The air here is thick, almost a fluid. I’ve seen discarded newspapers rise up and hover just above the ground, swirling on the eddies from the legs of passersby. Sometimes, when the trash is bad and the conditions are right, a knee-high fog will rise—cigarette butts, bottle caps, gum wrappers, all the variety of Saturn’s rings. From far off the haze of trash is beautiful like those rings, especially when it rains. Then the top layer glistens. I’ll miss that.
I came into exile because I wanted to give the people around me some time to forget. I wanted to get better and I wanted everyone I knew to be better off without me for a while, so I came down here where the air is thick, where the harbor is an edge overlooking an abyss, where a strong wind blows up the side of the vent and carries the lighter things with it.
I’d heard it was hard to find a place down here, but I found one right away. I saw a sign in a window, pushed the buzzer, went up. A wiry man with a big beard welcomed me at the top of a flight of stairs.
“I’m just looking for something small,” I said.
“Oh, thank God.”
He was ready to leave, didn’t even take the furniture. He hastily packed some books and clothes. “One comes in, one goes out.”
I helped him carry his baggage down to a waiting car.
“A word of advice,” the old tenant said as I handed him a suitcase. “If you think of one reason to stay, go.”
I didn’t like the advice and maybe my eyes showed it. Maybe I didn’t reflect the gratitude he expected. He fit the suitcase into the trunk. He closed the trunk and came so close to me I could smell his beard. It smelled like ants.
“That’s your neighbor.” He pointed to a mad-faced person leaning over the hedges and parting them with one hand. In the other hand the neighbor held a bucket. “He’s happy to stay. He found a reason. Ask him about it.”
The old tenant got into the car, which pulled out. I approached the person squatting in the hedges.
“Whatcha got there?”
He looked up at me with surprise. Maybe he wasn’t used to being acknowledged. He held up his bucket. In the bottom were two grimy pairs of scissors.
I left the mad-faced collector to his task, climbed the stairs, fumbled with the keys. There were two doors at the top of the stairs, door one and door two. I was door two. I went in, looked around, opened all the cupboards and closed them, opened all the closets and closed them. I checked the toilet tank. I ordered Chinese food from the phone book and sat tapping my finger on the table till the buzzer rang. I ate from the cardboard boxes and washed it down with a quarter bottle of scotch that the old tenant hadn’t seen fit to pack along. Something scraped at the window. I scooted back in my chair and saw a large-eared animal. It looked a bit like a dog, a bit like a cat, but most like a fox. Yet it wasn’t a normal fox—too small, too gray. The animal pawed the glass. I opened the window.
The animal said, “Where is the man with the beard?”
“He moved out. Do you want in?”
“No.” She licked her arm. Her snout was as small as a clothes peg; her ears were as big as mittens. “Will you come hunt with me?”
I finished the scotch. “Okay.”
“I’ll meet you in the alley. Wear sensible shoes.”
I only had one pair, so that’s what I went with. I passed my neighbor on the stairs. He seemed glum, so I patted his arm.
The little fox waited in the alley, perched on a trash can. “Try to keep up,” she said, and she trotted off.
I followed her down to the harbor, where people stood on a grassy ridge overlooking the great vent. They flew kites in the updraft. I’d never seen anyone fly a kite at night before. My little vixen kept her nose to the ground, sniffing along the sidewalk seams.
“What are we hunting for? Rats?”
She didn’t answer. She circled a streetlamp. “Every light casts a shadow,” she said.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Look up,” she said, so I did. I saw stars. “There,” she said, and I turned to watch her chase a pitch-black thing and pin it against the curb. She caught it in her mouth and chewed it. I couldn’t make out what it was. I looked back up at the sky and one of the stars winked out.
She picked up a scent and sped off. I jogged alongside her.
“Dying is like the shadow of a mad sun,” she said, as if that explained anything.
“What do you mean?”
“I can sense you’re uneasy.”
“Are you eating up stars?”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “there’s trillions of them,” and she cornered another shadow and ate it. Another star winked out.
She jumped into my arms. I carried her down to the seawall that bordered the abyss. A boy ran up to us: “Hey mister, fly a kite! Fly a kite, five bucks one hour!”
The boy returned to his stall, which held racks of tatty silk. I looked to the flyers. They all seemed happy, smiling up at their kites. But the kites made me sad. What fun is a kite? It’s like a bird on a leash.
I carried my vixen back to my place. I thought maybe the old tenant had left some tuna, something for a pet to eat. We got in and she bit my thumb hard enough to draw blood, I guess to remind me she was no kind of pet.
“Now you must help me,” she said. “You must turn on the oven as hot as it goes. I would do it myself, but my paws can’t handle the knobs.”
I turned on the oven. I turned it to broil. The element glowed orange.
“Now you must switch off the lights and look away while I remove my skin. And then you must put my skin in the oven, and then you must burn it till it’s nothing but ash. I will leave through the window. Once I am gone, you must place a single grain of salt in a glass of water, and then you must drink the glass in one gulp. And we will do this every night from now on.”
“Okay.” I switched off the lights.
“Look away,” she said. “You must make a promise. Will you make a promise?”
“You must promise to never, ever look at me without my skin on. Do you promise?”
“Hold out your hands.”
I held out my hands and received a warm parcel. Her skinless paw brushed my knuckles and left a smear of gore. I heard her hop up on the windowsill.
“I will see you tomorrow,” she said.
I waited for her to leave. Then I placed the fur in the oven as she’d asked me to, and I dropped a grain of salt in a glass and filled the glass from the sink, and I sat at the table as the fur burned up and I gulped down the water without taking a breath. The fur burned quickly, flaming white and then crumbling to ash. I turned off the oven. I upended the bottle of scotch over the glass and caught a thimbleful of drink. I knocked that back. I pulled down the wall bed. I ended my first day in exile.
The next morning the sky was dark. I discovered that I lived above a stationery store. Rain fell as I explored the narrow floor-to-ceiling aisles. I browsed all the various kinds of paper, all the envelopes, all the pens and inks. At last I brought my selection to the front. The clerk began to ring me through. I told him I lived above.
“Well, then,” he said, “shall we just start a tab?”
Which was odd, but he said it so casually that I agreed. Really, though, how much stationery would I need? I ran into my neighbor on the stairs.
“Oh, you’ve been to the shop,” he slurred, eyeing my bag. He licked his lips. “How was the scissors selection?”
He rattled his bucket at me and continued on down. He wore a long yellow raincoat and black gumboots.
I got in and spread my purchase over the kitchen table. Suddenly it seemed extravagant. I’d bought a lot of stationery. I watched the rain on the window for a few minutes, made myself a pot of coffee. I kept trying to walk away from the table but I kept sitting back down, arranging and rearranging my stacks of paper, my envelopes, my pens and inks. I thought I should write a letter. The people back home would be wondering about me. I thought I should write to tell them where I was and how I just wanted to be better. It was a simple thing, my reason for leaving. One word: better. But sometimes the simplest reasons are the hardest to justify.
I began the letter like this: I have an idea about how the world could work.
I sat at that table and wrote and drank coffee. I made more coffee when the pot ran out. I reused the grounds. I ate a pickle, staring thoughtfully out the window as I crunched. The rain hadn’t let up. I went back to my letter but it was all wrong. Too something. Not enough another thing. I tried again. I made new coffee with fresh grounds. What was I trying to say? I wanted to say, This is why. This is why and why is what and what is everything, and now you understand. How hard could that be to put down on a page? Oh, pretty hard. I worked at it though, right up until I heard a scratching at my window.
“Come hunt with me.”
There she was, her coat as thick and firmly attached as ever.
“But the rain.”
“Rain makes for good hunting. It flushes the shadows from the holes where they live.”
I considered that. “What’s a hole without shadow?”
She smiled at me. “Now you’re getting the hang of it.”
So out we went. We passed my mad neighbor, who was flat on his stomach with his arm down a storm drain. “Scissors,” he hissed at us. I guess he’d seen a pair wash down.
I turned up my collar and pulled my coat tight, but the rain soaked through. Every step was like pumping the bilge. At last I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and walked around that way.
My little vixen was right about the shadows: the rain had flushed them out. They slid around underfoot like oil droplets in a hot pan. We passed by the kite vendors, who huddled under the awnings of their stalls, playing cards. The updraft from the abyss sucked the rain back into the sky; the rising runoff made a sheet, a reverse waterfall. We watched that for a bit. I thought about catching a newspaper, folding it up into a boat, sending it off. I thought about hopping into the stream myself. But a body was too heavy for the wind from the abyss—I’d just fall.
My vixen jumped into my arms. I carried her back to my place. Once we got inside and I got dry, she told me again what I must do.
“Just promise, please promise, to never, ever look at me without my skin on.”
We turned off the lights and she pulled off her skin. I listened to her leave and fed the skin into the oven. I drank my grain of salt. I went to bed.
I spent my days in exile following this same routine. I rose, made coffee, sat at my table and tried to work. I ran out of paper and went to the store downstairs. I progressed, I filled pages, but with each page I filled, the end of the letter seemed to get further away. What I wanted to say was so simple—so I thought. So I felt. I felt it simply, what I wanted to say. Now if only I could make a feeling sound right on the page. I tried. Yet the deeper I got into explanation, the more I found to explain.
My vixen visited nightly to take me on her hunt. Nightly I saw the kite flyers and pitied them. Sometimes I hated them. Why fly kites? It doesn’t get you any closer to where you want to go. My vixen chased shadows and the boys hawked their kites, and I thought about the simple things I would say if it were easy.
Then we’d go back to my kitchen and she’d pull off her skin—but only after I’d promised not to look. Every night I would turn away and switch off the lights and do her bidding.
“You must never see me without my skin on! Never! Never!”
“The oven is ready.”
She would leave and I would gulp my grain of salt.
I settled into exile without really meaning to. The clerk at the store came to know my favorite paper gauge and always kept it stocked. I paused on the stairs with my neighbor and described the scissors on sale in detail, and he shifted and drooled and clutched his bucket before continuing on his way. My letter grew longer. I stacked it on the chair across from where I sat. I watched the stack grow. I made a little goal for myself: finish the letter, and then you can leave this place, you can go home. It seemed like a reasonable goal.
“Now look away. Switch off the lights.”
She didn’t have to tell me. I knew our routine. Yet she told me every night.
“And promise not to look at me without my skin on. Promise!”
Dutifully, I burnt the skin. I drank the salt. I went to bed and woke up and wrote at my kitchen table. The letter grew longer and longer. A year passed by.
Then one night my vixen didn’t show. I heard my neighbor howling. I ran to his door and banged on it, shouted his name, but he howled over me. I tried the knob. It turned and clicked. His place was small, even smaller than mine, just room enough to lose your head in. He stood at his open window, howling. I took him by the arm and he came to his senses.
“Foxhounds,” he said. “The hunt is on.”
I listened to his howls echo in the streets. The echo redoubled. It was no echo. I heard the howling of hounds in the streets.
I ran into the night and followed the howls, but the hounds stayed ahead of me, always just ahead of me. I called for my vixen. I wandered the empty parks where the shadows were long, where I knew she often hid. I found her in a thicket. She was mauled, near death.
“Take me in your arms,” she said, “and carry me back to your kitchen. There, you must shut off the lights. You must act in the dark so you do not see me. You must stop up your ears so you do not hear me. You must find a sharp knife. You must cut off my skin in one piece. You must cut out my tongue and eat it raw. I will talk then inside you, but you must not listen. You must sing a song in your mind to cover up my voice. You must take me apart. You must chop me to pieces. You must boil me down to a soup. And then you must eat me, all of me, even the bones, wasting not a scrap. Then you must hang my skin outside your window and nail it to the sill. When this is done, I will return to you again. Then all will be as it was.”
So I did those things. I carried her to my kitchen and shut off the lights. I knew my eyes would adjust to the darkness, so I tied a rag over them. I pushed paper into my ears. I felt my way. She struggled as I sliced off her fur, she bit me and scratched. I butchered her in a bowl so I wouldn’t lose a drop of her blood. I cut out her tongue and ate it raw. I sang a song to drown out the voice now in my head. I took her apart. I chopped her to pieces. I boiled her down to a soup. Then I ate her. I sucked on my fingers to make sure I didn’t waste her. I licked the spoon. I licked the pot. I took off my blindfold and saw that the sun was just coming up. I opened the window and nailed her pelt to the sill, where it hung like a sock.
I turned to my table and sat. I looked at the stacks of paper on the chairs, on the floor, up the walls. Sincerely yours. I knew how to end it. I just didn’t know how to get there from here. In all the world I wanted one simple thing: I wanted to be better. Why was the formula so complex?
I went downstairs and told the clerk I’d like to pay off my tab. He showed me a stack of receipts. I told him I’d send him a check from wherever it was I was going.
“Are you going?” he said.
“Eventually. When I figure out what I came here to say, and figure out how to say it completely, and send it off to the people I know, the people waiting for explanations.”
“For a moment there, it sounded as if you planned on going today.”
I left the stationery store and walked around the block. All the familiar views made me want to cry, made me want to mourn them. It’s a different way you look at a place when you’re thinking you might leave.
I walked until a certain time. I turned into an alley. I followed the alley to my window where I saw my vixen sitting on the ledge, pawing at the glass. She lowered her paw and sat there, waiting patiently. I left her like that.
“Mister! Hey, mister! Paper lantern, five bucks! Fly a paper lantern!”
“Now that sounds like a deal.”
I chose a lantern and the boy handed me a candle and a tiny slip. I asked him what the slip was for.
“That’s for you to write your wish on.”
“You always get a wish! Didn’t you know that?”
He pointed to his stall’s awning. The awning said WISH, painted right on, then next to that was a hook where the boy had hung a sign that said LANTERN. I presumed that the sign normally said KITE, but today was special.
I climbed the grassy ridge overlooking the great vent. I joined the smiling people. I watched others light their candles, watched them hand off their lanterns to the updraft. The lanterns made a twinkling rising stream. I had an idea about how the world could work. I wrote it on a slip of paper, and then I let it go.
Trevor Shikaze’s short fiction has appeared in Lackington’s, Lightning Cake, Lakeside Circus, and elsewhere. He writes from Canada.
What word, English or otherwise, would you say seems to lift off the page? Aurora borealis. I mean wow. Who named that thing? It’s a perfect name.
Art — Priscilla Boatwright is an illustrator and writer working in San Antonio. She is fascinated with myth, magic, and the connections between cultural identity and art. Priscilla received her BFA in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. See more of her artwork at http://cargocollective.com/boatart.
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