BLACK TREE by FINLEY J. MACDONALD
ISSUE ONE: March, 2019
Fanua hauled herself up rungs and onto the deck for drying triggers and bonefish, where she stood gazing over the sea, her hands on the rail of driftwood. In her shadow, the tethered raft lifted and descended, as if some mergiant slumbered beneath, gills flaring, while at the far tip of an orange, fretted track, the sun edged into flame and dreck, and cloudwork vaulted above the fifty thatched roofs of the sea-beset Bird-of-God Village of Sea Brethren. On piles, the village recalled a frozen ambush of knock-kneed crustaceans fluttering with hung wash, and the sound of cockerels and whelps mingled with the pelagic rush. From a central hulk of dunnage and barrels pounded flat, a funeral refrain rang out, accompanied by the clatter of tongue-drum and the drone of the buzzharp of Yanhuir the Eyeless. On the forward lip of the shack of Godson Yohimbe, the three-legged bitch was pacing, and Fanua's adoptive brothers sat side-by-side on the lip alongside a rippling net. Occasionally, a water hawk glided to a nest at the elbow of a rib-broke turret of antediluvian steel. A solitary, mesh-broke rood marking the vast graveyard of vain namesayers of God.
The funeral dory slid out carving a wake, the stack belching, a tattered flag rippling, and then it slid to a rest, yawing, strewing blots of gold, its breasthook heaving before an ancient oil sucker fossilized upon the sea. The steam-motor faded into a muted and constant uproar and the giggle of white screechers. Shapeless and distant, the Cutter set to work, bending and swaying like a dung beetle over the transom, the cleaver now flashing, and Fanua pictured Opo Christendom’s blue-stained hands and divisions of spine spreading beneath the ferment of beaks and wings of white screechers gathering and swooping in time with the buzzharp.
When Godson Yohimbe had borne out the body, Fanua had been sitting on the platform, looping and cinching the rim of a blue-and-yellow basket while dust-gray seahorses on strings reeled in wind, their tails curling. The bitch woofed, and Godson Yohimbe staggered through the doorway, pressing the corpse to his chest. His leg swung to the top rung of the ladder to the shanty boat, and a yellow foot rocked in its cerements. Sebay stood on deck bent-kneed. Alayah Hosanna clambered down the ladder and stooped behind Godson Yohimbe, wringing her hands, and white screechers scooped about Godson Yohimbe's shoulders. Opo Christendom’s head lolled, teeth bared, as if the trifling of the living infuriated her, and one arm flopped upon the deck, palm stained indigo.
The indigo hand had been laying strips of bamboo in knotweed baths. Stooping upon the deck of the oil sucker, Opo Christendom situated stones, stained blue, to weight the strips, while the upward arch of beams and cross members made a dull, overhead wicker in coiling miasmas. By the following day, she lie along the back wall of the shanty, her mouth like a wound.
The Jyrenar arrived and felt her pulse. He pulled her eyelids. He unfolded his fish-skin bundle and lined up canisters. One hand floated above her. He groaned and vomited. He kindled a bronze censer, and he creaked over the floor of bamboo, swinging the chain, conducting smoke along the walls and up portraits of Jeezos Izati pointing to his heart. He laid a dried moth upon her forehead, and he bobbed and chanted. The Jyrenar left with his fish-skin bundle under his arm and rattles swinging by a leather thong. Fanua could hear him acquiescing, beyond the door flap, to a gift of sea silk before prescribing ratworm to clear her entrails of mists. The rattles knocked as the Jyrenar climbed to his dory. Below the moth on her forehead, the black eyes of the old newborn cracked open, the light in them deep and far off, and a whisper came to her lips. You know the blue whale what the chip eats? Bladdae says the devil is the same as a fish dog that waits. A hopper unlike any who could beat a candle with sticks cut like angels.
