “how the hell did I get myself into this fix?”
Do mice even have imagination? Or do they skip the existential terror of imaging death? And is that better than wringing its pink paws over leaving its nest and children behind, worrying about whether Aunt Joan and its mother will get along at the service?
I closed the cupboard. I still needed to run the dishwasher. There was a moldy smell to it. We’d been gone, it had been sitting closed. Every time you opened the damn thing, rot assailed you bodily.
I walked into the dining room. “There’s a live mouse on one of the traps.”
In a little café just the other side of the border, nestled in the mountain harrow between Alamosa and Columbiana, I lay aside shot after shot of mateo. The red air that clung to me was suck-oven hot at midnight. The only time cool enough to leave my quarto. I was blind drunk – but not blind, not yet. There are still one or two things left for a one-eyed woman to see in this world.
This woman was just sitting there, across the dusty night, giving me these looks that made my mind swirl. I swear it was the woman who made me so confused. Not the mateo. Enough of the mateo and you don’t see anything at all, ever again. That was the point. If I give up my human site, Llorona grants me la fantasma. Vision beyond space, time, and the currency of this one-way, shithole world. Some say you can start to see through unguided if you drink enough of it in one sitting. If you can get enough in before you pass out and piss yourself, that is.
Maybe that’s what she was, the woman staring at me. Part of the fantasma. Maybe I already had the site. If she were one the brujas, I had to know.
So I started walking her way. I stumbled as the toe of my boot caught a yaw in the red-clay terra. The shot of mateo I carried in my hand launched itself into the air. It pelted the ass of a stray dog with gray, wiry, manged fur. It rose with a snarl. It then began to lick its hindquarters and the bitter liquor. It howled at me, then trotted over to lick my hand.
“She belonged to bad man Jose,” says this ragged, pock-marked Columbiana, comes out of nowhere. “Got a taste for it. She likes you now. She’s yours.”
I knew I should leave. I could barely stand. I could not walk. And now I had acquired a cursed dog, the discarded familiar of the Columbiana bruja who would slay you in your sleep for even walking past the mansion of Llorona. Not even dogs can be counted on for loyalty. It was past time to go. I clapped the man on the shoulder, swayed back and forth, and caught my feet, and they moved toward the door.
The woman had left my mind - when I heard her say, “Come a little bit closer, carina.” She said it quietly. From across the café, she had whispered, and it had split the heavy night with just enough force to land delicately on my ear.