There were voices coming from the heating vents. I could hear them, especially just before dawn, that time when the sky starts to converge between star strewn dazzling and translucent morning clarity, when everything is glowing in hazy brilliance. At first I thought I was imagining them, the voices, as if I was searching for sounds that didn’t exist in the vacant silence of our old ocean-dwelling house. The way the old cypress is leaning, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was gone in the morning. The floorboards creaked in protest, even when I danced lightly upon them, the foundation rustled and settled like some great giant stirring in the night, and nothing will ever drown out the persistent whisper of the ocean. Yet the more I listened, the more I realized I was not hallucinating. It’s so old, it’s got some sense of wisdom, I swear. You ever think of trees as something else? There were voices coming from the heating vents. Swirling through the air and then slowly absorbing back into the tired walls. Something about them was familiar though, the voices. No, not a man Mags. Something majestic, and gentle. An elephant, maybe. Like an itch tickling the roof of my mouth, just out of reach from my twisting pink tongue; I could not shake the feeling that I had heard every word before.
You said we had to do something magnificent and chaotic and ridiculous before we were too old, before we lost our sense of urgency, our desire to hear the entire planet in old ballads about the kinds of obsessions that don’t even exist in movies anymore. They’ve been erased, you said, censored by a technological lust for advancement. An infinitely expanding capitalistic rainforest crawling in armies of ants. You said we had to do something extreme, so that in forty-five years we could look back on this exact moment of our lives (you hissed those words like cherry bombs) and remember everything as though it were being replayed in choppy stop-motion 8mm film. But with the sound amplified twenty-one hundred times through a funnel made of Fool’s gold, and the pictures flying between our retinas and the glassy surface of the universe. An amalgamation of this moment, in the same way collages of faded magazine clippings begin to resemble the faces of old beauty queens. You said we should burn everything to the ground and watch the flames dance in the wind from miles away, up high, from the bluffs or from between the branches of some faraway tree. We would sit there and let our laughter ripple through the air, watch it bounce off the ozone and plummet back down to earth in crystallized bullet casings. I had no idea why we had to be so far away, but when I asked, you shrugged and said that fire is only gorgeous from very long distances or from deep inside the sparks.
You said you wanted to be able to fly, without miles of nylon sail strapped to your back, without being stuffed inside the skeleton of some clanging metal bird soaring on jet fuel and carbon monoxide. I was jealous of your uninhibited fantasy, of your ability to forget the constraints of gravity and the clumsy anatomical structure of men, to allow the voices of millions (every one shrieking the impossibilities of it all) to diffuse just like radioactive ash, containing your ambitions in a single perfect thought, the shimmering opalescence on the surface of a pearl.
You woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, your heart pounding like a timpani in the basin of your chest. That night, the waves crashed across the expanse of the sand and licked feverishly at the perverted metallic form of a bicycle half consumed by the beach three miles from our house. Thing was, the bicycle had been abandoned twenty feet above tide line. You said you’d felt a fissure somewhere deep inside the earth, below levels of granite and iron and fossilized bone, you’d felt the center of the earth splinter. You said that we had to do something magnificent and chaotic and ridiculous before it was too far gone, and when I asked what it was, you never replied, never even flinched. You didn’t sleep for three days, pacing the house like a haunted wildcat, brown eyes cloudy with sapphire smoke. The morning of the fourth day, you ran out the front door in a flurry of white sand and silhouette, your fallen coffee cup disintegrating into ten thousand tiny pieces on the front porch, scattering like apple blossoms in the early light. I found you standing ankle deep in the ocean, your threadbare plaid pajamas hanging wearily from your hip bones, dragged down into the surf by the weight of the water. I pressed my breasts against your back and slid my arms around your shoulders, absorbing the energy radiating from your skin before it sent catastrophic explosions ricocheting through your nervous system.
The voices were growing stronger. At first it had just been yours, weaving in and out of the air, hesitant to expand like it was afraid I might actually hear you, and remember. But days went by, and I started hearing parts of whole conversations. I recognized our words, bits and pieces of that year when everything had changed. I heard my responses echoing, following your long-lost words and twining their way through the rooms of our house, like cypress roots. Crawling the walls.
“Did you feel that?”
“No.” She rolled over.
“Are you sure?”
“It was an earthquake, but different. Deeper.”
He was wide awake, she could hear it.
