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A is for apple. B is for bell.
A woman waits at the counter. I’ve never seen her in the shop before. I put down the dental floss and go ring her up, keeping an eye on the carnations. They’re awful-looking with their color frank and flat. As are the bills of change I hand back to her—and if we had any doubt, the powder blue nail polish I’m wearing has turned electric. I can tell the moment she notices. She stiffens minutely. Then walks away without making eye contact.
Out in the street a man in a business suit sprints by, acid green tie flapping over his shoulder.
The carnations don’t seem like flowers anymore. They are illustrations of mutated, exploded apples. Viruses with no DNA of their own. Just protein, just red.
I know it’s time to go.
I leave through the front door, locking up after myself even though I’m about to loot the stockroom. This building is unusual. It was built with no thought that the glassfront business on the ground floor might need a back room.
We negotiated one. It’s in Mrs. Lower’s cellar, and we get to it by walking up the stairs to the building’s main door, through the vestibule with the little brass mailboxes (including mine), down the hall on the left, through the door to her apartment (which she leaves unlocked during business hours), through what she calls her “foyer” with the big gilt mirror (hung at exactly the right angle to give me a heart attack when I glimpse my orange reflection dart by), through a trapdoor in her kitchen (that she leaves open), and down a set of fold-out stairs. The floor of her cellar is about head-height if you were standing in the shop.
The bees are riled up. She houses them in apiaries hung outside her window sills. We sell the honey for her; it’s a Bistou’s Convenience bestseller. Her place reeks of insecticide.
“Mrs. Lower?” I call, as a courtesy. “I’m going to the stockroom!”
No answer, just my own wide face in the mirror crowned by yellow-yellow bees. Her windows are covered with aluminum foil and plastic wrap to keep them out—ha. And she only uses orange light bulbs.
“For my complexion,” she says. “This wavelength zaps acne bacteria and also stimulates collagen production.”
It makes everything in her apartment look like that sickly sweet, artificially-flavored fever reducer for children. But it has no effect on the bees, today. They are purest yellow. When something is that emotionless and aggressive, be scared. The color, I’m talking about. Not the bees. They swim around lazily.
It is the color that is losing its normal affect, becoming zombie yellow, zombie blue. I hadn’t ever thought of color as having an emotional life—lives, moods—until a few minutes ago, until the carnations. The world is different now.
I’m in the stockroom slitting cardboard boxes open and pawing through them. There’s a dusty tapestry bag stashed in the corner. I won’t be able to stomach the pattern, the colors.
And there’s the fact that I’ll be stealing it from Mrs. Lower.
Chocolate bars, oatmeal cookies, wafers, cured meat, dried fruit, warm flat lemonade, warm flat water all go into the bag. I barely remember tampons. Better get out there before it becomes a stampede.
I go back. I get stung on the neck.
• • •
I liked it when her kids grew up enough to groan and eyeroll her when she got on the subject. Especially at the dinner table. She’d see something on a news flyer and start lecturing about drugs and murders and stolen babies and how society is supposed to function. When refugees come to a new place, they affect it. People go crazy.
Meanwhile, we’re trying to eat.
“Mom,” say Will and Jean, “well-trod ground.” A favorite phrase of their father’s, my brother’s, but Will Sr. doesn’t use it with his wife (he’s too mild, which sounds nice and is, except when he is being a coward). I find their use of it hilarious.
The way she goes on, you’d think she had a baby stolen. But both her kids are right here, perfectly safe and with healthy appetites. She talks until the chorus drowns her out. Teenagers aren’t afraid of yelling.
“Well, okay,” she says, eventually, flapping her hands over the normal-green green beans as though shooing away the topic. “But in this family, at least, we know what’s right. Don’t we?”
God, green beans. What a nice, empathetic green, a green that’s about chlorophyll and sunshine and steam over boiling water on the stove. I never know whether she’s including me when she uses the word family.
“We don’t travel. And we don’t want refugees coming here. End of story.”
The actual story is ongoing, old and a little boring. Refugees have been quietly trickling in for years, probably generations. They are blamed for things because they are strange in ways no one likes to talk about.
I don’t think Ann knows that I met one. It was long ago, maybe thirty years, and I only remember scraps. It’s possible Will (Sr.) has told her, and she’s deliberately angling to hurt me when she says things about how “this family” would never have anything to do with them. It’s also possible that because of the circumstances around what happened to me, she thinks I’m on her side.
