Hello. Hello! Yes, hi! How are you? Good? Have you seen my friend? She has dark hair. She smells like apples. No? Oh. No, thank you! Yes! Oh, I will!
She was not there. She is so hard to find. I look in their windows, at their neon signs and silver walls and say, yes, here she is. She must be here. But there’s never even a clue.
I have been spoiled in the monastery. I’ve forgotten all these words. It is oddly exciting, to stumble through greetings again. Hello! Hi! How are you? or sometimes, How’re ya? There are no other empaths. No one can read you. There’s only politeness! Confusion! The zest of humanity!
When I first got here, the words came difficultly. People would ask questions. Questions! They’d ask me what I wanted. I’m telling you what I want. The woman in my thoughts. Can’t you see her?
Eventually I got a little better. I found thank you first. What a nifty phrase. Thank You. I offered it when I went into restaurants, when I slept in unused beds, when I borrowed gas. I started out, word-wise, equipped to leave. That’s why it’s so simple to keep moving.
I am moving in a “car.”
The car is so silly. It is pink with small wings on the back and an odd transmission. It is open-topped, which must be nice in the summer. It isn’t nice now. I feel bad for stealing it. People notice it, and I am so cold from driving that sometimes I forget to trick them. No, trick is not the word I’m supposed to use. Remind them. Remind them that it’s not what they saw.
This is such a large country. At first it scared me, but now I think it’s good. Nell is a small woman. She will stick out like a sore thumb, once I find her.
The leaves have turned reddish and yellow colors. They are lovely to look at, even if they look that way because they are cold. I wonder if I will turn colors too. I remember turning red when I was small, but it was during very hot weather.
Oh, another town! How lovely, the way they’re strung together like this. Like beads on a chain. My mother had a necklace like that, when I was small. Each bead was as thick as her knuckle and bright green. The chain was woven silver. It went down to her belly. It would be funny, if my mother wore this country around her neck on the way to dinner.
I must stop here and ask if they’ve seen Nell. I stop at every place like this. She used to talk about them late at night. Sunny, silver places where they served “pancakes” and “sandwiches.” Diners. We would lie together in bed and she would conjure up the tastes of syrup, coffee, lemon meringue. Even early on, our connection was strong. Pancakes taste just like she remembered.
Hi. Hi! Hello, yes, hi! I am fresh, and you? Oh, no, I just ate. Have you seen my friend? She has dark hair. Short stature. Her name is Nell. Oh. No, just Nell. Oh. Really? But blond? Thank you. No, thank you!
She was not there. How disappointing. And they knew another Nell! Also short! But not mine. Oh, I am not cut out for this. I am a monk. A magician. I never have adventures. They require planning.
Forget her, they said. Idiots. You don’t forget someone. You don’t just Let Them Go. Not when you love them. Not when they’ve put the taste of cake in your mouth.
I’ve always liked the feeling of driving. The smallness of my movements, the drama of the machine’s. We stretch ourselves. Yes, I like it very much.
This road was scenic during the day, but now it has become dangerous. The low mountains are gone, and a number of ugly houses have appeared. Worse, I’m being assaulted by a striped car. It keeps blaring its lights and noisemakers, keeping speed no matter how fast I try to leave its territory. I ignore signs, I dodge cars, I even cross red lights, and still it chases me! It’s going to get one of us killed.
I really hate these cars. I’ve had to run away from them before. They always seem to know that I don’t belong in this country. Once, south of here, I drove across a field to get away. I know they’re not a real threat—just flashes and whistles, I’ve seen worse—but something in them makes me afraid. Ashamed, even.
Oh dear. Now there are three. I’ve never had this happen before. And no field in sight! Just these stupid houses! Maybe if I pull over, they’ll go away. I bet they’re predators. If I don’t move, I’ll slip out of their sight.
Hi! Hi! No. Is there a way to tell—excuse me? Oh, I don’t think I’ve got one of those. Glove compartment? I should be wearing gloves, shouldn’t I? This car is so cold. Oh. Here you go. No, no, my name’s Mayla. Hm? O-K. I’ll be right here!
Goodness, there’s so many of them. And they’re all so hostile. It gets harder when they don’t like you. I could trick one, maybe two into letting me go, but I seem to have—oh, how did Nell put it? I seem to have “bitten off more than I can chew.” She was always so good at words. But I feel much worse than that. I’ve swallowed something huge, and I’m not even hungry.
I have been “arrested.” Our room is concrete, with bars instead of a wall. There is a bed frame, but no bed. Many of us have to pee, but we are all scared to use the toilet. Most of my cellmates seem to be prostitutes.
When I first came in, a number of them crowded around me and asked me for things. They asked about my robe. I told them I was a magician. They liked that. We can turn a trick or two, they laughed. I was surprised, until I learned that “trick” is one of those words that can move its meaning. Still, after that, we were friends.
