••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Fiction
Adapted from a Finnish Legend About Falling
John Gabriel Adkins
Still Eating Oranges
“We’re friends, right? Best friends, right? Friends, right?” asked the red toadstool with a toad on it. The toadstool was not speaking to the toad, who was age-mottled, crotchety and, crucially, as deaf as a doorknob with cotton in its keyhole.
“I have no friends,” said the prone man, lying in the grass and grease by the roadside, at the woods’s edge, having just been deposited there through his side window by the force of a semi truck’s collision with his passenger-side door. Above the ditch, the wreck smoked black and the semi found itself lodged within, for reasons clearer later. Midday sirens had arrived in the distance. Thanks to the intercession of St. Frances of Rome, the patron saint of automobile drivers, the prone man found himself intact and unharmed in his totality.
“Everybody has friends. I’m your friend,” replied the toadstool, but the prone man had begun already to crawl into the woods, his face still flat to the grass, arms and legs pulling and dragging him forward into the Vietnam War. “I’m definitely your friend,” called the toadstool.
Inside the woods everything was tangly, with vines and brown groundcover leaves and brown up to the canopy, and light shafts encircled each point of interest: a caterpillar with human eyes; the devil; a first-aid kit; and a mud doll, which had no eyes. “Can I be your friend?” asked the caterpillar with human eyes, but her voice sounded just like the toadstool’s.
“I have no friends,” said the prone man, whose shaky arm had reached up, blind (as he remained face-down), to fish for and retrieve the mud doll from a root patch. This was instinct alone. He brought it down beside his ear in the leaves, which rustled in and down from his breathsucking and exhalation. The mud doll held a secret inside its heart, and the devil was furious.
“When your parents divorce, do you remember? You’re only 5 years old and brownhaired. It’s mysterious why Daddy is going away on a long vacation, and where. You are at the scratched-yellow kitchen table with a soggy and lukewarm Cheerios bowl, like you’ve always had it, when he sits down at the other end. He tries to say it like an important movie line. ‘Your dad’s gonna take a break, okay? He’s gonna go away for a while. He’s had a lot of arguments with your mom, but those’re over now,’ he says, and you feel belly-sobs coming even though the thought of the end of the arguments is lovely.
You know that the arguments are about you, because they always start in the car, usually after your mother has buckled you into the hateful carseat. They’re always about what kind of person you are, and homeschooling, and your unique phases and habits, and what kind of person your father expects a son of his to be. The screaming is a screaming of your name and problems.
“But I have a secret in my heart. The secret is that your father was a weak man, and you were a valuable weight, even if it was too heavy for him to carry,” whispered the mud doll, and the prone man nodded into the leaves and sighed, the belly-sobs having been used up in years past; and the devil was furious.
The prone man returned the mud doll to its home lightbeam, and crawled his body along the ground further into the forest. Now coming into dirt and nettles instead of leaves, among the fir trees, where all direct sunlight was excluded. Here three tree stumps acted as pedestals for the next batch of things: a transistor radio; a land crab; and nothing, as the third object had been stolen. The third object was the most important one, but it was the lost one.
“A thief of the devil’s claimed the last thing and its secret, but I hold a partial memory of the secret inside myself,” said the land crab, who sounded exactly like the toadstool and the caterpillar with human eyes. It raised its claws to speak. The transistor radio was completely silent, possibly broken, despite its nostalgic value. “Carry me away on your back. My only wish is to leave this place, but I have no friends to take me. Even if we aren’t friends, we can pretend to be, and behave like them.”
The prone man was put into a situation. This was nothing like what he wanted, at any point in his life. But even a partial memory of a secret of value was enough to turn his judgment in a direction that felt unnatural, and uncomfortable.
“Fine,” replied the prone man, who had not seen the toadstool or the caterpillar with human eyes or the land crab, but knew only that singular shared voice. “Climb onto my back and we’ll exit together.” His body rose and fell in the dirt and nettles, waiting.
Hopping off, the land crab’s stabbing legs landed on the prone man’s back, and he flinched but did not yell. “Your legs are painful and surprisingly many in number,” groaned the prone man. So the land crab bent its legtips inward, kneeling, to decrease the stabbing. This was a movement associated with caring in land crab language. Relieved but still hurting, the prone man crawled past the stumps and nettles, through the dirt. He dragged himself toward the door of light at the treeline perimeter, which was not heaven.
“I remember that there was pain in the secret. There was a long-haul semi truck that entered a hole incised in a siderail, alongside a high cliffside road in disrepair. There was a mild intoxicant, but at levels not high enough to intoxicate, which raised concerns. There was a deep fall into the ocean water and the rocks in the ocean water below. This was your father’s work truck at 12 years old. You had seen him on birthdays until 10, when his new tipsy wife delivered a child who had no problems, who could be a son in his image. You had never seen this image, as your mother did not keep the photos she’d seen herself.
“Your mother held the phone with the curly tangly cord that bothered you, in the kitchen, and used her uncomfortable phone voice, which always meant negative things that you couldn’t guess, which put you in tension as you watched her frayed apron strings. ‘He what? What happened? Washington? Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Well. Where in Washington? Yeah. Yeah. Mm-hm. Who knows about it? Yeah. How is Harriet? Uh-huh,’ she said, sounding uncomfortable and adjusting her body uncomfortably, because her headspace was bad. But I cannot remember the rest, or how the secret ends, or what information was contained inside it that would be valuable to the present version of you,” said the land crab.
Elsewhere, the third object with its secret was cradled in the devil’s arms and hands, coated in flesh ash. The devil sneered, in his smallness, at everyone who wanted to know; you most of all.
“A car wreck. A semi truck. Even here, I’ve become my father,” said the prone man, who nearly real-laughed; but he finally groan-laughed. Sirens could still be heard behind, at the other woodend, at the wreck from which the prone man’s body had been found missing, unlike his father’s. He crawled out of the forest and through the white sunlight space. He was within a grass ditch by a roadside. He was tired there. It was a different ditch, and a different highway, without a smoking wreck or father-reminder. There was a mailbox 30 feet away with his future wife’s last name on it, which she planned to keep. That was when the sirens couldn’t be heard anymore, and an entirely new space existed. “I’m him,” the prone man said.
“You didn’t die,” said the land crab. “That’s something different.”
The prone man still had not raised his head from the greener grass, but he could smell the scent of the sweeter road scent, and he could hear the quieter cars. “And you have at least one friend, and you’re willing to accept me, which is different,” said the land crab, who was still kneeled and had no intention of hopping off the prone man’s back. The land crab had never been accepted before, in any form. There would be land travel together, she had decided.
“Maybe there are a few differences,” said the prone man. His breathing picked up his body in the grassblades and lowered it, and, for a while, they just stayed.
He was right. The second and last secret had concluded, “There are differences enough to matter,” which the devil cannot prevent me from relating, despite his foregoing schemes and thefts. He pounds his legs and beats his hollow skull: by revealing the secret to you, I have made him furious again, again.
© John G Adkins March 2018
[BIO] John Gabriel Adkins is a writer of anti-stories, microfiction and other oddities. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a member of the experimental arts collective Still Eating Oranges. His writing appears in Squawk Back, Literary Orphans, Sick Lit Magazine, Three Drops from a Cauldron and more.