Sometimes, there’s a place where the grass and the sage, pine and cottonwood, rocks and scrub and a cactus or two — maybe piñon and mesquite and yucca and so forth — they all get together and make up this kind of mildly intoxicating existence.
Little breezes ruffle and shift the scents around, or the wind really kicks up and does its best to rearrange your day.
Mostly these areas aren’t burdened with an overabundance of trees or houses. You can see the horizon. You can breathe in deep and feel your mind flatten out. Memory and time stop fighting each other. Your worst enemy might be a fence or two.
I don’t generally have anything against concentrations of trees or houses — or people, for that matter — but I need to be out in the wide angle, out in the open kind of wild.
You can see the storms coming. Hear the wind searching. Feel the thunder roll. See the lightning crack. You can see the sun breaking in yellow through the mist or dying red in the clouds, and you can look at it all coming and get ready.
You can give yourself to it. It’s like getting ready for church or mass. Like a wedding or a funeral.
Things in the land and things in us consummate and die all the time. Out there you can see it, know it for what it is.
Note: a version of this article previously appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Mélange Magazine.
The storm-dampened scents of Dauphine Street gave way to something old and familiar as I opened the front door of the used bookstore.
Here in the heart of New Orleans, as in all places I visit, I’d inevitably found myself seeking out such places. Without a particular itinerary, and driven by multiple cups of chicory coffee, I found myself somewhat regrettably using Google Maps to suss out the oldest and most promising of these shops.
The smell embraced me immediately as I entered. If you’ve ever been around old books for any length of time, you know what I speak of. It’s somewhere between the dust and age of old houses and a bottle of vanilla in a woodshed. In these places, worthy treasures are never guaranteed; the calming scent of nostalgia certainly is.
Nostalgia, in this case, being the simple chemical reactions that physically occur in books as they age. As time passes, the wood pulp in a book’s pages breaks down into various organic compounds. Lignin, which makes up a generous portion of the pulp, produces acids, which in turn dismantle the pages’ cellulose. This process produces vanillin, benzenes, and hexanols, contributing vanilla-, almond-, and floral- and organic-like smells to the book itself.
This is partially what makes up what some lovingly refer to as biblichor, or “the smell of old books”. By comparison, the recently rained-on street mentioned earlier was imbued with petrichor, or “the smell after rain”. Ichor, the Greeks said, is the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.
Given that it’s generally the hardcover books made between the 1830s and 1980s that used the pulping and adhesive processes necessary to produce what we consider biblichor, you’ll find less and less of it in volumes printed after the late 50s (when the paperback craze started to take off). Only in recent history have we begun to use materials and processes that deny the production of the scent of nostalgia.
Scent, as we know, is the most powerful accessor of memory- but also of imagined memory, of that nostalgia. You can feel it, in these old shops and old locales. Your mind, after skipping through your own memories, feels as though it’s touching the edges of others- of memories not your own.
There’s something nearly indefinable about old bookshops, something that draws many of us in, I imagine, without a specific purpose in mind. It goes beyond mere charm. This must be one of the reasons we seek them out, for what in the modern age affords us the rare luxury of true purposelessness?
That lovely lack of purpose, I suppose, lands right alongside the lure of the historical- history that can, in these places, end up being far more personal than a tour or museum. When we’re led by a guide (or by ourselves) to tours or museums, it’s with the purpose of encountering something enshrined- something important.
When we find ourselves wandering into a used bookstore, antique store, or the like, it’s not only the apposite lack of purpose that entices us, but the other side of the historical coin- things forgotten or discarded. Things left behind. The unimportant. While monuments widen our gaze within past ages, the trinkets and relics of the individuals from those ages do far more to transport us, and in turn, to ground us.
Among the wayward, proliferate stacks of the old books I navigated around in Dauphine Street, I uncovered a 1961 printing of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam, nestled in with several of his other works. One of Gibran’s trademark small, unassuming tributes to the meaning of language, art, time, and love, I found inside the cover that this particular volume had been gifted from one college student to another:
December 1962 Merry Christmas Brenda, Gibran says that the obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply. I hope these two books will help you see the obvious more clearly, as they have me. Best Wishes as Always, Gaye
On the following page, Brenda has marked herself as the owner of the book, along with an identifier of her residence at the time: Dorman Hall.
A bit of research shows that “Dorman Hall” was a dormitory at FSU in Tallahassee, built in 1959 after the Florida State College for Women converted to a coed institution in 1947. Researching the modern layout of FSU reveals that the original Dorman Hall was demolished in 2015; but a newer version has been built in its place.
I wonder if Brenda’s still around- happy, retired, perhaps writing a book of her own in her mid-70s. I wonder if she and Gaye remained friends. I wonder if she remembers this book, and whatever meaning it held for her.
Old bookstores make you wonder a lot of things, the least of which involve yourself and your place in the world.
Of course, with time being the great equalizer, this means that you’re as likely to find hidden treasures in one old shop as in any other. This would be proven to me somewhat humorously two years later, when someone pointed me to an even larger stack of old Kahlil Gibran volumes at a library sale in Hot Springs, South Dakota.
