John Mackenzie’s eyes snapped open. He stared into the fuzzy purpling sky and decided not to move until he figured out what the hell had happened.
Met four hippies at Dallas-Fort Worth and agreed to tag along on their poorly detailed road trip. Gone one hundred miles in a custom camper van before he even thought to ask where they were going. The closest man–Tom? Thom?–handed Mack a flyer, calligraphied names listed alongside images of birds and cowboys. They’d crossed the Texas state line as he read Abel Body…Bloodspeak…10Penny Nails…Crows W/White Bodies…Three-Minute Hurricanes…Mack looked up.
“These sound like death metal bands,” he’d shouted over the grumble of the overtaxed engine.
Thom laughed. “We prefer the term life metal!” He looked like a blond Adam Sandler.
Tent City miles from anywhere, middle of nowhere, Oklahoma. Stages and microphones, amplifiers and Ferris wheels, porta-johns and cotton candy machines, an entire carnival in the least hospitable place in America. Not as hot as Iraq, but dustier.
“The rancher lets us use his land for free. He was a big time California dope grower in the Sixties,” Thom said. “He found Jesus and now he’s the friendliest guy in Oklahoma.” Mack followed the four men through the gates and into the bedlam.
He lost track of the hippies in less than an hour. Hundreds of bodies, sharing the sun and the sweat as Christian rock and Christian heavy metal and Christian rap rang out from competing speakers, mixing and muddling in the air and in his ears and in his stomach. Beautiful and ugly humans, bodies of shapes and sizes he hadn’t seen in months. What kind of history or explanation could he offer these people who had no clue where he’d been three days prior or would be three weeks hence, people he hadn’t known existed until this moment? What kind of world was this?
Mack ate and listened to music and drank what was handed to him and nodded along politely as people talked of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, which bands were fortifying spirits and which weren’t up to the task, who was touring where and what states had been skipped over on the festival’s ramble across North America. He watched the bands sweat into the microphones, drowning themselves out with their appeals for love and each other and can’t a man just love his fellow man without a lot of judgment amen?
As the sun set low against endless hills Mack wandered in front of a stage decorated with images of seagulls and cardinals. He split his attention between the band called HandShake and the people who clearly loved the band called HandShake, had perhaps traveled for days to see the band called HandShake. There were dozens, maybe less than a hundred, but they were so intense and intent a crowd of meat pressed tight together and expanding with the set, thumping bass and meticulous guitar contracting and inflating the mass of human beings in rhythmic synchronization. He felt the epicenter of a giant lung, or a fish newly returned to the sea, sucking down oxygen for life.
And there, standing in front of him, Mack saw the Painted Man for the first time. A giant near seven feet tall, bare-skinned to the waist, brute musculature shadowed and inked under the line of a thousand needles and flood lights swarming with moths. His clean-shaven head sported a wreath of thorns, railroad tracks crisscrossing his skull, and an all-seeing eye keeping watch behind him. His neck told the story of David and Goliath, his back the epic of Noah and his Ark, tales of tiger stripes and jungled canopies dripping down his flanks. Mack looked closer and he could see half the Zodiac encircling the man’s shoulders.
His torso angled into a trim waist and the tattoos followed–lizards and scorpions picking apart images of skeletal waste seeping through his flesh. Mack moved through the crowd so he could see the backs of the man’s calves and they were as tree trunks, plunging into root structures and secrets beneath the earth and his ankles.
He wanted to spin the man around, though the metaphor towered over the rest of the crowd. Mackenzie wanted to knock him down and examine his body, rip off his clothing and see how deep and far the tattoos extended. Was he drawn on the inside? Were his palms tapestries, his groin illuminated with the story of Adam and Eve?
Mack was tired, and drunk, and high, and had no clue how many miles it was to Baghdad or Dillinger or home if he had one or anywhere but here. He knew here was Oklahoma but only because the fifth hippie–had there been five? Four? Any?–said so and the Welcome to Oklahoma sign confirmed. The red earth tasted of iron and sun and he knew he was sick. Sun sick even as it set behind burnt hills.
Mackenzie stumbled out of the crowd and found refuge in the lee of a tent. The two-degree difference in the weak haze felt like a new world to him. Someone offered him water and he took what he could, throwing most of it up. He had vague memories of bodies lifting him, an IV, a needle in his arm and a cool compress against his forehead. He smiled himself stupid under the gaze of volunteer medics. To survive Diyala Province and Operation Blacksmith and the donkey whisperer and the Mickey Mouse IED and two tours before and how many to come and to die of heat stroke in Oklahoma–who would tell that story? Someone should, he laughed.
The next morning he felt better. His head clear, fluids replenished, he could now walk under his own power. Mack politely shrugged off the offers of evacuation to the nearest town–two hours away over torn county roads and not much of a town on the other end–and promised to drink more water and nothing else, eat something bland if he could hold it down, un-fried if he could find it. He stumbled away from the medical tent, at once grateful and embarrassed that they’d refused payment.
Mack resumed his search for the Painted Man. With his head on straight he could talk to the man, ask for the meaning behind the tattoos, and see their full extent. He wouldn’t need to dissect the Painted Man to unravel his mysteries and interpret the stories and sing them out loud in the voice of his people and shit was he still sick again?
Mackenzie saw the Painted Man loom large as a pillar. Whether he was ill or not he would confront him this time, and if he collapsed at the tattooed soles–bird’s claws? Feet of a shark?–he would at least have come closer to learning
…I had to break to save the pain…
Mack stopped short when the Painted Man turned. A series of images burned into the soldier’s memory–the summer half of the Zodiac encircling the Man’s collarbones–an epic battle between frigates unfolding across the Man’s chest–his stomach displaying Joshua and the trumpet blasts at Jericho–his sides giving life to leopards and birds, leaping across his ribs in vivid patterns of light and dark.
Cheeks streaked with black tears, forehead bore witness to chapter and verse, nose covered in skeletal relief
…This back weren’t made for breaking…
and then the Painted Man stepped aside, never seeing the soldier who hunted him, and John saw a woman.
Later he would know her as Sera Quarron. Before he knew her name all he wanted was to hear her reveal it to him and that would have been enough in this life.
She stood alone, half-turned away from Mack, and he wanted to know her. He wanted her to let him know her. Black hair, the color of the distance between galaxies, straight and short and blowing, slender limbs and strong and full of life. Her shoulders visible beneath a white tank top, heralding the dawn through the boughs of a sycamore, branches reaching to her arms, in full leaf, a mighty tree brushed across the back of this woman. The trunk extended down, towards her waist, and he wondered at the roots.
Wings covered her arms–the feathered wing of an angel on her left, the leathered wing of a bat on her right. Symbols descended past her elbows, cryptic logos and characters spilling stories of mystery.
She turned and John saw her face and she looked at him and they stopped, or at least he hoped she stopped and looked at him. She smiled and he hoped forever that in the moment he smiled back. She was beautiful, and strong, and her eyes looked right into his and not to the side or above or beyond. She saw him and he saw her.
She was the first person in months to see him without looking past.
He walked forward, hoping she wouldn’t dissolve into fugged air or slip into his subconscious.
The music changed. He had no idea who played–Crows W/White Bodies? Bloodspeak?–and the thrumming of the guitars replaced by the expansive keening of a cello, he thought it was a cello, had to be a cello, anything but a cello would be insufficient to the moment and he knew it. He didn’t look at the stage but at her.
She turned her back on him in an invitation, stepped back towards him, and she crossed her arms. The white tank top, stark against her body
…Tomorrow’s already a promise broken…
he could see the red straps of her bra and she was warm under the power of the sun and wind and soft under his fingers as they brushed years off her shoulders. She turned her head, looked up at him, and he pulled back.
