Bliss Point (Full Story)

Writing this was an experiment (on some level, though, I suppose writing anything is an experiment). I didn’t have an end in mind, or even a beginning or a middle, when I started writing. Instead, what I had was a series of images. A larger-than-life tiger, a blue chalk arrow, a suburban backyard. The threat of death, the complication of sacrifice. I had a vague notion that I wanted to recreate Iphigenia at Aulis. That didn’t end up happening, but it will someday.

In the end, I think all I wanted was to capture the sensation of listening to a bedtime story as it is being made up in real-time. I have compiled all part of “Bliss Point” together below and lightly edited it where needed.

Waddling to the toilet at three in the morning, legs clasped as tightly as the latch to a jewelry box, she flings open the door of her bathroom, bare feet bouncing against the shock of the frigid tile. The blurry shape of the sink looms ominously. Groping in the dark, she flips on the switch to her left. Stingingly bright light floods her field of vision—but it’s not the interior of her bathroom she finds, with its dowdy fixtures and seashell wall accents, but, instead, a long, winding suburban street. She stands on the smooth tarmac sandwiched between rows of identical two-story houses and manicured trees, all awash in the pearly, deep purple of summer twilight.

She has changed, too. Instead of polka dotted pajamas, she now wears a fleece hoodie, ripped jean shorts, and dirty off-white sneakers. It’s the outfit of an adolescent with little patience for respectability, and a strong desire to skulk around shopping mall parking lots, hood pulled up, rubbery cord tightened around her neck. Her urge to urinate, which had awoken her from sleep, has disappeared entirely. She breathes in, feeling the sensations of her in-dream body as intensely as a drink of cool water. The air smells green, like lawn grass, wet from a parade of sprinklers, and faintly sweet, like fresh fruit.

There’s an arrow on the sidewalk, drawn in baby blue chalk. A few feet away, there’s another, and then another. She follows the trail until it leads her to a house at the far-end and middle of a cul-de-sac, positioned along the street like a keystone in an arch. It is a standard, factory-made house made of white paneled wood and windows with green shutters. She inspects it from the driveway, feeling the wind play through her long hair. There’s no evidence of movement inside, but she feels antsy, expectant, as though sitting in a movie theater right before previews. She knows something is about to take place. Going around the back, stepping quietly on a path of cobblestones strewn through the grass, she arrives at the yard, where a mise-en-scène is silently unfolding.

Atop a white altar, a human form lies splayed, limbs hanging off every which way. The head lolls to one side, facing away from her. There’s a druggy stillness to the body that feels induced. Behind the altar, a massive Bengal tiger, easily three times the size of its counterparts in the natural world, paces idly. Its yellow eyes are the size of dinner plates. To the immediate left and right of the altar stand two figures: a man, tight-lipped, holding a scythe against his side, and an old, hunched woman, face eclipsed by a shroud.

On the street, a gas main erupts suddenly, releasing a fizzy tangle of fire into the purple sky. She doesn’t turn. Lying on the grass, at the end of the cobblestone path, is a bow and quiver of arrows. She’s never held a bow in her life, but she hoists it to her shoulder now with the practiced grace of a born archer, quickly nocking an arrow fletched with gold feathers. She has moments to choose a target—man, woman, body or beast—and no preternatural intuition that might lead her to the right choice. But she knows they will notice her soon. Her body hums with the tension, like the hour before heavy weather. She releases the arrow.

Immediately after she makes her choice, she drops the weapon, turns tail, and flees, rounding the corner back to the front of the house as fast as she can. She doesn’t even wait to catch the reaction of her chosen target. The noise of pursuit rings in her ears. Something—someone—grazes the small of her back as she grips the handle to the front door of the house, wrenches it open, and falls into a cool chamber. Gasping, the length of her body caught between tub and toilet, urine pouring hotly out of one pant leg, she feels for the wall and presses against it hard with both hands, as though holding a door closed against an intruder. After a few moments, she pushes herself into a seated position and nestles her head between her legs. The air tastes wet and fleshy, like a cooler of meat.

She realizes, belatedly, that Sal is perched on the edge of the tub, watching silently as she struggles to find a normal breathing rhythm.

