I see him every day. He comes to the park and sits on a metal bench. He eats there and reads something. Behind him there are trees.
When he is gone, I find what he has thrown away. They are wrappers and newspapers. I take them back, and at night, I smell them.
Today he is here. I watch from between the rocks. He is wearing a pink shirt and a tie, and black shoes. He is watching the women and their dogs. He is watching the children and their kites. A man sits next to him and they talk. They laugh. Twice, he looks in my direction, but he does not see me in these shadows.
When night comes, I climb out of the hole and go to the bench. He is here, in the air. I lie on the metal. I breathe against the stars and the holes they make in the sky. I imagine him here with me, what he must feel like, how carefully he would draw suns on my skin as I show him what it means to live, to grow, to desire, and to care for none of those things because he is greater than them, and greater than me.
It is summer. In the hole, under the earth, we dwell. We were not born to caves and earth, we were born above them, but the world as it has come to be wishes to have nothing from us – and so we have fled it. In the caves, we live. We love. We have children. We grow, age, we worry as anyone does, crave as anyone can, and when there is nothing left for us but to lie down, they bury us under the sun.
“Will you go up tonight?” asks my brother.
“To see what he has left behind.”
“You can’t have him. They can’t have us.”
My brother’s eyes are purple. When he sleeps, he huddles against the earth of the hole. When he laughs, the sound bounces everywhere. But he does not go up. He does not know. “I wish it,” I tell him, and then I go find grandfather.
“How long have we been here? How much longer must we wait?”
Grandfather is thin, like his stick. He shapes wood with his fingernails. “It’s a boat. Do you know what that is?” I shake my head. “We have always been here, little one. Thousands and thousands of years. Those people you watch were once us, but they took a different path, and so here we are. Thus we hide. Thus we wait.”
“For what, grandfather? For what do we wait?”
He hands me the boat. “It is for sailings. And dreamings. And for little girls who dwell in-between.” The wood is heavy. It is rounded. And when I put it in water later, it sits and bobs in my breaths, and though it tips when I push it, it never sinks.
Today, I watch him carefully. I dream in shadow flecked with dust, and yet I hold a magic that is older than the buildings and the roads that have grown in this place. It is a shard of silver, beaten by rock, and when I hold it just so, the light bounces into his eyes. He looks over.
When I do it again, he stands up and walks here. He is at the rocks so quickly but I need not hide just yet. He cannot see in here. He bends down to peer inside, until I can smell him. He is so close that I could take him with a quick thrust, and drag him into the hole before anyone could stop me.
“Hello? Anyone in there?”
His voice is deep. He is sweating. He comes a little closer. “Listen kid, you shouldn’t be in there, the rocks aren’t safe. Your parents are probably looking for you, maybe you should come out.”
He extends a hand into the shadows. I reach for it, but there is so much grime under my nails and on my hands, and his are so clean. We are close. We are closer than we have ever been. We are ghosts to each other, I know it, but who am I that it is decided that I must be nothing at all, that simple things like touching his finger is not allowed? I draw closer. He draws closer. But there is a line where sunlight cuts, and it is a heavier thing than I had imagined. A moment later, he is gone.
The next day, another tribe arrives. They have traveled across half the world to be here. There are few tribes left, all hidden but dwindling because as grandfather says, there are fewer places to hide now, less food to take, less safety.
These men are dirty and foul, but we meet them all. “What now, grandfather?” I ask, as we prepare a feast.
“I’m not sure I should tell you that,” he smiles.
“I know what happens. But to who this time?”
Grandfather says the names of five girls. “They are old enough. One day you will be too.”
“Will the girls choose?” I ask, studying the men with their black black hair and their thick beards. They are eating quickly, laughing as they throw bones aside.
“What do you mean?”
“They are very dirty. Too dirty for lovemaking.”
“Oh ho. And so you know what it is called. Well, it can be a dirty act as well, if not done properly.”
“I know how it is done…”
“I doubt that. But to answer your question, the girls will choose. They must, and they must do so well. These men do not have our blood, and so they will be good mates. Some will stay here. Some will take their women and go back to their homes.”
“And is this what will happen to me?”
Grandfather nods. Later that night, I can hear them. The girls have made their choosings. The noise is terrible, like crying but also like laughing, and there is not a note in it of love as I have dreamt it. I roll over and hold my brother, and let the noises carry me into sleep.
He is on the bench. Today, he is dressed in simple clothes, and he stays longer than normal. I watch.
