“And it was the white blood that sent him to the minister, which rising in him for the last and final time, sent him against all reason and reality, into the embrace of a chimaera… It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man, swept him up into that ecstasy out of a black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment.” — William Faulkner, Light in August
My sister Mira turned herself into a jewelry tree at thirteen. Earrings, nose rings, brow rings, tongue ball, titty rings, navel rings. And scarring too. Deep purple galactic swirls across her stomach and back, and when the light hit them right they sparkled and rotated like hurricanes licking the Virgin Islands. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee became her favorite musicians (“my burden so heavy, I can’t hardly see…”), replacing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “Sonny and Brownie are an institution,” she’d say. “Poster children for the modern age.” Then she’d crank it up and stop living.
Our parents couldn’t take the stress of her change. Couldn’t justify the body mutilations to the neighbors or the social clubs, and certainly could not take her newfound anger and disrespect. My father would ask me, “Paul, why is she so angry? What does she have to be angrier about than I did when I was her age?” But I couldn’t answer him, for I wondered the same thing.
Things came to loggerheads by her sixteenth birthday.
Mom was ladling out fried potatoes at the dinner table. Mira slunk down in her chair, with the new violin mom had bought her punched through the center and worn up on her bicep like some twisted badge of courage. The world stopped turning, the chunks of potato dangled at the edge of the spoon like swords of Damocles.
“What the hell is this?” Dad said, lips shaking with nervous anger.
“What?” Mira said, taking a sip from her water.
“You show your mother disrespect like that?” He motioned to the violin, whose strings were broken and curled every which way like octopus arms.
Mom’s eyes moistened. I could say nothing, eyes glazed in shock.
“It’s mine, isn’t it?” Mira said, defiantly. “I can do what I want with it.” And she stared into Mom’s pale face, silent and still, waiting for the swords to fall.
Dad bolted out of his chair. “That’s it, damn you! Get out!”
He grabbed Mira, ripped off the violin and smacked her across the face. Mira fell back, screaming, kicking, crying.
“Get out!” Dad screamed, going after her, his face also streaming with tears. “You’re not welcome here anymore.”
And they went on like that for a time, back and forth, until dad finally picked her up and threw her off the porch. I watched silently, doing nothing, wanting to intervene, but not being able to move. What’s the matter with you, Mira? What’s going on? I asked myself these questions over and over as their battle raged. I wanted to stop Dad, but I agreed with him. I was so mad at her. So mad.
That was fifteen years ago. I hadn’t seen Mira since.
An emaciated drug-monkey with Elvis sideburns tried to give me clues. “Last time I saw her,” he coughed, dragging on a holographic cigarette, “was a couple months ago at Eddie’s Data BBQ with some mutant friends of hers, licking net sauce off a dead pig’s ribs, and spinning music out of her body like some goddamned symphony. Don’t mind my asking, why you looking for her?”
As if it were his business. “There’s been a death in the family.”
His eyes lit up and he forced air out of his mouth like he was trying to pop a balloon. “Wow, tough break. I guess that happens sometimes. Do you remember…”
He went on about a bottle of vodka he had bought for some underage kids, but I wasn’t listening. Eddie’s Data BBQ, the finest virtual pork shop in the tri-state area. All the flavor without the fat. Some biotech guru from South Haven, Mississippi had come up with the idea. Take textured data matrices shaped into prime ribs and sauté them with the binary code of barbecue sauce recipes. Flavored Zeros and Ones. Delish! Trouble was, the taste of all that smoked data created pork junkies. People would eat nothing but virtual pork and die, eventually, of real starvation. Progress has its martyrs.
“…she’s probably not there now, though,” the drug-monkey chimed in again. “Sunday being the Sabbath and all.”
“It’s closed on Sundays?”
“Then, do you know where she might be?” I asked, putting her photo back in my pocket.
He shook his head. “I don’t know if she’s on the ground at all anymore, or somewhere uploaded.”
“Thank you,” I said, and walked away into the haze of the hot Memphis dog-day.
Eddie’s Data BBQ stood at the corner of Mendenhall and Winchester, in the old building where the U-Haul used to be. At the beginning of the new century, U-Haul was quickly bought up by the Taiwanese, when it was learned that all solid structures (like bedroom furniture) could be easily broken down into data strands and shipped across the net or on DVDs. Why bother with bulky trucks and trailers, when you can ship your goods around the world with one click and have it all reconstructed perfectly at the other end? The Taiwanese changed the name of the rental company to “U-Phase Shift It” and business boomed.
“Yeah,” the pale waitress said, handing back the picture, “Mira comes in here once in awhile, but I got to tell you. She don’t look like that anymore.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, tucking away the picture.