“Mina,” Sal says, quietly but emphatically, like she’s casting a line into Mina’s mouth, drawing her back to the shore. “Hi.”

Mina spits out a wad of phlegm and wipes it into a balled scrap of toilet paper. “Hi,” she says weakly, crawling over the tile to rest her cheek on Sal’s knee. “I think we may be in trouble.”

Sitting cross-legged on the quilted bed spread, Mina draws out the scene on a fresh page in Sal’s spiral-bound notebook. Sal lies down alongside her, her head propped up by her hand, her feet dangling off the mattress. Outside, visible in the limpid, otherworldly color that streaks through the tiny basement window high above them, the night sky is already slurring into an icy, pinkish dawn. The early light casts them in the touchable, textured chiaroscuro of a painting.

Together, the younger with her hair in her eyes, and the elder with her illegible expression, they communicate with slight changes to posture and diversions of attention rather than words. Sal watches the bobbing of Mina’s bowed head as she carefully recreates the vision, noting her focused, scrunched-up face, the precise movements of her crimped hand. In many ways, Mina behaves like an eternal child—stubborn for the sake of stubbornness—but on the rare occasions when seriousness takes over instead, it transforms her from a girl into something else entirely. Not exactly like a woman, Sal thinks, but like a pendulum finally set into motion.

Mina’s version of the tiger looks less like a beast and more like an oversized house cat, an effect further exaggerated by comically triangular ears and oddly proportioned eyes. But while Mina’s drawings have always been clumsy, she has never failed to get her point across. The rectangular altar is thrice-outlined in ballpoint pen, ink oozing at its corners, announcing its position as the vision’s imposing emotional center. The heart of the dream. The lumpy oval lies above it, a vaguely humanoid form which Mina is now describing as a sacrifice.

“And, to either side, this guy with a very sharp thing, and an old woman. Like a king and a witch from a story.” Mina draws them rapidly: stick figures with bobble heads and blank faces. After a moment’s thought, she scribbles in a curved dagger held in the hand of the first figure, and a hood cloaking the second.

To herself, in her capacity as an interpreter of dreams, Sal thinks: Time, slicing seconds off with a knife. Death, shrouded. That leaves three meanings to elucidate before dream becomes reality: the tiger, the sacrifice, and Mina, the archer.

To Mina she says: “And the bow and arrow?” Sal taps the corner of the paper closest to Mina, trying to shape the scene from her in-dream perspective. “This is where you stood?”

“Yeah,” Mina agrees. “Roughly there.”

“And what did you do with them? With the bow and arrow?”

Mina lays the pen down and stares at the drawing, one hand worrying at the edge of her mouth. She feels the weight of Sal’s gaze falling on her like footsteps coming heavily down a staircase, moving choppily from her downcast eyes, to her twitching, rabbity nose, to her quivering bottom lip. An acapella of blotchy skin, tense cartilage, and jerky facial muscles, assembled into a face she hates, and whose movements she knows betray her immediately to Sal. No use hiding, but still her pride, whose demand to be satisfied is as strong as hunger, insists.

When Mina finally glances up to meet her eyes, she knows from the arch of Sal’s blonde brow that she’s been found out. The jig is up. Still, stubbornly, she steels herself for the profound discomfort involved in denying the obvious, which she will insist on doing despite her knowledge of the eventual outcome.

Sal doesn’t give her the pleasure. She comes out with it straight. “So you interfered in the vision. That’s the trouble you were referring to.”

Mina shrugs, looking at Sal expectantly as she does. The noncommittal tack she prefers for such moments isn’t intended to end the conversation, but to prolong it. This is her first defensive maneuver—from here, she knows, Sal will poke and prod until her defenses vanish in a plume of smoke. But to her surprise and disappointment, Sal doesn’t push it.

Instead, she slides off the mattress. “Let’s go upstairs,” Sal says, extending a hand.

“How did you know?” Mina mutters, looking everywhere but at Sal’s outstretched hand. Because Sal hasn’t forced the conversation, Mina immediately wants to reveal her secrets, to indulge in a whispered revelation; it’s so effective a maneuver that Mina has to wonder if this is one of Sal’s tactical moves. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s played a part written for her by another.

