You are reading Fiddleblack #4
I’m mid-eleven, in a sort of sloppy, jiggling point in life, when my luck shifts drastically: Kidnapped. Or it’s assumed.
Everyone’s certain Big Cousin’s carried me off. Everyone’s certain Big Cousin has had his way with me, turned me into a cartoon. And though they claim relief when I reappear, when I say he didn’t affect me at all, when I stroll into our wainscoted den—bit tan, not a tad perfumed with Ozarkan river—and widen my arms to spin about, well, they’re still markedly disappointed.
“OK,” Mama says, scowling, “OK, it wasn’t precisely bold lines and binaries, but still.”
Still, still, still—and she files a restraining order.
The whole week after, I’m summoned, at least three times a day, to her walk-in closet. Amidst rows of pantsuit armor, she forces me to reveal select moles and knee warts. She demands to see ingrown toenails, bats-in-the-cave, both threadbare sprouts of armpit fuzz. It’s something new each time. But this ritual I don’t sweat. No, because my focus is the tragic decree: Big Cousin and I shall never meet again.
Then, to further my heartbreak, this brother and sister of mine continue insisting my guilt. They say it’s calcified so easily. So easily by way of Big Cousin and by way of my pathetic-ass story.
Look, they tell me, the guy’s a flaming caricature: Come on, his Chevy Nova and his Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Or how about the man’s fear of jumper cables and of Tim Tebow? Not to mention those Dakota vacations? Shoot, these alone say it all! Selling grilled Ruebens to couples only? On the shoulders of anonymous highways, and what with that disgusting ringlet hair dangling the length of his uncorrected under-bite? See, and that makes you, Nathan, the same-feathered bird. Because how didn’t it freak you out? How? Being snatched away without asking? Picked up after school and transported five hours south to some Shangri-La wild woodland to rendezvous with voluptuous and unfamiliar women? With whom you rent canoes? And into which—the canoes, not the women—you pack buckskin sacks of food? And then sleeping pelts? And then floating all day in blue-sky silence, in and out of muted shadows, grinding ashore in high afternoons on silty islands for giggling romps, bounding off boulders twenty-feet into cool green eddies, into swirls of emerald water, sinking, chins disappearing, lips, nose, cheekbones gone, but the eyes still open in two feet of pale, wondrous, unworldly visibility, in bubbled tones and all those grinning snapping turtles—
“So, no, Nathan, belief is not the issue,” my brother says. “We know you went canoeing, Nathan. It’s how you canoed.”
“Exactly,” my sister says, “and with all your hormones, and new hair on your body. With all your trepidation at becoming complex.”
“And don’t call us formulaic, Nathan. We’re not Mama. We’re not the police. We’re not dumb enough to think it’s kidnapping.”
“Not quite a boy, not quite a man, huh? So, yes, we believe you, Nathan, but. But it’s that we know you don’t believe you.”
“Here’s a hand mirror, Nathan.”
“Go on, gander, Nathan.”
“Oh, your eyes are certainly larger, your neck longer. Don’t say you don’t see it. Don’t say you don’t feel it.”
“Yeah, when’d you feel it, Nathan?”
“Yeah, how’d he do it, Nathan?”
“Tell us, tell us.”
Days, weeks, they keep asking. Days, weeks, I keep trying to recount. I say, The facts, OK, sure—well, one of the women could stay under water ten, sometimes fifteen, minutes. That’s right, and just when I thought she’d drowned, she’d pop up a hundred yards off. Yup, there she was, yawning, wiping snot from her nose.
And the other woman, I say, well I watched her, clear as anything, scale a fifty foot bluff simple as a lizard. Up and away, and once crested, on that high ledge, she paused, beat her chest, and disappeared with a whistle into a limestone hole.
“A hole!” my brother roars. “A limestone hole!”
Yes, I say, and hours later, right before dusk, she emerged, her mouth blood-crusted, skin a light blue, eyes—
“Appearing light blue,” my sister says.
“You’re seeing hyperbole in others,” my brother says, “because you refuse to see it in yourself. Just look at you! Look at the size of your hands now. Where are your scars?”
No clothes, either woman, that’s what I tell them. I tell them this because my siblings’ inquisition goes on and on. So I, too, decide to go on and on. But I go on and on also, because after my trip with Big Cousin I know something in me wants to make the whole memory simple. It’s not simple. It’s not a matter of question or answer. It’s not a matter of cause and effect.
It’s a series of sound-stuffed poses is what it is.
Poses we are making with our mouths until someone admits exhaustion’s the same as understanding.
