The Shape of Things to Come

by | Aug 15, 2023 | Fiction

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME by Stacey Johnson

“How does it start the sea has endless beginnings”
-Alice Oswald, Nobody

 

At the end of the year of strange weather, you wake in an underground bed, left eye sewn shut. It is earthquake season.

“Where did you go?” you say, and “My face is missing,” to the ceiling.

Someone from a far corner says “Well—” but they do not elaborate.

You know it was the lion, but from where? This bed suggests history, calling to mind a tuberculosis ward of the early twentieth century. You don’t see these anymore, except in some makeshift emergency units in the developing world. 

Now you cannot move, but where is Babygirl? The sisters come and go between sleeps, saying, “Hush.” They tell you now is a beginning.

They bear arms with inked symbols: dragon, salamander, monarch. You know these strangers. During the last sleep, someone left Jasper’s Introduction to Art on the bedstand. 

//

Now, a series of blasts in the distance, and more symbols: teardrop, phoenix, the detailed face of an infant. Below the art book, your own notebook, black pen clipped to the last page. Someone must have found these after you fell—when the lion.

When you stand, they say, “Where do you think you are going?” The dark weight returns but not the face and not the lion. Not Babygirl. “Where—”

You wake and try to answer but they say, “Shh,” and, “She is upstairs.”

Light sifts through the short windows below the ceiling, in the sliver of wall above ground. Before the lion you would press at the blood in your temples, a temporary stop.

One day, in the months before here, Babygirl pointed up the hill above the apartment. She saw the horse in the yard, said, “I want to pet him, Mama. Please.” The yard was Ina’s and Ina is one of the sisters, but no one knew this yet. You put on pants, walked up the hill, introduced.

This was during flood season, but it was a dry day. Ina limped over, said her name. She used a machete for a cane and kept an unlit cigar in her mouth when she sat in a rocking chair on the porch. She offered her hand, an empty chair. You were mostly silent while Babygirl talked to the horse.

“I will ride you there. Mama, too,” she told him. She offered another apple half and added, “far away.” Later you asked where and when. 

Waving an arm above her, she said, “The castle up there when he—when Daddy gets bad.”  

When you left, Ina said, “Come back soon,” and you did every Sunday for months until—

The closer the blasts, the less you hear. It is less like a sound and more like a huge wave. You imagined the lion peeled your face like fruit but of course it would attack from behind, at the neck. “You would never hear it coming.” He seemed to enjoy giving this reminder. You wondered if you might smell its breath by the rotting strings of meat between its teeth.

“I know 25 ways to kill a man,” he told you by the fire under a desert moon. You didn’t ask what they were. Later you noted a slow dissolution of sense, but what dissolves fully tends to leave no visible trace. 

The first time you saw one of Rothko’s Untitleds was in a textbook and you doubted his insight when it came to such thorough rejection of forms. Now with your body the meal, the lens at an aerial view, and the sense of having been peeled without context, what tears without a face to cry through?

You consider beginnings, the number three. The off sound of the word family. There you were, on a cliff beside him, and Babygirl spinning above the water. The power plant blinked to the north. It was a few months before the first ember blazed into fire season. From which now you know there is no returning and here comes the doctor again asking, “To where?”

The apartment had the story of the end but also the shards and your blood. How did they—? 

But this comes later, after the spring. Earthquake season was the stillness of summer before the next fires started.

Babygirl sleeps. Babygirl is upstairs, playing. Before the lion, you would sometimes dream of sleep. 

“In sleep?” the doctor wants to know. 

“No,” you tell her. “Of sleeping. How much I wanted to.”

It was the fires, they said, that drew the lions down from the hills into the neighborhood—coyotes too, and wolves. Now these blasts in the distance and the sisters upstairs. You can’t see the others yet, only Ina sometimes. 

