“Dude, long time no see!”
“I’d ask you how you’re doing, but I figured, you know, you’re in Hell, so probably not great.”
“No man, not really.”
“Does that devil guy have to do that to you while we’re talking?”
“Yeah, he always does that.”
“But isn’t it, you know, painful?”
“Yeah. Actually, very painful.”
“They grow back, though?”
“That part’s a little gross. Let’s just skip it, OK? So how’d you get in here? They told me I couldn’t have any visitors, not even other Damned dudes.”
“Well, up in Heaven we get pretty much anything we ask for. I mean dude, the weed! And I have this thing going with Heidi Klum … I don’t know if it’s actually, you, know Heidi Klum, but–”
“Now I’m getting why they let me see you. I thought I was miserable, but the thought of you up there smoking weed with Heidi Klum while I’m down here just made me really miserable.”
“We don’t just smoke weed: we play Halo, we go to Santana concerts … Oh, and they’ve got these awesome air battles! Everybody gets wings, right? And you pack a picnic lunch–”
“Dude, TMI. Hell, remember?”
“Oh yeah–sorry. Anyway, I came down here because I wanted to ask you something.”
“Want to get the hell out of here?”
“Whoa! Holy crap!”
“Sorry. I didn’t get you a little, did I?”
“Dude! Where’d you get that gun?”
“I told you, you can get anything you want up there.”
“There are little bits of burned devil all over me!”
“Sorry about that … and the smell.”
“Dude, don’t apologize. That was awesome!”
“Here, I brought another gun for you. Want to go play some real-life Doom before we ditch this place?”
“”You utterly and completely rock, man. But are they going to just let me in up there? Are they even going to let you back in?”
“I don’t know, dude. Anyplace has got to be better than this pit though, right?”
“But the weed! And Heidi Klum!”
“Yeah, but Dude … you can’t replace friends.”
You are a bearer, of the third sex, contributing no genetic material to the children you’ve carried. You live in a town that is mostly humans, hardly any of your People. Your last marriage ended when your husband was killed in a road accident, and your wife withdrew into herself and became a Silent, speaking to no one, looking at no one. All you have left of your husband is a poem he made for you out of braided fiber one long winter night. It isn’t a very good poem, but it’s wildly sexual, and you have always loved it.
Your four children are all gendered and don’t like to spend time with you, because they think you can’t possibly understand their lives. Three of them have adopted human ways, and the other is studying to be a god-caller, climbing to the tower in the ugly, human-built temple on the edge of town every morning to bellow to the heavens and bring luck, rain, money, healing, peace, victory, love.
Your skin isn’t as green as it used to be; it’s taken on a grayish tinge. Your fingers used to be very nimble, and you learned a little bit how to play the human instrument called the piano, although you needed to play with little pieces of felt stuck to the keys so they wouldn’t hurt your fingers.
You are in love with a human, and you don’t know what gender it is.
The human you are in love with sits on a bench in the park in a bulky coat with a herringbone pattern, cooing to the pigeons. Sometimes the human brings bread and tears off tiny pieces to throw to the birds, but usually not. It is a very old human, with a face as wrinkled as a male’s retracted crest, and skin thin, almost translucent. Its face is transformed every morning with a beatific smile when you come down the path in the park, but it never speaks.
Today when the human smiles, you smile back, although your face was not made for that human expression. Without speaking, you sit on the bench with the human. Today it has brought bread, and it tears it in half and hands the larger half to you. For a time, you both feed the pigeons, who are greedy and ungrateful.
“What’s that around your neck?” the human says, pointing to the poem. You bend forward to let the human look. You can tell from her voice now: she is a woman. And now that she is an old woman, she’s a bearer, too.
A Maneki Neko with a woman’s face beckoned me in. I can admit it now: I was drawn by her colours — her creamy skin, her short black hair, the bright red insides of her ears.
I went into her shop first. Stationery covered the walls like tiles and murals, cartoon-gaudy. The quantity confused me as much as it delighted me; I left with three pens clutched in my hand, smiled at the Maneki Neko and started walking.
Shop fronts crowded the narrow street, and in front of them lay tables and racks packed full with wares. Three friends walking side-by-side struggled to pass between them. Overhead, sheets of metal and glass made an imperfect roof. I walked slowly; it was busy, but not uncomfortable. Occasionally I ducked aside as a street vendor rattled past, shouting and trailing the smell of curry, or when a motorbike drove slowly down the centre of the street with boxes loaded on its back.
On one of these occasions, I stepped inside a shop selling medicine. Jars of dried seahorses and testicles sat on a shelf by my elbow.
I found handbags and spices, bath toys and jewellery, fabric and fruit. I turned corners, I took side streets that flooded when it rained — the narrow, shop-lined streets circled back on themselves, over and over.
I kept walking, my senses like the sponges arranged on one table.
Vendors kept me in curries and fried bananas. A woman let me help run her shop for a small bag of green notes at the end of each week. A few men and women let me share their beds.
I didn’t see the Maneki Neko again. Sometimes I thought of her, of walking past her raised paw, past the gold shops that appeared every few buildings on that road like stitches, until I found the skytrain and another part of the city. Then I turned a familiar corner, saw a familiar face or skein of silk, and I turned my feet away from the places where the roads unfolded.
Ollie released the rope, quadruple-somersaulted, caught it again inches from the end. Let go with one hand and felt the crowd’s roar as an updraft. With it, the smell, even up here, of the midway’s frying oil.
A jerk to pull himself along the line and he let go, then caught it in his teeth. He couldn’t hold the pose as long as usual– the balloonsuit was overfilled, and Ollie felt the strain in his molars.
The spotlight swung to Marnie and Del, holding each other by the ankles, sliding cartwheeling up a pair of ropes. Ollie heard the showmaster’s patter–“No nets! No harness holding them back from the deep, deep sky!”–as he hauled himself downrope.
Marnie tossed her line away as Del grabbed her ankles, and began orbiting her while she revolved. Ollie readied, leapt/floated to catch her arms.
Head down, he saw her grasp after him, and his heart contracted to a knot at the sight of her shoe, loose in Del’s hand.
Shrieks from the crowd. Clowns suddenly serious fired grappling hooks from stashed blunderbusses. He heard a hook slide across the back of his suit, didn’t feel it catch. Too long upside-down, he saw his pulse at the edges of his vision; but couldn’t take his eyes from the retreating ground.
A grapple had caught Marnie, but, when the clowns rushed to tow her down, it had torn all the quilted compartments on the suit-front. She lay in the ring, leg at a bad angle.
No one looked at Ollie. He waved and rose, drifted. Tents, then trees cut off his view. The accident might kill him but it voided the terms of his indenture.
An old air-soldier who’d roustabouted years back had told stories of free-fly missions. Gain height. Find the knife.
Their balloonsuits were military surplus–cloudy blue camouflage showed where painted-on gaudy had cracked. The knife was where it should be–left shoulder, slightly behind. One-inch blade; big loop handle.
Houses were matchbooks and the circus a distant crumple before he was nerved-up enough. Small holes: slow fall, the soldier had said.
The first was a hissing pinprick; the second, a larger than intended slit. He sank fast while that compartment emptied. Then careful cuts, a gradual descent over hours.
Treetop high in the twilight, he coasted above a country avenue, free to see where the wind would take him.