“Baggage Check” by Shay Darrach
Read our interview with Shay Darrach
She’s packed her bags. They wait by the door in a tidy heap of reasons and complications.
She’s said no goodbyes, offered no reassurances of her return.
She’s not leaving; she’s moving on.
There’s a plane, or a train, or a rental car. A subway, a bicycle. Her own two feet. Somehow, she manages to juggle it all. Out the door. Down the street. There’s no one else to carry it – there never has been.
No one else can, when you’re moving on.
Her destination is not the end of a journey, but a waypoint. A place of exchange. Check your baggage at the door and take this ticket, this marker, this sticky reminder, this ink, this scar, instead.
It’s a place she’s known of since childhood, this baggage check where you can trade yourself in. She’s heard the story a hundred times or more, every iteration as fantastic as the previous. At times, it was a myth: this is how we survived when the world was still young. At times, it was a fairytale: once upon a time, a boy who was not a boy and a girl who was not a girl traded themselves in for each other and lived happily ever after. And still other times, it was a cautionary fable: there was a man who thought he’d trade himself in for a blank slate.
Everyone knows of the baggage check, but no one she knows has ever set out to find it. She’s always wondered why. And she thought, when the time came, that her bones would itch her into madness unless she tried. (A great-great-Aunt had described it thus, but admitted she hadn’t dared look.)
The itch has begun. She knows it’s time.
She walks through a hundred summers compressed into one long, hot day. Sunlight blisters her skin. She withers down to a shrunken husk. Rolls like a dried apple hanging from the branch of her baggage, tumbling from day into night into day.
Autumn chases her. She rattles, a dry leaf on the breeze, tangled in the dead-bone fingers of her past. Then comes the rain, driving her down into the mud. She hops along, frog-like, bags balanced on her head.
Winter finds her, soaks her through with ice and snow until she is swollen and lumpy, then buries her in powdery crystalline white. She tunnels through, using the bags as shovels and snowshoes.
Spring arrives in a swirl of wind and lifts her up on budding shoots. She dances from flower to flower, juggling the bags.
And at the end of four days, she arrives, just down the street, in the heart of the city where she began.
She passes over the threshold, baggage bouncing in her wake.
At the check-in desk, she hands over the first bag, the smallest box, the oldest remains. A tooth. A twist of hair (pale, almost colourless, though she is dark of skin and locks). A scattering of dreams pressed into a clay bead. Nightmares twisted into a knot of paper. Old things, almost forgotten.
She hands over the next bag. On the top, a pant suit, stacked with duty. Layers of fabric, dresses and skirts and blouses, folded neatly. Between each, a sheet of hope, tissue-paper thin. A tuxedo, trimmed with silk of frustration. A miniature tiara of plastic and fake rhinestones. A pair of combat boots, faded and scuffed. Each of these things she wore with grace, in their season.
Next, an oversized purse full of expectations borrowed or received from friends and coworkers. Well-meant good intentions knit the lining together. The contents a jumble of dating apps and hand-knit baby booties, paperclips and file folders and flash drives, mascara and lipstick and mace. Keys to places she’s never lived and will never visit. Badges that proclaim identities she’s worn, more or less comfortably. Maps in languages she’s known since childhood or learned as an adult and yet as incomprehensible as hieroglyphs on reed paper.
So many things for which she has no need. (Some for which she would never have had need, but assumptions and presumptions tied her tongue and bound her to their beliefs.) And if these things still smell of sorrow, if they are painted with tears, well.
There is a pink bag full of jittering lies that shudders its way across the floor like a cellphone left on vibrate that won’t stop ringing.
There is a blue bag full of even more lies, but these are old, mostly dead, and stir only sluggishly. The sound they make is the keening hiss of icy raindrops on glass.
She sets the two bags down, side by side. Like magnets with reversing poles, they move together and apart. Together and apart. Endlessly.
A bag of wigs and heels and sequins and feathers. All the bright, beautiful, shining tokens of a style embraced, and discarded. Memories carved into photographs before they were converted to pixels and scattered to the winds of public opinion and disdain. Styrofoam wounds and flesh-coloured tape to hide the scars. Padding for the skinny spots and slimmers for the lumpy spots. All the paraphernalia of Image soaked with leftover imagination and sweat.
Faint strains of music twine around the bag. The sides pulse gently: thump thump thump ba-dump thump thump. Subliminal; a heartbeat of motivation.
She offers a bag of words, misshapen and unwieldy. Once, they had been gathered into the compact embrace of pages, rigorously confined between covers with images of people who were always not her. Then she grew tired of the careful arrangement of other people’s words, of the constrictions that leapt from the pages of the stories they told. Never her story. Only shadows and rainbows; inverted mirrored reflections and unfulfilled promises.
So she ripped the covers off and shook the books until the words fell out and buried her feet in a mountain of adjectives and verbs and nouns and pronouns. Always the pronouns that never fit no matter which way she turned them, and the awkwardness of language that did not accommodate difference. She sifted the mountain and kept only the words that she liked, the words that loosely defined a world that lay slantwise to the one she lived in.
But in the end, these words were still not hers, so into the bag they went.
The last bag is more of a box. A trunk. A coffin. A problematic, paradigmatic structure inherited from her family of blood, hacked and modded by her family of choice. It contains ineffable, unspeakable things that manifest in no way she can control. They linger, unpleasant as the taste of ash in the air after a fire has been quenched. Vaporous fingers of regret and desperation reach for her, thin like threads of blood spun from her veins.
She shoves the box-bag onto the weight scale. The numbers scroll up into infinity and the scale wobbles. She takes off a ring, a necklace, her earrings, and slips them into a pocket-mouth. The box-bag whines. The scales settle. A feather drops.
The clerk looks at her and looks at the baggage and looks away. “One bag per person,” he says.
She laughs. “I’m not leaving.”
He looks at her and he looks away and then he walks away. The baggage falls into line behind him, ducklings in his wake, waddling off to be recycled or reclaimed. Or simply stored, in some place that is not her mind, not her soul.
“Is that everything?” he asks when he returns.
She nods. Holds out a hand.
He gives her nothing, and she understands that this is the way of things. Unexpected, but true. Perhaps this is why no one speaks of the exchange: they have no proof that will withstand outside judgement.
She takes a deep breath. Closes her eyes. Opens them again to find the baggage check, gone. Nothing stands before her; nothing to guide, nothing to guard. She will make her own path.
She is everything she has left behind. She is everything that is yet to come. She takes a step and the road grows beneath her feet. She knows it will lead her home.
She’s not leaving; she’s moving on.
About the Author
Wrangler of words. Herder of cats and code monkeys. An ocean spirit crashed on the shores of a lake. A dragon that tips the scales. Shay Darrach is all of these things or none of them, depending on the day you ask. You can find Shay in the twitter-stream @tessercat, or dreaming along with the blogosphere at shaydchara.dreamwidth.org.
Read our interview with Shay Darrach