They'd been coming.
When it first started, everyone assumed it was just that someone who got hurt, or got lost, and got killed by their own misfortune. No one really suspected that Feddy had been taken, and even if they had, no one really ever thought it would happen again. It was an isolated tragedy. Everyone combed the woods for a few days, and after the Growns had given up on Feddy after about a week, we still combed the woods in our own fashion, looking for bits of cloth or shoes or pencils or other things that might have belonged to him, but none of us really considered that it would happen again.
It wasn't an isolated tragedy. It had been a little over two weeks and the family was mourning but the rest of the community had almost scabbed over the incident, and then it happened again. Beckah disappeared. This time it was worse.
Everyone went out in force: fields were abandoned, machines left to run down. Everyone combed the woods and the surrounding hills. It was a great long line of people moving outward from town center, looking for Beckah, one vast circle that rippled out searching for any sign, protecting the center. When they finally came across something, it wasn't Beckah. It was her shoes, and it was Feddy's shoes, and the hair-raising thing was that it was BillBill's shoes, who hadn't even been missing, who had been left in town center at home with the rest of us Unders.
BillBill wasn't there, of course. None of us Unders even knew he was gone, it happened under our nose because we thought we were safe even if it was just us alone in our bunkies. Nothing ever happened here in town center, and now that it was happening, we didn't know what to do.
Some of the Growns wanted to organize a hunt. We didn't have the manpower to leave the fields and machines alone that long; that didn't stop some of them from trying on their off-time, roaming the woods making more noise than security. Some of the Growns wanted to leave. We couldn't really and we knew that, though it didn't stop a couple of families here and there from going in the night. After we found Grown Jerry and Grown Anne all woods-ate and no sign of Under Kellan, we just hoped without hope that some of them at least made it, and that horror put an end to people sneaking away.
So we just hunkered in. Technically no Under was supposed to be out of sight of a Grown, and you would catch that ear full for doing it, but realistically even without the sneaking losses and the dead we didn't have enough Grown or Old-enough Unders to run the machines or hold over the fields, and since hunkering safe seemed to work for a bit, we got lax. Unders were okay to roam if an Old-enough watched them, and we got swept into pairs and trios all the time in order to get what needed to be done finished. And it seemed like nothing happened.
Weeks grew up into months without anyone going. Routine came back like fall harvests. Some of the more concerned Growns continued to sit in the spytowers, nodding into the night air between labor shifts, but most went back into the business of everyday getting by. Bebbies had been lost, but bebbies could be made, and the business of raising what still remained was mindholding enough. The winter coming ahead was fear enough without the anxieties of loss seeding in on that ground too.
We Unders didn't forget though. In noisy groups we ran around playing Hunt The Monsters, jabbing the sticks we all carried as if those twigs in tiny hands would be enough to fight off a Grown killer. One of the more intrepid of us strung wire along the edges of parts of the woods, a booby trap just high enough to let a running Under pass safely; we thought it proved the worth when Grown Norry clotheslined hisself going after Under Georgy during bathtime, but the Growns thought it unsafe for general township and removed the lines. So we practiced close instead, and spread simple ways of evading capture in our play. We got deft at listening for noises coming towards, no matter how sneaksneak they tried to be; got deft at climbing and jumping away when surprised or ambushed. Push Push Run was the simplest favorite: someone grabbed your hand or arm and you pushed towards them, twice, fast, as if faking that you were coming along but only hard, and then when they were off-balance you threw yourself backwards in a run. Bloodied noses or skinned elbows or bush burns aggravated the Growns, but were proof of concept for us Unders, who never quite forgot that we still didn't know what happened to Feddy, to Beckah, to BillBill, to Kellan, to what killed Grown Jerry and Grown Anne.
Harvest came. It was as if life was back to normal again: the fall play with its curtains of leaves and its prayerful thanks and its costumes of horns bursting out of cloaks of grasses, and all of us with our hallowed out pumpkins held up with string, the Unders carrying them from door to door to collect the bounty of berries and nuts that would be mixed into the pies made at home, the Old-enough of the house in charge of the candle gourd and leading the way. We still clung to pairs and trios, because that had Saved Us, made us safe, made the grown ones forget we had been in danger.
