Time of the Locust
The creatures had been flying in Sephiri’s dreams for weeks, and they had even begun to take wing on his waking thoughts. And now, as he sat in the children’s playroom, he reached for a crayon and a leaf of construction paper with the gravity of an architect, his smooth, creamed-coffee face immobile, a single mole dotting his cheek. He stared down at the paper through two dark, luminous eyes, in which the sharp and bright edges of things flashed in reflection. He blocked out the mosaic of murals on the walls, the stacks of glossy unopened books, the piles of blocks, and the blank-faced children, each lost in an opaque realm of secret activity.
The gleam from the track lighting glazed everything in the room as if it had all been brushed by a baker’s egg white. There was the smell of lemon disinfectant, which he did not like, which hung always in the air like a toxic cloud. There was the flicker from the farthest bulb at the ceiling that caught his eye again, as it had for several weeks, a distracting affront to the even order of light. But Sephiri turned his mind away from all of that now. There was only the sheet of white, the crayon in his hand, the images in his head. He’d had dreams before in his seven years on the earth, terrible visions from the Land of Air. There were the shadows that peeled themselves from the walls in his room and chased him out of his bed. There was the red creature that hid inside his mattress, the impish thing that cut through the springs, its incandescent eyes staring up at him through a dark, gaping hole.
Those dreams were not like the loveliness of his World of Water, the realm of deep blue and luminescence where Sephiri spent much of his time floating. He loved to drift far out to the Obsidians, as his sea friends called them. They were the tips of submerged mountains, enormous peaks that rose from the water like black pyramids from the deep. They marked where the invertebrates and the spiked beasts and the water plants ruled. Sephiri loved them all. He could speak there and be understood. The creatures living there gave him assurance that all he witnessed and heard in that place was real.
He wasn’t sure about the creatures flying through his dreams. They weren’t anything like the creatures of the Land of Air. The caterpillars he’d squeezed between his fingers in the backyard. The flies on the glass rim of his orange juice. The spiders that hung in corners. They were not like the other things he was able to keep a photograph of in his mind after one look: the number of tiles on a floor, the license plates of cars along their street, the label of ingredients of everything in the medicine cabinet. His mother locked the cabinet, but Sephiri was able to get it open anyway. He adored the Tylenol and cold medication boxes and containers, which he would line up and then line up again. There were lists of active and inactive ingredients, with marvelous arrangements of letters, which he had memorized without understanding how to pronounce any of them: acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, phenylephrine, anhydrous citric acid, potassium sorbate. He loved the sodiums madly: sodium borate, sodium chloride, sodium laurel, sodium laureth, sodium bicarbonate, sodium benzoate, sodium citrate.
When he was finished with the ingredients, he would focus on the letters that spelled WARNING on each container. He recognized this word from the order of the letters and knew it was the same word on the big sign above the red emergency door at the Takoma Park Autism Center, where he spent nearly every day. There were other things written next to WARNING on the boxes. He didn’t know what any of those words meant, but he was sure they were trying to save him from tasting something disgusting. Sephiri thought the words, especially in this case, probably referred to various kinds of foods he hated. Say, squash or chicken, for example. Or nasty sandwiches, which he was sure had to be any sandwich that was not peanut butter and jelly.
He had gotten off the safety cap and swallowed some pretty blue pills once and had to be rushed to the hospital, screaming. There were maddening lights, sounds, and touching. There were white sheets that chafed his skin and cold, shiny things. Worst of all, there were no bathtubs anywhere—no porcelain baths filled with blue water, where he could calm down, where he could get away, out to the three mountaintops that rose from the ocean.
The beings—terrifying tangle of fingers and voices—had put him in the shower instead. He’d acted out his fury and fits with his eyes clamped shut but had to take a shower anyway. More than losing his voice from the screaming, more than the stuff they did when he was finally finished vomiting and had been cleaned with that dreadful soap that smelled like the bottle in the cabinet that read POLISH REMOVER, Sephiri was furious that he hadn’t had a chance to finish ensuring order in the medicine cabinet. He hadn’t had the chance to finish saving the Tylenol boxes from disarray, from their disconnection to their places on the earth.
After the blue pills, and only after his mother fell asleep, he would slip out of bed to open the cabinet, to order and reorder. He promised the boxes and bottles that he would never swallow anything from them again. He had hurt their feelings without realizing it. He had learned his lesson. He would put everything back as it had been, with each item turned at the exact angle of origination, with the pill packs arranged as they were and the lock clicked back in place. And he would get up every night to sanctify what was behind that mirror in the bathroom over the sink, with the distant sound of a freight train’s midnight whistle as his cue. Such activity was a deep balm to Sephiri, a way to make everything in the world fit in its precise position on the planet. As all things should. Not the jungle of confusion he was forced to witness, to waddle in, every day of his life.