While the dory drifted among flecks of light, the tongue-drum quickened, summoning smut-tipped fins of porters head-seated with divine compasses, sanctioned to ferry, O ferry thee to that far shore. On a shaded deck, a figure like a decrepit monkey blew down a stalk, and flame darted from her metal tub. Silhouettes on a roof ridge passed a spyglass, and whelps ventured out upon a driftwood bridge, shading their eyes, infants on their hips. The two yegs, Sebay and Pataki were drifting along a fence of staked nets, Pataki pulling a line hand-over-hand. Sticks cut like angels suggested dancing sticks tossed among contorted embraces upon the hard earth. The blue whale what the chip eats recalled the bottle of whale oil that Fanua drank while hiding in the stone oven. Fanua extended her arm, and the silver band shone, the frog, with a green stone in one eye, winking in the light: a hopper unlike any. The band was pre-Devastation, of ancient Tibet, Opo Christendom had told her, bending it to her wrist, but the crude frog was a late addition.
Fanua’s knees dented dust. The pressure of old hands on her crown left off. Apo Christendom’s white brows edged into a chiseled forehead—a whorl between the eyes, stick-carved, forking into rhomboids. Fanua felt metal smooth along her wrist, the dark and rippled and web-knuckled hand pressing the metallic curve, the black old eyes looking clear through her to the dullred maelstrom. Apo Christendom picked up her cane from the dust and stood with her hands over the knob.
A figure in a cockscomb headrag drug Fanua up by her elbow and conducted her to a gap in the ring of heads. Fanua settled down and smeared stems and dust from the indigo weave of her tunic. In dirt and battered grass, sawflies were swarming over bread crusts, pinching crumbs. From high stands of teak and cedar, wild cockerels were crowing. Fanua rubbed the band, tracing the arrow-shaped head and heart-shaped rear, the tiny pits that ran along floral etching worn mostly to a shine. A wind smelling of dust and distant rain bore voices, and the gray or white heads hemming in the old woman tilted forward from their shoulders, supervened by a bank of clouds, gold fringed, laying shadows across anchored shanty boats, looming over the ancient city along the cape: honeycombed and immutable and vapid among cedars. At the center of the circle, the old woman was scratching dirt. Shuffling in place, she aimed her cane, drawing a line across heads.
Today, she said, you feel happy. A new gentlewoman of Izati has come among you. You hear the voices of whelps that never saw Long Toms of Koko-Qulao. Still, in the back of your mind, you ken the journey ahead be fraught with toil and hardship. I tell you, toil and hardship will but serve the final glory. When perils and privations come, you should recall that gift of conveying to them people in darkness the news of the Day of our Lord Jeezos-Izati. Welcome every peril and privation, looking forward to that day. For the time being, you hunt for threads and glimmers, but on that day, that old lion in the heart of man will lie down with the lamb, and the hunter will set aside his bow, and all them Long Toms will sink on down to the bottom of the sea. On that day, every soul weeping in the shadow of Koko-Qulao will find comfort, and all them Ophanim and Seraphim will sing out, and the Light of Charity will shine forth as heretofore unknown. Don’t you sit there and calculate that the hearts of men are too far gone with swell-headedness and vengeance. Though their hearts be snake pits, on that day, each one’ll be shining out like a lantern with its own natural grace. On the very slopes of this island, you have all seen that old bare black tree growing up solitary out of rock, spines on every limb and branch. You be chary of them thorns. But when the rains come, that hard old tree will bear a thousand blossoms and give shelter to flocks of birds such as you never seen. Just like that tree, this old earth will turn right around, don’t you think it won’t. On that day, you will look back on them privations with overwhelming gratitude. On that day, your heart will overflow like a fountain. On that day, our circle of waiting will turn into a circle of celebrating. So don’t you be downhearted when your flesh gets torn up by them perils and them privations, but maintain one jubilant eye on that Day of Our Lord Jeezos-Izati.
