art by Shot Hot Design
What Never Happened to Kolay
by Patricia Russo
The flowers never hugged him. When Kolay was a child, Grannie Brian had had a garden of motile plants. The grown folk looked askance at this. Wasting time playing with genes, when half the communities north of the river went hungry in the winter and starved in the spring. And flowers, of all things. Grannie Brian said there was more to life than carrots and turnips and a few puny squash, and he said it with a smile, which only made the other grown folk mutter that having brains wasn't the same as having sense. Grannie Brian never had to worry about his larder. He did more than splicing in his neat little lab. He'd seen what was coming a good ten, fifteen years in advance; he'd stockpiled. He traded drugs, he traded knowledge, he traded reassurance. Kolay liked to hear Grannie Brian switch his voice, his words, his accent, depending on who he was talking to. He tried to learn how to do it himself, but never got the hang of it. He didn't mind very much; different folks had different talents, and when he was little, he believed he'd discover what his own talents were soon enough. He was sure, as most children are, that he possessed loads of them. But it did make him sad that the flowers never hugged him. Grannie Brian had nearly a whole acre of them, and he let the neighborhood kids play in the flower garden any time they wanted, as long as they didn't bring any sticks or balls with them. The motile flowers hugged all the other children. Wrapped themselves around their legs. Their shoulders, too, if the kids crouched down. The children would giggle and squeal, and run home grinning after the flowers loosened their embrace. When Kolay walked in the garden, the flowers stood rigid on their stalks, even if there was a breeze blowing, They didn't merely ignore him; they shunned him. Grannie Brian took the blame on himself, said he must've slipped up somewhere in the recombinations, but then Grannie Brian worked hard at being kind. Kolay cried about how the flowers spurned him, but he did it where Grannie Brian couldn't see.
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He never fell for the star-scarred women's tricks. The star-scarred women came recruiting every ten or twelve years, letting enough time pass between visits for fear to fade and excitement to build again. They let word slip out that they were on their way months before the first star-scarred woman showed up in a community. That way, the old folks would have told their spook-yarns so many times the young ones had long since stopped having nightmares and started debating what the real story was. The more the young people talked about it, the greater their eagerness grew. You go with them, they'll eat your hearts, the old ones said. Not the grannies; the grannies stayed out of it. If you went up to a grannie and asked her or him directly about the star-scarred women, all you'd get would be a little shake of the head and a few words about people having the right to make their own decisions. Kolay listened to his friends dirt-mouth the spook-yarns, then funny them to shreds. Heart eating, right. Barbequed, I bet. Nah, spit-roasted, on a skewer. You go with them, the all-grown ones, the mothers and fathers, the aunts and uncles, the neighbors who'd once had a neighbor who went said, and they'll take the bones out of your arms and legs, and put metal bones in their place. They told the boys the star-scarred women would cut their penises off, and the girls that they'd sew up their vaginas. The more the young people talked about the spook-yarns, the more ridiculous they sounded. The old folks just want to keep us here, Kolay's friends said. They want us to live and die out here in the sticks, never go anywhere, never do anything. Never see a city. The star-scarred women came from a city. Or cities. Everybody knew that, though nobody was sure how many cities there were. The star-scarred women traveled around to the settlements and communities to find the young folks who didn't belong in such lolly-pit, insignificant places, who were meant for something better. Even before the first star-scarred woman arrived in the community, most of Kolay's friends had decided that whatever she asked them to do, whatever forms she wanted them to fill out, whatever tests she required them to take, they would. And when the first star-scarred woman arrived--it always happened that way, the grown folks had warned them, just one would come at first, all on her own, so as to seem harmless and friendly and in need of hospitality--Kolay's friends ran and hid in their aunties' rootcellars and their fathers' toolsheds, because in none of the stories the young people had been told, in none of the dozens of scare-tales about the star-scarred women replacing their eyes with green glass marbles and their teeth with diamond razors, had anybody mentioned that the star-scarred women were beautiful. The first one that arrived moved with liquid grace, and when she smiled the sun appeared. Her voice was soft, and her uniform glittered. The scars on her face and hands were beautiful, too, golden and smooth. All the young men and all the young women were love-struck, and that scared them so much they couldn't bear to face her. You, she said to Kolay. Young man, come and talk to me for a minute. Let me tell you about the world beyond your world. He went to her, and listened to three or four wonder-tales, and even let her touch his hand with her beautiful scarred fingers, and he wanted very much to kiss her, though he was sure that she would never let him. Come with me, the star-scarred woman said, and you'll never have to return to this place of sourbark trees and green-stripe squirrels and sawdust bread and parsnip soup. She handed him something, a little hard square wrapped in silver foil. Taste that, she said. You have to take the foil off, first. Kolay put it in his pocket, and waited for the star-scarred woman to get angry and order him to give it back, but she merely smiled. And when she smiled, the sun came