No clothes, either women, I tell them, and, no, it did not bother me. It did not bother me, either, how the women never spoke. They slunk around in a swaying torpor with the languid, wide-eyed way of cats. Did they have their own canoe? I could never be sure. Or a raft? There’s a chance. But they often got close to me. They often filled my head with aromas like I was lifting a damp log and about to find a fluttering treasure.
Jaybird naked with brown-grenade breasts and vagrant pubic mounds, right there. Maybe it did not bother me because sitting by Big Cousin’s side I felt so secure? How I prodded the fire. How I watched the river’s panting breath inch over the slough, inch over our feet.
That’s how it worked: night fell as if I’d personally stabbed the sun right down to nothing with the end of my stick.
“End of your stick, Nathan?”
Night. Glorious night. And real night. Nowhere near a house, a street, a car’s infernal dome. Oh, then, the feasting! Not us, not yet—no, the bugs: a soft rain of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes so gigantic and delicate, loving so freely their vampiric ways. All golden wings. All ivory fang noses. But not a sting to it, only this warm slip-sliding in my skin, this gentle tug at my so-young pulse, gentle to where it seemed plain irreverent to slap them—
“Stop!” my sister cries. “That’s pain we’re talking now! That’s pain and maybe disease, so that right there is where your whole turd breaks off!”
“Yes,” my brother says, sadly shaking his head. “Yes, because we always think things were better than they actually were.”
“Except for pain!” my sister says.
“Well, yes, we think that’s worse,” my brother agrees. “Pain’s always worse. So, what else? Tell me, Nathan, really. Though I’m not enjoying this. Though my head is harsh with your filth. Though all this is nearly killing me to hear.”
Let’s see, there was no moon— This, because it had broken completely apart. Only silver light swaying hard and shattered on our wide, low-growl river, and then, when we had a bed of coals a foot deep, Big Cousin offered me a beer. He held it out saying I didn’t have to drink it. He said, “Here’s a cold fire for the boy who’s become a man,” and I said, “Wow.”
I said wow because, after three sips, my belly branched out past my tongue and fingers. My belly branched out past my chilled back and I felt, for once, like something understood me.
“Cold fire. I like cold fire,” I told him.
“In moderation,” said Big Cousin. “Look, Nathan,”—and maybe, I think, his voice was trying hard not to sound snide, “remember, kid, always keep your wows in moderation.”
I nodded, but also shook my head a bit at the same time.
Then, after my second beer, Big Cousin said, “Oh, shit, domestic lager, that’s nothing for wow.”
“How’s that, Big Cousin?”
“Check it, Bear Cub,” he said.
He rubbed his bare thighs. He rubbed and rubbed, until I caught the sweet reek of skin burning. Rubbed and rubbed, until his leg hairs smoldered, and then thickened, and then his kneecaps swelled sideways. They made smothered knuckle-pops, and, granted, there was camp smoke in my eyes, but it only made things clearer: those feet curling, creasing, their already rowdy toenails moaning like wood floors as they grew together into glassy black hooves.
“Sonofabitch WOW,” I said.
“Shucks, you can do it too.”
Now Big Cousin stomped. The earth shook. The fire sprayed sparks. He stomped and grinned before twisting around to pull the cooler close. He fished out a package of jumbo beef franks.
“Hotdogs,” my brother says.
“Just fucking say hotdogs,” my sister says.
Throbbing, I tell them.
No, throbbing when Big Cousin stomped his hooves.
No joke, the damp night throbbed like a concussion, waves of trembled humidity that would not end. Yes, all around us, the night pounding under itself with a music of no sense, and at some point, when all the beers were gone, Big Cousin shook his head and declared, “Oh, but don’t start thinking he’s out here, Nathan.”
“Your dad. Because when he left you guys, he went somewhere else entirely. He wasn’t like me. No, what he could do was something else entirely.”
“What? What?” I begged. “What could Dad do?”
Big Cousin shushed me. He smiled sweetly. He pointed at one of the women. She was asleep on her side, eyes darting under their lids. Kicking her legs, she whimpered and growled, and he cooed at her, saying, “That’s right! Get ‘em, girl! Fuck that shit up!”
“She’s dream-chasing,” I said.
“You said a mouthful there. Dream-chasing? We’re all dream-chasing.”
“This is out of hand,” my sister says.“Keep it up and I’ll deck you—POW! BOOM!”
“There’s only one reason Dad went away,” my brother says. “One very complex reason, and that was the same reason Big Cousin needs to stay away.”
