Fio and Rain divorced in 1990. Eriem was 3 years old. Rain moved out of the Rauchfort Ranch to live in a nearby town so as to share custody and maintain visitation rights of Eriem and her older brother, Duncan, who had just turned 10.
Duncan legally emancipated himself from his parents’ custody at age 16. He traveled south to LA and did not communicate with his parents for many years.
Eriem remained at the Ranch. She grew up in fresh air with dirt between her toes and infrequent bathing. Many days ended with a traveler passing through, accepting offers of a warm bed and a decent meal on their way somewhere. Lots had no home. Lots were going south, toward the border. Even more were going north, hoping to pass through Canada and make it to Alaska. It was still wild there. You could be invisible. Truly vanish from record.
“Great men you’ve never heard of live in anonymity there,” one visitor explained. He was young with a haircut buzzed down to almost nothing. His eyes were slate blue and he talked plainly. “Live in communities sorta like this one, see? Just living. Owe nothing to anyone except what’s standing beside them. And the world lets them live. World thinks it can take, and take, and take from a man. I got—I haven’t got anything they even want anymore, right? So they just start taking things that even they don’t want. They don’t want my soul. They want to erase their guilt.”
“What’d they do?” Eriem asked. “That makes them feel bad? And feel guilty?”
It was a calm November afternoon. The falling leaves were almost all done with their work. Eriem and the visitor sat on opposite sides of the picnic table eating apple slices out of a sealed plastic container.
“They probably think they went too far. Started living too large,” the visitor said. “And they’re too guilty, deep down inside—too embarrassed, really—to return some ill-gotten materialism.”
“Who—are they? When you say they—?”
“The men in power. The men who live dead men’s dreams. Dreams upon dreams their cutthroat daddies dreamt up when it was easy to kill a man in the street for the paper in his pocket. Easier, I should say.”
Eriem was thirteen now. She raised an eyebrow, suspect. “You can’t just kill someone in the street.”
“They killed me,” the visitor said. He ate an apple slice. “Made me go away. Disappear from sight. Good as dead, as far as they’re concerned. So they can keep on dreaming without guilt. So they can imagine themselves as great men in a great era of history. Claiming glorious victory. But this is just translated and re-translated, delirious dementia dragged from the lips of a long-dead desert god. Men begging mercy from the Roman gladius. Borrowed persecution complexes. It’s good to be persecuted! It’s good to be the victim—the beautiful victim! A competition of sadness. Who can endure the lashings, proudly, willfully, and smile beneath the light of the one above all. That is the only ugliness they even allow, right? To suffer in another’s stead.” He bit the apple slice clean in half with his front choppers. A churn of unswallowed fruit gnashed around in his cheeks. “They are obsessed with suffering. In others. And their own. It is a true pain to live so comfortably and know you’ve never been a beautiful victim in your life, so they imagine an injustice. They’ve seen them before on TV. It’s easy to borrow another’s pain. Especially without easing that pain in the process. And they look, and they see, that’s me, up there! I’ve a boot upon my neck, too, haven’t I?! And I can overcome, as other great men have. And they stand, resolute, with a constant erection. Vanity, vanity. All is vanity.”
His bottom lip drooped. He breathed heavily from his thin abdomen, sucking against his spine. The visitor and Eriem locked eyes, and not shifting his gaze, he reached down to his rucksack on the ground beneath the picnic bench. He set a brown paper bag on the table between them. Whatever was inside rattled a little when he slowly placed it there.
“I want you to have something,” the visitor said. “For listening.”
“Oh. ‘Kay,” Eriem said.
“See, you’ve already proven yourself to be more conscientious than most people, so this might seem redundant. But in this bag is something very interesting. When you look at it, it sorta might remind you of sugar glass,” he said, reaching inside. He took out a reflective piece of green something. Eriem bent around to try to see it. “But in reality, it’s actually all that’s left of a vase once owned by a witch. She lived in California 80 years ago. She was young—ageless, really, thanks to the magic. And she grew a very particular plant in this vase. Before it was shattered. Still, some of the spell remains.”
He opened his palm to show Eriem the green glass. He motioned to her with it. She took the shard. It was heavier than it appeared. While its surface appeared smudged with some filth, the insides seemed to be filled with a liquid. It slid here and there, not on either side of the piece as Eriem turned it over to get a better look, but within, like rain on a window.
“What’s the spell do?” Eriem asked.
“It lets you sense the life of all things,” the visitor said. “No matter the size. Reflected against one another. Passing between all things in the system of the world. To sense, to see all these connections, is to recognize and love life. Every object in existence is a mirror, Eriem.”
The visitor slept in the barn that night. In the morning, he left and began walking north.
Eriem set the brown paper bag on the floor beside her bed. She mimicked the care the visitor had taken. She unrolled the top of the bag, wrinkled, but hearty, like the paper bag had been meant to carry heavy nails. She widened the opening with a spread of her fingers. Cross-legged on the floor beside the bag, her face drifted to spy its contents.
