Short Fiction ~ Keltie Zubko
“Hush,” he said, his hand bolting through the shadows made by the fire, to grip her face, cheekbone to cheekbone, and clamp down over her lips. “Don’t say that. Ever again.”
“But…” she tried. He pressed his palm tighter across her mouth. She smelled sweat, tasted dirt with an underlying flavor of a pungent chemical, deep in his pores. Her tongue accidentally grazed his hand then withdrew to the back of her mouth, making her salivate, want to spit, but instead she fastened her lips against the taste. Her nose wrinkled, and she breathed in short gulps, trying to control them, but failing. He had succeeded in silencing her, that’s for sure, but not by his command. He must have remembered it wasn’t so easy just telling her to shut up.
She concentrated and held still, listening. The dark pool of silence covering the undercurrent opened up by her words ebbed into a gentle hum of conversation like water closing over something heavy dropped into a deep well. Gradually, the flickering of the firelight across their faces and bodies, and those of the other huddling people around them became the only motion, and he relaxed his pressure.
Autumn chill from the red dirt crept through her jeans to her legs and upward into her body as she sat there, waiting, jammed against him as if he were her other half. Hearts beat: hers, his, or the very earth that held them, she couldn’t tell, but felt a small backbone of resolve rising from this most familiar ground, this place, hard-packed from dirt bikes and hikers, dog-walkers and kids. It was just off the main path from their childhood haunts, where they had run boisterous and noisy through the summers and into the winters of their youth. Memory inched through her clothing, filthy now, through her legs, up into her torso to infuse her spine.
She hadn’t expected him there. She thought she’d never see him again, though perhaps she should have heeded her own tales of the prodigal son, or the redemptive return of the wandering hero, or just the idea of a bad penny always turning up again. She’d known it was him the moment his silhouette blocked out the firelight where she’d made her lonely base for the night, in the company of travelers, vagabonds, deserters and soon-to-be exiles from this place, the park just down the hill and into the forest from her childhood home – and his. Is that what brought him back, that he’d heard of their eviction, wanted to see it – or her – one last time before they dispersed?
She felt him ease the hold on her mouth a tiny amount, and she waited for her moment, considering. Should she fight him, get up and run? Should she sit in watchful silence? Obviously, given his reaction, there must be danger somewhere around them, that he could see and she could not. Wasn’t it enough that they were being forced from their tiny community that never bothered anyone? They hadn’t been cooperative, for sure, and perhaps she’d had something to do with that, but they hadn’t been trouble-makers, either.
He would know that from his job. Her cheeks flushed, not from the fire, but questions she wanted to voice, considered, but squelched. It didn’t come naturally to her, but she had learned not to speak everything that occurred to her. Her fists clenched and she felt his arms tighten once more. The whole past and the whole future were told in minute gestures, not words. That, more than anything, brought tears to her eyes, but she blinked them away.
Around them, the crowd settled in for a last damp night around the fires, forced to cluster together for body’s warmth, yet all the while holding a protective mental distance. Mist from the lake nearby rose to shroud and separate them from each other, a palpable cloak of doubt and suspicion, even though they had been neighbors and a community: relatives and friends, some for generations.
That was before change had overtaken even them, in a relentless series of small, subtle increments. She had words for all that, but only in her mind, itemizing the chain of censorship from societal pressure through regulations and ostracizing, then criminality, and now, finally, lawful court-ordered biological intervention. No wonder that despite the closeness, there was distance between each of them.
He had been raised on the same street as her from toddlerhood, lived only three houses away. Her mother’s mother’s generation would have said they were chums. She didn’t dare say even that, however, for any reference to the way things had once been was dicey, would likely be silenced in one way or another, just as he was silencing her now. Some ways of cutting out the words were more painful than others, and she needed no reminder that he had ended up being one of the silencers.
She felt his palm loosen and instead of a muzzle, it took the shape of a cradle for her whole jaw, as if he himself felt the cramp he’d made in the muscles of her lower face by his gripping. The sudden withdrawal of his hold seemed like a tenderness, almost, but she still felt the ready tension in not just his hand and arm, but his whole body, pressed onto hers. She wondered what brought him back from the city to the now-deserted neighborhood, and what evoked this acknowledgement of their past childish friendship.
But the shifting made her taste his filthy hand once again. She thought she could almost distinguish the flavors: dirt, blood, grease, sweat, and beneath those, something strange and bitter. But maybe she was just telling herself stories, again.
