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The Travelers

In the afternoon, we prepared to leave our bodies.

The others were edgy, they had been waiting a long time. Days previous I had seen them cheating their medication and bartering it round in the hallways. Everyone wanted the green and the pink pills, which weren’t abundant. Reds were okay, too. The white ones, which everyone had, were worthless for leavetakings, and caused constipation. The others did not look like drug addicts or crazy people. They looked like ordinary folks doing ordinary things … they were ordinary. You could see the hungry wolf in their eyes, their teeth. Now they were dressed in their Sunday best. Today was a special day of leavetaking … my birthday. Riding on cheated medication, they were already leaving for happier places, places memory alone might not take them. I hoped to go there, too. When you’re dying, you want to make everything right. We get up to these hijinks every so often.

When the time finally fell upon us, I took my extra greens with a quiver of excitement I hadn’t felt in years. I sat waiting in my rocker by the window. From the main desk, Marilyn, the supervisor, rang a tiny silver bell, and its echo hung in the air through the rest of the afternoon. A fat young man appeared from behind the desk carrying the special occasion silver tray, and on the tray little plastic cups half full of water, with smaller cups of candy colored pills beside them, all lined up in perfect rows over white squares with our names on them. The fat man guarded his tray from those shuffling toward him. They snapped bright conical party hats to their bald heads, hummed vague tunes from another life. The fat man passed out our medication with a wax museum grin. Secretly we call him Onionhead, or just Onion, because he has a round, shiny, bald head, and an odor. He is an orderly, all of them are orderlies, though they explain to us they are Eldercare Health Technicians, or somesuch. He thinks we are crazy because we laugh for no reason.

The edges of things blurred and faded as I watched the plan unfold. Helen settled herself at the piano bench and played “That Old Time Feeling” and everyone made up their own words. The ones who could dance did so, bodies far behind their ballroom memories. Alice and Tom were there, dancing like a tree in a breeze … she trembling and fragile, he gnarled and immobile. Old Ed sat by the nurse’s station sucking oxygen and staring at me through the thickets of his eyebrows. We call him Old Ed because he acts his age. He has oxygen tubes in his nose and tanks at the back of his wheelchair. Looks like some sort of astronaut. He bought himself the wheelchair for Christmas to hold the tanks because he says hauling them around aggravates his bursitis. He should be a writer, the stories he tells. He was the only one who could have ruined this afternoon, but I wouldn’t let him, I waved him away, and he went.

Agnes appeared in a beautiful lavender evening dress with a bow at the waist and a ruffled overskirt with white trim she swears she wore to church the day she met her husband, who vanished many years ago. She is forever modeling such finery for me in an effort to change my plain wardrobe, but I don’t need fancy dresses. No one believes Agnes’ dress is as old as she claims, or that if it was she would still fit in it, or that if she still fit in it she would wear it to church, or that if she wore it to church any self-respecting Christian man would look on her with anything but moral indignation. I would call her a liar, too, except that Agnes certainly would wear an evening dress to church, and if the rest is a lie it’s a fine one, and I don’t care. She doesn’t care either if it’s true or not, if we believe it.

Agnes is an exotic creature who has spent time in Europe and still carries Europe with her. She looked regal and acted like a clown. She took the two reds Onion gave her and spun in a slow circle, raised the water up, smiling. We cheered her on. Onion watched the water to see it didn’t spill on his tray and she slipped a pink out of her sleeve and into her mouth with the other pills. All reckless nonchalance. With her back to Onion she stuck her tongue out at me and I saw the pink capsule dangling between the two reds, and remembered better days, or made them up. It’s all the same now.

The entire day shift came for the party, and even some of the night people. The day room slowly filled with noise and movement. A handsome elderly man from the city appeared at the piano where Helen was playing and whispered something in her ear. I don’t know how he was able to get her from her seat … if there’s entertaining to be done, she insists you look no further. The city man sang and told jokes about aging and the foibles of the young. We sat around the extra tables and folding chairs the orderlies set out and gave the poor man a hard time. Helen made little comments about his technique under her breath that everyone could hear. She used to teach drama. Agnes threw in her own punchlines that stole his thunder.

Entertainer: “Here’s a song to help you remember what it was like to get out to a new, hip joint and dance all night.”

Agnes: “Now I’d be happy with a new hip joint.”

How we laughed! Not at him … or even ourselves … not at anything. Maybe it was the pills. Maybe that we were all dying, some elegantly, most badly. Even the air seemed thin, fading. Even us, losing our breath in little panicked hiccups.