The fragmented emerald shards within clung together in a misshapen heap. Eriem squinted. The slithering liquid trapped in each piece trickled in golden rivulets, forking, dividing, and recombining in search of spaces beyond.
Eriem reached inside. She plucked a piece near the top. The rest slid away as she held it before her face. Its surfaces were sugared in brittle, spiny junk. She placed the piece on her bed and set her chin down beside it to look closer. The spiny junk was curling and forking off the green, glassy surface like the crystals on a perfect snowflake. Eriem took the piece between her thumb and forefinger, raised it to her mouth, and licked the glass clean with her tongue.
“And that’s why I’m so kind and understanding,” Eriem explained to those gathered around her on the gym’s padded floors.
Ten years later. She had spent the two years taking heavy stunt falls off fire escapes and playing corpses on multiple Law & Order sub-series. Now she was in stunt choreography pre-production of Doc Savage, a movie based on some old pulp serial novels from the early 1900s.
“And everyone that’s ever actually read one of that yellowing dime store junk is too old to even hear the dialog coming through in clear THX surround,” one of the other performers said. Eriem looked at him. “Nobody here wants to make a bad movie. But sometimes, a bad movie is thrust upon you.”
“Eriem, square up with Arkie,” one of the coordinators said, reading off his clipboard. He directed others to pair up, exclusively setting men with women. Apparently, in this scene, the all-woman barbarian village had captured the hero and were preparing to flip him upside down and drain his blood. The cavalry, in the form of a band of swashbuckling buddies, was coming on for the rescue. This meant carefully-choreographed fights between square-jawed men and lithe women, each side ready to hack apart the other with jagged clubs.
The stunt guy named Arkie noodled with his green baton, one day to be replaced with an actual prop. Eriem stretched and unzipped her hoodie.
“So did the junk on the busted witch bottle taste like dirt, or paint, or what, exactly?” Arkie asked her.
“It tasted like charcoal,” she answered. She picked up another stunt baton and looked down its edge to see if it was straight.
“How’s your stuff look?” Arkie asked.
“There’s no way this movie gets made, right?” Eriem said with a laugh. They walked toward each other. Arkie planted his foot, wound back his shoulder like he was preparing a tennis stroke and slow-motion rotated to swipe at Eriem. She put up her own baton to block the blow along her forearm, nodded at him, then rotated away from the force of the imagined blow. “They saw the returns on John Carter. Disney can’t make this sort of adventure film work with $200 million. They just bought Marvel and The Avengers is gonna make a billion dollars. Then I duck low—”
Eriem eased to one knee, used the point to pirouette in place, easy enough on a smooth gym mat in yoga pants, and bumped her foam weapon against Arkie’s calf. He sold the hit in slow-motion as they’d rehearsed in the morning. Two steps back to plant a foot on the wall. “Then I launch off the wall,” he said, recalling and nodding.
“Wanna try it now?” Eriem asked.
“I gotta do it over you and hit as I go over.” He exhaled and waited for her to get back into position, half-kneeling. “Ready?”
She nodded, tensing.
Arkie took two running steps. He set his bare foot into the wall. He went up and over backward. He swung the baton down at halfway. Eriem swatted him away in expert timing. Arkie landed on one solid foot and punched his free hand into the mat.
“Gonna throw some Iron Man in there?”
“Can’t help it,” Arkie said, shrugging. “That was almost perfect. Good stuff! I gotta work on it a bit more.”
“You can do it. You’ve gotten this good. Why not believe you can get just a little bit better?”
Arkie fanned and twirled the practice baton. “We’re still getting paid, either way,” he sighed. “Nothing on the line but pride if they don’t actually start real photography.” He set back up at the start of the choreography. Eriem recognized and they went a little faster. “I think we’re getting this. I didn’t even—I dunno. You didn’t really talk to me for a while.”
“What do you mean?”
Arkie finished the strike at the end of the series of movies. They reset. “I thought you hated me.”
“Because I wasn’t talking to you?” Eriem shook her head. “That was your default assumption?”
“You seemed mad about something. All the time. Now I know it was just the magic glass you tongued as a kid,” Arkie laughed.
“I was sorta-joking. And sorta-not,” Eriem said. She reset her position and smiled. “Full speed?”
The exchange of blows was all-out. Strike, block, duck, backstep, hit, one-two-one-two, wall-plant, overhead hit, Iron Man, and done.
“But you grew up in a hippie commune?” Arkie asked.
“More or less. Just me and my mom and six other families. Still saw my dad whenever. He was—not in the best place mentally. Emotionally. He’s harmless. Just sorta banged up or burnt out. I’d be angrier, but he didn’t really abandon me. He was still around. I think he and my mom had a good thing worked out, and he knew I’d be taken care of at the Ranch. Ironic, right? Being raised by a community of people taught me to forgive the person who might otherwise have been blamed for leaving me to that community. He just wasn’t capable of being a parent. Too much fog in his head. Honestly, probably better he wasn’t around as much. I had—other ways to learn about the world.”
Eriem slid back into her hoodie. She tucked her baton under her armpit to zip it up. “What’re you doing later?”
-- Alex Crumb
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