Raymond St. Elmo, 2016
“I flee who chases me, and chase who flees me.”
-- Ovid, Metamorphoses
You’re hogging the blanket.
No I’m not.
You are. Tell me how we met.
You already know. You were there.
No, I totally forgot. Tell me the whole story again.
Your people begin in light and noise, birth-pang wails of pain and joy. What a strange start that must be, only to be forgot. But my people are born in dark and silence. You creatures must learn to walk, and when you have mastered that art you begin a life-long search for your purpose. Oft as not you drop what you find dissatisfied, and seek another reason for your heart-beat. You live your entire lives like old people who enter a room unable to recall what you came to find. Eventually you shrug and wander out again. But my people begin full-fledged, knowing our purpose. I began in a night of stars and wind walking down a country road, and if I had asked myself 'who am I and why?' I must have stumbled. But I did not ask; and I did not stumble.
I came to a field where wheat rippled in waves of night-wind. A crucified scarecrow observed my passing, ends of his tattered scarf waving fretful. I nodded respect, as one night-watcher shall do for another. An owl glided twixt me and the stars, silhouette turning small creatures statue-still. Far away sounded the low organ-note of a train whistle. Closer came the splash of a creek, the sigh of wind through tree-tops. I crested a hill just as the moon rose. The valley of mist before me turned to a lake of silver light. And there on the hill-crest I stood and gave my birth laugh, arms raised to the sky; happy to be standing with the moon; free as the night-wind, wise as the night-wind. Then I went on and down the path where my purpose led.
I came to a crossroads. A great oak stretched arms wide to cover each choice. Though this was midnight on a deserted country road, a man leaned comfortable in a chair beneath the tree, observing my approach. I don't suppose many could have seen him, shadow within shadow. But my eyes were born in the night, born for the night.
I stopped at the crossing and considered the signpost. To the left it offered Elysium, Texas: 7 Miles. Ahead it promised Theory, Texas: 10 miles. And to the right waited Hell, Texas, 4 miles. I blinked at that last.
"Not as bad as it sounds," said the shadowed observer.
I did not turn nor start at his voice. I replied, "Still sounds bad."
He chuckled. "I do believe that name makes them try a bit harder. Most farm towns are friendly on the outside, meaner on the inside. Whereas the residents of Hell, Texas put an honest effort into the inner work of not being, well, helical. Now the populace of Angelica, Texas takes it a bit too easy in my humble opinion."
I considered correcting his understanding of 'helical', which of course means 'to be shaped as a spiral', not to resemble Hell. I decided not. "Are the two towns rivals?"
The man considered. "The high school football games do get pretty intense, yes."
I studied the sign for the road straight ahead. "What about Theory, Texas?" I asked. "What's it like in Theory?"
The shadow chuckled. "Oh, the people are quite nice in Theory."
I wasn't having that. I stamped a foot. "Do you mean they are nice in the town named Theory, or do you mean they are only nice in a theoretic way disproven by observation?"
The shadow-man thought about it some while. This was back-country Texas; speed in conversation was not a social ambition. Finally he drawled "I do believe that name makes them a population of philosophers. The town bar has writ above the door 'In Theory, it won't hurt'. The gate of the town cemetery offers the comforting message: 'We shall meet again in Theory'. The water tower beside the football field displays the town motto: 'In Theory, we can't lose'."
The lights of a car came down the road, casting my shadow as an infinite void across the world. I studied the approaching pickup truck, dusty and rattling. It slowed. Squinting into the headlights I saw faces peer at me from grimed windows. I did not care for these faces. They glared and grinned, goblins plotting mischief. But moved by the call of my purpose I put up a hand, thumb extended in sign for a ride. The truck promptly sped up, tires tossing bits of gravel as they took a sharp right turn towards Hell, Texas
"Now that's unusual," said the shadow man.
I stared after the truck. My purpose pulled me after it. I had to follow; but would not be rude to a fellow watcher of the night. "Unusual?" I asked. "That a girl should wander a dark country road looking for a ride?"