But I bet she has no idea.
All I know is that the green I see in trees and window boxes and the alley garden next to the 57th Street Laundromatica has shut up. It is dead. And I for one am not going to hang around and watch it start to bleed.
I have a cramp in my side from lugging the tapestry bag. The plastic bottles of water and lemonade roll around inside, making it difficult to get into a jogging rhythm. Most people are going faster than me.
If I believed that bleaching was real, I guess I should have stayed in shape for it?
• • •
No one knows what’s Out, beyond the forest.
After thirty blocks, I don’t recognize the shops, the buildings. I’ve never been this way before, never had any reason to go this far Out. Twelve more and I discover that the city streets end at a red chain-link fence. Below it is a concrete retaining wall, a ten-foot drop to the plain beyond. The fence is just like the ones around the pens at the City Zoological Society. Those are to keep the peacocks and black bears and such away from visitors. I guess this one is here to keep people from emigrating. It’s hard to look at it.
We are milling around, many of us sweaty and winded, wearing the wrong shoes for this. Some give up and go home, shoulders slumped. Others throw their things over and start to climb. I hear someone crying—I push my way up to the fence and see a man sitting on the dirty ground below the retaining wall, ten feet below me. His back is against the wall; he clutches his ankle as blood seeps through his sock. The color is worse than the red paint of the fence. Blood is life, even when it’s pouring out of you.
I’m glad I can’t see mine right now.
Sirens. The City Official must be panicking. They’ll want to stop a mass exodus. I’m hot, tired, breathing hard. Rivulets of sweat run down my legs inside my pants (I hope it’s sweat). I want desperately to just sit and wait for them to round me up.
It takes me two tries to throw my tapestry bag over the fence. My body is larger than most of the people trying to climb, but I am determined. And I make it over. I am careful on the descent.
I leave my bottle of water for the man with the broken ankle. The City Official will take him. Though I suspect there isn’t much time left for anyone here.
I start out over the bare dirt field. The earth still has its numen, its bright sandy scatteredness and its deep damp good, although it is littered with old cans and scraps of news flyers in psychopath colors.
Eventually I'm walking over scraggly grass. The weeds look okay, natural.
“Hey.” Someone tugs my sleeve. At first I think it’s that customer who noticed my nail polish earlier. But it’s someone else, a woman who comes into the shop a couple times a month. She buys clementines and dark morning tea. Or maybe they’re the same person.
I grunt back. There should be more of us out here. How many have escaped, a couple thousand? Three? Does she recognize me?
“Hey,” says the clementine woman again. “You can’t go straight Out. Angle to Morning.”
Right. Anyone will tell you that, not just Ann. Never go too far In or too far Out. The world doesn’t end in those directions, and whatever the implications of that may be (no one says), to quote Will Sr., it’s well-trod ground. There are others living there who don’t want to be crowded. Just as we don’t want to be, by people from In.
The rumors of bleaching come from In. Always from In. The most efficient way to outrun it should be to go straight Out, no? Especially as I’m slow.
The clementine woman is about twenty yards ahead and has angled sharply toward Morning. There’s the forest; I can see the tree line in the distance. It looks great. The green is looking at me how my mother used to.
I have to make it to the trees. Morning won’t be safe. It’s Out for me. I have to reach the forest before I collapse.
They say that eventually the mutated colors bleed away , that all textures flatten and become smooth, like perfect glass.
I don’t look back.
• • •
I down the last of the lemonade. The warm sugar irritates my throat and makes me thirstier, even as the forest quenches my eyes.
Did Will and Jean run? They eyeroll Ann, but in the end, did they believe her? Did my brother? With a horrible, retching certainty, it hits me that they did. I wish I had spoken up more at those family dinners.
Well, I’m a coward and I didn’t save anybody. I should feel some way about that.
Or—maybe it got me? Am I a little bleached now, a little too bright, losing some of my emotional capacity? Maybe my insides are going smooth, maybe my period is the last of my good old blood coming out.
I force myself to keep walking, because what else?
