Tomorrow, Melanie will fly off to her new college. All will be new. She dreams.
It’s the dream of the forest of quadruped giant legs. Wrinkled, in dark colors, the legs march, majestic. She sees one wrinkled mass, a muscle contracted, skin in folds shifting against the backdrop of another giant pulsing piston.
She realizes that she is tiny, a dewdrop, clinging on. A tiny-ness beyond words, her eyes too small to take in these dinosaur legs articulating against one another with each long stride.
Earth is a round marble on the edge of a hair’s hair. Deep in her dream, she feels the infinite smallness of her home, and herself. Every time the dream comes to her, the smallness constricts her throat, her torso, breath barely escaping. These dinosaur legs are too big to notice her existence, earth too small to warrant a brush. So small that even touch would not dislodge the round planet, so small that it would pass between molecules, hovering without gravity, held by frictional affinities. Earth is insignificant. It will not matter. The legs will piston on, and Earth is gone or not, oxygen or ozone, radiant or radiated. It has no bearing on the course of the big creature striving toward something she can’t hold in her mind.
The dream contracts again. Melanie’s hip distances itself from her collar bone. Small displacement. A vertebra nudges itself toward the left. A lung alveolus twists out of place, into the new hollow released by the bone’s curve. A hair’s breath’s shift. Yet, Melanie’s respiration charges through her chest, unfamiliar territory opening under her pelvis.
She remembers the time her dentist left a ridge on a tooth’s filling, shifting her bite. She had been in agony for weeks, trying to adjust to the new slivery reality of this jawbone’s articulation against the skull. She hadn’t been able to, and had to go back, ask them to file down the barely noticeable edge, embarrassed by the side eye of the dentist.
Now, here on her bed, she can feel the energy leaking out of her right side, the kink of dream torsion deflating the internal balloon between hip and shoulder. In her half-sleep, Melanie is close to weeping. Hates sensitivity, her inner space rigidity. The single tear, when it tracks loose from the eyelash, is lava on her cheek. Salts burn epithelial cells.
Near dawn, Melanie shifts, volcanic terror at her core. Then, a cool web drapes over the sensations, pulls down, and cradles her into sleep.
The assassin waits for his target, lets the motor idle cool as an air-conditioned cat at the foot crossing, rivers of people gushing out of department stores and fast-food joints, hip-hugging bags clutched to sweaty bodies long overdue for a sit-down, sundown, a space of rest unburdened of Monday mornings.
Akilah walks along the street.
Never oblivious, never just stepping, her feet mark the hot pavement, a faint indentation of her heel remains in the tar. Akilah’s hair magnetizes the gaze of the white man on the scaffold, the white man in the subway station, the white woman at the coffee store.
Across the well-travelled road, the assassin marks the woman named Akilah, compares her to the photo in the folder. Hair, posture, the tilt of the neck. Yes.
He rolls into traffic, carefully, slowly creeping, like a tourist ready to be unpredictable, unclear, lost in the big city.
Akilah cannot demagnetize her hair, drape it casually, thrown into the wind. She remembers other spaces. She remembers home space, family space, a diaspora she reaches toward, where the cut of her cloth or the pattern of the skirt mark her, not the hue of her skin, the flap over chastised bones. She walks.
His foot descends, clutch into gear, shift space, forward motion glued to his victim’s retreating back. Akilah arrows, and he can see that she has not a care in the world, bone certainty about her goal and her destination: the next protest action, standing in the wave of white and standing proud.
Akilah walks, forty years and counting, walking the ruins of slavery’s game. She does not look anybody in the eye. Cattle calls of city center, she despises the easy money easy clothes of the whore brides, the fat barons that trample the pavement into uniformity.
The assassin in his car is nearly level with Akilah now, the game thinning, his game sure as he slides the gun out of the shoulder holster, its fine calf honed to the softness of an inner thigh. He does not know how often he fingers it, deep beneath his clavicle, his buffalo refuge, veldt certainty of the side his fingers are on. It’s a tell, and he had to work to control and suppress the urge, the fingering, now only in free flow when he knows himself to be alone. Or just before he kills.
Akilah moves eel-like now, a clot of people stopping the road, cuing for theater admittance for the Saturday matinee. Her shoulders slope past ermine, white softness with a deadly odor. Shimmering sequins, high-hipped on high heels. Here, Akilah enjoys the press, the give, the weft of her dreadlocks swishing over velvet, her own sharp short blazer cutting into a common cloth. Fish weave, water flow.
