Max E. Keele
t's the end of the long time of sleeping; the night has been restless and frightfully prolonged. The dreamtime lingers only as fragments of shadow, darting demonic puffs, flickering against a backdrop of creative light. The rainbow serpent, the worm, the mother of all the world, stirs and opens her swollen, blood-dimmed eyes.
But it's only the sunrise.
I am more awake now than I have ever been. The crisp air slaps my cheeks, and brings tears to my eyes.
Something reminds me of deer hunting with my father. The wind's stinging reprimand? A feeling of hot cider on an early October morning? Or is it the smell of blue metal rising from the .30-.30 carbine I've got cradled in my lap?
It was my father's gun. He could shoot the ear lobes off a chipmunk at a hundred paces, no scope, just with the iron sights. Sometimes, when I was little, he'd let me hold it, and I'd try and try to sight in on the wildlife calendar, but my short arms just couldn't keep the barrel up. "Don't worry, son," he'd say, "you'll grow into it, and one day this old rifle will be yours."
And damned if it isn't. Up here on the roof, that old Marlin carbine and I can see the whole of downtown. The view glows in the early light. Later, the streets will lose their blush, people will crowd them, traffic will snarl them. We will be waiting.
Cool concrete probes for weak spots in my field jacket; I shift my weight and squat. Numbness creeps into my hands; I pull the gloves off, blow into my cupped palms and rub them together. I remember sitting like this, back on my heels, with a rifle in my arms, at the edge of a stand of quakies, watching the morning sun light up the tops of the sagebrush. Watching a pretty little doe lead her fawn up the opposite slope. Through the telescopic sight, I could see her plainly. The doe would take a few steps, then stop, lift her head, and test the breeze. She nudged the fawn's spotted rump with her nose, and away they strolled, almost casually, another few steps. I recall the sound of distant gun fire, far removed and innocent.
My breath condenses into empty speech balloons. I'm a cartoon character with nothing to say.
I jump to my feet and stamp them against the tarpaper. Leaning over the parapet I can see the first yawning tradesmen arriving to work at a construction site across the street. I can see hungover tycoons vying for espresso and donuts in the corner deli. I see the first groggy tremblings of a society on the verge of waking, waking from perplexing dreams. An overweight paperboy slaloms around the lampposts on the sidewalk, flinging papers with a jerky, minor league windup that threatens to dump him from his bike. I quarter the logo on his baseball cap with the cross-hairs. "Bang," I whisper.
I too can shoot the earlobes off a chipmunk, but I need the 'scope. It's an 8 x 32 Tasco with a wide field of view and high-contrast cross-hairs. "Bang."
My father's cat-tongue voice lapped against the back of my neck. "You see that doe?" I nodded. "Pretty little thing." I nodded again. "Son, don't ever shoot a thing of beauty."
The worm curls up inside my nodding head. It chews on a section of my brain that I have thought to be securely hidden. Its fangs tear into the place where I have stashed my father: his trophy bucks, his cat-tongue voice, his hair-trigger, his crystal-hard knuckles. The worm chews and I remember. It is almost time.
I remember the time my father decided to teach me to fight. The bully that lived across the street had beaten me senseless yet again. "Son," my father said, "a man has to stand up for himself." He took me to the basement, showed me how to hold my hands, explained the art of boxing, and promptly smacked me in the mouth with a stiff right hook. When I came to, with the song of singing crystal in my ears, he was standing over me, trying not to laugh.
For a moment, the universe becomes crystal. I dig around in a pocket for an apple, and when I pull it out, two brass cartridges pop out with it and go skittering across the rooftop. The sound they make reminds me of a wet finger around the rim of a fine goblet. A cheery little screech.
Father would always have an apple for me, after hiking down the mountain, back at the car. I munched one, and thought about that doe and her fawn. I thought about having her in the cross-hairs, about my finger snuggled up against the trigger. "Son," he said, "don't ever shoot a thing of beauty." I pitched the apple core at a magpie. Missed. Jacked the cartridges out of my rifle. Got in the car. Nodding my stupid head, damn it, as if I understood.
And now, of course, I understand it all. Everything. A man has to stand up for himself.
I remember, my father asked me if I was all right. I nodded, and livid sparks swam against the black back-drop of my vision. A thin trickle of blood eddied against my teeth. His trophy buck head grinned down at me from its mount. "Let's go upstairs," my father said, "and don't tell your mom, okay?" Sure, dad. That was the first time I felt the serpent, then only a tiny embryo, squirming within the folds of my cerebellum.
The rainbow serpent focuses things for me. She sorts out the dream fragments, ranges them in. She crosses the world with fine white lines.
It's time. Through the 'scope, the people below seem cautious, hesitant, wary. They stop every few steps to taste the air. The wrongness of this hits me like a .30-.30 hollow-point between the eyes. This wrongness splits the morning like a singing crystal. I beg the worm to help me focus my sights, to sort out the fragments. But she has returned to the long sleep. She tosses lightly, finding little comfort in the soft tissues of my brain. I pull back the rifle, and sit with my back to the parapet, sweating despite the chill. There is a sound of ringing crystal. I jump to my feet.
The apple sails out into the air, falls like a perfect rainbow to the street. If only I could remember my father.