In This Country
If you lost a leg in a war—or in a freak accident—would your stump have a psychic bond with the mine you stepped on, with the child you pushed out of the way of the rampaging machine? If you were a country priest, but secretly an atheist, would you write a private manifesto of disbelief? These are the things she thinks about now. These, and the nature of reality. As if reality were natural.
Don’t question me, was what her old lover said the night she questioned him. She had it in mind that he did not believe in her pain. Pain, she has found, is entirely a question of belief. One cannot prove pain—no matter how loud or often one groans. Pain, to an external perceiver, requires faith. Faith in the internal perceiver’s honesty. Faith in the external perceiver’s witness. Until her pain started, she was a person of little faith. Now her faith knows no bounds. Now she can—and frequently does—believe anything.
There is a woman who cleans her silly room. (She thinks of her room as silly because there is a framed picture of a heartthrob singer on the wall. Never mind which one, just know he silently croons over her every night.) This woman is a marvel in the way she cooks, she cleans, raises her children. In fact she does it all smiling. This is not meant to reduce her. Sometimes they speak in the communal kitchen. It’s hard to know how much gets through. She explains her fear of living in a dream. The woman assures her that she, the woman, is not a figment in a dream. She tells the woman that’s what any good dream figment would say. The woman asks how she then knows she is not hers, the woman’s, dream figment—or, more troubling, that they are not both the dream figments of the fruit bowl? She has no answer for this. The woman laughs and sweeps jacote rinds into the garden below her silly room.
It’s always warm in this country—which she appreciates. Her warm showers, drawn from a rain barrel on the roof, calm her spasms. If the shower is not enough, she swims, slowly, in the bay. The bay is also always warm. If the swimming is not enough, she hobbles up and down the beach, lurching from one ossifying leg onto another. This hobbling is a half-hearted dare to immobility. Then she plunges back into the surf. Plunge is not the right word.
Sometimes it feels as if her teeth no longer fit inside her mouth, as if her spine no longer fits insider her back, as if her fingers—those rebellious, little antennae—no longer fit inside her palms. In these moments it is hard not to resort to cliché.
When she is seized with one of her fears, she tells herself she is only a figment. A figment has nothing to fear. Not from the loud boys playing on the landing. Not from the silent old men sitting around the table in rocking chairs. The boys are always moving, shouting, laughing, crying. The old men never move. The boys flit around the old men’s immobile feet. The old men ignore them. The old men are supposedly playing dominoes—at least there are dominoes on the table—but the dominoes also never move. They remain as frozen as the old men’s voices, as their bones, as the rocking chairs that never rock, as her body soon will be. The domino chain looks like vertebrae. Being a figment—possibly of the fruit bowl, possibly of the dominoes—she can pass through all of this unhindered, unmolested.
If you could flout time, would you risk it? If you could die twice, would you try it? If you could cast all heaven into hell and all hell into heaven, would anyone notice? If you had to die slowly, painfully, and knowingly inside your own body—but of course you do…
People here think she is up to no good. A lone, foreign woman, hunching around, pausing in ancient doorways, presumably to charge the power of her evil. People hide their children from her. She sees them ushering their broods away behind her back—beyond the reach of her witch’s eye. She has never cared about children until now. Now she wants to bless every child she sees with her quivering hands. If she could tell just one child something unforgettable—it wouldn’t have to be a good thing—she would be satisfied. This is another of her new faiths, this belief in children.
When her pain started, she asked the doctors if she should worry. Wait for the smoking gun, they said. Wait for the quivering tongue, the numb feet, the fingers that can no longer button buttons. Wait until it’s hard to swallow, hard to walk, hard to breath. Wait for the rebellious lassitude of your arms, of your legs, of your heart. In fact wait for your arms and legs to fall off, for your heart to stop. Then worry.
Sometimes she dares herself to be romantic. She challenges herself to swim out to sea or take on a hulking, backbreaking lover. But nothing seems right, and she is also afraid. She is not, however, without human chains. She has some family, an old, normal-sized lover—all of them far away now. She might owe it to them to return. Not out of love—her loves are unconditional—but to give an accounting. They have given her so much, this family, this old lover. They deserve to attend—or not attend—her fate as they choose. At least, sometimes, it seems this way.
She has been trying to hold more conversations. She doesn’t want to live only inside her head. To live only in one’s head is to be absent—at least to the external perceiver. (To the internal perceiver, who knows?) But it’s hard to find people here with whom to converse. People here are—perhaps rightly—frightened of her.