The shadow-man laughed. He was an easy laugher. I wondered if he was any older to the world than I. He seemed old. He radiated years like heat from a fire. "No, not that. Sit here nights and you see all manner of people and such, busy on business best done by dark. Girls, boys, cats, sheriffs, strange people on back of horses darker than the particular night. Why, I watched a dust-devil go down the road once, collecting leaves and old trash. It stopped and nodded its head at me like we were old amigos. Then on it went. And not a tree-branch nor a grass-blade stirred, not a bit of wind blew. Ha, just two days past a dog trotted by, an' he carried the arm of a man in his jaws. When he saw me he shook it as though to wave howdy. I recollect I once saw -"
"What was unusual just now?" I interrupted. I needed to follow that truck. It was tied to my purpose. But I was young to the road. If facts were to be gained I had best gain them.
He snorted surprised I should ask. "Why, it was unusual they didn't stop to give a pretty thing a ride," said the man. "Damned unfriendly and entirely untypical of these parts. Doubly so by night."
Pretty thing? For the first time in my life, I looked at myself. Hands, legs, breasts, arms, all in the usual number and position. Lengths of hair curtained either side of my face. I had not noticed before. Now that I did it annoyed me, hanging beside my eyes, getting in the way. I pushed it all behind, where I naively assumed it would have the sense to stay. I wore pants, boots, a leather shirt of some kind. A long knife in a sheath hung from a belt; and a dark cloak that swept behind for shadow. These clothes seemed entirely right, as though I were born to them. Well, and I was.
"By your attire, I assume you are on your way to the fair," observed the shadow man.
"Fair?" I asked, puzzled.
"Strawberry Fair, where girls pin flowers in their hair, and boys win ribbons for their girls to wear, and men on stilts juggle flaming knives and knights in plastic armor fight with wooden swords while watchers in robes and furs and skins and jeans and velvet hold their phones in the air."
I considered. Something within me knew. "Yes, I think I am. I am bound for the fair," I said. "But it shall be a journey, just to make it there."
I began hurrying after the truck, down the road to Hell.
You're telling it wrong.
How so? And scoot over you blanket-thief.
You began at the beginning.
So? That's where a story begins. How would you tell your side of it?
I'd start in the middle of course.
I walked in disguise through Strawberry Fair. I knew her face less than she knew mine. But she'd told me I must find her here, with a garden in her hair and a bracelet of cat tails, a shirt the color of a beating heart, skirt wove from the light of night's sun, and shoes the color of longing. The total made a difficult picture yet I felt confident I'd know her when our eyes met.
But the Fair was full of girls with flowers bound to braids and bangs, blooms painted across faces, blossoms hanging from hats. I spotted bracelets with bells and jangles and shells and tangles of shapes difficult to identify in a moment's passing as feline. I went over the words of her promise. The color of a beating heart should be red; and the light of the sun at night must surely be moonlight. 'Longing-colored shoes' threw me. Perhaps something sullen but hot? I looked for a girl dressed in a red blouse and silver skirt wobbling on high heels unsuited to the brick and grass paths of the Fair. I worried over the words, suspecting I had the riddle wrong.
I was not the only one seeking a face they didn't know. A tall knight in black armor held a single long-stemmed rose out and before him like a torch, parting the crowd as he searched left and right for the agreed counter-sign. I wished with all my heart for him to startle, then rush to embrace some creature holding the equal opposite rose.
I bumped a pretty maid with braids of cotton candy. Her breasts swelled over the top of her dress, two bald babies peeking astonished at the world. She held a sign saying 'It's me, Bob'. For a moment she searched in the shadow of my hood, wondering. I shook my head. I was not Bob. She sighed, continued on.
I wore a monk's cloak with a hood to hide my face. It made me stumble but I needed to avoid certain individuals who had also promised to meet me at the fair. I spotted one leaning against the post of a tent by the entrance gate. Tattoos writhed across the muscles of his folded arms. A barbarian costume one might think; but no, that was real barbarian; the hundred-proof distilled product. I observed the stains of blood on the leather pants, the knife-slashes across the riveted wrist-cuffs. Those were not clever costume touches. He scowled into the crowd, scanning for my face. I pretended membership with a tangle of drunken fairies heading down the path.
Archetypes and personifications walked the fair, stalked the throng. I circled a troubadour puffing 'Yesterday' on an oboe and came face to face with Death. His white-bone face started in surprise; obviously he'd just been thinking about me. Avoid eye contact, I advised myself. I stepped left as he stepped left; we both hesitated then I stepped right as he stepped right. He fumbled with a theater-prop scythe across his shoulder while I feinted left then continued left, around and past.