Anyone reading this would think we are drug addicts. We are. Some need the medication to cope with the pain of rheumatism, arthritis, old war wounds and surgeries. Sometimes medication brings you here, when you need so much of it you can’t remember what to take when, or the side effects make you sicker than you were before, and you need more drugs to ₀. And the medication keeps you here – the cure of one pain and the cause of another – and the orderlies who deliver it, the nurses who monitor it. A routine as binding as a contract. They take over your life, the caregivers and the medications and the schedules, and you lose yourself. For some, it’s a safer way than dying. But it is dying. Take away your drugs and your routines and what do you have left? Look at us. There are many ways to die that don’t require dying. We are proud scholars of the art.

Some need the drugs to maintain the pain. These are the Old Eds of the nursing home. Agnes says if their medication isn’t on the tip of their tongue, the word is. They ask for their pills by their long names hours before each dose. They take them in their hands to count and name them before pushing them through their lips, one by one. We are all nursing private hurts. When you arrive here, here is all there is, and here is nowhere. The things that reminded you of who you were – smells from your kitchen, sounds outside the window, the sight of your grandchildren … those things are displaced. You are encouraged to decorate your new room with your own belongings. This is why it’s called a nursing home, because what you do here is nurse a sense of home. But soon you realize the ruse this is. Your things in a room don’t make it yours. It’s unsettling to see your familiar things, the things you took for granted and stopped seeing for so many years, suddenly cast in relief in a strange setting, like a museum piece. There could be placards outside each door: Replica, c. 1930-70, of how Resident 2A once lived, based on information provided by in-laws. Notice the antique lampshade and the afghan her daughter-in-law made her, folded and unused at the end of her bed, just as it remained when she was not so far gone.

Agnes teases them, especially Old Ed, but once, by the stone bench in the garden, she confessed there was something sadly beautiful in the ritual of his suffering, the religious devotion he gave to it. She said his pain made him happy. She doesn’t know, but Old Ed has asked me more than once to give him a week’s worth of greens, so he can disappear and never come back. I won’t do it. He tells me I’m a coward, and he’s right. We all want to die, though not all of us know it. And those of us who do are afraid of it, including Old Ed. For all of our leavings, we never stray very far from here. I tell Old Ed he would never off himself, and every time, he quietly wheels himself away from me.

I asked Agnes if she ever asked Old Ed if he was happy, because he doesn’t look it. She said, Why would he act as he does if it didn’t make him happy? I said, I think he’s more misguided than happy. Agnes laughed and said, Don’t be silly, Tru. We’re not guided at all.

People were dancing and talking and bending over me to take my hands in theirs and say, Happy Birthday, Gertrude!, their funhouse faces moving in and out of focus. For awhile I couldn’t stop laughing again, my sides hurt from it, how long had it been since I laughed like this, I didn’t care, I was laughing now and couldn’t stop. Then I realized I had stopped laughing some time ago. What I had thought was my laughter was really the ting of the nurse’s silver bell in my ear, a light silver tone circling round and through us all. I looked for the bell across the room in the nurse’s station, but there were too many people. Where had they all come from? The room was suddenly packed. No one could move, but everyone did. Some moved through one another. Translucent shadow-bodies flickered in between the people I knew, a profile here, a closed hand there, sometimes a red corner of down-turned mouth or a shoulder dipping away. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The dead had arrived. Tired of waiting, they had come to me.

I stared through the spinning forest of limbs for something familiar. I had seen these figures many times before, my dim memories, my familiar strangers, but never so many as now. The regulars had turned out for the celebration … my father, standing in a doorway, staring always from a distance; my mother, just a warm whiff of bread and blur of red dress; Brice, standing still amid the whirling bodies with his fists clenched at his sides and his jaw working from side to side; Madeleine, poor Madeleine, a shock of shadow trembling in and out of vision. As I watched them fade and flit, more and more of them emerged from my past, countless faces without names, all the people I have slighted, maligned, slandered, condescended to, hit and bloodied, screamed at, turned from. The dead pass through the halls of this home and my memory the way some people travel. In time they forget where they came and where they’re going to, and they just keep moving. The dead are people who have become their traveling. It’s no way to live! And we are much like them, though we have a fearful end in mind. Still, afraid as I am of endings, I would rather have them than not. I need to know it won’t go on like this. I need to know that there is no leaving something without returning to something else.

“Welcome to the party,” I called out to them. “Come one, come all.”

And they did. They always do.

