Every night, from a fair distance, you can see lights flickering as if surges of power are coursing through the slaughterhouse on the edge of town.
You might guess that some people claim to have heard screams, but the sheriff has never been able to verify this. He has been there several times, only to find an empty building with the lights on.
He finds this comforting.
If someone in the town believes angels are released from the bodies of cows as they die and many of them still remain at the slaughterhouse, well, this is not the sheriff’s fault. But who else would listen?
Who really owns the slaughterhouse? Some say it’s the mayor. Some say it’s a private citizen who has gotten very eccentric in his old age. They call him Hacker John, sometimes John the Hammer. The sheriff did find this man, but when he asked him why the lights were on, the man replied that he went there when he couldn’t sleep, which was far too often. At the large empty building with the lights on, he found he could sleep. And dream. He does not tell the sheriff his dreams.
Like many eccentrics, Hacker John is wealthy. He can afford to dream. The sheriff, like many of the townsfolk, does not want to believe what Hacker John tells him because this is not an acceptable explanation to the troublesome townsfolk. They want action.
They want conclusions. Or at least a juicy new detail to the unacceptable stories in their imaginations.
Harold’s former owner, a man known by most only as Skeeter, for example, claimed, before Harold’s fourth leg had to be removed because of the infection from rusty barbed wire, that Hacker John did not belong among the townspeople, that he came from somewhere else and has made his fortune capitalizing on their weaknesses (if eating meat is a weakness). Others agreed that this was true, but asked, “Aren’t all fortunes made in this way?”
There is, of course, on the other side of town, an eccentric old woman who is very poor and lives in a very old house and some of the people believe she is the lover of the man who owns the slaughterhouse. Some believe there is only cruelty between them.
A local historian believes these two people represent between them the history of this town, and an anthropologist from the college in Omaha has begun to catalog the stories about them to see how they have changed over the years and if they correspond with stories told in other towns. Neither of these people is likely to trace these stories back to the cave, where this really began. Perhaps Thomas should be wondering about these things instead of his neighbors. Perhaps an angel needs more than a body. Perhaps there are more parts to a body than you can see. You might think an angel would be the first one to know this. You might be wrong.
And you might be interested in the other edge of town, the edge that anyone who is bored or lonely can find, even when they’ve never been to the edge of town. It’s an edge that sharpens when religion is discussed, an edge that excites fear and quickens the nerves, which makes the nerves create things that may not be there. It’s an edge that might once have been necessary for survival and that has now mostly been forgotten but still lingers in misunderstood impulses. And in dreams, where nearly everything we have lost still lingers.
Some of the people of the town are trying to learn to live on that edge, and they want the sheriff to help them. The sheriff is trying to understand this, but understanding this is not his job.
And the sheriff is expected to do his job.
Near the town hall, in an old Victorian house, surrounded now by commercial buildings, three eccentric sisters live quietly in disagreement with the town’s progress.
Rumor has it that these three sisters sleep together in a large oak bed. Yes, the people believe they are lovers and that sometimes they abduct a stranger from the streets late at night and involve him in rituals they train him to forget.
It is not a rumor, however, that these three sisters feed and care for at least a dozen cats. It is a rumor that they also feed and care for more than a dozen snakes, six green canaries, a rare Australian toad, and several dozen very nervous white mice. They are, of course, the same three sisters you can find in many other small towns, and their three brothers are equally well known. This is something Thomas should know as well as he knows the coordination of his fingers, the tingling in his hair follicles when his hand wraps around the hand of a friend.
The stories twist a little from town to town, state to state, but the similarities remain. There is, for example, a waitress at the truck stop a few miles down the highway named Trudy, who knows just about everything there is to known about the three sisters and their three lost brothers. Trudy is not her real name. She came to the diner about three years ago after running away from her mother, an alcoholic, with a bad childhood of her own, who used to beat Trudy. Trudy’s father was a trucker who left before she was old enough to know him.
Or a cowboy. Or a mechanic. Or a wealthy married corporate executive buying real estate for oil wells. Trudy jokes about him.
You can tell your troubles to Trudy and Trudy has always had it worse to make you feel better. Trudy’s boyfriend this week is Dusty Wayne, a name he probably made up, a gypsy trucker who believes he wants to put down roots. Dusty has a daughter in another town, by another Trudy, who is also a waitress, a waitress planning to buy a mobile home as soon as she can save up enough of her tips. That Trudy hopes to marry a fry cook named Sam, which might actually be his real name though nobody seems to remember his last name, not even Trudy.