The horse was named Chocko. You want to explain. Start with the face, all of it missing. The lion would drag a body backwards, away from the trail. You once wanted someone to peel the skin back forever, thinking only of relief but you would never admit this, and anyway the veil is needed or else it’s too—

One of the sisters keeps turning out the lights when she goes, even if you are trying to write and especially then, so you wait. Frank Auerbach painted mainly two women he loved. He slathered paint across canvas in such thickness that it blurred the forms, as if to protect them with a layer of shower glass, for privacy.

You remember summer in the shadowed entrance of St. John’s, across from the auto parts store on Broadway, up the hill from the shadow of the freeway overpass where it always flooded in the winter rains. 

You would stand among the veiled women and the homeless men in the lobby, waiting for the way they would whisper soft greetings, clutching hands. It was the beginning of the forever war before it was named. The men came and went, unsure what else to throw themselves into, if not the next battle. 

No one told them that the latest war was the suppression of battles. The point of waiting in the lobby at the entrance of the church was to be among people like the grandparents who once kept verses and rosaries in pockets among the spare tissues and tiny bottles of holy water.

How did anyone arrive anywhere knowing where to next and what to whisper, what to carry and how to kneel? You meant to trace the lines of their rituals, to rub against their textures.

This was before the year of strange weather, in the year of figuring, when you were hoping to acquire the sort of ancient wisdom associated with fictional characters and old women.

Sometimes, after a series of blasts, there is a sense of being pulled by a wave, back into the surf.

Notes from the opening sections of the art book: Every medium has its own personality. Paper is delicate so everything gets a dreamy fluid quality, light dissolving over the landscape. It offers the smudge of erasure, the trials and errors of a process.

The watery forms of the sisters swell and retreat. Smudges of shadow rub between the ceiling and the wall, and an occasional roach runs through a crack between the hanging light bulbs. Birds settle on the ground in the window above, turning their heads.

How was it when you had a face? is a question no one asks. They ask others instead, and these press their weight against the good eye, which moves to close whenever they start again. Whenever it does, the sisters object. Or the doctor, who is one of them. You can’t always tell.

“How do you want me to start?” you ask, more concession than question.

One replies, “At the beginning.” Like this is something you obviously know. You were never any good with the practice of time as a series of units in sequence and have only gotten worse in the year of strange weather. The blasts do not help. 

“Take your time,” they say. 

As their shapes exit the room, one calls back, “Now would be a good time to sleep.” 

No chance of that, so you open the book again. Now it’s Botticelli’s Annunciation, the angel kneeling and Mary leaning in, like two Buddhas bowing, luminous in utter surrender.

Rembrandt was rumored to have stereo blindness. He stopped being able to see in three dimensions. Monet complained for years about the muddy look of his reds. “Everything I paint is getting dark,” he said, and you want to call back, “I know, baby. I know.”

Now there is someone in a chair below the window, looking up. Salt and pepper hair waves from her temples and with a patch over her right eye she says, “Ahoy!” Her hand rests on a cane with a tennis-ball at one end and the leg nearest the cane is a metal shaft with a rubber base.

“It was a yellow-headed blackbird,” she says. “A minute ago, acting like a common pigeon. Hah!” Her name is Mare and the pirate persona, she tells you, is “a response to my new look.” The patch is the result of complications, she tells you. “Diabetes.”

She adds that it’s probably temporary. You assume she means the pirate look and not the complications. “Speaking of which,” she adds, “what happened to your eye?”

“It offended me.”

“Tell me about it,” she nods. 

Perhaps you do. Birds come and go. You mean to sort time, but it won’t hold.

The lion was yesterday. Maybe the day before, but all you remember is driving. 

“What day?” you ask and mean it. 

“Hang on!” Mare laughs. That was her question, too. 

The blasts continue. Coming to check pulses and blood, they squeeze the bags at your arm, make notes. The doctor comes soon, and you sleep. Thunder nearby and sirens follow. When another enters with water and more pens, she says, “These are good for losing.” 

“But who guards the dead?” 

“No one here,” one says.

“Good thing we agree,” adds another, “not to exist.” 