The territory of nostalgia is a mostly level playing field, no matter where you might find yourself. Whether it’s milk and coffee, old stone and fresh rain, or old wood and older books…
The hours of the night were approaching as the waters of the Mississippi crawled past the grassy river-edges west of town. All 70 lbs and 10 years of Chet Zalinsky sat barefoot on the bank, absentmindedly chucking rocks into the rolling and fluid maw.
His town was not rich enough in immediate land for regularly-hiring farms, nowhere near big enough for thriving business. Many men & women drove truck to get by, and they said Oqwuaka’s population had dwindled close to 700 this year. He had a rough idea this was a bad thing from the way the adults talked of it, but hadn’t the context to figure out exactly why – and didn’t want it. He’d just heard that his oldest sister had gone off to one of the Havens in Colorado with her boyfriend, and right now he had bigger fish to fry. Bigger rocks to throw.
“Y’know,” he sighed, flicking a pebble into the water, “I’ll probably never get a girlfriend with a name like Chet.”
Amberiah Martin squinted, shaking her head and looking up from the novel she’d been reading, partially assisted by flashlight. “What?”
“Like, it just stands to reason. ‘Specially if I stay here and take over the mechanic shop like Dad wants.”
“Stands to reason?”
“What he says when something’s dumb… but it kinda makes sense. So ya just gotta swallow it. Anyway, like. Think about it. I gotta go to college, or Chicago or Des Moines or whatever. If you stay in a small town, ya gotta have a cool name. Like… Brock. Or… Magnus. Small town, dumb name, no girlfriend.”
Amberiah’s tone was scolding. “You were named after your grandpa!”
Chet scoffed. “Yeah, so? Probably a cool name back then. Grandma must’ve thought so.” He raised his voice to a feminine falsetto. “Oh, Chet! You’re so handsome, Chet! Let’s go for a drive in your pick-em-up truck… Chet.” He shuddered.
Amberiah rolled her eyes. Generally speaking, men were way harder on themselves than women were- a mystery she figured to spend the rest of her life puzzling over. If she decided to care that long.
She looked at his eyes, clear and bright in the twilight as he stared across the banks of the Mississippi towards Iowa. “Well I don’t think it’s a dumb name.” She stood up, tossing her book into her backpack. “I think your worrying is what’s dumb.”
Chet looked up, scowling a bit. “It’s not dumb if it’s true.”
“What’s in here,” she said, point the flashlight’s beam at his head, “isn’t true half the time.”
“Hey!” he protested, throwing a hand up to block the light.
“Well it’s not! That’s what my dad says. And I think your worries are just a bunch of bulls**t.”
Chet stood up quickly. “Jesus! Don’t swear!”
“Well don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” she countered in a mocking tone.
They stared at each other for a moment as the river swept by, a force unimpeded.
She pointed the beam at his chest. “You should listen to what’s in there. Instead.”
Chet groaned, shutting his eyes and bouncing his arms against his sides. “Yeah. Ok. Sure.”
Amberiah clicked off her light and went for her bike. “Trust me,” she said, turning her head to glance at him before mounting, “I think the only people who ever left… that’s what they did. Not what you’re doing. Like a dummy.”
He flung a pebble at her backpack as she started to ride away. “See you tomorrow!” she called. “You can show me that dead deer!”
“OK!” he shouted after her. “IT’S PRETTY COOL!”
“DOUBT IT! SOUNDS GROSS!” she called back before disappearing down the dirt road into the approaching night.
Chet sighed again, glaring up at the early stars, daring fate for a sign.
His holowatch beeped at him. 8:00 PM. “Ah s**t.”
Throwing down his handful of rocks, he ran over to his own bike and mounted up, taking one last glance at the river.
He pedaled about a mile in the opposite direction his friend had taken, thinking to check on the deer carcass. If it was already gone, he’d have to think of something else cool to show her.
Maybe we could go look for arrowheads or something.
His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a long-unused mailbox, signaling his memory’s milestone for the unfortunate deer- a young buck, a four-pointer.
He’d already been toying with the notion of sneaking some of dad’s tools out here to remove the horns- of course, for what purpose, he wasn’t quite sure. Pretending to be a war chief with a hunting trophy was pretty much the beginning and end of Chet’s line of reasoning. He smiled at the thought of lashing them to his bike handles- a smile that was quickly erased at the thought of his mother’s potential reaction. Oh well. Worry about it later.
Night was upon the town now, having swallowed most of the daylight save for a thin, hazy line on the Iowan horizon. Cicadas sang incessantly alongside crickets and peepers, a bright but waning moon just starting to show as little breezes rustled the thickets and taller grasses.
Noticing the smeared trail leaving the main road from the deer’s impact site, its blood-remnants already disappearing to the dust and gravel, he dismounted.
The doomed buck had, somehow, staggered across the road to a smaller, overgrown path leading to a long-abandoned farmhouse. Treelines flanking the path- planted generations ago -now rose above the boy, their leaves and branches whispering in the dark.
Chet shuddered again, but for more immediate reasons.
