You searched for into the looking glass | Numéro Cinq

Sep 222012
 

Christy Clothier is a former student, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a US Navy veteran with a story to tell. But her story isn’t just about the Navy; it’s also about the abusive family that nurtured her in its truly malign embrace, also about her courage to transcend her past and grow into the writer she is today and will yet become. NC has already published a segment from her memoir dealing with her arrival at a naval base in California where she worked as an air traffic controller. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been turned into a play called The Controller. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor.

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There are no pictures to show what happened, so I will create the images myself. At age twelve I stood before the princess mirror on my bedroom wall and leaned so close to my reflection that the contours of my cheeks, forehead and chin blurred into the flatness of a photo, an image I wanted to scratch away. I cut my face with cuticle trimmers, safety pins, razors—pain slid red down my cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. If I had paused, I might have seen my face bloody and bruised—and I could have backed away. But I didn’t want to. Once my appearance was distorted I had the confirmation I longed for: that I deserved it, “that pain is weakness leaving the body,” something I re-learned in boot camp. And I believed it. Because long before I donned the olive green military clothes of conflict, I had already trained my body to bear witness to what my mind had to erase.

An inappropriate poke. Oh, come on, Christy, it was just a joke! your parents say. Get over it. Your stomach’s wound tight, but they tell you it’s okay—ha ha—no reason to get upset. You hug them goodnight. Your adopted-stepfather’s hands rest lightly on your back. Sleep tight! You can tuck yourself in, you mother knows. No need to tell Daddy that Mommy made you watch her masturbate that afternoon while he took Jacob and Bret Jr. fishing. What he knows won’t matter: you’re not really his kid. He ignores the bruises — your mother’ll let him add his own, if he wants — “I don’t get involved in Domestic Disputes!” his favorite line whenever your mother bites her children. “Don’t worry, tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of your life,” she says, sending the words after you down the hall as you walk to your bedroom. She’s teaching you to forget.

The next morning starts with Jacob and Bret Jr.’s teasing. They point to the “artwork” your mother bought at a craft fair. A plywood plaque featuring a doghouse with a carpenter nail in the center of it. Alongside the doghouse sit five miniature dogs, each wearing a collar. It’s meant to be funny, only your mother took it seriously and scribbled everyone’s name on the “This is Cute” piece of crap. Someone has placed “Christy” on the nail.

You hang on a wall covered with history: your father’s family crest next to a gold crucifix (a gift from Aunt Linda — you’re only Catholic when she visits). The doghouse and Christ hang next to the military awards given to every male member of the family. And there’s a picture of you and your New Father. He’s stiff in his officer’s dress whites; you’re green in your Girl Scout uniform. Together you stand composed with badges and pins.

You catch your mother’s reflection in the picture frame’s glass. She’s been watching you. Hi, sweetie! She turns you around to get her morning hug. She’s hungry again. She presses your breasts into hers, pinches your nipples. Just showing you love, she says: a mother’s touch. She hasn’t brushed her teeth yet. Instead, she sucks on a cinnamon jaw breaker. The sour-sweet makes you want to vomit. But instead you pour French vanilla creamer into her coffee and spread cream cheese thick on her bagel. The rest of the family takes its assigned seats in the living room. Your father’s in his recliner. His fingertips turning black with newspaper ink. He reads a version of what he already knew yesterday before watching it again later on the news. Jacob and Bret Jr. watch your mother’s morning programs. They laugh anytime she does, nod their heads whenever she argues with the infomercial hosts. Your brothers sit on their hands, knowing your mother’s unjustified indignation is only the start of her daily rage. They won’t look at you, yet you know they are grateful that you take your mother’s blows; they know once you’re old enough to leave the house, they are next. They watch you to see how you survive.

You leave the kitchen. You don’t eat. In this family, meals are issued by rank, and Jacob and you remain the lowest. First your father, then your mother and their biological son get to eat. Then Jacob and you may have whatever is left over, so long as no one is saving it for later. When there is no surplus food, and neither Jacob nor you had enough of your own money to cobble a dinner from snacks at the gas station, you ask your mother what you should eat, already knowing her answer: Fend for yourself! You should feel lucky, your father reminds you, I put a roof over your head.

But you are hungry, so you climb the staircase to your room. You already know how to feed off the girl in the mirror your mother gave you—a gift from her father once she’d turned thirteen. Your skin buckles under your fingernails as you rip off your face. Your reflection changes into swollen, gouged, scared cheeks, chin, forehead and neck, and you’re sated. You walk to your window, curl one foot behind the other, and imagine a life under blue skies streaked white just beyond the orange poppies dotting Southern California’s hills. Past palm trees interspersed with silver dollar saplings on manicured lawns. Past older kids riding their bikes and skateboards along the wide streets that flow like an alluvial fan toward Santee Lakes. I’ll live like Karana, you decide, the main character in the book you know by heart.

Yet I do remember the day that I decided I would never live in the village again. The Island of the Blue Dolphins was my home; I had no other.

I joined the Navy just after I turned twenty, but I’d been heading for Naval Air Station San Clemente Island long before I knew it existed. By age twelve, I’d read The Island Of The Blue Dolphins often enough for the librarian to throw up her hands and give me the book. I never realized the fictionalized setting I’d imagined every night actually existed 75 miles off the coast of California. I followed jet exhaust like em dashes to a place so near to where I had dreamed that I didn’t know I’d been sleepwalking, unable to wake from my own fairy tale.

Now, at 35, a part of me still believes there is such a physical place, somewhere west where I can run and find peace. That same part of me still longs to rest on San Clemente’s porous volcanic rocks and watch the Pacific’s waves filter through them. I let myself go there whenever I need the familiar feeling of being trapped and free to reclaim what was promised and what was lost.

***

Is there anything more seductive than the illusion of safety? Senior Chief Petty Officer Ibsen directed Navy boot-camp Division 265 to march left, left, your left-right-left. A double-wide mass of eighty women—heads erect, shoulders squared, arms strong, hands fisted with knuckles pointed down and thumbs aligned with pant seams—march along the greasy-hot Chicago asphalt. I stared at the back of the recruit marching in front of me; her brushed cotton jacket provided no reflection, so I couldn’t see myself. I lowered my Navy ball cap further down my face and repeated Ibsen’s words to myself like a spell preventing me from thinking about anything else in case one thought led to another and reminded me of everything I knew, which I was certain would break me. I let the sound of boots carry me along in a wave of feet and fists that pounded the pavement until Ibsen commanded, “Division Halt.”

I and the other five-foot-tall recruit wearing a traffic-cone colored road-guard vest over her dungarees ran ahead of our division to “post” in the middle of the intersection. I rushed past the eighteen-year-old, with her short, dark bob; she could have been either the one sitting behind me at indoc crying over having to exchange her blue jeans and sandals for military-issue sweat pants and sneakers or the slender one who sat beside me quietly asking herself, What am I doing here? A month into boot camp, the only thing differentiating any of us was the last names sewn onto the fronts of our shirts, the backs of our pants. My long, dark braid tucked under my standard-issue ball cap, my dog tags bearing the surname of the man my mother forced me to marry at sixteen smacking against my chest under a white cotton tee, I ran into the street.

We had arrived a group of strangers. We filed out of Greyhound buses into a warehouse (it seemed) full of men’s portraits hung under multi-colored flags. I was sure, for some reason, that I was already in trouble. Screaming men in uniform demanded we identify ourselves by last name and social security number. That’s all I was: a name and a number I’d only recently memorized. My past no longer mattered. Only the fear of messing up, of saying the wrong thing in front of people who could tell me what to do, defined the present moment. I recited my most recent name before shouting out the number assigned to me at birth, and it sounded like it came from someone else.

The first few weeks of boot camp flashed by in a series of consecutive movements, as if each time I opened my eyes I was somewhere else on base, less and less myself, a new world widening to me like an eye after a blink. I relinquished all civilian possessions: my clothes, my wallet, the few dollars I’d brought in case of something (I don’t remember), blue jeans, tee shirt, tennis shoes, clothes I wore to do laundry or yard work in, clothes I was ready to be rid of. I was ordered to redress in a blue sweat suit with gold lettering spelling Navy down each leg and to tie on New Balance running shoes. Having shivered in the cold, seemingly unheated, cinder block building, I felt the new outfit as a relief. We shuffled into another room where barbers took their thick shears to many girls’ long ponytails. I’d been told by my recruiter that I’d entered boot camp during a trial phase when they weren’t forcing women to chop off their hair. But no one else had been told, and the Recruit Division Commanders in charge weren’t saying anything. I kept quiet and moved to the back of the room. At my height, it was fairly easy to disappear into the crowd. After one of the men with a pair of scissors in his hands asked, “Anybody else?” and no one stepped up to his chair, a man I’d never see again ushered us into a classroom where I waited to be assigned to a division.

The only vivid memory I have of the weeks that followed that first night, aside from getting “dropped” to do push ups, showing my teeth, getting my sight tested, having flu shots fired into my left arm by a gun, and penicillin so thick it was termed “The Peanut-Butter Shot” stung into my right buttock was the day we went to the military tailors. For two weeks, maybe even longer, my new division, Division 265, had marched and slept in those same sweat clothes, and I hadn’t even noticed. I never paid attention to what we were doing or when, though it was scheduled on a chalk board near the front door. I took comfort in the routine of waking, eating, walking, sleeping—getting yelled at; each day passed into the next.

That morning we marched past the other barracks holding thousands of recruits, past the large parking lot in front of the brick building we’d been dropped off at our first night. The streets were lined with trees and interspersed with grass islands dotted with park benches. It was like every military installation I’d visited as a child or any suburb I grew up in. I marched along, happy with my internal cadence of numb familiarity, happy with being ordered exactly how and where to walk. The tailors consisted of twenty seaman and petty officers—all women—working in a warehouse filled with identical uniforms folded in cardboard boxes stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling. I stood alongside seventy-nine other women like auctioned cattle in line after line, as the tailors pinched, poked and pinned our uniforms to fit us perfectly. We received summer dress whites and a winter pea coat. We were issued combat boots, black wool socks, white cotton undershirts. We were fitted for bell-bottom dungaree pants and denim chambray button-ups. The women I knew only by their rank were so delicate with me, making sure not to stab me with a needle, that I began to feel like a doll, and I thought it was a trick—they’d poke me, once I relaxed, I was sure. I looked straight through their faces to the white cinder block wall behind them until my vision blurred and I found myself in a familiar haze.

“You have a beautiful daughter, don’t you?” your mother breathes to your New Dad. She yanks you into place and instructs you to stand “Front and Center.”

You look away from your parent’s four knees facing you as they sit on the couch leering over you in your pageant dress. You are a trinket, required to look and play the part before being shelved away to the bedrooms and backyards of your multiple childhood homes. Your mind floats. You make your way up the wall like a balloon knocking itself against the ceiling, having nowhere else to go.

 Since modeling school at the age of ten, I had been trained to stand and receive all the clothes I would need for my Girl Scout banquets, my pageant photos, my enlistment. I stood at attention, locking my knees in front of the tailors circling me, checking proportions and measurements, until someone finally had to ask me to move.

Within a month into boot camp, I sleep walked right out the front door. Before the overhead florescent lights woke eighty recruits from their racks with a 4:30 alarm, I was getting dressed in my uniform and heading toward the galley. My fellow recruits informed me that they had to keep putting me back to sleep. I might have thought they were joking accept that I woke up wearing my dungaree pants and combat boots. Apparently I so relished regulation that I began dressing even before the RDCs arrived and told us to. Or maybe I was just hungry.

Still, when the day came for the hundred-meter jump, I didn’t want to participate. By the time I realized my hesitance I was already standing on the diving platform. The arches of my feet cupped the cement ledge so that it would only take the flex of a shin muscle. The slightest pressure down toward the big toe and I would drop twenty feet (or was it 100?) from the high dive platform into the Olympic pool below. The RDCs urged me on, but they wouldn’t push me. Like the other pass/fail tests in boot camp, jumping off the high dive would have to be my idea. I could back down the two dozen steps I’d just climbed to the platform, but I’d be punished, made to do push-ups until I acquiesced or sent to CID (the Navy’s remedial training that made everyday boot-camp activities like jumping into a pool seem preferable).

I looked down. Under the glassy water divers waited for me, a pedestrian already committed to stepping into the street. Like patient drivers, they waved me on as though motioning from behind a windshield I was about to crash into. Go ahead — their movements exaggerated by the water — we’ll wait for you to pass, ignore the “Don’t Walk” sign warning the light change. By then I’d learned my stark black uniforms were to be called Navy dress blues, my ball cap was a cover, the beds were racks, the cinder block building a ship, and I was an airman recruit. There was no going back. I let myself fall.

I heard the bubbles form overhead as I rushed toward the bottom of the pool. My initial fear over jumping changed with the weightlessness that suddenly surrounded me. Underwater, I couldn’t feel my skin. Everything I had seen before the jump now blurred into abstract forms. I brought my arms together above me and pushed myself even deeper toward the bottom. I wanted to breathe in the pool’s silver-blue anonymity that refracted everything around me for as long as I could. Above water, my RDC Senior Chief Ibsen flapped his arms, urging me to surface. The divers began to advance. If they helped me, I would fail for not having risen on my own. I tilted my head back and rose to the top, expelling any last breath before breathing in new air.

“Keep going!” Ibsen coached, hopping with each syllable as though his own excitement could propel me. “You have to get to the end to pass.” He pointed to the 100-yard-swim marker, which I needed to reach in order to advance to the next month-and-a-half of training, make it to graduation day, through air traffic control school and then complete my six-year enlistment before I could spend the 30,000 dollars promised for college. Behind me, other recruits waited until I was clear before they jumped.

It didn’t seem like that big of a drop once I looked back at the platform from the water. I am doing this for myself, I thought. I stretched my arms out and swam a slow languorous swim, enjoying every last moment before I reached the other side. Looking back, I realize that more than wanting to stay in the comfort of a familiar medium, I, having jumped from one world, wanted to remain in a moment of sheer freedom before pulling myself out of the pool and into another.

After passing the last crucial boot camp test, I knew I only had to make it through each day, which got easier and easier as I learned what to expect. Other than attending shipboard classes I paid no attention to (knowing I was going to air traffic control school, it seemed irrelevant, even to the RDCs who didn’t make me or a few others headed to nuclear engineering school participate in the man-overboard practice drills) I lost myself in the daily marches, concentrating solely on the footsteps ahead and behind me. I felt invisible in a group that, after six weeks, seemed unstoppable, no longer even needing a cadence to follow. We marched perfectly to the drum of each other’s feet pulsing down the streets; we’d been broken down and rebuilt, always carrying with us the fear of getting in trouble, for me of being left behind.

Eventually our RDCs decided they could Division 265 to discipline itself through the night. That gave them the opportunity to sleep at home with their families. But then one night two male RDCs from another division stormed into our barracks, flashed the overhead lights on and demanded we answer the question “What are you doing in my Navy?” They insisted that women only joined the Navy to find a husband, and, to punish us, they interrupted our sleep: a 4-hour respite separating our twenty-hour days. Being female recruits, we were not allowed to strip down to our skivvies for bed; hence, we were already dressed for the occasion.

These men singled out Jaime, one of my shipmates. Jaime was a single mother struggling to raise her child in an inner city. She was strong. She would have to be because the RDCs forced her to stay in push-up position until her hips gave out. Weeks before, another girl had been cycled—exercised—to the point of a heart attack. When she slumped against the metal beds and asked for help, two RDCs taunted her until the ambulance crew arrived and confirmed her near-fatal condition. After that scandal, the prospect of another girl from the same division hospitalized for abuse was too much, so the two men who had burst into our barracks that night were reprimanded and no longer allowed near our racks at night.

I’d come to trust my division’s RDCs, especially Ibsen who tried to be gentle and almost never yelled, because they protected us from other RDCs like the two men who broke in on us. I didn’t think about the fact that we were the lucky few. Those other RDCs led other divisions where they were able to do whatever they wanted (in loco parentis).

I happily followed Senior Chief Ibsen from our barracks to medical, the drill hall or the galley. Two-by-two we’d file through red-and-blue painted bars along with the thousands of other sailors also headed toward the aluminum serving counters. En masse we moved toward other uniformed recruits doling out breakfast in equal portions onto identical plastic trays, ending the transaction by singing the only authorized communication between any of us: “Thank you, Shipmate.”

We weren’t allowed to look around at anyone else, but my short stature allowed me to watch the crowd without getting caught. Most recruits were nondescript. Newbies, called “Rickis,” naturally stood out: lanky men with long hair and unshaven cheeks; girls with streaking mascara and loose ponytails. They never glanced at us, and I didn’t much look at them; it was as though we didn’t recognize each other.

But there was another group that always stood out, those who had made it past the initial first week or two and showed up in the same blue sweat outfits my division had received. I watched them lovingly, remembering my own initiation. Freshly cowed, these new recruits knew to keep their heads down, their eyes glazed, and stare at nothing.

But then one day, across from me dressed in his “Smurfs,” stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Jacob. Both of us forgot our training and rushed to one another.

“Hey Christy!” he said. It was the first time I’d been called my name in over a month. “The food’s pretty good here, huh?” He smiled.

Actually, the food was disgusting. Disguised with the heady aroma of scrambled eggs, sausage links and sweet pastries, under heat lamps warmed the worst breakfast I’d ever tasted. Powdered eggs overcooked into a Play-Doh texture. Pancakes floated in mock syrup that had the consistency of olive oil, which did nothing to mask the metallic taste of excessive baking soda.

But I knew what my brother really meant. When we were children, strangers mistook us for twins, partly because of our similar features, but mostly because our mannerisms, tastes and experiences were identical. We both had our mother’s large hazel eyes, kept the same timing when telling jokes, and Jacob had been forced to join the military before he was a senior in high school, around the same age I had been when I was forced to marry Jerrod, 16. Like me, Jacob also grew up with a mother who sexualized everything, with an adopted stepfather that would lock the pantry, angry over having to feed a teenaged boy who was not his biological son, or would shove him into corners and slap him, goading Jacob to “Go ahead, hit me!” Years later, Jacob would earn a graduate degree in criminal justice and work as a prison case manager, doing everything he could to help ex-cons rehabilitate. But that day, he was my baby brother, his thick chestnut hair recently shaved off by boot-camp barbers, replaced with the red track marks of industrial clippers.

Without thinking, we gave each other a quick hug. The RDCs rushed toward us, screaming for Jacob and I to “Break!” They were as infuriated as they were stunned.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” one asked.

“This is my brother,” I said, pointing to Jacob. He had our adopted surname on his uniform while I wore my estranged husband’s on mine.

“Do you mean your bro, like you guys are cool with each other?” the RDC asked.

“No, my brother-brother.”

“Look at them. They look exactly alike.”

Jacob nodded, confirming our relationship.

“Okay,” the first RDC said, “but you can’t talk to each other.”

Hours later, my division marched home amid the smell of over-saturated maple leaves holding the hot, moist air. We climbed the three flights to take our communal showers, stow our uniforms in the tiny metal footlockers, and dress in our Navy T-shirts and blue nylon shorts for bedtime when Ibsen, Sampson and Claude stormed the room with an urgency beyond what we’d ever seen before.

“Get dressed. You have five minutes,” Ibsen commanded.

We raced to prepare while spinning through the possibilities of what had gone wrong and who had done it.

Then the base lights began to shut off as Ibsen shepherded us to the ground floor, where we braced ourselves against what turned out to be the Lindenhurst tornado shrieking through northeastern Illinois.

I sat at a window and watched clouds. Some recruits buried their heads in their knees. A few cried. Others dug out paper and pens they’d kept hidden and wrote letters openly, realizing that the RDCs didn’t care. Ibsen, Sampson and Claude, separated from their own homes and families, watched over us, projecting their own worries out the windows by staring so hard at the storm outside it was like they were trying to control the weather themselves.

I told jokes. I relished being watched over during an emergency. I didn’t care if the RDCs ordered me to drop and “do twenty,” fifty, seventy, or more elaborate routines. We could get “cycled” by performing sets of exercises until our bodies collapsed, such as eight-count body-builders. We would stand tall then fall to our hands and feet on the tile, bring our feet up to our hands on the ground, and then push our feet back before jumping back into a stand—and that was one. We repeated the routine, up and down, to the count of eight seconds.

Often Sampson would order us to close the industrial windows lining the walls, shutting in Chicago’s summer air. Claude instructed us to “get into Battle Gear.” We stood in front of our racks, pulled our wool socks over the bottom of our dungaree pants, buttoned our long sleeve shirts to our necks. Then we were ordered to run in place for as long as it took for our body heat to saturate the room so that condensation would drip off the ceiling and back onto our faces, all the while the RDCs shouted, “Make it rain, make it rain!”

As far as I was concerned the RDCs could yell at me until their voices gave out and they needed to call for back up, because they never touched us. In boot camp, hitting was illegal. Unlike my parents, the RDCs would never stand by and watch while one or the other slammed my butt with a half-inch-thick piece of plywood fashioned into a fraternity paddle with the words “Board of Education.”  The RDCs could only make us hurt ourselves, something I was good at. With each pushup I performed, Petty Officer Sampson would kneel beside me and yell, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I believed her because with exercise I became stronger.

But then graduation day arrived like a disaster. I stood in a blinding sea of dress-white uniforms (several divisions including mine), which reflected the sun sharply into my eyes. I fought tears throughout the ceremony, pretending I was trying to avoid the sun in my eyes. The day I graduated was perfect southern California weather, but after growing accustomed to Chicago, I preferred the rain.

Friends and family filled stadium bleachers to watch us parade, listen to speeches, wave miniature American flags. My relatives did not come. While everyone else embraced, I walked home to the barracks unclaimed. I walked past empty racks to the fire escape landing outside, where I had my first solitary moment in over two months. I took my waist-long hair out of its clip, unwound the long tight braid and let it fall loose over my shoulders, down my back and into the wind. Standing three stories above a prison-like cement courtyard on an iron ledge, I could have told myself anything, but I felt at peace for the first time in my life, having had consistent food, clothing and shelter, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I left the fire escape for the bathroom. I didn’t bother turning on the lights: I didn’t need to see what I had to do having, suddenly, become aware I was once again alone. I stood in front of the mirror, thought about how my mother forced me to marry my boyfriend, Jerrod, when I was sixteen, and dug my fingernails into my face.

“I love you this much!” Jerrod squeezes your hand, but you don’t see it bloom purple-red. You don’t find the metaphor in the gift he mailed to you from the time he was in Army boot-camp only a few months before visiting from D.C. — the Army-brown chow-hall napkin with the words “You Are Mine!” penned in black Sharpee. You don’t know that he will consume you until you have nothing left but feet and knees and hands with which to crawl. You tack the napkin above your bed like a banner, a warning to your mother. Only he can touch you now! You shift the square into a diamond and wish on it like a star.

You are sixteen sitting next to your nineteen-year-old boyfriend who has visited from Fort Meyers in D.C. You have not learned to wipe your mouth, because nothing spills out for you to clean up after. In a Mexican restaurant, you pick tortilla chips out of a plastic wicker basket while your mother feeds your boyfriend of nine months from across the table.

She talks money, housing — but Jerrod hears family; he doesn’t really have one, either. She must get rid of you. He loves you. Your hands have done her housework for years, but now they are old enough to replace hers. Jerrod promises to take care of you.

Get away from your parents as fast as possible, your high-school guidance counselor warns you. She’s met them, knows that with the easy stroke of a cheap pen your mother abandons you to a man she’d eaten with twice.

At the Idaho State County Clerks Office, your mother’s signature is scratched across the  photocopied permission slip. You don’t know if there is a notary public. No one questions your mother’s intent. In the orphan’s court they assume you’re pregnant. Only your mother and Jerrod know you’re not.

Hand-in-hand, you stand with Jerrod inside a gingerbread cottage at the end of a trail your mother laid out. You want to be pushed into the oven. But he won’t let you, not yet, only later when children aren’t a possibility. He loves the sixteen-year-old with the huge green-brown eyes looking up to him with all the love she needed to give to feel real. Three years later when she breaks, he won’t recognize his “Baby Doll.”

So you suspend disbelief until you can no longer recognize the man who held you by the hand and repeated, “I Do.”

Once my face was covered with blood, I stood back and wondered how a mother could do such a thing to her own flesh and blood. I walked past Sampson on my way to my rack. She said nothing. I’d already graduated, and she was no longer responsible for me.

The next morning Greyhound buses idled to transport a dozen divisions to various technical schools around the country. I couldn’t walk straight while carrying my gym bag full of the civilian clothes I surrendered upon arrival along with everything else I had been issued. Ibsen turned back toward the end of the line of sailors streaming into buses and noticed my hesitant wobbling. I dropped my gym bag on the sidewalk. Ibsen walked to me, picked up my bag and helped me to the bus.

Hundreds of sailors watched out of bus windows as I sobbed like a child in Sampson’s arms. I gripped her like a buoy, hoping to remain within the cold cinderblock walls where I knew what to expect. I wanted the structured organization, every moment of my day scheduled in the hyper-strict atmosphere where felt safe. I wanted Ibsen to take my luggage back to the barracks so that we could continue to be Division 265, and I’d have a family. Sampson rocked me for a few moments before Ibsen took my hands.

“Christy,”  —he knew my first name — “you’ll be fine.” He swung my hands in his and said, “I felt the same way.”

I boarded the bus with the men and women I had lived among for nearly three months, and, for a moment, we all headed in the same direction. I was the only one from my graduating class to be attending Air Traffic Control School. Once my bus dropped me off at Chicago O’Hare, I walked alone to my gate. I felt awkward in my dress whites. I was too nervous to eat. But by the time my plane landed in Pensacola, I was ready to swallow anything they put in front of me.

—Christy Clothier

————–

Christy L. Clothier graduated with a double MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her recently completed memoir, Trail of Breadcrumbs: Why I Joined and Left the US Navy, follows a fairy-tale structure of a young girl wholly rejected by her “mother,” who believes she’ll find safety in the military, a world populated by men. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been published elsewhere and turned into a play. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor. She writes short stories, research articles and essays that connect childhood abuse with military service and trauma. Christy’s writing has appeared in Inquiry and Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, from which her essay “The Controller” was adapted for the play Coming in Hot. She teaches English to international war refugees in Colorado and lives with her dog, Jauss, named after a famous author.

Jan 092016
 

Murals all over North Korea honor the regime and denounce
America and Japan. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

A Star for Choi Deok-geun in the Hall of the Spooks

In the Far Eastern seaport of Vladivostok, Russia, where I used to live, you sometimes see North Korean guest workers in grocery stores around town. In a typical Russian “productery,” you do not push a cart around piling in cans of soup and tubs of ice cream; you stand at the cash register and tell the clerk what you want, and she grabs it from the shelf behind her and rings it up. But the North Koreans project a truculent self-confidence, despite their modest appearance. They are pencil-necked and knobby-elbowed, wearing torn jeans or plaid trousers, haircuts they seem to have given themselves, and lapel badges of their late leader-god, Kim Il-sung, yet they barge up to the front of the line and bark orders in pidgin Russian, gesturing at whatever they want. Beer! Oil! Rice! To my surprise, the other shoppers stand by patiently, rather than cursing and telling the North Koreans to wait their turn, as they would any Russian who cut the line. The Koreans are regarded as a species as alien as Martians. No point even trying to explain to them the concept of a grocery store line.

The guest workers can still be found in the city, but in 1997 I was editing the Vladivostok News, the Russian Far East’s only English-language newspaper, and the North Koreans were a story. Once I approached three of them who were buying beer in a kiosk near our apartment. Hoping for an interview, I attempted to strike up a conversation, but I was handicapped by my poor Russian. I blurted out, “Are you North Koreans?” They glanced at each other with expressions that said, Well, duh.

I said, “I’m American!” and offered a great big friendly grin to show we meant no harm, we Yanks, large-hearted romantics that we are, galumphing about the globe to distribute chewing gum, rap music, gender anxiety, carpet bombings, and elected governments that have a distressing tendency to collapse into kleptocracies.

One North Korean wore a larger badge than the others–some kind of crew boss or commissar, perhaps. He told me, “Then we’re enemies.” At this he grinned right back.

My wife, Nonna, who was deputy editor and interpreted for me, called around and found a business that had hired North Koreans to remodel the interior of an old building on Aleutskaya Street downtown. The Vladivostok News has since closed and vanished from the Internet and nobody seems to have saved the print archives, so the story I wrote is lost. But I recall a Russian foreman or building owner cheerfully answering our questions. The North Koreans, however, weren’t so easy to talk to. When we approached them, their panicked eyes darted around in search of an escape.

10 Maltsev Strengthen international cooperation“We Will Strengthen International Cooperation”: A sign welcomes
a Russian delegation near Rajin. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Various newspapers report that there are about ten thousand North Korean guest workers throughout the Russian Far East, many of them based in remote logging camps in Khabarovsky region north of us, where they first began arriving in the 1960s. The Seoul newspaper Chosun Ilbo recently stated that one hundred fifty thousand North Koreans are working abroad worldwide under conditions it describes as slave labor, the majority of them in China. Many are also employed in Qatar and Dubai, building a stadium, hotels, and golf courses in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. “Most of their fellow workers from Vietnam, India and Nepal get off at dusk, but the North Koreans often labor on in the glare of fluorescent lamps until late at night,” Chosun Ilbo reports. Ninety percent of their salaries are said to go to the regime.

The Russian crew boss told us that he paid the men’s wages directly to their government officials; elsewhere in the Russian Far East, the workers reportedly receive worthless scrip they supposedly can exchange for rubles. If they were willing to put up with this, it was not the boss’s concern. So what was in it for the guest workers who came to Russia? For timber crews isolated in logging camps in the taiga, it is hard to say. Maybe just food. In Vladivostok, though, North Koreans can earn extra cash doing odd jobs. Sometimes in the evening they went doorbelling in the neighborhoods where they worked, offering their services.

