Fiction: Michelle Dove
Women with Runes
It is here—the celebration of our country’s birth—and the heat is a trillion or two trillion degrees. To stay cool, we wear our chamber suits and sit far enough from each other so the sweat doesn’t spread, only localizes within our individual suits and runs between our thighs where nobody sees. The musicians take turns telling stories while the bamboo and rubber char on the grill. A guitarist tells how he played a show years ago on a glass boat while mermaids swam underneath. A singer wore a lone feathered earring into a bar and was mistaken for a priest. The musicians are such convincing storytellers that dusk comes on without us remembering to adjust our suits. Some of us must take off our suits, then, to better absorb, but the atmosphere is still too swollen for the rest of us. Some of us carry our chamber suits over our arms and begin walking home. The rest of us wait and pass the bucket of fireworks, but it is too unbearable to send messages into the tortured sky. And besides, we haven’t even lit the cake.
When all the men became politicians, all the women became musicians. When politics ended all the men wanted their reverent fear back. They came to the women with their demands, a two-thousand-page vetted document, certain that they wouldn’t need to fight for anything. The men would just take what they wanted like they always did. But the women had anticipated the men’s demands years prior and the sash they had sewn together was half the equator in length and, as they encircled the men, the women sang out in calming voices—sunflowers and chlorophyll and nettle, mountains and myrtle and heather, sundrops and lavender and runes—and the women tied the men together in one breathtaking pull of the sash so that no matter how the men squirmed or sullied themselves or gasped for attention there wouldn’t be any misunderstandings going forward.
What’s obvious won’t do—the trees hold centuries. So with helicopters and stilts, the men attempt to stabilize their structures mid-air. If they can continually hover, the structures might remain ghost-free. But the helicopters run out of fuel and the stilts buckle. Eventually the men must sleep with the light on instead, and in this way turn involuntary witness to what they cannot name: kudzu fiddling up the wallpaper, cacti sprouting in every pipe. Every morning the men unplug from the manframe with frenzy. They lob their add-on heads onto their shoulders, shouting to the others to vacate the structure with haste. “Let’s go!” the men say. “Can’t you see that we’re behind?” The men fear nature’s creep to such a degree that most of them can’t hear what the other men are saying. Every day trillions of men are so terrified they even leave their add-on heads behind.
The Dormant Languages
At the insistence of the women, the children begin learning new languages—Walrus, Centipede, Daffodil, and Myrrh. When the children become fluent they talk in increasingly hushed voices. They come to the women and moan, “But what good are they when they’re just more of the same?” The women implore the children to keep practicing, that one day the languages will reveal their worth. Impatiently, the children move onto other subjects—Calculators, Insurgence, Miles Per Hour, and Genocide. The women do not admonish the children or lock them in their rooms, only stand and roll the daffodil over their tongues, hang the centipede out to sun-dye, whistle the silver walrus as the evening fog vanishes their feet, earth up.
Preferring Freudians to Inuits, eruptions to massages, the men don’t bother with the tinctures. But when the women discover the tinctures’ powers, the men gather outside the women’s construct, holding torches to the sky and dismay in their round guts. The men knock on the door to the night, hear no universe respond. They mumble to themselves and trade ruinous stories, form a consensus that if the situation were reversed—if they were on the inside—they’d open the door and let the women experience the sagacity for themselves. The men remain as long as the torches burn but when the night wizens their numbers thin. Eventually the men agree that if they can’t penetrate the women vital to the tinctures rise—the women who some men believe have intentionally left them behind—then the men will find a string of isolated women and levy the fine. “A gender tax,” say the men to each other. “In kind for the trespass of their kind?” And so it is that the men lower their torches and sanction the intent to fine, then quietly return to their respective constructs and houses and doorways. The men waste no time—fearing the tinctures forecasted spread—and set immediately to identifying the women who will remain complicit and silent while they enact their savage reveries.
The Way Out
Some of us are allergic but live in the plastic houses anyway. Odds are one in one million bottles is contaminated—a low risk for anything that increases our chances. In this way we are prepared when the waters invade the land and begin washing our houses away. We grip the bedroom walls and float to other plastics dwellers, securing ropes to those akin in planetary demeanor. Before long something viable is before us—our own buoyant city. We don’t know how long we will be afloat so we instruct our men to steer when we are sleeping. When we tire from casting spells on the great whites and manatees and jellyfish, we teach our dogs to skim floating debris off the water and siphon plastics through the compressors to make solid food. Where we float is of no concern but even the men start singing when the waters show no sign of receding. Even the dogs howl a melody to get beyond the night, and it is there—in our dissonant entrance into the furor of sound—that we are found.