He steeled himself, pressing on. Just a quick look. Make sure. He hummed to himself as he crossed the road, pausing briefly next to the rusted and bent mailbox, its names long faded out. “Quick look. Then home.”
He was only about 100 feet in when he recognized the spot. Moonlight filtered down on the bloody patch of earth, giving it the appearance of a druidic altar. He’d read about druids in school. He let out the breath he’d been holding in, realizing the deer had fallen closer to the main road than he remembered.
His breath caught again as he approached.
There were no antlers.
Chet frowned, curious. Had it been a doe? This whole time? No.Come on. I know better than that.
He moved quietly, angling himself around so he could see the front of the carcass.
Suddenly, the summer night seemed noticeably colder.
You needed to have a head to have antlers.
He quieted his breathing, feeling his pulse quicken against his will. The treelines seemed oppressive as he crouched, gazing down the path to the old farmhouse.
“Stop it,” he whispered to himself. “Animal got to it. Or older kids.”
Looking back down at the body, he squinted in the moonglow, leaning towards the neck. A thin trail of viscera ran out of it, fresher than the dried blood on the dirt.
The head had been cut clean. Chet was no expert, but he’d read enough books to know something didn’t add up. The line was too neat. A single, clean cut, with the hair all around the outer edge singed darkly. “Lightsaber,” he mused out loud.
Chet suddenly wished he’d followed Amberiah home.
Trying his best to remain cognizant of all his angles of visibility, he stepped as quickly as he could across the gravel while remaining as quiet as possible back down to the main road.
A staccato clicking and alternate deep thrumming emanated from the darkened grove of trees to his left. Chet stopped in mid-stride even as instinct pushed him to run.
His pulse quickened further, and a slight ringing tinged the edge of his hearing as his senses sharpened. He found himself involuntarily breathing through his mouth, not daring to make a single unnecessary noise.
It’s a bird. It’s an insect. It’s night. It’s normal.
One of the thrums changed to a reverse-sucking noise that ended in three drawn-out organic clicks.
It’s normal. Click-Click. Something thumped in the dark. Click.
Click. Behind him.
In the center of the sputtering, pounding, ungodly terror building inside him, Chet sensed a tiny point of calm. Well, he thought, forget college. No girls when you’re dead.
He forced his eyes open and spun around. Gravel crunched under his sneakers.
Nothing was there.
He could see his bike across the main road, past the mailbox. He swore through clenched teeth.
Three quick, queitish steps were all Chet made before the loud thumps behind him, towards the house, made him stop again. He felt a residual anger building as the adrenaline coursed through him.
He spun around in a fighting stance, ready to speak or scream.
His mouth dropped open.
The creature was unnatural.
A looming, darkened bulk of organic mass balanced between two thick appendages that seemed to serve as both arms and legs. It had no other limbs, standing on knuckles as big as Chet’s head underneath its backwards-jointed trunks. Rivulets of bone-shaded exoskeleton ran up and down the limbs and across its body, to a smaller mass- where a head, by all rights, should have been. Three bulbous growths joined together there, angling towards Chet. Three large slits reminiscent of gills ran down either side of the creature’s body on its lower sides, expanding and contracting slowly and rhythmically.
It was twice as tall as Chet’s oldest brother.
Chet said the only thing that came to mind after years of American television.
“Come. In peace. I-c-come-in-p-peace,” he said, managing to squeeze the words out of his panic. He turned his hands over and opened his palms.
The creature’s bulbs followed the movement.
Chet held his ground. Maybe this was his Iron Giant moment.
A vertical line suddenly appeared at the top of the creature’s chest, running down slowly to the bottom of its front mass. It took a couple lumbering steps forward, body swaying in balance, a massive and logic-defying aberration. Gills hissed as its chest split open.
Chet’s mouth dropped open again as lines of pulsing purple bioluminescence ran along the ridges of its exoskeleton.
Numerous, smaller snakelike appendages shot out of its chest, making more organic sucking sounds as they wrapped around the sides of the chest cavity, forcing it to open wider.
Two larger tentacles terminating in hard, edged structures as large as his dad’s arms emerged, slowly.
One was wrapped around the antlers of a deer’s head.
Presenting the head to Chet’s trembling form, the creature waved the other tentacle close to it. The blade-edge of the free appendage glowed a fierce orange, and it swiped it back and forth underneath the deer’s head.
Holding the head steady and pulling it back a bit, the creature opened a small hole underneath its head-bulbs. A thin, singular, darker tentacle snaked out, heading for the bottom of the deer’s neck. The creature paused for a moment, trying to find purchase on the spinal chord.
It jacked in and the deer’s head came to life, eyes rolling and tongue flashing out of its mouth.
To Chet’s credit, he didn’t go from insanely terrified to scared f**kall s**tless until that moment. His mind blank, he ran for his bike, not looking back; just hoping to make it home.
No one would believe him.
Well. Maybe Amberiah.
Chet wondered if there were monsters in Seattle. Or Canada. Or Antarctica.
Or the Haven his sister had gone to.
