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Short Story: Breathe
By Caleb True
A long time ago, in a time before time, before thought and wish, want, or need, the Creator-Spirit sent four humans to the earth and charged them to find out what it was they should breathe.
“There are four elements, my children,” said the Creator-Spirit. “Earth, fire, water, and air. There are four directions to this world and four of you. Pick a substance and pick a direction, and discover what it is that humans should breathe.”
And so the four people chose their elements and their directions, said their goodbyes, and departed.
The first human headed East, and after a long time walking found himself at the lip of a great desert. The first human was terrified by the desert’s vastness. He swallowed his fear, continued on, but the sun beat down on him ferociously, scorching his back and drying his eyes. The first human remembered the charge given him by the Creator-Spirit, and thought, “If I breathed earth, I could travel underground and be hid from this furious sun.”
And the man fell to his knees and began to dig with his hands. He dug and dug, filling his fingernails with grit, but the depression he was making kept on filling back up with loose sand. Eventually, his furious dig revealed a mole rat, blind and pink and indignant.
“Man-father, what are you doing, ruining my home?” croaked the mole rat.
“Mole rat,” said the human, “I did not know, I am sorry.”
“What do you think you are doing, digging in the sand?” asked the mole rat.
“I thought, if I can travel in the earth, as you do, I could avoid the burning sun, as you do.”
“Burning sun!” scoffed the mole rat. “Look at your skin, it is thick and tawny. It can withstand the sun. Look at my skin,” said the mole rat, and the first human did. “You see?’” said the mole rat. “Now look at my paws,” said the mole rat. “The underground is my home, man-father. Leave it be. You must take refuge from the beating sun elsewhere.”
The first human plodded on.
With the sun now sinking below the horizon behind him, the first human now feared he might die in this wasteland. The stars came out, the breeze picked up, and the man began to shiver. He cried as he walked, hugging himself, but then he tripped over a small stone, and landed spread-eagled on the ground. The sand warmed him, and the man said, “If only I can bury myself in this sand, I can survive the cold desert night and continue another day.” And the man lay down on the warm sand and, instead of digging, scooped handfuls of sand over him, over and over, until he was cozy warm and covered. For a moment, only the man’s face peeked out of the sand, facing the stars above, and he thanked his Creator-Spirit for bringing him wisdom. Then with one last scoop the man covered his face with warm sand and fell asleep to the music of shifting sands in the night.
The second human headed south, confident in herself, knowing she would be the one who would answer her Creator-Spirit’s wish. jShe walked for a long time, her spirits never waning, when she caught the smell of something acrid in the distance. Sensing death and seeing a black blotch on the horizon, she froze for a moment, then gritted her teeth and continued on. As she traversed the curve of the earth, she discovered a great forest fire. Deer charged out of the wood with drowning eyes and foaming mouths, groups of crows escaped in all directions. The second human watched them retreat as she walked towards the trees and the bubble of heat. The fire crackled and branches snapped. Great trunks groaned and came crashing to the ground, sending up gouts of smoke and sparks.
The second human stopped at the lip of the flame and inhaled deeply. The hot air stung her throat, tickled it in such a way that she doubled over coughing. A beaver, having just escaped the lick of flame by the skin of his two teeth, let out a rasping laugh.
“Man-mother,” said the beaver, “you cannot hope to breathe smoke and sparks! Are you trying to die?”
The second human stood and regarded the beaver, gently massaging her clavicle with one hand. “Of course not, Beaver,” she said. “What would you have me do?”
“Man-mother,” said the beaver, “I have just escaped suffocation by the skin of my two teeth. I crawl on four feet, I run like I haven’t a burdensome and clumsy tail, I rub all the world with my fat belly in my desire to stay low and avoid breathing the smoke and choking sparks!”
As the beaver and the second human conversed, time passed, and the sun, tired of the day, retreated in the western horizon. It winked at last to the second human, to the beaver, and then disappeared. The fire in the forest had diminished to a bright heart of undying ember at the center of the wood. The heavens glowed a strange purple. No stars came out.
“Well, man-mother,” said the beaver, “it is now night, though a reluctant one, I must say, and I must go find a home.”
The breeze picked up, and the second human closed her arms around herself for warmth. “Can I come with you?” said the second human. “I haven’t a home.”
“Man-mother,” said the beaver, “I don’t know where home is! My old home was consumed by the great fire! First, I must find a home, and then, I fear, it would still be inadequate for you: too small, too squalid, too many pointy places to prick your exposed flesh while you sleep, and too cold.”
The second human let her hands fall to her sides dejectedly, and nodded. “All right, Beaver,” she said, “good night to you.”
“Good night, man-mother,” said the beaver as he left.
As night deepened, the second human’s spirits dimmed. She inched her way deeper into the steaming wood for warmth, finding the forest floor ever warmer underfoot. Cinders crunched beneath her, warm coals made the woods themselves shimmer. After a long time trekking towards the heart of the fire, the haze made the second human dizzy, and she reached out to the nearest tree trunk for support. Her hand entered the trunk easily, and she withdrew a fistful of ash. The tree collapsed beside her and she covered her mouth and turned away from the billow. A sheer wind cut through the trees and chilled her for a moment. Growing desperate, she pressed on, seeking a place with enough living fire to keep her warm through the night. After hours of searching, she collapsed into a little heap, displacing a cloud of ash, and lamented: “Creator-Spirit, what am I to do? I cannot seem to get close enough to fire even to warm my bones! It is so late, and I am so tired, what can I do to preserve my body?”
Just then a secret compartment of oxygen exposed itself from beneath a blanket of insulating peat—a beaver’s burrow, no doubt—and fire gulped it up greedily. The second human jumped when a pillar of flamed erupted just a few feet from her.
The second human hungered for warmth, hungered to take the hot core inside her and be warmed from the inside out. The thought thrilled her, even sparked a spontaneous knot of something warm-like deep within her, and it was from this sensation that she knew her instincts were right. She exhaled deeply, then stepped into the pillar of fire.
The third human trekked west, resolving not to stop until he came to a vast ocean. He walked and walked, and stopped a few times, considering his options. He stopped for the first time at a lake. He tested the water, stepping in. The muddy bank swallowed his feet. He took another step, pulling his feet out of the suck and replacing them again, then stopped. A water snake glided over to where he stood, filthy, glued to the shallows, sinking.
“Man-father,” said the water snake, “what in the name of the Creator-Spirit are you doing?”
I am trying to find out what it is that humans should breathe. I am to breathe this lake in,” said the third human.
The water snake nodded, “Yes, admirable. But stupid,” said the water snake.
“Mind your own business, Water Snake,” said the third human.
“You’d be wise to listen to what I have to say and to appreciate the fact that I haven’t kissed you full of venom yet,” said the water snake. “I confess, I lust to.”
The third human swallowed and cupped his hands around his penis embarrassedly. “What have you got to say, Water Snake?”
“This lake is useless to you. The mud is deeper than the lake at all points.”
“Even in the center of the lake?’ asked the third human. As he spoke, he sank slowly, the mud drinking him in little by little.
“Even in the center,” said the water snake. “And if you continue to stand there asking man-questions, you will soon be breathing mud!”
The man flailed for a moment, losing his balance, realizing he was up to his thighs in muck, up to his penis in water. “What should I do?” asked the man, panicking.
“Lie back, and let me kiss you,” said the water snake.
“But I’ll die from your kiss,” said the third human.
“I won’t, I promise,” said the water snake. I will resist,” said the water snake, and to prove he was no liar, unlatched his law to show just how he’d kiss without releasing poison. “Just a peck,” hissed the snake, getting ready, “to save your life. No venom.”
The third human lay back, the snake kissed him good on the shoulder, and dragged him to a safe place ashore where the ground was hard. The third human trekked on.
Finally, he arrived at the ocean just as the sun was setting. The scene was beautiful. The third human wept as he cleaned his snakebitten shoulder with saltwater, and the sun disappeared behind the horizon. The stars came out, the wind grew cold all around him, and he knew there was only one place left to go.
The fourth human headed north, seeking a fresh air to breath. At first she could smell only the smoke from a distant forest fire, and she covered her mouth with a cupped hand. She walked and walked, and as she progressed northward, the temperature grew colder around her. Eventually, with the sun hanging in the western sky to her left, the fourth human flagged down a flying-V of geese.
“Ho,” she called. “Geese!”
And one goose craned its limber neck to see what was the matter. It saw the fourth human, and gestured for the others to circle around. They alighted, still in V-formation on the ground, before fourth human.
“Geese,” said she, “where can I find the purest air? I am on a quest for the Creator-Spirit.”
“The purest air?” asked the lead goose. “What do you mean, purest?”
“The youngest air,” chimed in a second goose.
“The air most ignorant!” chimed in a third goose.
“The air unfouled!” chimed in a fourth goose, and--
“Unfowled?” quipped a fifth, “I hope not. But we cannot possibly know of such an air, being ourselves fowlers!”
The rest of the V honked in laughter.
“The cleanest air,” said the fourth human, “that I might breathe.”
And they all trilled, “Ohhhh,” then said, “Follow us.” And the fourth human did.
She followed the geese into the darkness of the night till she could barely make out their dark forms against a purple sky. The stars came out, backlighting the silhouetted birds. At last, they came to a resting spot. The flapping geese alighted on a outcropping of rocks. The fourth human shivered, teeth chattering, breasts goose-pimpled, stopping behind them. “Here?” she asked.
“Here!” said the lead goose. “Here shall we hibernate, procreate, recreate!”
The fourth human looked around, shocked by the austerity of the landscape. It was flat and shone white in the starlight. A blighted place.
“Is this spot not adequate, man-mother?” asked the lead goose.
Another goose waddled up. “Is the air not fresh?”
The fourth human inhaled a short breath, but the icy cold of the air stung her lungs and she doubled over, coughing. The geese honked in laughter again at her, fluttering their wings. “Never satisfied,” they honked, “never satisfied, this man-mother, this child of the Creator-Spirit.”
And so the fourth human marched on.
But the first human did not drown in the sand--
He awoke the next day in a dark mole rat’s tunnel, roughly the shape and size of his body, out of which he eventually crawled, following sunlight to the surface of the earth. And he trekked on, seeking an earth he could adequately drink. He found mud, and spat it out for the water—not his quest. He found rich soil, but refused to breathe in a worm, an insect, an oak tree’s massive root system. He walked onward, circumnavigating the whole world over until he found himself standing, dumbstruck, in the very spot where he’d left the Creator-Spirit.
And the second human did not dissolve into flames--
She stepped into the fire, yes, but the oxygen greedily sucked from the beaver’s burrow was drunk all too quickly, and when the second human placed a foot in the flames, she stamped them out. She was utterly disappointed. She plodded on, traversing the smoldering woods to their terminus and continuing on beyond that, beyond the horizon, traversing the whole world over, till she found herself standing in the spot where she’d left the Creator-Spirit.
And the third human, he did not drink in all the oceans and become a permanent fixture of the bottom of the sea--
He could not sink. He could drink, and drink, but soon found himself sick from seawater, and still readily buoyant—the sea would not take him. He tried to breathe in the sea, but his body reacted violently and he decided, then and there, that indeed man had not been intended to breathe the oceans of the world. The third human floated, and floated, and the sun came up, and went down again, and after many days he drifted off to sleep, not waking until he was washed up on a distant shore. He stood and continued, as he was charged, westward, and found himself standing in the spot where he’d left the Creator-Spirit long before. He had news for the Creator-Spirit, news he would deliver soberly and matter-of-factly. But the Creator-Spirit did not come.
Instead came the fourth human.
She never did find a pure air to breathe—not too hot, not too cold, not too smoky.
The fourth human trekked the whole world over, disappointed by the relative iciness, humid soupiness, or buffeting dryness of the earth’s many winds. She, like the others, wound up in the spot where she’d left the Creator-Spirit.
The third human saw her, the fourth, approach out of the south, having rounded the whole of the globe, naked, with a determined look on her face, so beautiful and exposed and human. So full of utility. The third human felt himself welling up inside and discovered that he had let some seed, had become wet like the ocean he’d tried so sincerely to drink.
The fourth human saw the third human, standing and seeming to welcome her back from what felt like an interminable stroll. She felt excitement and gratitude grip her heart. It beat faster and faster, and her breath shortened, till it seemed she was struggling for air.
The second human found herself moving towards the origin, knowing where she was because of the familiar surroundings. She noticed the third and fourth humans also approaching, from exact angles, from a distance, but with such intensity and acceleration that it sparked something deep inside her, something burning of its own accord, the heat of desire she’d felt imagining the fire-heart of the forest entering her body. She ran to them.
The first human happened upon the second, third, and fourth, tangled in a writhing ball of desire, there at the origin. The fourth human had her mouth over the mouth of the third human, then the second, breathing in what they exhaled, exhaling again something new for someone new--for him! thought the first human, rushing to the others and kneeling to drink in the kiss the fourth human had for him. Hot, hot breath came out and so did the smell of a burning forest, a sweet and acrid stink-scent the first human could taste in his mouth, play with, with his tongue, and swallow even, though it was his duty to pass it on, this thing they breathed. The humans had their hands everywhere, they were wet, and hot, they were on fire and putting each other out, they were so vigorous in their devotion to the search for breath that they wore a smooth crater in the soft earth where they lay. They kissed, and stroked, and rubbed, and the friction and the heat kept them going. They were an engine, they burned clean though they were filthy dirty, sinking into the earth itself, sending up augers of dust. In the end, it wasn’t earth, or fire, or water, or even air that they were meant to breathe; it was the sylphs of love, from man-mother to man-father and back again, that kept these children of the Creator-Spirit burning hot as the Earth herself swallowed them up.
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