LEARNING TO PAINT SNOW

 

Long shadows of trees like men. Morning, and she cries into the snow. White nails on mottled tree bark.

"Let me in," Eliana sobs. "I want to get back in."

Lips frosted blue white. Her faint breath is transparent, not warm enough yet to steam the air.

The winter park is full of crows. They mob the hawks and drive them hungry through tangles of branches. The pane of frozen water lies tense and stilled within the lakes. Cold monuments do not breath. Stands of woods in thin strokes welt the hills. Long shadows of trees like men.

"Let me in."

She scratches against the world. There is no door, my Eliana. There is no door after you notice, after you care. Eli, my Eliana, there is nothing to be done.

"I'll die."

Of course. That's what it means.

"I don't want to die."

Did you think living would be anything but always dying?

"Please don't let me die."

Hateful and cruel, isn't it. Things matter over here. They matter completely. You knew that. You should not have slipped.

But it is the dim sun through branches speaking to Eliana. Not me. It is the rattle of a crow, inexplicably startled, the patter of snow upon snow. Then I am there, a scarecrow in a torn wool coat. Broken man winter.

"Please." She is so lovely and cold.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. I walk away, away from the trees. I will not hear her. I will not hear her for the wail of the city.

"Please don't let me die."

But it is not so simple. She has slipped, fallen into the world.

I do not give her an answer. It is pointless to discuss. In any case, she will soon forget anything I might say.

So I walked out of Prospect Park and into the city, into Brooklyn. To serve the other broken men their coffee. To await the coming of Syd McTodd—and a chance to get my Eliana back.

                                                                                                                *
Is this thing recording? It is. All right then. This is for you, Benjamin Phillips. For when you wake up, come out of, discover I have been using your body for purposes that are not strictly and scientifically rational. It's going to be confusing. People are going to say that you've been acting strangely. That you haven't been yourself lately.

You haven't. You’ve been me.

I know a little bit about you. I had to learn a few facts to get along more easily in your shell. Benjamin S. Phillips. Late of Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. Recently moved to New York city where he took a job as an espresso jerk while he got his life back in order. Recently divorced. What a pity, Ben. Everyone should be married and live in Seattle and have Microsoft stock they purchased fifteen years ago so that they don't have to serve coffee to fucking New York assholes. It would make for a happier world. You really fucked up. Just saying. I mean on the stock. The rest of it—eh, who cares?

By the way, Ben, I am Oberon, King of the Fairy Dark.

No such thing as fairies? Well, I prefer to think of myself and my people as fractal beings these days, now that everything's all scientific. There are cracks in everyone's personality, you know, and that's where we live. Think of us as shadows. Or maybe you should think of yourself as our shadow. You are. All of you. My kind are eternal. Of course, we’re not really alive, but that’s the price you pay for being famous.

Like I said, I'm Oberon, the King. I can push the cracks as wide as I want. I can fold a man inside out and come into your world whenever I want. The poor guy I take is over there. Over where I live. In a pocket. I'm going to be leaving soon and turning that pocket inside out, turning you back out to face reality. My work here is done. So I’d better make this quick. I'll start from the beginning.

The beginning was Eliana. She's one of my minions. A dryad, technically. Tree spirit? Never mind. They get pretty close to your world, the tree nymphs. Too close sometimes. Mother calls them. What mother?

Why the mother of us all. Snow. Can't stand the stuff, myself. Mother issues. More on that later. My roommate likes it. Our roommate. Syd McTodd.

You're going to meet him soon, so let me tell you about him.

My favorite fact is that Syd McTodd claims to be secretly left-handed. I was born a lefty, he told me, but my mother forced me to use my right arm for everything so that I would get along better in the world. But that didn't work, he said. I didn't ever get along better in the world.

His left arm, at the inner bend of his elbow, was a half-inch thick with scar tissue. For the three years before he moved to New York, Syd sold plasma twice a week, sixteen times a month, to a pharmaceutical company. They stick your left arm if you don't tell them different, Syd informed me. He was a right-handed painter, anyway, the lefty wannabe motherdfucker. Syd sold a couple of pictures and used the money for a bus ticket to Brooklyn and two month's rent in an apartment share with me. He brought some of his old paintings with him, and I saw them once before he set them on the street for garbage pick-up on a Tuesday, which is Big Item Day in our neighborhood.

They were pictures of things. Sepia tones of men and women with animal heads. A Nazi with the head of an antelope, say. A nineteenth century aesthete gamboling with bird-headed muses. One was, so help me, a depiction of the muses. Lordy. A junco—Clio, perhaps?—Calliope a jay, and Melpomene was a rufous-sided towhee.

These paintings were competent. But they were better ideas than they were paintings, if you know what I mean. Do you know what I mean, Ben? Like the way you were a husband? I don't want to paint things any more, Syd told me. I came to New York to paint canvas.