Her eyes were not warnings but questions, curiosity meeting hesitation. He paused and let his arms fall to the side. She turned back and they both moved in time to the music and each other.
Her arms and chest showed birds and vegetation, an entire forest of life bounding across her body. Her bare legs held entire oceans of sea creatures, and his head swam.
Somehow they spoke–Sera with an e, she explained, Quarron with a q. She answered his questions quickly, easily, asking her own and waiting for his answers, leaning close to listen and speak over the music. She must have pegged him as a soldier instantly but gave no voice to those thoughts. He sensed an immediate wall and her conscious tearing down of that wall, and the last thing she told him as the last song started was “Find me again.” The crowd rose like the birth of an ocean and they parted.
He scanned the human current for her black hair or white shirt, the blood flash of lipstick or bra, searching stupidly for the peculiar cross she wore on a leather strap tight around her neck
…Don’t let me go…
Find me again, she’d said. Words echoed over the thrum of music and humanity.
Hours later–he searched, his head and stomach clearing after the sickness of that morning, his heart beating against his chest slow but burdened–Mack saw giant black clouds piling up on the horizon. A storm of any size would soak the dusty fields, make rivers of mud erupt and weave out of dance floors and carnival midways. The weakest breeze would surely topple the speakers and the scaffolding, one bolt of lightning would toss the Ferris wheel down, and this was no storm of just any size.
The hurricane came, as foreseen and foretold and worse. Mackenzie sought shelter with other human refugees under a giant canopy until it ripped, laden with rainwater and slashed by hail. They scattered and he wandered across the belly of his nation, red mud painting his body as the sun died forever behind menacing clouds. He remembered Tent City to the west, higher ground at the campsite, so he followed what remained of his internal compass and collapsed at the same time as the storm came again, howling wind giving a last shrieking challenge to the land.
He dreamed of being buried under centuries of mud, entombed in the barrows of the planet, all the animals from the Painted Man’s Ark laughing at him.
And then–as now–he was awake and fully remembered where and what he was. He was on the ground, on his back, staring into the warming blue of an eggshell sky. He assumed he was still in Oklahoma but would not have been surprised to find himself back in Mesopotamia, or Oz, or Hell.
A rock jabbed Mackenzie in the small of his back. He decided to let it, for now, as he finished assembling his memories and considered the day. If he tilted his head back he saw hints of red and orange. If it were morning that meant his feet pointed west; if evening then east. The dome above was wet and crystalline, soft as a blanket but completely unbroken by clouds. Probably morning, though he couldn’t pick why.
A small brown cross circled high above. Bird, he thought. Vulture? His lips curled–was it here to eat him? Had he died? He tried to hear the scavenger, listen to its gut and learn its story, especially if it was the last thing he’d hear.
Not a vulture, he realized. A hawk of common breed. Not hunger but curiosity, even caution, especially this early. Maybe he weren’t dead yet.
Mack’s hand slid beneath his body and clutched the rock when he heard the growl. A low and primal warning bloomed from the direction of his feet, freezing him in place. West, some small part of his brain reminded him.
His arm wedged beneath him, Mackenzie lifted his head and focused on a coyote no farther than a few feet from his naked toes. He’d never been this close to a wild animal, so the fear took a moment to register.
“What’re you supposed to be,” he said, voice cracking dry, “my spirit animal?”
The creature was lean, powerful, nothing wasted on its spare frame. The coyote didn’t speak. The eyes were smart and keen, looking right at—
Not looking at him. She was looking at a spot on the ground between his feet.
He lowered his eyes to the same spot.
He saw the viper.
He heard the rattle.
John flinched. The snake struck, mouth open and fangs extended, aiming for his bare foot. The coyote was faster, grabbing the snake just behind its head and thrashing it to death in a second. The rattler hung limp from the coyote’s jaws. She turned from Mackenzie, trotted away, and stopped. She swung her feral head back and he swore the coyote winked at him.