02 Trukhanenko NK bricklayerDressed in traditional Russian felt boots and a tattered coat without sleeves, a North Korean lays brick in Vladivostok. Photo © Valentin Trukhanenko.

Vladivostok has long been a battleground in the spy-versus-spy conflict between North and South Korea. The Kim regime claims to be the sole legitimate government on the Korean peninsula, and it presents the government in Seoul as collaborators with the “Yankee bastards.” So it is unsurprising that the intrigue would spill over into the Russian Far East, where both countries maintain consulates. The failed state’s ire toward its successful rival in Seoul erupted in October 1996 with the murder of Choi Deok-geun, a South Korean consular official who was killed in his apartment stairwell in Vladivostok. Choi officially served as the consul for arts and culture, but his duties clearly extended beyond that. He reportedly was investigating North Korea’s drug trafficking and counterfeiting, and when his corpse was discovered, there was a dent in his skull and poison in his system of a type North Korea was known to use, The Dong-a Ilbo reported in 2011 in an article on Seoul’s request that Russia reopen the unsolved case. Korean observer Robert Neff has noted in the blog The Marmot’s Hole that Choi is now memorialized by a star embedded in the security exhibition hall of the National Intelligence Service in Seoul. Each of the forty-six stars represents an agent who died in the line of duty.

After we visited the construction site on Aleutskaya, the North Korean consulate in nearby Nakhodka, which previously had refused to comment, suddenly called the newsroom to ask what we were up to. When he hung up, the phone rang again. An officer of the FSB, an agency formerly known as the KGB, wanted to talk to Nonna. Somehow he had learned about our story (perhaps listening in on the North Korean consulate?) and asked what was going on.

Nonna explained what we were working on.

“You’d better be careful,” he said. “We don’t want to end up with another dead body on our hands.”

Fish Soup and Cookies in a Land of Plentiful Frogs

We heard there were North Korean workers in Khasan, down on the border, so we caught the train there. The village, home to seven hundred forty people, used to be a bustling portal between North Korea and the Soviet Union, but this ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the elimination of trade subsidies for the socialist little brother. When we arrived, we found a few glum North Korean workers in Khasan Station, waiting to catch a train home. Piled at their feet were cheap bags of a sort Russian shuttle traders would bring back from China, stuffed with whatever these workers had bought in Vladivostok. Food, perhaps, maybe clothes. I introduced myself as an American reporter. They would not touch the official red-bound Russian press I.D. I tried to show them.

08 Maltsev MuralistMurals all over North Korea honor the regime and denounce
America and Japan. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

We found some railway employees, who said they had seen coffins on trains heading back into North Korea, bearing the bodies of guest workers who died cutting timber in the taiga. It is also possible that every so often a coffin was bringing back what might be described as a living corpse. When North Korea captures a runaway “traitor” in a foreign country, the secret police reportedly drug him, break his legs so he cannot escape when he wakes up, and return him home in a coffin, a former refugee reports. South Korean media state that Pyongyang’s secret police operate with impunity in the timber camps of the Khabarovsky region north of us, torturing and executing workers. Yet it seemed that nobody wanted to go home. Galina Kachanova, a Khasan train dispatcher who had traveled across the Tumen River several times to inspect rails and work out timetables, told us that when she last visited Tumangang, three of her seven cross-border colleagues had died of malnutrition, among them a father who starved to death because he was giving his own rations to his children. These were railway officials, not prisoners of the North Korean gulag.

“They’re brought up as very fanatical people, and usually they don’t admit that they have hunger in their country,” Kachanova said. “But lately they’ve become more open about it.”

Leaving the station, we headed out into the village.

There isn’t much to see in Khasan. Ramshackle cottages, gravel roads, soggy ditches, weedy rail yards, sidewalks of concrete slabs buckling up and down, fences of splintery wood or sheets of corrugated rust, blocky two-story Soviet apartments shedding plaster. A windowless building was collapsing in decrepitude, filled with scraps of ceiling plaster, living shrubs and saplings, rusty box springs, shattered bottles. The lower part of the village was sinking into swamp. The air breathed the perfumes of sea breezes and coal smoke and diesel and river mud and young, sappy leaves on the trees.

We followed a road paralleling the train tracks that crossed the Tumen River up ahead. The tracks bridged a murky waterway that empties into the Sea of Japan a few miles downstream. A fence ran between us and the rails, and we came upon some North Koreans repairing the tracks. As I photographed them, they straightened up and muttered at each other, hefting their tools.

From Khasan you can see across the Tumen River into North Korea and China; the village borders both countries. On the other side, green hills rumple up into low mountains under a gray ceiling of felt. I had read that from the opposite bank all the way to the DMZ, the frog population had disappeared, devoured by hungry citizens. Two million people died during the famine of the mid-nineties, and hunger, like a specter in a medieval woodcut, is still reaping souls. The regime blamed floods, and then droughts, then more floods. Calamities befall North Korea as nowhere else, to hear the government tell it. The regime can’t get a break long enough to demonstrate the radical efficacy of its agricultural collectives. Yet when its people were on the brink of starvation in 2012, North Korea launched a missile that caused the West to threaten to cut off cash and food aid. This in a country where malnutrition has shrunk the populace to the point that the army has lowered its minimum height requirement to four feet seven inches, or slightly taller than the average South Korean fourth grader, according to NPR. A third of North Korean children are believed to be “permanently stunted” because of a lack of food.

In her new memoir, In Order to Live, escapee and human rights activist Yeonmi Park recalls growing up as the daughter of a North Korean wheeler-dealer who was trading in stolen metals–the only way he could feed his family. In times of hunger, she writes, starving mothers abandoned their babies to freeze to death in alleys. Bodies lay in trash heaps and floated down rivers, and she and her sister once saw the corpse of a naked young man beside a pond where he had dragged himself for a last drink of water. His stomach had been torn open, apparently by hungry dogs. Winter was not the season of death. Spring, when food runs out and the farms have yet to produce crops, is when most people died of starvation. “My sister and I often heard the adults who saw dead bodies on the streets make clucking noises and say, ‘It’s too bad they couldn’t hold on until summer,’” Park writes. She, her sister, and her mother also found it hard to survive after her father was arrested and sent to prison. They ate herbs and plants and cicadas. One boy who had a cigarette lighter showed her that if you cooked a dragonfly over the flame, it “gave off an incredible smell like roasted meat, and it tasted delicious,” Park writes.

06 Maltsev OxcartA scrawny ox pulls a cart near Rajin, North Korea. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Escapee Jang Jin-sung, formerly North Korea’s poet laureate, writes of returning to his hometown, Sariwon, in 1999, not long after Nonna and I first visited Khasan. In Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea, he recalls being shocked to find his old friends were starving. A girl who used to pretend to be his bride in their child wedding games now resembled a gaunt old woman. He inquired after old friends and neighbors and learned that many of them had starved to death. On the streets, merchants were offering wares and services that would not even appeal to a bum in Seoul. One woman was trying to sell a flask that could be filled with hot water to keep the buyer warm; evidently there was no longer any heating. For ten won–about a penny–another let customers use her bar of soap and basin of water to wash their faces. The city’s water supply, it turned out, had dried up with yet another one of those droughts. Jang saw another woman in Sariwon selling comforters stuffed not with cotton but with the filters of smoked cigarettes. All around were inspirational slogans:

Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Disobey Traffic Rules!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Spread Foreign Culture!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Hoard Food!
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Gossip!

As Jang headed back to the train station on his way home, a siren sounded, and police surrounded the square and drove everyone into the center with their rifle butts. They dragged out a terrified man in work clothes and held a five-minute People’s Trial. The sentence was death. The soldiers formed a firing squad. Everyone in the plaza was forced to watch, but as the volleys were fired Jang looked up to the sky so as to avoid seeing the moment of death. As he later wrote in one of the dissident poems he secretly composed:

The prisoner’s crime: theft of one sack of rice.
His sentence: ninety bullets to the heart.
His occupation:
Farmer.

“The man riddled with bullets for stealing rice had been a starving farmer,” Jang writes. “Even someone who worked the land could not find enough to eat.”

On the edge of Khasan we turned down a dirt road, approaching the river through a patchwork of dacha gardens and neglected military pillboxes. One feels that the river forms the border, but a sliver of Chinese territory separates Russia from the riverbank at this point. Nonna and I came to a sign ordering trespassers back or we would be shot without warning. We had nearly walked into China. Just then a voice yelled “Halt!” A Russian soldier we had not noticed came out of a little guardhouse checked our papers. He eyed mine suspicously, Americans being a rarity in Khasan. Ah, but my clever wife had thought of everything when she applied for my visa to come to Russia back in January. The form had asked where I would be traveling in the country, so she listed every city in the Primorye region which was closed to foreigners. Some bureaucrat had rubber-stamped the document, and I now had permission to be in towns that normally would have been off-limits to an American, among them Khasan. Several years later, when we returned on an assignment for BusinessWeek, I had no such documentation, and we were arrested by four soldiers aiming AK-47s at us, and they kicked us out of town. But this guard just waved us back up the road toward the village.

By this time evening was descending. Possibly it is heartless to say this within sight of a famine-afflicted land, but we were hungry, and we could not find a restaurant in the village. The tiny station had no café. The overnight train back to Vladivostok would not leave for hours, and there would be no dining car on a provincial spur from Khasan. (While the distance is short as the crow flies, by rail it was a long trip around Primorye’s rugged coastline and required a recoupling of the cars in the Ussuriysk.) The kiosks offered limited options–packages of hot dogs and imitation crab, Ramen-style noodles, Snickers bars, chips, Choco Pies. Having nowhere to cook any food, we bought some cookies and drifted down a gravel road. Evening slanted across the hills and cottages and vegetable gardens in what might have been an ancient Russian village on the Volga but in fact was in the extreme reaches of Asia. As the good Slavic sun went down, it gleamed on channels of ditch water, ignited slabs of the prefab Soviet buildings, warmed the treeless earth of No Man’s Land that separated us from China, and dappled the frogless bogs of North Korea.

We came upon a villager named Raisa, who was hoeing her potato garden, and asked her a question or two. She didn’t have much to say about North Korea. What she wanted to hear about was us. Where were we from?

Vladivostok, Nonna said, but he’s an American correspondent.

Raisa’s eyes lighted up. An American! What was I doing in Khasan? Was I a spy?

No, a journalist. Editor-in-chief of the Vladivostok News.

Well, this was just terrific, in Raisa’s view! She was delighted to welcome a foreigner to Khasan. Raisa invited us to join her and her husband, a Tatar named Farid, for dinner, and we followed her to their apartment. How homey it seemed, and how exotic just the same, to enjoy Russian village hospitality here on the border of North Korea, to leave your shoes at the door and step into your hosts’ worn slippers, to settle on stools around the kitchen table, to butter slices of black bread, to blow on spoonfuls of scalding fish soup, to nibble on a dessert of Bird’s Milk chocolates and cookies (ours). Yet we could see across the river into a land where railway officials starve in order to feed their children, and where Jang, the poet, once encountered a famished woman in a market in Pyongyang with a sign that read, “I sell my daughter for one hundred won.”

03 Maltsev Khasan StationRussian and  North Korean flags fly at Khasan station to welcome
Kim Jong-il in a visit in 2000. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Farid set out a bottle of vodka and shot glasses, and we toasted international friendship. Switching its tail, Rajah, their irritable tomcat, skulked into the room. Farid had trimmed the cat like a lion, shearing it except for a fluffy mane and a tuft at the end of its tail. Raisa said she was knitting a sweater from the fur she trimmed off the cat. This strikes me as implausible, but it is what she told us. The couple insisted that we remain with them until our train departed. They offered us their comfiest chairs, and Raisa plopped Rajah down in my lap, as if this were a pleasure reserved for honored guests. We watched a selection of their Indian videos. “We’ve always been crazy about India,” she said. I cannot recall if they had ever been there or if this was a theoretical interest.

Maybe it was the vodka, or the lateness of the hour, but I caught only part of the movie before I fell asleep. A villain shoved a beautiful woman into a swimming pool, and a crocodile that was lurking there chomped off her face. Luckily, she secured a good plastic surgeon, allowing her to find work as a supermodel. When Rajah jumped down, Raisa captured him and set him back in my lap, waking me.

Eventually she said, “Oh, you’d better get going,” and stopped the movie. Raisa walked us through the dark village to the station. There were no streetlights, and the skies were spectacular. All of Russia, all of China, all of North Korea had ascended in the celestial sphere, leaving nothing but stars and, in this salient, at least, the chirping of frogs. From the station we caught the sleeper to Vladivostok. Trains rock you to sleep, and I rested well.

Back home our story ran with the additional quotes and color from Khasan. Despite the worst fears of the FSB, there were no attempts to assassinate us. Which is just as well. Like most people we wanted to live, and besides, unlike Mr. Choi, nobody would ever memorialize us with a star in the hall of the spooks.

.

The Trade in Cross-Border Wives

Several years later we got another glimpse of the Hermit Kingdom when we caught a bus to Yanji, China, where I wanted to write about the North Korean refugees there. Yanji is the capital of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where more than a third of the population of two million people are ethnic Korean citizens of China. An additional two hundred thousand North Korean refugees live in China, human rights organizations estimate.

Nonna and I took a tour bus from Vladivostok along with my stepson Sergei and some friends from what is now called Far Eastern Federal University, where I was taking Russian classes. We were visiting a professor friend of ours who was teaching in Yanji for a year. Part of the way we skirted the Tumen River, where the North Korean bank is lined every kilometer with a guard station. In the last three years, the Chinese have extended fencing and coils of barbed wire along their bank of the Tumen and Yalu rivers, but smugglers and refugees still find a way to wade or swim across in summertime or make a slippery dash to freedom on the ice in the winter. But at that time I noticed no fence on the Chinese side. Those who have the money bribe the North Korean border guards to allow them across; otherwise, they risk their lives when they flee.

“Border guards remain authorized to shoot to kill persons who cross the DPRK border without permission,” states a report by a U.N. commission, released in 2014 as an indictment for a possible future prosecution of North Korea’s leaders for crimes against humanity. “Such killings amount to murder.”

11 Maltsev Russia-DPRK border 2Russia’s border with the DPRK. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Yanji is a bustling city of four hundred thirty thousand people. At night, the multistory buildings downtown are lighted with neon signs advertising food markets, shoe stores, cell phone establishments, karaoke joints. Restaurateurs hang colorful banners with photographs of their tastiest entrees to entice customers. Some signs include a little silhouette of a dog, indicating that man’s best friend is on the menu. As we arrived at our hotel lobby, our tour guide, who was Russian, pointed out a stack of glossy business cards on the front desk, telling us they were from the hotel and we should take some to give to cabdrivers in case we got lost. A few days later, when I gave the card to a foreign pastor and said, “Here’s where I’m staying,” he chuckled and told me, “No, you’re not.” It turned out the cards actually advertised a brothel. Which would relate, I suppose, to the story I would find in Yanji. But I first had to find a way to communicate with North Koreans.

In case you ever find yourself in China writing business stories, you may secure an interpreter through the concierge at the front desk of your hotel. After a series of misunderstandings in which a tour guide who doesn’t speak English takes you sightseeing at a muddy little zoo where rain-darkened zebras chew straw and dispirited howler monkeys cling to a dead tree planted in concrete; after her long-haired boyfriend arrives and tells you he can show you the rock ’n’ roll scene after dark, and by the way, just call him by his English name: Superboy; after he is made to understand that you are a reporter in need of an interpreter–then finally a man in a suit, his dyed hair neatly parted to reveal half an inch of gray roots, will knock at your door and offer to interpret free of charge, not a problem at all, keep your money, he just wants to practice his English. What gives the game away is when your free interpreter leads you through the lobby to a waiting sedan, white in color, with a People’s Liberation Army soldier at the wheel and little Chinese flags fluttering from the front fenders. You are in the hands of some Chinese variety of the FBI or the KGB, and they want you to know that. The chauffeur, too, refuses any payment (he apparently needs to practice his driving), but as long as you are there to write about business, everyone is eager to talk to you and all barriers are swept from your path. Sources cheerfully relate their successes in the topsy-turvy world of China’s commie capitalism. When you are ready to return home, your interpreter may even suggest that you go into business together. If you ask, Selling what? he will tell you, We’ll figure out something. People are right when they say China is business-crazy. At any rate, this is how it worked for me.

But it is different when you’re interviewing North Koreans on the run, so I went through a contact I had arranged. The interpreter and I set out in search of refugees while Nonna and Sergei went shopping. Min-sik (as I will call him) said he knew a North Korean woman who had married a farmer. He drove me out of town along roads through fields plowed by oxen. For many miles on either side of the road, solitary farmers were guiding plows up and down the rows, led by a team of oxen. If they were working alone, it meant they couldn’t find or afford a wife, Min-sik said. Those who were married, however, worked in tandem with the wife, her trudging ahead and leading the ox by the halter while he kept the plow going straight. Most of these women came from North Korea.

Three quarters of the North Koreans in China’s three northern provinces had been purchased as wives or prostitutes, Good Friends, Inc., a Seoul humanitarian organization, reports. Chinese demographics drive the market for women. The rural population of Yanbian produces insufficient women for its Korean bachelor farmers. If you ask villagers why this is, they will laugh awkwardly and say all the women moved to Yanji to work in restaurants and karaoke bars, and who knows, maybe some of them did. Some families buy wives for disabled sons who couldn’t otherwise find a mate, Park writes.  Abortion is another factor. Ethnic minorities are allowed some exemptions from the one-child policy, but China’s high abortion rate disproportionately affects girls in this region as it does in the rest of the country. In 2014, Chinese women gave birth to nearly one hundred sixteen boys for every hundred girls, while the natural human birth ratio is one hundred five boys for every hundred girls, Bloomberg reports. That year there were thirty-four million more men than women in China, according to China Daily. In Yanbian prefecture and elsewhere, North Korean women fill in the gap.

On our way to a village whose name I purposely did not learn, we took a detour. Min-sik took me to a spot overlooking the Tumen River and gestured at the opposite bank. There it is, he said. North Korea. The trees on the other side looked spindly and bald, perhaps because they had been stripped of their bark by Koreans desperate for food, as Jang suggests. We could see a village tucked in the foothills. Unlike in China, no smudges of coal smoke tilted from the chimneys. Maybe there was no coal to be had (such things were known to happen in Russia when officials steal the budget for fuel). From riverbank to riverbank, the Tumen looked narrower than the deep, green Toutle River in Southwest Washington state, where I used to swim in my late teens before the eruption of Mount Saint Helens silted it up. North Korea was so close. A ridiculous notion came to me: What if I just swam across, tagged the other shore, and came back? It was early spring, the trees still leafless. It would be freezing. More to the point, I might be shot midstream, or hauled up on the opposite bank by border guards and frog-marched to prison, requiring Jimmy Carter to intervene on my behalf. So, no, then. I guess I wouldn’t be swimming over. It was just a thought.

12 Maltsev Tumen River BridgeBridge over the Tumen River at Khasan. North Korea
lies on the opposite bank. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

We headed this way and that through country roads until we found ourselves in a village of redbrick homes, one- or two-room huts, really, of a sort North Koreans call “harmonicas,” built wall-to-wall in long rows. We stopped at the door of one of the units. Min-sik knocked, and a housewife peeked out. The worry evaporated from her face when she recognized him, and she looked over my barbarian countenance with curiosity but without hostility. North Korea’s racist propaganda portrays Americans, black and white alike, as monsters and sub-humans with “paws” and “snouts” in place of normal features, R.B. Myers writes in The Cleanest Race, and one popular novella relates how an American “jackal’s spade-shaped eagle’s nose hung villainously over his upper lip,” his eyes “like open graves constantly waiting for corpses.” (Bear this in mind the next time they call President Obama a “monkey” and a “crossbreed with unclean blood”; they think of us all that way.) Despite having been indoctrinated in such propaganda, the woman politely opened the door and invited us in. I now saw that she had a baby tied to her hip with a blanket.

We sat on the floor while she called her husband on a cell phone. Presently he joined us. I will call her Eun-ju, him Young-shik, as I later did when I revisited their lives in a short story. She was in her late twenties, he in his early thirties. In my story “Dear Leader” I described the real couple’s house through the eyes of the North Korean bride-to-be as she and a marriage broker entered

through a concrete-floored entry room filled with rakes, shovels, buckets, dried ears of corn hanging from the walls, a plow without a blade. Glancing frequently with mute wonder at Eun-ju, the farmer [Young-shik] led them into the living quarters, a single room with an electric cooker built into the floor—a gas unit covered by a lid the size of a truck’s hubcap. A faucet poked its snout from the kitchen wall, but there was no sink, and a plastic trash barrel had been placed underneath it to catch the water. Everywhere there were signs that this was not North Korea: a twenty-kilo bag of rice sat in the corner, color calendars with pictures of girls in swimsuits hung on the walls, and there was electricity to squander: a miniature black-and-white television buzzed with a broadcast of a soccer game. Astoundingly, a bird cheeped from within Young-shik’s shirt pocket. He patted himself down and removed a black object the size of a wallet, which he opened and spoke into.

Eun-ju, the real one, had lush, thick hair, and she looked like any heathy young mother as she cooed to her baby. But when she had crossed the Tumen River three years earlier, she told me, she was nearly bald from malnutrition after subsisting on a diet of grass and shredded bark mixed with an occasional spoonful of rice. She recalled North Korea as a land divided between well-off Workers’ Party members and destitute ordinary citizens. At the time she left, train stations were crowded with homeless people, who sleep in the waiting room seats or on floors crawling with vermin. Eun-ju saw malnourished children stop in their tracks and lie down to die in the streets. Once a wealthy man beat a child to death for stealing food. The government of Kim Jong Il enriched itself reselling the rice donated by the West and Japan. A kilogram cost the equivalent of two months’ wages.

Having no future there, Eun-ju fled to China along with her sister.

“I had no other choice,” she told me. “If I stayed there, I would have died.”

When they arrived in Yanbian, she and her sister placed their fates in the hands of the broker who sold Eun-ju to Young-shik and her sister to another farmer (the broker kept the money). As noisome as the brokers are, North Korean women have little choice but to work with them, and often they are deceived and cross the river without any idea that they are heading for a life as a slave. A woman wandering the countryside alone and begging for bread would be a target for kidnappers. Refugees are on the run, hunted by police and unable to trust anyone. In the case of the poet Jang, he and a friend, also an elite party member, fled the country together, and Pyongyang, enraged at this act of treason by two members of the elite, falsely reported to Beijing that two escaped murderers had crossed into China. Yanbian police launched an all-out manhunt. Several times the men slept outdoors in subzero temperatures Fahrenheit, huddling together for warmth on a mountainside in a blizzard. Even without an all-police bulletin, ordinary economic refugees find it difficult to survive on their own. Fearful villagers report the refugees to the Chinese authorities when they beg for food, Eun-ju told me, and while some Christians help North Koreans, others are too afraid of the police. Park managed to escape North Korea with the help of a church mission that escorted her all the way to the Mongolian border, but Jang and his comrade were cursed and driven off when they approached a church.

07 Maltsev Dear LeaderA teacher at a North Korean primary school shows off a
Kim-Jong-il calendar. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

One might think in a market where women are in demand, they would be cherished, but this is not so.  An ethnic Korean who is married to a North Korean tells Jang the brokered women are referred to as “pigs.” “In the Chinese countryside,” he says, “pigs are valuable, so people call the women pigs. They’re graded according to their age and appearance.”

Many women are lured to China on pretexts and have no idea sexual slavery awaits them. Jang met a North Korean refugee in Yanbian prefecture who had been sold to a Chinese at fourteen.  When she met her buyer, a “middle-aged monster,” he tore off her clothes, she told Jang.  She cried because she was frightened.  “Then his mother and sister came into the room, those witches,” the girl said.  “They held my arms and legs down and pulled my underwear off.”  The women pinned the girl down while their son and brother raped her.  Some peasants who buy women pimp them out to fellow villagers as prostitutes; other men chain their new wives up during the night so they can’t escape.  The U.N. commission states that one woman was lured to China on the pretext of working on a farm but was sold to a man who kept her as a slave for three years.  Pregnant, she escaped but was arrested.  Police took her to a transit prison, where her jailers raped her and the other women they had rounded up.

Park, who had been forced to eat cicadas and dragonflies, was also deceived. She and her mother fled across the Yalu River in 2007, thinking they could find jobs in China. (Her sister had already crossed over.) The thirteen-year-old Park had recently endured abdominal surgery for a mistaken diagnosis of appendicitis (she woke up screaming in the middle of surgery because the surgeons didn’t have enough anesthetic for her). She weighed only sixty pounds and barely managed to hobble across the frozen river. The Chinese man who met them wanted to rape Park, but her mother offered herself instead, and Park heard her cries outside as he assaulted her. The girl eventually becomes the mistress of a small-time gangster and human trafficker, while her mother is sold to a farmer. He compels Park to help with his trafficking network, selling other North Korean girls who have crossed into China. She gets them cleaned up, buys them clothes, teaches them about hygiene and cosmetics, and helps sell them.

“I didn’t have pity for anyone, including the girls I helped sell, including myself,” Park writes.

At the time I visited the Chinese farmer and his North Korean wife, I wrote that he bought her for three thousand yuan, or just under five hundred U.S. dollars. Jang, who escaped later, writes in Dear Leader that women cost a third of that. Yet Park says women were selling for over two thousand dollars at the time she arrived. It is worth noting that Park was personally involved in the business, unlike Jang and me.

“The first time we met,” Young-shik told me, “the broker said, ‘Do you think she’s OK?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ If you don’t like her, they will find you someone else.”

Those who are handed back to North Korea are considered traitors by the regime. In 1993, the U.N. commission reports, China forcibly repatriated a family, whereupon they were sent to their hometown in North Hamgyong Province. Police forced the entire population to attend a brutal spectacle in which they handcuffed the family, including a five-year-old boy, and paraded them around town. The report states, “The mother and father were then dragged around like oxen with rings that had been rammed into their noses. … The spectators swore at the victims and threw rocks at them.” Nobody knew what became of the family after that.

For her part Eun-ju considered herself lucky to have ended up with a good husband, but the couple had already moved four times to evade the police. She did not know what would happen to her baby if she were deported, but a child conceived in China would not be treated well in North Korea. Carrying their racist ideology to its logical extreme, North Korean officials force pregnant returnees to abort their babies. A woman named Jee Heon A told the U.N. commission that upon her repatriation to North Korea she was jailed with a mother who gave birth. She states:

The baby was crying as it was born; we were so curious, this was the first time we saw a baby being born. So we were watching this baby and we were so happy. But suddenly we heard the footsteps. The security agent came in and this agent of the Bowibu [short for Kukgabowibu, or State Security Department] … told us to put the baby in the water upside down. So the mother was begging. ‘I was told that I would not be able to have the baby, but I actually got lucky and got pregnant so let me keep the baby, please forgive me’, but this agent kept beating this woman, the mother who just gave birth. And the baby, since it was just born, it was just crying. And the mother, with her shaking hands, she picked up the baby and she put the baby face down in the water. The baby stopped crying and we saw this water bubble coming out of the mouth of the baby. And there was an old lady who helped with the labour, she picked up the baby from the bowl of water and left the room quietly.

Even in China, the children of North Korean refugees have limited prospects. Eun-ju’s son was unregistered, and thus would never be allowed to attend school. These offspring of North Koreans in China are known as “dark children,” Jang writes. Often abandoned by their mothers, they beg in the streets. Yet despite the circumstances that joined Eun-ju and Young-shik, they seemed to be content together. After an hour of talking to me, the couple fell silent, gazing timidly at each other, the baby sleeping on her side. Before long it would be dark out. Young-shik and Eun-ju said they were afraid. She did not want to go back; he did not want to lose her.

Min-sik and I got up to leave.

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Bridges to Nowhere

In 2001 Nonna and I again glimpsed the Hermit Kingdom from China, this time from Dandong, where I had decided to search for stories based on nothing more than a hunch while looking at an atlas. I had to leave Russia temporarily to renew my visa, and I was looking for a city off the beaten track, so it would not be picked clean of stories by the foreign press corps in Beijing (Nonna also wrote for Russian newspapers). Dandong was a seaport, which meant I could find trade-related stories for The New York Times or BusinessWeek, my best-paying publications. And it was located across the Yalu River from North Korea.

My hunch proved to be correct. Dandong had a population of nearly eight hundred thousand, making it a medium-sized provincial town by Chinese standards, but it was the center of a lively trade with the North Korean river city of Sinuiju. Dandong is bustling in the typical go-go Chinese way, with crowds of cars and bicycles on its streets and the skeletons of high-rise hotels wrapped in sheet plastic going up in the city center. From downtown, two bridges extend toward North Korea (a third has been built eight kilometers south). The Broken Bridge reaches only halfway toward the North Korean bank–the rest was destroyed by U.N. bombers during the war–and tourists and gawkers can stroll out to the end and photograph the opposite bank and curse the Imperialist Running Dogs responsible for the destruction. Truck and train traffic crosses the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge, just upstream from the Broken Bridge. Lorries and boxcars haul bags of rice and flour and rolls of linoleum and Tsingdao beer into Korea, along with luxury goods for the elite: fine whiskeys, fashionable clothing, spare parts and windshields for party members’ Cadillacs and other foreign cars, and even ostriches. At some point Kim Jong-il decided that ostrich farms were the solution to his country’s protein deficiency. Pyongyang has been subject to sanctions and is not especially adept at trading with the depraved world, anyway, so imports are often brought through Dandong. Dandong middlemen also repackage North Korean exports (wire coat hangers, seafood) as products of China and ship them elsewhere. Despite sanctions, I was told, American retailers were selling sweaters made in North Korea but labeled in China.

