The Powder-Men in the Trees by Jeff Frawley

We live along the lush-dry corridor, blocks up from the Train Mouth. After school, flouting rules, we walk Akela Road. Heat splits our nostrils. Dirt browns our undies.  Dogs leer and nip. These are dry-boy and dry-girl problems not suffered on the lush side. Trains rumble through the Train Mouth, met by men with prods. Crates of goods discharged. A massive chainlink fence: thirty feet tall, ten deep. Talk of electrifying it again, thanks to sneaking dry-boys. We curl fingers through its links: lush-side forest far as we can see. Branches. Dangling nests.

Cocoons. That word we’ve learned in eighth-grade lush-science lab.  Evangelist-Lab Tech Jansen, here on a prestigious lush-side grant, brought in three cocoons in dishtowels. Furry, sticky, small as prickly-pear fruit. What’s within? he whispered.  Wittle powder-babies, we answered. Like grown-ups, he said, so we said, Little powder-babies. In this lab, he said, we use scientific terms. So we answered, Powder-fledglings—no, powder-embryos. Latinate, he said. We told him, Homo pygmaeus vampiris. Bravo. He slit the silk with scalpel. Out oozed goop. He fingered open amnion, exposing tiny face: wooden, whitened, seed-black eyes. Teeth. He smacked our hands. Don’t touch. Will it bite? we asked. He sighed. We’ve covered that, he said. To your desks, pop quiz. First he grabbed a pestle, ground the creature’s skull. Quiz done, he dipped fingers in prayer-water, flicked. They choke if cut too early, he lectured. They cannot cross the fence—it’s your fence, children, erected to protect. If they get sin inside their heads, we’ll spray them, cage them, train them out into the desert. Do powder-women sin? we asked. He laughed. There are no powder-women. We protested: But you’ve taught us all there is to know about accountable fucking—mustn’t there be women? Evangelist-Lab Tech Jansen, like most teachers at Savior’s Reach Outpost #4, can snap from tender to tempestuous, shouting about darkness, blindness, God.  But, clutching chainlink, we concur: he isn’t so bad.


At four-fifteen the powder-men emerge to pick cocoons.  Inching down their trees, cute as puppets.  Hissing, flashing teeth.  We sing the special lesson-hymn learned in second grade from Evangelist-Math Tutor Mary Vitagliano, swapping words for powder-men: “One powder-man put here by the Lord up in the sky, two powder-men put here by the Lord up in the sky, three powder-men put here by the Lord up in the sky…”  We count twenty, twenty-five.  Crawling along branches, powder-white, bald, penises like worms, pubic hair and armpit hair and chest hair black as coal.  They loosen cocoons, hiss, retreat.  We wiggle fingers through the chainlink, wish they’d carry us so gently.  Then, our parents’ cries.  We whisper, Goodbye, Homo pygmaeus vampirises, and hurry up Akela.

At home we soak our soles in alcohol and baking soda.  Hush, our mothers coo, dabbing ointment on our sores, imiquinod on bruise-like keratoses.  Tell us, they say, about Evangelist-Lab Tech Jansen, Evangelist-Choir Director Olaf, Evangelist-Grammarian Evaline Peebles, Evangelist-Headmaster Dr. Birmingham A. Lundgren.  We help with laundry, dinner sandwiches, backyard dog and goat scat.  Our parents, born pre-monsoons, have insides unspoiled by runoff.  They weep when Evangelist-Headmaster Dr. Birmingham A. Lundgren announces that the first lush-side dry-migrant villages will be ready by graduation.  But later, back home, they question: is it safe, given this news, to relinquish—as proposed by the Evangelist-Headmaster—familial labor entitlement lines?


Our cysts are getting bigger, spurt sour-smelling pus.  Don’t, our parents wail, exacerbate metastasization!  We giggle at these grownup words echoing what dry-boys do alone, dreaming of dry-girls.  Dry-girls do it too, we’ve heard, but thinking about powder-men.  Is this true? we asked Evangelist-Grammarian Evaline Peebles.  Children, she whispered, you must always, for your own sake, behave with emigrant village selection in mind…

Our parents’ bosses at Aztec, at Anadarzac, at Wyatt-Bellwether insist our cysts are merely cosmetic.  They rattle off lush-side studies.  They say, We thought you dry-siders pray for rain—now it makes you sick?  We stay out of such debates, focus on the powder-men, on determining what older dry-girls picture when alone—ashen faces? little fingers? needle teeth? Don’t cocoons, we giggle, look like dry-boy down-there things?