I stopped to consider a girl dressed all in see-through hearts. She wore silvery heels in a manner inspiring several shades of longing. Was that her? And a garland of roses slipped sly over an eye. But she flirted with a faux pope. His Holiness strove to keep his three-tiered hat balanced while holding onto his crozier, a turkey-leg, a tankard of beer, and she the Queen of Gauzy Hearts. Some schism seemed inevitable. She caught my gaze and smiled, winding herself a bit more tightly to the papacy. The Pope belched. Not the right girl, I decided, walked on.
A hermit blocked the way, holding a lantern to the crowd as though we passed him by in darkest night. I edged around but he whirled and shoved the lamp into my hood, banging my nose. He cackled at what the lamp revealed, which presumably was my snarl of pain. The blow and his beery breathe staggered me. For a moment we faced each other. I considered grabbing him by his fake beard. He swung his lamp back and forth preparing to anoint me with a bucket of light. Then he gestured for me to draw near. He had some secret to share. Shaking my head I went carefully around the lunatic, searching for the girl in shoes the color of longing.
I gave myself a sensible scolding, just to pass the time. This was a fool's errand. I didn't know the face I sought. I had only met her by night, as we walked to the Fair together in the dark of a country road. I didn't have a name or number or email address or eye-color. Still, I knew the sound of her voice, her low soft laugh. That was something. In the long dark night, it had been much.
A twelve-foot giant strode slowly down the path. His huge paper-mache head bobbed gently as he took each stilt-legged step. Seemingly he gazed down into the crowd, pop-eyed with wonder at the wee small folk. I stepped to the side, worried he would fall and crush us all. I checked behind for pursuing barbarians.
A shadow-creature in black skirt, black shirt, black shoes wove through the throng, purposeful as some forest shadow stalking prey. Was she after me? I prepared to run. She turned a face masked in black silk, not at me but up to the giant. She smiled. That smile seemed familiar, the way a bit of music can be; music you don't know but already anticipate the coming notes. But her shoes were flat and the colors wrong. I checked her wrist and sighed; she wore a bracelet wove of grass stalks, not tails of cats. She shoved long brown hair back over her shoulders as though it annoyed her. For a second I caught an idea of the scent of flowers.
Then Satan in red satin strolled between us chattering to his cell phone. "Great, meet me by the Maze to finish the deal, I've got a sweet offer." I felt an urge to grab the phone and shout "You fool don't!" But who was I to judge? Besides it was probably a harmless trade of game cards or video loot, not souls. Under the red paint and plastic horns Satan looked sixteen, tops.
I watched Satan disappear into the crowd, then turned, tripped on my over-long cloak and fell against Death who had somehow maneuvered to be in front of me again. My stumble knocked his scythe into the drunken fairy crowd. The scythe tumbled through the air to slice off a cellophane fairy-wing, neat as a laser beam through butter.
I stared. Death stared. The dis-winged fairy stared, his severed appendage twitching sadly on the ground before him. He reached down and picked up the scythe, tapping the blade with a finger. It 'tinged' like a steel saw blade, like a tiny crystal funeral bell. Death attempted a harmless smile.
"Jesus," said the fairy. "What the hell are you doing carrying this through a crowd? You want to kill someone?"
Death gave me a significant look then strode to the drunken fairy to retrieve his tool of harvest. More fairies surrounded both, shouting. I backed away fast and ran through the crowd, dodging into an open field where children and animals considered each other gravely, eyes wide in wonder. The petting zoo. A llama and an elf-child stopped their silent conversation to stare at me, panting and frantic. I waved and ran on. From the branches of a tree, a flock of fairy children in flowers and ribbons blew soap-bubbles, to the amaze of lambs and goats and cynics. The bubbles hovered over the path, shimmering morning sun-lit, following me along. I ducked and swatted but they swerved, dodging my hands, mocking my grasp. I hurried on. Bubbles and child laughs chased after.
Laughter and bubbles chivied me down a side path. Ahead a centaur ambled singing Green Sleeves, happily waving a stick-sausage out of time to the ballad. His horse’s behind was a construction of brown carpet and chicken wire, hind legs hooved with wheels. They bumped and rattled, shopping cart casters on cobble. The horse’s ass blocked my path. A tent door to the side beckoned, the sign promising Ye Old Gypsy Fortune Teller. I pulled off my monk's cloak, revealing my clever secondary disguise of generic elf. I stuffed the cloak in Ye Old Trash Receptacle, checked for pursuers and entered the tent.
