Tumbleweeds

Written by Selena Spier

TheWanderer.jpg
Image: The Wanderer by Bruce MacDonald

 

     When you are made out of glass the key thing is to always protect your joints and your extremities. This means that we must walk very carefully, the glass men and I, in such a way that we never impose our entire weight upon one foot. There is no running and jumping when you are made out of glass. If you do chance to break off a limb, you must bandage it up immediately or risk harming someone with the splintered edge. Better to be smooth and hard to the touch. Better yet to not be touched at all.

     Some people become glass who were burnt upon a pyre. Kahlil is one—he is black as a coma, no light passes through him. He captures it and keeps it beneath his skin. My friends Cadmus and Diver are translucent green. They don’t shine either and no one knows where they came from. Most of the glass men came from this island, and they have threads of color that wind through them, rise up and blossom beneath the surface of their skin.

     I am clear like a windowpane. You can see everything: my liver, my spleen, my glass heart fed by molten glass. After I eat, you can see the chewed-up food pass through me and gather in my colon. Many people are unnerved by this. Not the glass men. They see no reason why such things must be kept private.

     We live in a tower on the outskirts of town. The provincial government gives us money for food and expenses. None of us have jobs—who would hire a glass man? My best friend is Callahan. The two of us live in a room together that has blankets and rugs glued to the floor and to all of the walls. Callahan goes out on sunny days to swim in the ocean. I am not so brave. He has armor that he wears, knee pads and elbow pads and a special reinforced suit. I sleep on a bed of straw. Sometimes I stay in bed all day because I’m so afraid of breaking.

     But this is not a story about laying on straw. This is a story about the world. Last year on my name day the glass men pooled their money together to buy me a special suit like Callahan’s. It was made from a thick stretchy fabric that covered everything from my ankles to my neck, with holes for my hands and zippers running up the legs. The glass men helped me put it on, then led me to the mirror.

     “Look at yourself,” said Callahan. “You’re invincible now. Don’t you feel invincible?”

     I looked at myself and thought that it was strange not to see my glass heart beating.

     We went to the seaside—Cadmus and Diver and Callahan and I. We laid out on the sand and I discovered that my limbs would soften in the sun. It was a pleasant feeling. I drowsed, I fell asleep. I was woken by Callahan. They wanted to go into the sea. I resisted. I was afraid of it. Up close it was much larger than it had always seemed from the window. But more than that, the way it lapped against the shore; it seemed to me restrained, as if tensed in preparation for a blow. The others urged me to have courage. I reminded them that courage is not a virtue for us as it is for other men. But even so, I’m proud, and when they strode into the sea, I followed.

     To my great surprise I found that the water was soft, softer even than straw. The others submerged themselves. They showed me how to beat my legs and arms, still soft from the sun. I found that, if I held my lungs full of air, I could float. I found that the ocean pressed against every part of my body indiscriminately and thus I could move without fear of being shattered. My fear began to subside. Callahan stayed close beside me and together we swam far away from shore. Cadmus and Diver watched us from the shallows.

     At first we could see every piece of coral beneath us. Then we passed over a kind of ledge and the bottom receded into darkness. Callahan kept swimming, even after I wanted to turn back. Finally, he turned around and we looked back towards the shore. Cadmus and Diver were pale green dots on the distant beach. I saw our tower rising up above the trees, very small.

     “Look,” Callahan said. “Isn’t it beautiful from so far away?”

     I nodded—and then came the wave.

 

     The wave struck us from behind. It crashed over our heads and I swallowed the ocean, came up choking. I thrashed my arms and legs. I was afraid that with all that water inside me, I’d be too heavy to float as I had before. Callahan surfaced. He was shouting something to me. The wave passed and another rose up in its place. I kept kicking my arms and legs. I couldn’t hear what Callahan was saying. Salt water filled my nose, my mouth. He swam towards me. He tried to seize me, to grasp my arm, and in my flailing I struck out at him by mistake. I heard a sickening crack and was flooded by a sudden, searing pain. Callahan’s mouth widened into a dark circle. I looked down and saw my hand spiraling into the deep blue water. All around it fell glass shards, glinting.

     I felt Diver’s arms close around me. He held my head above the water and half-carried me back to shore. I kicked my legs weakly, not wanting to be a deadweight. I held my broken arm aloft. The pain had receded; I felt only a dull ache, a sense of loss. When we had reached the shore, Cadmus wrapped a towel around the jagged stump.

     “Take him home,” he said to Callahan. “We’ll dive for the hand.”

     I looked back as we climbed the path that led down to the beach. The waves, whatever they were, had subsided. In the fading light, I could only just make out Cadmus and Diver moving through the water. They swam far, then ducked underwater and disappeared. Callahan and I didn’t speak. He knew I was angry that it was I who had shattered and not he.

     That night Cadmus and Diver came back empty-handed. “It’s out too deep,” said Diver. “We’d have to hire a submarine. And the storm coming in tonight—it’ll be buried, no question.”

     Callahan slept somewhere else that night. I wanted to mourn alone. But every morning for the next thirty days, he woke at dawn and went down to scour the beach. I watched him from the window. I couldn’t sleep. When he came back and saw that I was awake, he just gave me a tired smile and asked about my dreams. He never told me where he’d been. He couldn’t imagine how my heart clattered when I heard him coming up the stairs.

     On the thirty-first day, he came to me and told me that he’d spent the last month searching for my hand, hoping that it might have washed up after the storm. I pretended to be surprised. I thanked him but told him it wasn’t necessary to go on. It surely had been buried long ago, and, anyway, I could do without a hand. He didn’t believe me. He said that up north there was a man who melts down broken glass and makes things whole again. Rasmus, the stone collector, had told him about it.

