Illustration by Avery Storms

Illustration by Avery Storms

The Burden

Fiction by Kerry Shawn Keys

 

It was the strangest thing getting awake here. The light all around like white noise, clear as the space above a smokeless fire. You’ll have to forgive me for being so precocious at such a young age—I just happen to be what I am. My name’s Rakso. There I used to call myself Fellow. My sister is currently autistic so I’ll do all the telling. She doesn’t even know how to ask. Here we are. There, we seldom left our crib, all the bars like a prison. Sometimes I felt I was incubating in a street-crossing or in a deserted zoo, or just under the upholstered arms of a zebra-skin davenport, looking crosswise into the room of the world but unable to touch it, or looking up at a sunless plastered sky, or down at my spittle-soaked sheets which I sucked voraciously as I imagined others like me must suck breasts. There, there wasn’t any officially secured area and the temperature was hardly uniform. Here, it’s not anymore comfortable than there, but it doesn’t get damp and the temperature doesn’t vary.  There we each had a crazy quilt of many colors, while here a transparent light covers all. A glass of respect or reverence keeps out most sounds except some uhs and ahs and eeks and yikes and the queries of children. And the light is temperature controlled, eerie and cool, infinite. I was born in that other place along with my sister—a homebirth. I received a blue arm and a crooked spine. She didn’t—her body is as perfectly symmetrical as an oval mirror. Maybe because she popped out seven weeks later and it was an easier journey. In a few minutes I was transported from the bloody corner of the room to the crib. Same passage for her. How do I know? It’s my burden. I was shown endless footage of those major migrations before they even happened. I neglected to mention that in the room where the crib was there was a little bit of sunlight that peeped in from the west during the day, but for the most part we subsisted on the sixty watts from a bulb which dangled from the ceiling from a twist of wires almost as thin as my sister’s bulimic legs. She was on a fast, protesting the powdered gruel we were spoonfed, and which I suspected was laced with crushed poppy seeds. Being outside the crib and the room soaking up a few rays, was a rare treat, though that miracle did occur once every fortnight or so, and it was wonderful. Much better than the daily doses of cod-liver oil we were forced to slurp once a day to supplement us for our life in the dimness and darkness. I accepted our lot by imagining that we were maybe “scapekids” in some grander scheme, and if a cat or wolf didn’t get us first, our true worth lay before us. I wasn’t wrong, I think. Here, the diet is much better—leather only, but at least with an aroma of terrestrial life and nothing to remind us of our fishy, amphibian genealogy. As I said, the light is clearer, harder on the eyes, but then what is there to see anyway but people coming to see us. That is, I used to think to see us. I doubt this now. Mostly, I think we are invisible or unwitnessed here, not like there where at least there were some lullabies from somewhere over Jordan and our diapers were changed once a week. And I had my anemic, milky broth. No bread here or there, and no sound whippings which might have added some excitement. No one has changed my sister or me since we were delivered here, how long ago I can’t remember since I stopped adding up the intervals of intramural particles. Seems like eons, but I’m not certain about anything anymore if I ever was. Tempus edax rerum. I prefer shoes. After wasting so much time on time, on principle now I’ve given up speculating. It’s certain, however, that we were in the crib situation long enough that it is momentous in my memory. And as I was always monstrously precocious, my memory and my mind radiated with thoughts such as these right now.

 Illustrations by Avery Storms.

Illustrations by Avery Storms.

I know there is a label on the plaque on the wall here with instructions about how and what to see—I saw one of the passers-by lip-reading it. I can’t see what it says, not what the IDs say either. Visionary things speak their own argot. Maybe they say “Louis Armstrong was here” or  “radiant baby” or “sacred cow” or some such graffiti. My sister is really the baby, not me. She doesn’t get concepts like difference. The crib or this secured area are the same to her except for the shoes. It’s a mystery to me how we got here, alert as I am. I just remember it was one of those rare days when we were outside in a park near the synagogue. All so green it hurt our eyes. My sister was sleeping, and I noticed that we were there alone though the tag on the carriage warned not to leave us alone as if it were pregnant with our destiny. No one was rolling us around, up and down the catacombs of streets. I thought I would sleep too—it wasn’t difficult since I was a professional by default. Then I woke up here to my sister crying. She was hungry despite her fasting. I could tell. There’s a special kind of hunger cry just as there is a sleepless cry and a cry of pain and a cry of jubilation, and a cry of mea culpa. We were almost adrift in a mountain of shoes. Shoes such as I have never seen—work shoes; baby shoes; high-heeled shoes; ice skates even. Handy, after some months I learned to use the metal runners to sharpen my teeth. Her crying was piercing and so I frantically picked up a shoe and shoved it in her mouth to muffle her. To my surprise, she started to nibble it and stopped crying. We were definitely in some interesting evolutionary ladder where artifacts had become part of the food chain. It was a moving experience, almost like an epiphany, seeing how we make do. If we were on a boat perhaps she might have sucked at an oar or used one to fan herself. Back at the other place we never considered eating shoes since our caretakers wore those plastic hospital booties and never chucked them in the crib. “Leather is Better” anyhow—nice slogan, no? She just lay there gnawing away like her newly acquired taste was a part of her autonomic nervous system.  Myself, I’m a bit more spiritual, not living on bread alone—or discarded shoes as in this case—and can distribute my hunger for days on end by just listening to all the words coming out of my mind.