He has not lost his target, follows easily along in the street, through the throng of people in front of the theatre. Akilah’s high coiffure, knot upright, one lance of lock sticking straight, points the way. The gun’s plastic in his hand is warm, smooth. Check.
Akilah exists the crowd, her hips shimmy from the warm human sea. This is home, too: the easy weave in a sea of excitement, anonymous fish swish. Alone, now, forward.
The assassin is pulling level, the street emptier now, soon, soon.
Akilah has escaped the policemen in the riot, in the car check, at the protest’s borders. “Are you carrying a gun, m’am?” “Step aside from the crowd, m’am.” “What is in your pocket, m’am?” Akilah hears the echoes in her head now, oozing out of the pavement’s cracks. Her feet lose purchase. She does not want to hear the questions again, wants to go about without anybody assuming she’s packing, wants to undulate her spine without anyone profiling her, charting her course. But the questions press in, surround her, arrow in.
The target is weaving, like drunk, like infected with the high spirits of the crowd, like poisoned by the SoMa vibe, a spirit high. He is wondering, comparing the picture one last time to this woman on the street. This is her, right? Akilah, cell organizer, protest queen, defiant woman pushing her chest high her forehead open and lofty into the wind? No mistake.
Silent startle scream sticks in Akilah’s throat. Where is she? When is she? Had she lost track of side streets, of the pavement’s direction, of the place where she can step without encountering memories too hard to process, black skin splitting open on police batons, purple welts rising against rough brick walls? She goes down.
What happened? The assassin has lost sight of Akilah, hair bobbling down as passers-by obscured his vision. He looks, hand shoves plastic stock back beneath his jacket, mustn’t offer a tell to the street. Where is she?
The crack in the street, widening, moaning downward. Sadness pouring in dark tears, a wailing. Akilah falls into the street, beneath it, away from eyes and calls, from hails that forebode no well wishes. She falls, and she knows she does not need to scream. She gives. Cloth smooth, equatorial warmth, streaming reds and oranges. Akilah releases, opens, knees soften.
The proud black woman is gone. The federal assassin scans back and forth, has stopped the rental car at the side of the road. He looks back – no opening in the facades, just placid blank walls, no shops with open doors or invitations. Gone.
Akilah comes to, assembles, a calm over her. Twists wrist, clavicle shrug, knits pelvis to spine. She’s lying on something rough, scaly. It is dark. There are glints in the darkness. They move. Is she moving? There is wind against her skin, in spurts: something seems to be pressing her along, in convulsive turns, but the something is too large for her to feel a direction. She is lying on a surface that shifts in space. That’s all she knows for sure. To keep her fears beneath her, she presses her palms down, feels rills beneath her finger tips. She spreads her weight, in control.
The rills: these plates are not machined, not smooth poured metal. These are organic grown things, accreted. She scratches with one fingernail, like meeting like: is this horn? She is back at the image of a scale, articulating against others. She palpates. Akilah contemplates standing, but a sense of wind bursts dissuades her. She inches across the plate by turning on her front, on her hand and knees, pushing forward. Soon, she reaches the outer edges of the plate: a thick rind-like edge, horn, yes, layers and layers, as her hand reaches down. She lies on her belly and stretches. Her fingertips reach another surface, beneath, and yes, there is movement between that next plate and hers. Articulating scales or plates, indeed, in a counter motion, as if wrapped around moving limbs of some unseen giant beast. Akilah scrambles sideways, maps the contours of the plate. The shape feels ovular, but it’s hard to be certain.
After a while, Akilah lies down on her back, face upward. She takes stock, retells what happens to cover over a blank in her mind: from the San Francisco street to this strange bed of darkness. She remembers the sidewalk, moving amid the theatre crowd, on her way to the protest action, the thinning of the sidewalk, even, now, in the back of her mind, the slow car advancing, a sense of dread that stumbled her feet. The sidewalk, opening like a door, a crack too regular for a normal earthquake, and her falling. She breathes, and senses behind her collarbone an answering breath: a beingness. A perceptual opening. Akilah is not sure what that means, exactly, but she takes it. She walks through.
“I am glad you are here.”
“Where am I?”
“You are safe, for now. Safe from the gun. From the assassin. From the street.”
“I belong on the street, though, with my sisters.”
“You are a fighter. We know. We need you.”
“Who are you?”
“We have been prophesized. We are here.”
“What are you?”
“We are breathing beneath you. We hold you and see you. Receive this.”
There is a pouring, a warmth, a water liquid, starting from a point inside her head. She accepts the water, diffuses it throughout her aching body. Fear trembles, then drowns.
