The Kingdom of Smoke and Rain
The banana slug sizzles, pops and splits on the campfire grill like a small yellow breakfast sausage, all oozing juice and crisp edges. It curls inward on itself from antennae to tail, protecting its soft, sticky underbelly from the blue-tipped lick of the fire. Its skin blackens and peels, sends up flavoured smoke that smells like antiseptic mouthwash. I read that if you’re ever lost in the woods with a toothache all you have to do is lick slug slime and it will numb the pain. But I think if I had a tooth that ached, I’d just rip it out.
“Pea! What are you doing over there?” My mother calls from beside the picnic table. She’s washing the plastic breakfast dishes in a big blue tub, wringing her ratty washcloth free of greasy brown water.
I hate her stupid washtub. She always brings it when we go camping, along with nearly everything else we own. We’re here for three days and she brought a trailer full of stuff. Plates, pots, pans, bags of clothes, books, chairs, creams, lotions, cards, a portable shower we’ve never even used. I hate camping like this. I like the way my dad camps. I want to come with just a tarp and some rope and an axe and a fishing pole. I want to build my fire with sticks instead of lighter fluid. I want to catch squirrels and roast them on spits. I want to dance naked around the fire and cast curses on my enemies. I rub a charred stick in my hands and then wipe my face with them. Dirty. I want to be dirty.
“Pea, stop rubbing soot on your face! Everyone will think you’re a dirty little boy.” She’s always saying people think I’m a boy because my hair is so short. I’d rather be a boy anyway. All my friends are boys. I tug on the gold studs in my ears. They still hurt. I didn’t want them but my mother did. She told me if I pierced my ears I could get a Green Machine Big Wheel like my friend Konrad’s, but she got me the pink Powder Puff girl one instead. She’s a liar.
A soft brown bubble grows from the hole I poked in the slug’s side with my sharp exploring stick. It looks like guts. I take a small splinter from the pile of kindling and poke it into the bubble. It doesn’t pop. The splinter just sticks out, twitching like the second hand on a clock. I time it on my fake Swiss Army watch. Almost two twitches every second. I wonder if the brown bubble is the slug’s dark heart trying to escape and force its way out. Maybe its body means nothing. Maybe it can live without a body.
I give the splinter a tug and the bubble grows. I pull harder and soon another bubble appears, a purple one. I keep pulling and pulling and all these colourful connected bubbles and strings tumble out, until I have one big long string of slug insides hanging from the splinter. How could all of that fit inside such a small body?
“Are you alive?” I whisper. The guts are still twitching.
I could hear Dad whistling from the laundry room. He was back from catching muskrats in the big ditch at the end of our street.
I walked into the hall and saw a growing reddish brown puddle traveling across the linoleum. I walked up to the wooden track doors and pushed one aside.
Tiny skinless bodies hung from clothespins on a line of twine. They dripped blood and watery liquid from their open mouths. They still had eyes and claws. Their flesh was golden brown flecked with red, like slices of pizza without the cheese.
Dad slid open the other door. He was wearing his barbeque apron and had his hunting knife in one hand and a half-skinned rat in the other. He held it out for me, and pried open the slit in its belly with the tip of his knife.
“Look here,” he said. “You can see the heart.”
He had blood on his lower lip.
Kara shrieks as Ron pours a bucket of water over her. They’re making a big sand castle. I am floating out on the lake on a big log. I watch as they create a moat around their masterpiece, carefully reinforcing the walls with wet sand.
I wish I were out on the ocean. I could drift off and no one would ever see me again. I trail my hands in the water, looking down into the darkness, wondering what lies underneath. If this were the ocean there would be whales and sharks and creatures no one has ever seen before. But it’s just a lake, and there’s nothing down there.
I lean back and look up at the sky. It’s pale blue and cloudless. I want it to turn gray and stormy, want torrents of water to rain down on their stupid castle and wash it away. I wonder if I try hard enough, can I make lightning come down on their heads?
