Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Poppenella

by Kami Schexnayder


Reflections of splendid colors throw themselves down a long, pocked road. Illuminated whites, and earthy greens and reds pool on the worn, black tar. Their origins are a mystery to those who still have eyes to see, for there is no light source anywhere in view. No maternal street lamp nor traffic light. And the gluttonous fog gorges on the night sky leaving not even a thread of moonbeam or a star's last bright shaving to shine upon the earth. There is a run-down warehouse about a hundred feet from where the street is glowing, but it is dark and has been de-veined of electricity for almost a decade now.

Poppenella is sauntering down this road alone in search of meaning. Her back is delicately curved from her habitual quest and her darting eyes are full of sight. It is only a matter of distance before she stumbles upon the pools of light. Soon they stretch before her. What is this? She thinks while she bends her body in half and touches a piece of illumination tentatively with her fingertips. A bubble of snow-white light jumps off the street and ascends to the top of her hand. Where are you coming from? She directs her question to the temporary glow of color on her skin. Where are you coming from? She asks again while looking up at the clogged sky.

Poppenella stands, closes her sparking, amber eyes, spins her small body counterclockwise and with an extended arm and a pointed finger, she stops abruptly. She is young and still full of trust in the guidance of the great spirits. She opens her eyes and sees that her finger is pointing directly at fluttering bits of trash that line up like school children in spirited abandonment along the edges of the road. Poppenella is sure the light source comes from somewhere underneath the discard. The Great Spirits are never in error. She walks to the streets border and shuffles the debris with a small foot wrapped in bandages. Her toes kick through charred cans, urine soak printed pages of useless information, plastic bags, bits of rubber... Inside her childish imagination she dreams there are rare, small creatures burrowing beneath this hodge-podge of ordinary city litter -- perhaps beaming their essence onto the black tar so they can see that which they are made of. She thinks these creatures might be round...maybe covered in soft brown fur... whiskers...and smart...very smart. She will make friends with these animals and maybe, if they are small enough, she will be able to carry them home to live with her as pets and have them shine their lights when the final darkness descends. Poppenella had always day-dreamed about having a pet. She often thought how lucky the Elders were to have had animal companionship. But Poppenella will never have a pet outside her imagination. The only animals that remain are leftover rats that have morphed from the changed environment into something putrid and aggressive.

Poppenella sings words that rhyme in her high-pitched child's voice while kicking her foot back and forth through the trash. The pools of color disappear but Poppenella does not yet notice. Her toes poke many things during her patient search. Eventually she hits something that feels like it is made of flesh that upon contact, washes her body in excited heat. Maybe it is one of the furry creatures her imagination recently birthed! She bends to investigate. It is only a dead bird but Poppenella is not disappointed. Fervently, she crouches beside the dead bird in awe and says a quick prayer for its soul while she picks off bits of garbage from its brilliant feathers. Poppenella has not seen a bird in years. Every once in a while she would spot something that looked like a bird in low flight but one was never really sure what one was or wasn't seeing in the sky -- it was so dirtied.

Poppenella is not skittish around the deceased bird for she is familiar with death. Her kind has been disease-riddled for as long as her life -- their population dropping in half since the revolution. She is dying herself, one body part at a time. She gently scoops the bird inside her tiny hands and slides it down her shirt. Poppenella had been told by the Informers it is not safe to have close contact with something that (most likely) died from the Infestation but the bird is so beautiful she cannot leave it behind to decompose in common trash. She looks at the road and notices that now it is cast in darkness. She shrugs her shoulders and returns her attention to the dead bird that is nestling against her frail chest. She will bring the bird home now and look for the light-beaming beings another night.

Poppenella returns home. She can hear her brother breathing rhythmically in slumber, the deep inhale, the pause, the exhale, the deep rattling of the throat strings and back again like clockwork to the inhale. There isnít much inside the blackness of their shelter, only two small, rotting tables and a few moldy mattresses -- one for her and one for her brother. Her stomach rumbles but she knows there will be no food until the morning. She digs a small hole in the earth next to her bed and places the bird inside the groove. Goodnight. She whispers. She closes her eyes and waits for morning.

Poppenella dreams about flying. She has no wings but with concentration she can take flight above the dirty clouds. In the air next to her is the dead bird that rests near her sleeping body. Its brilliant feathers are lit up in the colors of an Elders' painted sunset. Blinding oranges, purples and reds cast a warm light on the dank, fading earth below. The two fly in silence until they can see nothing below and nothing above. No earth, no clouds -- nothing but clear, shining space high-lighted with the birds luminescence. This moment is ecstasy. Poppenella is penetrated by the magic of her flight in her heart, mind and soul. She has begun to shine too, just like the bird. Her hair glows as bright as fire and just beneath her skin a glorious purple pulses to the rhythm of her heart. The paired flight uncovers a truth that is understood through a language of color. For an eternity, it is just the two of them flying and flying to nowhere and everywhere.

