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May 14, 2024 Fiction


Paul Franz

Anabasis photo

Ask any one of us. So many dark days we had spent under the trees, never wandering, never lost, yet lacking everything except that one direction that made our going possible. Ask anyone. Some nights I’m sure I touched it, our destination. (Try it on the tongue: the place that has been destined.) I’d wake to screaming—not my own, but rather like a polyethylene bag being zipped up, the kind I used to use, in my old life, when our EMT team’s efforts at revival had finally failed. Was I the one inside? No, it was more like being zippered out, expelled, prevented from re-entering that sac of sleep that a moment before had sealed me like a caul. Also, like falling: clutching at shards of light that shrieked across my fingers, only resolving slowly to the nakedness and stink that I lay down in.

It was like being with a woman, almost—something I remembered, that I from time to time still dreamed of, even desired. As when the soul, turned briefly out of doors, is left to make its blind way home to the body’s walls, there to live once more, pressing its ear to the cold stones, and waiting. For good or ill, you had gained something. That cicatrice ringing the heart, like notches on the prison wall, that sharp sweet spoor. Hence, no doubt, our silences. Hence that shameful tenderness with which each cupped, within, some promise like a flame. Each of us was helmeted with hope.

And so we all expected something other than our own voices returning to us across the silver water: “See! See!” What was there to see? The lake kept its counsel. Its edges fluttered like lace, blurring its placid ring. When someone skipped a stone across the surface, no one breathed—not for all the time it took the ripples to make their way to us, radiant from the signals of his trespass. We half expected lightning to strike him dead. (Our glass was still half full.) Not two weeks later, the better part of us, the stone-skipper among them, had melted back in the forest. Who could blame them? Curiosity itself guttered within us. Not even the wish remained to walk around the lake, or set across in boats. The forest on the other side was the same as this one.

And yet, a few stayed on. Inertia, without desire, was enough. We felled trees and raised our bitter shacks, hard by the scree of the lake. When winter came, some took to carving strips of wood, others to singing songs—children’s songs, or songs of men and women. Burrs and fragments of leaves that had fixed themselves, unremarked, to our garments during our journey yielded up their merest filaments to those who turned them over and over in the fire’s patient light. Our days stacked up like crystal panes, focusing time like a lens. 

By “our” I mean “their.” Such amusements did not hold me. It was only when the conspiracy was at its height, cold and water and wind having marshaled their forces to drive an icy pavement across the lake, that I felt moving within myself something like desire. The lake withheld itself by its very presence: gauzed with snow, like the husk of a sleeping mind. And so one morning I arose—and went into the center, and stood where no one stands.