by Melanie Lamaga
from the collection The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories, now available from Amazon.
I slide to the barn on a skin of blue ice, sky layered rose and gray. Almost dawn.
The wind, a white knife, cuts through my red down coat. Pinfeathers escape—a flock of tiny geese vanishing into snow. The horses wear coats of icy beads; their breath makes veils of steam. As I pour the grain they blow and nip, bury their noses, grind yellow teeth.
We used to have lots of animals to feed. Sheep, cows, goats, geese. Now only horses. I lean my head on the black mare’s back, breathe musky fur and dream. Leafy things . . . drumming hooves . . . hyacinth-scented wind.
I love the sound of my boots crunching snow. I love our house, oasis of green. I love the trees, hands that point to the sky. The trees and I watch for planes, even though Anna, my mother, says they fly too high to see. When a building or person explodes, they’re already gone. But if nobody sees, how do they know for sure?
I don’t ask. Anna worries too much already about the things she doesn’t know.
You think your mother is so powerful; you think she can never fail. When you realize she’s just a person, your heart cracks and a light comes out. It’s love, the kind you have for fragile things.
In the yard the air goes still, flashes orange green. The horses shriek and kick the barn. Earth shakes, trees wave and I fall to my knees. Ice-crusted snow cracks in all directions—north south east west and down, down. A map leading deep.
I am not afraid to go.
When the rumbling started, I’d just gotten out of the shower. Naked and warm, I wiped the fog from the mirror and stared into my mouth, trying to examine a tooth. As the house shook, my mind flashed back. I saw my teenaged daughter, Jade, buried in a gaping hole—a black crater a hundred yards wide in the snow.
I ran through the bedroom, my bare feet slapping the wood floor. The cold burned my skin as I pressed my face to the frost-etched window, but I didn’t care. I needed to see Jade like I needed my next breath.
There. She knelt in the yard, a slender girl in a red coat, her copper-colored hair vivid as a flame against the snow. She was staring up, enraptured. I followed her gaze but saw only pale sky over flat, white fields—Iowa winter, barren as the moon.
I turned to survey the room. The pictures hung crooked on the green walls, but everything else appeared undisturbed. Under the mountain of white quilts on the iron bed, Lloyd Kopeck stirred. “Everything okay?” He ran a hand through his short, dark hair and stretched.
“I guess so,” I said. “Could that have been a strike?”
“Just another tremor.” He held out his hand to bring me back to bed and warmth.
I took another look out the window. “I should check on the horses.”
“It’s better if Jade does it,” he said.
I flinched but it was true—I couldn’t calm them anymore. Maybe it was the frequent tremors or the endless winter. Maybe they sensed my simmering rage. Everything was coming apart, hanging askew like the pictures on the wall.
“Come on.” Lloyd motioned again, as if coaxing a nervous animal. I wanted to tell him he had the hands of a sculptor but he wouldn’t take the compliment. He’s a farmer, like most around here. Like me, too, though I hardly fit in.
Shivering, I slid under the covers, my cold flesh seeking warmth. Lloyd’s fingers stroked my shoulder, moved lightly down my arm to my breast, circled once, skimmed my waist and slipped between my legs.
“No,” I said. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Yes, you can.” His fingers fluttered inside me, arguing the point.
I groaned, tempted, but there was more—the hunger he couldn’t fill with his body, the anger like a dark root.
I knew that after breakfast he’d go back to his people in Twin Tree. He’d shake his head, not saying much, but they’ve been expecting me to break up with him. My hair’s too blond and my skin’s too dark. I take lovers. Worst of all, I come from somewhere else—a cardinal sin in this small town.
Lloyd touched my arm as I pushed back the covers. “Why are you doing this, Anna?”
“Our travel permits will be here soon.” I got out of bed and stuffed myself into clothes from the heap on the chair: long johns, two pairs of wool socks, and a flannel-lined satin robe.