The creature waited until the sounds of Chet’s bike stopped making patterns in the atmosphere before lumbering back to the deer’s carcass. Leaning forward, it analyzed the body again, then leaned back and held the severed head up to its bulbs. It shifted, turning in the direction of the road again. Its bioluminescence faded in the dark.
Sucking its tentacles- and microphone -back into its body, it sealed up its chest before thundering off through the thickets into the grove.
There was a deep hum, a sound somewhere between a whoosh and a large tearing, followed a second later by an immense, localized gravitational pull. Thickets cracked and trees bent, only to reassert themselves an instant later as spacefabric normalized.
And then there was nothing but crickets and owls and a late summer breeze drifting over the Mississippi river.
under the naked lights,
in the depths of the dark,
awkwardly, utterly, ridiculously,
or as smooth as you are
(or think you are);
on water, if you’re that good;
or close with another;
whether free, flowing in the air,
or guilty and perhaps weighed-down…
dance with no alibi.
There are little things
in the rooms of wood and brass and string and spotlight,
in between the rock and the roll and the jazz and the jive;
little things with no price-tag
that hammer together the house of the soul.
Did you know
you’ll most likely attend an equal number
of weddings and funerals?
Yes, you may have to tidy up afterwards…
but dance in the kitchen, for heaven’s sake!
What exactly do you think you are?
Friends drove out beyond the light pollution
to witness this miracle-
out to where I came from,
to where my heart
lies beating in the wilderness
where it was forged.
I did not go,
and I have no answers for their questions.
This pen feels like a neutron star.
My soul has flown south for awhile.
That heart, out in the mountains, seems faint-
so faint from here. I strain to hear it.
I wander to the edge
of these suburbs at midnight.
I have no answers for their questions.
The distant voice of the highway
hums in the dark.
I cannot see the aurora, but what did I expect?
A thunderstorm is gathering, though-
quickly, insistently, intently
to the west;
cutting between the solar wind
and the city lights.
It is silent save for crickets
and I force this pen to move,
because I have to.
I have to.
A scent of summer flowers and water cleansing
I force this pen to move
and I have no answers for their questions.
I cannot see the stars,
but they are where they are.
I cannot see the aurora,
but it dances on the face of the earth.
Rumbling echoes fading in the dark.
Electric arclight stabs and spits and forks
staccato into the cloudwall rising.
I strain my ears to listen.
I force my pen to move.
Heavy it may be;
but how else-
how else to hear your heart beat,
to hear you breathe,
somewhere out there,
under a storm of your own
(and, perhaps, a solar wind)?
to hear my own heart,
singing in the mountains?
A stray dog stops for a moment,
at the edge of these suburbs,
in the rumble-echo,
in the rising summer wind;
we regard each the other in silence.
Finding no questions to ask me,
he resumes his journey without looking back.
through the rainfall,
the pine and spruce;
off the trail
of the acorn and ash,
of the prairie lily,
of light and water dancing
on needles and leaves;
past the hidden spring,
past limestone spires
and granite punctured
up from the heart of the earth;
in the forest and veldt
of the snake and the lark,
and the ram and the elk.
Your lungs are thirsty,
your heart, hungry,
your mind, tired- no?
And so we pass
into the land of the gods
of life and death.
But what else to be said?
as we tread perdition
through our doctrine of the night,
seeking a horizon reckoning?
What verdict given?
Shall I say,
“hold your sins & dreams
as you would your breath,
hold them now
until the coming dawn!”
It is all ashen
and ground to dust.
Even if you cannot see
that the flame
I carry in my heart
could burn this place clear,
I still must lay it
before this living altar.
Birds are singing in the thicket.
There is more music,
There hums a resonation.
What else, then?
What else to offer beyond this-
and staggering presumption
that I can somehow relay
as though I have the skill,
and the right?
For I am no priest
and this place
has no need of one.
let me lay down a permanence
and in full artistic grace,
and eternity of this place:
(the song my mother taught me)
Yea, though I walk
through the valley
of the shadow of Death,
and you lament your simple self,
and shed tears in your unadornment-
for I too have cursed my own shadow.
So let us instead consider
things that carve and pierce,
let us feel the ground
upon which we stand,
for you only know the walking dead
by their tranquility,
and the truly content
by their graves.
Speak to me your nightprayers.
We will learn of knots
of prows and lathes,
of ecstasy, of aurescence,
Let me then become
the bride of the earth,
and the groom of ships
that plow the rising waves;
let me be as one
who stalks and slays fear,
who preys upon the darkness,
who bathes in the falconfall
coup de grace of our prisons,
the terror in midnight
that chews and rends and swallows
Let me sit then at the table
with your demons-
see how I’ve prepared a place
for the night is flayed open,
and the maw widens in hunger.
Can you learn to tack into the wind?
Can you sail into the storm’s embrace?
Can you carve the roil,
and bring your sails unfurled,
riding this deathsong
to strike through thunder’s inertia?
This is the only way I know
to cut off the black hand
that holds your heart,
for I can see your song;
it carries out
past the edge of lightning
sunset into glory.
your heart is a spear,
and a compass-needle;
your soul is a sailor,
young and bold,
come to spit in the Devil’s eye;
you are Incarnate,
you are Destiny.