“The house seems fine, Simon,” she grumbled, half asleep.
“I’m going to go look.”
The bed shifted under his weight as he stood. Creeeak, creeak, creak. Footsteps down the staircase. The opening and shutting of the front door. Silence.
She sat bolt up right, startled awake and blinking into the darkness.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“The tree! It fell off the cliff!”
“What? What tree?”
“The old cypress! I was looking out the front door, and I noticed it was gone, so I walked out to the edge, and it’s in the ocean, Mags, it’s in the ocean in flames!”
“Is it still storming? I don’t hear anything. Maybe there was a lightning strike.”
“Nothing. The sky is clear. And I can see for miles.”
We were flying across the ocean (although we were in the belly of an airplane, you said to pretend that it was only you and me and thirty thousand feet of space, that we were the only two around for miles, sailing along on the currents of the wind like seagulls.) I asked if this was magnificent, and you grinned. When we landed, deep in the heart of the
My mother warned me you were on a philosophical mission, that what you were looking for couldn’t be satisfied by a vacation in the third world. I defended your motives, stood on your soap box and declared our intentions noble, and inspired. But I had doubts; I wondered if maybe they were right. Maybe we were being ridiculous, and that all the magnificence was missing, stuck between the ideology and the righteousness. Your voice was stronger, had always been stronger, than anyone else’s, and I listened when you told me it was worth it. This trip would make our eyes wide with recognition, and the repercussions, however great, would be well worth the swelling of our souls. So there we were. As I stepped into the blistering heat, my mind instantly emptied and left only molecules of air. I said we were in danger of evaporating. You said it was jet lag. I was uneasy. I believed you.
For awhile, the voices were all from our house – I even heard them in the same rooms in which they’d been spoken, amplified like I’d suddenly burst above the surface of some invisible lake which had been flooding my eardrums. But then something changed. There was a buzzing, a heavier weight to our voices, to the words, and I recognized them almost immediately. The air was hot, and dusty around them as they floated, and I knew at once where it was they were echoing from then.
“How do you know?” Her voice caught in the back of her throat, sticky with tears.
“I mean, Simon, you could be-”
“I’m sick Mags.”
She didn’t say another word.
I couldn’t focus, wandered around our house in a trance. I could feel myself slipping into memory, losing control of my sense of time. I drifted between the past and the present, never really knowing if the voices were coming from my lips, or from the walls. I forgot that it was just your voice one day, and I actually started speaking to you. But as my old words joined yours on layers in the air, long since spoken, I realized again that you were not there. And then suddenly, I was thoroughly, terrifically embedded in the past.
The next few days we traveled, taking in all the romance of the savannah and the compassion of the people who melded into the horizon as the ghosts of the Baobab trees. The ghostly remains of a lake echoed in permanent waves of dusty red earth, a line of sediment the silent witness to the water’s final exodus from the ground. You pointed to the hollowed lakebed and told me if I dug down deep enough, I might still find it, that it was only lingering out of sight until the sun stopped being so angry. I told you that you sounded like my grandfather, like you were trying to tell one of the old stories, and that you weren’t nearly wise enough to pull it off. You pulled your sunglasses down over your eyes so that all I could see was my own reflection, and flashed a grin. Said, whatever you say babe, and then howled like a wild thing. You were at once impulsive and leery, both irrational and maddeningly sane. When we came into the village that first night, I watched as the orphaned children flocked to your ankles, ran behind you as you flew about in the dusk, pretending to be a bird with your arms flung out to the wind, hoping to take to the air.
The contrast between their world and ours was deafening, and it infiltrated our thoughts like the red dust which collected everywhere but the whites of our eyes. In the stillness of the night, their laughter rippled like silk in my ears, but in the morning the razor edges of their elbows cut holes in the air around their bodies. Our last day came, and I said we had to go, had to leave to catch the plane. As you explained to them with tears in your eyes that we were leaving, you threw your arms out into the air, and it was like the silk had come to wrap itself around the razor wire, their voices bubbling around me. They ran to your feet, begged with their eyes to soar with you again, and you finally relented as they held their meager arms out like wings.
We stood by the gate, watching as the airplane picked up speed across the tarmac, wavering in the elastic shimmering heat. As its wheels left the earth, our seats empty, I looked at you and mouthed, We had to stay. You pulled me to you and kissed my forehead. Asked me if this was chaotic, if we were ridiculous, and I laughed, one great burst of terrified rapture.
