You are you-but-not-you—and you haven’t been for a long time. You are not sure how long, nor how long it’s been. Your eyes hurt to open, you struggle to see. The water is cold, but you can’t feel the water against your skin. You don’t remember where the water came from, how you got into the water. You remember a fathering hold, hefting your weight. You can almost see them, stout and dark with a lit cigarette bobbing between his lips. You can almost feel his grunt and muscles straining to carry you into a dim room. He folds his arms watching you, bloodshot eyes softening as the water rolls across your body. You sit. You sit and wait to drown, but it never happens. You hear him stop the water, you hear him sigh.
You hear the man sigh and mumble on about how he needs to get Azul again. He mumbles, ashen throat choking on ‘again.’ You can taste his worry in your mouth, under your skin and you shudder.
Your skin feels heavy, like soaked clothes that won’t come off. Your skin is bluer, hairier, your brownness peaks through the blue fuzz. Have you always been this way?
You drain the water. You wrap a towel around your flat breasts.
You have hips now. Did you always have those, legs and bones and hips? Have you always had a dick, has it always hung from you like this, limp and uncertain against thinned foreboding thighs?
You can’t remember. You shape the words to ask Azul. He is here now. You know his texture, his texture rummages through you. He would know your body better than anyone… He has seen you, bared and sobbing and wet like a babe. It is how you met—you a bullied thing stripped naked and held hostage by water-gun strapped kids and Azul the pudgy runt who shoved the kids away and charmed them into giving you clothes and hugs.
The words are stuck in your turning stomach. And you reach to sooth the words out.
You pause. You see a thing in the mirror.
It stares with dark, animal wonder. It has eyes that don’t make sense here on this plain in such a human-like face. It runs a hand across your chapped lips, it kisses the fingers. It has sharp cheeks, high cheeks. You remember a woman, a sister, your kin saying your mother had cheeks like that. Your mother had high cheeks and peppery skin and the sun in her smile, the kin said. It has garbled radio chatter under its skin—an auric transmission whining under the blue flesh. It sinks hands into limp, knotted hair. It looks away. It seems ashamed, skittish.
And you hear Azul. You know Azul. The you-but-not-you knows the shape of his lips as they wrap words into sound. The you-but-not-you knows the way the voice curls in his thick throat.
‘You alright?’ he asks. He wants to come in. You can feel him, his forehead pressed to the door, his hands arching around the wobbling doorknob. He wants to respect your privacy, your shy body. He is tender that way.
You pull the towel from your body. You don’t know why. It is an animal urge, you think. Something primal wanting to be naked and bared and—desirable? You put your finger to your lips. You want to be desired by Azul. Wanted in a way that reminds you of those stories about your mother and the mauled-man—breathless souls aligned by animal spirit and the great fate. Something like that. Something stammering and mystic like that. You don’t understand what this means, the welling in your belly. ‘You can come in. I know you want to.’
Azul laughs, a boyish nervous sound, one that is hot like fever in his throat. You taste the sound. It tastes like cinnamon and sweat.
He comes inside. You crawl into the still wet tub.
Something in the room stalls. You stall. Azul stalls. The air beckons for you two to breathe deep—but you both struggle.
Azul is looking at you as if he has never met you—wide-eyed, roaming, frightened. And you are scared, and you try to fold yourself into a skeletal ball. You have become foreign and unknown to Azul too. And Azul stumbles to say something, anything. You want to say sorry. You tongue around your dry mouth for the word.
‘You…must be from another planet…’Azul manages to say. You look up to him, pleading. You think you must be—you do not feel you are from here. You are from somewhere far. You feel far, far away, deep in the vast, where the stars sink and burst and renew. You wonder if you could stop your heart. ‘Because you are out of this world.’
His voice tickles your ears. The lilt is soothing, light. You open yourself to the sound. You unknot your body.
