Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Rock Eaters

We were the first generation to leave that island country. We were the ones who on the day we came of age developed a distinct float to our walk, soon enough hovering inches above the ground, afterwards somersaulting with the clouds, finally discovering we could fly as far as we’d ever wanted, and so we left. Decades later, we brought our children back to see that country. That year, we all decided we were ready to return.

We jackknifed through clouds and dodged large birds. We held tight our children, who still had not learned to fly. Behind us trailed rope lines of suitcases bursting with gifts from abroad. We wondered who would remember us.

Our parents, those who were still alive, came out to greet us, eyes squinting against the sun and hands on their brows like visors. Some were expecting us. Others were surprised, terrified at the spectacle of millions of their prodigals blotting the sky with our skirts billowing, our shirts starched for the arrival, skidding to rough landings right in front of them. We touched down on the landing strips of our parents’ driveways, denting cars, squashing flowers, rattling windows.

Our old friends, the ones we’d left behind, kept their doors locked. They peered through window blinds at the flattened flowerbeds, the suitcases that had exploded open and strewn packages all over the driveways, our youngest children squealing now that they’d been released from the flight, the peace we’d broken by arriving. They didn’t trust us, not after our betrayal decades ago, the whiff of money we’d landed in or lost in other countries like a suspect stench. Our parents hugged their grandchildren and brought them inside to houses with no electricity, candles wavering like séances to those who’d gone. More brownouts, they told us. We remember, we said, recoiling at how little the place fit us anymore. Those first nights we slept in our old beds, our feet hanging over the edges, the noises of the city and the country crowing and honking us awake, music from radios and guitars, celebrations we’d not been invited to.

We dragged our children along to knock on the doors of old friends, the ones who never developed the ability to fly, as graceless as anchors. They eventually, reluctantly, opened their doors. At first we sat stiffly on couches and inquired after their health and others we once knew. Then we got them to laugh with us about the time we pulled the nun’s skirts or put gum in the kink of a rival’s hair, when we caught all the chickens in the village, or cracked open almonds on the malecón. Then their children came shyly out of their rooms and took ours by the hand. We smiled when we saw them climbing trees together in the patios, their children showing ours how to eat strange fruits from the branch.

We introduced our children to everyone we used to know, at colmados, by the side of the road, at country clubs we had to beg to be let into. We showed our children the flamboyán trees in the parks, blooms of coral red spilling petals in the dirt. We showed them the granite striated through the rock faces of mountains, the glimmering pebbles under waterfalls, the red dirt that stained the seats of their best clothes. We walked past the stray dogs that growled and whined, and the most ancient of them remembered us, wagging their tails when we arrived and running to sniff our offspring. We dunked our children in the rivers we’d swam in. We dug through the banks for the arrowheads that belonged to the Tainos, who’d all died.

Imagine, we said, all those artifacts of people who once lived here, erased and hidden under mud.

Lost, the children whispered in awe and fear, turning the black, glinting points in their palms, testing the hardness of flint between their teeth.

We were happy. We loved this land, we said. We forget why we ever left.

• • • •

Then the first child came of age. We weren’t expecting it. She seemed so young, skinny, her curly hair still in little girl’s braids. Nevertheless, we saw the evidence, underwear she hid from us thrown in the trash, the unmistakable spots of blood. We saw her heels rise up, her walking on her toes like a careful ballerina. That was how it had started for us. We were excited for her, and sad. We would soon no longer have to carry her and others strapped to our backs as we flew.

We threw the first girl a party, everyone invited, but we didn’t tell her why. The party brought us all together, all those children speaking the languages of the countries we’d adopted, the local children finding ours exotic and precious. They all screeched as they cannonballed into pools, jumped off diving boards, dripped sopping wet into the grass.

The first girl raised her arms at the top of the diving board. We held our breath. She flipped off the board, spun like a starfish. She brought herself to an unnatural stop in the air just before hitting the skin of the pool. Then she let herself slip under without a splash. Bravo, we cheered.