“Officially.”

Mare at the birds adds, “The story keepers don’t care. This is not, as they say, it.”

In this elsewhere, there are no Amens. But then another calls, “You think you’re alone? Look around! Why do you think the rest are here?”

From this one you learn that Mare calls it diabetes to put others at ease. “But her eye is gone, and you will probably keep yours in the end.” 

Another adds, “Besides, you didn’t lose your face all the way. It’s only torn.” Then it is quiet again and you scratch at the page.

What is the name for this shuffle through a middling state of nowhere, half-blind in this underground waiting room, with no home to return to? You leaf through the notebook pages from before you were gone.

On this one, you find notes from an overheard conversation. The speaker is a woman in middle age, her damp-looking hair frizzed at the edges. This was at a coffee shop on 55th Street, across from the mortuary. 

“I remember dolphins, the smell of cut grass in April, and the sound of your name,” she said. “Sometimes when you say it, I add reverb.” It was one of those places where people tended to leave questions behind them like smoke. It doubled as a hookah lounge.

Years before Babygirl, you imagined a daughter, sometimes close enough to smell inside a breath. Some images will keep like this, alongside a vague sense of needing to make something. But who knew what? And then there she was after all, waiting. With certain questions. Such as why.

“Not yet,” is what the sisters say when you try standing again. “We’ll bring her,” they say. 

You imagine answers like blueprints. “Here,” you might say, “is a frame.” Then you can get fabrics to hang upon the frame and make something to live inside. It can still be beautiful.

Mare beneath the window says something about a bird and dreaming. The next round of blasts triggers the alarms of some nearby cars on the street above. You have often wondered about men, what they are becoming. 

Your father used to wax a red convertible he could not afford. He did this once a week for several months until it was stolen from the driveway, after which he would mainly stare out the window toward the street. It was the time of microwave TV dinners, when it was fashionable to be jaded, but shock remained possible. 

Losing a face raises questions. Your head is heavy with painkillers. The clanging of pots upstairs, a round of laughter. A voice from the corner calls, “Hey.”

“Hello?” You call back. The sisters come and go, and you see the room as through corrugated glass. When you can read, you open the book to a chapter on form and make notes.

In the beginning, he looked like a flying man, the sort to come and go tragically, and his evanescence moved you. Over time, he looked like other men. One of these was permanently on the couch, snoring. Another could not stop amassing materials he called “preparing.” For the end of the world, he explained. You did not argue but absorbed his arguments.

There were boxes of MREs, propane, and other supplies piled in the room called the office because it once held a table made of plywood stacked on coffee cans filled with sand, and you used to sit there beside Babygirl, painting watercolors. 

Finally, he became the sort of man to break a face and leave behind the sense of an aftermath having to do with the mouth of a lion, meat between its teeth. He did not necessarily ever stop being the other men.

The process of these changes in form is less shock and awe and more like a Kafka story where someone familiar wakes as a large insect, but it is possible the insect is you and you bite into the body of the cockroach in a space with Dali clocks melting over tree limbs and a green apple in place of a man’s face, and another face detached from skull, draped over poles in the desert, stretched in such a way to suggest an impending fall in the next wind.

The first blast came with something like shock. Instead of reacting, you watched the ceiling fan, wondering about the time to leave, and something adjacent to a decision settled, like surrender to something you meant to learn when it was still the year of figuring out.

It had to do with finding footing where the forms kept shifting. Unless you learned this, you were bound to keep spinning off. Lacking any gravity of your own, you wanted only an anchor around which you might grow in some recognizable pattern, into a shape that was real and alive.

By the time Babygirl was born, you had given up figuring for long walks with the warm weight of her at your chest. Until the last night, when the blast at the back of the head corresponded with dark shapes like a Motherwell elegy.

“Why don’t you?” his looping voice demanded. Blasts continue. 

You turn to the next chapter, make a note from the section on context: “Here is fire” is not “FIRE!”

