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RETURNAL

RETURNAL

A Story by connor phillips
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A story about blame.

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RETURNAL

 

When they bring their blame to your doorstep, you are still asleep. Only the beat of their fists and the stamp of their feet, the shrill of their voices and their torches’ heat�"are enough to disrupt your oblivious dream. When the window splinters in its frame and the door latch forsakes the door, you’re awake. Then the light gets flicked on and they are already in the room while you are still tucked between your covers. You haven’t got a moment to think, to wonder or guess or even remember. They don’t bother with questions. They have all sorts of answers. The ones at your bedside dip their torches and spread the flames first, stroking the corners of your sheets, the bangs of your hair and your sweating cheeks. The rest of them watch for a moment before tossing in theirs.

 

Now you are wide awake. You lurch out of bed to the window and see their blame, see them marching it down the street. They yell and taunt. They scream. They call you evil things. They set fire to your hedges at the edge of the drive. Then the old oak that grows in the yard. They light up the boughs that bundle and drape. Then the bark, then the roots. Then the house, the only home you knew.

 

Then they exchange fire for stones. Then they use water.

Then they use tools.

Then ropes.

Then: just words. But words are more than enough.

 

You begin to notice their faces. They are faces you recognize. They are the faces of all the people you ever knew. Pinched and twisted, warped and wrung out, wrenched wide under the weight of the blame they carry. They bring it to your bedside and pile it upon your chest one-brick-at-a-time. The faces you knew, or thought you knew, will say, NO�"we thought we knew YOU.

 

You learn to recognize their blame. You learn its face. It’s just like your own. Denying, pleading, fossilized in its own fear. They hold this face right up against yours so you can breathe its last breath before they cave it in with a pipe. Still, you don’t understand. You don’t understand. You don’t understand.

 

The trauma of these trials takes your mind again and again. It delivers compensation without explanation�"simply serving upon you the sentence for something you don’t even remember. You try to testify, you keep trying, but the judgment’s been past. You scream for your innocence, but these words are your last. They laugh as they drag you out the back door to bury you alive.

 

Each time they come for you, the memories of your life before this night begin to loosen their form and unwind, until all the unraveling ribbons of your desperate remembrances are shredded, pulped and processed through the supreme authority of the blame, until the blame is all you remember, until the blame is all that you know.

 

Eventually, you learn there is nothing else.

 

Eventually, you learn that death is no escape. Death is a memorial to their blame.

 

You learn to wake up, to leap from your bed. You learn this moment is the last moment where you wouldn’t rather be dead. You learn that all that is left for you in this house, in this home, in this terrible town is their blame, and it’s coming for you. You learn that the only chance for you at all is outside of everything you once thought was your life. You learn to fling off the covers you keep hiding inside, finished already. You learn to stop waiting for their shouts to smash through the walls, for their conviction to fold you over, do you in.

You learn to RUN.

 

You learn you have fifteen seconds.

Five seconds for you to wake up and burst into the hall, to find out they are already here.

Four more seconds before the first window scatters its glass and slices your feet.

Three seconds until the first one is inside.

Another two seconds until you are fighting him off.

You only have one more second before you are surrounded, dragged to the floor. It takes you a long time to learn that after fifteen seconds, any chance for you to escape this trial is over.

 

In fifteen seconds, you dive through the panel of the kitchen window because of the blame waiting at the back door as well as the front. You fall to the ground and crawl through the weeds. You learn that the only way of evading them is vaulting over the stone wall and into the slender space between the neighbor’s fences. You drop down and dodge the blame through the shadows, the blame of your neighbors pressing in at your sides. The sour shouts that cut into your back are never far away. The light from their torches always seems to know where you’re going, searing every surface in hunt of your trail, prodding and steering you back out of the dark. Through street after street and block after block, you sneak in search of safe haven. In the windows of houses lamps snap on with the spiteful shine of searchlights. Dogs howl until their throats are hoarse, catching your scent, and then someone will yell�"suddenly spying you, and the blame descends in upon you once more.

 

It has already been so long now, fleeing this blame. You’ve tried every direction, every turn and corner until you find their blame, always there, always waiting, an ambush at the end of every outcome. Your mind is nothing but a map of tragic trajectories through streets, paths and alleyways that have betrayed you.

Every sidewalk, every storm drain, every dumpster, every doorway, every shed, every stable, every swimming pool, every parking garage, every picnic table, every baseball field dugout, every playground slide, every bus stop, every space beneath every car and every porch, every inch of this town that has given you up is nothing more than a reminder of just how much you have lost from their blame.

 

A world of ever-sustained blame cycles through you, cutting its tunnel deeper every time. Clustered in its catacombs you find yourself sinking from one second to the next, pretending again you can find a way out. This time you skid down under the lip of a culvert you think you’ve never tried before. Then you see by the patterns stitched into the blackened grass how you already have. You hunch still in the dust, unsure of why you always believe the next chance will be the one to change you. You feel it now, the lesson letting in. Maybe they always wanted you to get away, get a little bit further. Why not sit and wait now, just this once? Catch your breath. Forfeit their hunt. Try submission for a change.

You get up and climb over into the road. You hold your branded hands out to them; show them what you know now. Maybe then they will let it be a little easier.

When you look up you see that they aren’t here for you. Not yet. For once in forever you find yourself still ahead. Still unknown for the moment. You see their lights sundering the section of streets out of which you just came and then you start to sprint forward, thinking only a moment, maybe this one, is all it might take.

 

You make it to the outskirts of town. Here, reduced into the center of your empty skin you find your way to the edge of the woods. Past the reams of trees you limp into some new nothingness that has always sat upon the barrier of your world. You surrender yourself to it: to the leaves, to the needles, to the brambles and thorns, to the thick desolate wilderness that seems to go on and on. You plead to the pulse of its silence. You ask for mercy, just mercy. Beyond the humiliation, beyond the pain, you crumple forward on all fours in search of some sort of calm, some sort of end, if you could even imagine it. And somehow, in this place, they begin to lose ground on you. The snarling dogs start to whimper when they lose your trail. You feel the torchlight at your back grow dimmer, scorch slimmer, hear the shouts turn to whispers. Soon, there is nothing left at your back, only the dirt and the damp and the darkness, into which you collapse.

 

The blame doesn’t find you, but it doesn’t disappear either. It sits instead like a heavy, spoiled scar on your body, a toxic knob encircling you, refusing to heal. But it is no longer the night, which you thought was unending. You lie on your back for hours staring up at the sun, at its quiet globe grazing on the tops of the trees, until your pupils threaten to blister. Until you see nothing but motes. You sleep for as long as you possibly can, dreaming you are something small and short-lived, perhaps just a blade of grass.

 

How long before you move again. How long in thought you try to silence every synapse, sink the thoughts into the depths of the dirt beneath your cheek. How long it takes you to find that the cost of snuffing out the bad thoughts only lets the worst ones sneak up on you.

The thought of the blame being able to find you here becomes a thought so inescapable it spurs your wrecked body upward, upon your feet into the air where the whole of you threatens to become untethered. The burden of your offended flesh, the strange weight of branded meat, holds you to the cobbled mud, across coils of roots and stone and covered valleys. Back into the thickest snags of the wood, across unsought acres rendered forward forever, you continue deeper and dimmer into chambers of trees wreathed in immaculate shadows. The thought takes you further still, through bearings least pertaining to path�"paths only of indeterminable route, marked only by the want of any sort of way, paths only of the most resistance.

 

 

The forest draws itself open for you, this new world made for your new skin. Its frozen floors and rasping walls, its ceiling that shivers and wails with the wind�"it was here for you all along�"it lets you in. You roam the rooms of this new home and settle into its bed of wet and moldy leaves. You just try to sleep, just try to dream. You try to stop twitching. You try to stop twitching.

 

The dreams, when they do come, are full of their faces, waiting and watching at the edge of the woods. You can hear the sneaking mutter of their schemes to trick you and trap you back into their blame. You don’t feel afraid though, just buried in anger. You spit and seethe, you belch and seize and sprint through the trees. The clatter of your teeth as they sink into things.  The tremor of your changing frame.  The blows of something budging its way out from your brain. Your muscles wrack in spasms with your smoldering gut, spilling open inside by the strength of your hate.

These dreams wander through you, weaving in and ever thicker, until some unknown toll is staked away for you to awake.

 

 

When you wake you walk. You travel and map every withered bit of your world, tracing your tracks in order to forget. To untether the trials that have become your mind, to purge all the dead ends that did you in.

 

Your stomach is a knot you may never find a way to untie, and though you have no appetite, you take note of your ribs reaching through your torso, sharp against your taut gray skin. Your search for sustenance bares little beyond brittle nuts from the pines and the white roots of the trampled grass. Riding the resolution of your perpetual motion, you manage to tread forward, seeking only moments lost in always passing, seeking only to never stop.

 

Days or weeks or any number of suns gliding over the forest in slumping arcs and still you wander, still you walk. You walk until you could rewrite yourself into the land through your steps, step into the discovery of an entry, or better�"an exit. You walk with the thought of never stopping until your bones splinter, turn to dust. Until you could be blown apart across the earth and air by a single breath, certain in some way to never arrive.

 

Your endless trail feeds and fills up the woods, until one day you stagger right out of its side. Then you see it, the TOWN�"right there�"and your flesh burns as you look, feeling tight and ready to burst with fresh blood. But then you see this isn’t your town; it’s a whole other town sitting on a different side of the same woods as yours. Beneath you it sits still and silent and waiting.

The houses against the hills glaze the air with flickered window light. Pillars of chimney smoke quake out across town into the blue haze of spent day, shading your vision of what you can see, of what you might find there.

Streetlamps rouse on across the blocks at random, empty and spread with the presence of night closing in. Empty�"but also heavy with humming notion, unspoken promise of warmth and light and the life to be lived behind the planks and plaster of a wall.

Beyond the dirt and the damp and the darkness. Beyond the woods.

Beyond a latch on a window or a lock on a door.

 

You can’t stop your feet from stealing down through the hills, down the slopes to the fields to a trail to a fence, and then you find yourself right there in the yard. You stand in between pinned-up linens drying fresh in the breeze. They skim slowly across the bare flesh of your back and you lean into them, unable to understand how anything could feel so soft. For a second, it’s enough to make you forget, enough to make you stop counting the course of your failures.

It’s enough to make you not notice how, in some other yard, a dog begins barking.

When you surface again to sense your setting, you hear the shouting, how it has already started.

Sickness stirs in you when you hear how it is children this time, their shrieks getting louder in serration as they run toward the yard.

When you try to swallow you taste your blistered insides flooding up in your throat.

More shouts now even nearer, just down the trail.

Then the dog, how it starts howling, just like the rest.

You notice it now, the true test of the blame�"children screaming, sentencing death to your name.

The sheets catch across you and wrap you in. The familiar well of lead brims up through your chest and pools through your limbs. Your muscles surrender into sponges and your knees jimmy inward.

You feel the terror lumping up in your neck, keeping you fixed through the seconds for them to come across the fence and find you here. Then it stabs you, a knotted clod of recognition. You nod your heavy head. This time you face it. This time, you let them find you. And every time after. At least now you know. All there is, anywhere, no matter what, is the blame, always waiting for you.

You close your eyes and wait for it to find you.

You wait.

And wait.

 

You unfasten your eyelids and look around. Just the light of the windows, the stars and the night. Just the smeared clicking of crickets, the breeze sweeping the trees. No sounds, no sight, no singed scent of the blame. Still you stay still. You wait for a hot hand to land on your ankle, for something to tell you this is just another trick of the blame.

 

You wait a long time. Night peels its first layers, each folding over you unnoticed. You think about moving an inch, in any direction. Even when you know the waiting is over, further inertia is the only notion you have left.

You wait until you notice there is someone behind the window facing the yard.

A woman. Just standing there in the bedroom. Just staring through the window.

Staring at you.

No�"just staring into space.

Her finger and thumb just pinching her lip. Her eyes just staring, softer than sheets. Stolen deep in her thought, a smug smile hidden that never floats to her face.  

All that there is and still there is more. Every other potential could pass away. Even this one, arresting your stead.

Your curdled skin shivers as you notice how it already has. How much longer will you wander, lost of all entry until your every shred of substance fades away�"what sort of presence will be left to remain?

She could be looking right into it, if only she knew.

Then the hallway light gets flicked on. She flinches away from you, from the window. Someone further inside is speaking to her. And when she speaks back�"you see it in her face�"not the smallest, single trace of the blame. Without warning she moves out of frame from your sight. You strangle the tremor sprouting open inside you when a moment later the room pitches off in the darkness.

 

The slow unsheathing of your fingernails as you claw through the earth.

The scabbing flaps of blood upon the palms of your hands.

Under mounds of frozen dirt you disappear now, the fever of your fingers gasping in handfuls, through detritus, through rot. Through the splinters of your stick shovels, through the snarl of numb muck. Through all that there is and still, you’ll keep digging. Until the digging is done. Until all that there is is this hole. This foundation. In which to fill with all the things that you lost. In which to bury what it was you once had.

No�"build.

 

No�"reclaim.

 

In the new town you steal a shovel. You patch the hole, refine the foundation. You lever stones from the soil, chink the blade as you render them into the promise of a wall. With every short rest you grip the handle and scalp the edge with stolen file, determined to sustain it far sharper than you found it.

 

In the new town you steal pants, a shirt, a stain-spattered coat and boots. You claim these items in the dawnless hours of the town, choosing only garbs lost to any host, of any further use.

 

In the new town you steal an axe. You fell only the thin trees of the wood unfit for future growth, their snagged limbs cracking open as death wedges in. You lever them to the floor and unworm the work of mulch burrowing into the grain, then rut the axe’s edge into the tip of each log and lug them off and away, over and again until the dark pins you down.

 

Each time you slip into the new town and wander another unborn day, you find something new. A trowel, a chisel, a wool pair of socks�"relics from the present past off to omission. You marvel at what remains in the space under stoops, behind the gap of a worktable and a wall, in the recessed dust shadows of a shed. Some small promise of what can be found fallen beyond the barrier of a life. It is so easy for you to gather each thing almost gleaming in a crack, in a crevice, in a place void of all thought. Somehow, these items suggest they are already yours.

 

You scrub everything you claim in the guts of a stream. You scour every surface in the bite of the current until your fingers keep clenched. Then you fist a rock rounded off by the water, and scrape your skin until the cold bumps smooth into flat flesh and pinprick wells of red rise from your pores and drop into silent rush upon the banks of your ankles. You stand there and stay there and wonder how long you will have to remain before the water will finally round you off as well.

 

You wonder at first if the woods will permit your new state of creation. This suffered space so unmarred of its rawness, how could it ever grant you a peaceful place to remain?

Then you notice, after days at your labor, how the dirt begins to yield like sand to your digging. How the stones almost haul themselves out of the earth when you pry them, always in the right shape for the next bit of wall. How the trees, once you fell them, pull across the ground like a sled, how they pare down so easily into log after log. The work bellows its will through your hands, through your arms, through your chest and your head. You feel it as a fugue�"taking over, filling in. A will folding out from within you, but formed below and away from any true place involving you.

 

Thin scrim of starlight bands strip across the thatched limbs to the piled and plastered stone to the dirt. You sit fixed in the bent count of their hours as they slip in shifting blots through the coat of the forest, and when they pan across your dark body you hardly notice how they snuff out, lost into some substance, or nothingness, passed along through your veins, or deeper beneath. You often fail to feel the wind anymore, despite it blowing through these nights as if sucked out of some ageless era of ice. Despite your new possession of clothing, you sometimes forget to wear much of anything. On these nights, you just sit on the same stump and witness the same stars spend their light to wonder at nothing beyond how long it has been since you have seen any single sliver of the moon.

 

Snow gathers in mute creation throughout the woods and compels you into your house. Flurries trundle over your doorway and you cover the opening with thick bundles of sticks and hay. You steep in the dim light of this house, its walls all around you, now full in its form. This is the first time you’ve ventured inside. It has been awhile now since you first noticed. Since you noticed this house is everything different from how you believed it should be.

 

The snow slowly ceases to stop until the pines past the window slits can no longer be found. You lay in the center of the room with your back to the sloping stones. At first you had felt it was just the being too big; the ceiling reaching too high, the floor stooping too low. The wall rounding around back into itself, containing a shape neither circle nor square. The obvious exceptions of so many things in this house that one day might permit the emergence of a home. You wonder what mistake coded within you could have determined the design of this place. You look about this dead shell so severed from sense and you wonder at what stage in your burst of creation had you forgotten to put in a fireplace, or a chimney, or a level bit of floor for a bed in which to sleep, dream and safely remain.

 

You start to see something there, enclosed in the cold room’s lack of corners. It hangs down in the space where the wall slopes in to meet the ceiling at no discernible point. The shape of this chamber�"amassing in your mind. The berm of snow creeps up over the highest window slit and the gloaming gray seals you in. When the groaning of the weighted roof is finally choked off in the silence, you begin to remember.

You remember, this kernel recalled from some hidden slot in your body, pulled out by the certainty of this fade sinking in. You remember what part of you was waiting away to build this house, to place you inside and have you linger into the death of the light, the exhaustion of the air. You remember the blame, you feel it around you now, how it catches up to you here, how it finds you, how it never once left. You remember, within the shape of this place, what other presence remains, waiting to be sprung out. You just needed to find its entrance.

Already you feel the bolt of your body being slid open. You feel the tremor, the rush of something reaching in and reaching out. Unsealing the rush for your return. You feel it press up along the walls, race against the ceiling. Filling your form in flooding luster. Within the change, the kind of light that can birth in bottomless murk.

So endless and red. So complete in its rage. It takes shine upon your ignited mind.

Within this change, the knowledge that there is no change at all.

Returned to your hide, the strength to snarl in the face of their blame.

Your stone house splinters against the strain.

 

And then you remember. You remember why they blame you.


© 2017 connor phillips



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connor phillips
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Added on November 14, 2017
Last Updated on November 14, 2017
Tags: the woods, town, house, dreams, night