BOTTOM OF THE SKY
by Donna Vorreyer
Martin had never been given anything except a cheap digital camera on his eighth birthday. Since then, it had been his constant companion, his third eye. Empty beer cans crushed in a heap beside a threadbare couch, what once was a floral fabric faded and stained into a blur, one hairy arm hanging over the edge. Click. “Portrait of Dad.” Day-old canned spaghetti stuck and crusted to a bowl in a cracked porcelain sink. Click. “Home Cooking.” Dandelions drooping in a mason jar, a store-bought cupcake with a lit match. Click. “Happy Birthday to Me.”
Issue #73 soundtrack: Bear Grass "All in All"
To Martin, the camera made everything insignificant, made it seem like it was somewhere else. It broke reality down into tiny rectangles that could be edited, manipulated, rearranged into a life that was not really his own. Martin shuffled through each day, looking at only two spots -- his shoes and the viewer of his camera. He took pictures of everything. His camera gave him excuses when teachers asked about the black eyes and the bruises -- “I fell trying to take a picture from” -- the bridge, the roof, just about anywhere you could fall from. He usually had the pictures to back it up. And, though he didn’t know it, his camera would bring him a great discovery. It would come quite by accident, the way one discovers money in the pocket of a coat not often worn. It would surprise, disgust, and delight him. It would change everything.
After his dad left or died or just plain disappeared on Martin’s thirteenth birthday, his mom didn’t lose any time in picking up boyfriend number one. A scrawny, balding department store manager, Number One ignored Martin completely and was enamored with his mom and her drinking only until she threw up all over his leather loafers. Click. “Still Life with Italian Shoes.” Boyfriend Number Two was a different story. He was a drinker and a hitter, leaving Martin’s mom silent and fearful and leaving Martin with broken bones that never saw a doctor’s care. Martin had asked her several times why she put up with him. Her answer was always the same.
“Baby,” she said, “you just don’t understand.” She lit a new cigarette with the smoldering butt of an old one and blew a smoke ring. “He has a good heart, he just loses his temper sometimes, that’s all. I love him, Martin, and he loves me, too. You just can’t see it ‘cause you’re always getting in the way and making him mad.” Click. “And put that damn camera away. I look a mess.”
So Martin avoided them both, getting a part-time job at the Valumart photo center by lying about his age. It barely paid minimum wage, but it kept him away from home and Boyfriend Number Two after school. Martin spent his additional spare time studying photography books at the local library, and before long, he had replaced the old camera with a second-hand 35 mm that used real film. He practiced shot after shot, even selling a picture to the local paper when he happened to witness an accident (click) while riding his bike home from the library one Saturday afternoon.
Between school, work, and the library, Martin saw very little of his mother and Number Two. When he did talk to his mother, she often wore sunglasses to cover her bruises (click) and reassured Martin again and again that this was love. But it was just like his mother to be fickle.
Martin’s first clue that his mom didn’t love Number Two anymore was when he came home to find her sitting on the kitchen floor next to his hulking mess of a body, stabbed in the neck with a paring knife. Martin had never seen anything dead before, except maybe a bug or some roadkill, and those hadn’t been lying in a pool of fresh blood in his house. Martin turned to vomit, stumbling out to collapse on the back step, the sight rolling over and over behind his eyelids like the revolving red lights of a police siren. That’s when it hit him.
If they took his mother to jail, he’d be shipped off to some foster home or some boys’ school where everyone would want to know how he was feeling and buy him stiff new clothes like in those shows about orphans on television. He’d have to be cheerful and pretend he was happy, or they’d send him off to therapy where he’d have to look at ink blots and talk about his childhood. That would never do.
So, trembling and slick with terror, Martin painstakingly dragged the corpse out into the woods and dug a shallow grave, all he could manage, and covered Number Two with rich, black earth. Muscles achy and knotted with the effort, Martin crept to the screen door to see his mother calmly preparing dinner, having already cleaned the kitchen and the paring knife and changed her blood-stained clothes. She turned as he came in and muttered, “You’re a good son, Martin.”
And that was that. They never spoke of it again, and Martin had almost forgotten it ever happened. He might have truly forgotten it altogether without the rainstorm several months later. The storm came up quickly, caught their shabby little house by surprise. When Martin could no longer stand the smacking of the screen door against the siding, he threw on an old jacket and went out to take it down off the hinges before it blew away completely. That’s when he saw it – something gleaming, shimmering in the rain.
He rushed over to the spot he recognized as the grave. The rain fell mercilessly, and his feet sunk almost to his ankles in muck. The shining spot turned out to be a hand unearthed, the product of his labor so many months ago. But the hand was transformed after its time in the earth. What was left was something not beautiful, but intriguing. The bones showed, the earth having greedily taken what it could from the body. The evidence of this triggered something like a revelation in Martin.
The earth eats and leaves the scraps. The earth is not just the bottom of the sky. This surprised him, the thought that what he had tread upon every day of his life was a creature that ate. Every step he had ever taken was a delicate dance on the lips of something that could swallow him whole. A shiver raced the raindrops down his spine. He knew now what he had been waiting for, why he had been given his camera. He began planning, taking his time, collecting filters, buying equipment, readying himself. He would chronicle this miracle and in doing so, he would finally break free of everything he hated and everything that hated him.
He stomped back toward a clearing of stumps, left behind by Boyfriend Number Three in a fit of domestic labor. Martin shifted the weight of his backpack as he neared the clearing, his camera equipment poking uncomfortably into his ribs. He checked his cheap plastic watch -- only twenty minutes or he’d be late for school again. That would mean a detention, and that would mean missing his afternoon shots. If he did that, his whole photo sequence would be ruined.