Visitation privileges are definitely limited, but once Dusty’s daughter came with him on a long haul. She slept in the back and played with her plastic horses, and talked about her mother’s boyfriends in North Dakota, and about the ribbons she is going to win at the county fair for barrel racing, and about the cowboy she is going to marry some day when she gets old enough to have babies. Perhaps Thomas might learn something from the probability that she will be right, except for the injury that ends her husband’s rodeo career and turns him to trucking. Her daughter’s first boyfriend will be named Dusty, too.
She will laugh about the “coincidence,” a word she speaks with a southern drawl and her lips drawn up at the sides of her mouth. Her daughter will call them Dusty He and Dusty She. A few years later the same boyfriend will become a dancer in New York. She will tell this story while waitressing at a diner down the road from the Tri-State Raceway, flipping a limp wrist at the customer when she lisps “dancer.”
Right now the diner’s specialty is a buffalo burger, which was actually prepared for this moment by the buffalo getting slaughtered at the edge of town. But it won’t be long before it will be a garden burger, and most of the farmers will commute to the larger town thirty miles away or be employed by agribusiness.
When it snows here, the people hunker down in their blankets and pretend that centuries have not passed. The old Victorian house with the three elderly sisters will help them believe this, even if three new sisters are growing older there and the three older sisters have passed on. Thomas finds such concepts of time easy to understand, but he seldom remembers details.
Thomas can’t understand why the sisters will be remembered smiling with ethereal grace when they were so rarely seen that way in life. It might make you think the townspeople actually liked them when they treated them mostly with contempt and occasionally pity.
Outside, in the snowy orchards, the shadows of denuded trees make a neat and repetitive system of angles on the snow. Inside the temporary houses, which we call bodies, shadows dance on the walls as neglected fireplaces flicker back to life. It always takes several awkward moments to realize that the returning shadows are your own. Once more they cast themselves on the primitive wall of a kind of memory that doesn’t announce itself. It slips out of our ancient past and climbs again to the ceiling, where the sparkling, spackled, cloudless and clearly imagined night quietly punctuates the ageless dance.
In the canyons of Thomas asleep there lives a hermit named Clyde. Clyde has lived in the canyon forever, and he has never stopped talking. Clyde talks only to himself because no one can understand what he is saying. Clyde does not have a history. No matter who you ask in town, no one will know about Clyde, except to say they saw him, yesterday.
Everyone knows where he lives and how he looks and whom he talks to because he talks to himself. Clyde pulls a red Radio Flyer wagon to collect wood and bottles and any usable discards he can find.
Some of the children try to speak to Clyde so they can make up their own stories about what it is that he has said. Since he isn’t really speaking to them, only speaking in their presence, it could be anything. Some of them decide to collect things like he does and try to sell them. Then they feel guilty that they are taking away Clyde’s business. So they go to Clyde’s shack to give him some of the pennies they make collecting things. When
Clyde answers the door, they hold out their hands with the pennies in them. As Clyde gestures them away, refusing the offer, they see over Clyde’s shoulder a black and white TV tuned to The Wheel of Fortune.
This happens again and again with different children. Stories circulate about it, but it happens over and over because no one believes them, and the children have to prove to themselves that this is really what Clyde would do. Later these children will claim that they saw someone dressed in blue and heard a woman’s voice farther back in the room.
Or that a mean dog attacked them and would have torn them apart if it weren’t for the Swiss knife they were carrying. Or that Clyde’s room was beautiful and filled with glittering lights from one of those balls they mount on the ceiling at dance places. Or that
Clyde was too drunk to answer the door, and they went in anyway, and Clyde tried to have sex with them and put their hands on him and he unbuttoned things and reached for zippers. Or threw up on them. Or that Clyde took the pennies and thanked them kindly.
No one believes that, either.
One day a passing scholar from Omaha, who has eaten at the local diner, decides to take a walk around town before moving on. As the woman finishes a bottle of pop, Clyde walks by with his wagon full of bottles, and the scholar hands Clyde the empty bottle.
Just then Trudy is getting off work at the diner, and she observes the two people apparently carrying on a conversation. Not like the children, who just ask him a question to hear the funny noises he makes and then lie to everybody about what he said. She walks over and asks the scholar what she thinks she is doing. The scholar informs her that they are discussing “rabbit breeding,” and when Trudy looks puzzled, she adds, “in Hungarian.”
The scholar leaves town the same day and two days later, having told no one yet about what she has discovered, Trudy moves to Alaska with a salmon fisherman. Thomas misses Trudy’s stories at the diner, but wonders how many of them she told and how many of them he dreamed.
The creek that runs through the town comes down from the hills of rusted earth to the east and often runs red. The local children use a railroad trestle as a diving platform, but one of the children once dove out too far and was killed. No one knows if the creek is called Blood Creek because of the accident or because of the color of the water.
The dead boy had been the son of a minister, and the trestle was “off limits.” Now it is not possible to achieve respect in the high school here without jumping naked from that trestle into Blood Creek.
A legend the people here believe is the story of Wanutka, the giant white buffalo. It is said that when the town was just a village, one of the young men had been thrown from his horse crossing a swift-flowing stream, injuring his legs on the stones. The stream carried him along over rocks and boulders, bruising him and breaking his body, until coming around a cut-bank, he saw a ghostly buffalo drinking from the edge of the stream, his massive shaggy head leaning out over the streambed. The young man grabbed the buffalo’s horns and the buffalo pulled him to shore and quickly disappeared. The young man not only survived, but he regained the use of his legs.
Thomas remembers this story both in sleep and in waking. He does not know if he has remembered it from his past, dreamed it from almost nothing, or heard it. He believes in some indirect way that the white buffalo is his father. He does not think of the buffalo as a ghost or an apparition. Neither does he tell anyone how he feels about the white buffalo.
A legend the people here do not believe is the story of Wilhelmina Appleseed, who is said to have bragged so loudly about the virtues of her womanhood while perched atop a horse in Blood Creek that lightning struck the horse. She fell, mouth open, into the creek and swallowed the whole stream, giving birth as a result to the Twin Buttes south of town. Some of the people say there is a third butte and that these three are the birthing mounds of the three sisters living in the Victorian house at the edge of town. They do this in order to attach a truth to a lie, which can sometimes make the lie seem true. Because there seems to be no real consequence to the story, it is not believed. This does not diminish the enthusiasm with which the story is told. Perhaps it is a story looking for a home, a story still available for someone to attach to his or her own history and thereby bring to light its consequence. Thomas believes it is a story containing a white buffalo and the buffalo has fallen out of the story. He often tries to remember his father telling the story. In this he has not succeeded.
A legend most of the people here would like to believe, but don’t, is the story of the founder of this town, known as McKinley Goldenrod because no one knows his real name and the McKinley family and the Goldenrod family both lay claim to this man. He is said to have been digging for gold in the red hills when his pickaxe struck a metal object, which turned out to be a chest. The chest contained a map, which at first made no sense to him but later led him to a buried stash of gold doubloons deep in the jungles of Brazil. This was supposed to have been the money used to bribe the railroad to pass through the town. The few remaining historical documents of the town tell another story.
The town’s name is unrelated to the story. The legend persists.
A great number of brawls and fistfights have occurred over the uncertainty about which of McKinley’s legs was wooden though everyone seems certain that one of them was. During the centennial, a local entrepreneur sold Scotch in wooden flasks shaped to “the exact length and girth” of McKinley Goldenrod’s wooden leg. Due to the incidence of alcoholism in town, an unopened decanter is a rare commodity indeed. Nearly everyone in town claims to be related to McKinley Goldenrod. Several varieties of fruit in the local orchards are named after him.
Few people here believe there ever was any real quantity of gold in the red hills, despite the inevitable tiny nugget passed down in several families, but from time to time someone from the geology department of the university manages to start rumors about various other valuable minerals, and the shovels and the pick axes sell out at the surplus store. Nothing much comes of it.
A rare breed of chestnut-red horse with almost no tail is said to have originated here, over near the Twin Buttes, but the breed is no longer highly valued. No living specimens remain, but there is a stuffed (some say fake) example losing its hair in front of the barbershop. It still gets to move inside when it rains.
One of the local farmers invented a device for harvesting corn, powered by a single horse, but by the time the man learned it was necessary to apply for a patent, someone else had invented it. This happened the year before Henry Ford’s automobile first appeared in town. Nearly everyone believes this story, but no one claims to be related to the man. No one can even remember his name with any certainty, and several possibilities have been proved false with minimal research.