“She’s pure stingray now,” the ashen princess said with a throaty chuckle.
I shook my head. “Not familiar with the term.”
“No?” the waitress chuckled again. She obviously thought our conversation was quite humorous. I wasn’t laughing. “Sure, she’s still got the facial features, but they’re all flattened out, you know? A stingray, friend. Flat, leather gray body. Leathery wings. Sharp razor teeth in her flat mug. You know what I’m talking about: the kind of creature they used to scare us with at the aquarium when we were little. Those goddamn flat fuckers that looked like spaceships. Stingray! Of course, they aren’t called stingrays actually. But you get the gist.”
I nodded. “Well, what do they call them?”
She crunched her shoulders. “I’m not too sure. I mind my own business, understand? I’ve got my own troubles. I don’t go for those genetic mutation experiences. Straight, old-fashioned grass is my mantra. But some folk, like your sister, can’t help themselves, you know? Can’t help but feel a kind of cell music when the changes start happening. It’s like morphing into those blues brothers BB King or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Buddy Guy. They spray themselves with some kind of weirdo shit that seeps into their skin and changes them, and it’s Graceland all over again, know what I’m saying?”
I did not.
“But that’s what your sister is up to,” she continued, edging past me to push aside a dead patron to clean off the table where he had died. “She’s a fanatic. A real user… and a pusher too, if my cards are right. She’s gone overboard, used too much. Now she’s a stingray. If you’ll excuse me…”
“Wait,” I said, tugging at her light blue uniform sleeve. “Do you know where I might find her? Where would someone like her hang out?” She sighed and blew back a strand of dirty blond that covered her left eye. “Try Chirpy’s Agora on Beale Street. I hear a lot of mutants hang out there.”
Chirpy’s Agora is the kind of place you dream about after a bad taco. From a distance, it’s kind of blurry like you’re looking through hazy desert heat. But as you draw closer, the window front changes colors rapidly like a chameleon. Yellow and white and deep blue and gray and purple, rotating and flashing over and over again depending upon your point of view. A pure human like myself has trouble reaching the door, because the colors swim around so quickly it makes you sick. An effective way of keeping out undesirable DNA. This was definitely a mutant’s hangout.
With some serious trouble, I reached the front door, turned the lions-head knob and walked in. Immediately, my stomach stopped flopping, but my nose caught the sweet, pungent odor of rotten boards, moss and mushrooms. It was humid too, like I had just walked into the Amazon. The light was dim but I could see well enough to shuffle my way slowly up the aisle. I was afraid to put too much weight on the floor; damn floorboards were soaking wet.
Chirpy’s must have been some kind of head shop in the early days. There were still dusty old water pipes and nitrous oxide bullets and clove cigarette packs scattered along the shelves. But now the poisons of choice were tiny pre-packaged Score Slugs and earwigs and perfume spray bottles of all sizes. What those bottles contained I didn’t want to know, but I can tell you that some of them looked at me. They didn’t have eyes per se, but I felt eyes burning through the glass just the same.
They say the mutant culture is heavy on sprays, burrowing insects and mollusks like slugs, because when placed on the skin, a slug can pump the sound right to the vein. That’s what they call it: Pumping Sound. I’ve seen a Score Slug in action. Kind of reminds you of quackery and blood-letting; only this time, the slug mills around for a while on the receiver’s flesh until it finds a juicy spot to pump, and then the receiver goes pasty white and eyes dilate in an almost orgasmic stupor that (according to the accounts I’ve heard) feels like the hand of God. And then you hear a high-pitched, sustained note, a frequency almost too high to detect. The music the little monsters pump is a hyper-mutable junk DNA that grates along the receiver’s true DNA strand, and the friction creates music, “melodies of the soul” or “the voice of God” as they call it. I don’t buy that shit, though. Drop acid or snort a line of coke and you get the same result, as far as I’m concerned. See, the problem with mutants is that they think they are wholly superior beings. Homo-orchestrous. Homo-symphonic. A new breed of man… or woman… or whatever. Perhaps they’re right.
But I hadn’t come all this way to debate the existence of mutants. I had to find Mira, and find her now.
This gangly mutant behind a broken cash register wiggled his bat ears at me, lifted his chewy upper lip, and spoke through crooked teeth. “No humans allowed in here.”
I walked up to him slowly. “Yes, I can see that.” I tried to be polite. “But I’m here all the same. You must be Chirpy.”
He nodded. “Like the sign says.”
“I’m looking for Mira. Is she here?”