She remembers when she had made that decision before, accepting the water. She had been six years old, and she had been visiting, her one visit outside the US. She had been flown all alone to Guyana, to grandmothers she cannot quite recall now, ancient hands with calluses caressing the spaces between her hair, a strange tickling. That day, she had been playing outside, near the jungle’s edge, and there was a little stream, just so small, just the width of her young thigh, and she had knelt in it. And the water had swarmed over her, had climbed over her brown twig legs and arms. It had dripped off her head, spurted across her chest, glided down on her narrow back. And it had spoken, too, a far away murmur she only now remembers again:
“We are here.” Deep liquid inside her forehead, inside the precious round, a peach stone warming outward.
Akilah remembers telling one of her Guyanese grandmothers, in the home by the side of the road, on the porch nibbled by creepers.
“The little river spoke to me.”
That’s all she had said, and then she had fallen silent, and just stared at Nan’s face, the mouth open, golden yellow teeth an intricate gate to a different world. A curled tongue hovered, trembling, in a pink gullet.
Akilah hadn’t been scared then, not of the voice, not of her grandmother. She had been interested, had leaned into Nan’s void, until the old woman had snapped shut her mouth, and had not spoken. Akilah knew then that the small hidden river had to be hers alone. The waters dripping so freely, so wide, was something that had to be kept apart, even from this elder love. And so she had shut it away, a turn of an iron key sealing the memory.
Now, here, on this scale, the key had shifted, had turned, and she bathed in the warmth of her six-year old self, the flooding of sense and contraction new to her limbs, the ache of liquid love.
She wasn’t hurt, and wouldn’t be, not by government assassins, not by anybody. She was safe. But she was alone, and she missed her comrades. What world was this?
Tony shovels forkfuls of salad into his mouth. His left hand grips the edge of the table, hard, energy humming through, rattling the bolt that runs down into the floor’s steel plating.
Arina speaks quietly, but with insistence. He lowers the fork, consciously releases his death-grip on the steel tabletop. Opens his hand a few times, shooing away the cramp that threatens to descend. His ears are full with waves, with sounds like steel wool scratching: the planes thundering outside, beyond the plate glass window, the passers-by, thousands of feet drumming just feet away. Tony’s heart beats alongside their pounding. He looks over his shoulder, till he feels Arina’s cool hand on his arm.
“It’s ok. She will be back soon.”
He is not sure that he wants to hear the platitudes: his daughter has flown the coop, is off to school, a few states away, and he had not even been allowed to drive her there, collapse her wheelchair for her, ready to pack. His daughter, who wants to take on the world, all the time, has to chain herself to inaccessible school buses, defy drivers who try to carry her up the bus stairs. His pepper baby.
He turns toward Arina’s voice. There is her beloved mouth, still naturally pink against her wheat-white skin, small lines weaving across the fullness as if someone was making sure to focus hard, to paint each corner of this little face. He smiles at his wife of forty years.
Then he stares over Arina’s shoulder at the concrete apron of the airport. Out there is Melanie’s airplane, maybe waiting, last pre-flight checks, maybe already in flight, the old days of tracking the planes as they rumbled on their ballet long over. Out there.
Something is not right.
The concrete valley in front of his restaurant window heaves upward, a depression, then a boil, a breathing up and down. Halfway between their terminal and the opposite side, on the desert smoothness of light grey, something is being born. Up again – the yellow demarcation on the concrete shimmers in the afternoon sun as it undulates across the tarmac.
Arina turns around, looks where Tony’s staring.
She looks, first quiet, and then begins to scream when the first tentacles begin to shoot in the air.
Tony is up, shoving Arina in front of him as they shoo backwards from the window. He runs, dives into the main corridor of the terminal. Arina has not stopped screaming, and she is running out of air. He lifts her, a small weight compared to the heavy machinery of his body shop. They sprint toward the exit, out to the other side of the airport. He looks back, backs away from the nightmare, wet-looking fronds waving, tangles, growing out of slits in the concrete, weaving on the other side of the glass, exploring the airliner still peacefully waiting next to the bridge. Is this Melanie’s airplane? The tentacles taste their way over the curved white skin of the plane.
The terminal doors still open, the electrics hadn’t had enough time to shut down and lock down the airport. He rushes through, his heart pounding too loud in his ears. In the body shop, the heavy machines get moved about by cranes now, and it has been a long time since he carried something as heavy as a body through the world. Arina glides from his suddenly limp arms.
“Tony. Sweetheart. Not now! Focus!”
