Town | nwoT by AshleyRose Sullivan
Griff came from the Orb. And, I guess you could say that explains some things. And maybe it raises some questions too, like who is Griff, what’s “the Orb,” and what does “came from” mean?
Back when the Orb first came to town you can be sure that everyone from Sawmill to Hitchlick was heading straight to their special torch and pitchfork cases to make ready for whatever Saturday night Creature Feature was playing behind their eyelids. But the torches were never lit and the pitchforks were never sharpened and that’s mostly because the Orb stayed about sixty feet above town square (and folks weren’t nearly so fond of ladders as they were pitchforks) but also because the Orb was quiet and it had a quiet effect on everyone who came near it. That seems like a bad or a dangerous thing maybe. Maybe to you.
Griff is my little brother. But he’s taller than me. Not in a freakish, “Oh he came from an orb so he’s ‘creature-tall,’ kind of way. Just in the regular way. Tall like my Uncle Jess was tall. Tall like someone who wasn’t gifted to my mother from the Orb.
When I was three—this was after Father took to the hills—Mother worked at the high school cafeteria and then again part time, after hours, as the school cleaning lady. She smelled like soap and tobacco and her hands were red and chapped and beautiful. Her hands were the best thing. Strong and long and graceful. And that’s how Mother was too. She was a mountain lion. And I don’t mean that in a, “our town has Orbs and babies who come from Orbs and she had the secret ability to turn into a mountain lion,” kind of way. Just the regular way. The metaphorical way. The dangerous way.
Mother did not come from an Orb. Mother came from an old family, from further in the mountains than the rest of us. She was tougher and quicker and told by far the most interesting stories about women who wrestled bears and wore their skins and men who pulled the stars out of still pools and used the sparkling liquid as medicine. And maybe that’s why, when Mother and I were on our way home from Kelso’s Drug, the Orb called to her.
By this point, the Orb had been in town several years and folks were used to it. Used to the round mirror way it had. The hum it made. The way you felt good. And quiet. And fine when you were near it. So Mother wasn’t really alarmed when she heard the Orb call to her.
“What did it say, Mother?” I used to ask. But she said it wasn’t a song of words. It was like crow song. Or wind song. Or river song. Or maybe all of them mixed up together. Maybe the Orb sang all the songs and that’s why no one could ever understand what it was saying.
Anyway, the Orb called to her and she took me by the hand and we stood directly under it and looked up. And then, one minute, Mother was holding my hand, and the next she wasn’t. She was gone. I stood there staring at the Orb but I was three and I was impatient and I was tired so I lay down and looked up instead. It was summer and I was wearing a yellow dress and the grass and ants and whatever else that had put up stakes under the Orb tickled my legs. I watched my own dark reflection in the Orb. I watched the wind blow my hair. I watched my pale legs shift back and forth. I watched myself get worried in spite of the Orb Song. But, eventually, while I was stringing a bunch of clover stems together, Mother was there again. She was holding Griff.
So that’s how Griff came from the Orb. It was pretty simple and, being three, I didn’t really know what other ways babies came. One minute I wasn’t a sister. The next, I was. Isn’t that how it works with everyone?
Everyone knew Griff had come from the Orb, what with the Orb being in the middle of town and Mother disappearing for forty-five minutes and leaving me lying there on a Sunday afternoon. And I guess there were whispers and maybe even some people were tempted to dust off their torch and pitchfork cases. But no one ever did. No one bothered Griff. Griff was part of town just like the Orb was part of town and Mother was part of town and I was part of town.
Griff was quiet. Like Mother, I always thought. He spoke soft and laughed loud. He had big dark eyes just like her and maybe you expect to hear some Orb traits now. But, there weren’t any. He didn’t have strange markings and he couldn't talk to cats and he couldn’t breathe underwater or fly and you can trust me on that because I checked. Not in a “I tried to murder my Orb Brother,” kind of way. Just the regular kind. I was Griff’s sister and he was my brother, and now I finally had someone to play with and so that’s what we did.
We played in the hills behind our little house that led up to Mother’s people and we never really went too far because hills were one thing and mountains were a whole something else. We played all of Mother’s stories and we played the stories on the radio and we played the stories from our school books—once we started school. And I drew pictures of all the games we played and Mother put them on the refrigerator with the sun bleached alphabet magnets no one saw any reason to throw away. And Griff was just another kid in town. He wasn’t anything all that different or special any more than I was because we were both Mother’s children and Mother was always a little different, as I’ve said.
So that’s how we went along. I had boyfriends and some were alright and some were bad and none of them lasted all that long. I went to dances and I didn’t make the track team and joined art club instead and I always, always, always watched out for Griff. Because, he was my baby brother. It was my job. Griff never seemed to need it, though.
Griff was long and strong and had the same dark beauty Mother had. He played basketball and he ran track and he went to dances too. He was always quiet though, like Mother. He kept to himself except when he was at home. At the kitchen table he laughed loudest of all and he told stories just like Mother always had. But his were new. And, I almost hated to believe it, his were better.
“Where do you get these ideas?” Mother asked him one night while Griff scraped the last bits of dinner into his mouth.
