BY: Johanna DeBiase
The men and women of the city of Xouxi stood shoulder-to-shoulder, winding along the sidewalk, waiting in a line they could not see the end of because the air was too dense with smog. Smog wafted from coal-burning factories and shot from muffler pipes, sending mineral particles into the atmosphere. It hung low and thick over buildings, pushing through street ways and alleyways, along sidewalks. Brown-gray like granite, opaque like storm clouds. People shuffled, myopic, so as not to bump or be bumped, so as not to lose their breath. Their voices croaked and heaved from throats and lungs encrusted with grime.
The line is moving.
How far are we from the end?
The people spoke through white cotton surgical masks, their speech muffled with coughing. Opal did not chat easily with the others in line, her in-laws, who had never known life without masks, rasping voices, or burning lungs. They had grown up in the city and were accustomed to the clanging noises and shuffling pace.
All day they watched on television about the new shipment of air being brought down from the mountains in the air trucks where, for 600 yuan each, an average year’s salary, they could have one minute to suck from a tube, the clean oxygen of nature. The newscasters speculated that the sensation must be like drinking spring water, fresh and cool, into your lungs.
Like your whole body is lifted and floating in space for only a moment, Opal said in a whisper when there was a lull.
She knows nothing, her mother-in-law said to the brother-in-law. She doesn’t remember a thing.
I do too, Opal said. I remember everything.
Unlikely, said her father-in-law.
That was yesterday. Today Opal and the in-laws woke before daybreak, when the sky turned the color of rotten bananas. But they were not the first in line. Many others had arrived before them. Now the line moved forward and somewhere in the far distance ahead of them was the truck with the air machine that whirled and vibrated inside its metal cage.
Opal cradled her belly in her hands. She was eight months pregnant and her ankles swelled from standing for so long. Her husband chattered with his brothers in front of her. Before them, his grandparents sat in folding chairs. There was no chair for Opal. She was a small woman aside from the bulge of her belly that threatened to tip her forward so that she had to arch back as her hips splayed apart. She used to be as fair as the swans that swam on her father’s lake, but the city had encrusted itself into her pores so that her skin was dark and ruddy like the others. The mask covered her pale and withered lips. Her bloodshot eyes leaked to loosen the dust from her pupils and the skin around them wrinkled into layers like windswept dunes around a muddy swamp.
Closing her eyes, she took tiny breaths. Her hands rested around the taut skin of her stretched torso awaiting a sign of life. Her baby had not moved in five days.
Are you sleeping lazy girl? her mother-in-law asked.
Opal opened her eyes but looked down at the littered street.
Speak when you are spoken to.
She spat at her feet, but Opal did not move. She did not speak. They turned away from her again as if she did not exist. They hated her downcast eyes, her crumpled shoulders, her frail voice.
They hated that she did not chat with the women when they hung their clothes in lines around the house to keep them clean just a bit longer before they wore them out into the cumulus dirt. She did not cook beside them in their greasy kitchens, their vegetables shriveled and stunted. She kept her head low and did not chant prayers in temple except when they said the prayer for heaven to descend upon them in light and clarity. Even then, she only moved her lips.
But the greatest contempt of all was that she had come to Xouxi only five years ago from the top of the mountain to marry her husband. And she once knew the fresh air and the sky that was big and blue and the crystal breeze that took the dust away with it when it left.
When she first moved to the city and married her husband, she refused to go outside into the storm of filth, the dingy muggy heat, crying that she could not bear the gray any longer, that she could not live in a cloud of smoke. After that, they knew she was different and kept away.
When she learned that she was pregnant, she begged to return to her parents in the mountains. For the sake of my baby, she said. But they all bore babies in the city, why couldn’t she? They hoped for a boy who could scorn his mother’s lofty dreams of snowy peaks. They could raise him to be city folk like them.
It’s like floating, a floating balloon.
No, it’s not! her husband yelled, Stop your lies!
It’s like happiness, she said, pure bliss.
You’re lying. You don’t remember, said her in-laws.
But she did remember.
Sometimes, at night, she dreamed of clear blue glaciers wrapping silky fingers around her or an ocean breeze rushing through her bronchia. But she always awoke to the hum of filters and the stagnant settling of dirt on the windows, cars, stoops and the last remnants of her dream.
The line moved forward.
Come along, her husband commanded, Why are you so slow, cow? Do you want the air or not?
Her lips moved.
Let’s go. We’re nearing.
The truck was before them. The rear doors open wide. The large machine grumbled and whined and a tube descended from it like an elephant trunk. The man ahead of them in line inhaled from the tube and his eyes rolled back into his head, a smile spanning his face.
The man with the machine looked at her husband. How many in your group? he asked. Her husband counted. There was grandma and grandpa, his two brothers, his mother and father, himself and Opal. Eight.
The man with the machine checked and tested his gauges for oxygen, timing and pressure. There’s only about seven minutes left, he said. Not enough for everyone.
The in-laws stared and then, understanding the problem, nodded in agreement.
But my baby, Opal whispered, it hasn’t moved in days.
They ignored her. The grandmother moved forward and placed her mouth over the tube.
Opal leaned back against the brick wall. She held her bulging middle as if it might roll away.
Grandmother’s cheeks brightened, red with blush and when she exhaled she fell back in her chair with a massive sigh. Grandpa followed, then mother, then father, then the two brothers. Each in turn closed their eyes and felt the air circle behind their faces with the purity of sparkling peppermint, spilling down their throats like a soft caress, and filling their lungs so that they expanded bright and full of light. The world fell silently around them as they drifted above the city to the cloud forests and jungles where the sun was golden liquid in their mouths and their eyes were filled with green. For a minute, they lived outside themselves in a breeze, rice fields waving, animals running free.
The man with the machine motioned to her husband, Next.
The others opened their eyes and saw each other flush and they laughed with delight, still high with oxygen. They laughed until their eyes teared, leaving streaks of mud on their cheeks.
When it was her husband’s turn he looked at Opal, her eyes pleading. She shook her head. The baby, she mouthed. Her husband stepped forward and put the tube to his mouth. Opal watched his feet lift above the ground so that he hovered slightly.
The machine hiccupped and coughed. Her husband opened his brightened eyes as if he suddenly remembered something and quickly passed the tube to Opal who stood close by. Opal held the sputtering hose limp in her trembling hands. She lifted her mask above her lips. With care, she placed the tube on her mouth and inhaled long and hard in an attempt to retrieve the last puffs of heaven. The machine went silent. That’s it, the man said, no more air.
The truck doors closed. The man drove away. The people in line groaned and threw up their hands. They dispersed back into the smog.
The in-laws stared at Opal. Her head was down. The blush and laughter left them as the smog caved in around them. The sky and the ground, everything the same rusty metal hue. They could not meet each other’s glances. Their faces were solemn and pale. They stared at their feet as they meandered toward home.
Opal, lingering behind, ran her hand over her protruding belly and waited for her baby to kick.
Johanna DeBiase is a freelance journalist and author of Mama & the Hungry Hole, #4 in the Wordcraft Series of Fabulist Novellas (2015). She writes from New Mexico where she is spellbound by the energy vortex of Taos Mountain. Her fiction, flash and essays have been published by (or are forthcoming in) Queen Mob’s Tea House, Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, theEEEL, Convergence, Gravel and The Notebook, among others. Her video poems have premiered on Atticus Review and Prick of the Spindle. The rest of the time, she is a yoga instructor, vintage boutique owner and mother of one. www.JohannaDeBiase.com