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  • Marie Smysor Watson

no-mans-land


My front porch is exactly eight feet, three inches deep and twenty feet, four inches long. Four bird feeders hang from four silver hooks. I do not like birds. I do not like the mess they make. But they were here when I came so I do not dare take them away. They might be what is keeping Them away. There is a gate across the opening to the sidewalk and beyond but I do not trust it. The porch floor is painted gray. I repaint it every October when the weather cools. Gray is a good color. It matches my hair, my face.


I used to read on my porch. Thick dusty tomes that complemented the summer air, six by nine in dimension or five inches by eight inches, impenetrable with words. I did not understand them but I finished them. Then I would eat a page from each. Strange, but I have always lived alone and so have no one to answer to. The last book, considered one of the hardest to read in any language, is still propped open. Its pages have bloomed an unhealthy shade of green. No matter, as everything is green but I will not eat a page from that last book.


At first it was just two of Them parading by the porch, day and night. ⁠They kept to themselves, even when I ventured a nod. One of Them had three eyes, the other four hands. Strange, but things had already begun down that crooked path. I was used to it.


I believed They were women, due to the bright colors They wore. Men would not wear colors like that, I thought, but I had not seen another man for a long time. The men used to walk by, coming home from work. Twelve packs of sugary drinks, twenty- four packs of beer. Sometimes forty ounces of liquid in brown bottles, peeking out from brown paper bags, tucked under their weary arms. I never saw the men anymore, at least not from my porch. I never ventured past the gate. My backyard was safe, overgrown and fenced in steel. Fifty-two feet wide by one-hundred and eighty-two feet deep. I grew enough food to not have to venture out anymore.


In September, more of them came. Eight. Eleven. Fifteen. Because I could still count them, I did not worry. They still did not look at me. They seemed to be in a hurry. To where - I could not hazard a guess. I might have picked up the unfinished book. Should have - I may have found the answers there. Others had for centuries. I was afraid to touch it, truth be told.


They started dancing in early October, just as I began repainting. Looping, swirling, buffeting themselves about like the rains that never came anymore. They were silent but the colors They wore swirled against the green backdrop. Everything bloomed. I stayed on the porch where nothing could touch me. I had the four bird feeders on four silver hooks. I had the book. I had not finished it, but should I eat the page. Would it matter. Was my swallowed knowledge a talisman, warding Them off, or would it invite Them in. So many questions.


It was early November and the leaves were down, the morning it began or ended. So many of Them came. I could not count Them all. Not because I could not count that high - at least I thought I used to be able to - but because they all swirled in a mass, a rainbow ecstasy of numberless color. But Their faces remained clear. I saw eyes of blue and green and brown and violet and even black. Three, four, even five on one face, no longer downcast but looking directly at me. Some had tongues that hung in long red stripes from their wide mouths. Some had noses that hung to the side or were shadowed, concave valleys of flesh, or drooped like beaks from birds who no longer flew. It was frightening. Their hair, a riot of different colors and textures, was unbound, matted with pieces of life from other places. What was beauty. I could not remember.


What do you want, I think but do not ask. Would the answer matter. I do not think it will. Unless it is something to do with numbers and security, I am not interested. I would not understand.


I pick up the book. Too late, I notice there are no page numbers. They have bled one into the other, much like the numberless women.


Ladies, I begin. The dancing stops. I would invite you up here, but there is not room for all of you. You will have to come one or two at a time. I survey my space. No more than three, I add expansively.


They rush me in color. My porch swells to include Them all, sagging and creaking under the unaccustomed weight.


Careful, careful, there are too many of you, I cry, but a commotion rises up among Them and the four bird feeders on the four silver hooks begin to shimmy and shake as they start to dance. There’s not enough room, I cry, but They continue to dance on my too-small porch. The stack of moldering words topples and is crushed into pulp, ashes to ashes. The floor is now shiny with teeming detritus. The supports sag further and the porch, all ninety-nine by two-hundred eight-eight inches of my quiet safety, moans a wild wail of protest, of defeat.


It will not hold, I say quietly, my back pressed to the front door. The dancing stops almost immediately. Even the women’s twirling skirts hush. A thousand eyes fixed on me, unblinking, pregnant.


It will collapse. It cannot accommodate you all. Maybe ten, but not this. I wave my hand over the quivering mass.


They file silently off of the porch. It breathes a sigh of relief as they step off, single file. One to one to one, I still cannot count them all. The last of Them touches my face, my eyes, as she trundles away. My sight dims momentarily and then brightens. My porch is filled with afterimages, vivid scenes, unreal, as the women dissipate. Colors loop and swirl and I rub my eyes. They itch and the pressure of my fingers against my folded eyelids produces words, numbers, pictures, colors. I look to my newly painted floor for respite. It too is a chaos of colors, none of them gray. I sigh. I consider fetching a broom from inside but sit heavily instead. There is no way to clean this up. The damage is permanent. I sigh again and, then, with nowhere else to turn, I sigh a third time and the porch trembles, the empty bird feeders shake, aftershocks from a long awaited victory of simple numbers.


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thanks

Elegy