I see him every day. He comes to the park and sits on a bench. He eats there and reads. Behind him are trees.
When he leaves, I find what he has thrown away. They are wrappers and newspapers. At night, I smell them.
He is here today. I watch from between the rocks. He is wearing a pink shirt and a tie, 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 wood. I breathe 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 a hole under the earth, we dwell. We were not born to caves and earth – we were born above – but the world as it has come to be wishes to have nothing from us. So we fled. In the caves, we live. We love. We have children. We grow, age, 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.”
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. He holds up a new piece. “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. So we hide. So we wait.”
“For what, grandfather? What do we wait for?”
He hands me the boat. “It is for sailings. And dreamings. And for little girls who dwell in-between.” The wood is heavy. When I put it in water later, it sits and bobs with my breaths, and though it tips when I push it, it never sinks.
Today, I watch him carefully. I dream in shadows, 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 my way.
When I do it again, he stands up and walks over. 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, but who decided that I must be nothing at all, that simple things like touching his finger are 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 well. “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 hair and thick beards. They are eating, 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 this 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, others 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.
“Here,” I tell him.
His head moves, but what does he hear? Is it the flying things or the rolling 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 behind him. Where I am standing.
“What the hell…” he cries, as he sees me. He stumbles 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 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. A third one joins them.
Half the day, they search. He comes out and sits on the bench, but 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, 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 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 with us tonight. They have an animal and will cook it in a fire. This will be real meat.”
That night, I lick 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 between the rocks 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 screaming. “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 is. It pours like rain, only this is heat, and there on the ground is the shadow of me – it is thin, crooked, hunched over with long hair and skinny arms that end in curled fingers. I run. There is a man behind me, and he is crying for others to catch me. Voices rise. The screams are ugly, for that 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. Someone is on top of me. I roll. I kick. I spring to my feet and run, for the trees are 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 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 a lesson out there, little one?”
“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.
“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 talk to me. They are grave and sad, and they are many other 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.
In the days that pass, the stamping of feet above our head stops. The bright lights stop, and so does the noise. 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 studies the trees, the rocks. And sometimes, he puts his head into his hands as though weariness is taking him far away, as though something is indeed impure in his blood.
In the deepest of summer nights, I go outside. It is quiet. At the bench, I lie on the wood, my head next to the arrow that I carved. Before I leave, I draw him as he has grown in my mind, in the sunlight, looking for me.
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 by the bench. He puts out a hand, as though to stop me from fleeing.
“Who are you?” he says, moving closer. “Where do you come from?”
But I am still swaying, for I know what I am: ugly creature, night beast. Cave 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 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. 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. I am dark 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. Oh, I know that I am a crude thing from some underground place! But does the wind care? Does this matter to stars?
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 the places 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 as he moves, and 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.
This is a story that’s been redone a bit. A favourite. The video by Phosphorescent, and the song, really works for me. Found the video after I originally wrote the story, which I think is an odd bit of coincidence.
Dream hard, everyone.