Thread my shoelaces tentatively below the diner table. A cold place on the corner next to my red apartment. Only living thing in the diner, as far as I could see, is the waitress that waits me. Coffee is fine enough. Black is too bitter, but I didn’t feel like speaking up when she brought it.
She comes by and passes a plate of eggs. “Thanks.” I pick up a fork and spear a glob of the fluffy yellow clouds, set against the white sky that was my plate.
“You're welcome.” She walks off hoisting another plate to somewhere else in the diner.
I furrow my brow and watch where she goes. Her high heels click when she turns the diner counter, proceeding out of my view. I take another bite and watch the space where she had been.
A minute later (according to the clock) she returns without the plate and she’s holding her hands together, eyes all misty from some unknown distress.
Strange, I drop my fork and let her leave before getting up. I use my feet as quiet as I could to follow where she had went. I skirt the counter and face a door of reflective bone beads. Funny, I push through into the next room. A strange smell like nothing I had ever smelt before reaches my nose, filtering in with salty stings. I touch it instinctively.
That’s when I notice the room I have entered. The old dark oak counter to the right with a personal bar. The windows to the left shew a pitch black quilt with a pearly moon sown in. A chair with its back to me facing a healthy fire. A wrinkled hand hanging off the side of the chair’s armrest. And above the fire, a trophy sized moose had its head hung, pit-black eyes placid. A gramophone in the corner, needle scratching, but only a hiss came from the abandoned player.
I took the whole scene in and looked back over my shoulder. A tall dark wooden door stood like an imposing sentinel. Oh, and I was wearing something different now. A brown hide jacket with thin cube tassels hanging off the front.Worn jeans on my legs.
A thump sounded off next to the fire. I snapped my head to the chair.
Everything was stationary as the fire cracked and crackled at the red carpet. I dared one step forward and felt the iron in my feet keeping me still. Pick up that foot push it forward, rinse and repeat, switching between the two. I leaned over the seat, taking a look. A man in red rosey robes sat motionless, shadows playing on the ceiling far behind him. Skin looked orange in the firelight.
I brought my palm before his dry lips, no breeze meeting my hand. He had a halo of hair around his head, the very top bald. Skin wrinkled, chest held no movement. I put my hands together and knelt directly in front of his knees. Heat on my warming my back. I looked at his face, witness him.
I lurched forward and reached into his mouth. I put it between my fingers and removed it. A rusty key was within his mouth. Lodged in his old yellow teeth. There was more; along came a string attached to the old key ring, and on that string was a sugar cube. A sugar cube with a surface like white and pink lava. All wrapped in a bow by the string that was attached to the key.
I sat with it a moment. Rolling it in my hands. What was happening?
I stood. I walked over to the door, I opened it. A banister with a chandelier beyond was directly down the hall. A few voices took turns speaking with a sweet cadence. A mere whisper of a conversation. I had to step close to the dark banister to hear.
They spoke no English words. Some other way of stringing together syllables.. My hand tensed and sweated on the railing, dripping down. A sweet voice rose, exclaiming. I looked down to a woman who was looking at me. Brown hair in a single bun behind her head and a wearing a dull, jeweled and lavender dress. White long gloves on her forearms and hands. She covered her mouth and shrieked. A gaggle of suitors around her joining in the horror.
All in a few moments, a tuxedoed man walked in and put an arm on her shoulder. She instantaneously stopped. He brushed the other men with his fingers and they stopped as well. Once finished, he cast his gaze in my direction. “Don’t be silly.” He picked up a cigarette and lodged it between his lips. He sauntered over the old staircase on my right.
I stood speechless, leaning on the railing.
The man took his time strolling up the stairs, his suit tail dragging behind him like a king’s cloak. He met the top stair and let loose his drag. "I need to groom you, you know I did the same for your father, he owned this house.” He put his arm under mine and escorted us along the hall towards a door at the end. It seemed to warp and twist with each and every step.
I turned to him. “What the hell is going on?”
