The drummer drums.
I march. I sing
Behind us is a procession of ghosts, all singing the song that won’t leave my head as long as I wear this mask, the same mask they also wear. All of us marching in time to the drum, up and down a series of hills through unbroken snow.
I force a word out between teeth gritted against chattering. “Where?” It’s the next hill before I manage another: “Going?”
The drummer points with the human thigh bone he’s been using for a beater and the whole parade is still. On the top of the next hill, a human-shaped, tree-tall figure stands against the half-risen moon, which shines waveringly through it–a statue of glass?
Up the final, steepest hill and the statue turns out to be ice, a colossus with a tangle of white cloth in the depths where its heart should be. The ghosts march past me, silent now, and ring the statue. The drummer doffs his hat in an exaggerated bow, as if he wants me to step forward. He taps the drumhead lightly, twice, and my feet move me into the circle.
The ghosts reach out, mouthing the song I can’t hear in my head anymore.
That tangle of the cloth, I realize, is an angel, its wings in tight like a dead bird’s.
I reach out and the ice burns my palm. I’ve forgotten the song.
The ghosts are still silent, but watching their exaggerated enunciation brings the slightest whisper to my mind and I croak a single tentative note, then another, the tune gathering force until I’m shouting the refrain.
The statue shatters to splinters. The moon ignites like a circle of paper, becomes the sun. The angel, freed, falls forward in a slow-motion tumble, cradling a burning clock in its arms. Just before it hits the ground, the angel convulses its wings in a downbeat with a sound like thunder, and it’s gone.
The drummer collapses in a heap of rags, and I tear the mask from my face. I can remember my name.
The ghosts fade in the strengthening light–not ghosts, I see now, but echoes of this same ritual carried out in previous years, by previous maskers. I’m sure a trace of me will return the same way.
As the sun clears the horizon, I recognize this hilltop, just a couple miles from the family and life I left behind. I hurry home as while, somewhere above, the clock still burns.
I don’t remember the stairs down, or grabbing my coat, or going out to them, but I’m part of the procession now. Masked and singing, we walk in a line through the snow. We sing the song that I’ve been hearing in my head since I first put on the mask a few weeks ago, the words that came clearer as the solstice approached.
Repeated for hours, the words become nonsense, then seem to mean something else. Out of the corners of my eyes I see, among the trees on either side, menacing shaggy figures, moving effigies, a dance circling around us as we go. But there are no tracks in the snow but my own and the drummer’s. The wind blowing the drummer’s clothes shows he’s skeleton thin. He grins with all his teeth.
I keep singing, even though I don’t know how much sound makes it past my scarf, which is pulled up over my freezing nose, my eyes are tearing from the ghost-wind, and there are frozen clumps of tears along bottom of my mask. If I don’t keep singing, I know they’ll find me in a snowbank when the spring melt comes, and I wonder if that’s who the rest of the marchers are–recipients of the mask, who sang and marched until the winter overcame them, and can’t help but come back.
The cold becomes a prickling pain, a burning, becomes heat, and the bleached world we march through might as well be a moonlit desert. I can’t stop my feet from moving in time to the beat of the drum. I can’t stop singing the words that seem to be pulled out of me in an unending thread. And I’m running because I can see the sun’s glow, and I keep running, because the procession will end when it’s up, but the sun gets halfway over the horizon, then I swear it’s going down again, and there are hills, each valley a pocket of night, but we charge up the next incline hoping the sun will be higher, and I can’t tell, it should be up by now, I keep running, and then, at the crest of one hill, it’s the moon, not the sun, and I don’t know how many hours we still have to go. My feet are stumps of ice.
The drummer drums. I march.
The drummer grins. I sing.
When I woke for the first time I had a little trouble focusing, since my eyes seemed to be made of burned-out light bulbs. Soon enough, things began to come clear, and I found I was slumped in the corner of a weedy dirt lot between two shabby row houses. Crouched in front of me was a grubby little Rabbi.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said the Rabbi. “You’re thinking, ‘Where am I? Who am I? Who is this disreputable person in front of me? Why do I have light bulbs for eyes?’ Don’t worry. It’ll all make sense soon when I turn you loose on my enemies.”