out. After a while, some of Kolay's friends grubbed a bit of their courage back, and crept out of their hiding places. By the time three more star-scarred women had arrived in the community, the older folks, stiff-faced, their eyes turned down, had arranged a feast for the visitors, for the demands of hospitality were chains of ash--once broken, impossible to reconstruct. When the feast was over (brown bread, and stew, and chewy slices of dried squash, and a drink made from the juice of crab apples and fermented, which the star-scarred women smiled at, and refused), three young men and two young women of the community left with the star-scarred women. Kolay did not. That's because you are smarter than they are, his auntie said, but the day after the star-scarred women and their recruits had gone, Kolay carefully peeled the foil off the small hard square the first star-scarred woman had given him. Under the silver foil, the square was white, and half-a-thumb thick, if you cut a thumb lengthwise. It felt a little slippery. He put it in his mouth. At first the square was salty, then sweet, and then suddenly a thousand flavors all at once, none of which he had ever tasted before, and the shock of that made the blood rush to his head. The square melted in his mouth, quickly, too quickly, though he never used his teeth, just let it lie on his tongue. He tried to hold on to the flavors as long as he could, but they vanished like a dry season showerburst, leaving no trace behind. He knew he would never taste such a thing again.
Kolay never found any person, male, female, or otherways, to love. Not just have drinks with, not just share a room, or a house, or even a house and a garden with, not just work with, not just have sex with. All of those he could find, and did find. But with none of his partners could he share himself. Some of his partners listened when he mumbled a few of his thoughts, and responded, but casually, with the same level of interest people talked about the color of the clouds that day, or whether the spring cough would be bad this season. Kolay could tell they didn't really care, and after a dozen or so disappointments, he stopped hoping. He thought most of the men and women and otherwayers he'd lived and worked and had sex with liked him, and one or two might have actually loved him, but he couldn't love them back, and he knew the failure lay with him. He ended up living alone, and not speaking much to the neighbors beyond the necessary niceties. He stopped accepting invitations to parties and feasts, to weddings and namings and funerals, and eventually no one invited him anymore. It was less painful to be alone by himself than alone with others. He worked in solitude, preserving old books that nobody really wanted. The older he grew, the more silent he became. He got up each day and did the same things he'd done the day before, the same things he would do the next day.
Kolay never jumped. As folks got older, edging toward the day when small children would call them grannie whether they were grannies or not, most felt the itch between their shoulder blades. Some felt it prickling down the backs of their arms. Some even felt it in their shins. When people got to this tricky age, their families began to keep an eye on them, and talk about how we weren't animals, after all, we were people, and people could fight off their urges. There were salves to help with the itching, and medicines to ease the tickles and sparks in the brain that were much more sweatish-making than itches on the skin. Their families and friends and loved ones sat with them at night, and talked about how few people who jumped got what they wanted, how so many simply wound up with broken bones or cracked heads or worse. Wait it out, and it will pass, they said. Kolay had no family or friends or loved ones to talk to him, to spread ointment on his back, or to hold his hand and tell him the risk wasn't worth it. The ones who itched recognized each other, and sometimes, when they could get away from the watchful eyes on them, they gathered discreetly to commiserate and compare notes and plan. We repeat our old patterns, Kolay thought; we are acting as we did when we were young, and the star-scarred women were coming. He sat at the edge of several of these gatherings, barely acknowledged, and never said a word. He knew they would all jump. Everybody did, sooner or later, even the ones whose families or friends or loved ones shut them up in a room with bars on the window and bolts on the door. What were the chances for success? One in thirty? One in fifty? Less, he thought. In his childhood, one woman had made it. He remembered seeing her in the sky. His mother had shaken her head and said it was beautiful, yes, but foolish, so foolish. But his mother had been too young to feel the itch then. When she did, she jumped, and broke both her legs and shattered one elbow. So would all of these itching people, Kolay knew, and so would all that came after them. The cliff was miles away from the community; some dropped out on the trek there, their bodies failing them before they even began to climb. Others hurt themselves on the climb up, or grew so exhausted they could not continue. For these people, Kolay knew, from listening, from watching, from paying attention, the itchings and the brain sparkings would eventually ease, though it took years. The ones who jumped, whatever the outcome, rid themselves of the urge as soon as they launched themselves. Kolay did not go to the cliff. Kolay did not climb it. One by one, his age-mates slipped away from their watchers. No one was watching him; he had nobody to evade. The itch in the center of his back was intolerable, but he tolerated it. The sparks in his brain escalated into flares; they came without warning, and made his teeth clench and fever-sweat wash over his body in waves. But Kolay never went to the cliff, and he never jumped. He never learned if he would have fallen, or if, like the woman he had seen in his childhood, wings would have burst out of his back, and he would have flown.
