The Attendant

It’s Kamanda’s fault.

This is Kadima’s thought as she maneuvers the long pole, dipping the net into the water to scoop up the body at the bottom of The Pool. She stands, straining her muscles and using her body weight to lift, keeping the pole from slipping off its axis. The scholar emerges, sputtering and struggling.

“Put me back!” he yells. “I almost had it!”

“You’ve had enough!” she calls, fighting to keep him up. “Any longer underwater and you would’ve died!”

“You don’t know that!” he screams. “I’ve dedicated my life to scholarly pursuits. I am the most respected mind in my field – who the fuck are you to tell me when I’ve had enough?”

“I’m the fucking bath attendant!” Kadima shouts. The surviving attendant, she thinks, expending more energy to swing the net to The Pool’s edge and dumping the scholar on the side. “Don’t go back,” she pants.

Using the net exhausts her, but it’s better than the alternative. Too many other attendants lost their lives before she came up with the idea for it, and convinced Kamanda to have it made.

Kadima has also  installed several cautionary signs around The Pool. They say vaguely,

 

“You Cannot Take It With You”

explicitly,

“Holding Your Head Underwater Causes Drowning Before Remembering”

and imploringly,

“Why Trouble Yourself? Go Home”.

 

Kamanda doesn’t know about these. If she did, she would have them taken down. Nothing can mess with Kamanda’s money. Nothing has ever blocked anything Kamanda wanted, since their childhood.

 

Kamanda always got people to do things. As Kamanda’s best friend, Kadima seemed to be roped into doing the most, despite or perhaps because of her ever-present skepticism. Kamanda bossed; Kadima negotiated, and they had adventured through life without much negativity, until The Pool was discovered.

That night, Mfumu, Kamanda’s boyfriend, had driven the three of them deep into the Lubourg forest, in the heart of Congo. He drove until there was no more road, and then Kamanda had made them continue on foot “until we find something.” Eventually, they’d discovered a spring in a clearing, and Kamanda decided that was it! She and Mfumu dove in. Kadima, wary of the dangers that could lurk in an unexplored area, had stayed to the side. She decided to sit out and keep watch until the others were finished.

“Of course,” she’d imagined Ngondu, her brother, saying. “Be practical so your so-called friend can play. Why should you both enjoy yourselves?” He had never been a fan of Kamanda.

Mfumu and the friend in question had interrupted Kadima’s thoughts by cursing at each other.

“Ten!” Kamanda screamed. “You’ve cheated on me with ten other women, conard!

Salope, you were planning to sneak into my brother’s room tonight!” Mfumu hollered back.

Their chests rose and fell rapidly, and Kamanda had moved as if to hit him.

Kadima forgot danger and cannon-balled into the water, hoping that the shock would startle them calm. It had worked, but then she’d been there with them, knowing they were telling the absolute truth. She’d also known that it didn’t matter, and once they’d been quiet for a moment, they’d known it didn’t matter, either.

They’d calmed down and broken up, right there. Kadima had remembered her watchman responsibilities and climbed out, irately ignoring them babble secrets about the Egyptians, the follies of colonial explorers, and string theory.

When they’d left the water, Kamanda and Mfumu were confused by their hoarse voices and feelings of betrayal.

“Maybe talk less,” Kadima had told them. “And that feeling’s natural when you discover infidelity, isn’t it?” They hadn’t known what she was talking about.

Kamanda was wealthy, and connected, and she talked to her more influential friends. Soon, more people than Kadima really thought necessary were involved, running tests on the spring. Eventually, after many more voices had become hoarse from spouting the secrets of the universe, everyone came to the same conclusion: bathing in the water taught you everything there was to know about anything, ever.

After that, everyone went wild. It hadn’t taken long for word to spread about the spring, and even less time for the lawyers and banks to swoop in and turn it into one of the greatest tourist attractions the universe had ever seen.

They built an enormous bathhouse around the spring, complete with changing rooms, a little terrace cafe, and a photographer who took your picture before you got in, and after you came out. It was advertised as The Pool of Knowledge.

