The Earth is Shaking

Tina Tseng

In a room full of sky, the whispers of the trashbags have turned nefarious of late.  Again they’ve excluded my cart from the talks; progress has been slow, and no one will compromise. I turned down the iguana, because I like mine fried.  Or have the barstools taken over the housing programs too?

But I get ahead of myself.

Here they are twisted and hateful, warped from years of chasing sunlight reflected off the metal-sharp gleam of greed, off store-fronts shining mirror-dark in the rippling heat, and down narrow corridors where even the mold begrudges them what they get, every moment of every day until the curtains close and the bright jellyfish of the sun leaves for warmer waters.  They are left to starve, rooted in the darkness, and plot their revenge against sharp blades and graffiti, choking soot, the roar of buzzsaws, and a child’s plucking fingers.

The omen of red sock-blue sock says that this is not always the case, and I have no reason to doubt.  Maybe elsewhere, where politicians is a flavor of cardboard and rainbows roll in a shower of tinsel, they grow orange-cinnamon happy and swimmingly free.  But here you can never hide from their desperate loathing, and that makes all the difference.

They talk when the wind blows, and sometimes I understand.  (They are wary of me, and I suspect they’ve caught on; they are so much quieter when I am around.)  Spend enough years watching, and you’d understand too— a ripple of shadows on leaves, sap rising, higher and higher, the answering prickle of my styrofoam cup.  The whispering, disguised as the swish of stunted branches.  The singing, too high for us to hear, but the handsome caterpillar with the plum-dark lips gave me the fork and showed me the secret.  Now I can hear them, humming down the bones of my fork, and when the wind blows sea-salt snapping and bitterly cold, they sing each other songs to destroy the world.

Their songs taste of ink and sound of silver and blood and failure, but mostly blood and I think they do it to hide— who will listen, after all, when they believe it’s only the wind?  But not all of them are good actors; you can catch them out sometimes, a flicker of leaves when there’s barely a breeze, and that’s how you know you’ve seen them talking.  Or plotting.  Mostly plotting.

They hate them, you know.  The edifices of steel and glass rising out of the ground, their number multiplying every few years, no time at all to those who live longer than the latest fashions and rusted bicycle frames.  Growing on tendrils of railings and scaffolds and powerpoints and 401k plans, the great beasts of civilization pour into the narrow heavens, sloshing over the brim, casting them into shadow as they strain at their roots to reach the sun, a little more every year.

And powering this world, electricity hums and sparks through tangles of thick black cords, strung on their corpses.  They regard these crosses as the defiling of a body, as monstrous as a crucifixion.  Their rage filters through concrete, swallows golf balls and high heels, trails stinging flocks of gnats and jutting railroad tracks, and whatever energy they do not spend groping for the light they consume in the bitterest of loathing.

They hate the beasts almost as much as they hate us, the creators of such monsters and saw-edged blades and the smothering miasma of their world.  And they hate us, oh yes.  Never forget that.  Never doubt that.  They wait for vengeance, and though their years are short and their patience long, they expect their retribution, and soon.

In the meantime, they sing, and they wait for the ground to shake.  To swallow us whole.

In the fourth room from the elevator on the right, one sterile white room among many, a girl sits cross-legged on her cot, face turned toward the window.  She is pale, skin faded to a pallid soy-milk brown from years of fluorescent lighting, her head topped by inky stubble shorn short over an expression of quiet serenity.

Behind her, the remnants of her former life are taped up in a collage of bright colors and nostalgic moments.   There are no pins, nothing she can use to harm herself, and during all her parent’s visits, when they visit, if they visit, for it’s been weeks and weeks, they have never once seen her glance back.

They grieve, and their visits become more and more infrequent.  She does not pretend to mind, not even to herself, in the quiet corners of her thoughts.

She spends her time humming, high and a little off-key, and the result is a sort of breathy, wordless tune that with exposure seems to slowly increase in volume until it hit nails-on-chalkboard intensity.  She sings, mouth open, around mouthfuls of food.  In the shower, during checkups.  In sleep, her lips shape low vowels that rise and fall with each breath.  She has not stopped, has not paused for more than a breath or a drink of water, not for years and years.

