Before the Dust Can Settle
I open my eyes and the world is golden brown, waving slowly back and forth, kissing my neck with its warmth. High above–blue, all blue save for the shining orb at my back. My eyes lose their focus at the sight of the undulating grain. I shift my feet, kicking up dirt and rocks and worms. I breathe. And then I kneel, put my hands in the soil, and strain to feel the vibrations, hoping, maybe, the field will understand my plea and show me the way home.
I close my eyes and concentrate. The tremors are too light to read, too faint to impart meaning.
Everything is in motion; everything has a pattern. Meaning in chaos.
I sense something in the sky–a cold, a darkening–something between the sun and the earth. Slowly I open my eyes, stand, and turn to face it.
Squinting, I can barely make it out, but there it is, lingering, meandering, no, traversing the open space between there and here–a black, sprawling cloud of dust.
We won’t have too much time now. Maybe the rest of the week, maybe more–too distant to say for sure–the only certainty is that it is arriving soon.
A noise and I turn my head to see the beast arc across the sky, wings slicing the air, a toxic plume flowing from it, outward and down. I close my eyes and run to its origin, arms out front, waving, guiding me through the stalks. Arm, arm, leg, face, arm, foot, the last impact sends me to the ground. Scrapes and bruises, scrapes and bruises. This is nothing. This is nothing.
Quick, while the point of direction is still clearly within your mind, quick. I get to my feet and continue running until I no longer sense the presence of the field and I open my eyes and see the barn, the house, and my father.
Zeus. Odin. Jesus.
Equally kind as he is cruel and vengeful, depending on the whim of the weather and his choice of drink.
Bearded one-eyed son of a bitch.
The sun is setting–orange, red, golden–and the shadows cast across his face, obscuring both his eye and the patch. Faceless.
I try not to wince.
“Hey Dad…Tim up dusting?”
“Told you a hundred times not to wander in that goddamn field.”
My face compresses further.
“I know. Sorry.”
“Look like shit.”
The pain suddenly sears through my limbs to my brain.
“Well go clean up. There’s a guy here to see you. From the university.”
“Don’t you think I didn’t tell him! He’s in the living room. Your sister’s keeping an eye on him. Just go. Got to watch Tim in case he goes and kills himself.”
I use the side door so I can slink into the bathroom undetected, doing my best to avoid the creaks in the floorboards and eavesdrop as I traverse the hallway. Muffled echoes. Static. Rising and falling without clarity.
I shut the door behind me and flick on the light. And then, standing before the sink, my hands clenched around its porcelain edges, I stare into the mirror and see myself as I am seen. My eyes are blue and I see them as pieces of a complex puzzle. External. Round. Sparking.
The running water is cold and will take too long to warm up so I take the wet coldness and slap it across my face and wash the field from my skin. The water clings to it and the dirt then crawls downward until it reaches the precipice and plummets, free fall, to its end. My eyes are closed. The scent of earth fades. The world fades. I fade. I can hear my heart beat.
In this moment I can see the lights flicker in the back of my eyelids. The stars and the moon. My lips vibrate.
And then it all slips away as I open my eyes and see myself as myself. I dry my face and hands and walk out the door and into the living room where a man in a suit sits, briefcase on the coffee table, my sister standing and making a face.
“Hey Lisa can you give us a moment.”
She says nothing but a noise and leaves.
The man stands and extends his hand. I reciprocate and sit.
“So my father says–”
“Paul, I’m Lucius. Lucius Stern.”
“Why are you here? My dad said you were from the university, but you should know that I withdrew my application.”
“Yes. I am aware. If you would let me ask you a few questions, however, just a moment of your time, it would be greatly appreciated.”
“Excellent. So, Paul, first things first. Why did you withdraw your application? Why did you withdraw your application and remain here?”
He gestures widely and the sunset engulfs his frame.
“As I stated in my letter of withdrawal…”
She opens her eyes and feels the weight of everything press in and overwhelm her system and she allows it to sit there until she thinks she will burst and exhales. He looks at her. She closes her eyes and forgets how to breathe. Rhythms failing. Patterns are now chaos. Everything breaks apart at the epicenter. Here, in this darkness, everything is nothing. Slowly the external world begins to form through symbols and abstractions. The idea of scent manifests first. Then sound. Then touch. Then taste. All of it out of reach, sense things of indeterminable origin. She opens her eyes to reach them, to make them whole, but this, too, is nothing but darkness and fear.