It didn't really matter why Syd thought he came to New York, though. It was me. I called him. I called him for my own reasons, such that they are reasons. I am the one who long ago set the yearning in him. I am the yearning. And it was the yearning that called him.

It is my power as King of the Dark.

The yearning is a thing peculiar to men—male men, I’m talking about—to a man. It cracks him like a whip. It yanks him like gravity as the trap door opens and his body of a sudden falls, and he expects the rope to stop him with a shudder jolt. But he keeps falling. Falling with that noose around his neck. Falling and falling.

A woman once asked me why it is that men fight the wars, men fill the prisons. The answer is not complex, I should have told her. (I would tell her now, if I could. I can't. She's in Seattle. I think you know her, Ben. I never met her. I don't know her. I do not know her.) The answer to her question is quite simple, really. The yearning.

The yearning sets the peeping tom on the limb outside your window, my dear women, jerking off to your innocent nipples. It sends the junkie to his needle, the accountant to his roll-over scheme. The rapist pads the park in quiet sneakers because of the yearning, and the Seven Eleven clerk lies twisted and dead because he saw it in a man's face one second too late. It splits your tight asshole open, my dear one, and slides roughly within your bleeding, smearing the KY all over the place.

It is the dry gamma of the thermonuclear weapon, used against all logic. Used because of the yearning.

Women have something else, something deadlier in a universal sense, at least, the receiving, the absorbing, but we are not speaking of women.

We speak of men.

Doomed men who long for a greatness they cannot comprehend, for pitch and moment in a time that is always awry--for something, anything, for a destiny in these random days, this random seven thousand year stretch that we call history--sorry like hell to have been born to it, but there is nothing to be done about that--or about the yearning. The yearning has no regard for how fucking meaningless it all is--didn't you know that? It has no end. It is a means. A means to more yearning.

At least the junkie gets the needle, the dog the vomit, the dead the senseless silence, and you get the idea.

The man? He gets nothing but more yearning.

Syd and I first met at the coffee shop where I worked in Brooklyn. Dorene's it was called. Dorene's was in a neighborhood of artists, writers, actors and other performers. Poor disappointed men every day came into Dorene's for their bitter coffee and milk. A poor graphic designer, a juggler. I knew the graphic designer was poor because he accidentally dropped his telephone bill one day and I picked it up after he left, had a look. He did not have fifty-seven dollars and his long distance was being cancelled. Maybe he sucked at graphic design. Seventeen calls to the same number in the 404 area code, one every night. Then nothing. Thirteen days of silence. Either Atlanta had burned again, or she wouldn't talk to him anymore. He was probably an okay graphic designer. It probably wasn’t his lack of those skills that caused his money problems.

The juggler was named after Rilke--Rainer--the poor man. I caused his parents to do that, btw, thirty-four years ago. Intellectuals are my clay, let me tell you. Totally unsuspecting. Rainier had three children, all younger than eight, and was separated from his wife for a year and a half. He took the children on weekends. He trundled them into Dorene's between a movie and a trip to the park. The kids clumped in their bright clothes, and Rainer in his long, black wool coat. His mime’s coat, but he wasn’t even a mime, merely a juggler. The children’s faces were flush and eager, his wan and sad. The children watched Rainer juggle and drink an Americano at the same time. They gaped and laughed at their funny dad. It was that dynamic suspension, just before the hot coffee scalds your tongue and you try to hide it from your kids, that moment when you hold for a snapshot while grace fumbles for her camera.

Here take it, take it. Don’t you, didn’t you, have a funny, cool dad? Will you please try to remember that?

Don’t you fucking recognize what I’ve done, what I am capable of doing, for you? I will do anything for you.

I would kill you under the right circumstances.

But, Ben, I fuck around. It’s the way of eternal beings to fuck around, and I can hardly be blamed. Yet the hour grows late, and I do want to leave you useful notes.

To continue: after Syd and I found an apartment share, for weeks he did not paint. I fed him scones and coffee at Dorene's, which was all he had to eat, but there was nothing I could do about his rent. After a month, he sought out a plasma center and began to sell himself that way. He had an alcove in our apartment, back near the fire escape, where there was thirty minutes of direct sunlight every day. I watched him sit there in a broken chair and stare at a canvas he'd stretched on an old mattress frame that he'd found in the same garbage heap the chair had come from. He would spend a couple of hours a day at the canvas, then give up and turn on my television. I had fucking cable, you’d better believe. No internet, but cable is what separates us from the animals. He would watch sit-com reruns, old Star Trek episodes, cartoons.