It was early morning and the dew was still a cold white coat on the lawn as Dad pulled up to the driveway in his big white Chevy van. I watched from the kitchen window as he got out and circled the blue Malibu in his parking spot. He looked in through the windows and tried the door handle. Locked. He looked up at me for a second, smiled, and pus his finger to his lips. Shhh. He walked toward the house, the heels of his boots knocking on the cracked concrete. I heard the front door open slowly, and then the soft click of it being shut. Quiet creaks on the stairs. I pictured each footstep falling on the green shag carpet.
I heard my mother’s bedroom door open and I peeked into the hallway to see.
“Motherfucker!” Dad lunged into the room at Ron, who was buttoning his shirt. He scrambled over the bed and out of the room, his eyes wide and surprised.
“John, No!” My mother screamed as Dad threw his fists at Ron. Ron stumbled backward and put his hand to his mouth. When he saw the blood he put his hands out in front of him and shook his head. When I saw the blood I got a rushing feeling in my chest. I wanted to yell to my Dad to do it again. Ron wouldn’t fight, and so it ended.
Later that day I found a small crow beside the tire swing during recess. It was lying in the soft mulch, kicking its feet and making slow, sick cries. I had scooped it up in my hands.
It was smelly, and when I looked at its feathers up close I could see hundreds of tiny bugs crawling all over it. I dropped it, and then picked it up again.
A pale orange fluid ran from its beak. It was sticky and got all over my hands. I could feel the bird quivering.
Some of the other kids crowded around, wanting to see. They got too close to me and I got a dizzy kind of feeling behind my eyes, like there was soda fizzing around in my brain. I dropped the bird again. Darcy, one of the fifth-grade boys, tried to grab it.
“It’s mine!” I shouted, and snatched it up again.
“You should take it to a teacher. Maybe they can cure it,” said Darcy.
“Are you stupid? This bird is done for. I’m going to bury it.” I marched over to where the prickle bushes met the soccer field, and held the bird out high and proper.
“But it’s still alive!” Darcy whined.
I dug my hands down into the muddy earth, pulling rocks and clumps of grass away until the hole was deep enough. I took the bird, still squeaking out its death song, and pushed it down into the hole. All the kids around me were silent as I packed the dirt down on top of it.
I looked at Darcy. “Now it’s dead,” I said.
Weeks before, in the stairwell, as I looked up at the navy nylon duffel bag hanging on the banister, I could see that it wasn’t very full. I could tell there were some clothes in it, but the edges were still baggy and the zipper was easily closed. Maybe a couple of shirts. No jackets or shoes. Maybe a shaving kit.
I could hear her crying again, but I didn’t have to see. I knew she was sitting on the brown Formica kitchen counter, her bare legs dangling from cutoff jean shorts. She held an old Super Mom coffee cup with fuchsia lipstick stained on the rim.
He was casting that old spell on her, trying to win her again, the way he did with everyone. His dark blue eyes would burn cool into you, and then he would catch you in his magic. He was saying those same words again, rhythmic, confusing, going over and over in circles until she fell in love all over, even if she didn’t want to.
I heard her voice, low, thin. It said, “No.”
A spoon dropped. I heard it twang against the vinyl flooring.
“You’re weak,” he shouted, and I heard him stomping toward the stairs.
I saw his fingers round the corner first, all stained with grease from working on his van. Then his hands, the skin thick and scarred with cuts that looked more like dents.
He shouldered his duffel bag, ran down the stairs, grabbed me and squashed my head into his chest in a rough hug. My face was pressed hard into his leather jacket, and all I could think about was the smell of it and Old Spice and the blood coming from my nose.
“Goodbye Penelope. I’m leaving. This is the last time you’ll ever see me.” He pushed me away from him and ran out the door.
“I want her! I need her!” Dad was crying, begging on his knees in the downstairs rec room. I watched through the sliding glass doors from the backyard as he held his head in his hands. It had only been days. I knew he would come back.
