In a moment, we are out of the barrels and flying. The world is folding up like a dollar bill: six times, seven, the impossible eighth. It hovers there a while and then begins to unfold, and we see green and blue and mountains and rivers and the sharp squares of farmland. There is light and there is movement, like fireflies vibrating in giant clouds, dancing on the waves of each others’ air. We whistle with the beauty of it all and with the air rushing past us like the dots that become cars, that contain people and that have on their hoods the marks of hour-long drives into the city. All of those people who, looking up, see us and let out their own howling, perhaps because we are so beautiful to them, those people that run and hold tight onto each other and dive to the ground. We have shadows now, long and thin. We land one by one and the sound and the sight are distinct and rattling and strong.
We become rubble. We become shards of broken glass that slice into legs and torsos and clatter on the ground. We find other bits of soul, those of the glassmakers and builders and the auto-manufacturers, all the people who built the items we now destroy. We join with those pieces of soul and make new ones. You would think there would be fighting there, and sometimes perhaps there is. But usually, it is calm and cool, like water slipping into roots.
We diffuse outward. We were rockets and now we are rubble and crater and stone and earth and water and glass. We are cut arms and legs. We are blood and we are air. We are inhaled and become sickness but also breath held forever, deep in the lungs of those who survive. We mix with their skin and their blood and their mucus. We become the face of shock and horror and sorrow. We become the mixture of relief and fear, the eyes that look upward with no concern for the effects of the sun. Become blindness and spots that swirl in purples and deep reds.
We expand, we divide. The number of paths overwhelms. So we pick one, follow one, while the others become distant and disconnected, like hay bales passed from hand to hand.
We choose, perhaps not carefully, but necessarily, a large man whose clothes we inhabit with the dust we have become, who sighs in a way that makes his stomach swell and then pats us into his skin, into his airways, even a little piece into his eye, which will settle there until his constant rubbing rolls it into a green crust that will fall out as he sleeps. We ride his hands, which he will not wash before he grabs a piece of fried bread and stuffs it into his mouth. We become a part of his food, his energy. We become him.
Even with so many of us, entering through so many ways, we make up only a small part of his soul. We will shock him now, with the feel of our grit and the sounds and crashing of our former selves. But in time, we will diffuse more and more. We will be forgotten, just a small voice among many voices vying for his attention. But for now, we tell him to rest. The sheer idea of us requires that we let him rest, that he sit on a particularly large piece of rubble, a shattered giant tea kettle that stood outside a corner cafe, and that he take a moment to think himself back into existence.
We have him pull out a handkerchief and brush our old selves from his forehead, where we have mixed with sweat and a small trickle of blood. We have him think about work first, because he is late. It is true he was already late before the rockets hit, but now he is even later, and this distresses him terribly until, with a thought, he begins to laugh. Because for the first time in the past year, he will take a sick day, and for once, no one can claim it is laziness. But that is if the office is standing. We will tell him that, later, because the explosions have gained him the time to act leisurely, he must call the office and see if anyone picks up. But first, for now, a plan.
We have him stand up, his knees shuddering with the weight of him, his lungs letting out a soft groan that says he already feels old. To his car first, before he realizes that it is twisted and sharp like a ripped-open can. Then back, towards his house, which is too far to walk, but which is also too far from the site of the explosion for every car to be ruined. The buses have stopped, but when he walks on to one, his thin hair clumped by drying blood, his jacket covered in dust, the driver asks if he needs to go to a hospital. When the man says no, the driver nods and says, “Well, I guess you deserve to go home.”
As he rides through the tunnels and the streets, empty, we let his eyelids sink, and we begin to whistle, because this too is beautiful. We sing him to sleep.
He is dreaming now, and by chance, what he is dreaming is exactly what he would not see if he opened his eyes. In his dream there are children skipping stones across the road, scattering like pigeons when a pebble dings the side of a car, there are small carts filled with the smells of garlic and sweat, old women hobbling like animatronic museum pieces, so slowly they might be moving through a different time, a dog running from its owner so that the man thinks with some anxiety the owner will never catch it, until it becomes distracted by the scent of a bush. Outside of the man’s dream, the children are trapped indoors, the old women are watching television and shaking their heads like animatronic displays of sorrow and incomprehension, the dogs are peeing on carpets and the owners don’t care.