“What makes you think things are better in New York?” Lloyd asked.
“They have what we need. Civilian hospitals, children’s hospitals.” Psychiatric hospitals. The thought came unbidden and I shoved it away.
Lloyd got out of bed and pulled on his long johns and jeans. “Have you been in touch with any of your friends back east?”
“I’m not good at keeping in touch,” I said. “When I move on, I break clean.”
“Like you’re doing with me.” He frowned as he pulled a thermal shirt over his head.
“This isn’t about you.” I picked up the silver hairbrush that had belonged to my granny and attacked my waist-length hair.
“Have you known anyone who actually got a travel permit in the past six months? On the net they say—”
“Commander Small said, ‘The travel restrictions are for our protection, but there have to be humanitarian exceptions. Anything else would be insane.’” I glared at Lloyd and he looked away. “Spend too much time on the net and you’ll end up insane,” I snapped.
In the kitchen I put a pot of water on the stove for porridge. I make it from the organic corn I grow in my fields. When the water boiled, I grabbed the silky grains in one hand and sprinkled them in as I stirred. Breathing deep, I tried to calm down. There was no sense in getting angry with Lloyd. None of this was his fault.
The porch door slammed and I heard the stomp of Jade’s boots. The frigid wind that followed her in chilled the back of my neck.
Jade came over and warmed herself by the stove, staring at the gas flame. She’s as tall as me now, but not quite a woman yet. Her cold skin glowed blue against fiery hair. I cupped my hands around her cheeks to thaw them, and she looked up as if startled to see me. I tried not to worry that she was sick, on top of everything else. Even my olive skin was growing pale, needing the touch of sun.
First of June and still winter.
I ladled porridge into a bowl and handed it to her. She stood gazing into my face, green eyes singing as if I’d handed her a swan or an opal. But why?
“Are you in love?” The words popped out of my mouth, surprising me, but I hoped it was true. What a perfectly normal reason for a young girl to glow with such intensity, to stare raptly into the sky at nothing.
As she nodded I caught my breath. Was he kind? Would he love her back? A sly smile came to her lips and she pointed at her heart, then at me.
“Oh, you!” I hugged her; then shoved her toward the table. “Eat or you’ll miss the bus.”
Before the crater, Jade never looked at me like that. At thirteen she’d had little attention to waste on her mother, except to critique every decision I made.
After the doctors sent her home, I woke up every morning expecting to have my moody, talkative daughter back. But three months had passed and not a word. When she wasn’t with the horses she wandered around, staring at ordinary things as if they held some magic key. When I asked her why, I got nothing but a smile and a wink like my granny used to do. “When the time is right, all will be revealed,” she’d say.
As I watched Jade staring into her bowl with the fascination of a tourist, anxiety welled up again. The rare moments when she turned her laser gaze on me couldn’t hide the truth—my daughter was drifting away.
Raw sugar, silver spoon. One, two, three into the grits.
“Go easy,” Anna warns. “Or we’ll go without, end of the week.”
I widen my eyes to apologize. Forgot about rations again. In my bowl amber sugar crystals glow. Tiny suns casting light.
Lloyd walks in and stands by the stove. Anna doesn’t turn. The set of her back says she’s angry. Corn silk hair ripples in the folds of her blue satin robe. A frozen waterfall. She nods toward a bowl and a cup of coffee on the counter. “Eat before you go. It’s twenty below.”
Lloyd starts to speak, then stops. “Maybe you got it right, Jade. Maybe there’s no point in saying nothing.”
I smile, liking that, but Anna snaps, “Lloyd, knock it off.”
“God, I’m just talking.”
Anna bangs pots on the stove, “I know what you’re doing. Leave her out of it.”
I stare at their words, strung across the air like fishing line with glittering hooks. Puncturing.
Lloyd brings his breakfast to the table and sits across from me. I read his eyes and answer with a shrug. His time is up but he doesn’t want to go. They never do.