“I’m trying to help you be more like us, Savage.” He tried to cover the last part with a cough, blowing out some smoke to muddle the air. I coughed with him, the smoke was terrible. I’m a smoker though...
He pushed open the warped door to a twisting room. He turned me around and pulled me down onto a chair. My hair was long and a mite greasy. He tried combing through it and making it straight and pretty, it would not allow him. “Damn, this is pure steel wire. Nails will be easier.” He walked over to a counter in the corner and picked up a pair of scissors. He clipped my hair for three minutes and found that it did not shorten. “By Christ, you’re one stubborn fella.” His face was red as he twisted the cigarette into the chair arm.
He put up a finger into the air in excitement. “You can’t join in on the party now, but...” He popped out of the chair and jogged over to the desk, lifting a mirror from an open drawer. He turned and struck it closed with a backwards kick.
The man pulled up a chair in front of me and held the mirror to my eyes. My skin was dark like the leather I wore. I always felt proud of it. He twisted the mirror three-hundred-sixty degrees. I was face to face with a man with blue skin. Or purple or red or yellow or persimmon. It changed. “Any of those suit you, buddy?”
“No, I like mine fine enough.”
“WHY!” He smashed the mirror on my hand, glass shattering and piercing my skin. Blood spewed and I couldn’t handle the pain. He lunged at my face, but I leaned back on the chair to tip it. He caught the chair arms as it almost completely fell and forced it back into its position. My heart beating so fast it hurt. I was now eyes to eyes with the tyrant. His were blue like a crystal-clear lake. But so furious and panicked. “Why can’t you just die?”
Someone rapped on the twisted door.
He stood straight and fixed his wet hair. He said in an even tone “A moment.” He turned and walked to the brownish door, right now it was in the shape of an X. He opened it only a few inches wide so that the knocker couldn’t see what was within. “Hi, Honey.”
The voice on the outside spoke with that same sweet cadence. He breathed a heavy sigh while she spoke, she was urging him, maybe. “No, I’ll be down in just an hour, I swear on your sugary little heart, dear. Ok, goodbye.” He closed the door.
I couldn’t feel the pain anymore, but I could see the reflective chunks of glass in my hand. “Why are you doing this?” I asked him.
“Savages need to be helped, and I’m trying to be the gentleman that I am.” He placed his hands on both my knees. “You see that us whites are groomed, but you mudeaters need to be tamed to understand life, too dumb now. No school or church.”
I pleaded with him. “I’m not from here, I’m not a savage.”
“Rodents think they are important too, why else would they fight for their lives? But you have the benefit of being more intelligent than them. We will sharpen that edge.”
My thoughts swirled, my body felt sick, my hand no longer felt at all. And I’m not sure if he’s right or wrong. I looked into his eyes “I don’t know what’s happening.” His face turned into shattered glass.
Everything went dark.
CACHZZ, went the match. A head of bluish fire in the pure abyss. The wisp of fire reached over to a candle. Lighting the wick in a quick second. A wax candle much brighter than the head of fire. It lit a new face in the dark. A plump orange vestige, with a dark hair line. A worn wise look on his face. “Lucky…”
I cast my head around fast, I’m in a canoe, he lit a candle on the gunwale and had lit another some time earlier on the opposing. There was a old dark skinned man with his hand on my shoulder. He returned to paddling and ignored my intense looks.
“Too much, child. Look ahead,” a whistley voice echoed from his scarred mouth.
I looked ahead, the horizon was the curve of the earth, I could see that the entire earth was a circle, a sphere. They paddled me towards the bronzy dark yet golden horizon. “What is ahead, father?” I asked.
“The Witch's house, Small Bear, be respectful, she like her peace and quiet,” he chuckled softly.
The deck plate landed on the swelling tide of oil-like water, my father stepped over the gunwale and dragged the canoe on shore by the deckplate, whistling him and me a song. I stared at the man behind me. “I can see grandpa behind me, he is paddling with us.”