The whole forest was razed for the bathhouse, its minerals dug up and incorporated into the construction. Kadima was ambivalent about this, but Kamanda simply paid off or imprisoned the environmentalists, rationalizing that the Congolese hadn’t even been using the forest before. People had grown up believing it was haunted, so no one ever went in. Now, the place turned into such a hot property that simply trying to access The Pool became dangerous. Everyone wanted to control the property. Those who couldn’t, settled for controlling the land outside of it. Visiting the bathhouse required traversing a minefield of human gangs and terrorist tariffs. The government offered to send soldiers for protection – for a fee. Kadima was dubious. She’d noticed that some of the gangs wore fatigues with a similar insignia to the army’s.

“Man,” said Ngondu, “I thought Africa had territory issues before. This is wild!”

“Maybe this is the sign we need to shut things down,” said Kadima. “I don’t think The Pool is meant to be used by the world.”

“Absolutely not. This is the sign that we are going to make so much money!” Kamanda retorted. “Think about it: how much is too much to pay, to attain all the knowledge in the universe? There is no amount too great! That’s why they’re all out here!”

“I think we’re going to make more trouble than anything,” Kadima had said dubiously, but Kamanda wasn’t listening.

“If this world can’t use The Pool,” Kamanda said, “It won’t. We’ll move it off the Earth!”

She called in new scientists, engineers, and biologists. They detached the former forest, sent it into space, and turned it into its own world. Now, travel agents got involved, because the Pool of Knowledge became the destination to beat all destinations!

Kamanda stayed on Earth to run things remotely, sending Kadima off with The Pool. Since she was so worried about everything, Kamanda reasoned, she might as well keep an eye on things with the bath attendants. That was when Kadima had become aware of the trouble.

“Are you not warning people back home?” Kadima had called to check in with Kamanda. “They’re losing their minds over here. You have to put some sort of disclaimer in the advertising!”

They had figured it out back when Kadima had reminded Kamanda and Mfumu of their break up. The Pool was tricky. It granted people access to all the knowledge there ever was, only as long as they were in the water. As soon as you left, you forgot all that you had just learned.

“It doesn’t matter what we say to them,” Kamanda explained. “They’ll keep coming anyway.” She was right.

“But it’s different from when we first discovered it,” Kadima pressed. “We were only looking for adventure. Our expectations were low. Everyone who goes into the pool nowadays wants something. They have expectations about what their experience will be, what they want to know, and what they will come away with. Then, of course, they learn how wrong they were to have any expectations, and then they forget everything they’ve learned!”

The bath house pictures were becoming a cruel joke: while everyone’s “Before” picture showed happy and excited faces, the majority of the “Afters” portrayed someone sobbing, raving, or on occasion, dead.

 

People died in The Pool. Some believed that if they kept their heads under water for long enough, they could carry the information out with them. Not only did this result in their drownings, it also resulted in the drownings of the several bath attendants who attempted to rescue them. The attendants either lost track of themselves in the informational overflow, or they lost their lives while struggling unsuccessfully to bring the bathers back up to the surface. After the fifth drowning, Kadima posted the explicit signs.

Many bathers were scholars, determined to steal knowledge away. Kadima refused to deal with these people, as they appeared to her both foolish and greedy. In any other setting she would also think them immoral, but any morality in the vicinity of The Pool seemed to be suspended.

These scholars brought journals and pencils, and coerced naive bath attendants into taking note of every new bit of information they screamed out. Unfortunately, there was new information to be screamed every second, much too quickly for it to be gotten down. The inevitable outcome was that when the zealous scholars eagerly left The Pool to find nothing but gibberish-filled pages, they would fly into uncontrollable rages rendered impotent by their hoarse voices. At this point, they would simply shoot the disappointing attendants, who were too cramped from writing to defend themselves. After the third shooting, Kadima posted the vague signs.

One day, a scholar came in with a tape recorder.

“What is that thing?” Kadima asked, when he came into the bathing area with a big box under his arm.

“This, girl, is my ticket to success,” he told her, turning it on. “It will take down everything I say, and I won’t have to rely on any of your lousy scribe-work.”

He seemed to have thought of everything, even tying a cord to his ankle and connecting it to the Pool ladder, so he wouldn’t swim out of the recorder’s range. When he finally tired himself out, he rushed out of the pool and snatched it up.

“Wait,” Kadima cautioned. “No one else has managed to take anything away from the water. Maybe there’s a reason for that.”