She let out her breath and cautiously inhaled, realizing she’d been rationing her lung capacity in shallow gasps and fits. Now she smelled the sourness of his shirt, not the sweat of physical work, not remembered from their childhood, but that too-familiar stench from people nowadays, hiding and hovering in the shadows, people stepping in front of the outspoken, hushing precocious children or prattling elders. It was that smell she rebelled against taking into her lungs, ingesting into her soul. Why should he carry it on him, since he was after all, one of them, the enlightened, the powerful, given privileges for his work messing with their genes, manipulating and moderating rebellion. Why should he reek of it?
She turned her head, firmly pulling away, forcing back his hand by will alone – or will and memory – until her gaze could rise upward to look into his face, his eyes, and as she did so, he tightened it across her mouth once more.
She reached her own hands up to pry his away, but then his other arm reached around, constricting her shoulders even more, while he leaned his head to hers, putting his lips to her ear, whispering, “It’s okay, rest easy. I won’t hurt you. But just don’t speak. Don’t say that, ever again.”
His body settled around her as if they had only one heart to beat, one set of lungs to breathe. In the dimness, she looked into his eyes. Despite everything, it was still him, her childhood pal, yet another old-fashioned, silly word. Was that the strategy, to get rid of the words, get rid of their history? She shuddered, deep inside, and he drew a part of his smelly jacket around her.
Looking at him she saw he still had the same shaggy hair of decades ago, its color indeterminate now, but still unruly. She tried to relax her body and he let up the pressure on her jaw once more, but kept watching her.
His face was grubby, but despite the fickle light that moved and diminished then flashed for an instant as the fire died and was stoked, crackled bright and faded, she could see remnants of that spark in his eyes buried amid the dirty crinkles of his face. They’d both aged, but the lines seemed too deep around his eyes. Maybe it was just grime and shadows, accentuating everything she noticed.
She remembered him as a young boy, playing in the woods with her in that peculiar red-colored soil of the Pacific Northwest forest, made by the overbearing red cedars rotting to dust. They’d often rubbed it into their bodies, reddening their skin in some game of pretend, making themselves something she would never dare say.
She still thought in the old vernacular, couldn’t help it; it was ingrained in her soul, just as the dirt had been ingrained in their skin. She shook her head, more like it was trembling, and he frowned at her. She could not even think without the old words. No wonder when she didn’t pay strict attention to each one of them and their implications, they popped out of her mouth, stopping conversations, making those silences, ready to burst like a match to black powder starting a conflagration beyond her intention or control.
At this moment his face was intent, somewhat fearsome and she saw again that small child, growing like a flame from boyhood to youth. Her own face relaxed into a smile, despite the soreness from his paralyzing hold on her, despite everything.
The fierceness of him! It was always a necessary part of the story, for what was a story without its hero or villain? He’d understood from the very beginning the role she needed him to play. He was the actor, as she had been the story teller. And he was without equal, the most adventuresome in their gang of hooligans, running from dawn to nightfall through the parks and paths by their homes, on their street, in the neighborhood, fashioning hideouts and forts in the woods, in their backyards beneath the over-arching cedar and fir, hemlock and giant maple. He built the weapons and tools, the props and the costumes, all in service of the story, whatever archetypal story she’d summoned for their pleasure in the long days of summer and childhood and sweet strawberry-scented air. Just as she was the keeper and the teller of the story, he had been its main character, villain or hero, actor willing to play the parts she’d given him. In those days, their parents let them run unsupervised and free. Her feet in their worn boots could almost feel bare again, cushioned on the springy moss, or scrambling, hardened over rock, diving into the cool lake surrounded by leafy woods.
Together, they were a formidable team leading the rest of the children in their invented scenarios, culled from the old books, paper books, retold in their games, before the days of television, video games, YouTube, movies on demand, Netflix, and screens everywhere that blocked the sight of the tall trees against the sky, the lake and marsh, the mysterious paths veering up and down and around, the animals that crept past them in the night, the overgrown bushes drooping with lush berries that only they stopped to devour.
