Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Road Food, Amber Butts

Imagine being gutted by a soft, pink feather that explodes into a dark storm that happens to be your belly and buried beneath that is the ocean, a lollipop that flickers into tadpole earrings, a hollow leaflet on the cloudiest of floors, a knife constantly slashing. The tadpole flips on its head but comes tumbling through all the light and as you beg and beg for it to complete its round, it swallows itself into your mouth, leaving you dry with hiccups, tree bark, heavy bones and plaster. 

You are alive. You have forgotten what it is like to be alive.

When the road jumps up and suffocates your sister Kevi after she warned that it would happen, you half don’t believe it because the monster doesn’t leave any of her blood. You cannot blame the rain since The Fast Water happened fifteen years ago and everything is dry. You go to the market the next day and burp a bubble. It is Sunday and every Sunday you play hide the creek, so she must be here. She must see you. 

Any moment now and you’ll both jump inside a single bubble. But Kevi is not here and you have to find her. She is the only living person you love.

You look for her above the tents, the lying bargainers, the oak spice sprinkled over the fires no one is allowed to burn and yet, burns anyway. You get distracted thinking about the tadpoles and the not-creek, the way you two played in the water before it became a weapon too. You used to do the same thing with the road, climbing into its center and giggling when it spat you out. Your mother warned that the road would develop a taste for your bones and eventually decide to keep you. 

You remember Kevi now. The way her hair gathered like fists, fighting at everything, the brush, what water you could find, almond oil, your mother’s voice. It isn’t clear how long you travel in remembering, but the bubble snags on your memory and pops. A dog barks nearby. You fall fifteen feet onto a cow field, cursing the entire way home because these are your Sunday shoes and the dung is everywhere.

You do not remember returning home. You remain dizzy from the fumbling grief of living in a world where the ones you love no longer exist. Or the one you loved most doesn’t. Or sorrow is so deep that you hold your breath to pick through what is now, what was and what isn’t anymore. Your tears turn to sap. You make a map of clouds, chart a new destination, wind a rope around a balloon, and will it to carry you. 

It does not carry you. Your bed is covered in dirt and dung and you move to get up, even though you know you’re spreading the smell everywhere. You eat the last bit of stale bread with walnut soup, and eventually rock yourself to back to sleep. 

The first night you dream up a road that calls cars into its belly but does not harm little Black girls. It crash-winds up, down, on the side and secures a sliver into the OutRealm. Like the dog, it yips at you. 

Missing your sister this much makes an enemy of hugs. Everyone you see asks after her with their eyes but not their mouths. Your bones ache with missing. No matter how many times the road decides who belongs in the OutRealm, the ones inside remain quiet. This is how your parents left. This is how everyone you are close to leaves.

Iya Mori says dimensions go upturned and even if you grasp the rose bottom surface, the loss will still be there. A hole of something gone then transmitted into sorrow, earth, dust but not seed. 

You decide that is not enough. You have lost too many people and your sister was the last person on earth you loved. Iya Mori does her best by making you porridge and offering you shelter. She says she will sit with you in the quiet, as long as you remain hopeful, as long as you let the memories of what life you had with your sister be enough. As long as you don’t go chasing what is not possible.

You tell her no, thank you. You’d rather stay in the house that once held eight. By now your dog has died too. One night, you hear the branches rub against the ruins of the oak door thinking it’s him, only to be visited by his ghost body. 

That is all it takes to make you turn. You make a plan. You accept a job at the nearest entropy station, and learn everything you can about the road. You learn that there is a specific temperature at which it comes most alive. You get your hands on whatever news of the OutRealm you can. 

There isn’t much. The Jacinthe government doesn’t trust its citizens with information about travel and you are no scientist. But two things surprise you. Depending on who you speak with, the reason the road exists range from governmental mistrust and population control, to hunger for human flesh, to an elaborate plan to save Jacinthe’s most promising citizens and then, finally, a transmutation conspiracy. 

After you learn about the quadrant split, you pack a bag and bury it behind the house. You pretend to forget about your sister and shape some resemblance of a life. You go to town on Fridays and dance. You study for the Remni exam and apply for a Science Lens eight months later. You pass. 

In the between spaces of your grief, you practice. You learn about the land of River Snakes. You learn that the quadrants split because Earth could no longer sustain itself. You learn High Scientists have a key granting them entry into the OutRealm, even though they said no one can  access it.

It turns out Iya Mori is a Middle Scientist who studies the vegetation at the edges of the Quadrants. She teaches you many things, including how to make foot guards that’ll electrocute anything within 40 feet of you. She helps you build a training center below ground because you now know how you can travel to the OutRealm and look for your sister. 

You gather the old ocean with memories of not catastrophe amongst the belongings you dug up and forecast a story for your temporary leave. Iya Mori helps you by ensuring her sabbatical lands on the day of your leave. And instead of traveling with her through the water, you plan to go through memories, except Iya Mori goes missing during her excursion. 

So now, amongst searching for Kevi, your parents, and the boy you never talk about, Iya Mori is added to the list. You were Iya’s assistant on paper, so the Council approves your application to lead the search, reasoning that you knew her and her work best. You try not to feel resentful but it comes anyway. 

Initially, you wanted to travel with her but you’ve never been underwater. You don’t trust it and we have no idea what your gifts will do while submerged. It’s safer this way. The trip will take Iya one month to collect the materials and data needed. She’s built organic cases to place samples of the minerals in. 

The atmosphere rotates at the same rate Earth is spinning: approximately 12,050 miles per hour at the equator. Its speed decreases the further north (or south) you go from the equator and its rotation is effectively zero poles. More oceans are being pushed to opposite sides.

Iya Mori is skilled and ready. She’s not worried about the conditions of the water or the impact of the spin speed because she created a vessel that welcomes and listens, instead of fighting. Iya Mori specializes in prime meridian and equatorial knowledge.

Iya Mori’s full name is Chitakrahmori Nnemidu Bonga. She is a pseudo mechanical engineer turned cultural anthropologist who rope jumps in her spare time. She’s an expert diver. Her favorite smells are pickled eel, licorice root and a new hybrid plant she mixed called teekrut. Teekrut is part curry leaf, part guava and part tapioca. It has a full, rich flavor that turns bitter if left in the pot for too long. 

You repeat this when you miss her: It is impossible for Iya to be lost. It is impossible for Iya to be lost. It is impossible for Iya to be lost.

This is when you realize you love her, too. Another love who’s disappeared.

The first time you were able to travel into another body’s memories you couldn’t figure out how to leave it. Simulation, as Iya called it, allows you to project your appearance in one place with the edges of your mind and travel through people using the center of your brain. Managing appearances is a challenge because you’re not exactly exciting to be around, but when you aren’t completely inside yourself, you become the version of you other people like. Iya points out the flaw of this logic, like she does everything else. For people who already know you, the newer version of you is suspicious.

You haven’t received a transmission from Iya Mori in two weeks. You were supposed to meet at the edge of Tanzania four days ago, in search of Kevi. 

Not panicking is hard work. Before you left, your work performance was slipping. Maybe no one noticed but the company hasn’t asked about Iya since you’ve been assigned and her transmitter screen needs to be serviced. You need to find her.

You find your sister first in a state with no name and you’re shocked by this vision of her: a flower in her hair, her body pushed by a small child in a swing, her legs flying in the air, her giggle a high, soft shriek. She looks happy. You realize in this moment that you have never seen her happy. Not like this.

She doesn’t see you. Not you, really, just the body of the man whose memories you’ve traveled into. For a split second, you see recognition in her eyes and then it goes away. She is dead to you again now, but this time is even worse than before. This double death has no space for you, only her new life.

You think maybe Iya got tired of you too. Maybe her disappearance, like Kevi’s and possibly even your parents and the boy, was purposeful. Maybe they all wanted to leave you. Maybe the road was an excuse, an elaborate ploy to get you to stop searching, stop asking, stop hoping. 

You stop looking for everyone after that. You let the hole that’s been in your heart close. You forget all that love and turn your focus towards everything un-human.

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