When I was a child, a wind wandered through the window, circled round the room in a panic, and found the window out again. Before it left, it dropped something in the room that changed everything. The world revealed a mystery I couldn’t solve. Everything was a clue … the shape of air beneath a bird’s wing, an empty chair against the wall, the paling of my mother’s cheek as she swiftly took ill. Father pretended not to see the mystery, though it was everywhere, huge and fantastic, like a gigantic butterfly resting on his bald head, slowly fanning the air with its delicate painted wings as he sat in a corner reading yesterday’s newspaper, looking for a job that would tolerate his club foot.

Odd jobs for odd people, he would say. His little, pinched mouth.

Father’s hands were rough and scored with paper cuts. The paper mill gave him a few hours a week, not enough, out of pity for his club foot and for the death of his sons, victims of the mill. Have I forgotten their names? … but they’ve been dead seventy years. It was not uncommon. The mill gave everyone in town a dead relative or two. The mill’s charity had been enough when my father’s sons were alive, more than enough. But then my brothers died, and I came along, a girl. Useless.

My mother started singing songs in her sleep that we didn’t recognize, and they found their way into my dreams. In the morning there might be a spatter of blood on her pillow, like musical notation. In the night I would stand out on the back porch and listen to the long grass whisper. Sometimes I saw my father’s lantern at the far end of the field next to my brothers. The wind caught the distant sound of his crying, or was it the wind itself? The lantern winked out, and the last light arrowed into dark. And the silence … like a hand … how it closed the night.

A grandfather I never knew built our house when times were rich. After my brothers died, my father closed off the two upper stories of the house and much of the first. The second and third stories seemed to weigh down heavily on the first, the whole sinking into itself. Acres of open land surrounded it, exposed it. From the kitchen, where I spent much of my time because my room was just room and not very much of it, I could see the pasture and the field of long grass next to it where I ran and played, and beyond the field the occasional copse of spruce like an oasis. My father’s house stared out impassively as a mountain, infused with my grandfather’s and my father’s stoic will. My father invested the family’s money in a few head of cattle, which began dying off after the wind passed through my mother’s window. They died quietly, one by one, each in a matter of days. You could tell they were sick when they stopped eating. They tended to stand and stare. Some wandered aimlessly to the pasture’s edge. In the next few days they would sit down and refuse to get up, then lie down, then die. In the house, too, an invisible force pulled our heels down when we tried to walk, so that standing or sitting in one place became easier than moving, trying to move. Watch the night descend. Wait. Then only two cows remained, stationed in the barn most of the time, for no one knew what the others had died of and it was thought the land itself might carry some disease. It became clear to Father, and finally to us all, that the family would never return to its plentiful glory.

I began seeing the dead around this time. Beyond my field the river cut through the hills toward the mill. I used to bathe and play in the river, a lot of kids did. There was a spot a ways north that no one went to because it was too close to the loggers … loud, gruff, violent men. A branch just around a sharp bend, where I could hear the river’s roar without feeling its bite. Sun on the water, sun on my shoulders, voices all in the distance and the river just mine, mine, mine. Sometimes a few loggers would wander down. I would backpedal, watch from the shadows on the bank. The loggers would stop and look around at this little paradise, sometimes sit on the opposite bank and smoke and laugh and curse. In town they were different, combed and polite, though there was always something jagged in them. They met the river with an aggressive fear because they knew each day on it could be their last. Many men died on that river. After the wind passed through our house, I heard the dead loggers’ voices in the roar of the river. On a quiet day I could hear them from my field, a single, perpetual drolling. The dead congregated on the opposite bank, standing or sitting around, doing nothing. I stopped going to the river not because of the dead … they were less threatening dead than alive … but because there were suddenly so many men around.

I saw them in school, too. Many had dead brothers, and once I overheard their stories, the empty shells of their spirits appeared to me and never left their living siblings. They hung from the body at odd angles or dragged behind it like something escaped from a circus, then so ordinary I forgot them again. They were not animated or outspoken. They did not speak at all, but gazed at whatever happened to be in front of them. They seemed content simply to be. Stop staring, classmates said to me, when a new one appeared, but I wasn’t looking at my classmates. When they realized this they teased me and I bloodied their noses. How I fought! They all feared me. I loved it. I shouldn’t have done this, felt this. This is who I am. After a beating, I apologized to the dead, who understood the nature of things. Then my classmates ignored me, kept me to myself. This was all I wanted in the first place. I searched my body for my own brothers on my stomach, my head, behind me. But they had gone before me. I was their dead limb. Vestigial. That’s what my father saw, that’s why he wouldn’t look at me, and felt guilty for trying to unsee me.