Beside her tub-fire, among fuel and water jugs, the relic on her cabin front was hand-feeding a whelp, her arm dividing the smoke. Her rooftop paled. In a ridge of cloud, the sun arranged spokes over a fire-pounded sea. A dugout slipped among piles. Stirring reflections, it smoothed along, a shirtless yeg in back, spear gun across his knees. The pole lifted, passed the gunwale. Crude and gray and accoutered with coils of rope, glass bottles, fuel cans, and sacks—a catchpenny motor hung like an afterthought from the skulling notch—the dugout slipped toward Fanua over rings of amber and tourmaline. It nosed alongside the rack and knocked, and the yeg threaded the pole through the spars. He wound the cord. A scar ran down from a point at his shoulder. His was neck short, as if he might pull his skull between thick shoulders. He aimed up eyes ophidian and gray. A ravening flash. Barbed promise. And consequently, inside of her, the dullred maelstrom. Quicker than the puzzler above, it knew that which tampered with and bestirred the body, obliging her to look away.
Spear gun in hand, the yeg sprang neatly to the lower rung. He yanked himself up, a straight, lipless smile close under his nose. “Little mig,” he sang, creaking onto the deck. “All picky-any and new-uddered: the very pricktease.” Drawing the bow line of his spear gun, he advanced, the rack yawing a little. He swept the nose of the gun up and tacked over waves, following the water hawk. His hair trembled, and she caught a wild odor of fermented mango. The yeg tipped his spear gun, gerrymandered from an antediluvian rifle, over the driftwood rail. Along his gums, a gold varnish rimmed crooked fangs, and a few whiskers coiled at his chin. His brows kiltered almost in mockery, his face set far back on his neck. A spiked hebetude traveled along her limbs, a woozy captivation, a drunk, wild, physical, unlawful conversion.
“Just pushing on by when I espied you. Keeping you all to yourself. Well, some soul got to counsel this mig. You rightly don't make a peep? The preponderance do nothing but. Don't eye me like that, breaking my heart with those woeful peepers. You got advantages you know nothing about, mig. You could live well. I'm telling you, big-city flats and chiffon. Pearls and sapphire teardrop necklaces. I been around, and I’m laying it out, you could be a top mig, but you'll go to dust in the company of these keepsakes. Lookit here. Lookit the balmy relic priming for the gander.”
Between heaps of nets and hoarded driftwood, a relic raised up to shanty-boat planks a placard that read Blessed are the Peacemakers, his hammer knocking under a jut of flattened barrel metal. He crossed the bulkhead and labored like a penitent behind the quickening flywheel, and the pipe spat white gouts, and steam billowed over lines of fish on a cabin roof. The engine died. Divagations of the buzzharp, desultory and alien, escaped the village under a pink shade of steam blending with a fist of cloud that hung beams across half-hid cays.
“Mig, you ever hear the aim of these ganders? When they make sufficient trips halfway across the bloody world, seas are going to fall back and Jeezos Izati going to pay us all a visit. Lap up that bilge. ‘Tis is written. Go, Brethren, to the end of the earth, and do you your prayifying over there. They been hauling their tattered old tomes to Bensalem Island and sermonizing in that Hall of Windows for some time, and I don’t see no effect. You think I am Brethren? No, by cock. Too far down the pike when my folk sold me. Brethren do need fresh blood. But they give up on mine. Hallelujah for that. I'm what you call a free agent. A go-between. Brethren always going to need a yeg like me to come round. We are of a kind, you, me. I heard of you. You are that rustic mig escaped a bloodletting through hiding in a bread oven. What that had to be like. Whole lot of confederating and hollering and then that deep quiet. Don’t turn sour, now. Mislike spoils a fair cunt. Leave the rancor to your old chairweights. It all washes out in the great by and by. ‘Tis written.”
