“Otherwise Known As: A Legend in Words & Pictures,” by Rachel May

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Fiction by Rachel May from our Winter 2014 issue.


This woman smeared cupcake frosting on her face because it was good for her skin. This woman’s name was Bill, which was a strange name for a woman but no one ever questioned it because they liked her. She was tall and dark-haired, and she had buck teeth. Sometimes, the new ones, they would make fun of her buck teeth behind her back, and the old ones would say, No, no, don’t do that to Bill; Bill is good. And they would stop. Why did Bill smear frosting on her face? said the new ones, and the old ones said, Why do you wear shoes? And the new ones laughed, and looked down at their feet, and noticed that their shoes were gone. The rules were different in this world, they were beginning to see. They were beginning to feel uncomfortable.

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Well, said the old ones, We have only grass here; why would you need shoes? But what about the craters? said the new ones, and the old ones said, We avoid the craters. That’s the only way. The new ones looked at each other, and looked at the old ones, and looked at Bill, who sat in the corner smearing cupcake frosting all over her face—it was all over her hands now, too, and in big fat pink and white smudges on the table—and they said, We come from a place that does not endorse avoidance. And the old ones said, Why the hell not? Look how it works for us! And the new ones said, We’ve learned some things that you might not know. Well, said the old ones, and they crossed their arms and looked at each other and wondered who these ostentatious fools could be. One of the grayest old ones stepped forward and said, Why don’t you tell us about your practices, then? Why don’t you tell us about how you don’t avoid? What is your land like—all fairy dust and fine sand? And the new ones sensed their attitude and tried not to react. They were practicing openness. They laughed. They opened their arms and gestured and leaned forward, toward the old ones.

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Actually, they said, we come from a place with mountains and volcanoes and beaches. But the beaches are rocky, not sandy. And there are pine trees along the shore, and mountain-crested peaks, and, inland, we get droughts all summer long. Cacti and sage brush grow.

The old ones raised their eyebrows, turned down their lips, and shrugged. Eh, said one. We’ve seen worse. One of the new ones said, Oh? But look at all this grass. And the old ones said, We planted this grass a long time ago. We cultivated it, and changed our climate for it, and worked very hard to make sure it stays lush and green and soft under our feet. The new ones looked at each other now, wondering if this could be true. Changed your climate? they said. The old ones nodded, looked back to Bill, and leaned in, stage whisper. We built a sun shield, so we don’t get too much. We control the hours of the day, how much in which season. We keep the temperature between seventy-five and eighty, and we let it rain more in the winter. But, said the new ones, what did it used to look like here? And the old ones said, Rocky, and dry, and windy. Too many dust storms. Too much drought. Too many sharp pieces to walk upon. The new ones frowned and looked down at their bare feet, at the green grass, and imagined what was underneath: the real bumpy earth, all covered up, as if shamed. Hmm, they said. The old ones said, We had no choice! Our feet were all cracked and sore, our eyes were red, our bodies were parched and tired. What could we do? And the new ones said, We made clothes for ourselves. We made shoes. We made goggles and lip balm and gloves. Sunscreen. Hats. The old ones looked at each other, arms crossed. Well, they said, we chose another way.

Let us see the craters, said the new ones. The old ones said they wouldn’t go back there; they just pointed the way: west. Sunset is at seven every day, they said, Be back by then. All right, said the new ones, and off they went, barefoot.

 

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They got to the craters by five, an hour later, after several wrong turns over the grassy land; when they found their own pressed-in-prints in the grass, they realized they’d gone in a circle. One of them took a compass from his pocket. Don’t let the old ones see that, said another of the new ones, a tool! Oh no! They laughed. They kept walking.

At last, they found the craters, and they saw that they were wide and deep and full of some sort of smoke. They sometimes coughed up water, and then pulled the water back in, slurping, and the water was tinged yellow and smelled of sulfur. In the distance, there was one geyser, which sent up a stream of water every seven minutes, twenty feet into the air. Then the water rested in a pool around the geyser and slowly sank back into the earth.

One of the new ones gasped and said, It looks like home, and another said, Yes. They decided to sit beside the craters, on the dirt, not the grass, and to rest their heads on their knees, and watch. They were homesick. They didn’t like the sight of all that green, homogenous, unnatural. They missed their unsightly home.

They sat through dinner. They sat through sunset. They sat through the whole night, with the stars coming up, and the geyser sending up its shoot every seven minutes. Right on time. And the sound of water splashing out, and of the craters taking the water back in. They all dozed off. They fell against each other, sleeping. They all woke up at sunrise. In the morning, they sat and watched a while longer, and then began to stand and stretch and say, I’m hungry, and talk about what to do. Should we walk back? they said. What’s the point? said one. And another said, I like to watch Bill; Bill’s strange and funny. And the others said, That’s not a good enough reason to return.

Well, said one, it’s obvious, isn’t it? We could start a revolution.

The others looked at each other and nodded and shrugged and said, Easy enough. Why not?

So they put on some bandanas, tied around their biceps, and they took out their guitars, and they grew their hair long and kept their feet bare and said, Now we are hippies. And they went back, in pursuit of the natural earth, a fight on their fingertips.

