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The Bread We Eat in Dreams, Page 3

Catherynne M. Valente

  Coyote’s girls began to show by Christmas.

  Sarah Jane, whatever the crown might have said at Homecoming, was queen of the unwed mothers, too. Her belly swelled just slightly bigger than the others—but then none of them got very big. None of them slowed down. Sarah Jane was turning a flip-into somersault off the pyramid in her sixth month with no trouble. They would all lay around the sidelines together painting their stomachs (Devil red and Devil gold) and trying on names for size. No point in getting angry; no point in fighting for position. The tribe was the tribe and the tribe was all of us and a tribe has to look after its young. The defensive line had a whole rotating system for bringing them chocolate milk in the middle of the night.

  They were strong and tan and lean and I had even money on them all giving birth to puppies.

  I didn’t get pregnant. But then, I wouldn’t. I told him, and he listened. Rabbit and Coyote, they do each other favors, when they can.

  A plan hatched itself steal their mascot. An old fashioned sort of thing, like playing chicken with cars. Coyote plays it old school. Into Springfield High in the middle of the night, out with Marmalade, a stuffed, motheaten African Grey parrot from some old biology teacher’s collection that a bright soul had long ago decided could stand in for a Thunderbird.

  We drove out to Springfield, two hours and change, me and Coyote and Jimmy Moser and Mike Halloran and Josh Vick and Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley, all crammed into my truck, front and back. Coyote put something with a beat on the radio and slugged back some off-brand crap that probably turned to Scotland’s peaty finest when it hit his tongue. Jimmy was trying to talk Ashley into making out with him in the back while the night wind whipped through their hair and fireflies flashed by, even though it was January. Ashley didn’t mind too much, even less when everyone wanted to touch her stomach and feel the baby move. She blushed like a primrose and even her belly button went pink.

  Nobody’s very quiet when sneaking into a gym. Your feet squeak on the basketball court and everyone giggles like a joke got told even when none did and we had Coyote’s hissing drink up drink up and squeezing my hand like he can’t hold the excitement in. We saw Marmalade center court on a parade float, all ready to ship over to the big designated-neutral-ground stadium for halftime. Big yellow and white crepe flowers drooped everywhere, around the shore of a bright blue construction paper sea. Marmalade’s green wings spread out majestically, and in his talons he held a huge orange papier-mâché ball ringed with aluminum foil rays dipped in gold glitter. Thunderbird made this world, and Thunderbird gets to rule it.

  Coyote got this look on his face and the moment I saw it I knew I wouldn’t let him get there first. I took off running, my sneakers screeching, everyone hollering Bunny! after me and Coyote scrappling up behind me, closing the distance, racing to the sun. I’m faster, I’m always faster. Sometimes he gets it and sometimes I get it but it’s nothing we haven’t done before and this time it’s mine.

  And I leapt onto the float without disturbing the paper sea and reached up, straining, and finally just going for it. I’m a tall girl, see how high I jump. The sun came down in my arms, still warm from the gym lights and the after-hours HVAC. The Thunderbird came with it, all red cheeks and Crayola green wingspan and I looked down to see Coyote grinning up at me. He’d let me take it, if I wanted it. He’d let me wear it like a crown. But after a second of enjoying its weight, the deliciousness of its theft, I passed it down to him. It was his year. He’d earned it.

  We drove home through the January stars with the sun in the bed of my truck and three pregnant girls touching it with one hand each, holding it down, holding it still, holding it together.

  On game day we stabbed it with the Devil’s pitchfork and paraded our float around the stadium like conquering heroes. Like cowboys. Marmalade looked vaguely sad. By then Coyote was cleaning off blood in the locker room, getting ready for the second half, shaken, no girls around him and no steroid needles blossoming up from his friendly palm like a bouquet of peonies.

