My daddy was the Keeper first. I inherited this place from him. Not much to
it—half a wall that used to fit someplace, on the back edge of our property.
Somehow that window never broke. Don’t ask me.
My daddy called it a “way station.” He used to be a trucker, so I misheard
at first and thought he meant “weigh station.” A place to take your measure. I
suppose that’s true enough. The dead folks who get stuck here? They’re all
But man, oh man, they bring a shit ton of hard questions. I mean, they never
ask about the weather last Tuesday. They want a clean accounting, right and
wrong like flip sides of a shiny penny.
I did try. I told myself, “Sis, these ghosts deserve their peace, even if
they smell like cordite and dust spiked with magnolia.” I looked for answers on
the wall, words scratched into brick. Strings of letters, numbers. Lovey-dovey
phrases. Could be nothing more than folks’ initials. But maybe there was
something else. A moral calculus. A righteous etymology.
Don’t look so surprised—I went to college; I read books. People think if you
say ain’t that you aren’t going anywhere. At least the dead know better
than all that.
They do get mightily impatient. You’d reckon ghosts would learn to wait, but
they’re a testy lot. They throw bitterness at me—clumps of gauzy, weightless
shit that smells like long-dead fish. Daddy didn’t warn me about that, which
got me to thinking there must be another way, something I missed.
Then this boy came along while I was picking wrath out of my hair. Little guy,
alone, but he came right up close. Brown corduroys and a T-shirt with a faded orange
logo. One shoe missing. Dirty fingers, caked with mud as if he’d clawed his way
from death. He stared at that old window, nothing on the other side but barren,
Well, Daddy didn’t give me any firm instructions, ‘cepting for the one word:
Stay. The window wasn’t latched. I opened it. And that kid floated
through, smiling fit to beat the band. Last I saw of him was one rubber-tipped
high-top and one bare set of toes. Last I heard, he laughed.
The rest of the dead followed. More come every day. Before they disappear, they drop stale questions at my feet. I sweep them up, make a pile, light a match. I burn the detritus of knowing. Eyes closed, I think about my daddy, out here on his own. I feel the pull of that lone window’s light, its tender provocations. I want to say, “I understand now, daddy. I get it, what you left me. This odd job. I might be the Keeper, but there ain’t nothing to hold onto. All I gotta do is stay.”
There’s a way and weight to that, to bearing witness. Staying. You ain’t got to know it all.
I am a still
with a crack.
A full-blown rose
but still crimson
at the heart.
“Where do the bubbles come from, mama?”
Violet pulls her mitten off to jab the iced weeds with a stick. When she doesn’t get an answer, she pokes her mother with the same downed branch.
“Violet, stop,” her mother says, brushing off the flecks of leaves from where they’ve landed on her new striped leggings. Her fingers tap the phone again. Her hair—cut short now and dyed black—works like curtains, hiding everything.
“I liked the pizza pants better,” Violet mumbles.
Her mother keeps her head down. “They weren’t practical,” she says.
“What about the fox pants? Or the owls—oh, or the tiny mice!”
Violet claps her hands, jumps and twirls across the frozen lawn. She thinks about her mother’s friends, the party where they bought those pants.
“sorry, josey. i had to bring violet. her father didn’t show.”
“again? aw, don’t worry, honey. i’ll set her up with lemonade and cookies. she’ll be fine.”
“Mama,” Violet stops her spinning. “How do the bubbles get in the ice?”
She scuffs her boot along the surface of the frozen puddle choked with weeds.
“you’ve let the lawn go all to hell, laura. jesus, can’t you get it right?”
“Um,” her mother says, “what’s that?”
She’s stabbing harder at her phone. Behind the shadow-fabric of her hair, she swipes a finger, wipes her eyes. Violet knows what’s coming. Her mother stitches on a smile that looks faker than a doll’s lips.
“What do you say we order Chinese take-out tonight, baby? Get a movie. Make popcorn?”
“He’s not coming,” Violet says.
“No, baby. He got held up.”