And you think you are laughing, a hoarse forgotten sound that cracks in your chest. You are not sure why it is so funny to you—but it warms your cold skin, Azul warms your skin. You can’t remember when you laughed last. You feel like this body has never laughed before. You think this body is obsolete but trying to restart, recalibrate.
When you calm down, when the strange seizing laughter stops, you see Azul smiling a big smile, his round cheeks radiating warmth. And you understand what it means for someone to have sunshine in their smile. Little sunbeams, brightening his brown eyes. You want him to come closer, so you can capture it and keep it.
He puffs out his chest like all the boys do when they feel accomplished, when they feel pride. He kicks off his shoes and socks. He moves into the tub with you. His growing arms swell around you. He does it like it is an instinct, like he knows you need to be folded to his body. You press your face into his clothed breasts. You close your eyes. You feel his heart in your head, you let it thunder inside you. You can’t comprehend what it is telling you, but it is a big and open sound. And Azul is big and open, so big and open you almost feel lost.
‘You…are though…’ Azul breathes into your skin, his cinnamon breath ghosting at your neck. ‘Like…you’re from…somewhere I can’t name. Like I know this ‘cause I dreamed you before. I dream you a lot.’
‘You dream…of me?’ you dig deeper, you can taste his boyness—the cinnamon slips into a timid musk, wet tree-bark and apple balm.
‘Yeah. Deep forever dreams. You’re always…on the other side of…some place. I can’t move towards you; my knees lock up. And it’s because you…I dunno you aren’t…you’re different. Like you were…caught between something, a gooey something.’ he tries to explain. ‘I dunno. Maybe I’m gooey.’
You tap out his heartbeat against his thigh. You hum. You don’t want to know. You hum. Your jaw aches with tastes and Azul’s tumbling feelings. You hum. You throw a scrawny leg over his hips. You listen to his breath hitch, his heart putter in his throat. You hum.
‘Why’re you nervous?” You ask.
He pushes you away, just a bit, just enough. Your jaw tightens, leg locking, baring down on his thigh. ‘We too old to be in the tub cuddling…but I like to with you? But like…other people don’t…like…other people just don’t…’
His eyes are distant, not looking at you. He has a wispy stubble on his plump chin. You want to kiss at his neck, bring him back to you, lock hands—something. Your lips and fingertips tingle. But your mouth can taste the ‘other people’. The ‘other people’ taste like pouring gasoline over living skin, a match, a fire, basking in charred bodies—you imagine the ‘other people’ set fires to undo the bodies that have escaped to become trees, that have become themselves reaching upward, sky-bound. The ‘other people’ can’t burn the sky down so they chew at the ground.
They chew at your toes, Azul’s fingers and tongue.
You open your mouth. There is a word that surfaces. The word echoes—stretching far back into your brain, clawing. You hear it over and over, embodied by giggling girls and budding boy-men as you run a thumb across Azul’s new chin fuzz as the summer sun blackens your body. You hear it over and over, strangled in a man’s throat, caught in his teeth and tongue, broiling black eyes watching you—just you—with your clumsy un-boy prim and priss walk. You hear it over and over, murmured through the wind current as you feel your uncle’s breath hitch as he tries not to sweet-eye men, as he tried not to love their broad shapes, their sleepy eyes.
‘They think we are faggots. The other people.’ you close your mouth. You clamp your mouth around the word ‘faggot.’ You gnash at its hard texture, grind your teeth across it. It draws blood. It climbs from your mouth, heats along your throat.
You unlock yourself from around Azul. You pull yourself up out of the tub, body clicking like a busted machine. Azul, clumsy and grappling, tries to reach at you, pull you back in. But you’ve made it across the tiny dim-lit room. You stuff yourself into the clothes. The pants itch, scratch against your exoskeleton. Your shirt hangs from your shoulders. Your clothes smell like peppermint and shea.
‘We should go. Before the uncle comes back,’ you say not looking at Azul. You say, not looking into the mirror. You say bunching your shoulders and slinking out the bathroom door.