My mother taught me about stories, about the life and the truth in them. She kept a small stack of books in a back room we never used for anything else. She said she had found some of them in this house, left behind by our ancestors, but most she had collected herself. They were fairy tales stories, and stories and poems about wars, women, adventurers, children. There were even a few textbooks … science and math and history … and books in foreign languages we couldn’t read. These I would look at with my fingers, tracing the symbols. They were little maps of broken roads.

My mother and I would sit in the kitchen by the stove, where the pages would glow with firelight, and it seemed the glow came from the books themselves. She held each one in her strong, gentle hands like a baby, or a world. She had hazel eyes the fire turned amber, and a mouth like the ornamental hunting bow that hung on the wall in the general store, all elegant curves. She had life. She would read … she had a voice like a soft bell, clear and subtle … then pass the book to me, and I would finish it for us. After, there was just us and the fire. My mother staring out the darkening window, over the plate of dinner she had fixed for Father. A muted clatter of tools from the barn … Father was working late again. He never interrupted our story time, even when he needed help. Sometimes he would come in halfway through and sit down with his dinner and his newspaper, and we wouldn’t even notice him. She described herself as avid about literature. That was her word, avid. I didn’t know what it meant, but the way my mother’s face changed when she said it made me want to be avid all the time, avid about everything.

After my mother grew ill we still read her books, though her mind wandered from them more and more to some other place only she could see. She might stare into the fire, as if to get a better view in the flames of what was going on in the story, or simply close her eyes and watch from there, her lips moving silently. In these moments, I felt I was seeing all of her for the first time. Not reduced by fever and racking cough, but revealed: she was brighter somehow, fuller and more complete, and she spoke with the clarity and truth of dreams. Yet though I held her hand near me, she spoke from a great remove. I hoped to be with her again, the way we used to be. What world was she reading? And what made it so enticing that she would never return to us the way she was? I hoped to see it, too, and I kept searching, because I understood that the world I was in then was ending. I’m still searching.

I tried to bring her back … kept reading the stories. In between stories, I watched for the wind that had brought all this upon us. When I had read all the books I started making stories up myself. It came naturally. I was trying to entice her back with a world of my own, and I was trying to keep her from straying too far into her fever-world. I was trying to keep her alive. I had come to believe the words had that power.

She laughed once at a story of mine, in damp hot dresses under sheets that clung and twisted, an alien landscape. Her breath was sour. As we laughed we shared a glance, and in that moment, we both knew. Sometimes sickness is the way to a cure, sometimes you just get sicker, and sometimes you die, though this too can be a cure. I played the story out as long as I could, added a second knight and then a third to fight for the princess. Father watched from behind his newspaper in the other corner of the room. I resurrected a dragon as my mother worked on the dress she swore she would wear when she could walk again, a strawberry red dress with little yellow flowers and bees. When she laid the dress over her body and tried to sleep through the fever, I corrupted another knight with lust. When she couldn’t sleep I said, Mama, I don’t know who’s who anymore, we’ll have to start all over. Her eyelids beat like moths against a pane. On the other side of the room Father turned a page. The brittle paper crackled. My mother spoke in half-sleep. Outside, a wind wished through the long grass. I looked out at the night. Something was happening … it looked at me … passed me by.

Inside, the music and the jokes had stopped and hands surrounded me, gingerly set little gifts into my lap, as though my legs might crumble. I opened each package slowly. I had never received gifts before, not from people. I held the first with one hand and worked at the bow with the other, thinking, I have hurt many, many people. Now they all gathered round me, wearing the little secret smiles of lovers and killers. The dead will never leave you. Times I think if I could forget them they would go their way, but memory will ignore forgetting. Whenever my mind wanders, there they are, staring back at me through a window, or pressing gifts into my lap. Not forgotten, only waiting. This is my pain, worse than the flaming swell of my joints, and no medication dulls it. The dead are also my bitter pill, I suspect, for crimes so numerous I’ve forgotten them. I wish I could tell them: I didn’t know, I didn’t know. I tried not to hurt anyone, though I did. But I can’t say that, I can’t make excuses. Instead I tell them, Thank you. I never want to forget what I’ve done. They have a hand in every gift.

“Thank you for the gifts,” I tell them.

