CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|How We Got into This
My house was the color of silence and dust. Bright things tried to come out in it but they were usually absorbed back into the carpet. The carpet covered the floors and the walls and later my father even decided to glue carpet to the ceiling. He liked the way a good thick carpet could suffocate sounds before they breathed. So he carpeted all the windowsills and stuffed wet rags underneath the doors. Outside, the crows scratched their talons on the gutters and squirrels barked in the trees.
My parents communicated their important messages through the heating ducts. The heating ducts twisted all through the house. They breathed hot whispers into all the rooms. I could put my ear up to the mouth of a duct where it opened in the crack between the wall and my bed, and that way I could listen to my parents. Their voices came through echoed in metal and bent by the heat of the gas. The only parts that made any sense were the parts about the war. I already knew about the war, because I’d learned about it on television.
On television I’d learned that the great nations of the world were building powerful weapons that would keep the world from being destroyed by the powerful weapons they were building, and that after the destruction a cloud would settle over the earth for the next twenty years, everything would be frozen and dark, people would lose all their hair, their skin would melt, and the survivors would live in shelters underground. There wouldn’t be any survivors unless you were already underground, or at the bottom of the sea or high in the air, because the flash of light would take away your body and leave nothing but bones. Or not even bones, only shadows. Hair would fall to the ground in clumps and animals would sprout extra heads and the cities of the world would be blown apart until there was nothing but rubble.
Our teachers never talked about the war. They taught us how to make mannequins. We learned how to paint our own faces on the faces of the mannequins, and how to use the mannequin’s head instead of our own head. Our teachers wore skirts that came over their stomachs and their blouses puffed in colors of winds and their hairstyles required whole teams of birds to hover above them and hold them in place. All we ever wanted was to get let out early for lunch, so we threw up our hands and sat with our backs straightened, we organized our pencils on our desks, and practiced keeping our letters between the lines, not letting them slip under or bulge over, and we pledged allegiance to the nation with our hands on our hearts.
One day, though, Ms. Thompson fell down, and then Ms. Andrews went blind. No one told us why this had happened. We thought it was probably our fault.
The forest started in Steven’s backyard. His house was at the bottom of a hill, at the end of a dead-end street, but actually the forest kept going down, it went down in gullies and mossy ravines, and sprouted mushrooms and clogged itself up with bushes and gave birth to spittle bugs clinging to the leaves. We thought that forest might never stop. Eventually we found out that if you kept going down all the way to the bottom there was a place where the freeway passed over, but we didn’t know that yet. So we foraged through the forest for insects, we trapped them in glass jars and brought them up to Steven’s basement, where we poked holes in the tops of the jars and studied the bugs through magnifying glasses. We knew that insects would survive the war, so we wanted to learn how to be more like them.
When I got home, my father was usually sitting in the kitchen with metal shavings in his hair. For work he drilled holes in things and then put things through the holes. His head got stuck in the machines he worked with and there wasn’t much left of him when he was done. He was a kind of mysterious emptiness and gentleness as he sat at the kitchen counter and filled himself up with peanuts and beer. Of course that wasn’t true at all. There were all kinds of things inside my father. I knew, because I’d dreamed of them.
In one dream, my father was trying to pull a lever. He wrapped both hands around it and leaned his whole weight back against it and pulled.
But he must have pulled too hard or not hard enough because one night we found him in the middle of the kitchen with a big gash in his head. A trickle of blood came from one of his ears and his eyes seemed loose in their sockets. When he came home from the hospital my mother explained that he’d had a reaction. She sat me down in a chair, put her hands on my knees, and said, Your father has had a reaction.
My mother knew about reactions. She worked with special children who had reactions all the time. One of them had been struck by lightning and another had bit off his tongue.
My father spent some time at home after that. Mostly he sat at the kitchen counter and stared out the window at the neighbors.
Our neighbors had decided to keep something awful in their house. From our kitchen we could hear the noises, like the thing was struggling in a flooded basement or thrashing around in the mud. Then glasses would shatter and voices would roar and I’d see Nick sneak out the back, he’d slip through the hole in the fence with some kind of package tucked under his arm, then he’d weave up through the woods and disappear.
Later at night, lying in my bed long after dark, when the wind had made its caterpillar nests in the trees, I heard a crackling of branches, and I knew it was Nick coming back to his house, he snuck in through the garage and crept down the stairs and then I could hear that unhappy thrashing coming from the space between the wall and my bed. Our basements must have been connected by some kind of underground tunnel. Water sloshed from one to the other whenever a toilet was flushed. I pulled my bed away from the wall and put my ear right up to the vent and I thought I could hear the breathing of the thing, and the thick wet slap of its skin on the floor when it turned its heavy body over.
Then our school was shut down. In the middle of class we were sent home. My mother told me that mushrooms had grown inside the walls and they could also spread down your throat. So we stayed home for a week while our new school was built.
The new school was exactly the same as the old one. Only the teachers were different.
The most different of all the new teachers was Mr. Yu, who was our teacher. On the first day of Mr. Yu’s class he crowded us all into his van and drove us down to the swamp. He gave us shovels and told us to dig in the mud. He said that the mud had swallowed many things and that it was our job to find them. Mr. Yu had a high-pitched laugh that made tight wrinkles in his nose, and he liked to add that laugh to almost everything he said. He said that the swamp was once a lake and turtles as big as cars used to lie on its banks and once when he’d dug very far down he’d found a sturgeon the size of a submarine. Was it dead? said Steven, but Mr. Yu said no, it wasn’t quite dead, nothing was ever really dead, or everything already was, it was hard to tell. So it was sleeping? said Steven, and Mr. Yu laughed and wrinkled his nose and said yes it was sleeping.
What We Found
two rusted cans
the skull of a deer
the talking part of a telephone
what might have been an arrowhead
or just a rock
a dead rat
Meanwhile Steven and I were making our way farther back into the forest. We were trudging down into gullies we hadn’t uncovered, gulches carved out by streams that trickled over roots and slippery rocks, and from the high branches of trees we looked out over the forest and saw the parts we hadn’t explored, even farther down, where the forest grew thicker and wetter with ferns, where the streams started weaving into one another and the ravines funneled into one big canyon with steep, dripping dark walls, with a fast cold creek running down it, and we hopped along rocks on the banks of the creek and stopped to look into pools, to capture frogs and stash them in our pockets, until one day when it was getting dark and we’d gone down farther than ever we heard a roar, we thought it might be a still bigger river, and so we went on just a little farther and discovered a river of cars.
A man named Pete lived under that river in a shack made of scrap wood and metal. He took us down to the burnt forest where the ground was flat and the color of rust and the trees were like scorched ghosts. That was where Pete laid the graves. He had buried people in the roots of the trees and nailed hubcaps to the trunks. The hubcaps looked like mirrors, like round metal mirrors in rooms without walls in a house that went on forever. Did you kill all the people yourself? said Steven, but Pete said no, they’d killed themselves, they’d jumped from the bridge that went over the forest and landed by the creek with a thump. He always dug a few extra graves, he said, for the people who hadn’t yet jumped. The graves were threaded with roots running through them and each of the roots bore white wounds where Pete had nicked them with his shovel.
My uncle was sitting at the kitchen counter when I got home from the shack. His glasses were so big and thick that he had to keep them from falling down with pieces of string tied to his hat. He wore this little wool hat that made his hair shoot out at the sides and a dark blue shirt that was torn at the elbow. My mother told me that an earlier war had got stuck in his head and now he spent most of his time writing letters to the government. She was always nice and offered him nuts but I knew she was annoyed. He arrived unannounced and talked on and on about radio waves that entered your brain and tape recorders inside the telephone, until my father came home and kissed my mother and hurried him out to the garage.
Then came the storm, which started in the chimney of our house. At first there were just a few shreds of breath, but soon they kindled and caught fire, they snapped and bristled and hissed, and then they shot up and roared out the top and spread their winds through the trees. The spines of the trees shook and their branches twitched with so much fury that some of them snapped and sailed through the sky and landed on the roof of our house. My mother rustled me up from my bed and told me to come downstairs. We huddled in the living room under the blankets and listened to the breath of the invisible animal that had opened its lungs to the sky. The ground groaned, the roots of things trembled. Bullets of rain lashed the windows and flash floods rushed through the gutters. Something cracked and the floor shifted and my father had to crawl under the porch and hold the whole house on his back. I went in to give him coffee, I crouched there with him for a while, watching the veins in his temples and neck. The storm up above tore at the trees and rattled the windows in their wooden frames while my father knelt with the house on his back and his face held tight like a knuckle.
The next trip we took with Mr. Yu was to the mall. We walked through the high bright halls with the sun shining down through the domed skylights and perfumes wafting from the shops. Mr. Yu took us past all the shops and then led us up the narrow set of stairs that climbed behind the big clock. We went through a little white door and walked down a dim gray hall and we turned left and right and right and left and climbed another set of stairs. Then Mr. Yu went through another door and led us into the museum.
The Museum of Masks
It was a Museum of Masks. The masks were made of thick painted wood. Their mouths and eyes were wide open and they looked ready to scream or eat or laugh, they were laughing and eating animal masks with huge flaring nostrils and teeth, they rushed forward from their places on the walls and stuck their tongues out at us and some of them even had other animals hidden inside their mouths, there was an antelope inside a whale and a beaver in the gullet of a salmon and there were human masks too, huge painted faces with mountains for brows and noses shaped like beaks, bears and foxes coming out of their mouths and those mouths were laughing at us too, all the masks sprang from the walls and jigged and danced and laughed.
Mr. Yu’s Instructions
We had to look each mask right in the eye and laugh.
In my dream that night I opened the vent and crawled through the duct to Nick’s basement. The sturgeon was there, its white webbed fins splayed over the floor and its scales flaking off in places. Its eyes bulged like huge wet globes grown too big for its head. A gray-green glow came from inside it but otherwise the basement was dark. I heard a door open and saw Nick come in and flip open a briefcase and pull out a syringe filled with some kind of liquid. He stuck the needle into the head of the sturgeon and pushed the plunger all the way in and then he sank back against the wall and waited. When its eyes began to close his did too. The gills of the sturgeon opened and closed and Nick’s chest rose and fell as water streamed down the stained walls and pooled around our ankles.
Then I saw him one afternoon, riding his skateboard in front of our house, swooping around like some kind of bird with the wind always under his wings. He pushed through his turns and kept up his speed and even with his hands stuffed in his pockets he never lost his balance. Turn after turn he zoomed in his circles and carved the street into tight figure eights until his mother came out onto the porch and tried to call him in for dinner. Then he shot straight down the hill and disappeared.
Steven and I started following him. We waited up in my room and when we saw Nick come out of his house we ran downstairs and out the back door and up the bank to the woods. We followed him through the hole in the fence and then we ducked behind some bushes. He sat on a log and started pulling things from his pockets, he wore the kind of pants with the big pockets on the sides, and he pulled out a knife, a box of matches, a roll of twine and some tweezers, a little skull tied to a string and a small leather pouch, a compass, a pocket mirror, dice. He laid these things in a line on the log like he was writing out a sentence. Steven and I studied them and we studied Nick next to them and then we made a decision. If we were going to live through the war, we’d have to be more like him.
So we snuck through the hole he snuck through and collected things like the ones he collected and carried them around in our pockets.
Then my father came home one night and buckled me into the front seat of the car and told me we were going on a trip. We raced between rows of billboards and rows of identical trees and the rain thwacked against the windshield. We drove all night and my father’s face was quiet. The lights in the rain showed holes in his eyes and there were pits in his skin and places where things were missing. Once we hit a puddle and slid and the cars around us blasted their horns and a bad word slipped from my father’s mouth like a thin jet of hot steam.
After that trip my father moved out to the garage. He bolted his hands to the sides of his head and stared at the blueprints he’d spread on his bench. He spent all night at the bench drawing blue lines and erasing them, making mountains on the drawings with his brows. The thing he was drawing looked like a spine, a tall metal spine crossed by long metal arms with loops and straps and buckles.
The next thing we did with Mr. Yu was watch a film about creatures living in the deepest parts of the ocean. We saw shrimp without eyes and others with eyes on the ends of long tentacles. We saw giant crabs and fish you could see straight through. There were poisonous jellyfish that digested their food outside their bodies, starfish with stomachs inside their arms, and octopi that squeezed their entire bodies into the tiniest crevices. Mr. Yu wanted to teach us that there weren’t any limits to what things could be. That was the idea of evolution, he said. He even told us about a special kind of jellyfish that never died. If you stab it enough, he said, all of its cells will just go to sleep, and then after a while they’ll wake up, and the same thing can happen again and again. So you keep it from dying by stabbing it? said Steven, and Mr. Yu laughed with his chin in the air and said yes, you keep it from dying by stabbing it.
In my dream that night Nick went down to the basement and sat with his back against the wall. He opened his briefcase and brought out a knife and got up and went to the sturgeon, with a quick series of stabs and slashes he cut a pattern on its side, a complicated web of fine white lines, and then the sturgeon’s eyes flashed open and its fins twitched and its whole body thrashed with such purposeful wrath that the walls cracked and the floor shook and the ceiling began to crumble.
Then I didn’t see him for a while.
I saw him once in the woods, lying on a log and staring up through the branches, his long white arms dangling down at his sides like the tentacles of a dead squid.
Then he disappeared again.
I thought I heard my parents whispering his name through the heating ducts, I put my head down by the vent and listened late at night, and even sat by their door when they were in bed, but their words were hushed and cut off at their ends and suffocated by the thick carpet.
I went to see Pete. I went down through the forest and found him sitting on the porch of his shack with two stacks of hubcaps at his side. He was picking them up from one stack and wiping them down with a greased rag and then putting them down on the other stack. I told him I was looking for Nick and was wondering if Pete had seen him. I started giving my description of Nick but Pete stood up after just a few words and took me down to the burnt forest and pointed to one of the graves. That’s him, he said. I looked down at the grave. Is he dead? I said. Pete nodded and said he was, but then he said that sometimes the people who jumped from the bridge wound up wandering past the burnt forest, they took the trail up beyond the graves to the gasworks hidden in the pines. He pointed a finger up the hill, where the trees thinned out and the ground looked red and stacks of rocks marked a path. That way, he said.
So Steven and I prepared for a trip. I brought a compass, a pocket knife, and some string, and Steven brought his flashlight and matches. We marched down past Pete and waved to him along the way, we went under the freeway and through the burnt forest and wove between all the graves, and then we followed the little stacks of rocks as the ground began to rise. The trees glowed brighter and the sun shot down through the pine forest in thick and dry dusty shafts, and as we trudged up we heard the squirrels scuttle along the high branches and the crows caw from their hidden perches and somewhere further into the forest a chainsaw chewed through the trees.
The gasworks grew up from the ground like a body without any skin. There were huge rusted pipes that twisted together and connected to other tubes, there were arteries and organs and veins. Everywhere inside and around and up at the top of that big snarled system there were hammocks fattened with the weight of sleeping people and swaying like pods in the wind. Kids down below squatted on the ground and poked whittled sticks into fires. Others were running through the tubes, they popped their heads out and saw us and ducked away, they tiptoed and darted around, and their shouts and cries echoed through the pipes like voices lost from their mouths. I went up to one of the hammocks and looked down at the person inside. He had his eyes closed and his hands folded behind his head and when I asked about Nick his eyes shot open and he blinked at me a few times. If Nick’s up here he’s probably not interested in being Nick, he said. We don’t put much stock in names. If you’re looking for names, try going up to the radio tower. There might still be a few names up there. He pointed to a hill where a radio tower rose above the tops of the trees.
The slope was steep and slick with scree and we clawed for a grip with our hands. The trees got smaller and farther apart and then there were no trees at all. We scrambled and slid back and our legs burned and our lungs struggled and our shirts stuck to our backs. Finally the slope smoothed out and breathless we shambled the last stretches and slipped through a slit in an old wire fence and lifted our throbbing heads.
The Radio Tower
But there was nothing much at the top. Only the tower itself staring up at the sky with its blind strivings of metal. And big black birds with lusterless feathers hulked on the dull rusted rungs.
My father was out in the garage when I got back. The metal spine he’d made from his blueprints lay flat on the ground with a bicycle attached on top. He was pumping his legs and huffing his breath and the garage was hot with his smell.
A few days later the house next door went up for sale.
How We Got into This Hole
So Steven and I went down to the forest and started digging a hole. We found a tree that had fallen in the storm and in the cavern made by its torn-up roots we dug into the soil. We carved storage spaces into the walls and stocked them with cans of food, we hollowed out alcoves for lanterns and brought down sticks for whittling and dice for throwing and jars for the insects we caught. We thought we might grow shells on our backs and burrow like beetles under the ground and feed on roots and bugs and bark, and we would learn to digest our food outside our stomachs and squeeze ourselves into the tiniest crevices and if somehow the war still got inside us, if the flash of light made our hair fall out or started melting our skin, we’d stab each other again and again.
Michael Holt has published work in The Threepenny Review and Fence. He lives in San Francisco.