The best and worst thing about Sal, Mina thinks, as she creeps off the mattress and sets her feet on the cement floor, is her instinct for control. She’s too clever, too patient, too good at exploiting Mina’s known weaknesses with this instinct. Sal can wield control casually but with calculated intention, which marks her as a master of the craft. She knows how to both apply and withhold control, as painfully as a bear trap, as delicately as a brush of the fingertips. When she drops a subject, she does it as though allowing a fragile, cherished item to fall from her fingers, knowing Mina will lunge to catch it.

Even the mercy she shows, however loving, however generous—Mina thinks of Sal in the bathroom, averting her eyes from the wet crotch of Mina’s pants and the spit drying patchily around her mouth, combing her fingers through Mina’s sweaty, limp hair—is a cousin not of compassion, but of frigid, neutral control. She isn’t a person like me, Mina thinks, with some venom, staring at Sal’s open palm still waiting in the air between them. She isn’t a woman who battles her own worst impulses and loses, every single time.

In the end, Mina takes the offer of her sister’s hand. Her fingers curl around her palm and the contact, in this light, from this position, activates a transfiguration in time by way of memory. Mina is immediately transported to a game day, a million years ago.

Mina is a scrap of a girl jumping into the radiant summer sky, palms slick with sweat, one hand flung out to catch the incoming ball, arms light as clouds, but then she misses a step, loses her balance, choking on terror as the dirt races forward to meet her, and feels the sting of bodies colliding as Sal, then eleven to her nine, skids forward to break her fall.

Her sister’s fingers tight around her skinned hand as she had bawled. Fat, salty tears mixing with the tang of blood from a split lip. Sal watching wordlessly, and nudging the other kids away. She knew, even then, how much Mina hated being embarrassed.

“A beast, a king, a witch, and a sacrifice,” Sal muses as she leads Mina up the basement stairs.

“Maybe not a king,” says Mina, shyly. It’s her dream, something to which she was sole witness, but her fear of Sal’s occasionally cutting intellect makes her fearful of offering an opinion. “He had one of those things you use to cut wheat. A farmer?”

“You mean a scythe,” Sal says lightly, airily. There’s a hint of condescension to her reply—nearly unnoticeable, maybe imaginary, but still too barbed for Mina’s tender psyche.

Does Sal love her? If she does, it is the gutted love of a dismissive, coolly competitive older sister: dutiful, eternally loyal, but pointedly empty of respect for her and her choices. Does she love Sal? She does, deeply, fearlessly, but it’s not a love she chose to feel, and this makes her resentful sometimes.

“So, who did you shoot, Mina?” Sal asks, without turning to look at her.

Mina bristles. “Can you guess?” she says, impishly. Sal doesn’t answer, but her silence feels keenly sharpened, purposeful, suggesting she has some inclination but does not desire to inform Mina of her suspicions.

They make their way out of the basement, into the main hallway, with its ugly carpeting and hyacinth-themed wallpaper, and out the front door. They stand on the stoop of their childhood home, in the timid light of the very early morning. When Mina shivers, Sal wastes no time in easing out of her cardigan and draping it over her. Mina feels a jolt of pure love, then—but annoyance, too. If only she were the interpreter, and not the vessel, of the dreams. Would she be the giver, the protector, then, rather than what she is now?

She focuses on a street sign at the edge of the sidewalk, trying to train her gaze on anything but Sal. The sign’s dark green metal pole is caught in the embrace of a climbing vine. “Bliss Point,” she reads, and then remembers.

“That was in my dream. The dream was here,” She turns quickly to Sal, searching for her face with a panic that erupts from her chest like a fountain of vomit. The sandy grit of irritation at her vanishes entirely. All that is left behind is Sal. Family. A safe haven. “Sal, holy shit. It happens here.”

Sal nods, her eyes and lips crinkling like wrapping paper as she begins to say something. Before she can, in the distance, a handful of houses away, a young woman screams. A flock of birds hurriedly jettison the earth in favor of the pink and blue sky. They look at each other, and Sal releases Mina’s hand as they both break into a run.

“The tiger,” Sal yells back at Mina, as they run through the stubbly grass of the neighborhood backyards. “That’s what you shot, right?”