“…I, um…I’m having a difficult time forming the words.”
“Well, it’s because I’m not ready, don’t feel like I’d perform my best at this juncture.”
“Yes that’s essentially what you wrote.”
“But, yeah, no, it was because of my family. It was because of her.”
Particles break apart and reform. The wind carries her on its wings.
“But she’s gone now isn’t she?”
“Who are you again?”
“She coming back you know.”
“You’ve seen her and she’s on her way here from there.”
When she sees the world it is all a blur of colors and memories–mostly red and yellow and pain. Immobile. Unable to move of her own volition. Pushed or pulled, it does not matter. This is that and she feels more that the earth is moving beneath her than she feels she is hovering across its surface. Red. Dried rivers of red. Tributaries of I am run deep through the surface of her legs. The water is tepid at best. Weightless. Subtle revolution.
The man stands to leave and I am unsure what to do so I shake his hand and he thanks me for my time saying that he’d wish I would reconsider and I’d be a great fit for the university so I nod.
Later that night I lay on my back in bed staring at the stars out of my window as they blink on and off with every passing cloud. My legs spasm. I cringe but do not move.
Earlier my father asked me about the man from the university and my sister shifted in her seat.
It’s never truly dark here. Pinholes in the sky. Even in cloud cover, the brightness of the moon is indefatigable, striking the moisture and spreading its great arms across the land in hazy glory.
Lisa hasn’t spoken for months now. The last word anyone heard her say was, “No.” Not loud, not shouting, barely a whisper…“no.”
Tim hasn’t been around much, flying whenever he can. Thinks he can make a real thing out of dusting.
Slowly I find myself here, half-awake, half-asleep and all I see are dark shapes in the corner of a dark canvas. Memories intermingle with dreamscapes, creating a reality that should be wholly separate but somehow nudges into the peripheral space at the back of my head. I hear voices, calling my name. I hear thoughts. I hear nothing. I hear the sound of rain and dust. It smells like metal.
I open my eyes and know it’s still night. I close them and see red orange and this overwhelming sense of fear starts at my forehead and quickly shivers its way down the rest of my body until my toes are twitching. My skin is drowning…on fire. I try to sit up but can’t. I try to move my arms but can’t. I try to roll off my back but can’t. I try to scream help but only my mouth opens–no noise leaving my throat. I open my eyes and see a shadow on my chest, crimson edges. I close my eyes and fall.
The moonlight illuminates the earth smoothing the edges of the shapes until they become more than formless things, lost on the constant curvature. She is reminded of long roads. A round surface viewed at a close enough proximity becomes a straight line. A to B. Origin to destination. Start to finish. No one really told her that she had a choice where her destination could lie. Not in the x, y scheme, be what you want to be…more peripheral, abstract. Time, but not time. A river flows to become a lake, a sea, an ocean. The water moves, swirls, evaporates, falls. Her river originated from a glacier, became a stream, and plummeted off the crag of a mountain into oblivion.
The morning is hazy. It rained overnight and the air smells of dirt.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, sits Tim.
He glares up from his bowl of cereal and groans.
“I had a dream last night that the rain died. It rained and then we all understood that it wouldn’t rain anymore. We weren’t scared that the crops would dry up or that the trees would wither, we were concerned that the rivers would stop flowing, that eventually the ocean would recede and that all the evaporating water would ascend into the sky, off the planet and outward, forever traveling the expanse of space, so lonely.”
He drops his spoon, pushes his chair back, stands up, and walks out of the room without a look or a noise.
“Well I thought it was interesting.”
I grimace. I hate it when I talk to myself.
And then I turn and see Lisa sitting there, head down, staring at the table, feet crossed beneath the chair, hands folded in front of her.
She doesn’t move.
She raises her head and meets my gaze.
“Have you seen the cloud?” She cocks her head and I continue, “Of dust–the cloud of dust. Is it coming here?” Tears well up in her eyes. “I saw it. I think it’ll be here soon.”
She nods and lowers her head again.
There is a blanket of silence so strong even atoms seem to cease their vibrations.
“It’s her, isn’t it?”
For a moment I forget that she hasn’t spoken in six months; there is a moment when everything is back to normal, and then I realize the weight of both the act of her speaking and the words that have fallen from her mouth.
