rattling. rattling snaking around in my ears. echoes of rattling erupting in my temples. I hear a pop like the little explosions of air that punctuate my ear canals when I’m nearing the ocean floor. reflex. by reflex, I try to turn toward the sound, but my head is tethered in one position. the rattling dies out with a slithering hiss. sharp parallel bands of light cut across the room. my head jerks back when light hits my eyes. behind me, somebody lets loose a low, raspy laugh.
“A little jittery, ain’t you,” the laugher mumbles. doesn’t bother with volume, doesn’t separate his words; just lets them tumble out any which way, leaving me to pick meaning out of a jumbled mass of sound.
“So it was a bio-anger, then?” another voice asks. clipped and precise tones dart around my head. a man slides across my view. I see the darkness of his pants leg skim the floor. I can’t make out a chair. been Under so long, everything on the surface strikes me as strange. looks as if he is gliding on air. stops in front of me. his face is so close to mine, I can see blueness of veins and redness of vessels just under his skin.
fold my lips together; try to speak. try bringing up the “b” in “bio-anger,” but my jaw is so tired. my lips fall slack before I can get any sound to part my lips.
“Won’t speak, huh?” those clipped tones don’t reach my ear until after the man’s lips stop moving.
I set my jaw, try to squeeze out a “c.” CAN’T SPEAK, I yell in my mind. can’t even get a sound to whisper out of my mouth.
“Nothing wrong with her vocal cords.” so says the mumbler. “Had ’em checked. Only part of her in good shape.” chuckles, but stays out of my view. metal grate of an old machine lays dead in the corner. at first, blank wall behind the clipped-tone man has nothing to tell me. then the banner blinks on. top fourth of wall glows red. bold white letters scroll across the red: 0.74 millimeters of coastal loss since 10 a.m. 22.6 million square miles of land remaining.
“I knew it was broken,” mumbler says.
“Your banner broken?” clipped tones asks.
“Yeah, this morning when I left, it said we had 34 million square miles. Thought something had changed. What about dead zones?”
“Don’t know… don’t fuss over any of it. Nothing but a bother. Can’t fix it. Wish I could turn mine off at home.”
“Wish I had yours. Can’t sleep without the latest from the Net. Look, no Earth Strikes for 24 hours! Thought for sure the night shift would have gotten one.”
“Why do you think we’re working this one over. Word came from upstairs. Can’t let another 24 hours pass without a report. We have to deliver one tonight.”
silence falls. the feel of the mumbler eyeing me trips across the back of my neck. feel a nervous tingle in my eyebrow. my knee jerks up. surprised my feet aren’t tied.
“Won’t work, sweetheart,” clipped tones says. twirling a small square mirror in his hands.
a burning ache starts biting at the bottoms of my feet. fingers twitching now. thin, sticky fabric stretched across my thighs catch on my peeling fingertips. clipped tones notices.
“Had to dress you. Your clothes were in bloody shreds. What did this to you?”
I tune out. let the words fall around me undeciphered. wonder: if water slides over these thin, sticky tights. if I escape, could I wear this to get back Under?
when I don’t speak, clipped tones slides the mirror between my face and his. draw away from face in the mirror.
“No sense hiding from it. Hurt’s been done.” so says the mumbler.
I steel myself and turn back to the mirror. the face I see is not my face. black-purple bruises flowering around the eyes—no big surprise. headache splitting my skull couldn’t be from a bug bite. slowly turn my head. ragged smear of tiny punctures—neatly gridded—crawls up my left cheek. a thin red shadow of blood blankets the wounds. other side of my face, no better. a wide gash—dry, but glistening; skinless—cuts across my right cheek. puffed and pimply skin bloating around my mouth. salty water rises, clawing its way to my eyes. I will it back down—ain’t the place to shed a tear, even if it’s for my own flesh.
“So, coordinates. Where did it happen? People need to know.”
shake my head. from what I hear, a bio-anger is nothing like they make it seem on the Net. just because an Earth Strike breaks a few bones doesn’t mean Earth is angry. once you been Under, you stop thinking Earth even notices you. we can’t make Earth angry. we’re about as important as a glob of spit.
“What’s this then?” clipped tones ask. I hear the mumbler clicking away on his hand-unit just behind my head. taking notes? sending messages? preparing a profile to send to the NewsNet? the mirror shifts from my face to flash on my neck and shoulders. first real mirror I’ve seen in a long time. clipped tones tilts it, showing me a deep groove splitting the flesh above my breasts. thick and hard in some spots, too dry to be new—cuts across my chest, arcs over my shoulders, rips across my upper back.
wet my lips. try to push out “Und-” but my mouth is useless. lift my hand. try pointing down. ragged fingernails scratch at the sticky fabric on my legs.