  The first half of the championship game hit us like a boulder falling from the sky. The Thunderbirds didn’t play for flash, but for short, sharp gains and an inexorable progression toward the end-zone. They didn’t cheer when they scored. They nodded to their coach and regrouped. They caught the flawless, seraphic passes Coyote fired off; they engulfed him when he tried to run as he’d always done. Our stands started out raucous and screaming and jumping up and down, cheering on our visibly pregnant cheerleading squad despite horrified protests form the Springfield side. Don’t you listen, Sarah Jane baby! Yelled Mr. Bollard. You look perfect! And she did, fists in the air, ponytail swinging.

  Halftime stood 14-7 Thunderbirds.

  I slipped into the locker room—by that time the place had become Devil central, girls and boys and players and cheerleaders and second chair marching band kids who weren’t needed til post-game all piled in together. Some of them giving pep talks which I did not listen to, some of them bandaging knees, some of them—well. Doing what always needs doing when Coyote’s around. Rome never saw a party like a Devil locker room.

  I walked right over to my boy and the blood vanished from his face just as soon as he saw me.

  “Don’t you try to look pretty for me,” I said.

  “Aw, Bunny, but you always look so nice for me.”

  I sat in his lap. He tucked his fingers between my thighs—where I clamped them, safe and still. “What’s going on out there?”

  Coyote drank his water down. “Don’t you worry, Bunny Rabbit. It has to go like this, or they won’t feel like they really won. Ain’t no good game since the first game that didn’t look lost at half time. It’s how the story goes. Can’t hold a game without it. The old fire just won’t come. If I just let that old Bird lose like it has to, well, everyone would get happy after, but they’d think it was pre-destined all along, no work went into it. You gotta make the story for them, so that when the game is done they’ll just…” Coyote smiled and his teeth gleamed. “Well, they’ll lose their minds I won it so good.”

  Coyote kissed me and bit my lip with those gleaming teeth. Blood came up and in our mouths it turned to fire. We drank it down and he ran out on that field, Devil red and Devil gold, and he ran like if he kept running he could escape the last thousand years. He ran like the field was his country. He ran like his bride was on the other end of all that grass and I guess she was. I guess we all were. Coyote gave the cherry to Justin Oster, who caught this pass that looked for all the world like the ball might have made it all the way to the Pacific if nobody stood in its way. But Justin did, and he caught it tight and perfect and the stadium shook with Devil pride.

  34-14. Rings all around, as if they’d all married the state herself.

  That night, we had a big bonfire down by the lake. Neutral ground was barely 45 minutes out of town, and no one got home tired and ready to sleep a good night and rise to a work ethic in the morning.

  I remember we used to say down-by-the-lake like it was a city, like it was an address. I guess it was, the way all those cars would gather like crows, pick-ups and Camaros and Jeeps, noses pointing in, a metal wall against the world. The willows snapped their green whips at the moon and the flames licked up Devil red and Devil gold. We built the night without thinking about it, without telling anyone it was going to happen, without making plans. Everyone knew to be there; no one was late.

  Get any group of high school kids together and you pretty much have the building blocks of civilization. The Eagle Scout boys made an architecturally perfect bonfire. 4-H-ers threw in grub, chips and burgers and dogs and Twix and Starburst. The drama kids came bearing tunes, their tooth-white iPods stuffed into speaker cradles like black mouths. The rich kids brought booze from a dozen walnut cabinets—and Coyote taught them how to spot the good stuff. Meat and fire and music and liquor—that’s all it’s ever been. Sarah Jane started dancing up to the flames with a bottle of 100 year old cognac in her hand, holding by the ne
ck, moving her hips, her gorgeously round belly, her long corn-colored hair brushing faces as she spun by, the smell of her expensive and hot. Jessica and Ashley ran up to her and the three of them swayed and sang and stamped, their arms slung low around each other, their heads pressed together like three graces. Sarah Jane poured her daddy’s cognac over Ashley’s breasts and caught the golden stuff spilling off in her sparkly pink mouth and Ashley laughed so high and sweet and that was it—everyone started dancing and howling and jumping and Coyote was there in the middle of it all, arching his back and keeping the beat, slapping his big thighs, throwing the game ball from boy to girl to boy to girl, like it was magic, like it was just ours, the sun of our world arcing from hand to hand to hand.

