The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Signs of Passing

Next (“The Cages”)  —an excerpt

It is the insidious agenda of snow to bury the world, but to do so with such delicacy that we can only marvel at the beauty of the effort. We are complacent in the certainty of seasonal rescue. We push it into piles and roll it into balls and fashion it into comically rotund likenesses. But ice ages are as much an accumulation of snowflakes as any life is an accumulation of seconds. We are a species prone to seduction, slowly immobilized by infinitesimal pieces of time and the happenings that they carry on their tiny crystalline backs.  It is never that we are taken by surprise.  We simply succumb to an advantage of patience far greater than we can conceive.

Lady Ocelot stood, head down, watching her boots slowly disappear.  The weather built its momentum.  A lick of wind snaked out of the north, cold and dry.  She pulled up the collar of her long tawny coat, tugged at her scarf, and returned her hands to her pockets. 

Maribel stood quietly back from the road, on the far side of three young, underdressed bucks smoking cigarettes and reveling in their truancy. Together, they formed an ineffective windbreak but decent camouflage. If Lady Ocelot had been inclined to turn and look behind her, back towards the Summerfield Zoo, the boys’ incessant hocking and spitting and bawdy commiseration against the cold was ample deterrence.

Maribel stamped her feet and looked up the road intently, focusing on the single spot in the world from where she knew change would come next; the point on the horizon at which she would be able to catch that first glint of the S.B.L. Number 60 coming over the top of the hill.

Maribel had not particularly relished the idea of a bus ride.  It was cold and her gloves were in her car and, in any event, she had been telling herself all day that it would be good to use her free time to make soup for Evan.  Something hearty and full of vegetables.  Something to thaw them out.  But, one step at a time, Maribel had been pulled in a different direction. 
Lady Ocelot had been standing at the front turnstiles pulling on her gloves and meticulously arranging her thick rosette-spotted scarf beneath her coat.  She had pulled a tan knit cap out of her pocket and put it on as five children were racing through the parking lot for the entrance.  They stopped in a skid at the ticket booth and waited impatiently for a threesome of adults who were busy locking something in the trunk of a blue Chevy. Lady Ocelot watched the children, blinking slowly, registering nothing.

At past two o’clock, Maribel had assumed her long gone. But their paths had converged, or re-converged, after all.

During her last tour of the day, Lady Ocelot had repeatedly joined and abandoned and rejoined the group.  She asked no questions and seemed to pay no attention.  She stood impassively at the back of the gaggle of fifteen, the only one without a companion or a child. When the tour meandered away from one habitat and made its way along the winding path to the next habitat, sometimes she would follow.  More frequently she would not follow, letting Maribel pull the people from her like an engineer carrying a trainload of humanity away from the platform.  Walking and looking backwards, Maribel almost found herself looking for a wistful wave or a stricken expression of longing.  Don’t forget to write! I’m sorry! I love you!  But Lady Ocelot was always in her own world, never looking.  Never caring.  The first of the snow lightening her reddish curls.

She was in exile, Maribel had thought, watching her discretely in the House of Cats.  She had been banished from a heartless place.  She had dared to love the wrong person.  Or she had refused to love the right person. She was a child of the old regime; daughter to the deposed king.  The people loved her. They dared not jail her, nor kill her, so they sent her away. And here she was, in another place entirely; free, yes, but bound by chains to those forbidden feelings in that forbidden place.

Maribel had guided the group out of the House of Cats and on toward Monkey Island, leaving her behind, alone, to look up into the foliage of amputated trees and to speak telepathically with the twins, Oscar and Ophelia, who looked back at her in luxuriant disinterest, registering nothing.

The Number 60 bus pulled away with a half load, Maribel in the back and Lady Ocelot at the window behind the driver. The truants carried on obnoxiously in between, sprawling across the seats and kicking at each other. There was a red, handwritten message on a flap of cardboard affixed with silver tape to the metal overhang above the driver:  Sorry, Heater Broken.  Columnar plumes rose from the passengers like the smoke of distant signal fires, each seat another hill, another ridge toward the horizon.

Lady Ocelot did not acknowledge the green-coated man next to her, even if his body language suggested that he was more than just a little open to that possibility.  She sat motionless but for the rocking of the bus and the occasional pothole.  Her gaze through the frosted window and the snow remained fixed on freshly bleached fields that she did not see, but that served as invisible backdrop to the secret images in her head.