Syd was from the land of kitsch, and that was where he'd grown up. Comic books, World of Warcraft, Young Justice. Boomerang and punk anger repackaged from the Time of the Father’s Fathers. It didn't matter where he was originally from. He was from Television, from that city with all the fruit carts and snowy streets, palm trees, and heroes affecting angst or chaotic natures to draw attention to the fact that they couldn’t, didn’t know how to, get it up, keep it hard. It’s not self-loathing, Clark. It’s not because everything is random. It’s plain old-fashion impotence in the face of a quiet universe where cable is generally unavailable, and hence a universe that is incomprehensible.

Syd was from Janus VI. Compton. Dallas. A Dumbo of the Mind.

That was what was wrong with his paintings, of course. But there was no way of telling him that, or anything he could do about it if he knew. He drew pretty pictures of dragons and space ships when he was young, and someone told him that he had talent. People should keep their mouths shut. They should let him go on with the rocket ships and moon maidens. What can you paint when you grow up in Television, in the Land of WoW, instead of the real world of jaguars that speak and fanged reindeer gods that feed on the blood of your enemies?

Nothing.

You see nothing. You know nothing.

That's why Syd became a man who said such idiotic things as “I want to paint justice,” and then "I want to paint canvas." And then not painting canvas, or justice, or anything else. A good boy turned lazy and odd, doing the devil's work.

Or, more precisely, my work.

You understand, I hate artists. They are beyond my power, the fuckers. What I love is men who believe they want to be artists, but then can’t think of anything to say. Mine, they are.

One morning when Syd was sitting before his bedframe canvas it began to snow outside. I was at home at the time, making lunch for us both in the kitchen. I heard him shuffle in the other room, heard his chair scrape against the battered wood floor.

"Shit," he said. "God."

"What?" I called from the kitchen.

"It's really coming down. It's snowing like hell."

"It's what?"

No answer. After a moment, I walked into the other room, carrying a pot of steaming spaghetti. There was a cold breeze in the room, and Syd was gone. For a second, I thought he was up to one of my tricks, he disappeared so effectively, but then I noticed the open window. I set the spaghetti on the chair and looked outside.

Syd was sitting on the fire escape. He was dressed only in a t-shirt and jeans. The snow fell all about him. It clung together in big clumps and settled on Syd so that he looked like a linty sweater. His legs were gathered up in his arms and he was rocking back and forth to keep warm. He was visibly shivering. 

"What the hell, Syd?"

When he turned around, he was grinning. That was when I knew it was time. That the yearning had him, that the desire had returned, but not the ability. He was lost, but motivated. Empty and full of longing.

A total patsy for a creature from the Collective Unconscious to fuck him over good.

Yes, I had him where I wanted him. It was time to get back my Eliana.

"How would you?" Syd was turned around again, looking outward into the white day. He was speaking to himself. "How would you paint it?"

                                                                                                              *

I hate snow. It is my enemy.

Specks of the world get into snow--bits of trees, bricks, pavement, gravel. Rain falls into snow without sound. Snow cannot fall under things. Snow is gravity, splayed upon the world. Gravity heaped upon the trees, in the gutters---mounds of gravity in the park.

Snow takes the shape and form of the world. It steals form. It is the final blanket of the world. That is how the yearning will be quenched. That is why snow is a woman.

When I, I mean Ben, I mean I, I mean Ben lived in Seattle and climbed mountains for the first time, I was surprised to find that you don't sink from sight. You step in it, and you don't keep sinking. There is a place where it bunches under your boots and holds you up. It tricks you. She tricks you into thinking you're safe.

Once I was climbing in the Olympic Mountains and in front of me I saw a man fall to his knees on hard morning snow. His hands plunged through the crust. For some reason, he wasn't wearing gloves. The man raised his palms. They were sliced and bloody. He was cursing. There were two hand prints in the snow, rimmed red, when I passed by.

Snow has bony teeth and a pallid tongue. Snow has dirty, long fingers and a raspy whisper like moth wings, rubbed. She speaks only to herself and the moon.

Snow is emptiness that condenses out of the air. To paint snow is to paint nothing. I could have told Syd, I could have told Syd McTodd the truth, but then there would be no way of getting my Eliana back.

Snow is my enemy. I never climbed any mountains in the west. Ben did. Meat-sicle Ben. New York is my only home. Brooklyn is where I take your fucking money. Where I take your fucking money and hand you a cup of hot joe, dark and sweet. Oh you didn’t know that in New York dark means with a little milk? Fuck you. Drink it or pay for another. Yokel. Fool.

Where you from, anyway?

I thought so.

                                                                                                                *

Syd spent days trying to paint snow. At first, he stroked the canvas with a fine, spasmodic touch--wisps, tailings. But this wouldn't do, and so he layered it on thick, thinking to forgo verisimilitude and make a one-to-one correspondence, paint to snow. He painted the canvas acrylic white; he worked the texture into drifts, dry runs and rivulets, wind scatters. No. "It isn't snow; it's paint."