“And Big Cousin needs to stay away,” my sister says, “because where he’s from there’s nothing wrong with spitting shit and living for the now. Really. It’s beyond immaturity, it’s before it, it’s under it. It’s called…”
I ask what’s it called, and they both say, “Selfish.”
Seems to me, I say, that just staying alive, just deciding that your favorite food is pizza and not cheeseburger, is as selfish as anything else.
They regard me with fear.
They hold one another, cry momentarily, and whisper.
They wipe tears away, look down at me with their cheeks pressed together, and with one mouth, unified, tell me to finish the goddamn story.
But how to finish? How, because just that first night, well it was three or four nights stacked on top of each other. Because while I cooked my jumbo beef frank, time just kept folding over on itself—
“The women,” my brother says.
OK. One woman was on her side dreaming, but the other woman had scaled a tree. This one was directly above us, perched there, peering out at the river. Her face was stone.
“And?” my sister says.
And at that moment she looked just like Mama, but Mama as old concrete. Yes, that’s it. I remember thinking, Hey, a statue of Mama, all pigeon-pooped and wind-worn: no job, no car, no business suits, no big new wedding ring or shoulder purse.
But the way my tall shadow from the fire played on the woman’s arms, nearly seemed it could change her expression, well, it made me almost cry—
Sure it did. It made me think that if Mama, after Dad left, if she loved anything, if she loved her children—and if she really did feel like she always claimed she did—well, then she knew exactly where the hell I was.
“Of course she didn’t know where you were,” my brother hisses.
“You could have been anywhere in the world!” my sister shouts. “BAM! POW! BOOM!”
I help myself to a full breath. No, I say, I couldn’t have been anywhere in the world. No. And I tell them to listen, that this part is the most important:
When the jumbo beef franks were finally done cooking, and Big Cousin and I drew our lips back from our teeth to test their heat, well, mine, see, it was still far too hot.
“Why’s that important?”
Mine was too hot, so, instead of eating, I said to Big Cousin, “If you know where Dad is, why not tell me?”
Big Cousin huffed. He juggled the scalding meat with his tongue, and said, “If ew en up ike im, ope ew’ll die sooooon.”
He swallowed. “It sounds mean, I know, but it isn’t. Your dad, like you, he’s starving. Or he has already finally starved. Because no matter what he eats, he can’t keep it down. And when it comes up it’s not chewed food. When it comes up it’s the most beautiful art, so sublime that people can’t understand it but also can’t help falling in love. They did. Your Mama did. Most women did. And as they fell in love, your old man fell in love with the feeling of their love. This quickly ruined his throat. He puked and puked, a tube leading to nowhere. Go on, ask your old lady, the pretty, pretty princess, she’ll tell you. Or, shoot, maybe she won’t, Nathan, but, either way, you’ll know you don’t want to end up like him.”
“I want this, Big Cousin,” I said. “I want this here instead.”
“What?” Big Cousin said.
“Why?” my sister says.
“Where?” my brother says.
My sister covers her eyes. “Oh, that you would you even joke like this! In the real world, we understand that it’s not one thing or another—”
“Because,” my brother says, “because he’s not joking.”
You’re absolutely right, I tell them, and I might have meant this. Because maybe they were the ones joking? Because when I said that to Big Cousin, said I wanted what he had, he went silent for what seems to me now as hours. Gazing into the dying embers, the man scratched distractedly at the fur of his calf. This went on most of the night. I mean, most of the night is what it took him to finally ask me, “What do you mean, Nathan? What do you mean by this here instead?”
I said nothing. It felt right not to answer. Then he said one more thing:
“They’re going to think I touched your butthole with my hand. They’ll say you are a tragedy and better act like one.”
“What’s a tragedy act like?”
“Not Bugs Bunny.”
When I smiled at this, and shrugged, so did Big Cousin. Then he tossed a hotdog up to the woman in the tree.
“A jumbo beef frank,” my sister mutters.
“Yeah, make a decision,” my brother says.
Fine. Big Cousin tossed a jumbo beef frank up to the woman in the tree, and she unfroze. She unfroze and groped for it, but she missed. It landed in front of the other woman, the sleeping woman, and she awoke, sniffing. Licking her lips, the one on the ground stretched for it, but from above, from the tree, the first dropped like a wolverine onto her back, and, well, it was on.
Shrieks echoed the bluffs, and the sudden smell of so much urine swelled my head. Sounds of fast sweat, of sparking rocks. Sand sprayed everywhere. Flailing and clawing and jerking, like something fighting itself. Then, instead of dying or breaking apart, the women tumbled to the river and disappeared.
