Sometimes a Man
Getting close to the natural world is a goal every weekend camper can understand. But there's a big difference between viewing nature from the outside and seeing it from within.
I am five mice in a wheat field. From the distance, the great thunder of a combine. Dust billows and swirls. Scurrying over the shuddering earth to a clump of grass by an old fence. Watch without blinking ten eyes.
Yesterday a magpie, black-winged, tipped with white, trailing a long spear of a tail, hopping along the roadside picking at the pulped remains of squirrels.
Sometimes a man.
Began perhaps as a man. Born with two hands and feet, mouth open crying for air, squeezing it into reluctant lungs. Sponged off, carefully wiping the blood and amniotic fluid from the corners of the mouth, from between the small fingers, wrapped in a blanket and left alone in a crib beneath a burning light.
Once a bear--a lot like a man. Stood erect in a huckleberry patch, ripping leaf and berry from the branch, swatting at yellow jackets, rubbing my back against the crumbling bark of an old snag. Ambled through the darkness, sniffing at the slight breeze. Sometimes ripped a rotting log open and licked up the ants as they boiled loose. In winter, curled up in a hollow beneath a log, snorted and snored, and occasionally woke up listening, startled out of a dream like a man.
When a man, dreams came often. Sometimes sleepless for fear of dreams. Read late nights or watched TV or wandered alone to a bar and nursed a beer until it became as bitter and tepid as those nights. No memory of what the dreams were about--only that they opened on a great emptiness, like a winter sea at twilight, the endless gray swells fading into the grayer curve of the sky. Squalls, veils of black rain and a lone seabird poised silent in the dim light. Awake arms would curve around a hollow, a cold depression in the sheets, as if a form carved out of snow had lain there and then had blown away.
When a coyote, loped along the edges of snow-swept fields, stiff blond grasses poking through troughs of wind-crusted snow. Drank from the trickle of small streams beside red bramble brittle with ice, under the trunks of huge cottonwoods, their last few leaves rattling in a cold breeze. At the sound of cars on the road, slid into shadow and watch as they passed, testing the scents on the wind, filled with a strange disquiet.
Her words returned sometimes in the rattle of cattails by the pond in the long dead grass at summer's end. All things forming, reforming every instant. Leaf falls to ground, mold, bacteria, insects convert it to soil, roots reabsorb it, mix it with light, buds flower, swell into fruit, fruit eaten, seeds shit on the ground, new plants sprout.
Atoms dance--gnats in a shaft of sunlight. Her voice dancing.
We are all star stuff, cinders belched from the sour bellies of dying suns. Matter is a self-renewing matrix, a spider's web woven to catch passing energies and suck some use from them before they pass through. The initiated can change the matrix, respin the web, become other.
Easier, however, to change than to return. Home is the intuition of a pattern, a structure through which atoms pass and become you for an instant or less. The ego is not enough--made of words more than of cells and tissue, a pleasant or unpleasant fiction we narrate to connect across gaps of lost time. The intuition is deeper than I. Without it--
Her eyes were an odd shade of green, and in her left eye was a disturbing fleck of gold. Sometimes, making love, her pupils would widen and it would seem as if the whole world were lost in them--but then she would close them and hold tight and it wouldn't matter if the world were lost or if it were ever found again.
Don't remember the first meeting. Sense of a river bank, slow curling waters, sunlight and the shadow of aspen leaves. A flutter behind, as if a bird had landed, and she was there. Talk came easily and something about her smile began to thaw the winter loneliness.
She followed back to the apartment, curled catlike on the couch, and stayed. Never questioned it, never looked for a motive, afraid that if looked at too closely the magic would evaporate. Alone again in the cold morning, heating water to make a cup of instant coffee, listening to the radio for company. When she was there the dull rooms breathed an air of excitement, scents of warm fur and wild winds, feather, pine, huckleberry, wild rose.
Once, when an owl sitting on a dark branch that sighed and creaked in the night wind, looked into a window steamed with the moist evaporation of the breaths and teas within and sensed that air. A form moving behind the misted glass like the moon behind a thin cloud, shifting, dancing. Wind rustled the feathers on the head and back. Sat and did not move.
Dreams pursued, as always when a man, but with her coming the dreams changed. Nights were filled with the presence of animals, the pad of a cat's feet, the whir of a wing, the pant of a dog, the gleaming eyes of a raccoon sorting through a glittering jewelry box, the rustle of mice on the closet floor. But always when the dreams grew so strong that sleep broke, there would be nothing but her, sitting on the bed, looking out the window at the stars shining through the branches of the tree. Don't you ever sleep? She would just look gently and then turn again to stare into the night.