He unraveled his arms and spread them out to his sides, revealing furry brown wings. A flying fox. A fruit bat. Chiroptera. Impressive. He looked at me, wriggled his nose, and flicked a fly off his lips with a knife tongue. Pulled his cheeks back like smiling. “What business do you have with her?”
“I’m her brother.”
He stopped smiling. “No shit?”
I shook my head. “None.”
He folded his arms back against his body, and leaned forward. A cigarette he’d been smoking was lying dead in a tray to his left. He took awhile to pick it up, light it, and take another drag. I didn’t know bats smoked. “She might be here.”
“Well, if she is,” I said, growing ever more annoyed by this bug-eater, “can I see her?”
He flapped his wings and I thought he was going to launch, but instead he pulled a small velvet box out from behind the counter, sat it before me, and clapped twice. It flickered blue and then a little holo-man popped out, a black guy, holding a mike and wailing against the twang of a blues guitar: “If I don’t ever see you no more, baby, you know that’s too soon for me. I got my problems, I don’t want you to mess with me.”
“Know who he is?” the bat said.
I chuckled. “No.”
“Buddy Guy. Best blues man ever.”
“I thought all you Memphians liked BB King.” I leaned over and put my index finger through the stomach of the little screamer. I could feel his song.
“I’m from Chicago. You keep Buddy company. You listen good. He’ll teach you something. You stay right here.”
He waddled away and disappeared behind a door of beads.
“…I said, if I don’t ever see you no more…”
Above the riot of words coming from Buddy’s little mouth, I could hear muffled voices in the back, winding through the beads. Lyrical voices. Not like words, really. Music. Question, answer. Question, answer.
“…I got my own problems…”
The voices grew angrier, shouting. I tried to lean toward the beads to get a better listen. My sister was back there. I could feel it. Butterflies in my stomach. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years. God, what am I doing here? Why did I come? I started to sweat, which was funny because I hadn’t broken one pore since I walked through the door, even though it was as hot as hell. Cold sweat, the kind you get before a heavy bowel movement. I wanted to throw up. Damn you, Sis. Why have you put us all through this?
“…I don’t want you to mess with me…”
The fruit bat returned, scampered up to the counter, and snatched the box away from me. “She’s here!” he snapped, looking very flustered. “She’ll see you for just a few minutes.” He motioned to the back and through the beads.
I walked slowly. Buddy Guy was singing in my head. What would I find? I wondered. How different would she be? I took a deep breath and continued.
It was a jungle in the back. Right past the beads I stepped through a small, dark hall and down three steps into a greenhouse. Hot as hell! Steam. Humidity. Difficult to breathe. The floor a soft moss, the path lined by thick green sword-shaped leaves and snakeplant. Muted calls from toucans and Argus pheasant echoed off the glass walls from giant ivy-covered speakers, and water trickled cool down porcelain rock faces to pools of pure crystal at the end of the path. I couldn’t see them, but they were there. Mutants. All around me, shuffling behind the lush flora. Lizards. A spider monkey. A sloth. I knew that each mutant Agora had its own theme, representative of the basic mutations in the local group. In Arizona you commonly had rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, and peccary. In Florida, raccoons, bobcats, and Key deer. I would have expected the Memphis Agora to contain samples of the Mississippi, but what do I know? I’m human. But it troubled me. If my sister was a stingray as the waitress had said, then what was she doing here in the jungle? An outcast even here.
I walked up to the crystal pool and said, heart pounding, “Mira?”
Something moved at the bottom of the pool. A school of koi, but something was propelling them forward, scattering them like a predator on the hunt. I screwed my eyes tightly, peering through slits like Clint Eastwood. And then a large white shape emerged from beneath a rock formation. Not white, actually, but a light gray, almost white. Wings like a stealth fighter, but more oval, and they fluttered on the edge, like fingers clattering across a keyboard. I saw a thin tail, a wispy, spiked member flashing behind the mass, spreading the koi in its wake.
And then she emerged. My sister. Arms and legs unfolded from beneath her flat body, lifting her cartilage out of the pool, slowly, cresting the skin of the water patiently, deliberately. Her eyes set in deep brow ridges, now slanted slightly to the sides, but they were her eyes. Light blue. She pulled completely out of the water and I heard flutes. Dreamy flutes from Debussy’s “La Mer,” pouring out of her back like the droplets of water running down her spine. She rose up before me, the bottom of her body encasing her flat face, her mouth two powerful rows of teeth. She pulled herself onto the edge of the pool and looked at me, her flat cheeks turning tender pink in the humid air.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t believe this was her, and yet it was her. I found myself on the verge of tears, but she spoke through the din of french horn. “What do you want, Paul? I don’t want you here.”