The powder-men, we think, can sniff our cysts.  Maybe this is why they hiss.  One day, out of nowhere, they skulked down to the ground, crab-walked to the fence.  We chested chainlink.  They gurgled, sniffed our legs, lipped our feet, nibbled cysts.  One girl wet her pants.  Others whimpered.  Someone gasped, Oh God.  But we dry-girls and dry-boys didn’t run.  We closed our eyes, heard smacking grunts.  We peeked: they sucked our cysts, faces wet, feasting like cactus-bats.  Their cheeks bulged with our stuff.  Mouth-foam burned our wounds.  More, we groaned, gripping fence.  They shinnied up the chainlink, worked our necks and chins.  We each fed six or seven.  On the lush side, we’ve heard, we’re called Snot-Skins, Udder-Legs, Eyeball-Necks.  But now we were Powder-Legs, Powder-Thighs.  Two guards sprinted from the Train Mouth, thwacking prods on fence: Enough, get back, shoo!  Powder-men scattered.  Come back, we cried, come back!  Someone whispered, Look.  They crawled into their trees, out along those branches, drooled into cocoons—our stuff.  Yes, we whispered, yes.  But why?  At home we wept with pain, pinned down by our parents.  Salve and passionflower sleeping snuff.  They read a letter sent by Evangelist-Lab Tech Jansen: You’re dry-teens now, my children.  Promise to wait for scabs before returning to that fence.                 


Last year marked the opening of our first lush-side product-stations.  One is called 7-Eleven: tree-green roof, machine-cooled air, half-stocked shelves of expensive lush-nuts, lush-fruits, jerkied lush-meats.  The cheap stuff—cookies, candies, crunchers—sold out long ago.  We knew a dry-boy on the night-shift, Hondo, but 7-Eleven got word that dry-boys steal for friends.  So they brought in old lush-women who watched the aisles like hawks.  Shift done, they returned through the Train Mouth, passing vests to their replacements, shouting Long live Dockery-Natchez Holdings Company! as the iron gate swung open.

Hondo got us started on the cheesedogs: cheaper than sandwiches, tolerably salty, smoky filling, digestible bread.  When temperatures reached one-hundred, Dockery-Natchez Holdings Company sent vans into our neighborhoods to give away free cheesedogs, chased by packs of pit bulls.  Cheesedogs make us sleepy.  We doze off in the parking lot until 7-Eleven women dump water on our faces—their manager, we hear, forbids doze-offs.

Hondo always said, Drink liquid with those cheesdogs.  Cheesedog plus a Splish cost one-ninety, lemon-lime tanging off cheese, mouth aching—more.  But 7-Eleven sold off all their Splish.  We begged Evangelist-Lab Tech Jansen: Teach us the recipe!  He brought a can to lab, said, Guess.  But fifteen minutes later, fed up, he said, Damn it, I’ll just tell you.  Water, lemon, corn syrup, baking soda.  Corn syrup? we asked.  Like prickly-pear sucralose, he answered, but better.  PPS—that stuff that sweetens porridge, that fathers put in pulque.  He showed us the pump basin behind our classroom trailers, overgrown with lush-stuff, a little lemon tree.  The pump’s the real miracle-worker, he whispered, but don’t tell Evangelist-Headmaster Lundgren.

Baking soda was easy, trained in every week.  When Evangelist-City Managers learned we still clean with Blitz, they showed us what happens to items—meat, teeth, mice—when left in Blitz all night.  They bought and buried cans of Blitz, passed out crates of baking soda.

We wanted to gift the powder-men for helping drain our cysts.  Meat, we heard, encourages cocoons.  So we sold bootleg Splish to cheesedog addicts, bought jerky with the profits.  Evangelist-Math Tutor Mary Vitagliano helped calculate a price: fifteen cents.  Just like lush-side kids, she gushed, rushing to tell Evangelist-Headmaster Lundgren.  We built a stand from baking soda crates, crayoned the Splish logo, sold countless cups to dry-kids cramming cheesedogs.  Faces clammy, lips white, they nodded off, snapped to, ordered more.  In just two days, enough cash for jerky—mule deer, peacock, something called mud-boar.  The 7-Eleven woman scowled at our coins so we showed her our addicts.  Then, at the chainlink, we watched the powder-men gnaw.  Jerky gone, they turned to us.  Oily wet eyes, mouths stuffed with pus. They jittered up trees, drooled into cocoons, came back for more.


Dockery-Natchez got word of our stand.  Businessmen arrived to jab prods at addicts, smash apart crates.  Failure, one cried, to cease vending plagiarized product in vicinity of this station, property of Dockery-Natchez Holdings Company, will result in severest allowable penalty under the Lush-Dry Judicial Transference Act, section twenty-two!  Two addicts were tasered.  Our Splish days ended.  Then, summer here, we went back to cramming cheesedogs.  A friendly lateshift lush-woman, Vender Angelina Clarke, rubbed water on our lips, begged us to drink, said, Go to the chainlink, get those cysts drained before you get sick.  She refused pleas for cheesedogs, three a day max.  Food scarce, prices soaring, sun furnace-hot, we lost weight, looked like pit bulls, all sores and bones.  The clinic gave dousings of pink stinking sunscreen that stung our wounds, drew flies.  One night, woken by Vender Angelina Clarke, we snuck to the chainlink—never, warned our parents, go after dark.  Toads thrummed, foxes yipped.  Lushmoist rolled through the chainlink, slicking skin.

