Stories from Ovid – Battus and Ocyrhoe

The bus stopped at a gas station in the middle of yellow fields and William got out and looked at the sky.  It was a huge sky, a sky that went on and on.  An old woman had come down the bus’s stairs behind him and was stretching, leaning back with her hands in the center of her back, as if offering her breasts to the sky.  “It makes you think, doesn’t it,” she said.  When she saw that William didn’t know what she meant, she said, “A sky like that has got to change the way your brain works.  I doubt the indian tribes had the same kinds of brains as us.”

“Why?” William asked.  He had been aware of this woman all night.  As the bus rumbled across Wyoming, she had talked and talked to whoever was sitting beside her.  He had heard her voice as he drifted in and out of sleep, and it had sounded like part of the bus itself, as constant as the dull mechanical hum of the air conditioner and the wheels sighing against the road.

“Well, it’s got to effect you, doesn’t it, staring at that sky all the time?  I’m not saying that their brains were smaller or anything.  That would be racist.  Just that different synapses had to fire, you know what I mean?  That sky would stimulate neurons differently.”

William looked away from her and shrugged.  He went into the gas station and looked at the cowboy and indian stuff hanging on wire carousels at the front of the candy aisles.  He fingered a dream catcher, ruffling a feather that ran down in front of a woven circle.  He tried on a straw cowboy hat.  Most of the people from the bus were inside the gas station now.  They were forming a long line by the register, yawning and rumpled, moving their shoulders as if they could shake the night off of them.  The old woman had followed him inside, and she was talking to a girl with a lot of brown hair.  The girl was wearing heavy make-up, and there was something wrong with the way she’d done her eyes, as if, standing in the bus’s small bathroom, she had outlined them too heavily to compensate for the weakness of the overhead light, and now they looked startled, even though her lids were half closed and sleepy.

“They found a lot of dinosaur bones in this part of the country,” the old woman was saying.  “Lots of them, and at first they thought they were monsters.  Dragons, that sort of thing.  Because they thought the earth was only ten thousand years old.  And even when people suspected the truth, others resisted.  Think of that.  They’d rather believe in dragons than evolution.”  The girl wasn’t listening.  William wondered if she was the old woman’s granddaughter.

He let the crowd push him into a corner and turned to face away from it.  He found himself looking through the glass door of a cooler full of coffee drinks.  He opened it and cold air flowed softly against him, and he glanced back to see if the kid at the register would notice if he left it open for a few minutes.  The kid was wearing a blue baseball cap and gazing into space with the perpetually bored expression of someone who spends too much time watching other people make change.  He didn’t seem to notice William, and William turned his face back to the cold air and put both hands inside the cooler and gripped cold glass bottles.  He closed his eyes and listened to the shuffling morning sounds of the other bus passengers, and to the old woman’s voice cutting across them.

“Now Nebraska,” she was saying, “was all under water.  Not many dinosaur bones there.  But other bones, bones from large mammals.  Isn’t it lovely to think that we just drove across an inland sea!”

William turned his head to look at her and found the dark haired girl watching him.  He took his hands off of the bottles and selected one, as if he had been intending to buy it.  The cooler door slid shut behind him.  There was a long line at the register still, and he didn’t want to wait in it.  He glanced at the clerk’s face, saw that he was occupied with teasing open a plastic bag, and carried the coffee drink outside.  He sat on the curb right outside the gas station’s glass windows and sipped at it.  When everyone cleared out, he would go inside and pay for it.

He watched the other passengers make their way in little knotted groups back to the bus.  The butts of their pants sagged with wrinkles.  The driver had gone somewhere, and they reboarded and sat disconsolately in their seats.  He could see their faces through the tint of the brown windows.  He squinted up into the bright, clear morning sunlight and sniffed at the gasoline in the air, and wondered what it would have been like, to be an indian, and set up your tipi right here, in this place two hundred years ago, and feel the sweep of that wide open sky right inside of your own brain.

Everyone was back on the bus except the driver.  William stayed where he was, waiting for him, refusing to feel anxious.  The gas station door slid open and the clerk came out and stood in the morning sunlight.  The bill of his baseball cap shaded his face as he looked down at William.  William’s hand went to his pocket, to where his wallet was, and the clerk’s eyes watched him.  There was amusement in them.

“Can I have a sip of your drink?” the clerk asked him.

William’s hand paused and he looked up into the boy’s blue eyes.  Then he held the bottle up so the clerk could take it.  The boy took a long drink, tilting his head back and moving his adam’s apple up and down.  The skin of his forehead was burnished by the dark brown shadow from his baseball cap, so it looked like an indian’s skin.  William watched the  sweet, cold coffee disappear from the bottle.  When he was done drinking, the clerk sighed and smiled and handed the bottle back to him, nearly empty.

