A pink pyramid rises out of the flat ground, its faux granite facing of pressed shell ablaze with reflected sun. Pyre meaning fire or light, and mids, meaning measure. She understood the fire part, but measure? What did it measure? The lives of the workers?
She had helped attach the pressed shell, dragging it in thin sheets on her back. They told her the sheets would protect her—at least her back where she held them—the same way it would protect people who moved here after the shell was installed. What people? No one moved here, no one lives here now.
Pink dust lifts from the ground cover. She walks over its thin mesh, causing more pink dust to lift, walking closer than people are supposed to, without shields. In the distance, a few people lurk under lean-tos with souvenir pyramids inside half-globes of pink dust. At the border, the guards offering patches to show you how long you should stay are just cheap projections. Surveillance is understood. To some this lends a suggestiveness that they find sexy. It is hard to tell under the glare of the pyramid and the swirling pink, just who might be watching, who could watch. She takes another breath, takes in its pink sweetness, and waits for him.
It isn’t much of a vacation to go to where she worked so long ago but it is something she herself has made that she can see—and touch, if she dares. He doesn’t hesitate although they’ve only been together a few weeks. They met at the border where travelers wait for partners. He meets her now, cheerful, coming away from where you go to be silent, he walks right up to the south corner with her. This is the side where the facing collapsed and killed a worker. Nobody realized then how heavy the facings had become, piled one on top of the other like scales. After all, they were faux facings. They buried the worker inside it.
The worker’s mouth is pressed so tight against the facing they can see her lips, and from there she finds her hands too, crushed in the shifting dirt and slag that the pyramid conceals. Few would know where to find her, she tells him. The mouth just looks like another whorl of stone. They touch the hot shiny facing with their fingers, a gesture more anxious than memorial. He says nothing but he doesn’t go back to the gate to wait for someone else, the way some do after the usual oddness between people starts to come out.
She won’t live very much longer herself, she knows that because no one has, working here, but she wanted to see one more time what she’d done.
Glow is what they wait for. She unreels the transparent hose around the travel house and they wait until something comes up out of the ground to make it glow, so they can see at night, so they don’t have to be like some extinct animal and go right to sleep after the sun sets. But that is what they do, they are so tired from traveling. She leans into his arm draped over their inflated travel furniture, and falls asleep.
The glow arrives anyway. She wakes up in a space bright with what could be moonlight, except the moon is slim and dull. The hose, draped over the hooks around the room, is fully distended. Its pink light makes him look happy. But old. She is not that old but this kind of light bears down on every worn feature, every wind-blown pore, the lost hair. He has cropped his hair into a tuft, like the plants back home he says he cares for as a volunteer. She admires that style of his, spiky yet nostalgic for the natural, and smoothes the tuft into its place. He has fallen asleep with his hand in front of his face, hoping to see his hand in his dream as a way for his waking self to cross over. He is so much more interested in controlling his dreams than in being awake that they don’t even make love.
With the hose so bright in its place, she can only sense the pyramid in the window through the shape of the absent stars. She slept in the pyramid’s shadow all the time she worked on it, slept under the loose shell beside the plaques that were planted in the ground to explain how the pyramid came to rise out of this level land. The debris was brought from the north over many years until the pile rose so high no one could add to it without a mask to help them breathe. They gave up adding to the pyramid then, and began to shield it. Not from those who would take glowing souvenir handfuls—they welcomed them—but to keep the pyramid from crushing those souvenir-mongers, because it had become one of those forbidden, dangerous places that people like to visit to escape the crowds everywhere else, the crowds that kept you from breathing, so thick in the mornings you ended up pushed to the wrong place to work.
She remembers being happy working on the pyramid but now she thinks it might have been because of the pinkness of the pyramid itself which gave off well-being, the way the hose and the air does now. She and many of her fellow workers burrowed under the shells at night and watched the stars under the looming pinkness. They were never tired or cross. They were pink.
Your night isn’t usually this short, he says, sitting up. Why are you awake?