Anna’s spoon clatters in the sink. She turns and stares at me, her brown eyes two deep holes. She jerks her head and I follow it to my coat, vibrating red by the door. Orange scarf winds my throat. Light pulls me into silence.
No wind outside. Pastel snow reflects the hard blue dome of sky. Nothing moves. It’s so still I wonder if the other world has broken through. I crunch across drifts that hide the lane, a quarter mile to the road. Looking for clues.
The road is a canyon carved deep. The bus appears, top level with the snow, tunneling like a worm. A humvee crawls behind, armored beetle with machine gun legs. They pull up and I wave. One of the legs waves back.
Still the same old world, I guess.
It’s hot in the belly of the worm. Smells of wet wool, wet boots, barnyard rot. A senior named Otto climbs on, red cap sweeping the top of the bus. He’s turned eighteen. Going off to fight soon.
“Hey, Rosie!” Joran Musser calls to Otto. Boys laugh.
In the seat ahead of me, Lucine Gorsky turns. “Do you know why they call him Rosie? Do you?” Her eyes, tiny chunks of coal. Unlit.
“They call him Rosie because he got a hard on in the locker room,” Lucine hisses. “I’ll bet your mother taught you all about that. I heard that your mother . . .” Her face melts in the heat of my stare. Blood fountain. Bone sculpture.
I look out the window at sun on snow. Gold, violet, blue. It’s only white when the clouds are low. You can see it if you look, but most people don’t.
I learned how to see the day I got blown up in the crater. I was at the park in town, waiting for Anna to finish trading at the market. Dusk coming down. No wind. Cold air burned where it touched my skin, but I wanted to sneak a smoke.
I huddled on a swing and drifted in circles, thinking of Kegan, the boy with dark eyes who stares at me in homeroom.
His girlfriend Vera said, “When I give him a blowjob, he holds my head and watches.” She said it casual, like “When I give him a cigarette . . . .”
I’d never done more than kiss.
She hates him watching, but I would hate him grabbing my head. Rabbit in a trap. Kegan hates me, Vera said. But if he hates me, why does he stare? I was sitting on the swing, wondering. Then a flash of light, the world exploded, and I flew.
From the air I saw the earth breaking free of snow, a dark mouth that ate swing set, merry-go-round, fence. Dirt rained and I fell with it, down into the hole.
In the crater I saw black horses running. A bearded man with ebony skin and brown eyes caught me, but he was falling, too. Faster and faster, arms and legs tangling. I couldn’t feel the difference between him and me. Pleasure licked the backs of my knees, rose between my legs: a hundred-headed flower blooming in liquid waves. Was it sex? Death? Don’t know. But I woke up in the field hospital, changed.
Some say a laser strike shot from a plane flying too high to see made the crater. Others say earthquake. The military says classified. Everyone agrees it shook the whole town. Anna ran to the park, screaming and searching for me.
They say if my coat wasn’t red I would have smothered—left buried in the crater. The rescuers just saw the tip of my sleeve.
I heaved my crate of corn wine onto the counter at the market. Ralph Kahout pulled a well-chewed pen from one of the flannel shirts he wore layered like skins. He smiled like a man who thought he was charming; in truth, he smelled vaguely of piss. I wondered if the pipes had burst in the trailer behind the store where he and his wife Helen lived.
The market’s five sparsely stocked aisles were empty of customers except for Wendy Yablonski and Rue Medved, rustling and clucking by the pot of dishwater-thin coffee. “Anna, did you feel the tremor out your way?” Wendy called.
I nodded curtly and turned my back, hoping they’d take the hint. No luck.
“You hear they’re calling for more snow tonight?” Rue sipped her coffee, eyes bright with the prospect of spreading bad news.
“It’s June!” Wendy moaned. “This keeps up we won’t have no crop this year. Remember that Randol woman they used to have on War News Network? She said it’s some kind of government weather-modification program. Haarp, she called it.”