We let the grandparents cut the cake. Their teeth glinted, their arms possessively around our children, showing them off to the parents of those who had stayed. The grandparents wore the fancy foreign clothes we had brought them, clothes that most of us couldn’t afford, put on credit cards or bought with pawned jewelry, but we had to show them we’d been right all this time by flying away. After so many years of loneliness and the futures we’d broken by disappearing from them, how proud they were that everyone had returned! But how long could we stay? We had made no promises.

We searched for the first girl to pass her a slice of cake, but when we saw her it was clear she did not want to be found. She was behind the bathroom sheds, floating in a squat near the dirt. We hid in the branches of the flamboyáns, trees we’d climbed easily in our youth but now we could fly straight into their canopies. We watched her gather fistfuls of red rocks from the dirt and place them on her tongue, sucking before she swallowed. This was nothing we’d ever done when we’d turned. After we let ourselves drift back to the party, we didn’t speak of it. We thought it was the iron she needed, having lost her first blood.

A few days later another girl came of age, floating down her apartment stairs soundlessly. Her grandmother startled and dropped the pot of sancocho she was carrying, praying, Not again. That night, the first girl and the second girl huddled together in the back of a colmado, the first girl showing the second how far up she could float, about the height of the counter. She spun gymnastics in the air. The second girl strained and bit her lip and rose half a foot. The boys who would soon turn surrounded them like a pack. They played jacks on the floor underneath the girls, but it was hard for the girls to play. If they didn’t concentrate, they drifted up too high to reach the jacks on the floor. Eventually, the girls gave up, the man who owned the colmado sliding them both beers in plastic cups. They floated on their backs, hair hanging from their shoulders. The boys paced around them like magicians about to cut their assistants in half.

When we put the younger children to bed that night, they would not be calmed with flying tricks or bedtime stories. When we told them their favorites, the ones about the children who flew off from home, never to return again, when we read them Peter Pan, when we told them about arriving in strange lands, they said they were afraid. Will that happen to us? they asked. We don’t want to ever leave, they said.

We thought of the blinding sky and the red ground and the summer sun. We sighed. It happens to most people, we said.

• • • •

A few of the boys changed, sleepily stumbling out the door in the morning to converge in hovering packs by the pools, rivers, parks, alleyways. At first, they didn’t even notice how their heels weren’t striking when they ran out the front door. The ones who hadn’t yet turned started compulsively checking the soles of their feet for the slightest gap of air.

More of the children turned. They came home later each night. When they opened the door, they had no need for tiptoeing; their footsteps made no sound. We turned on the lights. We asked them where they’d been. They smelled of beer and iron. They shrugged and said flippantly, With the locals. As they floated up the stairs, we saw under their jeans the twists of rope burns around their ankles.

We spied on them through blinds and car windows. Our old friends had to drive us, because the back alleyways and streams had changed courses since we were there. We saw the other children, the locals, the sons and daughters of the friends we’d left behind, hold out ropes made from palm leaves and point to the ground. The locals tied ropes around our sons’ and daughters’ ankles, tied them to their own flightless ones.

It’s fine, our old friends said. They’re just playing.

Our old friends reminded us of our own coming of age, ropes tethered around our ankles in case we couldn’t return, experimenting with how far up we could go while they watched from the ground. Were they jealous, were they hoping we would leave soon, were they hoping we would take them with us? Our old friends brought us back home, shutting the doors firmly behind them, as if doors could keep us where they wanted.

We were relieved we would be leaving soon. Already we could feel the itch in the arches of our feet that propelled us to fly over borders.

• • • •

We didn’t notice them at first, tied over the rope burns. Thin snippets of string, anklets threaded with pebbles. They reminded us of bell collars in case cats strayed too far. When we asked the children about it, they stayed silent. Among the parents, we called them friendship anklets to hide our uneasiness. Then the fad spread among those who hadn’t even turned. From the balconies and patios where we drank coconut water and rummed chinola juice, we could hear their laughter as they wove their anklets. They spent the rest of their days playing tag in the canopies of the trees, leaping over the roofs, splashing under waterfalls, eyeing their newfound bodies capable of so much flight, rubbing themselves in the red mud and laying with the stray dogs who put their heads in the children’s laps and growled at us if we got close or reprimanded them.

We felt guilty that we would drag them back with us when we would leave, guilty for soon separating them from the friends they had made. But when they brought us puppies they’d watched a stray dog birth, still dripping with placenta, asking us if they could keep one, we told them no. Everything belongs in its place, we said. We reminded them of the pets we’d left in those other places, the school friends, the painted bedrooms, waiting for us to return home. When we suggested how proud we would be when they flew home without our help, they froze and sank a little in their hovering. They hated us, we knew.

The second girl who’d turned was always pushing herself to new heights, trying to outshine the first girl, who’d had a head start. One day the children came running to get us. She’s gone, they yelled. She flew up in a race to touch a cloud. She won, but she didn’t stop there. She kept going higher, shrinking in their eyes. None of the children were able to go after her.

We sprung up, leaped off the balconies, searched for her in the atmosphere. Our old friends searched on the ground in case she’d fallen. After days of searching, we never found the second girl. Her parents kept looking. The rest of us thought if we just waited, she’d find her way back.

The younger children had nightmares. When they played catch and balls sailed over their heads, they never jumped, for fear they’d leave the ground. They liked to dive deep in the pool for the feeling of sinking. They held hands and dug their fingers into the stray dogs’ fur to stay together.

The rocks tied around their ankles got heavier. The children no longer hovered over the ground. They were weighted down with the red stones of the mountains. The stones dragged on the floor and clattered as they walked.

What are you doing? we said.

We don’t want to fly, they said. We want to stay.

We forbid it, we said.

They didn’t listen.

Even the younger children came back with stones tied to their legs. A toddler tripped over hers and gashed her head. This was going too far, and we agreed we should cut them all off. That would end the matter, we thought. The summer was nearly over. It was almost time for us to leave.

The stones clattered to the ground. The ones who’d turned sprang back up into the air. Oh, how they cried.

• • • •

Then we saw the ones who’d turned sink lower and lower, even without the ropes binding them. We conferred amongst ourselves. It’s the locals, we thought, all those children of our former friends bringing them down, showing them how to stay rooted, doing terrible things in the dark. Look at how much crime has tripled since we left, how the buildings crumble and rust, how the clothes the locals wear suggest horrible things. Who knows how this country has changed, we said. So we forbade them from seeing those other, flightless children.

Still, our children stopped flying. We couldn’t explain it. We tried throwing them up into the air to give them a head start, but they came down hard. One girl broke her leg. Only then did we think it was cruel to keep lifting them up and dropping them, like mother birds pushing the chicks from the nests. We noticed no more children turned—that is, we caught no more of them hovering. Perhaps no more were ready. We gossiped among ourselves. We were ever vigilant at the parks, on the farms, at the country clubs, on the street. We saw nothing, other than many of them coming down with stomachaches, clutching their bellies, which we blamed on the awful sanitation of our old country. When the grandparents offered us ice with our water, we curled our noses in disgust.

• • • •

On the hottest day of the year, we discovered the very first girl crouched behind the concrete outhouse of the country club, dripping wet in her bathing suit, selecting rocks that marked the edge of the civilized grass from the wild selva where rivers coursed through the mountains. She was eating rocks again. The confidence with which she selected them implied she’d done this often, and not for iron like we’d thought. She swallowed twenty of them while we watched, and then got up from her crouch. She hopped on one foot, landed awkwardly, heavily. Satisfied, she rejoined the others. Our hearts dropped at her failure. Before, she’d flown as gracefully as a swan.

We flew into the trees, hovered in the canopies. One by one, when they thought no one was looking, the children slipped behind the country club, into the woods of the farms, behind the stables, between the concrete hurricane-proof houses where their grandparents still lived, and ate bellyfuls of rocks. Our children offered stones to the hungry dogs, held pebbles out for the toucans and the parrots. They were generous with their weight.

