The last time I saw her I kept hitting her in the face. She’d been taking the pills since Mom went to pick up the cheese tray. I hit her and her teeth snapped together. She was laughing. She shut off the television and kept walking through the high grass beyond the ballpark into the trees and down the bank of the river, camera swinging from a strap at her neck. A bird, two birds, there were all these birds cutting the air under the bridge! I smashed her camera on a slick green rock.
She grabbed my hair at the nape, plunged me in, jammed mud past my teeth. She’s a Blackwater mercenary, so no messing around. She wasn’t here for Christmas but at last I found her on the bank of the river, I was back with my sister at last!
Any fish? I said.
Any bites? I said.
On the opposite bank a little bird was tangled up in fishing line, hopping like crazy in the shadows.
Her last throes, she said.
Or his, I said. Color, size, you got to check the taxonomies.
You still owe me for the camera.
Let’s go to Heinrich’s, I said.
We didn’t go to Heinrich’s, not yet. We watched the bird hop. It fell down like it was dead, then hopped like it was alive, then fell down like it was dead, then hopped like it was alive, then fell down in the grass, beak plunged in the sand.
She took her rod in two. We pulled ourselves up the retaining wall. They’d boarded the window once again but we kept a rusted claw hammer in the corner of the shed under the rabbit hutch. They’d padlocked the shed but we got in with some kicking and she rolled a joint in the attic.
Bird could have been as big as a house, she said, spreading her arms. There could have been kids smoking dope in her attic, thinking of the farm, the foreclosure, the long-lost stench of manure, it wouldn’t have meant a thing, gender-wise. And I’m colorblind, she said.
I counted ten and let out my breath. I said, No you’re not.
Light filtered down through a roof-hole tacked over with chicken wire. I knotted my fingers through the mesh. They could be waiting up there, four or five poultry divisions, soon enough they’d break on through. The fishing rod clattered down to a pile of coat hangers.
We forget that rod here, I said. That’s my prediction of the day.
Did I reassemble it, she said, or did you?
The rod, she meant, which got taken in two previously.
She wrapped an arm around my waist and swung me upside down. I tried to kick the glasses off her face but she banged my skull against the floor a few times. Truce! We called a truce!
She said: the light is draining from the trees above the sky. The line and the possible fish at its end are my only concerns.
She was swinging me gently back and forth, my hair brushing the ground.
She said: I’m an ocean girl now, not a river girl. Oceans and deserts. Sandstorms and death, my youngun.
I was laughing in the corner, swinging an ax into the floor.
She said: The skeletons of leviathan drifting past
I wanted to bury the ax so deep I couldn’t yank it back out. But (O, leverage!) mothafucka kept coming back out!
So, I said.
So, she said.
I stood up on tip toes. She took my chin in her hand. We made out.
In opposite cobwebby corners we sat knees to chest.
I gave the bird an exam before your arrival, she said.
You waded across? I said.
See the cuffs of my jeans? Wet.
You probed her?
With the left hand pinkie.
After your crossed the river?
My jeans. Still damp.
Prostateless, she said.
Me and my sister! That day! A ride, we hitched a ride!
We were stumbling up the frontage road. I rang the bell. Three times quick, then two not that quick. I shoved a fistful of bills through the mail slot.
Inside: Gotcha now Houlihan!
A hand grabbed my wrist, my arm was yanked through the mail slot to the shoulder.
I was watching from a distance. Shrieking and also watching a shrieking thing get an arm torn through a mail slot.
Inside: I got a big one on! Get the net! Hoo hoo!
Something went to work on my arm. I thought it a feather, but my wrist got slick. Something big was opening down the back of my arm.
Me: Argghh! Fuuuuuuuck! FUCK! EeeeeeeeeEEEEEEGH!
Inside: I’ll rip it off! I’ll pop that motherfucker right off the trunk!
She hauled back on my belt, then stopped, then hauled again.
He couldn’t hold my wrist for all the slickness, my fingers sliding between his. A last tug from my sister and I was lying under a sky as blue and flat as inside a blue plastic cup.
Heinrich opened the door. Gee, sorry, he said. He scratched at his neck with a paring knife. I thought you guys were Houlihan.
The knife was dripping blood.
Snot tears ran between my lips. I looked everywhere except the arm, but still I saw the arm reflected in the whites of my sister’s eyes-dripping blood.*
Me: The sky, man! It’s so fucking blue!
