A House Divided Against Itself

Alexander Hammil has a moment of clarity, when he is red with blood to the waste and when the shrieks of the boy are still echoing off the parlor walls and ringing through the streets, a moment of pure awareness when he recoils in horror. Then he pushes on. The war must still be ended.

He takes the still warm skin from the child’s back and spreads it across the frame, pulls it taut. It lacks the shape of life, but the image is clear, North and South in matrimonial dignity beneath a spreading tree, the work of agonizing hours. He settles himself beneath it and cuts his own throat, quick and clean with a knife.

It will be days before they breach the walls and find him, but Death and History are there before the knife has fallen to his lap, have been there for hours, have always been there, watching.

“So unnecessary,” says History, revolted. “The Union will survive. The Union was always going to survive.”

“Let him have this moment,” Death says. “He tried, poor thing.”

History shudders and turns her eyes away. The Union survives, and Alex and his victim are forgotten, a gory footnote in a gory century, two minor deaths lost amid the noise.

Mating Season

The year has turned once again and the dads have come back to the hills, as they always have, pulled by some mysterious force, some unspeakable compulsion. The journey is long and dangerous, and many dads arrive scarred and bloody from travel: missing eyes, severed hands, skin pulled away from the muscle underneath. One, near his end, is more scar than dad; in the half-light of evening you can watch the ponderous thump of his heart through the parchment of his skin.

“Good team this year,” says one, a young one, scratching an unfamiliar beard. This is his first year, and he is shy, eager, and dry for blood.

“Could go all the way,” agrees the old one, his milky eyes focused on nothing much, the puckered mouth of his wrist searching the air. “If they want it enough.”

The young one edges closer and shivers as that rough stump finds his shoulder. He closes his eyes, and thinks of the coltish daughter waiting at home, the yearling son hiding behind her. “Still, you never know.”

The old one laughs, deep in his hollow chest, and leans in close to the young one, his breath hot against his beard. “No, you know. You know.”

Ahasuerus

Thing is, he’s seen so many ends of days by this point. Empires rise and fall, cities shake to dust, war sweeps a country empty of life, and still he goes on, one day after the next like so many weary footsteps. What else should he do? They burn the atmosphere and he spends a millennium or more choking on ash, squeezing between glaciers a mile high, the last human outside the domes. They dig plague into the soil and he erupts in boils, weeps blood, loses his teeth, keeps walking, who cares.

The oceans rise and he haunts the sunken cities. None of them are familiar, not really, but then all cities look alike after awhile, just a house someone took the roof off of. He’s in, oh, someplace to the north, near where the glaciers split around the mountains, climbing hills in murky water the temperature of spit. There used to be a market here where people shouted at you, a space carved out of the terseness of the rest of the city. “Fresh fish!” Ahasuerus bellows, why not, but all he does is spook an octopus deeper back into the stalls.

Oh, well. Life goes on.

Dylan

He breaks the water, the cold steel surface of the water, and hauls its unbounded body onto a convenient log.

We are grilling, I think, or maybe walking the dog, her paws thick with mud and her lips white with drool, swaddled in our coats. The rocky slither of the beach is everywhere; this is as full as things get in November. Gulls are everywhere, chasing after the ferries.

He holds it down against the wood, its arms clutching feeble at his arms, already drowning in the air, and coolly punches it to death. He makes eye contact, grins.

What are you doing, we want to know. Why did you do that. What is wrong with you.

Art, he says. For an assignment.

We yell at him. He shrugs.

It’s dead already, he says, who cares. There are tons more of them down there. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and get another one. More art, right.

Later he gets threatening calls, he weeps, he pleads ignorance. We forgive, the beach and the water, but we do not forget. Something should change, he says. This shouldn’t happen again.

Yes, we say, this is true. This is all very true.

Empress Josephine

She woke up in the morgue, the mark of the cannula still worn into her upper lip, more clear-headed than she’d been in years. She sat up, just like that, without thinking about it, without having to plan every step carefully. Standing was an equal joy, no shifting her weight out past her knees, no rocking back and forth, no hoping she’d catch the handles of the walker and not fall on her forearms again. Standing! She laughed, the loudest sound she’d made since they moved up from Olympia, the same clear voice she’d heard in her head, then kept laughing, a minute, two, five, just to see how long she could go. She got bored before she had to stop.

There was someone else in the building with her, she could tell, someone warm, so she went looking, luxuriating just to be moving again.

“Oh, shit, you’re alive!” He was young, 22, maybe. College-aged; he looked like her grandson. He made his face look sympathetic. “Come sit down. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Do you remember your name? We’ll find your family. Let me look at your tag.”

She broke his neck easy as standing, then settled down to eat, still laughing. She’d never felt so alive.