And then she wakes up. Her brother is coughing and she does not have time to sit inside the glowing aftermath of her dream though this is exactly what she wants to do. She gets up from her bed and greets her brother with a good morning while glancing at the dead bird who lies silent and resplendent in the dry earth. She reaches for the tin cup next to her brotherís bed and guides it to his lips. He has lost most of his sight and appreciates her assistance. He drinks the water and his coughing subsides.

Poppenella can hear the shuffling of people gathering in the square. She wraps her body in a tattered shawl and steers her brother out of bed. The two depart from the house and join the line of people that wait for their portion of food. A few hairless, bony rats hiss and gnaw at the heels of the people, waiting in vain for a piece of bread to fall from fumbling fingers. But every crumb is accounted for and the rats will leave unsatisfied.

The community is quiet now while they wait patiently for their meager portions. There are no excited whispers of the future. All talk of escaping destiny has suffocated beneath the grip of past failure. There is no exchange of gossip shared between neighbors. There is neither laughter nor angry words hurled at one another in frustration. No one speaks anymore. Everyone is too weak from hunger and disease to bother stringing words together. And what good is an alphabet in the eve of extinction? There is no maiden left who bleeds anymore -- the women are as dried up as the crumbling earth around them. There is no cure for the Infestation. So quietly they all wait in line (the silence interrupted only by wheezing breaths and stringy coughs) wondering if tomorrow there will be food, wondering if tomorrow will be the day the gaping mouth of the sky will swallow them up, wondering whom the Infestation will place next, into the outstretched arms of Death. All are hushed by doom, except Poppenella.

Poppenella holds her brother's hand while they stand in line. She is humming softly and thinking about the bird. She cannot wait to return home and glide her fingers across its silken feathers. She wants to share her discovery with her brother but she knows he would only worry about the strains of Infestation the bird may carry, and scold her. Instead she decides to tell him about last nightís apparition of lights. He listens to Poppenella's words rise and fall like notes in a song. She is telling him about her walk and the strange, red green and white lights she bumped into along the way. She is telling him how she asked the Great Spirits -- where are the lights coming from? -- and the Great Spirits pointed her in the direction of the waste along the edges of Stavin Road. She is telling him that she thinks burrowed in the trash are strange and magnificent creatures that beamed the lights. If we can catch them and befriend them, she says excitedly, no one will have to fear the darkness, for their lights shine so brilliantly! He smiles at her words that give him sight again. He does not believe her story. He knows there aren't any furry animals that project light, nor a god or Great Spirit listening or answering to anything -- but he says nothing. He admires her vivid imagination and wonders how it can survive so colorfully amongst a bone-gray world almost dead.

Brother and sister nibble on bread and sip on warm water while walking back to their abode. They each carry a can of kirl beans which they will consume in the evening. Poppenella's wrapped foot is beginning to smell of rot and the ankle and leg are turning a dull, steel gray. Her brother can smell the stench but he does not have the energy to address the issue. Besides, Poppenella and everyone else still alive already knew there was nothing anyone could do about the Infestation. It was too unpredictable -- daily re-infecting with new strains too many to count. There were better things to talk about than illness, so close to the unknown. Her brother lies down again on his dirty mattress, weary and wheezing from the short walk. Poppenella retrieves the bird and sits on the bed next to her brother. His vision is so poor Poppenella does not bother to hide the bird while she pets its soft feathers.

So tell me more about these creatures, Poppenella... the ones that beam red, green and white lights, says her brother affectionately. And Poppenella gladly again describes to her brother what she thinks they look like, delving into her memory of The Elders tales of when animals roamed the earth in abundance. Big eyes, a snout with whiskers, round, with soft, brown fur...and she adds feathers on the furry backs of her creatures -- feathers just like the ones she holds in her hand.

Her brother is already asleep and will spend most of the day in uneasy slumber until it is time to eat again. Poppenella rests her head in the crook of her brotherís arm and continues to caress the bird. The birdís body has begun to decompose and is beginning to smell. She kisses its delicate head and returns it back to the earth. There is water she did not drink yet from her tin that she splashes on the bird while uttering eulogistic sentiments to the great spirits on the birdís behalf. She places dirt on top of the bird until it is covered completely. She sits on the rough grave so her weight can pack the rough dirt. She lovingly glides and spins her body back and forth and back and forth across the dirt until the earth becomes so smooth no one would ever suspect that a dead bird lies underneath. Tired from the burial, Poppenella lays her head on top of the grave and closes her eyes.

Again, she dreams she is flying with the bird in a halo of glorious shades to everywhere and nowhere. Together they communicate love through colors that spangle in rhythmic patterns. The two merge into one blinding brilliance, ascending to unknown heights while the bird decays beneath the colors of her dream.

