Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings

by on Dec 5, 2017 in Short Fiction | 2 comments

6,300 Words

“Sit here.” He pulls out a thin panel from the front of his kiosk, punches it into the third dimension, then into its secondary function as a chair, and places it in front of me. “Here’s safe.”

In the heat of summer, the short grey bristles on Frank Krayec’s head glisten with sweat. The fraying seams of his tank top flop over the swell of his muscles with every breath. Seating himself, legs wide apart and stable against his own rickety chair, he watches patiently as I take out my notepad and pencil. Behind him, the mud-green kiosk squats, just as solid over its lightweight skeleton, waiting like a huge dog, eyes as big as chairs.

“How long have you been living on the road, Mr. Krayec?”

“Frank, please. Can I call you Marrow? Is that your real name—Marrow Vas? Never met any Vases in all my time on the road. Yeah, twenty-three years now. I was one of the first followers. That is what we call ourselves. I know you oasis people … You are settled, right? From one of the oases? You still have your house and everything?”

I nod. If he has noticed the involuntary glance down, to where his dusty, sweat-streaked, bare legs bracket my new shoes, his face doesn’t say anything.

“I know you call us road people, but we’re not here for the road, yeah. We’re following her.”

I finger the velvety edges of the photo in my pocket to assure myself it’s still there and hidden.

A boy stops by Frank’s kiosk and he gets up to sell him some charge.

“The kids say ‘seekers’ now. Don’t you?” He turns to the boy and nods encouragingly. The boy shrugs and stares at the battery graphic filling up on his screen, his face blinking bright blue in the dusty shade of the kiosk. “I guess it sounds more urgent or noble, like they are achieving something, but they were born on the road; they don’t really know why we walk. Well, they do, but they don’t know it in their hearts—they did not make that decision, yeah. Without the choice there is no true knowledge. Isn’t that so, Barker?”

The boy turns towards me and scratches his raised eyebrow, giving me a conspiratorial look under his palm. With a shrug, I turn my chair around to get my first real view of the human tide behind me.

Right now, Frank’s kiosk sits, for visibility, as he had explained in his directions over the phone earlier today, on a small flat-topped hill—the first real feature in the landscape after weeks’ worth of walking. To the right of us, snaking down from the horizon and through the grassland like a prehistoric river, the road carries us its silt of people. Floating islands dissolve into dots and dots grow into people as they scale the gentle slope of the hill. They flood the small natural platform in front of me and flow over into the dark clavicle of a cliff whose burnt yellow scowl monitors the timeless steppes.

The faces flood my brain, too, and lose their meaning in the same way a word repeated a dozen times does. I turn my chair around.

The payment is in some small metal items I cannot identify and two handfuls of pebbles, fished out of the boy’s pockets. Frank sweeps the metal bits into a box of jangly miscellanea, counts and packs the pebbles carefully, logs them in a small paper notebook and returns to his chair. A knot of people jostles the back of my chair and I pull in closer to the kiosk.

“Watch your back— it’s some middlers passing now. Look at … Come on now, dragging their feet, dusting up the air, bumping into stuff? They don’t pay attention; don’t respect the road, yeah. They think it’s safer if they pack in closer to each other but someone in the periphery always gets pushed too far whenever they pass a mouth. It’s the nerves. They all try to squeeze closer, even though the road itself is safe as anything. Theory goes that’s because the road is where she walked. But yeah, walking in crowds … Someone always panics and often even good, clever people get taken.

“That’s why I always walk by myself. Keeps me sharp. It costs more pebbles but …

“Hey, Limmi,” he yells, “tell those fly-eaters to use their damn pebbles here. Next blind turn there’s a mouth. It almost took Sonya’s boy earlier today, the one with the droopy eye. Yeah, I know,” he chuckles, “but he’s her son so she’s gonna miss him at least, yeah. You wanna buy a charge? I have a special sale on megawatts today: three for two. Get you a nice deal if you have any pebbles left over to exchange too—we’re hitting the cloud ropes soon and the newbies are running out, yeah. No, no problem, man, maybe tomorrow. Stay safe.”