 

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When the old ones saw them coming, they remembered, and knew what to expect. They ushered all the old ones into the big gray building at the edge of nothing—in the midst of all that green—and said it was a climate emergency, to stay inside, please, until it’s safe. One of the old ones stood at the door, and waited until all the old ones were inside, and then bolted it shut. The new ones stood outside the door. They held hands. They sang kumbaya.

Then one of them said, I think we need more to this revolution, this is all too superficial, this is just an idea of a revolution. So one of them took out the guitar and sang about the homogenous green grass and the real weather they were missing and the unnaturalness of this place, the environment they’d covered and ruined. They sang about the geysers and the sulfur smell and the sound of water. They sang about rain and wind and sun and dust. They sang about the way the weather changed, and the things people had to say about it—how a week of rain could string people together, could unite them in their mild misery, how when the sun came out after that week of rain, everyone would smile and laugh together, and walk into the sun with their faces turned up, like flowers. And the old ones inside heard all of this, because the old ones had forgotten to soundproof the building (never expecting a revolution, any discontent, any unhappiness in the face of all that green and sunshine), and one of the old ones, upon hearing the word geyser, remembered driving through Yellowstone Park as a child, and seeing Old Faithful, his face pressed up against the station wagon door, and he was filled with such nostalgia and such longing, that he pressed himself through the crowd, and walked into the sunshine, and—even though the other old ones screamed and beckoned for him to come back—he joined the singing hippies, and wooed the rest.

And eventually, all their memories came back to them, memories of childhoods in the woods, by the sea, on rainy camping trips, in thunderstorms, in the sunshine at a barbeque, in the wind on a mountain, shivering, exhilarated. And these memories rose above the crowd and drifted out into the world, and they all pressed forward, into the air and onto the green grass and under the sunshine. And they held hands and they sang and sang and sang, feeling not even a little bit self-conscious. And the few old ones remaining, the ones who had hatched the environmental plan and built the shield and changed the weather, they stopped the singing, and said, You don’t remember the pain! This is what you don’t remember. All you’re remembering now is the good. Remember how much it hurt? Remember how much your bodies ached and your heads were tired and your energy was sapped by all that weather? Remember how you hated the snow in February, and got frostbite and lost one of your toes? Remember how the wind chapped your cheeks? And the sun burned your skin? And your feet were calloused and bleeding? You don’t remember all of that. We have saved you from it. Look at this green grass! Look how smooth and easy it is! Look how lucky you are! And the new ones looked around, and the old ones looked around, and all across this land, all the way to the horizon, there was green, and it was true: It was easy.

But now they heard the sounds underneath the grass—the rivers running, which would flood when they were cut loose. The craters and the geysers and the dry earth in the summertime. They heard this and they smelled it, and they couldn’t stand the sight of the grass anymore. Not for one second more.

One of them cried and said, We’re ready for pain. It will bring surprises. It won’t all be pain. Remember?

 

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And the old ones, the ones who were afraid, looked at each other and sat down, and cried. They threw up their hands. They said, You’re going to do it, anyway, aren’t you? And the new ones said, Yes. And the old ones said, All our work? And the new ones said, We’re sorry. And they all knelt down, and began to pull back the grass.

It came up like sod, like it had never really taken root, had known it did not belong, should not be used as a shield. Grass grows where it’s natural to grow—on hills, in dunes, in little woodsy clearings—and is otherwise never quite at ease, always needing so much coddling and encouragement to stay put. So it was easy to pull up the grass, and to reveal everything that was underneath. And to put up ladders and peel back the shield, and let the sun and the moon and the clouds—the real ones, not the fake ones—shine down. Bill stopped smearing frosting on her face and helped to pull back the grass, and didn’t care about trying to make her skin perfect anymore, because she had more important things to tend to now. Perfection, she said, is irrelevant.

They found the trees wrapped up in background colors, and unwrapped them, and they yanked down all those fake stars and let the real ones free.

 

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And after all this work, three days of work, the new ones were tired, and went out for beers, and the old ones, still sitting on their last remaining little patch of grass, just big enough for their bottoms, looked up and looked around. It was a cloudy day. A little breeze. The humidity was much too high. They wished to lower it. They were so uncomfortable just sitting there, and they itched to do something to make it better, to re-cover the earth, the cover the sky, to make everything easier. The river was about to overflow, they saw, and it would flood the dirt and make mud! The mess of it! They wanted to fix it. But they couldn’t, now. It had all been undone. So they sat and they sat and they sat, through their discomfort and through the itch and through the fear that they would all burn or melt or get blown away. They cried. They screamed. They were miserable. They hated it, all this discomfort, and they cursed the new people, who were off getting drunk, and they cursed the world for being so disorderly and unpredictable, and they cursed themselves for getting into this mess, and they yelled at each other for not being able to stop the undoing, the revolution—but they did not move. Not once. They kept their arms around their knees, as if to hold themselves together.

And they realized, after seven hours of wailing and crying and discomfort, that they were still alive. They had not died. They looked at each other, amazed. And they looked at the world, all laid bare, and they were amazed at that, too. At all the different ways the landscape looked. At the rises and the dips and the rocks and the rivers and the streams, and now that it was nighttime, at the way the moon reflected in the streams in a silver color they hadn’t seen in years, and the stars, and the deep blue color of the sky.

 

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This excerpt is featured content from the

Winter 2014 issue

For ordering information or to find out more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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