Her speech was slurred. Had to be, with her jaw the way it was. She didn’t seem comfortable talking. I could tell it hurt to do so. She seemed content only when she let the music speak for her, the color of her leathery skin shifting hues like Monet flowers. She was angry… but she was beautiful.
I found myself speaking. “I have something to tell you.”
She waited, the mad flutes trilling up and down in a chaotic dance.
The music stopped, the color of her skin grew deep red. Was she crying? I couldn’t tell. Did she even have tear ducts? Could she even understand fully what I was saying?
“I said Dad is de–”
“I heard what you said,” she barked, resting her mutated bulk against her shortened legs. “When?”
“A week ago.”
The jungle behind me rustled with life. I was afraid to turn around. I think some of them had come up behind me, perhaps lured by my voice. Some mutants were so changed as to lose their connection with humanity. It slips through their fingers, after being different for so long. The changes seep into their souls, into their bones, translates their marrow.
“It doesn’t concern me,” she said. She was turning to fall back into the water.
“The hell it doesn’t! It concerns you all too much, Mira. Goddammit, you really hurt him.”
She turned back to me and bared her teeth. “He hurt me. He never understood me.”
“No one ever understood you, Mira,” I moved forward, not caring about what was behind me, not caring if she had friends in the shadows. I was going to have my say. “You and your stupid anger. We did everything we could to make you happy, and you shit on us.”
Furious violins screamed out of her back, and her stomach swirled with purple rain clouds. “That’s a lie. You never took real time to understand me at all. You never stopped once and asked, ‘What’s wrong, Mira? Why are you feeling this way?’ No, I was just an embarrassment to you all, an embarrassment to your snobby friends. And you tried to buy my happiness with stupid gifts… like that violin.”
“Oh, bullshit, Mira,” I screamed back at her through the cacophony of violent strings. “We did everything we could to reach you, we tried–”
“You didn’t try hard enough!” And she lost her balance and fell into the water, forcing the koi into full panic against the deep waters behind the rocks. The music stopped, I stopped, everything stopped. Silence. And then when the ripples subsided, she said, her skin turning a sobbing blue, “You didn’t try hard enough.”
Slowly, I knelt down before her, my face wet with sweat and tears. I put my hands out. I wanted to touch her, to rub her back, as if touching her would make me understand, would make the anger and hurt go away. “Make me understand now, Mira. Make me understand… why.”
She sat there in the water, looking at me. She said, “Do you remember that time when we were kids and I killed that bird with a rock?”
I nodded. “Vaguely.”
“We were in the back yard, and you were teasing me that I couldn’t hit anything with your slingshot. And I got so mad that I yanked it out of your hands, picked up a rock and put it in the pouch. ‘I’ll show you,’ I said, and aimed it at a little song sparrow, perched on a branch in our maple tree. I pulled back as hard as I could, and let it fly. And I hit it. We couldn’t believe it. I really hit it, and you were shocked, and the sparrow fluttered a couple times and then went down. We rushed over to it, and there it was: its wing broken, flopping all over the ground. I picked it up, and we took it in to mama, showed her the broken wing. She was mad, upset that we let this happen. I told her I’d take care of it; I’d make it better. I remember taking it into my room, and wrapping toilet paper around it, hoping that that would keep the wing tight against the broken bone, and perhaps it would heal. And we tried to give it food, remember? We tried to feed it leaves and worms and bits of apple. But it wouldn’t eat anything. And day after day, it grew weaker and weaker, until it died.”
She stopped. I waited. She didn’t say anything else.
“You became a mutant because you killed a bird? Come on, Mira, there’s got to be more.”
A somber bassoon flowed from her back. “There is, but you wouldn’t understand. But the bird was a critical moment, a memory that keeps floating back to me again and again. No, I didn’t become a mutant because I killed a bird. Not because I killed it, but by killing that innocent, beautiful little bird, I realized that sometimes a person makes decisions that she can’t take back, no matter how badly it hurts. She can’t control it. I had reached out with my anger towards you, I had pulled back a piece of rubber, and had hurled a rock into a tree… and as indiscriminately as God himself, I killed a living creature. I took away its song forever. I was human, and it was in my nature to do this. And when I was old enough to make the right decisions, I decided that I would never have to make that choice again, that I would never allow my nature to get the best of me.”
I sat there with my head in my hands, the memories of Mira as a seven year old, me as her older brother. Playing in the backyard. Man, those were good times. Back when we understood each other. Good times. Well, no more of that. I didn’t have time for this.
I jumped up and said, “Look, Mira. I don’t give a damn what you are, what you have become. All I know is that dad is dead, and the least you can do is come to his funeral. I want you to come.”
