Marko Kissed Her, But She Didn't Respond
She was there, with him, and they both understood that they were under surveillance. Secret police? Agents of the State? She never learned the lingo. The very idea of a State, of surveillance, made her dyspeptic. She preferred disorder to order, and turned her head to the bare wall.
Is this the future, the way it plays out?
Let the larger world fall away and rot. Take what’s offered if it’s what you desire; that was her mantra, and she was too committed to it to change. Besides, the world would fall away and rot without her help. If they were stalked for being in love, well, there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. Drive the car, desert it beside a bank, buy some time near the ruins in a small hotel room rented under an alias.
Now they were history: names in a file. She knew that, even dreaming, and awakened from a thought about time to a clock beeping by the bed. The Beast, in the room, confiscated personal effects, love letters, and placed them in a plastic bag. His collar was black.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
He smirked and sealed the bag with a twister strap. “More evidence, that. We’ve catalogued you two. Come along now. You’re to be debriefed. Standard Operating Procedure.”
“Power differential, is it?” her lover said. His name was Marko Sobokovic. He wore a black t-shirt and she could see a red dancing monkey tattooed on the skin above his biceps on his right arm. “She’s the one with power, mate. Can’t you feel it? They haven’t taken your manhood from you, have they?”
The provocation didn’t work. One would betray the other, and receive a citation. The Beast would expect that. Marko would do it to her, or would it be the reverse? At least, that was what she thought that the Beast thought; she could read him, but like a bad book. Who knows what the writer means? She could see that he thought that he might convince her that the betrayal had already taken place.
She turned again to the wall. If only they had taken the night train to the coast. They could be someplace else, broken open, in blossom. Instead, they lived with the ones who stripped language like gears and replayed intimacies as evidence.
Did that put them on the wrong side of history?
She remembered a quote from Melville: “I know not all that might be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” Leave it to Melville, she thought, to give the lie to the crusaders.
On camera, they looked like honeymooners, all tongues and hands, on the run in the Fiat, cherishing flesh. She was an empath: the Beast knew that. Of course he did. It made her valuable to the State. “It's like waking alone in the woods,” she once said, describing it. “Like moving in and out of bodies. Like writing a report in prose they won’t decipher for decades. The tongue is the culprit, the root of intimacy.”
“Like thinking of the State with nostalgia,” Marko had answered.
“Do you ever wonder,” she had said, “why they’re obsessed about what we say and do with each other?” What would happen, she now wondered, if the Beast cut out their tongues? Wouldn’t something inside them still speak? Or would the crusaders have the patent on language? If they spoke without tongues, what would the new language sound like?
There's only one way to save us, she thought. Let each other go, keep saying the words we've been saying out loud, these words I'm thinking now, until they become emotional necessity.
Marko stared at her when she thought that and nodded, as if he could read minds. “All these secrets,” he said aloud. “It’s one of the reasons we feel so sad.” He turned to the Beast. “Why don’t you pretend you never found us? Why don’t you join us for a drink?”
“Jesus Christ.” The Beast cleared his throat and tapped the crystal of his watch with a fingernail. “Didn’t I tell you to cut the crap?”
The windblast of a passing troop train rattled the window.
They walked shoulder-to-shoulder a step ahead of the Beast through streets where refugees wandered with eyes like broken glass, their coats too thin for the cold. A few, spying the Beast’s greatcoat and black plastic bag, came with hands outstretched.
She dug in her pockets for change. She tried to give everyone something.
The Beast unbuttoned his coat. It flapped like the wings of a bird. One refugee was building a fire in an oil drum using newspaper, dry branches, slats of wood torn from an abandoned kiosk. “Dybbuks,” The Beast said. He unbuttoned his black collar. “You know anything about those vegetables that have brains and can walk around underground the way we do?”
She stared at him as if he was speaking a language she couldn’t understand. Marko gave her a look and allowed himself a crooked smile. “It’s evolution,” he said. “The age we live in.”
She appears on the trunk of trees, speaks in languages nobody can translate. A streetlight shines into the leaves. She could feel the words like light slapping against the tree as the vision unfolded inside her. This is what they want me to see, she thought. And then she appears, hands folded in prayer. A vision on the trunk of a tree.
The sadness of crowds, she thought.
Above her, tattered clouds stretched like strips of canvas over the city. There was a sound, maybe an awning flapping loose, as if the wind on its own could make a racket. The edge of the sky was slashed with crimson, as though the enemy fired ancient cannons.