“Maybe they’re just stupid,” he replied, and pressed the “play” button. They could hear the splash of him getting into the water, and then his voice came through clearly, reciting Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“I did it!” the scholar cried triumphantly. “Did it! Ha!” He hopped up and down, holding the recorder high, gibing at Kadima, shouting over his recorded words.

“Be careful!” Kadima yelled, too late. He’d never untied the cord around his ankle, and it tripped him. He slipped and cracked his head open.

The question that began to bother most people was the Pool’s usefulness. What was the point, many asked, of having access to Everything, if one could do Nothing with it? Scholarly intellects cracked from the pressure of how meaningless everything about The Pool seemed to be. After dedicating their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, scholars found themselves unchanged by what they assumed to be its source, and suddenly lost their wills to live.

Kadima, hoping that finally The Pool would have to be shut down, posted the imploring signs. Visitors were dissuaded for about a month, but just as Kadima was packing her things to leave, Kamanda marketed The Pool to the nihilists. They made the bath house the focal point of all their retreats. Kamanda further manipulated the other faiths into following suit, both in an effort to keep “with the times,” and to send missionaries to poach nihilists from their parties. So The Pool stayed in business, the economy flourished, and everybody was slightly less happy for it.

Everybody except for Kamanda, of course, who was still happy to make outrageous amounts of money.

“And you shouldn’t be too sour about it, either,” Kamanda reprimanded Kadima. “It’s not like you aren’t getting a portion. It’s not like you aren’t complicit.”

“It’s not like anyone else could survive at this job,” Kadima said, “Or keep the bathhouse moderately safe.”

“Well, leave then,” challenged Kamanda. “If you think everything will fall apart without you, and you are as against The Pool as you say you are. Go home!”

She was afraid to. Afraid of what might happen if she did leave, and they found a way to keep it going. So, she stayed.

 

These days, Kadima simply sits by the pool with earplugs to block out the revelatory shouts of the bathers. Every so often, she fishes a too-long-submerged bather out of the water with the net, so as to allow her to do her job without actually touching the water. Since she’s been put in charge, there have been no more drownings. The occasional suicide is still committed in the changing room by a scholar who cannot handle the disappointment that accompanies drying off. Those, she can do nothing about. So instead she reads, she writes, she watches detachedly, and occasionally she uses her scoop to break up the arguments that arise between competing scholars in the water.

“Are you never tempted to go in?” Ngondu asked once, on a visit. She had allowed him to sit with her, and treated him in the cafe, but warned him not to even think of bathing. “Or, or try to perfect the tape recorder thing? You’re saying you haven’t picked up anything in all your time here? Kadima, if you wanted to, you could bring all that knowledge back to our world! You could help people!”

“How?”

“Are you kidding?” Ngondu was shocked. “By giving them exactly what they’ve been searching for, losing their lives to attain! No one would have to drown or kill themselves anymore, if they could just get knowledge on dry land.”

“I don’t think that would help anything,” Kadima said. “People aren’t really any happier knowing everything, than they were only knowing what they knew before. They only feel loss afterward, because they kidded themselves into believing that in the water, they had gained something beneficial. But they didn’t, because they never would have been able to use any of that properly. People who waste their time traveling to The Pool to learn, can’t handle understanding something that must occur to them in the water.”

“What’s that?” Ngondu asked.

“I can’t really explain it.”

He hadn’t liked the answer, but he’d respected her enough to go home without getting in.

 

A splash interrupts her reflection – the scholar from before dives back into The Pool. He jeers at Kadima from the water; she looks away, letting him believe in his triumph, conserving her energy. It doesn’t surprise her later when she hears frustrated sobs coming from the changing room, followed by a gunshot. The rudest ones take it the hardest.

“Knowledge,” Kadima thinks to herself as she buzzes for a cleanup, “Is no good without Sense.”

Walking like Wilma

Some things stay with you forever. Like the Flintstones walkers. When I was younger, my friend lent me an entire season DVD set of the Flintstones, and I watched that every day for a long time. With pixie sticks. I would just go through pixie sticks, sitting on my couch, pouring the powder into my mouth, devouring Flintstones episodes.

The animation was always interesting, in how people would travel with their bodies. I don’t mean the whole thing about using your feet to start and stop cars. I mean their actual walking.

