Wallflower

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It was one of those weekday mornings in early spring when Marjorie and I could wander from chapel to chapter house with only security guards for company.

“I’ll be in the gift shop,” she said as I walked around the courtyard one last time, trailed by the light scent of citrus trees that leaned into the sunlight, leaves pressed against the glass. I kept my face down, watching the stone columns extend long shadows across the path, their grotesque faces dissolving at my feet. Just as I passed the tapestry room, a dense, almost putrid smell hit me.

It didn’t have the sharp alcohol touch of cheap perfume but was cloying and fleshy, like the exhalations of saints or the liquid distilled from their relics. Branches crackled under my feet and I could hear barking in the distance. I started backing up, looking for the courtyard, until I hit a low fence half-submerged in the millefleur overgrowth.

My hand brushed against the flimsy, splintered wood, leaving traces of red I thought was my own blood. But they tasted sweet and tart, like pomegranate juice.

One by one, I picked up a blue damask collar, silver chain, and pair of rusted iron letters left scattered in a patch of moss. I had just managed to make out “A” and “E” when I heard intense sniffing and looked up to find those same initials embroidered on the collar of a greyhound, all slender limbs and bared teeth.

At the sound of a horn, I started running. After every thorned bush I brushed out of my way and every berry that exploded underfoot, I expected to reach a clearing that looked down into the Hudson valley. By the time I reached the marble fountain and plunged my face and hands into the clear water, my skin was covered in a thick, viscous crust, the merciless onslaught of a thousand flowers.

“Now! Take the beast now!”

Before I shielded my eyes, blinded for a moment by the sun’s reflection on a spear pointed in my direction, I caught a glimpse of yellow silk stockings streaked with mud and a plumed hat missing half of its feathers.

“Walter! There you are,” Marjorie said. She was picking up a stack of postcards from the hardwood floor. “Look at what a mess you’ve made. Why are you running around like a wild animal? And what’s that?” She reached up and picked out a spiny branch of hawthorne from my sleeve.

Moth Man

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I don’t wear a hat anymore, not because it would be as old fashioned as putting on tailcoat or dangling a watch from a suit pocket. No, I don’t wear a hat because I don’t want to spend my nights trapped underground, my wooly wings fluttering against the doors of passing trains as I wander through dark tunnels in fear of touching the third rail.

The first time it happened I was waiting for the local in one of those underground stations that lets a few rays of battered moonlight through the grates on cloudless nights. Trains came less frequently after midnight, so I stood on the platform right on the yellow tape, watching the light glide across my fingers.

It took me a long time to trace the catalyst for my transformation, but, looking back on it above ground, I am almost certain it began with the hat. The light hit the edge of that platform at such an angle that all of me, my whole shadow, was contained within the perfect circle that lay at my feet. Somehow, the hat had tucked in all of my limbs, smoothed all of my sharp edges, so that I became an inverted pin, my gaze magnetized towards the moon.

What remains fixed in my mind, and makes me want to take that hat out of storage, was not how I scaled the faces of buildings, my shadow dragging behind me like the velvet cloak of an overdressed superhero. I did not think much of the slippery surface of windowpanes, or the smell of dinner escaping from a stranger’s half open window. No, what tempts me still was my unwavering belief that the moon is a hole at the top of the sky, and that if I climb far enough I will be able to poke my head through that opening and drink in the moonlight.

On that night the kiosk vendor had no such illusions. “Step back, sir,” I could hear him shout as I tumbled towards the ground, my tired wings fighting a losing battle against gravity.

“A pack of salted almonds and a water, please,” I said and examined the faces of magazine cover models to avoid his gaze. But he had a flashlight and pointed it directly at me so that when I gave him the money I thought, for a moment, that I was facing the moon, that I had come closer than I ever had before. He switched the flashlight off and left me blinking in a daze of pastel colors.

“Your eyes,” he said. “They’re black. The pupil, whites, everything.”

He was still staring, waiting for an explanation, so I cupped my right palm over my right eye and handed over a tear, my only possession, as precious to me as a bee’s sting.

“It’s pure enough to drink,” I said, and turned towards the approaching train.

Icehouse

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It was noon and cloudless when I pulled over next to the icehouse, wedged in the X formed by two dirt roads. I could hear the crunch of aluminum under my wheels, and, when I opened the door, picked up one of the thousands of bottle caps already crushed by the pick up trucks I had passed on my way through the desert.

“There’s more where that came from.”

The first thing I noticed was his socks, a checkerboard of neon squares set against the concrete porch shaded by a rusty corrugated tin overhang. He was sitting, trousers pulled up, next to a rotary phone, its wire snaking up the pale gray wall right through the three letters drawn in chalk: ICE. The drop shadows seemed an unnecessary, if ironic, touch.

“You sell beer?” I asked.

“No,” he laughed, twirling an ice pick between his fingers. “I just sit here watching these big blocks of ice melt and dry up in the sun.”

He had everything he needed to sell ice right from the porch: a chute built into the wall, a ball of twine, a cash register, and a fresh block that was starting to get soft around the edges. He even had a small note tacked above the chute that said “employees only,” as if I would chip off a piece and make away with it while he was inside. I followed him into a room that smelled of sweat and sawdust. It was dark, but I could make out faded Coca-Cola signs and the cloud-shaped stains left by storms that had seeped through the concrete.

“What if I told you that there’s a way to store your beer ice cold, in a box half the size of your freezer?”

He reached to hand me a bottle but stopped halfway and leaned against the counter, his figure framed by a jar of beef jerky on the left and another of hard boiled eggs on the right.

“Are you trying to sell me something?”

Flip a finger, and zing — there are your ice cubes, I was supposed to say, pointing to the brochure I had forgotten in the car. No need for a crowbar to get Frigidaire’s Quickube Tray out the refrigerator. You can get ice easily, instantly, I should have emphasized with all the enthusiasm my supervisor had demonstrated back in a cool, carpet-lined office.

“Just wondering if you’d be interested in a Frigidaire,” was all I could manage to say.

He took a long draft of beer and crushed the cap with his boot. Before I could make up my mind whether to retrieve the brochure, with its color-blocked couples marveling at crisp lettuce, or to stay and elaborate on the wonders of modern refrigeration, he said:

“Let me show you something.”

He lead me out back, past the closet-sized building made of plywood packing crates I assumed formed an outhouse. We were in the sun for a brief moment before stepping into a tangle of shadows cast by branches wider than the icehouse itself.

“It’s a mesquite,” he said. “Ancient. It’s tapped into a deep spring that has fed it for hundreds of years. That’s why it’s reached twice the normal height.”

We looked up through the leaves, silent and still in the deadwind, until the distant sound of bottle caps being crushed under car tires came to a stop.

“That’ll be a new delivery,” he said.