Always these doors, opening once, then closing shut on our blood.
The Beast’s greatcoat flapped open again, revealing a black snub-nosed object in a shoulder holster that covered his heart.
"As far as miracles go," she said, "I'm not an ideal witness. I stare at ghosts instead of seeing with my own eyes. You might as well let us go. I have nothing to give them. You’ll all be very disappointed.” A squadron of jets flew over their heads in a vee formation, going south. A sharp fishy odor filled her nostrils and made her want to gag.
“If you admit your error, you go free. They rebuke and re-educate, give you the stamp of approval. It’s His will, sister.”
“You speak for Him?” Marko said.
The Beast grinned. “Yeah. That too.”
Rebuke, she thought. A word the mad ones use.
The interrogation room was set up in a black-shuttered safe house located on a natural ledge above the river near a patch of woods. A dark-furred German shepherd tied to the single oak in the yard rose to its feet and lowered its snout to the ground. A woman in a gray pantsuit with her brown hair pinned up in a severe bun came to the door and said something to the dog. It barked and settled back on its haunches. The Beast gave the woman the plastic bag, took off his greatcoat and slung it over the railing. He unsnapped his shoulder holster, leaned against a porch rail, and crossed his arms. “Waiting plays hell with my ulcer. Makes me want to file a grievance."
The universe has been here fifteen billion years, she thought. An hour more or less won't make a difference. The safe house was separated from the river by an acre of junked cars, some without wheels or hoods, all without glass. Nothing to reflect light. No wax, no shine.
It grew dark; moonglow blistered on the river. Everything else was inky; the skyline far away burned an electrical story into the heavens.
“You’re the one they want to keep happy,” the Beast said to her. “As for him” – he turned a thumb to Marko – “dime a dozen. Give him a reprimand. Assign him to the basement detail, let him steam open envelopes. Or worse.”
“Envelopes?” she said. “Nobody sends letters anymore.”
Her destiny, if she chose to accept it, would be one safe house and the next, one investigation and the next. Find names for bodies, tell where secrets were buried, receive messages from the ether, read invisible ectoplasmic entrails. Even my gift has become a commodity, she thought sadly. She could hear the voices of women, visible like shadow puppets just beyond sheer curtains on one of the windows. Or was she imagining it? An extravagance, someone said, a recipe to bring loved ones back. She wears out her gift with pleasure, someone said. Didn’t the both of them die?
Hush, someone said. They’re waiting, just outside.
Everything you’ve heard is true, she thought. Rumors, innuendoes, allegations: all true, and I’m happy to scream it to the heavens.
The woman in the pantsuit opened the door. Her skin had the pasty sheen of a flayed potato and her lips were smeared with purple. She moved with the grace of a seal cut off from water. She motioned the Beast to a sofa facing a television set. He stretched on the couch, placed his greatcoat and revolver on a table beside him, and lost himself in a sitcom. Dubliners, it was called. A sound track of taped laughter filled the room.
They motioned her to the table of women. She brushed her dark hair away from her forehead. She crinkled up the corners of her eyes into a squint, a kind of lopsided smile, and pulled a feather from her white skirt. Wine and language on our teeth that day. It was almost unbearable to remember, now that it was over.
There was light from a rose-colored shade. What the Beast had taken was stacked on a table. Nothing personal about it anymore. Personality was extinguished. It was data. The woman in the pantsuit went to another room and returned with a bottle of wine and a trayful of glasses.
The empath listened to the lap of wine.
Marko, in a chair across from the Beast, who was snoring, received a glass of wine and raised it in a toast. "To the discipline of indiscipline," he said, his voice brassy.
“You just don’t get it, do you?” the woman in the pantsuit said. “None of this is funny. We have concerns.”
“Who’s laughing?” Marko said.
The empath laughed at that. Wine moistened a dark spot on her lower lip. "You know how Galileo described wine?" she said to Marko. "Light held together by moisture." A glance, wide-eyed beyond reason.
"We don't want this to be difficult,” the woman in the pantsuit said, “but you know how debriefing works. Admit your error, get rebuked."
Or worse, she thought. You’ve come from somewhere, you’re going somewhere else. It rustled in her mind, a dream or a story. I can see you changing your life to be with me. Someone is departing for somewhere, you act as if your life is in danger. There's a train that follows the route you know, I'm on that train. She poured more wine and, biting her lower lip, studied a moth as it splashed against the lampshade.