One episode had Fred and Barney up to some nonsense, and Wilma and Betty had to go looking for them. At one point, Barney says, “Uh-oh! Here come the girls!” When you saw them coming, you knew that “Uh-oh” was dead right to use. Wilma and Betty are walking up the street with their bodies leaning forward at something like 45-degree angles to the concrete. Wild. Incredible. Physically impossible?

I tried and tried to walk like that, until my mom told me to knock it off. I think I embarrassed her by doing it on a walk with extended family. Sometimes, I still think about trying. It’s been so long since I watched that episode, I doubt she’d remember what I was doing. That would make me doubly weird, the kind that comes not from no one understanding your explanation, but no one believing you could have one to begin with. Flintstones walking. I’ll do it in my room.

Rotten Luck (Prompt Challenge)

“EeeeeeeeYAAAAAIIIIIIII!”

The shriek jolted me awake. I hung, bobbing a little, trying to gather myself together. I had just mustered up enough courage to pop open an eye, when –

“EeeeeeeeYAAAAAIIIIIIII!”

There it was again! My eye shut faster than a pea could snap. I trembled, leaves shaking, quivering on the vine.

“Knock it off,” came my sister’s voice, sleepy and irritated.
“Princess,” I whispered, admiring her audacity in talking down the noise-maker, “Did you hear it, too?”
“Hear what?” she said, more sharply. “I was talking to you, Runt! Quit shaking so much. You woke me up, and you’re making my leaves itch.”
“Someone was screaming! It sounded like there was a murder!” I cried. “You really didn’t hear anything?”
“Nothing,” she snapped. “You were probably just dreaming. Like I should be!”
“It was real!” I insisted, but quietly, to myself. I didn’t want to upset Princess any more. Her temperament matched her complexion, and she was hard enough to deal with well-rested.

“It was real,” I worried to myself again.
“Of couurrrssssse it was reeealllllll,” came a shadowy whisper overhead. There was a rustling, scuttling sound, as the spider plant to the left of our pot leaned over and brushed the top of my stalk. “Sweeeet baaaaby,” it hissed to me as I shivered, “You’ve never heard the carrotsss ssscreeeam before?”
“The what?”
“The carrottssssss. They ssssccreeaam!”

I had only ever seen the carrots when they traveled. We were very different. My family rested on the window sill, a group hangout of individuals in the sun. They nestled together, bunched up in the fridge. Still, they had always looked calm and happy.

“Why do they do that?”
“Ssseeeee for yourrsssself!” With a click, the spider plant shot out a tendril, nudging me into opening my eyes. “Overrr on the kitchen tablllle.”

I had to swing on my vine to see, bumping into brothers and sisters who sleepily protested. Finally, I was arcing high enough to get a view of the table. There was a group of carrots, set out on a plate. On my next swing, I saw a person standing in front of them, holding up a long blade that glinted in the light from the overhead bulb. Then, they brought the blade down.

“EeeeeeeeYAAAAAIIIIIIII!” The carrots screamed as their heads were chopped off.

“What the fig!” I gasped, staring at the disconnected carrot heads lying on the plate. Their faces made perfect, horrified, dead-vegetable O’s as the rest of their bodies were chopped up. “What the huckleberry is happening?”
“Guesssss,” said the spider plant. “Or…watch some mooore.”
I couldn’t. I shut my eyes again, tight, until I had stopped swinging. The sound of crunching filled the room.
“Yum, yum, yum!” said the person in the kitchen. I heard them pick up the knife, and open the refrigerator door.
“They’re going to do this again?” I asked, disbelieving. “What kind of monster can murder screaming victims over and over again, and be so cheerful about it? Don’t the screams bother them?”
“They don’t heeeaaarr themmm,” rustled the spider plant. “Carrot screamsss are too hiiighhh for their eearsss. I’m ssurpriiissssed that yooouu can even hear them. Mosssst other vegetablesss do not!”

That explained why no one else in my family had woken up. The sound of crunching, meanwhile, was overwhelming.
“Wait,” I said, “Hang on. So you’re saying that this sort of thing happens a lot?” The spider leaves were still, studying. “Vegetables being murdered, and chopped up, and eaten. This is normal? And no one is aware? No one does anything?”
“Did you thiiiink you would staaaaayyy on that vine forreverrrr?” was the response I got.