How to paint snow? Snow on things is sensible, realistic. Things covered with snow are picturesque, romantic. But to paint only snow?

What is there to paint, if you don't paint things?

Syd paced about. I heard him at night, tossing in his bed. One morning, he put on boots and a coat and went out, out to the park. I got up later and after a breakfast of tea and crumbly bread, I walked to work at Dorene's. It was Tuesday, and the streets were crowded with old sofas, mattresses, chifarobes and whatnots that nobody wanted and had put out for Big Item Day. Just after noon, Syd came into Dorene's.

She was with him--my dear, strayed Eliana. She glanced at me with her clear ultraviolet eyes, like mine. Like all our kind.

She was shivering and naked. Syd had thrown his coat over her.

"Hey, Obie, do you think we could get some coffee for this woman?" he asked me.

"Jesus, Syd." I looked at the two of them for a moment. Pretended to be amazed. "Take her in the back, and I'll bring some to you there."

Again, Eliana looked at me. There was the faintest trace of a smile on her lips, though I knew it was far, far gone in her now--the memory of her former life as a dryad. Syd hustled her into the back, and I set about making her a double cappuccino.

I don't know how Syd managed to get them both home that day without getting arrested. We wrapped an apron about her waist, to make some semblance of a skirt, but it was a poor effort. When I got back to the apartment, she was wearing a pair of my jeans and Syd's flannel bathrobe. Eliana was tall--as are we all--and Syd was but a man of five eight or so.

They were sitting at the kitchen table, sipping my Earl Grey tea. Syd spoke to her, but I could tell he'd long given up trying to have an entirely comprehensible conversation. Yet Eli was animated, interested in him. That had always been her problem. She could feel the yearning. She responded to it. That was the part that came from her mother. She responded to the yearning the way her branches had once bent upward to the light. But her mother bends branches down.

"I'm trying to get the white to be clear." Syd speaking.

"You get it too clean and it's white," Eliana said. Her accent was mid-western American, though she claimed to be from Silver Springs, Maryland. "All that pure hurts it. Mix in some dirt."

"I should."

"When you found me, I was trying to get clean."

"In the snow?"

"But it was getting me dirtier instead. So you see, snow's not clean."

"It's city snow."

"Don't you want to know how I got dirty?"

"Sure."

"I had this glitter all over me and it never washes all the way off."

"Glitter?"

"Body glitter."

"Okay. So?"

"I sort of freaked out when I got home. I bathed and scrubbed, but I still felt sticky. I just couldn't stand it any more. Three weeks and not one glitter-free day."

"You could have gotten arrested, naked out there. Where do you live?"

Eli stood up abruptly. "I can't go back there. Not at the moment. There's a man waiting for me."

"No, you don't have to. I was just--"

"He's this sick fuck from down at the club. He found out where I live and he's sort of stalking me. I think he's harmless, but, you know..."

Syd got up, moved closer to her. "It's all right," he said. "You can stay here." He looked over at me when he told her this, and I nodded yes. Of course you can stay, Eli. You are right where you belong.

They slept in Syd's bed that night, and, after a time, I heard them fucking. Syd's moans. Eliana's little gasps like icicles that fall and break on a sidewalk.

I lay in the next room; my body burned and seethed. I lay naked, the covers thrown to the floor. If they had not been on the floor, I think they would have burst into flames.

Eli gasped at Syd's idiot thrusts. Impossible, impossible. He wanted back in. You cannot go back there, my friend, my man. Her mother cast us out, long ago. She cast me out, and because of that, none of us can ever get back.

It is the plight that man was born for; it’s Margaret you mourn for. Put your left hand in, take your left hand out. I’ve come all the way from Alabama, a fer piece. Desire not feast on thee. Desire not feast on thee.

I turned off the lights, but my room glowed red, infrared. I was a radiant knot in my bed. I heard him moan, coming, coming. She shrieked and gasped, broken and alive.

The snow fell outside. This was the Big Blizzard, the third largest snowfall the city had ever seen. This was the Big Blizzard of the Middle Centuries between the Long Ices, and we men must cower in our caves and paint the walls with our longings, with the burnt ocher of our yearning. And sell those paintings to buyers of paintings who think they would look good in the upstairs bathroom, and that motive be, in all actuality, the only true and just attitude toward art.

Eliana was a dancer, a stripper in a cabaret.

"Isn't she beautiful?" Syd asked me. "Did you see how beautiful she is?"

I nodded.

"And it's not just physical I'm talking about."

I smiled. Shut the fuck up! Really?

"No," he said, "it's not. There's something. She's totally and completely here, in the present, you know? She talks about the past like it happened to somebody else."

Imagine that.

