Originally published in Vol. 2, Issue # 2 of Bird’s Thumb
She came here a few days ago from somewhere east, maybe from Nesquehoning, out of the glow of the coast months before that, walking or hitching along Route 54 until the lights faded and the treelines went mad. She had no other possessions but her memories, curdling as they followed her. The nights here are as dark as she’s ever known and the only people she sees are in cars driving past. The grass is different, too—thin and sweaty and smoky. The devil’s combover, she thinks, if the devil were bald and vain enough to try and hide it.
The last trucker that picked her up warned her about getting lost in the wild.
“Keep west,” he said. “Don’t turn up on 61, whatever you do. Anywhere near Catawissa. Make a u-ey if you see it. You listening, missy?”
She just looked at him. When he spoke his teeth jutted through his lips like heirloom corn.
“Fire burning there for fifty years, maybe longer, all of it underground. Can you believe that?” He chewed on something. “Monoxide’s gettin’ worse every day. You get up there late you won’t see morning.”
He let her sleep in the cab that night but sometime in the dawn after he pulled over for a spell she slipped out. She had woken to him staring at her, leering in a hateful way with the purple morning light bent over one side of his face, leaving the other pale as a shucked oyster. She’d seen that look before, in him and in others.
She headed down the shoulder a ways and then followed 61 as it snaked north. Right before the hill crested she turned and walked backwards, heels first, looking south to watch the candy red truck shrink into nothing. The trucker was looking for her, still chewing. She flipped him two middle fingers and turned round again, marching proudly towards this supposed hell of his. She realized then that she would go to death itself to defy him and any like him, those who had been tasked with the keeping of the world but were just fine with its ruin.
The pavement was cracked at some point just a half-mile beyond, with dirt and gnarled brush bursting out its middle. The rupture had a sort of conceit to it, like a pride, reveling in the wicked shapes it’d left in the passage of violence. She knew thinking the hole thought such things said more about her than it but she didn’t know what. She was two months away from her sixteenth birthday. She kept walking.
She’s been here two days now. The roads are silent and torn with huge swells and smoke comes up from the empty spaces like whatever’s beneath is furious she’d dare come here. Down inside the swells it’s just black. On the main thoroughfare folks have written farewell messages in pastel chalk that run the full length into town. A different hand has come along to fill the spaces in-between with spray-paint phalluses, some monstrous and twirling, some spitting their juice out onto the goodbyes. Grass will take it all in another decade. Maybe less.
When the sun goes down she settles in a gas station mart, eating adobo powder and canned pork roll and whitebread and drinking the last of the blue syrup out of the shake machine. She watches the moon steer its bleached light onto the steam wafting up near the pumps. Sleep comes next, then dawn. Between the two she dreams many dreams and forgets them all save one, wherein on the morning of a June sabbath as the world beyond the windows sulks and broods her father holds her under a tub of scalding bathwater to purge the devil from her. Mother stands idly by, troubled, watching them convulse and hearing the low screams and wringing her hands together like pale washrags.
When she awakes she lays still for a while, eyes on the glass of the storefront. The sunrise has tried to break through the thick coat of grime on the windows all morning but it just can’t do it. All it manages is a dirty glow.
On the third morning she goes out to feel the grass on her feet. It’s where she stands now, shoes in hand. The houses around her resemble the kind of hunched shoeboxes you’d find emptied of everything but their tissue paper and stuffed under an ungrateful child’s bed. She supposes she’s an ungrateful child, in some worlds.
She walks for a mile or more before she sees a standing gate. Time isn’t any more callous here, but it’s faster for sure. She inhales again. The air reeks of squealing tires and snuffed candles.
Past the downtown streets where the whole town seems broken in two she comes across a large hill that slopes up gentle into the trees beyond. She follows it through the smoking mud, her feet in the scree. The sun has lit the valley and from her new height she sees the various structures, the church and the auto shop and the small corner store and even the townhome rows, all white and slatted with bands of grime, poking up from the head of the smog like salt-rimed beacons. There’s no sound but the vague murmur of air. She screams with her tiny voice and as it bullets into the ugly mist she swears she can see it, the wave of her voice, riding across. It feels like home, this burning Shrangri-La. It feels like she’s returned to the exact place and moment of her birth.
She keeps walking. Knotted tendrils of ryegrass and crooked wildflowers start poking up out of the talus. In the open fields beyond a battlefield of derelict furniture forms a hedge around an empty rail yard. She follows it straight, letting her hands touch the couches and armchairs and hutches and stools, testing them as if inventory for a yard sale no one will ever browse.
At last the rails. The tracks are grubby and rusted, sunk deep in the ballast. The ties are dividing themselves into smaller and smaller parts, leaving only gray-brown shards.
She chases the rail a ways as it turns out of the woods and cuts behind a tall yellow house with silk flowers in its windows. The chimney resembles a crooked brick spine, the shudders colorless under a gradation of soot. Set out back of the house is an old man clinging to a rocking chair. He and the chair lean against the rail as one piece, flesh soldered to wood. She stops dead to watch him. She doesn’t know what to think of him or if he’s even alive until she sees him look up at the house. His face is the color of city snow. There’s a dignity there that’s not altogether sure of itself, the ruminations of a deposed tsar.
