From the thing that lies hidden in these wolds—
Had drawn up the spectre of a planet
From the limbo of lunary souls—
This sinfully scintillant planet
In a low mountain quarry, an exile memorized the story of her shadow play. When means are few, motion pictures are stripped to light and limb. Scoria was a filmmaker without a camera, so she had to be the cinema herself: prop, stage, and animus gesturing in front of a fire. There was no other way. Civilization had rolled her away from itself like a festering log at a cooperage. What was she to do? Survive and die with only mourning in between?
The initial weeks of rejection were more puzzling than hurtful. The lack of warnings. To be unbelonging, to know you are not wanted, but not know why. She wondered was she fetid, and couldn’t smell herself? That wasn’t it. Bees always nestled her in city parks, skimming her at length for fixture, shade, and nectar.
Scoria then supposed she lacked a through-line, that she was an indefinite mass mistaken for a person; but when she squeezed her sides they sprung back like memory foam. She was not nothing.
The Council did not tell people why they were exiled, so Scoria was never sure. Her neighbors gossiped, but they never confronted her. Her case manager circled Unproductivity on the discharge form in her sealed file:
Our assessment has determined that [Scoria] is beyond system solutions. She cannot compensate for her work pace. She has no major inheritances to contribute to city networks. She does not have enough aesthetic capital to be a non-worker, a non-traditional worker, or an exempted below-average worker. She will not work faster; her managers cite ‘inability.’
Her physician has not flagged her for compassionate response.
The recommended outcome is removal.
The Council did not give exiles last words. Security muzzled Scoria until she was beyond city gates. She received a tarp bag with empty bottles, two changes of clothes, used sneakers, a knife, a bar of soap, matches, and a grainy, xeroxed note with survival suggestions:
Do not attempt to return to the city. Any contact will be detected.
Do not cause undue damage to natural resources. Excessive damage will be punished.
Be watchful of fellow exiles, who may be unstable.
Written at the bottom of the paper, in clumsy pen:
You are assigned to the low eastern mountains.
Scoria asked security, “Council doesn’t seem to care how I live, so what is the knife for?” They didn’t respond.
She kept the paper for tinder. Security left to clean out her old housing quarters—redistributing and discarding her belongings. They watched the short films on her hard drive, remarked that they were not bad and sent them to the museum’s black reel department. One confiscator wrote in his diary, Sad that the kid never got training. Could’ve worked in visual experience if she wasn’t service class. The film the museum kept was Girl As Concourse, a faceless self-portrait of the artist as a portal.
She was surprised that this was what people didn’t want. Thickets. Her mind had never been as easy as it was when that gate shut behind her and breeze filled her ears. Her gait had never been so steady. Good riddance. She had never danced as much in the city as she did in the cool of the forest, nor had she known the kinship of other hungry animals. Scoria ate roasted crickets four times a day; she slept in random groves for three weeks before she got to the mountain. She walked half a day around the rocky base before she found the barren quarry.
Though she knew this was her place, Scoria was a hermit in her first two weeks at the mountain. Phantom desires for high society could be incapacitating, even when she could be anything she had room for. When she finally woke before sunset instead of in nighttime or late morning, it seemed like some black hole swallowed the panic in her body. The view. Layers of gossamer sky were uninterrupted by rush hour. Her past life was static tucked behind the forest, and under the trickle of the drinking stream.
Scoria didn’t know how many exiles there were, or if any were nearby. They showed themselves at the right time. She hadn’t eaten in two days, and the smell of meat and greens wafted from uphill. There was another quarry. She put on her sandals and satchel. She remembered the Council’s stranger danger note, but she needed to eat and she needed company that spoke to her.
There were two people a quarter-mile away. The mountain was so wide. Zam and Volta, both wearing smuggled clothes. They were stewing rabbit and herbs in a pot with a dented lid. Scoria approached their quarry slowly, but the women were not afraid. Volta looked at her calmly and beckoned her inside.
“Don’t hesitate. It’s okay. Council only gives us those notes to scare us.” Volta beckoned again.
Zam added, “Fear keeps most people away from each other. If Council watches us at all, it’s only to make sure we don’t break into the city. If you’re like us, you don’t want to go back anyway. Come sit.”
Scoria sat on a pelt.
“Tea?” Volta asked, presenting a polka-dotted mug. Scoria nodded.
“She’s not been eating,” Zam whispered to Volta. “Let’s give her some of our portions.”
When Scoria gained back her weight, Zam and Volta scolded her for neglecting her hair. Exile, they said, was no excuse. They assembled a salon at their lean-to table.
“And if there was an excuse before,” Zam chimed, “There won’t be one with us. We will do what you can’t.” Scoria winced as they detangled and braided her hair. Along the way they offered advice for split ends and moisture in the wild.
“We use clay for ceremonies,” Volta explained, parting a line on her scalp. “Every once in a while someone from the city sneaks us products, lotions, oils, seeds, paper. No electronics—too easily detected. We stretch them as long as possible. When there’s silence from the city, usually because they’ve upped security, we use leftover animal fats. We often trade for those supplies with our garden produce. Our soil is richer than the city’s.”
Scoria closed her eyes. The painful detangling was over and their hands were agile again. “You have ceremonies?”
“Yes we do.”
“I thought exiles didn’t speak to each other,” Scoria admitted.
“The stories people tell from far away,” Zam sighed. “Sometimes we join other people, usually for eclipses and new years. We have smoke signals, horns, and invitation songs to mark where we will be. There are four other exiles on our side of the mountain. Most of the time we all do our own thing, but if we don’t see someone on the ground for a while, we check on them.”
Volta looked outside, passing her fingers through the finished braids. “We buried a friend who died in his sleep almost a year ago. That’s probably the hardest part of adjusting to exile. No separation from death. But. As a result. I think we take our mortality more seriously. We take each other more preciously. We don’t live wastefully.”
Zam tilted Scoria’s head and undid a crooked braid. “Morgan, our friend, is buried beneath the thistle garden. Deep down, mind you, so don’t be afraid to walk there.” She paused. “The point is that we love the land. And we know that ultimately, we will be with it, and … heaven is under our feet.”
Scoria pressed her cheek on Zam’s knee, and reached for Volta’s hand. Heaven could be in exile.
“I want to make a new ceremony,” Scoria told them.
“Oh?” Volta asked.
“I’ve never worked without a camera, but I’ve wanted to try writing a shadow play. If I could light one corner of a room with candles, hang up one of the thin summer sheets, and make a few figurines, we could have a show. We could put on shows for each other and our neighbors. And they could put on shows for each other and us.
If I’m living with the two of you, why not turn my quarry into a community spot?”
Zam smiled. “We’re lucky to have each other, aren’t we? Let us know what you need.”
Before long, Scoria was frustrated with her ideas. She couldn’t figure out if the project itself was too ambitious, or if she wasn’t good enough for it. The next time she, Zam, and Volta drew water from the drinking stream, the two lovers suggested they all stay there until sundown. The water’s murmur would clear Scoria’s mind. Zam and Volta sat on dry grass, playing hand games, while Scoria walked restlessly, observing them. How naturally their hands came together.
“I want this first play to be for the two of you,” she said, pacing the waterfront. “But I don’t think I know you well enough. Do I?”
Volta raised an eyebrow. “I suppose you don’t. Sit.”
Scoria sat, facing Zam and Volta so they formed a triangle.
“I suppose you think Zam and I have always been as you see us now, and it’s difficult to derive a narrative from such an even union.”
Scoria nodded. “Every fiction I consider pales in comparison to the real you.”
Volta exchanged a glance with Zam, and sighed, “It feels good to pretend we were always this effortless. The truth is that I was quite annoying, to the point that Zam couldn’t bear me. You see, I was an academic before I came here. Strewn in ivy. And though I defected from the academy in protest, I still had this air about myself that these exiles were lucky to have me. I didn’t have to be here, but they did.” Zam hummed knowingly as Volta continued. “I thought Zam’s informal study of plantlife was cute, at best, but not on par with the fieldwork I did. And I made that obvious.”
Scoria watched Volta’s face, which tensed from suppressed embarrassment. In her silence, Zam spoke up.
“We sparred. I called her an arrogant pig, and I left while she slept off her bruised ego. I went out into the forest for about a month, living my best life. I always planned to return, but she didn’t know that. I went out looking for naturally-occurring psychedelics, and I was essentially high on shrooms the entire time I was gone. While Zam faced her inadequacies as a friend and a lover for the first time. That was what we needed. She, humbling, I, emboldening.”
Volta carried the rest of their story. “I returned from fishing one day, and Zam was just sitting in the middle of our floor, very relaxed. I wanted to thank her for returning. I wanted to apologize for driving her away. But I didn’t know how, so I started a fire for dinner, as usual. I did tell her I was glad she was back, and I wanted us to go back to normal. I had gotten very thin.”
“Volta was very sheepish, uncharacteristic for her. I asked her if she wanted us enough in that moment to do anything I asked. She relented. I told her, I wanted to get her so high she’d lose her face. Volta didn’t like losing control, but she said yes. And we ate a bunch of mushrooms, and just waited. Laid there on the floor together, going and going and going. Floating.”
“I confessed to Zam, how unhappy I’d been for years before I came to the mountain. How jealous I was of her for knowing her mind before I knew mine—even having not nearly as much support as I’d had. I told her how lost I felt without competition, someone to outsmart. I was intimidated that she could always keep up with me. Then I started ranting about my face melting.” They all laughed at this image. Volta, who was so put together, unraveling.
“I kissed the edges of Volta’s face so she’d know she was still real. It was a revelatory night that begat more revelatory nights. And now the three of us can sit here today, knowing how to keep each other well.”
Scoria put her mind to it. She was intimidated by this first effort as a playwright; she was haunted by past times, when she hadn’t known the fruits of her labor. And still, she started conceiving a play that contained slices of her friends, and the world they made possible. She laid her notebook on her lap and began writing—hesitantly, then not. The women she’d begun to think of as godmothers fussed over her, swaddling her in blankets and affirmations when she was preoccupied with her project. In a defining moment, Volta wrapped her legs and arms around Scoria and whispered, “You’re as tense as I was when I was writing my dissertation. Just draft it until it sails.”
As Volta held Scoria, Zam peeked at her script, causing the writer to clutch it to her chest defensively. Zam had already read the title, and was shifting her weight thoughtfully.
“You’re calling the play Don’t Return to the City?” Zam asked.
“Yes, I think so,” Scoria replied, still defensive.
“Now I know why you’ve had writer’s block,” Zam said, with an airy laugh. “You’re bitter.”
Scoria’s body hardened reflexively at the word “bitter,” and Zam held up a hand in reproach.
“I didn’t mean that the way you think I did. If you’re angry, you’re angry. You’ll probably be angry for a while. It isn’t easy to be thrown away by the city. Volta and I are still dealing with that fallout,” Zam shook her head. “But bitterness becomes something other than righteous when you’re trying to, as I understand it, be alive. Artist. Some fruit is too sour to be eaten. Matter of fact, I’ve been saving something for you. But you can decide if you want it.”
Zam lifted the lid of the fruit basket on their lean-to table. They must have had a new harvest. The globular objects clarified when lain before Scoria: a lemon and a Golden Delicious. Her eyes widened at the apple. Goldens were her favorite—she hadn’t had one since her expulsion.
“Which do you want to snack on?” Zam posed innocently, bowed legs curving between the fruits. In little time, Scoria conceded that she wanted the Golden Delicious, not the lemon.
“Are you sure,” Volta teased. “They’re about the same color. One might as well be the other.” Scoria acknowledged, again, that she wanted a Golden Delicious far more than a raw lemon.
“Well, it’s a good thing you have that as an option now, isn’t it? ” Zam encouraged, as Scoria reached for the apple. As she chewed, Zam joined her on the floor. “Do you notice that this apple is sweeter than the ones we had in the city?”
“There’s a fuller taste to it,” Scoria agreed before swallowing.
“So let’s not lose the plot,” Zam continued, as Volta looked on pridefully. “Even when you came to us in need of a meal, I could see you were free inside—in a way that just isn’t possible in the city. Don’t mess up that good feeling, your potential life and art in the quarries, because other people meant it as a punishment for you—” Unexpectedly, Volta chuckled, causing Zam and Scoria to turn their attention.