Helen knitted a shawl with the pattern I taught her, the pattern my mother taught me. Tom and Alice framed a set of pictures of me from when I was a girl. The girl in the pictures had long hands and a hard face. One picture was taken from a great distance, across an open field. There was a stand of scrub oak off to one side. She was a small white shape striding over the horizon … coming or going? I was a girl once. “Thank you for the gifts.” I was just a girl. Thank you for my lot in life. Agnes gave me a deck of playing cards with pictures of shiny, brooding men on them.

“Chippendales!” Agnes cried, taking the cards up and waving them around for everyone to see. “Ain’t I a lifesaver?”

Men:

Brice’s iron hands pinning my arms down to my sides and my cheek scraping the brick wall. He pushed my dress up. He took it out and stabbed me over and over. I felt myself bleeding inside. The whole time he gnashed his teeth and pushed my face across the brick. Above, a narrow strip of blue sky between two walls leaning together. The sky receding, falling away. It quaked as though a giant hand were pounding the world with a hammer. Even after Brice ran away the world kept shaking. I didn’t know what it meant. I was thirteen years old. I vomited and cried. No one came. I held my stomach and felt for anything. There was pain, and nothing. I held on to that. I took it home.

I had the baby myself, a long time before it was due. Father had moved me to a makeshift cabin he had built on the far edge of our pasture, where he wouldn’t have to see me. I screamed in pain, but also to be heard. I may have blacked out for a moment. When I looked up Father stood in the doorway, then disappeared, then reappeared beside me, doing something between my legs. I felt a tugging, a slippery mess, then nothing. Father held the screaming thing in a bloody towel, stared at it for a moment. The moment stretched into another, slower time. His face went soft. I wanted to hold them both, my baby and my father, and reached my arms out to them. Father’s arms slowly straightened out, the baby suspended in the air between us, its cries coming from somewhere else, another world, and falling, like tears, finally, into my arms, a red, raw, powerful, fragile little girl. Father stood near the door and watched me holding her. Her name is Madeleine, I said. Isn’t she beautiful? The doctor came. He loomed above me, his eyes flicking from me to my girl, his mouth pressed into itself, turning of his head from side to side. Soon everyone would know what I had done. I looked away, at Madeleine. She had opened her eyes and was watching me, too. Eyes black as a pit. The doctor finished with me and left. When I looked up again Father had disappeared, too.

I’m sorry, Brice. I’m sorry Father, Mother, Maddie. I’m so sorry I hurt you.

The staff slowly gathered around me in silent ceremony. Marilyn the supervisor, a large, strong woman with a severe air … she has high-angled eyebrows and a long nose and is so tall she must always stare down it, as though aiming along the barrel of a rifle, to speak to you … but a soft heart, presented me with a package. She stared down at me and held it out, made me feel guilty for taking it, though I knew better. Inside was a carved wooden music box. I lifted the lid back and inside, a little ballerina turned on her toe while song chimes rose up beneath her, carried her along. It was a familiar tune, though I couldn’t place it. The satiny white lining the ballerina twirled in looked like a cloud. It was supposed to be heaven, I think. I watched her until the song began to slow. Her passive gaze, pale skin. I recognized the floaty dress material … it came from one of Agnes’ gowns she said she wore when she met Winston Churchill, a gauzy, carnation-pink I have never seen elsewhere. It looked strange on this ballerina, this mysterious night creature. She seemed out of place in heaven. I imagined she would go on dancing after I closed the lid, even after the song stopped. I lowered the lid slowly, watching the ballerina fold down with it. She had little black dots for eyes.

“It’s from all of us,” said Marilyn.

Something rose in my stomach, and then I got the joke. The music box was another gift from the dead. It wasn’t heaven, it was a coffin. The dead pressed closer around me now, the air dimmed and left me. When I was a girl, and innocent, the dead made no demands. Now, near as I am to them, I don’t know what they want, or what to do for them. I wanted to tell them something. Not just an apology, but something about leaving. I suddenly wanted to enjoy this moment, this afternoon, here in this room. I thought they might understand if I didn’t want to leave anymore. So many moments had already been lost, so many tiny deaths. My mother died without knowing of Maddie. And I remember, or they made me remember, watching my father bury her next to my brothers. I watched from my cabin window with Maddie in my arms, staring up at me. Father died just a few days after that. I suspect he poisoned himself. He had strayed to the edge of his life, watched it pass him by for awhile, then quietly slipped over the edge. Father was selfish, and weak, and a coward. I found him lying in my mother’s bed, on his back, dressed in a new shirt, with a look of relief on his face. His brow was still, swept clean of care. No remorse. I slapped him, hard. I slapped him because I had loved him. He barely moved; it was like hitting a wall.