I’m hoping for more sleep, she says. But I can’t get the hose unscrewed from the socket.
He can’t either. Light will flood the room all night without the cut-off that neither of them can find. She reels in the hose but the light is brighter under the tension of the storage spool. I hate these old places, he says. No one knows how they work anymore.
We used to build fires at night when we were working. When we needed to get more finished and the hose took so long to glow.
I have never seen a fire, he says.
It’s not something you dream, she says. She tries pressing on the walls here and there but nothing opens, the seams resist her in her search for the cut-off. I am just doing this, if anyone asks, to make the house happy, she says. See, she says—they have it set for Happiness, all right. She points at the arrow.
Very funny, he says, but he can’t help smiling. He turns his face into his arm again. Wake me, he says. If you find fire.
Now she wants to. That would gift him good, just once at least, to see it. She begins to dig behind the house, through a hole someone’s heel has left in the ground cover, and then through another. He couldn’t know that she and the other workers had buried combustion containers here and there. They were made from the extinguishers sprayed constantly on the pyramid’s innards, and on each other. Refilled with the pyramid’s combustibles, they sold well off-site as fuel, heat, and light, always clandestine, for a good price. Once in a while, someone was caught smuggling them and then he was not extinguished, rough justice, but not so often that the practice didn’t flourish.
She used to bury the containers close to the surface, she used to just lay them in the ground and barely cover them over again so they would be easy to find. Squirreling they called it. Once someone dug deep and uncovered an unusually big one that no one remembered seeing, let alone burying. Instead of selling it, they ignited it themselves. How her eyes hurt after, the light was so bright. One of the workers lost his hand.
They called it an accident, so no one was not extinguished.
Probably the small containers are all found since the travel house was put in but the idea of fire, even for a few minutes before someone on heat report catches her, is worth the trouble. They have to pay for every hole they put in anyway—that’s what happened when you tore one open. Because nobody can walk anywhere without tearing through the ground cover, it was a good tax. Better than having to pay for stepping on insects.
The first container she finds is broken, slit down the middle, its thin sides caved flat. Maybe she broke it herself, digging so hard. The second one she takes out of the hole as if it is one of those expensive insects, and thrusts it under her shirt as soon as she gets the dirt off, the way they used to.
She doesn’t worry about fire exploding at her chest. She’d soon be dead anyway. She leans forward to shield the container between her breasts, so no one can see it, at least in silhouette. Women are better at this than men. The loss of the container’s weight from the earth will be known eventually by the sensors but not right away, not with sirens and the screeching of vehicles.
He is so involved with his dreams she is afraid if he sees the fire he will think he is dreaming. He does that with sex sometimes. He will be standing or sitting or lying beside her, hands all over her, but at the important moment he will close his eyes even tighter and something will happen that doesn’t include her at all, and not his body either.
But this is her challenge: she wants him to want her more than his dream. Maybe fire will help. They’ve been together such a short time, she’s not sure. But she would like to see fire too, just once more.
She has to hurry or he will have already begun confusing being awake with dreaming. She trips on a hole she hasn’t filled and lands on her face. The container hisses between her breasts. If she keeps her face away and hardly breathes—
She tries not to breathe but it’s so hard, in her hurry, in her fear. She tries to pull in the darkness with her breath, she tries to be the hose light. There’s more darkness where she crawls to so quickly.
She wedges the container upright in a hole in that darkness.
The light inside outlines him. He holds his hand in front of his face, palm away from his nose by an inch. It won’t do to wait and show him later. Someone will find out and burn it himself. An old fashioned container like this? It doesn’t matter how few people are around here—fire is fire. She should bring it in and get credit for it. Instead, she blows at its nipple until it starts to smoke.
Maybe she will tell him he dreamt it anyway. Everything valuable happens in dream is what he believes. Fire will be hard to believe because his eyes will be so sore from watching his hand but still, a dream of it might make him happy, happier than really seeing it. Since he began wanting to see that hand in dream, he hasn’t been happy. At least he faces the darkness she’s in.
