The Kind of Invisible You Are
It was Fat Jim O’Ryan who told the Sunday school girls about the no-nos. He told us about the Russians and Gaylord Perry’s spitball and that widower from Ogden with the alien crop circles in his chest hair, but all we cared about were the no-nos. Everybody loved Fat Jim. Slick as a saint. Shook hands with the prophet twice. And the minty aftershave? And that choir voice like gravel spilled in a bucket? Oof. He owned four-hundred and eighty-seven lambs and knew them all by name. Sometimes I think about Fat Jim doing it to Sissy at the old dream mine just past Pond Town. He takes her by the hand down into the mine shaft and I can’t see Sissy’s face getting red, but I can hear her voice all tangled in a knot swallowed up by the black. Must’ve been a month before the neighbor finally told dad what happened.
Some bad luck, dad said, for all of us.
The mouth on you, I said.
Next thing you know she’ll gone stray, dad said after a long quiet. He was a fool, but what do you expect from a man with seven daughters who’d left home and never looked back? We were the last two. He was a fool but he was our fool.
Nobody said a thing to Fat Jim. During the week he was just another farmer but on Sundays he became Brother Jim bringing in pictures of the no-nos. Little stick figure boys and girls with square faces. We all laughed. Square faces! Every week we lined up for Sunday school like little angels in dresses and suits and begged: Tell us again, brother Jim. Tell us about the no-nos. Then he’d settle in his chair and take off his glasses and pull in a handful of gut and sort of lean back with his eyes closed, teeth poking through his lips like a beaver: Once there was a little girl who always said no, he’d say. She loved the word. But then she started saying it everywhere. When she said it, her face turned red and twisted up like a knot. If you’re not careful your face will get stuck that way, her father told her. But she didn’t listen.
Everyone but Sissy took turns going into the bathroom and turning off all the lights and whispering no, no, no, but nobody’s face got stuck.
Dad kept Sissy on the farm hoping she wouldn’t gone stray. All the church girls were teasing her about being a merry-go-round and wondering if she’d sell tickets cheap so they didn’t have to. Girls are assholes, dad said, and gave her some of mom’s old jewelry.
You’d think the business with Fat Jim would make a girl dark dark but it turned Sissy right holy. No more sneaking cigarettes on the roof. No more gone stray to the old airport hangar where the mechanics were all too happy to lick up the Petri dish of her. No more scratching anarchy symbols on her thighs with paperclips. She got the dolphin tattoo on her wrist removed and stopped wearing all the piercings, even the cute bellybutton one. Took to wearing creamy floor-length dresses and pinching her hair up in a bun. Praying at the dinner table until the food went cold. Weird Provo girls started coming by the house. Sinewy and pale like vampires escaped from some movie set. They read scripture to the sheep. They did baptisms for the dead. They hugged strangers on the bus. They put on roller skates and sang hymns skitching on the back of RVs and pickup trucks. Once, Sissy showed me the road rash on her elbow after a car swerved and she did a few somersaults on the asphalt. Her arms were bony, the veins beneath her skin latticed like spider webs. The scab looked a little like Jesus, or at least a better Jesus than the one Hyrum Yorgensen found on the potato chip last year.
But I knew she wasn’t all holy. I knew about the penknife she kept tucked into a fold of her dress. Just in case, she once told me.
Wasn’t long before Sissy was having visions of the dream mine. The one brother Koyle started digging half a century ago because an angel told him to. You can see it coming around the south bend of highway 89, a pale concrete bunker gnawing out of the mountain like a ragged tooth. Everybody’s heard the story. The mine full of gold that will save we believers when the catastrophe comes. No matter nobody’s found even a speck of gold yet. Hardly a man in Utah doesn’t own a few shares. Dad keeps his under his pillow along with a pistol.
After a night of singing hymns down the mine shaft with the Provo girls, Sissy would come home and eat bowls of frogeye salad dad made just for her. When he asked what she’d seen she’d smile and say, It’s coming up angels, as if that was supposed to mean something. When dad fell asleep at the TV we’d climb out the window like old times and follow the arroyo to the fence and press our faces against the chain link and look past the airplane hangar, look west over the Oquirrh mountains where they buried the uranium and on some nights the haze evaporating off the waste pool rose like incense from Solomon’s temple. They say the yellowcake slurry will still be wasting away like a neon opera ten million years from now, Sissy said. You think we’ll still be sisters then? All my words dripped in silence. We sat there as time turned into a jellyfish pulsing gooey trails of light.
One Sunday, Sissy came home crying after the church girls said maybe if she let Fat Jim do it to her again she’d go back to being a virgin and then she could have a baby in the desert and start a new religion. After that, Sissy couldn’t stop talking babies. They’re in heaven, she’d say, just spirits now waiting for me to grow them a body. She taught them their ABCs and they followed her around the house all day crying up something awful and refusing to potty train. When she wasn’t mopping invisible heavenly piss off the floor she sang them hymns and told them about the no-nos. Dad was happy when Sissy found a job at the Big H, thinking serving up burgers might keep her from gone stray, but the sheriff brought her home a few hours later when a customer complained she threatened to slit their throats because meat is murder. She locked herself in the room and doodled more pictures of the no-nos before using mom’s old bottle of perfume to set them on fire.
