Finley MacDonald

The Beachcombers

Can’t tell you how long we’ve slouched in heraldic chairs, waiting as if for a thaw in the wintertide of the soul while droplets streak like white eyes from the eves, and the foraging of rats recalls a harpy drawing her talons along the walls. Across the table from me, in the granite of his head, his eyes are lost to the mountain ebonies lashing in window. At his elbow, close upon a yellow, Marathon-Finisher disk, rests a crownlike lump from the beach sanded down to the words Charleston Lamp Company, Charleston, SC. This lassitude, inexorably, is also the Procreant Body, and these, its phylactery; this muddle of bones between us on the chop plate; the three ugly sutures, in the area behind his thumb, knotted and tailed. Yet, you cannot just say, while he rubs his fingers in his beard, I believe that we can change everything.

From the table’s edge, I lift the scuffed, battered Antediluvian nail polish, and I shake and unscrew it, and I withdraw the brush, still glittering after an epoch of tumbling, and a ferment of meadowsweet impregnates the space. I lay my right hand on the table and paint my nails. Above my knuckles, in speckled glass, a black torso bobs alongside the drystone dike: the clam digger we’ve seen crossing, skiffborne, at high tide. He comes on in a fishskin cape, trailing smoke, and his thumbs press out straps of his creel, and his earless cur gimps, tail walloping. Hood wide and dripping, our purgatorial custodian appraises two silhouettes in the window. He is sliding in guest trees, hastening to his skiff before the tide strands him behind fields of mire. And yet, even this constant and dumb ruckus is in some way allusive, as objects and bodies are transcendent, yet contingent, these boughs twitching and droplets falling from leaves, the raw gush that fills the room while the front door knocks the brick stop. I move my fingers in my breathstream. “You could set your watch by that man.”

My bedmate draws a long, ragged breath.

“Bloody mossback.”

That first afternoon before the rain, while he probed for artifacts, I clambered up metal whiskers and broken slabs and ventured upon the ancient freeway with its antediluvian rigs, as rumored, following a broken runway. A queue of tilting, crucified, vegetation-sprouting roachoids. Upon rusting hulls, cormorants shuffled and dug beaks and stretched wings. I mounted a riddled lorry and sighted down the spine where vehicles once hurtled across a tract potted with reservoirs and mills and mines and burrows. From islets like cleavers of chipped stone, clouds were coming, high-piled and tumbling, casting stripes upon the pumice-green sea. In the first sheets of rain, driftwood darkened among the piles.

We fled for the winter cottages. Magpies cheered in the rattling gush, and palms slung one way. In his belted swim trunks, through hawksbeard, he climbed ahead, towel furling about his neck. He tossed the bags over the gate and made a stirrup for my foot. He smashed the lite in the door with one blow, spraying the floor with glass, and he reached through, already dripping blood, to turn the latch. In the sitting room, with his hand swaddled in a shirt, he pried open crates of tomes and bobbles, and he made a fire of the boards. I removed the leather washers from the wood-oil stove in the kitchen and dropped them in a jar of oil. When I returned to the sitting room, he was pushing a broken stool into the flames and had stacked up picture frames by the hearth and laid out the wool rug. He pulls his stitched hand down his face, and he looks out the window, his eyes dull and insomniac.

“I know the old mossback’s game. The old mossback’s a helmsman for the ship of Eyrines.”

“The what, lover?’

In a beard dark as the taproots of swamp trees, his fingers move up and down and pull at the skin of his throat. “Eyrines. Snake-headed envoys. I suppose they are after me because I broke my wife’s china. Along with the crystal swans in the sun room. She had these plates from her mother with clovers along the edge that sat at just such an angle. I threw them all down on the floor. One at a time. Quite methodical. She couldn’t stop me. Epwort, Epwort, she kept saying. I’d push her off and break another. And another. She loved those bloody plates. The swans were harder to break. I am guilty of worse. But always as vengeance upon that world. Its microscopic regularity. I never wanted to be a part of that, but it got me by attrition. A little retreat here and a retreat there. Finally nothing left. The savage crumbles. Nothing left to fight for. Question is, what will they do when they catch up with me? Death by ten-thousand pricks of the salad fork?”