Rue clucked her tongue. “That don’t make no sense. If it was a weapon, the Enemy Coalition would have bad weather, not us.”
“Maybe it got out of hand,” Kahout muttered.
“That don’t explain the earthquakes,” Rue said. “I tell you, it’s the End Times.”
Trying to tune them out, I glanced at the wall screen playing a net news feed. A barrage of images assaulted me: a carpet of dead bodies rotting on a tropical beach; a mangy dog, bag of bones, eating something that looked vaguely human; a mud-smeared soldier screaming, clutching the bleeding stump of his leg; brown-skinned children with distended bellies, staring bewildered at the snow.
The images came so fast there was no time to process them. No context, no sense. Revulsion clawed at my stomach. “Why do you show that?” I snapped at Kahout. “Half of it’s fake.”
“Yeah, but which half?” Kahout ran a hand over the stubble of his beard. “That’s how they keep you hooked.”
“Not me.” I held my hand out for the credit and snapped my fingers.
He offered the slip, but as soon as my fingers touched it, he snatched it back, grinning.
I seethed at his childish power play, or attempt at flirtation, whichever it was. Served me right for offering an opinion. In a town this small, this trapped, any comment was liable to be taken as an invitation of one sort or another.
“So tell me.” Kahout leaned closer, not smiling anymore. “Is half the truth better than none?” Something flickered in his eyes: a dispassionate, almost feral hunger I knew all too well. I’d seen it in the mirror.
“Not to me,” I said.
“Well, it keeps most of the customers entertained, anyway.” Kahout’s grin slipped back into place. He handed me the credit slip, breathing over my shoulder while I checked the math.
As the wheels of my cart squeaked along the narrow aisle, Rue and Hilda continued to pollute the air with a stream of speculation. To tune them out, I mentally recited my list—peas, beans, tomatoes, rice—until Helen Kahout, furiously sweeping, stepped in front of me.
“Excuse me, Helen.”
She straightened up, wrapped her hands around the splintered wood handle as if gripping a spear and bared her teeth. “How’s the girl?”
“Fine, thank you.” I looked her straight in the eyes and rolled my cart gently until it rested against her broom.
“Talking yet?” She shifted her weight and I noticed the dusty, gray flesh of her arm, settling.
“I’ll be taking her back to New York to see a specialist soon.”
“Hmm,” Helen grunted skeptically. “I hope it’s not brain damage. You know, that part of the brain that controls speech?”
“She still gets straight A’s,” I said. “Her English teacher says her writing has become vivid and mature. He wants to submit one of her essays to a competition.”
I snatched a can off the shelf, threw it into the cart with a clang and pushed past Helen.
I’d lied. Jade’s writing did show flashes of insight, but on the whole it had become fragmented and bizarre. When I asked where she’d gotten her ideas, Jade just stared at me with a mixture of hard-won patience and love, as though I was the child.
In the dry goods aisle, Helen materialized in front of me again. “Maybe she’s just doing it for attention. Maybe she just needs a good whipping.”
Reaching for a bag of rice, I pretended to lose my balance and rammed the cart against her shin. “Oh, excuse me!” I said, and barreled toward the check out lane.
“Say, got any more mulberry wine?” Kahout asked as he bagged my groceries.
“No mulberry, no apple, no corn,” I lied again. “That was the last batch.”
“Ooph. Good thing I’ve got my own stash.” He winked. “Lot of people going to be upset, though. Even the Baptists drink these days.”
I shrugged. Let them face this winter without my wine.
Since Jade got hurt, I’d begun to despise everyone: anarchists and terrorists, theirs and ours, who flooded the net with so much misinformation that the truth was hidden in plain sight; militias who fought our own military over the zone restrictions; ordinary people addicted to the never-ending stream of theories and conspiracies, like chickens pecking up feed. None of them were worth a damn to me. None of them could help Jade.
To read the rest of “Black Crater, White Snow,” pick up the collection The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories.