CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Light Carried on Air Moves Less
Joanna Howard



In a lavender twilight, on the west side of an abandoned pasture gone to hay in the greenest part of our state, a mendicant, a scarved pale beauty with silver bell earrings, curled to sleep on kinked metal filings on the floor of a windowless farm shed gone to rot. In the center of that plain, where parched pasture grass muled, low and reedy, and sucked the humid thickness from the air til it was pinched and light and porous, a loose-ended portion of train track sat on its chalky rock pile, plank ribbed, veined with dark steel rails. This night, as on every night for a very long time, with no pink left in the sky, a knobby russet handcar ratcheted its way across the excerpt of track, up the length, back and up again, with imperceptibly audible chirps, its pilot a thin, lit specter almost entirely in bed dress. This specter was only slightly opaque in the darkness and so narrow that his striped muffler was wrapped around his neck several times, so that the thick, frazzled mound of it seemed to balance his white wisped head and hold it upright. He cranked the handle of the Irish mail handcar and his motion was so slow not even the nightshirt’s misty tails wafted behind him and he slumped weakly from ennui. That night, he was not seen by the wandering beauty who was too sleepy to notice his glowing plod, and who, instead, bundled herself into her scarves and slept, a gauzy crinkled lump of blues and pinks, faintly heaving and tinkling from within.

      The beauty slept through the morning, and woke up musky in her ball of sweat-soaked scarves and brushed away light metal curls. On bare and filthy soles, she walked into the pasture, a prismatic windblown form, not unlike a specter of a more colorful variety, one which might not normally occur to us, and in the pasture she saw the handcar and examined it, spoked and rusted and mammoth, like some great, weathered clockworks. Clung to the handcar ratchet, the specter, with knobbed knee caps, examined the pale beauty whose scarves glinted with metallic threads and who smelled somewhat fermented to someone who had smelled only the ground-up rust-mist of the creaking ratchet tines for a long time, or at least she smelled entirely unlike the specter, who smelled to himself like not really anything. And there was the sound of her earrings, battered and tangled in waving, greasy hair mats, clicking arhythmically, which filled the specter with a sense of renewed purpose. When she rounded the left-most rear wheel, and drug a gritty nail over a rusted spoke, he pouted dramatically, but imperceptibly, not luminous in the sunlight, not even as much as reflective.

      The beauty stared beyond him, a long way even on a plain as flat as this was, and for the first time noticed the wind gale and, unfettered, unassuming, pledged her love and faithfulness to the wind in a loud, lispy wail, which the specter of course confused as a direct address. He did his best to imitate his idea of a ghosty sob, which sounded more like an allergic sniff, the faint pop of which had no effect on the beauty who instead wandered beyond the handcar and deeper into the pasture.

      In addition to a rotting, but well-roofed, farm shed, the abandoned pasture had a gray and flaky farmhouse with no roof at all and one side missing, gone entirely from sight, like a cutaway dollhouse. Overtaken by melon-blossomed trumpet vine and long spindly shoots of rose of Sharon, the three remaining walls of that open parlor left deep gray shadows in the declining sun, and the vines curled under and around the legs and arms of a mossy settee and bound it in place against the western wall.

      Inevitably, when the afternoon had gotten as hot as it could get in even this green part of our state, the impoverished beauty wandered out of the pasture and left the specter to sulk, fingering his woolly muffler fringe, until sundown. The beauty stepped onto the foundation of the farmhouse and turned back to face the wind which entered and eddied in the tableau parlor and she looked out at the pasture reverent with bent pasture grass and a hardly notable handcar.

      The pale beauty felt a burble in her stomach and ran a palm down her belly which was round only with scarves. She turned to the western wall and picked through a curtain of trumpet vine to a hallway and into a remnant of kitchen. In the kitchen she found a pantry filled with shelves of wax-sealed canning jars filled with fig paste, bonneted in minty gingham and darkly iridescent, purply-green through their glass walls. Shoveling with crooked fingers, the pale beauty packed her cheeks and jaw with sticky fig paste, smacked, and gnashed for all she was worth.

      On the floor of the pantry, in a moist corner shaded by canning shelves, a swollen, yellowed tome, Pauline’s Life of a Madam, lay molding and untouched. The beauty hefted it, still holding her fig paste jar and flipped open its cover. Inside, in large block print for the seeing impaired, were stories of fancy women, cabaret girls, saloon floozies and peepshow demoiselles, all tawdry and fecund, and richly illustrated with tri-color drawings, black outlined bosomy scanty-clads, yellow and pink and pale blue in pantaloons, loose-laced corsets, feathery merry-widows, all of them spilling forth, pouring forth, top-heavy in sketched-up decollétage.

      The pale beauty lugged the book into her elbow crook, made her way down the hall to her windy, terraced parlor and collapsed on the vined settee, swirling with the tiny red specks of spider mites. She lapped fig and read out loud to the wind, till she wasn’t conscious of doing either, and fell asleep with the last steaks of pink still hanging, determined, above her western wall.

      In the pasture, now glowing hazily, the specter bent to his handcar handle, sniffed into his muffler, and eaked up the track with lax shirttails, somewhat jilted, and tried to work up a friction between ghosty tongue and ghosty teeth. He could sense nothing happening.

      The morning sun spot-lit the beauty’s sleeping stage and she stretched out scarf-silken wing-crepe, lamé specked and sparkling and smiled to the wind, which this day was absent, everything still as the rustbound handcar and not prairielike in its usual way. With no wind to speak of, she slumped on the open side of her parlor, dangled feet off the floor’s edge and licked at fig-sweet fingers. The specter, though he was a great distance away, was used to peeking through dark space and so squinted and strained to watch the beauty who seemed as bright as a coupling of fairies, which the specter didn’t believe in with good reason.

      She soon dragged her book onto her lap and read into the afternoon, waiting for the wind, which did not so much as waft, leaving her earrings dull and silent.

      She waited what seemed to her a very long time. She stood, outstretched scarf-looped arms, wished for some moment of flapping, some metaled whistle in her ears and she examined herself and thought of the book, open now to a drawing of a pinky can-can girl, petticoats heaped at her ankles, striped stockings strung loose from garters and for a moment, she thought she had something figured out.

      In the hallway closet, whose floor was split through with juniper shrub, the beauty found the tattered remains of a tapestry sewing box which she hauled out of prickly branches. The box was filled with ribbings and edgings, snarled yarn balls and half-pieced quilt swatches, a large portion of unraveling coffee-table doily. With only the top-most layer of scarves, she darned and lashed together the roughest equivalent of a century old chemise in navy and rose, edged in loose strung doily scallops. She finished as the sun was just descending, and folded the tiny creation into a small square and tucked it into the sewing box and buried it in vines under the settee.

      The specter, as he prepared for his motion up the tracks, concentrated his attention on the drowsy eyes of the beauty reclined on her couch of vines, and tried to glow more than at any other time in his afterlife, and thought, for a moment, that he was the most phosphorescent, the most luminous. Maybe he was faintly more brilliant for all his desire, but light carried on air moves less on windless nights, and to anyone watching he might have seemed more dim than ever before.

      When the sun rose the next morning behind the specter’s dissipating spine, the beauty unfurled her scarved arms, poked bare toe tips beyond the fluttery points of loose scarf garb, laggard, stretched spiny shins, and unbent sleep-stoved knees. She stood at the edge of her parlor, cupped filthy fingers over eyebrows, and stared into the still pasture, beyond the unmoving, unvascilate pasture grass, well beyond the unnotable Irish mail with its insubstantial, passion-sick wraith, almost as though she could see all the way to the point where the wind began, when it began, which it had not this day. And in the still watchfulness of the pasture, the watchfulness of a perpetually insomniac specter, she asked for the wind. With the stamping of tiny, leather-bottomed feet she began to cast off scarves, jerked with tight pinched fingers, in long ribbony banners of lavender blue, fuscia, blood blue, midnight blue, robin’s egg, carmine, sangria, black blue, mauve until she stood a pale knobby creature, more like a specter than anything else, in fact like nothing else in the world other than a specter, or so thought our slope-backed handcar captive who became so short of soundless breath that he clawed at his muffler coil till his transparent throat windowed with sunlight.

      In a moment she was hunched down, fishing and cloying in the settee vines, and she dragged out the tapestried sew kit where, carefully stowed inside, was the handcraft from the previous afternoon which she slipped loosely into and which hooped dust-marked thighs, and swayed with dripping doily tatter. On the floor, she pressed back the stiff cover pieces of Pauline’s Life of a Madam and posed in a way that was just similar enough to the bawdy line-drawing to suggest a deliberate imitation, hands on wide-spread knees, upturned east-facing tailbone, an attempted over-the-shoulder glance of provocative understanding, tongue unfurled, winking. She held this posture for several minutes with yogic determination. Then, returned to the book, flipped a stiff warped page, and repositioned, foot propped on settee, left hand on waist-hip curve, right arm stretched out, a curling index finger to the east. She continued this stilted, peepshow dance, turned pages, each posture increasing in lewdness and awkward displays of fleeting equilibrium, and she waited for the wind which did not so much as puff up the corners of discarded, earthbound scarves.

      Through all this, the specter watched, and with each new posture, felt a level of death that he was sure marked the most dead moment of his afterlife, and he sensed an unhealthy vibration about his transparent parameters and wondered if it was possible for a ghost to combust to light and ash from sheer will, just for the sake of being finally seen.

      The afternoon waned to a thin coral haze, a bank of unmoving clouds and the production continued, squats, kicks, splay-legged pliés, an unsuccessful full-tilt back-bend, and all of it, sans wind, until the deep lavender precursor to haunting was in its last moments and the specter felt he was coming, decidedly, to the end of some damn thing. The beauty, however, did not collapse on her bed of vines, but rather, increased her range of motion and rapidity of postures, so enraptured in her performance that she failed to note the eerie pathetic aura of the handcar, and its slight, strained first lurch.

      Though she grew dim on her darkened parlor stage, it did not discourage the specter’s desire but made it all the more unbearable, and he thought for a moment that this could only go on, and it could go on, for days or weeks in a drought of wind indifferent to the wishes of beggars or ghosts. And with this thought and a palpable sense of dread which he could only describe as lumpy and earthlike he began to pump all the harder on his handcar crank crunching up the rails and back with an increasing but unnoticed cacophony until not only his shirttails were flapping behind him but a sparkling eddy of air and motion swirled out around him.

      The motion built to an elaborate fantastical cyclonic whirl which picked up the ensemble of scarves in a swirling, brilliant funnel, which flattened and severed soft unsuspecting pasture grasses, and which picked up the hair of the pale beauty, tore away the garish and delicate chemise and in a last fitful tug, scooped up the long white body whose momentary rapture was focused on the pale vibrant earthly manifestation of a wind so powerful it could move rust-bound handcars on weed-lashed tracks, so powerful it could make a storm of scarves obscuring the moon, powerful enough to grant the wishes of pale hungry girls.

      In the wind-spun eye of the handcar storm, for the specter there was only this: the thin clicked chime of ever ascending silver baubles, and a motion so heavy and constant it was like sitting still.