Blue sky from corporate to the car. Texting his wife, Mr. Kedder didn’t notice the mosfugito alight on his back — purple, corpulent, cellophane wings, with a proboscis that pushed discretely into Kedder’s time. Then the world heaved. Kedder spun ahead to his house, to bed, to morning with its toothpaste and groans. Years, suckled in seconds, flung children into college, into careers. Wrinkles wriggled across Kedder’s face. “Please…” A gray hair, a wife’s funeral, a pill in a white cup. “Please… stop…” And as in answer, the mosfugito tore from Kedder’s back, engorged on a gray husk bound to wheelchair.
“When Men Came” was published in the college mag Writ in Water in 2018. Enough time has passed that rights to the story have reverted back to me. Since the publication was only distributed on the Houston Baptist University campus, I thought I would share the story here to the internet. Spoilers: The narrative is about an oak tree in the Middle Ages.
When men came, they scratched against my brothers, kicking up a dust of innards, until I was surrounded by stumps. Then men removed the stumps.
I waited for the cutters to strike my knees but men must have feared the look of me. My gray shoulders, my nine arms, my armaments of acorn.
They burned the land.
I smelled the screams of grass—that fragrant wetness—before smoke. The fires ran up the bowl of the valley, and behind it men with long poles turned over char and removed the stones. If it reached me, the fire would burn across my flank, mutilate my face, but not kill me.
The fires stopped before the crest, and I was spared.
The elephant statue, dark colored coal,
a kingly pet bought by a kingly toll,
the remain of days of foreign conquest,
put here to attend to an age of rest.
Now defenseless from a people irate,
who seek to call ruin on the estate.
An axe scrapes a toe to heartless good cheer.
Drunk now, a farmer attacks the veneer.
From a rotten wound in its side outbreaks
the rat-bit scholar who lives in its legs;
shouts at the mob every curse that he knows:
“You anarchists, anti-Christs, and assholes.”
Below callous claws, skin peels away clean
to release beneath a summerset gleam;
a chest, trunk, and tail made of despot’s gold,
dissolved into dust – the marketplace sold.
“During the day, the door remains unlocked—the lights flicked on by a sleepy department head and flicked off by a custodian whose back vac makes her a ghostbuster.”
“Mrs. Whittaker paused from grading papers to appreciate the room. The kids were engaged in what’s called Flexible Learning, working in what is called Flexible Groups, to accomplish Flexible Goals, based on a Flexible Curriculum.”
“When I wake, the cats are at the door—they want to slip into bed and lie in my warm vacancy.”
“I open the year with a joke. ‘My name is Mr. White, like the color of my [the students look expectantly toward my skin] walls.’ Cue enough laughter to sustain the joke next period.”
“Today, I had a rather innocent and ill-informed student inspect an atlas on the wall (one with only the boundaries of countries but no printed names), point to Cambodia, and say, ‘I think that’s South Koran.'”
“My classroom is a block like those you stack in first-grade.”
In 2019, New Territory is concentric circles of green grass cloistered by brick houses, brick walls, brick veins. The streets have pretty names like Whisper Ridge and Rippling Creek and Silver Lake, imagining a lost era of folkishness, only this is the knees of Houston and there never was whispering, rippling, or silver anything, only marshland turned to farmland turned to homeland.
The suburb wears a coat of trees which make the residents hostile when the government cuts them down, arguing that the trees have history, roots, are more than shadow-makers, but no one mentions that they were planted, full-grown, in the late nineties alongside the people. A militia of invisible gardeners marches through the parks, and when the trees are bare-limbed, none can tell if the leaves were individually picked or if it’s Late Winter.
An aerial photo in George Memorial Library shows a different New Territory.
My classroom is a block like those you stack in first-grade. Desks stand like lines of British soldiers, and students shout and throw rulers and text each other in a war of attention. My desk is the general’s tent—to the side of the parade grounds and barracks, capable at a moment’s notice to survey the ranks (all I have to do is lift my eyes from my screen to review a regiment using phones to redo eyelashes).
From this distance, it’s difficult to tell if a student is passing notes digitally or using a calculator to complete physics problems. With a war weary sigh, sans mustache, cigar, and epaulets, I rise from my command to remind the infantry that the assignment is due in five minutes.
Sometimes I’ll see a student staring out the window at the end of the hall. But what does she see out there that holds her attention? I know from experience there’s only a gray lot, cars, the track field, the tennis court—all yellow and hazy behind the dusty glass.
But I don’t think she’s looking at anything in particular.
Maybe it’s a mood she senses on the other side of the pane. Across the gold beer plains, coming from distant mountains.
A feeling she won’t find among white walls that slide into a maze of locked rooms and lockers. Halls guarded by ceiling cameras and attentive teachers.
Out there? Streets and side-streets. The brown roofs of suburbia. Highways weaving with the hills like little gray veins. And patches of trees binding shadow-flooded plains to the homes of coyotes.
Sometimes I know what she sees.
“Not having anything to do, or to stave off the heart attack forming in my chest (it turned out to be gas), or to hold off a walk to the gas station for cigarettes, or to creep away from the wife awhile, ornery ever since she noticed a carpet growing on her chin (it happens at this age), I turned on the light in the garage.”
“Look at the sympathy and bravery of the Wheelbarrow Queen. Look at the tattoos of endless scrolls that unfurl down her arms. These signs carry murderers and lovers, boring summers and drunken falls.”
“I will never forget it. Blue as the Kelley Blue Book, a proud white belt, dual headlights like plates on display and squinting taillights.”
“Leagues ahead, as if justification for the old man’s suffering, was a boat. How could refuge exist out here in the abandon? The red dust and crags. Would he find whale bone, and coral, and mermaid skulls, and impossible Lemuria?”
“Their hands are spiders on my scarf when I’m not looking. They pull the cornice in the back until my forehead is uncovered and I notice and hiss. They untie the knot by my right breast or pinch the cloth, leaving wrinkles.”
My philosophy is a lone night, with the wife far-flung on the couch watching videos about tape worms. I’ve gone to bed early, and the rain is caught by the tree canopy, except for a black fall from the roof that taps the cement. In the dark it could be the crackle of fire. My philosophy is my beating heart compared to her’s. I can only imagine she still lives, eyes fixed on the doctor’s spool, trapped by elemental darkness.
You are what you eat,
so I must be a lot more
human than I thought.