He looks at me taking notes and says with mild embarrassment, “Don’t repeat that thing I said in your article—‘fly eaters.’ Not that it’s a bad word here but there’s folks that do eat flies and they are nice people. No joke. They fly these huge bags sewn onto hoops, like kites. Spray them with something they make that attracts the flies, yeah. They catch bagfuls and cook them. Bagfuls of pure protein.

“A fly-kite, if you can keep it up all day and close enough to the mouths, can feed a family if they are not squeamish. And let me tell you, those kids, the ones that don’t turn their noses up at flymeal? Some of the best-fed kids here. Nice folks.”

I swallow hard and try not to examine the way my dusty spit feels like tiny maggots at the sides of my tongue. I ask him if he’s had flymeal.

“No, no, not me. Not for me. I’m old road. I have everything I need to sustain myself and when I run out, I know how to get more. I have my supplements here and I always make enough food in trade, yeah. For a family though, that won’t do.”

I ask if he had a family before he left for the road.

“No, I don’t want to get started talking about ‘befores’ right now.” His face closes off. “It’s draining to remember how things were in this heat. Didn’t you want to ask me about us here, yeah? Isn’t that what your article was about?”

I say yes, my newspaper is running an entire series on the road people, as we call them in the oases. We are interviewing a crosscut of the entire road society—merchants, arbiters, enforcers, gatherers, hunters, new parents, even children. Why they choose to walk. What they think of the Wandering Woman. Do they believe she is real?

“Merchants … arbiters,” he laughs. “Hunters … What are we—a club for medieval re-enactment? We don’t have merchants and arbiters. We have people who are trying to live. I sell things because I have solar panels and I’m clever with people. Leika over there, hey Leika, just flips out if someone steals from the newbies. She has poor impulse control and is a bit of a brawler. She’s a good person though. We don’t have a calling or a career. We are just dealing with the world dying for as long as we can keep from dying ourselves.”

The kiosk buckles and shudders. A hot gust of wind suddenly kicks sand in my eyes and I rub at them frantically. Through shards of pain, tears, and flashes of knuckles, I see the sun set over Frank and then rise again and set and rise, set and rise, as the giant wind turbines lining the road pick up the evening wind and the shadows they cast down speed up their clockwise rotation.

We move the chairs around to keep the sun and blistering wind at our sides and for a few minutes, we both retreat in our own thoughts. Periodically rubbing my inner lid, I rearrange the questions in my pad. I throw some out, rephrase others. I move the picture last. Well, next-to-last. In the heat, the blood beating in my head reverberates against the soft whoomph, whoomph, whoomph of the turbines.

§

Frank gets up to sell electricity to a small group of families and I stretch, lock hands behind my head, and look around.

For as long as I have been aware of the road, I have imagined it desert-quiet. In my head, beaten, drab people miserably shuffle onward, huddling against each other. Mouths snarl at them in the voice of swarming flies. Road urchins scrabble and skirmish.

I used to write maudlin, juvenile poems about it. Born in the year when the Wandering Woman was first noticed, growing up in a time when fences crept out like ivy over my small-town-turned-oasis, I fancied myself born under the Sign of the Road. I was that kind of a child. The kind of child who sat cross-legged atop the desk in his bedroom; looked out the window to see the mouth over the neighbors’ house grinning at him like a shark through its red-buoy dentures; and wrote about Lost Lives and Real Suffering. And drew crocodiles who wore daylight as a cloak and sharks with red plastic teeth eating sunrays. The kind of child who obsessed.

The real road accepts no obligation to my romantic notions. In the bud of evening, the air around Frank’s little kiosk rattles with the everyday activities of people: yells, laughter, negotiations. Children plead for money with their parents and bolt towards a man selling Godknowswhat candy under a shower of Jaya, no running! How many times’es and Marie, you share that with your brother’s.

At the hill’s crest, small groups of people, phone in hand, are sitting down to rest and plan the next leg of their walk. A girl exclaims at her phone and points the screen at another—her sister? A friend? A pregnant woman stands up, dusts off her clothes, tosses a large backpack on her shoulder and heads off onward.

Endless strikes of feet beat the rock-hard road harder into the ground and polish its marble-smooth red surface, stroke by stroke. I imagine how it will look in ten years, if there are any people left to look, this new kind of rock created by its own unique bio-geophysical process.

