Steroid Dreams – 3 October 27, 2016
Third of three parts of my Bridport Prize-winning story.
That night, birds exploded from the swamp, the beat of their wings sounding like struck paper. A glossy purple bird. A tiny vermilion bird like a flung bindi. Black bird with white beak. Green bird, blue bird. A kaleidoscope of birds under the richest of skies.
Phil knew he was dreaming and knew this was Mexico. They’d gone there for a week’s vacation with his friend Bob Trevor and Bob’s second wife, Lucía. Phil had recently moved in with Mei Li, and it had been a relief to travel with another second coupling after the censure they’d faced. Not that Phil should have been travelling with Bob, who was a politician and a source, although Bob had lost his Parliamentary seat in the last election and Phil thought he could roughly justify the trip. He also didn’t get a rat’s about corporation’s rules on conflict of interest, not when Bob looked like day-old bread.
They had left their resort to rattle through the nearby town in a shit-box rental. Lucía was driving, the political wife who waded into crowds, managed residences, looked adoringly at her husband and threw herself into silences like a thumb in a dike. There had been more than a few silences on the trip, Mei Li having gone stone quiet, abashed in the company of people so much older than her, Bob not having married youth, but warm Mexican comfort.
“Tope,” Lucía cried, as the car reared up and dropped down abruptly.
“Speed bump,” Bob translated. “It blew out the speedometer.”
“Now you can’t see how fast I’m going.”
“Meaning the odometer isn’t working, either.” Bob had become an avid birder, and they were heading toward a little-known nature preserve. The directions from the local branch of Lucía’s family involved going to the village where her cousin Lupe used to live—not the last village, but the one before that—and turning left for eighteen clicks.
“It’s okay. I can find it,” Lucía said, and soon they were driving past ranches, purple mountains to their left. They passed one small adobe town. Another. Roosters crowed and children ran in circles. Mei Li turning to stare at them. Wistfully, Phil noted, not without alarm. At the fourth village, Lucía slowed down.
“This can’t be where Lupe lived,” Bob said. “There isn’t any left turn.”
“They meant where her old boyfriend came from,” Lucía said, and turned right.
About fifteen minutes after the turn-off, they reached an oblong of emerald green the size of a football field, a swamp in the middle of dried-up farmland. There must have been a spring feeding it.
“Stop!” Bob cried.
Lucía threw on the brakes.
“That might be a purple gallinule,” Bob said.
The swamp was painted with lily pads. Bob identified the elusive gallinule, a brilliant purple wader with long yellow legs. Getting slowly out of the car, they kept their binoculars trained. The bird was hunting in the reeds, probably for frogs, lifting one long leg delicately to reveal a yellow foot the size of a cupped hand. Bob pointed out a white-faced ibis nearby, and two green herons. On the top of a reed, a vermilion flycatcher.
A boy bicycled up, a slingshot on his shoulder, and dismounted to watch the crazy gringos. Before long, he said something in Spanish that made Bob brighten.
“He asked if we want to know the names of the birds,” Lucía said. “This could be very privileged information, you see. He might tell us indigenous names.”
The boy nodded at some birds in the swamp that Bob had called black coots.
“Pichichi,” he told them.
“Pi-chi-chi,” Bob echoed, writing it down.
Nodding solemnly, the boy pointed to a common gallinule.
“Se llama pato.”
“It’s called duck,” Lucía translated.
A barely perceptible pause, and Bob courteously wrote down “pato.”
It turned out the other birds were called duck, as well. The heron duck. The ibis duck. The purple gallinule duck. They all tasted like chicken.
Mei Li had remained quiet throughout. Now she approached the boy and managed with gestures and a few pesos to borrow his bike, slinging into the saddle and wobbling down the rutted dirt road.
“Her beautiful knees,” Lucía said, mourning the inevitable fall.
But Mei Li soon got the hang of it and began pedalling faster, circling, taking a run at a mammoth pothole like a pro rider, digging down at the start and flying out the far end, shouting with laughter, sending the birds flapping into the reeds.
“I’m bored out of my fucking mind!” she yelled.
“La China loca!”
“The crazy Chinese girl,” Lucía translated. “You have a firecracker, Phil. What’s the matter with her, underneath?” When Phil paused, Lucía said comfortably, “That’s all right. I’ll get it out of her. It’s probably the mother.”
Mexicans had called Mei Li the Chinese girl often enough that Phil already knew what it meant. Now he began to see her as china, delicate and perishable, white porcelain shards exploding from the bike and flying into his dream of birds, his kaleidoscope of colour, purple and vermilion blood spilling, slivers flying toward his open eyes…
Phil jerked up in bed. Tachycardia. Heart—no, panic attack. Sitting on the john, his knees shaking uncontrollably. Online research had shown that lichen planus could turn into mouth cancer. Hubert bled.
“Your author made sure to get in where she was doing her readings,” Mei Li said. “Coast to coast.”
“I felt like the community bulletin board.”
“I kept picturing her as a wolverine. Vicious creature.”
“I wouldn’t give her that much credit. She’s more like a rotten tooth you can’t stop prodding with your tongue.”
“Gross!” Graham shrieked happily.
“Daddy’s tongue,” Corbett cried, and Mei Li gave Phil such a raw look he picked Graham up by the arms and swung him around the room, faster and faster.
“Not before bed!” Mei Li cried. “My God, Phil. Four children. Haven’t you ever learned anything?”
The second dream tonight. An enormous airplane turned belly up in a scrub ravine below the hotel, its wings held out like silver arms. He was there with his dead father, and they looked down at an open bay in the belly of the plane that was ready to receive…
Phil must have cried out.
“My God, what’s the matter?”
Mei Li was instantly awake. Phil’s heart was beating far too fast. He felt breathless, incapable, but knew he had to calm her.
“Nightmare. Been having them. Two. Tonight. Medication.” Phil broke down weeping. “I have to take it. This could turn into cancer. But it gives me such godawful nightmares I’m scared of going to sleep. I don’t know what to do.”
“You can’t get cancer. You’ve got children.”
They clung to each other. This wasn’t good for either of them. They weren’t good for each other, presuming anybody was. But the definition of a successful life might be perseverance, and Phil didn’t, he couldn’t, let her go.
The Verrall book was on his bedside table. He’d resolved to read it so he wouldn’t be a liar, at least retrospectively. The author had written a deeply affecting scene where Virginia and Leonard Woolf visited Freud, who was dying of cancer. Phil had checked this out, and it had happened. Freud gave Virginia a narcissus.
If Phil went to Lucy Verrall’s reading, he would bring her a narcissus. But of course he wouldn’t go.
Copyright Lesley Krueger 2016.
The Bridport Prize anthology, with all pieces from all winners and runners-up in short stories, poetry and flash fiction, is available here.