“Undergrowth” – Fiction by Ian Kappos

A Rushing Sea of Undergrowth - Emily Carr, 1935
A Rushing Sea of Undergrowth – Emily Carr, 1935

“Undergrowth,” from our Spring 2015 issue, is Ian Kappos‘ coming-of-age tale about loss, mysterious moss, and The Great Beast.

{ X }

WE CROWNED THE LEVEE, crossed the railroad tracks, and descended toward the river. The air was crisp and wet. Not like the city.

“This one is old,” Lyle told me, pointing through the murk at a tree that craned over the river. “I looked it up online.”

It was 1999, the last year that it would be cool for fourteen-year-old boys to listen to boy bands. Neither Lyle nor I was cool, but we grasped for a point of reference as earnestly as anybody our age.

“And check this out,” he went on, and led us scrambling through the underbrush. There was a full moon lazing above us, so we could see beyond the tangle of branches the river shining ripples of silver. Frogs croaked, mosquitoes buzzed. It was summer and we both wore denim shorts and polo shirts.

“See?” Lyle said. He pointed again. “Just around this bend.”

I tripped over a rock but found my footing in the suction of damp earth bordering the river. The water played at my shoes. Then I saw it: A bright green moss, or something like it, hugged a branch. It seemed to pulsate, going from a dull olive color to a sharp lime that made me squint.

Lyle then said something very fast that I didn’t catch, but he sounded excited.

I asked, “What is it?”

Little wormy things were fawning from it, dancing in different directions. They stretched and retracted, though there was no breeze.

“I don’t know,” Lyle whispered. “Some kind of lichen.”

I asked what lichen was.

“City kid.” He seemed to snap it.

“You don’t have to be mean.” I was careful to not sound like I was whining.

“I’m sorry.”

Lyle approached the glowing mass of green. It was large and seemed to stretch all the way around the branch, which was about three feet long. The end of the limb wilted toward the river, leafless—defeated, it seemed. I was from the city, as Lyle had so callously pointed out, but I knew something wasn’t right here. At this time of year, trees were supposed to be in full bloom. I knew this from my few walks in the park with my mom. She had always ignored the trees, but I had found them alluring. Never enough to learn their names, their species, but I liked it that way. They felt more like relics, without titles.

Lyle approached the tree. When he got within a few strides of the green span, the wormy things all turned toward him, as if magnetized—thick, shiny emerald hairs petrified in the air, as if they’d been rubbed by a balloon. Lyle jumped back and made a surprised chirping noise. He seemed shaken up, but I don’t know why. It had seemed like a pretty innocent gesture, on the moss’s part. It reminded me of the time I had found baby rats inside a broken down wall at the old apartment my mom and I shared. Like mine, their mother had been away. When I discovered them they all looked up at me with cloudy, innocent eyes, as if they had just woken up from a nap. I fed them the moldy part of the cheese that was in our fridge, which was the only food I’d been able to scrounge for myself.

“Let’s go back up to the tracks,” Lyle said after a minute of staring into the glowing lichen, which, save for the moon, was the most vibrant thing in our vicinity, juxtaposing the earthy mush around us. He was short of breath. Unfortunately, I was in no place to argue—we were staying the night at his mom’s house, so he called the shots. I would have rather stayed till morning, to see how the stuff competed with the sun.

At the top of the levee Lyle sparked up a joint. It was the first time I’d ever seen one, though I had smelled weed before in my aunt and uncle’s house. Lyle passed the joint to me. I drew on it hesitantly and then coughed. He nodded at me sagely.

We sat on the tracks and he started talking about some guy named Aleister Crowley, someone I had never heard of. Lyle always talked about things I didn’t know about. I had only moved to town a few months ago, but since our friendship formed in the early weeks of my arrival I knew enough about him to know that I never knew anything he knew.

I was fat, had a bowl-cut and glasses. Lyle was in better shape, but had a very sharp nose and wore sweatpants everyday. Neither of us was popular with girls, which devastated me, but Lyle claimed to have gotten laid when he was ten. I believed him because I didn’t have a reason not to. There was really only one person in the world that I had a reason to distrust, and she never even noticed trees—much less the books people grinded out of them.

“Before my mom takes you back to your aunt and uncle’s tomorrow,” Lyle told me, “I’m going to loan you one of Crowley’s books, The Book of the Law. I think you’ll like it.”

I nodded, not really listening, my eyes glazing in the tapestry of stars that seemed to beat down on me. I thought of the moss and how odd it was that Lyle wasn’t bringing it up. Lyle, I had learned, had a very short attention span. Then I thought how much I probably looked like my mom then, my glassy eyes widening to push out all color, all reason. And underneath the stars, high for my very first time, I think I realized then how small I really was, how very much like a rat in a wall waiting to be fed by some foreign hand.

Lyle’s mother took me home the next day. The Aleister Crowley book was tucked in my backpack because Lyle was adamant that she not see it. When I got home I cracked it open and tried my best to decipher the language, but it was lost on me. Acutely aware of how uncool I was, I called Lyle and admitted my difficulty to him. I could almost hear him smirking as he said, “Love is the law, love under will. That’s really all you need to know, Milo.”

“Okay,” I told him, swallowing a knot in my throat, hating as much as I ever had that feeling of helplessness and belittlement. Despite my best intentions, I ended up coddling that knot for a while.