I had never thought about that. No one had, that I knew of. Not even Princess. She talked a lot about the duties and prestige of being first Heir, of growing and ripening. She threatened all of us with being dropped from the Heirloom vine before our time, but she never talked about what would happen when it was our time. Did she know?

She couldn’t. She got redder and riper every day. Why would she brag about that if she knew where she would end up? She loved to condescend to me, and often led the others in calling me “Runt”. Up until this point, I had hated being such a late bloomer. Now, I was grateful for it.

“You look paaaale,” whispered the spider plant to me, “Altogetherrr unrrripe. Not that you were very briiiight to being withhh. Stiiiillllll, now you are more yelllloww than orrrange! Feeling feearrrr?”
I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t. With the next “EeeeeeeeYAAAAAIIIIIIII!” I passed out.

 

I woke up and almost screamed. In front of our pot was the human from the night before, hungrily eyeing the family vine. Their hand reached out for me, and I shut my eyes as the palm cupped me. The fingers explored my surface. They squeezed me gently, as their thumb rubbed slowly against my skin. This is it, I thought, terrified. This is the end. I’ll be plucked off the vine, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it!

“Hmmm,” the person murmured. The outer corners of their mouth turned down, and I started to hope. “Yellow! That’s no good. Not like this beauty!” They let go of me, and moved up the vine to squeeze Princess. “You, my love, are just what I need. The sauce I will make with you! Yum!” Whereas I had been rigid with fear, Princess was reveling in this person’s hand. She blushed with happiness at their touch, turning an even deeper red.

“Princess,” I whispered to her, concerned. “Are you even listening to what this person is saying? Why are you okay with them grabbing you?”
Princess looked at me distractedly, with disdain. “Saying? What are you talking about?”
“You don’t understand?” I asked her. “This is not a good person!”
“Oh, be quiet, Runt!” Princess said. “All these stories you keep making up; things you claim to hear. You wouldn’t let me sleep last night, and now you won’t let me enjoy my massage. Don’t be jealous that mine is lasting longer than yours did!”
“Son of a brussell sprout,” I muttered, and began to think.

Princess was a goner, that was unavoidable. But I didn’t have to be. I thought about the spider plant last night, commenting on how the fear turned me pale. Then about the human dropping yellow me for the deep red Princess. This latest interaction made me realize: the humans only wanted to eat good vegetables. If I was undesirable, maybe I wouldn’t have to leave the vine.  

I waited until the human was gone, before swinging over to Princess.
“Princess,” I asked, “How did you get to be such a beautiful color?” She looked at me with condescension.
“Why do you ask, Runt?” she asked. “Trying to speed up your bloom? Tired of lagging behind? It’s about time you took pride in your appearance. Actually,” she raised her voice now, swiveling to address the rest of the family. “You should all be taking some lessons from me. I didn’t see any of you get as nice massages as I did, today. This family needs to get its look together. We are Heirlooms!” Our brothers and sisters dutifully listened as Princess laid out the steps to improve our image.

“As Heirlooms,” she lectured, “We need plenty of sunlight. The sun, the sun, the sun! This is the key to our brightest color, because it gives us our food. Sun, and water! You can’t have one without the other. Look at radishes! Those silly things, they only drink, drink, drink, and never see the light of day until they get yanked out of the ground! How pale and disgusting. And carrots! They stay underground for so long, they can only ever become orange!”

She went on, but I had tuned out after she mentioned the carrots. Sun and water, I thought. You can’t have one without the other. Without the sun, you won’t turn red.

I looked around the kitchen, still thinking. The humans had put pictures up on the walls, and occasionally referred to them. One was of an older, balder human, smiling over the rim of spectacles. His whole body was wizened, and it made his head look a little like a lollipop.

“Think,” I told myself. “You’re close to finding a way out of this. Think!”