I remember when Will Sr. was just plain Will. When he was Will Bistou, my older brother and already mild, but not yet what they call retiring. He used to take me to the Zoological Society to look at the black bears and the tame coyote and the one-winged bald eagle hopping around her red chain-link enclosure barking for mice. Some farmer had shot her in the wing.
The Zoological Society kept the same animals but always changed the placards, so you never knew what you were going to read about.
did you know?
bald eagles have more eyelids than you think.
“So now I have to think about animal eyelids,” Will sighs. “This place sure is asking a lot of me.”
“The nick… nick-i-ti—”
“Nictitating.” Will corrects me. His voice is lazy, humming out of him like a slow bee.
“—membrane is a clear second eyelid that helps keep the eagles’ eyeballs clean and moist and they can close it and still see through it. Wow,” I say. “Very alien.”
Will shrugs. We follow the line of placards along the fence. We pass the zookeepers’ hut. There are little holes in the concrete where people have stuck gum. I’m young enough, I put my fingers in to touch it—smooth and petrified.
please don’t touch the wall.
Will continues to read.
gum is not allowed on zoological society grounds.
stop it with the gum!
i mean it! doesn’t anybody read the signs?!
He chuckles to himself.
just as extinct animals have left fossils behind in the ground, the human species is preparing for its eventual obliteration by leaving nasty pieces of chewed-up indigestibles in these holes. as these artifacts preserve information such as molar shape and a tendency to disregard official signage, i am no longer cleaning them out and putting them where they should go, in the trash along with the rest of you awful people .
did you know?
the human brain is about 60% fat. it’s the fattiest organ in the whole body. makes you think.
“Oh great,” says Will, “more thinking.”
I just laugh.
The latest sign is a different size and color. It’s difficult to tell whether it is an official Zoological Society placard.
did you know?
i can’t wait for all of you to get bleached.
“That’s the last one,” I say. “Let’s go home.”
He holds out his hand and I take it, feeling special. No one else has an eight-years-older brother who takes such good care of them. He’s not your natural brother, though, they say. And your mom isn’t your mom. (Later, Ann would not let me forget it.)
We’re almost home when I ask. “What was the last one talking about?”
“The zoologist was insulting us as a species.”
One thing I know about Will, even at the age of nine, is that he tends to assume people already have the answers to the questions they ask him. So he answers you from a few steps ahead, which a lot of times ends up being from behind again.
“I know that.” You have to ask him directly. “What’s getting bleached?”
Will scratches his head . “It’s just a rumor, probably.”
He doesn’t mean to deliberately withhold information. I don’t think so. It’s just his dear way of getting tangled in conversation. He keeps tripping over the one thing you want to know.
“No,” I say, “I know that too. But what is it? What happens when you get bleached?”
“Oh, people say colors go off. They get too bright and flatten out, one by one, before slowly draining away. Then everything freezes, completely clear and smooth. Dead glass.” He sees the fear on my face. “But I don’t know who made it up. It isn’t real.”
I’m walking Out through the forest when I realize my brother is gone.
Where did he finally freeze? Sitting in his easy chair? At the dinner table with Ann and the kids, glass family? Alone on the toilet?
I sing a song to keep myself moving .
Insa winsa A B C
See Beast Do at the top of the tree
A is for Apple
B is for Bell
C is for Crash when Beast Do fell
Beast do this, Beast do that
Fly me away hid in his hat
How many secrets in that hat?
1, 2, 3, 4…
Not a song. More like a chant I made up when I was little, just after I left the farm and came to the city. Not for years have I thought about it and now it pops into my head as clear as a B is for bell.
I want to let the pain in and collapse. I have to keep walking.
• • •
Where are all the people, all the strangers from Out? I’ve been walking through this forest for days and days. I have hunger cramps and period cramps and muscle cramps. There’s a stream of water that may or may not be safe to drink, but it flows Out, so I keep following it. I have no choice, and there isn’t even the tiniest residue of sugar left inside my lemonade bottle.
There is so much space. Why don’t people live here?
My food is gone.
• • •
• • •
Maybe my brain is eating up all of its fat stores.
I’ve definitely seen that maple before, with its bark scored by some old injury. And those rocks nestled in the vee of its Morningside roots. Orange moss that reminds me of bees buzzing. It’s not just the tree, either. It’s the tree’s context. The leaves on the ground and the smells and the exact amount of sky that can be seen up through the branches.
What is this?