There I calculated those days on end by the light peeping in through the west window above the crib. Here, I calculate days by the people coming and going past us. It’s quite moving, there are so many of them. I’ve liked the word “moving” since I first heard it here and finally figured out what it kind of meant. Something to do with sentiment—and I feel something like that for them in their long lines. And maybe they had to buy tickets too, or were shamed into making a donation in order to wear those yellow badges and look at an exhibition of shoes, but then my new “moving” word mixes in my mind with sorrow and disgust. To return to my time-keeping . . . when they stop going past I know there will be a long interval before they start again. I decided to time my time here that way, and call it a day each time the people stopped coming. Then I, myself, got bored and stopped. When they are here, they like to linger and look. For a while I thought they were looking at us though I couldn’t imagine why, since no one really looked at us much back in our crib days. But after awhile I saw they were really looking at the shoes and not us. To test my theory, I started to drag myself all around like Wimpy, but their eyes didn’t follow me and just stayed glued to the shoes. Of course my sister was there nibbling on the last of the boots that I once thought we would grow up to die in. So I got her and dragged her around our miniature arena like some filthy little Hector. It became quite clear, then, that we were of no concern to anyone, and maybe no one even saw us. I knew I wasn’t a ghost because when I jerked my dick by the foreskin it really hurt. And I was always biting my tongue. Maybe I’d have to do more than that when we finished with the mound of shoes. Yes, I’m not totally spiritual, and often succumb to temptation and eat one. And my sister is making quite a headway with her rehabilitated appetite. The visitors don’t seem to mind too much that the pile of shoes is diminishing. There have been no protests. But then maybe they’re not the same people and don’t know it’s deflating right before their very eyes, and, besides, don’t have any expectations about the optimum size of a pile of shoes in a room. Still, they could lose all interest when the pile’s completely gone, unless the shoes are somehow radiating inside us and providing some definition. I think this could be the case since it seems to me we might just be getting more and more attention as the pile gets smaller and smaller. But then it could be my egoism or my imagination. The real moment of decision will be when there is one shoe left—to eat it or not to eat it will be an historic Rubicon, perhaps even determining the final solution of our own fate. There’s one guy that comes by every day that might have something to bear on all of this. I can always tell it’s him because he has a blue uniform like a guard at a prison. More and more he’s been staring a long time at where we are or at the shoes, and then bending close to look at what I said seems to be an exhibit plate. My bet is he’s considering changing the labeling while at the same time imagining when there will be no shoes. It’s his burden. He’ll also have to alter the ads in the Arts & Entertainment section of the cultural weekly that I once got a glimpse of because one of the visitors flipped it into the pile of shoes as some sort of protest. No one removed it for a long time until some other guy with a white uniform came and gingerly picked it up with a pair of forceps and took it away. Anyway, he won’t even have a job unless he does something soon. As I said, life’s a bit different here than back there in the crib—here, you got to weigh every step. I bet he’s thinking that if he changes the label, will people still stop and linger as long if they don’t take to what’s on the label, or if the difference between what’s on the label and the reality of the exhibit is too shocking. There’s something about shoes that keep you grounded like the feet that once walked in them, some secret evidence. And if we leave one shoe uneaten, what will he do then? You know, these people who come here, often seem to like the label even more than what they see in the room. And if he just puts shoe on the plate instead of shoes or a story about shoes, it might be too much like an installation, and no one comes here to see an installation. They want something more moving. But the point is, if we don’t eat the last shoe, he’s going to take it away anyway and come up with something more dynamic. There’s been no indication it will be us even if we are radiant with shoes. Besides, it’s inconvenient and even banal to see two babies even if the label says we are babies. And as I said, he doesn’t see us anymore than the visitors did. He could just label the plate Empty and then put a huge mirror here in the exhibition space where we are, so everyone can see themselves as they are or might be. Anyway, without any more shoes to eat, we’ll be dead meat ourselves pretty soon. Then for sure, someone will notice, and the mirror can be removed and the label changed.


Kerry Shawn Keys is a poet, playwright, and author of wonderscripts and children’s books. His roots are in Appalachia hill country but he currently resides in Vilnius. He has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and many other awards, including Fulbrights in Lithuania and Salvador, Brazil. Recently, he was honored as Chevalier of the Order of the Silver Garlic Bullet of the Republic of Užupis, where he is also Ambassador to the World of Poetry.