In Carnadine, a shithole somewhere west of Phoenix, along a dry gulch of an old arroyo carved in some flash flood before he was born, Rapper emerges from the rusted trailer he inherited from a long-gone trucker. His molar’s shimmying; his face is hanging like a sink-slapped mud-flap; he’s recognizable only to the local zoo animals, a hairy sloth and three howler monkeys.
They and their faded cobalt cage had appeared mysteriously one night while Rapper was engaging in one of his infrequent trysts in town with a jar of garbanzo ridden hummus. That particular affair left him skittery every time the word garbanzo was either uttered or appeared in one of the occasional trash porn mags he tended to hoard. But never mind, didn’t bother him too much, he had room for more.
He was curious though, how those damn howlers and the weird sloth turned up in his desert arroyo, and especially why there, next to his particular trailer. While puzzling over this, he had discovered a well-rubbed metal label stamped on the bottom of the cage that read From the Corn Islands off the Coast of Nicaragua. How the fuck! he’d thought. Still, Rapper tended to let life flow, whether the tributaries of happenstance dropped cracked crockery or jaded cattle on his head. So, he accepted this particular oddity and took on the operational role of zookeeper. Rapper had, after all, a natural flair for science, though up until now, it had focused exclusively on his own particular version of pharmacology.
His first move was to serve up water in a couple of battered cake pans retrieved from the Carnadine dump, adding a generous share of the local locoweed which did odd and violent things to the howlers, altering their voices and redistributing dominance patterns, but which had absolutely no visible effect on the sloth. Though who could tell with a sloth?
He had a stoned-out biker friend who told him of meeting a guy in a bar in Muscovy, Oklahoma who told him about some guy he met that said there were folks up in OK City teaching chimps how to talk with their hands. That set Rapper thinking. Maybe something like that might work for his slothy howlers. Thought he’d give it a try. Rapper’s lifestyle, of course, didn’t much lend itself to patience or consistency. He took at stab at it once or twice. Nothing came of it.
This morning as he emerges (technically not really morning) his zoo shimmers, cobalt floats over the cages, and the horizon slants wildly. The sloth catches sight of Rapper and begins to howl, and the howlers hang silently, none of their usual frenzied cries that generally mean, hello, here we are, feed us! What?
Holy balls! Rapper shits a saguaro! He’s heard of shape-shifting, but this beats a beehive in a batch of alcohol. His brain’s still a cottonwood fuzz. He’s thinking maybe he’s levitated into some alternate Carnadine. The shit last night was something else. He’d been fantasizing blue balls and lumber jacks all night, and for shit, not his usual, yet he’s cool with it. But now, what the hell is going on with his sloth? Is it food, or water, or what? He does his bit with those, but the sloth is still howling. Somewhere he’s heard music tames beasts, so he tries that, but given his voice, the sloth only howls more. Being Rapper, he rolls with it. Still and all, it’s hard to take. He sits down and tokes up.
A green-tinged smoke, like fog, swirls up around him, with a stench like burnt cane. He’s floating like he’s in a swaying hammock. His sense of space gets weird and he’s gripped by a strange longing for something lost. He’s not sure what’s happening, but he’s hearing the sloth like he’s never heard it before. Not howling. Singing. The sloth is singing.
O spirit moon, I am your green, moss-covered sloth of rain-soaked jungle,
lost from my tree, my sacred tree, my green river, green smell of mud and rain-soaked leaves, mushrooms, and wet ferns; we are exiles from our sweet, sad jungle, our lakes, our volcano islands, howlers laughing in trees calling us from our morning sleep. O moon, bring us home to our afternoons, our nights of fire and jaguar.
Their voices joined, sloth and three howlers, and it seemed as if the cage itself rattled in percussion sounding like rain sticks in a homesick harmony. The din went on and on until Rapper’s lids fell like broke-pots, and he dozed.
The moon shone. Shadows lined the arroyo when Rapper came to some unknown time later. The cobalt cages, his sloth, and his howlers were nowhere in sight. Not even a coyote yipped in the night air. Rapper sat for a long time in the same spot. A few cicadas commenced a night song, and in the distance, he thought he heard a faint echo of moth wings. In the silence, he knew he was alone.
He sat hour after hour with images flowing over him, repeating, rearranging, transforming. He floated into words, as if the song of the beasts sparked his own song. Hypnotic lines came to him like stoned ladders walking in circles, in an out of stanzas, bits of detritus, appearing, reappearing, bits from his past, the blaze of refineries, the sinking coastal syncline, and why he left.
An arc of sunlight on the rim of the eastern horizon sobered him. He remembered an old journal he still carried with him; he wasn’t sure why, must have thought it would come in handy. Holy yellow rose of Texas! he thought. If he wrote this shit, no one would believe him.
Martha Jackson Kaplan is a Pushcart nominated poet just venturing into flash fiction. Her most recent publications can be found in Bramble and From Everywhere a Little: A Migration Anthology. She is currently working on a chapbook for Bent Paddle Press and a book manuscript for Festival of Language. Other recent work can be found online at Unlikely Stores Mark V. More about her can be found at marthakaplanpoet.com.