She woke to a railroad track of pain running down her back. She could not turn her body to either side. She had to rise from the sheets perfectly face forward, like one of those children the messiahs call back to life to make a point. She came up staring at the singer on the wall. He might only be handsome from the pictured angle. Her end also will not matter in any real sense. Her end will be just another perception. This helped her control her breath. Her heart, however, continued to labor. She can feel her heart all the time now. She counts out the pulses in her head as she waits in line at the pulperia. When it is her turn to buy rice and beans, she thinks 78, 82, 91. She can also see her pulse in the reflection of her neck. It is superimposed on the glass over the framed singer. A moth’s wing trapped under silk.
If a friendly looking boy left a pitcher of water on your doorstep, would you assume he is up to no good? If there is work to do in heaven, is that why you fear it? Do you believe in a unified theory of everything?
She saw an empty chair at the domino table and thought about taking it. It hurts very little to sit still. But what if she can’t yet sit perfectly still? What if her creaking bones move, even once? Then her chair would rock, maybe even squeak. She’d be no better than the boys flitting around underfoot; her embarrassed groan the groan of a foreigner, a noisome figment. The old men would be so ashamed! Better not to risk it. Soon, very soon, she won’t have to move at all. It won’t be much longer she has to keep doing this—moving. Strange, that movement should turn from a desire into something she must bare. She will bide her time. It is not for her to rush stillness.
Her old lover searched for ways around her pain. Not only new positions, but also new points of view, frames of mind, plains of consciousness. He was never entirely successful. But there were times, when he moved around her, wearing blinders, speaking in tongues, generally enmeshing himself, when something got through.
She thought there would be monkeys here. She thought there would be snakes, crocodiles, jaguars. People here only seem to have the vaguest memory of these things. But, if not here, then where could these creatures exist? Can they properly be said to exist at all? She has no interest in metaphysical gardens.
She thinks about tragedy whenever she creeps by a certain house near the bay. It is a silly house—silly not just for the Doric columns, but also for the styrofoam beam work used to symmetrize the eves. Killer bees have chewed out a mighty kingdom under the roof. She can hear them sizzling across the yard. She reminds herself not to swat whenever one alights on her frozen claw. The whole legion might descend.
When she is seized with another of her fears, she tells herself she is a crusader. A crusader has nothing to fear. Not from the killer bees sizzling under the eves. Not from the people casting dark looks in the street. A crusader is on a higher quest. A crusader is not of this world. Her pain is the hair shirt she wears under her armor to remind her who she serves. But whom does she serve? And where is her armor? It can be troubling to think of oneself as a crusader in this country.
One morning her face tightened. Gossamer wires constricted between her lips and her nose, her nose and her eyes, her eyes and her scalp. They pulled the flesh taut. Soon, she knew, the flesh would no longer hold. Her face would tear, and the gaps would only widen. Soon her face would be exposed—perhaps rightly—as the hollow carapace it was. People would stare at the nude wiring that was her face. Beyond the wiring, there would be nothing. Maybe some light passing through. A hazy netherworld behind her eyes twisting back through its many, snarled endpoints. She doesn’t mean to be dramatic. One morning her face tightened.
If we all pulled back our skin—say, at the wrist—and found only air connecting our hands to our elbows, could we stand it? Remember, anything is possible.
Is she really serious about leaving this country? Whenever she thinks she is, she catches herself investing in sensory perceptions. The children’s teeth stained with juice. The men’s arms knotty with pulp. The women’s backs upholding their dresses, the very texture of life. She watched a girl dart off the side of a moving truck, seize the camera from another foreigner’s hands, and leap back onto the running board. The truck never slowed. The foreigner never moved. She envied the foreigner for his stillness. She envied the girl for not allowing herself to be frozen eternally inside a frame. How can she leave such things behind?
There was someone in her room last night. Someone other than the singer and herself. She doesn’t think he had a shape. But she could sense him, dancing elaborate trajectories over her body in the dark, moving to the silent melody of the singer’s frozen voice. She doesn’t know what this means—or she’s pretending not to, at least for now.