Of course, Syd ceased to paint for a time.

"Did you see her eyes? They changed color with the light. Have you ever seen any eyes like that? They're clear. Did you ever know anybody with clear eyes?"

We were in Dorene's, the coffee shop. Eli was in the back, huddled over a cup of joe, light and sweet. Syd was up front with me, getting a refill. Eli was wearing my clothes, as usual, down to the brown dingo boots. Her hair was cropped to a pageboy--that was the way she always wore it--and she looked kind of dyky today. But Syd liked her even more that way. It is the way of men from Dallas, Television, to take their biology hidden and queered. They believe the yearning is wrong, hurtful to others. They think of women as their victims instead of their accomplices in futility. But they also know that to have the yearning is their function in the world: to slam into the scenery, to penetrate living flesh. They want to curl up and die they want want to fuck so bad.

Eli lit a cigarette. Those were my cigarettes, too--Old Golds. She breathed out, watched the smoke curl. She was beautiful, very beautiful. She must have made decent money as a stripper.

"I'm going to see her tonight." Syd took the coffee refill that I handed him. "I've never been to one of those joints before. Never saw the point."

"Magazines are cheaper."

"Yeah."

"It's in Tribeca. It can't be that sleazy. Tribeca is still very fashionable, I hear. I should go to Manhattan one of these days."

"Aw hell, Obie, it's a strip joint."

"Have you ever been to one?"

I smiled a crooked smile.

"You're from Seattle, right?"

"Here," I said. "I'm just from here."

The next day, he was full of wonder and magic. There was a woman eating fire, he said. And one danced with three veils as big as sheets. She kept them all going, the whole time. And a silver umbrella skeleton hung with tinsel and lights. She was chocolate brown--beautiful girl--and she twirled it to Surabaya Johnny." So pretty. Not dirty and stupid at all. A little brick cellar, all kitschy. Cabaret. Except for the lap dances. Those're pretty sleazy, I guess, and there's no way around the fact that it's a dry hump the guy is buying--"

"Syd, you should hear yourself."

"I know it. They're all, all the women, they're sweet. They know each other. Like a circus troupe would be. Like I imagine a circus troupe to be."

"A dry humping circus troupe?"

"Yeah. And Eli. She calls herself Elspeth, you know. They all have stage names. She did this act called `The Deflowering.` She came out in this leafy costume--God, it must have taken her hours to make that robe--and she had this headpiece on that barely missed the ceiling. She's so tall. She looked like, she looked like--"

"--like a tree," I said.

Syd nodded, yes. "And then she let it fall. And there she was. She danced, she wasn't still. But not like the others. Nothing at all. It was like she was...swaying. In a breeze."

"Imagine that."

"I don't have to imagine that." He bounced his eyebrows. "She was...gone. It wasn't kitsch and fetish stuff. She was so empty. She looked at the customers like they weren't there. Even me. It was scary. It was scary and sexy. She was gone."

"And then you saw her give a lap dance?"

"Yeah. I don't know what he was thinking, that guy. All I could think was: you don't know anything about her. You're not even with her."

"But you do."

"No. But I know I don’t. I like that I don't. I'm not projecting any fantasy on her, I don't think. It just works with us. I'm finally starting to feel at home here."

"You really like her," I said.

"Yeah, I really do."

“You know nothing about her.”

“She says she’s from Silver Springs.”

"You'd do anything for her."

"She's the only good thing that's happened to me in New York so far, goddamn it."

They fucked early in the morning, after Eli got off from work. Every morning for days, I listened to them fuck. At first it was maddening, but I knew I had to endure, see it through, reach a searing heat. So I lay in my bed and listened.

The temperatures did not rise outside. The snow stayed, piled along the side streets, humped up in the park, hardening down to ice. One day, Syd tried again to paint it.

He used odd brushes--twigs fallen from trees, flayed to a spread; he used the edges of ripped off book covers; he used Eli's nail file. Sometimes pieces of his brushes got into the paint and Syd let them remain there on the canvas. One day he took the canvas from its easel entirely and set it on the floor. He stood over it, dribbling and drooling paint onto its surface, like he was Jackson Pollack come back in glory. He threw in bottlecaps, nails, refrigerator magnets, and glued them to the surface with a thick, acrylic coat of paint. The canvas was taking on layers, like a village site where people had lived for centuries. He gouged into the paint, exposing its sedimentation in places. He fought with it, danced with it, contemplated it with bleary eyes.

No use. Nothing was coming of all the fury.

One day I returned from work to find Syd on the floor, his legs crossed. He was leaning over his canvas, but he wasn't working.

"Where's Eli?" I asked.

"Gone to work."

"It's early."

"She's working the door tonight."

"Oh."

He looked at me. I could not read his face. "Did you ever notice her arms?" he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Her elbows, on the inside. Since I started selling plasma, I notice them on people."