When the flames catch, he moves his hand away from his face. That’s about how long the fire lasts. A good thing too, otherwise it will show up on the infrared. He could have smiled too but she can’t see, the sudden flare blinds her.
She buries the empty burnt container as deep as she can, moving her hands fast. Then she smoothes the surface, she pees on it so it will lose its roughness.
He’s weeping when she goes inside. I wanted to touch it so much, he says.
You can’t do that, she says, unrolling out a tongue of food from the wall. Eat this, she says. It will calm you.
He looks at the food but he doesn’t try it.
When I worked here, she tells him, fire came out of the pyramid all the time, sometimes where we walked and sometimes after we placed the shell on the walls, in reaction to them. Once, in the early morning, one of us carrying a shell burst into flame. Those who hadn’t seen fire yet thought she had wings. She wouldn’t stop running until the flame came around her. No one could extinguish her quickly enough.
After that, she says, in a quieter tone—she had been very excited by the fire too, it lit up her memory of the place—gas escaped on one side, the last one we covered. All one day it hissed out. We could see it because we kept throwing green dye into it. We at least had the dye. The gas hurt our eyes, moved under the coverings of those who had them. I had never seen so many people dancing in pain.
I’ve seen gas, he says. I was born near gas.
Nearly everyone is, she says. But not many can say they danced to it.
That’s pretty strong, he says, and he takes a bite of the food. I saw my hand, he says.
She nods. Did it wave?
He can’t be sure. The fire came at the same time.
Once you see it, you’ll see it again, she says.
I hope so, he says, looking at his hand.
Together they find a way to unscrew the hose light. It means they won’t have light again but they don’t care. They watch the dark in case someone has seen her, then, at the first sign of day, they go out into the field and stand in it.
A caged bird calls out from one of the stalls in the pyramid’s shadow. Its owner has a license to allow customers to listen to it. Of course the bird is life-like but no one believes it’s real. It’s the same with the sound it makes. The tweet, tweet sounds mechanical. On the other hand, she says, at least it’s nothing we’ve heard before and that’s worth the fee.
My mother used to sing and it sounded nothing like that, he says. That sounded like something that’s metal and turned too tight.
Crying, she says. That’s how they do crying these days.
Why would a bird cry? They are watching the bird in projection diving into the horizon, eating other flying creatures out of the air, easing itself onto water. A bird has all of that, he says. It’s hard to think it could be sad.
They leave the enclosure puzzled. A man nearby makes the same sound as the bird with his mouth, but only once. They pay him to repeat it. He covers his mouth when he performs so no one will know how he does it.
They walk away from the pyramid so far that no one else is sitting nearby and that is where they make love. They could walk further but the distance is about right—the pyramid disappears behind his prone side. It is not easy to lose themselves in it but he feels the bird should be celebrated, that part of them flies out when they excite each other. Did we cry or sing? he says when it’s over.
She sneezes. They’ve raised a cloud of pink dust. There’s a couple of other clouds in the distance but theirs is the thickest, most recent. The dust coats her throat, the little hairs on her arms. She can see all the holes in the cover they’ll have to pay for. We can’t stay much longer, she says. They’ll find out about the fire eventually.
We could starve for a while, he says, holding his hand up in the cloud, suspended in the light.
She nods. That’s freedom for you. I can feel the hunger already, I’ve done it so often. She turns over on her stomach and hunches her head between her shoulders to avoid the slow-falling dust. I kind of like hunger.
He puts an arm around her and kisses the side of her cheek. Time isn’t everything. I mean, we could go back right now and just imagine staying on. We could dream it.
You and your dreams. It’ll be really bad if I get so hungry I can’t tell if I’m dreaming.
Hey, you could be dead, he says.
Let’s stay as long as we can.
He hadn’t mentioned her death before. Border travelers often get stuck with someone who’s about to die. Who else would want them? But those are the most adventurous, most exciting companions. You just have to be careful that they are not projections, with so much energy they can kill you instead.
