In the game, we were high level and fierce, and we were nearing the blacksmith. The trees were dead or dying, the water pink with the blood of our enemies, the sky its familiar corpse-gray color. The beasts rumbled under the earth, and it felt like home.
“At two o’clock,” Tessa said.
“Medic,” Aly said.
“Got him,” I said, feeling the thrum in my palms from a shot well taken.
“Fucking A,” said the fourth player, assigned to our group by the whims of the server, his voice as cold as the toppled anvil. “Is everyone on this team a fucking woman?”
In the real world, the basement cinder blocks supported my back, and my childhood bed sat firm under my legs. The room was too small, and the bed was too small, but it was better than nothing, better than the car, better than a friend’s futon. The broken intercom on the wall buzzed and crackled, meaning dinner would be ready soon.
That winter, I’d begun to notice vibrations below the house, deep in the earth, thick, pulsing tremors. I listened and imagined the shapes that could make such grumbling—the bulbous heads, the muscular backs, the blind white eyes. I might never have heard them if it weren’t for the game, where the beasts were old and fat with authority, primacy. At the end of each match, they erupted from the ground to devour the losing team. Maybe they’d always been in the real world too, lurking under us, leaking saliva through serrated teeth. Once I’d noticed, I couldn’t stop noticing. As I pressed the buttons, moved the joystick to swivel the camera, the tremors shook the world of the game as well as my room, the walls I’d once painted pink, now faded and pale.
On the screen, we circled the ghost tree, draped with cobwebs of moss. We snuck through the reeds, and arrows pierced the air, leaving trails as thin and silvery as rain.
“Behind the shed,” Tessa said. She lived in unimaginable Florida, but, even there, the beasts gobbled the muck. Their scales slick with mud and swampy water.
“Get the goddamn hunter,” Aly said from somewhere in Montana. The beasts were so close, ravenous and cruel in the silence between her words. My fingers froze on the controller, and Tessa’s breath caught. She was so far away. We were all far away, and what would we do when the beasts broke through?
“I’m hit,” I said. “Hunter at three now.” Could everyone hear claws scratching their foundations? The entitled devouring of the soil? The beasts weren’t hungry, but they would eat us anyway.
“Motherfucking bitches.” The voice tunneled into our ears through our headsets.
“Insta-loss every time.”
Our pixilated selves screamed. They spasmed in the dirt and water. The reeds turned red with our blood, and the beasts burst through the ground, puncturing our armor, gnawing our weathered limbs, while the flames took the blacksmith’s shanty, rising gold against the frostbitten sky.
“Fat cunts, every last one of you.” The voice was as cold as the river, as coiled as the beasts lurking under our feet.
Our headsets clicked with the emptiness of him going offline. Our fingers shook as we wound the cords around our controllers.
“We’ll get it next time,” Tessa said into silence so thick it swallowed my yes.In the real world, the basement cinder blocks supported my back, and my childhood bed sat firm under my legs.
Upstairs, at the table, my mother set plates of chicken saltimbocca, and our knives flashed. The dishes rang when we struck them with our forks. On the far side of the table, my father’s chair sat empty, and we imagined his knives and the black of his eyes. We imagined his words falling leaden on the table, imagined those words falling heavy on someone else’s table. Pictured him telling someone else the things he’d said to us, things like, “You can’t help being stupid,” and, “You’re the unstable kind of crazy.” Somewhere another woman flushed with shame, or, we liked to picture her shouting back, saying biting phrases we had not been brave enough to say. Beyond his empty chair, the lawns of the neighborhood stretched flat and wide, green grass fenced with stained wood. In the game and deep in the earth, the beasts tracked us, tunneling through topsoil, rubbing their leathery hides against sewer pipes and cinder blocks.
“That man I met is taking me to the movies on Friday,” my mother said, and we chewed our food and glanced out at the houses that looked just like our house, pictured other tables shining with candlelight and warmth.
My mother imagined those other tables were nicer than her table. She’d had granite countertops installed to compete with those hypothetical countertops. One hand-polished slab would’ve eased the collection envelopes that arrived shouting my name, would’ve been worth whole months of slicing other peoples’ deli meat, my hands cased in slim plastic gloves that I tossed in the trash and imagined drifting in the ocean, choking turtles. But her eyes shone with hope, and we did not talk about luxury goods or stable health care, did not talk about job rejections and student loans. Outside, the other lawns promised parties and piñatas, croquet games and barbecues, bright, gleeful gatherings on firm, stable ground, dirt filled only with pipes and basements, flat earth with only more earth beneath.
