Fiction by Garett Strickland: “Gills”

 

we weren’t so stupid.   we’d done our reading, even there in school.   we knew of the deformities.   we’d seen the portraits in our history book – the habsburgs with their horrible lips, their jaws.   mental retardation, et cetera.   we knew, we knew.   but that  wasn’t what we were doing. 
                regardless, it’s hard to explain. 

there was a tree we used to climb when we were little, the top of which would seem to touch the clouds.   we would spend what passed as hours scaling up from branch to  branch.   we got up high and tossed up pebbles, hoping that the clouds would catch and carry. 
                that a stone could coast atop a cloud so long as we believed it could. 

twins are close, everyone knows.   we were no exception.   you don’t spend nine whole months curled into each other and then just give it up.   it’s not a big deal to like to share  a room, a bed.   though eventually it’s frowned upon. 
                lots of things we did were frowned upon, but that’s not a big deal either.   rebellion is normal at our age, and there have always been the ones who keep mostly quiet and seem so full of hate.   that just happened to be us. 

clouds would darken, and we’d be called inside. 
                come on in, it’s going to rain! our mom might yell. 
                and we were also told not to climb so high, though always we ignored her. 

but just because it seemed a certain way doesn’t mean it was.   it wasn’t hate, but still – fuck them.   they all thought wrong.   we loved everybody.   all people.   but that love was wrought with feeling sorry.   we, even now, see what we, all of us, are, and so we have a tenderness.   mankind is an abused animal.   which would be fine if we weren’t our own masters, but we are, and we beat ourselves to blindness. 
                this, we hated, and we wanted out. 

what does that cloud look like? we would ask.   and we would answer, fish. 

it’s not that we don’t value what it means to be human.   it can be great.   but still, we, all  of us, we tend to make it ugly.   the habsburgs made it ugly.   made themselves ugly.   maybe you could say they just didn’t do it enough.  maybe, if they’d kept on, they’d have gone beyond ugliness. 
                but mainly they were lacking grace.   

the clouds constantly changing their shape. 

i mean, do you remember all those little, tiny, secret songs,? legos held so tight in your fist their corners left imprinted edges on your palm? the layout of your childhood home? a lover’s pubic hair lost on your tongue? those are the songs, and sure, they’re beautiful, but grace is what the music is. 

a cloud remaining amorphous. 

grace can pass so moving through inhabiting – like fog, like rippling ideas.   it is him you me that dog that chair.   electric smoke that speaks in whispers.   some great, hidden something creeping beneath everything. 
                but grace doesn’t come from being human.   grace comes from way, way back, and that’s where we wanted to be. 

                the cloud returning, dissipating into mist, drawn back to its body of water.   
                the one that it had come from. 

it’s not like the habsburgs were the only ones who did it.   you have to think back further. 
                the incans, for example.   the egyptians.   
                it’s in the bible, even.   look it up. 
                they did it, too, in ancient greece, and birthed forth gods: undersea titans, things with wings. 
                that, we knew, was us.   living in the sky and soaring through the water. 

when once we fell and broke our tailbone and knocked loose a tooth we promptly swallowed, our mother said, i hope you’ve learned your lesson.   from now on stick to the swing. 
                but we were glad to fall together.   that, after all, was how we were raised. 

holding hands was all it was at first, though still this got us dirty looks.   comments coughed under breath in the hallways.   gross notes left stuffed inside our locker. 
                our teachers tried to correct this, addressing each homeroom about the viciousness of spreading rumors.   never naming us by name, of course, though all our classmates’ heads were turned.   and, yes, this made things worse. 

they, the clouds, would darken, and the water would come coursing down.   
                often we would wait it out beneath our tree, bodies pressed for warmth. 

you could tell the teachers wondered too.   
                though they dare not admit it. 
                though they dare not move us from our desks. 

there was our bond, of course, of which they were afraid.   
                because they knew they could not know such closeness. 
                because, we knew, they somehow wished it for themselves. 

but there was more than that.   this was a time where everyone feared the worst from those they saw as ‘troubled’.   we wore black.   we kept to ourselves, to each other.   thus, we  were a danger. 
                as though the earthly servants of grace, themselves, do not wear black in reverence.   as though their silence is not noble.   as though it is not cultivated. 

we wished for the rain to run backward, to keep in the cloud so the cloud would be full to better hold the bits of rock we tossed. 
                we wanted, too, to swim the upward course we imagined the droplets would make if such a wish was granted. 
                a tear swallowed up by the duct. 

perhaps there was an element of mourning in our dress, as per the predilection of trend – some sort of gloomy martyrdom, the weight of the world on cynical shoulders.   but, once again, that wasn’t really us.   we didn’t paint our face in angst, and never were we morbid. 
                it's just that we knew, we know, that everyone is mourning something.   all have loss.   everyone has some private sadness they carry in them like a flame to stoke to know they’re human. 
                meanwhile, we were cutting our losses.   we were shrugging off the world’s weight and also that of ourselves. 

like when we’d swing on the swing from the lowest-most branch to obey our mother’s heeding, and there’d always come a point at the height of the arch when one would yell now and the other fell back on the back-swing, the sky turned upside down while facing the river of our return horizon.   and then we’d flip, mid-air, go against gravity if only for  a moment. 
                it was rare that we’d land on our feet. 

at school we’d play footsy and learn about newton – cursing his name, his apple, his  laws. 
                we learned about sperm, about eggs, reproduction. 
                we learned about genetics and were made to make a family tree.   

we filled in the boxes of the blank hand-out family. 
                dad, what was your grandfather’s name?
                mom, what was your grandmother’s?

we learned about rome, about martyrdom.   
                vocabulary words.   stoning; lapidation. 

we wrote in our grandpas, our grandmas.   
                an ‘x’ where one might be deceased.   
               when was the last time we saw them?

we learned about ancient civilizations, how each sprung up from a river.   
                the tigris, the euphrates.   the fertile crescent curled between them. 
                we read of their reverence.   the rituals of breeding and that of human sacrifice. 

we printed the names of our parents.   
                her surname and his. 
                and ours. 

and we studied evolution. 
                a human slinking down in a backward procession – man to ape to monkey.   
                birds whose feathers grew from the scales of earthbound lizards.   
                amphibians from the first with fins to struggle onto land. 

we searched for our vestigial parts, all that was left over. 
                the tailbone; coccyx.  wisdom teeth.   the reptilian brain inside our stem.   
                we labeled what was oldest, an ‘x’ to mark the spot. 

at last we scribbled in our own names, and from their separate boxes drew two lines converging in a point between. 
                below the point we drew a blank. 
                in the space of the blank we wrote fish. 

a thought is drawn like a cloud with a tail.   

we were finished with our homework. 

you bolt after final bell through the doors and neighborhoods, hop a greyhound out to the town where your house had stood overlooking the river.   the sky gives a growl as you run holding hands across the field and toward the tree, the ruins of your home still standing at a stone’s throw.   the towering clouds let release and drops as thick as semen spatter your limbs as you strip off your layers of black, soaked beyond bone by the moaning spill that birthed you – father’s father’s father’s seed coming down in buckets. 
                do not stand beneath the tree in order to avoid the pouring.   
                the tree is your family tree, and it issues from the source. 

stand beneath the tree besides, your bodies pressed for warmth, the bones of your hips striking like flint. 

lick your lips and taste the ages: the struggles that arrived you here.   
                fall after fall after fall. 

if you look you will see that each branch forking from the trunk – reaching up and up – is in fact a root of the tree that grew before it. 
                fall after fall.   summer, summer.   spring.   slumber. 


climbing back.   a ladder.   arriving, finally, at the first tree – sprung from the headwaters  of our initial grace. 
                lost as we wriggled unwisely onto land.   

just ask newton:  the apple doesn’t fall far. 

and us, an apple in our mothers eye, though we, like she, are full of worms.   or will be.   our bodies buried, caged within roots. 

let them take you up, drink you in the path to go back.   to find the secret passageway  from womb to river.   back.   from ovum egg and out the other side of some grand  threshold.   back.   and there we are, emerging, primordial and shimmering, and have become what we most purely are. 

breathing underwater. 

***

our parents were called for a conference.   doubtless the teachers used the word  concerned.  they were sure to show the hand-outs we handed back in filled-in with all our own answers. 
                what was ‘manifest destiny’? the test might ask.   
                and we would answer: gills. 

they’d be sure to ask if there was ‘trouble at home’, without hinting at what that meant, what they thought it was that might be true in what the kids were saying.   they wouldn’t mention our last year’s yearbook pictures with hapsburg lips and jaws drawn in over our own, taped up in the hallways or plastering our locker. 

but by then we didn’t care.   we were out getting stoned by the dumpsters during lunch, or we weren’t showing up to our classes. 
                instead we took walks.   we stared for hours at the coasting clouds and said what each one looked like. 

or else we were packing, or else we were already gone – collecting the teeth we’d lost from the baggie in our mother’s dresser, swallowing them as we walked out the door and headed for the bus station. 

you cross the field slower this time, backpacks full of black slung over your shoulders, the clouds reflected in the river like a mirror, dusk dimming the sky and pressing the tree to a shadow.   in the ruins of your childhood home, the layout seems the same but smaller, and you spread your sleeping bags zipped together on the floor of the room you used to share where you remember the bed used to be. 

the wind howls through the house and you curl back into each other, fingers wriggling back to the space between twin rivers. 

a hair gets lost on a tongue.   a hand slides across the dark, finds a fossil on the floor and firmly grips. 

the wind makes the whole house moan, and we are moaning with it.   
                cloud tree river that brother that sister. 
                living in the sky and soaring.   grace. 


the air sits heavy, drawing its breath.   our fist blooms opens, and the lego clings for a moment, then slowly tumbles out. 
                when it finally touches down, it makes a sound like a secret. 
                the mark imbedded in our palm begins to drip. 

***

a time passed after that, and a blank we’d drawn with a word too fierce to mention unfurled itself between us. 

we kept everything we had in ziploc bags.   every tooth that rotted from our sockets.   arrowheads we found along the river’s banks. 

but the river dried up, and the clouds finally parted, dropping stones into the barren bed until all the flopping fish were bludgeoned. 

and we emptied everything we had.   we gave up holding hands.   we swallowed pebbles  on the long walk home, the road, rough-shored, winding like a stream. 

 

 


stricklandGarett Strickland is the editor of .Plinth., Ichnos, and other publications of the Unwin-Dunraven Literary Ecclesia. He is the author of a long-poem, Whoa Don’t Care (Jerkpoet, 2015), and Ungula (forthcoming from Solar▲Luxuriance). He’s an ordealist.