By Kelly Magee
We put her on a pedestal, a real nice one, not some cheap, plastic shit, but something comfortable—not marble, it was too cold, and not concrete, that was too hard—an ergonomic pedestal made of responsibly harvested bamboo and recycled bike tires. It stood ten feet off the ground and had an orthopedic shelf on which she could stand. Because she had to stand, there was no way of getting around that. That was the whole point of the pedestal, to put her up where we could see her, hear her, where she could always be available for our worship. She was beautiful, that goes without saying, and she deserved nothing less than our best.
When the pedestal was ready, we hauled it to the park next to the playground, because that was a pleasant area of town where the grass was always mowed, far enough from the highway to be quiet but not so far from town that we’d have to fight a lot of traffic to get there. The playground, because we were considerate of those of us who had little ones. It was just a few of us at first, but once word spread, the crowd grew. She liked that, we could tell. She’d gone up there willingly, of course—nobody forced anybody, we liked to say—but we hadn’t been entirely honest about the thing. We’ll admit that. We said, Look what we made you! It really took us a lot of effort, and we’d be so disappointed if you didn’t at least try it out. We pushed her up, and she let us, and then we chanted, Speech! Speech! until she laughed a little, embarrassed, and said, This is lovely. I can see clear to downtown from here. We applauded, and she bowed. There was silence while we waited for more. She was so bright, standing up there against the sun. It was perfect. She peered over the side of the pedestal. So how do I get down?
She was different things to different ones of us. She had a lot of names. Some, like mother, like friend, like daughter, you’d expect. Once strangers started showing up, she got different names, some that couldn’t be boiled down to a single word. The-one-into-whom-I-pour-my-nightmares was one. The-keeper-of-our-marital-infidelity was another. When we gathered, sometimes we were surprised to see how many new people had showed up. Celebrities. Thugs. We didn’t know each other. There were a few of us who’d known her from before, but now most of us hadn’t. Some of us brought lawn chairs. Some prostrated ourselves. We didn’t stay long. We had lives, didn’t we? Jobs. Hobbies. Shows saved on the Tivo. Before we left, we made sure someone was always there to keep her up.
When she spoke, we wept. Sometimes we didn’t even listen to the words, just ingested her voice. She could say anything—I’m hungry, I’m bored—and it was like manna. Yes, we thought. We are all hungry. It’s true, we thought. We are all bored. We went home and ate, and paid attention to each bite, concentrated on it, thought about how grateful we were, how each new meal was a gift she’d given us because we wouldn’t have noticed it without her, and we were lucky, we were just so goddamn lucky to have found her. And we looked into our boredom, our terrible jobs, our terrible lonely lives, and we found her there, telling us to embrace ourselves in that space, to be present, to breathe, and we did, and it was good.
She grew more beautiful by the day. Her skin turned deeper and deeper shades of red until she fairly glowed. And the more her skin tone changed, the brighter her eyes got. They seemed to float out in front of her. The pedestal wasn’t large enough for her to do much, so we savored each movement, how she reached down to scratch her bug bites, how she shaded her eyes to look over us, past us, beyond us to where the rest of the city buzzed all the way to the horizon. My children, she said once. Where are my children? We pushed our children forward and threatened them with spankings at home if they didn’t cooperate. They all belong to you, we told her, we are all yours. She shook her head. We knelt as one, every person in the crowd, like a miracle, and she lifted her hands over us, raised her face to the sky, and said, Then you, my children, my flock, let me go. I will be with you always if you set me free.
Of course we couldn’t do that.
We held our breath when she crouched to sleep. A few of the stronger ones gathered around the pedestal to make sure she didn’t fall. They held her body. Afterward they looked at their hands, the parts of them that’d touched her, and they seemed unable to do anything else for a long time. When they could speak again, they talked of the heat. Her skin, like a furnace. An ember. Their hands carried the heat of her into the city, and then into their homes. They made love furiously to their husbands and wives. To themselves. The heat passed to whomever they touched, and they breathed her name as they came, felt her there, in their mouths.
Our population swelled until we realized—suddenly, collectively—that we had a problem with equal access. We’d run out of space. The lawn couldn’t accommodate our numbers, the playground was blocking half the crowd’s view, and there had erupted several scuffles over parking. A small faction had staked out territory by pitching tents around the inner circle, and they never left, and that wasn’t fair to those of us who had jobs. That, we said firmly, was discrimination. We asked the tent faction to rotate people in, but there wasn’t enough time to get to everyone, and some people were all the way in the back, standing in the street. She spoke less and less often, and some of us never got to hear her at all. There was talk of video screens, of microphones, of webcams. We asked her to say a few more things, for the people who’d missed that last bit. We asked her to speak up. She didn’t. We gave her more water, handing up the silver chalice and reveling in the contractions of her neck as she drank. We envied that water. It made us crazy. We said, We understand that you are just one person and we are many, but the whole reason you’re up there is so we can see you and hear you, and if we can’t see you or hear you or speak to you like the ones in the back can’t, then this is not going to work out. We are going to need to change something.