Heinrich: You OK, kid?
Through the armhole of his tank top little beads of perspiration slid down, one rib at a time. My sister smacked him good, which made me laugh.
I said: It’s time to laugh again.
My sister: What the fuck, Heinrich? Does my brother look like a Houlihan?
Heinrich: You related?
She tugged me to the kitchen sink.
Me: I’ve been told I look Hawaiian or something.
Heinrich: No offense, you just don’t look related. The black-white thing, you know.
She: We have sworn an oath of blood. And now we are bound together as one flesh.
She raised her wrist to show off her scar. Me too.
Me: Also, she was my babysitter way back in the day.
My sister: Heinrich, you done fucked up.
Heinrich: Just try to monitor the language in front of the girls.
At the top of the spiral stairs: four green eyes between iron balusters.
She soaped my arm. She laid out certain possibilities involving the girls, should their daddy ever harm a fucking hair on the head of her one and only blood fucking brother.
Her scenarios, man-they were not without twine and blow torches.
An old-fashioned Lenk brass blowtorch, you understand? she said. Some vintage shit, mothafucka.
The green eyes flicked at each other, then at my sister, then Heinrich.
And vanished in a peel of giggles.
No joke, she said.
Heinrich: Listen, I really thought it was Houlihan.
Her hands felt OK on my skin. There was a red line on me—a border between the two countries of my arm—that disappeared when the water rushed over. Then a red line again, then a river of blood. Heinrich hurried over with medical tape, sterile packets of gauze. My sister tore the packets open, she patched my wounds, woe’s me, I’m patchwork now, I thought, and said.
My sister spooled the medical tape around the arm until the tape was gone
A patchwork fucking mummy! I said.
Feed him some Percocet, she said.
Heinrich: Percocet is tricky right now.
My sister: Two for him and three for me. And don’t let me hear this Houlihan shit. Jesus Heinrich, you are one sorry-ass, molestery-ass piece of shit.
She slapped me on the butt.
On your way, captain, she said. Right as rain.
Upstairs (the winding stairs!) the twins were playing Uno in bean bag chairs in front of the TV, a flat screen bigger than me and my arm put together.
Fuck Robert Osborne, said my sister.
A driftwoody, plate-glass end-table held the remote. Also a cleaver. My sister told Heinrich to change the channel and bring her the blade.
I slapped my forehead. I tried to remember everything I’d taken.
The girls like this channel, he said.
He picked up the cleaver in slow motion. Then the remote. He stared like he didn’t know which was which.
At last he passed the cleaver to my sister and clicked off the TV. She told Heinrich the contents she mos def excepted to see in our goodie bag, which was quite a bit, an’ what she was willing to pay, i.e. nothing.
I swept back a curtain, a window on high looking way down deep to the river. A green boulder sliced the current. There were fly fishermen, too, a couple fellas and a patch of red in the trees that must have been their truck. I almost started bawling right there. I wished I hadn’t wrecked her camera! I would have snapped a photo of that big ol’ green bolder.
Heinrich: Pills and powders baby. Can’t let ’em go for free, but I’ll give you an A1 discount for this most momentous family reunion.
I slid a chair from the table. Just marigolds, but they were nice. I ripped the tablecloth off. Later I was jumping up and down around the beanbag chairs, clapping my hands. I hurtled back and forth over the girls’ heads (they shrieked! in delight!) cape flapping loudly: WOOSH. FLAP. WOOSH. FLAP.
First girl: Not many black girls around here.
First girl: That girl’s the realest nigger I ever seen.
I sat down between them and wrapped the tablecloth around my knees.
Me: I’m kind of South Pacificky looking. I get that sometimes.
Second girl: We are robots bent on world domination.
Me: How’s that?
My sister slammed Heinrich against the wall. She pressed the cleaver to his throat.
Heinrich: OK, OK, I’ll hook you up with some samples, gratis.
Heinrich: You see Houlihan, though, you gotta tell him I’m looking for him.
My sister batted her eyelashes (lovely!).
She took his throat and kind of twisted it (crackly) and tossed me the cleaver, underhand, nice and easy.
I plucked it from midair. I sliced a few karate moves in his general direction.
She said she was going to tell him something, and she did.
Before she went overseas, said she, she’d always thought “flayed” meant to be severely whipped-liked flogged, right? Turns out, not so much.