You hear Azul sigh. You hear him curse. You can feel his movement, the way he stands, stretches, rubs at his chin. He is sticking his tongue out. He is clenching and unclenching his fingers, his whole body, his energy. His whole presence flexes and pulls and reaches outward. You slink deeper down the hall, across stained carpet and Meek the cat. You make it to the living room, stop, clench your toes along the rough and soft patches on the floor. In the fibers, you feel the people breathing downstairs slipping upward, reaching for you. The people downstairs have soft-spoken souls, lulling, speaking in a language that is sea-rippled.
You can’t remember feeling through the floors like this. You can’t remember your nerve endings clutching for the auric essence people exuded whether they knew or not. It feels natural to feel Azul, feel his breathing even now as he still lays in the tub, as he still tries to gather the words to say.
Stretching your focus, you can feel the storm brewing outside—a heaving humid thunderstorm. You can taste the old-thunder-maker clapping and his bird fluttered children dancing. And the old-thunder-maker smiles and stomps and the rain comes, and the thunder comes, and his children make light with their voices.
Meek breaks you from the stomp and clap and song.
She is a grey devilish beast that found her way into your uncle’s home one night during a blizzard. She is the only woman he ever loved—he has said so, kissing her dusty head, looking her in her blue eyes as she purred low in her chest. You liked her because she had secrets threaded in her fur, tiny nanites of ancient information. You could touch them but couldn’t read the sound signatures—they enticed you all the same, whispering and chanting.
She mewls running her face against your leg. You’re sure she is speaking to you. Her words are a feathery rumble.
‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone,’ she says. My heart jumps. I reach for her. She saunters away, mewling, back to an animal frequency you can’t pull meaning from.
Azul calls you. He is out the tub. He is out the bathroom. His footfalls disrupt you from the people downstairs. You struggle to understand that he is calling you by your name. You struggle to remember that this body has a name.
‘Glimmer…’ he calls me. Glimmer you feel like—light winking in the distance, an apparition in the dark, a faded outline. Your shoulders relax remembering this name. This thing that is you. You picked that name in the womb—the dark, star-netted birth place.
‘It’s okay.’ you say. ‘It’s not your fault.’
His eyes are wet when you look back at him, puffy. He has been crying. You didn’t even notice. You were sunken into everything else, you couldn’t feel his hurt. It hits you, burns your face, stings your eyes. You are long armed and reaching for his knotted body. You taste the acrid guilt. He is smaller to you right now. You can bend him in your hands with a flex. You don’t. You blow air into your hands, you lift his shirt and press. His stomach has no hair and sinks under your touch. He gasps. He looks to your plundering hands. You are reaching for something in his body, that guilty taste, that lumpy soured thing. You feel it, taste it in your fingers. You tug.
The guilt-thing is a wet smelly ball in your hands. You squeeze and think of flowers and so flowers bloom. And you shove the flowers back into Azul before they wilt or turn to dust. You rename the flowers ‘love-dust’. And they are small things that need sunlight and a kiss twice a week. If they do not get proper attention they will curdle Azul’s stomach. You will make sure that never happens.
Azul is looking at you, eyes wide and open. He looks big again. He looks like he will puff out his chest and boast at any moment. He looks like a loving boy. ‘How’d you do that?’
You shrug. You smile. You grab his unscarred hands. ‘I dunno. I dunno a lot of things. I’m doing as the soul calls.’
He nods. He looks outside. He sees the rain and clatter and blue flashing. ‘We should…stay inside.’
‘It’s a passing storm. Give it three minutes,’ you tell him. You part his fingers, you look at him between them. His thick brows are furrowed. His mouth is a quizzical smile.
‘Oh yeah? You tuned into the weather channel all of a sudden? Got it on telepathic speed-dial?’ his tone has that funny lilt. The one with laughter chasing the edges.
