Sunday, April 29, 2007

What held everything together

Broken Promises

Whenever he lied, his hump itched. It itched enough lately that he’d taken to rubbing it on the brickwork outside the bar, scratching himself like a bear. His old flute used to do the trick when his hump itched, but he’d lost it when he moved to town.

So it’s come to this, he thought, there’s no one left who appreciates a really fine lie. As far as he could tell, there was nothing to do about it except drink more beer and blow across the bottle-tops.

“Hon, you good?” The bartender had that look he’d seen a lot of lately, painted up like a butterfly, still hard-edged and bony. He wondered what kind of tune he could play on her.

“Yeah, I’m good…good for another one—,” the leering wink, “—and maybe another six after that.” The twenty shimmered like a water snake as he slid it towards her. It wouldn’t be until the next day, when she’d rummage through her purse and find bits of transparent green snake-skin, that she’d wonder why she couldn’t recall her shift the afternoon before.

A long time ago, little Hopi girls used to run away from him. He smiled at that, and at the stories people would tell about his penis, how it would grow larger than a gourd, jump off and run around making babies even when he was doing something else entirely. But the world changed faster than he could keep up with, and once the frogs packed up he decided it would be easier to try and live in the city.

It wasn’t. For the first time in his entire existence, he was bored.

These people were like sheep, you could tell them anything and they never got the joke inside it, never gave any laughter back. And so he began to lie more. Not little lies, either—he told whoppers, lies so bald-faced they looked like woodpecker eggs, lies that in another time would have set whole villages to laughing so hard there wouldn’t be a dry spot left on the ground.

It occurred to him no one did that any more—and people who didn’t laugh at lies, that was as bad as the frogs leaving. Only by accident did he find a clue about what had happened.

One day, when the boredom felt like sand under his skin, he rolled up a dust-devil and whirled into a parking lot. As the dirt blew off, anyone paying attention might have seen a tiny, wrinkly, rank old man, hair long and greasy, with a crooked humped back. Anyone paying even more attention might have noticed a woozy quality to the light around him, might have seen how his eyes looked like campfire coals. But when the white-haired woman at the store entrance chirped, “Welcome to—” the greeting just died in her throat, amazed as she was by Elvis Presley winking as he walked by.

He’d hoped she bust out laughing, but she did not. Neither did a cute red-haired girl restocking house-wares. The ashtrays next to her had a design that looked the way people used to paint him. As she looked up, Eminem in a rainbow Afro wig gave her a wolfish smile. She returned his grin with a flat cold stare and turned her back.

His hump had itched like crazy then, but there seemed to be no lie he could tell—or even embody—that would set these people to laughing. In a fit of irritation he scrunched himself down into a fuzzy-humped fly and buzzed the aisles, diving at ball-caps and permed hair.

And then he saw the wall of televisions.

That was it, right there.

Every yarn ever told. Every lie ever spun. Every fable, every dream, every nightmare, every half- and hemi-demi-semi-truth, all laid out, sung and talked and flashed about, a tessellation of thousands of lies every minute, a flood-tide of lies, and, except for one very young boy, none of the people he saw were laughing at this incredible, unbelievable, enormous, steaming pile of untruth. Something was very wrong.

When the world was first made, every god and every creature made promises to each other, and their promises were what held everything together. The promises people made to Kokopelli—to dance and have sex and laugh at lies—were the price people paid for his promise of fertile gardens, and fat children, and everything else new and growing. It was a good trade. For one thing, people who laughed at lies were free.

These new people were made by the same world, but every one of them he’d met, except that boy, had broken their promise. Maybe it was the constant stream of lies they swam through, or maybe broken promises lead to a river of lies—but it wasn’t right. Those televisions had to be part of it, but thinking so hard made his head hurt. He let it rest for now.

He found it difficult to throw a big lie around when no one would laugh, so he played half-heartedly with little lies. The smell of fresh donuts when there were none to be had. The found quarter that always disappeared. Sun-showers. Keys lost and found. The stream of small lies left his hump itching all the time, left him wondering what would happen to the world if this wasn’t the only broken promise.

He shook his head, peeling the label from the bottle, took another swallow, and blew gently across the glass lip. Something ancient in the sound, and the bartender raised an eyebrow at him—for the briefest moment, she thought she heard something like frogs peeping, and the bar smelled like rain.

The moment passed; she’d already forgotten it. Kokopelli set his empty down and reached for a fresh, cold beer.


Dale said...

Whoa. Loved this, and it came so unexpectedly. Beautiful, and so unfortunately true. What else breaks, when you break a promise like that? Well, everything.

am said...

A few years ago when I was listening to CBC radio in my car, I heard a show featuring First Nations women. A group of the women began to laugh. I don't remember what they were laughing about, but the laughter was true, free, deep and contagious. Within seconds, I was laughing with them and couldn't stop laughing, even after the radio program continued. I have a good sense of humor, but I don't laugh in that way very often, the way I laughed when I was a child.

Once my elderly (now deceased) father turned to me in the car, breaking his usual silence, and said, "I've never done anything wrong in my entire life." I laughed in pure delight at what sounded like a playful lie and turned to him. He didn't smile. I wonder if that was Kokopelli? I didn't know about the promise to Kokopelli.

How does that go? What Picasso said? Art is a lie that tells the truth? My father denied that he was an artist. You've got me loving my puzzling father. Thanks so much, Lori.

Lori Witzel said...

Hey Dale and am -- thanks for popping by!

Dale: It came unexpectedly to me too. A small writing group I play with had a topic set called "Broken Promises." I wasn't sure what I might do, but this one surprised me. Glad you liked.

am: Wow, lovely sharing! Your dad sounds almost Buster Keaton-esque in the deadpan quality of his random statement. As to the promise people made to Kokopelli, that's one of those lies. :-)

annie said...

full shape of true things
imagination, memory
glimpsed through this window

(PS: Thank you. :) )

Anonymous said...

This is greatness. I'm more familiar with the stories about Kokopelli's zuni equivalent, but they're much the same, I think.

jarvenpa said...

this is truly brilliant, Lori. (I knew you'd tag Marly if I didn't dash there first..but my, what an intriguing list you came up with).

Reya Mellicker said...

You are such a clear channel for the mysteries. Wow!

polona said...

wow, what an amazing story!

Larry said...

Ah, Lori, you've outdone yourself! Your Kokopelli tale is like something R.A. Lafferty might have written had he awakened one day in Austin rather than Oklahoma.

You made my day! I'm saving this one before it slides down into the layers of 'net humus which will after eons be transformed into unimaginable digital coal...

chris miller said...

And I always thought "Kokopelli" was just the name of an indie record label!

Thankyou for getting me in touch with one of our native deities -- though I wonder if he ever crossed east of the Mississippi.

But even in Illinois and Ohio, it's not hard to step into an "incredible, unbelievable, enormous, steaming pile of untruth" -- so, yes, I guess Kokopelli has gotten around.