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by Zach VandeZande
The next village came and stole our baby, our only one. Now we aren’t village but hunting party, kitted out in flannel, with sharp sticks, with baby-catching nets and the blood of a lamb on each of our faces. The mother comes forward and puts her hands in the lamb’s open guts and smears blood on her own face, takes up her own stick, and we go.
We go into the woods and not all of us come out the other side. The vines of the wild thin us, hunger and cold and infection. Others turn back in disgust, missing Hulu Plus, missing cell phone service. One is made beast and we have to do what we do to beasts. We agree we’ll leave that out of the story. We’ll leave it in the dark before the triumph to come.
At the edge of the wood the mother smudges us with sage. She presses her lips to our foreheads. It’s not a kiss but an imprinting. Somewhere along the way we became her children, and we march through the plains surrounding her the way a nest might to warm a bird.
We arrive at the next village early in the morning. Automatic sprinklers are running. A garbage truck blunders around gathering up trash. It is a peace like the peace we had. The mother comes forward, then, and screams, and in that scream is a splinter of human suffering unlike and also exactly like any other.
We set on the village, house to house. For the baby we set pets loose and hurl stones to brain them running. For the baby we light fire to the garbage and the apricot trees. For the baby we slit all throats. We chase them all down, we tine them to the ground with pitchforks, we kill them in their beds and on their toilets and at their kitchen tables, we tackle and twist and tear. All this ugly to honor a child.
We find it, gasping and furred with its tail wrapped around its throat. We cannot pry the tail free. Everything we try seems to twist it tighter. We bring the mother, and she holds it to her bared breast as its lips go blue, as it tries to cry and can’t. She holds it as it goes still. We stand there, watching, silent and victorious.
As a child he found he could stop time, and that while time was stopped he could do a great number of things without consequence. In this way he became a villain. It’s an old story, boring and as ugly as you care to imagine, and it’s not the one I’m telling. The story I’m telling is the one he told me.
I fuck plenty with the future, he said, like I was supposed to know what he was referring to. Then time squeezed in on itself. Dust shone frozen in place in the sunlight. Sound stopped. It was difficult to breathe. The air didn’t feel like moving into my lungs. He said I’d get used to it. He said I wasn’t going to die today, that even if I did dying takes time, and look around, just look, there’s no time anymore. And then he told me the story while we both sat there in all that now.
In the story there was a little boy, and the little boy didn’t know why he was sad but he was. The little boy went out onto a plain and stared at the clouds forming overhead, and one of them was his heart, and it rained on him, and it was all really cliché. I don’t know if the story was true or what but I had to listen. When the heart cloud stopped raining the boy tried to stand up and found the grass had grown around him, a thicket had wrapped him up, and there was no way to escape. All of this was said to me in a whisper, and all of it was a kind of threat. I felt again like I might be dying. I thought I might be the boy.
Summer came in the story, and the grasses scorched and died. The boy was able to break free. When he went home, he found it was no longer there. He found that all the world had turned to the plain, and there was nowhere to go but where he was already, and the boy lived his life in this way, going from plain to plain, alone and learning to be unafraid in the dead grass. Until one day, he met another child. She came toward him through the heavy heat, and he could scarcely believe it. There was a rock at his feet when he saw her, and he put it in his hand, and he made it a thing with use before heading on his way. And that was the end of the story. Though he searched, a boy alone on a plain has no story to tell, not anymore.
Time started again. He lit a cigarette and wandered listless from my house. What he did next, I don’t know. I like to think he found a way to be better. I like to think he found something like home.
Every day the lava drew closer. We would go out to watch it fell a burning tree, or just swallow up stones, or char and cook a goat carcass as it made its way across the farms and the outskirts of the town. It was boring. It was apocalyptic. It was ever on the way, inching us toward a kind of lack we couldn’t conceive of. We’d always had our homes, permanent.
There was nothing for us to do but wait. There wouldn’t be a real eruption, no ejecta raining down over us so we would be offered up to the blind chance of survival, just this seeping wound in the world coming for us all. We had a feast at the burn line, cooked sausages and whole chickens at the end of long metal rods, careful to pull them away before the metal bowed into the flow. The meats were good. The best we’d ever tasted. You’d give yourself away entire just to taste one again. You might regret it one day, but not right then, salt and chicken fat in your mouth.
Later our homes would burn. We didn’t know when. Days, maybe. Later we would pack our vans with what mattered most, we’d crate our cats and go. Go where. A good question. A question in want of an answer.
Zach VandeZande is an Assistant Professor at Central Washington University. He is the author of the novel Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth, 2008) and the forthcoming Lesser American Boys (Ferry Street Books, 2018). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Gettysburg Review, Yemassee, Georgia Review, Cutbank, DIAGRAM, Sundog Literature, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. He likes you just fine.