Maps

Today’s possibility: 56.7%.

Every month or so there comes a new Moses, babies left bullrushed on the river, sometimes there are notes though more often there aren’t, fourteen so far, What to do with the Moseses? the newspaper asks regularly, and for now the answer is the same as for any other question. With the right scar on your eyebrow you can join the coalition of young men who take to the riverbanks, painted aboriginal, daily knifing through underbrush; with the right recommendation you may secure a job underground, two hours of each of your days spent waiting, you will call yourself a Caser, as in a Just In _____, as in: fans meet feces and you’ll have to become part of The Answer.

1:52pm makes him terribly anxious, for reasons unknown: not 1:50, not even 1:55, just 1:52, and when the boy packs his bag he’s everyday packing for oblivion or two quiet hours, eternity or an afternoon. A book, sheets of paper, pens, a picture of his family, strawberries wrapped in a damp tea towel, a spent plastic film shell of chlorine tablets. He loads his satchel, glancing around his room, and somehow the familiar cry of wolf is still lost on him: look anywhere and say goodbye and pretend that’s not your reedy voice, windy and breezing. Pretend you’re sure this isn’t the wolf.

Goodbye mom. Goodbye Bill the bird. Goodbye green sofa and you too Daphne Waphne. Goodbye picture of dad waving, just next to the door in the kitchen: he leaves from his job downtown. Children under twelve are allowed to travel with their parents, over twelve have to go alone, and the boy is fifteen. Daphne Waphne, eight, waves, stops waving, waves smaller. Ha ha ha, wait…maybe only two ha’s, maybe just one. He kisses his mom’s cheek and walks out the door, following the same route to the edge of the city each day. Once there his chemistry forces him to consider cardinal points, but it’s always simple: south. Down the only direction left. The city is built around where a big river crescents east for a mile and a smaller river branches off. For $3, anyone can call a number that reports the most unsafe places.

The boy walks south, through four minutes of bells tolling and cars honking, and when he looks at the sun he’s not scared anymore: when he was younger his mom told him that he’d burn out his eyes, go blind, go mad, staring at the sun, and now as he walks south he thinks: maybe it’ll be today, thinks: I don’t know what to see anyway. At 2:05pm silence settles like a dare, no one speaks at 2:05, and along the river the giant clock blinks digitally, different colors depending on factors no one’s sure of despite the clock being tax funded. 2 blink 05, 2 blink 05, sixty blinks and another minute passes during which It hasn’t Happened.

Today’s possibility: 33.3%

She vowed to never go there again, and so every day went to the exact same place. She would turn sixteen there, she knew, and perhaps seventeen, maybe twenty: the government was unhesitant in reminding everyone of the threat’s imminence and, even if whatever unnamable event transpired, that meant little regarding future threats. The two most popular t-shirts being hawked from kiosks were the black one with white words: YOU NEVER KNOW, and the white one with black letters, YOU ARE HERE. The future was a constant threat, if not tomorrow then the day you finally train your dog to quit peeing on the entryway rug, or the day you finally steal a pair of shoes to keep your feet warm while you sleep under bridges.

Sales of all things emergency went through the stiflingly low roof of the public imagination; the latest pair of must-have pumps were camouflage. She lived with her dad, and despite his cheekiness, his blown kisses goodbye as he sauntered off in a bright red wig, or running screaming for the last minutes before Nothing Time screaming It’s coming it’s coming it’s coming it’s coming!!! (freaking tremendous shit out of the neighbors, of course, he’d been held for three days the first time he did it, locked down and warned against levity), every day’s 2pm made her bitter.