An old woman in scarves and bells sat at a table whispering to a cell phone. She hid it hurriedly under the table. "Sorry," she said. "It's against the rules. But somewhere out there beyond this madhouse is the real world. It calls to us, you know?"
I hesitated. Did she mean something mystical or something prosaic? That angels and ghosts and devils whispered to us from beyond The Curtain? Or just that her aunt kept texting to complain of the dog? I gave a nod to cover either possibility, and sat.
"Hold out your hand," she demanded. I did. She took it and studied my palm. In return I studied her face. Ye Old Gypsy wore makeup that drew lines and warts for a mask of age and wisdom. Behind that she was just a girl, twenty or thereabouts.
"You both pursue and are pursued," she declared. I started in surprise, checking the door for Death’s grin. She smirked, continued. "You are some kind of programmer. You have come to the fair to meet a girl.”
“What? How is that in there?” I demanded, pulling my hand back, embarrassed to have it seen naked. Well, it usually was naked but I don't usually care.
She sighed. “You’re breathing hard and keep looking behind. You tossed a thirty-buck Medieval Monk Cloak #5 into the trash before ducking in. One disguise under another says you came prepared to hide. A skinny asthmatic with no calluses on his hands wearing Vulcan ears and an elf costume at the Renaissance Fair screams ‘computer geek’.”
“Vulcans are space elves,” I retorted, stung. “How did you know about the girl?’
She smiled pityingly down from her superior life-wisdom. “Why else would you come to the Fair when you don't feel safe, except for a girl? Sure, it could be a guy but when you sat you stared down my shirt.”
“No I did not.”
“Fine," I said, too dignified to discuss it further. "So where can I find her?”
“How would I know?” she asked surprised. “What am I, a psychic?”
I put my arms on the table in defeat, rested my head. “What color is longing, anyway?”
"What color of the what?" she asked, confused.
"Longing," I sighed. "I promised to go through Hell to meet her at Strawberry Fair. She told me I’d find her dressed in a skirt the color of the night's sun, shirt the color of a beating heart, and shoes the exact shade of longing. But I can't find the right girl in red and silver, much less the shoes"
"Ha, wrong colors," the Gypsy laughed. "That's too easy."
"Easy," I nodded. Of course it was. I hate riddles. They are always easy. Once you give up. I waited to hear the answer. She sat silent. I looked up from my head-resting. She tapped a long fake fingernail on the plastic skull that centered the table. I stared puzzled until she double-tapped the credit-card slot to the side of its bony face. Oh, right. I pulled out my credit card, swiped it through the side-bar. The eyes flashed red, a strip of paper rolled out between the yellow teeth.
"You need a receipt?" she asked.
"No," I said patiently. "I do not need a receipt. I need the truth."
She grinned. Under her old-lady makeup was a girl-face shining happy for the fun of adventure and romance. I pitied her innocence. "Hearts beat in the dark, dimwit. Black. Sunlight at night? There isn’t any, so black. Color of longing? That's the eye dilating when you look at someone you really, really, really want. Black again."
I considered. I supposed it passed for the idiot logic that riddles follow. They tease you to go the obvious way instead of the right way. No doubt a 'bracelet of cat tails' would be anything except a feline appendage. Wasn't there a plant called a cat-tail? And if it said 'a garden in her hair' then I could be certain of the absence of a single damned flower. Maybe just flowery perfume… and suddenly I was recalling a scent of flowers, remembering the shadow-girl in the crowd.
"Dammit," I swore, jumping up. I hurried to the tent door, then stopped to peer out. Beyond the tent, Death and the Barbarian rummaged through the trash. Death pulled out the Medieval Monk's Cloak #5 and held it to the sky, the skin of some sacrificial animal. I turned to Ye Gypsy.
"Back way?" I asked.
I hurried through the night, past fields where cattle lowed gently, through woods where crickets chorused night-song. Fireflies flickered over pools of ditch-water, mirroring their dance of light with the reflected stars. My purpose pulled me as the overhanging moon tugged the distant sea. Kitchen lights of farm-houses shone on far-away hills, lonely and yet comforting. A falling star scratched a line across the surface of the night sky, then vanished.
At length I came to a little country graveyard, fenced and flowered, ivy-grown and unafraid of time, unafraid of night. The truck sat parked by the gate, creaking faintly with the cooling of its engine. The cemetery gate itself leaned open and broken. I approached warily, peering over the ivy-vined fence.