####

Poppenella awakes delighted by her repetitious dream and hangs on to the sensation of flight for a meditative moment before returning back to waking reality. Her left cheek is powdered with dirt that she does not bother to brush off. Out of the broken window she can see that it is late afternoon, for the congested grey sky has begun to darken into blackness. It is time for her habitual walk and she decides that she will venture again down Stavin Road in search of the small, light-beaming creatures. She still has a few hours yet before her brother will wake up. Poppenella begins to stand, but immediately she discovers she cannot rise from the ground. Her leg that had just begun to rot is now completely useless. The drab color of infection has already reached the top of her thigh and there is a dull ache echoing in the center of her bones. Her other leg she cannot feel at all. Poppenella tries to drag her small body towards the door with the strength of her spindly arms. She digs her elbows into the hard earth and pulls her torso forward. She repeats her efforts time and again but gains little distance. Her elbows become bloody and torn. She will not be searching for anything on Stavin Road this evening, or any other.

Poppenella is not surprised; she knew her time would come. Poppenella scoots back to the grave of her bird, finding solace near its presence, and waits for the Infestation to claim her body. She knows death will come quick, for beneath her skin she can already see the Infestation twirling as if in dance, wrapping steps around pillars of bone, drunk on her blood and full on the feast of organs and other innards.

Poppenella looks over at her sleeping brother and begins to pray to the great spirits, asking them to please watch over her brother when she is gone, to give him sight again, and to ease his pain and the pain of all the people. While she prays, her body quivers from fever. The earth around her is hot from her heat and even the birds carcass resting in its grave, is warm as though it lay beneath a beam of remembered sunshine. Its' feathers grow roots and drink in the warmth of her fever as though it were drinking in the sun itself. Poppenella's breath is shallow but she does not gasp for air in fear of waking up her brother. He does not need to be burdened with such things as seeing his sister die. While Poppenella is expiring, she talks to the buried bird gently, on top of frail, whispering breaths, with lips so close to the dirt.

I had a dream about you, twice. You were flying -- and though I don't have wings, I was flying with you too. I will close my eyes again soon. Will you be there? Are you waiting for me?

Poppenella smiles at the thought of reunification, closes her eyes, breathes her last breath and begins another journey.

Her brother awakes and calls Poppenella's name to see if she is nearby. She does not answer and he assumes she is out on her usual walk. He slowly gets out of bed by himself. He is hungry and knows when Poppenella returns that she will be hungry too. He will feel his way to the kirl beans where they rest next to her tin cup on the small table by her mattress. He will have the cans of beans open for when Poppenella returns. While he shuffles in his search, he trips over something that he soon discovers is his sister. He frantically shouts her name over and over again while he probes his hands up and down her body in search of a beat or a breath which he does not find. Barren moans crack through his open mouth in sorrow. Her corpse has no pulse but it is still burning as though she left before the Infestation had finished with her body. Her brother cradles her delicate frame in his arms and rocks back and forth in grief. He spends the rest of the night this way; kissing Poppenella's lips and cheeks, cursing nothingness for taking his sister away, cursing nothingness for his pain, cursing nothingness for the hellish existence.

In the morning, her brother carries her body to the incinerator. A few people wandering about in the Square murmur rehearsed condolences. Others just shake their heads to themselves but most, blinded by sight or indifference, don't even look up. There is barely anything left in anybody anymore. Poppenella's body will turn into gray ashes that match the gray sky that is eating up humanity.

But nearby, sprouting above the earth near an old mattress is a tree of feathers fiery as the colors of the ancient setting sun. Every passing minute, the tree grows taller and taller and more luminous than the moon and stars of old. It will soon burst through the roof of the shack and climb to the heavens. The townspeople will knock on Poppenella's brotherís door each day. They will want to run their amazed fingers up and down the silken feathers of the strange miracle tree. They will start to talk excitedly amongst themselves. Whispers will beget exclamations. Silence will be traded in for laughter. Weary and ill bodies will dance beneath feathered shade. Brother will wonder about the death of his sister and the origin of the tree, and though he will have no theory, he will not think it a coincidence. Among the branches, colored in greens and reds and whites, beautiful orbs will grow and hang like ornaments. Most will think they are an exotic fruit but brother will forbid their picking. Upon caressing them with his hands, he will insist they are eggs where breathing inside, are small, furry, light-beaming beings with eyes the color of amber and on their small backs, wings like a bird.

THE END


© 2010 Kami Schexnayder

Bio: Kami Schexnayder is a southern, up and coming writer hailing from New Orleans. She is a creative, experimental prose artist who enjoys delving inside the realm of surrealism.

E-mail: Kami Schexnayder

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