  I caught it and Coyote kissed me. I threw it to Haley Collins from English class and Nick Dristol (left tackle #19) caught me up in his arms. I don’t even know what song was playing. The night was so loud in my ears. I could see it happening and it scared me but I couldn’t stop it and didn’t want to. Everything was falling apart and coming together and we’d won the game, Bunny no less than Coyote, and boyfriend never fooled me for a minute, never could.

  I could hear Sarah Jane laughing and I saw Jessica kissing her and Greg Knight both, one to the other like she was counting the kisses to make it all fair. She tipped up that caramel-colored bottle and Nick started to say something but I shushed him. Coyote’s cognac’s never gonna hurt that baby. Every tailgate hung open, no bottle ever seemed to empty and even though it was January the air was so warm, the crisp red and yellow leaves drifting over us all, no one sorry, no one ashamed, no one chess club or physics club or cheer squad or baseball team, just tangled up together inside our barricade of cars.

  Sarah danced up to me and took a swallow without taking her eyes from mine. She grabbed me roughly by the neck and into a kiss, passing the cognac to me and oh, it tasted like a pass thrown all the way to the sea, and she wrapped me up in her arms like she was trying to make up Homecoming to me, to say: I’m better now, I’m braver now, doesn’t this feel like the end of everything and we have to get it while we can? I could feel her stomach pressing on mine, big and insistent and hard, and as she ripped my shirt open I felt her child move inside her. We broke and her breasts shone naked in the bonfire-light—mine too, I suppose. Between us a cornstalk grew fast and sure, shooting up out of the ground like it had an appointment with the sky, then a second and a third. That same old blue corn, midnight corn, first corn. All around the fire the earth was bellowing out pumpkins and blackberries and state fair tomatoes and big blousy squash flowers, wheat and watermelons and apple trees already broken with the weight of fruit. The dead winter trees exploded into green, the graduating class fell into the rows of vegetables and fruit and thrashed together like wolves, like bears, like devils. Fireflies turned the air into an emerald necklace and Sarah Jane grabbed Coyote’s hand which was a paw which was a hand and screamed. Didn’t matter—everyone was screaming, and the music quivered the darkness and Sarah Jane’s baby beat at the drum of her belly, demanding to be let out into the pumpkins and the blue, blue corn, demanding to meets its daddy.

  All the girls screamed. Even the ones only a month or two gone, clutching their stomachs and crying, all of them except me, Bunny Rabbit, the watcher, the queen of coming home. The melons split open in an eruption of pale green and pink pulp; the squashes cracked so loud I put my hands (which were paws which were hands) over my ears, and the babies came like harvest, like forty-five souls running after a bright ball in the sky.

  Some of us, after a long night of vodka tonics and retro music and pretending there was anything else to talk about, huddle together around a table at the 10 year and get into it. How Mr. Bollard was never the same and ended up hanging himself in a hotel room after almost a decade of straight losses. How they all dragged themselves home and suddenly had parents again, the furious kind, and failed SATs and livers like punching bags. How no one went down to the lake anymore and Bobby Zhao went to college out of state and isn’t he on some team out east now? Yeah. Yeah. But his father lost the restaurants and now the southland has no king. But the gym ceiling caved in after the rains and killed a kid. But most of them could just never understand why their essays used to just be perfect and they never had hangovers and they looked amazing all the time and sex was so easy that year but never since, no matter how much shit went up their nose or how they cheated and fought and drank because they didn’t mean it like they had back when, no how many people they brought home hoping just for a second it would be like it was then, when Coyote made their world. They had this feeling, just for a minute—didn’t I feel it too? That everything could be different. And then it was the same forever, the corn stayed yellow and they stayed a bunch of white kids with scars where their cars crashed and fists struck and babies were born. The lake went dry and the scoreboard went dark.

  Coyote leaves a hole when he goes. He danced on this town til it broke. That’s the trick, and everyone falls for it.

  But they all had kids, didn’t they? Are they remembering that wrong? What happened to them all?