The longer we stayed, the more we realized how ignorant we had been, to assume that the Baobab trees were graceful, rather than grotesque in their starved appearance. How careless we had been to have forgotten why so many children ran wild without the careful eyes of their parents. The ones who ran behind you in the dusk picked at their skin, itching relentless sores and sucking on their sweaty fingers for salt. The army doctor, a grizzled man named Mandelay, sat in the shade of his hut and grumbled affections into their tiny outstretched palms every morning as he waited for the medic supplies to rumble in on rusted wheels. He warned us not to become attached; these were the bone children, he said. These were the children born into shallow graves.
There were maybe thirteen in all, ranging from seven months to a little over eight years, and the oldest ones carried the babies on their backs in pouches made of canvas. There was one little boy, small for his age but older than he should have been, who all the others followed around. He was always serious, but the constant presence on his back was that of a cheerfully squirming baby girl, still too young to be named. The baby was constantly in danger of tumbling out onto the ground, as wiggly as she was, but the little boy seemed to sense the onset of those precarious seconds, and I never once saw him lose her to the rules of gravity.
“She needed blood, Maggie! What was I supposed to do, leave her to die?”
“She would have died anyway Simon. Mandelay said she was born too weak to ever-”
“Mandelay gives up on them before they even draw a breath and you know it.”
“He has to! The man would die of a broken heart if he gave himself false hope like that.”
“So you think we should leave them out by the graveyard then, let them rot away their sickly
“Of course not, why do you think I wanted to stay here? Do not accuse me of being cold-
“Well if you’re the one to say it.”
He lowered his gaze, knowing well that he had gone too far. She gaped at him, sputtered angrily.
“I can’t believe- I can’t believe you think that, that I’m so, so,”
“You know I didn’t mean it Mags,” he tried weakly to apologize.
“How could you have, I mean, I don’t even understand how it happened.”
Now she was pacing the tent, refusing to look at him and muttering to herself.
“I’ve seen you do it so many times before, I can’t figure out how”
“My hand slipped, Mags, it was a freak accident.”
“So many times before.”
“Did you hear me? Maggie?”
“How can it just slip like that, in that quick of an instant?”
Simon moved towards her, tried to get her attention, when she spun suddenly to face him, her mouth shut tight.
The lost lakebed was also where the bones of many animals lay, and where the children went to spend passing hours of their days. We would often see them carrying pieces of the skeletons around like battle spears, waving bleached white bone through the air and letting the wind whistle where the marrow should have been. Once, three of the older children walked past our tent carrying aloft the great skull of a bull elephant, the stumps of its tusks sawed off jaggedly, still etched faintly with chainsaw steel. They said nothing, but it was obvious from their faces that they now commanded respect. As they passed, you pulled me down to the earth in a clumsy bow, and though she refused to glance sideways, I saw one of them smile slightly. It’s the bone children, you whispered.
Beneath the scorching sun of the savannah, everything eventually shrivels and crumbles to dust. Late in the afternoon at the height of the dry season, the children all came running, waving their bones and shouting. At first we thought it was only a parade, another celebration of the discovery of some long deceased creature. But a shiver of fear ran through every nerve in my spine as I noticed that the little boy too old for his age walked slowly behind the gathering cloud in the wake of the others. Just as I was about to rise from my seat, you leapt out into the sunlight, calling his name into the sky. He stopped before you, in his arms the slender form of the baby girl. Her tiny ribcage rose and fell so lightly I was terrified that I was seeing only the vibration of heat in the air. As you turned towards me, the baby cradled in the expanse of your hands, all the color drained from your skin and an iridescent glow traced the outlines of your bones.
We had never felt more needed, more connected to the rest of the planet, as if by leaving behind the world we had known, we had somehow managed to stumble across the single most important point of infinite space. Then one prick, one slip of the finger, a slight of hand magic trick, revealed to us the ruse, and every atom came crashing to our feet in an instant. The words reverberated in my ears, and my stomach buckled and dropped between my feet. You had been crying, rattled out of your body and thrust into the trembling and transparent shell of another.
His voice was a gentle inquiry, searching, waiting to wrap his words around her like the warm folds of a down blanket. But she fought back.
“Don’t ‘Maggie’ me, Simon.”
“There’s nothing either of us could have done-”
She spit the word at him through her teeth. Her eyes bloomed turquoise.