I walk and walk. Although I’m on flat ground, I suddenly feel like I’m walking downhill, into something. Going deep.
Deep, but not deep enough.
This place is like a memory. I breathe hard. I want to stop, but walk faster. It’s exactly like the forest near the farm where I used to live.
Not deep enough.
I’ve seen that branch before, hanging off that tree, some voice in my head calling it a widowmaker. Not one like it, but that exact one. It stayed up there for years, and I was always coming to check on it, wondering when it would finally fall.
That voice. A man’s voice.
All of this is familiar. That rock that looks like a sleeping dog on one side and a torn loaf of bread on the other.
A man’s voice. Please not today.
All familiar. The contours of the ground. The colors the colors the colors.
I see him in my head now. I see his face. Papper’s face. And I want to run.
This is just like thirty years ago. There’s going to be an oak with a great big cleft a five-year-old could climb up into. A declivity underneath that fills with water after every rain and is almost never totally dry.
Insa winsa A B C
I used to test the water level with a stick. To see if it was deep enough to go fishing in.
Please not today not today.
I would wear the rubber boots that were always sitting by the kitchen door and I would stir up dead leaves and clouds of dirt and I would imagine I could see fish in there. Little minnows darting in silvery packs.
I turn a corner and there it is. The oak.
“Deep, but not quite deep enough.”
A chubby girl stands in front of the tree, poking the puddle with a stick. There is a dead leaf stuck in her hair. She likes the shape of oak leaves; she thinks they’re elegant. When she looks up and sees me, she smiles. Her front teeth are gone, and her eyes are the same color as mine.
I remember that I’m an outgoing kid when I’m away from Papper. I try to hide from him as much as I can, which is why I find these games to play in the forest.
“Hi,” I say.
We are so close to the farm now that I can smell the horses. I know that one of them is a dark bay. And the other bites.
“What’s your name?” she asks. “I’m Emmy.”
So am I. Emily, not Emmy, but close enough. And maybe I was Emmy, sometimes, back then.
I can’t tell her that. I say the first name I think of, my last name.
“Bee stew?!” she shouts, mishearing it just as I once did. “Like a stew made out of bees? That’s a funny name. I never heard that one before.”
I’m frightened. Thirsty and so hungry that I sway on my feet.
“Well, Emmy is a pretty name,” I say, trying frantically to remember whether I am scared at this point or curious or what. What will make this girl help me? Without alerting her Papper, for surely she has one.
Emmy rolls her eyes. Too old for compliments, right—they make her feel itchy. She wiggles her shoulders as though twisting away from an unwanted touch.
“You’re a stranger, aren’tcha?”
I nod, wanting desperately to sit down, but remembering that my towering bulk is impressing her.
“I come from In of here,” I say. “Walked through the forest, a long way.”
Her eyes widen. “Papper says never go too far In. Or Out!”
I smile at her transparent delight at meeting someone who has broken one of Papper’s rules.
“Why’d you do it?” she asks.
“My city got bleached. I had to run away fast.”
She raises her chin and looks at me knowingly. “Bleaching isn’t real. Why did you do it really?”
I take a step forward, looming over her, trying not to faint. And I remember the words as I’m saying them: “Bleaching is real. It’s as real as I am. Someday it will happen in the place you live. Do you understand?”
I feel twisted, weighed down on one side by Mrs. Lower’s tapestry bag, wild and haunted. I can feel the moment when she starts to be scared.
She nods her head. “Yes, sir.”
“You don’t have to talk to me that way,” I say. “I’m not your Papper.”
Relief blooms on her face.
“When the colors look too bright, that’s when you have to go. Pay close attention to flowers. Always be ready.”
She nods her head again, but less self-consciously. She’s taken it in. I know.
“So is that what you eat?” she asks.
“What?” I blink at her.
“Do you take the stingers out before you put the bees in? How long do you cook it? I like stew better when it’s cooked longer.”
“I actually don’t have any food right now at all,” I say. “I ate it on the way here.”
“You must be pretty hungry.”
She doesn’t move, just keeps staring at me with big eyes. I really do have to sit down now, and I land with an awkward thump beside the puddle. I look mountainous.
“Maybe you can catch me a fish,” I say, pointing.
“Oh,” she says, poking her stick in and pulling it out again to examine the waterline. “It’s not deep enough for fish yet.”