When the bus driver pulls up to the man’s street, the man wakes smoothly, because his dream involved a bus and it may have involved his street. He goes to give the bus driver a five dollar bill, but the driver says no in a way that is almost fierce, as though the man had offered to take his bus at gunpoint and his money too. Instead the man says thank you, and the bus driver nods the way men nod at each other to mean everything from hello to I’m sorry.
The television is on inside, and the man’s wife is watching. She is staring so intently at the screen, its reenactment of the rockets and the falling buildings that the man is able to slip into their bedroom and go towards the shower. In the mirror he sees in the most distinctive way he ever will that we are with him. He sees the brown dirt that covers his face and makes his pale skin almost bronze, a workman’s tint. He sees the dry blood, which is now crackling under the stress of his brow. He slides a single finger across his cheek and then inspects it. He is thinking in the limited manner reserved for the shocked and the drunk, and the shower becomes for him the only item in the world. We are sad to see a part of us go, but we are also with him in the animal joy of the warm water on his skin.
He is there for nearly an hour, during which his wife is hammering away at a telephone, the same number again and again that gives her the same tone and calm voice, until the numbers become a jumble and she begins dialing wrong numbers instead, relishing the momentary satisfaction of a human voice before she apologizes and explains that she must have the wrong number. The man lathers up and rinses off, drawing lines of soap on the creases of his body, from hip to hip and following the curves of his ribs. It occurs to him that he has needed to pee for a long time, and he relieves himself before kicking the soap around the bottom of the tub.
At the end of the shower, the man’s mind clears enough to entertain several thoughts, and one of these is his wife. He is suddenly embarrassed to have passed her by without motioning or speaking, but among the other thoughts now bouncing around inside him, there is a terrible fear of the television, which he can hear even now, with the water still dripping from his chest. So he yells out her name, and his voice is pleading, soft in her ear. Yes? she screams into the phone, Oh my God, I can’t believe it. It is not until his third yell, when she is already in tears, that she understands where his voice is coming from and runs into the bedroom to see him.
She becomes aware of the small bumps, like the rubber of a basketball, that raise themselves on his skin. “I want to lay down for a while,” he says, and she helps him into bed, cupping his elbow in her palm and holding it there until he pulls the sheets up to his chin. He does not ask her to stay, but she does.
In the morning, he calls the office, and there is the sharp three-tone followed by an automated voice. He tries calling his friend Carl, but when Carl does not pick up, he sets the phone down and does not think about work again. She is sleeping beside him, and her back is hot from the blankets and from the energy trapped between them.
In his skull there is the sharp, ceaseless momentum of a thought beyond the range of sound, thrumming. For the first time he can remember, he is getting up without wanting to stay down. The bed does not reach for him as he stands, and his wife only lets out a little sigh.
He puts on running shoes that he has never worn, shorts, and a t-shirt with a stain that he believes is soup, tracing a dotted line to his navel. He stretches. Then he catches a glimpse of his legs, and he finds sweat pants to cover them. Then a sweat shirt to cover his arms, which he knows will sway like hammocks if he runs. He puts on a baseball cap.
When his wife comes out of the bedroom, she finds him sitting on the couch, waiting for his stomach to settle after the three eggs he ate to have energy on his run. She puts on sweatpants too, and they decide to go for a walk.
There is a park nearby, though neither has ever been, choosing to commune with nature through their back garden and the farmer’s market to which they make monthly trips. The park, like so much of the city, is empty now because of us. Homes have become places where people latch onto their loved ones through the primal urge to face danger through cohesion. And it is this urge that makes her wrap her arm around his, forcing his hand against her hip, where it sits like a holstered gun.
Today the reservoir is full, its water murky with winter, dried leaves like dead fish crowding against the shore. But there is a pair of ducks, combing gently through the detritus. The man and the wife hear them, now and again, clacking their bills in the air.
“I will have to find a new job,” he says.
“You shouldn’t say that.”
