In which you get through the parts the commentators consider maudlin, then make your journey southward. There you can expect the snow to let up and the people to come out of their houses and wave their handkerchiefs in the air even if they don’t know why they are doing so. It is a custom that must be followed regardless of consequence. If Eulalie had presented herself to me then in the form of some other person, had adopted the robes of history itself, I might have saved some money. As it is, she is walking on a wire above the pavement. Perhaps if I fell in love … Several weeks pass, during which time I write impassioned letters, confessions really, to people I know living in halfway houses. And others who have come and gone like those starter teeth we are equipped with as children without our having to request them. Eulalie considers my love suspect and all but accuses me of making it up. She thinks we are no longer required to believe what people claim even if what they claim is corroborated by the evidence, by the photographs and the visible scar tissue.
We stand at the end of the road, considering the view and discussing why there are beams of light erupting from what looks like solid ground twenty yards ahead. It is a discussion we have had previously, in other lives, lives with abrupt and frequently painful ends, and reminding us all these years later that it is better to pretend you are living than to actually be alive. No matter what the magazines might say. And the people who read the magazines because they are waiting for someone to tell them they are beautiful. Even if only on the inside. Where, of course, the pancreas is. I suppose the route is familiar to those who have studied the syllables in the national anthems of the various nations (at least those nations that have national anthems) – number and location and silence between syllables, some of those silences lasting so long you could get lost inside them much the same way you can get lost inside a cave. Immanuel dresses in a camouflage suit he purchased for twenty dollars from a store that has no sign on it, a clandestine place you have to know about through word of mouth or because you stumbled on it when you were looking for a store that sells tapioca. His suit is not colored, as is the norm, to look like a tangle of bushes or a pile of leaves, but a bright orange, with green tints, and all of it in the form of strands of fabric hanging from every point of the body. It reminds one of those beasts said to frequent the banks of rivers and the unexplored swamps on their fringes, the man-beasts and half-apes and even sometimes reptilian creatures that stand on two legs and abduct human infants when given the chance. When the occupants of the cabin they choose to plunder have left their windows unlocked. Through carelessness or active disregard of the advice given them by those who have lived in the vicinity for generations. Immanuel himself suggests the plan is one we ought to have left in our back pockets because now we find ourselves pretending to be more ferocious than we actually are, all the while stumbling about on roads that don’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. They wind through the mountains and dead-end suddenly at bodies of water so pristine in appearance, you might be forgiven for bending down at the edge of them and taking a drink. But the consequences, as almost always happens, turn out to be severe. They fairly strangle you with their codicils, with their phrases taken, at some point in the not too distant past, from the Latin.
In which the options are similar to those faced by a man who must scale the side of a mountain with his bare hands. He has at least those to work with. And he is familiar with them. He has been using them all his life. To open envelopes. To touch his wife when she will allow it. It’s like when we chase down those scraps of paper that refuse to move much beyond the places where they originally came to rest. Those parts of the Earth that stick up slightly and catch whatever is attempting to move past on what amounts to imperceptible hooks. Though the existence of such has never actually been established. Just hypothesized by those whose job it is to keep us from becoming too comfortable in our vests and our explanations. Our alibis and matchbook collections. And isn’t this typical as well of our assistants from the Upper Pennisula? We suspect they have been penning their own version of events on the side while feeding us misinformation so that our version will not be as marketable as theirs. They came to us, in fact, with a reputation for getting on people’s nerves precisely because they couldn’t keep their opinions to themselves and they couldn’t quite hide the fact that these weren’t their actual opinions. They were planting them for later use the way you plant asparagus a year before it’s ready to harvest. But who knows? Maybe we’ve spent too much time trying to picture all things as layered when, in fact, they exist almost completely at the surface. They wriggle about there until such time as the sun gets high enough in the sky to dry them up. To turn them into little more than desiccated remnants.
