Day 4 of 5 of HERON’S PATH free Amazon Kindle give away tomorrow! Whoohoo! Just click and it’s yours!
I waited at the bus stop beneath the haze of three dim streetlights spaced along the street that ran out to the dock where I worked at Intake, welcoming people like me, when this bugger, gray stubble on his face and smelling of weed, walked out of the dark. I pulled my coat tighter as he scrutinized me, and he said after a long moment, “Show me those sick genitals.”
Don’t say it, Lolly, don’t say it, I told myself.
I immigrated here ten years ago when this country was just beginning to open its borders, allowing in the sensitive and scarred, refugees who’d been rejected as not fit enough to continue to live in my own land since the mutations began a generation in the past.
We freaks trickled in and found it not to be the paradise we’d hoped for. They needed our tech-savy, and so tolerated us, but we never were allowed to forget that assimilation was impossible. We exchanged fear for slave wages and were considered almost as repulsive here as back home, but we could at least survive, walk down the street. There were serious repercussions if any of us were killed, and, besides, the populace was sick of bloodshed, even for what was strange.
When I got low, missing the raztazzled hum of my native city, the colorful buildings, the sunny climate, and the rolling brown hills, I reminded myself that I was surviving. You’d think good climate and tech would lead to a tolerant population, but you’d be wrong.
“Male and female we were born,” I said, knowing I was setting myself up, knowing what he was likely to do, but the day had been long and I was angry about the traumatic stories I’d listened to all day from the new arrivals. All the norms here had a gleaming about this shibboleth, our freak password; it had been overheard too many times, and I knew it would be the one thing to set him off, but I said it anyway. The chump wouldn’t go for a kill, at least I didn’t think so, but there still was human nature and he could hurt me.
He’d been drinking too. The bus was late, as it usually was. Oh, there was efficiency mixed with intolerance back home and transports ran eletric, and here, fifty years backwards…he scowled more, pure hate in his eyes, enough for me to think he was from back home. He wanted to do me, male or female way, maybe both, until I was hurting, until he knew he’d gotten to the deepest scars that laced me together.
He yanked me hard, pulled me across the pavement, and my back slammed against the lamppost. I managed to kick him good in the shins and was readying my knee to uppercut his normal anatomy, when a shadow covered both of us, me, feeling sick with my arms around my belly, and his half-moon body crooked on the asphalt, when I looked up and saw the grimace of the hulking guy who’d joined our scene, the ugliest man I’d ever seen, and the streetlight was a halo around his head.
There was no way I could defend myself in case he wanted to join in the fun. I inhaled. Held it because his face had the papery texture of mummy’s skin, and his nose had been broken more than once, and his eyes, hollowed slits. More freak than me, I thought, and the creep on the ground moaned and got to his feet, muttering, “You think your safe here, just wait,” before he stumbled away, uttering threats that made me want to curl inward.
But then the other guy asked, “Are you all right?”, and I gasped. His voice. It was a sweet resin, and the timbre chords made from forests and the flow of a river opened my skin and sank down deep, right to the point that love lived in me. The place I’d forgotten because it’d been so battered long past in my other life.
“Yes,” I managed to whisper back.
He cocked his head stiffly, almost as though the gesture cost him something physical. He raised his arm slowly and offered me his hand, palm up like he was asking for alms, fingers slowly opening.
“Craig,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you.”
I nodded and gave him my name. It felt like a present. “Lolly,” and put my hand in his, touching the callouses and stepped toward him and peered up.
I never cared for handsome men. I mean in the square-jawed good hair way. Pretty boys do nothing for me. Pretty girls don’t either, to tell you the truth, but I ID-fem, more than male. We freaks have a range, just like the norms do if they were honest with themselves. I’ve always gone for clothes that flow, softer things, if that makes any sense, and I could pass as a woman, if I wanted to.
I still could not make out his eyes because they were so recessed; something inside me badly wanted to look into them, to see past his scars and into…forgive me such an extravagance…his nature. He seemed wooden, and a bit of a beast, physically at least, and I felt our attraction for each other like an electric shock in my body, in that kinky way of kindred spirits have, immediately sensing each other’s worth, digging our ugly selves, the parts still cute and unformed.
“The radio announced that the buses aren’t running,” he said. “Some disturbance downtown, nothing is getting in or out. May I walk you home?”