“Why not say what is true?” he asks her, “Whether the building is there or not, I think I will have to find a new job.”
Her lips pout as they have since she was a little girl. After a moment, she rubs her thumb against his forearm. “Still,” she says, “let us hope it is there.”
“What is it to me, if it is there or not? Besides, it is gone.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at anyone,” he says.
But still, she is silent.
“I thought I would go for a run,” he says. “Can you imagine me going for a run?”
“Anything can be imagined,” she says.
“Can you imagine running with me?”
“Anything but that can be imagined,” and she laughs for him then.
“Perhaps I will try it after all. Watch me carefully, and you won’t have to imagine a thing.”
He begins to shuffle his feet on the dirt path, moving his body left to right like a skier as he pushes forward. She stops walking and watches him. He makes it halfway up the hill before them, where the leafless trees grow at strange grasping angles. When he stops and turns, his hands clutching his hips, she begins to clap and hoots up to him. He bows and then coughs as the air seeks his lungs.
The next day, they walk beside the river, from which they can see the outline of downtown, silver and blue.
“I cannot see your building,” she says.
“That is nothing new. You can never see my building from here. It is hidden by the others.”
“I thought you pointed it out to me once. I remember you said, ‘I work there, on the second floor down.’”
The man nods. “Yes, I remember that too. But that was when we were dating, and I was lying because I wanted to impress you.”
“It’s been that long since we were here?” she asks.
“It has been that long.”
“I thought I had seen it when you pointed, though.”
“You said you did. I was flattered.”
She laughs. “I always wondered why you had moved down from the top floors to the first.”
He shrugs, “I don’t like heights.”
He does not mention to her that he has not called his office again, that he sat a moment with his hand tracing the hard plastic buttons of the phone so they grew warm with friction. He wondered if it might not be his phone that was broken, and so he called a local restaurant that was set into speed dial. And when a human voice answered, he was flustered enough to ask for a reservation, giving his name because he couldn’t think of another.
“I have a surprise for you,” he tells her.
“I don’t like surprises.”
“Alright, then,” he says, “we are having dinner out tonight.”
“That’s not very surprising at all,” she says.
“Then you should love it.”
That night, in the restaurant, he orders his favorite meal, but after two bites, he sets down his fork.
“What is wrong?” she asks him.
“It is not very good,” he says.
“Is it burnt?”
“No, they must have changed the recipe or gotten a new chef. Whatever they did, it is not very good.”
“I’ll get the waiter.”
“Don’t bother. If they can’t make this, then they can’t make anything.”
“It tastes fine to me, though.”
“Then you can have it, but I tell you it is not very good.”
She eats another few bites of her own meal and then sets down her fork. When the waiter comes over, she asks him to box it up and smiles apologetically. The man is silent.
The next morning, the phone rings, and the man is startled by the sound. His wife reaches for the nightstand, but she finds his weight attached to her, his arms stiff, his fingers like bars of iron. She does not try to move but waits out the ringing. When he stands up, he disconnects the phone cord. “Let’s go out,” he says.
For breakfast the man eats his boxed up meal from the night before, not complaining. They go on another walk, this time south of the city where the art galleries and craft stores are all open. The man and his wife look at paintings and sculptures. He is drawn to those that are colorful, images of flowers and trees in sunset. She pokes fun at him, saying he singles out every possible hackneyed image. “I never understood art,” he says. “Flowers and sunsets I can understand.”
“I could find a job,” she says. “It is fine if you are not ready to work again, but one of us has to.”
He sneers. And he can tell she is hurt. But he is unable to tell her what we know how to say, that the sneer is not at her getting a job, but at her leaving him alone at home. It is not until the evening, when they are lying in bed, that he can say to her, “We will not starve, I think. Not yet, anyway. Let us just take a break, please. We need a break, I think.”
“I could work at the bakery,” she tells him, “Clea always said I could have a job any time I want at the bakery. Just a few hours each morning.”
The man agrees, though he feels tired and achy at the thought.