“You are safe. Nobody will find you here.” I blow on the nails of my left hand. In the window, beyond flinching leaves, shellpink pools fire droplets upward to meet the falling rain. “I had an odd dream last night.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“You and I were following a narrow track under this iron grid full of predatory birds. We had to escape by walking on water. You needed to hold your feet just so, no mistakes. You were not getting it. You kept sinking down.”

“Sounds right.”

“Just before I awoke, though, I found myself in a patch of yellow flowers like small, yellow crosses. These had curative properties. Oh yes—there was a huge moth in the sky. The wind from these big, gray, swishing wings swept the flowers, whoosh, whoosh. I could hear music—lovely, peaceful, heavenly music.”

“Meanwhile, he lies sweating in air thick as concrete. Prey for the Eyrines. Don’t mind me. I can’t function without my demons. I’m like Saint Anthony that way.”

A breeze surges through the cottage, and a door to a back room slams, and the orchid trees outside thrash purple-fisted (I shall be that, purple-fisted and bent back). Thumb gourds shake honey-colored nodes, and the horse-eye beans weave in the settling mist of rain. I finish my nails and blow on them and rouse myself and shake bones from the two cokeware plates onto the lapin carcass in its moat of wine and grease.

I cross to the door, lug the hooded wrap from its ball-tip, and I slip it on heavy and roll the cuffs. Along the hearth, where tintypes of the family have hung, rectangles mark the flocked wall. On the shadowed side of the room lurks a piano. I slip on the kidskins of the wife of the house and tie them at the ankles and go stack plates. I bear the stack across the wood floor and out the doorway. Along the rails nod parched hagbonnets, and crackbeaks dart in the azaleas. I step down onto the flesh-colored gravel. In the plunge and toss of fleabane huddle blinking and chewing lapins. You can spook them into nets by feeding a serpent down a burrow. After hanging them overnight, you strip the fur like stockings and boil the quarters in coconut liquor. Wild cockerel too I have dispatched among far magnolias with a stone. We dine upon their roasted flesh and drink beer from the cellar. In the pantry, there are stacked rounds of cheese, tins of chickpeas and lentils.

I set the plates on the swaybacked table, and I fling the bones. With the shirtsleeve hanging from the hand pump, I scrub the dishes, my fingernails circulating like platinum whirligig beetles. I leave the dishes filling with rain, and I pick a rusting clothes iron from the table and grip it aloft. In the glare of the window, while the surf tears, distant, cavernous, I mark his face, the eyes hooded, before he dims into the cottage interior.

Through long, wild, wet weeds, lapins round the cottage. Under the cistern, they move in jerks. Ears stiff. Eyes like obsidian buttons. They move past the latrine, vanishing under the shed with its sagging roof and windows planked. The pond is set behind in a hollow, shrouded in dry lotuses and encircled by a rock wall. Bullfrogs groan, and jungle ravens caw, and a serpent ribbons his way across the shine. Below the rowboat tipping in grass, an egret steps, and ducklings dart for the vine-covered islet. Along the shed, buckets, stoves, pallets, cycle wheels, axles, and kitchen fixtures are tumbled along, and brambles and vines climb green stone, screening burrows along the footing. I rattle the door hasp. I lift the iron with both hands and strike, and the egret flaps up and slides, neck folded, sailing round a dim, sky-potted chimney on the ridgeline. I batter the metal edge, smashing it down, and the hasp rings and bolts pull loose. It clinks to the earth.

The inside smells of henfeathers and harness. Saws and planes hang on nails, and palm-worn handles lean to the corners. Remember that? That’s the gimcrack. The block creaking, a tile cracking. Old Nean set a block upon the bare earth. You get maybe five out of a block like this. See that this tool gets into the shed when you are finished. This was your great grandfather’s, anit works good as it did then. Between two ridges along his temples, a vein wriggled up the center of his hard, wide forehead, his mud-blue eyes funneling out of the backward will that bequeathed us mud-blue hearts. This cay has drawn me (mud-blue) as if by ineluctable summons. I have sought this, or I have been drawn, by an enormous body, moist and palpitating, with chambers in which I should be penetrated, throats I should crawl down, sphincters I should pass in order to rest in its healing heat. With faith and a certain kind of courage, I approximated the Procreant Body in visitations to the city’s mouths and arms and breasts and pubic niches. They have led here.