The sun inches slowly towards the horizon and the shadows of the giant power turbines creep away from it and over the road, combing the flow of people like the hair of a Titaness. One of the shadows catches my eye for a second before I realize why and jump away from it, crashing to the ground in my flimsy chair.

§

The noise dries off. Suddenly, everyone around the kiosk is frozen. Frank is frozen, too, and he is yelling at me to tell them what I saw. His yelling is getting fainter and fainter and more meaningless over the roaring of my own blood and I don’t think anyone can hear me speak over the roar and I have no voice to shout so I can only point.

I point beyond the road, on the far side from the kiosk, to an ordinary patch of grassland identical to any of the other ordinary patches of grassland around it. Foxtail, beaten gold by the sun, sluggishly tick-tocks in the breeze. Amid the dried-out brush and weak trees, wildflowers open up thirstily like mouths to the sky. Small worlds, over which the sun sets and rises hastily in the shadows of the turbines as they spin clockwise.

Except for the shadow I am pointing at, which, fainter and slower, is rotating counter-clockwise.

Even before I can pull up, first myself, then the chair, space is efficiently cleared for two men who approach the edge so cautiously that they appear to be feeling their way forward by the way air moves around their bodies. Still jerky with adrenaline, I sit down facing them. My breathing is ragged and hiccup-y, but the pen twitches in my hand like a whisker. I get to see road stalkers in action. One of the men, short-haired, tall and gaunt in his patina-fringed suit, elegant, save for the baggy pockets, tosses a pebble at the shadow.

The pebble cuts a clean arc through the air and disappears at the very edge of the road. Then, a second before, a shimmer, like mirage over hot asphalt, hovers over the spot. I blink and try to adjust my perception of the sequence of events, but the more I try to align them, the more my head hurts. It’s as if the hit has created event ripples reaching out backwards and forward in time and my brain is not fit to consolidate the information.

Through the stabbing pain behind my eyeballs, I ask Frank if he knows what would happen to a human taken by such a mouth. Keeping his eyes on the scene, he just shakes his head.

The men mark something on their phones and throw another pebble and another and another, pacing a semicircle on the road nearest to the shadow. As I watch obstinately, as every hit strikes my eyes like lightning, as, painted in splatters of glinting steam, the mouth takes grotesque shape, my stomach turns and empties. I notice others convulsing and throwing up while their companions lead them away and on. Frank asks me if I want to leave and, head between my legs, I wave in feeble denial.

A young woman I am told is the men’s daughter walks around the thinning crowd collecting pebble donations in a big bag and then joins the stalking work. The rest of the people switch on their phones, post updates, bring up the map of the road immediately ahead, and continue on. The area around the kiosk empties for a few minutes before the next groups start to filter through, giving the stalking trio on the edge a wide berth.

§

It is at the edges of the road that the quiet of the outside world leaks in and the road people—the followers—probe their way with their pebbles.

The road population does not have the red buoys oases fence off irregularities with. Eventually a froth of flies will crosshatch most mouths but it takes time for the flies to collect, so the new ones, the unlogged, unnoticed, the most dangerous ones, are unmarked by any form of man or beast.

The road itself is remarkably, even improbably, safe. I catch myself thinking about it in terms of the Wandering Woman as if I buy into the road people’s savior mythos. I can almost see her in her strips of odd, tattered clothing walking past us with that inhuman look on her face. I see her walking down under the cliff and off into the open grassland fanning out beyond. The photo is floating so light in my pocket I keep tapping it to make sure it’s there.

“These guys do have a name,” Frank startles me out of my queasy reverie, smiling through his meaty lower lip, “since they might need to be summoned quickly and in any crowd. We call them sketchers. You guys probably have some medieval word for the profession—jugglers? Minstrels?”

I laugh with him. I tell him ours are called stalkers.

“I like this one, actually. It suggests you are hunting them, yeah. I suspect it keeps people in the Oases—” He gets up to sell some more electricity.

Head down, writing, I pause for him to find the right adjective and finish his thought, but he doesn’t. I figure he either forgot or the sentence was finished as it was.

§

The heat is letting off a little. The wind turbines are slicing the setting sun’s red rays—whoomph, whoomph, whoomph. The stalkers are still working but I can only see glimpses of them as the stream of people passing by fills in. I ask Frank why he thinks so many new people take the road.