“Did I miss something?” Zam asked.
“No,” Volta said, her voice lilted by humor. “There’s this Brer Rabbit tale, where the fox thinks he’s hurting the rabbit by throwing him into the bush, and he doesn’t consider that the bush is the rabbit’s natural habitat. So, Scoria, I’ll add my piece while I have the floor. Baby, in this story we’re the rabbits.”
Zam applauded softly. “Volta, you’ve spoken my mind,” she said. “Scoria, don’t forget. Don’t forget.”
THE WONDERLAND SERIES, Scoria wrote as the draft’s final title.
Act 1: ‘Bringer, Doctor, & the Wonderland Shrooms.’
Shadow play created in honor of Zam and Volta, of the Third Quarry.
Narrator — can be multiple people
Tat (Bringer / Br.) — a gatherer; Tact’s partner
Tact (Doctor / Dr.) — a crafter; Tat’s partner
The Domi (The Field)
[THE SCENE is THE DOMI.
TAT puppet picks plants into a basket.
TACT puppet holds a pan over a fire.]
There Were A Bringer (Br.) And A Doctor (Dr.)
—Weathered, Timeless Sapphics Of An Alegal Domi
Built In The Tertiary Slim
Of A Useful Field Of Satiations.
This Field Is Forever, Quoth The Dr., With Dryable Seed
And Capture, While Br. Felt Survival
Wouldn’t Last On Itself.
[Both TAT and TACT puppets stop working.
TAT is covered in a net.]
So Some Nights, Br. Knotted Herself In Fishnets
And Asked Dr. To Unravel The Masses With Her Mouth.
Br. Needed Dr. To Remember More Than Vocational Hands
Or Digital Precision.
In Their Lazy Fog,
Br. Whispered To Dr.,
Soon I’ll Gather A Substance
That Doctors You.
[TACT puppet leaves the scene.
THE SCENE changes to THE FOREST.
TAT puppet paces left and right with a butterfly net.]
Long Before You And I Were Possible
Divinities Grew From The Ground.
If You Were Skilled, You Could Catch Them
In The Thickets.
They Couldn’t Run Away,
Nor Did They Need To;
They Were So Unattractive That
Few Would Think To Use Them—
Moist, Bulging Fungi With Phlegmy Hues
Whose Caps Resembled Sickly Faces.
But If You Took Them In …
Oh, The Magic They Would Lend To You!
Thus Br., A Seer Who Knew The Power
Of Un-Beautiful Things,
Took A Long Trip In The Forest.
She Searched The Dampest Pockets
Of Moldering Trees And Marshes,
For The Fabled, Foul-Faced Shrooms,
Which Were Inconspicuous Tunnels
To Other Dimensions Of Beauty.
[TAT puppet leaves the scene.
THE SCENE changes to THE DOMI.
TACT puppet wanders restlessly.
TAT puppet enters the scene with a new head.]
When Br. Returned, She Seemed To Be A Different Person.
In The Forest, She’d Crushed The Magic Shrooms
Into A Vernix, Which, When Applied To Her Face,
Gave Her New Appearance. She Tapped Dr. On The Shoulder
And Made A Proposition, As If She Were A Stranger.
“I Met Your Wife In The Forest, And I’ve Fallen In Love With Her,”
She Professed, In A Disguised Voice.
“But She Is, As Of Yet, Unwilling To Let You Go,
I’ve Come To Deliver Her Challenge To You,
To Determine Who Shall Have Her Hand Henceforth.
She Being A Botanist, Much Like Myself, Offers You Two Fungi.
One, To My Left, Will Increase Your Capacities,
So That You Might Gain Skill In Your Trade Or Studies.
The Other, To My Right, Will Have A Mysterious, Benign Effect
That Brings You Closer To Your Lover. The Former, If Chosen,
Will Be The End Of Your Union, But A Catalyst To Your Renown.”