It was a long way, and we’d be walking until dawn. I told him that I’d be okay, and he didn’t need to take the trouble.
“There’s nothing I like more than walking at night.” His voice again, such simple words but with the rush of leaves quivering with the wind inside of them. “I’m not working tomorrow. And, to be honest, I have been wanting to get to know you.”
I’ve worked hard at self-preservation, and I felt prickly, despite the current passing between us, and wished like heck that the bus hadn’t been canceled. Wtf? I thought, I yanked my hand away, and then, with my eyes focused down the street in case he really was mental, you know, in that good first impression psychopathic way, so I asked, “Are you stalking me?”
“No,” he said, and laughed, and he pointed to the battered warehouse across the street. “I just watch to see if you get on the bus okay. My shift ends right after yours. I’m usually done early before I have to punch out, and I noticed you waiting here awhile back. It’s not safe here, but you know that.”
I nodded, and my gut told me that he was on the up and up. I didn’t tell him he had no idea how safe I really was, one lone creep was nothing next to a whole nation’s hate.
“Look,” I said. “There’s this place I’d like to take you to. Feel like going to a jive?”
He agreed with a little pain in his smile and walked stiff-legged. His gait was uneven, but his legs were long and he kept up with me. Gentleness wafted off of him like a cologne. As we made our way through the industrial maze, he said, “I work at night, the janitor, so I can avoid people as much as possible.”
“Why?” I asked, embarrassing myself and him. I needn’t have asked that silly why, but it slipped out from nervousness. We both knew no one likes to be confronted with the hideous; and he clearly was that, on the outside at least.
He politely answered my rudeness. “I have an inherited disease. My older brother had it too.”
Craig told me his name, but there were too many syllables for my foreign tongue to move around, and then he told me how his brother died, not so much from the calcification and the rigidity, but from being shunned, from the fear that passed over people’s faces, from the pain it caused him, inside, matching each knot as it grew on his body.
I wanted to touch Craig and make the pain stop, but all I could do was tell him my own stories because I felt that he’d listen, that he’d get it, even though he just had a penis, and nothing more, and could not understand what it was like to have two natures.
“I saw the same thing happen to a couple of friends; they couldn’t stand being so different, how people treated them, and they just gave up.” I didn’t say how close I’d been at times. Without my work, maybe I would have followed them.
We passed a slaughterhouse, getting close to the edge of the slums where the new refugees were sent to live. I talked about my job, how I helped the newcomers even when I was off work. Taught them things like how to survive when the monthly allotment ran out. Dumpster diving was easiest come early Sunday mornings, going to the back alleys behind the restaurants after the excesses of Saturday night; you could feast from the food thrown away. And if you were stealthy enough, you could furnish a flat or fill a closet with what the rich threw out for the garbage truck, but I added, “Getting caught in their districts is the one sure way to be sent home.”
The jive smelled musky, old basement mixed with pheromones. The crisp staccato syllables of my native tongue split the air, and a heavy baseline in the music played beneath the conversations. Eyes were all on us, but he was not normal, anyone could see, and though there was suspicion on the faces of some of the patrons…Craig was clearly a singular male…there was a vibe of sympathy for this sick man, so clear that he, too, was an oddity. Soon, we were almost invisible at our little table in the rear. I bought him a soda when he said he didn’t drink.
“I’ve lived on my own for a long time,” I said. “Twenty-seven of my kind gone in the riots the winter I turned 12. My parents couldn’t protect me, and though they loved me, I saw there was always shame behind their smiles.”
I told him that I learned the word p-r-o-p-a-g-a-n-d-a early and saw examples of it, my father explaining, as my family watched the teleV when the power players were interviewed, saw images a child should not see stapled to telephone poles. I can’t even describe them now. And more subtly, the laugh track of the sitcoms, and then faces of my country people hardening, but so slowly that the darkness behind their eyes became what was normal.
How anger grew because we simply existed. I told him my parents paid to get me out when I was fifteen, and that I’d survived ever since in this land where ice falls in the winter, and you swim in the blistering summer air, so far from the warm breezes of home and flowers that bloomed all year.
“I survived by staying right here in my head,” I said, tapping my temple, “and not taking chances.” I paused and took a sip from glass. “And by accepting of this horrible climate and your analogue phones.”