Mina nods mutely. Gone is her desire to deny. The scream rings through her mind like a struck gong.

“I get it,” says Sal, so gently that Mina reels back on the line, hooked and stung, both encouraged and profoundly dismayed by the show of empathy.

It feels good to be understood, but bad to be understandable. She wants desperately to be like Sal: an enigma, a mystery of cold gaze and muscular arms and strawberry blonde bobbed hair. She wants that steely light in her eyes, a torch that never dims, to fall into her possession.

“You’ve never liked cats,” Sal continues, and Mina smiles grimly at the accuracy of that explanation.

She keeps her eyes forward, gaze bobbing jerkily as she tries to match Sal’s pace. Mina had started out like a race horse, flush with adrenaline, but that chemical is quickly receding, leaving her hot and panicked in its wake. Sal, as always, is immune to tiredness, gliding forward with no sign of exertion, her legs pumping with raw, fluid, impossible strength.

“Sal, I have to stop,” Mina pants, her hands coming down heavily onto her knees as she sinks to the grass of a neighbor’s backyard. Sal doesn’t say anything as she approaches Mina. A twisted magnolia watches as she immediately slides her arms under her sister’s armpits and hoists her back up to a standing position.

“Come on, Mina,” Sal says evenly, “you know you don’t have a choice.”

Mina has never hated her sister more than in this moment. Sal registers that wave of feeling; it floods her sister’s eyes, crashing onto the shore between them. Despite her best attempts at composure, Sal immediately feels annoyance build at Mina’s childish anger. Mina: essential, but endlessly difficult. So difficult to understand, to talk to, to love. Immature, weak. Too self-absorbed to see the bigger picture even as Sal drags her, kicking and screaming, out of the shadows of her narcissism and into the naked light.

“We have to go,” Sal says, her frustration translating into a rigid sternness of tone that only enrages Mina further. “We have to save her.”

“As if I don’t know that! As if I didn’t see it myself!” Mina snaps, and Sal’s eyes narrow.

Sal doesn’t want to be martyred; she just wants her role in this recognized. Just tell me I’m right, Sal wants to say. Just tell me you appreciate everything I’ve done. But Mina never will. She’s too busy focusing on all the perceived wrongs in Sal’s expression, behavior, attitude, speech. For a second, they stare at each other, each boiling over.

Because Sal’s eyes are trained on Mina’s flushed face, and because Mina’s dream started in media res, circumscribing her knowledge of it to the final act, neither notice the two men approach. They are tall, skinny, and positioned against the sun so their bodies are in shadow as they move. They have left their scarlet-red pick-up idling in the neighbor’s driveway. They are sauntering over to the sisters, their sneakers moving through freshly cut grass almost soundlessly, the crunch of sole against ground dampened by the cries of birds. Sal first registers the wetness of the rag over her mouth as hot, humid rain.

“Sal!” Mina screams, once. Before her knees hit the ground, Sal sees the switchblade, bright as high noon bleeding through the blinds of her childhood bedroom, where she and Mina would nap, cuddled together like puppies, on cool sheets. She feels, rather than sees, the two figures closing in. The warmth of their arms around her feels perversely like a parental embrace. Sal, blinded now by a stranger’s hand, hears her sister take in a hard breath, and then a jagged sound, like the irregular sigh before a sob breaks out.

The dream returns, its shopping list of characters branded now on her mind: two villains; one sacrifice; and the tiger. Her fear, first a tiny, pinkish bud on the vine, explodes into a sky-blue fire that consumes every thought, every nerve. But in the center of her terror, she remembers Mina lifting her bow. She pictures her tight-lipped, fingers pulling back the bowstring, aiming at the horizon. Slipping into unconsciousness, she holds onto that image as tightly as she can.

Mina wakes in a small, humid space. Outside, the birds chatter. She hears low voices in the distance. Her hands are tied behind her back, inexpertly. Her breathing is light and even. Being bound and alone does not faze her, because she is running now in dream-time. She feels it flowing around her, its glow like soft, gold-toned theater lights on her face. This isn’t where it ends. The backyard, with its grass as fragrant as warm apple pie and its piercing sky—therein lies the end. She will part time until she reaches that place. Fate has wound the threads sloppily enough that she can work her wrists free, wriggling out with minimal difficulty.