Now at the window Mare says, “You know,” regarding the birds on the ground above.“We don’t have enough words for sound,” she says, “but look at them, how they turn their heads to listen.”

You ask what for. 

“Think about it.” Then she is talking about the range of sounds coming from the out-of-sight creatures below ground. But what are these to anybody with ears trained on sky?

In Robert Natkin’s Isadora, colors float and dance.  The diaphanous yellows swirling at the center call to mind the scarf that strangled the dancer when it was caught in the wheels of a car. 

You scratch against a page. “But wouldn’t you like to know?” This from a voice in the corner. 

“Are you there?” you call back. Agnes Martin’s Leaf in the Wind was mistaken by skeptics for a photograph of a white tiled wall. She was working out a hunch about the connection between joy and looking.

“Try not knowing,” one says and here comes Ina, hefting against the machete cane she had when you met her on the porch with the horse in her yard. He would never join you, but she knew. 

The Natkin painting suggests infinite extensions of dance and light, but you can see its fragility if you look, how close it is to being snuffed out. It is possible he also knew. One of him, anyway. 

After the last night, he retained enough sense to clean the shards from the carpet before he left and walk up the hill past the horse he did not know, to leave a key with a note on her porch.

You learn this between sleeps. You remember Ina’s kitchen, the large collection of ceramic pigs she kept on shelves, how she was often baking or preparing to bake one of the sweets she was ordered to avoid. “For company,” she explained, and who would press?

Now you press. “Who knew you had such a big basement?” you try.

Ina laughs. “Girl. How you think I’m about to deal with getting up and down these stairs? You think I carried you down here?”

Blasts interrupt. When they subside, she is beside you, open hand on your forehead. 

“Well,” she says. “Here we are.”

“I need to see her,” but she pushes you back. 

“I’ll bring her. Wait.”

You watch the birds on the ground through the window above, turning their heads.

After the winter floods, in the season when you first met Ina and the horse, you and Babygirl started taking extreme close-ups of his face while he slept. You had secondhand cameras from work, and you tiptoed, moving the cans to the recycling bins and adjusting the blinds. 

They weren’t portraits. Zoomed in close enough, in the right light, the images were like landscapes. You developed prints and kept them in a box among the other boxes in the office.

With photographs, every image looks like a hopeful keepsake someone tried to freeze outside of time, even the ones of indeterminate form. One day you would arrange them in a gradient from light to dark exploding outward, like a supernova. 

“Babygirl!” you call out, but your voice is drowned by the noise, and then it is dark. 

She has her own name. Her own story, too. She can tell it herself when it is time.

Now a hand. Then your own, reaching. “Come,” says a voice, and something in you relents. 

Yellow light swells the backs of your eyes, and you hear her. 

“We will take the magic horse to the castle when we fly, I have apples and a carrot,” she says, “and Mama, here!”

A shape beside you and then Babygirl, spinning. Where did she get those slippers and who has been braiding her hair?

“It’s time, it’s time, it’s time!” Her singsong blurs the room. The sisters laugh. 

A round of yesses and Mare stomps “Arrrrgh!” with her cane. You slide face against shoulder, find it wet and see nothing beyond the halo of the ceiling bulb.

Hands lift you from the floor. The sisters’ voices murmur. There is the glow, but where is the shore? Here is why Rothko rejected form.

“There,” they say, and return you to the bed. “There” to the head at the pillow, and “There” after the next blast. You wait for the forms to return, and what follows is the voice again, something blurred and then “A long time coming.” Then all the words run off.

They will be moving you soon. “We need the beds,” Ina tells you. You have no idea how many more are on their way.


Photo by oddmenout, used and adapted under CC.

About The Author

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Stacey C. Johnson writes and teaches in San Diego County. She is a graduate of the MFA program at San Diego State University and creator of The Unknowing Project. Her work appears in Oyster River Pages, Pacific Review, and Fiction International, as well as various other publications. Her poetry chapbook Flight Songs is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press (February 2024).