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The Ballad of Life and Not-life

by Varya Kartishai

Eyes to the moons that eyes are
I climb the ladder of night-bleached bones

The fleshless head loomed above me, serpent jaws gaping wide. Without my volition, my arms reached up, hands curled around the chill roughness of the lowest vertebra. My left foot rose from the ground—

A heavy hand grasped my shoulder, “Anna, if I have to warn you again, you’re out of here. We’re not paying you to doze on your feet. Take care of your customers.”

I shook my head to clear it as the noise and alcohol fumes washed away the vision. What use was a night job if the dreams came to me waking? I hurried to the nearest of my tables, pulled out my order book and wrote rapidly, “Five bottles of B.” Back to the counter for my tray, back to collect the money, shove the tip in my apron pocket till the end of the evening when I would have to split it with the manager.

Try not to look at the faces, flushed with alcohol, desire and loneliness. Heavily made-up girls in form-fitting sequined jerseys; young men in jeans and turtlenecks, hair carefully arranged to look casual; groups interchangeable with one another. Musky scents clashed with the odors of beer and mixed drinks.

Finally, just before dawn, it was time to hang up my apron and leave. A wind from the river brushed my cheeks as I walked through the empty parking lot to the bus stop. Crumpled paper and torn plastic bags moved in the air currents, a bag handle stretched into a playful tail, balls of paper scuttled by like mice. A graceful foil mint wrapper floated by and, mothlike, settled on a dying flower. I breathed a sigh of relief as the sun began to rise, guarding me from the dream until dark.

It had begun at the Museum of Natural History, while I gazed at the skeleton of a boa, a dry, whispering voice had insinuated itself into my mind, and that night the dreams began. I had feared sleep for weeks, so exhausted I could barely function. Then the solution came to me, beautifully simple: daylight would protect me. If I could only find a way to work at night, I could rest peacefully. The after-hours club was happy to get a willing worker, and I turned off my senses every night to the conversation that was pursuit and the music that was noise, as the DJ spun his records in the background with a wise finger.

Later, rested, fed, I hurried through the dark streets to the bus that would carry me back to the riverfront. As I crossed the parking lot, still nearly empty, little whirling winds were blowing the trash into larger forms, reminiscent of the glittering shapes standing in the line of patrons that had begun to collect by the entrance. I had plenty of time to don my apron and set up the tables.

The DJ arrived and clicked on his bank of switches. The music swelled as the noise and chatter began, but this night there was a difference. The music throbbed with longing, and looming over all were the bones. Others seemed aware of them as well, their faces were lifted to the night sky that shone through the dark ceiling. The vertebrae hung within easy reach, hands rose and the crowd began to climb, up and up to those gaping jaws.

I grasped the bar counter as tightly as I could. The dry voice that whispered in their minds echoed in my own: “Come to me and your loneliness will end forever. Once I was the serpent in paradise, now I am the gate.”

I might be as lonely as they were, but, I swore to myself, I would never be that lonely. I forced myself to look around the room, expecting emptiness, but the tables were occupied again. Shapes of whirling plastic nestled comfortably in the chairs. The nearest, wearing a proud blazon that declared “Thank you for shopping here” beckoned to me, and the soft murmur of its voice pushed the dry words aside. “Two bottles of Bud, if you please.”

Copyright © 2012 by Varya Kartishai

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