We were still fierce and still taking the blacksmith. Our boots slid in the mud, the buckles metal and glinting and badass. We were badass too, in our rooms, sitting on our beds and desk chairs, with our hooded sweatshirts and blankets and chipped nail polish. I was sneezing, and I held a box of tissues between my knees. The trees were still dead, the water sluggish. The donkey still chewed the dry grass around the well and did not wince at my sneeze.
“Bless you,” Tessa said.
“Gesundheit,” Aly said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Score,” said the fourth voice, droning distantly, like a lawnmower. “I’m on a team full of women.”
“Six o’clock,” Tessa said. “It looks like they’re in crescent formation.”
“Seriously?” Aly said. “Who still uses crescent formation?”
“Such a hot voice,” the fourth said. “Hey, Medic, say something sexy.”
The cinder blocks at my back trembled. Fever flared behind my temples.
“Got the hunter,” I said. “Medic at four.”
“Hot,” said the voice. “Are you single?”
“The warrior,” Tessa said. “Get the warrior.”
When the wood splintered, it splintered from our arrows. The blood in the water was not our blood. The cries of the dying were not our avatars crying. Behind the walls, the beasts hung suspended in earth, their bulbous eyes twitching. On the wall, the broken intercom buzzed.
“Do you mind if I ask, Medic, what’s your bra size?” the voice said. “Are you curvy? You sound curvy.”
On our screens, his bulk loomed in the doorway. His muscles looked like our muscles. His face held the same chiseled features as our faces.
“Are you planning to help?” Tessa said. “You could take out that warrior.”
“God,” said the voice. “I love when women tell me what to do.”
The resurrection timer counted to zero, and when the branches parted, the faces were not our faces, and the hands were not our hands. Arrows flew through the air like silver rain. The death cries rang out in our avatars’ voices. The water turned dark with our blood.We were still fierce and still taking the blacksmith. Our boots slid in the mud, the buckles metal and glinting and badass. We were badass too.
“You asshole,” Tessa said.
“Motherfucker,” Aly said.
“Yes,” the voice said. “Keep saying it. Yes.”
Upstairs, my mother could eat no meatloaf. She checked her lipstick and stood in the hallway, turned to catch the swirl of her expensive skirt.
“I just want him to be kind,” she said. “I don’t even care if he looks like his photo.”
His car pulled up, looking like every other car. The brake lights shone like all other brake lights. I thought I would know the sound of her closing the passenger door, could pick it out from a horde of closings by anxious women, hear it over the hum of one hundred idling sedans.
A THIRD DAY
The queue was too long, and we were not at our fiercest. The leaves of the ancestor tree spun and wove to indicate the battlefield loading; the purple sky shone with a sun that did not shine on the blacksmith because the blacksmith had built her shanty—I liked to imagine the blacksmith as female—in the realm of eternal rain.
“I didn’t get the job,” Tessa said.
“I’m sorry,” Aly said.
“The next one,” I said as the intercom buzzed, though it seemed too early. “You’ll get the next one.”
The river manifested its pixels. The ghost tree sighed under its moss. It was hard not to see in the notches on the hitching post a record of all our failures.
“What if there is no next one?” Tessa said. “What if there’s never another one?”
“Medic at six,” I said.
“There’s always another one,” Aly said.
“You just keep trying,” I said, circling around the tree stump the way I always circled the tree stump. I crawled through the mud the way I always crawled through the mud. And sometimes it felt like the world was just a series of repetitions—phrases and actions and events repeated. “You can’t give up,” I said, the way I had said it a thousand times, and the way it had been said a thousand times to me.
We listened for the fourth voice, waited for the fourth voice to comment on the high timbre of our voices, to speculate on the quality of our vaginas. But the hunter was climbing the ghost tree. The hunter was crouching among the branches. The hunter was sending arrows whizzing into the air like silver rain.
“Got the medic,” Tessa said. “They’re coming up the right side now.”
Right now, it was not working out for the other team’s warrior or the other team’s hunter. It was definitely not working out for the other team’s medic, who was stuck in the resurrection zone and was probably listening to the kinds of things that people said on their headsets when their avatars cried their death cries and their blood swirled, familiar and new in the way that blood is always new even when it is familiar. They died, and we killed them. We killed them again and again, and it felt so good to kill them. The beasts must have ripped through the ground and devoured the bodies, and the flames must have risen high over the blacksmith’s the way they always rose, but we could not see them, and the sky was gray and thick the way it was always gray and thick.
“Good game,” Aly said.
“I needed that,” Tessa said.
“About fucking time,” I said.
We listened to the hollow where the fourth voice should be, but the sound was only the clicking of someone going offline, and who could say who it was or what they thought? Who could say whether they had a fulfilling job and a supportive family and a good credit score? Behind the walls, in the thick black dirt, sounds thrummed and echoed, but there was no telling if the beasts were burrowing forward or sliding in reverse, no telling whether they were watching or if they were engaged with something else, not thinking about us at all.
I climbed the stairs, pounded my socks on the carpet my mother had upgraded recently and now wanted to upgrade again. She sat at the table, in the chair where she always sat, held her phone in one hand and her forehead in the other.
“I could handle it,” she said, “if he just told me he wasn’t interested.”
“I could handle it,” she said, “if he just said he’d met someone younger.”
The macaroni on the stove was almost too thick. The macaroni on the stove was almost too dry.
“It’s the waiting I can’t handle,” she said. “It’s the staring at the phone and wondering.”
She’d spent the afternoon deciding to buy a second computer, spent the afternoon implying I played too many video games, asking me when I thought I would be capable of making the financial decisions needed to move out on my own. I said “fierce” in the way I thunked the silverware, “fierce” in the way I pulled the napkins from the box. “Fierce” in how I poured the wine, and “fierce” in how I lit the candles. Our faces weren’t flushed, and we weren’t smiling, but the candles burned, and we kept our bodies alive in the dark.
SO MANY GODDAMNED DAYS
There was no world where we were not fighting to take the blacksmith. The sky was always the color of plaster, never green or violet or blue, just as our avatars always wore gray or brown or black and never red or orange or pink. Sometimes Aly sneezed over the headset, and sometimes Tessa sneezed, and sometimes the male fourth voice paused in his explanation of how to take the blacksmith, even though we were already taking the blacksmith, to sneeze, and often, afterward, we all said, “Bless you,” because that was what people said. We could not stop the words from leaving our mouths in the same way we could not stop taking the blacksmith or stop the beasts from devouring the losers or stop our own sneezes.
We tried not to think about the debts we owed, the ones we had accepted because it seemed like there was no other way but to accept them. We tried not to think about the job interviews and how we felt so sure of ourselves afterward and how we did not get those jobs. Still, we sent out letters and conducted more endless, tiring web searches. We tried not to mind the way our avatars’ blood always swirled in the river in exactly the same patterns. We were always giving the same commands and offering the same reassurances when our avatars cried out and the flames danced and the beasts erupted and the fourth voices spoke into our headsets the way our fathers and boyfriends spoke, although of course they did not use the same words. And we tried not to mind how blind they were, as if they were looking at a different screen, a world where the sun shone and the grass swayed and the blacksmith belonged to them without question. She smiled and offered them her anvil and her hammer, offered newly minted shields and swords, offered her perfect breasts and muscular buttocks. It’s true that sometimes we didn’t think about the beasts behind the walls and under our feet, and it’s true that we didn’t talk about them, but it is also true that we never forgot them.
The intercom did not buzz, but I came up the stairs anyway. I put on shoes and combed my hair and put on lipstick even though it would leave a pink half-moon on the rim of my water glass.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand in a way that was not too hard or vigorous. “I’ve heard so much about you,” he said, and his eyes were as brown as the eyes of the blacksmith’s donkey, who chewed grass through every death and could never be killed by the beasts or by anything.
“Thank you,” I said, the way I’d said it more times than I could count. “It’s nice to meet you too.”
My mother fluttered her hands and untied her apron, and we sat down to eat her best lasagna. He sat in my father’s chair, and he did not slouch like my father or rub his eyebrows, but sometimes his laugh was too loud in the way that my father’s laugh was too loud, and sometimes his stories went on for too long the way my father’s stories sometimes went on for too long. And my mother and I laughed and listened and nodded as if we were not trying, were not working to make him happy. I wondered about the simplicity of that lie, its commonness. I wondered what it would be like to go through a whole day not pretending and if the discomfort would be worth it and if it would even be possible.
The sun was going down, and we looked out at the wide lawns where there were no children or garden parties. The earth vibrated with the beasts doing the things they did, promising the violence they always promised, and I wondered what would happen if Aly, Tessa, and I set out with spears and shovels and lances, if we were as fierce as we were at the blacksmith’s shanty, and if we hunted every monstrous body, skinned every scale, roasted the flesh so it sizzled, and gnawed the bones until we were greasy and sick. I wondered how long it would take us to fight them all—months or days or years—or maybe we could never fight them all.
In my father’s chair, the man chopped his salad and buttered his bread, and when he looked out at the lawns, he saw only promise and possibility, only things he could buy or build or own. If we did venture out with swords and chain saws, he would see only crazy women hacking at nothing, only wild hair and rolling eyes, which is maybe what he saw as he sat polite and attentive at the table, if he saw anything other than the luster of our skin, the echoes of the other women he had known and would know.
NEVER THE LAST DAY
Tessa was busy, and Aly was busy, and so I was alone taking the blacksmith. I was the mysterious fourth voice, the server wildcard, and what would I say and what would I be like and what reverberations would spill from the silence of my disconnection at the end of the battle?
“I never thought he would fire me,” the warrior was saying as the connection went through. “I thought I mattered. I thought he was my friend as much as my boss.”
“He’s never a friend,” the hunter said, his voice low and hollow. “That’s a thing you should know already. The boss is never a friend.”
“If I move back in with my grandmother,” the warrior said as the other team crept along the river and the leaves twisted like snared butterflies, but there was no time to learn what would happen if the warrior moved back in with his grandmother.
“Hunter at six,” I said. I never knew what my voice would be like when I spoke in the game. Sometimes it was too timid and quiet, but this time it was a normal voice and did not betray me. The others breathed, and I waited to see what would come from them.
“Medic,” the warrior said, “if you crawl up the left side behind the wheelbarrow—”
“You’ll scale the roof,” I said, because there were really only a few ways to take the blacksmith. “The hunter will climb the ghost tree.”
“You do kind of know what you’re talking about,” the warrior said then.
And I could have said, “Of course,” and I could have said, “How else would I have arrived here?” Instead, I did the things I knew, and they also did the things they knew. We all pressed the buttons in the sequences we’d been practicing for years, and we all did our best to take the blacksmith the way we’d always taken her, knowing that some of us would take her, and some of us would not.
I imagined the blacksmith’s eyes, luminous in the firelight, imagined myself unbuckling her belt, laying aside the tools—the hefty tongs, the gleaming chisel—imagined her thick homespun clothes, the rustle of them falling. Her body would be blue and dingy, like the bodies of the others who lived in the realm of eternal rain. Her skin would be damp, and she would taste of mosquitoes and mud and burning wood. I had never taken a woman, but I would take her the way I had been taken myself, and we would recognize each other’s claw-shaped bruises, note our amputated digits, the toes we’d lost when we lingered too long on the rumbling earth and the beasts erupted, when we’d heard the rasp of our own skin breaking, the crush of our bones, the hiss of venom burning scars that would never fade. As I took her, the flames would creep and grow and thunder, melting our boots, sizzling our hair, turning the metal of our tools and weapons a blistering crimson. There would be pain, but we would recognize it. It would belong to us.I was the mysterious fourth voice, the server wildcard, and what would I say and what would I be like and what reverberations would spill from the silence?
Upstairs, my mother sat on the patio with the man as he poured the lighter fluid and charred the meat. He wore his tie, which dangled dangerously the way my father’s had sometimes dangled, though perhaps with a different kind of knot that was not like my father’s at all. My mother’s bare feet shone pale and vulnerable the way my own feet shone pale and vulnerable, but perhaps the grass felt softer on my soles than it did on hers. Perhaps she couldn’t feel the rumbling of the beasts like I did, didn’t worry that they might erupt, slinging mud and methane and sprinkler tubing. Beyond our fence, the empty lawns stretched full of the ghosts of past gatherings and future gatherings and hypothetical gatherings. I stood in the grass and looked at the houses I would never be able to afford, thinking of the lives my parents had built for themselves and believed in, lives I would never be able to build or believe in, lives they encouraged me to believe in, even as they knew I could not believe in them. I waited to see if the rumbling in the ground would turn into mud and gnawing or if the beasts would choose another time.
On the patio, the man who resembled my father but was not my father flipped the burgers. He looked to the sky and swallowed, and I wondered if he saw something more than clouds, if there were dark things screeching, flexing their talons and snapping their jaws in ways I could not see or hear and would never be able to see or hear. It was the same feeling I had when I saw my mother looking into shadowy corners, as though there were something terrifying hunkered there and she had built the house and amassed her possessions as a defense against this thing I could not see, even if I could see her seeing it. The fire turned the meat into something we could absorb into our bodies, and the smoke lingered in the air as it did in the place where the blacksmith’s shanty was burning. Somewhere, the flames crept gold into a dismal sky, and someone watched them, people we knew or didn’t know, players we trusted or did not trust, families whose faces were flushed in the candlelight, apparitions of the selves we had been or imagined we could be. Meanwhile, our avatars lingered among the lawn chairs, feeling the beasts, eyeing our monsters, waiting to see which of us would take the blacksmith and which of us would be eaten.
Julialicia Case’s story “Taking the Blacksmith” originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review (Vol. 33, No. 1)