portion of the artwork for Robert J. Bradley's short story

The Whitening
Robert J. Bradley

My landlord, Greta, is outside my window singing, or incanting, and casting shadows. She’s probably a witch. I hear they’re getting popular again. She has two cats and a 17-year-old daughter: all witches, I decide. As part of a coven I believe that they’re required to burn candles, make and sell cheap jewelry, and cast spells over others by being childish, or just plain manipulative. Sometimes they stand by their bathroom window while toweling off after a bath. I’m uncertain as to the significance of this activity, but I keep a close watch, sift the air for clues.

Crows are gathering in the treetops, one after another. That’s how they do it; casual-like. And then they’re on you, pecking at your hands and feet. Who gives the signal, is what I want to know. Enough of them and they can lift a donkey off the ground.

“Why is the light on in the middle of the day?” Greta says.

“I don’t know,” I say, defensively.

Recent studies say that crows are as smart as gorillas. They have their own language, but will speak English if pressed. And they know who you are, can pick you out of a crowd, if necessary.

I cover my face with my hand, peer at them between parted fingers; the mythology suggests they’re messengers of death.

“I’m talking to you,” says Greta.

“I know.”

Then, shifting in my seat, “The crows,” I shout.

“Are you OK?”

“Sorry, sorry.”

“Why not go for a walk?” she offers.

“You’re right,” I say. “I will. Thanks. Thanks. You’re absolutely right. Thanks.”

I walk the suburban streets for hours, find a trail through some woods, get lost, as if I were in some fairytale where I’m taught lessons and ministered to by the creatures of this dense, dark place. But no, the path ends, miraculously, at The Corner Bar.

I carry myself to the bar and order a Pilsner, study my surroundings, my fellow passengers, shoved into dark corners, dreaming their dreams out loud, you know, the hopeful. Jake emerges, steps free of the crowd, and sits himself down to my left.

“Some crazy shit, huh?” I say.

He nods and taps his empty mug. The bartender takes it away, returns with a refill, places it on a coaster along with a fresh napkin. Foam topped, it emits an amber glow. He shimmies a five from my pile of cash and brings back change.

Jake tells the story of going to Europe, played with a band in some bombed-out building in Germany.

“Hitlertown: Everybody was blitzed,” he says. “I was high on one drug or another the whole time. You had to be. I slept on someone’s hardwood floor on top of my jacket, spread out next to a big puddle. That was Europe.” He drains his glass. “Anyway, I’m leaving in September.”

He scans the bar.

“Isn’t that Anna? That’s a German name. They love to suffer.”

He knocks wood, gets up, and makes his way across the bar.

After a while I can’t drink anymore. Time seems to have found a sort of stasis here. Everyone’s plastered in space, in set postures, according to their wants.

There’s a patio out back.

Dusk.

A woman sitting alone.

“A million years ago,” I begin, “when trees walked the earth,” the woman nods and smiles, “animals sailed through clouds, imitating birds, nothing was really solid back then, our brains were, and still are, mostly water, the atmosphere of the earth, too, it was vague, a miasmal smear, like cotton candy, only wet. But its people were drunk on pain and dressed in iron to protect and weigh them down, so that their bones could take shape, and harden. On second thought, this is at least a billion years ago when gravity was weaker than it is now.” She starts to gather her things. “Anyway,” I continue, “back then we were just giant, angry fetuses. Abandoned, blind, and covered in blood.”

She squares her shoulders.

“Being blind, we moved toward sound, we willed our bodies through space, captured animals with our hands, ripped out their beating hearts, and raised them skyward. Where are you going?”

I sink back into my chair and watch the moon swell. I feel it tugging at my loins. I’m getting the message, sent on moonbeams that someone somewhere is waiting for me, to blow me: it’s poetry. Now, I get it. Finally. All those love poems I was forced to read in high school; their music was lost on me, till now. I’m on my feet and moving again.

Town cats make me their leader. I believe it’s due to my indifference. Don’t follow me, I tell them.

I stop at Petra’s. She’s already in bed. “What did you people do to me?” I ask.

“Come over here,” she says. “I have a job for you.”

Maybe this will ease my pain: being useful. I get down on my knees.

She tugs at my hair, and moans. Lounges, afterward, in a contemplative pose.

“What’s happening to me?”

She opens her eyes. “Are you still here?”

“No, it’s OK,” I say, undressing. “I get it now. I understand things … like poetry and nature. Science. The study of man. The naked ape. Know thyself. All that shit.”