Dr. Looked At The Stranger Curiously, Wondering If, Perhaps,
They’d Known Each Other Before. Maybe It Was The Comportment
Of Her Mouth, If Not Its Shape. And Some Movement Of Her Eyes.
Anyhow, The Underwritten Resemblance Made The Dr.
Miss Br. Even More Than She Had Previously.
And What Good Would New Mental Capacities Be
If She Was Too Lovebroken To Focus. So,
Without Knowing It, Dr. Told Br.
She Wanted More Than Vocation. She Wanted
A Life. The Dr. Said,
“I’ll Have The Mysterious Fungus, And
My Wife Back Here With Me.”
Br. Smiled. “I Guess I’ve Lost To You,” She Said,
Laying Both Shrooms In Dr.’s Hands.
“This Was Part Of The Lady’s Instructions,
If You Chose Favorably. Consume Them Together
To Change Yourself From The Inside. One, To Sharpen
The Senses, The Other, To Blunt The Ego.”
Dr. Peered At The Fungi, Their Layers Of Secretion,
Suspiciously, Though She Did Eat Them.
And Waited, And Waited, And,
“Wait,” She Said, With Alarm.
The Faint Etches Of Resemblance
She’d Spied Between This Stranger And Br.
Seemed To Close In On Each Other.
Dr. Saw The Face Before Her With A Sense
That Surpassed Sight. Finally,
She Saw Her Wife.
Br. Said, “What You’re Perceiving,
That’s How I’ve Perceived
The World My Whole Life. The Changes
Of Our Bodies Always Betrayed
By The Constants Of Our Souls.”
And Dr. Said, In A Smaller, Awestruck Voice,
“If This Is Your Vision, You Are Far More Than My Equal.”
And Dr. Asked, Finally, To Be Taught.
Zam and Volta hummed over the script. “This version is better,” Zam said. “When you let yourself go, the story came in.”
“Put on this act for us,” followed Volta. “Knowing you can revise it, which isn’t to say it’s less than a lovely abstraction. In the end, we don’t need to be geniuses, we need to be editors. Whatever you leave out of your script can be finished by future people. And,” Volta added hurriedly, as if grasping a slippery concept, “Many of us would like to travel beyond the quarries, from time to time. Perhaps your mind will be one of our vehicles. So we won’t get too bogged down in our mountain.”
Scoria and Volta gravitated to Zam, who produced contraband wine from an age-spotted trunk. They toasted to new life.
On the night of her play’s debut, Scoria tallowed her hair, splinting the tendrils into the shape of The Domi. Her hair would stage the first act of Wonderland. She wanted to be the cinema herself: prop, stage, and animus gesturing in front of a fire. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Zam and Volta had been setting up the theatre quarry for a couple hours everyday—insisting the master of ceremonies wasn’t responsible for the assembly. They treated her like a tender bride, barring her from seeing the finished product until the awaited day. Scoria allowed herself to be taken care of, giving loose pointers about the room’s orientation, and leaving the details to them. From time to time she’d hear one of them blow a conch shell, and she’d know they were organizing attendees—whom would walk with whom, whom would bring what, when they should plan to arrive.
Scoria’s heart warmed her body when she entered the theater quarry, box of puppets in hand, pair of housemates in tow. Zam, Volta, and apparently a few volunteers, had made benches, tables, and figurines of stone, wood, and linen. The volunteers were among the guests huddled outside, in their best shawls, waiting to be invited in. Scoria ran her hand along the cushions of the benches, which had been hand-dyed red, and she turned slowly to examine the winding mural on the walls. Large, cylindrical candles cast pleasant light around the room, illuminating the work that went into it. When Zam and Volta asked if she liked all of it, Scoria nodded emphatically, her eyes brimming with delight.
“Ready to light your stage?” Zam proposed. When Scoria said yes, Zam bowed with a dancer’s grace. The three women grabbed candles from behind their makeshift shadow-screen, touching each one to an already-burning flame.
As Scoria knelt in her performance space—her black silhouette obscured from the neck down by a wide, decorated slab—her matrons welcomed neighbors to the seating area. Attendees laid food platters at corners of the room, anticipating the celebration that would succeed Wonderland. At this moment, if not before, they needed no reminder that home was not in the city.