She told us not to move her. If we want to be really honest, what she did is she begged us. She’d been up there a long time by now, her hair whipped into delicate knots, salt crystallized on her face. This is my home now, she told us. Do you understand that?
We said we did, but the truth was that we’d gotten off work late, and we’d just had a fight with our spouses, and our children were rotten messes, and we’d burnt dinner, and we couldn’t get it up, and we needed her to be who she was to us a little more. We needed a lot more, but we were willing to settle for a little. She was so near to perfection by that point—a huge improvement, once she stopped producing solid waste—that a little bit went a long way. At the very least, we needed to be able to see her.
We all chipped in to pay for a new location. There were enough of us that it didn’t take much. A few bucks here and there. Coffee money. We told her, We are taking you to the fairgrounds, isn’t that nice? Didn’t you once say you liked to go there? We tried to get her to come down and ride in the cab of the truck, but she refused. We think she was afraid we were going to take away the pedestal and leave her there, and we’re not going to say the thought didn’t cross our minds. Some of us had expressed interest in trying out the pedestal, and there were a couple we suspected might really be pedestal material. But she wasn’t going to give it up. She draped herself over it in this unflattering way, arms and legs spread, and hands and feet gripping the sides, so we picked up the whole thing with her on top and secured it to the truck. She wasn’t holding on very tightly. There was some atrophy to work around, and she was so thin and red and dry that, as soon as the truck started moving, we feared she might disintegrate in the wind. Honestly, we may have wanted that to happen. It would’ve been easier to know what to do with her dust, and we considered where we might scatter her, the kind of ceremony we might have, the covered dishes we’d bring. The memorial we could erect. But we only entertained those thoughts briefly. Because, of course, she was not disintegrating; she was still alive, still there, still upright. It pained her to be moved, though. It wasn’t a good look.
But then it was over, and there she was, finally, atop the pedestal in the new location, the Main Grandstand, high up on the stage so we could see but not reach her, the pedestal aglow in warm, safe light. Plenty of space for us in the bleachers. We leaned in. Put our arms around each other. It was a good feeling, what we’d done. A successful transfer. It began to snow. One of us sang this low song, maybe a spiritual, and the sound made us warmer. We thought of peace. We fell in love all over again.
We got a lot of mileage from that moment. We’ll always remember that, and what she did for us.
The day she finally fell was a hard one. We’d let it go on too long, past the point we were comfortable with. One of us should’ve done it, we knew, should’ve brought her down and put her in a home. She was just so damn adamant. You get the fuck away from me, she’d say when we hadn’t done anything but hand her the chalice. Mine, she’d hiss, mine. Those were tough times. A lot of us stopped coming. By the time she fell, we didn’t even fill the bleachers. Half of us who were present were playing games on our phones and missed the final moment. We heard the gasp and looked up to see the empty pedestal rock back and forth twice, then stop. We took a deep breath. It was the end of something. That much, we knew.
We got up to find her body, to set up the memorial, but she wasn’t there. Some of us folded our hands, then. Some looked skyward. Accusations flew. Infighting ensued. The cops had to be called. When the dust cleared, we saw that the pedestal had been pretty badly damaged. That sobered us right up. We got to work repairing it. It would be better this time, we vowed. Safer. More comfortable. We were smarter about this kind of thing. She’d taught us how to do it right. The new one, we decided, would be built in her honor.
We still don’t know what happened to her body. Some of us think she shattered on impact. Some think she walks among us. We keep photos of her as our screensavers. We don’t say she died, we say she fell. We say she lived, and in so doing, gave us life. We say we can still hear her voice when the wind blows. We say if we are guilty of something, it is loving her too much. We say farewell and amen and the end. Then we go home and resume our lives because that’s what she would’ve wanted us to do.
Kelly Magee’s first collection of stories, Body Language (University of North Texas Press, 2006) won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Kenyon Review, Swink,Nashville Review, Diagram, Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, The Journal, Crab Orchard Review,Colorado Review, Cream City Review, Indiana Review, The Journal, The Pinch, and others. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.