One morning Nonna and I took a walk along the quay beneath the two bridges. Along the waterfront, vendors sell North Korean paraphernalia to Chinese tourists: military-looking decorations, won banknotes, propaganda posters of soldiers smashing G.I.s with rifle butts or saluting Kim Il-sung, books of stamps featuring their leader-god. The Great Leader usually looks slightly to his right, and he flashes the dentured grin of a retiree on a sunny day on the links in Fort Myers. (His son, Kim Jong-il, is credited with hitting eleven holes in one on Pyonyang’s eighteen-hole golf course the first time he picked up a club.) Although I had been told in Vladivostok that no North Korean would ever part with his sacred Kim Il-sung lapel badge, they were easy to buy in Dandong if you are content with the older version, in which the Great Leader stares straight ahead stony-faced. Along the quay a writer for Slate also encountered people in colorful Korean attire, but it seems the Chinese like to rent Korean wedding garb and have their pictures taken with Sinuiju in the background.

Nonna and I bought tickets for a boat tour that crossed the river and hugged the opposite bank in North Korean territorial waters. We were so close I could have sailed a coin into Sinuiju. We passed an empty amusement park with a motionless Ferris wheel. In any normal city, such an embankment would have been a busy place on a clear spring morning. Joggers and dog walkers and young lovers would have been enjoying the sun, ice cream sellers would be hawking popsicles, balloon men selling inflatable Mickey Mouses. But in Sinuiju all we saw were border guards in those oversized Soviet-style hats, looking like skinny schoolboys dressed up in their father’s old uniforms. Upstream, our tour boat chugged past a line of rusty fishing trawlers and a windowless factory over which not a puff of steam rose. Red-lettered slogans decorated the waterfront. Rather than promising death by firing squad to those disobey traffic rules or hoard food, in this place North Korea post more palatable boasts for international consumption:

Long live the son of the 21st century, General Kim Jong Il!
Long live the great military-first politics!
Rich and powerful country

Of all the times I have skirted the border of North Korea, including a trip to the DMZ from Seoul, my most striking view of the country came from Dandong, in a rotating restaurant atop a high rise at night. As we started dinner, our window was facing the Chinese side, and the nighttime city stretched away beneath us in circuit board patterns, aglow with streetlamps and lighted apartment windows and LED signboards and business districts glowing with neon. You chat with a Chinese-Australian couple you met in the hotel business center, order a few local specialties for dinner, and sip a chemical-tasting Chinese wine, talk and laugh, and when you look out the window again, the city has vanished. You’re staring at the frogless void of North Korea.

Across the entire dark city of Sinuiju, with hundreds of thousands of residents, I counted eleven lights. It stayed like that all night; the electricity never came on. Those eleven lights, we were told, marked the location of police stations. I am guessing one or two prominent party members or Bowibu officers also had electricity at home. Immediately below our rotating restaurant were the bridges to nowhere. Even the newer one looked like it had been chopped off halfway across, because the lighting stops mid-river, and North Korea does not have power to illuminate its own side. At the time we were there, Pyongyang was threatening to walk out of reunification talks if Seoul did not provide the North with free electrical power.

05 Maltsev NK troopsNorth Korean soldiers at the port of Rajin, near the
Russian border, in 2014. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

Back in our hotel room, I flipped through the TV channels to 22 and found myself watching North Korea’s Chosun Joongang network. It was the first time I had seen anything on that channel. For most of the day it is dark: no reruns, no test patterns, nothing but static, but, I discovered, after five every evening, Channel 22 awakens as the voice of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As I would write in an op-ed for The New York Times, the camera panned a hall full of teenagers: the boys in dark suits, the girls in traditional Korean dresses. Iron-faced, they were watching an awards ceremony. Half of the winners took home red banners extolling the Kims and their kingdom. The rest won red accordions, an instrument that North Korean school teachers are required to master.

Fascinated, I began turning on Channel 22 whenever it was on the air. Chosun Joongang devotes hours to Kim Jong-il’s tours of factories, and perhaps because a collapsed economy has only so many new factories to show off, some of the footage was eleven years old. A narrator with a castrato’s voice spoke in trilling, almost hysterical tones as the Dear Leader made his rounds. Kim Jong-il was a corpulent man with a sallow face, wearing dark glasses indoors. The people he met bowed from the waist. Crowds made fist-clenching salutes and beat their chests, or they waved both hands in the air, jumping in excitement like dogs whose master has returned home after a week out of town. Kim Jong-il’s mind was untroubled by mere curiosity. He was never shown asking a question, but rather lectured the experts, snatching up pointers to jab at wall maps or diagrams. (His son has continued the tradition, offering “field guidance” at farms and military installations and even, recently, a terrapin farm, where, sad to say, all the baby turtles had died. And why did they die? Because there was no food for the animals and no electricity to circulate water into their tanks. Irrelevant. The manager was clearly a saboteur. He was shot.) Oddly, I never heard Kim Jong-il’s voice on TV, only the narrator’s. In one clip, the Dear Leader toured a facility that produces syringes. Did the broadcasters even notice that the managers were wearing coats and astrakhan hats indoors? Or perhaps North Koreans–millions of whom live and work in unheated quarters–consider such details unremarkable. And suddenly the TV showed those ostriches I had heard about, towering birds that twirl and flap, moving Kim Jong-il, it appears, to offer tips on applying the precepts of Marx and Kim Il-sung to the breeding of flightless African birds. Literary content consisted of static shots of the day’s newspapers, page by page, too small to read. And there was children’s fare: a cartoon in which a boy hero was captured by an enemy who looked like a samurai, beaten unconscious, and bound with a stick jammed in his mouth to prevent him from screaming for help.

Most frightening of all was the North Korean idealization of hard labor. While the narrator enthused, thousands of workers strapped boulders to their backs and ran to a dam, where they thumped down the rocks and sprinted back for another load. In close-ups the workers’ faces were frozen in rictus grins, but their eyes revealed a leaden terror. It is as if Stalin thought that broadcasting the construction of the White Sea Canal by gulag laborers would inspire his countrymen. Or maybe Kim Jong-il was happy to put a good scare into his people. In any event, much of North Korean TV might feel familiar to Russians of Stalin’s generation: parades of tanks, goose-stepping soldiers, Soviet-style choruses. But if the programming offers a nation’s most grandiose boasts, consider what its darkest secrets might look like.

That night after Nonna went to bed and North Korean TV flickered back into static, I opened the curtains and stared out our window at the frogless dark. Across the river, the night was all-consuming, making Sinuiju seem like a medieval town. Without artificial light, life settles into pace familiar to our species for most of its existence, with people going to bed after sundown. Perhaps you imagine that during a blackout, you would read by the glow of a fireplace or a candle, like a boy Abraham Lincoln sprawled on a cabin’s plank floor or Caravaggio’s St. Jerome lighted in chiaroscuro with a skull on his desk. But even if you set up four or five candles to bleed wax all over your bedside table, as I used to during blackouts in Russia, the illumination is weak and skittish and you worry you’ll go blind or burn the place down if you nod off. So you give up at eight o’clock on a winter evening and blow out your little bedside Pentecost and allow yourself to drift into the underground river of sleep.

In her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, journalist Barbara Demick tells of North Koreans who actually love the curtained privacy of the dark, when one is shielded from the eyes of tattlers and spies. A young escapee whom Demick calls Mi-ran recalls that she had “tainted blood” because her father had served in the South Korean army, but at twelve years old she fell in love with a boy of fifteen from a privileged caste. She could not be seen in public with him without harming his career prospects or her own reputation for virtue as a North Korean girl. Besides, where would they go? The blackouts had shut down all the cinemas and restaurants. So their dates consisted of walks in the dark. Demick writes:

They would meet after dinner. The girl had instructed her boyfriend not to knock on the front door and risk questions from her family. The boy found a spot behind a wall where nobody would notice him as the light seeped out of the day. He would wait hours for her, maybe two or three. It didn’t matter. The cadence of life is slower in North Korea. Nobody owned a watch.

The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself. At first, they would walk in silence, then their voices would gradually rise to whispers and then to normal conversational levels as they left the village and relaxed into the night. They maintained an arm’s-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn’t be spotted, talking about their families, their classmates, books they had read–whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.

“It took us three years to hold hands,” Mi-ran tells Demick. “Another six to kiss. I would never have dreamt of doing anything more. At the time I left North Korea, I was twenty-six years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived.”

After her father’s death, she eventually fled North Korea with her mother and siblings, never telling her boyfriend good-bye because no one could be trusted, not even her beloved for the past fourteen years, when it came to crimethink. This hasty departure was the source of great remorse for her, and years later, in her early thirties, married and the mother of a young child, she still longed for him.

The silky black of the night: Jang, the poet-escapee, had his own bizarre tale of a journey that begins in the unlighted streets of Pyongyang. As a young writer in his twenties, he says, he composed an epic poem that delighted Kim Jong-il (you’ll never guess the subject). One night after midnight the phone rings, and the caller tells Jang, “I am issuing an Extraordinary Summons. Report to work by one a.m. Wear a suit. You are not to notify anyone else.” Leaving his parents asleep, Jang puts on his best suit and tie and hops on his bike to pedal into the frogless dark.

Outside, there are no streetlights lit. The silence of the capital city is so absolute that I can only sense the presence of passers-by before their dark shapes loom into my vision. The electricity supply is in a perpetual state of emergency, even though there are two power stations serving the city. … [N]either produces enough power to supply more than one district of the city at a time. So, like a roaming ghost, power settles in rotation on sections of Pyongyang for about four hours a day.

It is not out of the question that the summons might be to his own execution–you never know in the Democratic People’s Republic–but it turns out he is invited to a banquet in a secret palace of Kim Jong-il’s, along with the country’s most senior experts in South Korean affairs, among them army generals and party secretaries. The guests are served fish, meat, wine, a dessert of ice cream soaked in liqueur and set alight. Jang does not specify beyond that, but the Kims’ former Japanese chef reports both the late Kim Jong-il and his corpulent son and heir loved sushi, lobster, Uzbek caviar, Kobe steak, shark fin soup, Cristal champagne. One rare dish was not on the menu: good, old North Korean frog. Nor were field mice, nor snakes and worms, nor nettles, nor cicadas and dragonflies, nor a porridge of pounded pine bark and grass, nor hoarded grains of rice boiled in a watery soup nor bits of undigested corn plucked from animal manure, nor the foul gunk scraped from the cargo holds of freighters that had carried imported rice–none of the foodstuffs the Dear Leader’s subjects were consuming. “We had to eat everything alive, every type of meat that we could find; anything that flew, that crawled on the ground,” one former inmate of Political Prison Camp No. 15 at Yodok told the U.N. commission. “Any grass that grew in the field, we had to eat.”

When Kim Jong-il, seated at his dinner table, summons Jang for the honor of clinking wine glasses with the Dear Leader, the poet scurries over and bows, bent double at the waist. From this position he notices something odd beneath the table. The nation’s leader-god, also known as the General, has removed his shoes. “Even the General suffers the curse of sore feet!” Jang puzzles. “I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet. That’s what we were taught at school and that’s what the party says: our General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles…” Kim’s shoes have high heels and inner lifts at least two inches thick. These, like his permed, oatmeal-drum haircut, are merely means of disguising his height of five foot three inches. Kim uses the coarsest language, muddling subjects and predicates, not the elegant, beautiful speech he does in books. He calls his top leaders not “Comrade” but “You!” and “Boy!” He does reveal an exquisite sense of humor, though. When they meet, he accuses Jang of having plagiarized his poem. “Don’t even think about lying to me,” Kim says. “I’ll have you killed.” Then he chuckles. Haha! Just kidding. A barrel of laughs, Kim Jong-il.

A band performs, fronted by a chanteuse in a white dress. She sings a poignant Russian folk song. Everyone present scrutinizes Kim for his reaction. And guess what! The Dear Leader is moved! He dabs his eyes with a handkerchief, even cries! These generals and senior cadres, among the most powerful men in the country, all pull out their handkerchiefs, and weep in solidarity with their leader-god.

“Can I escape this banquet with my life?” Jang writes. “But before I can think any further, my own eyes feel hot and tears begin to flow down my cheeks. … As I repeat these words, I must cry, I must cry, my tears grow hotter and anguished shouts burst from somewhere deep within me.”

Later, on his way home, now a hero, a member of The Admitted, who has clinked glasses with Kim Jong-il, Jang is disturbed by the memory of the Leader’s emotional outburst. “A distressing thought grips me,” he writes, “and it’s hard to shake off: those were not the tears of a compassionate divinity but, rather, of a desperate man.”

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Judgment Day

While much has changed in Vladivostok over the years, one constant remains on the labor scene: there is still a market for North Koreans workers doing home repair. There were North Koreans in town when I visited in 2014, and a Facebook contact recently posted in Russian: “Friends! Share phone numbers of our North Korean friends–those who can remodel. Preferably, a foreman who speaks Russian.” When someone challenged him, “Why Koreans?” he answered, “Koreans did an excellent job the previous time. The doors that a Korean installed work excellently. Those that a Russian had installed were lopsided. Also the time it takes, of course. Our guys procrastinate for too long.”

01 Trukhanenko NK bricklayerNorth Korean bricklayer in Vladivostok, Russia. Photo © Valentin Trukhanenko.

Shortly after my story on the guest workers ran, a North Korean rang the doorbell of our apartment at dinnertime and introduced himself. Hyo-sik, we’ll call him. He was a scrawny thirty-two-year-old no taller than my stepson Sergei, who was then eleven. In broken Russian he offered his services: painting, remodeling, opening doors in walls between rooms, laying down linoleum–you name it. Given the FSB’s warning about angering Pyongyang, Nonna and I had been watching for any signs of interest in us among North Koreans, and in such a frame of mind, it seemed suspicious that he had suddenly shown up at our place and was without the usual companions. He seemed friendly enough, however, and when Nonna said she had no work for him, he looked so disappointed, she invited him to dinner. He wolfed down a meal of fish and potatoes, asked for seconds.

“At home, there isn’t enough food for everybody,” Hyo-sik said.

When he stood to go, he demonstrated his poverty by poking his fingers through the holes in his trousers. “Do you have any small men’s pants?”

We gave Hyo-sik a pair of Sergei’s jeans. He slipped into Sergei’s bedroom to try them on, then came back out to show us. Ta-da! Perfect fit. Hyo-sik then asked if we had any old videocassettes. We dug out an old one and gave it to him.

In the Soviet era, sailors returning from foreign ports of call used to smuggle forbidden pop LPs and cassettes into the country–the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull–and nowadays there is a monument in downtown Vladivostok to these cultural revolutionaries who, simply because they liked the sound of the beat or thought they could make a good capitalist buck off a rare commodity, defied the state and spread the Dionysian message of freedom and sex and rock ’n’ roll. This is happening in North Korea, too. Park recalls how, at her aunt and uncle’s house when she was a child, they would close the curtains and secretly watch smuggled movies on the VCR: Cinderella, Snow White, James Bond. The picture that changed her life, however, was Titanic. She was amazed that in 1912 people had better technology than North Koreans, and it shocked her that anyone could film “such a shameful love story.” In her country the filmmakers would have been executed. No private love was allowed, only love for the Leader.

A poster in a North Korean kindergarten urges
students to be quiet. Photo © Yuri Maltsev.

But in Titanic [she writes], the characters talked about love and humanity. I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.

Nonna and I liked to imagine we played our own little part in opening the eyes of our neighbors south of the Tumen: the children, the lovers, the sufferers, the hunger artists, the eaters of dragonflies and frogs. We thought of Hyo-sik and his family, like Park’s, drawing the curtains and gathering around the TV to watch the videocassette we gave him. It opens with credits against a deep blue, cloudy sky of the sort Kim Il-Sung might manifest himself in on the day of his Second Coming. Except that this movie would not be the sort his people would want to be caught watching on Judgment Day. It was a love story. It was called Groundhog Day.

—Russell Working

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Sources

For a discussion of the regime’s understanding of race, see B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.

Bruce Cumings describes the toll of the U.N. bombing campaign in The Korean War: A History.

The Chosun Ilbo article, “150,000 N. Koreans Sent to Slave Labor Abroad,” ran in the English language edition.

The Dong-a Ilbo reported on the Choi Deok-geun case in an article titled “Russia asked to reinvestigate 1996 murder of SK diplomat.

Robert Neff discusses the memorial stars in his post, “Who Murdered the South Korean Consul and Why?” for The Marmot’s Hole blog.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers, was published this year by Penguin Press.

“Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!”: Jang Jin-sung’s 2014 memoir Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea  tells of the wall slogans and the Corpse Division. Jang is also the source of the report of North Korean arrestees being returned home in coffins.

The U.N.’s Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea tells of “unspeakable atrocities” in North Korea.

A Bloomberg article printed in The Economic Times of India (“China’s one-child policy may skew country’s gender ratios”) reports China’s sex ratio as one hundred sixteen to one hundred. China Daily also reports the balance in an article titled, “Chinese men outnumber women by 34 million.”

Ethan Epstein reports seeing people in Korean wedding outfits in Dandong in his article for Slate magazine, “Staring at North Korea.”

In a story titled, “The Staggering Costs of North Korea’s Rocket Launch,” The Wire’s John Hudson discusses North Korea’s willingness to sacrifice international food aid in order to press ahead with its rocket program, despite massive starvation. While he puts the North Korean army’s lower height limit at four-foot-nine, NPR, in a story titled “Hunger Still Haunts North Korea, Citizens Say,” pegs it at two inches shorter.

Peter Foster reported on famine as recently as 2011 in The Daily Telegraph under the headline “North Korea faces famine: ‘Tell the world we are starving.’”

In an article for London’s Daily Mail, John Power, Miwako Ozawa, and Tim Macfarlan discuss the Kims’ culinary tastes.

Journalist Barbara Demick tells Mi-ran’s story in her 2009 book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel & Grau).

A story in CyberGolf.com, headlined “All-Time Golf Scoring Record Goes with Death of Kim Jong il,” celebrated the Dear Leader’s prowess on the links. The article is undated, but Kim Jong-il died December 17, 2011.

Wired magazine notes that the smuggling of foreign movies continues to this day. In “The Plot to Free North Korea With Smuggled Episodes of ‘Friends,’” Andy Greenberg reported on smugglers who take USBs loaded with American and South Korean films and TV shows into the DPRK.

 

Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly,The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the ChicagoTribune. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, theBoston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

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Nov 132014
 

CaptureNarcissus by Caravaggio via Wikipedia

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they used to tell the story of an hidalgo who had emigrated from Spain as a very young man, and who had amassed a huge fortune in the sugarcane industry. Old and ill, he gathered his many children around him in order to give them his final instructions. “If I should die here in Havana,” he told them, “promise me that you will send me back to Spain to be buried there.” One after the other, all of his children swore that they would carry out his will to the letter. “However, if for some reason I should die in Spain,” he added, “I want you to bring me back here to Havana to be buried.” “Of course, Father,” his eldest son assured him, “That too we shall do. But tell me: why do you wish this?” “Oh, I don’t know,” replied the old man, “Just to fuck around.”

It is in such a spirit that I would like to propose a brief meditation on mirror scenes in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction. Gratuitously in other words, in a largely unfettered and fundamentally playful perspective, one not driven by the prospect of immediate utility, but rather by simple (and very nearly idle) curiosity.

The burgeoning of the detective novel in Nordic countries during the last couple of decades is a remarkable phenomenon, comparable in many ways to the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s. Working in the wake of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose ten-volume Martin Beck series (1965-75) set the terms of the trend, an impressive diversity of writers has broadened the genre’s horizon of possibility in significant ways. I’m thinking here of figures such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson, Kristina Ohlsson, Kjell Eriksson, Åke Edwardson, and Håkan Nesser (Sweden); Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø (Norway); Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland); Peter Høeg and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Among the many intriguing features one may find in this body of work, it abounds in mirror scenes, that is, moments when a subject comes face to face with her or his reflection in the mirror.

That the detective novel should deploy a topos such as this one makes a great deal of sense. For that literary genre is all about discovery after all; and perhaps, as much as anything else, it is about the prospect of self-discovery. Think for instance of Oedipus, an excellent example of an early detective, and consider especially the way he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. When asked what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the afternoon, he replied “Man,” and that answer of course did the trick. Yet the real answer to the Sphinx’s question is “Me”—as the rest of Oedipus’s tale clearly demonstrates, to his doom. The moral is clear enough: no riddle can be solved if the subject cannot first come to terms with himself or herself. And in certain cases, the subject need look no further than that. Such is the lesson of the gnothi seauton, the imperative of self-knowledge that has animated Western culture from its very beginnings. And such, too, is the impulse that subtends the mirror scene wherever we may find it these days, in our increasingly specular culture.

CaptureOedipus and the Sphinx (detail) by Gustave Moreau

The other key figure in the tradition of mirror gazing is of course Narcissus. There are many versions of his myth, and the lessons they put on display are varied. The most harrowing among them is the version that Ovid recounts. Asked if Narcissus will live to a ripe old age, a seer remarks, “Yes, if he does not come to know himself.” It’s a sly answer, and a very perverse one, too, cutting across the grain of cultural commonplace as it does. Its moral is more immediate than that of the Oedipus myth, and less equivocal with regard to the gnothi seauton. Both tales, it must be recognized, paint a dark picture of the encounter with the self, one where deliberate, uncompromising introspection leads to catastrophe for the subject. All of this is to say that the mirror scene is a cultural topos more than passingly vexed, and more than usually fraught with contradictory messages. When contemporary literature turns to that topos and puts it to use, even in offhanded ways, its trappings come along with it, which may help to explain why even the most apparently innocent mirror scene typically creates a disturbing moment in a text, a moment of exceptional reflection.

In what follows, I would like to consider the different shapes those moments assume in the Scandinavian detective novel, proposing along the way a loose, heuristic typology that may help us to think about them more efficiently. My own sense is that those scenes are deeply involved with the poetics of the gaze in literature, with the representation of the self, with the way the human subject grapples with his or her humanity, and with what we may hope to find when we look into the mirror of the text.

CaptureKarin Fossum

Before we leap into those moments, it is important to point out what is not a mirror scene; and in doing so it is best to be both draconian and exhaustive. First, it should be noted that the mere mention of the object does not suffice. When Karin Fossum writes, “I got up every morning and went out to the bathroom, and there was his toothbrush below the mirror” (Don’t Look Back 255), there is indeed a mirror in the scene, but the subject fails to encounter herself therein. Fossum is particularly fond of events like that, sometimes wagering upon pure (and from the devotee’s point of view, purely otiose) analogy: “A mirror-like tarn, no bigger than a large pond, lying among the spruce trees like a secret space” (Don’t Look Back 26). One gets the same sense of missed opportunity when the mirror is invoked in a figural, metaphorical manner. “The same questions. Again and again,” complains Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren, as he grapples with a particularly thorny problem, “Over and over again. Reflecting themselves in the mirror” (Mind’s Eye 19). Those questions may reflect themselves till the cows come home; they are not human beings, and their specularity has no psychological or moral depth. More cruelly still, Åsa Larsson insists upon the absence of the mirror, and we benighted readers are left to muse upon what the moment might have been like if only a mirror had been present: “‘What gorgeous clothes,’ smiled Sanna, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. ‘Look at this jumper! Pity there isn’t a mirror in here'” (Sun Storm 26).

One must also dismiss a category that I would like to call the mirror scene manqué. “He was in such a hurry,” remarks Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, “that for once he didn’t stop to admire himself in the little mirror hanging beside the coat rack by the door. If he had, he would have seen that his aura was heavy and dark. Almost black” (My Soul to Take 131). Here, the subject’s encounter with the mirror is conjectural, rather than actual, and thus unsatisfactory. A more literal example of that species presents itself when Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole finds himself nose to nose with a great white shark at the Sydney Aquarium: “At first he thought it was his own reflection he could see, then his eyes became accustomed to the light and he felt his heart register a last pounding beat before it froze. The Great White was beside him, watching him with cold, lifeless eyes” (The Bat 168). Though this is not a mirror scene, it should be noted that there is an ironically specular dimension to it, for as he gazes in horror at the shark Harry Hole realizes that he, too, may have something of the coldblooded predator about him.

Jo nesboJo Nesbø

We must also agree to turn aside from scenes of simple introspection, moments of self-appraisal undertaken without the mediation of the mirror. Consider this passage from Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled: “He sat at his desk, feeling that he could now examine himself at arm’s length: the man staggering around in the West Indies, the miserable trip to Thailand, all those days and nights when everything seemed to have ground to a halt apart from his bodily functions. He was looking at himself, but he realized that that person was somebody he no longer knew. He had been somebody else” (57). Perhaps he was indeed “looking at himself,” but not in the literal sense; and in a rigorous consideration of mirror scenes, we owe it to ourselves to be as literalist as we possibly can.

When one character in Mankell’s The Pyramid asks another, “Have you even seen what you look like?” and that latter individual testily retorts, “I don’t spend my time looking at myself in the mirror” (9-10), the suggestion is that looking at oneself in the mirror is something that vain, lazy people do, something that is unfit for people of a more active, engaged, and robust constitution. And perhaps it is for reasons such as those that Inspector Kurt Wallander upon occasion deliberately eschews the mirror: “He splashed cold water on his face and took a long leak. He avoided looking at his face in the mirror” (Henning Mankell, One Step Behind 333). Other passages in Mankell’s writing are a bit more difficult to dismiss, because while the mirror therein is virtual rather than literal, the subject’s encounter with himself has a great deal of flesh on its bones: “Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that was both concave and convex at the same time. No-one had ever seen anything but the surface: the eminent jurist, the respected minister of justice, the kindly retiree strolling along the beach in Skäne. No-one would have guessed his double-sided self” (Sidetracked 14). I realize that I have been relying heavily upon Henning Mankell here. Having read him so attentively, and with so much pleasure, over so many years, I feel now that he is a close personal friend. I’d like to go to IKEA with him. More pertinently, his writing provides a very rich vein of classic mirror scenes, as we shall see in a moment, undoubtedly the mother lode insofar as Scandinavian detective fiction is concerned.

Before we get there however, and having now plucked most of the low-hanging fruit in the non-mirror scene orchard, let me invoke a few examples of passages that hover right on the threshold of mirror scenedom. Consider this passage from Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back: “Each time he looked at the picture of his father, his own old age seemed to advance uncomfortably on him” (35). Clearly, the subject sees something of himself when he gazes at the picture of his father; but to call this a mirror scene is to reach too far. It offers, in a sense, a negative image of a mirror scene, a notion that can be confirmed by comparing it to a positive image of the same topos, such as this passage in Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga: “He examined his face in the mirror and saw that he was getting more and more like his father” (201). Yet when the subject gazes at a photograph of himself, rather than one of his father, the elements of a full-blown mirror scene fall easily into place, as Åke Edwardson understands: “He removed the cloth and stared at a photograph of himself, taken shortly before high school graduation” (Death Angels).

Then there are textual moments when the encounter with the mirror is implicit, rather than actual. “She sat anesthetized at the kitchen table,” writes Åsa Larsson, “and recalled the joy she had felt earlier; the bike ride to the city and back, how she already felt more fit, the feeling of putting on the black skirt and the neat blouse, her new appearance that the hairstyle and her more conscious application of makeup gave her” (Sun Storm 329). Any reasonable person would infer that the subject had put her makeup on while looking in the mirror; yet the narrative elides that moment maddeningly.

As much as it pains me, it must be said that in certain mirror scenes nothing happens—or nothing of real interest. “Gullberg was completely exhausted after all his efforts on Monday,” writes Stieg Larsson. “He did not wake until 9:00 on Tuesday morning, four hours later than usual. He went to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He stood for a long time looking at his face in the mirror before he turned off the light and went to get dressed. He chose the only clean shirt he had left in the brown briefcase and put on a brown-patterned tie” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 124). The moment is flatly constative; it provides nothing beyond the simple fact of the encounter; it has no depth. A passage in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists is similar: “They returned to their own base, where there was no one but the chief of the Stockholm Police. He was standing in front of the mirror combing his hair with great care. Then he eyed his tie, which as usual was of plain colored silk. Today it was pale yellow” (226). In both cases, alas, we learn more about the tie than we do about the subject. Certain other passages of this sort set up the encounter with the self, and then shy away from it, as it were: “While she was putting on her coat, Thóra looked at herself in the large mirror. She knew it was important to make a good impression at the first meeting, especially if the client was well-off” (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Last Rituals 12-13).

When the devil holds the candle

Still other instances put mirror substitutes into play, and I think we can agree that they clear the bar when those proxies are functional. Here are two examples of that ilk, the first borrowed from Karin Fossum, the second from Åsa Larsson: “Zipp could see the outline of his own face in the black of the television screen: a cowardly, wavering thing” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 222); “She looked at her reflection in the mirror that the roll of aluminum foil attached to the wall provided and where her face appeared cracked in a thousand wrinkles, before she tore off a sheet and handed it to Johnny” (Sun  Storm 172). Sometimes those proxies are human. Arnaldur Indriðason is especially fond of moments like that: “Looking at Steve, she saw her own anxiety reflected in his face” (Operation Napoleon 237); “Marion Briem’s eyes revealed clear pity and a sad certainty that they were looking at their own reflection” (Jar City 121). Other people’s faces can serve as very efficient mirror substitutes, often reflecting an image of the subject that is no less faithful than one that a more literal mirror might provide, if one is willing to embrace the phenomenon of projection that such scenes put on stage, that is. For this specular relation between the self and the other is patently a matter of projection, as Henning Mankell points out: “Wallander looked at Martinsson’s and Hanson’s tired faces and wondered what his own face must be like” (Firewall 68). In other instances of the same effect, Mankell underscores the fidelity of that projection for our benefit, confirming the information that the other’s gaze conveys by a more literal encounter with the mirror: “‘At your age you shouldn’t stay up all night,’ she said. Wallander looked at her with surprise. ‘Is it so obvious?’ She bent down and got her bag from behind the counter, then fished out a make-up mirror and handed it over to him. She was right. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. His hair was a mess” (One Step Behind 239).