I have offered up my lamentations
out of the dust of Eden
and painted them into the night.
I have trodden stars underfoot
and crushed them
into the wine of singularities.
(so my younger self told me in a dream,
reaching forward in the temporal
as I now enter the embrace of the world
and age into my slavery)
I’d pay good money to hear what yours told you.
Shall we build a fire then, in this desolation,
and brand me with the aspect of shadow?
How shall we brand you?
If Pride were ground into powder,
I suspect it could then be an anointing
upon this corruption;
perhaps even an atonement-
simple enough, yes?
Show me then-
come, show me,
while there is still some serenity;
let us examine your engines of the dark
and the nightmare-fuel within
(are you watching closely?
energy equals matter times the speed of light squared).
Drift you now to the far shores,
sleep, and dream,
drift with your own permission-
for a song of this magnitude radiant
shall fly only to constellations;
was meant only for the season of sowing.
Do you not see how alive you are?
And do we have an according then, you & I?
For as I see all hands open
in these songs of light and dark,
and music woven out of silence cleansed
in the cloudwalk ascendant,
purified in the cosmotic night,
washed in the blood of the earth;
so do I see you dare to direct your gaze
take my lantern
and I’ll hold your hymns-
say it’s a good trade.
(it’s a good trade)
the field opening verdant in its laughter,
bathed in blossomscent,
how even the black dirt and red clay
sing under the sun
in their rushing to meet the mountains;
for winter will come again,
and still all will sing, still all will sing.
for the river is deep, and wide;
the water clear, and cool.
I tell you my grace and yours was bartered between us
in these bending waves of wildwheat.
Have you forgotten?
This is an accord, in fact,
with the song aureate in all things.
I know you can hear it.
The dark washes off so easily,
so easily, my love,
There was an old father in the desert,
a long time ago,
(have you heard this one?)
who stretched his hands toward heaven,
and told his disciple
as his fingers turned to dancing fire,
“Well?” she asked, green eyes smiling under a mass of white hair. “Do you want the story… or the truth?”
The boy blinked. He hadn’t prepared for anything… profound. Most of the time, an adult (even a great-grandparent) had sat him down with the notion of “Alright now, listen to this and GO TO SLEEP.” He knew, for instance, that B always came after A; and that the hero was generally allowed to kill or break whatever got in his way, and that the girl was always waiting for him since she had nothing better to do.
But this? The story? The truth? He tried to concentrate as he nursed his glass of milk.
“Um… which one is more exciting?”
She pursed her lips and sucked at her teeth for a few seconds.
“Well now… that all depends on what excites you. There is Dark in the story. We revel in it. The Dark is engulfing, and comforting. It fills in the cracks and holes of life. When we sink into darkness, in sleep, our minds create and live in stories.
Yet there is Light in the truth. It illuminates and cleanses, and sometimes is uncomfortable. When we are awake, we argue the Light; especially our own version of it.
It is said that Light travels fast, little one. Faster than anything. But wherever the Light goes, the Dark is there. Waiting. This is not a battle, so much as a… balance.”
His eyes were wide as he contemplated the universe at large for the first time. He felt as though he was vaguely in trouble for something he couldn’t remember doing.
“So,” she said, “choose.”
Her mouth turned up the wrinkles in its corners.
“Which one? The story… or the truth?”
The boy looked at her for a few seconds, testing invisible waters.
“Why can’t we have both?”
Her eyes widened slightly.
Her head cocked back as she laughed.
“Oh!” she said, still chuckling. “There may be hope for you yet.”
He grinned and sipped his milk.
“I’ll do you one better than the story or the truth.”
This afternoon, I suggest you both wander the antique shop, instead of passing by,
and admire the woodwork and what it may retain:
the bread that has been broken at this table, the fears that have been projected onto this mirror, the love that has been made in this bed, the plate, cracked by the fist born from the open palm of affection,
the dresser, once sitting by the threshold, a father, recoiling at the sign above it, which says “Bless this house”,
a mother, leaning on the armoire, saying “Let this cup pass from me”,
a grandmother, holding a bowl, staring at her hands in amazement, saying “I am grown old”,
and a mural in stained glass- a short blessing of sun in the shadow.
If you look closely, you can see
the bones that have broken constructing this life, and the hands that have bled building this house.
“What’s that called again?” She makes a looping motion with her fist.
“After you catch one? When you wrap your end around the saddlehorn?”
“Yeah, that.” Her horse swishes his tail at flies stubborn enough to stand the hot midday breeze.
“It’s called a ‘dally’, Amanda.”
“Right, right, I knew that. Think I could try it yet?”
Her father shifts in his saddle, glancing towards the house beyond the corral. “Ehh. I dunno, kiddo. I don’t think your momma would much be a fan.”
She sighs, pursing her lips sideways. “I’m good enough. You know I am.”
“I know. I also know cattle look funny enough, but they’ll stomp your guts into the ground if you don’t got your eyes and ears on. You keep practicing on that dummy I welded for you, and we’ll think about it for next season.”