My mother was standing on the couch with Kara behind her.
I walked back and forth on an old fence plank beside the spare woodpile.
Dad ran out of the house. I heard him fire up his van and peel off.
My bare foot hovered over a loose nail. I stepped down, fast. The nail plunged into the arch of my foot. It didn’t hurt. It just felt like something hard and cold was pushing its way inside. It felt right.
“Your mother lies, you know. She said I took all those pills but I didn’t. I just got sick and had to go to the hospital, that’s all. They gave me medicine and now I’m better.
“Don’t I look better?” Dad leaned back in the faded brown leather booth at Murphy’s restaurant and chugged back his coke, smiling. He did look better, and it was nice to visit with him.
“You look great, Daddy.” Kara smiled at him, her dimples reflecting his.
“Penelope…” He spoke to me, but he was watching Kara. “When exactly did that guy move in?”
I swallowed a bite of my burger. It stuck in my throat and my voice came out strangled. “I don’t know.”
Dad stretched his arms up and back behind his head and laced his fingers together. With his old brown leather jacket on he blended right into the booth, his face and hands the only alive parts of him. Then he picked up my burger and finished it off.
“Listen,” he said. “If you ever call him Dad I’ll kill myself and never speak to you again.”
“We won’t Daddy,” Kara’s mouth quivered. Dad smiled.
Then he looked at me, right into me with his dark blue eyes and his way of hypnotizing me so I can’t move or think. I could feel something come over me, like a big dark tidal wave, a black shadow of dread and fear. I could hear my heart beat, feel it skip in my chest. The air in the restaurant got all thin and grainy and I could see it with my naked eyes, see all the millions and millions of atoms and molecules floating around, invading my body. I didn’t like it, didn’t want that speeding up feeling, and that feeling like something behind my eyes was melting. I wondered if that was how he felt sometimes, if that was what Mom meant when she caught me daydreaming and then said I reminded her of him. I didn’t want it.
“We won’t,” I said. “I promise.”
I’m sitting on my log throne by the fire and watching as they all make potato chip sandwiches. Mother, pretend father, daughter. They look like a family, but they’re just faking.
“Pea, what do you want on yours?” My mother holds up two pieces of white bread and motions to the ketchup and mustard bottles.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Are you sure? Can I make you something else?” She’s always trying to feed me. That’s all she knows how to do. Feed and eat. Eat and feed.
I shake my head. “No.”
I turn my head away and watch the fire. I love the way it eats wood up and makes everything glow. It’s like a wild animal, one that feeds on air. I wish I could live on air alone. I think I’m going to try it.
“Well, I’m going to go get some water for the washing up.” My mother grabs her blue washtub and lumps off to the community tap down the road, her fat thighs rubbing together in her gray University of PEI jogging pants. She never even graduated from high school, so I don’t know why she wears them. Dad says you just have to talk to her for a minute to figure out she never went to college.
“Kara, can you help me sort out these ropes?” Ron tosses some confused yellow bundles to Kara, condiments still alive on his upper lip. I feel like gagging.
Kara slowly unravels the rope, walking backwards towards me, towards the fire.
Ron throws stuff around in the cooler looking for a beer.
As she gets closer, I stare at the back of her head and start to hate it. As she takes another step backwards I pick up a small log and toss it behind her feet. She trips on it, stumbles, arches back, and falls. Ron turns around at the last second, but it’s too late. Kara falls ass-first onto the pointed corner of the fire pit, impaling her soft right butt cheek on the hot metal. She screams.
For a second I almost get up and help her, but then I see the tears coming down her face and her crying sounds make me sick.
“What happened?” My mother runs into the campsite, the blue basin empty and slapping against her legs.
“Kara fell on the fire pit and she’s cut!” Ron picks her up, turning her over like a baby, and my mother gasps.
Her jeans are split open in the back and she’s bleeding. I walk over closer to look at the wound. A two-inch cut in her butt cheek gushes blood, and all the yellow, lumpy fat pushes out through the opening.
Ron puts Kara face down in the back seat of the Malibu. She’s still screaming. Mom climbs in after her, pressing a washcloth against the wound.
Ron sticks his head out the window and looks at me. “We’ll be a few hours. We’ll have to go into town to the hospital. Watch the stuff, okay?” They zoom off, the tires spitting gravel.
After they’re gone, I lay out the long trail of slug innards on a piece of newspaper, careful to keep all the parts together. I wish I had a ruler to measure the length with. It must be at least seven inches, almost the size of my foot.
I go get a bone-handled steak knife from Mom’s clean dishes bin and place the specimen on top of another log. I wish I had a microscope.
I slice into the purple bubble. I bet this is the brain. I thought there might be some kind of goo inside but it’s all solid and mealy looking. I must have let it cook for too long.
I’ll have to kill another one to be sure.
When they come back it’s dark and Kara wants to roast marshmallows. We all sit around the fire, me on my log throne, all three of them in lawn chairs. Kara’s sitting on a plastic blow-up doughnut pillow, her eyes still red from crying all day.
The gray smoke separates us, screens us from each other. I squint my eyes at them, pretending like the smoke is really some kind of time fog or barrier between dimensions. I remember what my Dad said about things being so small you can’t even see them, and how maybe there are even big things that are so huge you can’t see them either. I wonder if they think I look big or small through all this smoke?
They’re far away now, drifting off onto another planet. I exile them in my mind, give them nothing more than the flaming treats on the ends of their roasting sticks to survive on.
I’ll stay here alone in my own kingdom, I think. A kingdom of smoke. I’m better off.
At bedtime I get the small tent to myself because Kara wants to sleep with Mom and Ron in the big blue tent. I can see their shadows jumping across the glow of the lantern and hear them get comfortable and snuggled up in their sleeping bags. Soon, the rustling stops, and I hear Kara’s quick breathing, and then Ron’s deep snore. Mom is a quiet sleeper, just like me.
I wait until I think they’re all deep into dreams before I slip out of my tent. I take my sharp exploring stick and my flashlight and walk down the slope to the place where the gravel of our campsite borders with the green moss of the forest. I stand there for a minute under the moonlight, my flashlight off and hanging from my belt. I don’t need it. My eyes feel extra sharp, like some layer or veil has been peeled back and now I can really see.
It’s cold enough that my breath puffs out in front of me. The air feels charged and damp, like it does right before it starts to rain. I look up into the sky and wait for it. There are no stars. Black wisps curl around the moon. Then I feel the wetness on my face. Soft at first, like an almost-dry kiss from a tiny being, and then wetter and wetter until fat drops of rain are falling into my eyes and mouth, rapping down onto the tarps and tents, and making cold rivers in my hair. My kingdom of rain.
I step forward into the forest.
I am no longer on earth. I am not an earthling, not human. Time stretches on, long and slow. This place looks like a forest but I know better. Behind every tree is magic and danger. Under every stump is a poison threat. Next to each log lies a bloodthirsty foe. I hold my stick like a spear, ready. Was that a whisper?
And then, a distant shout: “Penelope, where are you?”
I ignore their questions from far away, their voices coming to me through years and worlds. I close myself to them, close my mind, and close my heart.
The wet ferns will hide me. The ground is soft and cold. I am enclosed in earth and plants. I am a part of the forest now. My arms and legs are heavy like fallen tree limbs. Deep roots wrap around me and pull me down close. Perfumed water drips from the leaves above my head, washing my face clean like the blessed water they use to christen new babies.
But I am no one’s baby, not anymore. And they won’t ever find me here.
Brooke Carter’s poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction have appeared in EVENT, More Magazine, Vancouver, and several others. She completed her MFA at UBC and is currently working on a novel and a poetry collection. In 2015 she launched the speculative fiction journal UNBUILD walls.