"All right," Marko said. “Let’s get on with it.” There's another train you can take that might not go anywhere, except someplace different from where you are if you take the one you always take. I can see you travel on a journey to meet a stranger who arrives when you leave.
“'She was the one with the legs,'” the woman in the pantsuit read. “'I caught myself staring at them once too often, and afterwards a jazz band followed me wherever I went.’ Or this?” She read on, something about a faith-based succubus fabricating allegations of sexual abuse because she was a vampire who found it absolutely required to suck other people’s lifeblood. “Isn’t that inappropriate?” she said. “Isn’t that incriminating?”
The moth splashed against the shade. A political age, but the empath had nothing to do with history and would never be bound to the State: its dictates, its crusades, its unlawful conduct. Her only weapon against them was a certain lyric by a peculiar poet from Eastern Europe. “Isn’t all this beside the point?” she said.
The Beast’s revolver lay on the table. He was snoring. On the television, three men gathered around a fourth lying in bed. "He's a man of the world like ourselves," one said.
“Nobody’s accusing you of anything,” the woman in the pantsuit said. “We can’t allow exploitation; there’s a power differential. You’re the victim. There are policies in place.”
Marko shrugged. “And who is my accuser? Who’s aggrieved? You? The State?”
“Him,” she said. The room felt oxygen-deprived to the empath.
“It’s time for the visitation,” the woman said. “The vegetation entities are sending an emissary who looks like the Virgin.”
Marko unsuccessfully tried to stifle a laugh. On his own initiative, courting a reprimand, he uncorked another bottle of wine. "We’ll drink to that," he said.
The woman walked to the window to draw back the sheer curtain. They stared, all of them, as a column of light appeared on the trunk of the oak. It was the upper world come down to earth, or the lower one paying respects: a visitation. The woman in the pantsuit lowered her head, clasped her hands together, and hummed. The other women at the table did the same.
It’s time for me to go to ground, the empath thought, feeling the onset of panic.
Marko in one motion used the opportunity to walk to the table, pick up the Beast’s holster, unsnap the revolver, and motion with it to the woman in the pantsuit. “We’re leaving,” he said in a quiet voice. “If you try to stop us, I might shoot you.” The German shepherd outside the door whimpered. “I want you to call for the dog,” Marko said.
The Beast was still asleep.
The television screen was full of falling snow.
They made their way through the junk lot of broken cars. We exchange lives and from my chair I see myself lying on your bed, stuck with the rest of your life. Not falling back on the old ways, isn't that still a possibility? Not resigning to origins, but instead striking out with someone you've never met, someone with a fate you’ve known your entire life, someone inside the newly-discovered planet you lean against to catch your breath. The headlights of lorries plunged along the river, billboards indecipherable with distance blinked like beacons, the skyline rustled its colors. But it won't come, you've left everything, impossible in daylight, but you turn a corner, leave a page dog-eared until someone picks it up and reads the passage that you write as he’s reading.
Marko kissed her, but she didn’t respond. They reached a stand of trees next to the river. Muddy water that smelled like fish lapped past them. "We've lost the moon," she said, a hitch in her voice. “It’s fallen into the city.” Facing the skyline, she recited a passage from one of the old books of poems, from a poet who did not survive the war. She touched Marko’s face. I have something for every occasion, you know. Holding on comes easily. I can’t go with you. I'm setting out on a different journey. We’re strong enough now to deal with that. I can't be alone, that's suicide, and we can’t be together, that’s the past. She entered an orbit of her own, the whisper of her words indecipherable on the night wind.
Marko had taken the Beast’s greatcoat and now it flapped like the cape of a king, an act of transubstantiation, though she could see that the collar crimped his neck. “Throw it away,” she said, “fast, before it makes you one of them.” She could see the struggle in his face, but he tossed away the gun into the acre of cars. It clanged against a metal roof. He unbuttoned and flung away the greatcoat. She saw the red dancing monkey on his arm.
We’re part of history. That’s what we have. Nothing else.
It was all they had. They would hold to it, maybe, going their separate ways into the sadness of crowds, the way birds migrate when the weather is ripe. She might be alone, descending, and without him, and he might be likewise, but he was part of the world, and would never consent to follow her down deep where she sensed that forces inside her required her to go. She willed herself to believe that there would be times when one would think of the other the way someone lost and traveling alone might come upon a patch of skywriting on a clear blue day. If that happens, you read it without knowing what it is that you’ve read until afterwards, when the message rustles in your mind and gives you the one clue required to continue the journey.
Order So Bravely Vegetative, a short story collection by Alan Davis here.
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