Sometimes, he glances at the rocks. Sometimes, he stares at the trees. Sometimes, he talks into his hand and speaks as though he is tired, as though he is not alive as he would like to be alive. I watch.
A few people stop and talk to him. He nods. He shakes their hands. He bids them goodbye. He greets the next one. He studies the metal thing on his wrist. I watch.
“Here,” I whisper to him. It is not a word he will understand, but it is a sound nevertheless.
“Here,” I tell him.
His head moves, but what does he hear? Is it the flying things or the dashing ones? Is it the wind that I do not control, or the sun that forbids me to stand before him?
I watch. And as he stands to leave, I say it again: “Here.” He turns to the trees where I am hiding. Where I am standing.
“What the hell?” he cries, as he stumbles back from the bench.
“Here,” I tell him, because there is nothing else that I can say, nothing else that I can do to make him understand.
He grabs the arm of someone who is passing and points them in my direction. “Hey, look over there, do you see that? It’s some kind of girl, but she looks like… I don’t know what she looks like. Did you see her?”
But I am invisible. I am a ghost. I am a word, and only that. I am here, I tell the clouds as the earth closes above me and I drop into nothing.
The next day, he comes back but he does not sit on the bench. He sits on the grass and watches the bench. He scans the trees. But I am not there. I am between the rocks, in the shadows. He does not think to look here. Later, he goes into the trees and searches the bushes with another man beside him. A third one joins them.
Half the day, they search. He comes out and finally sits on the bench, but he glances behind him again and again. The next day, he comes to the bench and does not eat. He does not read. He simply waits.
That night, I leave a mark on the edge of the bench. It is not so hard to make the magic of silver rip steel. It is a small shape. It is a lithe bird, or an eagle that I saw between buildings once, and never again. It is an arrow pointing to the trees. He comes the next morning and looks around, studies the enormous heavens that dwarf him. But in time he finds the mark, grabs it and cleans it with some water, traces it with his finger. And he looks into the trees, where I used to be.
“Grandfather, what do humans call us?” I ask later.
“It is a long word. And not a pleasant one.”
“Did you know that they breed with their own tribes?”
“There are more of them than us. Their blood is mostly different.”
“But we are very different from them. Our blood is very different. Isn’t it?”
Grandfather looks at me. “Little one, you are right. I am happy that you are thinking on it. Now come, for the new men are feasting us tonight. They took an animal and have cooked it in a fire – this will be real meat.”
That night, I lick the grease from my fingers and gnaw on a bone. The new men declare that three of them will be leaving with their mates. The other two will stay. The ones leaving promise to send more men next year for the mating, and when they say that, everyone looks at me.
I shine the silver into his eyes the next day, and he can’t help but notice it. He gets up from the bench, where he has been studying the arrow.
I move to the edge of the shadows as he walks towards me. But there is a noise behind me.
“Hey who are you?” comes a voice. It is a child. He has come in from the other side. I hiss at him, and he screams.
A voice yells. And he – he is closer still. But the child is still screaming. There is noise behind me. “Robert!” someone cries. “Robert!” Closer the voice. “What is that? Did it touch you? You, come here!” A hand touches me, grabs me. “Holy fuck! It’s a fucking cavegirl or something! What did you do to my boy?”
And that is the word, I think, as I jump away from the hand that tries to catch me. A rude word but not so long. The way to the hole is blocked by the man that is trying to get me, so I dash into the light. At once, I know what sunlight really is. It pours like rain, only this is heat and there is the shadow of me – it is thin, it is crooked, it is hunched over with long hair and skinny arms that end in stubby fingers. I run. There is a man behind me, and he is crying for others to catch me. Voices rise. They are screams, they are ugly, for this is what they see in me. A man almost has me, but I am away from him, and when another clasps my hair, I spin and slap away his hand.
People are gathering. And he is amongst them, watching me. He is saying something. He is running. I move towards him, but the way is blocked, and then I am down and someone is on top of me. I roll. I kick. I spring to my feet and run, for there are trees not far away. In their shadows, I move faster. And when the way to the hole shows itself under a fallen log, I clamber in and close the opening, pretending that the noise that I hear out there is a noise made from love rather than that other thing.
Grandfather knows. My brother knows. They hear the stamping of many feet above our heads, all searching for me. There are shrill noises. There are bright lights even at night. There are flying things. There are men.
