BY JEREMY PACKERT BURKE
—Tell me about your father.
Vast animals of cloth and light roam through the hills at dusk. Effie and Laugh gather scattered ashes from the fields and pile them high in the fireplace at night, watching until they glow, catch fire and blaze, warming their hearth. There is no wind. There are always more ashes in the fields. The animals of cloth and light swirl, search with their endless empty eyes, roam through the hills on legs of burlap, on clouds of radio waves. The ashes join and glow and burn until they become logs and the fire goes out, at which point Effie and Laugh go to sleep. In the morning they put the logs outside, where they’ll sit, split, until they join together and become trees.
The days fold over one another like cloth caught in the wind—if there were wind. Every day Laugh spins thread out of dust and continues his chain of buttons, linked together and clacking in his hands: black buttons, gold buttons with fleurs de lis, pearlescent buttons for cuffs.
The wound in Effie’s neck has not healed. Where she buries the bloody gauze they later find deer grazing. Every morning a dead goat is left on their doorstep. Unclear chains of cause and effect: does the sun rise because the goat dies, or does the goat die because the sun rises? Do the deer bring the blood, or the blood the deer? Or does the blood bring the goat and the sun bring the deer? Or the reverse of these? There are endless possibilities in Moriah.
—Tell me about your father, Laugh says.
—My father was a bird with wings that spanned the night, Effie says. —With eyes like fish chasing each other in a pond. When he flapped his wings, smaller birds would sail on the currents for days afterward, drifting across the earth with messages written in code, with parcels wrapped in paper and string. When he flapped his wings, stars fell from the sky. His feathers were black, and gold, and blue as night; they fletched the arrows of kings and huntsmen from the mountains to the desert to the sea, and their arrows flew truer than any. Men conquered kingdoms with his feathers. One day a mad king decided to shoot him down from the night sky —he wished to gather all my father’s feathers for himself. But with every arrow he fired, my father flapped his wings and drove them from the sky. He flapped until all the stars fell and the night sky was dark, and the world was so wind-torn that nothing airborne could ever land.
—The mad king sent out a hundred horsemen with ten hundred fighting kites—their strings covered in shattered glass, sharp and lethal. The powerful winds carried them up into the sky and they wrapped around my father like a web, like a fist, like a plastic bag, and cut from him his feathers until he fell, naked and white, from the air, crashing to the forest below. He crushed the wind beneath him. The kite-flying horsemen searched but could not find him. They filled bags upon bags with his feathers and took them back to their mad king.
—Where was your mother in all this?
—My mother lived in the hand of an enormous clock so her house was never still. She slept always between the hours of nine and three, strapped into her bed because everything was upended in those hours. Everything was downended in the other hours, but she had to live sometime. She took me to the mad king’s castle because she told me I would marry his handsome son. The mad king had no handsome son. He knew who I was. His archers put a thousand arrows in my neck and my mother and father drew them out one by one so they could take the feathers back. When the last arrow was withdrawn they could hear the soft returning wind whistle through my trachea, and then I walked here, to Moriah.
Their house: it’s a perfect square, four walls, four rooms, one floor. The walls are rough-hewn wood: splintering, unfinished. The roof was thatched by some genius thatcher, some visionary, who knew how to keep the dry, still air out, how to weave moonlight and starlight into the strands of straw so they glow, a silvery domicilic beacon hovering on the horizon if you know where to look; it fades into the black and ashen landscape if you don’t know, if, for example, you are a vast animal made of light and cloth, roaming through the hills with teeth made out of needles, with a trunk like an elephant, or a tree, or a car, or a traveler: gray and empty and strong, furling and unfurling.
Effie finds the buttons in the fields, among the ashes. She sifts through the gray flakes during the day, bringing back handfuls of fasteners, dull in the lamplight until she washes them clean. When Laugh finishes his weaving and sewing for the day he hangs the garland of dust and buttons from the nails on the ceiling, like a collection of sagging Christmas lights; they would flutter in the moving air if the air ever saw fit to move.