“What’s she trying to say?” mumbler asks from behind me.
clipped-tone man shrugs his shoulders.
bang my feet on the floor. UNDER, yelling in my head. thought everyone on the surface knew about us. Under. I’m damn near a lifer down there. been wearing the tank so long, the edges of the headgear grew into my flesh, got a little more comfortable—you could say. never mattered to me. better fit means less accidents. less accidents means more runs. more runs means more money I can send up to this damn air-breathing place. don’t expect no enviro-cop to ever understand that. us who live Under were born with hard choices to make, that’s all. some people end eighteen years of hard labor tied to a chair with a busted up face, others get to slide by them waving a mirror around. just the way it goes when you get born.
new sound behind my ear. shrill, metallic. sounds like the arms or legs of a machine clicking into sharp-angled positions. something cold and rigid presses on either side my neck: the metal was clicking for me.
“You sure you have nothing to tell us?” man with the mirror asks. nervous edges flutter in his voice. sounds scared of what’s about to happen. “Look,” says, drops his voice down to a whisper. slides closer to me. “We don’t have to link you up. You just cooperate, and we won’t have to extract the information from you. It’s easier if you talk. Can’t run your story without full details.”
something heavy and round pushes against the base of my skull. panic wells up in my chest. gulp wildly. try to suck up enough air to force some sound out of my mouth. Can’t speak! Can’t speak! Can’t speak! strain so hard my body jerks against the restraints. veins and vocal cords bulge in my throat. feet pound the floor.
“I know, I know,” man says spreading his hands out. “Just stop. I know you can’t speak. We just… We’re going to have to…”
“Enough with the warnings. Just get on with it already,” mumbler says. “You know the drill. Let’s move.”
“She can’t speak,” man with the mirror says. looks over my head at his partner.
“Don’t matter,” says mumbler. “They want the story by 8, it’s going to run at 10. They’re already advertising.”
a few drops of water fall out of my eyes. “extract information.” they’ll dig through my memories like starving squatters clawing through a garbage dump. grab my emotions, download them, dress them up, and beam a tearjerker to the NewsNet. who cares if there really was a bio-anger. there will be one now.
flash of light—blinding—rips across my vision. inhale deeply. “Pain,” I think. “That was pain.” was pain? hear a tortured yell. behind me, the mumbler is losing it. wet, feral screams splattering against the floor. clipped-tone man jumps out of his chair. his mouth moves but I hear no words.
something is wrong.
no more pain. splitting headache, gone. heat rests weighty between my legs. arms and hands don’t feel like mine—they feel thick and heavy. the room, the clipped-tone man, and the NewsNet banner all melts away. I am sitting in nothingness. nothing around me but a table laden with piles of ghostly flesh. not meat, not food—human bodies. curves of elbow and knee jut out from a sea of skin. here and there an ear, a chin, a pair of lips poke up from the jumble of limbs. my mouth moves easily. I lick my lips. no pain in my jaw. I am aroused.
when my mouth moves, a voice trickles out. the voice is disembodied and tangled—and it is not mine. it is the same voice that has been mumbling behind me as I sat tied to the chair. it is the mumbler’s voice. stream of broken diction, the voice pours from me, rambling about women, the mark of saliva left behind on their skin. this is the mumbler’s voice; this must also be his tongue. his tongue resting in my mouth. his tongue moistening at the thought of ghostly flesh made real.
odd memories begin to rain through my body. I am seeing and remembering parts of the female body that I’ve never touched before. salivating for the crease of a breast resting on a fleshy torso, longing to push apart meaty female thighs. I fall back into my body for a split second. the room is just as I left it—stark, bright, unadorned. I am still tethered to a chair and the mumbler is still yowling like an animal. clipped-tone man is behind me now, speaking to the mumbler in a voice that pulses with both worry and soothing. then I understand:
that cold metal circle. the pressure at the base of my skull. the wrong source—it’s tapping into the wrong source.
hunger whips through me like an electric shock, bringing me back to the mumbler’s table. I hunger for the tabled flesh. lift my bound hands, reach for it. hunger erases my boundaries. the room, my bruised body, it all slides away. the mumbler’s memories gush into me, become mine. this is my table now, I own these body parts. I have lain with each of these women; fed of them and, when satiated, condemned them to this ghostly pile, this monument of memory.