Where they disappeared was a small wave. A small, focused, modest wave that was still on the surface, rolling its business, when Big Cousin and I paddled off the next morning.
He dropped me off at home. I walked inside, held my arms out, spun around.
Now I’m grown. Mama is dead and Big Cousin, too. Not Dad. The man at long last contacted me when I turned twenty-five. Since then, every month or so, we speak on the phone. He’s sworn himself to celibacy and bartending near a Community College in Topeka, but he refuses to answer questions about art or his throat. One thing, though, he loves to tell me is this: Certain he’s used up all his allotted affirmation in this world, he makes a point to drink until poisoned every three nights.
And, let’s see, what else about me now, fully grown?
My brother holds some strange grudge against me; it’s been over four years since we spoke. Come to think of it, maybe he’s dead, too?
My sister, she’s the opposite ball of wax. When her husband left her last month, she started calling me at one and two in the morning. She couldn’t remember, she said, if Big Cousin had turned me, or if he’d turned her, into the cartoon.
“Wait, what do you mean by cartoon?”
“I don’t really know,” she tells me. “Is that what’s fucking me up? Is it different than a caricature? One is ludicrous and the other is puerile, right?”
Yes, I tell her, possibly, but what I don’t tell her is that her voice is changing, and fast. Every night, her voice is melting, maybe, her words sliding together. Increasingly, to where it’s more music than speech, more flute sound than voice, and I don’t know what this means.
I do know, however, that when we talk I picture her in a perfectly-made room, sitting on the edge of a perfectly-made bed. Her closet doors are open and only that single, bare light bulb is on. It’s a walk-in closet and half is empty, perfectly empty, but the other half, well, it’s stuffed with Mama’s old business suits.
“The worst fate imaginable,” my sister says. “Screw that. No, I’d much rather be a caricature.”
I tell her that if a cartoon is the worst fate imaginable, then I’m a parody of imagination. She insists I’m not, but I say, “Yes, yes, yes.” I remind her how I’m thirty-six and nothing special. How I’m forty pounds overweight. How I’m three-times divorced. On top of this, I tell her, I’m certain I’m addicted to Louis Malle’s Black Moon.
“With the radio? The crazy-ass unicorn?”
Yes, I tell her, and I’m so sick of the movie, but I can’t stop. I tell her that, at least six times a month, I consider cutting back to one screening a week and, instead, joining an Assemblies of God church. I tell her I picture morning services and I goose-bump. A paradise of harmony is my vision. That me and my new congregation are a gorgeous swarm of unearthly pastels and we’re jacked on the purest Holy Ghost buzz. Next, I’m bringing them my precious Black Moon DVD. I’m cradling it, striding up to the pulpit where they’re singing and dancing, and then I let go. I step back. I watch, shivering and smiling, as my new brothers and new sisters, my holy family, stomp it asunder. To glittery bits, and so I’m free forever.
Why am I telling you all of this?
I’m telling you all this by way of saying that I put it out of my mind years ago, the Big Cousin story. Put it out right about the time Dad finally tracked me down. He called me up and said, “Is gorilla there?”
“Yeah, is gorilla there?”
“But I’ve got the wrong number? No I do not! Boo Ya!”
His voice was heavy, spiced. I pictured this man—whomever he was—talking through a mouthful of brown mustard.
“Um … Dad?” I said.
“Son?” he said.
“Gorilla? Gorilla—wow, that’s beautiful.”
“The point is,” my sister says, calling me at three, four in the morning, “that I don’t care.”
“That Dad never tried to find us, to look us up, to simply call me and see if I’d become a woman yet. Wait. No. No, that’s not the point. The point is I remember. Nathan, I remember so well. The hotdogs, the fire, the swimming. I remember the black moon and the naked women. I remember the hooves and the fighting. Jesus, Nathan,” she says, “wow, I can even see the little wave, right? The little wave where they disappeared into the water, and if we went out there right now I could prove it to you!”
We are not, I told her last night, going out there. And I told her this the night before that, and the night before that. We’re not going out there because I don’t even know where there is.
She sighs. “Christ, wow, neither do I, nope, nope…”
Then she trails off, no more voice, all flutes and harps. Or maybe she’s just crying. Either way, we sit there, together, and breathe our breath into the wireless connection. We do this until gorilla fur fills my ears. At that point, I have to tell her goodnight. But I let her go gently. I hang up ever-delicately—not because I can’t understand, but because I can’t yet handle all the flitting brushstrokes of our new soundtrack.
Nate Liederbach is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah. He is the author of Doing a Bit of Bleeding (Ghost Road Press) and Managing Editor of Western Humanities Review.