“Of course they will. What is the alternative, do you think?”

I say that the new oases the government is building are going up as fast as new stalkers can be trained. I surprise myself with how easily defensiveness edges out my trained professional tone.

“Let’s start this way then: how many oases are there,” Frank asks.

Thousands, maybe tens of thousand, I say.

“How many people, on average, can an oasis hold?”

The largest one I know of holds twenty thousand.

“Do you know how many of us are there on the road? At last point-count, oh yes we have a census, although those are not completely reliable because you have to pick a big enough representative sample of points and then you have to extrapolate based on mean density and road coverage—yeah, I’d say …”

He milks the moment.

“Twenty—twenty-three million, give or take the few thousand taken by the mouths weekly. Plus the new births, of course.”

Fuck.

“Yes. Fuck. I have a PhD in Biophysics—I know my statistics.”

We sit silently for a bit while my notepad and I process the information and he continues.

“Now for the oases themselves. Do you know how many you’ve lost already, yeah? You know Nylo?”

I nod. I know of Nylo. Some years ago, I interviewed a few physics phenomenologists from there who came over to my oasis to, as they said, study correlations between irregular activity and certain human and biophysical events. Even road blogs covered the visit—I suspect because the Nylo scientists focused on reports of encounters with the Wandering Woman.

They even had a folder with classified pictures of her. Not something they would show a journalist, of course, but something a journalist would manage to get his hands on nonetheless. They had so many pictures. I doubt they ever missed the one I stole.

Frank is pointing.

“You see that man there with the two kids? He lived there.

“So, for years Nylo had only a few manageable irregularities, right? Yeah. Well, they started getting less few and less manageable. More and more mouths—less and less Nylo, until the whole oasis collapsed three months ago. Swiss cheese.” He stabs his finger at the table between us with startling violence, miming poking holes faster and faster.

“Nothing left but crumbs from houses and streets going places you don’t want to be. People half-glued to the asphalt, half inside a hole stretched in time. That second half still not having realized what happened to them. No government left to clean out the bodies, you see.

“A group that bought some power from me yesterday, or was it two days ago … No, yesterday … They said some of those people have started screaming now and they will be screaming long after what’s left outside is bones. To the inside only a few minutes, or maybe at most a couple of days if they are really unlucky, will pass before they die but a few minutes of watching your body decay and disintegrate, that is …”

He shudders.

“You can’t hear them, of course, but if the angle is right you can see them. The road goes right by it, you know, and right now you don’t walk by Nylo—you run. Purgatory, that’s what it is.”

I am still writing but no longer processing.

What is being done then?

“What can they do.” He shrugs.

But what can they do?

“Which ‘they’? Nothing? I don’t know. The road is safe. She walked through here and mouths cannot open up where she walks.”

Do they know where she went? Or where the road is going? How do they know where to go?

“We follow the news.” His face dives into his phone and surfaces with a road feed, one of many, with eyewitness reports and few blurry photos. “I know some here think she is either made up or used by the government to keep people walking and away from the oases. But that’s mostly the new ones who joined after they lost their houses. They are, I get it, bitter and cynical, yeah.

“They see the photos and the articles streamed to their phones, every few days from a different location but not too far away from the day before and they think ‘the flunkies are trying way too hard’ right? They see how the people flow is sometimes driven very, very subtly in one direction or another, somehow away from the oasis locations. That happens, I know. Few even say the flow is driven into mouth infestations too when Oasis thinks there’s too many of us. I don’t know about that. Those who say that tend to be the crazies but, broken clocks, and all, yeah?

“And I don’t know where she is.”

He stares over the road into the dusk song of the crickets.

“What I do know is that she is real. I knew about her before the road, before the mouths, before the crowds. When there were just a few of us who read a bit of news about a woman walking. Just walking, not talking to anyone, accepting only water, foraging by the roadside.

“And you’ll ask why I left my job and my house and my wife to follow this woman wherever she was going. I cannot tell you. It never formed into thoughts, just knowledge. But I saw a picture of her, one day after work. It was on some feed or another. I didn’t really follow the marginal news then, but I recognized the outskirts of East Tarremin. That’s where I come from, you know.