When it happened.... Awoke one night, cold. The window was open as she preferred it, but she was not there. The bed was still warm beside. She must be in the bathroom or getting a drink of water. Closed the window. But awake, listening, heard nothing, no bare feet on the floor, no sound of water running. The low electric hum of the alarm by the bed.
Ten, 20, 30 minutes and she did not return. Sleepless, not daring to think, to open the gates, to let the night flood in--afraid she may have left as silently as she had come, afraid of infinite spaces, afraid of nameless things.
Driven out of bed by the ache of fear. Pacing the room, staring out the window at the dark branches of the tree. The sidewalks washed chalk white beneath the streetlamps. The empty streets. The blank windows of the other houses. Tried to read but the words swam on the page. Went down to the kitchen, walked through the dark living room and then came back upstairs to the bedroom. Pacing, empty, listless, finally settled into a chair neither asleep nor awake.
In the half-light before dawn a scratching sound at the window. Roused to look and saw two green eyes, a cat, balanced on a branch, tapping at the window with its paw. Feeling a cold deeper than the morning's, opened the window.
When a Canadian goose, would whirl up off the water in the pre-dawn when the sky was pale and empty of stars except for the morning star, before the sun flashed through the cattails and the day began. Others would honk beside and would bank into the wind and take a turn over the town and the houses outside of town. Searching the rooftops, smoke smearing from chimneys, hoping for a signature of something almost forgotten. Studying the layout of the streets trying to read the labyrinth, to trace the path that leads to some center. But then the sun would explode onto the water and light all the windows on fire. Swirl, bank, away.
"Teach me. Show me."
Desperately she--No. You want it too much. You should neither want it nor not want it. You are too eager. Change should be a fact uncolored by emotion, an inevitability, part of the process, to be other, to be elsewhere.
Door closed, the cracks sealed with clothing, plastic taped over, the windows shut, locked, the furnace vents closed, taped. She awakens. What are you doing? You cannot force me to-- A moth fluttering against the window, soft tap of its wings, an ant slipping down the plastic sealing the doorjamb, a beetle scuttling across the vents, a wolf pacing in the corner of the room, a bear on its hind legs, a lion crouched, an eagle screeching and falling talons-forward but stopping short of scratching. Hours. A kaleidoscope of forms, but did not move, unmoved, stonefaced, stone hearted. At last in the dawn she came, herself, and sat at the end of the bed, hair wet and curled on her shoulders. You want too much.
"If I help you I lose you."
"You don't know what you ask."
"I won't let you go until you show me."
"Here," she sighed.
When a fish, would hide in the comfort of the bank's shadow, moving just enough to hold against the current, waiting to see what the stream would bring--a fly, a worm swept loose from the shore wiggling red, eggs, larvae. Quick to react to the play of light and shadow. Rising to a dimple in the surface tension, a tiny pattern of ripples. Once rising, startled by the image of a face broken on the facets of the water. Eyes that drew, but a flick of the tail, darting away.
Her eyes green, pupils not quite round. Flecks of phosphorescence, the one brown flaw.
"Why did you come to me if I am so unstable, If you believe my self is so unformed?"
"You were so lonely."
A stone falling down a long well into cold water. "Don't worry about me. I can do this. I'll be back. We'll travel this world together."
"I hope that's true."
"Let's do it."
She sighed sadly. Unweave, weave, the new web, the hairs on your arms are feathers, your bones are light and hollow, your lips are hard beak curved to tear at prey. Your eyes tiny, sharp enough to see a mouse stirring the grass 150 feet below. Toes curled into talons. Fly, eagle, but don't fly from me. I don't think I'll be able to find you again, if I lose you now.
But to wings that have never felt the wind, the lift of air warmed by stone, the world so wide--
A deer on the edge of the wheat field. Five mice scurry by hooves. Looking up in terror at the combine billowing chaff and dust. Nostrils flare. The scent of diesel, the scent of man. Hesitant before running.
Sometimes a man.
Steve Conger (email@example.com) is a poet and a computer instructor with a great interest in languages from Homeric Greek to Visual BASIC. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington and teaches at Seattle Central Community College. (Bio last updated in 1994.)
"Sometimes a Man" appeared in the 1994 eScene Best-Of-Net-Fiction anthology.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Steve Conger.