Some of the Italians who moved here before the war tried to graft a unique strain of blue wine grape to the more common varieties on the sunny warm slopes of the red hills. The wine these hybrids produced became very respected by the local elite and was joked about by the less discerning, who certainly didn’t turn it down anyway, but no one outside of the immediate area would buy blue wine. Now it is made only in local basements and sheds while pheasants and foxes and a pack of feral dogs have their way with the abandoned landscape where the grapes occasionally ferment upon the vine in the old vineyards.
For weeks now, Thomas has been exploring the town. Ever since his hands have started to reach for things as if they were nearly beyond his control, he has been wandering. He picks up a rock and puts it back down. He picks it up again and squeezes it. He marvels at the way it makes his hand conform to its shape. He places it upon a table and listens to the conversation. Neither the rock nor the table gives in to the other, but the respect is obvious.
Sometimes Thomas pushes the edges. When the rock and the table are finished, he picks up the rock again and caresses it. He marvels at the way the rock demands his attention so roughly without doing any real damage. It’s a kind of caress that he has never before received, or more accurately, remembered.
Thomas drops the rock and feels a tremendous satisfaction at the soft enveloping thud the grass offers with so many fingers. The rock is all palm and knuckle. It has no fingers, or it only has one and wears it on the outside of its palm like a single round knucklefinger.
Thomas throws the rock, and it grabs a leaf, a berry, a bit of dirt. It holds its collection tightly but shares if you coax it. It knows how to wait better than Thomas does. It does not complain if you ask it to hold onto your notebook. It likes the bottom of water and the top of air, which all angels know is the reverse of human experience. Falling is a worthier endeavor than climbing, and a rock knows this.
Do not tell a chair what a rock knows.
Thomas picks up the comb from the sidewalk. He pulls his thumb across the tines and listens to the pitch changing. He does this several times. He holds it out and offers the sound to a passing child, who recoils in fear.
Thomas combs the grass, very slow work indeed if you’re going to do it without breaking the grass. He combs the air, and it creates a circular motion that he enjoys nearly as much as the comb. He combs the hair of some other child’s doll, left sitting on the green park bench, and the child before him begins crying. He runs the comb alongside his nose, as if he were trying to get something inside his nose to fall into place. The child quits crying.
Thomas combs the sun. He reaches out and combs the sun. The sun doesn’t notice. He combs the clouds. He combs the water. He combs the park bench, which ignores him. He combs the idea of the park bench, which gets silky and smooth and invites him to hold on to it.
It’s like this.
Whispered, of course.
Someone said, “Come in,” but it was your room, and you had lived there for years.
A few minutes after you met yourself, you understood why your life was not really your own.
The ghost of the mayor’s boyhood horse snickers in the penthouse rooftop garden, feasting on snow peas and spinach, pawing the rich and shallow topsoil for further rewards. Only the mayor hears him. And then sees him through the telescope, escaping.
No longer held back by earthly fences, the white horse in the dream feasts and races his moon-shadow on the road in front of the mayor’s old house. Soon the mayor’s angry wife removes the imported “Gypsy” tomatoes from the penthouse kitchen windowsill, believing they have caused her husband’s “derangement.”
Her flowers begin disappearing.
Thomas sighs in his sleep.
The white horse is whispering at the mayor’s window, hovering above the town as if some ancient message of poetry were being delivered to a god. The message is indeed ancient, and it’s always received as poetic, but it’s hardly unusual. It enters the mayor’s blood while he sleeps. It carries the conversations in his body from one part of the body to another. It speaks, and it listens, and it keeps moving. An insistent bold mouse of need with an entire hungry family waiting. Cautious, but returning and returning again. Inevitable.
Oh, what could be eating our flowers, wonders the mayor’s wife.
Thomas tells the bed-sheets what is happening to him. He whispers of his need to his gently held pillow. He murmurs in another language. The mayor tries to distract his distraught wife by sponsoring a concert for the townspeople, but no one comes. They can’t believe the address of the concert hall is the right one. “Music indoors?” they all ask and gather in the park, dancing till late into the night to the thunderous rustling of the leaves.
Thomas hears the leaves and awakens.
Contributor’s Notes: Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. In 2011 he received a nomination for The Best of the Web and two nominations for both the Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Net. He is the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. The Spring 2011 Bitter Oleander contains a feature including an interview and 18 of his hybrid works. His book of days, Tunneling to the Moon, is appearing in serial form with a new piece each day at http://silencedpress.com/.