Excuse me? Oh, I’m sorry, but I can’t. No, no, I am! It’s just—how can I say it? There’s not much magic about. Small? I close my eyes. You are angry at many men named John. They “pay too little and fuck too much.”
Since we are friends, can I ask you a question? I am looking for a friend named Nell. Her hair tends to be uncombed. Last-name? Nell Apple-Eater, I guess. That’s what I call her. Tell her Mayla-My-Love is looking for her. Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be here.
I don’t want to know any more about the Johns.
They call my crime “grand theft auto,” which makes me think of Nell. She has all sorts of “grand” names. Nell Fire-Eater. Nell King-Champion. Nell All-See. When I see her again, I will say, I am Mayla-My-Love no longer! I am Mayla-Grand-Theft-Auto! Mayla-Resisting-Arrest! Mayla-Wanted-In-Three-States!
I tried to trick the judge into finding me “not guilty,” but there was this thing called “evidence.”
They want to send me away, but this is proving harder than expected. Mayla-My-Love is not in their computers. Neither is my old name, Grass-Stain-Girl.
I am getting tired of this room. I hate using the toilet, and the food tastes like piss. It’s getting harder to keep thoughts out. I have prostitute nightmares.
It’s not all bad. I’ve started thinking in words again. I am learning new words from the prostitutes. Like “cuntwad.” And “prick.”
Motherfuck. They’re serving us beef again.
“Empathy is a dangerous gift if it goes untrained.” I’ve been told that my whole life, but for the first time I see it clearly. They’ve finally moved me, as I suspected, to a nuthouse. The other nuts are raw nerves. They feel deeply but can’t control it. I can keep most of it out. Not all. It hurts.
To the doctors, I am “delusional.” They waste hours trying to convince me I am crazy when, obviously, it would be easier to let me be sane.
When the monks first discovered my power, I had my mother’s calluses, my brother’s scrapes, my father’s bruises. They said I had to be protected. They took me to the monastery. Nell was already there when I arrived. She was a great fighter. But when her enemies hurt, she hurt. When they died, she died, in her own way. Then she’d come back to the monastery. It was a safe place.
I left three months ago. Look at me now.
Nell used to say, right before she left, that the monastery couldn’t help her anymore. Well, let me tell you, love, at least it didn’t make things worse.
I’ve made a friend. Her name is Maya. We giggle for hours over how much our names sound alike. We’re both in that kind of place.
Maya has many scars, and bandages on her wrists. She reminds me of Nell. I remember we would lie in bed, and I would trace her scars as she fell asleep. I do that to Maya now and tell her she reminds me of a great warrior. She snorts and tells me not to praise bad habits.
It’s weird to have a friend who doesn’t know what you’re thinking. I used to think words simply lowered the stakes, but now I realize it’s more complex. In many ways, word-friends are easier to hurt. We always misunderstand one another.
Maya and I:
Me: “I think you’re pretty.”
Maya: “No you don’t.”
Me: “Yes I do. You’re very pretty.”
Maya: “I’m covered in scars.”
Me: “I like them.”
Maya: “You’ve got a fetish.”
Me: “A fetish?”
Maya: “A gross thing that turns you on.”
Me: “That’s not true. You’re—what did Doctor Sally say? Paranoid.”
Maya: “Oh, fuck you.”
Nell and I:
I like this scar. I hate it. I like your fingers, though. How did you get it? I lost my focus. I know. It hurt. You can feel it? It was a knife—a dull one. There was a duel. You killed him? Broke his neck. You’re ashamed. Yes. I’m ashamed. That you saw that. I don’t care. I love you. See my smile? I know.
I told Maya I loved her. She laughed at me. Later that day she came to me, crying. I made the mistake of holding her. I lost control. I couldn’t pull away, and she didn’t until her cuts opened up on my skin. They bandaged me up all right, but I still feel her echoing around in my brain. Maya won’t come near me.
I don’t even know why I said I loved her.
I’ve pushed Maya out of my head, but the cuts aren’t healing. And it’s as if the floodgates have opened. Childhood tears, school humiliations, every kind of fear is pouring into me. But mostly, it’s memories of lovers. Doctor Tim thinks constantly of his mistress. Grumbling Bernie still misses that Paris whore. Maya, while she traces her scars, is calling up each lover she made them for. Doctor Sally wants women. Really. Wants. Women. It’s a little overwhelming.
I can’t sleep anymore. Every night, this is my dream:
“Oh my God.”
I look up and see Nell standing in the door. She smiles and takes me in her arms.
“Oh, Mayla,” she murmurs. “Mayla, Mayla. You shouldn’t have come.”