Capture

As we move beyond these dubious, hybrid, or limit cases toward sturdier and more compelling examples of mirror scenes, it should be noted that their fundamental discursive mode is interrogative. That is, whatever else they may put on offer, mirror scenes portray a questioning subject; and the vector of that questioning points directly toward the subject herself. Gazing at his own reflection, a character in Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of the Night articulates the question that quickens any mirror scene at all, be it overtly or more subtly: “‘Who is Stig Franklin?’ he asked the mirror” (275). We are squarely in the orbit of the gnothi seauton here, of course, and that’s just where we’ll remain as we trace the subject’s fate through three types of encounters with the mirror. The first type involves simple recognition, a moment wherein the subject comes across a mirror and recognizes himself or herself unproblematically. In the second type of scene, such recognition is not immediate, but progressive, and it involves a process that runs the gamut from the mildly difficult to the outright traumatic. In the third type, finally, the subject fails utterly and definitively to recognize himself—and I hereby promise not to dwell upon that morbid eventuality more than is strictly necessary.

Having postulated those categories so very categorically, allow me to temper their terms just a bit. For it must be said that the scenes of simple recognition one finds in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction are very rarely simple. One does come upon scenes of that sort—”As the coffee was brewing, Wallander went into the bathroom. He noticed with pleasure that he looked healthy and energetic” (Mankell, The Fifth Woman 20)—, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, scenes of this first type involve something beyond the subject’s mere recognition of himself. In The White Lioness, for instance, Wallander’s recognition may be immediate, but it is problematized by the recognition of far broader truths about himself and about his manner of being in the world: “When he got back to his apartment, he stripped and stood naked in front of the hall mirror. ‘Kurt Wallander,’ he said aloud. ‘This is your life'” (182). He reads himself in the mirror in this moment of naked truth—and of course we read him reading himself, recognizing as we do so that what is fundamentally at stake in scenes like this is interpretation itself. Obviously, the principle of self-knowledge is deeply imbricated in scenes such as this one. Yet upon occasion the promise of unique identity that is implicit therein is put into question by the encounter: “He saw himself in the mirror and realized that he looked like thousands of other young people” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Cop Killer 274). In that instance, the subject recognizes himself without difficulty, but he fails to recognize his particularity, and by virtue of that the encounter has gone badly awry.

CaptureSjöwall and Wahlöö

For it is almost always the other who vexes the encounter with the mirror, whether that other be real or virtual. Sometimes, it’s a matter of checking one’s appearance in order to appreciate how other people will see us. That sort of moment can be relatively uncomplicated, like in this passage from Håkan Nesser: “She checked how she looked in the mirror. It’ll do” (Borkmann’s Point 131). Or this one, from Sjöwall and Wahlöo: “It was now eight o’clock on Monday morning and she was standing in front of her large mirror in her bedroom, admiring her suntan and thinking how envious her friends at work would be” (The Fire Engine That Disappeared 144). Alternatively, the moment can be significantly more fraught: “Carl took a step toward the mirror and ran one finger along his temple where the bullet had grazed his head. The wound had healed, but the scar was clearly visible under his hair, if anyone cared to look. But who the hell would want to do that? he thought as he studied his face” (Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes 3). Who indeed? But that’s just the point, of course, because whoever else may choose to look at Carl, we readers are looking at him, and in that sense we constitute one of the others that lurk on the edges of these scenes.

But we’re not the only ones, I think. For even if there are no other flesh-and-blood witnesses to these events in the fictional world, mirror scenes always suggest a doubling of the subject. That effect can be more or less pronounced. Sometimes it is merely a question of a subject seeing himself in an unexpected way, projecting an image of himself that he had not anticipated: “In the mirror behind her he saw himself sitting with an idiotic grin on his face” (Jo Nesbø, The Bat 80). Other cases suggest a deeper alienation of the subject from himself, as if I really were an other: “The mechanic stands next to me, gazing at his own reflection as if it belonged to some stranger” (Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow 213). Who is that stranger one sees in the mirror? Is he merely a pretext, a figment, a convenient and temporary construction enabling us to see ourselves objectively? Or is it really someone else, someone with whom we are largely unacquainted? If it is true, as Peter Høeg’s Smilla argues, that “you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger” (Smilla’s Sense of Snow 395), are we to take that assertion literally or figuratively? For if it is indeed the case that mirror scenes put the act of interpretation itself in play, the manner in which we choose to interpret them must be deeply involved in the success or failure of the wager they stake.

Capture

Consider for example this passage from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman: “He had looked in the mirror as recently as the evening before and seen a tall, sinister figure with a lean face, wide forehead, heavy jaws and mournful gray-blue eyes” (55). One may choose to read that passage in a literal sense, in which case the moment becomes a very strange one indeed, and in some respects the reading experience is enriched thereby. Or one can read it more figuratively, imagining that the subject is impressed by the alterity of the image he sees, but not duped thereby. Those choices are conditioned by a wide variety of factors—and not least by extremely thorny questions of readerly desire. Like the White Queen, we can easily believe six impossible things before breakfast in the looking-glass world of fiction. And we may well seek the thrill of the uncanny while simultaneously attempting to normalize and rationalize a given narrative event. Faced with a passage such as the one I just quoted, most readers would opt for a figural interpretation, I imagine. And all the more so insofar as they are acquainted with the supremely rational Martin Beck. For he is a man who never forgets who he is, and no matter how unrecognizable his reflection may seem, he is always able to bring himself back to himself: “While he hung up his coat he glanced at his face in the mirror. He was pale and looked sallow and he had dark circles under his eyes. This was no longer due to the flu but to the fact that he had gone without much sleep” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Roseanna 61).

Other subjects are not as lucky. Karin Fossum’s Zipp Skorpe, for instance, is a badly broken man: “He stopped in front of a store that sold mirrors and looked at the dozens of tiny Zipps. It suited the way he was feeling: shattered into thousands of pieces” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 175-76). Still other individuals embrace that estrangement effect, putting it to use in an effort to get outside of themselves. Such is the case of a teenager in Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked, who makes himself up as an Indian warrior before committing the first in a series of murders: “The first strokes on his forehead had to be black. It was as if he slicing two deep cuts, opening his brain, and emptying the memories and thoughts that had haunted him all his life, tormenting him and humiliating him. Then the red and white stripes, the circles, the squares, and at last the snake-like designs on his cheeks. None of his white skin should be visible. Then the transformation would be complete. What was inside him would be gone. He would be born again in the guise of an animal, and he would never speak as a human being again” (12). In other cases, the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is a fundamentally unhappy event, because it triggers a sense of self-loathing. “She was 16, and had gone to stay with her mother in Malmö,” writes Henning Mankell. “It was a time of crushing defeats, the kind only a teenager can experience. She hated herself and her body, shunning the image she saw in the mirror while strangely enough also welcoming the changes she was undergoing” (Before the Frost 24). At least this character comes by her self-loathing honestly, for she is none other than Linda Wallander, the daughter of Kurt Wallander. And he is someone who has honed self-loathing to an art: “You flabby piece of shit,” he tells his reflection in the mirror, “Do you really want to look like a pitiful old man?” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 27).

Henning-Mankell-007Henning Mankell

In order not to end my discussion of recognition scenes on that sour note, let me point out a final topos that they commonly exploit. I have argued that the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is typically accompanied by the perception of broad truths about oneself. It is useful to imagine those truths as significantly mobile ones. That is, they shift over time, and that process of shifting leaves perceptible traces upon the face. “When he looked at his face in the rearview mirror, he thought that every scratch, every lump, every discolouration from purple to black was a memento of the week’s events” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 217). The cultural cliché upon which this passage plays is a familiar one, of course, but it bears special scrutiny in the present context. For if the face is indeed a kind of text in which a person’s experience may be read, two considerations follow. First, the situation of a subject gazing at her face in the mirror and reading the story of her experience thereupon is very much like the situation that we are in, as gazers and readers. Second, each of these scenes, whatever else it may seek to put on display, is not simply specular, but rather doubly so: that is, the mirror function is itself mirrored in a reflection upon representation and its possibilities.

Scenes of difficult recognition are fewer in Scandinavian detective fiction than in certain other regional traditions one might name, though I hesitate to draw sweeping cultural conclusions from that fact. As to the shapes they assume, I mentioned a moment ago that difficult recognition scenes run the gamut from incidents that are mildly disturbing for the subject to events that are far more traumatic. On the former end of that horizon, one finds scenes where it is merely a question of momentary hesitation before recognition sets in. By way of example, consider this scene from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, where Inspector Van Veeteren gazes absently into a mirror as he makes a phone call: “While he was waiting for a reply he observed the grotesque face glaring at him from the shiny surface above the telephone. It was a few seconds before it dawned on him that he was looking at his own reflection” (68). Those “few seconds” are readily dismissed, and the uncanniness of the moment can easily be rationalized by appealing to Van Veeteren’s distracted state, the fact that the “shiny surface” was not obviously a mirror, and so forth. Yet the face that confronts him is nonetheless “grotesque,” and its expression is “glaring.” Both of those features serve to heighten the strangeness of this encounter, and to broaden the distance between the subject and his image. Moreover, rather than dismissing the incident out of hand, Van Veeteren continues to reflect upon it, gazing upon his face as another person might do, or even as if it belonged to another person. “He was smiling,” he notes. “The corners of his mouth were raised to form a generous curve and gave his face an expression suggesting a touch of lunacy” (68). That coldly phenomenological description of a smile, and the conjecture of lunacy (rather than a more reassuring and conventional interpretation of a smile as a sure sign of happiness) testify to the difficulty Van Veeteren finds in coming to terms with his reflection. That impression of difficulty is further underscored by the comparison that Van Veeteren next invokes. “Like a posturing male gorilla,” he muses (68), and the analogy seems so apt to him that he pursues it: “he stood there glowering at the gorilla” (69). In other terms, what we find in this incident is an apparently trivial scene that opens onto an event far more disturbing, a conversation of self with self wherein the interlocutors stray ever further one from the other. Without wishing to belabor the point, it should be noted that, just as “simple” recognition is never really simple, so “difficult” recognition is actually difficult, in every case.

the-minds-eye

If time is at issue in that scene from Nesser, it is only a brief moment in time, those “few seconds” that it takes for Van Veeteren to recognize himself. More consequential stretches of time are often at stake in scenes of difficult recognition, however. Most characteristically, these occur when the subject finds it hard to accept that she or he has grown old. These scenes are highly variable, to be sure, but they tend toward the latter end of the spectrum I described, that is, toward trauma. “The face I saw in the mirror terrified me,” remarks Fredrik Welin in the final moments of the story he tells. “I had become old” (Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes 240). On the one hand, Mankell is playing on a cultural commonplace here, the one that holds that as we age, our sense of ourselves does not age at the same rate, so that we are often unconscious of how old we have actually become. On the other hand, when we do come face to face with our aged selves (and whatever the particular vehicle of that encounter may be), it is most often an occasion for mild surprise, rather than outright terror. Yet clearly mild surprise pays fewer dividends than does terror, when it is a matter of storytelling; and just as clearly, Mankell has chosen to accentuate the strangeness of this moment in his novel in order to heighten its narrative effect.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man, when Lennart Kollberg confronts himself in the mirror after having shot someone in the line of duty: “That person there has killed a man” (108). It is not that Kollberg cannot recognize himself; instead, that recognition is “difficult,” because it entails the acceptance of a harsh truth about himself. The estrangement effect is very pronounced when he designates himself as “That person,” and the effect is further amplified when he muses about other killers he has known: “During his years on the force he’d stood face to face with more murderers that he cared to think about” (108). What distinguishes him now from those others? And, more disturbingly still, what distinguishes the self he has always believed himself to be from the self he has now so unmistakably become? In other words, has he become someone else entirely?

Questions of that ilk can make the encounter with one’s reflection in the mirror a very painful experience indeed. “Every morning he looked into the little mirror on the wall and asked himself if he was staring into the eyes of a madman,” Mankell says of a character in Before the Frost (246). And of course that’s one way to rationalize the estrangement effect: I look unfamiliar to myself and thus I must be going crazy, because otherwise I would recognize myself easily. Yet such a gesture obviously creates a kind of feedback loop whereby alienation is accentuated rather than attenuated, and it thus points tantalizingly toward catastrophe. For pushed relentlessly to their limits—and why would we readers wish it to be any otherwise?—such moments can have only one outcome: the utter failure of the subject to recognize herself.

Throughout my discussion of mirror scenes, I have argued more or less stridently that the way they function is closely bound up in questions of readerly choice and semiotic desire. That is especially true of this third and final type of scene, which puts on offer an I who has in fact become an other. Now, whether we read that metamorphosis in a literal or a figural manner is entirely (or mostly, rather) up to us. For my own part, speaking as a mirror scene fundamentalist, I would argue that we must take mirror gazers at their word whenever possible. I am forced to concede, however, that some cases strain our credulity more than others. Consider the moment when Stieg Larsson places Lisbeth Salander in front of the mirror in The Girl Who Played with Fire: “She studied herself in the mirror and decided that Irene Nesser looked a little bit like Lisbeth Salander, but was still a completely different person” (68). It is very difficult to imagine that Salander fails to recognize herself here. For one thing, she is an exceptionally astute individual. For another (and more compellingly), she has just disguised herself as this “completely different person,” Irene Nesser, and she is checking the effect of her disguise in the mirror. In other terms, she is assessing the effect her disguise will produce when other people look at her. We have already discussed gestures like that one, of course, and I think it is prudent to dismiss this moment, reluctantly, from our catalogue of failed recognition scenes.

CaptureNoomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Another moment, again involving Lisbeth Salander, occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it is far more difficult to dismiss: “She had a dazzling view of Lake Zürich, which didn’t interest her in the least. But she did spend close to five minutes examining herself in the mirror. She saw a total stranger” (442-43). The encounter is far more uncanny than the one in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The abyss between the self and the reflection of the self yawns more broadly, and the language is more uncompromising. Reason tells us to interpret this figuratively, but desire urges us to read it literally. In this instance, one can really go either way; it is a shining example, I think, of a passage that teeters in precarious equilibrium right on the brink of this third and final type of mirror scene. Sort of like a funambulist, in other words. And what is it about funambulists that fascinates us, other than the possibility that they might fall off the wire? It is the very precariousness of their situation that keeps us breathless, and the danger that awaits them, below. Insofar as mirror scenes are concerned, that danger is defined precisely by the possibility that the subject might fail to recognize herself. It is a fear that haunts many of us, notably including those people who inhabit the worlds of Scandinavian detective novels: “What she feared most of all was to walk down the street and not exist, to step into the elevator at work and discover that the mirror reflected someone else, to exit the elevator and hear the poisonous tongues gabbing behind her back” (Kjell Eriksson, The Cruel Stars of the Night 110).

Jo Nesbo

It is that kind of fear, and the fascination it provokes in us, that fuels our reading of passages such as this one: “Harry went to the lavatory, splashed some cold water over his face and confronted his reflection in the mirror. Beneath his wet, closely cropped fair hair he saw a pair of bloodshot eyes with dark bags under them and drawn, hollow cheeks. He tried a smile. Yellowing teeth grinned back at him. He didn’t recognize himself” (Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star 40). And this one: “Kristín closed the door. A mirror hung in the hall and when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass on her way back to the living room, she did not recognize the figure in it: a gaunt-faced stranger with dark circles under her eyes and dirty hair, matted around her ear which was now red with fresh blood where the wound had reopened. She was wearing the thick snowsuit which was still stained with Steve’s blood. She did not know this woman. Did not know where she had come from. She stared at her, shaking her head with incomprehension” (Arnaldur Indriðason, Operation Napoleon 307-08). And this one, too: “He turned on the cold tap and tried to rinse the blood off his face. He did not recognize his reflection in the broken mirror. His eyes were staring, bloodshot, shifting” (Henning Mankell, The White Lioness 293). Each moment creeps closer to the moment of no return, to the moment of absolute catastrophe. Because if the subject can no longer recognize himself, what in the world will become of him? And what will become of us, granted that we have willingly suspended our disbelief in order to dwell in these fictional worlds?

For it is largely a question of suspense, I think. Moreover, in that very perspective it is we readers who are the funambulists, suspended vertiginously between what we know and what we wish, between experience and imagination, the real and the virtual, recognition and bewilderment. In such a parlous, tensive state, with all of our senses on the alert, we can learn a great deal about who we are and how we read literary texts. For each of these mirror scenes reflects us, too, and the gestures we sketch as we interpret them. They are eminently welcoming, integrationist tropes, in other words, pointing toward the permeability of the boundaries between the fictional world and the phenomenological world. They suggest that even the most committed rationalist among us has a role to play in an imaginary drama, whether that drama be bound up in the struggle of crime and punishment or in the dynamic of writing and reading, whether it be staged on the foggy plains of Skåne or on the comfortable hillocks of one’s own couch.

—Warren Motte

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Works Cited

Adler-Olsen, Jussi.  The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Trans. Lisa Hartford.  New York: Plume, 2012.

Edwardson, Åke.  Death Angels.  Trans. Ken Schubert.  New York: Penguin, 2009.

Eriksson, Kjell.  The Cruel Stars of the Night.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Fossum, Karin.  Don’t Look Back.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2005.

—.  When the Devil Holds the Candle.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2007.

Høeg, Peter.  Smilla’s Sense of Snow.  Trans. Tiina Nunnally.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Indriðason, Arnaldur.  Jar City.  Trans. Bernard Scudder.  New York: Picador, 2005.

—.  Operation Napoleon.  Trans. Victoria Cribb.  New York: Picador, 2012.

Larsson, Åsa.  Sun Storm.  Trans. Marlaine Delargy.  New York: Delta, 2007.

Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

—.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2009.

—.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

Mankell, Henning.  Before the Frost.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  The Dogs of Riga.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Faceless Killers.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Fifth Woman.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Firewall.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  Italian Shoes.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2010.

—.  The Man Who Smiled.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: New Press, 2006.

—.  One Step Behind.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Pyramid.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg with Laurie Thompson.  New York: Random House, 2009.

—.  Sidetracked.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The White Lioness.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

Nesbø, Jo.  The Bat.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Vintage, 2013.

—.  The Devil’s Star.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Harper, 2011.

Nesser, Håkan.  Borkmann’s Point.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  Mind’s Eye.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2008.

Ohlsson, Kristina. Unwanted.  Trans. Sarah Death.  New York: Atria, 2012

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa.  Last Rituals.  Trans. Bernard Scutter.  New York: Harper, 2009.

—.  My Soul to Take.  Trans. Anna Yates.  New York: Harper, 2010.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö.  The Abominable Man.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Bantam, 1974

—.  Cop Killer.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

—.  The Fire Engine That Disappeared.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1977.

—.  The Laughing Policeman.  Trans. Alan Blair.  New York: Vintage, 1976.

—. Roseanna.  Trans. Lois Roth.  New York: Bantam, 1971.

—.  The Terrorists.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

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Warren Motte

Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003) Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

Aug 102014
 

Harvey imageMatthea Harvey

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions,  and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. —A. Anupama

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
Matthea Harvey
Graywolf Press
160 pages, $25.00
ISBN: 978-1-55597-684-2

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In If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions, and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. And if that’s not enough, the list of collaborations and co-inspired projects at the end of the book adds audio, film, and even more poetry and visual art to the experience.

Matthea Harvey is the author of four collections of poetry and two children’s books. Born in Germany in 1973, she lived in Marnhull, England, until age eight, when she moved with her family to Milwaukee. She earned a BA in literature from Harvard, then an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Her third poetry collection, Modern Life (Graywolf Press, 2007), won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was also a New York Times Notable Book.

A silhouette of a mermaid with a hand-saw for a tail greets us on the first page of this new collection. And the mermaids tie back to that earlier collection. In an interview about Modern Life, Harvey said, “My interest in hybrids may go back to the centaurs in Greek mythology and, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the mermaids. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in hybrids. I recently found some mind-boggling photo-hybrids online by Khoa Tran—a cat-penguin, a horse-duck, and a dog-gull, among others. And I’ve just remembered how enchanted I was by Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies.” The strikingly beautiful sequence of mermaid poems that opens her new book could have leaped right out of “You Know This Too” in Modern Life:

…through the restaurant window he sees flashes of silver and pink in the river. It’s so clogged with mermaids and mermen, there’s no room for fish. And under the bridge, a group of extremist griffins, intent on their graffiti—Long Live the Berlin…. The spray paint runs out and while they’re shaking the next can in their clenched claws, the centaur spells out Wall on his napkin, and sketches next to it a girl in sequins getting sawed in half.

As Harvey scissors back into the subject, various types of mermaids sing their grievances in brief prose poems. “The Backyard Mermaid” suffers namelessness as well as persecution by the neighborhood cat, and “The Straightforward Mermaid” has learned through experience to avoid hooks and sailors. The lament of “The Objectified Mermaid” reveals that:

The photographer has been treating her like a spork all morning. ‘Wistful mouth, excited tail! Work it, work it!’ He has no idea that even fake smiling spreads to her eyes and her tail and there’s nothing she can do about it short of severing her spine. Without asking, the assistant resprays her with glycerine…. After an hour under the studio spotlights, she’s starting to smell pretty fishy. Can’t blame it (as she has before) on her standard seaweed bra because this fool of a photographer has her holding two clear fishbowls in front of her breasts so it looks like goldfish are swimming past her nipples. She’s supposed to pretend it tickles. She wants to ask if he’s heard the phrase ‘gilding the lily’ which she recently learned at Land Berlitz. When asked if she’s tired, she lies. A downward spiral means the opposite up here.

Objectified Mermaid

In another brilliant sequence, this one titled “Inside the Glass Factory,” Harvey pretends to invent a new type of mythic creature: girl factory workers who live entirely within glass walls and glass ceiling.

Since they’re not allowed outside—
never have been, never will be—
they used to watch rainstorms
like television, cross-legged, wiping
the glass if their breath fogged
the view. They used to exclaim
over drops of dew. They used to
run their fingers along the walls,
searching for a way out, but that only
smeared the sky. At break they lie
on their stomachs in the sunroom,
where they’ve stacked a wall of cracked
glass hands. Looking through it is the closest
they come to touching the things they see—
the horizon a lifeline across one palm,
the pine trees in the distance like
bonsai in tiny finger terrariums.
Moving things—foxes and half-moons—
slink in and out of adjacent wrists,
slide under successive glass fingernails.
Once a stag walked past and scraped
its antlers along the glass wall.
They all gasped. It was the closest
they had ever come to another body.

When they make a girl out of glass, the creative process anneals to reveal that their kiln-born invention is an accomplice in escape:

The thermometer hits one thousand
degrees and suddenly she’s standing there—
hot, glowing, almost still liquid. Like them,
but unlike too. They don’t question that
she is alive, walking, gesturing. But no one
imagined that she, with her new glass eyes
would be able to see the glass lock
and the glass key. In an instant, she opens
the door and they stream outside into
the solid world. This isn’t at all what
they imagined. The sky is like lead
about their heads. The once-silent birds
flood their ears with clashing arias.

Rhyme slides like reflections across glass throughout this sequence and the collection as a whole. Harvey creates special effects with slant rhymes, like “cross-legged” and “fogged,” or various styles of non-end-line rhymes, like “she,” “see,” and “key” in the middles of lines 6, 7, and 8 in this poem. Often Harvey uses one end word and one internal word as a rhymed pair, as with “lead” and “heads,” or she flattens the poetic line with placement of one word in the middle and the other at the end, as in “smeared the sky. At break they lie….” In the three lines beginning with “Once a stag,” Harvey’s combination of slant rhyme (scraped / gasped), end word with internal word rhyme (wall / all), and assonance with alliteration (glass / gasped) and consonance (stag / past / gasped) reveals the dimensions of kaleidoscopic reality. At the end of the sequence, Harvey remarkably renovates one of the most clichéd rhymes in English poetry: trees / breeze.

Another holds a thermometer
horizontally, and uses its markings to measure
the height of trees. The mercury inside
shivers in the newly imagined breeze.

Harvey - glass factory image

The titles of the poems in this sequence are photographs of glass bottles, which distill space, color, and light in a dazzling movement. The images and texts scissor past each other, raising the highest temperatures of sensory attention. My review copy offered only black-and-white reproductions, completely unlike the full-color experience, which I was happy to find available online at the American Public Media website along with an interview and audio performance. This set of poems and their photograph titles were commissioned by the Poetry Radio Project, a collaboration between the Poetry Foundation, American Public Media’s Performance Today, and the White Pine Festival, as a multidisciplinary performance of Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 5” with the Miro Quartet.

Before I snip loose threads and sew up this review with glories from the substantial final sequence, let me add a few poems from the middle of the collection that reveal some of Harvey’s poetic tone. “When the Water Is at Our Ankles” devastates with its calm, dark voice cutting through to reality in the form of global warming.

Unwedge the ruler you use to prop up your
window and meet me in the street. I’ll bring
the measuring tape curled in the desk drawer
like a sullen snail, and hand in hand, we’ll watch
as the water creeps up an inch, then two…

“Last Stop Dreamland” prefaces a string of post-apocalyptic poems, most of which are titled by photographs and which I marked as little marvels, beautifully imagined and individually distinct. In this particular poem, the robot–beverage cart on a train “is careful about feet / so careful about feet. Once someone slapped / it, and the cart thought, ‘this will serve me a lesson / to look where I step’….” Later in the poem, Harvey observes this—

…Through the window,
a flash of horse nodding in the field (nose to
the hay, nose to the sky) and the chorus
of sugar maples above singing almost there, nary
a care, as the passengers gather their reflections
from the windows and slap them back onto
their faces and chests, flex their feet, and
arch their backs to erase the shape of their sitting.
The ice cubes are all melted, the books are
stowed away, and as the people exit the train,
they look dazed, hazier, as if their bits aren’t
quite put back together. The Treatzcart hums
along happily—soon it will start over, chugging
down the aisles offering bagels, coffee, juice.
It loves to watch the faces waver as they choose.

The passengers’ staring into glass for a semblance of themselves echoes the action in the sequence “Inside the Glass Factory.” Harvey manages this evolving repetition masterfully throughout this collection. Another example: the ice cubes melting in this poem echo an earlier sequence of photographs of objects embedded in effervescent ice.

The last sequence, “Telettrofono,” echoes the mermaids in the form of Esterre Meucci, wife of the inventor Antonio Meucci, who is credited by some with creating the first telephone. The dramatic scene-by-scene text reads like an instruction manual or patent application, with scientific figures illustrated in embroidery. The first of these figures is a cross-section of Meucci’s telettrofono, featuring a double-helix in periwinkle thread next to a microphone stitched in chartreuse. The first instruction reads: “Hello? Please turn off all twenty-first-century gadgets, as they will interfere with the delicate instrument you are holding in your hand.”

The delicate instrument could be the long poetic sequence itself, measuring the precise length of a love of sound:

Esterre wants her ears closer to the clouds,
wants them to stretch over the water
so she can hear the opposite shore.
You give her one thing, she wants more.
I bring her a hare after a long day of hunting
and she cries and strokes its long ears.

and the density of a love affair:

…She gave me scraps
of white cotton and muslin for my snow cradle—
we suspended the bag above the stage and a man
in each wing shook the strings gently, gently
so the snow-cloth sifted through the holes
in the bag and drifted down onto the singers.
That snow scene was the only silent thing that
ever made her smile.

Some of the segments of text are framed as stage directions for an opera, dramatic monologues, math problems, or fairy tale. The sequence takes up the last quarter of the collection—a significant portion of the work. Harvey created the sequence as a soundwalk with sound artist Justin Bennett, and the hour-long audio is available on the Poetry Foundation’s Soundcloud [https://soundcloud.com/poetryfoundation/telettrofono-by-matthea-harvey]. The full text and images are also on the Poetry Foundation’s website. If I could snip a couple of favorite images from this sequence, they would be the bone xylophone and the marine telephone—beautifully close to seeing Harvey’s poetic language and imagining the sound she had in mind.

harvey_bone xylophone

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? contains worlds and collections, which spill intimately, like your suitcase probably would upon security inspection, and pronounces what you already know: you’ll never get that thermometer back.

 —A. Anupama

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A. Anupama

A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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Oct 062010
 

 

It’s a pleasure to introduce my former student (and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate) Jill Glass to Numéro Cinq. Jill lives in Los Angeles, writes about Los Angeles, thinks about Los Angeles and even seems to like it there. “The Use of Moralized Cityscape in Los Angeles Literature” is a marvelously intelligent essay on the use of place in fiction, the moralizing of place for fictional purposes (a literary effect called paysage moralisé) and, in particular, the way authors like Joan Didion, Gavin Lambert and Nathanael West re-imagine Los Angeles as a literary universe unto itself. Make sure to look at the notes and bibliography which extend the reach of the essay far beyond its topical orbit. This was Jill’s critical thesis at Vermont College, one of the best I’ve seen.

dg

 

THE USE OF MORALIZED CITYSCAPE IN LOS ANGELES LITERATURE

By Jill Glass

 

“I look at the writers who came, when they came, why they came, what they found and how they responded to the city. I am interested in the way the place—in all its apparent oddity—shaped the writer’s imaginations and how their imaginative renderings shaped the city, structured it in image and myth as the city of dream, desire and deception.”[i]

–David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles.

