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The Mollusk Fossils


The Mollusk Fossils
by Gregory Kimbrell

Of course, it was impossible to determine which
side had won: he who had acquired more pieces
or he who had surrendered. Perhaps the players
had not finished the game. Sous-Terrain walked
the etched grid lines of the massive game board
recessed in the plain, with polished stones, each
as big as his own torso, lying in heaps. The dust
that he had stirred up during his travels was still
settling in his wake. He could barely see the last
of the rock spires that had served him as guides.

Apparently, rain had not touched the earth here
in centuries. And this game stood, Sous-Terrain
imagined, exactly as it had when whatever titans
had played it ventured elsewhere. In the eastern
deserts, nomads moved from one watering hole
to the other. At times these were splendid oases
around which could be found palatial structures
carved by unknown former tenants. More often,
however, little springs and wells were concealed
among outcrops unaccompanied by signs of life.

How many wanderers had died because of their
thirst close enough to a source of water to place
their burning hands into it, maybe without even
realizing? And then, water dried up. Sand dunes
shifted. Pillars or vaulted ceilings could collapse.
Sous-Terrain had never learned to steer himself
by gazing at the heavens. He required terrestrial
signs—although whether following in Mornot’s
footsteps brought him any closer to his revenge
or to some unforeseen fate, he would not guess.

In his younger years, he had played chess with a
man in the market of Alleste. For five hours, he
had attempted to stop the progress of the white
pieces and the taking of his own pawns, knights,
bishops, and queen. But in the fading afternoon,
when the fragrance of roasting lamb permeated
the air, he had lost. A game had been offered to
Nello as well, but the time had been too late for
starting over. The two soldiers had returned, via
the slate-paved streets, thus ending the furlough.

To advance into the blank distance would mean
certain extinction. Miracles did not happen here.
Sous-Terrain had gathered from Brother Igya at
the observatory at the edge of the Linear Forest
only this: that one who perished in this frightful
place also relinquished his soul. No one entered
without wanting to be forgotten. If Mornot had
indeed come this way and gone farther ahead—
so far that the dust from his passing had already
settled—then he would not be coming out alive.

Sprawled someplace on the featureless earth, his
desiccated carcass would vanish under that dust,
until only dust was left. In the end, Sous-Terrain
had quit attempting to keep himself clean. Dust
was in his boots, and his long, knotted whiskers
fouled his lips and tongue with an acrid powder.
The choking, red cloud continued to rise and to
dissipate in this eternal, starless dusk. Nello was
actually dead this time, and Mornot would carry
his crime past the reach of even the Devil in hell.

Their entire regiment was lost, and its campaign
had surely concluded, one way or another, years
ago. Probably others had come after. What king
was presently housed in the castle at Ydre? And
which type of God in its cathedral? Was anyone
whom Sous-Terrain had known still alive, or on
his return home, if he really could return, might
he be welcomed only with silence? Ancient filth
burned his eyes, and his tears would not wash it
away—it simply worked itself deeper inside him.

* * *

Gregory Kimbrell is the author of The Primitive Observatory (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Manticore—Hybrid Writing from Hybrid Identities, Alcyone, Whatever Our Souls, Parentheses, Blackbird, and other publications. He is the events and programs coordinator for Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries. More of his writing, including his magnetic sci-fi/horror haiku, can be found at gregorykimbrell.com.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

I dream a lot. And every morning, I write down my dreams. But I never repurpose these dream narratives as poems, because however interesting or enjoyable reading them might be for other people, I, as their recorder, wouldn’t be traveling anywhere I haven’t been before.

I don’t know whether I believe in astral projection, parallel universes, extradimensional experience, or recollecting past lives, but I do often feel, on waking, as though I’d traveled great distances. And if dreaming is a form of travel, then my exercising my imagination through crafting fantastical poems, which is a kind of waking dreaming, is a way for me to reach other places that aren’t ordinarily accessible.

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