She tilts her head back and lets out the kind of exasperated sigh only an 11-year-old can pull off.
Her father pushes his hat back and grins, wrinkles forking across the laugh-lines in his weathered face.
She can still remember that grin. Papa had a shit-eating grin for days.
She can still remember Mama singing in the kitchen.
She can still remember…
…how easy it is to lose concentration as the rogue Fallen Captain’s blade descends in a sweeping arc towards her midsection, as she pivots just in time to avoid worse than a nick on the arm. Small a wound though it may be, her arm threatens to go limp as a jolt of arc energy jumps through the contact point.
Being surprised on a routine sweep for spare parts (and hopefully, a forgotten cache) hadn’t helped. Some “day off” this is turning out to be.
Amanda shrugs the weakened shoulder, twists her body to boost the momentum of her shotgun, whipping it under her arm and into her hands.
She sidesteps and fires low as the Captain swings his second blade down, rewarded with a blast of cartilage and blood-spattered armor that sends him down to one knee. He roars something in Eliksni – Amanda assumes a curse or swear-word – as she turns, running for the Sparrow, shotgun slung back on her shoulder.
Most of the feeling has returned. Lucky.
She fires up the thruster, foot paused and hovering over the accelerator. The coiled rope snapped to the Sparrow’s saddlebags catches her eye.
She looks back.
The Captain limps her way, blood and fire in his eyes.
Her eyes narrow in return.
“Aw, hell with this.”
She accelerates only by half, leaning into the turn, sweeping the Captain wide as she reaches back and unsnaps the rope.
Doubting his freshly-reduced ability to dodge, the Captain sticks his blades in the earth before unslinging his own Fallen shotgun.
Amanda presses the Sparrow, closing the distance, swinging the rope once… twice… thrice…
The Captain stops in confusion and annoyance as the little human barrels right past him. Cowardice? He turns to draw once more on the Sparrow. Not likely. Stupidity, probably. Lack of tactical knowledge.
He feels good, despite the wounded leg joint. He will keep the Sparrow as loot.
He will feed the human female to the Dregs.
The pull of his finger on the trigger is interrupted by an insistent tugging at his heels.
The Captain looks down just in time to see the loop of a rope, standing impossibly on its side, his undamaged leg already within the trap.
He jumps to the side, frantically, just as she boosts the Sparrow and pulls her slack.
The memory of her father grins – his eyes black as deep space, his face obscured by shadow, his body in the lands of Death.
It’s called a ‘dally’, Amanda.
The Captain has enough time to scream out another Eliksni curse – this one tinted by fear. Amanda tightens the coil around the Sparrow’s front utility bar as she completes her sweep, aiming for the edge of the canyon.
She grabs her pack, jams the booster switch in place, and tumbles off – safely, if not gracefully.
She watches the Fallen Captain’s descent to the reddish hardpan dust, notes the little punctuation of an explosion.
The hot midday breeze moves small eddies of dust in between sparse patches of tall grass. She catches her breath.
No big loss, as far as the Sparrow’s concerned. Perks of being the Tower’s crack mechanic.
She can feel it rising within, and does nothing to stop it. Her laughter echoes across the canyon.
“Heh. Can’t wait to tell Cayde about this one.” He’ll think it’s funny. What’s more, he’ll be proud. He’ll actually get it.
Except… no. Wait.
She can’t tell Cayde.
Cayde’s gone. Cayde’s gone gone.
Her laughter becomes the ghost of a dead thing, vanishing into the shadows where it belongs.
Her hand reaches into her duster pocket, feels the stiff paper of the ticket. One Free Ramen. It will remain there, unredeemed.
She reaches into her other pocket and feels the cylindrical and heavy reassurance of the shotgun slug – the old one. It will remain there, unfired.
She lets out a sigh – the kind only a grownup can produce.
As Amanda begins the trek home, she thinks of Banshee. Banshee – a crafter and tradesperson, like her. An expert. Banshee, with his countless reincarnations. Banshee, with his neural backup deficiencies, his half-stories, his quiet exasperation at his own memory gaps and general forgetfulness.
The light of midday stretches thin, tumbling into blood-red painted haze. The sun has begun to sink on the western horizon, casting mountain shadows on the back of the Traveler. The breeze is losing its heat. She shifts her pack to the other shoulder, balancing out the weight of her mother’s shotgun.
Sometimes, Amanda wishes she had Banshee’s problem.
Thousands upon thousands of subatomic particles known as “neutrinos” just passed through your body.
You may have heard of the lab, deep beneath the head of the Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota, that’s dedicated to the study of these particles – and, in turn, to a small part of the fathomless, underlying mystery of the cosmos.
Like many observable quandaries in the realm of quantum mechanics, neutrinos are produced during an event of massive energy (notably, in this case, the sustained fusion reaction of our sun). Within our sun, the prime atomic building block of the universe – hydrogen – is constantly being fused with itself into helium.
This marriage gives birth to a chain reaction of cosmotic creation, such as the transfer of some of this matter into energy, and the building of new and heavier elements.