She does get me some bread and cheese later, sneaking it from the back of the pantry and bringing it to me when the sun goes down and Papper is out of the way. She even fills my bottle with water from the pump. My whole body aches with different kinds of hurt. I sit and eat, trying not to go too fast. I should save some of it, but soon it’s all gone.
A few minutes later, I have to try hard to keep from throwing up.
I sleep until dawn, get up to pee and bury my last tampon, and then sleep until the lazy dead of noon.
• • •
Small insects drone around me. Nothing else moves; the horses cluster in the shade of a livestock shelter near the edge of the forest. I sneak around behind it and peer off at the farmhouse.
When I remember what is happening inside, I do throw up.
I am a coward.
• • •
“He always goes down easier on the days it happens,” I say.
She looks at me with suspicion and alarm. How did I find out? Will I tell anyone else? But when my words sink in, she realizes that I know what she’s dealing with. That I’ve dealt with it, too.
“Yeah…” She picks at the quilt that used to hang off the iron headboard of my bed.
“You know,” I say, “I can help you leave. There’s a place in the city for you. It’s way better than this place, trust me.”
She rolls her eyes at me again and snorts, but her body is practically vibrating. I see how young and artless I am, and it makes me hate him more. She’s going to run away with me, a stranger, a refugee from In. That’s how desperate she is.
I never realized that before.
She rocks back and forth, hugging her legs and singing, “Eenie weenie A B C, see Bee Stew sitting under the tree…”
It is toneless.
When the song dies out, I tell her, “It can be the last today, today.”
She goes still. Her voice is small.
The next thing I remember, thirty years ago, is Beast Do carrying me on a broad back over a stream. We made the city that evening.
But now I have to decide how to start. I have to decide about Papper.
He’s asleep, drunk. I’m a coward.
“Stay here,” I whisper. I’m still not sure.
Inside the farmhouse, I pause. There are differences. A cross-stitched pillow that says sweet home instead of sweet friends, a lamp I don’t remember. I’m beginning to see the pattern of the world I live in. Maybe it’s not always perfectly replicated, like a slowly mutating strand of DNA. Still, each grain in the wood floor is the same. The dark, worn spot on the couch where he always sits. That burned edge on the blue potholder hanging from the hook above the woodstove—I touch the scar on my wrist.
I wonder what the first Emily was like. The first Papper, the first farm.
There is a knife he uses to carve birds. I take it out of the kitchen drawer and mount the steps by route of fewest creaks. But he’s dead drunk in Emmy’s room, lying on his stomach on her bed and snoring.
He’s smaller than I remember. Is this all he was?
I can’t tell if his face looks different, or if it’s just slack from sleeping, mushed against the coverlet.
I do it. This blood can stay unburied, as ugly depthless as it wants to be.
I leave with as much food as I can stuff into my bag .
• • •
“Hey kiddo,” I say, careful not to touch her. “Time to go.”
I hold out her heavy coat, even though it’s still high summer. She doesn’t ask how I found it, packed away in the trunk in the extra bedroom.
I got cold in my city that first winter.
We sing the song about Bee Stew together as we walk. Through Papper’s fields, then another farm, Out toward the city. We stop for the night and sleep under an oak, our favorite shape. I don’t know if anyone will come looking for us. But I do know they won’t find us.
• • •
I take her into her city, to a certain street. Knock on a certain door. The woman I think of as my mother answers. Farrah Bistou is warm, seemingly boundless and not at all frail, not yet. My resolve almost crumbles when I see her. I imagine myself wrapped in a nictitating membrane, separate from this her. I must keep quiet, keep my eyes lowered.
She will die in five years, but it will be enough time. Her son will inherit the shop and he will let Emmy run it when she is old enough. She will have her own place and live quietly until the day the carnations oversaturate.
After things are arranged, I am at a loss. Do I stay here? Watch Emmy grow up? Watch my mother get sick again? How long before they recognize me?
Five years might not be enough, with me crowding them.
I buy clothes with the money Farrah presses into my hand. Brand-new old-fashioned shoes. There are opportunities to Morning, the shopkeeper tells me, for those who dare.
I walk toward the rising sun, a bold line in the pattern of a fading world.
© 2019 Alexandra Munck, all rights reserved