It was failure that brought Nathanael West to Los Angeles in the mid-1930’s, after his first novel, The Dream of the Balso Snell, was little read and poorly reviewed and his second, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), was not the breakthrough many anticipated. Critically praised, the novel seemed poised for success when West received news on the eve of release that his publishing house, hit hard by the economic depression, had declared bankruptcy. Months later, when the book came to market, it had lost all momentum. In an unexpected development, Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights, and West followed his novel to Hollywood to oversee its transition from page to screen.

The Depression had been good to the film industry. Americans, desperate for diversion, crowded the theaters where they were fed images of Los Angeles life as one of material comfort, escapism and eternal sunshine, the locus of the American Dream. This was not what West saw when he arrived. His Los Angeles was “a grotesque half-world of outcasts and hangers-on, misfits and freaks, exotic cultists and disillusioned Midwesterners,” a jumble of incongruous architectural styles—pagodas and chalets–stacked side by side in rugged canyons, a fantasyland gone awry, the lines between movies and reality badly blurred, a city devoid of cultural or literary definition.

Heightened and distorted, this became the central imagery for his seminal work, The Day of the Locust. The book was published in 1939, a defining year for Los Angeles literature. Raymond Chandler released his novella Red Wind, elevating pulp crime fiction to an art form. His Los Angeles was “a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup…no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.”[ii] John Fante published his second novel, Ask the Dust, the first book to focus a tender eye on the down-and-outers, the immigrant denizens of the city’s downtown flophouses and cafeterias. “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”[iii] But the Los Angeles of West’s imagination was a bleaker place, a moral black hole–the embodiment of what he saw as the spiritual and material betrayal of the American dream during the years of the Great Depression, a city where people “realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have saved and saved for nothing.”[iv]

With The Day of the Locust, a black, surrealistic, social satire, West created his own genre—Hollywood Apocalypse. A short 126-page novel, the chapters range from one to eleven pages in length. Written in third-person omniscient, past tense, the story is told from the point of view of Tod Hackett, part moral-innocent, part artist-prophet, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, who has temporarily set aside his aspirations towards serious art to work as a set designer at a second-rate Hollywood studio. As he takes in Los Angeles, he marvels at the blatant artifice of the architecture and the inhabitants. He dismisses the masqueraders, people who parade the streets in costumes that belie and disguise their social standing, but is fixated on the migrant middle-class Midwesterners who “have come to California to die.” He plans to use them as the subjects of the masterpiece he will someday paint in the style of Daumier or Goya, a fantasized catastrophe he has titled “the Burning of Los Angeles.”

He falls in with an assortment of oddballs–a veritable laundry list of Hollywood clichés—an over-the-hill Vaudeville clown, a child actor, a cowboy, a dwarf, and Faye Greener, a scheming, untalented extra with delusions of stardom.

Tod becomes obsessed with Faye, joining her circle of suitors, a group of misfits and has-beens, including Homer Simpson, a sickly Iowan newly arrived in Los Angeles in search of a health cure. It is a losing proposition. Faye makes it clear that Tod has nothing to offer her since he is neither wealthy or good-looking or connected. Her rejection fuels his depraved and lustful fantasies, and after an evening of group flirtation at a Hollywood Hills campsite escalates into violence, Tod chases Faye into the woods with the fantasy of raping her.

Faye’s father dies and she moves in with Homer Simpson in an arranged relationship–food, lodging and expensive clothes in exchange for her companionship. She takes advantage of Homer’s vulnerability and manipulates him into letting two of her other suitors move into his garage.

Tod determines to break off with Faye. His desire for her makes him feel as desperate as the people he is trying to paint. He turns his attention back to “The Burning of Los Angeles,” searching the churches of Hollywood for new subjects. He is disturbed by what he sees—fanatical congregations worshipping false-prophets.

Continue reading »

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Fine, David. Imagining Los Angeles. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. ix.
  2. Chandler, Raymond. “Red Wind.” Writing Los Angeles. Ed. David L. Ulin. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2002. 170.
  3. Fante, John. “Ask The Dust.” Writing Los Angeles. Ed. David L. Ulin. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2002. 220.
  4. West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust. New York: New Directions, 1962. 178.

2012

 

Vol. III, No. 12, December 2012

Vol. III, No. 11, November 2012

Vol. III, No. 10, October 2012

Vol. III, No. 9, September  2012

Vol. III, No. 8, August 2012

Vol. III, No. 7, July  2012

Vol. III, No. 6, June 2012

Vol. III, No. 5, May 2012

Vol. III, No. 4, April 2012

Vol. III, No. 3, March 2012

Vol. III, No. 2, February 2012

Vol. III, No. 1, January 2012

Essay & Memoir

 

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Personal Essays, Aphorisms, Memoirs, Speeches, Diaries, Sermons, Science & Nature Writing, Travel Essays, Belles Lettres, Criticism, Philosophy, Craft Essays

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Oct 132018
 


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“Here we rediscover the old truth that repetition is the heart of art”

(Douglas Glover, Attack of the Copula Spiders  94).

 

Introduction

A story, like all artistic work, requires a structure upon which it can sustain itself. Most stories rely upon the arc of the conventional plot: a beginning, middle, and end, with rising tension culminating in climax then denouement; a wave rising from the ocean, peaking close to shore, crashing upon the beach, and dissipating with a hiss of water and foam. There are many ways to describe this classic structure. Douglas Glover calls it a series of repeating conflicts between one character’s desire and a resistance to that desire (24-26). Michael Shaara describes it as the shifting of power back and forth between opposing characters (Burroway 265). Claudia Johnson reframes the dynamic in terms of emotional connection and disconnection (Burroway 267).

Resisted desire, shifting power, emotional disconnection. However you phrase it, these describe inherently interesting plots. But what of the outlier story that eschews the classic plot? How can it be made interesting? Captivating prose carries the reader only so far. What tools are available to the writer who veers away from the conventional, but still hopes to achieve an interesting, resonant story of some depth?

In this essay, I will examine five short stories with unconventional plots: “The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino, “Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar, “The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter, “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” by Lion Miller, and “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury. In analyzing each story, I will consider whether and how it departs from the conventional plot structure, and what other literary devices are used to engage and hold the reader’s interest.

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“The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino

“The Distance of the Moon” is a speculative story about a time on earth unknown to us when the moon travelled in an elliptical orbit and, once a month, would come so close to the earth that people could climb upon the moon with ladders. This fourteen-page story has no line breaks or numerations to indicate story sections, but the structure is dual, split in two.

The first half is primarily descriptive, detailing the phases of the moon, its orbit, how the people used rowboats to move under the moon and ladders to climb upon her, the acrobatics used to navigate the gravitational field between the moon and earth when mounting or dismounting the moon from the ladders, the ingredients and formation of moon-milk and how they harvest it from the moon’s scabby surface. It also introduces the story’s characters: the first-person narrator, Qfwfq; the Deaf One, Qfwfq’s cousin who has an affinity with the moon; Captain Vhd Vhd, who commands the boats; Mrs. Vhd Vhd, the Captain’s wife who plays the harp; and Xlthlx, a twelve-year-old girl. Ending the first section is a short pre-story that presages events in the main story. Xlthlx becomes stuck in the ambiguous gravitational field between the moon and the earth. She’s too light to fall into either orb’s influence. She floats between them and eats the shellfish and sea creatures that are also caught between worlds, gaining heft as she eats and as other sea creatures attach to her body, till finally her weight reaches a critical threshold and she splashes to Earth.

It is at this halfway point, after the characters and setting are (thoroughly and delightfully) explained, that Qfwfq tells us outright the nature of the story: “This is how the story of my love for the Captain’s wife began, and my suffering.” He then succinctly describes the situation: the Deaf One loves the Moon, Mrs. Vhd Vhd loves the Deaf One, and Qfwfq loves Mrs. Vhd Vhd: the story of unrequited love in triplicate, each loving another in different ways. a conventional desire-resistance plot, but multiplied in three parallel desires. A point of note towards interestingness: the trio of orbs—sun, moon, earth—echo these love triangles.

The second half of the story contains the plot line. One day, Qfwfq decides not to climb the ladder to the moon so that he can remain in the boat with Mrs. Vhd Vhd, but Mrs. Vhd Vhd for the first time decides to climb the ladder and go to the moon. Qfwfq mounts the ladder after her to help push her up to the moon, and starts to follow after her, but Capt. Vhd Vhd grabs his ankle and pulls him back to the boat. Mrs. Vhd Vhd can be seen searching the moon’s surface for the Deaf One, but as usual, he is playing his private games with the moon. Finally, it is time to return to earth, but the moon is suddenly further away than usual. Everyone struggles to dismount. The Deaf One “hurled himself into the air [but] he remained suspended, as little Xlthlx had.” Qfwfq climbs the ladder to help Mrs. Vhd Vhd back and lunges into the ambiguous gravitational field to add his mass to hers, but instead of falling to the earth, they fall back to the moon where they remain stranded for a month. After one month when the moon and earth are near again, but quite distant now, the Deaf One constructs a long bamboo pole and rescues Qfwfq, destroying the pole in the process, while Mrs. Vhd Vhd remains permanently upon the moon.

Viewing the second half of the story through the lens of desire and resistance, we find first a summary of the status quo, the default stance of the characters in their three desires. Usually when Qfwfq returns to earth from the moon, “in all the groping, sometimes I ended up by seizing one of Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s breasts,” or “managed…to put my other arm around her hips.” After crashing back into the boat, Captain Vhd Vhd would “throw[] a bucket of water in my face.” The bucket of water suggests momentary resistance, but not from the object of his desire. More telling is the difference between how Mrs. Vhd Vhd assisted him back to earth compared to the Deaf One. For the Deaf One, “Mrs. Vhd Vhd lost all her self-control, doing everything she could to take his weight against her own body.” But for Qfwfq, “her body was soft and kind, but not thrust forward, the way it was with my cousin.” Captain Vhd Vhd also creates a barrier between his wife and the Deaf One. When the boats moved off, the Captain would hand her her harp. “Nothing could separate her more from the Deaf One than the sound of the harp.” As for the Deaf One, he loves the Moon, and the Moon seems to love him in return, without resistance. Qfwfq states: “Once I even thought I saw the Moon come toward him, as he held out his hands.”

The first desire-resistance episode within the plot-line comes on the pivotal day when the moon is growing more distant to the earth, seemingly unbeknownst to the characters. Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd both act in accordance with their desires. Qfwfq decides to remain on the boat to share the company of Mrs. Vhd Vhd for the day, but she resists him in deciding to climb the ladder to the Moon for the first time (presumably to spend time with the Deaf One). The Captain gives no resistance to his wife, “made no objection.” Interesting to note here that Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s climbing of the ladder functions both as a resistance to Qfwfq and an expression of her desire toward the Deaf One, efficiently accomplishing two plot steps with a single action.

The second desire-resistance episode follows quickly after the first. Qfwfq helps Mrs. Vhd Vhd up the ladder to the Moon, “press[ing] my face and the palms of my hands against her [behind],” but he’s “heartsick” when she goes to the Moon without him and calls out that he’s going, too. However, the Captain holds him back on the boat. Qfwfq is thus resisted twice by two characters: by Mrs. Vhd Vhd who goes to the Moon without him, and by the Captain who prevents him from following her to the Moon. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, though she makes it to the Moon’s surface, experiences resistance to her desire to spend time with the Deaf One. The Deaf One often ventured into “hidden zones” upon the moon. On this day, “[w]e saw her cross the scaly zone various times, length and breadth, then suddenly she stopped, looking at us in the boat, as if about to ask us whether we had seen him.” Both Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd are unable to spend the day with the object of their desire. However, the Deaf One does make it to the moon and does spend the day with the object of his desire.

The third and culminating desire-resistance sequence occurs when Qfwfq tries to help Mrs. Vhd Vhd back to earth that same day, for the moon is alarmingly distant of a sudden. As presaged by Xlthlx’s pre-story, he leaps and swims through the sky till he can entwine his limbs in hers, add his weight to hers, and bring her back to earth. Though he “enjoyed the fullness of that embrace,” she “show[ed] [him] first her impassive face and then her backside,” rejecting him yet again. And instead of falling to Earth, they fell back to the Moon. Qfwfq finally realizes that Mrs. Vhd Vhd wants nothing to do with him. “I had lost: a hopeless defeat.” Mrs. Vhd Vhd also realizes her defeat: the Deaf One “loved only the moon.”

Their reactions to their mirrored defeats, their resolutions, demonstrate three different forms of love. When the moon next cycles near to the earth, Qfwfq wants desperately to return home, to himself, and abandons Mrs. Vhd Vhd in the process. “[T]he minute the pole touched the lunar crust, I had sprung and grasped it … driven by a natural power that ordered me to return to the Earth.” Mrs. Vhd Vhd, in contrast, chooses to stay on the moon, to abandon herself to the moon, “to be assimilated into the object of that extrahuman love. … She proved her passion … hadn’t been a frivolous whim but an irrevocable vow.” And the Deaf One simply loves and accepts the moon unconditionally: whether she is in close orbit or moving away. “He was unable to conceive desires that went against the Moon’s nature.” He doesn’t change for the moon, nor expect the moon to change for him. With his bamboo pole, “he was driving the moon away … he was helping her departure … want[ing] to show her to her more distant orbit.”

The second half of the story is conventional in its plot structure (repeated desire and resistance), but overall the story takes a different shape: two halves hinged together. Nothing is described in the first half which doesn’t bear upon on the second, resulting in a sense of connection, matching, and pairing. Xlthlx’s free float between the two spheres is repeated by the Deaf One, and with Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd. Additionally, Qfwfq describes in the first half how the Deaf One was “deft and sensitive” with the moon, and “displayed a special gift” for milking the moon, which “seemed to be the height of amusement for him.” Then in the second half during the bamboo-pole rescue, “he was playing his last game with the Moon, one of his tricks…as if he were juggling with her.” Another example: While Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd are exiled on the moon for a month, the moon “nourished [them] with its milk,” while the milk and the milking of the moon had been described in detail earlier: “It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey,” and many other odd ingredients. Additionally, the way that the Deaf One milked the moon by touching “gaps between two scales, naked and tender folds of lunar flesh,” reflects the later descriptions of Qfwfq fondling Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s body, previously quoted. A final example: in the first half it seems the Deaf One’s movements with the moon “have no clear, practical sense.” And in the second half, “we realized that his virtuosity had no purpose, aimed at no practical result.” There are so many examples of this pairing that one has the sense that if the first and second halves were laid side by side, you could draw lines to nearly every word between the two, creating a matrix of connectivity.

Writers are sometimes admonished to reveal the central conflict of their story as soon as possible, but here, description takes center stage. What if Calvino had woven the description into the second half of the story, instead of front loading it? The plot would have lost its momentum, bogged down in backstory and details. And Qfwfq, in fact, does insert a hint of budding trouble early in the story. The crux of the plot is that the Moon’s orbit is changing, moving away from the earth. It’s first mentioned in an italicized introduction to the story that has the tone of an encyclopedia entry, and is based on an actual historic (though incorrect) theory of the moon: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away…” Next, in a parenthetical aside on the second page, Qfwfq explains that they “had taken the measurements [of the distance to the moon] carefully (we didn’t yet suspect that she was moving away from us)…” This colors the introductory statement with a sense of foreboding and raises a question in the reader’s mind. It hints at danger, and danger is always interesting. But Qfwfq doesn’t mention it again during those pages of plotless description, letting it hang in the mind of the reader and build suspense. Finally, Qfwfq raises the issue again when description turns to plot: when Mrs. Vhd Vhd mounts the moon for the first time, leaving him behind in the boat. He wonders if the Captain “had known from the beginning that the Moon’s orbit was widening? None of us could have suspected it. The Deaf One perhaps, but only he…”

The familiar love story is also made fresh through devices of defamiliarization, or enstrangement as Viktor Shklovsky calls it (6). Enstrangement forces the reader to see something known and familiar in a new and foreign way. First, the use of foreign or outlandish language impedes understanding and causes the reader to pause and dwell on the text. In this story, the character names are completely foreign (i.e. of no existing human language) and unpronounceable. Are the characters even human? They seem to have human relationships and emotions, but there is uncertainty, unfamiliarity. Second, familiar objects/images or events/rituals can be described in detail, often without being named in the abstract, to force the reader to see them new and evade “automatized perception.” In this story, the moon, an object we see so often that most have ceased to notice it entirely, is described first in unusual terms regarding its phases, e.g. “when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind.” Later, the moon is described with unrealistic and bizarre details regarding her moon milk (mentioned previously) which makes the familiar satellite completely foreign. Finally, the close orbit of the moon that brings it so near to the earth that “it looked as if she were going to crush us,” and which allows the characters to climb upon her using only ladders, is unusual to say the least. What else is being enstranged in the process? The cliché symbol of the moon for love and romance. It shifts the reader’s perceptions and primes the mind to view the old love story new again.

The protagonist’s voice adds an interesting and unusual element to the story. Qfwfq opens the story, “How well I know! … the rest of you can’t remember, but I can.” He speaks directly to the reader, but also seems to have a questioning audience before him. I imagine him surrounded by young space aliens sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the next paragraph, he says, “Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course… Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did.” This question and answer format pulls the reader into the tale, which feels both reminiscent and instructional. “This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it…” The punctuation is also different and unfamiliar, such as the use of sequential colons.

Though it’s seemingly told in the first-person perspective from the point of view (POV) of Qfwfq, it might more accurately be described as a third-person POV as a narrator exists behind Qfwfq. The entire story is Qfwfq orating to an audience, but the narrator reveals itself (I say “it” because it’s unclear if the narrator is human, or some sort of cosmic energy, or some other type of nonhuman being) only at the very beginning of the story via italicized text. First, as mentioned above, there is a brief quasi-scientific description of how the moon’s orbit changed over time, referencing Sir George H. Darwin. Then, in the first sentence, one italicized speech tag exposes the narrator: “How well I know!—old Qfwfq cried,—the rest of you can’t remember, but I can.” This hints at a larger mystery or reality behind Qfwfq. The entire book builds on this pattern by beginning stories with an actual scientific theory of space or earth history, then introducing Qfwfq as the narrator who sets the story, based on the scientific theory at issue, into motion.

In conclusion, Calvino in “The Distance of the Moon,” makes the traditional love story new again by defamiliarizing the situation, context, and characters in a wildly imaginative way. He carefully explains everything necessary to understand the story using the engaging voice of Qfwfq, then tells the story. But he triples the plot by repeating it with different sets of character, exploring different facets of romantic love.

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“Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar

“Axolotl” is a speculative transformation story about a man who becomes an axolotl (a species of salamander native to Mexico). The story is framed at the beginning and end in present tense from the first-person (or first-axolotl if you prefer) POV of the man qua axolotl, with most of the story written in past tense from the POV of the man pre-axolotl transformation. It spans just over six pages with no line breaks.

The plot is perhaps deceptively simple. One spring day, the narrator goes to the Paris zoo to see the lions and panthers, but he ends up at the aquarium instead, a building he’d never before visited, where he “hit it off with the axolotls.” He watches them for an hour and becomes obsessed. He then goes to the library to read about them in a dictionary. The next day and every day thereafter, he visits the aquarium to study to axolotls. Many visits are merged and summarized with much description of the axolotl and interior thoughts of the man as he imagines the conditions in which the axolotls exist in captivity. Then, one day the man leans close to the tank, presses his face to the glass, stares into one axolotl’s eyes, and in an instant, he is looking out from that axolotl’s eyes at himself on the other side of the tank. The POV remains in first person but shifts to the axolotl, who reports that the man continues to visit the aquarium, but less and less often, and finally stops visiting entirely. The axolotl’s only hope is that the man will, perhaps, write a story about them, believing that he’s making it up, which, of course, he does. The ending creates a Möbius Strip, returning the story to the beginning.

In a traditional plot, we would ask what does the protagonist desire and what resistance presents itself against that desire. Viewed through that lens, there are two primary options, though they are simply two sides of the same coin. One is that the man, upon discovering the axolotls, desires to “penetrate [their] mystery.” The words penetrate and mystery are used numerous times within the story. He comes to view the axolotls as “not animals,” but “a mysterious humanity.” The axolotl also states as much at the end of the story, speaking of the man’s “desire to know us better.” The man encounters two forms of resistance, perhaps more accurately described as obstacles within the context of this story. The major obstacle is the simple fact that the man cannot know the axolotl better because he cannot communicate directly with the axolotls because he is not an axolotl. At one point, he imagines that he can hear them say, “Save us, save us,” but axolotls cannot (presumably) speak Spanish (the language in which the story was originally written and presumably the language spoken by the protagonist). The second obstacle comes from the aquarium guard who “coughed fussily” when the man leans too close to the glass tank, but that is of less import. Despite these obstacles, the man succeeds in his desire to know the axolotls by becoming an axolotl himself. He discovers that their thinking is “humanlike … every axolotl thinks like a man.”

The second option is to view the primary desire as that of the axolotl who wants the story of their captivity told. “I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us…” Their obstacle is the same as the man’s: they cannot communicate with him. But the axolotl succeeds as well: the story is written (and the story is written because the man succeeds in his desire to deeply know the axolotls, the circularity of the Möbius Strip).

Because the protagonist and axolotl cannot communicate, different techniques are used to raise tension in the story. The first is repetition. The narrator describes the axolotl at length, their “rosy” bodies, their “golden eyes,” their feet and hands, the “tiny sprigs red as coral” that grow from either side of their stone-like heads. The descriptive words repeat again and again throughout the story so that they become mesmerizing to the reader, as the narrator is mesmerized. Their golden eyes are a particular focal point, referenced at least twenty-three times, and serve to ratchet up the tension of the story as their description morphs. They begin as “eyes of gold,” then “diminutive golden points…burning with…terrible light.” Later they have a “terrifying purity” that “devour[s] [him] in a cannibalism of gold.” Finally he sees that it was “[n]ot possible that such a terrible expression [in their eyes]…should carry any message other than one of pain, proof of that eternal sentence, of that liquid hell they were undergoing.” The story then peaks and he becomes an axolotl.

A second technique used to raise tension is suspense via foretelling. This tension is introduced in the very first paragraph which, in only forty-three words, summarizes the entire story. It begins: “There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls.” It ends: “Now I am an axolotl.” This immediately raises a fascinating question in the mind of the reader: how has this impossible change occurred? The reader is reminded of the coming transformation a second time approximately half way through the story, twice on the same page but in subsequent paragraphs: “I knew better later…” and “I knew it before this, before becoming an axolotl.” This piques the reader’s interest and heightens the suspense. Finally, on the second to last page, the man is again staring into the golden eyes of an axolotl: “No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood. Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know.” This telling of the climax at the beginning, the mid-story reminder of the coming climax, and the climax itself, serves as a structure similar to the desire/resistance structure. It is much like Calvino’s mention of the growing distance to the moon at the very beginning, on the second page, and midway through the story. Many short stories use a trio of desire/resistance episodes (resistance, resistance, success/failure), and this foretelling, foretelling, happening mimics that structure.

An additional device that supports this tension is a slippery point of view. As previously mentioned, the story begins in first- axolotl POV as the frame, then switches to first-person POV where it remains with exceptions until the final frame switch back to first-axolotl. However, within the person-narrated sections, there are two instances when it slips into the POV of the axolotls as first plural. When describing the creature, the man says, “I saw a rosy little body…ending in a fish’s tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body.” At the bottom of that same paragraph, he states, “I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss. It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped… The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly.” But in the next sentence/paragraph, it shifts back to singular first: “It was their quietness that made me lead toward them…” These shifts are done so smoothly that they may not consciously register on first reading, but they add interest by subtly reminding the reader of the coming transformation.

A final source of interest is the story’s theme. How can we know another’s mind? How can we see through their eyes? How can we experience their life and know it as our own? How can we link to humanity? These are the questions asked of the story. The answer comes directly from the man. Fascination with another. Obsessive observation. Intense curiosity, leading, ultimately, to empathy and sympathy. Then, one day, in an instant, we will be transformed, metamorphosed, and see the world through another’s eyes. Then we will be able to tell their story as our own.

In “Axolotl,” Cortázar utilizes a variety of techniques to keep this story interesting when the bulk of the story action involves many summarized and combined trips to the zoo where a man stares into a glass enclosure. He raises tension by foretelling the unusual ending. He ends the story so it warps and wraps back to the beginning. He shifts the POV within the same character but from man to axolotl. He repeats descriptions again and again, but varies those descriptions in such a way as to rachet up the energy and tension of the story, carrying the reader to the climax.

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“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter

“The Company of Wolves” is a retelling and revisioning of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. There is a three-page introductory section demarked with a line break before the story begins in earnest, the main story itself comprising just under six pages, for a total of nine pages. The introductory section serves as a cautionary lesson to the reader. The voice is authoritative, omniscient, and directive. It speaks in the present tense, describing the eyes of the wolf, the howl of the wolf. It tells how children always carry knives. It tells the first cautionary pre-story that comprises only half a sentence: “a woman [was] once bitten in her own kitchen as she was straining the macaroni.” It warns: “You are always in danger in the forest… Fear and flee the wolf; for, worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems.”

With this mysterious statement, the introduction next tells three more stories. The first story of this trio, comprising two paragraphs (though the second paragraph is only one short sentence), tells how a wolf was trapped in a pit with ducks as a lure, then the hunter fell upon the wolf, slit his throat, and cut off his paws. However, the wolf transforms into “a man, headless, footless, dying, dead.” The second story, one paragraph made up of two sentences, tells of a witch who turned a wedding party into a pack of wolves. The third and final pre-story is a full page and relates how a woman married a man who turned out to be a werewolf. He fled on their wedding night and so she married another man and had children with him. Years later, her first husband returned and, seeing her children, called her “a whore” before “he was chopped up with the hatchet.” She cried and her second husband beat her. The introductory section then concludes with more information on the werewolf, most importantly to beware a naked man in the woods, and that a werewolf’s natural lifespan is seven years, but if you burn his clothes, he’ll be a wolf the rest of his life.

After this lesson, the main story begins in earnest. It is Christmas Eve, the winter solstice, and a virginal girl with budding breasts who has just commenced her menses goes through the forest in her red cloak to deliver oatcakes to her grandmother. She carries her knife. She hears a howl in the woods, but then a clothed man, not a wolf, appears on her path. He is a hunter with a gun. He laughs at her surprise, and he is handsome. They walk together for a time. Then he shows her his compass and says he can get to her grandmother’s in less time than she. They make a bet of it, a game, so that he’ll receive a kiss if he wins. She dawdles in the woods to ensure his victory.

He does arrive before her. He knocks and pretends to be the granddaughter. The grandmother invites him in and he eats her. He then tidies up and waits for the girl. She arrives and knocks. He pretends to be the grandmother and welcomes her in. She sees her grandmother only and is disappointed, wanting a kiss from the man. She inspects the room: because the Bible is closed instead of open and the pillow fluffed without indentation, she knows her grandmother is dead. “What big eyes you have,” she says. Twenty or fifty wolves gather outside and begin to howl. But the girl does not express fear at their numbers. Instead, she expresses sympathy with the wolves. Though she felt afraid when she realized her grandmother was dead, she decides not to be afraid because it will do her no good.

She asks the wolf what she should do with her shawl, and he says to throw it on the fire. Then she strips off her shirt; into the fire. He skirt, stockings, shoes; into the fire. She stands naked before him and freely gives the promised kiss. What big teeth you have she says, and he replies in the expected manner: “All the better to eat you with.” But instead of being afraid, she laughs at him. At this crucial junction, the story shifts into the future tense and tells what she will do: lay his head on her lap, pick the ice from his pelt and, perhaps, eat them. The clock strikes midnight and the girl sleeps “between the paws of the tender wolf.”

Carter’s version, like the traditional fairy tale, has a beginning, middle, and end, with rising action. In the traditional fairy tale, the girls resists the wolf throughout, wanting to deliver her cakes to grandmother, but ultimately he eats her. Here, the girl begins with the traditional desire of delivering oatcakes to her grandmother, but when she meets the man on the path in the woods, she immediately surrenders her basket of cakes (including her knife hidden within) to him. When he makes the bet that he can beat her to the cottage, a new desire blossoms within her: a kiss. At grandmother’s, she is at first afraid and wants her knife back, but “since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.” Notably, between her fear and release of fear arose her sympathy for the wolves: “It is very cold, poor things; no wonder they howl so.” With that, all her resistance to the wolf dissolves. He tells her to remove and burn her cape, her blouse, her skirt, all her clothes, and she never resists even though she knows he’s killed and eaten her grandmother. When naked, she voluntarily kisses him though he hasn’t asked for his reward. When he says he’s going to eat her, she laughs. She strips off his shirt. It is implied that they have sex. The revisioned plot is unresisted desire on the part of both parties within a story that has a long tradition of resistance. The fairy tale is built on the assumption that the girl resists, and the girl will fail. But what if the girl actually wants what the wolf is offering? By removing the customary resistance within the traditional tale, it creates a new tension because the story resists the reader’s expectations. The girl is curious when she should be frightened. She’s naked when she should be modest. She’s eager when she should be devoured.

The howls of the wolves are used as a repetitive pattern that functions like a simplified Greek chorus, describing the plot to assist the reader in understanding or contextualizing this retold version of the tale (though the technique only succeeds if the reader has a strong musical vocabulary or a dictionary handy). The Greek chorus traditionally sang to describe, comment upon, and interpret the action of a play for the audience. The first instance of this is in the longer pre-story in the introduction: the husband-werewolf sings melancholic “canticles” (alternately defined as sung Bible hymns, love poems, or hymns of praise) on their wedding night. In the main story, when the girl hears the wolves howl outside her grandmother’s house, they sing a “threnody” (mourning hymn) shortly after the narrator compares her red cape to the red of “the blood she must spill,” indicating that some sort of death will occur: Will she kill the wolf? Will her hymen break and her virginity die? When she, naked, “freely gave the kiss she owed,” the wolves outside howl a “prothalamion” (a marriage song). Shortly after, the wolves “clamour the forest’s Liebestod.” (This has two potential meanings. The Liebestod is the final dramatic music as Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body. As a literary term, it indicates erotic death; consummation of love in death.) Presumably, since both the girl’s and the wolf’s clothes are burnt, the girl will transform into a werewolf, killing her human existence (and the obvious interpretation that she’s transformed into a sensual, sexual, adult woman, her innocent girlhood dead). Thus, the werewolf chorus adds a surprising dimension to the telling of the story, adding context to the story action through their song selections.