Sal is now being carried from the flatbed of a pick-up truck to a folding chair. A captor to each side, like twin body guards. They hold her up so firmly by the arms that she hardly touches the ground. Without opening her eyes, Sal pays attention to sensation: the dry feel of the grass below her dragging feet, the grip of her captors on her shoulders as they position her onto the chair. Though it comes from somewhere faraway, she can faintly hear the tinny, percussive sound of the song of the summer as it gushes out of a car stereo, or a teenage girl’s bedroom window. Something tender about young bliss, and car rides through the desert, and blossoming flowers, and ocean waves, and once-upon-a-time.

She opens her eyes a fraction, looking around from underneath the cover of her eyelashes. She has a limited field of vision, but the angle of her head against her chest allows her to see directly to her left. A girl half-sits, half-lies, her head lolling against the back of the chair. She is wearing a white dress stained with mud on the hemline. Their eyes meet, and the girl blinks, readjusting her position on the chair so that she can look Sal in the face.

The girl has short hair that sticks to her flushed, sweaty cheeks, bracketing her face like a helmet, or like ribs around a heart. She has a lovely smile, but in Sal’s estimation her beauty is a false coin, just a reflection of her youthfulness rather than real allure. At that, she hears Mina’s plaintive voice in her head: Don’t be mean. Sal twists back to contest the Mina in her mind, insisting that she’s critical, not cruel. Value-neutral. A cool blue temperament: righteous, clear-eyed, candid, uncompromising. She knows the limitations of that argument, and how much it relies on Mina’s generous acceptance of Sal’s own opinion of herself. The truth is that the day Mina outgrows her sister, Sal will shatter into a million pieces.

But even Mina would have to admit that, in this case, the evidence is self-evident. Sal is stating the facts. The girl’s amber-green eyes, while striking, are far too large for her face, forcing her other more finely formed features to crowd together, as awkwardly as poorly spaced digits on a clock face. A defective doll, Sal thinks, letting her powers of observations wax poetic. She’ll ask Mina later if that’s too mean. She decides she’ll apologize if Mina says it is.

The girl is not tied to the chair, but the way she holds her body—her arms and knees pressed to her torso tightly, maybe painfully—still suggests confinement. Not material, but psychological. The two men—their kidnappers—hover at the edge of the backyard, at the intersection of property lines where the grass changes color from well-tended, manicured green to sickly yellow, conversing in hushed tones under the narrow shade of a maple sapling. They’re standing casually, like chaperones at a school dance, but it doesn’t escape Sal’s attention that one still carries a switchblade in his fist, and is repeatedly flicking it open and closed.

“It’s going to be okay,” Sal whispers to the girl, in her usual attempt at comfort. A big sister even to strangers.

At that, the girl shrugs. It’s a bored, noncommittal gesture, but her eyes glitter with playful intelligence, as though egging Sal on.

“What’s this dream about?” Sal asks, trying a different tack. She’s struck up conversations with figments of Mina’s dreams before, to all sorts of effect. The exercise is mostly for her entertainment while she waits for Mina to appear.

Dream-time behaves normally around the dreamer, but for Sal it passes lethargically, languidly, like the laziest of mornings, or the slowest of afternoons. She has lived weeks within the prism of Mina’s dreams, trapped, for a time, in the imaginative, but limited experiences offered by their endless repeating fractals.

She has spent hours navigating the same two blocks of sidewalk in a familiar capital city, noting the dull faces in the vast, undulating crowd. She has talked women off bridge railings, ushering them back to the safety of an empty lane of traffic; other times, at Mina’s prior instruction, she has induced them to leap. She has crossed oceans via leaky sailboat, the days-long journey harboring no secret thrills, filled only with the constant raising and lowering of canvas sails.

