Back straight, chin high, posies pinstriped down cotton, legs tucked beneath skirt, dirt in her hair, bare wrists, twists of desert grasses where buttons might have been, green eyes gone. What is she seeing, the woman? What has she done?
In spry fingertips, a porcelain saucer, spinning, spinning, stalling the setting sun. Black flies form idle congregations, unmoved by evening draught or dust, by what she’s ceding to infant shadows. Her best intentions can’t hold it in her throat. Rasping, gut-heavy, feral fork-tongued song, carving its place between the dunes. And all the time the saucer spinning, spinning, marking time.
I saw a boy I knew, in the skin of a man.
He sat cross-legged on the grass, a tie at his throat,
being serious. He did not notice me
but I knew well the lunchbox at his knee,
the strangely open plastic faces
of the trains, peeling now, probably.
The smell of his sweaters.
The dirt beneath what nail his teeth
had left untorn, how his faces fell
like leaves from gummy Latin readers
at the sound of each lunch bell. I knew
the scab he had from playing in glass
when everyone knew grass
was the softer landing.
He thought it was inside his ears, until Kate heard it too. Hushed through the leaves at first, then more obtrusive, slapping thickly upon the forest. Careless, it seemed to Joe. What could have been elegant magic, made vulgar.
He thought them out of it, though it was hard this time. One thing to practice in a steel-bright lab, another entirely stumbling through evening’s grime, tripping on the toes of trees, sorcery raining around you in drops the size of –
But he thought them out. And Kate found herself face-down on soft hillside, the magician’s laughter ringing in her ears.
A short man and his child were crossing the desert. The boy carried a fistful of streamers, tickling his ankles with colours of home; the man, a pack bursting with biscuits and water.
Soon they met a woman, stooped in shadow. “Water,” she beseeched, hands outstretched. “Food.” The man feared thirst, but his conscience more. He reached for a canteen. But it was empty, and the next, and no crumb remained. When he turned back, the woman was licking her lips, rubbing her stomach.
The short man and the boy went on across the desert, carrying nothing but colours now.
Across the country they built a ditch, of the Great Big variety. Though it had been at the instigation of the Mad King, they persisted in digging long after he was deemed such by the history books.
For national security, nothing entered the country but through the ditch. Crawling or clattering or blithely belly-sliding, or running on bloodied feet from failed crops and famine and the death of dreams, they tumbled in. Those cushioned by the mess of bodies were sent to the arenas, where they made crowds yawn by declining to lay hand or claw on another living thing.
Way out at the edge of the universe, where the bones of stars turn to crumbs beneath your feet, Barnaby lies on an empty beach.
He is counting flocks of fluffy nebulae through half-closed eyes. The suns went down some hours ago, and the small night is falling, falling, drifting itself deep. It settles lightly, dandelion down on a summer breeze, snagged briefly in spiderweb.
Barnaby remembers when the nights were long. Hulking clunking brutes, they thudded shut about one’s eyes and ears. Drowning nights; slow smotherings. But that was before the bomb made everything brittle and strange as stardust.
Underneath the circus sky the air is thick with purple smoke.
The leotarded ranks strut by, the sequinned showgirls wink and joke
And whistle kisses to the folk who’ve come, by God, to see them fly.
Their pintucked pinions defy the wide-mouthed crowd, the raw applause,
The wide-eyed wildness waiting where the net is not, but was before.
The tethered bear self-flagellates. The organ-grinder winds a reel.
A greasepaint Joan of Arc flagrates. It isn’t real. It isn’t real.
And there beneath the mast stand I, a spit-and-sawdust plutocrat,
A cat-o’-nine-tails in my fist, a stranger in a stranger’s hat.