You push the paper lanterns out into the lake, and the moon is shamed by their glow.
We do this in memory of someone, I forget who.
"How many men have you loved? Women too."
You are beautiful, born haunted, dropped into a dream of need, warmed by a lakeside sun, seeded on a trail that was gouged from the earth by a demon raping an angel. Rutted and gutted, encumbered and incubated. Or was it the other way round?
First time I saw you, your mouth rimmed with powdered sugar, I had to laugh. Laughing was hardly my default then, is less so now. You wet-fingered the sweet dust and sucked on it, like someone on a cocaine binge, and your Romany eyes danced like cryptic bordello tales stashed beneath the darkest of thoroughfares for later telling. Erotic. Driven. Most likely lost.
No one saw anything. They never did. Everything passed in the margins, whispered only by migrants in drab fields and passed via honking bird flights over waterless barrens into the icetails of comets plunging into the sun or whipped into the outer clouds of a shattered and dying system.
That was when we both stood naked and peeling before a torrid star, cancerous and boundless, tempting the planet to brush our blighted haunches while the ground splintered into cryptic droughtland and the clouds went AWOL for good.
Absence and loss and enticement. Tails and tales.
Remember that plate of eggs, sunnyside up, those sizzling strips of bacon, the dark, steaming coffee, and hot buttered toast? Our server was Naomi. She was pretty, like arroyos and dreamcatchers are pretty. The scorpions held back, laden and shadowed, dark arthritic limbs poised with toxins. The desert turned the blindest of eyes. A kitchen radio played a rebel song about secret fires, and a couple in an adjacent booth argued about Taylor Swift and Kanye, while a busload of Asian tourists stopped on the highway to witness Navajo coyotes yowl an alien dirge, ghost dance a potlatch, curb-stomp all dubious history.
My god, we were happy and didn't have one single motherfucking clue.
There were furrows we plowed and beaches we combed—true pacific stories of desolation and faith—all along that bright coastline and inland, through the tall wide conifers, climbing deadfalls, dragging palsied legs across molten prairies liquid with deer, waiting in birdless, threat-drenched silence for tsunamis or tremors, half-hoping our antic virgin ambitions would be derailed by the routine cataclysms of our unruly, blessed planet.
"Hundreds," you say.
And I blink, lost.
"Lovers. You asked how many lovers."
"Right, I think I did." I want to ask more, yet I want to ask less.
"The lanterns look like souls. Waiting to be assigned a place."
"They don't even know they can just go choose a place."
Vehicles rush by, not far for the crow, yet way below this grassy crest. In each one a drama plays out, even if it's the slow red cellophane draw on a trucker's cigarette or a wayward nun's nylon-clad foot pecking an R&B beat while the dot-dash lines come and go—morse, remorse, despair, and hope—and tragicomedies begin with the smallest trickle of tiny stones atop a slope.
You watch me carefully, and I try to shrug you off, shrug everything off.
My god. Goddess. Pierce my chest with sharpest bone and lean me back under the merciless heat until I tear.
Billboards about Jesus and corn and abortions pass rapid to our right, like maledictions. Cursed and unnerving and joyless as Judas's empty sunless pockets.
Almost there now. You won't stop watching me. "Give me your damn hand."
Okay. I submit. I submit. Goddamn me to hell and worse, I fucking submit. And as soon as I do, the dripping, segmented limbs of a vast and terrible horror clamber ungainly over the black horizon, and our hopeless, maladroit screams ring out like the most graceless of bitter music. Fallen. Condemned.