Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
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Beneath A Summer Moon

by Camila Dodik

The two little girls walked hand in hand down the street beneath the indigo sky of a summer evening. Silver mosquitoes buzzed and danced around their slim, entwined arms but, strangely, did not bite. They passed, footsteps echoing and shadows long, toward the bridge that passed over the railroad tracks, where a young man in a leather jacket stood leaning against the shining new chain-link fence that covered the bridge, a suicide-proof tunnel.

There was no one else; though there were houses around, there was no face at the window to ask what such small girls were doing out in the growing dark or to worry why they approached the man alone on the bridge so steadily.

They stopped a few feet from the man, who did not notice them until the taller girl said, "A man died here." The man startled, and then stared. The smaller girl had dark eyes like wells going deep into the earth; the taller girl's eyes were pale like the moon. The smaller girl pointed down at the railroad tracks.

It was unnecessary to point them out to the man. He had been absorbed in gazing at how they stretched out, with calm mathematical perfection, from one vanishing point on the horizon to the other.

"It's true," said the man, who generally liked talking with children, and appreciated their straightforwardness. "In fact, I knew him. He was a friend of mine. That's why I'm standing here, actually."

"Tell us about him," said the pale-eyed girl, cocking her head.

"It's not really a story for little kids," He said, looking back at the tracks. Even children knew about it, then. He placed his forehead against the fence and sighed.

"We know how he died," broke in the pale-eyed girl impatiently. "Broken on the tracks, blood spattering the metal of the train. That's not what we want to know. We want to know who he was. How he lived. Only you know."

"I did know." The man was surprised at her urgent tone. Well, why not? "It's an ugly story, really, but at the same time, it's almost funny. He was an artist and an alcoholic, but mostly the latter. He started off as a painter but drank up all his money for supplies, so he started writing novels. And then when he'd found that the alcohol ruined his ability to keep the details of long pieces straight, he wrote poetry instead. They were shorter, and at any rate, that meant he could save money on paper.

"Eventually he gave up poetry, too. Now, he lived with his mom and dad, and he was only twenty-four. They'd had enough of him, though. About that point, his father said something like, 'I've pulled a lot of strings to get you an interview for an honest job, and if you don't go, I swear to God I'll throw you out on the street.' It was harsh, but my friend's dad wasn't a bad man, you understand. He was doing what he thought he needed to do.

"So that morning, my friend put on a tie as his father scowled, and his mother lovingly tightened it. But he never made it to the city, as you well know."

* * *

He got on the train, which was packed full of people going to work in the city. In front of him sat a man in a black suit with a leather briefcase between his legs. This man, whose large belly bulged out in his white button-down shirt like the pale stomach of a frog, pursed his liver-colored lips and stared through his fashionable chunky black-rimmed glasses at the Wall Street Journal. The young man stared at him. The older man had a peremptory air about him, quickly scanning through each article and looking as if each had just barely managed to live up to his expectations. The young man looked away, biting the inside of his cheek.

Next to that frog sat an ugly young woman. Oh, her face resembled the beautiful actresses on the cover of the supermarket gossip magazine she was reading, but the young man found the expression on it repulsive. There was glee playing around her lips as she perused articles about, judging from the cover, celebrities' stays in rehab, their divorces, their DUIs. A luxury purse dangled from her elbow.

The young man looked down at his hands and felt that he needed a drink. He closed his eyes. But this only opened his ears to a conversation taking place in the adjacent seats.

"…Christopher was just accepted into his first choice college and we're so proud. We really made the right choice with that SAT class, even if it was a little bit on the pricier side. It gave him just the advantage he needed."

"And little Anna?"

"Well, she still wants to be a musician, but I'm trying to nudge her here and there, saying things like, 'well, that's a nice hobby, but…' You know? I'm trying to steer her in the direction of something a little more practical."

"Of course. You know, a lot of more artistic kids do well in marketing."

"It's just a matter of convincing her that she can't just 'follow her dreams' like they tell these kids, she needs something solid to live on, you know--"

The two women began to chuckle together, when the young man's eyes fluttered open and he interrupted them:

"Is she talented?"

The two women turned to stare at him with empty-eyed expressions. "Excuse me?" one asked. Her voice identified her as the mother of "little Anna."

"Is your daughter a good musician? Does she have talent?" He asked impatiently.

"Well, yes, I, I guess so."

"She has talent. As so many others do not. And you want," he felt his face growing hot, "her to give up her dream in order to live."