A year later I discovered cocaine and Oxycontin in the same night. Lyle and I sat in his mother’s kitchen at the dinner table, naked, with an entrée of off-white powder between us. He chopped at mounds, diced chunks of pills into chalk, demonstrated to me all the education he’d gotten about the world of drugs from the Internet. We talked at each other through the night, our mouths, dry as bark, moving too fast for our thoughts. Eventually I threw up, and began to break out in itches. Lyle did the same. Still, we talked at each other. At one point the light flickered on and off and then to a brilliant emerald and then back to normal, and for a moment our feverish discourse was blown off course.

Lyle played it off, making some abstract joke about drugs and lens filters, and we both awkwardly laughed, trying—perhaps in vain—to temper not only our highs, but also our surroundings. Lyle had recently gotten into photography, and lately was of a mind to compare anything and everything to the mechanics of light, dimension, composition. His mother wasn’t home. We were fifteen and about to go to separate high schools. Two years into my teens and I was already growing bitterly accustomed to abandonment.

“Next year,” he breathed at me, scratching his collarbone, “in your lame intro to photography class, think about the river at night, and think about all those things you can’t capture with a camera.” His eyes gleamed, but he also had a haunted look to him, like he was reliving some uncomfortable memory he’d repressed for a long time. We hadn’t talked about that night by the river, now a year past, until now, though I often lay awake thinking about it, trying to recreate on the insides of my eyelids that otherworldly hue of the lichen on that tree, the tree that I couldn’t name. “Think about all the shit that you see that a lens won’t catch, that a shutter won’t snag, that a white balance can’t balance. Some things can’t be taught, because they can’t be learned.”

I was smiling, thinking of something to say, but by then he was already going on about something else. I leaned back in my chair, my eyes half-lidded, my fingers worming through my new tuft of chest hair, trying to will a breeze through the room, maybe some more color, too. Maybe a new lens filter I could trust. This would be the last time Lyle and I ever saw each other.

Halfway through the first year of high school Lyle was shot and killed on his way home from school. There were no leads on a murderer or a motive; there was not even a bullet casing on the premises. The only details I knew were these: he had been wearing a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt smudged with grass stains, the titles of the textbooks in his backpack had all been crossed out and replaced with the Latin names of flora, and the battery compartment of his camera had been stuffed with weeds and honeysuckle.

A week or so prior to his death, he had recently come out of the closet.

“I’m gay, Milo,” he had said to me over the phone. For the first time I sensed discomfort in his voice. “I understand if you don’t want to kick it with me anymore.”

“Are you kidding, man?” I laughed back, though I was secretly paranoid that my aunt was listening over the phone in the living room. “You’re my only friend, Lyle.”

I heard him smile, a kind of crackling of fibers, like a tree outgrowing its bark. “Love is the law,” he intoned theatrically. “Love under will.”

“Sure, man,” I said.

“All right, Milo.”

“Later, Lyle.”

The significance of his sexuality was hard for me to figure out. I had never seen him yearn for anything so much as he had yearned for facts, categories, designations. Maybe this newfound identity had merely been another strategy for him to make sense of himself, of the world.

My aunt wouldn’t allow me to go to the funeral service because there would be no rosary—and, besides, he was a “fag.” My uncle, who wasn’t Catholic, didn’t exactly back her on this, but neither did he argue my right to attend. I screamed into my pillow as my cousins played video games beside me.

In the following weeks I began to sneak out at night, just into the garden in the backyard of my aunt and uncle’s house—which was truly not much of a garden to begin with. It was riddled with wood chips and dog shit and stoic tufts of weeds. But beneath the stars and the pregnant moon, I would plunge my hands into this ugly topsoil, allowing my fingers to develop minds of their own, to seek out their own pathways in this new network of minerals and hushed sounds, to find their own sustenance, to warm their own caverns. To plant their own seeds.

In the wee hours of the morning I would return to my room and tuck my arms between my mattress and box spring, scraping the mulch and shit and cellulose from my hands. I would go to sleep imagining new life idling up from the nest beneath me, rich with color, with trust, inoculating me, nurturing me, and calling me not by name but by the bacteria in my stomach and the light in my eyes. One morning I woke up to a grand beating from my uncle, who had followed a trail of wet dirt from the backdoor to the foot of my bed. He called me by name, then; he called me by many names.

A few months later the school year ended and I earned satisfactory grades, though I had never so much as picked up a book or gone for any sizeable length of time without looking out the window at the lawns and gardens, waiting for spring to come.

On the first day of summer break my mom called me. My aunt passed me the phone with a scowl on her face and I went into the room that one of my cousins and I shared. He wasn’t there, but I closed the door anyway and sat on the edge of my bed. My mom had just gotten out of rehab for the second time. She asked me to come back home.

“Come to the city,” she pleaded. “I’m clean now. I’m okay now.”

For a minute I thought that the reception was bad, that the line had gone static. Then I realized that something acidic, something corrosive, was eating through the receiver, colonizing it, making the connection its own. A warmness began to spread across my fingers. Like little noodles, long, squirmy things played across the back of my hand, and I closed my eyes to a curtain of green.

“Mom,” I said. “You’re being immature.”

And I knew then that, no matter what seasons may come, my seedlings would sprout.

{ X }

IMG_20150226_162305IAN KAPPOS‘ short fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous online and print publications. With writer Derek Tollefson, he co-edits the new avant-garde magazine Milkfist and plays in the hardcore punk band Cross Class. He cannot whistle. A lifelong resident of Northern California, he is currently pursuing a BA in English at CSU Sacramento. Lurk him at www.iankappos.net.

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