I buried him next to my mother. It took all afternoon and long into night. Maddie cried next to me, but not out of sorrow. She was never sad. Her cry was outrage at the things that had been taken from her before she had them … a father, a family, a future. After I rolled my father into his grave, there was a moment: There was a stand of trees off to my left, black against the night’s indigo, that stood like an exit, a dark portal into another place. If I dug another hole, I thought. A small, deep hole. And stood at the edge with Maddie in my arms, and leaned forward, loosened my hold of her, just a little, a little bit more. If I covered the hole, covered the crying, buried my past and walked through that portal to nowhere. The thought made me dizzy. It isn’t the fear of your child falling that terrifies. It’s the fear that one day you will not check your desire to let go. As if she knew, Maddie stopped crying and looked at me. Her black eyes shone like polished obsidian. The rest of her body lay still, too still for a baby. In her mind, I thought, she was already digging a hole for me.

I looked up at the swarm of waiting faces. Alice stood at a distance, hands folded, smiling down at me, and Tom at her side, preoccupied with a hangnail. Agnes glanced away, leaned over the piano best as she could to flash the entertainer some cleavage. Old Ed was around here somewhere, Helen, Marilyn, somewhere through the limbs hanging before me, waiting. They were waiting for me to say something. There was a music box in my lap. What did it mean, where has it all gone? I have hurt many, many people. So much blind longing. Do we even know what we want? Do we even know what we want? I remember, when the sun was high on the fields of long grass, when my father set my mother in the chair on the back porch to watch me run. In the far corner of the field my brothers’ stones, two gray humps still in the waving flower like a displaced sea serpent. Happy to keep you company, I laughed, stroking its coarse swayback. Returning, I stopped to peel a flower from my heel. Flattened against my foot it looked like a hieroglyph. My mother, wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, arms raised up at right angles to her body, ready to clap at my next joke, my father turned to profile, watching the cattle graze and the storm clouds flex. The light dimmed a little, color faded into the past. I had missed it, whatever it was. We all had. My brothers were dead before I knew them. I held up the crushed flower and laughed against my will. We were all strangers, bound by our longing. It’s not the moment that we want to leave, it’s the longing for the moment. Yet as each moment slips by, we hold only to its passing.

“Are we there yet?” It was me talking.

“I think she means ‘thank you,’” said Agnes, smiling sidelong at me, then turning to the crowd. She was so beautiful, so free. I wish I had known her in Europe.

The orderlies set out cake and punch, then withdrew into the nurse’s station. The entertainer vanished somewhere and Helen reappeared at the piano. There was more singing and dancing as the afternoon descended. People began to leave slowly, so slowly I didn’t notice them until they were gone. The dead, too, faded back into the past, though this was no relief. The empty spaces where they had stood stared at me. I clambered after something solid, with seams and edges that could be seen and felt and traced from start to finish.

“Agnes?” I called. But she wasn’t there.

The rest departed for the blissful ignorance they never knew as youths. Some of them found it. They raised their cups in the air to toast me and the day, and to laugh and forget the fading hour. I laughed with them, and watched my laughter circle around the room with the dying echo of the nurse’s bell and away. In spite of the dead, it had been a good day. There are things to love in this world, if you can hang on to it. Friends, dresses, dancing, laughter. If you can beat back the dead. I was not dead. I could still laugh. The dead never laugh, because they only appreciate irony. The dead can only continue, but the living can begin again. If you start over, you know you are living. Long after the partyers separated into their separate worlds, my laughter returned. I drew it to me and held it tightly to my breast, where it trembled in the dark of my fist. I fell asleep then. While I slept I ran on boundless legs through a field of long grass toward the horizon. When I got there I stopped, peering through the invisible pane at the rest of the sky. An old woman’s face stared at me translucently from the other side. I was awake, staring out the window. My hand was empty, my laughter gone. Outside, behind my old eyes, twilight: sunless, nightless. Pale trembling stars shone out of my forehead, quiet and far away. They were starting points, only starting points. There is no destination. As I watched, the night spread and revealed a map of deep lines across my face, connecting luminous points of light.

about the author

Eric Melbye is Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Miami University-Middletown, and editor of Segue online literary journal. “The Travelers” is adapted from his novel manuscript, “Tru,” which is currently seeking a publisher. Portions of “Tru” have been published in Samsara Quarterly and Identity Theory. Most recently his fiction and essays have been published in 5_Trope and Inventio.