The buzzharp subsided, and Fanua could see Gopeaffe the Cutter conducting the cloud of screechers upon a sea that was no single shade but lanes of yellow and pearl, as if a drunken poet were running a broad and filthy brush under the sun. The yeg's dark arm paid out line. He lifted the spear gun to his shoulder, and line spurted and settled. He leaned the spear gun and pulled, and a sandal skipped across the shine. He raised it dripping and freed the shaft.
“They was Koko-Qulao Long Toms mopped up your cay? Known a multitude of yeomen in my day, Bershey Browns, Koko-Qulao.” The yeg tossed the rubber scrap and it splashed and rocked. “Place I hail from don't fish. We hold out for yeomen to throw coin in our fountains. Fountains and ass, we are known for nothing else. When I was no higher than your knee, misters used to hustle me like a gamecock. We called them 'mister.' 'Hey mister, you got a whistle?' 'Mister, how about a chocolate?' When you got your own mister, you get real coinage. Mister Blunt. A mister always sort of stroking his toad, like he had to feed it meat. Eighth Company Bershey. Make anything funny, grim shit like what befell your folk. Knocked over by a rustic. You got to go thereon. What happens on them cays aunt about misters, mig. It is insect control. Hygiene. Mammy and a white scrub brush. Mammy and her iron-jawed cunt dripping brimstone. Mammy with her doomsday asshole shitting hellfire, laying waste to the ambit. Takes a forcible mammy to gander a fleet. She don't fancy pirates about her boat routes. If you can't brook pirates, you can't brook no dirt-eater rustics. Or Sea Brethren.”
Within a pool of gold, a lump of superheated metal broke through hemorrhaging cloudwork, and the driftwood rack went bone-white, and sweat coursed down Fanua’s neck and down her back while the voice wove a narcotic spiel of oddly wedded sentences broken by head-shakings and flashings of teeth. In the yeg’s hands, above their weltering reflections, the spear gun slewed or came to his chin, pointing out knots of whelps picking their way over a heap of nets or dropping from platforms in cannonaded lines. Along the driftwood bridge, a few lumbered with the mooncalf lethargy of monstrous birth. The Third Coming of Jeezos-Izati will see none but eighteen-fingered dwarfs to shake the Lord's hand—nothing that couldn't be remedied with a behindhand loosening of ways and means if you know what I’m getting at. And truth be told, I do help where I can. Just look at that relic. Take more than dummy flags to placate fast boats of Koko-Qulao. The relic in the shanty boat was grappling in the rope assembly, hitching up scarlet standards that spread and furled like pearlscale caudals. Them motors do not do without pistons, crankshafts, connecting rods, cylinders, flywheels, rings, bushings. Anchors are made in Berzandia. Your Brethren cannot make a fish knife or a cooking pot or an iron grapple. He do not produce wood oil for his boat. He do not make linseed oil. Behind the village, the bank of cloud was curdling and churning, unleashing powder-blue, cream-edged steam dragons and knobbed cudgels and radiant caverns. The bolt flew again, making a splash at the center of a rag of goat’s foot bordered in stems. Ball hit me whop over the heart rolled between my legs and I picked it up still hot left a slapfound bruise big as a plate I seen glowwater beaches where you look back and see footprints shining like lamps I seen the bunkers where they made them last stands and ponies mig stretched out racing along the beach and rusted out gunships fulla ghosts and one day I swear I will dig up a chest of gold and I will buy you a wedding necklace to fit a princess.