He approached the clearing, working quickly now, routinely. He reached a circle of stumps, each numbered crudely with black paint and covered by an anchored wire cage to prevent tampering. He began with number one, swiftly undoing the cage, snapping two black and white pictures, and moving on until he had taken twenty-four pictures, two of each stump’s still life. Satisfied with his morning’s work, Martin did his best imitation of an athlete and made it to his first class just before the bell, disheveled and sweaty, but happy. The giggles began around him, but he was immune. He had learned it long ago. At lunch, he’d develop his film, alone, and at three, he’d put in his after-school hours at the Valumart and still be home in time to catch the evening light for twenty-four more pictures.
The animals and their parasitic plants both grew larger with the numbers on the stumps. Martin had borrowed a pellet gun to get the smaller specimens, but the larger ones had been provided by the plentiful traffic in the area. At first, the idea of picking up dead animals had repulsed him, but once they became a part of his circle, they became beautiful. He had found his prize, a German Shepherd with no collar, at the side of the road. The majestic animal was now sleeping contentedly near a small boxwood which Martin had purchased at the local nursery. He was feeding the earth now – he was at peace.
Three more days would complete the cycle of pictures he had begun months ago. Three more days, and he would have incredible proof that the earth was a magnificent carnivore, a force to be worshipped, a force that consumed carrion ugliness and returned botanical beauty. He knew the photos were good. He had used a few of the less gruesome ones, unblemished by blood or maggots, to get high marks in photo class at school, a move that had given him free access to the darkroom and recognition in several student competitions. This success had opened him up, his once-dead heart now pulsing, emotions all mingled like holiday punch, fizzy and unpredictable. Apathy had turned to confidence, control, even happiness. And in three days, after graduation, he would complete his cycle and move on to a new life.
“Hmmm? Oh, Martin. I’m so sleepy -- rough night last night.” She hacked the heavy cough of a smoker and reached for a bottle beside the bed. “Hair of the dog, baby. Now, what do you want so early in the morning?”
Martin pulled open the shades as his mother hissed and covered her eyes against the light. “It’s one o’clock, and it’s graduation today. I just wanted to let you know I was leaving. I know you’re tired, so you don’t have to come.”
She gazed blearily out the window. “Thanks, baby. Sky’s pretty today, isn’t it? I’ve always loved to look at the clouds. Wish I could fly sometimes, don’t you? Just fly away from everything.”
“Sure, Mom. Listen, I’m taking this bottle out to the kitchen, and you’re going to drink this coffee I brought you instead. You’ve got to work tonight.”
“All right. You’re a good son, Martin. You are, you know?” She took a sip of the coffee and flopped back against the pillows. “And pull the shades again, will you, honey? I’ve got one hell of a headache.”
He creaked open the screen door and checked that everything was in order. His luggage was packed, meager and ragged except for the shiny black leather of his new photo portfolio. He hadn’t had much to get ready -- his clothes, his camera equipment, and his portfolio were all he would need. He had registered for the summer session at the university and secured a dorm room weeks ago. He had emptied his bank account the day before. When the teller had raised an eyebrow, he had pasted on his most charming smile. “Leaving for college tomorrow,” he cheerfully explained. She wished him good luck and handed over a thick envelope full of bills.
He checked his pockets now. He had the envelope, the keys to his mother’s old Chevy, and the credit card he had applied for last month. He only had one more thing to do. He held and released a long breath and pushed open the door to his mother’s bedroom. She lay sprawled where he had left her, serene and still. Martin tiptoed closer to the bed, checking to see if she had finished the coffee he had brought her that morning. She had.
Just to be sure, he leaned in close to her face. She wasn’t breathing. It was done.
He wrapped her tenderly in a blanket and carried her out to the newly-planted pine tree, another hole freshly dug beneath its evergreen branches. He arranged her body carefully around the trunk, taking one last picture with his eyes, knowing that this completion of the cycle could not be documented with his camera. He shoveled the first scoop of dirt over her with his hands, finishing with a shovel, burying her body deep in the earth, certain that no one would find his last still life. Martin was satisfied that beauty would thrive here at last in this ugly place, a new life from the ashes of his old one, a secret sighing here forever at the bottom of the sky.
Donna Vorreyer, though primarily a poet, has had fiction work featured in such publications as Notes from the Underground UK, Extract(s), Salt River Review, and Up the Staircase. Last month, Sundress Publications released her first poetry collection, A House of Many Windows. Donna lives and writes in the Chicago area, where she resides with her husband, two dogs, and a son, when he is home from college. For more, visit donnavorreyer.com.
Charalampos Kydonakis is a photographer from Rethymnon of Crete, who originally studied architecture in Thessaloniki. He has edited and released two books of contemporary photography -- Colour Candids and Black & White Candids. For more, visit the artist online at dirtyharrry.com.
Katie Hammon has been writing music as Bear Grass, mostly as a solo act, since 2007. She enlisted guitarist Stephen Stanley, bassist Mitch Masterson, drummer Ian White, and Tommy Krebs on backing vocals, synth, and percussion to make Bear Grass a full band. Recently, the group played alongside Man Man and Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned at the Capital Region’s Annual Restoration Festival before embarking on a regional tour -- including a CMJ showcase -- in support of their new full-length album, Stories in Books. For more, visit beargrass.bandcamp.com.