Now, as lovely as neutrinos are (for example, they exist in three separate states at the same time), it’s mainly the Sun’s massive release of energy we’re concerned with – especially when it comes to cooking.
I promise there’s a point to all this.
Think about the food chain. Consider it. Look at the hamburger, or the salad, or the chips on your plate right now. Imagine what had to transpire for this meal to even exist. Go beyond the supermarket. Beyond the farmer. Beyond the animal. Beyond the plant. Even beyond the soil, or the sea.
No matter what the species, no matter who or what you are – human, cow, bird, fish, tree, grass – it is a vastly complex, and yet ultimately simple picture.
Gravity and energy, and the state of the very fabric of spacetime after the birth of the universe itself, all conspire to, in turn, give birth to stars… which, one day, will die themselves. As all things must.
But in their lives, which span eons, the potential for the creation and sustenance of life itself is undeniably huge and powerful.
And beyond the mere act of this creation, we as humans had to experiment for many generations in order to elevate the basic necessities of fat, protein, salt, sugar, minerals and trace elements… into something divine.
Meat over an open flame is survival. Salt from the ocean, ground beads of peppercorn, and dried rosemary make it something more.
Consider as well the miracle of a bowl of non-poisonous plants, drizzled with oil pressed from tiny, pungent fruits and the leftovers of fermented grapes (itself a product of energy conversion).
There is a hint of something here – something beyond the realm of the observable.
A great mystery presents itself in cooking, in the willful and creative endeavor of harvesting various iterations of stored energy from our sun, in the heating and reducing and chemical experimentation and mastery that can generate a simple plate – one that can make almost anything alright. Better still, this is mastery anyone can attain.
On this “pale blue dot”, moving through the inconceivable vastness of space, how strange – and how wonderful – that something as simple as preparing a meal can hold within it the mysteries of the subatomic, the competition for the energy of a slowly dying star, the subliminal experience of taste, and the gifts & lessons of generosity… all at once.
Havoc sat next to Cordell on the edge of the high hill. The whisperings of a storm gathered in the distance; one that would miss them this far beyond the mountains. It was a dry season this far south on the plateau; only patches of trees thrived near groundwater in between the bromegrass and prickly pear and scattered chaparral. The stars and the arm of the galaxy were ripe and apparent.
Remy had hunched down a short distance off, building a fire and cursing to herself.
The dog broke the silence.
Cordell chewed on some leaves from his pouch as he checked his ammunition. “Yeah. Wearing these… these things,” he said, nudging his Rig, “hurts. Sometimes.”
“Woman not care pain.”
Cordell chuckled. “Seems like you know what’s up.”
Havoc cocked his head. “Up? No. Sense only.”
“Yeah, well…” Cordell rocked back and sat on the ground. “We just had to deal with a… you say ‘dark thing’? Not easy to… uh, understand. You follow?”
“Many of…” Havoc snorted “… many things not follow.”
“But you sense things better than me.”
Havoc glanced at Remy’s fire. “Anger. Old.”
Cordell plucked a blade of grass. “Might not be wrong about that.”
The wind moved in little eddies over the waves of the field.
“Human-Prime. You all worry. Anger. Why?”
Cordell looked at Havoc. “Huh?”
“Odd. Other dog, sometimes hurting, beaten, have bad. Many times. I see this. But human, bigger thinking. Build. Command. Rule. Try to sense…” he shook his head “…hard to. Take pain, carry around, carry on back. You. Her. Why?”
Cordell sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t have a good answer, boy.”
“You worry of before? Or later?”
“Maybe both? Jesus, I don’t know. Bigger thinking isn’t all it’s… isn’t good all the time, Havoc.”
“You worry death?”
Cordell’s gaze locked onto Havoc. Havoc continued staring at the distant storm, smelling the air.
“Not want to die. Same. But worse for you. Much why.”
Cordell sighed. “This is way too complicated… like… too much to explain. To tell. Too big… thinking? You follow?”
Havoc turned his head to meet Cordell’s. “Cordell, Human-Prime. Think. Me. I have… thing? Inside. Inside-rain? Wind… moving-on?”
Remy swore in triumph as the fire grew.
Cordell’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”
Havoc sighed and snorted. “Inside. Inside me. Not-touch. No dying.”
“Are you… what…” Cordell turned towards Havoc “…are you asking if you have a soul?”
“Not sure. I die.” Havoc cocked his head again. “Then what? Humans speak worry. Odd.”
Miles away, the low thunder rumbled on.
“Havoc… there’s… I don’t even know the answer to that. I’m sorry. Look… I…”
“OK. Not sure?”
“Well, no. Does it matter? I think… whatever the case…” Cordell looked back at the storm. “… you’re like me.”
Havoc’s tail started wagging. “Yes?”
“Humans are animals too. Remember that. Just… bigger thinking.”
Havoc grinned and panted. “Too big!”
“Ha! Pretty much.”
“Not worry then?”
“Shit. I wouldn’t.”
“OK good.” Havoc looked towards Remy’s fire. She watched now as the storm skirted the mountains. “Work to do. Die later.”