“Pull your pants up, I’m tired.”

“I thought, maybe … I had a vision.”

“You should go,” she says. “It’s late.”

“My nerve endings are going pop, pop, pop,” I say. “My spine feels like molten lead. I see things …”

“Take this,” she says and hands me the card of her chiropractor.

“I’ll pay him a visit first thing,” I say. “Thanks. Thanks. Thanks.”

I return to the bar. Look around for Jake. He’s sitting alone, bent over a table with his back to the door like Wild Bill Hickok playing at poker. I pull up next to him. He doesn’t budge.

“Waiting on a bullet?” I say.

At closing time we’re out on the street with a six pack, walking the grounds of the state-run mental institution, its buildings gone to ruin. I recall our governor showing his understanding of people and issues when he proclaimed that the solution to the crisis facing the community in regard to its mentally ill residents at this site was to build higher fences.

What are we, at first light, to these sad, disconnected souls? No more real or substantial than apparitions; a stumbling, unsequestered, amorphous blur. Thanks to therapy and medication we represent something that they no longer believe in.

I sleep till noon, then call the chiropractor. How fortunate, he can squeeze me in at 1. I park in the lot outside the strip mall. Good health, a purchase away.

A little bell rings when I enter. His secretary, full of aggressive false cheer, shuffles me into a side room where I’m shown a video, given forms to fill out. Just as I’m signing my name, in walks a brisk, compact man, cut from the cloth of chiropractors. He has the patter of his chosen profession down pat; speaks eloquently of the subluxation and the copayment. Though I tend to drift off as he speaks, he finds in me a staunch believer.

After making adjustments to my neck and back, he prescribes ginger tea “… to reenergize the watery flow in your spine,” he says.

“You may spike a fever,” he says. “Not to worry, it’ll burn off the impurities. Don’t take anything to suppress it. It’s possible something more subtle may occur.”

“I feel like I’m being disemboweled,” I say.

He blinks. “Come back tomorrow.”

He shakes my hand and leads me to the door.

“In December I’ll be giving a lecture about bird flu and the immune system.”

“What does that have to do with me?” I say, worried.

“People are worried,” he says.

“Oh, OK. See you tomorrow.”

I return home, confine myself to four walls and a bed. Starve myself for company. Speak to no one about my symptoms, or deceptive lack of them. Curl myself into a ball on my mattress, keep the room dark, suffer in silence; a silence interrupted, or is it sustained, by the ringing in my ears, which is a constant blare. In any case, no choice now but to heed its shrill, unwavering insistence and surrender; let impatience whither, as anything would when left unattended. Impatience, then, when you examine it, is the only true evil; is the cause of it, I’m saying, which calls into question the very existence of evil, if you see my point. Yes, you too would be clean, now, like a dove in a bowl of ashes, if you see my point.

Weeks later, I’m Lazarus, fresh from the tomb, pale and thin, leaning up against a powder-blue Chevy Impala, coughing into my hand. It’s a dry, tenuous air, according to my trial breaths, under a deep, ringing sky as this sickness of mine spreads to the trees. The leaves curl on their limbs and fall. I watch them fall, singly and together. I watch them patiently with all my senses pricked, as if I’m being watched.

It’s an evening, a weekday. I hear, from all corners, animal and human voices. They’re making plans, gossiping, jostling, arguing, and crying out amid the constant murmur: life’s complaint, in the failing last light. I rub my hands against the cold. The air and earth are chilled by its turning. Time and again; the seasons revolve, one after another. It’s a world of circumstance. I feel a force moving through it. I feel it, like a bruise, chest deep; hear myself laugh. Then I step off the curb and, slow and steady, as one recently risen, begin to walk.



Robert J. Bradley’s Comments

“The Whitening” was originally 35 pages. The excised content was refurbished and expanded upon and turned into a screenplay about mass mind-control, Artificial Intelligence as Antichrist, and aliens keeping an army of clones based on the moon as a soul-storage warehouse and recycling plant. No, I’m not kidding. So I saved the world from reading more short stories like this, but I’m looking to scale up and pound on your eyeballs with digital images that will force you to reconsider your groundless assumptions about life. What is life? Where did it come from? What would you allow yourself to imagine if you had access to untold wealth? What do you think the people who have boundless resources are doing? Are they nice?

Regard the crow.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 51 | Spring/Summer 2018