Supporting the plot structure are what I will call twinned actions: an action occurs twice in the story, the second occurrence a flip or reversal of the first. There are four major twinnings in this story. First, at the largest scale, is the comparison of marriage between the final pre-story and the main story. The pre-story woman effectively disavows her werewolf husband and marries a human, but the story ends with her insulted, in tears, and beaten. Flipped in the twinning, the girl effectively marries the werewolf and wholeheartedly opens herself to him, and the story ends with her peacefully sleeping with him, a complete reversal. A second twinning is of shivers. While describing the girl’s virginity at the beginning of the story, we’re told that “she does not know how to shiver.” But once inside grandmother’s house with the werewolf, “…she shivered, in spite of the scarlet shawl she pulled more closely round herself as if it could protect her…” This reference to what can “protect” her is itself a twinning. On the previous page, the narrator slips into the story to chastise “granny” for thinking that her Bible “was a sure prophylactic… call on Christ and his mother and all the angles in heaven to protect you but it won’t do you any good.” The final twinning is of laughter. In the woods, the werewolf as man “laughed with a flash of white teeth… He laughed at her again; gleaming trails of spittle clung to his teeth.” However, in grandmother’s house when he says he’s going to eat her, she “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face…” In sum, these twinned and flipped actions mimic a sense of movement, change, or transformation. Something is different than before.

Similar to twinnings are triplicate repetitions or leitmotifs, repeated thematic phrases or words. These can mirror the beginning, middle, end structure of a conventional plot when strategically placed within those sections of the story. For example, there are three references to lice in the fur of werewolves: first in the pre-story, second with grandmother mid-story, and finally with the girl at the very end. Neither the pre-story wife nor the grandmother reacts to the lice, but most readers will likely have a squeamish reaction to this parasite. However, in the resolution of the story, the girl “will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony.” She treats the lice differently than the other two women. This also mimics the desire-resistance model, with the lice being resisted by the reader in two instances, followed by a final success with the girl. Another example is the thrice repeated phrase: “carnivore incarnate.” It first occurs in the second sentence of the story in the introductory section, then again with the grandmother mid-story, and finally in the resolution with the girl. The phrase doesn’t substantially change, but works through juxtaposition to other developing plot elements (the wolf chorus, her laugh, the lice). It also simply reminds the reader what the story is about.

The tale also surprises by frequently shifting verb tenses. The story begins in the present tense as the narrator explains the wolf. During the four short pre-stories, it shifts to past tense, though with one exception. At the end of the first paragraph it shifts from the narrator’s POV to the newlywed wife’s, enters her thoughts, and shifts to the present tense: “And she waited and she waited and then she waited again – surely he’s been gone a long time? Until she jumps up in bed and shrieks to hear a howling, coming on the wind from the forest.” In the next paragraph, the POV switches back to the narrator who describes the howls, the melancholy of the wolf in present tense, then shifts back into the story, into past tense. After the only line break in the story, the main story begins in present tense, but shifts back and forth between tenses throughout the story: “It is midwinter… The forest closed upon her like a pair of jaws… There is a faint trace of blood on his chin; he has been snacking on his catch… She wanted her knife from her basket but did not dare reach for it… Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.” The resolution post-climax suddenly shifts to future tense, quoted above, followed by “The blizzard will die down. The blizzard died down…” This shift from future to past indicates that what was predicted (her eating his lice, their marriage), will come to pass. This shifting between now and then, past, present, and future, distorts time and disorients the reader. It creates a shimmering effect as if viewing the story through all time, through traditional beliefs and modern sensibilities, as well as a future where the previously unacceptable will be acceptable.

There is a further contrast, a tension, between what the narrator is seemingly trying to scare the reader into believing at the outset – be afraid and run away! – and what the story accomplishes. The four pre-stories are fascinating because none of them occur in the woods, which is where the reader is told to be cautious. None of the people run away, as the reader is told to do. People are either bitten, or they fight back and kill the wolves. In fact, the girl in the main story does everything wrong according to the narrator, but ends by sleeping peacefully with her wolf. The narrator who consistently warns the reader away from wolves (“Fear and flee the wolf”) at the end seems oblivious to her previous words and is triumphant in the girl’s success: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.” The narrator her or himself has had a transformation, a change of mind, through the telling of the story.

The story also uses an odd humor that seems to poke fun at the chastising tone of the tale, and at how seriously people take the issue of human sexual desire. The first instance is the woman who is bitten while “straining the macaroni.” Straining the macaroni? Who strains the macaroni in Little Red Robin Hood when werewolves are about? Another instance is the duck dropped in the pit as bait for the wolf in the second pre-story. “Quack, quack! went the duck…” Quack, quack! is in tremendous tonal contrast to the entire rest of the story. Later, when the wolf from the main story undresses in front of grandmother, “she can see how hairy his legs are. His genitals, huge. Ah! huge.” Is she delighted with his size? And simply the word “genitals” is so technical and odd in what is purporting to be a fairy tale. Ah! there are no genitals in fairy tales.

One final note, “The Company of Wolves” is one story in a linked collection of retold fairy tales. Throughout the book, certain phrases or images are repeated in different stories, reverberating through the book, connecting all the stories thematically.

In conclusion, Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” turns the fairy tale Little Red Robin Hood on its clitoral head by subverting the traditional desire-resistance plot into a plot of unopposed sexual desire that is resisted only by the reader’s preformed expectations of how the story should develop (and how girls should behave). Adding to the interest of the story, the verb tenses shift throughout from past to present to future, disorienting the reader. The wolves as Greek chorus add a wonderful and odd touch. The purported message of the story via the narrator seems to be to beware of sexuality, but is in direct conflict with the outcome of the story which encourages a revisioning of female sexuality from a perspective of victimhood to one of agency.

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“The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” by Lion Miller

“The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” is written as an academic report on a strange phenomenon, and runs just under four pages. There is a citation to the report (authored by Dr. Alma Victoria Snyder-Gray, Sc.D. and published by Fort College Press) at the very beginning, centered beneath the title. The tense shifts from past to present as would be normal in a report of this nature, as Dr. Snyder-Gray discusses and analyzes the subject of her study (i.e. the Worp Reaction). The only line break in the story occurs on the last page and separates the bulk of the report from two final paragraphs which give a summary of the where things stand now.

The report tells the story of Aldous Worp, a boy who was born “a hopeless idiot” and lived a sedentary and quiet life for his first six years, making only one sound, “closely akin to the expression ‘Whee!’” But when he’s six, he begins to gather junk from the city dump behind his family’s house and store it in an unused chicken coop. He collects junk for twenty more years. Then, for one additional year, he stops gathering and only moves slowly among his gathered junk, seemingly accomplishing nothing. At age twenty-seven, he begins mysteriously fitting his pieces of junk together into a large structure. One day at 10:46 a.m. he is witnessed climbing into the structure where he remains for five minutes. He then exits and pulls a lever on the device. There is a rushing sound from the object, purple light glows from beneath it, then it rises three meters into the air and hovers. Aldous says “whee!” three times, then turns another lever on the contraption and the object settles to earth. No one knows how it works. Aldous demonstrates it for people, but on the afternoon of the second day, the press corps arrives. With their arrival, Aldous lowers the machine to the ground and begins to dismantle it in exactly the reverse order that he’d constructed it, taking the pieces one by one to the chicken coop, then one by one back to the city dump. Aldous returns to his original sedentary, idiotic state, but occasionally his eyes light up and he quietly says “whee!”

A traditional story has a desire-resistance plot culminating in success or failure. In this story, Aldous is not seemingly propelled by a conscious desire, but some unconscious impulse; nor does he seem to encounter any resistance to this impulse. Still, the story has a traditional story shape with a beginning (Aldous’s birth), a middle (his junk collecting and the building of the device), a climax (the device levitates), and resolution (he dismantles the device and all returns to normal). However, this “story” isn’t a story, but rather purports to be an excerpt from the official report of Dr. Snyder-Gray, Sc.D. of Fort, Indiana. Hers is the character lens through which the story is told, and the desire is not the desire of Aldous to build his machine, but the desire of Dr. Snyder-Gray to understand his creation, the impulse of creativity.

In the report, Dr. Snyder-Gray interviews three people who were all present at the first levitation: Aldous’s father, Lambert Simnel Worp; Major Herbert R. Armstrong, U.S. Army Engineers; and Dr. Phillip H. Cross, A.E.C. (though why Armstrong and Cross were at the house of an “idiot” child who collected junk from a city dump on that exact day at that exact time is a mystery in itself). However, no one gives her the understanding she desires. L. S. Worp “was able to shed [little light] on the problem.” A “Dr. Palmer,” of unknown affiliation, stated: “It’s all nothing but a bunch of junk.” And finally, according to Dr. Snyder-Gray: “The most exhaustive tests, Geiger, et al. revealed nothing.” Dr. Snyder-Gray’s desire to comprehend the mystery of Aldous’s machine is resisted, obstructed, and defeated with each successive interview. Thus we find hidden within the story the traditional desire-resistance model not between the characters on the page, but between the author of the report and the characters within the story.

Of note, Dr. Snyder-Gray never interviewed Aldous, or if she did, failed to mention it in her report. According to her, Aldous could not speak except for one sound: “Whee!” She declares: “Communication with Aldous Worp was impossible since the young man had never learned to talk.” However, it is possible to succeed in communication or understanding without talking (as happens in “Axolotl”—both these stories having a character resisted by the muteness of whatever or whomever they wish to understand). Those attendant at the first levitation told Dr. Snyder-Gray that “Aldous jumped around with every semblance of glee and we distinctly heard him remark ‘Whee!’ three times.” By not discussing that word, she seems to assume it lacks meaning, or is unimportant to her understanding of the phenomenon, though its import to the story is emphasized by its repetition in the text: at the beginning, at the climax, and at the end. This tripled repetition in the beginning, middle, and ending of the story mirrors the common plot structure, as discussed above regarding Carter’s “The Company of Wolves.”

And what of that word, whee? Is it without meaning? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines whee as, “used to express delight or exuberance.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines whee as “an exclamation of joy, exhilaration, astonishment, etc.” Dr. Snyder-Gray herself states that Aldous “took great delight in operating his machine.” And while analysis of the component parts inside the finished structure failed to adequately explain how they worked together as a whole (as analysis of art can fail to discern the magic and mystery that animates the sum total of its component parts), she ignores the fact that its invention is a creative product of delight and inspiration. The academic report structure supports Dr. Snyder-Gray’s obtuseness, as many academics are lampooned for their emphasis on so-called rational, scientific explanations of reality, dismissing emotional, subjective, or ecstatic evidence as irrelevant.

Additionally, the word “whee” is contained within the word symbolizing the most important part of Aldous’s invention: the cogwheel. The cogwheel is the first item Aldous retrieves from the junkyard and the last item he fits into his structure before it levitates: idiotic delight as the alpha and omega of artistic creation. Further, Aldous never says whee without exclamatory emphasis: “Whee!” “Whee!” and “Wheel” look nearly identical as characters in text, and reference to the cogwheel is sometimes shortened to wheel within the text. References to the cogwheel or wheel repeat four times within the story (typically within one to two paragraphs of the word whee): in the beginning, middle, and end of the story (see above on triplicate repetition). Merriam Webster’s defines cogwheel as a toothed wheel (gear) that performs a specific function in a complete machine. We might then deduce from the text that creative delight performs an essential (if mysterious) function within the whole of an artistic work, but also that word play based not just on meaning, but also sound and textual congruence can be utilized for structural support through repetition.

Another structural device beyond plot or repetition is a story written as a faux document, such as this academic report, which mimics the structure of the real-life document on which it is based. This provides the author a known form to write from and play within. These “shadow texts,” as Douglas Glover refers to them, might be police reports, psychological tests, newspaper articles, poems, novels, bible stories, etc. For example, an author might use the structure of King Lear to write a novel (e.g. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley). Shadow texts build resonance within the story by echoing against the external document, silently engaging the reader by encouraging comparison between the faux document qua story and its real-world counterpart (though the reader may not always be aware of the root source of the structure if it is not stated plainly).

The faux document can also allow for a different tone or diction for effect (e.g. academic, bureaucratic, scientific, etc.). In this story, parody of academic analysis is used to humorous effect, beginning with the officious citation preceding the story: “Being an excerpt from Prolegomena To A Preliminary Research on Some Instances of Unique Anomalies…” The report’s title, despite its words, says absolutely nothing and is redundant to boot: a preliminary discussion to preliminary research on some odd oddities. Dr. Snyder-Gray is obdurate in her academic quasi-scientific investigation. And, as previously stated, the faux document can be used as a frame to insert tension or conflict into a story that has no internal conflict among the “on stage” characters from the perspective of an observing character.

In conclusion, Miller’s “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” combines numerous literary devices to transform this simple story from mundane to mystical. The strategic repetition of two key words (one an exclamation, one an object, but both nearly identical in text) connects the story to and within itself. By using the structure of a faux document combined with an external, investigating narrator, tension is built into a plot that had no inherent conflict at the time it was occurring. Those same devices also add humor to this story whose theme ultimately levitates beyond the laughs, into the mystery of creativity.

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“The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury

“The Fog Horn” describes one night at a lighthouse. It is told in past-tense from the first-person perspective of young Johnny, who’s been working in the lighthouse for only three months. Though the story is told from Johnny’s point of view, his workmate, McDunn, a salty old timer, talks via direct dialogue through much of the story and because of this, the story feels as though it is written from his perspective. It is a ten-page story with one line break on the second to last page, between the climax and the resolution.

The action begins when the two men head up the lighthouse stairs to turn on the light, McDunn saying as they climb that he’s got something he’s been meaning to tell the boy. At the top, McDunn turns on the light and tells Johnny that a monster is coming that night, then the monster (a dinosaur from deep beneath the ocean, lured by the sound of the fog horn) arrives on scene. The fog horn and the monster call back and forth to each other, but McDunn turns off the fog horn for a moment. The monster goes mad in the ensuing silence and destroys the lighthouse. McDunn and Johnny both manage to escape, but a year later, Johnny is married and out of the lighthouse business, while McDunn is installed in a new, steel-reinforced lighthouse.

The story shape is seemingly traditional with a chronological development from the beginning (early evening), to the middle (fog horn sounds, monster approaches), to climax (monster attacks), to resolution (a year later). But what desire is resisted? Johnny doesn’t have any conflict with McDunn. The story begins with McDunn asking him if he’s used to their “lonely life,” and Johnny responds that yes, he’s used to it, and is glad that McDunn is “a good talker.” McDunn, for his part, is glad to have a witness to the monster that night, but otherwise does not express any desire. It is, in fact, the monster that has the desire. The monster has been living alone at the bottom of the ocean for eons, “waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back.” When the lighthouse was built and the fog horn sounded, the monster believes it’s found another like itself at last. It wants communion with its own kind, an end to loneliness and isolation. The monster and the fog horn cry back and forth to each other. When McDunn turns off the horn, he creates the resistance to the monster’s desire for connection. Though McDunn turns the horn back, it’s too late. The monster is bereft and enraged. Thus we find within the story a single resisted desire, but not between the two human characters as might be expected.

The crux of McDunn’s resistance to the monster lies within the story’s theme. Immediately before McDunn turns off the horn, while the monster and fog horn are serenading each other, McDunn states in a thematic passage:

“That’s life for you… Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving something more than that thing loves them. And after a while you want to destroy whatever that thing is, so it can’t hurt you no more.”

By turning off the horn, McDunn fulfills his own lonely theory of life. He breaks the monster’s heart by turning off the horn, causing the monster to want to destroy the source of its heartache. McDunn lives a lonely life, believes that to be the only life, and perpetuates that loneliness onto the monster. The reader can imagine that perhaps he had a wife or lover at some time in the past, though that’s not part of the text. In contrast, after this experience, Johnny marries and chooses a life of community and connection.

In addition to the plot advancement, McDunn’s slow revelation of the monster to Johnny serves as a source of rising suspense through mystery. On the second page, we learn that McDunn had “been nervous all day and hadn’t said why.” A little later he tells Johnny, “I got something special I been saving up to tell you.” Then, after they climb to the top of the lighthouse, he says, “You been here now for three months, Johnny, so I better prepare you. About this time of year something comes to visit the lighthouse.” However, McDunn fails to tell Johnny what to watch for. While they’re waiting, McDunn tells a story of how the fog horn was invented. He says that he made the story up to explain why “this thing” keeps returning to the lighthouse each year. What thing? McDunn still won’t say. At last, “[s]omething was swimming toward the lighthouse tower.” The creature emerges from the deep and Johnny finally gets a full view of the beast, easing some of the mystery and tension built from McDunn’s anxiety provoking statements, but then Johnny asks, “Why does it come here?” We are then treated to a description of the serenading of the beast and the tower, along with McDunn’s explanation for how the creature rises from the deep, the time it takes, and the effort, to reach its man-made mate. Finally, McDunn turns off the horn, breaks the monster’s heart, and instigates the story’s climax.

In addition to the suspense, McDunn’s storytelling proclivities mimic the triplicate pattern common to many conventional plots. McDunn tells three stories to Johnny in the course of the story. First, he tells a story of how, one night, all the fish in the sea swam to the surface to stare at the light of the lighthouse which beamed red and white into their “funny eyes.” They fanned out in the water “like a big peacock’s tail.” McDunn imagines that the fish must have come to worship, believing themselves “in the Presence.” This pre-story mirrors and predicts the coming of the monster who will be similarly attracted by the sound of the fog horn.

Next McDunn tells his invented story of how the Fog Horn came into existence:

“…[A] man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean … and said, ‘We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I’ll make one. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long; … I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls… I’ll make me a sound…and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.’”

This story describes the sound of the lighthouse, but also predicts the voice of the coming monster. Additionally, it develops the story’s theme—loneliness—which was first introduced in the initial dialogue between Johnny and McDunn on the first page of the story: “It’s a lonely life, but you’re used to it now, aren’t you?”

Third and finally, McDunn tells the story, again imagined by himself, of how the monster first heard the sound of the fog horn five years ago when the lighthouse was built, and how it must have taken three months to rise from the deep, feeding “on great slakes of cod and minnow, on rivers of jellyfish,” rising slowly to “pressuriz[e] yourself day by day” so you don’t explode, hearing the call, and finally finding the lighthouse with its “neck like your neck… a body like your body…a voice like your voice.” An end to loneliness. Interestingly, McDunn shifts mid-story from his assumed POV of the monster, into the second-person, putting himself, Johnny, and the reader into the mind of the monster, increasing our sympathy to it, experiencing its endless aching loneliness for ourselves.

In sum, the plot of “The Fog Horn” is carried along by multiple devices. Smaller parallel stories within the story create resonance as they echo against each other. Tension is built through mystery: incremental teasers that something big and bad will visit the lighthouse. The monster’s desire is resisted by McDunn to explosive effect. The theme of loneliness is developed through the word’s repetition throughout the text, resulting in a story that leaves the reader bereft.

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Conclusion

A writer who veers away from the traditional plot can employ numerous devices to achieve an interesting, resonant story. Shifting points of view, verb tenses, and narrator tone can disorient a reader and arouse curiosity. As an alternative to conflict between in-story characters, the driving desire can be placed on an out-of-story character or narrator. Subverting expectations when retelling a well-known story can activate reader interest. Stories within a story can echo and amplify each other. Shadow texts can be adapted into faux documents which provide an alternative structure. Defamiliarization can revitalize a well-known plot. Tension can be raised through mystery (hinting at what is to come) or foretelling (naming what is to come). These devices are not unique to outlier stories; they are the same devices used in traditional literature. However, they can be orchestrated to keep a story buoyant and interesting when a conventional plot is absent.

Yet one device is paramount and deserves special treatment. All of the stories discussed in this essay employ repetition. Repetition lies at the heart of the conventional plot structure (the same conflict repeated, the same desire resisted), but is itself a versatile technique that can be utilized with any words, images, or thematic motifs within a story to develop a structural pattern. Repetition creates connections, intertextual reverberations that impel the reader to compare and contrast each successive iteration. Similar to rhetorical questions, it is a technique that allows a story to resonate within itself, to be in dialogue with itself, to build density and depth. Through juxtapositions, twinnings, and triplings, repetition multiples a reader’s mental associations with the text, thereby exploring more deeply a story’s meaning.

An unconventional plot built on repetition resembles a spiral, revisiting the same word or phrase again and again, but each time from a different context. If a traditional plot is like a wave, perhaps an outlier is like a seashell, swirling inward, tighter and tighter, until its inner core is touched. Both are interesting, and not necessarily so different from one another. In fact, if you hold a seashell to your ear, you can hear the ocean whisper.

—Julie Jones

 


Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. “The Fog Horn.” The Golden Apples of the Sun, Greenwood Press, 1971, pp. 15-24.
Burroway, Janet, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 7th ed., Pearson, 2007.
Calvino, Italo. “The Distance to the Moon.” Cosmicomics. Translated by William Weaver, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pp. 3-16.
Carter, Angela. “The Company of Wolves.” The Bloody Chamber and Other Stores, Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 110-118.
Cortázar, Julio. “Axolotl.” Blow-Up and Other Stories. Translated by Paul Blackburn, Pantheon Books, 1967, pp. 3-9.
Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, Biblioasis, 2012.
Miller, Lion. “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction.” Best SF Three: Science Fiction Stories. Edited by Edmund Crispin, Faber & Faber, 1958, pp. 89-92.
Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher, Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.


 

Julie Jones is currently enrolled in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Connecticut but hikes everywhere.


 

Sep 272017
 

The estimable Montreal literary magazine Matrix (a print magazine, Issue #109). has just published the first four chapters of After Grace, a novel I’ve been working on, one of many such.  After Grace is an entertainment set in Ragged Point, Alabama. If you follow these sorts of things, Ragged Point is a fictional place on the Gulf Coast wherein several of my stories have arisen: “Story Carved in Stone” in A Guide to Animal Behaviour and “Sixteen Categories of Desire” and “The Left Ladies Club” in 16 Categories of Desire. Since Ragged Point doesn’t exist — and in any case, I have never been to Alabama — it’s a kind of relaxing place to visit. Anything can happen.

If you want to read the text, you’ll have to buy the magazine. But here’s taste:

Moses and the Burning Bush

Barley Tinkle was teaching Bible Stories for Little People in the basement of the Ragged Point Newest Separated Baptist Church of the Twelve Mercies, a cinder block one-storey with a half-basement out by the sewage lagoon a mile past the brick and wrought-iron entrance to the Mermaid Marina and Country Club on the bayou. Upstairs Pastor Gilboom was leading the congregation in singing “In the Firefight of Life, the Lord’s got your Back” accompanied by his wife Tabitha and her vibrating electric organ. Pastor Gilboom was a veteran of the War in Kuwait, where he had heroically driven a refrigerated food services truck for four months before he sprained his back hefting pallets of frozen TV dinners and had to be evacuated State-side. He had written the hymn all on his own, pecking out the melody on his grandson’s 10-key plastic piano. He said, “I had no idea I had a musical gift till I tried. The Lord, who made man and woman out of mud, sent the spirit to me.”

Barley was aware that the eleven parishioners made a pathetic show next to the Assyrian Baptist Church across the street, which was all black people except for his neighbour Geeda Rainbolt, who had a half-black son named Adam and no husband, also two Vietnamese shrimp fishermen and their families, an extended family of Guatemalan immigrants, a Kurdish Christian orthopedic surgeon (unlicensed, as yet, in the US of A) named Hamid, and a token unrelated white woman named Vida Delgrove, who was a defiant person and sat at the back on principle when she was home from college in the summer and at Christmas, though she had once or twice been asked to leave. The Assyrians had an overflow congregation of 127 adults and when they belted out a hymn you could hear it in Bayou La Batre. Not only that but the Church of the Twelve Mercies didn’t actually own its own house of worship but rented it from the Assyrians who had previously occupied it before moving into the spiffy, glass-fronted modern building with the curved, upswept peak that made it look like a ski chalet with a paved parking lot and palmetto hedge overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Five small people sat cross-legged on the lawn-green fire carpet in a semi-circle before Barley who assumed the seat of authority, a purple polka-dotted bean bag chair that would not support his back. Overhead a dull yellow bar light buzzed. Everything smelled of mildew. There was only one half-window that looked out at the parking pad and the rear fender of Pastor Gilboom’s RAM Rebel (with the Southern cross vanity plates). Every time someone flushed the toilet in the bathroom upstairs it sounded like Niagara Falls coming through the walls. There was a shiny new Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner in the corner with a BUSTED sign taped to the handle, a Casio keyboard with MISSING POWER SUPPLY sign leaning against the wall, a rolled up map of the Bible Lands he had bought in a flea market, a stack of sprung-backed hymn books left by the Assyrians, and a matte black gun locker that contained Pastor Gilboom’s automatic weapons collection.

Around the walls Barley had taped up a dozen crayon drawings of Jesus in the Manger that he had collected from the children before Christmas, pictures detailing the well known and beloved story of Jesus, his mother Mary, his father Joseph and the four dogs, a pony, a budgie, two hamsters, and a kitten that had attended the birth. One showed Baby Jesus with an Xbox controller. Iris Tullahome, who was thirteen, had said, as she handed over her Cubist portrait of a dismembered Saviour and his mother’s three breasts and Joseph’s copious tears, “I feel sorry for Joseph because his wife was having another man’s child.”

Iris Tullahome was the largest of the small people, all of whom seemed faintly demonic to Barley, who had no children of his own, nor a wife (except for that one time), let alone a girlfriend. This was not for want of trying as he had profiles up on six dating websites: “Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, traditional family values, non-drinker, disease free (hookworm cured), non-smoker, not a fan of beaches or air travel, nervous stomach, part-time student at the American New Light Fellowship Online College of Pastorology (license conferred upon completion of the course), prefers easy listening music, does not drive, needs inhaler occasionally, open-minded but inexperienced, interested in LTR and Civil War re-enactments (watching only), seeks like-minded white female with car.”

“Are you a homosexual?” Iris once asked. Another time: “Are you sexually interested in children or animals?” The other children looked up to Iris Tullahome. She was the pack leader and the highlight of their weekly Sunday school class. Whenever she raised her hand to speak or ask a question, Barley could see the glint of anticipation flit from eye to eye. “Personally, I am doubtful of men who wear pastel yellow cardigan sweaters and LL Bean stretch dress khakis.” At the moment she said this, Iris was dressed in a neon green belly shirt, a denim mini-skirt hemmed above mid-thigh, blue tights, pink knee socks with the word PINK in white, and Uggs because it was winter. She noticed Barley’s eye tracking the letters on the sides if her legs. She said, “Do you know what PINK stands for, Mr. Tinkle?” And the way she said the word, with about eighteen syllables and a certain arching of her prematurely plucked eyebrows, made him blush crimson and lose what was left of his train of thought.

The lesson for the day was Moses and the burning bush, chosen carefully with Iris Tullahome in mind (Rahab the Harlot was out, as was any reference to the rape of Dinah, Onan, David and Bathsheba, Mary Magdalene, Lot and his daughters, Jephtha and his daughter, the emerods in Kings, or the “hill of foreskins” on the banks of the Jordan in the book of Judges – all of which topics had been raised by Iris in the past; evidently she was an avid Bible reader), except that as soon as he said the words burning bush the demonic congregation began to titter inanely.

Iris Tullahome held up her pink phone, pressed the screen, and said, “We are not alone, Mr. T. I am streaming you. What was that about somebody’s burning bush?”

“Not that kind of bush,” said Barley. “Iris, tell me you’re not—.”

“What kind of bush did you think I meant, Mr. T.?” asked Iris Tullahome. “Golly.” She pushed the phone towards him.

Iris Tullahome gave Barley fits when she started in like this. He couldn’t imagine a motive for twisting his words so maliciously the more so since Iris had a quiet, Christian sister, older by four years, named Lorelei Tullahome, who prayed upstairs with the adults, was a straight A student, a member of the swim team (breast stroke), and had applied to Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, early decision.  With Lorelei he could have intelligent conversations about intelligent design, fetal rights, what books should be banned from the school library that weren’t already banned and why African-American people were mostly poor and behind (except for the ones they had in Ragged Point who seemed, unaccountably, above average). But Iris disagreed or misconstrued everything he said. He felt sorry for her because she would not come to Jesus if she went on like this and she would miss the blessings of heaven, the pleasures of the communion of angels, the chance to talk to illustrious dead like Pastor Weldon Taber of the Second Alabama Circuit and the saintly Sister Euphemia Applegate, Barley’s ninth grade choir director, both of whom he had sought out for one-on-one discussions of Christ’s mission on earth and the difficulties of self-pollution before they passed. She had also been seen standing outside Rance’s Men’s Wear on Water Street of late in the company of LaTrobe Washington, a local basketball prospect and rap singer (also rumoured to be a drug dealer, though Barley could not believe that there were any illegal drugs sold to the children of Ragged Point).

Barley hadn’t given the lesson yet, but Iris raised her hand again. She had thick black hair, thick eyebrows, extremely red lips and long dangly earrings. She said, “Is it true that in the Bible Moses wife is a Negro?”

“We call them African-Americans, Iris.”