Dad smiled. “The spirits are all around us, Small Bear. He’s here to help you along the river.”
The tall taciturn old man sitting, brown braids falling far behind him. He reached out his hand for mine. I cautiously embraced his fingers, old and scarred from fighting the war. Died one day on horseback.
His form disappeared into the sky like fire’s smoke. The sound of crackling pine needles in a great fire is his passion. I see him looking across a fire at a young woman. But he is gone to the dark clouds that hang above. “You will hear spirits your whole life, son. Listen to them. Now let us get to the Witch.”
A small hovel in the ocean, barely enough land to fit the building on. There was no dirt or earth for the house to stand except the stoney splotch. Seagulls flew around, carried by the wild wind. Dad smiled at them “The gulls having a good time, eh?” as he pushed the door open.
I quietly walked inside. The smell of wood burning meeting my nose. The gloomy silhouette of the Witch’s back. I stood only a few feet from the door when it closed. Beyond the fire was the crumbled wall of the birch bark house. Outside the waves meeting each other in raucous battle. Whitecaps piercing the dark horizon.
“Boy, sit,” a harsh voice whispered.
I walked slowly across the salty floor to the opposing side of the fire. Looking into the embers and the blaze. I peeked at the old woman sitting across. Her eyes opaque and grey. Maybe blind. Her mouth was open just a smidge, but her lip was low enough to show that she had no teeth. “You’re sick boy.”
She wasn’t right, but I didn’t want speak up against her “I don’t feel sick.”
“You are, you’re an Indian. Soon this earth will no longer hold us.”
“Is there a cure?”
“Yes, you must leave this place, and with it...” She crawled and circled the fire to my side. She knelt behind me. I felt her hands on my hair, running the wrinkly fingers through it. She grasped a clump of length and put the scissors’ blades around it. She brought the scissors together like a guillotine. The hair fell down my back and onto the floor, sliding into the ocean. “The hair must die.”
She finished and fetched a book from a tired basket. She lifted out a brick shaped black thing. She placed it in my hands. “A book of talking leaves you shall learn to understand.” She taught the alphabet in several days. Frustrating at first, but dad always said I was a quick learner.
And when we gather again at the fire, she spoke “Now you must say goodbye to your sisters and brothers, but only in your head.”
“That won’t do any good.”
“Trust me they will know.”
Time passed in that hovel, watching the waves crash, crying to myself. When she heard me, she shushed me “Men don’t cry. To be cured you must be a man.”
I hated it, I was silent, but I hated it. When she lit the fire this morning she looked satisfied, I felt like today was the day. The day I leave, I can tell dad how crazy the Witch was. Then we can go fishing with the other boys.
After lunch she announced “We are done. You know the talking leaves, Jesus, and how to be somebody else.”
“Am I cured?”
“No, you never will be. You’ll always hear the drums on the horizon till they burst your head. But you can pretend to be someone else. And it’ll hurt and eat your insides out, but that’s how a man lives his life.” She smiled like a new child was just born.
“I want to go home.”
Tears welled in my eyes.
“Never again. Wait, is that what I’m hearing?” She cupped ears like it enhanced her hearing. The ocean hummed in way he had never heard before. It was loud and indifferent, yet so painful. I listened with sad interest. She looked where I was sitting a moment ago “Boy go!”
My eyes went wide and I threw open the hovel door. The skies grey on the circular horizon, there was a jagged shard of the horizon thrown out of place in the circle, breaking it. And exiting from the break was little dot of black. A huge white light swinging around it. My head whirled around, a sinister key, a threatening tone hit my head. Like a great moose’s mourning call. The waves so desperate and thrashing they sounded like the hide drums of home, but so strangely foreign.
The black dot grew to the size of seal then to a whale as it approached the shore. Taller than any canoe, but it straddled the water surer than any. Inside I could see the people, standing, looking directly at me. I saw a strange black thing on one of their faces, like a growth of usnea. Their skin lighter than any birch bark. My stomach hurt.