I draw a sickle from the corner. From the doorway, I start a swath to the cottage, nestled among steam-drinking Charybdis figs. The stalks of sedge and buffelgrass cut poorly, and each swath takes several passes, and wet heaps drag on the backswing. Along the way, thumb gourds proffer sleek, lipstick-colored nipples. Hibiscus blossoms extend tongues like serpents. Leaves of orchid trees wander like double-lobed hearts, and star-burs collect on the wife’s house robe. I have set traps for snails in this grass, lodging washbasins in the earth. I have plucked pitahaya from the orchard. All of this will go to ruin. The master of the house, from the tintypes, is a shiny-headed Koko-Qulao executive with spectacles on a chain, a mule-toothed housewife, and towheaded whelps. The fever outbreak chased upscalers from their private refuges. No harm in us taking advantage. Their floors our stage. Their possessions our props. Their lives our raillery.

I return the scythe. Shuffling over the earthen floor, I knock the sides of hollow, rusting canisters. I force open a lid. Woodoil. I lower the wheelbarrow from where it tilts and set in the canister. The handles are rough and the canister sloshes as I push the wheel barrow out through the doorway, where the rain dots the crust of mortar, and the iron wheel wobbles in the axle bracket. I set the oil can on the rim of the old foundation and drive the wheelbarrow to the back portico (a fine place to dry sailor’s tobacco). Look at all of this junk. A defunct radio. A violin with a broken string. Nipsy balls and sticks.

I stand on the edge of the deck and drop the radio and children’s shoes and wooden dolls into the wheelbarrow. Fig branches scrape the portico and the leaves of rose and buff clank about a trunk wrapped like a heart in a system of ventricles. A rat spurts from beneath a bundle of shingles. From the bottom of the steps, I watch it. Fever-bearing low beast. It scurries, nose up and twitching. I have seen a deep-chested cur, in a mechanical frenzy, flinging torn corpses up the sides of a salted pit. My date leaned over the barrier, and blood spattered his white shirt. The umpire called a halt so that the owner might mop down his grinning, panting cur. In the gutter that ran past the doorway, the sewage was flowing, pooling. The rat slides under the stoop, and I hear its pinkies beneath. A scent of orchids drifts. I climb back up on the deck, drop the nipsy sticks over the rail. As I drive the wheel barrow along the path I cut, a flatblue crevice runs through cloud.

In hours when the rain lets off, we have taken the plunge seaward, him clambering between vine-wrapped rucks and mountain carpet, stubshovel jutting from his haversack. An ether scorching the lungs and slowing time and shining up the red, foot-pulling clay. Charybdis trunks: rainblack. Masses of jacaranda on green banks blowing forth fecal leafrot. Steam cataracts muffling ridges and trees and boulders like old women in knit caps. The runoff digging ruts among banana trees in mantles of curling parchment and between dead ferns and giant asters with russet stems.

At the beach strewn with broken and sea-blunted rowboats, he might pick up some lump of pot metal, brush off sand. Polish a bit of glass under his cape and stare into the brume as if to sight a ghostchild or ensign pointing to a hole through his breast. Waves here come plowing about the frame of lashed bamboo, where the crone must have waited for us in the rain, rocking in her skiff. Across the bay, behind a dim ring of trawlers, lies a fishing village, gray as old bones under the brow of a fog.

At the narrowing of the roughly pear-shaped cay, we arrive at pillboxes like scorched coffins throwing up warped, metal nets. Assault vehicles drown in the apron, gun barrels pointed in contradictory directions, and wrinkles and spilling bands slip among tires, chassis, motors, turrets and drive trains like spines of buried fossils. A jumbled, globular, dolorous shambles. With the stubshovel, he tosses sand through a screen. He names the cartridges he finds, bending to the sea to wash them while I sit among boulders, waving off insects, scanning the guidebook.

Once, he took off his trousers and waded out toward the freeway that snakes across a band of pot oil, vanishing under blue, undifferentiated cays. According to the guide book: a vast sunken complex yonder. On a clear day, you might see the distant jumble of cloud busters (where screws should by now be searching for my dead body). Between boulders, a pulverized haystack of antediluvian plastic, shoe heels, bottles, and wire was ascending, descending. On boiling rush, it mounted, then sank, guttering and hissing. My companion stood beneath the ancient, muttering, susurrating heap. And why not worship here? In the Procreant Body, all is incinerated and annihilated; rocks, bones and holy writ, these too are annihilated; and from the Procreant Body in her creative posture, all things reemerge.

