God-Ray

Published: September 8, 2017

Childess found the creek first, in late March after the short rainless California winter. He’d scored a pint of something off the counter of the AllNight on Fourth when the owner’s back was turned, and he’d needed somewhere out of sight to drink down the evidence.

The creek cut via gullies and culverts between houses of the residential west end of town. Narrow, deep, and lined with scrubby bush willows and feral bamboo, it served as a highway for deer, coyotes, and others from the sunburnt hills to the sprinkler-fed greens and trashcan paradise of suburbia. The shade in the rock-strewn bottom was cool and green, invisible from the busy street at head-height above.

The pint bottle proved to be gin, a clean bitter blast mixed with the creek smell of moss and wild sage, and the cops drove past twice without slowing down. That afternoon, Childess dragged his duffel and the suitcase with one wheel from the alley behind the Vinnies soup kitchen and set up camp.

By mid-June, Childess’ bloodstream was a battleground between tick-borne babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and rabbit fever. The early symptoms — swelling, confusion, headaches, paranoia, the shakes — were not so different from his accustomed state. He treated himself with his usual regimen of cheap booze, an even coating of salt over whatever the Vinnies were serving that day, and aspirin when he could lift a bottle from Walgreens.

By the Fourth of July his vision was shot and his sense of time and space submerged in the rising churn of disease. The mile into town was a voyage on markless waters; the currents of his confusion dragging him north onto the exposed ridge over town or east onto the shoulder of the highway where tires screeched and coughed dust at him. But he could always find his way back to the creek.

“Like a green light on my face. Like the sun but green and dark water I can smell, know what I mean? Smell it like a wolf or some shit, like it’s singing me back,” he said to Dan, even though Dan was in Modesto and dead.

That creek sense was steady but sly. It sent him down different ways every time, or if they were the same ways they seemed different; what was a weed-choked alley became a leafy boulevard, what was a corner became a cliff that had to be navigated hand by hand. That’s how Childess found the camera, fumbling through a stack of boxes for a handhold to pull himself over a suddenly precipitous curb.

It was a digital point-and-shoot with a built-in flash and a tiny LCD display on back; the sort you’d buy for a child who’d take pictures for an afternoon and then lose it on her way to school the next morning. Childess ran his thumb over the smooth silver plastic, the nubby black buttons, just for the pleasure of the touch, took a photo of his left foot.

Pawn it and buy a full quart of the cactus schnapps on discount at the AllNight, was Childess’ first thought. He turned back toward B Street and Shulty’s, but Shulty’s with its case of stilled watches and its hanging forest of guitars wasn’t there, closed or moved or maybe it was on some other B Street in some other town.

Childess sat in the shade of a Starbucks’ umbrella at the corner of Fourth, prodded the camera with a shattered nail. The LCD went green. Childess squinted against the delirious light, saw it was the photo of his foot with all the half-seen details of the creek sense laid clear: the granite precipice of the curb, the grassy humus of the sidewalk, the lichen-spattered stone of his boot. A strange thrill rang in his ears, shook his limbs such that he almost dropped the camera. He steadied it on his knee, fumbled at the buttons until he found the shutter.

The screen was a tiny window into the world under creek light. The photos revealed the open doors of Starbucks as a vine-curtained cave, the customers as trees, between their roots the trickle of the creek itself.

“That man is taking pictures of me,” the girl at the next table over said. Her mother half-turned to glare at Childess, one hand out to shield the girl’s knees that were bent birch through the camera. A barista within, whose wide-paunched torso Childess could have curled, wiped his hands on his apron, leaned in close. “Get lost, you pervert, before I beat the crap out of you,” he said.

“Wasn’t her, it’s the water running through like light, some miracle shit, right through her legs,” but Childess’ breath lagged behind his vision and only the last few words made it out. The barista swore and grabbed for the camera. Childess got an elbow in the way, staggered up knocking the table back, one leg slipping off the curb to send the umbrella toppling into the street, where it lay like an arrow on a crumpled map. Childess stumbled along that line, one hand on the hot hood of the car that stopped, screeching in the far lane. The barista shouted something about cops. Childess’ vision had gone a gritted gray; he navigated by camera, picture at a time. It was long hours before he caught the scent of the creek again.