“Moses’ wife was an African-American?” She held out her phone.

“It doesn’t say that. But some authorities think she was from Ethiopia and the people there are Africans.”

“So it’s true. Moses, God’s right hand guy, had a African wife. How could God let that happen?”

“Well, it’s not clear–”

“And is it true that, as a favour to Moses, God gave his wife leprosy to turn her white?”

“It’s seems – well, maybe – something like that.”

The four other demons were gaping in stunned amazement and adoration at their beloved leader’s audacity and superior Bible knowledge, also in astonishment that there were such things in the Bible (although after Iris’s interventions and digressions on Rahab the Harlot, the rape of Dinah, the emerods, etc., nothing should have surprised them).

“That would be kinda hard on Mrs. Moses, wouldn’t it?” said Iris. “I mean when her skin melted and her nose fell off and her fingers rotted down to nubbins and she died. Is this the sign of a God who thinks ahead?”

Barley was staring out the half-window, struggling with his heart. I am having convulsive heart failure, he thought, knowing full well that there was no such thing. Between the tires of Pastor Gilboom’s pickup, he could see a rectangle of the front entrance and parking lot of the Assyrian Church across the road and an endless cavalcade of African-American legs and feet debouching from their morning service. They were happy legs, couples touching thighs as they walked, families holding hands with little ones half-suspended between their elders, legs leaning together for a handshake or a hug, legs in pressed pants or billowy dresses. His neighbour Geeda Rainbolt’s lean white legs were easily recognizable beneath the chaste navy skirt he had seen her wearing when she left for church. Her legs flashed in the sunlight, next to Adam’s chubby knees. The sun was shining on that side of the street but not in the dismal cave where Barley stood with Iris Tullahome and her phone and the Mother of God with three breasts. Surely, Christ dwelt with the black people these days. Surely, he preferred their company to Barley’s who felt, especially when a female talked back to him, unutterably bereft and alone. Profile: Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, seeks Saviour, LTR preferred but will consider all offers.

He felt a hand tugging at his sleeve.

“Mr. T.” Iris Tullahome said, “I got a text from Daddy. He wants to see you A-SAP.”

—Douglas Glover

Aug 152017
 

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Love Letter from the Anthropocene

In my mind a waterfall. A coldness of water, dark cola currents in circular swirls. Rapids in miniature. I thought of some murky oil painting in the back of a gallery, this cove in the depths of the woods. In the shadows staring, shedding myself of people who parted like phantoms around me. This was a violent, childhood confrontation with the beyond, with possibility. If I entered the pool, I would forego my grounded, mammalian safety. I was young enough to know, to taste danger. This wasn’t salt water; there were no waves to toss me up, return me and hurl me to a distant shore where strangers would save me from the curious urge of myself. I would be sucked right down to the deep.

Was this a pre-experience of drowning? Did it happen in a dream? I recall the Secret Forest, exploring every nook and cranny of stone engraved, of foreign trees and mysterious huts. Gnarled wood and nonsensical drawings. I could hear birds whose origin was beyond me. A mint-coloured cascade made visible by the gaps in the emerald canopy, these mottled disco lights of gold and green. Years later I would be alone, then with a lover; splinters in my fingers, leaves in my hair, skin pressed close to the soil. I felt like the mystery crickets, my little croaks buried in needles and the mulch of insects, peat. Six dark streaks to my cheeks. I was wild.

I used to dream of drowning in dark and two-dimensional waters, the kind you find on ancient video games. I would be slipping, falling like Alice through perilous pixellated water; nothing buoying me up, strength fading, lungs choking as they filled with this water. It hurt so bad it was a sort of burning. I’d wake up, suffocating on my pillow, unable to breathe for a good five minutes. It was terrifying; the sensation scored in my skin so I’d never forget the shot of panic, adrenaline. Terrifying, but a necessary encounter with elemental intimacy. In such moments I’d forget myself, fully and nearly.

No floundering involved; instead an essential plunge. The rush of imaginary air. I’d invented a zone, a kind of sublime. Always quite out of reach, always there beyond some brink. Soon I was drawn to any trajectory. My life splintered its lines of desire; I was always trellising a net of crushes and loves and plans and regrets. The sight of a robin in the snow by the ice-crusted Kelvin would kill me, move me to tears. I let the flesh fall off, felt myself fragile and clear and hard. I soon realised that I was an alien being, not really human, hardly animal. There were the transcendentalists, their promises of freedom and spirit. There were matching green bruises on each of my hipbones, the soft impress of moss on my feet. I let all my wounds slip away, a form of abscission.

Where were these flat, transparent waters? Where was the tug of pondweed, the evil fishes with their Coleridgean flash and sparkle? I had nothing to empathise with. I could not whistle to the trees, could not whistle the way they did to me. I was ill-equipped for Aeolian thoughts. I had to crack open the fissures of my mind, fill them with eerie powders and aculeate drugs which tingled the skin for hours. I swooned to the window to watch the golden streams of light, the way they caught on the leaves of the summer limes, this glimmer I could only in the moment call mystical. This was temporary suspension, the end of depression’s snaring loop. I unravelled my net, felt each feeling take shape in the air around me. There were new zones. Clutching a cup of coffee, I felt the weight of tangible ceramic, the ooze of surly stuff I could not trace. Again, that gaping sensation of origins lost. I wanted to know everything about this coffee, its transit from deep in the soil, across oceans, lulling in lorries and jarred in factories. How it would groan like an old jazz singer when stirred in boiling water. You do not do, you do not do. The hot rush of caffeine made my veins jolt close to my skin. Through the solarised surface, the blue lines wove their fluvial currents and again I thought of electric space, the nuanced beauty of his distant face. Eyes of moss-green, the shadowy canopies. I was aflame in frozen bronze, clung to a friend’s sofa; life-raft upon a rising ocean. Soon the funereal cataracts would swamp this city. Spill over as easy as New York underwater. He brought me garlands of roses, which soon furled at the edges, browned and rotted to a pungent decay. I didn’t mind dying; it was the condition for existence. The petals fell upon the carpet, I swept them up and felt each one bloom into orbs of light. It made me shaky, like violins shredding their trembling key of sharp; great gashes of sound filling the room with their dissonant, abstract emotion. I longed for it all to end that dramatic, for the shivering minims to draw out each breath with irony alone.

Only the petrified stone retained its sincerity. The burst bits of sorrow and quartz lay all around me, a thousand refractions of my poisoned aura. Again I saw the oil painting; glimpsed its dark torrent of petroleum, the flickers of sheep. When I stared too long, the flat black sky began to fluoresce with unguent neon colours, this arsenic rich red that blossomed into coruscating orange, yellow, coral. The chemical soda of panic; I drank it in, felt in my chest its urgent fizz. Overlaid was the image of the Lake Project, David Maisel’s poetic mastery, this jagged array of shuddering lines, planes of nasty vermillion. I thought of hardened lava, bicarbonate dreams, the catalysing forms of inevitable pollution. From a bedroom window I drank Coca Cola. The forest was ready, warm in my thought, the breeze so crisp on my dehydrated face. It was burnt up in flames another day, the phosphorylase taste of sticky glucose, dissolving sugar. A new arrangement of needles, the amethyst bruise planted on my neck. Gluttony.

On the image, there was no place to rest the eye. Every capillary was always shifting. A constant dissolution of perspective, parallax melting to absolute flatness. I thought of the time I asked what an A road meant, and the boy said arterial. As if the world was a great bodily network, the flow of currents and traffic with every cell of life just some minimal part in the clotting transience of meshing blood. Such a thing was what, a Latourian plasma? A spilled can of molasses, darkling its presence on the concrete, treacle-thick and of godly opulence. I studied the lines with glyptographic precision, looking for the cracks underneath. These are the times I have loved you, loved you as I have loved the steam from a kettle, the way smoke gets in your eyes or smoulders the crack of your mouth. How your hair is a freshness of curls and gold; makes me think of the colour of harvest, the ardent ache of late summer, sunburn, long afternoons. Every pore of this skin is a window; I let the bacteria sink in and together we share a form, a body. We are a strangeness of strangers. I wrote a litany and called it coexisting. There is always more of what I would be with you.

Sometimes, the arabesques of knotted wood. The die-back that kills the ashes. The writing that stings me. The eagles that tumble from the sky, shot down by showers of poaching bullets. The eternal time of the stone before it is ground to dust, smoothed to glass or marble. All rendering machinery merely an extension of the eye’s aesthetic violence. I see before me all transformations, all subtle undulations of everything in its right place, pulled out from the roots of primal being. These shadow forms, these chasms. All claustrophobia. The world is too much with us. I lay down my words in favour of a strong cobalt promise of ocean. Dash my crayola on the blank white surface, wait for the waves to take shape, to suck in and swallow me. There is no world as such. A lonesome note pulls its magnetic sadness from across the bay, cry of the faraway island; it knows me, salt-studded, glazed in the air, sweet and easy as falling octaves. The tang on my tongue that reminds me of you. When the sea comes, when the windmills collapse, the sky blackens and there’s nothing we can do, I’ll remember you. The helices of me, these planted cells and their algorithmic beauty, remnant of bone and blood in the starving soil; all will be love in the warming waters, the subduing horror, the coming of nothingness. Mutated creatures, muted symphonies. I ask that you join me in melting, just for a second while the air is still, some clarity around us. All we have is the sounding of our lips, the whistling trees, the sullen transmissions of a faltering breeze.

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Lime Tree

At the corner of some imaginary meadow, a lime tree. You had no idea for years what to call this tree, you only knew how green it was, how well-formed the leaves against the cool cobalt of a summer sky. How precious these things are to you now, far away where everything is always static, a vague and pressing grey. The tree sheds its honeydew and the aphids clamber for a taste of the limes; I have scratched that pitch with my fingers and placed its resin on my tongue. A taste of nature, extra-natural, too sweet and weird as if tasting chlorophyll itself, some abstracted process of photosynthesis taking place in the mouth. If the world has ended, I try to get closer to its remaining parts. These leaves are shaped like hearts. I once had a heart-shaped necklace, studded inside with the blackest sapphire. It’s a sin to forget who gifted this necklace; but I was only a child then, loose in my memories, vulnerable.

There’s a song called ‘Lime Tree’ on a favourite record and the singer says the string arrangements make him nauseous. This is a commentary on beauty, on how beauty marks the wonderful perception of an object’s weakness. When I see that minuscule split in the stem of a leaf, the thumbnail cleaving chain of daisies, I am overcome momentarily by a thing’s thingness, its originary mark of uniqueness. This whole secret life, this hidden agony. A heart-shaped stud of sapphire. In the mud there are all these tiny peridot aphids, glistening like something unknown beneath a microscope. I look forward to the taffyish pull of waning cirrus, the sky moving westwards in tandem with sun. It’s beautiful to not know how the atmosphere works, but instead to observe with that naivety of spirit, the hurt perception that longs for its heart-shaped necklace, its heart-shaped leaf. Place one on the tongue like a tab of acid. Again that taste, nature with added nature. You can taste too much of the natural. The chemical, the actual synthesis of light that is perhaps organic. Tiny nut fruits fall in October, pea-sized and gleaming in the old gold sun. Obsessed with the smell of the nectar, I return to the meadow, year after year. Children may spend their lives lying in fields, waiting for something to happen. I was content in the long shoots of aureate wheat, the true blue sky. I made promises to myself I could never keep.

Lime flowers cure headaches. I break them up in my tea and long for respite from insomnia. You had no idea for years what to call this tree. You named it a miracle tree; that was then and this is me. The wood is especially yielding. Somebody has sculpted great things from its pliant bark, its soft and workable material beauty. The elegant formations of time literally scar in the carved wood, making etchings and notches; each year a wound. Love’s young dream among the lindens. I feel more empathy with the tree than with anything. There are creases around my eyes, creases around yours too. Each one a scar of something dark and true, this honest mark, remark of the soul; elastic abrasions which ripple, sea-like, their former traumas. We make them new. Each expression brings life to the dark parts, the tears and rips and folds. In the forest, the leaves shiver shrill as a choir of children. I heard that line from elsewhere, a song or a whistle from a cup of coffee. Drink me, drink me. The leaves seem to sing. Time seems to sing; I can feel it, hear it shimmer in the sweet parts of the blood which rise in silence, subside in bright and flowery noise.

Underneath the autumn limes, a whole pastoral display of molten coppers and golds, we sip from miniature cups on tables built for urban grace. Somebody in the distance plays the flute, so intricate and soothing these tunes so old, so new. I have forgotten the origin. Almost the refrain from a video-game, imaginary landscapes materialise from somewhere inside my recessive mind.

Sweet-smelling trees that bear no citrus. Native, strangely ridged, slender of twig. Already craving the dull yellows, the fresh fade of autumnal cycle. These trees, hybridised, bred for flourishing in dirty cities. Little vapourers scavenge, triangular moths cling to sunspots. There’s such a lushness of syrup and pollenating dreams, I could lie in the bow of this lime tree like someone before me, merge my identity with a strange freedom, this crooked figure turning liquid, fading in the hum of the bees, the ornamental quality not quite what it seems. Sense of flourishing, slowly floating; the life-giving gold of arborescence.

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Isthmus

There is an idea of an island. Sometimes purely retinal, the glory of excess gold. It is birthed from the flickers, pieces between consciousness when dreams make use of the temporary coves, holes which give in the mind for need of will. For a while, obsessed with the sore points in a honeycomb, cox in the blood that blocked all manner of aspirin, felt a cool white sky of powder, the outwards dissolve. There is now an island. Maybe archipelago even. The one and the several. Songs about auras, auroras.

We summon boats from out of the blue. There’s a pureness to our sun-bronzed bodies, plucked ripe from the ether as if never as free as now. This perpetual experience of floating. On the topic of jewels, she was a sweet one, always lusting for easy agates and sometimes the dream blue larimar. You traced either bubbles or lines, endless trajectories of the inward, arterial. A secret vault for the excess passion, her hoarded meaning. Teardrops of dolphins, hardened remnant of basaltic lava. The certain pendant of the still-moving earth, simple inclusion of ebbs and flows.

The collected anemones. Her velvet case. The cool tide in the cool blue. She lived here a hundred years and didn’t age one bit. Not even the sun could. I was always pursuing that anamnesis of the mind and skin, feeling again the heart-shaped cliff. I have questioned the island, receding before all westerly gossamer of waves. Glimmers across another bay, the potential invisibles. Ships and buoys. Remember we came here as children, hopped on a boat and we were so sure of where we were going. It was a case of following lights. Right across the bay, a blueness distinct from the bottle-green sea. It was so soothing, so easy.

There is an idea of an island. I mark it in writing, make of its rock and grit a topic.

Sometimes the tide sweeps over me.

—Maria Sledmere

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Maria Sledmere is an MLitt Modernities student at the University of Glasgow. She is co-editor of two Glasgow-based poetry zines, SPAM and Gilded Dirt. Her work has been published in Bombus Press, DATABLEED, Fluland, Foxglove Journal, Germ Magazine, GUM, The Kelvin Review, Murmur House, Quotidian, and Thistle Magazine. When not lost in the gelatinous mulch of a dissertation on dark ecology, she contributes features and music reviews to RaveChild and GoldFlakePaint, and blogs regularly on everything from Derrida to Lana Del Rey at http://musingsbymaria.wordpress.com.

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Aug 122017
 

Photographs: Jowita Bydlowska

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We are half-drunk and the alcohol cracks us open, lets in some air. We’re not entirely relaxed but we’re better than we were when we left home, all stiff and silent, wedged into the opposite corners of the back seat of a cab.

Now, my husband says, “But if you had to? Five grand.”

“Okay, maybe the one with red hair. With the tattoo. But probably not,” I say. The one with the red hair with the tattoo is one of the three bartenders. The game is of what if. What if I had to sleep with a woman. For five grand.

I used to get crushes on girls in university. They all dressed better than me or seemed more comfortable than me in how they were in their bodies, their clothes—I wanted to be them and on rare occasion I wondered if I maybe wanted to be with them.

And I wanted to kiss Helen before, in high school. I would watch her plump, small mouth talk and talk and think of penises she sucked and I would get jealous. I wanted to kiss that mouth. I was curious. She drunkenly confronted me about it once, at a party, asked me in front of people if I wanted to make out.  She said I was creeping her out with the way I stared at her. She laughed and I laughed along with her. I left the party as soon as she left to get another bottle vodka from the kitchen.

“Why not? She’s beautiful,” my husband says.

She is. I would kiss the redheaded bartender. I’d probably do it for five bucks or for free but I like lying to my husband, pretending to be hesitant about it.

I think he lies to me all the time. I have no proof but if you lie you think everybody else is.

There are other women here but the bartenders he can see best; they’re displayed right behind me. I wonder if my husband still sees me as beautiful. He never tells me I’m beautiful, any more.

His eyes never leave the girl display. “That would be incredibly hot.”

I say, “Your turn. Which one? The waiters.”

“They’re all men,” he says. “It’s different.” He finally looks back at me.

“Ten grand. Just a blow job.”

“No way,” he laughs.

“Fifteen.”

The patio is full, most of the tables occupied by couples similar to us, slightly crumpled stylish 30–40somethings. Perhaps they all play same stupid games. Perhaps, like us, they are parents set free for one night. If this is true, if you were to total the amount of money spent on tonight’s outing for this whole patio, it would be in thousands: outfits, sitters, cabs, dinners, booze, hotel reservations for some.

The restaurant itself is one of those places where car parts are used as decoration and drinks are served in mason jars with twine wrapped around them. Inside, the walls are exposed brick and air ducts under the ceiling and chandeliers made out of deer horns. Outside where we are, there are no special accents unless you count the waiters who all have moustaches and tattoos. It’s been like this for years now in Toronto, and there’s no sign of these sorts of trends going away. I try to imagine what the next trend will be, perhaps something to do with space, again like in the 80s but with some new twists: everything shaved off even eyebrows but armpit hair and it will be dyed; everyone will sit on the floor in restaurants, the walls will be empty and white, metal ceilings.

For now, this is one of the it restaurants downtown. You need double income to sit in these barbwire chairs without getting nervous about the injury and the prices, and you need high tolerance for hipness, which is why people like us eat in restaurants like this one. We’re not hip but we try to hang on to our youth. The way everyone does in their 30–40s. I don’t know if everyone else hates this shit secretly, like I do.

I share my observations with my husband.

“Yeah, if you’re right, we could probably live for a year on what’s being spent here tonight,” he says.

“Buy a nice car. Travel to China. I could travel to China where I would meet a man who’d murder me quietly in a dark alley somewhere.”

“You should try to go back to writing,” he says. “You always make things into stories.”

“It was a lame story anyway. You mocking me?”

“Yes, everything is a hidden insult.”

“I’m sorry. I thought you were mocking me.”

“No, I mean what I say. There’s no hidden agenda. You like to live in an imaginary world.”

“Not true,” I say even though it’s true. Despite the alcohol and the sudden ease it affords, I know I will never bring up how things are between us. I don’t know if he caught on that I’ve been fantasizing about leaving him. On some level, he must feel it—he must know that there’s something wrong, he must be aware of this ultrasonic scream that I scream. Then again, I’ve been pretending to be me for so many years that perhaps it is impossible for him to tell deception from the truth. The world he thinks he lives in, with me, is real to him but it’s something that I’ve created. He’s completely right about the imaginary world.

He sighs. “Fine. Not true.”

“Are we having a fight?”

“Of course not.” He laughs. “But do you remember when you thought I was this big playboy? You had this idea of me that had nothing to do with the truth?”

“You’re trying to have a fight.”

“No I’m not. I just always wonder why you need to make up these little dramatic scenarios. Life is quite interesting the way it is. Just write about penguins. You’d be great at writing childrens’ books.”

“I thought you were the novelist in the family. Anyway it was just a joke. About China, come on. Relax.”

“I’m relaxed. But think about the penguins,” he says and tries to ruffle my hair but I move back.

“Okay. I’m a bit testy tonight. You’re right,” I say when he grimaces.

I empty my glass of wine.

He says, “So has this thing with Helen and Rick been in works for some time?”

“No. It’s new. She just told me last week.” A lie.

“Did you know things were bad between them?” he says.

“Kind of. She wasn’t too happy. You know their baby issues.”

“The baby.”

“Rick doesn’t want a baby.”

He says, “Yeah, I always forget. I don’t think about babies. But there must be more to it. Divorce is a pretty drastic thing.”

I say, “Babies can be enough reason for women. I don’t know. Babies are a big deal.”

A moustachioed waiter brings us the next thing to eat. It’s broccolini; it slides on the plate in greasy sesame sauce and soya sauce as the waiter puts the dish on the table. The way the waiter describes it, he makes it sound like it’s a fancy gazebo. I can’t wait for him to go away. He does eventually.

I’m hungry so I scoop most of the thing onto my dinky plate and my husband looks on, “Glad you’ve got your appetite back.”

“What about my appetite?”

“You’re too skinny.”

“Like unfuckable?” I still care to be fuckable to him. Or I just care about being fuckable.

“You’re a skinny white mattress,” he laughs. “Just joking. I always want you.”

“I am what?” I say. I’m impressed with this joke. But it sounds like he thought about it a lot, like he just couldn’t wait to say it out loud. So now that he says it, I play the game where I will have to return the banter. I come up with something.

“A skinny white mattress. I could sleep on top of you and it would be pokey,” he says, “pokey, pokey, pokey.”

“I like heavy blankets.”

“Bam,” he says. He chews on his broccolini. “This is like eating an asshole. Like inside of an asshole. Like the asshole passage.”

“Ileum.”

“A what?”

“Small intestine. I read about it when I was looking up what my mother has been up to lately. She eats things that will pass through it undigested. It’s some new diet,” I say.

“Disgusting.”

“I like that she has hobbies now,” I say and the same waiter or one that looks just like him, with tattoos of words and symbols shows up with another dish. Some kind of shavings of meat like scraps of roadkill. Apparently a pork something.

“You have it,” I say to my husband after the waiter leaves.

“It’s not fattening,” he says.

“I know it isn’t. But you have it. I can’t eat pigs.”

“Why?”

Because I read an article about pigs being intelligent like dogs or even more intelligent. Because I watched a documentary about a slaughter house when I was 13 and had to cook for my mother and myself and I decided we should become vegetarian and she didn’t mind. I’ve never had bacon. The documentary, what I remember of it, was of pigs marching toward their death by taser and an ax to the tunes of Carmina Burata. It made me think of Holocaust. I told my husband the story a million times and he still doesn’t remember. He thinks this is about weight.

He eats the scraps as I gulp my glass of wine and motion for another.

I don’t know if it’s the same thing at other tables but when I look around, the other couples look as tired as I imagine we are. I picture them like us, in cabs, disgusted with their partners and horny because of wine, and resigned. Everyone wants to move the hell out of their lives.

I’m projecting. The proof is in a couple next to our table. The man reaches for the woman’s hand and she looks at him and it’s like a viagra commercial: her face beams with happiness.

“You think this is his secretary?” I say.

“It could be his wife,” my husband says, his voice low. I know he loves me more than I love him. It used to matter; now it doesn’t. He’s told me recently that he feels lonely. That ended up in sex; I had nothing else to console him with.

Another dish shows up and we split it; it’s a vegetable and at this point I don’t care what kind of vegetable; it’s marinated and so full of flavour that it shuts my mouth up. I count backwards from 20 then from 10 then from 20 again and order another glass of wine.

When we get home, we relieve the babysitter, my husband’s friend’s daughter with thick glasses and a 10-year-old blog. I read her blog to see if she ever writes about us; she never does. I can’t tell if I’m disappointed or not that we’re not important enough or not more important than the food she eats and writes about.

“You should check out Anhedonia,” I tell her. It’s the name of the restaurant that we just ate at. It’s a name too lazy even for a hipster lowball of being nonchalant.

“I have. My boyfriend is a waiter there.”

“Which one?” my husband asks as he hands her a stack of 20s.

“He’s got a beard.”

I’m in a satirical novel about intentionally funny dialogue, which is not funny; it’s trying too hard.

“Oh, him. Yeah, he was good,” my husband says as if he could identify the waiter.

“Mark. He’s got my name tatted on his forearm.”

“Yeah,” my husband says and winks at me. This makes me cringe but then I feel sorry for him immediately, for his inability to hide his age. I think about how we used to be a glamorous young couple at events, how there were no babysitters—the luxury of being able to pay for babysitters, too!—in our old lives and the biggest conundrum was which high heels to wear with what dress.

*

The last summer before Henry, we decided to become novelists. We would both finish books by the time summer was over and we would quit our boring jobs after publishing offers would start to roll in. My husband no longer took pleasure in attending launches of condos or multi-blade razors, and I kept bouncing from one administrative assistant gig to another.

The idea to become novelists came about after one of those TV shows about unusual jobs. Someone was a writer. He seemed to be doing really well. It was the first thing we both got excited about in months.

We rented a small cottage in the woods by a lake. We spent mornings writing, afternoons fucking, evenings watching movies; every night a movie from the convenience store in the small town where we got groceries. Movies about funny love coincidences, with blonde actress daughters of blonde actress mothers, or comedies; everyone with big twinkly eyes.

Somewhere in the middle of this idyll, I abandoned my novel. Or it abandoned me. When I read what I had written so far, it turned out to be just a string of words, characters complaining about other characters. No plot.

I did not tell my husband about it. To look busy, I wrote long emails to friends. To Helen mostly. Back then she was dating someone who had children. There was a lot of drama. I had to analyze things he’d say to her, give feedback. It was ever-absorbing.

For a short while I thought about using our emails in my story, see if a plot would evolve on its own, organically, out of the emails, but it didn’t. Helen and the guy kept not breaking up. They also weren’t having any breakthroughs. It was a slog of bitchy little arguments between them. Nothing else. Exactly like the characters in the book I abandoned already.

After writing and lunch, my husband would take his nap.

One afternoon, I read what he had written as he napped.

The plot was solid because the story had really happened. All he had to do was type it up and give people different names; call himself Mark, which he did, and write from third-person—now it was fiction.

I knew the story because he told me it when we first started dating. The thing was already few dozen pages-long and right away I could tell who it was about. It was a story of his ex-girlfriend who had disappeared. He had found her eventually but by then she was married and pregnant and she lived in a small town and she was fat although he didn’t write that.

I hated that the story was about the ex-girlfriend, not about me. The long descriptions of her body, elastic and light brown, and the way she made elaborate dinners for him, shaking her ass as she cooked—why was that still in his head seven years after he’d last seen her. Why wasn’t I?

The writing wasn’t bad.

I didn’t tell him I had read his novel and that I wasn’t writing mine. My disappointment was speechless with indignation. It wasn’t a novel, it was therapy, I wanted to say to him but instead I just kept that thought inside me

I thought of emailing Helen about this but it was too humiliating. I didn’t want her to think my life was imperfect too.

I started taking his sleeping pills in secret. I’d swallow them during our evening movie time. I’d be passed out by the time the movie would end.

He’d lead me drugged and mostly asleep to bed. Maybe he’d have sex with me maybe he wouldn’t; I didn’t care. I didn’t have to think of her brown elastic body that was in his head, when he would or wouldn’t fuck me.

That summer, I felt there was something different about me even before we came to the cottage but I ignored it. I was always very cavalier about my female body. I had no idea how many days passed between my cycles, I didn’t do self-exams of breasts. I didn’t take birth control pills because I didn’t even have a family doctor and I smoked.

In any case. We weren’t trying to have a baby. He’d always pull out of me and wipe me carefully afterwards. I never asked him why he was so paranoid about it but once when I turned over too quickly, he grabbed my shoulder and said, “What are you doing with your hand?”

He thought I was impregnating myself.

Ever since that time, I’d lie there like a cadaver, waiting for him to clean me up till he deemed me satisfactorily sperm-free.

But something got through. One little determined tadpole. And once at the cottage, it was the peacefulness of nature and the quiet that made me stop ignoring what I could feel already: cells multiplying, weakening me inside.

Out in the country, there were no honking cars around me, no sirens, no houses on fire. Just rustling of leaves, and at night, cicadas, frogs; a gold-wire sound of August insects in the grass during the day. All of that calmed me down; I was also slower because of the sleeping pills in my system. A nervous, whirring machine inside me stopped.

It was that quietness that made me pay attention, admit that there was a possibility inside me. I left early one morning to walk into the nearby town to a big grocery store, to buy a pregnancy test.

In the big grocery store, I locked myself in the bathroom and peed on a stick.

Not far where we rented our cottage, there was a farm. A big meadow where horses ran free and ate grass. After peeing on the sick and seeing two pink lines, I walked around the meadow, changed, no longer myself. There wasn’t just me now. There were two of me.

The horses didn’t come up but would look toward me occasionally. I felt spiritual in those moments, like I was connected to everything—the horses too, of course. “I am going to have a baby,” I told one of the horses and it looked at me uninterested.

*

My husband comes home smelling of cigarettes and beer.  He says, “Helen was at the bar.”

“Oh.”

“She had an argument with Rick.”

“I should call her.”

“You should,” he says and stands there with his hands hanging against his sides.

In the past, he’d be sitting on the couch beside me, trying to kiss me, grope my breasts. But my body no longer invites it. And he tries very little to break through it. Mostly in bed. And even then, only if I turn a certain way. Often only if we both drink, our bodies come together under questionable consent according to the magazine articles.

“How was she? Was she okay?”

“She was fine. I walked her home.”

“That’s sweet of you,” I say. “Come here.”

He walks up to me then and bends down, stiffly.

He kisses my forehead with his lips.

Up close I think how he smells kissed-already. I picture a blonde 20-something-year-old throwing her thin arms around him, his baldness cute to her, manly. His body is a body of a former athlete. Women like him.

It arouses me to imagine this some girl kissing him and I pull him down by the neck and kiss him too, kiss him properly.