“We knew what we were getting into, we weren’t blind. But we stayed anyway.”
She was silent, the muscles of her mouth moving angrily. He tried again.
“We can’t pretend like this is some greater tragedy, Mags. That’d be contradicting everything we’ve been trying to do, why we’ve stayed for so long.”
“It’s bigger to me, Simon.”
Now he was angry, righteous.
“You think you’re the only one hit like this? The only one in the world to suffer this much? Look around you, babe. Look at the flies in their eyes, and the babies with bellies the size of melons-”
She cut him off, her tone so low he could barely hear her.
“Don’t you dare patronize me like that. Don’t you dare. You have no right to pull that shit with me.”
“But it’s true, you know it. What are we? Memories? Mitochondria? Who are we? Huh? Maggie, tell me, who are we to say that I shouldn’t have to die like this, like they do? We surround ourselves with this, and then expect to be safe?”
She was livid, the tears streaming openly down her cheeks. They left paths he tried to erase with his fingertips, but he couldn’t, and they shone resilient like the blue-gold of exposed indelible ink. She closed her eyes and let him touch her for a moment, let him sink into her skin. Then suddenly, she found her rage again, and slapped him hard across the face.
“Mags, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m scared too, Maggie, but I swear,”
He dropped to his knees and held his head between his hands.
“I swear, if you can’t hold this up, if we can’t-”
His eyes squeezed shut and his mouth fell open as he struggled to stifle the silent wail.
We were flying across the ocean again, but this time no one was pretending anything, and I couldn’t help but choke on the stale oxygen of the cabin when I thought of us, sailing thirty thousand feet up, and stuck inside an airplane. I looked out the window as I felt the plane begin to drop, the telling, twisting feeling of the loss of altitude uprooting my insides. Thick cumulonimbus billowed up around the wings of the plane, like they were trying to consume us from the outside. They came too close, though, and rushed away in panic from the ugly metal body, curling and heaving in every other direction. But they hung quietly inches from the plane, waiting for any opportunity to eat us alive. They were the kinds of clouds everybody stares at as a kid, the kind that become pirate ships and hot air balloons and dancing pink elephants. I wanted to ask you, right then, if you remembered the night you thought that elephants were trees and I wanted to tell you that I believed you. That I didn’t then but I did now, that I never should have doubted you, and that I was sorry. But when I turned, you were asleep, snoring softly into the curve of my shoulder. How had I not noticed you asleep on my shoulder? I didn’t wake you until the plane had landed, screeching and jolting into the blacktop as if the ground had been a surprise, as if it had come suddenly from out of nowhere and crashed into the underside of that machine, so heavy with the weight of its suitcases, and its passengers, and all the weight of the atmosphere bearing down from the sky. As we walked towards the terminal, I looked back, half-expecting the plane to be flattened. I was longing for
I wanted to be in your bloodstream, to find the cells and attack them, attack them bodily one by one, rip them to pieces with my hands, with the claws surrounding my eyes, as if I stared at them long enough they would shrivel and disperse, fly into the air and away from you. I started singing, lightly at first; waltzing my way into their mortality, as though if I could get through to their middles, I might convince them to go elsewhere, to grow wings and take flight, dissipate into the atmosphere through the supernova explosions in your eyes. But they wouldn’t let me in, growing harder and more brutal in protest. They were the sand on the blade of a saw, vibrato, scattering in rhythm with my voice, faster and farther the louder I sang. I gathered you in my arms and traced all the lines of your body with my fingers, trying desperately to memorize you before you dissolved, hoping that if I could retell the curves of your muscles where to grow, the bronze of your skin how to illuminate, I could capture you in my hands and hold you there, away from the edge that promised to swallow you whole.
But I couldn’t, and one day, you flickered and died like a piece of driftwood alight in the waves. I watched you float for what seemed like days, but was probably no more than a few moments. The yellow-orange glow of flames spread across the surface of your dried cypress arms, licking and grappling for oxygen, longing to escape from the water that was eating you alive with cerulean fangs, dripping in morphine. Slowly, they quieted to a dull red glow, and you were left breathing shallowly just above the white caps. I heard you hiss and moan beneath them as they overcame you for a moment, and I thought at once you would be caught against the shelf. But the sea brought you back to me, and I sat on the tiny bones of the universe and whispered old conversations into your wooden ears.