“I’ve only lived in this city,” Craig said after I was done jabbering. “I admire your pluck. We hear of the sophistication of your culture. You know, a lot of us resent you, not because of your anatomy, but because of what you know.”
I loved how he just came out and said the word. Anatomy. Like it was nothing special. And the rest of what he said about how his country’s people really did resent our presence…I’d only allow myself quick glances of headlines and turned off the radio when I heard the rhetoric.
“It can’t get as bad here as it has at home, so tell me about your people’s inability to go for the kill. Isn’t that much more sophisticated?”
“Oh, yeah, comes from the potatoes. All that blood in our soil has gotten into our blood, making us pure pacifists.”
He spit out the words “pure pacifists”. I sipped my beer, trying not to rest my eyes on his broken nose.
When we got to my flat, there was just a little line of dawn reflecting off the water under the bridge which we could see on my hill. And there were the first birds lighting the wires above our heads.
“It’s getting day,” I said, and I didn’t know how to bring it up, but I’d already made the faux pas over his deformities, and so I thought, what the hell, go ahead and ask it.
“Going back to your house, it would be…uncomfortable? With people seeing you?”
“I go out in the day,” Craig said. “I have a life.”
I nodded and asked him inside, and as soon as the door closed I kissed him.
“I’m a virgin, in both senses,” I whispered, just like that, before I knew what I was saying.
And that’s how it happened. Male to female. Male to male. Both ways I became whole. It wasn’t his first time, which made me a little jealous, but the first with a refugee, and I remember thinking, When love’s there, you only need the right amount of passion.
I started walking to the warehouse after work each night and he’d meet me at the small side door, and I’d swirl in a chair or read a book as he did the last 45 minutes of his shift. Or he’d be already done, and we’d just kiss or play cards until he could punch out. He said I was making him feel better, but how I wished I could touch him and make his skin supple and young, smooth his brow so that his brilliant blue eyes could shine out. We both assumed I was infertile, 95 percent of us are.
And the weird thing was, he began to get better, the beast part of him rubbing off in miniscule layers. In bed, I liked his soft words and rough skin, but then I’d find flakes of it on our sheets, and I wondered if our love could heal both of us; me inside where I was scared. But one night on a long walk, we came across several copies of the same propaganda slapped helter-skelter on a wall.
A picture of a dark-haired child looked out from each with wide innocent eyes, her dress ripped at the shoulder, and her mother etched behind her holding her head in her hands with the word POVERTY in red print slashed across her chest like a wound. KEEP OUR COUNTRY PURE was written in bold black letters at the top of the posters. SELF-FUCKERS THREATEN YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR FUTURE in a slightly smaller font at the bottom.
More of these appeared over the next few months, flyers with footprints on bus floors, in the gutter, plastered twenty at a time on the warehouse walls, Ones even more graphic appeared, and I get to the place I was as a child and I cannot find the words to describe them. Echos and tones and rememerings of home on the radio and the little teleV that I’d managed to buy my second year here.
I always had an appetite, even in the worse of times, but I suddenly couldn’t eat. I thought it was because of the ugliness in the air. My male parts seemed to not respond as quickly in our love-making, and a constant low grade nausea gnawed at me. I thought it was a virus. I thought it was stress.
One long day in the fall, a day too hot for so late in the year, I had to work double shift with the intake of the largest number of refugees we’d ever received. I held back the nausea, but it was worse than ever. I’d already interviewed nine new arrivals, written their stories long-hand because the juice was too low to use the computers, and they were too old to be much use anyway. Things had worsened back home, camps set up for freaks, the poets disappearing, and there were forced surgeries making us one way or the other, maiming but mostly killing us. All I could think of was to find Craig that evening and hope I could reclaim the parts of myself that evaporated with each tale.
I ushered in a 14 year-old, pointing to the wooden chair and started to ask my questions and to explain about what life might be like for now, my jaws hurting as I forced a sympathetic smile. I knew how scared the child was…after all I’d been this child a decade before. I tried to explain that it was a grayer world here, but safer, but safer…when I knew that I my nausea wasn’t because I was sick. My hands went to my belly. It felt hard, a small mound that had not been there just a few days before filled the cup my palms had made around it.