Kolay never turned into a hollow one, though everyone in the community believed bitterness had eaten him long ago, even before he had stopped speaking more than the few words of greeting and farewell that were formulas all people adhered to. Fearful, folks kept their children away from him, and consulted the grannies on whether it might be prudent to kill him before he picked up an axe or long knife one night and rushed from house to house, cutting throats and disemboweling babies. The grannies said they needed time to think about it, so the people waited. Kolay became the village ogre, the night-creeper, a character in spook-tales. That he never left his home after dark, that he never looked a child in the eye, that he stepped aside for grannies and pregnant women, made no difference. Kolay lived his life, and waited for the people of the community to kill him. One day, a day that was no different from any other day, a spring day with green clouds and a breeze from the east, he was standing beside the tall tree in the community common space, the one with four benches set around it in a square, for people to sit on and rest and chat. Kolay did not sit, even though none of the benches was occupied. He never sat, out of courtesy, for if he did, no one else would use any of the benches until he was gone. He had stopped for a moment, simply because he was tired. He did not notice the boy who had climbed the tree. He had seen a few children run away as he approached the common space, but children always ran away when they spotted him. Squeezing through the gap between the north-side bench and the west-side bench, he leaned against the tree. He planned to stand and breathe for a moment or two, then move on. He was just about to straighten up and continue his trudge home when he heard a cry from above, the choked cry of a little boy who had tried and tried and tried so hard not to make a sound, and then couldn't hold back any longer. Kolay looked up. The boy was clinging to a branch at least ten feet off the ground. He had one leg over it, and both hands on it, but gravity was defeating the child's strength, and his grip was slipping. He was going to fall, and fall head-first. Kolay could project the probable trajectory--the boy would either hit the ground, or hit a bench. Kolay took a pace back from the trunk of the tree. "All right," he called up, softly, kindly. "Don't be afraid. Slide your leg off the branch, and let go. I'll catch you." The boy opened his mouth to wail, but what came out was more of a kitten's mewl. "I'll catch you," Kolay said. "Don't be afraid. You're going to be all right." The boy dropped, but not because he obeyed Kolay's instructions; his strength had reached its limit. He fell, head-first, and at an angle, because the leg he had hooked over the branch made his body swing out before he fell. Kolay leapt. He was old; his own body was not strong, and not fast. He thought, he was sure, that his grab would miss, that the boy's head would strike the west-side bench. But he caught the boy around the middle, the boy's feet kicking under Kolay's chin, his head banging just above Kolay's knees, and he let out his breath and hugged the child, hugged him hard, until he noticed people hurrying toward the tree to see what was going on. His heart was pounding. His arms ached, but he turned the boy, gently, until his feet were over the ground, then knelt to set him down. When Kolay let go, the boy screamed and punched him. But the people had seen, enough people had seen, what Kolay had done. A grannie jumped over a bench to grip the boy by the arm and shake him. "Say thank you," the grannie ordered. "This man saved your life." The boy gaped at her, speechless. The other people, old and young and grannies, who had run to the tree, started to applaud. Kolay, kneeling, looked at them all, and found that he, too, had nothing to say. He stood up, slowly. His back ached, too. The onlookers shuffled back, to give him room, but they continued to applaud. Stop it, Kolay thought. Please just stop it. I'm the same person I was five minutes ago. I'm the same person I've always been.
The people of the community stopped ogreing him--the grannies had a big part in that; any talk of cutting Kolay's throat before he cut someone else's was squelched--but his life went on as it had before. He endured each day. He harmed no one. He had performed one good deed.
Occasionally, when he woke in the darkness and could not fall back to sleep, he thought about the flowers in Grannie Brian's garden (Grannie Brian had died long ago, and so had his flowers), or about the star-scarred women, or about the two, possibly three, people who might have loved him and whom he could not love back, or about not jumping. That is the person I am, he thought. The flowers sensed it. But I have done the best I knew how. Another person might have done better, done differently, but I was not born another person.
And sometimes he whispered to himself, I did not become the monster they all thought I would.
And in the darkness, Kolay allowed himself to do what he did not permit himself to do in the daylight, where people could see, because many were still wary of him, and he did not wish to frighten anyone, or call attention to himself in any way. He smiled. And eventually he would slip back into sleep, and wake to yet another morning.
This story was first published on Friday, August 19th, 2011
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