This was the night we learned those cocoons, filled with our stuff, light up the trees like lush-heaven.  We nearly fell over.  The forest pulsed blue.  We leapt into fence, felt the powdermen’s latch.  Soon heard parents’ cries.  Their lantern-lit mob dragged us back from the fence.  A father cried, I don’t care what Headmaster says.  Another replied, It’s their recommendation!

We shook with dehydration.  Our stuff glowed like miracles—someone said, We’re special.

We were banished indoors, no 7-Eleven.  Always take a parent to the chainlink.  Without cheesedogs we sweated, emptied our bowels.  Only drainings soothed our stomachaches and sores.  Now we held hands as the powder-men sucked.  Dockery-Natchez vans prowled, giving cheesedogs.  What, we whispered, do they do with those cocoons?  August collapsed like a star, blacktop splitting, pit bulls opened by vultures.  Our parents walked to work sharing parcels of cardboard to block sun.  We darted between yucca and oleander, pumpjack and shack.  The powder-men’s latch felt weakened by heat.  We craved schooldays, strong Evangelist fans—at the lush-side emigrant villages, we’re told, every bunkhouse will have fans.


First day back, we’re gifted tins of marshmallow ham.  The latest, boasted Evangelist-Lab Tech Jansen, in dry-side nutrition!  Later that day, Evangelist-Grammarian Peebles cut off our drills (To who we shout our praise or To whom we shout our praise?) and, wiping tears, said, Please, children, don’t eat it all.  The ham, whipped and pillowy, spread beautifully on bread.  Who paid for this? our parents asked.  We shrugged.  That night we woke screaming in pain, as if swarmed by hybridized sand-wasps.  The chainlink! we begged.  Hordes of dry-kids arrived, parents in tow, trees glinting like diamonds.  A strange airhorn from the Train Mouth.  The powder-men feasted, now using teeth.  More poured from the trees.  Parents sobbed.  We groaned in pleasure-pain.  Then a man’s booming voice: Praise be to God.  We turned.  There stood Evangelist Headmaster Dr. Birmingham A. Lundgren, flanked by our teachers.

Dockery-Natchez vans, the next morning, broadcast announcements: School’s delayed, let your children sleep.  Later, tins of marshmallow ham.  Evangelist-Lab Tech Jansen let us eat in the lab.  You’re the lesson today, he said, scribbling notes, doling white bread.  White bread! we cried.  He asked: From where will energy for the new inter-towns come?  We throated down ham.  Evangelist-Grammarian Peebles again stopped our drills (He maketh me lie down in pastures or He maketh me lay down in pastures?) to let us nap and spread ointment.  That night, the chainlink, the airhorn, the powder-men.  The next day, marshmallow ham.


The last thing we remember—or second-to-last—is a lush-boy in rags leaping out of a train-car.

Face grayed by coal, arms bloodied by leftover beef.  We’re admiring the dry-side unloaders’ sun-leathered skin, muscular arms.  Then someone screams.  The lush-boy comes sprinting our way, shouting.  But what?  He makes it ten yards, is tackled and tased.  His skin starts to smoke. We spot, just before, a thing on his rags—a patch? part of some uniform?  We’ve seen Evangelist history picture-books, the rise of the lush-side, the casting out of the Trouble Boys.  This one looked like a Trouble Boy.  What was that patch—the moon? someone asks.  No, says another, a bird, a lush-hen.  Prod-men are shouting Get back to the fence!  The powder-men hiss, mouths wet with stuff.  The boy, or what’s left of the boy, is tossed onto train as though a dead cat.  Guards threaten to tase.  So we turn to the fence.  The powder-men latch.  Not the moon, not a bird.  We look to the trees.  Cocoon?  Lightbulb?  Fruit?  And what did he shout, that rag-boy, that Trouble Boy, that bloodied blackened cat?

We limp up Akela, desperate for cheesedogs.  Doze off in the lot, wake up, throw up, head home for ointment.  At night, itching wildly, we return to the fence.  The next morning, Evangelist-Lab Tech Jansen, looking nervous, wraps us in his arms, smooths our necks, strokes our heads.  Starts to shake.  It’s love, children, he whispers.  Children, it’s love.  The pride you’ll soon feel—the things that you give!  Energy, children.  Kissing to life magnificent towns. Limitless inter-towns.  You’re bridging both sides.  Don’t you see?  You are blessed.

Jeff Frawley’s writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Crab Creek Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Bridge Eight, Pif, Storm Cellar, Gravel and elsewhere. After receiving an MFA from New Mexico State University, he served as a Fulbright scholar in Budapest, Hungary, performing researching for a novel. He now lives in southern New Mexico.