"Little Anna's" mother didn't answer; both women stared at him uneasily.

The young man felt his eyes flooding with tears; he couldn't control them and he didn't care.

"For some of us, we need those things you care so little for, those dreams, to survive." His voice was rising, growing cracked and hysterical.

The two women now fixed their gazes mutely down at the floor between their feet, and a number of passengers had turned around in their seats to stare at him.

* * *

"What kind of job was it?" the pale-eyed girl interrupted.

The young man squinted and cocked his head, at a loss for how to describe it to her. "One where they sit at desks and move around numbers, you know?"

"Oh," said the little girl, mystified.

After a moment she spoke up again. "But why did he drink so much?"

The young man laughed. "Because the brush he held never obeyed his trembling fingers. Because the words he summoned for his prose fell dead and meaningless on the page. His unvarying failure was why he sought consolation at the bottom of a bottle."

* * *

At the next stop, the young man left the train, the women following with their eyes in relief. He watched the train vanish back into the black tunnel like an enormous silver earthworm burrowing into the ground. For a moment he could still see a pinprick of red light winking at him in the dark.

As he emerged from underground, a beam of fresh, raw sunlight struck him directly in the eyes. Closing them, a convoluted and friendly shape of mauve and green threads, like an alien, appeared inside his eyelids.

The sky was white like milk and a strong wind blew over the empty gray streets. It made him think of clenched teeth. The wind, as it rubbed his ears raw, hissed and howled. Only one old woman was out in the tempest, feebly pushing a shopping cart. Its wheels squeaked. She pushed it hard against the wind and didn't seem to be moving at all.

* * *

The sky on the western horizon turned a deeper pink.

"Perhaps it would have been easier on everyone if he had accepted his lack of talent and moved on. His father urged him to learn to love money. Find a woman, have children, and love them, his mother pleaded. You've got to love yourself first, his therapist said. Love God, thundered the priest from the pulpit.

"But what could those kinds of love possibly mean to a man who only loved something locked in his mind; a man who stared longingly at blades of grass as though the meaning of the universe was written on them; who trembled and cried in the presence of masterpieces because he could feel the thoughts of their creators rushing into him from across centuries?"

The young man turned towards the tracks, smiling faintly. Since childhood, he had loved watching the impressive, smoke-belching freight trains rushing past.

The little girl with ink-black eyes gazed in the direction of the sharp tracks glinting in the fading light.

The young man concluded, sadly. "It was only in moments of deep feeling, when I sat alone and felt things so strongly that tears ran down my face, that I felt alive."

The pale-eyed girl began to speak, but her voice was no longer the smooth clear tone of a young girl. Turning to look at her, he was shocked by the sudden pattern of crows' feet on her face. The dark-eyed girl's hair, too, had turned white.

"Who are you?" The young man asked in a hushed whisper, stepping back.

The one with pale eyes nodded at him with a gentle smile. "We are spirits, like you. But we are ever so much older than you, child."

Fireflies rose around them. They looked again like any two sisters whispering secrets to each other. But it was late, the moon was high, and their whispers reverberated in the still night air of the empty park.

The young man had vanished. Instead, a shadowed figure stood motionlessly at the far end of the bridge. The figure glided toward them slowly like a brush being dragged across paper. Moonlight sunk into its blackness without illuminating it at all. In lieu of a shadow, the figure traced a wide trail of blood across the wooden planks.

The darkness melted away from it as it approached, slowly unveiling a putrid mass of intestines and jutting smashed bone. The chin and lips of a face like a broken mask blossomed upwards into crushed skull. Red drops dribbled from its body in a steady plink, plink. The little girl with dark eyes smiled, and reached out her tiny hands.

The ghost spoke in a voice that might be mistaken for the rustling of leaves and the cries of night birds. I thought that death would be release but it is an emptiness worse than life itself. Have you come to take me away at last? To Heaven or to Hell? No, don't tell me. I don't care.

The tiny hands grasped the cool hands of the dead man.

The pale-eyed girl smiled. "We will take you where you can paint the stars of the nebulae. Do not fear. You will write the dream that is carried into a child's bedroom on a cool summer breeze."

Then, all three vanished and the bridge was left empty. Only the pale-faced and ancient moon remained, high in the void. The moon has seen all with sightless eyes, but there is no one for her to tell.


2014 Camila Dodik

Bio: Ms. Dodik is from Forest Hills, Queens, hometown of the Ramones. She is pursuing a PhD in Japanese Literature at the University of Minnesota.

E-mail: Camila Dodik

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