I guess a part of me wasn't surprised when the nine of us rounded the corners to the empty field between spaces, and saw, neat as day, six little pumpkins there on the ground. They looked like they had been set down, their little candles still guttering in the wind. I glanced to Henr, who as closer, looked inside. His lips made a small thin line when he looked back.
"They just been left here. Berries aren't even smushed, its like they just put 'em down and walked away."
Hair rose on our arms. It wasn't normal even for normal days and I didn't like it. We all did what we had done in play so much: backing in towards each other in a circle, facing outwards, ready to run, ready to listen. The wind was silent, but when it did move along the field, that's when we heard it.
I glanced at Henr, who gripped his stick and nodded once, curt. Then I looked down into the faces of the other Unders. "Reesha, you're Old-enough now. You take the littlest and you get them back to the home places. First house you see you go inside and you stay there together and you send Grown help this way. Arnie, you and the biggers stay here, stay circled. You listen to the air. You hear someone coming, you tell them and get them to bring help and let them know Henr and I are down there after the others."
And on that, we ran. Edge of the field had three steep stairs going down into the hills, and we paused. "Which one?" Henr fussed, his eyes moving to me; it obvious neither of us thought it good to split up, but we were so well aware that we couldn't risk the wrong one.
And then the sound came again - a boys voice - and we bolted down the middle stairs.
We had come down to the third landing, and there we saw him: the short form all but dragging another. Henr and I raised our sticks, ready, but when it moved into the light I dropped mine, moving forward in relief. His eyes were flat, face covered in mud and dirt and other things not so easily known in the wane moonlight. One hand gripped another: the little figure he pulled was another boy, a littlest, barely tall enough to walk and speak and now silent in the shadows. "Toddy. Rozzi." I grabbed my stick again, kneeling to look him in his shocked stare. "Where are the others?"
"They came, we didn'now it was them."
I look at Henr, lips tight. "Henr...go run up, get someone to come down and get Rozzi, he's too little to come with, but we gotta go get the others." Henr's footsteps suddenly in the dark, sprinting back up the stairs, and I can hear him yelling for the others when I turn back to Toddy. "That's okay, Toddy, it's alright. Where are the others that were with you?"
"We couldn't stop them when we realize it. They took us down the stairs, Joni. They made us go."
"Where are the others? Why didn't they keep you?"
"I did it, I push push run, Joni. When the monster fell over I grabbed Rozzi and I run."
I hug him suddenly, proud of the fire in this small little vessel, for thinking outside his own skin. I hope it's still burning, I got a big ask for him: "good, Toddy, you did good. Can you...can you take me where they took you?"
Toddy's whole body tensed up under my hands, head shaking once hard enough to hit my cheek. "I don' wan' to step over Ida and the others 'gain."
The statement filled me with dread; Ida had been the Old-enough, she would have put up a fight, she took the responsibility serious. Images of wood things fought dead in the leaves came into my mind, their fur and feathers replaced with sweet Ida's gold hair and green eyes. I pull back and glance at Henr, and back again, serious. "They have the others." It's both question and statement, request and plea.
"I don' wan' to step over Ida and the others again!" He's shaking with shock, and I realize he's no good no more. What fire he had is burnt through and no one blames him. I hug him again, hearing the patter of feet behind me, Henr returning with another.
"It's okay, Toddy, it's okay, but you gotta let go of me, we gotta save the others." I glance at the pair, Henr and Arnie, "Arnie is gon' take you and Rozzi back up where the others are circled for help, we got Grown ones coming." I look at this kid, the darkness drying on his skin in small flakes, his eyes empty, and I am angry for my village. I hold my stick.
"Henr and I are going to go get the others."
They'd been coming.
I do know, from the setting of the dream, that I am a med student, and I am with a quite large group of people who are taking shelter/refuge in a municipal building, most likely a high school or a middle school judging by how the building is interconnected, with few entrances, and the large cafeteria where I am waiting when all of the dream occurs.