Dad got her some good pills after that. When she woke up, he tried to drag her to church but she said she was Zoroastrian now. Last night, she said, she’d hopped the military fence and wandered into a bunker where men in hazmat suits engineered sex-crazed mosquitoes. Everyone bitten will fuck each other to death in a giant orgy to hasten the coming of the goddess Anahita. They’ll call it rapturitis, she said, her eyes like broken shards of glass. She spent the rest of the day staring out the window at mom’s old bicycle collecting rust.
Poor Sissy. Like so many girls in Utah she just couldn’t give birth to the story of herself.
Girls are just star stuff to boys, Sissy said in her faraway voice. Like constellations. See there? she said, pointing at the sky, like the Pleiades. Six sisters and the one gone stray at the end. Like me. But, she said, getting real close to whisper in my ear, don’t forget the stars fucking burn. She told me how when everything is destroyed it would be Anahita, the fertile one, the mighty of waters, who would stand in the cosmic rubble and put the world back together atom by atom. Anahita who would decide what kind of invisible you are. Then she took me to the dream mine. Traced my finger along the chewed-up sign hanging from the gate with a picture of skull and crossbones and Poison written in big letters. I tried to picture Fat Jim doing it to me and whether my face would twist into a no-no knot or if I’d look down the mine shaft and pray for angels too. Not the fragile ones you see in all that Michelangelo bullshit. No robes, which are bad for warfare. These angels will be naked, their tits bouncing in the wind and their well-oiled muscles steaming from residual celestial heat. Eyes like glittering diamonds. White wings spackled with gore. Nobody knows what’s down the shafts. Most of it flooded now, but the scientists say there’s probably enough uranium to make our bones fluorescent for a thousand years. Lord, it’s a strange thing to mine dreams.
The next morning, the sheep were all missing. Sissy too. Gone stray, dad said.
It was Fat Jim who said he saw them heading west toward Skull Valley. When we got there it was a cataclysm of sheep. White patches in the sagebrush as far as you could see, like clouds fallen out of the sky. Some dead, some paralyzed, some twitching like they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Others vomiting blood and bile, bleating, wheezing, dizzying, choking on the air, eyes gone green, lips searching for sounds in the ancient ovine alphabet to describe their misery.
It was all over the news. Army disposing of thousands of barrels of VX gas, they said, but everyone knew it was just another sign of the times. Maybe we should have seen it coming. That’s what this Utah is, isn’t it? Misfits, perverts, and prophets all swept up in the eerie grey weirdness of apocalypse. In Armageddon we trust. Still, I can’t quit it.
The sheep faces looked pickled, their eyes swollen shut. Maybe that was for their sake. Or mine. I try not to think about it. Fat Jim was trembling. His babies were all dead. He whispered their names. He said it hurt to breathe, like something invisible was drumming away on his lungs with an ice pick.
I sat next to one of the ewes in the ditch. Her mouth was frothy green. Her eyes were glazed and she was still breathing as a Gila monster gnawed on her lambing hole. I’d never seen anything like it before. The penknife was in my hand. I could have slit her throat. I could have slit all their throats. Only I didn’t.
Mrs. Gila monster hissed at me, flecked her tongue at the air. A real sassy bitch. Sissy and I used to throw rocks at them. Some Indians say when you see a Gila monster you should run. Her venom can kill a horse. Other Indians say her bite will heal any disease. But you never know what it will be, poison or cure, until you’re bitten. That’s the way with everything.
I closed my eyes and tried to think about Khrushchev and nuclear proliferation and that yellowcake slurry steaming on the other side of the mountain and for a moment it was like God and I were both breathing enriched uranium. Salty wind licked my face.
When I opened my eyes Mrs. Gila monster had stopped gnawing on the lamb and was looking at me with the deadlights in her eyes. I felt her voice inside me. Do you like those fingers? They’re clumsy with boys, but would you like me to take them? Or what about your face It’s shaped like your mother’s. How about I take a little nibble off that cheek? Or that stubborn fat around your belly? Will you miss that? Or that ear? The one your dad promised to get pierced but by the time he came home from church it was too late so Sissy stopped by the store for safety pins and a lighter. Aren’t you tired of listening to everyone else? You’ve had it long enough. How about I take that ear?
Yes, I whispered. Yes, yes, yes.
Ryan Habermeyer’s debut short story collection, The Science of Lost Futures, won the BoA Short Fiction Prize (2018). His stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Copper Nickel, Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, Puerto del Sol, Seneca Review, Fairy Tale Review, and others. He is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Salisbury University. Find him at ryanhabermeyer.com.