I dialed Craig as soon as the young man was taken to another dismal room. “Meet me at the jive,” I told him.
As I walked out of the building, I sensed more was wrong, as though the child I carried was telling me there was danger.
“Self-fuckers!” norms back home had hurled the word like they might cunt and fag, and now it seemed to be everywhere here. It was impossible to match one’s own sperm to own egg…even if we tried, there would be no conception…but the impossible doesn’t always sing its truth to hatred when hatred wants a taste of blood.
When I told Craig, he stared across the room, the strobe light pulsing against his clenched jaw. I took his hand to kiss it, my fingers first passing over his palm, and I realized I felt smoothness, and when he finally turned to me I saw that his brows were less pronounced, and his eyes larger, and the hard skin of his face had softened.
“I’m afraid,” I said.
He put his hand on my belly and a queer look passed over his face. “You can’t have this child.”
A small patch of warmth spread where his fingers had been, and just in that amount of time, he looked more normal, except for his broken nose that I held dear. His skin seemed only mottled, not the texture of a wasp’s nest, but simply thick old paper left out in the rain.
“You and I just barely survive,” he said. “The child will be sent back, you along with it. There is only so much my people will tolerate here, and, you should know that.”
My people. Your kind. When had we divided like this, losing the intimacy of freak to freak? I’d purposely avoided reading the print, and had taken to eaten my lunch in my cubicle. Craig was right, of course, and by the end of the month, the government announced no more ferries, and then two weeks later this last large mass of refugees which had not been allowed out of Intake, the ones I personally dealt with, the young one who I knew was the most vulnerable, all gone, sent away, ferried back, or maybe left crowded in the boat at sea.
I refused to find out because what could I do? And then the short talk with my supervisor; severance that would last me a week and assurances that I still had asylum.
I never answered Craig about the baby, and he never said another word about getting rid of it; the longer time passed the more he healed, and I wondered if he saw me with a different lens. But he invited me to stay with him, a refugee with asylum with no way to survive but to hide in the streets without him.
I would wake and see him stand before a mirror in the morning, touching his new skin, but more than once I saw him shiver. He glanced back at me once, and caught me watching him.
“You’re not pleased about the new you?” I asked, forcing a lightheartedness he didn’t want.
“I walk out in broad daylight, and no one sees me anymore,“ he said. “Existence is so full of what is average. Shouldn’t it break open over and over, mutate, get strange, to make everything new again?”
I didn’t answer him.
I’d go to the warehouse with him at night, worrying over my growing belly and the birth. We’d go to the jive when we could, but fewer of us were there; more heading underground, and they would all stare at his healing, and we saw their fear.
Finally, the bartender gave me an address, a compassionate normal doctor, and then told me to leave and to never bring Craig back. I went to the doctor’s flat a few days later, not telling Craig. After tsking and a shake of a head, hands cupped on my belly, the listening to the little heartbeat, and taking me to a back room where there was a small monitor and nodules to connect me to it, I saw what our passion had made: a small curled doll, a perfect child.
“Normal,” the doctor said, and shame washed over me; I didn’t understand how this conception was curing Craig, what miracle interlaced his son with his body and soul, but I was sure the child would not love me. The city seemed even smaller, and I think now that I should have been happy that being alive would be easier for my child than it’s been for me.
Music was playing when I walked in our flat, some of the odd classical stuff Craig liked; I could never keep the composers straight.
“You’re home,” he said, and took my hand, both of ours now human and smooth, and I kissed his eyelids, my mouth finding them easy, and wondered if the child would have his blue eyes or my obsidian. And we made gentle love in both ways.
Across the city, the first killings came, amnesia setting in about the horror of murder, the blood phobia slowly dissolving into what really was lying underneath the country’s vows to never take a life again. All the beatings that came so close to killing, the cruelty Craig had endured, were the real truth of the land. The jives were raided and more of us were “sent” away. There was no place to go, either here or back home. The doctor came and delivered the baby. Before he left he whispered that I had to leave the flat as soon as I could. Craig kissed me, and I knew love would kill us all if I didn’t go.
When I could, when night could hide me, I placed my boy on my heart and nursed him for the last time, and looked upon Craig’s handsome face for the last time as he slept. Then I slipped through the door alone and fled into the dark streets that were sweeter than the day.