I am the mumbler. I need what he needs: bodies, flesh; have no use for feelings. love sits low, buried in the viscera of my body. it is not whole. this love is a multitude of tiny dried pellets, brittle-shelled capsules lodged deep in my bowels. his hunger drives me. sift through memories. lift body parts. search for a ghostly limb that hasn’t soured or been sucked dry. heavy flesh. some of it crumbles—dry as malnourished dirt.
predatory. needy. hoarder of fleshy victories. impelling me to search for a ghost that will yield her heart. not the heart that beats blood, the heart between her legs; the heart that speaks to her in feverish rushing whispers. the heart she works hard to ignore. under the urgings of his hunger, my fingers fly over the bodies, reliving the remembered glory of his conquests. reenacting how he did it: shut down thought, plucked away restraint, created a frenzy of need until the heart lodged in the chest was silenced by the cacophony of blood rushing toward the heart between her thighs. agitated, the flesh begins to writhe. emotions spray into my face. shake my head, fling off sentiment, dodge attachments, drown out tears.
I remain aroused.
a thin dark-fingered hand parts the ghostly mass of bodies. then an elbow pops up. its owner surfaces, jerkily swiveling to face me like some unstringed marionette. I pause. the mumbler’s rage flares, angered by this intrusion of autonomy. she moves quickly, feverishly digging through translucent limbs. grabs a leg, tugs it free. finds another leg, lays it next to the first. heaves herself atop the two disjointed body parts, slides her way towards me. unflinching gaze. does she see the mumbler? or does she see the mumbler’s beast inside me?
the mumbler lifts my wrists. swings them over to the nearest body part and directs me to devour it. I do, and I throw the bone at the re-jointed woman. she slows, then crawls over the bone. I race to devour another clump of flesh, and another. the bones become impassable. the more ghostly flesh I devour, the more trapped the re-jointed woman is by the bones I throw before her.
the mumbler whimpers. suddenly I am back in the room. the table of flesh slowly fades. clipped-tone man speaks quickly and forcefully. a sharp beeping rings out; relief floods his voice.
“They’re coming, someone’s coming now.”
“Get…” the mumbler speaks raggedly. “Get the story.”
pain clings to the mumbler’s voice. pain that will soon be mine. close my eyes. force myself to pretend to go Under. imagine I feel water slipping over my suit. remember the loud hush of air trapped in my headgear. solitude. when the metal circle taps into me, it’s worse than I imagined. icy, leaden needles shoot down my spine. water. I feel as if my throat is filling with water. then my own memories come, flying at me like the tail of a stingray. Whap! the wiry, steel brush slams into my cheek. when it pulls away, it’s red with my blood. hiss of blade nears me, then cuts a path across my other cheek. in the nightmare again. a pounding on my back. I go down to the sound of cracking bones. my tormenters watch me crumble. I can feel a waiting in them, a waiting that tells me they don’t want my pain. this beating is the prelude to something else.
lying among glittering glass crumbs. wiry brush, wet with my bloodm rests next to my head. acrid odor wraiths the brush. have I been poisoned? for a brief second, my consciousness splits. begs to move on from this memory to the next. there is no bio-anger here. brush’s odor grows stronger, bitterness against the NewsNet solidifies. I hate what this memory has given them: raw fear, brutality, a violent attack, all the emotional material they need to send a report. what is real—what really happened—doesn’t matter. pummeling fists will become murderous seeds or heavy, violent fruit. muscular arms will become thick green vines. they record every detail: the tremble of my body as I lay on the concrete, the fluid burning my eyes and leaking onto my cheeks.
the memory does not stop. air flutters around my face. burly hands dance over my mouth. the hands fly away, disembodied against the backdrop of dark grubby clothes. the hands return, hover over my head, small lumps of metal nested in their palms. metal lumps glint, dip closer. the men hang over me, blot out light. feverish fingers, quick fingers, attach metal to my mouth. the metal lumps, spider-like, begin a many-legged prancing around my lips. spindly legs prick me rapidly, piercing the skin, pulling the saliva out of my mouth.
the men stare blankly, paw through their pockets. skin around my mouth, blistered, stinging. cradled palms, round balls covered in foil. my face feels as if it wants to split open. the hands keep moving. pull away thin sheets of foil, uncover powdery white globes. break the globes in half, slowly push it past their teeth, lodge it into their cheeks. slower, prancing metal legs move slower, and slower. stiff with terror, lie there. afraid to touch my mouth, afraid to see if I can twitch my arms.
the hands move in unison, pull translucent tubes from filthy folds of clothing. I don’t exist. they only see the metal on my mouth. not a person, I am just a stretch of earth. a patch of living material, a vessel that spouts something they need. metal legs, stilled. hands attach tubes to metal lumps. don’t close my eyes. watch. they suckle the tubes, suck my saliva. don’t close my eyes. breath, shallow; body, lifeless. watch. what is it? what do I have that makes me useless? that makes me a fallow stretch of earth valuable only when rent open.