“Yeah…I think it is.”
“Why? Why won’t she just leave?”
“I don’t know. She can’t maybe.”
“But she wanted to so badly. I mean, she did, didn’t she? Otherwise–”
“Yeah, I don’t get it. I don’t understand. I tried. At least I think I tried. I just can’t.”
“I guess…I guess, we’ll see soon enough.”
“Yeah…let’s hope so.”
The light of the sun sharpens the edge of everything. With each push forward, I feel less formed. Pieces of me not keeping pace, falling from the whole and descending to meet the earth below. I wonder if these particles removed from myself are still myself, imparting my story to every encounter they have. Then I wonder if I am myself, here, above the planet, tracing my path back to its start.
I dream of metal and water and red that flows from my arms and legs. It smells like iron and soap. A breeze blows through, calling me. I see myself as myself, weightless, without hope. I don’t close my eyes. I want to see the devastation this hand will create. I want to see flesh open and separate, blood vessels exposed, crying for life as they are extinguished, left dried and wanting. Does skin tighten around a bloodless corpse? Does everything deflate once emptied? Blood, keeping us afloat amongst the barrage of matter and light and the overwhelming sense of absolute pointlessness.
I make a point. One drop. Then I trace a line and watch the shape unfold. I switch hands and do the same on the other, swirls of red clouds permeate the substance until equilibrium is reached. I don’t close my eyes. I don’t close my eyes. I don’t close my eyes but everything fades.
Outside the day breezes by with chores and wandering thoughts. The sun is half gone, disappearing over the horizon quicker than I expected. Great rays of red and orange shoot out from its center and radiate the nearby clouds. The bleeding sky.
Without school and without her, I’ve been left mostly to do what I wish. I help because they need me. He needs me. Despite the words, the looks, the silence, despite all of it, I have made my best attempt to not do as she did, to not take it all so damn personally, deeply. He is not my life. My surroundings are not my life. This is not my life. This air is air, this skin is skin, and this blood is blood. I see my self as I am seen. A vacuum at the center of space and light that bends and curves. It all shifts and recedes for me, from me, around me, because of me.
This dying blade of grass is like a knife and I hold it in my hands.
It wasn’t a lack of anything substantial, it wasn’t an expectation, it was a lack of origin. No 0, 0 to guide me whichever way my slope dictated. No reference point from the negative or the positive. Pain was just a feeling, words were just sounds, vibrations oscillating through the expanse. And now everything is in motion and turned to dust and the smell of iron. Pennies on the beach caught in the tide of the ocean.
Looking up, I see it…her, and I just can’t.
The sun strikes the face of it all and I see my beginnings.
This is sooner than I had expected.
I see the barn and the field and I see the wind push it all.
I shout for Lisa over and over and over until she manifests from within the house.
I catch a glint of sunlight and watch the metal bird soar through the air.
She joins me by my side and her eyes trace mine until she sees what I see as it is.
Tim, searching the sky by killing the earth. Through destruction, yearning for life. My child of spite.
Lisa speaks, “Is she coming here? To us?”
I see him and half of my form falls away. Bearded, one-eyed son of a bitch, my husband, eternal spewer of blind emotion.
“Don’t look away.”
And then the earth turns and puts them in my view. My children born of care and love.
“Don’t close your eyes.”
I look at them and see them as they are.
“Don’t close your eyes.”
I see their faces. I see their eyes.
“Don’t close your eyes.”
I see them.
I look upward and watch as the dust hovers over us. For a moment I am weightless. Everything smells of dirt and rain and iron. I know that she is descending here to die. To finally fucking die and it takes all that I am to not do anything at all. I stand, my hand gripping my sister’s and I look up and I see it above us, heave, break apart, and then fall, but before the dust can settle, I close my eyes and dream of the wavering grain, the blue sky, the rivers, everything flowing, swirling, rising, falling.
Dan Diehn lives in St. Paul, MN with his wife and two cats. He likes taking long walks on the beach, drinking mojitos, and having fun. Select short stories and his serial novella, Hashtag Barry: The Ugliest Kid Who Ever Lived, can be read at Culture Currency (http://www.cultcurrency.com/). Follow him @diedan (https://twitter.com/diedan).
*Featured photo courtesy of Brian Michael Barbeito*