“Thanks,” he said.  Then he reached into his pocket and took out two quarters and handed them to William.  “For the drink,” he said.

“I wasn’t stealing it,” William told him.  “I was going to come back inside and pay you for it.”  The clerk shook his head, silencing him.  There was deep, long-standing amusement in those shaded blue eyes.

They could both hear the sound of a toilet flushing, and then the bus driver came around the side of the building, buckling his pants.  William stood up.  The quarters were still in his hand.  He reached out and took the clerks hand and put the coins in his palm.  “By yourself another one,” he said, and the boy’s shadowed face crinkled with laughter.

William followed the driver back across the asphalt and got onto the bus.  Faces lifted and looked at him as he went down the aisle, as if the passengers were surprised that one of their number had still been missing.  His seat was at the back, and the dark-haired girl was sitting in it.  The seat beside her was empty.  He paused and she met his gaze, and her eyes looked less startled in the dull tinted light of the bus.  As if her make-up had been meant for this place, and only this place, because it was where she belonged.  He didn’t tell her that she was in his seat, but sat beside her, quietly, and waited for something, although he didn’t know what.  The bus creaked on its springs and started up.  The gas station turned out of view outside the brown windows.  There there was nothing but plains, and the big sky stretching out beside them.  He looked past the girl to see out the window, and she looked at him.  He thought her expression was accusatory and said, “I didn’t steal that drink.  That kid was playing some kind of game.”

“What drink?” she asked him.  Her voice was very deep and full sounding.  He had never heard another voice like it.

“The iced coffee,” he said.  “I didn’t steal it.”

“You didn’t steal it,” she said, agreeing with him, and her voice was so powerfully full that it seemed to make it real, the fact that he hadn’t stolen but been involved in some kind of accident.

“Is that your grandmother,” he asked, “the woman who was talking to you?”

“Not my grandmother,” she said, and it was like she was defining reality.  It seemed impossible that he had ever thought the old woman could be related to her, with her weird facts that ran on and on.

“I’m going out to Seattle,” William told her.  “I don’t know why.”

“What’s in Seattle?” she asked.

“What is in Seattle?” he said, and it was a genuine question, because suddenly he didn’t know, he didn’t know why he had picked Seattle of all the places on the map.  He didn’t know what he expected to find there, what he hoped for.  “I’m married,” he told her.  “I’ve only been married two weeks.  I’m running away.”

“Why only two weeks?” she asked, and he glanced around, thinking that everyone on the bus must be able to hear her, that the sound of her voice must be sonorous within the bones of their bodies, as it was for him.

“I found out that she cheated on me,” he told her, almost whispering, “and she was trying to cheat on my again.”

“Why would she cheat on you?”

“That’s the thing.  I don’t know why.  All I wanted to do was take care of her.”

“I find it to be at truth that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close to hand,” she said.

“What’s that?” he asked, sensing that she was quoting.

“The Bible.”

“But that’s just it,” he said.  “I wanted to be like the Bible.  Good like the Bible.  But she wouldn’t let me.”

The girl closed her eyes and opened them again.  The effect was powerful.  It drew his face closer to hers.  “Why wouldn’t she let you?”

“I don’t know.  I guess she didn’t want to be taken care of.”

“She didn’t want to be taken care of,” the girl repeated, and William felt something sigh deep within him, some coiled tension find release.  It was like she had told him the truth.

He wanted to keep telling her things, and he did, as the bus trundled on throughout the day.  His face leaned closer to her in the semi-darkness, and he wanted to kiss her, through all that heavy make-up, but he felt that it would be like reaching back through the years, through all the centuries, and breaking the film of time, so that if his lips were to touch hers he would find that she wasn’t really there at all, but only a wave of some dark primordial sea, rolling slowly back and forth inside the bus.  He wanted her to tell him something about his future, because he thought that if she said it, it would certainly come true.  But he had no plans for the future, that became clear to him as he talked.  Only the past, which, as he said things and she repeated them, became more and more real to him but also, at the same time, mysterious and humorous and irrevocably lost.

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4 responses to “Stories from Ovid – Battus and Ocyrhoe

  1. Hi Karl,
    I liked your story. I use to have a dream catcher but in my move, some how it was misplaced and I can’t find it to save me. Is this yound lady a ‘mystic’?
    Evy

  2. Karl, Can you send me the Ocyrhoe story from Ovid? I don’t know where to find the story. Thanks.

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