She decides dignity is dignity, whether divided or whole. She approaches him quietly and closer now she feels that he looks much like her father, twenty years on maybe, still debased by his turmoil, by his imprisonment to some event. It holds so stubbornly in time that the hurt it’s put on him is as stark as the day it first struck.
Closer now. The pink apnea mask pressed to his lips is clouded and disconnected on the hanging end. He clutches it while rocking gently on the chair’s one good side.
“Someone there?” he says. He stops rocking.
She moves into his view finally and his eyes catch her, however weakly. Faded milk weaves through the pupils.
“Gave me a start, girl.” He swallows and his toothless lips smack. “You’re the first person I seent in three years.”
Shadows of smoke pass over his face.
“There’s hell beneath us, ya know,” he says. “Coal seam fire. Lit up before the Great War. You wondering what it was?”
She shakes her head no.
“Alright,” he says. His laugh sounds born from prehistory. “No one wanted to believe it and then no one wanted to stay.” Lips smack again. “Just me here. I’m the king of this place.” He lifts his arms up to his elbows and nods at the tall yellow house. “Help me in, will ya?”
As he waits she stares at him, feeling her resolve melt away. She doesn’t much trust anyone older than herself or even younger for that matter but there’s a feeling now, a font of something imprecise but no doubt good, and though it’s been draining steadily over time it’s still full enough for this one final man, this last act, this right now.
They cross the tracks shoulder to shoulder and go up the naked cement stairs and through the front door. The house is narrow inside but uncomfortably so, with exposed studs bent inwards like malformed ribs, the drywall crumbing off the old nails. The darkwood shelves are skinned with dust and hold strange little porcelain figurines depicting Irish tinkers, most of them cracked but all of them smiling, washed in faded pastels. The rest of the woodwork doesn’t fare much better. Ashen light from the back entry casts everything in clay.
“The bed,” the old king says. “Upstairs.”
They go up to the tiny corner bedroom. Its windows are shuttered but the sun peeks through the long gaps to reveal the vapor as it smolders and curls. The girl sees a demon in the lattice of the rays, writhing, railing against some endless conjure. She suspects the old man can see it, too. It’s the surest she’s ever felt about anything so she doesn’t ask him. Doesn’t even shoot him a glance. No need to acknowledge the existence of anything that strong. She just waves a path through the smoke with her free hand and lays him down on the bed. His breath toils but he smiles.
She spends the rest of the evening downstairs eating almond butter off her fingers and watching the sun through the window. It hangs stubbornly at first, floating just above the horizon, skirting the colorless brume that churns there. But it does go, in due course, and by the darkness it’s left she’s convinced no attestation could prove that it still exists, not even her own two eyes. She lives by this thought in all things. She lived it before she knew it.
When it’s completely dark she goes upstairs again to check on the old king but his body is cold and his eyes are dark. The smoke covers him like a fur. She stares at him until early morning blush, whereupon she reaches out and takes the apnea mask from his dead hand. It comes to her rightfully, like a scepter passing to its heir. Now begins her reign.
Outside is the last dark before the sun, starless and black, the dim colors spreading at its edge. She finds her way through the blindness to the rocking chair. Far off to the east there’s a glow she thinks might be daybreak but it’s not. She waits as her eyes adjust. A tide of red, rippling light, furious at being born, molts through the darkness above her. It rolls up the sky higher and higher but just before it crests the moon it gets cast back, no longer sacralized but disgraced, falling along the shape of the hills and the earth where it was first begotten, falling and whirling, bleeding out its contagion in a spiral. Trees and brush are stripped and glowing like hot gunmetal and along the ridges of the horizon great gaping holes unhinge from the rock to belch their smelted flame and it’s all wonderful, hellishly wonderful, something she’ll watch through the coal-fog burning her eyes, through the overwhelming urge to blink, through the fear that the reverie will steal her to some netherous place and trap her there forever. She watches and watches.
Sunrise comes at last. The great fire pales before it. Dawn is two colors, the bleached pinks nearer to her, the yellows still far off. She puts the mask over her lips and lets its tube dangle over her arm. Her breathing sounds like a machine. The inside of the mask smells of rank dip and morning breath and old cupboard vinegar. She doesn’t care. She can still taste the fire and the taste is all that matters.
Just a day or two later the lone engine car of a freight train comes hissing into town, a GE U28B painted in Halloween colors. It chugs and clicks until finally grinding to a stop right where the railroad ties splinter off. A skinny engineer jumps off wearing a mask like an old phenate helmet.
He heads north to the yellow house with his hands in his back pockets. The shadows of the contrails race over the green ground before him.
When he comes to the house he sees the girl straightaway. Her body is pale gray tallow, deflated-like, robbed of its fullness. Her face is at peace. He heads inside to see if there’s anyone else but there’s not. No body, even. Just empty picture frames and a thick rotten cloud and the faces of the Irish tinker dolls, smiling even as the black dust lingers in their eyes.