Thirty miles outside Crescent City, we ran out of gas. The van had been sputtering for the past 400 miles, anyway, and I recognized imminent engine failure. We stepped out, stretched, and wandered the edge of the forest for a bit, touching the huge tree stumps and staring at roadside litter and light poles, doing all those things that happen only when you’re in between places and suddenly struck motionless. These experiences aren’t cataloged in anyone’s “100 things to do before I die” list; you hurry through them so that you don’t have to hear the silence around you and your brain’s desperate, stupid chatter.
Then we waited for the harpies to descend. They had promised they’d never cease following us and would always search for our moment of vulnerability. I had laughed at the time, knowing them capable of only impotent fury and ridiculous swooping war dances, shaking their blood-stained feathers. But in a world where no one remained and reality was disintegrating at our feet, even comical rages were welcome. Maybe they’d finally found a way to suck our “maggot hearts through our defiled eyes.” I chuckled as I thought of that–their most recent threat–hurled to us between road signs in Ohio. Carmen had choked on her coffee when she heard that one.
She turned to me now as we watched the brilliant purple sky grow brighter. “I used to be afraid of dying,” she murmured, pulling her coat around her.
“And now dying just seems like another story told by someone who wasn’t you,” I replied. I didn’t need to look at her. “‘Poor Carmen. She was so beautiful with her raven black hair, and she died so tragically. Nothing but bloody bits fading away into homeless atoms.’”
“Why is black hair always compared to a raven? I mean, sewer rats are black, too.”
“Fine, then, her sewer-rat black hair fading away into a quantum void.”
“A void of tragedy!” she giggled.
“Yes, yes, a most tragic void!” I concurred.
She nodded approvingly. “What’s a human being, Rory? I think we’re just one story after another.”
I pondered this. “Yeah, and they used to call that ‘life.’ You know, back when there was a They.”
I suppose at this point, observers would have considered us mad and shell-shocked. You know, those hypothetical people forgetting their own stories for a moment so that they could immerse themselves in ours. I used to do that, embracing the illusion that I could shut off my own story for a few hours by watching TV, reading the celebrity gossip pages, or just listening to someone bitch about office politics. But our current gallows humor wasn’t madness. It was astute.
I twisted my scarf, the cool fog of the Pacific Northwest saturating me and giving the illusion that the world was disintegrating into mist. Except these days, you couldn’t really assume anything was illusion.
Carmen nudged me in the ribs. “I see them.”
I clapped my hands to my head. “Good God! They’ve caught the scent of our maggot hearts!”
And as the sky clouded not with water vapor but the writhing, hateful bodies of the harpies, Carmen and I clutched each other in laughter, even though we could see that the harpies had changed. No useless rage now, but instead they came with an arsenal for slicing, dicing and frying our fragile human skins and brains. Their tiny eyes gleamed from beneath their thick brows, claws dangling some poor creature’s entrails soon to be replaced with our own. Our surroundings disintegrated fully now as they landed, and our stories and our guts left our bodies.
It was all right. Someone’s always waking up with a new story in their head, anyway, reanimating a worn old tale into a modern-day marvel.
(Inspired by Empire of the Sun – We Are the People)
Musical Inspiration: Empire of the Sun! You have to see these guys, whose music inspired the piece above. They are now my official Happy Band. You will probably watch their videos and laugh … and then you realize you’ve watched the same video eight times in a row because it’s so damned awesome. Then you call your friends over to see the video, and they’re standing behind you going, “WTF is this?” But the next time you see them, guess what’s playing in their car? The songs inevitably have pop sensibilities, and then the vocals soar in that silly but beautiful falsetto, and you realize it’s just as serious as it is ridiculous. Hmm, like the little piece above.
Photo: Empire of the Sun website