"Well. What?"

"They are smooth. Not a blemish."

I moved into the room and took a seat in the broken chair by the window. The sunlight was a yellow tarnish on the floor. "That's good, then," I said.

"I thought so." He unbent his legs, stretched them out. "But that emptiness. And I saw something in the toilet. We’ve got no pressure, and it didn’t go down. She should’ve fished it out, but she didn’t.”

“What? A needle?”

“I confronted her.”

“Excuse me? You what?”

“It’s H.”

“Do you know what that stands for? It could stand for anything when the H is silent.”

And then I thought: did I just say that? Would I say that? And I thought: no. Then who? Where? And I was on the edge of realizing something that may have been important, when Syd dropped his bomb. “Look, fucking quit it, Obie. She's been shooting up in her groin, okay?" he said. "So nobody would see when she was dancing. There's no other way to hide it when you're totally naked." He sighed, long and hard.

"Well, she's a stripper," I finally said. "She makes enough money to support a habit. As long as she can keep doing that, she should be all right."

"Yes." Syd took a cigarette from the pack on the floor. He picked up his lighter, worked the child-proof switch back, and flicked it on. He gingerly touched the flame to the tip of the cigarette. He lit only the underside. Such a neophyte. He'd only started smoking since Eli came along. He’ll be doing a lot of that in his cell, in Underhill, I thought. If I let him have fags at all. "Her connection lives near her apartment. The last time she went, that stalking guy saw her. So she.. .so. .."

"She wants you to go get it for her," I said.

"She wants me to go."

"Well," I said. I point to the cigarettes. "Can I have one?"

"Sure." He hands me the last one in the pack. We smoke together.

"They do this," I said. "They send you out for something they need. And you go out and it's a lot harder than they said it would be to get it. A lot harder. So you keep walking."

"What?"

"You keep walking and turning and pretty soon, you're really, really lost."

"What are you talking about, Obie?"

"You're lost as hell, and you maybe have forgotten what it was you were looking for in the first place, and you maybe have forgotten who the hell you are, too, and all you can remember is that she needs you to bring it back to her, that look on her face that she wants something. And if you ever make it back to her, you know she's not going to understand, not going to forgive you. She's never, ever going to take you back. She'll just send you out again. It's all so fucking inevitable."

"Obie, are you all right? Ben?"

"So fucking inevitable."

"Obie, don't you freak out on me, too." Syd reached over, touched my leg. "I count on you. I count on you, man. You're the sane one around here. Jesus, who else is going to feed us?"

I felt his bony hand squeezing my ankle reassuringly. He trusted me. He needed to trust me. Finally, it was time.

"Well," I said. "I guess we'd better get her stuff."

"It's over in Prospect Heights," he said. "The shortest way is to go through the park."

He took his cigarette filter and made a streak with it across his canvas. He stood up. After a moment, he bent down and picked up the painting; he put it back on the easel.

"Well," he said.

"Well, what?"

"It's done," he said. "Yes. Definitely."

I felt a chill in my gut. No, it's not. I stood up, stumbled back a pace. I grabbed the broken chair to steady myself.

"Are you sure you're done?" I said. "It isn't. It isn't all that good, Syd."

He laughed, nodded his head in agreement. "Oh yes. It's done."

I was terrified he was falling off the edge of futility on which I’d so carefully maneuvered him. Of course, I needn’t have worried. Not yet.

We walked through Prospect Park, keeping to the road. Snow was everywhere, just everywhere. On the trees, on the hillocks. It was barely removed from the street. The sun was smeared behind stratus clouds. When we entered the park a hush enveloped us. The city would not follow us into this place; the snow damped it out. We emerged by the Brooklyn Public Library, in Grand Army Plaza. We circled around the greening arch of Union soldiers, caught frozen and charging as any waterfall in winter. Then back into the city, down a side street, to a particular corner store.

The transaction wasn't difficult. An apartment one floor down from hers. From where she allegedly lived. She hadn’t been back after all, on account of the stalker. We made the pick-up, paid with her money. In glittery ones and fives. Hilarious stripper money. All we had to do was say we were friends of Elspeth. Back on the street, I glanced around. There he was, the pathetic little stalker, drinking coffee in the deli window across the street. He didn't recognize me, of course. But he did look familiar. They all do.

Back into the park. On the way, there had been other people, too many people out jogging, walking the dogs of Brooklyn. Now the park was quiet, emptied. The sun came out, and the snow became crazed with shadow. And--unseen by Syd, unseeable by him--the shadows of shadows. The dimensions that you can't count on your fingers. The tree shadows were long and sharp. They shifted ever so slightly.

The men in long coats stepped out.