Violet spins again, this time with her dead branch lifted like a wand.
“Abracadabra!” she shouts.
“Baby, stop,” Laura says. “It’s cold. Let’s go inside.”
Violet smacks her stick against the fence. The neighbor’s Labrador begins to howl and that sets off the whole long block of barking, yapping dogs.
Laura yanks the branch away.
“I said stop,” she snaps.
Her cheeks are red. Her eyes are wet. She’s breathing hard.
Violet glares at her. “Those pants,” she says slowly, “make your butt look fat.”
Her mother holds so still Violet doubts she’s breathing. Laura drops the branch.
Violet flings herself forward, wraps her arms around her mother’s legs and holds on tight.
“i’m telling you, laura, that kid’s not normal. the way she stares at me. those freakin’ eyes”
“she has your eyes, mark”
When her mother strokes her hair, her fingers shake.
“Mama,” Violet whispers, “how does air get in the ice? Where do the bubbles come from?”
Laura’s voice drifts down like flakes. “I don’t know,” she says.
Violet tilts her head back, looks into her mother’s eyes.
“Could be fairies,” she whispers.
Laura smiles, a real smile. “Maybe.”
“Are they trapped?” Violet holds her breath.
“—why the hell I married you, you whore, you bitch, you cu—”
“No,” her mother says. “Not trapped. I think,” she hugs Violet close, “I think, they’re breaking loose.”
No matter what they called us—couriers, bards, merchants—we were either spies or traitors, in the end. We all went through the Blue Gate for the first time with our idealism intact. Back then, the Gate shone like a beacon made of periwinkle, azure and cerulean, plus shades we couldn’t name.
An exclusive group with varied talents, we crossed between the Dry Lands and Atlantis, swapping legs for tails at the Blue Gate. The transformation wasn’t painless, bones transmuting into thickened muscles, fish skin, scales. Gills split open on our necks and that first full breath of water always, always felt like drowning.
Then we swam between the worlds, with an escort of merfolk in formation like a net. Perhaps they never trusted us, their goodwill a masquerade. But Atlantis values stories, fairytales and myths. That’s all they ever wanted from the Dry Lands, tales to ponder and preserve, to tell by globelight, write in books, kept safe in soaring libraries. In return, they gave us tech—hydroponics, mining, engineering—enough advanced science to end famine, homelessness, pollution.
Of course, that isn’t what we did.
Jerry-rigged portals and black markets opened overnight, underground bazars that dealt in mermaid jewels and scales. And flesh. More exclusive venues offered wealthy buyers smuggled secrets: Atlantian research in pharmaceuticals, biotech and molecular weapons.
A lot of couriers made deals, becoming traffickers and spies. But the Atlantians weren’t fools. By the end, the merfolk escorts simply left their charges in the wide kelp forests, in the hunting grounds of sharks.
Some of us, a few, worked as double-agents for Atlantis, delivering names and dates. Locations of the markets. Coordinates of illegal portals. After the gates were sealed, after the epidemic and the riots, the profiteers lost all their fortunes. But those of us who chose Atlantis in the war were labeled traitors, hunted down by vigilantes.
I am the last surviving bard—a solitary memory, mine, the slip of water through my lungs, the bite of salt on gills. I’ve grown my hair out, died it black, but a hunter only has to lift the strands to find the gill scars on my neck. It won’t be long.
I don’t regret my choices. Down deep, the ocean tasted smoky-sweet like chocolate with chipotles. The coral in Atlantis bore the scent of gingerbread. Shadows broke and twirled inside each curvature of light. The crash of waves became a heartbeat. Home.
Now, mobs attack the Blue Gate round the clock. They batter it with steel, claw off the paint. The stones don’t crack. I wonder if Atlantis watches. I wonder if they’ll see me when I walk down there at sunset, my hair pulled back, my scars exposed. Will anyone with scales mourn me? Will they smell my blood against the Gate? They owe me nothing, really, but I hope they let a drop pass through. A drop of scarlet in the Blue. I hope I am a story in Atlantis, both cherished and preserved.