By Travis Dahlke
It was something like, ‘GLAK GLAK GLAK,’ whispered sharply as if it came from some creature you had just accidentally confronted. I guess at the time I was confronting it, and well, it was a creature.
This whole thing started when I was leveling a cigar in my after-dark-sweats on the front patio. You could say I’ve never really been afraid of being outdoors at night. Safety has always hung over Willow Village like a fine quality fleece, covering all of the corners with the rest of the world laying in the darkness outside. Lydia, three porches down, refers to us living in ‘brick’ units and I have to correct her with ‘brownstone.’ We have a swimming pool and I’ve been the property manager here for over seventeen years, so she can just move right along.
Far enough into the woods, enough so you can’t see from the lawn, we keep a compost heap. It is where Christmas trees lay scandalously with broken bird feeders and where coffee grounds turn to new dirt with the banana peels and egg shells. It’s a provisional burial ground for deceased parakeets and pets under eight pounds. The resulting mud is mineral rich with low acidity. Everyone is allotted four buckets of soil for their gardens, and I know, I just know Marin Alvisio is taking twice that. You should see her hydrangeas. Well I notice one day an absence. I’m not sure how long I’ve gone not noticing it, but there isn’t a cracked watering can or basket to be found. Every ceramic pot has disappeared. The faces of jack-o-lanterns glare back at me under rows of chickadees, gossiping as if the little devils saw everything that had happened.
But there are more pressing things to muse on about than missing trash. I must have a stern talk with Mr. DeSanto, five units down. His son had a good look at me in my bra while I was just reading my articles and minding my own business. Now I’m alright with giving sixteen-year-olds their ‘material,’ but they won’t menace this community so carelessly and without fear of their decisions. No one is home when I knock on the door, or maybe they’ve just drawn the shades and hid. In any event, I take the welcome mat and I leave it in the forest. None of my neighbors brings the missing trash up, but I am pleasantly surprised to see a tenant has taken the initiative to clean up our community a little. Ever since women started rushing off to work in 1984, the place of ‘home’ has just failed. And when the home flounders, the whole neighborhood goes with it. My suspicions lie with Lydia’s daughter, who visits every other week and cleans up around Lydia’s house and makes sure she’s taking her meds and not letting the mail accumulate. This is despite the fact that she is stealing newspapers from me.
But I’m wrong, because a few days later, I’m raking up grass clippings because the goddamn landscapers don’t understand English, and, ‘GLAK GLAK,’ again from the edge of the brush. Within seconds, I’m indoors, and that’s the last time I ever see that rake. The next morning, it’s gone with the welcome mat.
I’ve become that old maid who feeds animals and I chuckle at the prospect. It fills me with a warm, golden goo. You are so hungry! I tell Hermes, unsure if he’s listening. But at night, I don’t dare leave my lights on. If I can’t see him, then what right does he have to see back at me? When I check the dumpsters, all trash seems accounted for. Hermes is too scared to come this close. Such a careful thing. That is unless he is just a cavity in the ground — a pit that digests whatever is thrown into its mouth, casting his voice and sending feelers out for prey.
Marin Alvisio speculates that he was born from decades, or perhaps even centuries of leaf mold and humus. She tells me this while we drink our Lipton on her patio. Marin has severe dementia that comes and goes, and I doubt even she knows what she is talking about. I say who knows how long they’ve been harvesting scraps here. This parcel of land may have gone all the way back to the early settlers, back when there were actual willows that roamed our little cut out slice of a prairie. I wouldn’t be surprised. Or maybe Hermes was already down there under the ground and was simply nurtured by all that rot, only to crawl out of the muck like God’s jawless fish did however long ago.
Things stay quiet until one morning when there’s a call on the answering machine from a nice salesman. I hear screaming. True, bloodcurdling screaming. I’m bursting across the yard to find it’s just kids playing near the pool, and my heart sinks.
Won’t eat children, will you?
I have a key to the Goodwill Donation bin, and I’m hauling things out when Mr. DeSanto’s son comes up from behind and frightens the living daylights out of me. I tell him the bags are mine and I don’t have to explain myself to a teenage Mexican.