In their spare time, the women tour the distilleries while the men visit the internet. It’s no wonder to the women why nothing gets accomplished anymore. No one’s speaking in a voice the others recognize, except when men speak to men, or when women speak to women. So the women stop forcing anything to happen for the collective good. They talk amongst themselves, learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu, erect their own structures with materials that prevent the men from listening in. Night after night, the women gather in the distilleries and breweries and lift their glasses to the full moon or the blood moon or the harvest moon. They turn stones upwards and infuse their uteruses with cherry and juniper and orange blossom. The men are not so sure the women aren’t destroying their bodies or becoming earthly drones. The men chastise the women for their stupidity, wave their corded arms in the women’s faces, shame the women through their keyboard-plated mouths. When the men tire from rebuking the women, the men return to their own structures, set their internal clocks to wake, and plug themselves into the manframe to recharge through the night.
The women take out their sunflower armies and let them go. Could the women have known the sunflowers would turn to each other and hum a triumphant chorus to root and spread? The sunflowers sprout first through sidewalks and railroads, then into buildings and vehicles and forgotten spaces. All the while the sunflowers continue their hum that is no less drugged or droned than what the men have in the past created. As the sunflower armies advance further into the oceans and the artic and the farthest regions of the planet, the women peak through their curtains with admiration, looping the sound whenever the sunflowers need to store up energy to continue their invasion of the bullied landscape. And when the sunflowers have adequately spread across the entire planet—that is, when children sleep on the willowy flower-heads and when dangerous men enjoy watching cats lick the flower stems clean for battle—the women pull their curtains to the world and turn once again to each other. They begin gathering sticks and branches and driftwood, all while delicately summoning the locusts and June bugs and mayflies. And with the hum of the sunflowers at the back of their throats, the women crouch in their windowless bathrooms to polish their fingertips and toes, preparing for the next battle that their bodies intuit behind the sublime.
As predicted, we multiply so fast that the structures begin to moan and bow. Someone we can see wants to start throwing people out. But what this someone doesn’t know is our true commonality—we all want to remain unknown. Is this person we can see our enemy? We want to do to our enemy what he suggests is done to us, but we are so invisible that our enemy can’t see us, doesn’t even know we have raised his putrid head into the waste bin, and now he is aflame.
We ride our drones through the bog, not even realizing what used to grow there. We ask our friend how many corpses are buried in the mountain. Suddenly, no one can recall a thing. Like the land, our collective memories are actively receding. All at once we forget our birthplaces and centuries of radical societal change. We stand in our friend’s new structure—one with a ceiling that looks like the actual sky—turning increasingly afraid. “But we wrote down the recipes,” our friend says. Carefully he pulls the box of recipes from the cabinet. We sit on his floor under what looks like the actual Cassiopeia and take turns reading the unusual words aloud: RAVIOLI, MINESTRONE, BUTTERMILK BISCUITS. We repeat the words until we almost form new ideas for the odd sounds. We lie awake with fear throughout the night, cradling the majestic words in our gaping mouths.
When our fence begins to die we water it like our parents instructed us, like their parents instructed them, and their parents (our great-grandparents) instructed them, and so on. But with the sun trapped above us there’s little hope. Even as the fence wilts we praise its former glory. We remove our neon visors and floppy hats and help it—in its final moments—lower gently to the ground. We rest our hands on its calloused wood and wire until the fence goes fully cold. When we finish grieving and look up we are elsewhere, gazing backwards up a hill we already traversed. A golden toad we have never before seen hops into our yard. He is so wobbly and petite. He is magical even without speaking. We cannot help but love him.
The Flower War
The women are gathering chrysanthemum and iris and heather and daisy and rosemary and lace and ginger and lilac and blackberry and anise and sandal and and the men—they are slow to say. The men try to name the yellow and the blue and the tall—sunflowers, they know, ah ha!—and the women say from what universe, and there is a pause, and the women don’t hesitate—it is a war, right? The women stuff the sunflowers into their mouths, sprout taller, grow wings, peer down on the men who are now tripe beneath with tripe-shaped shadows and after swallowing the sunflowers the women cup their ears to listen for the tripe-shaped response but the women hear nothing, no shape at all, and have spent not only their patience but their first instance with such enormous wings and say again to the men in what must be voluminous voices what they’ve been saying, which is what’s been said to them all along—“What’s that? We can’t. Quiet! Here you. And who even! Are you? Who. Do you think you are? Time’s up! You are. Wrong.”
The men arrive early to the trillennium, only to confront what they most fear: their former selves and future selves bobbing together in the pool, splashing and horsing each other by the arms and necks. The men hope that their former and future selves don’t startle as they cross to a dark corner of the yard. But when the women torch the selenium and begin the chant of iris and heather and saffron and hay, everyone in the pool turns to look. In the light of the fire the men cannot disguise themselves anymore. Some of the men approach their former and future selves, then, gesturing explanations with arms so rickety they detach and submerge in the pool. Other men retreat further into the woods with shame, a place where their future selves will never hear of them again. This is the trillennium where the women can finally retire their timeless chant. They jump into the pool and let their hair soak the saltwater. They float their bodies atop the stillness, register the night as a charmed and welcomed change.
Michelle Dove is the author of Radio Cacophony. She works and teaches in the English Department at Duke University.