They stood in the shadows, ready, waiting, their eyes gleaming dark like wet leaves. A life for a life, and I would get my Eliana back. I knew I had only to push Syd into a shadow; my men would do the rest.

I dropped behind, let him walk on a few paces. Now.

I lunged at Syd and shoved him as hard as I could toward the side of the road, toward the waiting shadows. He cried out weakly in surprise, stumbled against the curb. His foot caught against the concrete and even as he fell, I knew that it would not be far enough. He did not fall into the darkness upon the snow.

I stalked after him, grabbed him by the scruff of his coat, yanked him across the snow.

"Obie, what--"

I pulled on him harder. Not far. Not far to the shadows. One of my broken men stood there, waiting. His eyes gleamed; his breath made no fog. I tugged again, but the snow was under my feet now. The snow was under my feet, and I slipped. I slipped and fell on top of Syd. Not far enough, for we lay within the brightness between two shadows. 

"Goddamn it, Ben."

The bag of heroin had fallen from his pocket. Syd reached for it, to flick it away, I thought, to destroy the evidence. But I dove for it. Too late. It skittered away. Skittered away into a waiting shadow. A dark man scooped it up, folded into the wrinkles of his long, dark coat. No, damn it. Give that back. You were supposed to have grabbed the man!

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

My men of shadows tend to take my orders literally.

Protect Elliana. We must do whatever it takes to protect sister Elliana from mortality.

Shit.

I cried tears of frustration. I felt like screaming out: you went after the wrong threat! You were supposed to have carried his soul away to Underhill, my stupid little shadow godlings. Left the empty meat-sicle, taken the meat out of the taco shell.

To release his hold on her, to take away her hook into this world. To bring her back to the shadows.

Futhermore, it’s not like anybody was going to miss Syd’s art. 

All the prep, all that gathered magic wasted.

But I turned and saw that Syd had it after all, the baggie. He had the heroin in his hands and was opening the package. Going to spill it out on the snow.

"You're not getting rid of that, you fucker," I said. “She needs that!”

"What the hell? What the hell are you talking about, Ben?"

I sat up. Something was weighing down upon me, but I sat up, nonetheless.

"Christ, Ben, what’s gotten into you? Of course we’ll give it to her."

"Stop it!"

"Stop it? Stop what?"

"Stop calling me that!"

"What?"

"Ben, you fucker."

"Ben?"

"Stop it. I swear to God I'll kill you."

Syd sat up, moved beside me. "All right," he said. "I won't call you that. I promise I won't call you that. Here, if you want to hold onto it yourself—"

He reached into the plastic bag and handed me the inhaler.

He handed me Eli’s asthma inhaler.

My own magic, turned against me. Turned against me by the stupid fucking snow. It had been the goddamn heroin that was transformed, been taken to Underhill, and come back changed. Not Syd. No life for a life. No Syd for Eli. H for an inhaler, instead. I was well and truly fucked now.

Eliana, I thought. Eliana is lost.

Syd was speaking. I barely heard him.

"Ben, I mean, um, sorry, look, why don't we have a goddamn smoke and you tell me what this is all about. You've been acting so strange today."

A smoke. Why the hell did he call me that name? Ben is not my name. Syd lit a cigarette and placed it in my shaking hand. We sat in the sunlight between the shadows, smoking.

"It’s an inhaler," I said. "Eli has asthma."

“She needs the refill number off it so she doesn’t have to go back to the doctor and get another prescription.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

Syd took a long drag, breathed out a plume of ashy white vapor, half breath fog, half tobacco smoke, the way the living do.

"We went to get the inhaler. Not to buy smack."

"Yes,” he said, with a little laugh. “What the hell were you thinking?"

“The money?”

“She loaned me money for cigarettes. So we don’t have to smoke those terrible Old Golds of yours anymore.”

I said nothing for a long time. Then I said: “I’ve had a rough day.” I remember that there was still water in my eyes. From a long way off, I could hear Ben. I heard him sob. Once. Twice. Then he was silent. All was silent. Until Syd finally spoke.

"Listen," he said. "The hush. I can hear it."

"You hear what?" I said. "There's nothing."

"Exactly." He stood up for a moment, then sat back down. He gestured in a big circle, at nothing, at everything. "I was looking at it. I was looking at the snow and trying to paint it. But that's not snow. That's just what snow looks like."

"You sound crazy," I said. “We’d better go.” But it was no use; he had the answer now.

"Inside out. You have to get inside it. You touch the world through it. That's how to paint it. You paint the world through it. Do you see? Do you see what I mean?"

"Yes," I said. I saw. It was her--her all around us. There was too much of her to ever, ever melt away. Men are just pinpricks of light, and she is everywhere and everything. She is all around us, and our every enterprise and effort must of necessity have to do with her. Don't you think I know that? Don't you think I know my own mother, my own my wife? She'll get us in the end. All us men. We want her to. She wants us to. She’s just as fucked up as we are.