Squaring off with the Flayer, Remy brought up her guns as the creature shook itself, spitting bright green droplets of acid from its pores. It growled low, fuming and expanding its torso in and out, the sensory bulb where its eyes should be locked on to her position.
Carried by the breezes, sand and dust wafted between them.
The Flayer’s growl changed into a hacking, guttural staccato of unnatural noise as its stance shifted, subtly. Its maw opened in a flash of sizzling drool and rows of shifting razor-teeth that seemed to burn in the setting blood-red desert sun.
Remy didn’t need a translator to understand being marked for death.
She released the safeties and emptied both SMGs into the beast, moving forward, concentrating the fire on its upper body. Knowing the bullets wouldn’t make a dent in the Flayer’s exoskeleton, she was merely buying a few seconds in order to gain the upper hand.
The beast hissed defiantly, spraying weak acid in front of it as it stood to absorb the shock of 900 rounds per minute. The acid arced through the air in little streams, splashing on Remy’s forcefield harmlessly.
It was the much stronger acid, inside the thing’s… stomach(?) …that worried her.
Close enough to close in, she dropped her guns right as they spent their clips, gathering forward momentum, hands dipping for the hip-sling that held her wakizashi & tomahawk.
The Flayer had other plans, it seemed.
Forcing the side of its right appendage to split open, the beast disconnected some of its own tendons. Remy’s lip curled to the sound of organic twisting and cracking as the tendons emerged and snaked into the air, weaving together and then apart. It, too, was buying time- trying to find a weakness. If it wrapped one around her tight enough, exo-forcefield or not, it could pull her in and attempt a killing bite, flooding her insides with caustic juices.
The crimson sunset deepened as a coyote’s howl pierced the desert gloaming.
A stuttering snarl escaped the Flayer’s seething maw as the tendons launched out towards her approach, splitting in disparate directions, searching for a hold.
Swiftly, abandoning caution, Remy exposed herself fully to the front, shifting all energy to her feet in a wave of centrifugal propulsion, bursting forward in a rising spin, using the momentum to help her draw her axe. Dust and rock kicked and spun out behind and to the sides in puffs of red.
Its prey having closed in much too quickly for the tendons to be effective, the Flayer shot its head forward to bite, bracing its frame for the fight.
Its head came in to meet the end of Remy’s dance perfectly. The axehead cracked exoskeleton just to the side and rear on the neck, biting through into the strange flesh below as she concentrated all the Rig’s energy into her blades. She could feel the shock- and purpose directed at her -from the Flayer’s sensory bulb as it fought between the opposing objectives of pulling free and sinking its razor-teeth deep into its prey.
The fight paused for a moment. Just long enough.
Redirecting energy to her trailing foot, she slammed it into one of the creature’s lower appendages, throwing its balance forward.
Flowing the energy back to the blades, she pulled down hard with the axe, drawing her shortsword out and up in one fluid motion. Remy snarled in defiance as the blade pierced through the upper maw and straight inside the sensory bulb.
Her face came to within inches of the creature’s.
Its life brought to a sudden end, the Flayer stiffened in ancient reflex, falling backwards as Remy’s growl heightened to a piercing cry. She yanked the blades out to a spray of internal liquids, kicking her foe down violently as she did so. It smacked into the dust as the crown of the red sun descended below the distant mountaintops.
Remy stood over the body, watching the desert drink up green acid and dark purple fluid, wondering not for the first time what would happen if these things existed- or came through -in greater numbers.
Sensing eyes on her, she turned to see Cordell standing some distance off, his grip relaxing on his gunsword. He hadn’t figured on testing her patience again by butting in, but just in case…
Havoc came trotting up around a patch of scrub, back from running down a smaller scout-beast, and sat next to Cordell. His eyes darted from Remy to the body of the Flayer and back. Remy watched Cordell radio Hector’s backup perch, confirming a final sweep and cleanup.
Little eddies of dust moved between them in the coming dark, and in the last vestiges of clear light Cordell saw Remy silhouetted in burning crimson, her eyes afire from the kill, her body bathed in battle.
Never taking her eyes from Cordell, she distributed her energy evenly, shunting a light propulsive blast outwards in all directions, cleansing herself of acid and blood in a hellish mist that caught the long and final rays of the setting sun.
Cordell nodded, he and Havoc turning to walk the distance back to the truck.
Night came on quietly, slowly turning to a moonish twilight as Remy followed them. She stopped only to mark another small notch near the base of her axe handle.
when driving with old music under slated smoke against the brushstroked horizon fading along mountains to the west as the sun-heat of the high desert reflecting off the scent of sagebrush gives way to a chill mist collecting on burnished sandstone and granite with small patches of veridian moss and lichen in the wild geometry of a late afternoon as amber light stretches out into a blanket under which nothing can harm us
(not even the future not even the past
[this is a good place to stop and get out the cameras] ),
our gaze sweeps the scattered domains of the earth, of the coyote and the elk and a railroad track not used in years;
soon, we will start thinking of good food and something cool to drink.