Childess stuck to camp for the next couple of days, drinking from the rivulet of lawn runoff and scavenging the dregs of abandoned bottles.

“Ain’t hungry, Dan. It’s the creek making me stronger, see?” he explained to the coyote that slumped in quiet decay at the mouth the culvert under the road. “Filthy son of a bitch bastard,” by which Childess meant not Dan but the Starbucks barista, who had grown to a shambling bear-shagged giant in his recollection. The coyote’s opalescent eyes took no offense.

The camera showed the creek as it was, no more or less, but photos of the road above taken through the low arch of tree limb revealed a field of rough grasses and flowered shrubs through which cars grumbled like cattle. The long golden legs of the joggers who passed morning and afternoon shone and shifted on that field like the sun through clouds.

God-rays, Childess thought, and conceived a desire to photograph himself in that light.

He found a perch on the culvert and an angle with the camera at arm’s length that placed him at the feet of the oblivious passersby. He shed his clothes, keeping only his boots for their grip on the concrete culvert, in an urge less carnal — the meat had long since spoiled — than vital, a notion of the warmth and nourishment of light on skin.

The joggers’ arrival was heralded by a chatter like birds before a storm, a static stirring of the hair on his neck and shoulders. Childess fumbled for the shutter with his thumb, pressed it once but the camera twisted into his palm, worked it straight in suddenly shaking fingers, and hit the shutter again. A moment’s warmth against his back, a whirlwind of laughter, and then they had passed.

The first photo was black. The second showed a curtain of light hanging over the meadow of the road, a light so alive and essential it shimmered and shifted on the camera screen. In the foreground, a bank of stone and root rolled down to the creek. Of Childess himself there was no sign.

The rest of that day was lost to blackness, as if Childess himself had twisted in hand, was pointed at nothing. The empty bottles had were now truly empty, and he waited for the need for alcohol to drive him up and out of town, but even that defining urge had gone missing, was no more evident in his self than he was in the photo.

Childess dreamed that night for the first time in memory, and though those dreams were black and silent, there was a warmth like light against him, and when he woke he found a fawn curled against him.

It was a tiny thing, not much bigger than his chest on which it nestled. Childess reached a trembling hand to trace the thin ridge of its neck, the lines of its ribs; it was only after it opened its eyes and licked his fingers that he began to accept that it might be real, and not some creek-made manifestation of his own self. To be sure, he took a photo of it as it wobbled over to drink from the creek. On the screen, the fawn was crisp and clear and its eyes marked by the same light with which the creek was lined.

The fawn limped around the camp; its left rear leg was short and loosely hinged. It paused to sniff cautiously at the matted clump of fur in the culvert. “That’s just Dan,” Childess said. “He don’t mean nothing by it.” Satisfied, it staggered back to curl up in his arms.

Childess woke up that afternoon, or maybe it was the next, to the cold caress of the fawn’s nose within his shirt.

She’s hungry, Dan said.

“The creek’ll take care of that,” Childess said. The fawn looked up at him. Childess pulled a tick from between its eyes, flicked it away. “Look at me, don’t need it no more, not even the booze.”

She’s a child of the dry, Dan said.

The camera came on, the shaded stone that was Starbucks on the screen. Somewhere in those depths were pitchers full of milk.

“What can I do about it? Damn filthy bear.”

The fawn flinched at his tone. Dan just stared, head cocked at the angle at which the skull had settled. Childess couldn’t meet that gaze, thumbed the camera instead.

“I ain’t even really here no more,” he said to the fawn. “See?” He scrolled back to the image of the joggers whose light had passed him by. But in the dim at the bottom of the creek, he saw details in the foreground he had missed before: the mossy line of beard, a mica glint of eye, shoulders of that root that can split stone.

“Verdamned. I’m a verdamned man,” Childess said. “It means green,” he told the fawn.

Childess left the fawn under Dan’s watchful eye and made his way, one photo at a time, down Fourth to Starbucks. There were moments of fear along his path, but the cop at the corner of D proved to be a low scrub oak; the stream that was B Street was shallow and easy to wade. The bear was slumped and somnolent within the cave that was the cafe; the thicket of tree people and shrub people and stone people that had seemed at first a barrier proved to be welcome cover, shadowed in the creek light and stilled in the camera sight.