She was turning 16 in eight days and knew she was finished with being shy, even before she’d turned 15 she knew her reserved looks and silence were affected, were going extinct as her voice was becoming a red ache. She’d always thought turning sixteen would be a time of bedlam and go, secret machines and something always about to burst, yet the eight calendrical squares to being sixteen was nothing like it: it was a time of charcoals and pension, two disappeared hours each day and her ache of a voice was only aching worse, every day was a tiny murder to say: “Yes, goodbye for now.” Happy sixteenth she’d whisper to herself, grinding her molars as she smashed careless footsteps across the dirt skin toward the southern end of town, her pockets stuffed with charcoal and rock salt wrapped in newspaper, and she couldn’t help but notice the strange offerings, notes left daily, scrawls and screeds, vows and whispers: the sky’s imminent fall reminded everyone that the only thing that remains is what is said before collision.

Julia: I love you. Yes. Yes. Yes. read a chalked rock.

“So little between you and the sky; so little between you and the ground.” a sign strangled onto a fencepost warned.

If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangiers. The end of the world and Dylan still had some of the last words.

She took a dirt path that followed a creek that paralleled the river for nearly two miles before giving up the ghost of direction and untributaried, dumped itself. As the city faded in a quiet shrug, she read signs that marked the boundary of the old and new worlds: if signs at the city’s edge had apocryphal resonance, those just beyond had the curious verve of what’s left after hope’s body rots but the wind still finds leaves.

What if we just keep going hung a sign from one of the biggest trees on the path.

Today’s possibility: 33.3%

Consecutive days with the same possibility percentages fucked people the hell up. Four months into the age of Nowhere Time, there’d been a six day stretch of 63%, and that sixth day was the day that there were three Moseses found on the river, and that was when the urban legend began about a woman who’d let her baby drift, only for It not to Happen that day, only to come back to retrieve her child, only to find out she was under arrest, not for leaving her child behind forever, but for leaving a child under 12 within city limits during Nowhere Time.

The boy walked south. The girl walked south.

“The last time this happened, voice told us to leave didn’t tell us when to come back,” says the man, taking his stand at noon every day. “Last time this happened, wasn’t fear that led to safety, hm-mm.”

Paranoia as razor: children practice screaming as desperately as their tiny pink machines are capable, and unless you’re gunning someone’s temple, you’re left alone. Paranoia as razor held close: your child staring out the window right after dinner, when she’d usually be watching TV or doing homework, is a sign, means danger has tired of the verb “to lurk”; the wrong color polo shirt implicates every bad thing you’ve ever thought your neighbor has done, and the phone’s in your hand before you realize you have the same shirt. Paranoia as switchblade, paranoia as strop for the straightedge, paranoia as balloon: pop it or offer it to the sky.

 The newspapers carry no account of what happens within city limits during Nothing Time. Advertising rates on television and radio plummet for the hour preceding the daily exodus, spike for the hour and a half immediately thereafter. Planes can only fly away from cities during Nowhere Time, and the midwest initiates a new lobbying group, the catch-phrase: Welcome to Nowhere. South Dakota becomes the first state to sell stock, which triples the day the IPO hits. People with horrible memory suddenly find themselves very popular: with no recall, everything becomes new. For $1, buttons sporting nothing but a red slashing X can be procured, fastened to lapels.

“Are you sure?” the man asks, the ocean of the city dripping, citizen by citizen, past him. He watches until someone looks back, raises a paw to cup his mouth, calls out to them: “You sure?”

Today’s possibility: 40%

When he was younger he’d misheard and never disabused himself of calling them morning cells. The name didn’t become the cylinders, brown wood slat sidings, ten feet in diameter, topped with two kevels, one set of green lights, one set of red, scabby with countless layers of bird shit. Morning cells he’d tell himself, swimming out to them each day right around 2 blink 20, his little orange bag of future atop of his head, his swimming uncoordinated but so long as it kept his crown dry.

Sometimes you’d hear of things: a gathering at 4pm, outside the city, hushed plannings re: a future you’d have to go to the meeting to find out about. Every once in awhile there’d suddenly appear a thin tabloid-sized newspaper, there’d be stacks of them throughout the city, and they caused a double-take: The Idiot was the name of it, and the almost unreadably small fine print would explain the etymology of the word, and how the idiots would soon be called on to rule. Supposedly there was a map, some internet sites mentioned it, that listed the locations the president rotated through—like everyone, he had a pattern.