“It’s going to bite your hand,” the kid says. I am so taken aback, I recoil and drop the overflowing garbage bags and they spill out onto the grass. He says it again in a trembling little accent. “Some soil-remoras should not be fed.”
“Now you just look. Your dad — soy remorah?”
But I start walking back without the bags, and he watches me until I am out of his line of vision. I lock the sliding glass and draw the curtain so tightly that the seams collapse into each other like giant, wrinkled sheets of skin.
The next morning, I gather up all my Tupperware and candles. A framed photograph. Throw in a stew of ashtrays and extension cords, peppered by half-empty prescription bottles. Feed him everything until my home is nearly bare. I drag some broken patio furniture from the storage shed and leave it all in one sacrificial mound. There are sunflowers wrapping around the hull of a spotted watermelon, forging with a corolla of seeds to resemble a careful eye. But I can also feel Lydia’s daughter watching me in her jogging clothes, and she shoots me a half smile, which I don’t return. Just thinking about Hermes meddling around my sacrifice gives me gooseflesh — erecting the hairs on my arms until they pounce right out of their pores. Lydia’s daughter whispers something into her mother’s ear.
In the evening, I have my cigar to chew on. To taste that jolt of raisin and peppery leather. I can feel him at the borders of the porch light then. With that meaty wrap clamped under my teeth. Pacing around the perimeter, watching each other and waiting for one to cross over. I think of that night often. But in the morning, I wake up with my head full of nightmares. Young DeSanto roams our lawn with an antique rifle from some Spanish civil war that he wishes to prosecute my creature with. I ask where his mother is and he points to the tree line but then shifts his finger to point towards the brush.
When I wake up, the sheets are damp with drool and my heart is engorged with blood. Awash with dread until daylight floods Willow Village again. Algae has turned the pool a shade of azure. I have to spend the whole afternoon sweeping a net through the mire to clean out all the drowned moles and leaves. Dumping bleach in until the container is empty.
On the cover of my National Enquirer newspaper, there’s a story about grave robbers hunting for LSD in the spines of dead people. Selling the bone acid to millennials and kids getting off from their grandparents’ marrow. Burt Reynolds is a lizard emperor who is dying from scale cancer. There’s a conspiracy about Hood dairy products actually being sourced from the breasts of indigenous women in Burma. But I don’t like the look of a van in the yard. A stocky man in a jumpsuit hops out and I have to have a talk with him as he’s putzing around my compost pile and wearing some kind of gas-pressured reverse vacuum on his back. He says he was hired to exterminate the fruit fly hive, and I tell him I didn’t hire anybody and I’ve been the property manager here for over seventeen years. This white trash land astronaut says this community has been corporately owned for well over a decade and pulls a breathing respirator down over his face. Carries on in a muffled voice. Says something about there being no property manager or landlord. My fists turn to shaking stones and I wait for Hermes to appear and devour this uninvited guest. To seize the man and kill him brutally and without compassion.
Then months pass with nothing. The DeSanto’s move out without any notice. One portrait stays half exhumed in coffee grounds, and the frame has been almost entirely gnawed away by my soil-remora. My ceramic eater. Everything else is gone with black earth accumulating over my grinning face. Mrs. Alvisio has left a shrine of mums and dead hydrangeas, which is very nice of her. She didn’t have to do that. Any lingering chickadees have all left, and the jack-o-lanterns, now deflated and bearded with mold, have full-blown eco-systems blossoming from their mouths.
Sometimes as I lay under the blankets, I’m sure I can hear the ‘GLAK GLAK,’ except it is far away. Hermes is devouring someone else’s patio chair wicker. My hands permanently hold the perfume of corroded metals. His cry dims more into the distance before disappearing completely. New Christmas trees melt with the cornhusks of summer. Late at night, I can hear other things, so far off. I will stay. I’ll stay here forever in these crumbling bricks.
Travis Dahlke is a writer from Marlborough, CT. His work has previously appeared in Five Quarterly, The Tishman Review, Verbicide Magazine, Noble/Gas Qtrly, and in the collection of short stories “Love on the Road 2013” (Malinki Press). Travis also has a chapbook published with the Head and the Hand Press’ Breadbox Series. You can find his work at www.sparrowmeat.com.