“Homestead”: A Flash Fiction for Bad Survivalist by Bryan Harvey

 

YOU COULD GET TO IT by a shortcut through the swamp. Or you could take the bridge near the church and the cemetery as long as you left before dusk and held tight to your senses. But you could also take the mountain pass, which would still require little imagination and beating the sun in descent. You might find it in the big woods or on the prairie, but you would need more than faith to do so. If near a river, you could wait until the rainy season, watch the floods rip over the banks, and observe through the window of a floating house the face of a dead man passing by. You could then follow the buffalo trail and end up walking over it, and you could find it in those far mountains by following the smell of smoke or the touch of gold. The architecture wouldn’t matter. You could blink and it would change. A moss-covered door embedded in the stone is how some mountain wahoo might describe a coziness that is in shape and form no warmer or brighter than a cave dwelling, and you could find the same shape and form in red orange hills where no moss grows and corn dries like skin. In either place, a fellow traveler passing in the opposite direction might tell you how the stone yawned open to reveal a fire deep in its gut, and you would take this as an invitation for some sustenance and a place to stay. But you might also be wrong. A fence might slow your approach. The road might fork. The fire might be snuffed out. The river may have moved. Or a man might mark the yard with a rifle and a rasping, Halt! Who goes there? Maybe you make it, and maybe poison sits at the bottom of a well. You just never know what’s around the bend.
You might approach a mound like a buffalo’s humped thunder but thick with green sod instead of wooly brown. You might find the frame leaning and the door buckled. You might find bodies once trapped by blizzard and hail. You might find an empty tomb. Maybe they simply packed up and moved on. Maybe they didn’t make it. You might wait around for a few days, but you might never find the right person to ask. You may—I hate to say it—just never know what happened to those people or these people, and maybe your people are waiting for you somewhere before the evening sun goes down.
Maybe you’re wading through a swamp. Maybe you’re leading your horse by the reins. Maybe you’re tangled in thorns and vines. Maybe a babe is nestled near your clavicle. Maybe there’s quicksand and maybe there isn’t. The structure you seek appears in your ken half-submerged and fighting for air but the water and the creatures it holds simply won’t let go of the walls and the windows and those finer things once kept and taken there for safekeeping. Clothes still hang on a tightrope, but what could dry in such humidity? They are ghosts drowning in the air, and you regret your faulty footsteps as the murk soaks into whatever fabric clings desperately to your newborn skin.
Out in the desert, you find twisted shapes that ossified even as they grew. You can’t tell the living from the dead, and perhaps out of desperation you chewed through a cactus hide or maybe you didn’t. You hear the wind. You hear a rattle. You suspect scorpions are everywhere. They remind you of human hands. They remind you of those you once knew who clung too tightly to your own. When you find walls, there is a smoky warmth in the oppressive shade, and you breathe it in and call it good—but you’re not sure. If the sun were to fall, you are sure the coyotes would trace your path like a tide following the moon’s glow. You head on home. You know where to be—or maybe you don’t. If you knew, why would you be here? Why would you be anywhere?
The bicycle rubber skids to a stop. Boys and girls dismount. They leave the metal frames to rest in the dirt or they pop kickstands and let them graze on gravel. These faces in the day’s thinnest hours wonder aloud who could live in such a desperate, overgrown place. They grow misshapen pondering what lives could be lived so far out and deep inside these whereabouts unknown.
The rusted tin roof lies askance dilapidated walls. Everything is shot full of holes. The cause was probably rain but you might imagine torrential bullets. You might picture outlaws and bandits. You might paint a picture of heroes holed up and ready to die for a cause. The door is off its hinges. You walk through the empty frame and see it lying broken on the rotting floorboards where trees push up and through before abandoning their life goals. Nothing lives here—not no more, not really. You let go of your corrido tableaus and storybook ballads. You pick up something else. Near the crooked flagstones and crumbling mortar veins that once hemmed a hearth you discover crumpled balls and wrinkled sheets of discolored fish scales. You crinkle the foil in your fingertips. You shift your feet. A glass vial cracks under your shoe’s tread. You find more foil. Brown circles and burned holes discolor the silver sheen into a cracked Martian surface. Someone else in your party kneels over a pile of bones and scrapes them with a burnt spoon. These calcium deposits of some life once lived are arranged like some pagan offering you fail to understand. The group enters into an old-fashioned debate as to the origins of these bones. Some say a squirrel or a muskrat. Some say a chicken. Still, others venture so far as to say the bones are a baby’s ribs. You cannot believe it, but you have heard about such things in the mouths of parents and the evening news. You know the world is horrible and cruel. Y’all scatter the bones. Y’all disrupt what you can’t understand. Someone—and maybe it’s you—wonders if the house shifted on its concrete blocks. Someone wonders if the mineshaft quaked deep beneath the earth, if the waters severed the structure from its foundations, if the sounds belonged to menacing drums, if a gator passed under the pontoon.
And so the running begins, and you all flee the ambush. You scatter onto the prairie. You seep into the wetlands. You crash into valleys. You are on your way to being gone as you sprint for your bicycle’s silhouette—trembling in pulse and evaporating in breath. You look back over a shoulder, and a light shoots out from the doorway’s frame—a torch, a dropped flashlight, a lost phone reaches out to you. But the kickstand snaps shut, its spring echoing in shades of gray. You are gone. You are in the mouths of open driveways. You are golden photons waving in the dark from some great distance near and far and disappearing.

 

 

Bryan Harvey’s writing is forthcoming or has appeared in Hobart, FlashBack Fiction, No Contact Magazine, MoonPark Review, Rejection Letters, The Florida Review’s Aquifer, and Cold Mountain Review. He blogs about basketball for Fansided’s The Step Back. He grew up in Georgia and teaches in Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @Bryan_S_Harvey.

Image: bigcypressswamp.wordpress.com

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