But there had been nothing like these flying creatures, these wild things that had somehow found him in his head. And for many days and nights, they swarmed the hinterlands of his mind, riding his thoughts, replacing the shadows and the mattress thing, replacing even the medicine cabinet lately. The glowing amber in their bellies was warm and everlasting. That much he knew. They reminded Sephiri of the oily liquid inside his mother’s dusty perfume bottles, which he had spent considerable time ordering in the twilight of dawn when the house was still and asleep, when there was less interference from all the other things assaulting his eyes and ears. And every time Sephiri thought of the locusts, he wanted to smile; it was something his mother had often tried to get him to do, something he’d seen demonstrated on the faces of others but had never understood how it worked.
Smiles intrigued him. He spent many days thinking about them, especially at bathtime, when his mother often smiled at him in the quiet. He would scream to let her know that he did not want to be soaped up right away, that he had an important visit to make to the Obsidians, where he might ask the Great Octopus about smiles and other things he did not understand. He flailed and splashed. He knocked the soap from her hands and kicked up enough water to pool on the bathroom floor. Then he would hear the loudness, the oncoming train in her voice. “Stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it.” She hissed and held on. He persisted. He hadn’t had the time to stop it stop it right then. He had to get into his boat before the water got cold, before the tub stopper was pulled out and the tributaries were drained.
When at last his mother seemed to understand his signals, when she was as soaked and outraged from all the splashing as if she had been dropped into a circus dumping tank, she left him alone to calm down, to absorb the turquoise and warmth, to disembark. It was at frustrating moments such as this that Sephiri wished that they spoke the same language. But he did not speak the language of Air, the land of his mother. He did not understand how things were done there or what occupied the species. There were different sounds and faces that somehow ruled them, and these were attached to meaning that was unintelligible to him. He had no patience for the stops and starts that fell from their mouths. There was no sharing of thought and feeling as there was with his friends of the deep. Sometimes, though, when his mother tired of chasing him, when he tired of screaming, she held him, and he allowed himself to be held. They felt each other. That was as close as Sephiri had ever gotten to reaching his mother and penetrating the Land of Air.
He had discovered as early as two years old that Air and Water were different places with different ways and language. He had been playing with some colored blocks on the floor. He had wanted to line the blocks up and then line them up again. He remembered his mother picking up different blocks, saying something, and pointing. He did not look at her face, but he could see that finger pointing from the corner of his eye and her hand holding the block. She took his hand and placed it on each block, and he felt as if he was being pulled apart. He didn’t want to hold the blocks. He didn’t want to think about their shape and color and mimic her sounds. He had wanted only to line them up and line them up again. To ensure that they were where they were supposed to be. He tried to explain. But his mother did not comprehend him, and the more he tried to get her to understand, the more it became clear to him that she would never know his language.
Sephiri gripped the crayon and looked down at the paper, thinking instead of the fat-bellied locusts of his dreams again, for he did not want to dwell on things that would make him cry. Why had the locusts come? In his dreams, he saw them growing to bursting, pushing up and out of the earth, taking flight. Above his head, they were waiting, rising, and hovering, as if by their gathering they anticipated something. He began guiding the crayon, his hand moving effortlessly. He first drew the foreground and then sketched a vast plain. In the center, he constructed two towers with a giant iron gate connecting them and an enormous structure behind them. Sephiri didn’t know what it was, but it reminded him of the coat closet he locked himself into sometimes at home, but bigger. A giant black box that held things, with a voice that called to him from its farthest corner.
“Come here . . .”
He did not recognize the voice, and he was not sure what the two words meant. Especially together. He’d heard them said before at the Autism Center, and sometimes, he thought, his mother said them too. But he couldn’t decide if the two words were the same as other phrases he’d heard: “come home” or “can hear.” But all that was too much to figure out now, since the other things were so clear to him at last. His hand moved deftly, sketching enormous mountains in the background, a cloud of locusts flying over their peaks.
Sephiri furiously continued drawing, and at the height of his fever, he snapped his crayon. He threw the drawing down and watched the paper slide under the table. He was angry that his hand had not been able to keep up with his mind, one of many things that frustrated him about being in the Land of Air. He couldn’t stand the different regimens and schedules that were not of his own making, how the people were always telling and talking and asking, until it all became a sort of noise that ran together in his head. This place was filled with air, not water, where he felt at home.
He could float out to the realness of his World of Water, where the sea was an endless expanse as turquoise as the liquid in his bathtub. Where he didn’t have to try to understand the strange sounds of words dripping from mouths. He could head to his desired destination anytime he wanted, with only his little wooden boat gliding toward the three great black rocks that rose from the ocean. The dolphin waited for his company there, and the Great Octopus sat in majesty in his iridescent lair on the ocean floor. What concerned him in Air did not concern him in Water. He did not need the laws of physics to rein in his terrors, frustrations, and confusions there. He did not need to spin or bang or rock or flap. He could forget about the creatures flying in his dreams, the voice in the giant black box, the meaning of sounds and faces and smiles. He could forget about the words of Air and speak freely in Water, where the language of men was as indecipherable to his friends of the deep as it was to him. An encrypted thing to ponder briefly and release, like the dialogue of wolves and birds in flight.