     I didn’t want to go. Why go back out into the world and risk breaking off another piece? Why couldn’t the glassblower come to me?

     “He can’t come to you,” explained Callahan. “He needs his kiln, his tools. We would have to go to him.”

     I refused him twice and twice again. He was adamant. He coaxed me, threatened me, paced the room with his head in both his hands. He swore that he wouldn’t rest until I’d given in.

 

     In the end we went by train. Just Callahan and I—the others stayed. I couldn’t blame them. Before we left they swaddled me in cotton, held in place by rubber bands, and covered the train seats with blankets. We travelled all afternoon and through the night. Callahan slept. I sat rigid among the blankets, terrified that a sudden jolt would send us crashing into our tray tables.

     When the train ground to a halt at our stop, I was ready. I threw my unbroken arm over Callahan to hold him in place, and with the other braced myself against the back of the seat in front of me. Out the window was nothing but dry, cracked earth. We got off the train. There was a small station and a road running parallel to the tracks. Nothing else. I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t red or blue or brown.

     “It’s beautiful,” said Callahan.

     I thought that he was joking and laughed, looking over at him. He was staring up at the sky.

     “Where do we go from here?” I asked.

     “Straight on through the station, and straight for seven miles.”

     I didn’t know what seven miles meant, but Callahan seemed to have an idea. We started walking. The earth yielded slightly beneath our feet. It wasn’t long before the station had receded to a small stain far behind us. My mouth grew dry. It was hot and as we walked I unwound the cotton from my body. I let it fall through my fingers to the side of the path, where it laid motionless in the still air. Callahan and I didn’t speak at all. I tried not to look at him. When I did, I was almost blinded by the sunlight glinting off his skin.

     At last I spied a plume of smoke rising up from behind the horizon. We went towards it. It was further away than it had seemed at first, but as we came closer I could make out a fire and a crowd of people gathered around it, and a man standing in the fire, flames up to his knees. I was alarmed; I thought of Kahlil. But this man was made of flesh. His face was black with soot. On his legs were tall boots of some sort of hard rubber, something, I assumed, to protect him from the flames. Gloves of the same substance covered his forearms to the elbow. As we watched he reached into the fire and pulled out a glowing, shuddering mass, the size of a grapefruit. With deft movements the man pinched it, smoothed it, shaped it; a fragile stem emerged, a base. He dipped it back into the fire. It re-emerged, glowing again, and he made a hollow with his fist. He repeated this procedure several times. Finally, he stepped out of the fire, holding it in the flat of his hand. It was a wineglass. When it had cooled he walked over to a young woman standing on the edge of the crowd and handed it to her. She gave him a rolled-up bill, which he accepted with a bow.

     “See that?” said Callahan. “See how he fired it and made it perfect again?”

     I looked down at the wad of cloth on the end of my arm.

     We watched the glassblower repair a few more things: a watch face, a vase, a few small figurines. Then Callahan, with foolish audacity, elbowed his way to the front of the crowd. I followed in his wake. The glassblower’s eyes alighted upon us at once.

     “Glass men!” he called. “Glass men, come forward.”

     We went to him. Immediately his gaze went to the wrapped-up stump of my wrist.

     “Do you have the hand?” he asked me.

     I shook my head no. He pursed his lips.

     “That’s bad,” he said. “Very bad. If you had it I could reattach it—no? Ah, my friend. I would have to melt you down and make you over again new.”

     Callahan produced a wad of bills from the pocket of his suit. “We have money,” he said, “we’ll pay whatever is necessary.”

     The man’s face darkened. He waved the money away as if Callahan had insulted him. “No. No. I fix your friend for free.” He turned to the crowd and flapped his hands at them. “Go,” he shouted. “Go home. Come back tomorrow.”

     A disgruntled murmur rippled through the people waiting. A few men swore at us. But the glassblower was firm and at last they dispersed, casting curious glances over their shoulders. He turned back to me.

     “You heard what I said before?” he said.

     It was not a question. I nodded yes.

     He turned to Callahan and pointed to a pile of logs a little distance from the pyre. “This will take a while,” he said. “When I tell you to, you throw logs on the fire.”

     Callahan nodded. The glassblower turned away and started building up the fire himself. Staring at the flames, I felt a sudden impulse to run away, though I had never run in my life. Callahan must’ve sensed it, because he planted both hands firmly on my shoulders.

     “It won’t hurt you,” he said. “To burn doesn’t hurt when you’re made out of glass.”

     “But when I come back out, will I be the same?”

     “Everything the same, not a single atom lost.”

     “But does that mean that I’ll be the same, exactly the same, that nothing will have changed?”

     He swallowed. I watched the saliva trickle down his throat. Behind him, the glassblower gestured to me. He was ready. I turned to face the fire. I thought, When I come out I will have two legs and two arms and two hands. But when I come out I will be ever-so-slightly scaled down to compensate for the grafting of my hand. And one day I may break again, and again, and every time a little part of me will be lost, and I’ll come back here and be made again even smaller. I’ll grow smaller and smaller and smaller again, until I disappear.

 

featured in our summer 2018 issue

 

2 thoughts on “Tumbleweeds

  1. Elizabeth VanBuskirk

    I found this to be a fine and memorable story. Mostly at first–but also as it continued–it seemed like a prose poem. What great imagination and story-telling. Great theme to remember, especially now: the frailty of us all. Thank you for the opportunity to experience this exceptional work.

    Like

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