Fanua pressed her hand to her sticky neck. Sweat trickled between her thighs. Her arms were softening like wax. The sun darkened, the bolt flew, and the yeg wound the line. A mutter from the corpse-dory was growing as it curved from the column of gulls, wake bending. The sun broke out, laying a yellow blaze. Over a jogging litter upon the sea, a livid slick came up, diffuse, vacillating in time with the buzzharp, hovering over waves, its lower edge flushing and fading, stirring like a blown curtain, detaching, rising, dissolving into the firmament. Fanua gesticulated and made shapes with her lips—her voice, banished so that the body might go on, lodged in the abyss of herself. The yeg giggled. He shook the bolt at her, its fletching cut from discolored antediluvian plastic. What ails you that you can’t talk? What you need mig is to look in the sun direct. That sun is alive. It is the pure fire of life. Gets in best through the eye. I can keep it up longer than I can my frog. Now when I look away, I see angels, I tell you, or devils, and that's supposable. When we are plighted, we will do it for harmonation of blood and mind. Let your mind be empty, that's the secret. Chin up-jerking, he came toward her. Look, look, look, look, look. The yeg seized her shoulders, and they stumbled like clumsy dancers in a turning embrace. She reeled, saw the sea coming, flung her arms—was captured, squirming in circle of his embrace. His forearm pinned her facing away from him, and she could feel the giggling shake of him and smell the sour mango wine of his breath. His long finger pointed past her into the face of the sun. Look.
Fanua gazed into a squishy, dazzling, lemon-white heart pumping magenta shot through with radiant fractures. Keep looking. Don't cease to look. Incandescent splinters ricocheted off the inner reaches of skull, whirling with electric rings. Her eyes brimmed. The sea gushed. Angry screechers chortled. She bent and wretched—dully aware of a clucking near her ear. She felt him taking up her arm. Trawling her round. The rail pressing her spine. His thin lips were purple, and a channel of sweat shone on his cheek. About his chin pineapple speckles nictitated. Around the dark pupils burned frantic green rings: the nail-hard crux, the ruthless axis of the coin-diver. A crazed magnetic zone of cast-off sun scales of the mediator of primitive favor remotely invited. A hand roamed over her body, sweeping its planes, monopolizing skin in a rent. From the hollow of her belly, the dullred maelstrom imparted to the slower mind. She would abandon herself to the hollow of his dugout and a grim horizon. While her mind was yet puzzling the missive, a space opened between their bodies. He broke from her. One hand gripping her arm, he kept her at bay, staid her hungry, faltering, voiceless advances while his free hand flickered down her clavicle, slipped along the wall of her breast. He was shuffling back. Bobbing like an oily apparition. Bending to scoop up the spear gun. He did not say a word. He wound the line and descended. From the ladder, in the center of a golden print upon her vision, he glanced up to where she stood—dumbly clutching her shoulders—and the line of his mouth quirked into a straight and satisfied line between two grooves.
From below her feet, she could hear a knocking. A splash. The dugout nosed free, the pole dipping. Dragging a wash through shreds of storm-brought goat’s foot. The yeg did not look back. He clunked the pole along the bottom of the boat. He bowed to the motor, yanking a fraying twine. A put-put-put-put moving off. Outside the foaming butt, two loins angled, and the nose jogged. The dugout slid through a flock of gulls and between parts of a corpse, an encounter bereft of recognition. The legs of the fish rack were gushing. From the lip of the shack of Godson Yohimbe, the three-legged bitch woofed, and Godson Yohimbe bailed a rocking skiff. Fanua stroked her damp, straying locks. She retied the ribbon in her hair. Sheltering her eyes, she turned to the open sea. The plain was muddy and violet, with fields of dull plum separating fields of shining, trembling, oblong globules. She caught sight of the dugout once more. Near charred pegs from a freeway incinerated in some forgotten battle, a mote forged under cays blending with cloud. Cobalt ingots under a half-raised veil. Her hands fell to the cross member. At her wrist, a blue vessel ran through a ring of pale skin—and sweat-caught hairs—where a Pre-devastation band had crossed, faintly imprinted with floral shapes, and where a silver frog, a hopper unlike any, had only just now crouched and winked in sunlight.
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 and daughter Molly, in a flat high overlooking the South China Sea, Guangdong architecture, and acacia hills. He is the author of a work of a work of poetry entitled House of Violence and a novella entitled Angels, Delirium, Liberty. His work has been published by Anomaly, Menacing Hedge, Nude Bruce, The Shanghai Literary Review, Embodied Effigies, and Near to the Knuckle.