She has read five-year-old Mina’s favorite picture book—twenty pages about a lost puppy braving the dangers of an overgrown forest—cover-to-cover, over and over, seated on a plush, cloud-shaped bean bag in the glass-enclosed chamber of their local children’s library. In that dream, after her hundredth agonizing re-read, she’d looked for other books and found the shelves filled with the same title. Knowing she could not leave the dream without her sister, but driven to desperate measures by boredom, she’d tried the door and found an immediate drop into a bright, blank, blood-red void. Her sneakers, carefully laced, quivered as she hovered at the edge, a half-step away from the maw. Taking a deep breath, she had carefully re-closed the door, and gone back to the bean bag to wait for Mina. An essential reminder: She is only the traveler, and it is not within her power to decide the nature of the journey.

The girl cocks her head and shrugs loftily, evidently having decided to humor Sal’s strange question about the subject of the dream. She takes a long, desultory look around the backyard, like a ruler from a throne. Their captors don’t meet her gaze, continuing to converse as though oblivious to the girls and their captivity.

“Two men, two girls,” she muses. She grins. Her teeth are pointed, like a cat’s. “A double-date?”

Sal can’t resist an answering smile. She’s always liked the sardonic, mischievous ones. The girl looks about seventeen, and she has that blithe, impish flair of a young woman who has nearly made it out alive from the sweetness and sourness of adolescence. She’s navigated through the complicated emotions sandwiched between the treasure of innocence and the wound of its loss, and done it without self-pity, without resorting to cynicism. She’s part of Mina, in a way, and Sal wonders what part of her sister she symbolizes: Mina’s surprisingly witty sense of humor, her hapless eagerness to please?

The girl’s face darkens. A sudden cloudburst on a day as hot as body temperature, popping open like a pimple. There’s Mina’s moodiness, that bullwhip of emotions snapping abruptly through conversation. Sal braces herself.

Still frowning, the girl pauses, as though considering her next move in front of a chess board. Without speaking, she twists in her seat, showing Sal her back. It’s so vulnerable a position—the white dress slipping from her shoulder, revealing a patch of skin, the throat tightening into a tunnel of rigid pink flesh over which the flawed gemstones of her gaze watch Sal expectantly. Sal almost averts her eyes.

From the girl’s shoulder blades down to her waist, something is embroidered richly onto the threadbare fabric. It takes a moment for Sal to make sense of the mess of scarlet, gold, and flecks of black, but the colors eventually resolve into the image of a tiger’s head, mid-growl. Everything else about the girl—the pointed teeth, the big eyes, the imperial bearing—clicks into place. She groans inwardly. For all her supposed strength of perception, for all her cerebral commentary, Sal has missed the most obvious player in the scene.

Two men, two girls. A king, a witch, a sacrifice, a tiger.

“You’re the tiger,” Sal says, slowly, testing out the revelation in her mouth, feeling its flavor overwhelm all other possibilities. “I could be the witch. Or the king. I usually have some part to play.”

She means it as idle musing, but the girl doesn’t take it well. Her face changes—comes unglued. Every color in the backyard grows in intensity, as though someone had turned the dial up on the brightness setting. The red void appears and asserts itself, consuming the girl-tiger’s head, her neck. It sits on her shoulders, its edges blurred and wild, like a solar flare. Sal is on the ground now, propped up by shaking hands, as the girl-tiger approaches. She doesn’t remember having fallen off the chair. The grass is cold, wet, and fragrant; dew squelches between her fingers. The red mass totters unnaturally on the girl’s body, like a pumpkin angled onto the Headless Horseman.

“Doesn’t it occur to you,” the girl says, her voice overlapping with darker, harsher sounds, “that you could be the sacrifice?”

Sal swallows hard and squeezes her eyes shut. She pictures her sister’s cool hand on her shoulder, steadying her, helping her first to her knees, and then to her feet. She thinks of all the times she has yanked Mina up from a fallen position: Mina’s tiny feet flailing as Sal hoists her from out of the sandpit, or into the family sedan, or onto a high chair, ignoring mewls of protest. All force of authority, in which a preteen Sal had perversely indulged. She puts one hand on her chest, fingers digging into the fabric. Remorse threatens to topple her and she has to bite back, not for the first time, the impossible desire to re-do their childhood, this time with an adult’s understanding of emotional tenderness, of duty of care, of sacrifice.

The void fizzes out, as naturally and as unceremoniously as the sun vanishing under the gray line of the horizon. The girl’s face returns. Her pride, playfulness, and spirit are gone. In their place is the dun-yellow gaze of a cornered animal. Sal begins to pull herself back into a standing position, steadying herself on the back of the chair.

