Katie Jean Shinkle
Darkness, and then. Rolling weather: a superstorm in-wait. Four clouds exactly alike, black outline as if spiral on paper. Stratus or cirrus. Paredolia in theory: what becomes a creature of wing in sky, what becomes one blink signal or two, what becomes the shape of genitals. If we take our shoes off, put them behind our heads, can we stay like this forever, pointing at creatures and penises, the largest span of blackbird ever seen?
Can we begin in the war of this country in the summer of us?
Paula, Allison, Callie & I all wear black swimming caps, swim in syncopation, a rising chorus of legs, arm-in-arm, splash.
Before the weather, before the war, us four girls would huddle around the computer and watch videos of syncopated swimming routines. We would lie face down in the carpet and emulate. We would begin to touch each other, first on the legs and then up under the shorts, the mesh entangling with our chipped gel manicures. The videos shift from film clips of Esther Williams to porn clips with titles like “She takes it real good 2” and “Busty Brazilian Luvs Anal.” The touching of the butts would lead to flashing breasts, comparing, poking at Paula’s because they were slightly pancakey, wobbly.
All the light of day is muted by fog, blocking the summer sun, no matter the time. The only light for miles at night comes from The Prophet’s tent. Holy, holy, holy, God Almighty, Blessed trinity. God in Three Persons. The only thing I believe in is the Holy Spirit because I have seen it. I have seen it when my father puts on a lacy dress and a choke chain and high heels and walks around the house like the queen of the world. Miles of corn and soybeans and my father in a chevron skirt and lashes so long. I have seen the transformation alight on his face, when my father is in women’s clothing he is the closest he will ever be to God, I tell Paula.
My father says he feels at home in women’s clothing but doesn’t want to be a woman. He says it has been a secret for so long, he doesn’t even know how talk about it. He is glad he can do it with me, though, at home, he says, my mother would never stand for it. She had only seen him dressed twice and she freaked out. How dare he? she said. But he wasn’t doing anything but expressing himself. Something she never understood about anyone, not me, not him.
The superstorm: we prepare in the following ways: catching rain in the cups of our goblet-hands, laced with gold lame. We put our goblet-hands under the muted fog and save a cache of rainbow spectrum for later. Our hands become hammers and we board up the windows, nails falling from the trees like fruits. We write in spray paint on the sides of the house in claimant fashion, we predict the outcome. The colors of paint: the numbers and symbols translated on the sides and doors of the houses: one alive, two dead, dog in here, zero crossed out one crossed out two crossed out three, please HELP. Paula and I huddle in the basement behind a twin mattress. My father is in Central City. We will not know Central City no longer exists for a while yet. The sky turns grey to green to greener than I have ever seen.
After, in-between, preceding, prolouging, eulogizing, the superstorm is here. Instructions: go to a safe place, if one exists at all in the world. Cover your head with. Don’t leave. Don’t stay. Don’t drive. Don’t be frozen adjacent to your largest window. At least you have a window. Emergency Broadcast System: this is only a test of your circulatory system, of your life force thumping against the middle of your forehead. The sky of my heart is a bottle shimmering, the color of beach glass. Ecstatic noise and then not. What angels. How the sky parts the muted sun.
The temperature goes from 80 degrees to 35 in a matter of one hour. Air made of inescapable wet humidity. Paula and I watch the mini-swirled cyclones skipping around each other, twisting at the base like two heads of the same monster, tunneling and dying.
Threatening and ominous weather, clouds like mushrooms, more a rolling dough, dribbling out, leak and smear of sky, streaks of what will stay in the stratosphere and troposphere, it is July and freezing.
Before the electricity is restored, Paula and I pull the mattress out onto the lawn and lay next to each other as it rains. Our hands are soft feathers, caressing, and I am touching her hips, stomach, tracing the outline of the beetle tattoo, I am down above her underwear line but not over it. The mattress starts stinking from the moisture, and it feels as if there is no one else in the entire world but us. Every time we kiss, her long dark hair gets into my mouth. We pull and push each other and it gets so rough that eventually she lands in the muddy lawn. We laugh until we realize every single lawn is flooded, the street below is waist-high water, everything washed out, cars floating and hitting the sides of trees, everyone evacuated but us. Houses plucked, gone like rotten eyeteeth. That’s how weather is, it can’t be trusted. (Confirmed: Central City is no longer a place. Central City is wiped off the map.
It begins with an unliftable fog. It enters, blocks the sun, frost and snow, kills everything.
