K. Tait Jarboe

 

BUTTERCUP 

 

K. TAIT jarboe

 

“Contemplate suffering as an acute oversensitivity to geography. Imagine that every stone, stairwell and street has absorbed the life, death and fear of everyone that has come before you and your job is to give voice to this nightmare.” – Lydia Lunch

 

“This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.” – Heraclitus

 

The wail of the tornado siren ricochets over the flat spread of the campus, an ominous song which the staff of the summer festival ignores.

“It’s pretty quiet, usually. You will hear that sometimes,” the technical director says. “It’s for the volunteer fire fighters. Don’t worry about it.”

He bites at a dry cuticle and thinks of something.

“It’s also the tornado warning. I guess, pay attention to that.”

“How do you know which one it is?” asks the electrician.

“Small town. Ask someone.”

The technical director shrugs. He bites at his callous-crusted fingers again, then stuffs both hands half-way into the pockets of his cargo shorts. His resting expression is a small frown and his eyes dart around like bubbles of engine oil.

From the edge of the trees, in a cool shadow, I watch him play boss-man with the electrician. She has a dirty backpack loose on her shoulders. A wrench hangs by tie line from a tattering belt loop on her jeans. She punctuates the space she occupies, shifting weight onto both feet.

She’s asking him something in small words, a personal question about the character of the town. He’s answering in logistics. Either he really misunderstands her or he’s uncomfortable. He is always like this, on the constant brink of humiliation.

She would learn more if she followed me through the lawns and ate the grass. The ground is rich with the mulch of experience. Sometimes I find a patch that overwhelms me with the information I can taste. All memories belong to the space on which they occur, and the divine function of our appetites is to know them by consuming what remains. I reel with them inside me and then I shit them out, sustaining topostatic wisdom.

I step closer and she hears my rustling about. She turns and we look at one another.

“Oh, hey,” she says to the technical director. “I never see rabbits up close at home. They’re cute.” She smiles.

“No, they’re terrible.” He sighs. “Seriously, they just stand in the middle of the roads and spread disease, probably. You think they’re cute until you’re trying to park the box truck and the driveway is full of them. They don’t run for anything, like, I hate guns but the population is out of control.”

“So what do you do? Shoot them and run them over?”

“I don’t, but you’re welcome to.”

She laughs in a way that ends the conversation.

We are by the loading dock. I step into the sunlight and pose at the bottom of the sloped gutter of the sidewalk. She wants to touch me. I take a bite of the flavorless campus, which tells me very little.

The actors reside in the campus house with the best garden. They arrive, and their cat drives me out from my favorite spots. I leap across the faux neighborhood that keeps students during the academic year, through rose bushes, and around the back of the outdoor stage into the sour field that faces the hill. It’s sunset and I rest among tall weeds and listen to the night bugs wake up and wail.

The properties supervisor lumbers into the field during those first ten minutes after dusk, when the horizon is stained like blackberries. He notices me but does not react. He continues to the center of the clearing and sets out a blanket and lays down on his back. He’s as large as a bear, with cavernous eyes and ruddy skin. His curly hair sticks to the sweat on his face.

I creep around him. The field trembles with recognition, at something locked within him that belongs here. He is hoarding knowledge. My nose trembles with wonder, resentment, curiosity.

The work lamps from the outdoor stage pour sallow light into the field. After midnight, the electrician powers down and the field is dark. The properties supervisor remains on his blanket, unmoving and wide awake.

I am enjoying the peace and enlightening ignorant switchgrass with my shit. The electrician leads herself by her cell phone, an L.E.D. will-o’-the-wisp bobbing as she strolls back the long way to the dormitories.

She sees the soft hump of the properties supervisor in the fringes of her vision and stops cold. It’s not unheard of, out here, to run into a large beast. She squints and blinks and lowers her phone until she recognizes the mass as a person and she approaches.

“Hello?”

He’s silent.

“You okay?” she asks.

The properties supervisor inhales slow and deep.

“I’m fine,” he says.

The electrician hesitates, searching her good intentions for a graceful exit. She looks at the time on her phone. The properties supervisor turns and takes in the digital ghost of her face visible by its light.

“I recognize you,” he says.

She arches back.

“From where?”

She lowers the phone and pockets it, sinking back into the hood of her sweatshirt.

“YouTube,” he says. “You’re No-Bras-No-Masters-1984.”

“Yeah, I am.” She sounds skeptical. “That was my transition blog from, like, 2009. Which video did you see?”

“All of them. I subscribed for a while. I used to want to be a girl, too.”

“Hell yeah!”

“I stopped though. It was a phase.”

“Oh, that sucks. I mean, that’s cool, if that’s what you had to do for you and stuff. How long was your phase?”

“Ten years.”

“Dude,” she says. The word deflates out of her with tender understanding. There is a beat of silence.

“Hey, so, I’m not out as trans around here, if that’s okay. Except in a really need-to-know way.”

He nods and she can make out enough of his face to feel that the matter is settled. She pulls the cell phone back out and snaps it open and shut.

“Sorry for bugging you. See you around.” She rushes off, energized by shyness, self-sabotage, flattery, curiosity.