“Something smells bad,” I said.
“Smells bad? Smells bad? Never mind that, you have a job to do. You know what you are? You’re a trash golem. I didn’t have the clay and things they usually use, so I asked myself what we have a lot of here in this city, and I said ‘Trash!’ Of trash, we have plenty. Now, you’ll need instructions.”
I heaved myself to my feet, one of which was a dishwasher and the other of which was part of a rusted-out old street sweeper, with the brushes still on. I shuffled in the dirt, trying out the brushes. It kicked up a lot of dust on the Rabbi, who coughed.
“For crying out loud, never do that,” said the Rabbi. “Are you ready for your instructions?”
“I’m ready,” I said, although I didn’t know if I was or not.
“All right. So, you’re a trash golem. Why trash? It’s ironic! Listen, all these people around you, in all these houses, with their rich families, they make more trash than you could imagine. They’ll bury the world in that trash, so I want you to go and destroy them.”
“The children too?”
“Well, not the children, but everyone else.”
“The parents, but not the children?”
“What are you, a conversation golem? OK, you’re right, not the parents with the children.”
“You’re giving me a pain, you know. Right here in my neck. OK, they’re sweet, they’re happy, they’re in love, I get it. So no, not the young couples.”
“So just the people on their own?”
The Rabbi sighed heavily, and I went over and put my lawnmower gently on his shoulder.
“All right, I admit it: the whole thing about the enemies with the trash, I made that up. It wasn’t even a very good lie.”
“You’re just lonely?”
The Rabbi kicked an old tin can across the lot. “Well,” he finally said, “do you play chess? We could go to the park and play chess.”
I followed the Rabbi out of the lot and along the river toward the park. The sun glinted on my metal parts and warmed my rusty parts, and I thought longingly of destroying someone.
Every day I watch the people on the bus over the top of my math book. I’ve given them names. There’s Hate Boy, with his swastika earring, who moves his seat anytime anybody who looks slightly black or Jewish or Asian or gay or Hispanic or interesting sits near him. He doesn’t mind Talking Guy, though, who mutters and smells.
There’s Beautiful, who is. He’s in a band. He dressed up as Barbie for Halloween, and looked awesome. Hate Boy never sat near him again.
There’s Knitting Lady. Once Hate Boy asked her in his tough-tough voice, “Could you stop? The clicking is driving me nuts.” She said kindly, “No, dear.”
Hate Boy is running out of seats on the bus.
People always sit down next to Knitting Lady; she feels like that. When I read A Tale of Two Cities and got freaked out by Madame Defarge, Knitting Lady called me over and said, “Come sit by me. You don’t anymore. The needles bug you?”
Then she saw the book and smiled.
I sat down next to her again.
She said, “Those aren’t the only kinds of messages people knit, you know. It’s been used for lots of codes over the centuries.
“String is one of the most important human inventions. Fire was a big deal, sure. But string! New ways of carrying things—new weapons—even clothes for the first time. We began to knot it, knit it, weave it…messages, accounts, all manner of things.”
While she talked I thought the sunlight from the dirty window faded for a minute and fire lit her face.
“You can also use it to knit things together,” she added. She looked at Hate Boy when she said it.
A week later a white girl with long dredlocks and a diamond in her nose got on the bus.
Hate Boy made fun of Dred Girl’s hair, then her nose piercing. She just looked at him and shrugged.
I got the flu a month ago; when I came back Hate Boy wasn’t around. An old Asian lady hobbled onto the bus and the hot guy sitting next to Dred Girl gave up his seat for her.
“I always think of you as Math Girl,” he smiled down at me in a tough-tough voice. “Where ya been?”
His hair was grown out, his swastika was gone. Knitting Lady saw me staring and winked.