On Friday the phone rings again, because the woman has plugged it back in. She is at the bakery still, and the man sits beside the telephone. He does not turn on the television or the computer, and he has taken to filling his time while he waits for his wife by making whistles out of sticks, as he used to do when he was young. When in the afternoons they go walking he stops her constantly so he can pick up the straight ones, the ones that bend just a touch so they will not break under the strain of his pocket knife. He carves them carefully. Pieces of the man’s soul go into these whistles, pieces now and again, of us. And then, when he blows on them, pieces of his soul become sound, become music. When the phone rings, he follows each sound with his own, until he drowns out the ringing with his whistles, hoping to put out more pieces of soul than he takes in.
His wife grows strong arms kneading dough. Every day she brings home a loaf, and he eats it without slicing, taking handfuls to be dipped in canned soups and chilies. Pieces of her soul enter him. They join with us, like roots seeking water, grasping tightly.
He feels as though he’s always in waiting, like being sick on an empty stomach, doubled over for something to come out. He begins to spend the mornings hunched in a ball in bed, his whistles on the bedside table.
They both lose weight. But while hers is healthy, from the walking and the baking, his is startlingly fast. She has to ask if he is eating, and she begins to suspect that the loaves of bread she brings him are going somewhere. She looks for patches of loose dirt in the yard.
She quits her job when, one morning, he faints and falls against the kitchen cabinets, his head bleeding, pieces of his soul becoming bloodstain on tile. The doctor at the hospital calls in a psychiatrist, but the man refuses to speak.
That night, though she sleeps beside him, she hugs close to the edge of the bed, until he has to lie in the middle just to touch her with a leg. She is silent until the morning, when she places a large breakfast before him and says, “You will eat.”
He tells her he has been eating, but she watches him with hawkish eyes, eyes that make him open his mouth after every swallow like a child. She watches forkful after forkful of potatoes and pancake and syrup touch his tongue and then disappear.
This becomes their mealtime ritual. She hardly eats because she is focused on him. Still, though, it is the man who loses pounds each day. She asks if he is making himself sick. And he says no. She listens at the door when he goes to the bathroom.
“Do you remember,” he asks her one day, “when I used to be so thin? I was this thin, I think, when we met. I bet I could even fit into my tuxedo from our wedding. Where is it? Let me try.”
She tells him it’s been gone for years.
“I bet it would fit perfectly. To think now that it would fit.” He is tickled with the idea, and he pushes his hair forward on his head, then gives her a wink. “What do you think, eh, what do you think?”
“A spitting image,” she says, “like looking back in time.” She laughs.
The man throws back his shoulders and turns his mouth into an impish grin. He struts around the room until she, laughing, stands up to join him. They kiss feverishly, still laughing. A part of her soul becomes his, and a part of his soul hers.
Soon, though, the man’s loss of weight does not make him look younger. His cheeks become straight lines that reach down to his chin. His neck seems to grow skin. She is afraid to hold him too tightly, and she wakes often in the night expecting to find a skeleton beside her.
She feeds him compulsively. The doctors pipe bags of sugar and nutrients into his veins. Still, he grows thinner.
The man becomes frail and full of nervous motion, as though he is constantly cold. His eyes fill a larger portion of his face than ever before, and looking at them makes his wife tired. When the phone stops ringing, she is the only one to notice.
He spends more time playing the small whistles he’s made. She brings him sticks and lets him have his pocket knife, though she often has to help him with carving the holes. He fills the hospital room with music, sharp and off key.
Then one day, the air becomes crisp, and it carries his music, pieces of his soul, out the window and into the street. It blocks out the sounds of televisions and radios and the hum of traffic. His desperate, undulating breath works. A piece of us detaches and goes through his lungs, out his pursed lips. We become music, a low note that vibrates against street signs and sweeps among passers-by, who whistle at our beauty.
When his wife comes to visit the man, she finds him playing. He takes her hand in his, and she feels that he is no longer shaking so violently. Still, there is a sadness that clutches to his brow. There are pieces of us inside of him, though small and largely forgotten, largely harmless except when he wakes up early in the morning and the sun looks like fire.
But now there is time for other souls to come in and out, to lap at us like waves, to pull us away piece by piece, wrap us in themselves and take us out with them, into the world as anything, everything.
Photo By: dog.breath