She was sitting in her empty house, there on the coast, when she heard him.
“Listen to that wind, Mags. So majestic, and terrifying at the same time. Like the air is threatening to whisk away your memory, your presence if you don’t take it in your hands and hold it out of sight.”
His words sunk into her consciousness and settled in between her synapses like lead feathers. They were all around her, coming from the heating vents. But he was saying things, combinations of moments, and conversations that had never existed.
“It’s breaking, deep down near the center, where everything starts and everything ends, that’s where the splinter begins, too. And we’re all falling in one at a time, through the cracks and the holes, tiny glass beads through the palm of my hand. Can you feel it Maggie?”
Every time he said her name, his face flashed in her mind, like it was his eyes that the sound was coming from, and not his vocal cords, the whispering walls of the house. Like she was him – her name meant something different when he said it. It was like she had taken all of her memories of him and forced them into what she remembered of his voice. He was speaking, but it was in words that he had never said.
“Can you see me?” he asked. “Can you see me? You said we were in danger of evaporating, and I’m afraid you might have been right.”
She nodded her head, trying not to reach out towards him, knowing that he would scatter - apple blossoms in early light.
About a month after the voices started, there was a massive squall, the worst since I’d been alone. The power went out with the onset of the storm for the first time in years, and I dreamt of you. But instead of being a man, you had changed into a killer whale and swum away into the sea with only the flip of your massive fluke for a farewell. I begged, through the glass of the living room window, for you to stay behind and sleep awhile longer. You were right there, next to the glass, bringing the whole ocean to the side of the house. I could see it foaming and rolling, searching frantically for ways to sneak in, to surround me and fill my mouth, until I could no longer speak. Imagine that - an entire ocean, wildly jealous of me. But I guess I could understand, I wanted you to stay behind with me just as badly- when you disappeared everything rusted inside and left only singing empty space.
The house creaked in the wind and woke me up, the summer squall whistling like a swarm of angry sand pipers, a chorus of their frightened soprano flying into the old weathered boards. We always went up to the attic when it stormed at night, read by flashlight in my grandfather’s overstuffed armchair until we fell asleep, limbs entwined. If you were ever away, I used to sit in one of your old dress shirts, because then you were next to me. Because then my arms were your arms, at least through the sleeves. I hadn’t been to the attic in over a year, but after lying in our lonely bed for an hour, I took the blankets in my arms and clambered up into the attic to find you. The window was flapping in the wind, there was rain collecting in the crevices of the floorboards, and the details of the dream had already begun to fade. Within minutes, I had drifted back into unconsciousness, lulled by a deep bass humming thrumming drumming hidden beneath the staccato breaks of lightning.
I was staring through the glass of the living room window again, but the sea had receded, leaving a coral reef graveyard gasping in the open air. There were still pockets of water, and a thin layer which glistened like azure oil spilled across the reddish-bronze dust of the savannah. My eyes traced the expanse, catching like a broken record at one point just shy of the horizon. No matter how hard I tried to focus somewhere else, my vision would glide back, as if there was some magnetic field reaching across the space and filling the void behind my pupils. Suddenly as I watched, a horde of elephants, all of them at least twenty feet tall and some even larger, spilled through a hole in the air. It had appeared out of nowhere, ripped by some invisible hand from the cosmos. Their eyes were glassy, wild with panic and glowing like topaz; I could see your reflection in each of them from miles away. For a moment I stared in fascination, scared if I spoke I would somehow forget how to breathe. Gradually the muddled feeling in my limbs vanished, replaced by a horrible sense of dread that spurred me towards them, frantic to make them stop. They were running straight for a cliff, their massive grey chests heaving in terror, and the ivory of their tusks glinting as they swung their heads desperately in the midday sun. I ran into their midst waving my arms and shouting their names one by one- How did I know their names, had you whispered them to me? - but none of them seemed to hear. They trumpeted and screamed to each other across the thundering of their feet, one hundred thousand tons of flesh pounding towards the edge of the world. I could see swarms of tiny hornets, steel tongued tiger lilies, snapping at their delicate ears, torturing them with razor wire, and driving them in a timorous flight to their deaths. As if they were blind, each and every one of the elephants leapt from the cliff, still bellowing as they tumbled like hibiscus blooms on the wind, disappearing from view in terrific flashes of light just before they reached the ocean floor.