‘You can see it. Look,’ you point towards the window. ‘See there, that shape—that’s the old-thunder-maker. Old-thunder-maker has weaker joints, so he is quick with his music and jeer. Watch…three minutes.’ you say to him watching the clouds swell and burst and swell and burst over the sleepy Virginia complex. There was white light peaking, sunlight pushing through the grey. The outside air tastes like pines and salted-candy. You shape the taste, it rolls across your tongue. There is a word—sweet. It all tasted sweet and it filled your belly.
Azul watches too. You don’t think he can see what you see. But he humors you, squinting and nodding and squeezing your hand.
The rain ends. The old-thunder-maker and his children have tucked their instruments and bodies into dispersing clouds. The sun-woman and her long yellow hair peaks like a birthed child. Azul lets out a breathless laugh.
‘Stop being right all the time, you amazing weirdo,’ he ruffles your hair. ‘You’re better than Fox news.’
You nod. You slip your feet into flip-flops. You tug him out the wooded door. You don’t lock it. You know you are supposed to, you know no nigga goes around not locking they doors, only white folks be like that—your uncle has told you smoking a pipe, smoke pluming, his grey eyes hazy. But you can’t fathom the impulse to keep the door unlocked. You think it is the way the air coils, winding in circles, unceremonious spinning. You think, the air has never had that texture before. You are sure that texture has a taste—and you lift your head—battery acid and sweat and metal.
You ignore how the metal taste clicks against your teeth. You ignore how it drives a sharp ache to your stomach.
You go. You go into the unknown known.
You let go of Azul’s hand and race him down the wooded stairs. The stairs creek under your weight, thunders under Azul’s. You splash through puddles and leap over mud. The scents and tastes are all turning to color—you are in a swimming colored haze. The reds become pink, the yellow a saccharine gold, the blue darkens and softens.
You’re sure your flip-flops are gone, and your bare feet is receiving messages from the dirt. You are in the dirt. You can feel your spirit is now communing with the root system of a disgruntled pine.
You are not running.
You are not breathing like humans do.
Your skin feels hard, flaky. You can see your fingertips reaching upward. You can see the sunlight breaking between the dark fringes of the disgruntled pine. You bend towards it. The you open your mouth, you try to catch the disgruntled pine’s words, wrap around it with your tongue, chew on its wooded wisdom.
Don’t go too far, little one. We can watch you here, in the blackened woods. But past us, past our great roots, you are unknown and will be rejected.
Azul bumps into you, knocks into your back. Your feet unhook from the ground, you disconnect from the root systems. Azul is panting and giggling. You giggle a little too, a whispery sound, a dizzying echo. You stare at the disgruntled pine. You think on this warning. You don’t understand it.
You live in a false-forest. It is common in Virginia to have apartments mounted beside towering trees and poison ivy and unruly earth and lazy creeks. The false-forest is a curt journey, spilling out into a highway or a suburb or a mall strip. Perhaps the disgruntled pine is warning of the busy cars that you can taste from here, that bristles your hair with their noise.
‘Hey, is there anybody in there?’ Azul sings, nudging your shoulder. He hands you your discarded flip-flops. You huff a laugh. You thank him. You tell him about the tree. He looks it up and down. ‘Looks like it’s an old wise thing. But old folks ain’t always right. Come on. Over yonder I see more sun light.’
He pushes you forward. You walk like you have ghosts in your joints, you walk like your body is unthreading the further you get from home. You are threads and a ticking heart. You push forward. You make it onto concrete. The sky sticks to you like honey outside of the false-forest. You think the sky is redder. You try to see the sun-woman’s peeking head. There is nothing familiar. It is like you entered a new realm.
You look back, but Azul pulls you forward.
The houses are tall and pristine. The cars are glossy. The grass is glossy. You fear touching either. The sidewalk pushes against your feet. There is a white woman and her child watching you and Azul. An old white man emerges from his house, glowering from his porch.
You don’t belong here. Azul doesn’t belong here. But Azul is smiling and tugging you along. He knows this amazing ice scream shop just past this concaving landscape. You follow his foot falls. You count your escalating breaths.
It is quiet. The silence stretches out, expands. You feel it pile into your shoulders, the unsettling hush.