But they do not look down. They do not see us. “Good thing,” says grandfather. “Some of us are not so fast. Did you learn some lesson out there, little one?” But he does not expect an answer.
“They are going to send you away,” whispers my brother. “They think you will ruin us.”
“They think we live in caves,” I tell them. “They think we are cave people. Is that what we are, grandfather?”
“It might be, little one. It might be.”
“They are going to cast you out,” says my brother, desperate for my attention.
“Let them try. I am one of three girls left. Who will do their mating for them if they let me go? Can these hairy men mate with each other, grandfather?”
He laughs. “I hope not to see them try. Gently, little one. You are distressing your brother, as he would not like to lose you.” But then the others come in and they talk to me, and they are grave and they are sad and they are many serious things; and yet all I can think, all that moves through me and my blood which is so desirable, is that these are just cave people, and nothing more than that.
That night, I take fabric from my stores and find a stick from the fire that is heavy with soot. With it, I draw the black night sky, and between the patches of darkness, I leave holes that are the stars. And there on the grass, the windy swept grass that I have touched with my own skin, I draw people.
In the days that pass, the stamping of feet above our head stops. The bright lights at night stop. The noise stops. I peer between the rocks again, but ever so carefully now. I look for him. He comes every day. He stays all day. He walks, and in between he studies the bench. And sometimes he puts his head into his hands as though the weariness is taking him far away now, as though something is indeed impure in his blood.
In the deepest of the summer nights, I go outside. It is quiet. At the bench, I wrap the fabric around one of the arms, aside the arrow that I carved.
The next night is even hotter. There is nothing in the world but stars.
I am standing on grass. It feels cool. I remember sunshine. I remember glory.
I put my hands into the air and sway with the wind.
There are noises in the great city, as there always are. There is a noise behind me too.
He is standing next to a tree behind the bench. He puts out a hand, as though to stop me from fleeing – as though I would flee from him.
“Who are you?” he says, as he comes closer. “Where do you come from?”
But I am still swaying, for I know what I am: ugly thing, cave thing, diseased thing.
“Do you speak? Do you understand me?”
Does he understand a smile, I wonder? Does he understand this swaying or that wind? Does he see stars in my eyes as I do in his?
“Listen, I don’t understand this. I don’t know why I’m here exactly. People were looking for you – you should have heard what they were saying. But I did want to ask. Why – why did you pick me?”
I stop. Are there words in his language strong enough to explain such a thing, for in mine there are none, and in the darkness of caves we have to replace what we cannot say with what we can dream. “Because in this life it is not enough that you are alive,” I would want to tell him.
“Why me?” he asks again.
The wind breathes. We are alone. I take off such clothes as I have and let them flutter in the wind, to be swept over the grasses. He watches me. Black hair. Stooped over. Eyes that underground always look black, and in starlight the same – but under the sun, who knows? Naked, glorious, impossible. Words, hurtful and glad, relegated to some place amongst the trees, under the ground, with the stars. Undressed and free to dream, to be, to take the answers and give them back just because you can see in his eyes that he wants life and not just to be alive, that he longs for stars but has no way to get there, that impossible is just limits and life is an improbability that says otherwise. It says otherwise. It always has, I think to myself, as I smell him, as he takes my hand, as he holds me. I take his clothes off. I lay him down and kiss him – and I know, I know that I am dirty, that I am filthy, but does the wind care, does the world care, does anyone need to care?
He tells me it’s impossible. It’s strange. “I don’t believe it,” he whispers, as I move on top of him. And I am laughing. And I am crying. And I am winged and flying, and he is next to me, with me, and he is finding his way now to stars that he craves. “This can’t be,” he says, though he no longer believes it. But I tell him otherwise as I roll him on top of me. And by then he is learning, he is understanding, and he is breathing in my ear, and he is asking for my name, for my name, for my name, for my name. “It is the wind,” I whisper to him. “It is the glory and the sun.” And he shudders and he moves, and he tells me that I am right, that I must be right, for this is the place where lovers dwell.
There is a place that this is okay. It is in my dreams. It is in the stars. It is in love. It is in what we want and what we strive for. It is hidden inside flesh but we cannot hide it forever. We draw together because we are people, even if we fail to be human; and that is what I tell him as I touch his cheeks and he smiles the impossibility of who I am to him now, who I will forevermore be no matter what happens after this night.
*my friend Samara (http://samaraspeaks.wordpress.com/found the perfect song and video for this story. It’s uncanny: