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Caudex Valley

by: Brian White

A knife falls in my dream.

I woke with a jolt, my hand held out to catch the blade. Muscles grip desperately to the structure of my bones, as if, in my weakness and fear, they might spill to the floor and slip beneath the caulking of the tiles. My hair was tangled in knots, my hands trembling and my intestines curled into a fist.

In these moments I close my eyes, and, there it is: the landscape of Caudex Valley, my home, waiting behind my eyes. It waits to calm me, to absorb the discomfort. As rain falls across its surface, my skin wets with sweat. Heat and humidity warm the rocky ground—I fever and boil. In the shadows of its ridges the soil cools below the surface—my skin is buried in its folds and the fevered sweat dries inside my pores. The landscape and I, we are bonded.

But, with a twist of the gut I’m pulled back to the pain, back to the bed, back to the flickering memory of a knife in a dream. The bathroom sink waits for my nightly deposit of vomit. The organic confetti of muddied food swirls along the ceramic curve and down the blackened drain.

A woman stares from within the mirror, trembling from weakness. She catalogs the features of my face and I study hers in turn. We follow the trail of veins down the other’s neck, through the curve of our arms, webbing at the wrist, ending in a tangle of fingers. She clenches her lips, they turn white with anemic anger. Chalky lesions heal slowly as new raw and vibrant ones take their place.

Disease burrows and fear flows. I reassure myself, this is only an image.

I step onto the patio to see the landscape with my eyes. Sunlight singes the edges of night and these twig bones no longer seem to crackle as I stand. I close my eyes and the landscape remains. I open my eyes and the landscape remains. I shouldn’t sleep, I decide, for the fear of dying can only come true when I’m not awake to fight it. The dawn assures me I will live to see another day.

A knife falls in my dream.

Andres stands staring out my bedroom window, light splashing across his face and his thick knit suit. We meet eyes. “We’ll leave in an hour,” he says turning back to the window. Light illuminates particles of dust, treading electric currents around his face. Releasing a heavy sigh, the stagnant air startles. Particles drift into shadow and disappear.

Andres brews coffee and we settle on the porch facing Caudex Valley sipping at mismatched mugs. The sun’s light, now filling the day, feels warm and forgiving on my broken body. Empty sky presses to empty ground.

“How did you sleep?”

“Well, thank you.”

I play a game. Leaning back in my chair I put my feet up, aligning my view of the banister to the horizon. If I unhinge my thoughts in just the right way it creates the illusion of hanging my legs over the edge of a pool. I stretch my toes to dip them in the sky. The lie of cool water presses to the screens of my senses. My lungs warm, my nose crinkles, my heart tenses. Dissonance stretches to a breaking point. In such close grasp of the true sensation I strain myself and the illusion collapses.

“We should go.”

Andres leads me from his car into the Radiologist’s Office, balancing my weight with his heavy arms. “Almost there.”

The carpet’s geometry pulls my eyes in tangent loops, its swirling path leads to a cordial secretary. Her mouth and teeth coordinate into a smile across her plump face. Not too eager and quite genuine. I smile back. The symmetry of the gesture is complete. She guides me to a small room where I strip and change into a plastic gown. It crunches like a leaf as I step back into the hallway.

A knife falls in my dream.

A needle enters my vein and the medical technician assures me that I’ll only be uncomfortable for a short time during the CT scan. He didn’t want to wake me—he hopes I don’t mind.

The scan begins, whirring and clunking. Its bulky mechanism, sinewy with wires, spins inside its seamless plastic exterior. I close my eyes knowing Caudex Valley waits for me, waiting to absorb the discomfort. But, as I pass through the whirling machinery, the landscape is torn away in thin slices by the magnetic imaging. The CT strips cross-sections of my legs and the landscape is sliced along its shallow ravine where a river once ran through. Next, moving up my thighs, the simple dirt hills along the base of the valley are taken away in silky strips and observed. The CT moves across my hips and the cavity of intestines, spleen, stomach, and kidneys revealing pockets of sediment with stories of the land.

Along my lungs and ribs, sky, clouds, air, trees, and birds slip away in an electronic stack of images. Trees grip to its pines, leaves, and branches, fearing that if only one is lost, the rest would certainly follow.

The technician is so sorry, but can’t give me my results today. It’s okay. I know what they’ll say.

“All set?” Andres hands me a cigarette.

“All set, thanks.”

He stares at two men who exchange business cards in the parking lot. They shake hands and their palms clap with suction. Andres’ moosed expression clouds and grays.

“I just want to do something normal again,” I say.

Slowly he turns his face toward me, a grizzled poetry glows inside him. “Let’s get a drink.” A heckling smile bends his forehead into six or seven creases, bridging his temples. I close my eyes.

The smoke in my lungs fills the landscape, fogging the trees along the ravine. “Ready?” His voice echoes across the valley. I open my eyes. “Yeah, I’m ready.” He pulls a deep final drag of tobacco.

Andres shuffles his body, creaking his chair in conversation with his weight. Gravity sculpts his weight and his leather belt stretches below the table with a hnnnnhh sound. “Where’s that waitress?” His eyes twitch along the lines of my broken silhouette. Does he always look at me this way?

The waitress smokes outside. Through a semi-transparent beer ad on the window she is tinted red. Clouds of red smoke diffuse through the air like blood through water. He nervously massages the tabletop where mangy spots of wood have been exposed. Over a few decades the paint and acrylic sealants have worn down from the tapping of palms and tumblers against the surface. The motion loops in my thoughts. It must have occurred half a million times at this table alone. Slurp and a clunk. The table felt inhabited by the motions of a half million pulls of liquor down the open throats of strangers. Beer, cigarettes, scattered conversation. Again, again, again.

Slurp and a clunk.

Andres steps up to the bar, too eager to wait. I follow. “Bourbon,” he says, motioning for two with a flick of thick fingers. Money soaks into a pool of melted ice, the bartender peels it with a familiar distaste for the exchange. A few sips and the skin on my face sinks, relaxing on the fault lines, dangling with elastic give.

“Down the hatch.” Slurp and a clunk.

The liquor’s glow settles between my eyes. We silently watch a group of women across the room play a drinking game. They slap the table and hold cards to their foreheads. Flashes of enthusiasm and reluctance blush and fever among their shrill laughter. The waitress scrapes her finger across the faux wood-grain burned into the plastic serving tray. Her synthetic fingernails canvas the grooves and I feel the touch of wood in my fingertips as I listen.

Slurp and a clunk.

“Get’ya ‘nother?”

“No, no, no.”

“Come on, live a little. .”

“Okay, but just one more.”

The barflies slur as one, shoulders tapping and wallets clapping. Their thoughts gather like a fog: In a couple of years. . Just enough to last me a lifetime. . I never did see my daughter again… They smile and hug one another with a dark compassion. Time drips from the ceiling to the floor.

Slurp and a clunk.

“Get’ya another?”

“No, no, no.”

“Come on, live a little. .”

“Okay, but just one more.”

Andres squeezes my shoulder as he stands up. “I’ll take you home after this next one. Promise.”

My head is featherweight and shaking with the rumble of alcohol. I close my eyes. The landscape spins. Dirt falls upward toward the sky. Clouds twist into spirals. Trees bend and uproot, falling in impossible trajectories. Andres calls out from the bar, he asks the landscape if I’ve had too much to drink. I open my eyes. Andres leans in to kiss me.

The landscape leans away. “I’ve had too much to drink.”

He smiles at the landscape. “You and me both.”

The bartender calls out, “Last call!” I put my glass to my mouth and let the remaining bourbon fall through my body. The nausea passes.

I’m in the street. That is, we are, Andres, the landscape, and I. He holds the landscape up as we walk through an unlit suburban street. The bar shrinks in the distance.

“This sure wasn’t the best idea we’ve ever had.” Andres mutters.

We are in Andres’ front yard. I’ve fallen in the grass and stand up with wobbling difficulty.

“Make it home in one piece, okay?”

“Andres, don’t you want to invite me in?”

He laughs. A slick mirror of sweat covers his skin and drips into the corners of his eyes.

“You told me over and over you want to go home. ‘To puke in your own bed,’ you said. Remember?

I called you a cab.” Andres leans in to kiss me.

The landscape leans away. “I don’t feel so good.”

He smiles at the landscape. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“If I live.”

“That’s not funny.”

The cab honks and the landscape walks away, forgetting to say goodbye. I turn to call out to Andres, but he’s disappeared into the house, only the porch light remains. Its glow illuminates a puddle that filled an inset square in the walkway. Caudex Valley peers over the edge of the liquid and a face emerges. The sickly face of a dying woman stares daftly at the barren land. The landscape steps on her face, disrupting the image, she sloshes from side to side in the ripples.

I pull keys from the door and struggle with the light switch. The landscape enters my house. In the darkness the details are flat and greedy, lamps and chairs all stare. I stumble through the hallways, knocking a frame from the wall, it thumps against the rug, but doesn’t break. Through the kitchen the counter-top jabs into my hip, I yelp, smashing my fist to its surface. Plates, cups, and forks all rattle behind the wooden skin of drawers and cabinets.

After a tall glass of water we, the landscape and I, fall into bed. Pillows cushion the nausea. I close my eyes and touch the landscape’s leg. We whimper and whisper secrets. We sleep, the landscape and I, like tangled lovers.

A knife falls in my dream.

The blade slips solemnly and staidly into the soil of Caudex Valley.