The Men talk of crops. The Men talk of the unlifted fog. The Men talk of 1816, the year of No Summer, the devastation. From here to the UK and back again, The Men say, famine. The Men talk of war, how in the middle of the summerwinter aftermath all women must ship out, sail out, fly out, drive out, get out, go. Fight for our freedom. The Men talk of the first folded flag to be delivered by hand to a husband already, and the first batch of women were just sent. The Men talk of death and how swift it comes, the grief of having to raise children alone. The Men take off their snapback trucker hats and roll the bills in their scarred hands. The Men fret over food and children, fret over the flowers that they have all seen but will not speak of out loud yet. The Men talk of going elsewhere, to Atlanta or New Orleans, or to Ohio, Iowa, as far west as Missouri, maybe even Colorado, who knows. You be gettin’ into the Wild West now, son, one says to the other and The Men laugh. Anything with the word wild is scary. When The Men are scared, they resort to violence. Violence against the potential wild. So maybe not Colorado, or anywhere further. The Men talk of their daughter’s synchronized swimming practices, will they still be able to compete if it is so cold? The Men speak of frost, and then of snow, in July, August. The Men are scared of snow, of fog not dissipated, of a rebuild, of where Central City has gone to, of all of the deaths and destruction and now the women are gone and now the flowers are appearing. The Men don’t cry, so they hit their bodies with their own fists, waiting for someone else to hit. The Year of No Summer. The Oldest Men talk of the year 1816, the year of no summer. Volcanic winter. 1816 a fog like ours. Radioactive fog, one man says and the other says no, volcanoes are not radioactive.
The prophet stands before the lean congregation in the heavy, canvas, revival tent, leftovers from a circus fire a town over, charred at the top where a flag should be undulating. Instead, a burnt-out hole. Everyone cold and sweating.
God has sent us, he tilts. Alleluia, Hallelujah, Amen. Brothers! the Prophet says, this summerwinter is a gift from God. Two men take their pork pie hats off and hold them to their chests by their tops, they watch the rain of ash from above.
The Prophet laughs. Brothers! Our women have gone to war. Tell me how you will be a man in their absence! Brothers! We are men of the highest order. We must protect our homeland, our nation, one nation under God, remember, he laughs again into the microphone, but this time it is high pitched and nasally and makes my father uncomfortable.
My father joins the relief effort because that’s what he thinks he needs to do. He spends his days hauling trees off of houses and rescuing dogs. I watch him across the street one day shaking a chainsaw in a direction while talking because he can’t seem to stop talking with his hands. He is talking to a national guard, an 18 year old with an automatic weapon tied to his back, gesturing with the chainsaw and making the kid nervous. The kid looks so small compared to my father, who is a massive conglomeration of chest and shoulders and neck and arms. He revvs the chainsaw and stops talking to the kid, who still looks confused. When he bends over, I can see the lacy ruffle top of his pink striped underwear.
Paula says the real enemy, the real terrorist, is time. A wall of clocks all set incorrectly. Late summer and snow. One meteor length, far and wide. Sideshow, in a specimen jar, bell box. Lift for cake. Lift for sick sweet of rotten coconut, a jelly filling. Our hands against the glass and panting. Shelves of missing. One dough arm, one severed gingersnap head. Forgotten buttons down an abdomen never covered, black with burn and crisp of flame. Rush, and smash a window. The children take lead bats to the framework. Blast of weather, and then silence. Blast, and then a light ash film smog on everything. Make a peace sign in the window with your finger. Someone else writes fuck your mom underneath it.
And fuck your mom might be right. As of today, the last of the mothers are relinquished, and moved at once. Lines of ponytails marching one step two step, stomp, stomp. A solider, as big as a 10 year old, told our father our mother must go. No choices. In the ghostly hours, our mother still hangs in the air, too, a black spirit on the corner of the wall, talons out to claw the nautical themed wallpaper. She moves fast, backwards and forwards, over the fridge and the kitchen counters, we watch her sizzle her tongue against father’s ear and he scratches and bats as if something inside is attempting escape. All the mothers are presently at war, conscription.
Katie Jean Shinkle is the author of The Arson People (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015) and Our Prayers After the Fire (Blue Square Press, 2014). Other work can be found in or is forthcoming from Washington Square, Booth, The Feminist Wire, Cloud Rodeo, and elsewhere. She serves as a co-fiction editor of DIAGRAM.