He still didn’t trust her not to speak. She could feel it, as surely as if the censoring impulse came from her own body, still captive to his. His hand had loosened to cup her jaw again, but he kept it close, ready to stop up any words she might speak. She felt those long fingers, and saw them in her memory, growing strong and deft, past childhood then to adolescence, hands grown much too soon like a man’s: skinning a branch for a spear, or constructing shelters in the dry, August-parched dirt, tying fishing line, or reaching out to her from the water, acting out a rescue. With those clever hands, he could do anything. She had no doubt he was an excellent surgeon, extricating genes from the most recalcitrant specimen to splice, replant, experiment or destroy. She shuddered again. That was no laughing matter, imagining what those hands had gotten up to.
She kept looking at him, trying to read his expression, any meaning he might convey with his eyes. Is that what they were reduced to? No words, at all? But still, she could read the tales of those long ago days, their childhood writ in images, a progression of charmed and boundless summers, and the plots she wove and he executed for their amusement.
But then came the end. It wasn’t so much that they all grew up, but that they withdrew, each to their own warm house, to different companions, those more engaging picture screens. They all had electronic games to play – she did too. They drifted away, first one or two, then others, as technology supplanted the days of escapades in the woods, dipping into the lake, acting out whichever new game she devised.
Finally, it was just the two of them, and she had to be even more inventive for the lack of supporting characters. She’d managed, for the ancient leather-bound, gilt-edged classics of her grandfather were full of stories with one or two main characters, fighting nature, fighting each other, fighting imaginary demons, or fighting their own souls. It wasn’t as much fun without the others to add steam and color to the project. They missed their company of actors, gone inside on rainy, winter days as well as those perfect moonlight-strewn summer nights.
She didn’t remember if they’d mourned, or even talked about it, the end of that camaraderie. Did they notice the difference, that the videogames and movies were not the same to them, sitting there inside the houses, watching, instead of acting? She always wondered.
He too left, going away to some great future, they all heard, while she stayed on in her parents’ house by the side of the park, in the old neighborhood.
Now he was back.
Embers from the fire glowed, also settling in for the night. Once in a while flames reached upward in a burst of pitch as a colony of sparks escaped, flying into the dark sky above the slumbering forms. She couldn’t tell if anyone was awake and listening. Meanwhile, they two breathed in uneasy harmony, resting for now in their own cocoon of memory.
And then he said to her, so only she could hear, “You don’t know what heresy you speak. You don’t know the penalties. They are searching for those who carry your gene. It has a name, you know, and if they hear of you, they will steal it, suppress it, modify it. You will have no choice.”
She sat in silence, staring at the tiny flames. In ages past, centuries ago, as well as just a few years back when her father took the neighborhood kids camping, groups of humans gathered around a fire such as this and told their tales. Many things had come from those stories, as well she knew. There were even legends about telling stories, and the consequences of that. If there really was such a gene, she surely had it, as her father had before her, as generations back to the beginnings of human history.
His hand slipped away from her face now, to clasp her hands, warming them as he never had, back in those younger days. She watched his face, saw his eyes darken and felt the silence around the fire, except for sighs and groans and murmuring, and the crackle of it, an unanswered challenge that would die into lifeless black cinders if she did not speak.
She reached her hands up to his head, smoothing the disobedient, boyish hair, then pulling him closer, his ear almost touching her lips, she whispered into it.
“All I said was some old forgotten Hopi saying: ‘The one who tells the stories, rules the world.’”
“I know,” he said.
He pulled back from her and she saw water pooling in the corners of his eyes, glinting in the crinkles at the sides, overflowing and running down his dirty face. “I know.”
“You never believed me, before.”
“I do now.”
He did not answer.
She looked up and saw in his face the shadow of all the stories she’d ever read, ever imagined, ever told. No, ‘shadow’ was not the right word. It was something more hopeful than that. Probably why he’d come back to find her. Not just to save her.
“You don’t understand. You’ve been working for them too long.” He looked at her, shaking his head.
She reached her own fingers up to the sides of his head, as if he were a small child again, placed a thumb at the corner of each eye, squished the moisture sprung from the red dirt in the creases. Her fingers made smudges there and she smiled, thinking of the war paint they’d made from the mud, as children.
“You don’t understand,” she repeated, “It doesn’t matter if I say it or not. You know it’s true. My words don’t change it and all your science can’t, either. Believe it or not, I don’t care. They – you – can’t kill it, unless you kill us all, including yourself. Everyone has the story-teller’s gene.”
Keltie Zubko is a Western Canadian writer who lives on Vancouver Island. She has an extensive background in free speech/human rights legal cases but most likes writing about our human relationship with freedom and technology.