Shortly before dawn, I make up a song.
My heart is an apple,
It beats with a tap-le.
It smells like you.
I am still singing it at breakfast. Some people tell me to shut up, but I don’t listen. ‘Nam Neil looks up at me and smiles. I can tell he wants to join in, but he doesn’t know the words. So he sings his own song.
Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you.
I let my song fall off. He misses his wife very much, but she won’t see him. He drinks too much, and he screams at awkward times. I feel not only his sadness, but his wife’s as well. I can feel her dress against my hand as she folds it into a suitcase. I can hear the door click.
I have to go home.
I wait until everyone has fallen asleep to begin my ritual. It is quiet. There are no memories, no fears. Maybe, I think, I can survive a little longer.
When we were young, the monks taught us a song. We sang it before meals and after lessons. It was the only words we ever spoke. We had to know it well, because if we ever got lost, anywhere in the whole wide world, we could sing it, and they would find us. I sing it to the window, quietly.
When I call, they will come for me, and I will leave Nell behind.
Home, home, where are you?
I’m stranded on the sea
You’re high up in the mountains
Please come back to me
I try to go to bed, but all I can do is cry. For the first time since she left, it’s not for others. It’s for me.
When the doctors tried to convince me I was crazy, they asked me a lot of questions. Once they asked: if you could be an animal, what kind of animal would you be? I told them about dolphins. Dolphins communicate using sound, like us. But dolphins also use sound to see—they use sonar, like on ships—so when they tell each other things, they don’t just describe them. They can show each other exactly what they saw.
Brother Ya came today in a layman’s suit, with a fake name and a paper that said he was my dad. I thought this was incredibly funny. With his blond eyebrows and ruddy skin, he didn’t look much like my dad, but the nuthouse always believes documentation over anything in the real world.
I was surprised at how quickly he came. When I left the monastery, it took me three days just to find the nearest town. Brother Ya followed my song here in one night. When I saw him, he grinned and said “Mayla, thank God,” but he looked tired, like he had been traveling a long time. Maybe he had been wandering in the wilderness. Maybe by the time I sang, he had been nearby, looking for me. I had asked them not to, in my note, but people don’t always listen.
I have to admit, I cried again when he walked me out. I let him into my head with a child’s abandon. He saw all those nights of me crying in the nuthouse bed. He saw my heart. The rotten apple. He flinched. And I saw it. What he’d been hiding.
I was too spent to get angry. I just spoke.
“Take me to her.”
I hadn’t used words with Brother Ya since I was eleven. He didn’t know what to do. All he could come up with was the truth. “She doesn’t want to see you, Mayla.”
“I don’t care.”
I didn’t know what I was going to do when we got there. I wanted to do many things at once. I wanted to punch her. I wanted to yell. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to cry.
She was in the same city. This whole time. To find her, we just left the nuthouse and got into a cab.
When we got there, Brother Ya waited at the end of the block. “It’s right down there,” he said, pointing. I did my best to shut out the city people and walked down to the diner. I stood outside and looked through the window.
Nell wore a red and white dress, and her hair, for once, was combed. I waited for her to sense me, but nothing happened. She kept jotting down notes and laughing. She disappeared into the kitchen, and reappeared with a tray. She set the food down, then looked up and saw me. Her mouth dropped open. Without looking, she gave the tray to another waitress and ran for the door. The whole time I was reaching for her, trying to get at her heart, but over and over I hit a wall. She came out and started to cry.
“Oh God,” Nell murmured.
I touched her arm, and that’s when I realized. She wasn’t keeping me out. It was gone.
“How?” I asked.
“I gave it up. I couldn’t take it. Any of it.” Over and over. “Oh, God, I gave it up.”
“I’ll give it up too!” I cried.
“We can use words! See, I’ve learned to use words!”
Nell pulled a towel out of her apron pocket and wiped the snot from my nose, a comforting, motherly gesture. She shook her head and looked like Nell again. “I can’t do that with you.”
She hugged me. I started to pull away but she didn’t let go. I held her again, and we cried. I felt everything. She didn’t feel a thing.
Today, I wrote a letter. Since I can use words, Brother Ya wants me to write books. New books. He wants one about Nell. I am starting small.
Someday, I will tell you a story about yourself. It will be like when we lay in bed, and I said, Here, you killed a monster. He would have eaten your feet. Here, you kissed another woman. I kiss better. You missed me. Here, you left because you were sad. You gave up your powers. You gave up on wars.
Words are harder face to face, so we’ll start like this. These papers will be our beds. You’ll get my letters, and I will give you the smell of apples. I will give you the touch of scars. You can give me the taste of coffee. The taste of cake. Please. I miss coffee. I want to taste it, even if you are far away, in a strange land.
P.S. be nice to prostitutes