The animal departed–loping easily and efficiently across the muddy plains, away from the campsite and towards the wild brush to enjoy her breakfast–and he heard laughter behind him. He spun, as surprised as when the snake attacked, and saw Sera.
She sat with her legs folded underneath her, denim shorts and black bra and no other threads on her body, the small wooden cross topped with a circle resting in the notch between her collarbones, burning cigarette dangling from slender fingers. She stopped laughing and smiled.
“More like a guardian angel, I’d wager.” She sucked on the cigarette and exhaled a spiral of bluish grey. “That was pretty fucking holy.”
He smiled, repositioning himself to face her. “How long you been watching?” She passed him a cigarette and offered her lighter. Her body was as clean as his was muddy.
“If I say Long Enough it’s gonna sound cliché,” she said, scratching behind her ear. “But long enough.”
“Did you see the snake?” He glanced west. She shook her head. “The coyote?” She nodded. “How did we—”
“I told you to find me.” She shrugged. “So I guess you did.”
John looked around as he lit up. Her tent lay in a pile behind her, battered by the storm, and tents and sleeping bags and camper trailers close aboard showed signs of the prairie hurricane. “Some storm last night,” he said.
She laughed, sprinkling glass and bell music. “That was no mere storm. Never been a storm like that, not here, likely won’t be again. That was a chapter closing, John Mackenzie, a book opening up, the heavens sending us a signal to rejoice and be fearful and wake the fuck up.” She smiled brightly. “But yeah, hell of a storm.”
She spoke without accent, at least none he could detect. The sun had burned her shoulders, forearms, the parts of her chest not covered by cloth. She was once again beautiful but he had no clue what to say next.
She spoke first. “You heading there? Coming back?” She exhaled another plume. “Or something else?”
He propped himself up more comfortably. “In between. I’ve got to head back in…twelve days?” He counted in his head. “Eleven.”
“You a big fan of contemporary religious music, John Mackenzie? Getting your fix of spirituality before you go back?”
He shook his head and laughed. “Not really. You?”
“I’m a fan of life, and only a temporary believer of any sort.” She stubbed the cigarette out in the dirt beneath her legs and lit another one. “Why limit ourselves?”
John looked at Sera and an image of her body curled against his flashed into his mind. He didn’t know if it was memory or fantasy. He took a gamble. “Did we…”
She laughed and shook her head, her black bangs hanging over her eyebrows and her short ponytail swinging freely. “No, we did not. You found my tent near midnight, mumbled something about donkeys and stomach flu, and collapsed. Slept a few hours inside, then insisted on counting stars after the second storm passed.” She squinted at him. “I think you been sick, John.” She held the smoke in her lungs for a long heartbeat. “Can I say something, hope you don’t take offense?” She smirked. “Sorry, guess I answered my own question. You cry out in your sleep. Who’re Cisneros and Ledbetter?”
Mackenzie felt his heart blast, one insane surge against his chest wall, and he felt like he might throw up. “I gotta go.” He stood, dizzy and weak, and Sera stood with him.
“You don’t want to talk about them or anything else you don’t have to.” She was short, atomic in the presence of his body, but stood her ground fierce. “You never want to speak their story, that’s okay, too.”
She didn’t ask him to stay or come. She didn’t offer excuses. She didn’t say anything beyond her apology but the way she stood in front of him left no choice but to lower his defenses. He relaxed his fists, which he hadn’t realized were clenched. His shoulders slumped. She was a molecule but big as a mountain. He might not be recovered from the flu or the storm or the coyote or the war but he sensed something in her stance that prevented him from leaving, made him want to stay.
“What are you?” he asked for the first time again, smiling.
She smiled back. “You said you had eleven days?” He nodded. “Where you going?”
Travis Klempan joined the Navy to see the world. Most of it turned out to be water so he came home to Colorado where he lives and works. He has degrees in English and Creative Writing and is pursuing a degree in Ethics and Compliance. His work has appeared in Proud to Be, Line of Advance, and Ash & Bones.