The youngest, the ñoños who still listened to us, these we lifted, surprised and groaning with their new weight, and cradled them in our laps. Still sleepy with milk they confessed that they were still afraid, that they never wanted to leave, that they loved everything about our old country. They wanted the ground more than they wanted to fly.

The oldest ones, the ones we held responsible, these we shook. We yanked them by their braids, dragged them by their collars, threatened them with belts or wooden spoons or chancletas like our parents had done, while our parents watched from other bedrooms. They’re too old for that, the grandparents said. It never worked with you, the grandparents said. We yelled at them to stay out of it.

A few of them never broke, not even when we followed through with our threats, thick welts beaten into their bare asses or the backs of their legs. They were staying here, they informed us, holding in their yelps of pain, whether we liked it or not. They would run away if we made them leave. Others said that when they first started flying, even when they held hands, they could feel their fingers slipping, drifting apart, and it made them sick. Others confessed their desire, that they ate rocks and the flints of arrowheads because if not, their bellies burned for them.

• • • •

We knew it was time to go. It had been dangerous, bringing our children back to the country we’d left, letting them fall in love with its dark mysteries. We remembered all the things we hated about it, and the worse things that had come to pass since we’d left.

We packed our suitcases, dressed our younger children warmly for the flight, said goodbye to our parents, who tried to cling to us as we rose into the air. Husbands and wives held hands in a circle around their struggling children, threading arms to lock in their incredible burdens. The children with their bodies of rocks weighed immensely. Everyone groaned while the children kicked and screamed and bit and sobbed, boys and girls fighting us and pushing at our arms. The sky was like a battle between angels.

We jettisoned the smallest bags, the blankets for the cool air, the fruits for the journey, which landed roughly in that red dirt. Our old friends shaded their eyes and watched the great struggle between us and our shameful kids, extending their hands to grab the bags dropping at their feet. Then we cut loose the big luggage, the clothes we’d bought abroad to impress those left behind, all our precious things. But our children, we had to keep our children!

The oldest kids, the strongest kids, the ones with the biggest bellies full of the most rocks that dragged us down, these flew loose from our grasps. We tried to go after them mid-flight, but they pushed us so hard we knew we couldn’t win. They were stronger than us. We would lose the younger children too if we tried. Some of them fell to their grandparents on the ground, where their hair was tucked back from their faces, their chins cupped, giant plates of food set out in front of them. Others, unmoored, had not eaten enough rocks, had capacities for flight that overcame stone and flint and dirt. But they were young and did not have the skill we did to fly where we wanted. We’d had decades to practice. We tried to catch them, but they kicked us away. They clumped in groups and fought us off. The last time we saw them, they were thousands of feet above the ground, grasping clumsily for each other, fingers stretching in terror through the thinnest of atmospheres.

• • • •

The smallest ones, our babies, and the ones who didn’t struggle, these we were able to save. We returned to our large houses in the suburbs, our small apartments in the cities, our echoing ranches in the country, lives we felt understood us. But the taste for rocks never left their mouths.

Some of them we starved, forbidding them stones. They learned to fly. But they drifted, never quite in the direction we wanted, trajectories loose and winding. Some of them fasted by choice, growing into bags of bones before our eyes. Lighter than ever, they floated away, sometimes in the middle of the night through windows open for the moon, sometimes without our even realizing until they were such tiny pinpricks way up in the atmosphere, like released balloons. We knew, from our own parent’s struggles, there was no bringing them back.

The ones we were left with, their bellies full of rocks, they hovered a few inches above the ground but no further, never able to sink completely. They stayed in the homes of our new countries, always wanting to get back to that place where we all dreamed we were happy, but never able to return. These were the ones we could still embrace: our rock eaters, grit in their mouths, hearts too heavy, feet too light.

Brenda Peynado

Brenda Peynado’s stories have won an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, a Dana Award, a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic, and other prizes. Her work appears in magazines such as Tor.com, The Georgia Review, The Sun, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review Online, and The Threepenny Review. She’s currently writing a novel about the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic and a girl who can tell all possible futures, and she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.