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Luke Muyskens

Until She Didn’t

 

         Light, filtering through pines, appeared full of hair. In particular the copperwire mane of his brother’s friend, whose name might’ve been Felicisha. Boots remembered while sucking down a milkshake how they hadn’t properly met. But the sight of her follicles dancing under halogens in the ungrown violence of a dodgeball game was enough introduction. One particular strand, spackled to her brow with fragrant sweat as she pelted a sixth grader with a leathery foam ball, performed an elegant curtsy. He recalled the sharp thump of a ball against the developing gut of young boy, and the subsequent cry. How could such a waifish P.E. teacher be filled with so much bloodlust? He pulled a mouthful of shake through its straw, through his lengthening beard and chapping lips, to his mouth, where it melted in the rapidly warming season. The grit of ice felt to him like sand. Needles splintered under his bare feet, releasing evergreen perfume. Light flipped competitively through the trees.

            Boots severed his aromatic hike, pausing in a space where sunlight solidified in the opportunity to slip through a canopy unbroken. He felt a presence; the peripheral discomfort of an obtrusive aura. A snapshot waft of Marlboro Reds and the sick sweat of nectar on skin. A woman was in the trees. Boots hoped for a splinter it would be Felicisha, but knew it was likely a teen, snuck away to feel like someone else.

            “It’s your bird, then,” she said. Her voice—rough like brick, with the busy vibration of a hornet’s nest—originated in the firs. He peered in, but could not find her.

            “Sure,” Boots said to the thicket, his voice reedy and insecure. “You didn’t dig her up, did ya?” He kicked the mulch underfoot, as if to accept the earth’s disturbance.

            “Course I did,” she replied, stepping from behind a tree. She was narrow enough to be eclipsed. Boots immediately noted a serpentine vibe, not hindered by her alligator boots. “Came out here. Saw the fresh dirt up. Small plot. Thought it might’ve been a child.” She was the age where women stop wearing pants as tight as hers, past the age women stop hiding behind trees. Her stiff denim shirt passed between assertive blue cigarette smoke and long, wiry hair, whiter than light. Her skin was cut with wrinkles like crisscrossing chemtrails, her eyes, green.

            “What’s your name, dear?” Boots asked. “I’m of the opinion you can’t have a productive convo without knowing the names of all participants.” As if to settle something, he lit his own cigarette.

            “Marlene,” she answered. “But my friends call me less and less these days.” Boots chuckled, Marlene did not.

            “Boots,” he offered with a half-bow. “You put her back, I’m sure.” Marlene tipped her head, like she was pouring tea from her nose, and crunched something between her teeth.

            “What kinda bird is it?” she asked, sniffing deeply. Boots noticed how her knees bent back too far, like a horse. He recalled the plusher knees of his brother’s friend, Deepti, whose hair smelled like a cloverpatch, and rode a motorcycle. Boots thought himself the more attractive brother—certainly more rugged, and less self-aware—but couldn’t catch the prizewinners his brother always had managed to. What secret?

            “She,” Boots replied. He received a snort.

            “I lived in Florida, once,” Marlene said, “and I never heard of a ‘She’ bird. Whose was it? You took its life.” Boots sucked alternatingly on his cigarette and milkshake. He let the silence wake, and looked up to see clouds tangling with the canopy. This land—The Land—was purchased by his grandfather during the war. Which war was unclear. Sure, ambitious plans were made to erect a casino, a resort, a monument to the ’79 Celtics, a museum of Norse-American history, a log cabin, a sauna, an outhouse, a deer stand. All were abandoned. They came out here to shoot birds until all the birds were shot. They came out here to flatten dimes on the tracks until the trains themselves were flattened. They came out here for burying.

            “Just paying respects,” Boots supposed. “She was a friend of a friend.” A sour wave of irritated peat wafted between them. Perhaps a deer was rooting in the bog to their south, emancipating fumes, like the breath of a down-and-out lemon. With the smell came new, warmer air around their legs. Boots hadn’t brought a shovel. How’d he aim to dig? Cupped hands?

            “Gunshot wound.” Marlene said. “Odd way for a blue-tipped macaw to go.”

            “So you knew the species. And enough forensics to determine how she went. What an odd creature to run into out here, aren’t you? Goddamned albino buck.”

            “Women are human,” she said with a touch of irritation, “and do not like to be addressed as animals.” Boots remembered a woman who—presumably—still lived in this contradiction. She was not his brother’s friend initially, though she did leave Boots for him. Her eyes were bigger than Jupiter-rising scarabs, with dark pupils. She’d been told one-too-many times she resembled a fawn, and loved the comparison. “You’ve eyes of a doe,” Boots would say, like a mantra. “Cute little nose of a doe. Thin ankles of a doe. Soft body of a dough.”

            “No offense,” Boots apologized. “Would you like to see a picture?”

            “Already saw the corpse. Seems more accurate.”

            “Not if time rots, it doesn’t,” Boots replied. He produced a photograph from his hat and examined it, careful to shield it from Marlene’s arrowhead sight. The image was a parrot, perched on the rim of a basketball hoop with its wings spread, as if blocking a jump shot. The bird was huge, with the wingspan of a child, a wicked beak of poached ivory, and plumage yellower than yolk. The tips of its wings were splashed with brilliantly expensive topaz, and it wore a crown of Sid Vicious feathers. The photo didn’t make noise, but memory did—a truly abrasive squawk. Boots heard the noise in his head now, screeching “North forty-six point two seven degree! West ninety-four point four two degrees!”

            “Julius?” Marlene asked. Boots’ eyes bounced up. His focus was hard.

            “How’d you know?”

            “It’s written on the back.” He flipped the photo. It was. His alarm retreated. The juicy blue at the corners of her eyes was the same as Julius’ wingtips, which were the same as a sapphire Scion he used to see parked in front of his YMCA. Boots would habitually watch the car idle as its contents—a striking woman with eyebrows like bats, whose name he didn’t learn—spilled into the arms of his older brother. From the lobby, he’d dry his mane with a towel, watching her body, tight and muscular like a beanpod, flicker through his terrycloth veil.

           “Plus, I knowed you,” Marlene added. Boots looked back at her with new eyes, searching for something he might’ve missed—a telltale tattoo or scar—to remember her with. She remained opaque. “Moment you walked in these woods. Could tell from your walk. You got a Keller walk, know that? Real slow, like you got pants full o’ taconite pellets.” Boots swung his head. “You don’t remember me?”

            “You a Bohn or something?” he asked. Another sprawling Iron Range family.

            “No. I was a friend of your mothers.” Marlene’s body grew rigid and forced, which didn’t fit with her casual drawl. “Hope you don’t blame me for it.”

            “You’re a dealer, then?” Boots waited, and was acknowledged by a soft, fleshy sound as the woman’s gator-skin boot dug in the mulch. “S’pose there’s no one to blame, anyhow,” he said. “Couldn’t be stopped; couldn’t be slowed. Only thing to do is bury, now.” He looked through the trees. They did not occur in the random scattershot pattern of nature, like freckles. These spun back into The Land in a nautilus shape, to the middle, where a patch cleared in hopes of a cabin left a pale footprint. Aerial photos betrayed this shape, but from the ground, the trees appeared to have been planted—by Boots’ grandfather—in mathematic rows. This gave the woods an impression of translucence, like a thin curtain.

            “That how you know this place?” Boots asked. Marlene nodded. She was flanked by two rows of trees, which, from Boot’s point of view, were walls. Down the row were disturbances in the soil, every couple dozen yards. Every member of the Keller tribe had buried in or dug something from The Land. Each row, like this one, bore regular pockmarks and mounds, from the railroad tracks to the swamp.

            “Need a hand?” Marlene asked. Boots raised the milkshake-less hand and contemplated an extra—a third. Examining the hand made it feel alien. Tapping into the hand’s emotions, he found it unsure of its membership to the body. A new disconnect widened as the hand grasped at his cigarette. “Diggin’ it up again?” Marla clarified. Boots nodded.

           The motion—a small, buoying bump—moved his body in a way that inexplicably reminded him of Sabrina. She was a trance club DJ from Duluth with a penchant for magic mushrooms who dated his brother for six and a half years. It’d been a while, but Boots could still see the silver drips of paint she applied over her eyebrows, and smell her patchouli hair. She was a pain in the ass, but moved like a dancer. Why’d the woods make him think of women? In particular, the women of his brother? What were they doing now? Both in their worlds and his? What might they be doing now, in these woods? What would they bury?

            “Uh huh,” he replied. Marlene produced a collapsible spade, as if from air.

            She spun and took a couple of purposeful steps. When she reached the first patch of raised earth, she plunged metal into soil. Boots watched her exhume. Marlene dropped to her knees, burrowing into earth that looked dark and full, like an old man after a large meal, and wet. He imagined the dirt breathing. He imagined it took the long, labored pulls his mother breathed in the hospital.

           “D’ya think it was the meth, Ma?” Boots remembered asking. “What did you in?” She turned her shriveled dome.

           “No, Bub.” Nothing like a ventilator to undermine humanity. The machine cycling air into their lungs soaks measurably into their person. Ma blinked at Boots from the gurney, alongside the beeping face of her electric confidant. “T’was the heartbreak.” The steel crone’s voice was atonal as well.

           “Bullshit,” Boots said to Ma.

           “Kellers are prone to blackening tissues when we get left,” Ma claimed, though she was only a Keller by marriage, and lost her status when Boots’ father fled the coop. “But we’ve got something else,” she winked. “Something the leavers didn’t know about. And when I’m gone, you’ll get it.”

            Boots walked to Marlene’s side and squatted against a pine. She gave him eyes like he ought to help, which he ignored. “Special place, The Land,” he mused, spitting pointedly. “What’re you out here to dig? Or d’you carry a shovel all the time.”

            Marlene coughed and spat herself, into the deepening hole. “Don’t think this’s the right one. Seems to me the bird was only a foot down.” The pit had grown from the size of a bowling ball to the maw into which pins are knocked. How’d she dug so quick? Boots grunted. The shovel made a noise, like a wind chime shitting. Shrapnel in the ground—what looked like broken light bulbs—what Boots knew were broken pipes.

            “Stop,” Boots ordered. “Whatever’s down there; whatever they buried; we don’t want to dig it up. I think the bird’s further back.” Marlene shrugged and sprung up. She motioned for him to lead, and he slunk towards the center of The Land.

            Upon reaching another patch of rotated dirt, Boots slowed. “Not this one. Too big. Looks like a fuckin’ horse.” He peered over his shoulder, like a parrot, to see Marlene growing pit stains. “Really, though.” he asked, narrowing his eyes. “Told you my purpose here. Even the playing field, will ya?”

            Marlene shrugged. “Ever seen a robot?” she asked. “A real robot? Not just in the movies.” Boots shook his head. “Something scary about ‘em. Make your blood wanna get out. Saw one out by Ironton. Popped ‘er right out of the sky.” She raised her spade to mime a gunshot into the feathery sun-trees. “Like a goose. Shoulda seen its guts turn out. Wires and circuits and things.” Marlene scowled, like she could still smell the frayed machinery burning. “‘Fraid the Feds are after me, so I buried the thing out here.”

            Boots didn’t slow, peering into another hole, this one small and empty. “Fuckin’ robot, you say. Like a drone? One of them pizza-delivering drones?” He sunk his foot into the rotting corpse of a log.

            “Dunno what they do,” Marlene sighed. “Don’t want it done.”

           Boots stopped and sniffed the air. “Think we’re close,” he said. Before reaching Julius’ grave, he wanted to have one more memory. Something to do with the bird, not a girl. He tried to locate one, but only thought of the parrot’s violent death. Then, he remembered fishing on the Swan River. He already had a leader heavy with wriggling catfish, their silt-yellow bellies heaving in June sunrays. Time to go home. But a green cloud, like the afterbirth of a cyclone, heaved into the air around the bend. The corridor smelled of chorizo. Boots motored to the river’s elbow, jittering with curiosity. The oily smoke came from a car wreck on the bridge. Its fire cresting, flotsam strewn on the riverbank. A moving van was toppled over, crushing the guardrail, but no emergency vehicles were present, and there were no passengers in or around the vehicle. Boots noticed a bright yellow and blue sock on the shore, fluttering in the river-wind. He puttered over and scooped it into his fishing net. From the twisted green wire he extracted the shivering body of the bird. He whipped the boat around and drove his propeller deep into the water’s flesh, ripping hard upstream.

            “Before we get there,” Marlene asked. “Please tell me what really happened to the bird.” Boots stubbed the cigarette out on his sole, spilling milkshake down the front of his pants.

            “Fuck,” he answered. “That’s a mess. Fine, I’ll tell.” He pressed further down the long spiral. “I was married, for a while,” he spoke into the trees. Marlene followed close, to hear. “She was the brightest. Like a magnifying glass. Brightest one I ever knew; more’n any of my brother’s. With no one else did I feel together, like there wasn’t skin between us. We slept back-to-back and I could still feel her charm.”

           “You feel her spirit in the bird?” Marlene chewed.

           “Will you let me finish? Julius is not a symbol. There’s none of her in that bird. Though she did love him.” Boots scratched under his cap. “Until she didn’t.”

           “Why’re you looking for the bird then? If it’s not a sentimental thing?” They came up to a clearing.

           “Completely new reason.” A pillar of sun lit dirt that was tossed about and uneven. A hole gaped, the size of a head. Blue feathers sprang from the dirt, and smaller yellow tufts were scattered in a trail, stirring, into the shadow of trees.

            “Raccoons,” Marlene supposed, chomping. “Or a resurrection.”

           Boots whirled. “Why?” he demanded. The holes of the forest all felt like they’d been rooted up, gaping around him, ready to swallow. The small, dancing light that’d been present on The Land was gone, replaced by a masticating emptiness. Shadows cast evenly by pines felt like trails of cold saliva, working through his skin.

            “Well,” Marlene said. “I don’t see blood on the feathers. No bones. Maybe Julius squirmed out and limped away.” She pointed into the darkening trees.

            “D’you think you’re funny?” he snapped. “Give me the shovel.” He snatched the tool and ran to the hole. The dirt, already churned, flipped easily out of the hole, leaving a ribcage cavern. Spare, bright feathers tucked between roots and rocks, but where The Land had once been expectant, it was barren and lost.

            “Think they got everything,” Marlene said, trying to discourage his fever. Boots continued digging, tossing clumps of dirt between his legs, showering the clearing with needles. His breath rattled, his fingers tight on the plastic grip.

            “Ah!” he cried, plunging an arm into the hole. Marlene squinted to recognize the tiny object he pulled out. Boots stumbled backwards and toppled onto his ass, where he wiped his dewy brow with his hat. His lungs heaved like sled dogs. Marlene sat next to him and proffered a cigarette. He accepted and took a shallow drag. She saw the object he held was a bare, twisted bit of copper wire.

            Marlene bent over him. Her white hair fell, tickling his wrist, reminding him of the one woman who could never be counted as his brother’s. Boots remained with her long after his brother fell off, coaxing her in and out of psychosis while waiting for the ultimate payoff. During the whole sickness, Ma spoke of an inheritance. Bonds, buried with dogs and guns, on The Land. She kept the key and coordinates, afraid what it’d do to the family.

           Boots saw Ma, in a fit of meth-fueled rage, dumping her things across and around the room. He saw a key fall from a jewelry box onto the smoke-stained carpet. It was tied to a bit of copper wire. Before he could do anything, the bird swooped and swallowed. Long after he shot Julius in rage and buried him on The Land, the cawing haunted Boots’ dreams. “North forty-six point two seven degree! West ninety-four point four two degrees!” Almost a year passed before Boots realized the meaning of this number, and the power of the swallowed key.

            “Only mine,” Boots said, thinking about the missing bonds. The bird was gone. The wire was present. The key was gone. Marlene had been around too, apparently, during Ma’s fits. She was on The Land. The key was gone. She had a shovel. “Wait, Marlene,” he asked, looking up. “Can you bring me to your drone?”

           She was gone. Where she’d been, in the woods, another hole.

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