“Ah!” came a deep, sing-songy voice to my right. “You must be the young Heirloom Houdini!”
“Excuse me?” I asked, looking over. It was the bonzai tree.
“Our spider friend has been talking about you,” said the bonzai. “You are the vegetable that knows its fate, and wants nothing to do with it. You want to avoid the human cutting board!”
“I will avoid it,” I said, wrinkling my skin as I tried to think harder.
“Why stress, though? You are in such an incredible position.”
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
“We all have our time to go,” said the bonzai tree. “We all have something we were created to do. Look at your own case this way: you know what your purpose is. That is unique – some might even call you special!”
“So,” I said slowly, “With my knowledge, I have the ability to avoid what will happen to all the others!” The bonzai leaves shook, and the tree hesitated before answering.
“Perhaps you could make a different fate for yourself,” it intoned. “But I do not think that you should try to fight what is meant for you. What I am saying, is that you are lucky to know what is coming.”
“How does that make me lucky? I’m miserable!”
“Would you rather be like your eldest sister?”
“No,” I said.
“Why not?” Bonzai asked.
“Because. She thinks the world is one way, when it isn’t. She’s going to die, and right before that happens, her entire world will be shattered. You’re asking if it’s better to live in ignorance or truth.”
“It seems that is what you are asking,” the tree said. “But you don’t get to choose that now. You cannot become ignorant to your fate. You can only accept it, make peace with it, and make the most of your life until then.”

I disagreed. I didn’t want to accept that fate. Casting about the room, my eyes landed on the lollipop man once more. Looking at that smiling old human, I finally came up with my plan.

Hunger strike.

 

From that moment on, I avoided the sun. It was hard at first, and cold. My body ached, but I made myself take comfort in knowing that as long as I felt the ache, I had a better chance at staying alive. I stayed between my sisters, underneath my brothers, pretending to boost others up in an effort to make them more beautiful. They thought I was strange, and laughed at me. Princess laughed the most of all, before she was plucked off the vine and lost her head. Her red truly was magnificent. All the humans commented on how it made their salads so “festive”. The currants. I didn’t mourn her. I didn’t have the energy.

Time passed. I got used to the near-constant headache. I stayed alive, as more brothers and sisters reached ripeness and were murdered for it. Eventually, another pot was placed beside mine on the windowsill. Cousins! I was determined to teach them my ways of survival.

“Stay away from the sun!” I would call to them. “Do not let vanity cause your downfall! Learn to love yellow, or you will end up in a stew!”

No one listened to me. The whole family thought I had lost my mind. My few remaining siblings only looked at my in contempt when I spoke out, and my cousins looked at me with pity, from their safe distance away in the sun. It was so frustrating. I did not want to see any more family members die.

“You have to believe me!” I cried. “You must understand! The only way to survive is to make the humans forget they could want you!”

 

“The thing isss” hissed the spider plant, eventually. “You mayyy not want to be forgottennn ACtualllyyyy. Neglect does you morrrre harrrrm than goooood!”
“How can that be possible?” I asked, unbelieving.
“Obsssserve the gourrrrrd,” said the plant. “I believe shee wasss meannnt to be ssspaghettiiiii squasshhh.” Long tendrils indicated an oblong shape lying in a basket. Squash was accurate. The poor vegetable’s head looked like it was near caving in. I noticed that there were other gourds in the basket, but they were all huddled away from the spaghetti squash, looking at it in disdain.
“Dragonfruit! What is wrong with that thing?” I asked.
“She neeedss cooking!” Spider snapped. “Yet she laaayyys there, untouched. A leper! And thiiiis is not her choice! She is loooosing her sennnses the looonger she laaays.”
“But why?”
“Because,” said the gentle, yet heavy voice of the bonzai tree, “She is not meant to stay forever. Her body is shutting down, and she is rotting. It is the course of things. There are some elements of nature you cannot cheat, and remain true to yourself. Even you, my friend. You may have found a clever way to avoid ripening, but you are nevertheless spoiling yourself, and I can’t believe you are enjoying your existence.”

I looked at my reflection in the window. I was pale, utterly unappetizing – and gross!

“Do I have chin hair?” I asked, looking at a small growth under my mouth.
“That is mold,” said the bonzai tree. “In an effort not to be murdered, you are killing yourself.” I thought about it.
“That means you were wrong, then,” I said. “You told me I couldn’t fight my purpose.”
“I said that you should not.”
“Well, still. All of that business about not being able to fight your fate, and the inevitability of our lives. I didn’t have to end up in some human’s stomach. Fig your fate!”
“You are correct,” sighed the tree. “Technically. Although, I still think you might have been happier accepting it.”

Just then, a human walked into the kitchen and found the rotting gourd. The rest of the squashes sighed in happy relief as their sick relative was lifted out of the basket, and carried across the room.

“Wait a minute,” I heard the human say. For the first time since before Princess’s butchering, I felt fingers prodding at my skin. “Yuck!” said the voice, and the fingers gripped me harder. I felt a great tug and tear as I was suddenly yanked from the vine.

I went flying through the air. Free! The sensation was incredible. I felt the stalks of mold stripped away in the flight, and I tossed my head, catching the light. The sunlight! Sweet, glorious sunlight, coating my entire body, kissing my delicate skin. I had missed it. It was a good thing, I knew, that I had already escaped the human-created death, because there was no way I could starve myself again after this replenishment. I sighed contentedly as I landed in the trash can, still lit up by the sun’s rays.

“Goodbye,” called the bonzai tree.

“Faaaarewellll,” whispered the spider plant.

“Yum!” sang the trash can.

“OOOMPH” the gourd and I grunted together, as she landed directly onto me, splatting the pair of us out of existence.

See Ya

It’s like sleep away camp.

When you start, you aren’t sure what to expect. You don’t even know if you really want to go. You don’t! It’s because you’re scared. Nervous. “I’m always nervous, but I’ve trained myself to see it as being excited.”

So, there you go. Nervous excitement.

Despite the nerves, you go, and it’s a little bumpy at first. Getting to know new people, making connections, testing humor and vibes…that all takes some lightly-treaded time. Then, suddenly you get that click, you find your people, and you stick with them. Life is beautiful, all things considered, when you’re together. In partnership, you make each other happy.

Five months of sleep away camp.

Then, camp is over, and it’s time to go home. Back to daily life without each other, with the new bond stretched. Parents load your self and your stuff into a vehicle, and drive off. You cry, because you don’t want to be separated. You cry, because you loved the time you spent together. You cry, because you’re determined for this not to be the end.

It’s like sleep away camp, except that we’re adults. We have jobs, too, which means we can afford to see each other again, more than once a year. Plane trips can replace train visits. And in the meantime, it’ll be like writing to camp friends, the ones you absolutely kept in contact with. Only this time, we won’t need to wait on snail mail. There are myriad ways to keep in each other’s lives, what with “the wonders of modern technology”. Sleep away camp where after, I could theoretically see your face every day, even if I couldn’t physically touch you, and it wouldn’t be from an old, still, kodak shot.

You pull me into you, and I flashback to hugging someone goodbye my last day of camp, falling into a pile of luggage from the sheer will not to let go. We’re already lying down, so there’s nowhere to go except deeper into the fold of our limbs. You squeeze me tight and I drink the moment in, making a memory to take for the ache that will come later. On the last day of camp, I sobbed. Now, I brush my tears away quietly, calmly. You promise to let me know when you’ve arrived safely, and I watch you from the doorway as you leave. There are more tears, but they’re tears of happy anticipation, not heartache. Tears of peace, not of loss, because this is like sleep away camp.

It’s just like sleep away camp. Except, with the potential to be better.

“Sometimes, when things happen, they don’t happen.”

Today, I got off the train and passed a ghost.

 

Sort of.

 

He was in my periphery, the way ghosts tend to be. How often do you run smack into one? I don’t think they would be able to stay, that way.

 

We were walking in opposite directions. I, heading toward the stairs; he, heading further down the platform.

Step, step, step.

I recognized his long, brown, loosely curled hair. We used to tell him that he looked like Jesus, with hair like that.

I recognized the light, scruffy shading on his upper lip. The height: not tall, but not really short, either. The concentration of his eyes and eyebrows working together to marshal his thoughts and shuttle them out of his mind as he spoke.

 

All this happened so quickly, in passing. He was there, and then I was gone.

Step, step, step.

As I hustled up the stairs, I remembered our cousin telling me that when his mother found his body, she lay down next to it for a long time. She came into his home, and found him dead on the floor. She found him on the floor, and lay down, next to his body. She lay there for a long time, and then she told him to go look after Edward, keep him safe.

Step, step, step.

I always found that funny, her asking him to continue his role as big brother after death, when, from my standpoint, it should have been reversed. Wouldn’t he be younger, then, needing guidance through death? She must have meant it more as a sticking together thing. She didn’t want her sons to be alone. That happened enough when they were alive.

Step, step, step. 

