Saturday
Jun042016

The Stage from Behind

Chelsea Hogue


 

"Oh my, Christ in a burning heaven! My son! What is wrong? What has happened to you? My son, did you hurt yourself when you fell?" There's always a part of Jitney Jinny in there, as well as Mary, as she runs to Dusty, puts a little spittle on her handkerchief, and wipes the blood from her husband's eyes.

Jitney Jinny let Mother Mary grow into her and she grew into Mary, and in that process, she learned a lot from Mary. When Dusty, as Christ, is on his way up the hill, hauling a splintery cross and wiping his bloody brow with the back of a dirty hand, right after he stumbles and stubs a mangled toe, he sees his mother, Mary, who is waving a handkerchief and weeping grape-sized tears. She wears holy resignation and horror in one expression. She calls out to him; he turns to look at her and uses his hands to sign the cross over her twitching face. There's a big part of Jitney Jinny, as well as Mary, that watches him continue his journey up the hill and sighs desperately, in effect saying, This is my greatest burden and sacrifice. However, at the end, when the Jews pitch Christ to the cross, it's always more Jitney Jinny than Mary who cannot be consoled, who throws herself on the ground and rips at the grass with crusty talons, shoving fistfuls into her mouth, until someone grabs her wrists and holds her with both arms. Some campers tell her they think on her heaving face for weeks, months, after this scene—and it isn't even her favorite.

Dusty sent Jitney Jinny sleepwalking videos to help her prepare for his death, but all she can remember from them are the pillow ads. Men and women with unslept-on faces, their cheeks hardly sinking into down, but her pillow doesn't do anything like that. Her pillow pushes her out of it. Her pillow came from a Camp of the Rising Son storage closet. When she moved into their cabin, Dusty showed her the set of keys he had been given, keys to all the doors on the grounds. They took at least a hundred congregation candles with drip guards and a box filled with markers and rainbow yarn and put them under their bed.

"This is our job?" she said.

"This is our job," he said.

He put her shoulder-length hair into a ponytail with his fist and said, "My lady's hair has been shorn."

He used to tug on the braid hanging down her back and ask if he could pretty please scale the great red rope, although her hair isn't all that long, and it isn't red.

In the priest's private room, Dusty furiously cleared two stacks of chairs.

"Here," he said, and pointed. She walked there.

He patted the ground and said, "Here, here."

Dusty unbuckled his sandals. Jitney Jinny pushed off her sneakers and shorts and got down onto her back—naked, erect, and spread like a Vitruvian Man. When people get married in this chapel, the bride puts on her lipstick in this room. Standing above her, Dusty groaned and gawked in familiar admiration. Hands on hips, he let a loogie yo-yo from his bottom lip, hanging longer, longer, and longer, until it reached her organ and then he let it go by smearing it off with the back of his hand. He never missed. And then he just stood there, looking at his spit slipping around her clit like a detached mollusk still lurking in its shell, his face set and unchanged. Neither Dusty nor Jitney Jinny moved or spoke for a full minute, and perhaps it was in this moment when things began to turn—it could have only been by virtue of Dusty taking time that wasn't necessarily his to take to stare at her organ in a state of reverie that the moment became charged, and as they turned that corner, as they sat reading the other, Jitney Jinny felt like what she imagined other women must feel like naked and underneath him, their muscles pinging, to be both embarrassed and proud of something. How to read a scene is how to find a new one: keep scenes on tap, let the images spiral.

What's the difference between one scene and the next, among past, present, and future? It's true that we're urged to not consider pasts and futures, in order to press more images into the hot plastic of the present. We can do a little bit of everything; modernity is a growing list of materials mastered. Girl A makes a 10-second video with an app on her phone that changes her face to the face of a panda bear. She's singing a song and virtually eating electric green bamboo stalks. Boy B does the same thing. And then again. They all put an endangered species on top of their faces, all we see are humans dressed as something else. And then again.

Dusty said, "I could get fired."

He corrected himself, "I mean, we could get fired."

Jitney Jinny's fired people before and it's not a big deal; she fired six people in Second Life, where she opened a boutique and started to make actual money, so she hired a bunch of young boys to work there. Dusty was in it, too, Second Life, but didn't work in her boutique. He stayed longer than her. He built a palace with a celestial clock on the front of it, which would chime every hour on the hour and a clown holding a tiny fox-dog would spring out and do an insane dance. He wanted to die in Second Life but couldn't get anyone to kill him. At that time Dusty and Jitney Jinny weren't leaving the apartment enough; they weren't opening windows for cigarette smoke. Second Life became too much like real life—there wasn't enough distance—it had too many of the same formidable milestones of living, all engineered to wear us down until feeble, then kill us. She couldn't think with her nose pressed close to the glass, so she woke up one morning, fired the boutique boys, and started looking for something else.

Lying on the floor, waiting for Dusty to finally come down to her, Jitney Jinny asked him to take it slow. He bit her on the nose and put his tongue in her nostril. She asked him if he was tired and he said he was, but he got down on his knees and turned her on her stomach anyway. She gets it: On the day she comes back, she should be aloof. She should bounce up and down without a bra, preoccupied, as if it's only for herself, ask him for things he doesn't have, and drag him behind her by the hair. But as she bends over and he rubs one lonely finger between her legs and whimpers in dumb adoration, she knows she could force him to lap up a dogbowl of his own semen and he would tell her thank you. Dusty cums between her butt cheeks, and he calls it banana split. He curls up in her arms. They sleep together for a few minutes and he tells her that he is so glad, so very glad, she is there.

"One whole year," he said. "I like you this old. I liked you last year's age, too."

He smacked his lips and said he missed the way she opens up and then opens up more when he comes to her. He lunged in, and for the first time since he had left her waiting in their apartment and never came back, he kissed her.

You could say that this is only their relationship rapport: she leaves and then it's his turn. We don't mean to, but we form habits. It never feels real, until it's the other's turn; there's no original leaving. Several months after Dusty left, he wrote Jitney Jinny a letter as if it were 1900 to tell her all about it: the buses that he rode up and down the country, quitting booze, headaches, and then the headaches stopped, getting a job at a camp with God, children bobbing in the river, and a cat half his, named Trumpet. He asked her to join him, as his wife, but most importantly, as Mary. The baby she had always wanted, she could have, one way or another, she could have it and it would be blessed and pure and they would raise that baby as a disciple and a prophet for Jesus Christ, our Lord.

"Come to me," he wrote. "Everything we were searching for back in the city, I have found. And it is soft and ready. I want to extinguish the aged fires burning up what's good between us. I want to recognize the inside of you while we can."  

 

The kids are sour and smell grown. Days go by without them realizing it. Every night, Dusty and Jitney Jinny re-enact the birth, death, clemency, and severity of Christ for the campers—beginning at sundown, and ending when they crawl into bed without taking off their robes and tassels. She still has to remind herself of Dusty's wispy ponytail, much thinner than the Lord's. But these are their same yellow sheets, yellow floral quilt, peeling yellow walls: it is all the color of Grey Poupon. Above their heads are shelves of his improbable experiment plants—cacti with succulent branches grafted on and geranium buds barely leeching into deeper plant vitals on top of that. Nature would have taken care of this. Among those plants, the TV is attached to the wall and ensconced in a theater of dead mounted animals, all different horns and feels of fur, pre-placed long before they got there. Dusty is watching a comedian who yells all of his jokes; he has jiggling jowls shaped like the muzzle on a lion, which is like a fingerprint, she thinks, no two whiskers are the same.

"It's so brutal," says Jitney Jinny, and Dusty grunts. She cannot see his inky eyes.

The comedian pretends to fight himself. He holds up a fist and shakes it.

"Why is he so angry?"

"Because he is getting old," Dusty says, holding the loose end at the bottom of his stomach. "And his penis is more like a semi-soft elephant trunk. Women just want to shake hands with it and giggle."

Jitney Jinny's baby is also already up and her skin is the same gray-yellow. Dusty has put his leatherwork gloves on her tiny hands and she's moving back and forth from catching drips from the leaking roof and trying to pick up Cheerios with her huge hands and eat them with her slug tongue. But she can't, and so she whimpers, and the comedian's audience laughs, and Jitney Jinny's baby whimpers. Jitney Jinny has the power to see things in their potential. She can see her baby's teeth that aren't there yet. No object is an object unto itself. She can see how her baby's head could swell bigger than her body and anchor her to the ground. Her head could spread flat and fold into fourths, as a jam-filled crêpe. She can smell her milk-and-soap breath growing overripe and spoiling. She puts sprigs of cut lamb's ear in her pockets. She closes tufts of fluffy moss into her fists. She wipes her face clean with an old pair of soft silk panty hose. And she tries to see her as she should, in the stillness of what is actually there.

What's there is a cluster of fallen trees, nothing's living and breathing; and we're simply looking like it. Can we love a baby more when we can touch and play with a baby, rather than if we saw the baby, frozen as a photograph, frozen as a hypothetical? We want to give the baby obstacles and watch the baby work around them. And if we see and admire an old tree, in passing, when we could be modifying that old tree, making it ours, so that we can spread our legs around its circumference, and sit down on its stump; we could lift our feet, if we wanted, to better get inside.

Dusty and Jitney Jinny walk through the huddled cabins, knocking on doors. The children have balled up clay they found in the river and some of them are completely red with it, except for the whites of their eyes and teeth. Nothing has happened yet, but each cabin boasts its own pile outside the front door. A kid answers and Jitney Jinny peels back her robe so they can see her stomach, bulging with pillow.

"I will give birth any moment," she says.

They know who she is, but it is true that when she is in character, something like centuries accumulate, outlive, harden—they stand in the way of what's on the stage of their front porch. Most of them can't help but go graceless and tell her they are sorry, but all of the beds are taken, and perhaps the next cabin will have space. They walk away with their heads hung low, and listen to the children whispering.

A boy named Shane tells Jitney Jinny that while their beds are full, he will call a hospital for her on his cell phone.

"My mother said it was for emergencies," he explains, pulling it out of a Ziploc bag. "You look like you're having an emergency."

During her first summer, children were vessels for deep mystery, only united by all the things in the world they don't know; however, during her second summer, they became something else entirely, more obvious.

"Shane, how old are you?" says Dusty.

"Nine."

"Shane, you're an ox. You certainly don't look nine."

Shane nods and looks proud. He reseals his Ziploc.

Jitney Jinny smokes in their cabin while her baby sleeps, leaning out of the bathroom window, looking at the clearing peppered with stumps. The camp makes a few thousand per year on stumpage fees from the paper mill. Dusty walks around camp to shake hands with children and leave them with Lifesavers in their sweaty palms. He is an authority; he has no axe to grind. He believes that the stump clusters are like God's picnic tables for all of his brave little people.

It feels more and more as if these parts of herself are things that Jitney Jinny can give to Mary: In her past, she wanted to give everything away. She wanted to farm but didn't have any land. She took a week of classes at a massage school. And what has Mary ever wanted, but the feeling of obligation? Jinny wants to give her a good dressing room, a gorgeous gown, bits of hair, lacquer pots, paints, powder, brushes—a few things to add to one short list of self-abnegation.

After dinner, Dusty speaks to the campers in the chapel. He speaks to them about Christ's fire and Christ's clutch, as his face is surrounded by Christ's symbols—chunky cherubs and winged birds holding banners of benefaction in their beaks. He points to Jitney Jinny sitting in the back, and reminds them that we always have to be on the alert for God's people in need.

"They come to us in masks we may not recognize, as a troupe of unnaturals, but we must be ready. We cannot be taken by surprise."

Outside the chapel, a girl holds up her baby, to match Jitney Jinny's real baby. The baby doll's whole face opens at the chin so you can see inside its skull. As the girl opens it up, she makes creaking noises to sound like the hinges are rusty, and claps the face back together. Snap, snap. She takes a peppermint out of her pocket and puts it in the baby's head. She makes noises as if the baby is sucking on it, loudly, and enjoying it. Jitney Jinny's phone rings and lights up her carpet purse. It's her credit card company. When she answers they tell her that nothing is wrong.

"But I still owe you a lot of money, right?"

"You might, yes. But that's not what we're here to talk about."

 

Silver French and Lance King have been counselors at this camp every summer for the past four years. This will likely be our last, they say, raising Cokes for a toast to themselves.

"You always wanted to be an actress?" Silver asks Jitney Jinny, sitting near a fire.

"For a minute, maybe, when I was a kid."

"Good. It's fine to fall into acting, but I hate career actors. The thespians at my school were insufferable."

She had graduated from college one month before, but spoke of it as if it were part of some life that only existed as fading photographs.

"I wanted to speak languages," said Jitney Jinny. People can't be honest, even when they really want to be.

"But you didn't?"

"I didn't go."

"Where I went the kids who were space cadets had all of the cultural capital. Spacey was in. And the thespians all wore feathers in their hair and drank a lot of shakes."

"Like milkshakes?"

"Without milk." Silver is one of those house guests who look more comfortable among your things than you.

She puts her hand on Lance's shoulder. Everyone has been celebrating that Lance said they might get engaged at the end of the summer. Silver said that she wouldn't accept wedding gifts but would ask that everyone donate to missionaries in Uganda.

"But that's only if we get engaged," she says.

Lance is holding a dictionary of world religions with black and white illustrations of each religion's sacred food and place of worship.     

"I get Hindi," he says. "It's a religion that, while fundamentally wrong, I can understand. They don't go to church because the church is within."

Lance drinks ten Mountain Dews every day but he just calls them Dews.

Silver points to Dusty and asks when he knew that he and Jitney Jinny were in love.

"Day one," he says and grins.

"Do you feel like when you're X-rayed, they'll see her?"

"Yes," he says. Jitney Jinny nods because, yes, this is probably true. She can feel him, on her, in her, in places where he should have never been.

 

"Do you think that you're his faithful shadow?" Silver turns to Jitney Jinny.

She doesn't answer. She feels that she is wrong about everything because she tells herself, while in the company of others, that she is all alone.

"I agree," she says and toasts the edge of her graham cracker in the fire.

 

Jitney Jinny tells Dusty she's probably dead inside when he tells her, years before, that he wants to take her picture outside the Jitney Jungle grocery store—picture her in ravaged skin and peroxide scabs. She picks at them. Jitney Jinny let her plastic bags hit the ground, put a hand on her hip, cracked a smile in her compressed face, and said, "OK, OK, I'm here."

Dusty can still see her force of colors as an extant heat map when she's not there.

Jitney Jinny has a vision in which Dusty finds an additional baby and a dog that stands on its hind legs. He drops them both at the front door to the cabin, along with his severed ponytail, wrapped in silver tissue. Jinny tries to get the dog to watch the additional baby—because, she tells herself, it is as bipedal as anyone—but the dog eats the baby and so she's left with her original baby and a baby-eating dog, all alone, and then she wakes up knowing what happens next, what's already preordained with this cast, but she's awake so it's like it never was, yet she's still smug over it, over this carnage being the answer to Dusty's disloyalty—and this last fact humiliates her.

But, then again, nothing lasts forever like you think you will. Your voice does not resound into the night. Your tears are no one's lullaby. Watching an animal feverishly try to survive is the only way to close that ravine between human and beast, in that the morphology of humans appears more beastly. We, too, have claws and sharp incisors. We're saved only by our speeches, lost prophets, marbled busts, ancient alphabets we can no longer read, and the fermentation process. It's only the festering need for possibility that makes us human, the ability to imagine oneself in copies.  

Walking home at night, children stand sentry in their windows, watching Jitney Jinny cross the lawn toward her cabin, breathing thick fog on the panes, sighing through their noses.

Dusty comes home from Rite Aid with a salt-and-pepper bear named Snuggly in a paper bag. He puts the bear in the baby's lap, but it's bigger than the baby, and all they can see are her toes sticking out underneath it.

"You can't do that," says Jitney Jinny.

"Do what?"

"Put something that big on top of her."

"The bear was made for the baby and the baby was made for the bear."

"The baby could choke."

"On a bear?"

"She could breathe in its fur and the loose fibers could block the passage of air."

Dusty rolls his eyes and puts the bear's scarlet cape on her baby. She looks like a character from a Victorian storybook about virtues and propriety.

"It's time to baptize her," he says.

But she hadn't yet considered that she could have come unbaptized.

 

Jitney Jinny takes her baby to sit out in the sun on the hill that leads down to the pool. She makes a small tent with her t-shirt, a book, and some sticks so the baby doesn't cook. She forgot once and her cheeks blistered and rashed and everyone stared at Jitney Jinny as if she herself were the sun, radiating pain.

A boy puts his hands on the shoulders of two other boys and tells them that this is a swim toward the kingdom of honor. The two boys walk to either end of the pool, facing each other, and crouch to dive. A crowd gathers. The third boy yells, "On your mark," and the boys dive in and swim desperately, sending long arcs of splash high above the pool. They swim toward each other, in a direct line, and when their heads hit there's a hard candy crack—everyone on land winces—and one of them screams while still underwater. Jitney Jinny props up to her knees but doesn't stand; she isn't sure that she wants to be here, so she doesn't make herself seen. The screamer comes up gagging and crying, trying to dunk and drown the other boy, and dog paddles away with big sobs before puking a handful of pink at the edge of the pool. All the bystanders decide that he lost and declare it as he convulses. Jitney Jinny sits back down and puts a little more sunblock on her baby so that her face is mostly white. They've only been out a few minutes and already her skin has the texture of poached chicken.

At lunch, Dusty is awarded a crown that says "A Friend of Mine" across it with big red jewels hot glued on every tip. The counselor giving out the awards stood on top of his table and asked us who else could possibly win friendliest of all but Jesus Christ himself. Dusty had to take off his crown of thorns to put it on.

They eat with the campers at long tables that have stools attached to them so you can't move them any closer or farther from who sits next to you. The two boys from the swimming duel sit at their table, on opposite ends. They bow heads over hamburgers and Jitney Jinny says grace for food and the few nearby who can hear her:

"Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are all the men who say evil things against us and those we love. Blessed are the lepers and the hungry multitudes. Blessed are the beautiful words. Blessed are the soft skies and Tennessee. Blessed is the man hammering dents out of pots and pans, the man with a cut-glass goblet, the man with no riches, the man on the ocean, alone, in a two-person canoe. Blessed are the good dogs. Blessed are heaven's doors. Blessed are thy neighbors and thy neighbors' hiding spots and thy neighbors' things, which are His."

The boy who won has a red and purple bird's egg already above his eye. He smiles and asks Dusty whether he will look at something that he thinks Dusty should see then shows him his chewed lunch cud. The children do not tug on Jinny's sleeve to tell her jokes or ask her questions about heaven.

Another asks his friend whether he thinks Jinny would like an extra toast. His friend shrugs and the boy doesn't offer it. They see her giving her baby a solemn feed and they see that she is Mary—and it is true that as Mary she is already long dead, looking upon the living.

 

The boys walked around with matching black eyes on their faces. A counselor made the joke that she can't tell them apart, until the loser fainted and was rushed to the hospital.

Silver gets choked up. She calls him a precious boy whose eyes went on forever. She can't imagine what it would be like if something like this happened to her and her boyfriend, Lance's child that they have not had.

"If he asks me to marry him and if we get married and if we decide to have a child, and then we can and do, I would be devastated if his brain was injured like that," she says. It has always seemed to Jitney Jinny that her and Lance's love is nothing more than a misunderstanding.

"It's just a concussion, right? He didn't die?" she asks.

"Who knows?"

She repeats. "Devastated."

 

There are two possibilities and both seem true: that Jitney Jinny's life now belongs exclusively to the stage, or that Mary was simply her vehicle for coming into consciousness. She's been transfigured, born of chaos into an imperfect world, made as real as the fourth hazy figure, the son of God, bending in the fire beside the three bound boys—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—bearing down upon fiery coals; as real as butter melted into bread. As real as sitting up straight in your sleep and seeing something dark dart across the floor, understanding that it's nothing, but believing you saw the fear you wanted to see. It's a bit like Thoreau says—what all men want is what is real. Jitney Jinny believes that. She's believed that for as long as she can remember and now she's trying to set the pieces in a logical order, to see the parts as a whole. Her father turned their backyard into a pit for a fish pond—prize-winning butterfly koi with intricate markings, koi that weigh up to 50 pounds—so he could breed and resell them for a hundred thousand dollars, he said. But he ran out of money and they were left with two baby koi in the bathtub and a muddy pit instead of a backyard. That pit was the Grand Canyon. Jitney Jinny and her sister took turns being the donkey and the tour guide. Jitney Jinny made a bridle and bit out of kite string and saddled her sister until she couldn't take it anymore. The terms of play could not be expanded to include an ending. Jinny ate dried fruit and granola bars and put quick oats in the palm of her hand for her sister to lip as she watched TV. She pointed out the geological formations in backyard rocks and buried salami sticks in the flowerbeds.

Her sister played the role. They shared some atavistic need to be smacking nude and had a list of reasons why no clothes were better than clothes—but their father made them wear underwear after their vaginas turned crimson with outdoor infection. Although it's more likely because of the woman he began dating, who recoiled in horror when they first greeted her by popping out of a fridge box full-on nude. And who always seemed to be resting, at any given time, in all four corners of the house.

They never realized she was babysitting. She had short spiky hair and wore tight-fitting jeans in every color of the rainbow. While playing donkey, Jitney Jinny looked back at the kitchen window and saw the girlfriend watching, nibbling greedily on a stack of Ritz. She waved. Jitney Jinny reluctantly waved back and pulled on the reins so her sister would, too. Even then, she knew that what they felt was less important than what they did. The girlfriend got comfortable at the edge of the pit, her purple jean legs dangling.

This could not have been the same day, although Jitney Jinny always felt like it was, that she got temporarily kidnapped. Because of it she carried a butcher knife around until she was 20. Hasn't felt safe, all of her life, she's never felt safe. Not once, and it was during the time of the pit that she was abducted while walking home from school. She remembers parts of it perfectly. She had just eaten a miniature bag of Skittles and could hear the sound of her ten-year-old heels on the sidewalk when Nasty Nicky pulled up beside her, leaned out of the window and said, "You have two of those?" She told him she didn't. He'd only kidnapped her for a few hours, but she still thinks on those as some of the best of her life and isn't proud of that. She knows what that means and she knows that's wrong, but that's how she feels about it. She experienced Stockholm syndrome by the second hour she was in the back of that car. They drove around and sang Prince songs, down back roads, looking at the changing leaves and trying to get a peek at the big old houses behind the trees.

Nasty Nicky stopped at a McDonald's and bought Jitney Jinny fries and an ice cream, and he reached his hand in the backseat and held hers, stroking her palm with his thumb. And she still thinks on it—a rough hand doing gentle—every time she holds an ice cream. When the police pulled them over, Nasty Nicky adjusted the mirror so that they could see each other, just their eyes, and he clapped his fingers at her, See you later. And then he stepped out of the car. He was handcuffed like a gentleman, too, neutral faced, and she never heard another word from him. He came back to his house after a couple of months and never left, and that's how our town started calling him Nasty Nicky. Does it make you nervous to walk by that house? people would ask Jitney Jinny.

But no, it didn't. When she walked past his yard, she'd squint her eyes looking into his window, find something that could be his figure, and feel him there, watching her. And she would act the part, do her best walk, head held high, imagining him chart her life and growth from the safety of his home, never taking her eyes from the spot where his face might be, recessed into the shadows.

 

At Camp of the Rising Son, Jesus is born on the final night. This makes the event something that continues on in order to prove itself. Jitney Jinny writhes in the stall on the hay, the pregnant virgin. The story goes that Mary had an easy birth, that she was not in labor so long, that she looked up at the stars, saw a wink from heaven and the baby slid right out into Joseph's loving arms; however, Jitney Jinny's version has Mary confused, Mary less patient, Mary with the unbroken hymen attempting to push out a big healthy boy, squirming and scared. Joseph is a cardboard cutout crouching and dumbfounded by her immense pain and dedication. Jitney Jinny calls out a final time, having worked up such a sweat that her hair is sticking to her cheeks in swirls and Dusty cuts the lights to the manger, turns on the hulking cross, throbbing with light at the edge of the cliff. He passes Jitney Jinny's real baby around for the campers so that they may hold the Christ she's just birthed, the son of the woman who is still yammering in agony on a pile of straw in the dark. The campers touch her forehead, her tiny toenail shards, her wet mouth, with the same affection as they would if it were Jesus Christ himself.

"At the end," Dusty told Jinny earlier, "I'll scoop up the baby and baptize her, in the name of God."

However, something happens when the baby is halfway through the crowd, something comes over Jitney Jinny that she thinks is more Mary than herself. She rises from her place of panting and walks with determination to the middle of the audience, where her baby's scarlet cape is calling. She walks through the rows of children, perched on stumps and makeshift benches; she picks her up; she begins to whisper to her—the baby who keeps the methods best suited to mirror the modern world—she walks slowly and barefoot in the red mud, past the audience, all watching her, by a spell of pure sensation, transfixed by her untamed hair and this small body she holds tight to her breast, seeing the world anew—what happened? Instead of the bustle, the wings, opened onto a bare rack of lights; she stands in front of the glowing cross, which makes the audience look like an immense hole, and beyond them an endless expanse of pitch black; emptiness has dimensions: She now has her first impression of the stage from behind. I can see you, Dusty, wrapped in bedsheet like a stinking surprise, sweating your unripe fluids, laughing to the TV in the wrong places, becoming feed for what needs feeding, hair matted into an evangelist hairdo. You don't find me magic, Dusty. You don't find me at all. One by one the children also stand up and come toward her; and together, they silently progress down the steep path, to the edge of the water. Its smell gets closer, more exaggerated and fishy. She feels the discrepancies less sharply, between Mary and herself; to her great surprise, she has discovered a secret—one that comes from too long repeating the too familiar. And without agreement or conversation, they all, the children and Jinny, silently snake down to the edge of the river and begin to enter the cold, dark water. She wraps her baby tighter so that her arms don't flail. Children's foreheads are gathering close and grazing her hips. A low-lying mosquito cloud parts for them. This is how they soundlessly enter the river, until it becomes too deep to touch.

She gathers their bobbing heads with a free hand and they cling to her back like litters of monkeys as they dog paddle across water, to the other side, where they all spread out on the spongy grass and hold hands. How scary a group can be. It can make you feel inside of something when you're not at all, when you're actually resting directly outside of everyone and everything. You feel protected lying with a group on muddy grass—

     but from what, I must ask, do you need protecting?