She laughed when the possibility percentage was a simple number: 40%? Who were They kidding? Does fear round up or down? Five days from sixteen and she found it harder and harder to even talk, actually would save vocal energy for the daily “Goodbye, love you too,” she offered dad on his way out of town on, perhaps, stilts or a unicycle or both. She talked herself out of it, literally, every day: talked herself out of following the river, walking its periphery, settling in a copse of trees with a single message carved into the bark of one of the birches: Epur Si Muove.

From the trees she could see the falls, technically eighteen feet and seven inches but everyone just said: twenty-foot falls. The falls were the end of the county, but she couldn’t help herself, stepping into her trees: county became country with just a letter, and everyone had R’s to spare.

The boy, south. The girl, south.

Today’s Possibility: 73.4%

Maps were forbidden right from the start, of course: there were Bonfires of Navigation those first few weeks of Nowhere Time, and sometimes after the new version of the Beatles song, outfitted to be called “Nowhere Time”, played on the radio, an official voice would come on and tell a story—of Oklahoma Sooners, of Vespucci and Columbus, Marco Polo and abolitionists—of some great striving that, years past, had found glory map-free, turbulently chasing a compass with no marked needle.

No one forbade it but still there was a general reluctance to touch, an anesthetized response: go numb and things bode, if not well, than at least better: what armageddon, what imagined horror, can hurt an epidermis trained to forget all touch, pain and its sinister bride pleasure? Toddlers wailed through supermarkets and mothers, presuming to teach some vital lesson, refused the comfort of limbs. Married couples showed tenderness by keeping chaste distance, and business meetings, unless otherwise demanded, began and ended with risings and seatings but no hands shaken.

The Moseses number nineteen now, and a third nurse has been added to the outfit. The possibility percentage only rarely fluctuates during the day, and the two times it’s dropped in daylight have been met with spontaneous street-blocking barbecues, all-night dances, courtships and blood duels birthed in that small breath of ease. Every issue of The Idiot lists every possibility percentage that’s been posted, and more often than not there follows an essay, a tea leaves reading, though what statistician does the divining is left by-line free.

South, south: it’s not fleeing if you don’t hurry, if your shirt’s tucked in.

Today’s Possibility: 26.2%

She was turning sixteen as she kissed her father goodbye, was turning sixteen with charcoal and rock salt in her pockets, was turning sixteen as she left the city and nodded at the familiar sign, What if we just keep going? was turning sixteen as she took her spot in the shade amongst the trees and  began to draw. She was turning sixteen south.

Goodbye mom, goodbye Bill the bird, goodbye green sofa and you too, Daphne Waphne, and some days when the boy hears the man shouting from the box at the edge of the city he wishes he were twelve again, even if it meant he wasn’t allowed to stay up later than 9pm, or that he wasn’t able to ride his bike across the four lanes that separated his neighborhood from the city. Some days he wanted to turn to the man on the box as he was saying “The young aren’t going to save us this time, no sir: the young ones are safe, and right now safe means tied up,” and cry “I WANT TO BE TIED UP, I DON’T WANT TO SAVE ANYONE!” He hates that he carries strawberries and chlorine tables, sometimes wants to carry nothing, sometimes only Cherry Pez, that’s easy, sometimes just a coffee can with holes punched in the sides and a string attached to the top, he’d start a fire in the can and send the can up screaming through the trees, a shooting start for that first night of darkness, the first wish.

When he got to his mooring cell she saw him, as she always saw him, though he seemed different, suddenly, not because she was sixteen: he was tall, his lanky 15-year-old frame was never attractive, but he fascinated her as she watched, the way he swam the small current of the river, the way he put his little satchel atop his head, the way he camped on the mooring cell, drawing, reclining in the sun. He was, as she was, as everyone was, listening more than anything else.