When next the girl-tiger speaks, her voice comes out in a whisper. “Do you remember game day, when we were kids?”

Sal freezes. Blood rings in a low, wet tone, in the cavern of her head. The two men immediately turn to look at them. The charade is now over, and they begin their approach with even, measured footsteps.

“I was in third grade, and you were in fifth. You felt like God to me.”

The two men are closer now. The backyard feels impossibly huge, its dimensions contorting around Sal, but they are traversing the distance with the ease of dark and quick-moving clouds.

The tiger looks at Sal with something like pity. Her tone changes, going as soft as rotten fruit: “I’m sorry.”

Sal closes her eyes. The inside of her torso has been replaced with lead, and the contents of her head with liquid glue. Her legs tremble and buckle. She is as defenseless as a newborn colt in a huge, barbed world.

“Come gently now,” the girl-tiger says, and the words are vice-like.

Sal lets herself be led by the two men towards the altar. This time, their grip feels almost kind, hospitable, deferential. They are escorting her, rather than kidnapping her. She climbs onto the cool marble surface, shaking all the while, like a dying patient crawling up a gurney.

Lying supine, she watches as one of the captors transforms. His sweatshirt hoodie resolves into a dark shadow, and his switchblade, into a scythe. The other man changes, too. His back hunches over, fingers lengthening into twigs capped by yellowed nails—an old woman. A collection of matter, arranged and rearranged. Poured out into human-shaped vessels and left to cool, and to harden. The figures of Mina’s dreamland.

She looks into their faces, expecting anonymous features and recognizes there, with a hideous jolt, the eyes of her mother and father. She blinks repeatedly and by the time her gaze clears their bodies have morphed again, this time to match the eyes. Her father’s tweed jacket, her mother’s weathered blue jeans. His bald spot, her chipped red fingernails. The tiger has padded over and sits on its haunches now, watching a million emotions collide on the canvas of Sal’s face.

Mina is still missing, Sal thinks plaintively, her every feeling breaking in her throat. For the first time, she is truly afraid. The scythe has vanished—he doesn’t need one. He lifts his hand above her head, partially eclipsing her view of the afternoon sun; light bleeds through his fingers. She knows the flat of her father’s callused palm will come down on her like lightning.

Mina is jogging up the cobblestone path that snakes around the house. The air is invitingly cool, its crispness on her skin like biting into a fresh and perfect apple. Nestled in the long grass like an infant in a cradle, she finds a silver snub-nosed gun. She picks it up and tests its weight in her hand, wondering how a bow can become a gun, and what else may have changed. Her pace quickens. When she turns the corner around the house, she finds the world of her dream.

Some of her dreams are entire works of fiction, their players cast and costumed by her imagination. Living them out in dream-time is like jumping through the thick glass of a television screen and becoming part of a movie. But the darker dreams take inspiration from the strange land of the past, and participating in them feels twisted and bittersweet. Often many-times more bitter than sweet. Tar coating the tongue.

Her mother and father in the green-tiled kitchen. Sal, twelve years old, sitting on the floor, eyes bloodshot. Mina had been too young to really understand then, though she had been old enough to feel the twinge of revulsion at the blotchy patchwork of snot and tears threaded over her sister’s cheeks. The ignorance that grants childhood its particular magic also makes it a period of callousness, of total self-absorption. Children can be a special kind of unfeeling. When Mina looks at the scene now, with an adult’s eyes, she registers the terror in her sister’s expression, and understands, too, how entirely it vanishes when the younger Sal sees her, how quickly it is replaced by urgency as her sister-as-a-child jumps up to push her back outside. To keep her ignorant. To keep her safe.

The tiger appraises Mina coldly from its position by the refrigerator. She focuses on the animal, the product of obvious conjuring by her mind. The scene around the tiger changes repeatedly, flickering in and out of different states like a holographic picture book. Mina steels herself.

From the past to the dream. Her sister is her real, current age, and she lies, curled up and motionless, on an altar like a slumped-over bag of groceries on a kitchen countertop. Two fairy tale characters stand over her ominously; their dark clothing marks them as unambiguously bad, and irredeemable.