“She looked so solid and so alone and … prehistoric. Like the first human who was recognizably a new species. Like the people who lived before everyone else and seeded the world with meaning. Like them, she was this new sentience walking over cooling rock and bones, under new stars. Making up her own meaning.

“I doubt you will believe how uncharacteristic this was for me, Marrow, but I cried with relief. Over what? Damned if I know. I suspect my heart was waiting to be broken by something unexpected because it fell apart so readily. That picture, the woman who was single-mindedly hunting something I could not understand— they broke it open for this new life I set off on. Wherever she was going … I wanted to believe she had some answers no one else did.

“My wife didn’t. She said she understood me but she had not spent her life waiting for some new meaning. We didn’t have any kids, so I left on my own.”

He looks back at me.

“And now the world is ending.”

He shrugs and his face twinges. He massages the place on his shoulder where the kiosk straps have polished the skin a shiny brown.

§

“But life doesn’t stop just because the world is ending.” He slaps his thigh. “Just because we don’t have houses and steaks anymore doesn’t mean we stop needing friendship or a drink. Want a drink? That guy over there, yeah? He makes the best fly brandy in the world.”

My face must look absolutely green because he laughs.

“I swear, your generation … You can’t make alcohol from flymeal, obviously! You need sugar. He makes the best quince brandy on the road. Maybe in the world. Okay, he made the best quince brandy once. We passed by this gigantic tree long time ago with him and his wife and ate so much it gave us all the runs. And he made brandy with the rest. He makes apple brandy now but it’s not the same. Still good though. Want a glass? My treat. For listening to me ramble.”

We drink the brandy and get up to pack away his kiosk. He pops and folds and zips with such mechanical efficiency that I just move back, mouth-wide, and watch him work. He is almost done when I hear sharp yells rising and see people flood back from under the cliff.

“I told them,” Frank slams the kiosk-turned-backpack shut, wiggles himself between the giant shoulder straps and lifts. “This better not be the same mouth I warned them about.”

We look down over to the side of the cliff where two men’s legs have given out from under them and are now floating over their heads. The men are desperately trying to hold onto something. In the brandy-tinted twilight, they crawl like monstrous crabs up along the cliff side as their screams grow less human and long black claws grow and drip from their hands. Not claws, no. The rocks they are trying to hold onto are shredding their fingers and palms raw. Black smears of blood glisten in the moonlight below them.

I have heard of this type of anomaly before and have even seen some ghoulish pictures of the victims—the mummified human companions escorting our network satellites. But I have never witnessed an actual taking. And I never knew how desperately people tried to hold onto life that was just beyond reach. Or how long it took.

People are looking away and some are openly sobbing, but in some macabre solidarity, no one walks away. I wonder if that is really what the two men need right now but in their hoarse howls, I can hear they have already been driven far beyond any needs.

One of them, exhausted, scrabbling faintly more against air than rock, spreads his arms like a lover and embraces the cliff with his entire body. It’s a mistake, as far as anything they can do right now can be a mistake, because the reversed gravity, apparently stronger over the cliff, just whips most of him with a wet gurgle over the rocks and out in the sky, leaving the front of him smeared like a dark paintbrush stroke over the cliff.

The other man turns around and, pushing off the cliff with his legs, launches himself at the crowd on the hillside. He tries to grab at clothes, arms, backpacks, anything, but he is way too far to make it across the mouth.

“Please,” he screams. “Please, please, please,” as he is slowly, slowly dragged into the sky to be mercilessly deposited into geostationary orbit under the watchful eye of the moon.

Frank and I set off silently along the road.

§

I walk out of the cliff shadow into the moonlight. My breath catches. A choppy star-strewn river of people flows across the plains and pours over the horizon. The briefings from my editor, all the faces who passed by me today, the numbers Frank gave me, even the horrors I saw … Nothing drowned me like this river.

And I can’t see them now but I know they are there—the mouths crouching along the road like starving dogs.