She watches him lifts his arms above his head, pumping them down, lifting them again. He gets up and runs in circles around her. Tweet, he calls out, he cries. Was that how they used them for warning?
If the sky was falling, she says. Maybe he is projected. It is hard to tell without wind that will cause a projection to falter. It is a long way to get to wind.
I did hear about the sky falling, he says. But it didn’t fall everywhere.
Some of the places must have had birds.
On their way back, they sight a pile of rocks in the distance on top of the land cover. He won’t go near them but she does. Definitely rocks, she says. The kind they sell, although I don’t see any advertising on them. He walks closer and she nudges one with her foot. He steps away. Probably someone left them here for a reason, he says. When I worked with plants, there was a big market for them.
Most of them don’t last long, she says. Especially when they’re like this, all together.
You are so stupid, he says. They could explode.
I wanted to show you how brave I am.
You made fire last night already. He backs away farther. But these scare me more.
She picks up one of the rocks. I could scare other people.
He looks all around. There’s nobody even at the stalls in the heat of the day. But I suppose that’s good, he says. You walk way ahead of me.
They walk with their heads down because the pyramid reflects the sun so well they are dazzled. It is very hard not to tear holes in the land cover walking like this, or to cover their steps. She moves quickly anyway, with the rock in her hand, expecting any moment to fly apart. He catches up to her only after they round the pyramid’s side and can see again. She throws the rock down then, right in front of him.
That’s what I remember, she says. That’s a rock.
He pounds his chest in fear but she can see he liked the thrill of not knowing. He doesn’t say No.
They are still standing there looking at the rock when a man passes them, carrying the empty birdcage. The door of the cage bangs where it hasn’t been fastened. He slows down, seeing the rock. He’s angry. Aren’t you a little stupid to be playing with something like that?
She doesn’t look at either man. She turns and walks away.
There were great armies, he says.
I’m sure, she says.
The sky and the land went dark with all the armies. The ocean’s waves—
—were thick with them, she says. People fought each other everywhere. It’s in the songs. More people dying than stars in the sky.
There are probably bones under our feet right now, he says, and shifts his feet over the land cover.
Maybe, she says. Her right arm is sore from leaning on it. She wishes for a chair, or even a pillow. They can’t go back to the place for their inflatables if they want to stay on and starve, it would be too obvious. She wonders why he’s staying with her, he could find someone else to travel with. They haven’t been traveling that long.
He paces in the other direction but she can still hear him. History, he says. Over there—fifty thousand dead in two days. They had a lot of birds then, he says. They feasted. Somebody took a photograph that was saved, their faces shiny from eating the birds.
I wonder why that photograph, she says. Among all those other things.
Or maybe nothing happened here at all, he says. Maybe they told the story about the picture just to make us feel good. That is very important, feeling good. There’s no pink outside of storytelling to get that kind of feeling.
I would like to see that picture, just once, she says.
He turns in a circle, his nude body pink from the sun, grey from the dirt. He rubs his hands across his thigh, dirtying it. I need a shower.
You haven’t had enough of the pink then, she says. Take a deep breath.
He breathes several times loudly, then says. Do you think that’s rain over there?
She stares at where he’s pointing. Only if the cover’s gotten broken.
People have been excavating the pyramid for years, he says. Maybe not this one. He glances back at the stalls, where people crouch. People here fought over the price of something. Imagine—value had gotten that far out of control. We could probably find the bones of one of them. Something so small that no one’s ground it up yet.
There were a lot of people before me, even here.
He goes quiet, in his dream: As far as you could see, they invaded, he goes on. And there was none of this cover. People could walk anywhere your feet could put you. He almost scuffs it.
He is beginning to see all the people here. It spooks her.
She starts walking again. That’s got to be food. A ridge that looks like that means food.
It’s so far away, it could be anything. He takes a few steps behind her. But we’re starving. We don’t want food.
They walk toward the ridge anyway. It’s a direction.
I am so thirsty, she says. That’s what always gets me in the end. It’s not the eating.
