Slipped, Fell

   This building for years leant sideways and was more shifting scaffolding than dwelling. The walls moved under a burden of snow. Some other buildings, such as mine, had glass and were barred about the windows. The shiny chrome cages were bolted to the walls around the glass and had been installed some time before we arrived, before anyone knew no one else was coming. In a fit of marketing optimism, the complex had been called Heaven. It was and remains the loneliest place I have ever known. Back then I hadn’t been to other places. I didn’t know everywhere was like this.
    Beyond the buildings were flat fields. I went there often because it is open. This was that good yellow earth I mentioned and beyond was the mighty Worthless River. I could have known its real name but didn’t. The smell used to be strongest on still days. That one winter day I went in, the air was too cold to carry any strong smell. And the weeds were gone. Instead there was this sea of mud. Walking was like sinking or sliding. I’d just wanted to see the far side, all the construction over there, just as tall and empty as here, but more and wider. But the mist had arrived before I did. I’d hoped it would clear. There was nothing to see and I lost my footing.
   I’d arrived at where there was more water than mud. I had a stone I had been carrying. This I’d hurled. There is something wrong with the inside part of my shoulder, and the throw hurt. I could not throw well nor often, but I was in training.
   My boots were old long before I’d stomped through this mud, but the way they didn’t support me that day made me angry. The mud was slick and loose and I knew it was not natural. This mud, this whole country, had been disturbed too many times, moved too often from here to there, cut up, twisted, turned over and never left alone. By then we had only this sliced mush and the dust. No fixed and firm ground. No foundation. No good earth. All the things around here that had names were like that too. They were shells. Featureless….
   But like I say, I lost my footing, and I went in. It wasn’t my fault.

Utility

  “Useless,” they call me. I get shouldered aside. The girl gets hauled up onto the shore. Mission accomplished, I guess. She’s safe. I step up after them.
  “Miss? Miss?” says the skinny guy. She lays flat on her back, bent backwards at the hips with her legs stuck off the hump of the road edge. I stand in the weeds and watch. My feet, I have come to realise, are intensely cold. Getting back up onto the road will be complex.
   The cold has gotten back to swirling. I feel it across my face. I was warm before.
  “Miss?” Skinny repeats. She hasn’t moved since sitting up in the water and then falling back down, apparently immediately.
   Her clothes are soaked. She’s missing one fluffy boot. She is that grey white of the drained. And at the same time her flesh has long since bulged away from what would have been her regular shape. If she were an infant she’d be the very picture of infant prosperity, chubby to the point of shapelessness, and her rosy cheeked, but with paint, not health.
  “Well, Useless?” says Skinny. “What fucking now?”
   They watch down at me. We’re all getting together on the frustrated cursing.
   I suppose I had better make a report.

The Crossing the Return Threshold

  “Tell you a story,” she says. “This place here, it used to be good. That river?”
   She points. I’m looking anyway. You can see how it was once much wider. This viewing platform is high and dry and the water should have been lapping close to our feet. The sluggish brown mess out there now, I’d throw my arm out getting a stone anywhere near.
  “We’re not northern,” she says, like ticking off a list. “But in winter there was snow. I used to be called Xiao Huo.”
  “You changed your name?”
  “No.”
   She has a point though about how everything’s fucked up now. Back across the road there’s a whole—I don’t know what you’d call them, a flock of buildings? Stacked alongside one another like lumber, and starkly unfinished. From the outside they form a wall of black squares – unfilled windows. Inside they’re a rectangular maze of unpaved alleys and cave-like foundations left open. No one lives there. Fuck knows why we’re here now.
  “Do you know why we’re here?” she says.
   It’s got something to do with kisses, I say.