I recall a documentary I saw as a child. I can’t really remember the whole thing or even whether it was on TV or online. I only remember the shapes and movement—two crusty eyelids and a snout float in a muddy river. Two jaws launch out the water in a violent spray and drag a struggling, doomed gazelle into the bloody foam. As a child, I wondered why the gazelles didn’t go to the other river, the safe river. Then my mother explained there was no safe river for them. Where the gazelles went, the predators went with them. That is why, she quickly added, seeing my terrified face, we humans built our own rivers, our own houses and cities, to keep safe from the predators.

They still found us.

My phone rings. I have half an hour before pick up.

I pocket the phone next to the picture and ask Frank if he thinks he’ll ever meet the Wandering Woman.

“I don’t know. I hope so. I still hope to see a real picture of her again, to know she is still walking ahead of us. The double they have found, you know her? They keep posting pictures and interviews with her. She looks nothing like the Woman. But it works, keeps people moving and alive. Well, most and mostly. And we’ll be walking long after the oases have collapsed.

“Maybe,” he laughs like an old friend, “I’ll see you on the road one day and spot you a few megawatts.”

I shouldn’t show him the picture. But I do. I take it out and ask him if this is her.

He looks at the photo and a smile spreads on his face like warm butter under a knife.

“That’s her! Where did you get this?” he yells out and then looks again. I can see the exact moment he notices it and the smile creases and sours.

“Where did you get this?”

My heart breaks for him, but I tracked him down here for another reason.

I say, I got it in East Terramin.

I was born there, I say.

In a small suburb, called Terramin Woods with charming walls of crumbling masonry, parks turned to weed, and houses neatly handed down from one generation to another, which meant few people ever left, even after the mouths started appearing. So few, in fact, that pretty much everyone I knew growing up still lives there, even those who work downtown. Now that I think of it, I only know of one or two people who left for the road.

“I guess you oasis people have your stories as well,” Frank says, looking straight ahead, speeding up slightly so I have to raise my voice to talk to him.

One of them lived right across the street from us, I say. He left when I was very young but I remember his wife talking about him a lot. My mother and I used to go see her every week. As a child, I thought the neighbors visited her so often because she was so interesting. She could keep a conversation going for hours and, most importantly to us children, her husband left for the road, which made him a mythical figure. But as a grown-up I know what loneliness looks like so I assume the grown-ups of then had recognized it too.

Her name was Raya. Kids were not on first-name basis with adults then so we called her Mrs. K.

Frank stops in the middle of the road and I stop with him. Behind the bristles, his face falls slack and wrinkled, skin ashen against the glossy pink of his eyes. I feel like throwing up. Over the years, with smuggled bits of information from people who knew him, I have built up a thousand images of him and I was ready to tell my story to any of those laughing, callous, imaginary Franks. The real one is now standing broken before me and I am not ready.

But he needs to know.

I remember this bright yellow dress she had, I say. So bright it looked like sunshine. I think she was wearing it when the mouth opened up in her house, over the living room where she was probably sitting and reading, ready for the doorbell to ring. She was always sharply aware of that doorbell, even when the house was full. Like she anticipated it a second before it rang.

I told her once that she had a doorbell super sense, like the superheroes in the comic book I was currently flipping through—their house was a library of old comic books; but that her powers wouldn’t help with monsters much and she laughed. “It’s not the doorbell,” she mimed elbowing me from the kitchen where she was making green frosting for the Space Invaders cupcakes I kept asking for. “It’s people super sense. I sense the people outside the door and then they always ring the bell. It’s what people do when they want to come in.”

I stop for a little to let Frank, eyes closed, breathe in her words.

I could be wrong, I say, but I do think she was wearing the sun-yellow dress when the mouth took her. She often wore it in summer and the weather was sweltering that day. I remember it was so hot that when the stalkers came, they wore these shorts with a playful red-buoy pattern. “That’s profane,” my mother spat out in a mucous voice and dragged me home by the hand.

Locked in for the rest of the night, I watched the stalkers work from my bedroom window. I watched as they measured the mouth’s dimensions and stability with a truck-full of their exorcising instruments. I watched as they hammered in the steel pins that would anchor the buoys, one by one, like nails into a coffin. I watched as they released the buoys, one by one, gently, irretrievably, like flowers from a mourner.

It was a Spag. It is similar to the mouths in Nylo but a Spag warps more than just time. When it opens over an area, everything it swallows is spaghettified—stretched in both time and space. There is no reliable information in scientific literature about how long a person taken intact would survive in such an environment. Within their timeline, of course. By our reckoning, she’ll still be alive long after our bones are dust.