Feel that? he says.
She puts out her hand. Yeah. If you walk fast enough, you feel something like wind. You never felt that before?
I never had the space to walk so far. He wiggles his hand.
It’s the bones below, she says. They pull at your hand.
He laughs at her. You think I’m a projection?
You could be.
What difference would it make?
She’s not sure. She’s dying.
Well, I can’t wait any longer anyway, he says, I’ll prove it to you. He leaves his waste in a pile. Carefully—she helps too—they fit it under the land cover and smooth it down.
You shouldn’t have eaten so much.
I’m just a projection. He slaps his belly.
They watch steam rise from the pyramid. It does that at intervals, so no one knows when, she tells him.
It’s as if I’m the only one to have ever seen this, he says. That’s what it seems. And of course, you. No one’s around.
I’m so thirsty, she says.
He starts to move away. Pink, pink, pink, he says. He keeps on walking ahead of her until he stops and pulls up a corner of the land cover. Try it here.
That’s only a legend. A thousand years ago, they did it.
Try. It can’t hurt. We’ve already walked all over the place and torn up more land cover than we can afford.
She kneels and pulls the dirt toward her, piling it on the land cover next to her. Water’s not supposed to be very far down.
How can it not be? he says, looking into the flat horizon.
If the water were better, nobody would ever even try this, she says, sweating, digging.
The ground does get wet. She shoves her fist into it and turns her hand to palm the moisture. She licks at the pinkness she brings up while he takes over her digging. You’ll see your hand for sure tonight, she says.
He’s gasping, digging, the hole’s about as deep as they can get it without getting into it. They lay their tongues on the cool wet pink but it is hard to tell whether the ground absorbs their moisture or they take it from the ground.
Kind of sweet, he says, wiping the dirt out of his mouth. As usual.
She rests on her heels. Let’s go. We shouldn’t stay long.
They refill the hole quickly. It’s not so hot when they start out again, it’s that much later.
Tell me about the gentlemen’s war, she says.
I’ve only heard a little, he says. Everyone worked so hard that in every part of their lives they had other people take over the experience part of things. You know, someone else did the eating, someone else kissed the children, someone else found missing papers. These gentlemen, as they were called, met once a year to exchange what experiences they did have. But they fouled up.
That’s not so hard to do. After all, someone else probably did it for them.
They were peculiar about their experiences. They wanted to have them and not have them at the same time so when they had to do the exchange everyone had to be in on it. Anyway, there was some confusion and all the experiences were accidentally destroyed.
How could that happen? Didn’t they have them saved with electronics?
It wasn’t the way it is now, with electronics controlling even the wind the way it does, and the turning of the earth. It was wilder. You could turn the electronics off and on. The current wasn’t as strong.
I can’t imagine, she says.
The gentlemen got themselves turned off. They went on alone. And that’s it, that’s all I know. Even I can’t see them when I dream. Unless, he says, stopping, they are having my dreams.
You have seen your hand, right?
They are your dreams.
He looks at his hand. It could have been someone else’s hand.
She nods. A projected hand.
All right. He laughs but he looks around.
It isn’t that dangerous to be alone, she says, slowing a little. Lots of people take a few days here and there, they fast and come back.
I’ve never done it but I’ve always wanted to.
Not everybody likes it.
Not everybody sees fire, he says. He says he heard somebody ask about extra light from last night where they heard the bird.
You’re just telling me now? she says.
For a while the sum zero will be the same for the area. No one would think we are even starving the way we’re going now, he says. Projections, maybe.
She turns in a circle. No cloud, no figure, just the pink pyramid in the southern corner and the sun at an angle, all the steam gone, and pink.
I was watching, he says. No one followed us.
It’s not as if we couldn’t figure out fire all by ourselves, she says. What are they afraid of?
You worked on the pyramid, you’re the expert. There’s not much more that can be controlled. Not really.
I love the blankness here.
If somebody takes away the blankness, it won’t be a tourist trap.
