Among the Mystery Players by Douglas Cole
They appeared like a ragtag assembly of mystery players out of the heatwaves. How many were there? If she counted them one by one she’d say three, but then she would correct herself and say five. Definitely five. Maybe seven? Who could tell on a bright day like this? Even or odd, they were bright, too, light as angels coming right out of the sun and crossing the quad while she sat among the inverted pyramids and their blocky shadows, planning her life or trying to, calculating costs of books and classes and how much financial aid she could hope for and how much more she would have to pay and where she would find the money. And they zeroed in on her. That’s what she would have said. Made a beeline in their dancing, prancing, miracle-wonder way of moving, linking hands, spinning, singing, One and one is two…Two and two are four…laughing all the way.
Their shadows reached her first, followed by a circle they set up around her that shifted and wobbled like the cellular wall of a zygote. What a thought! She felt like a nucleus. For the first time, in fact, she felt like the center of something. Maybe she would major in biology. Thoughts are things and this felt just like a sign. And biology was something she could understand, certainly. It made sense and it was real and touchable. She got good grades in her high school biology class at least, so why not follow your strengths?
You a student here? She was a blond wisp of mist with a sun corona behind her head. Maybe she was their leader. Maybe they were sending her ahead as the meeter and greeter.
Not yet, Sara said to the shadow of the other’s face. Because that’s what it was, a shadow, a black hole where features should be. It was far too bright to look up and directly at them all individually. So she looked with a squint from the side. And they were moving and shifting and humming like high-charged electrons. That was another thing, and it made sense. And it was almost predatory how they had positioned themselves there around her, as if light and shadow could be a weapon. She was surrounded.
You look like a student.
You look like a wayfarer.
You look like a child of god.
You look like a damsel in distress.
No she doesn’t.
She looks like a warrior.
A fierce warrior.
A warrior princess.
Sara lifted a hand to her brow. Who was talking? They were all talking in unison. Some mind must be joining them. They were only appendages. She shook her head and smiled. They were a funny group, though.
What do you want to study? This time it was definitely the blond mist talking, singularly it seemed, for sure.
I don’t know. Science appeals to me, I suppose.
Science is dead!
Science is a lie!
Science is a trap!
Science is a slippery slope.
Science got us into this mess in the first place?
There’s no hope in science.
What about your heart?
Yes, what about your soul?
What? They had a collective laughter like flock of churrling pigeons. Science is beautiful, she said, but then it struck her: it’s not something you have to defend anymore.
This is beautiful! And their arms started swaying up and down and around. It was like an octopus floating undersea. And who could say it wasn’t beautiful?
Come with us!
Come this way!
Why did she follow? Why not follow? They were fun. They were young and free and strange and completely unexpected. They were having fun, and they had invited her, and she wanted to feel what they were feeling. Whatever it was. This was new. It was a new sort of thing, and it was electric and fascinating and energizing. She could feel her shoulders tingling. Why not? One and one is two…Two and two are four… She even felt herself singing along in her head, maybe even out loud. And off they went in a morphy group that she was now peripherally joined to, off and into the street and into the world at large.
They crossed the street and then crossed a parking lot. No plan was set or said, no huddle or conversation, they simply divided, as if it were naturally time, with sparkling trails of light strung between them like stands of spiderweb as two went off by the dumpster and the rest headed toward a little food store. Sara followed the ones who went to the store and through the ring-a-ding of the door and into its cool, air-conditioned interior. And then the show began. And again, without discussion or even looks of knowing they subdivided once again, now going like allele pairs in several different directions. Two went up and down the aisles. Two went up to the counter, laughing and singing. And two went back to the refrigerated glass doors. Sara stood there. How could she choose? She was an audience along with the proprietor who stood bunkered behind his glass-partitioned counter with a bank of security camera screens behind him and a look like this was going to cost him no matter what. And yet, whatever they were doing seemed to put a spell on him, too, as they sang and danced and laughed and all swirled back to the refrigerated glass doors and plucked up each of them a block of ice and lifted them like babies and carried them up through the aisle, again in pairs. Someone put a block of ice into Sara’s hands. What a cold, heavy weight, and yet it felt good. What was next? She followed, but instead of going to the counter to pay for them, they all just walked out of the store. And once outside, the other two who had gone over to the dumpster joined them, and they both had their arms full of cardboard boxes.
Aren’t we going to pay for these? Sara said.
With what, dear Liza? With what?
They laughed and laughed.
We pay with our goodness and light.
We pay with our presence.
Money is a lie.
Money is the root of decay.
But won’t we get in trouble?
Trouble all the way!
Laughter, and once again the group gathered into itself like a thing of one mind that knew what it wanted without having to say it. Sara followed, holding her block of ice. How could they get away with this? This must be a joke. Someone must have truly paid or else the proprietor would have tried to stop them. Wouldn’t he? But she hadn’t seen anyone pay. She looked back at the store, but no proprietor appeared to be coming out, no shouting of hey, what are you doing, bring that stuff back here! It was, after all, only water.
They went back the way they came, back to the school and back through the courtyard of pyramids and around to the back of the school and a hillside there they climbed in single file. At the top of the hill was a mission church with stucco arches and belfry and shadowed garden overhung with bright red bougainvillea. Morning doves cooed in the Eucalyptus trees, a coded cry over and over with a sharp uptick like a question followed by three short answers. What were they saying? Yes, what were they saying? On the grassy hilltop the players all set down their blocks of ice and tore down the cardboard boxes and passed around broad sheets of carboard. Sara received hers and watched as they each took their piece of cardboard and laid it on top of their block of ice. What was this all about? They sure seemed to know what they were doing, like they had done this before. It seemed pretty simple, so Sara did the same thing, and with them she climbed onto her block of ice, kicked off with her feet as all together in a line they went sliding fast down the hillside, riding their blocks of ice.
At the bottom of the hill they slid to a stop or tumbled off laughing and chasing down their ice. Oh, this was fun, and together with this weird group of mystery people, Sara hiked back to the top of the hill with her ice and rode it down again. And how many rounds they got in, she couldn’t be sure, but she was covered in grass and laughing and wet and feeling a part of something at least for the moment that was lovely and free and fun and like nothing she had ever experienced before. Was this what the world was like? They rode and rode until their blocks of ice had melted and worn down to lumps they could no longer ride.
When they were done and the hillside was flattened, slicked-down grass, they left their melting blobs of ice and sheets of wet cardboard there at the bottom of the hill and wandered off and away, singing, dancing, an amorphous thing Sara followed for a while, not quite in or part of their group, though she felt an open valent invitation to join. The players were twirling ahead of her, but something clicked, something snapped, something went off in her head and she stopped. What was it? What was stopping her? This she couldn’t explain. She watched them, but she did not follow, as their group moved on becoming one large shadow that wobbled and wavered like a jellyfish disappearing into the sea. And so the afternoon swallowed them up. And she went back down the street to the school and through the long shadows of the inverted pyramids in the courtyard. What was that? Had that all really happened? How did they get away with it? It felt like a dream, and she didn’t know if she wanted to wake up.
Students were coming and going to classes. Sara stood in the courtyard watching, wondering. Which room would she be in at some point? What a place. It felt like a home, sort of. At least, it felt like a place she could belong. Maybe. But it was all still out of reach. And again she heard the morning doves cooing. It sounded like each one was making the exact same sound. Could that be? If they were each making the same sound, what was the point? No warning. No courting. No appreciation of light. That couldn’t be called communication at all. Not a chance. So then what was the point? It made about as much sense as these upside-down pyramids. And what were they supposed to mean, with their shadows like opposite selves spread out right side up on the ground? Still, it was fun. It was all fun and mysterious, this place she had arrived and the people in it. Like a dream. And so she looked down, tapped her foot several times on the ground to make sure it was real, make sure it could support her weight, then she took one hesitating step and then another and headed back to the street.
Douglas Cole has published six collections of poetry, a novella called Ghost, and the highly praised, well-reviewed novel The White Field. His work has appeared in several anthologies as well as journals such as The Chicago Quarterly Review, Poetry International, The Galway Review, Bitter Oleander, Chiron, Louisiana Literature, Slipstream, as well Spanish translations of work (translated by Maria Del Castillo Sucerquia) in La Cabra Montes. He is a regular contributor to Mythaixs, an online journal, where in addition to his fiction and essays, his interviews with notable writers, artists and musicians such as Daniel Wallace (Big Fish), Darcy Steinke (Suicide Blond, Flash Count Diary) and Tim Reynolds (T3 and The Dave Matthews Band) have been popular contributions https://mythaxis.com/?s=douglas+Cole. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart and Best of the Net and received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry. He lives and teaches in Seattle, Washington. His website is https://douglastcole.com/.