The rocks loved the touch of air on their sharp points. With the season of wet winds past and the mugginess swept away, the air was full of a delicious coolness that the rocks loved to bathe in. But a man—long and gangly—had draped himself over them, pressing his limbs into their gaps. They hated his weight and the oblivious way he smothered them in his slumber, clogging the soothing emptiness that surrounded them.
It was difficult to wake him, but if they really tried, they could do it. They had to harden their edges, focus on their points, and push as hard as they could against his bones. That he was bony was a thing the rocks knew. When they woke him, poking at his layers of skin and muscle, he would break contact and rise up from among them. Then the blessed breeze was free to brush against their hard, grainy facets again and again.
Each time the man woke, he would stand on the rocks’ uneven surfaces and stare into the dark, murky waters of the canal. When he was still like that—his face blank, his jaw hard—he seemed as if he were one of them: sturdy, unmoving, timeless. But the stillness would always end. He would turn his back to the canal and push off the rocks, scrambling upward until he reached the top of the levee. Then there was nothing more for the rocks to know. They would never roll up to the top of the levee and gaze at the land on the other side. They would never know that—as the man stood atop the levee, staring at the land on the dry side of the levee—there was nothing to see but rubble.
Whenever the man sighed, the rocks felt a barely perceptible ripple in air around them. They did not know that the rippling air came from the sudden shock of pain that pierced him each time he laid his eyes on the sea of debris that seemed to stretch on forever. The rocks did not know pain, but they knew silence. They knew absence. They knew the moment the man slipped away from them, pitching himself into a run down the grass that covered the dry side of the levee. His feet tensed to stop him from tumbling, he chanted to protect himself from the deep hollows of silence that lay before him.
“Let’s go get ‘em, Let’s go get ‘em,”
He repeated the chant over and over, imagining a ghostly syncopation of foot stomps and tambourine slaps rounding out the whisper of his words. Every morning the destruction washed over him as if it were a new thing, and every morning he beat back the panic by holding on to the chant’s intonations.
Sometimes the chant could not soothe him. On these days, no matter how forcefully he chanted, he couldn’t dam up the memories that lapped at his brain. On those days, speeding down the levee was the same as somersaulting backward in time. He was surrounded by the chaos all over again. The winds and rains pounding his father’s house, the churning waters spilling over from swollen waterways to break levees and pummel houses in their rush through neighborhoods. Now that the structures had been soaked and knocked off their foundations, he was trapped in this demolished landscape.
Trying to ignore the sound his sanity was making as it slipped from his grasp was a daily, desperate task. The city was his oxygen and he was its heartbeat. He believed in its seasons and its rituals. To see it lying in shambles, gutted like a catfish, was a horror his mind could not assimilate. He knew there was only one way to rebuild, one force that could jolt the city back into functioning, back to its parade of decrepit ways. The only thing to be done was to carry on.
Were it not for the bridge, he would be carrying on. He was the Bone Man and he had to set the city in motion. He needed to gather the noise makers and the bone shakers for their annual ramble through town, but each time he tried to set a course for home, the bridge thwarted him. It loomed over the destruction, like a skeletal spectral rising in air. A sprawl of long concrete ramps and a corroded steel frame, the bridge connected the ghostland where the Bone Man was trapped to the rest of the city.
On this day, as on all days, he mounted the bridge. His pouch was weighty with found treasure that he hoped would gain him entry across the bridge. His feet were heavy as he strode up the concrete ramp. The pouch bouncing against his leg carried: a photograph with a splintered frame, the image marred by a chemical splotches, blooming indigo and magenta across a family’s faces; a stiff, wrinkled envelope stuffed with a hand-written letter whose words had become illegible; and a bone-white plastic recorder, its mouthpiece smashed and jagged-edged. He began the chant again, focusing on the objects in his pouch instead of his prospects for success.
He stepped onto the metal grate an held his breath. Before he could take another step, the barrier—a curtain of glittering lights—materialized from thin air. He squinted in the harsh glare of the lights, tensing against the images the curtain reflected. He was doused in the curtain’s yellow glow as wavering images of the city undulated across the curtain’s surface. The curtain revealed giggling white couples on Magazine Street as they sat at sidewalk cafes, drank coffee, and popped in and out of stores. It projected a partially reconstructed house swarming with a construction crew on Bayou St. John. Standing there with the lights reflecting yellow on his skin, the Bone Man had seen the city limping back into shape, progressing from paralysis to activity. His impotence was always sharp and raging as he witnessed the cityscapes he could not enter, but he found himself trembling in anger as the curtain shifted to show him a large ballroom filled with white women in gowns and white men in tuxedos. The crowd erupted into applause.
“I’m running out of time,” he muttered as he watched the coronation of an opulently dressed Mardi Gras king and queen.
Desperation surged. He grabbed the objects out of his pouch and hurled them at the sparkling lights. But the curtain was unmoved. The objects bounced off the lights, one by one, and went slamming into the bridge’s metal grate. The objects were destroyed, but the image of the couples persisted, and they carried on with their Carnival pageantry undisturbed.
The Bone Man clenched his fists and stepped forward. His home was on the other side. His crew—if any of them were left—was on the other side. The work he had sworn to do—to keep the city’s magic churning—had to be done on the other side of the bridge.
“Stay back,” a chorus of voices hissed as he neared the curtain. “You have nothing we need.” He had never heard the voices before. They reached out toward him as if they were just behind the curtain of light.
“I need to go home,” he yelled. The voices went silent. When the Bone Man saw the glittering of the curtain go still, he threw his arms over his face and ran forward. Upon his touch, the curtain compressed itself into sharp spikes. As he went crashing into them and they surged upward, shoving him backward onto the concrete ramp. A hoarse cry fell from his lips and he tumbled to the ground. A burning sensation flared across his palms and his side throbbed. He crawled to his hands and knees, then slowly climbed to his feet. The curtain was calm again, its lights smoothed back into a serene shimmering surface. The Bone Man scooped up the shards of shattered treasure, stuffed them into his bag, and— ignoring the curtain’s reflection of the world he longed to return to—limped back to the destruction below.
© 2016, Published in When the World Wounds