I am sitting on one of the tables, talking sporadically but mostly listening to the conversation around me, when suddenly a group of people burst through the door to the cafeteria from the outside. They are carrying with some difficulty a man, who is bleeding through a large stab or impalement wound on his abdomen, four inches or so beneath his solar plexus, and from smaller wounds to his left side. The people are dirty from being outside; as I assess the situation and rush towards the group, my waking self recognizes that a thick dust hangs in the air, swirling now that the wind brings it in. I yell for gloves, worried in the back of my mind that the man might have a blood disease, even as I strip off my coat and begin to apply pressure to the wound, even as I recognize that I may never have the luxury of worrying again.
I yell for someone else to bring boiling water, and for others to clean off as much of one of the tables as they can, which only amounts to pouring hot water over it and wiping away as much dust and dirt as possible. As I put pressure, waiting for a table, someone brings me cafeteria gloves, the kind that are little more than sandwich bags. I yell for "Latex gloves, I need latex gloves," and another person runs up. They tell me that they've called the hospital, which has promised to send an ambulance as soon as it was able, but the dispatcher asked that if there was any medical personnel on hand. The person mentioned me; I'm not a doctor. I'll have to be. I have to at least try to stop the bleeding or the man won't live long enough for an ambulance; I'm the only one who can try.
Many hands - someone, finally, has found latex gloves - lift up the man onto a table while I examine the few tools we can find. There isn't power in the building, or even in the neighborhood; we make the best we can do with flashlights and a headlamp on a headband they give to me. We hang sheets around our impromptu surgical center to try and keep it as clean as possible, and I go in with thread and a needle, trying to close the wound, to cauterize the bleeding, to restore the damaged arteries. At one point, an hour or more in, I realize that the ambulance isn't coming, and that if this man has any chance of surviving past this point, it will have to be up to us, and maybe that won't even work. Maybe the hospital never had any intent of sending an ambulance. Maybe they just can't.
A distinct part of the dream stands out at me: some point in, the man has to use the bathroom. I am afraid of fecal matter sitting on the operating table; I am worried about it getting into the wound, where the holes have gone out the back, because I won't be able to give him more than the basics - aspirin - when it comes to fighting off infection. We didn't plan for this; the ambulance was suppose to come before this. Instead we part the tables slightly so that he can go between the gaps. No one has any better ideas. We have hung a sheet over his body, with only a square cut into it to view the actual surgery area, trying to keep as much dust out of the wounds as possible. I am right over it, looking in, my tools set aside as my hands are free. I watch as many gloved hands come into view, sliding under his body gently: we will try to all lift at once, to move him so he doesn't move himself, so that the wound doesn't stretch and tear and reopen. Someone has put a janitor's bucket underneath the gap, a large white five-gallon bucket that used to hold soap or paint or some other thing. I see it through the gap even as I watch his wound, terrified. But it goes okay, and we just leave him there, his butt over the gap, hoping it won't have any effects, hoping that this was the most delicate part left to figure out, that nothing else happens.
Finally I finish the surgery. It looks okay so far: I think I have everything I can do, and all of the holes are stitched up, the thread ugly and dark against the puckered skin of the closed wound. I am exhausted; now that I'm finished, my hands shake uncontrollably at my sides. I sit down, pulling the bandanna off of my lower face, feeling my hair flat against my forehead and the sweat beaded against the headlamp's band. Everyone congratulates me: they clap my shoulders, they joke. I smile weakly, but I know that the man isn't out of the clear yet, not until I can be sure he heals well. And because I know we're not out of the clear yet, none of us, that this? This...
This is just the beginning.
Nothing will ever be the same.
I am frustrated but they drop me off at a math class before they return home. In the class I am supposed to write a paper, so I lash out by writing it solely about my show: breaking the conceptualization, process, and physicalities into quantifiable knowns and factoring in all of the variables.
(I wake up, and realize that this might not be such a bad idea. Minus the equations, of course.)
I dream that Denny and Glenda have opened a bed & breakfast in a small series of cottages surrounding a main house - very farmlike - on open, green land. They invite me to come and stay a night, just to try it out and tell my friends.