With an immediate task at hand, Arina takes charge, and hits Tony across his massive chest, startling his heart back into their predicament. Yes, he can walk. His girl might be in trouble, tentacled trouble beyond imagining. He turns, and tries to sprint in bursts back into the terminal. A river of humans passes by. They see people drag carry-on suitcases along, nearly falling but reluctant to release their grip. One family is running from the terminal, blood dripping off the mother’s face, a cut flowing freely. Many have dumped their bags, and run with the abandon of unfettered limbs. Others, seeing their example, seeing the blood, drop their bags, too, and start to sprint away. The bags remain, though, and create a new obstacle course, spin with their old momentum only half spent. One large purple bag rolls down the slope under its own steam, trundling across the intersection, and folds into a thin white woman, knifes her legs out from under her. Tony sees it, and sees it for what it is: the beginning of a deadly panic. Some of these people will be trampled, long before any monster can reach them.
Arina wails, claws at him, tries to reverse their direction and leave this space. He pulls them both out of the main flow, back toward the windows, tries to quickly explain what he saw, the tentacles tapping their way over the airliner.
“Arina. Wait. We need to check on Melanie. What if she’s still in the plane out there?”
They turn, together. Look out of the huge bay windows, out at the airport. Beyond the terminal, on the tarmac, it happens. It blooms. The tip of the airliner is sucked in, then out, shooting outward on a fire storm. The plane is an inferno, its flames a heatwave rushing outward. Tony sees the tentacles in the airfield loop, then whoosh down, vanish. Time expands, then the deep boom of the explosion travels over Arina and Tony, and all the other fleeing people.
Melanie isn’t on the disintegrated plane, bombed to bits by terrorist fire. She isn’t on the tarmac, either, burning up in kerosene flames. Melanie isn’t quite sure where she is, at this point. She saw the tentacles emerge on the runway, saw a rubber-like tip entwine the titanium spokes of her wheelchair, carefully, lifting her high up, and then down, through the earth, just as a boom above sent a heatwave down after her.
She is in darkness. A deep vibrating sound pulses through her bones. She is lying against a giving wall, not cold exactly, but cooler than flesh, warmer than earth. Smooth, with ridges that press into her own contours. She can’t quite get the sequence right. Mum and Dad had driven her to the airport, sure, had hugged her goodbye, and she had wheeled through security. She had been ready to enter the airplane, had been about to transfer from her wheelchair onto the aisle chair to be loaded. And then…
She just can’t quite recall, although there is a ripping sound in her head, a sound sheet metal might make if sheared apart, a spatial sound, like something shifting direction as the metal curves downward. Then the tentacle, grey and pink, and so careful and caring. Were her parents alright? What happened to everybody? Now there is … thickness and rubber. That’s what the surface feels like, like the inside of a car tire, not the smoothness of the inner tube, but the rough substantial feel she remembers from crawling around her dad’s wrecking yard, playing hide and seek in the tire pile.
Her hand explores. Tire, tire, tire, rubber welt, another – then a slit. Her hand goes in, sideways, deep. She immediately takes it out again, not sure what her left small pinkie fingertip had felt deep in there: slime? Water? She pulls the hand closer, in the darkness, and smells the side: no odor, really, just a whiff of airport soap and, just beneath it, something a bit mold-like, dank. Huh.
Melanie remembers old cellar rooms, Michigan basements, with that smell deep in the corners where the spiders live. She had enjoyed visiting with the spiders, bumping down the steep stairs on her butt. As a tiny one, she had delighted in the feel of small legs on her limbs, the frantic spider climbing a smooth, white, rolling mountain.
Laying her hands again against the rubber, she concentrates on her feet. She can feel them, much more than usual. Secure, on a small ledge or ring, circular, raised against the equally circular wall she’s leaning against. She tests the ring, and it holds as she drops her weight harder, bounces up a little, as much as her weak knees allow. No problem there.
And then there is. The curved surface in front of her shifts in the darkness, and gravity becomes a player. And tips her. Her weak feet lose the ring ground, and grope, scrabble, as the ring lifts backward, away from her. Her hands hold on for a second more, tension between them creating an adhesion, but not for long. Melanie falls, but everything feels too close, too dark, to really panic. She stretches out both arms as she tips backward, spread-eagled in descent, eyes open. No light falls in.
Falling. Is this a second yet? She is curiously comfortable. Melanie is not counting, is spinning silk in her mind, ropes to hurl and sail on. Concentrate.
Abruptly, she stops falling. Without much sensation, she is pressed against a second hard surface, this time against her back. Her hands feel out, and again, the feel is rubber-hard, hard like old rubber, like rubber past oil and street grit and water hosing and maybe even a fire hard. There are ridges, again, these ones uneven, older, as if more exposed to the elements than the earlier surface.