Once, his brother was in the background of my dream. Only, stupid me, I didn’t realize what was going on until I’d already woken up. This time, I was awake, and I knew, but I was striding away.

Hustle, hustle, hustle!

The whole dash to my connecting train, I thought about his mother, and his brother, more than I thought about him. William.

Step, step, step. 

I could turn around and go back to him. Find him, talk to him, and say – what? We didn’t even talk that much when he was alive. The last thing I remember him saying to me was, “You clean up nice” at his brother’s funeral. Still, this could have been a chance for something more. A connection.

Hustle, hustle, hustle!

When his mother lay down next to him, I got up and cleaned the entire house in a bandeau and shorts. I’m wearing them under my clothes, now, planning to take off my dress during lunch, and soak in the sun. A meaningless coincidence. An observation without the attachment of grave significance.

Step, turn, balance.

The thing that most bothers me is how unbothered I am. I should be rocked to my core. I should be turning around and sprinting to find him again. After the dream about his brother, I was a wreck. Now, I’m still going to work. I don’t even feel guilty for being less hurt by this, although I think that I should.

Wait, wait, board.

The thing is, I can’t go back. I don’t want to go back, search, find him, and look on a face that is not my cousin’s. I have a very strong feeling that, so long as I don’t go back, his ghost will be out there, but as soon as I do, it will cease to exist. Become replaced by the body of a stranger.

 

It’s like how once, when walking over a bridge, I was overcome with the knowledge that if I made the leap, I would soar into the sky. Only, it was not a thing to attempt in front of so many onlookers.

Or how once, a walk with the angry man of color turned sour, and our voices muted. While I watched him sit and stew, I was filled with the understanding that if I spoke, he would kill me for not being a person. My friend believed this, too, when I told her about it afterward. Only, when in a peaceful time I finally explained my knowledge to him, he reacted with the incredulity and hurt that such a statement deserved.

Sometimes you can know things and have them be so, even when they aren’t, actually.

Stand clear of the closing doors, please.

I don’t go back because I want him to be around. I want us to have passed by, and exchanged energies. Even if we didn’t, really. This nonexistence is the best sort of connection I could hope for, right now. It’s the best way I know to hold him to the light.

Exit.

Portrait

Everyone said that Kaku was a witch. They said it primarily because she was old, so old that she had outlived her husband by over twenty years. He died when I was a baby, before I could build any memories with him. His death by itself wouldn’t have been enough to condemn her; there are many widows. However, few widows have also outlived children, and after my grandfather died, Kaku lost three kids.

That was wrong, people said. It started as community gossip, and eventually, other members of the family started to believe it, too. Nieces and great-grandchildren began to look at her differently. Kaku must have done something, they whispered, made a twisted deal to be here for so long, they said. When she walked through the neighborhood, children pointed at her. Sometimes, they even threw stones. Eventually, she gave up leaving the family compound for anything but church. The congregation always stared.

 

“Ah! Don’t worry, hein,” Kebedi, my cousin, told her. He interacted with Kaku the most in the compound, after myself. She often sent us out on errands. We would pick up things for her at the market, or deliver messages to her few remaining friends. Lately, though, he hadn’t been running as many errands, and could rarely be found in the compound. He had taken to spending his days exploring the nearby forest, searching for stones and interesting natural artifacts. As a result, I had been bumping into Kebedi most often at the market while on my errands for Kaku, only to find him hawking items for himself. Today, though, the two of us were home, and Kaku was having a moment of melancholy over her negative reputation.

“People,” Kebedi continued, “Are stupid. Witches, elles n’existent pas.”

She wasn’t soothed.

“Kebedi,” I began. I wanted to laugh, but knew it would only upset Kaku more. “It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. People think they are, and they think she’s one of them. Her problems won’t stop, just because of logic.”

Bof,” was his only reply.

 

What I never told either of them was that, secretly, I agreed with the others. Somewhat. I didn’t think that Kaku was bad, or to be feared. To survive for so long, to create such a large family and keep the majority of it running – I thought there was power in that! I revered Kaku, for whatever she was. It was why I spent so much time with her in the compound, when I wasn’t running her errands. I learned the daily songs she crooned to her chickens, memorized the ingredients she mixed up in her lotions and salves, and wrote down every story she told. Stories, and Kaku, were my greatest sources of knowledge as I grew up.