Griff looked at me and shrugged. Then he smiled as he got up and washed his plate, rinsed it, and dried it with one of Mother’s ancient kitchen towels, and then set it carefully in its place.
I was just about to graduate from high school and I was applying to colleges because I wanted to head out of town to study art and I suppose the idea of being so far from home and Griff and Mother and town was starting to eat at me. I laid awake in the room next to his and tapped on the wall three and a half times. And he tapped back. Twice. This was the signal to open our windows and crawl out and so that’s what we did.
We walked up the hill that overlooked town and sat on the grass and from there we could see the Orb, hovering and humming, as it always did. The sky was a still pool full of stars and, in that silver light, I watched the wind blow through Griff’s dark hair. I watched him breathe in and out in his quiet, thoughtful, human way.
I ran my hand through the grass and the dew shot upward. Confused rain.
Everything, I thought, would be alright now. Town will still be here when I get back. Mother, Griff will still be here. Nothing will change.
Time stopped for me then. And not in the, “I’m in a town where that can happen because there are Orbs and Orb Teenagers,” kind of way. The regular way. The way time stops for everyone who becomes lost in a moment of difficult choice.
Something in Griff’s silent staring made me want to stay in town forever and I began to think maybe I should. I could get a job here. I could work at the high school like Mother. I could marry one of my better boyfriends. I could put a house next to Mother’s in the gully. I could have children. Maybe even Orb children like Griff. I was spinning out into a life that seemed so obvious and easy and then Griff nudged me. He pointed to a crow flying up toward the mountains behind us, the stars reflected in its wings. It croaked as it passed us.
I remembered a story about a crow woman Mother had told to us when we were little. I remembered the way Griff and I had played through the story at the base of the mountains. Running full tilt downwards, swooping, our wings held out, the wind and the long grass whipping us hard, thrashing our faces and our legs, our breath gasping and rasping hard in our lungs. This is flight, I thought. This is everything.
“And then the children turned into crows,” Griff said, as if he’d been telling a story the whole time we’d been sitting there, even though I was completely sure he hadn’t been. “And the wind lifted their wings,” he continued. His voice cracked a little. Not in a “I’m crying because everything is sad” way. Just the regular way. Because, even though he was already as tall as me, he was still just fourteen. I pretended not to notice.
I smiled at him and he laughed and pulled me to my feet and dragged me backward.
“We need a running start,” he said. And then he spread his arms and took off running. I followed behind him, as I had so many times over all of our years, and I watched to make sure he didn’t fall. But eventually, as always, I was overtaken by the joy of running, of gulping in huge lungfuls of air, of pumping my legs and then giving my weight over to the gravity of our hillside. By the bottom we were laughing and sucking wind and leaning on our knees to recover and when I looked up, Mother was standing in the doorway as if she’d been there all along. The silver smoke of her cigarette curled around her and shimmered in the starlight.
“Y’all are up late,” she said with a nonchalance that reassured me. Everything, I thought, would be alright now. Town will still be here when I get back. Mother, Griff will still be here. Nothing will change. And then she stamped out the cigarette on the planks of the front porch.
But then, now don’t pretend you didn’t know this was coming—there’s always a “but then”—and there is here too because, in the end, even with the Orb, this story is just like every other story.
But then, one morning, the Orb had moved. The Orb was higher in the sky. At least twenty feet. And getting higher.
And I wasn’t there to see it. I was at college and I’d been in a deep sleep after a night logging studio hours. I knew because the phone rang and it was Mrs. Yancy, the ancient high school secretary who said that Mother had asked her to call me and let me know that something was happening and she said it with the same creaking monotone she used to read the lunch menu.
“Your Mother asked me to call you. The Orb is moving.”
"At least twenty feet.”
“What direction?” As if the answer would have some significance to me.
There was a pause. A forever pause. A million years pause. My heart thumping in my ears almost obscured the sound of her thumbing through papers before saying, “According to his schedule, he’s in Chemistry.”
“So where’s Mother?”
“I don’t rightly know. She headed out the door just before I called you.”
I took the bus ninety miles, as far toward town as it would go, and then hitchhiked the rest of the way. The last ride I sat in the cab of a truck with a farmer and his wife I’d seen a million times at the furthest edge of town. They sold peaches on the side of the road behind a sign, “Best Peaches of YOUR life.” The wife had a basket of the peaches in her lap and she offered me one but I was too distracted to find out whether the sign had been accurate.
“Ain’t it your mother who got the Orb Baby?” the man asked.
“How’s she doing?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m headed home.”
“Did something happen?”
“The Orb moved,” I said, realizing they’d been at their stand all day and didn’t know.
“Which direction?” the woman asked.
“Up,” I said.
And we sat in silence until we pulled into town.
And there, nothing was silent. Everyone was there. Everything hummed.
Not the gentle humming of the Orb which had gone very dull. This was the hum of humans. The throbbing blood and stomping feet and beating hearts. Human Song is very different from Orb Song.
I called for Mother but didn’t see her.
I looked up at the Orb. Vaguely, I saw my reflection and the reflection of all the faces turned up toward it. I looked back around me and found one of my better boyfriends in the crowd.
“Have you seen my mother?” I asked him.
He never looked away from the Orb as he said, “She was down here earlier. Went off back toward your house.”
“Have you seen Griff?”
He shook his head, gaze still locked on the Orb. I started to move when he said, “He talked to it. That’s what they’re saying.”
“Talked to it?”
“There’s something not right,” he said.
Then I was walking. Then jogging. Then running. I could feel my home pulling me toward it. I could feel Mother. Griff. Pulling me closer. Pulling me behind them. Pulling me away. It was getting dark as I panted up the hill and then down the other side. Letting gravity carry me home. Letting myself fall into the gully that had always welcomed me.
I was panting as I skidded to a stop. In the fresh light of the night sky, Mother was standing on the porch, an old backpack stuffed full, propped against the front door.
“I rolled up a bunch of your pictures,” she said without any preamble. “I didn’t want to leave them behind.”
“Where are you going? What’s happening?” my voice was coming out wet and hard.
But before she could answer, Griff stepped out onto the porch. He didn’t look any different. Same tall. Maybe a little taller. Same face, maybe a little older. Same dark, just like mother. I’d been away a few months. It was good to see them. Good to be home. I wanted it to be good to be home. I wanted a lot.
“Did you talk to the Orb?” I found myself asking, accusatory and suspicious.
“Not really,” Griff said.
“Not really?” I was yelling now. Why was I yelling?
He shrugged and looked at Mother. She sighed and lit another cigarette.
“They’re coming,” Griff said to her and not to me.
“Griff? What’s going on?” I was finally getting my breath and I was using it to shout some more.
But it wasn't long before I found out. Pretty soon there were silhouettes on the hill. The darkness of the town stood in contrast to the bright starred sky. I stood there, near to Griff and Mother, looking back over my shoulder at them. The air became dry. It crackled around us like the forest was on fire. But there was no fire. Not any that I could see.
Then, the Orb was there too. It was above us. Sixty feet. Forty feet. Thirty feet. Ten feet.
I looked past it to the silhouettes on the hill and realized that everyone in town recmembered the special place they kept their torches and pitchforks. They remembered and they were angry and they were here now. Here at our home. At my home. Staring down the hill at my family. The dry air carried a few indecipherably angry, afraid voices down to us.
The Orb did not sing. The Orb was quiet. The Orb lowered itself further into our gully until I was level with my dark, convex reflection. Behind that were the reflection of Mother and Griff.
“Griff is leaving us,” Mother said.
“What? No!” I was apparently incapable of not yelling at this point.
But, you know how these stories go. You know Griff could never stay with us. He could never stay in town. He was not part of town. Just like the Orb was not part of town. Just like Mother was not part of town. We’d all been allowed to forget that for a while. For long enough, I guess the Orb thought.
Griff took my hand and we approached the Orb. I watched our reflections and realized, for the first time, that I was the only one of us who was part of town. Even if only half. I was half town. Griff was half Orb. How had I never seen that before?
Mother’s reflection leaned against the reflection of our doorway and watched me. Behind her was the house reflection, the hill reflection, the mountain reflection.
“I’m so sorry, Griff,” is what I wanted to say, is what I should have said. “I’m so sorry Griff, I wanted to protect you because I always knew. I wanted to protect you because I never managed to forget that you were different but I loved you and I still love you and it’s my job to take care of you. Please let me take care of you,” is what should've come out of my mouth.
Instead, there was nothing. I opened my mouth but no sound came out. Not even yelling.
I turned to face Griff. The real Griff and not his reflection. He smiled and leaned into me. Nudging me so I was off balance.
And he was gone. And the Orb was gone.
After that, mother left. Not in the disappearing Orb way. Just the regular way. She hiked back into the mountains. Because, she was not part of town. She was only tethered to town by her children and now we were both gone.
I went back to college and began painting the stories Griff and I had played as children. The stories we had added to, subtracted from, made our own. They were the stories Griff had told at the dinner table, I realized.
And I could never stop painting the Orb. It was always part of the story of town. Part of the background. Even though it had left. Even though town had changed. Even though town had gone back to the way I supposed it had always meant to be. It always hung there, reflecting whatever it saw.
Twice a year now I go back through town to visit Mother. She lives deep in the mountains in a cabin and my art decorates her walls and the voice of Griff, of the Orb, of crows and creeks and wind, float through her home. It takes a while to get there, though, so I always stop at our old house. Kids have always painted graffiti on the exterior walls and I always clean it off. Sometimes there’s a broken window and I get someone out to fix it.
I use my old key, the one that let us in when Mother was cleaning in the evenings. I never turn the power or water on. I let the house creak and age like the rest of us. I stand in the kitchen and try to remember. I go back into my bedroom and sit on my bed and knock on the wall.
Three and a half times.
And I guess you could ask a few questions like, “Where did Griff go?” and “Where did he really come from?” and “What does come from actually mean?”
I wait for the answer. Two knocks from the other side of the wall.
But nothing comes.