Sometimes she sings aloud, strange snippets of bubblegum pop and old radio singles, popular once but long since forgotten.   The speech therapist and radio go ignored; all other attempts to expand her interests have been met with tuneless boredom and studied indifference.  The patients of the seventh floor have gradually become accustomed to her voice, though it is never long before some well-meaning relative asks for them to be moved elsewhere—anywhere— so they would not be subject to her song.

They— meaning the doctors—are all in disagreement, and so far very little has been done.  They do not know why.

She does.

The dragons beneath her, seven floors down, twist and grumble as she sings them back to sleep.  They wind drowsily between the foundations of the building, curling their tails around sewage pipes and cable cords, scraping dark bellies against the bottom of the concrete parking lot before sinking back into molten rock.

At times, they rise furious from their slumber. She can feel their ascent in the twist of her lower belly, sinuous bodies surging against the rock as they seek to shatter stone and burst though the earth at its seams, as if answering a distant call of sap and silver and blood, and she can hear it too, sometimes, and sometimes she hears nothing at all.  It takes hours and hours to calm them; she sings until her voice is ragged, reduced to a faint murmur, and because she belongs to them, and they to her, they listen to her crooning and forget their rage.

Half asleep, they hum along, and the ground quivers, silver instruments tinkle, and her many pictures slip off the wall and float down in a strange sort of autumnal shedding.  She has heard them since she was little, and knows that they mean her no harm.  That is, so long as she remains: their tamer and their caged lark.

They— meaning the doctors— say that the hospital is set on a fault-line, and even though it does not explain why they get twice as many tremors as their closest neighbors, that is what they tell themselves.

The door rattles in its frame.  She pats the thin cotton of the bed reassuringly, and smiles a very little bit as she hums.

In the gray room, brimming with cubicles and people and business, his keys hit the desk with a clatter, shortly followed by his phone.  Documents shift, and with a rustle of paper, the laptop begins to slide off the desk.  He lunges forward, narrowing missing the wheels of his chair, and catches the corner with the mug-holding hand.  Coffee sloshes, and he hastily deposits the cup in one corner before setting his laptop in another.

What the fuck had he been thinking?  He’d been in a hurry, sure— the meeting with a major buyer this afternoon was making him antsy, but damn, if he’d just missed by an inch, he’d have a whole lot more to worry about.  Manila folders are tossed carelessly atop the notebook as he sucks in a deep breath of much-needed calm.  He needs to be more careful from now on, nearly dropped his files along with everything else, and his phone had better be intact.  Everyone in the office is on edge today, and he couldn’t have said why, just that he could feel it too, like something coiled uneasily in his lower belly, periodically tightening.

Plink.  There’s a disgusting aftertaste in his mouth, poor sleep and cold coffee at its worst, and he pauses at the water dispenser to pour himself a cup.  Moisture at the top of the plastic bottle condenses, and plummets downward under his distracted gaze.  Plink-plink.  He glances over the heads of his coworkers to the waving fronds of the little potted palm beside his desk, and his brow furrows—was there a draft?  A tap against the window, and the trees outside the building stir; the weather forecast this morning declared sunny skies and no wind.  The carpeted floor seems to tremble beneath his feet, and it’s not just him, all around him his co-workers are looking up— Plinkplinkplink— Maybe he should—

And… seventy miles away, two doctors come to an agreement, forcing a gag into the mouth of a struggling girl…

…and, in a bustling city of stunted trees and gleaming steel, the wind blows hard, or it must have, because it makes no sense for the trees to have all begun rustling among themselves, even if there wasn’t a trace of breeze…

The world is tilting, he realizes, but fast upon the heels of that realization is a new one— a word that sends a frisson of fear and peculiar indignation down his spine.  Earthquake.  More quivering, and a jagged fissure snakes up the wall as seams open in the carpeting, the dull rumble of the earth overwhelming the screaming all around him.  In the distance, glass shatters and he stumbles backwards to avoid the water dispenser falling on top of him— thinking, a bit absurdly, duck and cover, but the ground under his desk shifts, rising, and there is no safety to be found there.

Chunks of the ceiling and cracked fluorescent lighting are falling all around him and he could have sworn that the building was made to withstand this sort of thing didn’t they know that this city was built on a fault-line and shit oh shit they’d have the grounds for a million lawsuits if he could make it out of this alive—

The maw of the earth opens beneath him, and he realizes that he is sliding in.  The potted tree beside him trembles over rattling rock, and he can hear the sounds it makes, nearly victorious, as the roar of the ground overtakes him.


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