Labrys

Cedar-Magnolia-PorterThe men had outraged them, so they rose up against them and cast them out, beyond the city walls, beyonds the fields, into the forests and the wild spaces and the mountains. Some went with them, who can say, what does it matter.

In their wake life went on much as before. Bread was baked, books were sold, cigarettes were smoked over small dark cups of potent coffee. Your hands might shake, your joints might ache: coffee like that.

Cedar comes to their city in a quiet October chasing a long dry summer. The fields beneath the city walls are dry as gold, yearning for some careless spark: she dares not smoke.

Children, children they worked out amongst themselves. It wasn’t as difficult as they’d thought. Life went on. She learns this in some crowded basement bar, squeezed between two cheerful drunks, a radio blaring politics.

It’s been a bad year for her, all roads and no rest, her stories stale, her breath bad. She drinks, laughs into her collar, pleased to listen, to take it all in. The beer is good, the room is loud and dark, she has nowhere to be. Outside they rush through the city streets, clash bronze axes on bronze shields, a time of politics and prairie fires.

Concrete

After the jobs have gone the towers remain, the wide geometric cylinders that the town is named after. Like ramparts. Everyone flows down river, for work, for people, those who can find either; the rest stay at home, growing strange, growing damp, breath sweet with moss, hair tangled with eagle’s feathers.

Cedar has been here before, or someplace as near to it as makes no nevermind. She bunks down in the ruins of an old high school, abandoned now, half converted into a false castle by someone with more time than sense. The halls are empty, and echo with the slap of possum tails and the heavy, resentful voices of crows.

She is hooking up with a townie, bones resting on bone, his eyes the vague noncolor of river water. He talks, but she hasn’t learned the language yet. She nods, smiles, gasps; he seems satisfied. They’re both someone new, something different, a brief widening of scope before summer chokes the river dry.

Hamilton

The screams rise up every evening at sunset, echoing and harmonizing off the blunt-fingered towers of Hamilton. Cedar submerges herself in them at first, then stops her ears with wax, then suffers through them, then ignores them. Days she loiters by the river, ducking back into the reeds when the children come down to the water, arms and legs frogskinned and scarred. Hidden, she listens to the rusty creak of their voices, words broken in half against shattered teeth, and wonders what they say. Hamilton speaks an interior tongue not shared with outsiders.

She trades burbots for a night’s rent, pulled gasping and fighting from the oily green ooze of the river, trades them still barbed on her hooks to her landlord. His fingers twitch and caress the metal, tease it out from their mouths. He throws the fish back to be caught, pierced, and ransomed another day.

She rises early, before the sun, to get to the river and away from the women who throng the streets at dawn, breaking their nails off bloody against streetlights, fenceposts, closed doors. They come into her room while she’s gone, men and women both, and burn themselves on her stove, stab themselves with her pens, bite hunks out of her soap. When she returns, dogged by the evening, they have set things to rights, the only testimony scars on the door and teethmarks deep in her soap.

Cedar

There is one path into the city called Cedar, and Cedar takes it, wriggling her way through the narrow canyon walls, dizzy and breathless with the high mountain air. She comes to a high place overlooking the plains, and she stops to roll a cigarette, blunt stained fingers wise around tobacco, paper, spittle.

High blue skies, and a windless day. Far, far off to the west is the glimmer of water, peering from the curving throat of the earth. Behind her are the mountains, weeks and days of mountains, barren of people, just her and the rocks and the furs. Months since she saw a bath, and her pants are filthy enough to stand on their own when she climbs out of them at night. She is laden with trapping for her namesake city below; maybe she’ll take a husband to clean for her when she’s home, some soft-limbed, dreamy poet she can keep in luxury for three days of balling the jack. Down in the city they know little of the mountains, and less of the woods; she spins a figure of romance for them, once she’s cleaned and oiled to their taste. Always good money in lecturing; enough to keep her out in the wilds for months at a stretch.

She twists fingers and thumb together to give the butt to the wind, and descends.

 

Rem

“Ontogeny, oh, let me tell you about Ontogeny,” she says, hair full of bangs and fingers full of calluses. “Let me tell you about the broke and unemployed, the gardeners and the drinkers.”

Picture us, drinking in a piano bar, half drowned out by Gershwin songs having their backs broken by karaoke. Cash only. Me: “Don’t tell me about that. Ontogeny’s old news. I’ve been to Ontogeny, it’s all low roofs and moving vans, all strip clubs and salt mud. Tell me about angrier cities.”

She laughs who hasn’t paid for a beer all night. “Angriest city I’ve ever been in was this place called Rem, way over across the sea. Didn’t speak a lick of the language, no, but who cared? They hated foreigners, sure, but then they all hated each other, too. You could get beat up for smiling too widely, stabbed for laughing. Ugliest damn buildings, all square slabs and narrow windows and all the roads were full of broken glass, I swear they did it on purpose.”

“Why the hell’d anyone live there?”

“Brother, it was pure mean-headedness. They all hated the place with a passion but they hated to let anyone leave more. They’d lie in wait for you on the road outside of town, and if they caught you leaving they’d gut you open like an Argentine fish and dump you in the river full of rocks.”

“How you get out, then?”

She grins all malice, yellow teeth chewing on smoke. “Hitched a ride on a corpse, naturally. Ran a snorkel up through the throat and sucked air through the ruins of his trachea and just floated on down to sea. It was all I could taste for, like, a month.”

I don’t believe a word of it, no way no how, but there’s another round of beers to buy and they’re likely to call us up to the piano any day now. Here at least we understand hospitality.