Vicissitudes, Give or Take
You are not allowed to die here. That is law, and tantamount to quantum physics or the men with broad shoulders. Life, as they say around the burning pine-knot hearth, is an outlaw, and when it is traitorous, it must be driven away like the outlaw that she is.
The law was passed not because everyone who lives in this town craves immortality, though they do—and who does not?—if you are being honest with yourself. It’s not because this is a town consisting of immortals and their immortal children playing immortal G.I. Joes Vs. Housecats.
Permafrost is law. Too hard. Too cold. Too it to be dug up for a long body in a longer cypressbox. This proves the hardest law each man, woman, and child learns, short of the indelible cold and short of the four-month-darkness that engulfs the elbow-shaped Valley of the Young.
If you are dying—which you are; that is why you are here, listening—you must leave the town, the valley, the region. By lemon-colored quarterhorse, by ghost ferry, by me.
The strangest thing is that on the outskirts of town, in the forearm-end of the valley, there is a graveyard. Dying or not, you cannot miss it. This graveyard with snow-white crosses, wooden and looking more like paper dolls than signs of the dead. Some say there are bodies buried there from long ago. Some say that’s horseshit—they’re there for show. Someone wrote names along the crosses’ horizontal limbs. Names like Virgil Brandeis and Brookish Fowler. You cannot miss them—except when it snows high enough and deep enough to rise above the cross-tops. And then all signs disappear. The marked graves made blank again. The whole valley whitewashes into a heaven but not ours.
The Question Begged
You are always one foot out the door, you are always one foot in the grave. You are this, not knowing that just over your brass threshold lies the dugout plot of your story. We are far from the comforts of home. Home: no longer the safe word we once uttered in the blizzard’s fangs. Forget the lemon rinds in your Old Fashioneds, forget the earthworks’ loamy bedtime smell, forget the coyote congregation outside the blacksmith’s forge where they loiter with ears pointed to the hiss of cooled tongs.
The first place and the last place is the place to pass by Her. Some call her Nike, some Judgment, some the Angel of Contrition. I call her nothing. (Safer that way.) And those some? They have yet to pass by Her, feel Her marbled eyes graze the soul with that cast-iron stare. I realize you do not know this. You were born here. As was I.
She is a stranger. That is how I know to trust Her. In a valley where no one is allowed to die, everyone does her accustomed part to increase the deception quotient.
If you’re not a praying man, now is not the time to start. She will drop hawks on you if She finds you playing the penitent. I’ve seen it before. But quiet now. We approach.
The slot canyon.
The river’s rock.
The stormking’s dripping jawline.
She is at the end of this particular stretch. This is as much about you as it is about me. You do not become a hearsewalker without learning such fundamentals, such answers broken on the back of reason. Keep one eye open as we leave the Valley of the Young. We all become strange to each other in the end, and I am no different, and you are no different, are you?
The Dying Light that Turns Your Eyes to Blinks of Yellow
Do not ask where we’re going.
What I can tell you, right now, is all borderlands—if borderlands are places where the borders between what we know and what we think we know become permeable, if not broken down into the deltas of glittering knifetips and cracked vinyl plateaus. The land of mythmaking. It’s clear: your health is failing fast. I won’t ask. But I have to ask you to keep going. Mop that blood from your chin. Silence that wheezing. Hold on. It’s not the body that concerns me.
Your biggest challenge is that your mind will have to live—live long enough to die.
Open your briefcase: lemon wreath, tin arrowhead, ion dissonant tablet. Lighten the load.
It doesn’t matter who I am. Nor that I still remember the potted succulents in your parlor or the electric candles in your rose window. If I were a poor hearsewalker, I would leave you here. So let’s make it easy. Let’s say you are my father and I am your daughter and I am a talented hearsewalker with maps of the territory tattooed under my skin. Here, take my hand. Hurry. Are you paying attention?
I understand. I admit. There is another reason we are lightening the load.
We are being followed.
I don’t want to say by whom. But there is a difference between the bending of providence and the breaking of tradition. In other words: not normal. They say never forget where you come from; but they aren’t from the place where you and I are from. Responsibility, duty, love—call it what you will—is as a cruel a master as chaos, if not crueler, because it requires bound trust over particled release.
Leave the briefcase too.
The Lemon Tree
Let’s play a little game while we walk tonight. It eases the heart as well as the horror.
I’ll tell you three things. Two of them are lies. One of them is true. If you correctly decide which, then you have learned something about your hearsewalker—no small feat.
Now, choose wisely.
Do you trust me?
We have to keep going. Cross this rope bridge. Travel by moonlight. Our pursuer gains us.