The large canoe landed on the rock, and as soon as that happened, a man hopped the gunwales and strode towards me. I turned around and pushed on the hovel door, only to find that the whole thing was gone. Replaced by the tumbling sea. I felt his clammy hand on my bare shoulder as he pushed me to the boat. He spoke words, but I couldn’t understand. He pushed me into the ship. My face smacked onto the deck, and hurt. I felt something grab onto my feet pushing me in all the way in.
I sat in a ball next to a trap of some sort. The man with the old man’s beard watched me, fascinated. He wore a strange tall thing on his head with little well-crafted shiny rocks mounted. He put a pipe in between his lips and took a drag. Pushing it back out into the sky. Other men gave me contemptuous looks.
That night, they retreated below the canoe and laughed together. I sat shivering there next to the trap, sobbing to myself. I couldn’t be a man. Where was father? Was he looking at the same moon as me? Crying too?
At the start of the next day, a man walked out from below the canoe, and passed me a container full of brownish red water. I sipped it and it burnt. I spat it out and the man got angry, slapping me across the face. He took it away, tucked it into his basket, and began to man the canoe. I snuck over to his basket and stole the bottle. Chugging the thing for a second. It burnt so bad, but I needed the drink.
I tucked it back in and went back to my spot next to the trap.
He ignited the bluish head of the match and leaned over to the candle wick. It lit real quick and he shook the match out. He coughed deep within his throat. He put a fist over his mouth in a new coughing fit. I felt the chair I sat in. A beautiful rosey thing.
The man across from me in the chair was an old sailor. He had weathered the unforgiving ocean for most of his tiresome life. Never able to have a child, yet he knew the pain this child had felt. He thought of him as more than the Injun boy down the dock. A…
The chairs stood in attendance to the burning fireplace. The key with the sugar cube burning with the cinders, turning molten and into sugary liquid
The sailor sat with his dying body, he asked “Small Bear ya said?”
“Small Bear, I’m sorry to have to show you this.”
“What are you talking about?”
Malc leaned down in his chair and reached for the floor. He put his old fingers on the edge of a board and showed what was underneath. The wood board raised in uncannily easy manner. Below the floors were countless skulls, ribs, fingers, teeth, and strangely, eagle feathers. “This is what the house is made of, Small Bear.” He picked up a graffitied skull “Indian bones.”
I felt the tears come on again. For the first time in years. I stood and shook my head, unbelieving. “You’re lying.”
“I’m sorry it’s true.”
Glass cracked behind him, he shot his eyes back to the counter. On the shelf behind the counter a row of glasses were lined up perfectly except for one glass that had left its place. A small ring of dust left it its wake. The board behind the spot had been opened, and peering from the dark space was a half assembled, rotting black skeleton. He fell jerked onto his backside and crawled away from the counter. His back met the Malc’s knees.
I breathed a sigh of relief and turned on the ground to the sailor, but sitting there was no longer the weary seafarer, but a horrifically perfect vestige of him, like a puppet. The marionette opened his wooden jaws “This is The Charnel House, built upon the piles of human calcium to keep its bones strong.” He laughed a subtle croak that soon grew to an uproarious cackle.
I could only cover my ears in pain as I lifted myself up and ran to the door. I threw open the door, and walked into the hall’s banister where I had heard her voice with the sweet cadence. A hundred of them stood there dancing with each other up and down the stairs, all faceless and speaking English words “Having a swell time. The party of the century!” None of them held her face, just a blank avoiding sheet.
The tears fell faster. I pushed them out of the way to get to the warping door. I threw it open. There in a single spotlight was the man in the tuxedo, his back turned to me. He wagged his finger over his shoulder, snickering “Rats don’t walk the same halls as gods.” He turned and his face was like a perfect mask of a man’s, “Time to exterminate!” he withdrew a pair of scissors. I backed up, not closing the door, I turned scratching my feet on the crimson carpet. The women all looking at me. I ran down the stairs to the place directly beneath the banister. It was a new hall with two ways to go. I ran left and didn’t look back. Soon after ducking into a closet at the end of the hall.