my saliva rises to mouths of my brutalizers, their cheeks start to shudder. they clench their mouths closed, hold the eruptions in. my saliva is no longer my own. it is their third element, the flint they need to spark the fire in their mouths. their eyes roll back in their heads and they fall, slack, onto the sidewalk next to me. a heavy limb falls across my lower legs. finally, I try. straing to lift my arms. can’t. try to shake the metal spiders from my mouth. can’t. no strength. not even to drag myself away. exhaustion engulfs me, wolfs down my consciousness. I tumble into a deep dark sleep.
something in hands. hold tight. bundle against chest.
my name. blank. in my mind is blank. know “Equi.” my name. up. up I see dark, gray sky. something grab my shoulder. shake me. I flinch. shaking stops.
“Equi.” voice say my name. gentle voice. scared voice.
“Are you sure she will be safe with you?”
clipped tones. snap head left. see the man, see the man. down. look down. legs standing, not sitting. my legs standing too. man has brown shoes. I have slippers. shoes from Under. look up at the man. don’t see eyes. i look where he looks. steps. hard stone steps. tall gray steps. steps.
“I have to get back. Are you quite sure?”
voice. I know voice. man squeezes arm. looks sad in eyes. runs away. runs up steps.
look down. woman. warm skin. small woman, strong woman. dark eyes. wet eyes.
“Equi,” says, soft. sad voice. touches my face.
throat hurts. brain hurts.
“Ma…” whisper. sound! I talk.
“Mama.” I talk again. mama nods. smiles. my voice ugly.
wetness grows in her eyes. “I couldn’t get to you,” says, hand in my hair. “I couldn’t get to you before they did. I shouldn’t have let you come back.”
wetness grows in my eyes. water. water spill out. wet cheeks. voice louder. voice stronger. yelling now. howling. howl because the wiry brush. howl because the metal spiders. howl because they took my spit. yell at steps. yell at man. yell all the way up to NewsNet.
mama hand still moving in my hair. sad. scared. looks like she wants to ‘shhhhh’ me, but scared. scared to break me more. no more breaking. mama hands pull my bundle, I don’t let go. mama hands wrap around me. my arms lock across my chest, my yells spill out into the sky.
“Equi,” says, soft. mama hands pull me, soft. down. down the stairs to flat wide ground. “Equi, we must go,” says a little more strong. mama hands slip around my arm. mama hands pull me along.
“Give me that.” grabs my bundle.
I grunt. grab bundle back. no more taking. no more taking hands. look down in my arms. bundle: dirty cloths, my clothes, dirty with blood and something glittery. mama pulls clothes. catch the small flat thing that falls. box. shiny box. fancy green letters. hold box to face. read, “Your Bio-Anger.” more letters. serious black letters, say, “Thank you for sharing your story.”
we stop. mama hugs me again. now I hug mama too, not just hug my chest. lean cheek on top of mama’s head.
“Just breathe,” says. “Can’t do nothing with ugly, but breathe it out. Breathe.”
take big deep breaths. lungs hurt. let pain out with screechy animal sounds. deep breaths. hurt wants to take me back to that room. I don’t want to go back. grip mama. I want to stay with mama. look around. look over mama’s shoulder. people. people rushing. people walking. people staring. people pretending not to stare. get nervous. I slip quiet. one second, quiet. two seconds, quiet. three seconds, quiet. mama grabs my wrist.
“We gotta get you away from here,” says.
rushes me past people. doesn’t look around. looks straight. turns. drags me to a small space between two buildings.
“There?” I ask.
mama’s face breaks into a smile.
“You’re talking, Equi! You’re coming back.”
words coming back to me. memories too. memories of how it felt to see mama, hug mama, touch mama. laughter. one night of hugs and laughter. nothing but hugs and laughter was supposed to be waiting for me on the surface.
mama turns sideways and scoots between the two buildings. she doesn’t let go of my hand.
look at the people. so much gray. people walk around in gray clothes. none of it makes sense.
mama is deeper in the space now and she’s waiting for me to follow. I step between the buildings behind mama. the space is tight and dark. litter crackles underfoot. reminds me of a tunnel leading to a sub-station: narrow and dark with no clue of what lies on the other side.
on the other side, I hear voices. I can’t see what’s in front of mama, but I hear voices. when we step out from between the buildings, the first thing I see are trees. first trees I’ve seen since I been back. I go over to touch one, mama doesn’t stop me. then I look around.
tied to the top of trees are ropes, ropes stringing dirty stretches of plastic overhead. down on the ground, I see as many tents as trees. more. more tents than trees. plastic, fabric, boards—ragtag shelters. noise. the air is full of noise. snaking noise. spiky noise. laughing noise. music noise.
“Where are we?” near the tents, smoke flees from silver pots. I smell food in the air.
“Last park in this quarter of the country.” mama sounds like just thinking about it makes her tired. “You hungry?” squeezes my hand.
my body feels many things. exhaustion. fear. anger. worry. pain. confusion. no hunger. I turn away from mama, lean my cheek on the tree. run my fingers along the bumpy bark. feel gashes and grooves in the bark. look closer. see words acid-etched on the bark. run my fingers over the words. names, dates, shapes. biggest words say: Squat Park.
“Squat Park.” a sad laugh dies in mama’s throat. “That’s what they call it now. We lived here. After you left. Land loss, Relocations. That seems like so long ago.” mama turns me to face her and takes my other hand. “I saved every bit you sent, Equi. That’s the only way we were able to get out. People like us… people like us…” mama’s head droops as if her thoughts are breaking her, snapping her spine so she can’t hold her head up anymore. “People like us are supposed to squat, we’re not supposed to live in a home.”
purse my lips, fix them to ask how long was she here and was it anything like it is now and was she safe. my eyes wander over the people. I freeze, squint my eyes. two huge men walking shoulder to shoulder. to huge men wearing loose black clothes. two huge men push their way past people. grab mama’s shoulders, squeeze, spin her so she can see them, and point. they walk toward me. fingers shake, arm trembles, but I keep pointing. mama nods, then she turns to look at me. she is smiling. her smile drops when she sees me: shaking my head, trembling. back away. look around. find an escape.
mama glances back at the two men. they are moving slowly now, confusion claims their faces. grab mama’s shoulders turn her to face me. try my voice. try to speak to mama. but no words. I have no words. all I can bring out of my mouth is one long squeak.
mama sees fear in my eyes. covers my hands with her own. “Equi, you’re safe here. No one’s going to hurt you. Don’t you know who they are?”
point again. shake my head, no words. back away, hold on to the tree. men step closer, then stop. one of them eases a sack off his shoulder, flings it onto the dirt at his feet. light hits the globe sticking out of his sack, my legs go slack.
“my… my… headg-g-g-ear,” I stammer. slide down the tree with trembling knees.
mama squats down, looks me in the eye.
it’s as if the metal spiders have stolen my tongue again. I croak out strange, broken sounds. my hands fly around my face, fluttering over the wounds, trying to show mama what my mouth can’t say. I see them over mama’s shoulder. they don’t move. they don’t move.
mama shakes me softly, begs, “Equi, please, these are your children. They have been waiting for you all their lives.”
hurt covers their faces. my children? the question pokes at my chest, tries to pierce my panic. my children? my skinny, scabby sons whose hunger drove me Under? mine? could big, frightening men be mine? have my boys grown up to be so like my attackers?
could they be my attackers?
mama speaks again, all the softness gone. “Equi, don’t do this!”
grip mama. my heart beats wild against her bony chest. she doesn’t ask me to go near them, she just says my name over and over and over again. only for mama, I look at them again. only for mama, I try to find clues in their faces. these are strange creatures. not children. I look for me in their eyes. fear pants just behind my ear. my eyes fall on the shiny globe of my headgear. my headgear. other than mama, it is the only thing that makes sense here.
I can feel it already, the water. I can feel its pull, its weight, its silence. squeeze mama tight, then push her away. I am moving. before another thought crosses my mind, I move. scramble across the dirt. grab my headgear from the sack before the man-children can stop me. race to the space where the buildings meet. don’t look back. block out those hurt, angry faces. block out mama’s pain. scratch my skin on the stone of the buildings. run wildly. listen to the echo of my breath. run. listen to my feet pounding. run. feel the tightening in my chest. push people away. startle them. don’t stop. don’t ask questions. no more words. turn corners blindly. don’t stop. run.
sweat stinging eyes. sweat dripping down neck. calves burning. gray sky. hear a squawk, loud and rough. up. look up. see the great white wings. see the orange feet. see the beak. run harder. follow the bird to the water. don’t stop. shove on my headgear. let it lock into the groove in my skin. no suit, no tank. I can make it. need the hush of Under. need to hear the echo of my own breath in my ears. need the wet weight of the ocean urging me home.
Published as part of the Tumbarumba Web Project © 2008