He filled one cup with whole milk and two with half-and-half, tucked them into the ragged pockets of his jacket and wedged them upright with packets of sugar. As he wove his way out again, the bear lifted its ragged head and looked about, nostrils flared, but without camera, without creek sense, it could not see Childess through the thicket.

“Verdamned,” Childess told it.

The fawn drank a bit of the half-and-half, laced with sugar, splashed in the creek with renewed vigor, came back and drank the milk, tipping the cup over and licking it from the grass. Childess poured a bit of the second cup of half-and-half out for Dan, drank a little for himself. It sat heavy and strange in his belly, but the weight was not unwelcome; after his descent and return from Starbucks Childess felt light, untethered, like he might drift up under the leaves with the suspended dust and the gnats, beyond the leaves, even, where the clouds sprawled orange and pink.

“Better to sink down right here into the creek, ain’t it, Dan?” he said.

Dan reserved comment. The fawn licked his fingers.

Sometime after midnight Dan, woke Childess with a touch of tongue to his forehead, a rumbled growl. The fawn was awake as well, eyes wide and luminous, like the moon on water, but there was no moon, no light at all, not even the streetlamps on the road above, and the creek muttered to itself and spat drops against his leg.

There was a cracking and a low chesty shudder to the west. Childess’ first thought was earthquake, but the sound was followed by a sharp gust and the smell of wet earth, a progression so rare in California that Childess’ understanding of it came from some other life entirely.

“Storm coming,” he told the fawn, who shook and shoved itself closer against him.

The crack came again, and a flash of light and another crack and a low rumbling that did not fade but grew louder and lower. Lightning again. The fawn huffed and flicked its ears against Childess’ cheek.

“Just a flash,” he told it. “Like the camera. Creek light.”

He took a photo, showed it to the fawn; the creek was a green tunnel around a darkness as clear and deep as the fawn’s eye. Dan was trying to tell him something but the rumbling drowned him out. The fawn struggled to its feet. Childess hugged it to his chest, got the camera’s strap around his wrist. He took another photo, but this one was all dark and then the water hit.

There was no transition; he was on the ground and then he was under the water. The lightning was everywhere, his vision clearer in that moment than it had been since he’d found the creek. He held the fawn in one arm, reached down with the other to grab Dan as they were swept into the culvert. Dan’s body had long since gone down into the creek but his pelt streamed behind his skull like he had been reborn to this new world of water.

They spilled from the far end of the culvert, tumbling so that the lightning was one moment to their side, the next beneath their feet. Childess thought that, verdamned as he was, he might be able to breathe the water, but before he could try it, the creek overflowed its channel; the churning edges spread wide and the center where he floated grew calm and swift.

Fast as they were flowing, the storm was faster; it caught up with them, such wind and water in its wake so that the surface was not much different that the tumbling depths.

The fawn slipped from under his arm, spun round as its leg churned uselessly beneath it. Its head went under. Childess kicked once, twice, got a hand under its quivering belly. The fawn snorted, shook the water from its face, looked wild-eyed at him through the surface as he went under in turn.

Childess pulled himself up, pulled the fawn close. “Ain’t your fault,” he said into its ear. “You was born to the dry.”

He kicked again, caught at a hedge that had once marked a lawn and now only served to spread the water wider. Dan’s pelt swirled away, but Childess had his thumb through the hole of Dan’s eye, the white of the skull and the plastic gleam of the camera on the end of its leash the only things visible in the flash.

They were in the churn again at the edge of the flood; Childess spun around, hit something with his feet. It was a car, half submerged, and next to it a minivan whose roof ran entirely above the flow. Childess shuffled sideways on the windshield of the car, boosted the fawn up onto the slope. It scrabbled over the branches that had washed up against the cars, stood clear among oak leaves at the top.

Childess tossed Dan up to clatter among the branches. The fawn nosed the skull upright, shook its own ears out. They looked down at Childess.

“Like a green light on my face,” he told them. “Like it’s singing me back.” And then the creek pulled him under for a long while.

When he came to again, Childess had lost the camera. But he didn’t need the camera to see that the lightning which struck in long golden perfect all along the ridge above was the legs of the storm; god-rays, he thought. If he’d had the camera he would have taken a picture of himself with her as she passed, but then she stopped, the storm did, and leaned down and saw him and lifted him from the water.

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