If we hide in the brambled trees, she will find us. If we hide in the glow caves, she will find us. If we do anything other than keep moving, she will find us. She will take us back to the Valley of the Young. We’re too far gone to return. If we return now, we will never be able to leave, and we will die there alive, unheralded, destroyed by the time that cherished us. And I as a hearsewalker would be shamed: relegated to the fringeworks, tied to a grace stone, meant to suffer in the darkest snow.
How do I know it’s a she? Because only a she would dare these lengths for something desired. The sun is a feral desert disk in the glass sky, and we are all shadows in its eye. But she is a bigger shadow. And even shadows can shine in the night.
If I were your daughter and you were my father, would you trust me more or run from me more? I’m taking you through this mountain pass, the horn of blinking. A hearsewalker’s job is not complete until there is nothing left of her charge to leave behind, not even a rind. The wind that rushes around my open heart is a colder wind than most. And the joys I know number fewer than the teeth in the planet-ripened skull that hangs like a large lemon from the tree we are passing under right now. See the moon shine through its open cavities.
Quiet now, I can hear her twinkling bells.
Please, father, if you trust me, you should trust me all the way. Trust me, I am your hearsewalker. I am not your only daughter.
It’s your own fault you twisted your ankle, daydreaming deeply. If you turn back, you will only see the wake the world leaves behind. She is there, wearing a mask and fondling a blade and crushing stones underfoot as if they were holiday ornaments.
You say you can hear her crying. Your mind: too far gone for its own good.
She is not crying. I repeat: she is not crying.
Her cry is her call-to-arms: she asks the wind for assistance, the soonest snow for eclipses, the scorpions for traction, the chimney rocks for guiding smoke, the trees to close their nettled gaps, and the whole world to be a grave. And you want to face this gale-force?
“Stop crying,” you yell back to her. “Please!”
No need to yell: she is already here.
Do not remove her mask. Take her knife. Draw it across her outstretched arm. Let it bleed.
Now draw the same blade across your arm. Do you not bleed the same shade? The individual beads glisten like a rabbit’s eye. It hurts, yes; it should. Dying is the easiest part.
“What color are the black cat’s eyes?” she asks.
“One is hazel,” you say, “one is lemon.”
“And how does the cat see?”
“When both eyes face the same direction,” I say.
Now I draw the blade across my arm. Only, I draw it too deeply, bleed too much. I cannot carry you now.
She—she volunteers to ferry you to the sinkhole. I will follow. I do not need to say my blood is the same shade. Hurting is the most difficult part. But I take comfort in thoughts of giraffe necks and tea parties in the graveyard and the story of the nutcracker with no lower jaw. I bleed these memories into the ground like liquid hearts.
Drop of Honey
Here we are. The end-end.
I am your daughter, and this is the sinkhole where life becomes unraveled until it is only a swarm of bees escaping their hive. That is all we are in the Valley of the Young: hives. The bees: our thoughts. The bees: our blood. The bees: our pocketed urges and kisses on the forehead.
Take this rope. Tie one end around your waist. You know what this means. This is a hearsewalker’s job: to know you know, and to tell you what you don’t know.
Do you remember, on your last day in town, how you walked to the fountain? How you did not toss in a single wishing well coin? How, instead, you emptied everything—your pockets, your satchel, your mind? You dumped every light artifact into the clear red waters and said the opposite of a blessing. You told me, on the way out, that this is the only way to leave: to give away your wishes.
Please take the first step into the sinkhole. A step we all must take. It is steep. Descend, descend. She and I, together, will hold the rope’s other end. I know you are scared. So I will tell you one last secret: once you have disappeared into the earthen void, once the rope goes slack with your body gone the way of a collapsed hive, then we, she and I, will follow you down because we, too, are buzzing with decay. Sisters do that. Our blood, your blood; your bees, our bees. Keep going. You have so much to die for. It will pass right through you. Through her. Through us. Through the branches of the lemon tree.
You cannot hear me now. But still I talk. I am your hearsewalker. And now I feel the rope begin to loosen, loosen, loosen, loosen, loosen, loosen, loosen.
Alexander Lumans was the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. He was also awarded a fellowship to the 2015 Arctic Circle Residency, where he sailed around Svalbard, Norway in a tall ship. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Story Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Cincinnati Review, among others. He has been awarded fellowships to MacDowell, Yaddo, VCCA, Blue Mountain Center as well as scholarships to Sewanee and Bread Loaf. He received the 2015 Wabash Fiction Prize from Sycamore Review, the 2013 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize, and the 2011 Barry Hannah Fiction Prize from Yalobusha Review. He graduated from the M.F.A. Fiction Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Michael Tunk grew up with a proclivity for art in the slums of Warrenville, Illinois; he now resides in Alameda, California. With his analog collages, he uses photographs and magazines from the 1800’s-1980’s and re-contextualizes them into new images both strange and beautiful. Follow him on Instagram here.