I open the back door to the cottage and cross the threshold. In the far oval mirror, my own hooded figure lumbers up the green-papered hallway. Beneath my feet, the floor creaks, and the walls exude a woodsy reek. Framed by the bedchamber doorway, empty bedsteads throw long shadows. The clockwork dog will take short, stiff steps. A gust furls bed netting. Identical lamps jut between guilt frames that have witnessed whelps rising in the night to press their noses to the glass to gaze through lashing palms and shuffling Charybdis figs to the far pricks of light.

I push down the brass lever to the study and ease the door open. The room is warm. In window light, he sits cross-legged, crushing a hand-rolled cigarette in a teacup full of them, the exec’s Typomatic upon his lap. At his shoulder, a line of slugs and cartridges traverses the low table. A battered radio sits behind. Upon the wall, a horseman and mesas replaces the tintype of the two whelps. I creep up behind him and push my fingers into his curling hair, and his head rears back under my hands. “Taking the chill off,” he says, smiling. In the open coal burner, bright-gray sheets are settling, filling the room with their scent. I squat down beside him and pick up a piece from the half-finished jigsaw puzzle, a still life of flowers and fruit.

“The rain’s let up. You want to go out?”

His hand moves in his beard.

“You ever look and look for something? Go back to each and every place you already searched in?”

“What you looking for?”

“The figurine I dug up on the beach. The one with the broken arm. It’s somewhere in this damned house.”

“If it’s here, we should come across it.”

I fit pieces into the puzzle. I watch his hands attacking the keys in spurts. The Typomatic dings and the platen jumps. If he baited, she would fish the dock. She liked to deck out the cats (their future offspring) in ribbons, and she was certain their tables would stand on cabriole legs. She let him get to her, after several attempts. During his military service, he operated a radio. Upon his return, he found that his wife had filled rooms, including his study, with prize budgies. He killed them all by feeding them raw rice. Beyond his forest of hair, ink splatters the wall. Black, misbegotten coryphées twirling upon the field of battle. Shiva danced and flung. In the night, in the darkened house, I opened the door and gazed upon his bonewhite shoulder against dull window boughs. The inkpot was in his hand, and the exec’s tomes were strewn upon the floor. Lonelyache. Eyes of Dust. Incal. Godbody. A heritage of skates who locked themselves in vermin-ridden flats, went mad or to prison, imbibed potions, fought duels. Allow the interior deity, and the holy church of your body, to descant. He lifts the heavy Typomatic off his lap. He sets it beside him on the floor.

“I’ve been pondering.”

“What about?”

“Why not move higher on up to the neighbors’?”

“What for? This place is all right.”

“We are too exposed.”

“We can have a look if you want.”

“I want. This room. This desk.” He cowers behind two, weaving hands, fending off some maleficent spirit from the tomes. “The energy is all bloody wrong.”

“Will it be better up there?”

“There is a clear view of the bay. If I can just see the ocean, I can breathe. I know that will feel right. I will be able to really get to work.”

I bring his lighter outside to the stoop. I load the wheel barrow once more and sweep. I thought I might drag chairs from the house and fill a bowl with kapok blossoms, but I am not sure now. I dump one last load. I kick the edges together and dribble woodoil. I flick his trench lighter and touch it to the bottom. Tiny waves ripple and the pile crackles and blackens and withers under the sheets of liquid flame. The heap gutters and throws heat, and the smoke billows up the middle of the pond and spreads before rippling bluffs. You can reach the peak, if it isn’t too slippery, in ten minutes to survey the mangroves and bay, and you will see caimans working their tails in the clear pools.

The clam digger crosses along the drystone wall each morning, and each morning, he looks at me. Into me. Each morning, I say I shall stay. When the blood registers a promise, have you a choice? You might have gotten it wrong. If the heart be misguided, your bones may be broken or you may be stabbed a hundred times. If the heart be misguided, and blood, vain, you may be crushed, as if by the machine. But if heart be sound and blood be true, they will name the blossom to calm Moloch; they will whisper the holy song to restore the man.

Finley J. MacDonald grew up in Sun River, Montana. For the last decade, he has lived in China, currently in Zhuhai with his partner Yang Meiting, where he teaches English writing and speaking at Sun Yat-sen University. He is the author of a work of speculative fiction entitled Angels, Delirium, Liberty. His work has been accepted by The Shanghai Literary Review, Embodied Effigies, and Near to the Knuckle.