I sat in the darkness content, breathing heavy I withdrew my lips from her’s. She laughed, I couldn’t see her face, but I knew it was the same color as mine. I barely struggled to contain my nervous chuckle. She leaned onto my chest, listening to my heart. She asked me “Why do I have to die?” They found her two weeks later in a ditch, white men had been riding round the town a day earlier. Her skin was darker than mine, most thought she was half-negro. She wasn’t.
The door was knocked on. “Are ya done in there?”
I was sweating and crying in a bathroom. Magazine on top of the toilet. Fluorescent lights hanging in a row above. His hair short and dark, wearing a black leather jacket and some old jeans.
The voice spoke again, “Sir?”
I opened the door and told him “Guess so.”
“Jesus, son, you look like you were kicked by the wrong she-wolf.” His head mostly bald. He wore a grease stained grey shirt.
“Well…” I could think of nothing.
“Wait…” He looked at me. “Oh no, son. You saw it didn’t you?”
“I don’t know what I saw.” I tried pushing past him.
He stopped me with a single hand on my shoulder “You do.”
I tried to walk past, but he pinned me to the bathroom door. The bathroom door snapped in half and his hand lost its grip, but I was falling. The toilet becoming quickly just a white dot in my view. An abyss swallowed me. And spat me up.
My face smacked onto wood and I was upright again. There was only a single seam of light in the darkness. I felt around it and found a sturdy spot and pushed. The two wardrobe doors swung open and the window in front blinded me with the sun. Soon my eyes adjusted and I stepped out. I was in my apartment bedroom. Landscape posters hung all about. I picked my feet up and ran out into hall to the staircase. I darted down the steps and left. A few other tenants giving me funny looks.
I left the red apartment building and turned the corner to the diner. The Ice Box. I stepped up the little porch to the front door, next to the door a sign read in all capitals; Keeping what’s dead new! I pushed open the door, a little bell knelling. Behind the counter, cleaning glasses, was a man in a drab grey shirt.
I hopped onto a swiveling stool and knocked on the counter. The man stopped and stood still. A few seconds passed with a muscle being moved. I yelled “What just happened?”
I couldn’t see his lips, he chuckled. I reached over the counter and took ahold of his shirt, pulled it, and he jerked my hand away. Without meaning to, he looked at me. He had no eyes, just fleshy pink vacant slits. His hand had hit mine. Now there was chalky white on it. The spot he used to strike me was pink.
I startled halfway off the stool and hit my head against something that set the falling stool right, I turned around. Standing behind me was seven foot tall slimy pink lizard man, also without eyes. He murmured “Sorry.”
I flicked my head back to the counter my hands had been resting on. The pink lizard that I bumped into took a seat next to me, and asked the other half-disguised one to get him a coke. I choked on a gulp and held my hands around my neck. “Bwaaha!” A muffled voice cried from within me. I doubled onto the counted and opened my maw, I gagged. I felt the hot scales burn my tongue. It sloppily landed on the countertop out of my sight, slime still in my mouth. I spat and I spat till it was all gone.
Then I looked down. The thing lay curled on the wooden surface, fluids pooling and dripping onto the floor. A pinkish white lizard, the size of a loaf of bread, lay dumbly. It moved its little arms blindly seeking something.
The slimy lizardmen paid no attention and made small talk. I had to do something. I reached out and poked the lizard’s rib plates. It whined and waved the hand around, pink forked tongue bobbing out of its mouth. The hand caught my knuckles. It embraced my forefinger and its whines stopped.
Quietus took me.
I frowned, but the creature couldn’t see my disapproval. I asked for another plate. The pink lizard left and returned with a man’s healthy serving of eggs. I pick up a fork, spear a glob of the fluffy yellow clouds set against the white sky, and feed them to the pink hatchling.