You and Azul are just brushing fingers, humming low, lulling along the sidewalk—when the cop strolls up. He has sunglasses and thin lips. His badge gleams, blinding. His skin doesn’t look right, looks ghoulish.
You pause before him, body like a knot now.
Stunned like tiny animal.
Your heart moves from chest to throat. You are choking on your pulse. Azul grips your hand, pushes his body forward, puffs his chest out. The cop speaks, mouth opening around a rumbling language that doesn’t feel human. You don’t feel human—looking into the pitted shape that are the cop’s eyes.
The eyes were eating you alive.
Your joints lock tighter, you hear them clicking to a stop, you hear your own blood circling and curving and burning. You feel your eyes sting, you look up—
—beyond you is the moonlit sky—it watches with many eyes.
beyond you is the cradling-woman that holds the moon and
hums lullaby. beyond her is the man-woman-god that makes
the stars. and the man-woman-god looks at the stars and says
look. things are happening. look how the sky thread shines.
how tragic. how beautiful. may it become new. the man-
woman-god crushes a winking, blooming star-bud. they hand
the star bud to the cradling-woman. the cradling-woman folds
it into her mouth and hums—
And you witness this somehow. And you want to stay in the beyond, in the plunging dark. But you hear Azul.
You come back to see the cop, tall and slender and pale. You are gripping Azul’s sweating hand. You can feel the cop’s eyes, watching your grip, your clumsy desperate and amorous hold. You can’t make out the language of the onlookers who have shuddered onto their lawns to witness.
Azul, he is speaking too. His words tickle your ribs, opening up an airway, reminding you ‘you are still here, stay with me’ as the cop garbles and garbles and garbles.
‘Hey, we was just goin’ to the store, officer, taking a shortcut, just strolling. We…we won’t…we won’t tryna start nothin’’ Azul tries to charm, licking his dry lips. He has his crooked smile, the one that creased his plump cheeks, the one abuela’s coo about. But this is no abuela. This is not a gathering of Black and Dominican women that knew you by skinned knee and touch. These are not chortling black boys, tossing rocks and blowing kisses all at the same time, allured and terrified of Azul.
They are all white and unfamiliar, glaring like sun-spots.
It hurt your eyes and you whimper.
You jerk away.
And the cop moves, inching at his waist. And you see Azul’s arm outstretched, reaching, pleading. And you suck on your tongue. And you want so bad to kiss Azul for the first time, for the last time.
Azul’s chest is puffed out and his words are watery and sounded like a voice in a vacant church shouting—but all is got back was echo and echo and god winking in the mosaic sun.
‘Please, please,’ he says, guiding me behind him. He looks to the sure-gripped gun. He looks to me with big watery eyes.
The cop shot once, then twice—
And the bullet turns to fairy dust.
You are rocking back and forth, watching, nipping at your fingers. You see blue bits of animal language pulled from your friend’s chest as the wound opens further, chest cavity collapsing inward, blood blooming into light buds. The animal calls and you move forward. You step inside, invited by a shimmering star bud. You step inside of Azul’s soft boy breasts. You step inside the chatter, the galactic surge. The cop is gone, eaten by the ricocheting sound that turns into a black eyeless dog. And the dog faces you. You face him. And he snuffs and shakes and howls. And you fall deeper into Azul’s gaping body.
The red scented air crackles around you.
Your skin feels peeled apart.
And you hear the beyond again, you hear man-woman-god speak—
‘this is how all things begin. With blood and the nothing
and the end.’
Beasa Akuba Dukes is a twenty-seven year old, black nonbinary person. They graduated from Longwood University with a BA in English and from West Virginia Wesleyan College with an MFA in Creative Writing. They have published in PANK Magazine, GrubStreet, No Tokens, Foglifter Journal, PRISM International, Cosmonauts Avenue, Strange Horizons, SFWP Quarterly, and others. They focus-write and play around with gender, race, sexuality off-pulse spirit stuff, and the body to explore identity.