Jim and I are walking together at dusk, and we’ve wandered far from both of our camps. A light rain is falling, more like a mist, not even enough to catch on an outstretched tongue. But the air is crackling with negative ions. The storms are coming at long last. I want to take off my clothes so I can feel the drizzle on my skin. I know Jim will be uncomfortable because the Second Amenders never remove their clothes in public.
I strip off just my shirt.
I have no idea why we call them the Second Amenders. Roxanne says it’s because of their guns, but that doesn’t make any kind of sense. What do guns have to do with amends? Jesus says it’s because they’re descendants of a people who were obsessed with wrongdoing, and so they have to make amends all the time. Sasha says it’s their compulsion about rules, which they are constantly amending.
“They can’t just leave things be,” Sasha says. “They amend everything. They amend and amend and amend. We should call them the Hundredth Amenders.”
They call themselves The People. We call ourselves We.
“For goodness sakes, Jim. Have a look,” I say. He’s a very shy boy and has been trying to avert his gaze. My breasts are just nipples on a couple of swells, but it’s more than he’s ever seen. I personally can’t imagine not looking at something I haven’t seen before. Like Jim, I’m only thirteen years old, but my curiosity is fertile.
Jim gives in and stares. He stares and stares, and after a few moments, his eyes begin to do a little jig. All at once, he convulses. His waist bends, his mouth opens, and donkey bleats shoot from his throat. They keep coming, louder, harder, and deeper, the sounds now issuing forth from his lower belly.
I watch, fascinated, as he tries to control the convulsions. It seems like the more he tries to stop them, bigger and bigger waves roll through. I know Jim doesn’t like to be touched, but I can’t help it. I gently pet his shoulder. I let my hand run down his thin blond arm hairs, to calm him, and then I lay my hand on his chest. I want to feel what’s happening inside his body.
My touch scares him too much, though, and the seizure stops. He steps away from me and looks back in the direction of the Second Amenders’ camp.
“I won’t tell,” I say. “I promise.”
I should have said that I wouldn’t tell his people. I can’t help telling mine. That night at the campfire, I say, “I think Jim is a laugher.”
“Really?” Everyone is interested. “You’ve seen him laugh?”
“Maybe.” I describe his convulsing behavior.
Roxanne says, “Yes. That’s laughter.”
“How would you know?” Barley gets more annoyed by Roxanne’s know-it-all-ness than anyone.
“I’ve done a lot of research,” she says. “I’ve talked to people who have met laughers. Who have seen laughing.”
“I’ve heard it’s very pleasurable,” Sasha says. “Like an orgasm. Only it starts in your chest and spreads down rather than starting in your genitals and spreading up.”
“Jim looked like he was in pain, not pleasure,” I point out.
“That doesn’t surprise me. The Second Amenders probably think laughing is a disease. Jim better hide that shit.”
I could talk about laughing all night. There is so much I want to know. According to what Roxanne has told me, all people used to have the ability to laugh. Now the trait is rarely found, although she says there are a few communities on the Pacific coast where nearly everyone still laughs. She says it happens when something is very funny or very delightful. I wonder which it was for Jim when he saw my breasts, funny or delightful.
I have so many questions, but Sasha had to go and talk about orgasms, and so Rose and Herbert start fornicating. Jesus and Sasha do, as well.
“If you don’t mind,” I shout, “some of us are trying to have a conversation.”
Both couples scoot into the darkness just beyond the firelight. But the conversation stops anyway. It’s okay. I do want to keep talking about laughter, but I also like listening to the soft animal sounds, the slide of rain-slicked skin. I love Jesus and Sasha. They are the we of me. Roxanne plugs her ears when Sasha kicks up a gear and starts hollering.
Nicholas holds his drum between his legs, and he begins softly, his fingertips barely tapping the tight skin, his eyes closed, testing the acoustics of the night. He can make a composition last seven days, beginning with faint taps and finger slides, his own skin on the drum skin, building to deep, rhythmic thrumming.
It’s been a good day. The soft rain. Jim laughing. Jesus and Sasha fornicating. And now me sleeping between them, Sasha’s soft breasts mashed against my back and my cheek against Jesus’s sharp wing bone.