The reason I think she was wearing the sunshine dress is, well, when the stalkers release the buoys in a Spag, they form what is called a Concentric Spaghettified Range—from the outside it looks like a red fence of beams meeting far, far, impossibly far inside the hole. They don’t meet, of course, it’s just a ring of floating plastic … I spent years wondering if she saw the buoys rise around her one by one, if she knows what that means, if she is in there terrified right now. Alone, surrounded by red buoys, waiting in a crumbling house.

I shake off the thought and continue.

Anyway, I say, at night it is not that easy to see so I didn’t notice it until I looked out my window the next morning, but by day a sun-yellow beam is clearly visible among the red ones. It’s still there.

I know it is because I still visit her once a week. I go to the porch, stand safely behind the buoy fence, and chatter about the news, waiting for her to sense that someone is outside. It used to drive my mother so crazy when I was a kid. I don’t know why I still do it. It’s not like I have any scientific basis to think she can still feel the people outside. Or that she still needs a visit.

Frank drops the giant backpack on the road and sits down with his back against it and arms still in the straps. He buries his face between his legs.

My car is here but I don’t know what to say.

I’m sorry, I say. He shakes his head.

I get on the car and it lifts off over the crowd.

§

From the air, all mouths have the same characteristic shimmer, like mirage over hot asphalt, that is rarely seen from the ground. Looking down, I see them hover over the moonlit plain—a sea of jellyfish cut in half by the road. I spot the cliff-side mouth—the one which took the two men, and, just beyond it, the small one under the turbines. I notice an undercurrent—something that looks like a new mouth forming father down along the road, but it’s probably far enough from the edge to be of any danger, so I do not ask my colleague to land the car so I can go warn Frank and his people.

Before I pocket the picture, I look at it again, trying to see it with Frank’s eyes. Here she is—a dark-haired young woman. Bare shoulders and legs. Some strips from a short-hair coat are wrapped around her body with no particular pattern. The picture, taken by a hobbyist’s drone, shows mostly the top of her head, an un-creased forehead looking straight ahead, and a stride unmistakable for anyone who has seen real footage of the Wandering Woman.

And then the eye moves from the woman’s head down to her back and then to the shimmering pattern of spots emerging from her back and fanning out over the landscape behind her, trailing like giant butterfly wings. Shimmering like a mirage over hot asphalt.

I look down at the road. Frank is moving now—I see his backpack threading its way against the flow of people. I see the shadow of the cliff swallow him and spit him back out over the hill, on his way through the grassland against the horizon from which the crowd is spilling out.

The car touches down again for a few minutes and then lifts up high enough for the navigation sensors to filter out the noise from the millions of people walking on with their phones. From down on the road, I see it turn and head to East Terramin.

I take the phone out of my pocket and sit down next to a woman reading a news feed. She helps me find a good real-time map online. Then I get up and walk in the direction of the new mouth I saw forming. I did say I was the type of person who obsessed.

 

Daniela Tomova was born in the ruins of countless civilizations and experienced first-hand yet another empire fall when she was only 8 years old. Her surreal, animal-filled childhood lives in stories which, while true, have nonetheless earned her the nickname Keyser Söze. She left her home country to study business at the Ohio State University and soon enough, she found herself peddling data around Europe just to make a living.

 

Daniela draws her inspiration from the visceral folklore of the Balkans, the surrealism of Russian science fiction, the dreams of Ray Bradbury, and the delirious, severe beauty of Northern Norway.

 

She lives in an abandoned airport in Oslo, Norway with her partner and their cat.

2 Comments

  1. The first time I listen to this story, I liked it, but I didn’t find it amazing. It wouldn’t leave my head for the following day, so I gave it a second listen, and that time I picked up on so many small details that created a rich and complex world that’s still hasn’t left my mind.

    I have the feeling that I pray read it a third time, I’ll get even more out of it.

    Amazing work and I’ll definitely be adding Daniela Tomova to my reading list.

    • Thank you, Matencera Wolf, for the kind words. I’m very happy you enjoyed the story and hope you will enjoy reading my future work.

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