Disappointment admits itself through the side door, with the frosted glass and the long scratches in the wood still evident from the last time. The claw marks. The bell shapes that remind you of practicing the trumpet when you were in middle school and didn’t even own a trumpet. You liked to hold your hand to your lips and move your head about as if there was water inside it and you were trying to get it to drain out either ear. We are looking for something with gills on it, something that has crawled up out of the creek nearby and is likely to remain silent even when you roast it over a fire. Not that transcendence is out of the question. It’s just that we don’t believe anymore in those myths that allow one thing to become another without the imbibing of magical liquors. Or saying words that have a very specific meaning in the language you are using and quite another in a language you didn’t even realize exists. Maybe it’s time we admit there are too many of us on this trip, our numbers overwhelming the capacity for each member of the group to judge for himself what is vital and what merely an illusion dressed up as certainty. Wearing a wig. Fiddling with earrings. When I address them come midnight, the council fire sputtering due to someone’s having spilled his milk on it, they erupt in something that looks so much like outrage, I have to check my little book of illustrations just to make sure I’m not seeing things. The discussion is not one we wish to repeat, but we find ourselves repeating parts of it anyway for more than a month. Not that this alleviates any of the suffering we otherwise endure in silence. Or near silence, our complaints about the angle of the sun and the bitter taste of the local oysters giving our true positions away the way we give nickels away sometimes to children we think might be able to give us some valuable information. Like where is the clean drinking water? And why are most of the adults in the area missing fingers?
In which their pointy mustaches creep into our dreams at night and change the way we think about the equinox. About why we are always just a step behind everyone else. Perhaps it is this that keeps us from pulling out our own tongues in frustration. Or trying to and finding that the tongue is slippery. And dislodging it forcefully even more unpleasant than we might have imagined. Still, the threats sound less than ominous. They seem almost to seek a melody like birds that haven’t been brought up by their relatives. There’s only so far instinct can take you before it becomes the wrong direction. He is certain, for instance, the money will morph of its own accord. Of course, the exact nature of this change has yet to be determined when he sets out. When he finds himself on the sidewalk surrounded by people who don’t care who he has courted or where he has courted them or why. Though they are interested occasionally in examining his shoes.
You recognize the ploy. The captions rendered in such miniscule print, you can’t help but ask if maybe their author is trying to hide something, is trying to keep the rest of us from figuring out he is making things up as he goes. Like those bits about the slaughterhouse and what happens when you find yourself possessed of one, the gift of someone in his will, and you’d like to decline but maybe there is a fortune to be made there if you play your cards right and you don’t get too squeamish. Which is a fault you’ve noticed frequently in others but have never been too quick to diagnose in yourself. The pattern is familiar to all those who landed on this side of the continent. With parachutes. And notes in their front shirt pockets, notes from old girlfriends who went on to marry diplomats in foreign lands and don’t have the time anymore to answer their phones. They hire people to do that for them. Then fire them again almost immediately because they discover a personality flaw, something that had been hiding in plain sight – a tendency to imagine everyone they meet as potential victims of practical jokes. Or whistleblowers. Or stage performers who can’t remember which town in the Midwest they got their start in. Maybe we are all biding our time until something better comes along. And when nothing comes along at all, when the whole Earth seems to stand still suddenly like a statue which is itself holding a replica of the Earth on it shoulders, we realize we should have been more proactive. We should have bounded from one place to another as if our feet were made of springs. And then everything would have been different! We might have been named regional supervisor. We might have been invited as teenagers to those parties where the boys and the girls paired off and slipped into the woods so as to be able to hold one another awkwardly. All while standing up, mind you, as the ground was wet. And said to be crawling with microbes and fungi that could damage the skin.
Charles Freeland lives in Dayton, Ohio where he is Professor of English at Sinclair Community College. A two-time recipient of the Individual Excellence Award in Poetry from the Ohio Arts Council, he is the author of the book-length poem Eros & (Fill in the Blank) (BlazeVOX), the collection Through the Funeral Mountains on a Burro (Otoliths), and several chapbooks and e-chapbooks including Deviled Ham and a Picture of Jesus: Twenty Grubb Tales (Finishing Line Press) and Furiant, Not Polka (Moria). His website is The Fossil Record (charlesfreelandpoetry.net).