When I awake in the morning, Jesus is gone. For the past month, he’s been sneaking off to the Second Amenders’ camp to fornicate with Linda. They don’t like our men fornicating with their women, and so he has to steal away in the dead of night, and she has to somehow get out of the women’s tent, maybe act as if she’s going to the toilet, and they have to do it fast in the sand. Until this time, he’s always been back in our camp well before dawn.
Sasha is wild with jealousy. She makes a scene at breakfast, tossing dried dung at the fire and refusing a cup of tea, her eyes all wonky with desperation.
“He’s got a lot of nerve, staying the night,” Barley says.
“Fornication,” says Roxanne, using her instructional voice, “is enhanced by danger and secrecy and rule-breaking. Jesus is getting a triple-whammy.”
“Not a necessary comment,” Barleys says.
I love Sasha and I hate to see her in pain. I want to see her snaggle-toothed smile. I try to think of a way to calm her.
“The rains are coming,” I say, holding a hand up to the mist. “It’s time to make for the continental divide.”
Everyone looks at me and I know why. I’ve taken it upon myself to speak, both my tone and the content, as an adult. This surprises them.
“Good idea,” Sasha says emphatically.
For as long as I can remember, Sasha has rhapsodized about the continental divide. She says there are freshwater lakes and clear-running streams in the mountains. She wants us to make a permanent camp in the highlands. Roxanne, especially, has grown tired of this fantasy. She points out that winter at an altitude of 12,000 feet would be brutal. She says she doesn’t want to live in an igloo. Anyway, lately, everyone thinks Sasha just wants to get Jesus away from Linda.
“The point being,” I say, “if there’s a rainy season, and it looks like there will be one, we can leave the spring. It’ll rain long enough for us to get to the fat alpine lakes and clear-running streams near the continental divide.”
“If the lakes and rivers exist,” Nicholas says in his soft, easy-going voice. His knees squeeze the drum and he takes a deep breath.
Nicholas’s caution gives me pause. Imagine dying of exhaustion and exposure in the mountains. We’d be a pile of bones in no time. Gone. Deceased. Extinct.
“Anyway, my dear Sasha,” Nicholas says, “It’s in-ev-it-a-ble.” He taps on his drum, one beat for each syllable in the word. “Our people will braid together. Eventually. You (tap) can’t (tap) stop (tap) it (tap).”
Again Barley says, “Not a necessary comment.”
Nicholas has given me a new idea. The idea takes hold and grows like a crystal. I can practically see pellucid trapezoid planes intersecting, multiplying. It is inevitable.
“I’ll go get him,” I say, feeling guilty because my true motivation is seeing Jim, not fetching Jesus.
Sasha storms off. Nicholas’s eyes are closed and his fingers are busy on the drum skin. The other adults ignore me as well, and so I leave.
The Second Amenders have been camping near us for months. Roxanne says it’s because we’re good at finding water. On the face of things, their camps are much like ours. They build fire rings and dig pit toilets. But while we put up open-air tarps, they erect closed tents. They do a lot of things in private. They don’t build sculptures or paint pictures. They do sing, though. They sing beautiful ballads that have many, many verses and tell intriguing stories. I memorize them as best I can, and hold everyone in thrall at our campfire by reciting them.
I’m tolerated in their camp, allowed to visit Jim, because, one, I’m a girl; two, they think we’re children; and three, Jim is not valued. The Second Amenders care very much about what they call bloodlines, and Jim is an orphan. Nobody feels the need to protect him. This allows him a bit of freedom. At the same time, all the Second Amender rules still apply to him, and they are often applied harshly since he doesn’t have a bloodlines protector. “I am a stream run dry,” he once said to me. It just about broke my heart.
“Greetings!” I call out when I see the armed guards. “Can Jim play?” It’s best with them to use the lexicon of childhood although I am no longer a child. The guards wave me past.
Hardly anyone is around, which is strange. All of the adults seem to be buttoned up in the tents. Some of the children are roaming about, though. I spot Jim and my heart flip-flops. Though we’re the same age, he’s a foot shorter than me and he looks like a sprite with his blond cowlick and butterfly blue eyes. “Come on,” I tell him. “Can you get away?”
He nods, and we walk right out of camp. We stop at the spring for a long drink. I’ve never taken him out to see Sasha and Jesus’s work. It’s a long way, and Jim likes to be cautious. I can’t stand cautious today, though. My idea, the one growing like a crystal, is organic and multi-faceted. I want all my senses engaged.
“I’m going to show you something you’ve never seen before.” I swing our joined hands while we walk, and I’m smiling.
“Marvin wants to kill Jesus,” he says, and I think my heart stops beating for a minute.
“Marvin found him fornicating with Linda. Last night out past the latrine. They’ve tied him up in the big tent.”
“For fornicating with Linda.”
“You said that. But—”
“Marvin flew into a rage,” Jim says.
I picture Marvin, who I have only glimpsed from afar, airborne and enraged. I think of Sasha’s wonky eyes, her dung-flinging. Still, I don’t understand. “Why would Marvin kill Jesus?”
“He was fornicating with Linda,” Jim says patiently. “A schism has torn The People. Everyone has been arguing since well before dawn. Some think we should kill Jesus. They want to put his body in a cave in the cliffs where the hyenas will eat his flesh. Or bury him in the ground where worms will suck his veins dry. Not everyone agrees though. God is against killing.”
“Do I know God?” I ask. I don’t remember Jim talking about him, or maybe it’s a her.
“God,” Jim says, giving me an uncharacteristically sharp look.
I nod, not wanting to appear stupid.
“It’ll be okay,” I say. “God’s right. They won’t kill him.”
We’ve never been afraid of the Second Amenders. Roxanne says that with all those guns, they’re only a danger to themselves and that they’ll kill themselves off in the near future. She says that evolution favors love. It favors curiosity, too.
“What’s that?” Jim asks, stopping in his tracks.
“Ha!” I cry, delighted. Jim has spied Sasha’s biggest painting. It covers a big swath of the lower part of the cliff face. Until Jesus started fornicating with Linda, she loved this camp because she’s found such good pigments. She’s made orange from clay, and green-blue from slate, and yellow, too, from the oxidized residue in dried basins.
Sasha’s paintings are the most beautiful in the world. I love watching Jim look at this one, the way his pale lashes blink, blink, blink and how I can see a syrupy desire leak into his limbs.
I pull him by the hand around to the backside of the cliff where Jesus has been building. His sculpture starts in an alcove, grows right out of the cliff itself, as if created by the forces of geology, except that the piles of stone spiral away from the cliff, like a long tail, tapering, tapering, tapering, until at the end, Jesus has built a sphere. Three flat stones form the base. Building out and up from there, the sphere widens to an equator and then it curves back in again. It’s a secret how Jesus has managed to get those rocks on the top of the stone ball.
I can see that Jim loves the sculpture. The size, shapes, and uncanny placement of stones fill him with zeal. His thin, blond paleness begins to quiver. He’s going to laugh!
We’re all alone, and I’m hoping he won’t worry, won’t hold back, will let himself go. And he does. He laughs and laughs and laughs, falling to the ground, expelling all the sounds freely. I am so happy he trusts me that much.
When he finally calms, he lies on his back and breathes. I lie down beside him. He cuts his eyes at me to see what I think.
“It’s okay,” I say. “Laughing is okay.” I actually don’t know if what I say is true, but I don’t want him to be afraid.
“Marvin says there are entire tribes of laughers west of the continental divide.”
“I’ve heard that, too.”
“Many of them die that way.”
“Die laughing?” I ask.
He nods and begins to look stricken.
I want to reassure him, but in fact, it seems entirely possible. Likely, even. When you think about it, that could be why the trait evolved out of most of the human race.
The prospect of dying laughing should put me off my plan, but it doesn’t. Instead, Jim’s fit of laughter has aroused my desire. An acute and specific urgency speaks in the base of my belly.
I roll onto my side and touch his hipbone. I like the way it juts.
He looks at me like I’m a hyena myself, like I’m about to devour him, maybe stuff him into a cave first. He doesn’t move away, though. He waits, not twitching a finger or blinking an eyelid, as I run my hand up his ribcage and then trace his sternum.
“It’s going to rain.” His voice squeaks.
“Will your people move on?”
“Sasha wants to. She doesn’t like Jesus fornicating with Linda.” I think I’m clever steering the talk in that direction. I roll onto my hands and knees, and then straddle Jim, my pudendum pressed against his bellybutton. “Let’s take off our clothes.”
I can tell he wants to, but his eyes are full of questions.
“No one will know. Anyway, I love you.”
I unbutton his suit jacket and roll him over to get his arms out of the sleeves. I unbutton the fly of his suit pants, too, and pull these off his skinny white legs. He’s not wearing underthings. Naked, Jim looks a bit like a larva, his pale whiteness glowing against the scratchy sand. I’ve never done this before but I’ve watched enough, so it’s no mystery. I’m guessing that Jim has never even watched.
“Are you afraid?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer.
I stand up so I can take off my clothes, looking down at Jim the whole time. The skin on his penis is soft and pink, like a baby mouse. I lie back down beside him and wait to see what he will do. I don’t want to frighten him, and yet, at the same time, if he doesn’t know how it’s done, how can he even know if he wants to do it?
Jim knows how it’s done. In fact, suddenly I’m the one who is a bit afraid. Watching is one thing. Doing it is another. I concentrate on the laughing genes that I hope he is squirting into me. The chance, the odds.
Jim laughs yet again, only softly now. I do hope with all my heart he doesn’t ever die laughing. I stroke his blond hair. I tell him what I know about sex and giving birth. I tell him he doesn’t have to be a stream run dry.
“You’re only thirteen,” he says, and I know he means, how would I know any of this, about sex, about laughter, and streams.
I shrug. He’s right. I’m only thirteen. I don’t know anything.
Yet there’s a loose happiness between us as we walk the long way back to our respective camps. At the place where our paths split, I kiss him on his red mouth before going my way. I can tell he has liked our day.
All my happiness discharges, though, as I draw near camp. Sasha is keening. Nicholas is drumming, fiercely, angrily. Some adults are arguing, and others are squatted near Sasha, murmuring. The children are huddled under a tarp, for the rain is beginning to fall in real drops, great splats.
“What?” I shout. “What?”
“They’ve killed Jesus,” Roxanne tells me.
“No,” I say. “It’s only talk. They won’t really do it. God is against it.”
“They brought us his body.” Roxanne gestures at a covered lump under a newly erected tarp.
Sasha is inconsolable. She talks of killing Linda. She talks of killing Marvin. She talks of killing herself.
“We’ll go to the continental divide,” Barley says, over and over again, trying to comfort her. “We’ll go now. We’ll make a permanent camp at a sparkling alpine lake with its own clear-running stream.”
“I’ve heard the winters are actually mild in the mountains,” Roxanne lies. “We’ll have a grand new life there.”
We bury Jesus out by the cliffs, right under his sculpture. We have to dismantle a side of it, and some think this is wrong, but I agree that he’d want to be in the heart of his work. Once he’s in the ground, I help put the stones back in the exact same configuration. The rain slashes down. Sasha rocks her body back and forth, convulsing with grief.
We leave first thing in the morning, walking west with our full packs, the rain soaking our hair and clothes. I know we’ll walk for days, our feet squishing in the wet sand. I cup my tongue and hold it out for a drink.
I am filled with sorrow. I love Jesus. I love Jim. I have lost them both. The we has fallen out of the me.
I am also filled with curiosity. I do want to see the swell of land leading up to the continental divide, the craggy sculptures at the top, and also, maybe one day, what it’s like on the other side. I don’t care about snow and winter. I’m bursting with curiosity. We all are.
Eventually we’ll stop for a campfire, and that’s when I’ll tell everyone. It’s possible that I’ll have a baby. It’s possible that she’ll be a laugher. I can’t wait to see what that’s like.
Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s fiction has won a Yaddo Fellowship, the 2013 Saturday Evening Post Fiction Award, the 2010 Arts & Letters Fiction Prize, a California Arts Council Fellowship, and two National Science Foundation Artists & Writers Fellowships. Her story “Girl With Boat” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her story “Jackpot” was a finalist for the 2014 American Fiction Short Story Prize (New Rivers Press). She is at work on a novel which is the prequel to “The We of Me.”