Once she was halfway to the mooring cell he saw her, and though he didn’t stand he swung his legs over the side of the cell facing her approach as she swam cautiously toward him—she hated swimming, which was one of the reasons she always came to the river: if the world was ending, she wanted to learn to swim, and she knew from experience that emergency and desperation are the best teachers. He smiled as he realized that she’d put her shorts on top of her head to keep her pockets dry.

“Hello.” the boy said when the girl scrawled her slender fingers around the planks on the mooring cell. He offered a hand down and she’d already taken and was half out of the water when she realized she was wearing only her underwear.

“Wait.” She said, her brown hair smothered with sun, her green eyes and honey. His arm ached from holding her still at the side but he held her. She searched his eyes for a moment.

“Take off your shorts.” She said, and when he dropped her with a splash she wasn’t laughing when she surfaced but he was, boxered and t-shirted in the sun, and he bent low, both hands out for her, and pulled her up.

Today’s Possibility: 61.7%

The first little girl Moses washed up on shore, the twenty-second child, newspaper columns brim with feminist gladness, imaginings of a different Genesis story, Eve wears the pants from now on. 2 blink 09, 2 blink 09, and no one was ever sure what happened to the man on his box at the edge of the city, each day’s lamentations and lambastings ignored, as ever, no matter at whom he pointed, no matter how clear the points, no matter how he called out for a new boldness, “Let’s dream our way through, not out and around!”

It wasn’t that people necessarily disappeared: families lost touch like they were running out of bread, and often as not parents were strangely comforted that their children didn’t return: when the storm’s shadow is as large as the world, the battening of the hatches, the jettisoning of all, including loved ones, was par: when the storm passed, the rain quit, the latest dove with the latest olive branch appearing, families and love would return, prodigal, disappearing ink in a new light.

At some point there began communal bonfires daily at 3:45, snakes of black smoke rising in suddenness from beyond the city’s reach: somewhere the idea had been hatched that to destroy the Nowhere Time, all the evidence had to be destroyed, too. Sketches, poems, novels, love letters, doodlings, popsicle-stick houses: these and more burned, plus video tapes, plus CDs, plus plans for houses that fear drove the designers to forsake practicality and physics for the sake of whimsy and a future free of dread.

Sometimes the authorities would scour beyond the city, dissuading stragglers, literally putting out small untended fires, ushering all the citizenry back to cityfold after Nowhere Time. These officers found the same refuse anyone might find after a concert or inauguration: scattered notes, condoms and foil wrappers, packs of chewed gum, the occasional empty box of bullets.  One day an officer dipped a small boat into the river and took to the current, curious.

And at the first mooring cell he found nothing but bird shit, and likewise the second. But at the third, just before the twenty foot falls, he found remnants he even now can’t describe. But what were the drawings of? his compatriots ask, and after a pause and sip of coffee, his eyes seem disconcertingly distant.

“I guess they were maps,” he says, “but not in pencil, it was all dusty, charcoal, a stack of them, a rock on top like a paper weight. There was some salt wrapped in newspaper, tops of eaten strawberries, and chlorine tablets. Jagged lines like roads leading to big squares with ‘Memory’ written inside them or circles saying ‘Home’, and a star, nothing but a star on the last map, no lines on that one, just a star and, underneath, in the simplest handwriting you’ve ever seen, ‘What if we just keep going?’”

 


Weston Cutter lives in IA and has works published or soon coming in Ploughshares and Cave Wall. He has a book of stories, You’d Be a Stranger, Too, coming this winter from BlazeVOX

  • gaby

    what an amazing ride. reminded me of color-coded fear (homeland security threat-levels) and Swansong. of grace and hope, together, crossing the face of doom. bitterly beautiful.

  • http://Www.thumbtack4k.wordpress.com Lisa Kilian

    Amazing ride is right. GREAT stuff. “Paranoia as razor.” Love it.

    Lisa