From the dream to the past. Now the tiger is a tiny cartoon mutt from a children’s story, panting in fear, and the backyard is a quiet, shadowy glade with no visible figures. From overhead, she hears Sal’s voice, reading aloud. It is difficult to be brave, her sister reads, in a light but thoughtful tone, when the world is so big and you are small. And the world will always be big. But remember, you will not be small forever. Maybe you are not that small now. You just don’t know it yet.

Back to the dream. The hooded man’s scythe is hovering above Sal’s head. The blow fell ten years ago. The blow is moments away from falling. The blow will fall, again and again, for a lifetime. But at this second, for this dream, Mina can put it on pause. She breathes in deep, and holds it; her father’s hand stops in mid-air. She walks through the backyard, gun in hand, and crawls up to the altar to share the space with her sister. Frozen figures watch as she presses her face to her back. Sal’s breathing is choppy and labored.

She waits for the rhythm of her sister’s breathing to soften and lengthen. When it doesn’t, she peels away from her. She brushes the hair, sticky with sweat, away from her closed eyes. “Why is this one so complicated?” she whispers, meaning the dream. “It’s about…you and me, isn’t it?”

The tiger has sidled over, close enough to bear witness to their conversation. Mina sits up and presses the muzzle to the tiger’s temple.

When the tiger doesn’t react, she reconsiders and lowers the gun.

“Would you help me carry her?” she asks.

The tiger drops down so its back is level with the surface of the altar. Gingerly, Mina rolls her sister off the marble surface and onto the tiger’s back. With more delicacy than Mina would have ever thought the animal to possess, the tiger slowly carries Sal through the backyard and back down the cobblestone path. Its paws are nearly soundless on the grass.

One hand on the animal’s shoulder, Mina sneaks a backwards glance and meets their parent’s eyes. They look pitiful, forlorn, adrift, encased in the setting of the backyard like insects in amber, clay figurines in a diorama. This is the end of their story, Mina senses, in a rush that is half-victory and half-loss. Their eyes follow her as she, Sal, and the tiger make their way around the corner. They are nothing now but proof that it’s possible to survive anything—she looks at Sal’s hair, shifting as the tiger moves, the strawberry blonde strands revealing her freckled face and then hiding it from view—as long as you are certain in the fact that at least one person loves you.

Sal, alert now, but still woozy, lowers herself down onto the front yard with Mina’s assistance. When Mina looks back at the tiger, she has transformed into a girl who stands, fists clenched, in a show of wary pride.

“The door won’t open,” she says, signalling the front door with a flick of her chin, “until you fire the gun.”

Mina sighs. “I used it on you, before I understood what you are. I am sorry about that.”

“And what am I?” the girl-tiger says, with an encouraging smile.

“Us,” she says, pointing at herself, and then at Sal, sitting on the unfinished concrete steps, resting her head in her hands. Sal looks up in surprise. Her gaze moves over the girl-tiger’s rigid stance, and deep-set frown, and bright eyes, which glow wetly, like city lights under the veil of the rain. Then Sal seems to understand, and she smiles.

“Why a gun?” Mina wonders aloud. “Why not a chisel, or a paintbrush?”

“A conductor’s baton,” Sal offers. “It’s your dream, so can’t it be anything?”

“Wait,” the girl-tiger says, surprising them both. “I got it. A catcher’s mitt.”

The moment she says it, both she and the gun disappear. Mina’s hand is gloved now in old, chocolate-brown leather; Sal holds a baseball. She tosses it a few times experimentally from a seated position.

“Won’t they come to look for us?” Sal asks, casting a look toward the back of the house. Fear pokes through the spaces between words like thorns through flowers.

“No,” Mina says firmly. “That part is over. We’re all grown-up now.”

Sal toes the dust with the tip of her sneaker. “The dream ends after I throw this and you catch it, right?”

Mina nods. “The door can open, then.” Sal stands up, her fingers tight around the ball’s even and patterned stitching.

“Let’s see how far I can throw this thing, then,” she says, swinging an arm out forward, her finger indicating past the the front yard, and the road, and the row of houses beyond, and Mina laughs, and takes off running.

1 comment

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