The temptation is to take inventory. But what has she accomplished? So little in some ways. So much in others. What a boring thought! When she was a girl—or when there was a girl who was her—she used to wish for the most terrible things to happen, just to see them, to view terror and know its contours. Of course she had a girl’s conception of what was terrible. Now she thinks nothing is all that terrible—which also means that nothing is all that good. It means things are just things. She cannot look backward or to either side. She can only look, can only move, forward—slowly, painfully. This is not a good perspective for taking inventory.
Still there must always be temptation. Temptation is the only bulwark against the pain. The old men ignore her as she passes their table. They fake a blindness to her cares. But she is coming to know them. She is also coming to know the people who flee.
The doctors were good people. They would have kept trying had she not fled to this country. But there was something in their faces, some tension in the wires strung under their flesh, which repulsed her. She doesn’t blame them for this. They could not afford to become possessed. Had it been possible, her spirit would have climbed their arms and taken hold of their bodies. Her spirit would have walked them right off a cliff. Just like one of those messiahs making a point.
Apparently it is the dry season here. The warmth she feels in her room at night is the usual warmth—only more so. The garden below persists despite hardship. One of the bushes is harboring Buntings, a flock of little yellow bellies. Apparently they are endangered. She peeks on them as often as she can. They appear to be thriving. At least they need no longer fear any snakes, crocodiles, jaguars.
She cannot lie still enough to dance with him. At least not yet.
Floating in the bay, she was seized by the usual fear. That nothing, excluding herself, was real. That she was generating everything around her and within her—including the dancer—and therefore was utterly alone. When she was gone there would be nothing left. Not even his little steps tip-toeing though the dark. In fact there was already nothing left. She got lots of water in her mouth.
To romanticize the end as a dancing lover is a useful cliché. To romanticize the end at all is a terrible sin. In this country—like most countries—there is a saying that reconciles this conundrum, but she cannot remember it. The stone saints peering down from the roofs overhead are not talking. They were put there, long ago, by crusaders.
One of the boys on the landing has lost an arm. This does not seem like a tragedy. Rather it seems inevitable—that a boy should misplace his arm. Boys are careless. Boys are hard on their possessions. Surely he’ll go find it when he needs it again, when he tires of having to choose between throwing his ball and tapping on her shuttered window. That this is not the case seems closer to tragedy. Still not all the way there. All the way there is when he runs by the old men at the table.
There was supposed to be a moment of sense. Not peace. But, at least, sense.
If you lost your body on accident—or on purpose—would you find your way back to the husk, back to the carapace scratching at the bark of the tree? If you sought water in a desert—or in the ocean—would you eventually drink the sand or the salt and be grateful? These are the things she thinks about now.
Last night the dancing presence in her room drew very close. She could feel him hovering just over her lips, his non-body pirouetting in the dark on the tip of her nose. If she had exhaled, he might have flitted away. But she held her breath for what seemed like forever. Call it practice. She wants him to become comfortable.
Even this late, there are denials. Fleeting moments of rejection and disbelief. It is only natural to chew her gallo pinto slowly, contemplatively, feeling the pain in her teeth, and think, this flavor will go on forever. Rice and beans are timeless. Rice and beans are infinite. There is no end to rice in beans in this country. There is, however, an end to pain.
The woman who cleans her silly room has gone quiet. Her quietness is unspoken but palpable. It lives in the tender way she manipulates her broom, like a weak old uncle being helped around the kitchen. She has become so gentle with him! The jacote rinds move slowly, if at all, towards the garden. There is no more discussion of the fruit bowl’s dreams. There is no discussion at all. To live only in one’s head is to be absent.
There is, of course, very little real tragedy in the world.
To think of sending a postcard from this country! Can this country be described on the back of a postcard? What a postcard it would be! On the front: a cheery sail on a green sea. On the back: the spiny black wires that underline the sea, the sail, everything. The wires would be un-enveloped. They would be exposed for any passing handler to snag himself upon. Just like the ones under her face.
The old men know about the dancer, of course. She can see it in their faces. That sly, fanciful immobility. They know he moves in her room. Perhaps he returns to the table at daybreak to inform on her. Perhaps he sends them messages through the dominoes by kicking them into place. The movement might be so small as to be invisible. But not meaningless. Just the contrary, that nothing, really, ever stops. Tonight, she believes, he will dance even closer still.
C.M. Barnes holds an MFA from the University of Montana and lives and writes in Missoula. His work has appeared in Phoebe, Literary Laundry, and Cargoes and is forthcoming in Booth, Arcadia, and Digital Americana. He is currently at work on a collection of fictions.