My sister: Why would you take off my brother’s skin?
My sister: And how to atone?
The girls were gone now. The girls had vacated the premises.
Heinrich’s crunchy throat-noises made my stomach feel not so good. I shut my eyes and let the knife hang at my side. She grabbed my shoulder and pulled me in close so we were all touching. Every knee brushing every other knee, hers smooth, his hairy, mineI don’t know, just mine.
He’s ready, she told me. Give him a good slice. A little honest flaying. Pick a decent patch.
Our kneecaps kept bumping, all six of them, Heinrich shaking bad. I thought about the sound our knees would make—the clacking—if they weren’t bound up in ligaments and skin and hair.
My sister: Don’t be a baby. Cut him or he gets a Columbian neck-job.
The cleaver felt both heavy and light. The bean bag chairs were empty.
My sister backed Heinrich against the wall. She said, This was ordained a long time ago, Heinrich. But you can blame it on Baghdad—if that feels all right to you, if that makes it better. She said, We must change our wicked lives.
She tossed me a cleaver and I plucked it from the air.
I touched the blade to Heinrich’s ribs, then drew back his tank top so half his chicken chest was exposed.
My sister: Do it or he gets a Columbian neck-job.
Heinrich: Glackk glackkyack.
I pressed the blade to the edge of his nipple.
I swept back a red flap. Then a red curtain.
Later, Heinrich was on the floor, burbling in some blood that was his. The cleaver was somewhere else. On the floor, or maybe my sister had taken it away. Anyhow, I wasn’t holding it.
Hurts, don’t it? I said.
My sister: Don’t be a brat.
We were walking home in the dark. We kept tripping and pulling each other up. Bats—hey bats!—there were all these bats flashing past in the moonlight.
I’m naming that one Jake and that one Jake and that one Jake and that one Jake and that one Jake and that one Jake and that one Jake and that one Jake and that one Jake, I said.
I had to get back before dinner or mom would be mad, but I didn’t really know what time it was.
I’m gay, I said.
Her big black plastic glasses flickered at the lights of my house and all the other houses at the bottom of the hill.
How’s your arm?
Ok, I said.
It didn’t feel like we were getting closer, but we were, any minute now we’d be home.
* In the same vein, let us take our literary creations. They make us feel sickwhere is the military command? Where is the Politburo? Where is the Government? What are they doing, and with what are they engaged?
—Nikita Khrushchev, On the Personality Cult and Its Consequences
Had she been a robot, he would have caught a pleased little whir from her tristimulus colorimeter (desanguination radically sharpens one’s sensitivity to mechanical noise), but I assure you, she’s as human as you and I might have been, had our lives turned out differently. Keep an eye, though, on Heinrich and the girls—see if they don’t stumble through these pages under a cloud of suspicion. Heron of Alexander strangled his twin daughters when they over-wound his mechanical theater; when his reason returned he wept and tore at his beard, he sang his mourning prayers, then disarticulated the corpses and boiled them in vinegar. For 53 years on Mount Sinai he labored without sleep before he succeeded in reanimating their tiny frames, at last threading fishing line through bones, windwheels, laminated timber and the peeled spines of corncrakes—it all began to jump and play, and how I wish you could have heard his howls of ecstasy the night the girls jittered through five distinct wedding dances
That story is well enough known.
I wonder, though, if you’ve heard that his grave is empty? Eleven centuries later, Al-Jazari launched himself into the Tigris with a robot floutist and drummer, and vanished from history, or so it was thought but why then was the melody of those robotic girls heard in the reeds years thereafter, and a ticking cam-shaft? and later, when questions arose, the courtiers of Artuklu Palace couldn’t tell you where he came from, or why his hands smelled like vinegar, as did Heinrich’s, even if it is not noted above. Sadly, all such lines of inquiry are forbidden, as they are actionable overseas.
(Some argue that the courts hold no jurisdiction over footnotes, but to be safe, I am switching now to an ink of my own invention—it melts on foreign soil, coating your fingertips with a nourishing nectar of coconut and castor oils, and with the last drops I shall copy out the following, and no more shall you hear from me, my fugitive):
Mark Edmund Doten’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Exquisite Corpse, The Agriculture Reader, Elimae, New York Magazine, Word Riot, and Dennis Cooper’s Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground (Akashic Books).