  Memory is funny—only Sarah Jane (real estate, Rotary, Wednesday night book club) can really remember her baby. Everyone just remembers the corn and the feeling of running, running so fast, the whole pack of us, against the rural Devil gold sunset. I call that a kindness. (Why me? Sarah Jane asks her gin. You were the queen, I say. That was you. Only for a minute.) It was good, wasn’t it, they all want to say. When we were all together. When we were a country, and Coyote taught us how to grow such strange things.

  Why did I stick around, they all want to know. When he took off, why didn’t I go, too? Weren’t we two of a kind? Weren’t we always conspiring?

  Coyote wins the big game, I say. I get the afterparty.

  This is what I don’t tell them.

  I woke up before anyone the morning after the championships. Everyone had passed out where they stood, laying everywhere like a bomb had gone off. No corn, no pumpkins, no watermelons. Just that cold lake morning fog. I woke up because my pick-up’s engine fired off in the gloam, and I know that sound like my mama’s crying. I jogged over to my car but it was already going, bouncing slowly down the dirt road with nobody driving. In the back, Coyote sat laughing, surrounded by kids, maybe eight or ten years old, all of them looking just like him, all of them in leather jackets and hangdog grins, their black hair blowing back in the breeze. Coyote looked at me and raised a hand. See you again. After all, it’s nothing we haven’t done before.

  Coyote handed a football to one of his daughters. She lifted it into the air, her form perfect, trying out her new strength. She didn’t throw it. She held it tight, like it was her heart.

  The Bread We Eat in Dreams

  In a sea of long grass and tiny yellow blueberry flowers some ways off of Route 1, just about halfway between Cobscook Bay and Passamaquoddy Bay, the town of Sauve-Majeure puts up its back against the Bald Moose mountains. It’s not a big place—looks a little like some big old cannon shot a load of houses and half-finished streets at the foothills and left them where they fell. The sun gets here first out of just about anywhere in the country, turning all the windows bloody orange and filling up a thousand lobster cages with shadows.

  Further up into the hills, outside the village but not so far that the post doesn’t come regular as rain, you’ll find a house all by itself in the middle of a tangly field of good red potatoes and green oats. The house is a snug little hall and parlor number with a moss-clotted roof and a couple of hundred years of whitewash on the stones. Sweet William and vervain and crimson beebalm wend out of the window-jambs, the door-hinges, the chimney blocks. There’s carrots in the kitchen garden, some onions, a basil plant that may or may not come back next year.

  You wouldn’t know it to look at the place, but a demon lives here.

  The rusted-out mailbox hangs on a couple of splinters and a single valiant, ancient bolt, its red flag at perpetual half-mast. Maybe ther
e’s mail to go out, and maybe there isn’t. The demon’s name is Gemegishkirihallat, but the mailbox reads: Agnes G. and that seems respectable enough to the mailman, who always has to check to see if that red flag means business, even though in all his considerable experience working for the postal service, it never has. The demon is neither male nor female—that’s not how things work where it came from. But when it passed through the black door it came out Agnes on the other side. She’s stuck with she now, and after five hundred years, give or take, she’s just about used to it.

  The demon arrived before the town. She fell out of a red oak in the primeval forest that would eventually turn into Schism Street and Memorial Square, belly-first into a white howl of snow and frozen sea-spray. She was naked, her body branded with four-spoked seals, wheels of banishment, and the seven psalms of hell. Her hair had burnt off and she had no fingernails or toenails. The hair grew back—black, naturally—and the 16th century offered a range of options for completely covering female skin from chin to heel, black-burnt with the diamond trident-brand of Amdusias or not.

  The fingernails never came in. It’s not something many people ever had occasion to notice.

  The ice and lightning lasted for a month after she came; the moon got big and small again while the demon walked around the bay. Her footsteps marked the boundaries of the town to come, her heels boiling the snow, her breath full of thunder. When she hungered, which she did, often, for her appetites had never been small, she put her head back in the frigid, whipping storm and howled the primordial syllable that signified stag. Even through the squall and scream of the white air, one would always come, his delicate legs picking through the drifts, his antlers dripping icicles.