I hop after her until the edge of the field. I turn back towards the properties supervisor. There is an absence of motion and light, a zone of abyss around him, as though the sky has a patch cut out of it. I listen. The field is soundless, too, since he has been left alone.

Tantalizing scents pulse and retract radially from his body. He holds to the place so hard that it bends backward into him, devouring the wisdom that belongs underfoot, in the gut of life, in my mouth. There is no way he can appreciate what this denies me.

I investigate the field in day time, while the properties supervisor is in his workshop. The imprint of violence is apparent around the grass, but the content is missing from what I taste, so I have no way to fix it.

There’s no baser act of vandalism than to deny access to the divine function of our appetites.

I run across campus and toward the parking lot. The technical director sits on the curb by his Penske truck, half-loaded with flats and prop furniture.

He eats a sandwich from a foil wrapper and watches me. I pause and watch him back. We stare at one another until he breaks the gaze, submitting, feigning interest in the crust of his lunch.

I rest at the edge of the field in the protection of thorns. Sunset creeps forward. For once I am impatient with the length of the day, resent the gradual fruit-smear. He will come at night so that is what it needs to be.

The electrician feels the same way. She slumps under the back awnings of the outdoor theater. She wants to talk to him again.

I nose around an anthill and invent distractions to keep myself from losing patience.

She pulls a bag of chips from her backpack, eats a few, closes them up and puts them away, then a moment later retrieves them and continues eating. She does this several times until they are gone. She licks her fingers and the edge of the bag.

A rabbit has no deduction and does not guess. I learn from what gets left behind, directly, nonverbally. The will of living things seeps into every non-living thing, a kind of ontological osmosis. Materials envy beings, beings worship materials.

Rabbits consume their own shit because even this is part of knowing, part of honoring the balance.

Night comes. The faint horn of an approaching freight train blows from the west. The echo bounces off the river and floods the rests between bug song. It’s ninety degrees and humid as an orifice. When the properties supervisor appears in my view, he wades through the moisture and mosquitos toward the center of the field.

The electrician reaches him first.

“Hey, can I talk to you?” she asks.

“I guess,” he says.

I crouch low, ready.

“I know it might be weird but I think it’s cool you’ve watched all of my videos. I don’t want to bother you, but I’d like to hang out.”

“I said it was a phase.”

“Right. No, right, I actually—” She thinks. “I actually don’t want to talk about gender, at all, like maybe ever again. It’s always what people want to talk about when they try to get to know me. And since you already know everything I could say on the matter, I was wondering, you know, if you’d like to get ice cream.”

The train horn blows again, it’s closer, making its way over the bridge toward the state line.

Something in the quality of the darkness disintegrates.

“You have to go,” he says.

She starts to answer him but the sound is caught and muffled, as though she’s speaking under water. The properties supervisor pulses like a firefly, fading in and out of being and not being while the field flickers between itself and the crumbling interior of a house with mid-day sun streaming through the windows.

I run at him, baring my teeth.

The three of us are in a living room. It’s daytime. The properties supervisor holds himself as though he were half his actual size, and the electrician is trembling. Then I feel it take me, as well.

My consciousness shrinks back into a passenger role and my body moves through the will of ghosts.

The walls are peeling and the place reeks of rotten meat. There’s a wood-burning stove by the far wall of the living room that’s smoking with compost and kerosene. The electrician looks at me and then to the properties supervisor.

“Go outside,” she says. Her voice is doubled by a dry warble of a middle aged woman. “Take Buttercup.”

“But the paint is wet on the hutch…” the properties supervisor replies, and his words echo in a child’s nervous mumble. Still, he picks me up—or, he picks up Buttercup and I feel Buttercup’s weight against the chest and arms of a child even as I am still small and he is still large—and he carries me toward the back porch.

There’s no carpet on the unfinished floors. Splinters and damage to the wood stick up at odd angles. As the boy walks I hear the grind of dirt and sand and the scrape of buttons and debris that catch the soles of his shoes. The properties supervisor wears size fourteen athletic sneakers but the sound of the step is a small, hard clop of hand-me-down leather, a pair of Sunday best cycled twice through the Salvation Army.

The boy scratches his arm, welting with tiny bites. Buttercup scratches a moment later, then I notice the flea leap off my face and onto the kitchen counter. Flies orbit animal intestine shriveling on a damp cutting board.

He takes me to the back porch and squats over the sinking wood, breathing deeply as the cool musk of earth and fungus soothes the burning stench of spoiled food and lighter fluid out of our noses. The porch is a divide between life and death, the backyard a micro-Eden, sweet cycle of decomposition and fertilization. It’s spotted with rabbit hutches and a chicken coop and the shit of both animals. Vegetables grow untended and small among poison ivy and thickets of raspberries and crab apple.

He takes me down by the hutches and I recognize the shape of the horizon at once as the field behind the outdoor theater at the college, before the college was built. There is a weather battered lot-for-sale sign in the swamp beyond the yard.