When they have built the night’s fire out of ash, when they have cooked the morning’s goat and eaten the mealy chunks of flesh, Effie dabs gracefully at the bleeding hole in her neck and says —Tell me about your father.
Laugh finishes a chunk of goat. He has a paper bag full of astragali from the goats— pastern bones cleansed in boiling water, shining white—and he takes now four of them, casts them on the hearth and reads them, shrugs. He doesn’t comment on what they portend. He looks into the firelight as he speaks.
—My father was a raging forest fire, a flickering, teeming mass of light and heat that crept into the highest reaches of the trees, that cracked open seeds and scorched the ground so that the charcoal might fertilize the earth and new trees might grow. His heat was so strong that women from the village on the river would hide stones in the forest, and after he burned through, they’d gather them up in scraps of leather and carry them back home. They were so hot even then that they could be placed in a pot of water to boil it. The women made tea this way. He had a deal with the village, with all of the villages in the world, that the forest was his to move through as he wished, and in return he would not spread beyond its confines.
—And he turned on them? Effie says.
—No. The only person allowed inside the forest was my mother. She built a house out of folded paper, creased and joined together tightly using methods learned from a Japanese book. My mother treated it against water, and wind, and stones, and when the sun shone, or when my father’s fire came close to the house to say hello, the light would dance through the thin walls and the whole house would glow. My mother performed shadow puppet shows in town and at home, and my father’s light was her favorite to obstruct with the bodies, with the lives of her characters.
—One day, Laugh says, —I went into the forest to gather berries and water, and when I returned home I discovered the house was aflame, my mother trapped inside. Little pieces of house floated on the currents of hot air, edged in embers, diminished into black like shadows torn free of their hosts. My mother didn’t scream. My father spied me and chased me through the forest, tearing across the dry trees in a furious spate, spreading as only fire can. With every step, the path behind me was obliterated, dissolved into light and ash and pieces weightless enough to float, a labyrinth erasing itself. When at last I tumbled from the forest, onto the cool banks of the river, I could see, with my eyes just above the waterline, the vast wall of dark forest consumed. My father had nothing left to burn and he perished. I returned to where we’d built our house and gathered a pocketful of ashes and walked here.
Laugh holds out a fat and smoky bag, expelling clouds like a volcano when he squeezes it. —One day maybe it’ll become a house again. Or a fire. Or . . .
Laugh falls silent. —But why? asks Effie.
—I didn’t have a chance to ask, but I believe he had a good reason.
—What reason could be good enough?
Laugh looks into the fireplace.
That night, he finishes his chain of dust and buttons. —Come, he says to Effie. —I have something for you.
It’s dark outside, stars in the sky like airholes poked in the firmament. Vast animals of cloth and light roam through the hills, their mouths open, shining like search beams; their bodies flutter like a catastrophe of moths. But none of them can see the house in Moriah, the house where Effie and Laugh live; none of them can see the freshly turned earth where Effie buried bloody gauze that morning, where a deer with an immense network of antlers, like a broken broom brushing the sky, stands grazing; none of them can see Laugh wind and loop and tie his rope of buttons and dust into a lasso, can see him twirl it in the air and toss it, catching the deer’s neck with it; none of them see him calmly lead the deer to them, hang the garland of buttons and dust in its antlers; they cannot see Laugh and Effie mount the deer, which is more than big enough for both of them, the excess garland strung over their bodies. None have ears to hear the pounding, cloven hooves of the deer over the ashen fields, the clacking of the buttons, the air moving over them, as if, for once, there were wind. Laugh is refreshed by the unfamiliar feeling of the motion of air, by the sweeping, cleansing breeze. The deer runs smoothly, without protesting the weight of the children on his back, as if he this was why he had come, why all the deer had come.
Laugh enjoys the cool, endless air so much that he barely hears Effie behind him, a whisper soon lost: —If it were the wind I wanted, I wouldn’t have left home.
The vast animals of cloth and light roam through the hills, searching blindly, endlessly for their children, who are too small and too dark to be seen.