A marble angel stood moonlit in the center of the stones, guarding, watching, white wings thrown back in outrage at what he beheld. I nodded my respect, as one shall do. But his gaze did not turn from the churchyard and his sleeping charges. There among the gravestones, figures worked with shovels, grunting, cursing, arguing low. Four black candles marked the corners of a grave, and by that faint light they heaved something up from the dark wet earth. The statue of the angel glowered at this violation. One marble wing-tip twitched, tail-tip of an angry cat.
One figure stood at the head of the grave, holding a torch that sulked red flame. He wore a helmet topped with antlers. Shirtless, the muscles of chest and arms twitched beneath red-fired skin. He stood legs splayed, entirely confident of his stand upon the opened earth. At the foot of the grave stood another shirtless figure, pale skin wrapped in tattoos of snakes. They writhed unpleasant in the torch light. He bent down and worked upon the box, aided by a third and fourth brigand.
A sound of tearing wood, and the clean night air roiled with the stench of death. The antlered man raised the red-dripping torch above the coffin and began to chant. My eyes narrowed. The chanted words opened a door in the night; a door to a darker, deeper night. A cold wind rushed through, sending leaves clattering. All insect song stopped dead. Surrounding trees waved branches in alarm. White wisps of form and face rose like mist from the ground, hovered about the grave. Began an eerie dance, moving in and out, in and out of the red torch light, waving fingers at the opened coffin, coaxing some shy creature out of hiding.
And of course a figure sat up from within the box. It was a young woman, ghastly in her moon-lit beauty. Long blond hair hung dank about her for a shroud. She stared up at the torch, eyes filmed grey as dregs of old milk. And then she smiled; yellow teeth grinning up at the red light, head tipped in greeting to old friends and cold winds.
I shivered. Dark magic and the raising of the dead; to no good purpose. But this was not my purpose. I turned and felt within me for direction, for my next step. It was near. I tiptoed to the truck. In the back a tarp covered something that twitched. Carefully I pulled it away. And there lay a figure bound with ropes. I drew the knife from my belt, my hand confident around a hilt I had never grasped. I bent low over the prisoner, guessing he would see me only as a dark shadow against the sky.
"Shhh," I warned. “They are nearby.” I began cutting the ropes.
He made a mumbling sound through a gag across his mouth. “Quiet,” I reminded, and pulled the gag away. But as soon as it was free he spoke aloud. He had a pleasant voice, though high and breathless.
"What an interesting night," he observed to me, or to the night, or maybe just himself. He held out his wrists so I could cut the ropes more easily.
"Shhh," I repeated exasperated. I looked towards the figures in the cemetery. They were chanting again. The red torch blazed, casting bloody shadows upon the headstones, the stern face of the angel, the fair hungry face of the girl.
"Sorry," he whispered. Then, "Ow. Ouch. Ow. Hey that hurt."
I turned back to him. "What is it about 'shhh' that you don't understand?" I growled low.
"What is it about the difference between skin and rope that you don't understand?"
"Shut. Up." I said, suddenly furious.
"Shhhhh," he replied smug. Then he grinned. He thought he’d won some argument. I reached to put the gag back across his mouth. But he stretched his freed arms and legs and began climbing clumsily over the sides of the truck. He made a ridiculous amount of noise. I turned in alarm towards the cemetery. The chanting had stopped. I studied the antlered man bearing the red torch, worried he had heard.
Then something went flying past me and over the fence, to land with a loud jangle far out among the graves. The torch swayed. The angel twitched. I jumped, turned. The man I'd freed had thrown something.
"Let's go, go, go," he whispered. Why did he bother whispering now? He had retrieved a backpack from the truck, and donned it, a burden for the road.
"Into the truck," I said, moving towards the driver's door.
"No point," he hissed. "I just threw their keys away."
"What?" I shouted astounded. "Why the hell would you do that?"
"Don’t you have a car?" he whispered. "What did you do, walk?"
I stared at my purpose, measuring him with the honest eyes of one new to all things. I beheld a thin young man with a long thin nose, a long thin face, long thin hair; feverish eyes blinking towards me without seeing more than shadows, lacking my night-vision. Here was the reason for my birth in a special moment of stars and night and wind; here the goal of the miles I’d traveled, and all the road to come. Here before me stood the reason for my life, my heartbeat, my very being.
And my purpose was obviously a total idiot.