The boy sets me down in front of a special hutch by the raspberries. It glistens with white house paint that coats the exterior and orange craft acrylic spelling Buttercup’s name over the entrance. Buttercup lops into the bushes.

A man’s voice bellows from inside the house, barking the properties supervisor’s name, and the boy dashes off around the side of the house and into the woods as the man fills out the back doorway. He’s middle aged and red-faced, and otherwise unmemorable to look at. I feel his presence diminishing the outward, forward motions of this memory. As he stands in the shade of the porch, he calls the name again and in the resonance of the sound is the blank space from the middle of that field where the properties supervisor lies at night.

The red-faced man finds and catches me. He strangles me and snaps the little bones in my neck as he picks me up from the bushes and shakes my limp body for good measure. My panic dissolves into elation when I realize I am having the incredible good fortune of dying transitively through Buttercup. I am both inside and outside of the experience. I have no language for consciousness without sensation, since language is built around sensory measurements. The best way I can put it is that it’s like pure intuition.

It is fantastic. I am skinned and decapitated and gutted and chopped and thrown into stew beside root vegetables.

The electrician eats me. She’s trapped within the mother of the properties supervisor. He is trapped within his own childhood.

Hundreds of scarred lacerations from pulling up the carpet with her hands are the only outward signs of the breakdown she endures. Her sex organs are numb, disassociated, resentful toward husband and child that repulse her. Boys repulse her especially because her mind cannot shut out intrusive thoughts. She has Oedipal impulses and every time someone touches her she envisions cutting off her own hands. She folds so far back in on herself that the electrician’s willpower, her staggering anger and love and her monumental sadness, presses against the boundaries of the mother and grapples for control.

I become part of them all.

“Do you know what you just ate for dinner?” the red-faced man asks.

“Rabbit?”

“Your rabbit. That was Buttercup we had.”

The man laughs, that absence hallowing the sound of his voice again. The moment bursts apart. The absence spreads, something private within the boy is absorbed by it and he shivers when he cries, shivers because he feels the cold spot where the private thing had been, and I am goosebumps and tears and the face and the hands beating the face.

“Don’t you dare cry, don’t you dare!”

I am the blow and the head rush, the retreat. The mother moves into the living room and the electrician pushes against her, bleeding through the lines between them.

The red-faced man shoots lighter fluid into the wood-burning stove, tends it with scrap, and crouches into the molting armchair beside it. He sleeps like that, snoring.

The electrician comes down the stairs with the properties supervisor at dawn. She cups her hand over his mouth, her arm hugging his shoulders, carrying both of their shoes in her other hand as they creep across the living room in stocking feet. The boy in him shakes. His mother never touches him, never mind like this, and the electrician still inhabits that role even as she seizes control.

She gestures him to stay quiet, hands him his shoes and nudges him toward the front door. He opens it slow, stopping where he knows it will squeak and squeezes himself outside.

The electrician watches as he stumbles onto the front lawn. She shoos him to move farther. She holds her breath and snatches up the lighter fluid.

The blaze engulfs the house. Smoke the color of tooth cavities obscures the sunrise. The electrician and the properties supervisor run from the back of the house, trailed by excited rabbits and chickens. They drop to their knees when they reach a safe distance, winded. The properties supervisor blinks to keep looking at the fire, his mouth open.

The house burns, the sky pulsates between the rising sun within the memory and the stars of the field we left behind. I slip in and out of sensation as I penetrate back into my body. It’s a shrinking feeling, constrained to one safe and whole self, but the ground never felt more sublime under-foot, the air never sweeter.

The siren at the volunteer fire station cranks to a howl. The electrician and the properties supervisor stand in the dark field behind the outdoor stage, holding onto each other’s arms and marveling as the landscape fades back to present except for the burning house, which emerges with them into the present. The hungry tension of the land relaxes as what was missing returns to meet its fate.

The electrician and the properties supervisor run from the heat, wrists interlocked like children playing a schoolyard game. They look at one another the way an animal puts away its sharp teeth and shows its soft belly. Neither needs apologize, or explain.

Even in the humidity, the enormous flames will spread to the theater and the college buildings in little time. The fire trucks pull onto the main drag of the campus. Soon they will extinguish all of my hard work.

I run at the building and take flight. I call on every ounce of energy that surrounds me. Prey, predators, monsters, gods, grant me the crucial strength, and as I sail hundreds of feet into the air, I pull the house up after me. It rises into the sky as gentle and bright as a paper lantern.

The deep whistle of the freight train reverberates off the river as the train recedes beyond the border. The electrician and the properties supervisor shrink from my view, the campus and then the town vanishes into a few points of light. The house and I burn together, immolate, allowing what the structure holds to break down the way it should have. I liberate the knowledge of this place, finally, to the wind, to the river, to the ground, the phoenix feeding itself to the hydra. Uw

 


 

jarboe_k_tait

K. Tait Jarboe is a sound designer and writer living in Boston. Their other fiction can be found in Purple Pig Lit, For Every Year, Wyvern Lit, and the anthologies The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard (LAMBDA Literary Award winner) and Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline (IndieFab Award winner). They tweet @KelseyJarboe.

 

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