And it gets us nothing but dying, just like before, only now we get to die while holding hands. Big woop. Except One Thing.

And, fuck, I’d lost and Syd had found it. The Except One Thing.

When we got back to the apartment, Syd immediately began reworking his canvas. He carved into it with a kitchen knife, scraped at it with a nail file. It didn't take long for me to see what he was about. A portrait.

A portrait of Eliana, as seen through snow.

Syd was cutting away the paint with his left hand. He didn't even notice he was doing this. Maybe there was nothing to notice. Maybe he'd been left-handed all along. Things were getting jumbled for me. I had failed at my task, and I was beginning to fade.

I am fading faster now, so I'd better finish this thing for you, Benjy-boy.

By the time Eliana got home from work that evening, Syd had finished the portrait. He said nothing, just left it on the easel. She went into the bathroom to wash the body glitter from her skin. In twenty minutes or so, she came back out, clean. We all sat down to a cup of tea.

I watched them love what they thought was each other. I watched them take one another to bed.

I take out this voice recorder of yours, Ben. I tell a little story, a little fib. Maybe. I'll just keep talking now. Maybe it will make some sense on playback. That’s always the hope. I doubt it, but what the fuck else is there to do?

After a while, I hear them making love. I feel no anger, no heat. I rise from the table. I think to put a coat on, but then decide against it. At the door, I smile sadly, listening to them, then quietly let myself out.

I walk down Seventh Avenue. I turn into an all night store for some smokes. They’re out of Old Golds, so I get something else. Basics, I think.

Out again into the cold. The street is cluttered with bashed chairs, splintered futon frames, refrigerators with doors that won't close. It's Tuesday again, I realize. Large item Pick-up Day is Wednesday. Seems like it's been Tuesday all week, and Large Item Pick-Up Day will never come. I walk toward Flatbush, past Dorene's, closed and blue inside from the glowing neon sign that says "Coffee Bar & Take Out."

Two blocks away, the library is gleaming, gleaming silver and gold under the moon. I walk past the library, and into the edge of Prospect Park. The moon is high.

Long shadows of trees like men.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Ben. There was a man named Ben who loved a woman in Seattle, in the Republic of the United States of America for which it stands. He loved a woman, and she loved him. She loved him, but she just couldn't live with him any more. Could he please go? Could he just please go?

And so the man went. He went a long way off. Farther than anybody had expected, if they wondered at all.

He came to me. All the broken men come to me.

I take a last look at Brooklyn. Syd McTodd will be all right. He's moved away from Dallas, Television. He’s from New York, now. It doesn’t matter where he lives. He will be fine anywhere, because it will be a place that actually exits.

And Eliana is a human being. I could not save her from this; Syd cannot help her. She will have to find her own way back to the trees. But she isn't Eliana. She isn't my dear Eliana any more. Now she is a woman.

Oh, Ben, you were a good body to live in. All tattered and worn, like a favorite old coat.

I go for a walk. I walk toward the park. The long shadows reach for me. Come back, Old Father of the Night. I can see myself, through Ben's eyes. I am moving away, away and back. Gaining perspective. The snow is here; she is here. Finally, she will take me back. I loved her so, but we couldn’t get along. But these are Ben's thoughts.

Not yet she won't. And she will be different this time, come in a different shape inside and out. She will not be the same person, my friend, my man.

Will she be the same woman? Are they all? Are we all men here?

Maybe.

But you know. Tell me.

You still have a long way to go alone, that I can promise you.

But isn't she beautiful? Isn’t it worth it?

Maybe. Now shut up and get out of this park before somebody takes a knife to you for that crappy overcoat.

I draw farther back, farther still.

There is no help or cure for the yearning, I call to him, to Ben. Tell that to Syd when you see him next. He is crashing, burning in the atmosphere. As are you, Ben. As are you. All men are falling angels, burning in the air. So pretty to consider. Step into the park, away from the city lights, and you can see them. The skies are full of falling, burning men.

Hissing through the atmosphere, falling into snow.


Tony Daniel is the author of seven science fiction novels, the latest of which is Guardian of Night, as well as an award-winning short story collection, The Robot's Twilight Companion. He is Hugo finalist for his story "Life on the Moon," which also won the Asimov's Reader's Choice Award. Daniel's short fiction has been much anthologized and has been collected in multiple year's best compilations. Daniel has also co-written screenplays for SyFy Channel horror movies and during the early 2000s was the writer and director of numerous audio dramas for critically-acclaimed SCIFI.COM's Seeing Ear Theatre. Born in Alabama, he has lived in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Seattle, Prague, and New York City. Daniel is currently an editor at Baen Books and lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina.