The Truant

Jane Brinkley
Smith College Northampton, MA

With a tower of seabirds that coughed in tandem, the trudging ferryboats rang in the New
Moon. Heaped up with green fish whose unlatched jaws winked in the bright air, the sailors bent
over at the waist and rested ashore. Their skin, slapped up by the heat, shone with that Saturnine
yellow stuff that bellowed off the fish piles like a heavy shroud. I watched as the torsos curled
into the earth, their loads cascading into one of seven enormous leaden troughs on those banks.
The first men, relieved of their duties, sprinted toward the white oasis tent, stripping themselves
of their shirts and masks which snapped and curled in the wind. The shore teamed with the hot
odor of work. The first rain came, and the men gave thanks to God.

When I was fifteen and an outlaw, I used to sneak past my mother’s room on curled toes to
witness this return. Far off to the South, the broad mountains braided into the sky, to the North a
beggar’s platoon approached. Were it night, a stranger might mistake the barges for a solar
system– an entire golden litter of stars tossing its constituents into the dark. Now that you
mention it, I’d be inclined to say that I spent most moons like that– prostrate on the chin of some
great water tower to hunkered down in a cold chimney, pressing the palms of my hands to my
gripping surface so that the shiny redness was easier to hide come breakfast the next morning. I
languished on those moments like a wilting grape.

How do I describe this place? It isn’t beautiful, though it is ours, you see, and in plain
terms it amounts to no more than a few spherical crofts and lean-tos snuggled in the belly of a
hill. In a standard unit, the lower hemisphere draws up water from the soil and filters it, sending
it through a great arm that obeys invisible commands and turning it into steam power. We sleep
above, and sometimes on stormy nights there are big gaseous waves that crest over the glass
bubble, and in the morning it is green and dusty. If at some point the structure kept smogs away, I
don’t really recall, being too young and so on. As it is, we’ve made a habit of wetting towels to
stitch at the place where the wall meets the floor, as well as the exit. We get fat on fish skins in
the winter and we are very grateful for what remains of our planet.

Maybe you, like I, marshaled the terror of your childhood in a paddock called stories. If it
wasn’t the new testaments with their tungsten spines it was kid’s books set in cardboard shells
about pirates and royalty. I liked to sit with my back flat against the floor, my heels meeting the
glass ceiling, and behold the images of children whose faces and bodies looked much like mine.
When the harvest season crowned my house with restive festivity I’d risk a sheepish “could we
read this” at the dinner table, barely containing my joy at the deliciousness of the little private
moments that followed, the glittering fauna and rusty ghost towns and babies with fresh bottles
to drink from. Night fell.

If there was any question of my fitness for the moon journeys I thwarted it when I betrayed
my interest in stories to the committee. In a grey room, just a few paces long and weathered by
sand, I was told that the trip was beyond my bumbling snatches of masculine ability. The fishing
grounds lay at the foot of the Tumults, they said, where danger lies. It is not a job for those
citizens amongst us whose wills are weak. It is at this juncture that I mention the Tumults for the
first time, for because historians might herald them as the defining character of this time I have a
larger place in my heart for other parts of this particular story. Should you want to see them for
yourself, you’d need only paddle a pirogue for six or seven hours until you felt the fabric of your
clothing lift from your skin and your face felt smoother. Only at this point would your eyes begin
to pick out the shapes from the fog, and you might guess that you’re looking at a vast bed of
needles, infinite in number and staggeringly large. Your gambit would be to stay as far from the
foot of this needle-bed as possible while still encroaching on the cobalt atoll that houses the fish,
for if you were to venture too far, you’d succumb to whatever was lurking therein. Of course,
none of this was of any concern to me. I nodded and struck out home to count down the days
until thirty again.

There is something I have neglected to tell you about my home. Though I find myself
generally honest, this piece is a thorn in my side and I fear for my life to admit it. For although I
spoke of books like benign instruments of pleasure, there was one story that made in me a divine
rapture from which I’ve never quite awaken. One afternoon while everyone was sleeping, I
found a volume in a hidden station of my father’s bookshelf. Its jacket was stiff and rough to the
touch, but its pages were as thin as lamb’s skin and porous from age. It told the story of a man in
a place called Athens who entered a maze made of towering matter who, upon losing his way,
fell into a fit of hallucination and saw a horned beast. I say it here in secret, though perhaps you
have already made the inference that it has taken me all these years to come to. I know that the
island, the one written about in a 1955 almanac of ancient mythos, is the very same one that
bears us fish– I know that, many thousands of years before these Greeks, some powerful empire
snuffed out the embarrassing chemical byproduct of its labor in this massive grave, and tried to
hide it so that no student of this “labyrinth” would discover it. Many must have tried and failed,
my friend, because the men who leave the tumults stink of a foreign poison and dream of
monsters, still.