I remember mostly from the dream sitting at the table itself. I am flipping through the menus: they have both an expansive regular menu (a clean, contemporary design with delicate, san-serif fonts in 70% charcoal; ah, the things you remember) and a "teaser" menu that sits out on the table all the time, with beautiful shots of food taking whole pages, the captions just a FoodPornDaily-style afterthought.
I am trying to decide what to order for breakfast as my friends chat about various things and the food. I am having a hard, hard time deciding so I try not to focus on them too much. A few of the dishes that catch my eye, that I try to choose from:
Dark Chocolate-covered Goji Berries sprinkle a pile of homemade whipped cream, topping a stack of Goji Berry pancakes. On a plate to the side, delicate, quarter-inch strips of bacon have spiraled in the heat and coil, like burnt springs, in a quiet pool of 100% maple syrup.
A dried fruits cereal "tart" (though I don't know if the thing is actually baked, or just warmed) balances dates and figs with walnuts and pecans and a multitude of seeds (including flax and sesame) in a flaky crust, the whole thing presented in a teacup with a teaspoon.
Thinly-sliced, delicately-marbled bear meat lays, prosciutto-style, draped on a series of small toasted breads. Each is topped with a dollap of lox cream cheese with capers, a spring of fresh cilantro tucked into the mass.
Seaweed-wrapped onigiri the side of your thumb are filled with tamago and small squared chunks of fish. I consider ordering two dishes of this - it's an appetizer that intrigues me, and while I know I can sample from other people's plates, I also know no one else is going to order this - but when I see the price tag of $14.95 for one appetizer, I decide I should just go ahead and get a full breakfast meal.
A shallow bowl of homemade yogurt is mixed with small scoops of melon and fruit. They've taken an impossibly-small melon-baller - each sphere is the size of your fingernail - and sampled from honeydew, cantaloupe, and strawberry. These tiny spheres surface out of the yogurt and spill out onto the wide plate, with ropes of thin yogurt looping out over them.
There were so, so many other dishes, but I can't remember them all. all I can remember is the smell of the warm kitchen and the patient expressions of dauschaunds.
And the wind is strong. As I open the glass front door, it pushes against me like a tide, and then ebbs back, drawing me outside to look across the empty, rolling grasses. I stand on the porch, door open, watching a large cloud manifest itself from the distance. As it grows closer with the same eerie, delicate speed, I realize it is composed of dozens - no, hundreds - of silvery-grey balloons, each with a bomb attached to their strings. The wind pulls; the whole cloud hefts into the air like a woman raising her skirts to step across water.
And then the wind flows, the whole mass descending sharply like the wings of a plane.
The bombs drop like so many eggs. I watch a cloud splash up from the impact. The earth shatters and rushes into that fragile, light-footed white.
I am in Hawai'i again. My sister and I are kneeling on the beach, the sound of the waves a lover's pant behind us. The beach flickers with firelight and the dying sunset, a witching hour: around us, a dozen small clumps of people sit, their knees drawn, looking out into the water and the fading day.
She and I are digging for clams, ceaselessly, and the beach is fertile. We have no sooner scraped away a clump of wet sand when another clam appears. I can feel the hard, coarse shell, the tiny hairs of barnacles even on these tiny mussels. Some are shut tight, their mouths a thin crack that exudes the dark. Others are wide open, their insides palpitating like tiny hearts.
My sister unearths a crab by accident: it is a large creature as broad as both of my hands, with legs that curl into itself out of caution like a dense brush. The shell is multicolored and bright, streaked with neon. I realize it is a minor god, and I pull her back.
We leave with our bags of mussels and wander from the beach into the lush foliage. The town is just inside the jungle barrier, and it is a stereotypical village paradise cobbled out of twine and bamboo and hollywood visions. We pass through the surprisingly dense square and to a house where an inventor lives. He has genetically engineered fauns; however, to meet them, we must wear giant faun masks that hide us from head to knee like caricatures of African masks. We offer the fauns the mussels, but when I turn around, I realize my sister has taken the crab god from the bag. The fauns go wild, and begin trashing the rooftop home. I dive for cover as the crab scuttles under a table, and wonder, if in her confusion, this will somehow result in a war of the deities.
There are a line of houses there. They are cubes, very minimal: the bottom half has a support wall that runs East to West, dividing the cube into two, equal, rectangular rooms; the top half's wall runs North to South, dividing again. The walls are either wood or glass, both double-layered. The space between the wood is filled with insulating foam that makes the structure very strong; the space between the glass is filled with a gas that creates warmth, but that also serves to create one-way tints or viewing screens.
The community is unique as well. The inhabitants are largely religious in nature, people who have devoted themselves to their ideology to the extent that it is nearly ritual. I'm not, but I'm accepted here, and though I don't go to their church, I value the majority of their tenets, and their tenets, not their religion, are what constitutes qualifications for living here.
Each citizen must have something they grow. Whether it is a few herbs in pots or a whole farm of gardens, their religion dictates that they must take care of the earth, and that in return, the earth sustains and cares for them. Houses flourish with greenery and burst with color: flowers, fruits, fronds.
Paths wind between the houses, but there doesn't seem to be formal roads as I have come to know them. Wagons - both human and animal-propelled - and bicycles take the more trodden paths, while others are where feet have beat tracks into the growing, waving grasses. People wave, welcoming me back.
It has been a long time since I have been back here. My house is in shambles: large cobwebs wrap objects, and the lights are dark. Books have fallen over. Dust lies heavy. I can climb in over a fallen, broken bookcase, and walk around, but I don't stay long, and when I get out I sweep the riverfish bugs off the back of my hands with shuddering disgust. The neighbors have kept my house from falling down and growing over, but they were not responsible for what was inside.
Dozens of my friends show up to help me restore it. Soon the place is back to waxed floors and clean walls and righted shelves and warm kitchens and covered beds. My friend Nate stands in front of a rebuilt bookcase, looking satisfied. Hugo carries boxes to restock my pantry. Elisa nurses a stand of sprouts. And many, many others flit in and out of my vision, moving, doing.
I feel grateful, and then I wake up.
Is it the underlying need to prove oneself, the action hero conviction to survive one assault after another in a series of cascading horrors to an eventual and climatic triumph?
Is it the underlying need to destroy oneself, the martyr seeking opportunity to be blamelessly eradicated at the height of tragedy, to be both erased and yet somehow, horribly, glorified through the action?
Is it a return to the individualistic impetuous that drives us to seek our own accomplishments, the strength and power of knowing your successes are your own?
Or is it a return to the communal support, the intimacy of knowing your neighbors not just as faces and mailbox names, but as the trades, skills, and values that create a local currency of survival?
Is it a preoccupation with death, the change from which we emerge utterly different?
Or is it a preoccupation with birth, the creation of a new being derived from past life but new and altered to and by the world it enters, developing into a more mature body?
(And let's not get into my habit of snacking endless on news articles and twitter bites throughout the day.)
But this year, I'm taking the resolution to dine a little more healthily along the way, too. Now that I've been wandering over into the library over the past six months, I've started - mostly through curiosity, and almost entirely by accident - supplementing my diet with a steady read of nonfiction.
I've already started being more choosy - ladling my plate with half fiction, half non, before shuffling out of that textual cafeteria - but like anyone wanting to make a real change in their consumption habits, I've decided to start recording everything. Or...at least the bigger meals, anyway, the ones whose covers can close with any kind of heft (as I'm not entirely sure I feel like revealing just how much I snack on digital journals throughout the day), whose weight I carry around my muscles in my satchel all afternoon.
Part of reviewing, commenting, snide-remarking is the idea of digestion. I've always been a voracious reader, but, especially as time gets narrower and narrower this side of the wall, I've developed the bad habit of wolfing down my food. Taking the time to break down the method, the recipe, the ingredients, and the results - in other words, establishing the old ways - is something that has sat, waiting to happen, nagging like a stomachache.
So, well, hopefully by this time next year, my reading habits will be something a little bit better chewed.