It is food, she says, stumbling up to the ridge with its tongue. They don’t eat it though. Without water, it is too hard to swallow. And don’t they want to starve another day? After dark comes and he has already curled up with his hand in front of him and sleeping, she spots another fire.
Sometimes after she blinks, it’s not there. Maybe it’s the reflection of something very bright from somewhere that’s still under the sun. She’s heard of buildings that high but she hasn’t seen one. She can’t resist walking toward it.
He catches up with her. Seeing one fire attracted another, he says.
This is not a dream, she says, but he doesn’t really hear her, he is hurrying to get to the fire, to see it on his own.
They are soon holding their hands in front of it. Can you see my bones in my hand through the light?
Yes, she says. But she’s watching the two skeletal figures beyond the fire who lit it. They have made their mouths look kind, and they share water. There’s a border past the smoke, they warn them. Stay away from it.
Smoke? He has never seen smoke. The fire the night before had been too fast. He steps toward a drift of it and backs away.
Beautiful, she says.
The male thanks her. We made it yesterday, he says. They will find us today for sure. You’d better not stay.
We’re starving too.
All four of them watch it lick. It likes the land cover and the wind is pushing it away from them, into other land cover, it is catching.
She turns to him. The way you claim your hand in dream, you could have this happen.
He is not so sure about what she means but he says, I could try.
She pulls his hand into the smoke again and he watches it cover and uncover it, he blinks, he closes his eyes, he sniffs as his hand keeps disappearing. It’s real dreaming, he says.
The skeletal couple shows them how to dig a bed under the land cover so you can’t be seen. In the morning, you fill it in and move away fast, before the tax comes, the female tells them. Don’t leave the shape of your body in the land. Remember though, the salt in the dirt will sting you.
This is when she sees that salt has eaten the male’s skin in one of his bony corners, made it pink, raw-looking and hot.
On their way back to the pyramid, they pass a woman with a birthing belly. She’s always wanted to see one of those. He says fire was better, fire could go on and on. Those women, they die right after.
They take a seat on a stretch of raised land cover. The pyramid is right behind them. The pyramid area isn’t large even if you fast and walk as far as you can away from it, all day. Doing that, you get to see where the borders lie and others wait, their inflatables in balls beside them, but you still see the pyramid. They both avoid looking toward these borders, so they see the insect at the same time. It escapes the land cover through some tear of theirs, a costly tear.
Look at its legs go! he says. It’s really alive!
It could be just circuits, she says. Or a projection.
No, they fix the dirt, he says.
That’s what they say, she says. I’m going to eat it.
She is quick enough. Its taste is pure pink. She tells him what she sees in the dream that the insect starts, then she presses herself against one of the sides and dies.
He knew she would do something. He watches her writhe, then releases her hand from the slight adhesive of the pyramid wall and loads her on his back. It’s a long way to where she has to go and of course she’s heavy, and heavier walking across the land, the white sun in his wet eyes.
His tears surprise him. He had assumed there wasn’t enough liquid in his body to produce them. He tries to catch them with his tongue but his tongue dries in the air instead. His tongue lies heavy in his head, heavier than her. He likes to carry her despite her weight because she feels familiar but slowly she becomes less familiar, becomes a burden. He lays her down on the earth covering, he kind of collapses under her. There is no hurry.
He’s always wondered why the area for bodies is so warm and he suspects it has to do with fire, now that he’s seen it. He wants so much to have to do with fire. Some live for lightning, some for the wind coming out of the NNW, or smoke. He wants to wildcat fire in the future, he wants it on his hands, he wants to trade it. All his grief is fire.
She never bothered to wear a suit like the others when she worked here. She lasted just as long. She showed him fire.
He fashions her below-hair into curls and gives her up in this warm place. The entrance is like any other, a lip out of the ground that opens to the right number, which is given to him by a machine after it reads her pulse, her pulselessness. Is it a dream? He throws himself in with her at the moment the lip opens, the heat sucks him in, he can’t resist the sudden bright flames.