She shook the water off her face. “Why? What good would it do? He’s dead, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
It was time to go. I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket and laid it at the foot of the pool. “These are the directions. I won’t make you come. Do what you think is right.”
And I left. I think she called to me in her own way, calling me back to her, perhaps to explain further. I heard an oboe, a pleading voice to see things her way. But I couldn’t face her. Not like this. I remembered too much of how she used to be.
But she did come to the funeral. She showed up at the gravesite. An El Camino relic, all rusty and popping with backfire, circled around the yard and stopped fifty yards from our father’s coffin. I was there with my wife and my little boy, and around us our friends and my father’s friends. Mother had died years ago, and at that time I couldn’t find Mira, though I had looked for her then too. And as the preacher began the final prayer, I watched Chirpy and another mutant climb out of the El Camino, go to the back, and flip over a canvas wrap. My sister was underneath it, in a plastic tank.
As Chirpy and his friend pulled the tank out of the back, those gathered started looking over to them, and I could see them shift in their shoes. A mumble here and there, a whisper in the ear of a spouse, fear in the eyes. They tried hard to contain their disgust. Mutants and humans don’t mix too well, and here, on hallowed human ground, the sight of my sister and her friends was almost more than they could take. Even the preacher stumbled a bit, but recovered with a quick glance at the dirt mound at his feet. As long as he didn’t look up, he could finish the job.
They brought her up to the edge of the crowd, and set her down. Her tank was covered with a glass top, and Mira was settled at the bottom, half in and out of sand. There were guppies and minnows in the tank with her, swimming around. My little boy pointed to the tank, but I put his arm down.
“That’s your aunt, honey,” I whispered to him and rubbed his head. “Don’t stare.”
But I stared, deeply, into her eyes as she swam up to the edge of the tank and peered through the sun glare. She looked at me, at Father’s coffin, at the mound of dirt, at the people. She knew some of them. She had been in their houses, had played with their children. She looked at me, and it sounds funny, but I swear I could hear music piping from her tank. Not flutes or horns, or mad violins, but the deep, slow voice of a Blues musician. One of Chirpy’s favorites, no doubt. Lightnin’ Hopkins. “One kind favor I’ll ask to you, see that my grave is kept clean.” No one else seemed to hear the words, but I could see her skin change color as she sang, and the ripples on the water as each note percolated from her spine, like fart bubbles in a tub. I sort of snickered, as if we were sharing a joke. She seemed to laugh too, and Lightnin’ bubbled up and up in honor of our father. I winked at her. I was tired of fighting and feeling ashamed. I was tired of blaming her for something that was my problem… not hers. She was a mutant, and that was that.
The preacher finished and the crowd slowly faded away. Some of them tried to approach the tank, but most just slipped away, too afraid to take another step. My wife took our son to the car and waited. I asked her to. This was Mira’s time and mine.
I walked up to her, and Chirpy and their friend stepped back. Mira put her webbed hands against the side of her tank, and I touched them through the plastic. “I’m glad you came,” I said, smiling.
She smiled too, as best as she could, and rubbed my fingers through the barrier between us. For now and all time, I realized that that barrier would always be there, keeping us apart. Her songs were different than mine now. She had made choices that would forever keep us apart, and eventually she would forget about me and her father and mother, the way all mutants finally do. She would lose her connection with us, and live the rest of her life (however long that might be) in peace with her new kin.
I had listened to her at the foot of the pool. I had listened to her reasons for becoming a mutant. She said that she would never fall victim again to her nature, but look at her now. A creature of water, shaped and mutilated by the musical notes of life. She couldn’t stay out of water for too long; it hurt to speak; her eyes gummed over if they touched too much air. She flew through schools of fish like a bird, and found scraps of food at the bottom of tanks. It made me wonder. Was she so different now than before? Hadn’t she merely replaced one set of “natures” for another?
I rose up and said to Chirpy, “Take her away now. It’s time for her to go.”
As I watched them place her back into the El Camino, my thoughts drifted to William Faulkner’s character Joe Christmas in Light in August. Like the confused white and black blood flowing through Joe Christmas’ veins, Mira had been trapped between the races, trapped between the musics. It was her human music that defined her misery. It was her mutant music that defined her joy. It was her human music that had driven her away from us and into the embrace of a chimaera; and it was her mutant music that had swept her into an ecstasy beyond the very touch of God.
The car faded away beyond the hill, and I realized something. We have a lot of tough days ahead of us, we Homo Sapiens and Homo Orchestrals.
I began to cry. Sister was right about one thing: It is in our human nature to kill. Joe Christmas had been killed by the mob; Mira’s mob was yet to come.