There was no impact, and she does not hurt. She can hear that she is no longer alone. Which feels good.
Melanie asks of the scrabbling off to her side, a human touching noise, not an insect pattern.
“Hello.” The answering voice is deeper than her own, but a woman, too. Alto. Calm.
“I just arrived. Where am I?”
“I do not know. I arrived here a short while ago, from a pavement in San Francisco.”
“Really? I was at Denver Airport, just getting onto a plane. I had just left my parents. I need to make sure they are ok. But where are we?”
“Can you remember what happened?”
“No, not really. Just a sound. An opening. A tentacle lifting me up. Then falling downward, but soft.”
“Yes. That’s me, too. No sound, just a sensation of going down in the street. Like something opening. No tentacle, but yes, some kind of creature. Big. And now I am here, and there are voices.”
As Melanie reaches out with her mind, full of curiosity, she hears them, too: voices around her, beneath her waist, echoing in her lungs, trembling along her femur. She sits up, much easier than she had ever done in her wheelchair, and listens inside.
Melanie hears the voice, recognizes its cadence, as if all terror and uncertainty rush out into the world in one word, then transform. She faints.
Akilah hears the tumble in the blackness of the scale night, and rushes forward. Melanie folds into her arms. They sit, one draped over the other, on the scale moving in the night. Akilah fears nothing, knows no pain, as she sings to and is sung to by the voices, waiting for Melanie to come back. She is a young one. She is glad to have a comrade again. A girl, twisted lower body and legs, but breathing.
Melanie’s eye lashes flutter against Akilah’s neck, her breath changes rhythm. Now she is back.
“What surprised you?” A warm mouth whispers in her ear.
“I know that voice. It’s been a long time, I had forgotten.”
Melanie whispers back, keeping close to the warm human skin and blood that is holding her now.
“It’s the spider voice. In the cellar. Spun me in softest silk, right across my eyes, one night….” Melanie’s voice recedes a bit, in memory, soft like a warm river in Akilah’s ear, open and vulnerable.
“I heard it too, before, in a small river far away. It’s good.”
“It’s good. It has come back before.” Melanie remembers nights that had terrified her co-protestors, lying on cold pavements in school bus yards, limbs twisted over chains that they had padlocked shut. Campaigning for ramps and access points, against nursing homes and locking people away. Bringing it all out into the open. They had thrown the keys away, long parabolas of tiny silver twinkles into the far bushes. She had heard the spider voice then, rolling, holding, spinning cocoons. She had heard the spider voice when they had broken into a juvenile care facility, lifted each other over broken windows, to visit with incarcerated youths, their alter egos, holding each other on slim cots. The voice had draped silks over her and her cot mate, a round brown teenager, hair shaved, softest down, eyelashes trembling. The voice had whispered to them. The youths they visited had been frightened, elated, and then exhausted, adrenaline mixing with the juices of lying close, sensual touch. Melanie shakes away this memory, uncurls from Akilah’s lap just a bit, to open a space for talk.
“What are we doing here? Where are we? Who are you?”
They shift apart, introduce themselves.
Melanie. New student, disability activist, access specialist. On her way to head out to Pitzer College, Southern California.
Akilah. Poet, dancer, on her way from a Black Lives Matter protest in San Francisco.
They are flying, alive, into the night, together into their futures. This scale is too small to hold them, and it is not their place to stay here, they both know that. They are needed elsewhere. But it is clear that the world is shifting, that something is being born. What does it want of them? Melanie thinks of her parents, misses them. But that is not the way forward.
Melanie takes Akilah’s hand. She is ready to respond to the voice. Akilah is ready, too. She grasps Melanie’s hand, transmits her resolve. They get up. Melanie teeters on her weak legs, leans against Akilah, feels her own side melting into Akilah’s hip. In that other woman’s hip, she can feel echoes of water, rivers, of green against street grey. Melanie is full of resolve, of spider warmth, metal spokes, and tensile strength. Akilah feels the smoothness, clarity, in Melanie’s warm palm.
The darkness around them is full and warm, an entity pressing against their eyes. The voices come.
“Help us rebuild.”
“Where are my parents? Are they ok?”
“We do not know.”
Akilah hurts knowing that there is no one person who claims her heart right now. Her grandmothers are dead, her parents, long settled far away. Her comrades, in fight.
“We do not know, but we need you. They need you, too, after the bombs and the fires. We need to build. Are you ready?”
Together, they step to the edge of the scale. They step off.