His mouth is surprised but only for a flash.

We stumble upstairs.

My orgasm is easy, fast. A build-up orgasm.

He pulls out of me and before he comes I angle my body so that it won’t land anywhere on me. The wetness grazes my shoulder. I picture the box of Kleenex on the night table on his side.

*

I told him after at the end of that summer that I would leave him if he were to try to publish it.

At the end of that summer, my body too was brown—brown like the body of the girl in his book—and smelling of sun. My hair went blonde from all the walks on the hot beaches. I was tall and gorgeous like a swimsuit model. A girl you marry so that others won’t fuck her.

I stood in front of him, with that body, in a swimming suit with my hair like that and I gave him an ultimatum. He was immortalizing someone else not me. The novel was not a love letter to me. He married me but it didn’t matter, all that sun and the body wouldn’t matter if he were to publish the novel.

And he said, “Then you have to leave.”

I didn’t believe he was truly a writer like that, that he really meant it. His stance surprised me.

Later on I thought that it was maybe his independence that he was standing up for. We were both blending in with each other as people tend to do in relationships, and he was fighting it.

We flew home on the same plane, different seats, without speaking.

I started looking for apartments.

He started reading and revising what he had written. He cursed in his office, “shit shit,” as he read it; I could hear him groan at night.

I heard him joke on the phone to someone telling this someone he would pay a dominatrix to not degrade him sexually but instead to insult his intellect, his creativity, to tell him how bad the writing was because he could no longer tell if it was as bad as he suspected. He wanted to destroy it but somebody else had to tell him to do that. It has to be a stranger, he said to the person on the phone.

Eventually, there was silence, no more cursing late at night.

I felt as if I’d won and it felt terrible. It felt as if I killed him in some small way. Now, desperately, I wanted him to go back to the manuscript. I couldn’t tell him that.

I found an apartment and put a deposit on it. I couldn’t imagine myself living on my own but here I was, about to do it. I had a vague idea about having to get a crib, set up a space for the baby-to-be. But I felt no enthusiasm about it.

I waited for my husband to tell me not to leave but he never did.

He took on extra shifts, wrote copy for magazines about dick products and shitty cars.

He would come home late and not check on me in the guest room where I lived now. We didn’t speak to each other, more than it was necessary: “Have you seen my umbrella?” “Rick is coming over.” “Helen called.”

I began packing. My plan was to do it loudly, obnoxiously, but he was never home. I cried but only out of frustration of nobody witnessing my misery.

After he’d go to bed I read what he had written so far. I read it again.

It was even better than what I’d read before. The writing was sharp, disciplined. The parts about the girl were tender but nothing over the top. Just simple words describing the protagonist’s desire and madness and self-loathing passages about loss: He felt offended by the world—it had the nerve to go on despite him being dead in it.

“You have to go back to it,” I told him, finally breaking our silence.

He was working late that night and I waited for him and he came home and I said that to him. It was almost midnight.

“You have to.”

“Have you found a place to live?” He asked without looking at me and his voice broke.

“Yes,” I said and we stared at each other and then we were kissing and it felt as if I could finally breathe.

“It’s so good,” I said, “your book, it’s so good.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Please.”

“If you want us to work out we can’t talk about it any more.”

“It’s so good.”

“Please. Stop.”

“I’m pregnant,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “Good.”

And that was all. Good. He said nothing else about it then and we made love and fell asleep wrapped around each other, his hand on my belly.

*

The pictures online show a small house, a lake, a small beach. Another year, another vacation.

Inside the cottage, there are chairs, bookshelves, old comfortable couches. A large TV to watch DVDs on.

I move the cursor over the pictures. In some of them the lake is almost black against the washed out blue of the sky. The beach is all pebbles. There are Spectacular Sunsets!! advertised in the posting. A deck so you can look at our Spectacular Sunsets!!!!

The sunsets. And after the sunsets end, and the sky turns darker and after little Henry goes to bed, a deck to sit on, with a glass of wine, thinking up stories: me stories about penguins, my husband stories about former girlfriends.

Later on, we can make love by the Working Fireplace!!!

But first, before we do all that, I need to find his manuscript.

It will be like breaking a spell, finding this manuscript, having him go back to it

It will break the spell between us.

I don’t know what exactly I mean by that. I don’t believe in magic. But I suppose I do now: I have been reading horoscopes and articles about relationships on-line and I’ve played Solitaire obsessively like it’s an Oracle; playing till I win because I need positive answers to everything: Should I stay, should I go?

Yes, I still want to leave but I always come back; I place bets but the answer never comes—I’m always betraying myself in the end, even if I make a decision. I’m driven by chaos, not logic, emotions, not intentions. So perhaps the only thing left is magic, spells, breaking spells.

I go into my husband’s office to find the manuscript.

I’ve looked in the basement already but there’s nothing there, just crates of tax returns, hammers and rubber boots. No manuscript.

In his office, there’s nothing in the file cabinets, nothing on the shelves in the banker boxes. Lots of papers but none of them are the manuscript.

Perhaps he destroyed it.

I even look in a wooden box full of pens, hole punchers, staplers, magnifiers, a mirror with tiny grits of wet cocaine powder stuck in the scratches. Because maybe on the bottom.

Not on the bottom. Instead, I find a hotel key card, but not from the hotel we went to.

Once I find the key card, I become a detective, determined to find more evidence of whatever I think I’m about to discover. The manuscript is no longer important; the key card is.

I look behind the ship in the bottle. I don’t know why I look there. Maybe because I notice that the photograph of me pregnant is gone; it used to be right there, next to the ship.

How does this happen in movies? What is the buildup?

I try to recall specific movies, specific scenes, actresses, too, but I can’t; it seems there are so many—scenes of female characters going through drawers like me—through the pockets of her husband’s jackets, and the laundry. Kate Winslets, Michelle Pfeiffers, Cate Blanchets looking looking. Lipstick smudges on collars. No suspicion until the moment and it’s always a surprise, a hand to the mouth, a close-up on shocked eyes.

I see myself as if in a movie when I finally come across the item that confirms what I didn’t know but what I was looking for.

It’s tucked in behind the ship in a bottle. Not the photograph of me pregnant. A note.

I hold it in my fingers. I don’t have to unfold it. I can just stick it back where I found it.

I unfold it.

It reads: Can’t wait to fuck you again.

Then two hearts. A face with tongue sticking out.

The note is teenager-like but there’s carefulness even to the multiple exclamation marks that gives away this pretender. The writing is familiar, instantly familiar, actually; it’s Helen’s writing.

I have a quick, physical reaction to my discovery, a funny taste in my mouth, metal. Then, like a swift electric zap, desire to self-harm, too. To scratch my skin or smash my head against the wall. My body lunges forward inside me but I don’t move my body.

I wait.

I get up and go downstairs to the kitchen where I drink a glass of water.

I drink the glass of water; the desire to self-harm passes.

It’s getting dark outside. My husband and my son are at the museum looking at dinosaur bones. They will be home soon.

I drink another glass of water. Two glasses.

I walk up the stairs and go into his office.

I stick the note back behind the ship in a bottle.

I don’t know why I do this, like I’m not going to confront him about it but maybe I’m not—I can’t even tell.

All I feel is deep cold inside me, like everything is freezing. Like I’m freezing. The world is not the world. It is a movie. Maybe this is what betrayal feels like. Unreal. Unbelievable. Impossible to absorb.

There’s noise outside the door. My son shouting something. Boots stomping.

When I open the door, my husband shoves a bouquet of flowers in my face and then pulls me close to smash my mouth against his.

Henry is squealing, trying to pretend-push us apart.

It’s impossible. It was a joke. Some leftover thing from a party, maybe we played Charades, maybe Cards Against Humanity, maybe it was some sort of dare…

The was a party like that at someone’s house, last year. Songs. Charades.

I had to do “Love will tear us apart,” and I emoted—arms flying open from my heart, pretending to tear my hair out next, him watching and smiling, unsure.

It was hot outside, the windows were open, letting in the sticky, moist air.

We took a break from games and someone brought out cocaine. It was clumping from the humidity so everyone shouted, “hurry, hurry.”  We cut it on a big butcher’s table and snorted big cloying lines and went back to Charades.

That was the last time we played. Helen and Rick were there but I don’t remember any notes, nothing like that, there were no games that would produce notes like that, everyone just talked fast, and later we couldn’t fall asleep, although we must’ve fallen asleep eventually.

But if the note is a leftover thing, a jokey thing why hang on to it, why hide it?

As we kiss now, my tongue becomes a feeler, trying to feel out this secret, the wetness of his tongue not telling.

His mouth smells of mint and cream. I lick the corners of his mouth to figure out the taste. Some kind of dessert.

There was the card key, too, from a hotel.

He makes a sound, a muffled growl. I kiss him deeper, licking now and biting. It’s like an athletic endeavour almost, this kiss, me tonguing, tonguing. Kissing like I’m buying myself more time to figure out what I need to figure out.

“So so so gross,” Henry says and walks away, his shoulders drawn forward, feet stomping in a performance of exaggerated annoyance.

My husband breaks the kiss and laughs, “Whoa!” His face is red.

Perhaps this is good. The note. Perhaps it will make things easier, maybe this will be the thing that will put me over the edge. This is a substantial thing, a thing people commit murder over. Infidelity. My best friend. How could he?

I’m an actress with tragic eyes; I should run to the basement and grab all the things and burn them in the backyard.

*

Rick answers the phone right away, “Nina.”

“Can we meet?” I hold my breath.

“Sure.” He laughs. It’s not nice laughter. But this is especially not nice laughter. It’s nasty. It’s laughter that knows why I’m calling.

I want to shout at him, tell him—what? Him knowing why I’m calling, laughing like that makes things easier for me.

“When can you meet? Can you meet today?” I say. I try to keep my voice as straight as I can. A line of a voice, a strong line. No wavering. Fuck him.

“Sure, let’s meet.”

I show up at their house.

He’s wearing a middle-age-crisis jacket, kooky patterns, too much red. He seems to be on his way out, “Hey,” he says.

“Can I come in?”

“No. Let’s go,” he shakes his head and I don’t ask where but follow him instead.

He drives without speaking.

The silence is uncomfortable. I find it arousing too. The same repulsion-attraction I’d felt when he licked my ear that time when we played Charades and he was supposed to whisper a word in my ear.

We check into a small boutique hotel converted from an old rooming house. The concierge is a young Indian guy who checks me out. He’s unusually attractive with wide features—wide nose, lips—and I wish I was going with him.

“Coming?” Rick says. The concierge gives me a small smile.

Inside the room, the walls are raw bricks. They make hotels out of old asylums, doll or glycerine factories, remove all the innards and stuff them with slick sculptures and beds with sheets and quirky art on walls. Blown-up photos of female body parts in black and white.

We are silent.

I sit on the bed, under a photograph of a shaved armpit.

He goes to the bathroom and stays there for too long.

I take my coat off.

I fluff my hair. I need to wash my hair. I haven’t washed my hair in a while. It doesn’t matter.

He comes out, his face red, shining with wetness.

He sits in a chair across the room.

He watches me sitting on the bed.

Outside, there’s a courtyard, an old van with an airbrushed mermaid parked in it. Garbage bins and garbage bags. A tree with sparse, sickly leaves—a tree that wants to die and can’t.

“What are we doing here?” I say.

“We’re here because our spouses are shitty human beings and we are going to get revenge by fucking like crazy,” he says.

“Is that a good idea?”

“Why are you here?”

“Because I thought it might be a good idea.”

“There you go,” he says but doesn’t make any move.

I say, “When did you find out?”

“I paid someone. To follow her. Like they do it in movies,” he said. “I have pictures. I can get into her texts. It was almost fun. I felt like a kid detective. Nancy fucking Drew.”

“You actually paid someone.”

“Yeah. I can’t just spend my days spying on her. I was worried I’d hurt her, too,” he laughs. The laugh is short, fake. “I thought it was this little douchebag from her workplace. I wanted to see pictures of him, of them together. But then surprise!”

“Surprise.”

We fall silent again.

I look out the window. A man gets in the mermaid van. He doesn’t start the car. I wonder if he’s a detective too.

“Well I’ve always wanted you,” he says.

“That’s natural. Proximity.”

“Maybe.”

I say, “I should be angry. But I’m only doing what I think I should be doing, calling you. I don’t feel angry.”

“You’re trying to convince yourself you don’t feel angry,” he says.

“I love him.”

“I’m sorry,” Rick says. He gets up. He comes up to me and wipes under my eyes with his thumb.

He bends down to kiss me. His kiss is soft, softer that I would’ve expected from a mouth that says so many idiotic things. I kiss him back, take a clue from his softness, make my mouth pliable, submissive.

I wait for a bite but it never comes.

When he pulls away I let out a sigh. To him it probably sounds like desire.

But it is desire, too. It’s despair and desire.

He undresses me quickly, and I undress him.

We don’t spend much time on foreplay.

Our coupling is dry and fast. It’s unpleasant for a moment but then my body takes over, overcomes the initial discomfort: it lubricates.

Rick breathes rapidly, and I start to breathe rapidly too and I move along with his rhythm, close my eyes and let it take me away.

I can feel his rage, how it makes him hard.

He kisses me again and this time he bites.

I bite him back.

“Dammit,” he shouts. He touches his lip, looks at his fingers. No blood. “Dammit.”

He goes at me, faster now, to punish me, perhaps. He groans like an animal. He sweats a lot. Our bodies slick and slide. I adjust to this new rhythm quickly and I groan, too. A fucking panther. Fucking. We’re a sex zoo.

I feel the warmth: contract, pulse, squeeze.

I pull him even deeper inside me.

I clutch onto him, I love you, I think, feeling my orgasm fire off inside me.

After he collapses on top of me, I push him over.

He goes to sleep.

I lie with my eyes open.

I fall asleep briefly into a quick, satisfying dream. I dream of being made love to by a short, old man. Nobody I know. He holds my legs down as he kneels above me. We are both amused by how flexible I am, by how my open thighs touch the ground completely flattened out as he thrusts.

When I open my eyes, Rick is in the shower. I put my clothes back on and leave the room.

I walk through the underground shopping maze to get to the subway. When Henry was born, I used to come here all the time with the stroller. It was one of the places that opened very early. Like most new mothers I needed to have all kinds of stupid things to do before noon in order to prevent dying of boredom and guilt from not loving my child enough.

My favourite store was a large bookstore with bright lights inside.

I would go in and read all the magazines I would never buy. Tabloids and magazines about how to parent, or repair bicycles, and magazines targeted to lesbians, and music magazines.

There was a condo building above the shopping maze that was nicknamed “The Menopause Manor” because it was mostly occupied by the elderly. They, like the stroller-pushers, would come out first thing in the morning. They would buy expensive coffees and English muffins and eat them while in the little food court by the bookstore, watching everyone who wasn’t them. People like me, the young.

If I would sit down, there would suddenly be two or even three women with trembling white hair and lip-smacking fuchsia mouth, cooing at the baby, looking up at me with what I read as a plea: Get me out of here. But the “here” was age and we were all going that way. I wanted to shout that at them, tell them to leave my child alone.

Later, I softened. I thought of how carefully they dressed to display themselves to the world, to prove that there was nothing wrong, no loneliness, no death.

I recalled reading about sick animals, how often you couldn’t tell they were sick because they would present themselves as healthy—the outward appearance was a defence against a world that is ruthless in discarding its weak.

As Henry grew, I would take him back to the shopping mall and we would sit down and wait for the first cloud-haired lady and we would tell her what Henry’s name was and what he liked to do the most—art— and was he good to his mummy, yes, he was.

I felt like I was being charitable.

Today is the first time since long ago that I walk through the mall.

The bookstore is bright and shouty with front-store shelves displaying the latest hits: books on gluten, gardening, how to overcome being an asshole.

The elderly are occupying every table in the small food court by the coffee shops.

A stooped man in a t-shirt that reads “pushing 95 is enough exercise for me” stands at a table occupied by a flock of white-haired ladies. He says things that make them laugh.

He looks at me and winks and I wink back, without thinking.

I try to imagine who he was—I try to imagine him as my sexual counterpart.

As him, he is tall and his eyes are bright blue, not cloudy, and he has wide shoulders and wiry, black hair on his strong chest; he is a rugby player, a guy who drinks and fucks and laughs on yachts.

I think how that guy is trapped inside this twisted body, how there’s no getting out, how his desire must learn to die but it is refusing to die. The desire drives him, it tells jokes to ladies, the way it used to; it is a wink, a lighthouse in the darkness: I am still here.

I cannot get on the subway yet. There’s too much time between now and later.  The house is empty. That note.

I need a distraction.

I worry that in the empty house, I will behave badly, look through old photos, go on the Internet and do quizzes. I will compose emails to Helen or to a relationship advice columnist and I will never send them.

Many of the elderly look up when I halt in the middle of my walk. Sharp eyes. Anticipation. Maybe I will start screaming, fall down. A woman alone, disheveled.

There’s a movie theatre on the main floor of this place and I turn around, decide to go see a movie. A movie that will make me not think for a few hours, any movie will do.

I pick a movie about people in space. Three-D glasses.

The people’s space shuttle gets blown to pieces by cosmic debris and there are only two survivors.

They float in space to try to get to other shuttles to get back to the earth. It doesn’t work out for the guy; he floats off to his death. She survives somehow; it is a movie after all. There are dozens of scenes where she almost doesn’t survive. Almost dies all the time.

         —Jowita Bydlowska, Photos & Text

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Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, was published in 2017.  Her short story “Funny Hat,” published on Numéro Cinq, was selected for the 2017 edition of Best Canadian Stories. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

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Aug 122017
 

Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19

There has been no one else in my life like Bill, little as he was in it. Slender and soft spoken, not withdrawn but not forthcoming, had he found himself in a crowded room he would have been the one who called least attention to himself. He did have an eye patch, the result of a childhood accident, but he wore it in such an unselfconscious way that it blended with his reserve. Yet he showed an inward centering that gave him a quiet presence, as if he were in touch with something beyond him, essential and illuminating, that set him apart from the rest of us, and when he looked back you felt he saw you with both eyes. I never heard him speak ill of anyone.

He would explain things, and patiently keep explaining, and treat you as if you were capable of understanding, which is what first drew me. Once, when I was a boy, he told me why the spokes on the wheels of my toy car moving forward appeared to go backward. In the world in which I grew up, defined by roles and ceilings, by the rules of settling down and settling in, he provided a model that helped me wonder what else might be understood and think about where that might take me, to believe that understanding is an engagement worth doing in itself that doesn’t need explanation or purpose, whose reward is the exhilaration of wonder, whose place is the presence that comes from reaching, from grasping. With the presence, the hope some pursuit of my own might return me to a larger, vital world.

He was, in fact, a particle physicist, who devoted his life to the study of the composition of the ultimate parts of nature and the forces that drive them, the understanding that there is no separation between the two but instead a relationship. He would explain that, too, and keep explaining as long as you listened, but it was over our heads and no matter how much he tried to break it down we soon got lost, leaving us with utter bafflement, some of us with skepticism, some of us with suspicion. It is difficult to trust the things we cannot understand, no matter how fundamental.

When I went to Berkeley in the late ’70s, grad school in English, I stayed with Bill a few weeks while I looked for a room. Then I lost touch, as so often happened there. We were all caught up in what we were doing.

Some four years later, midsummer, I got a call from his mother in North Carolina, a distant voice. She was polite and stalling in her desire not to impose and only made brief, oblique reference to Bill, not much more than she hadn’t heard from him in a while. I didn’t know what her concern was or even if there was one. After I hung up it occurred to me she wasn’t sure herself.

So I walked up the hill to his apartment in North Berkeley, but he wasn’t in. I looked in all the windows and nothing stood out. Everything was in place, everything looked as I remembered, everything looked as might have been expected. I debated breaking in, but had no evidence or cause, and was disturbed I even gave it a thought. He simply could have been on vacation. There were other places he might have been. Also I was dealing with a mother’s concern, foremost in mind. I didn’t know her well, and she seemed a little strange on the phone.

Still, I needed to put her at ease. I went back a few days later and saw the same. I started making calls, beginning a search to see what I could learn, not knowing what I was looking for or that I had any reason to look. What I also needed was to settle the doubts I had turned loose within myself.

.

Today, afternoon, midsummer, so many years later, elsewhere, trying to think, to understand, to define a mood or find one, but mind wandering, I look up from my desk and notice before the window a few motes of dust hovering nearly motionless in the still air but not quite, slight reminders of indeterminacy and dissolution, yet, illumined by the sun, bright, tiny specks that break the surface of the ordinary, faintly suggestive, faintly marvelous. Outside the window the foliage from the backyard trees shifts irresolutely in a gentle breeze, a dense, erratic pattern of dark and lighter greens, a constellation of rough-edged, roundish oak leaves, largely rising, and the smooth, long leaves of a walnut and Podocarpus, thin and thinner, largely falling, and of the leaves of the other trees behind them, almost covered. Now, inside, at the corner of the window, a jagged crack suddenly appears—it has always been there but has been forgotten and put aside—that runs to the ceiling like a bolt of lightning, a rip of quick terror, or a rent in the commonplace that opens revelation. Now, outside, flash reflections of the sun on the front leaves, the leaves glaring, nearly white, nearly bleached of detail, bright and blinding, like the rush of shock, or surprise. In only a few gaps among the leaves, small and scattered, can I see the sky. Beyond the sky, all the rest.

The day speaks—

Everything is exactly what it is.

In the beginning—

Or rather 10-43 seconds after the beginning, some 14 billion years ago, according to the standard model, a symmetry breaks and the universe explodes from a size so small that it would be pointless to state it, having a denseness, in comprehension, inversely related to its size. Its energy is 1032 Kelvin, against which the energy of the sun would not provide manageable comparison, but it is cool enough to allow the force of gravity to separate itself from the other forces, though nothing sensible can yet be said about its effects. The energy, however, is still too strong for quarks to join to form neutrons and protons, much less neutrons and protons join to form nuclei, or nuclei to draw free electrons to form atoms, or atoms to join to form molecules and gas clouds and masses and the planets and stars and solar systems and galaxies we now see. Our knowledge of the universe depends on understanding this moment.

The very beginning, zero time, may be beyond the reach of physics. The questions as to what existed before zero time and where the Big Bang took place and what existed beyond may not make sense because this may have been the time that time and space were in the process of being created. Also our common conceptions of time and space are inadequate to explain time and space.

The first step is to find the questions we can ask and learn their terms.

Bill was my uncle’s brother, the brother of the husband of my mother’s sister, thus no blood relation. I’d see him on rare occasions during family trips to my grandmother’s house in a small, crossroads town in rural North Carolina when he visited his brother and family who lived there, back from California, Germany, Switzerland, other distant places. We knew he was there when we saw his Karmann Ghia parked in the dirt drive, for us then an exotic car.

His ascent was meteoric, almost from nowhere. He grew up in rural towns nearby, as small or smaller, then went to NC State where he received near perfect grades and was awarded a Fulbright, which allowed him to study at Heidelberg University in Germany and work at CERN, the nuclear research labs in Switzerland, in preparation for his master’s degree. When he returned to the US he had choices, deciding on Berkeley to get his PhD. No one I knew had gone so far away or risen so high. He broke the mold of expectations.

After his PhD he stayed to continue his research. He had a part-time job at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and picked up part-time teaching at UC Davis and Berkeley to supplement his income. But his real work still lay elsewhere, further out and further in. The Bevatron at Lawrence had limited experimental use, so when grants came through he went to the more powerful accelerators at Fermilab near Chicago and SLAC at Stanford. That is one reason it was not surprising not to find him the day I walked up the hill.

When I arrived in Berkeley, late summer 1978, I had made arrangements to stay with friends of a friend. I discovered quickly I wasn’t welcome. I called Bill for advice, and in twenty minutes he drove down, now in a Volvo, and helped me load my stuff. I had no cause to expect such care, yet he apologized for not coming sooner.

His apartment, like his dress, was neat, sparse, and functional, though had a few distinctions and showed diversions and other depths. Beneath the stereo, albums of two modern classical musicians in San Francisco, whose performances he helped record. On top of the bookcase, a well-made windup robot, German, I think, a miniature marvel of engineering. On the shelves, among others, books and articles that defended Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the author of the Shakespeare opus, which drew from me heavy skepticism, in fact I thought the theory was crazy, but he attempted to explain that too. He was experimenting with making wine and I tried some. I had no opinion; he wasn’t satisfied. There were corner windows in the living room, one which looked out on the bay, the other over the campus. Late afternoons I watched the coastal fog approach, climbing and descending the San Francisco hills, covering the city, the bridge, the bay, some days the school up to the Berkley Hills, with its dense, quiet resolve.

He also gave me a tour of the campus, then the town. The bookstores on Telegraph—Cody’s for new books, where national and international writers read from their work, where wounded protesters once were treated and books by and on Wittgenstein sold well; Moe’s and Shakespeare’s for used, the only places I could find many books I later needed, out of print. The cafés, two floors of Caffe Med, where street life met campus and conversations ran the spectrum. All were crowded at all hours, Telegraph stirring with their traffic. Ideas mattered, and the town radiated the slow burn of minds. Bill had received offers of full-time positions to teach elsewhere but turned them down as the schools didn’t have the facilities and would have taken him from his research and this world. My parents couldn’t understand that decision, or him. I envied his life and began anticipating mine. What he laid out for me was the locus for my own later work.

And he took me to his office at Lawrence, where he showed me a picture of a reaction in a bubble chamber from one of his experiments.

At the time quark theory, like the Big Bang, had gained the status of the standard model. He talked about string theory as well, still debated now. We hear these terms, and if we don’t repel from them, maybe they give us a jolt, a push to the side, a moment of disturbance. Or we learn to repeat and use them to spice our talk. Not long ago it was reported that the Higgs boson—the “God Particle”—might have been discovered, whose existence was predicted by theory, the particle that indicates the field that gives other elementary particles their mass, the universe its substance, belief in which still holds today. Sooner or later, however, we let the words slide and move on. What difference do they make? What is lost is how much is involved, how much our certainties are pushed, how much vision itself is challenged, how far we might be taken, further in and further out.

To research particle physics first the body of the theory has to be understood, then experiments designed to confirm or extend it. Teams are formed, proposals written and submitted to get time on the accelerators. At the site accelerators hurl pulses of particles at tremendous energy towards a detector, where collisions are observed. Deflections reveal what exists inside an atom; other particles are released, some of which point to the existence of still others. At SLAC particles are shot two miles at 50 billion volts. The detector Bill used was a bubble chamber, the technology of the time, which was filled with a medium such as liquid hydrogen that the particles struck, where pictures were taken to record the reactions. In one experiment Bill performed at SLAC, 500,000 pictures were taken over a period of three months; other experiments might take tens of millions. Then this mass of data has to be analyzed for the rare, meaningful event. An experiment, start to finish, can take years, even decades.

The scales used to measure the particles defy any scale we can handle. Particles may exist only an impossible fraction of a second and have a size dwarfed by the size of an atom, though at this level of nature physical size does not apply. Yet these particles and their reactions define the universe, and experiments are now being run in the accelerators to simulate its early stages. The forces involved may extend infinitely or only cover a subatomic gap, yet in the latter case the potential energy is enormous. To study particle physics is to learn that everything is almost nothing, yet that almost nothing has universal extending order. The research is a drive towards total grasp. What particle physicists are looking for are the ultimate parts of nature that cannot be broken down further and their single, unifying force.

If we are disposed to wonder, what else better do we have to wonder about? If we want to understand the ultimate nature of reality, this is the direction to go. However difficult it is to fathom the theories, there is nothing arbitrary or fantastic about them. The movement of the stars away from us and each other now points to the Big Bang, whose background radiation has been measured. Particle physics is supported by a century of thought and has been confirmed by experimental observation, the laws of physics, and the coherence of math. The theories are not complete, but whatever comes next will be derived from what is solid and accepted now, or will break from that ground.

What strikes me now, as I look outside my window and stare at the leaves and their bright reflections, is the enormous irony of effort and perception, one that strains that literary deflection. The picture Bill showed me, set against what it revealed, for all the time and effort that went into its creation and selection, was nothing more than white scratches, lines and spirals, on a black field. And those scratches were not the particles themselves but bubble traces caused by their reaction in the liquid gas, their paths guided by a magnetic field in the detector that provided the means for their precise measurement. There is cause for a kind of wonder just in this irony itself.

When I close my eyes, afterimages of glare on leaves.

But as great is the marvel that a mind, a man, could be moved to study matters so complex, so essential, who could approach nature on its first terms. It is another kind of wonder, a large part of what makes us human.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. . . .

Hamlet.

.

Any investigation will be affected by the influence of the investigator, the tools, the means at his or her disposal, which need to be factored in or filtered out. What assumptions are brought in, what biases? What does one expect to find? Outside influences—noise—also seep in and have to be dealt with as well. The temptation is to invoke Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but that would not only be an inaccuracy but also a mistake of category.

Uncertainty, however, is what I found. I called Lawrence first and got a colleague who apparently knew Bill fairly well. He was friendly but seemed distant and strange in ways I couldn’t pin down. But I was a stranger, and his reserve might have come from the need to protect what was personal. Also I must have seemed strange myself. I didn’t want to raise alarm because I had no cause, yet still I needed to push some question to continue my search. But I didn’t know what that question was much less how to frame it, so I fumbled for several minutes. My call, in fact, was just like the one I had with Bill’s mother and I realized her dilemma. I’m not sure I didn’t raise concerns about me that may have drawn sympathy, maybe tactful evasion, maybe, likely, doubts. He did give me a few names to call, however, including the musicians in San Francisco.

I made those calls and got similar results, again sensing aloofness and something else in the others I could not identify, again wondering what impression I might have made. But I got more names—a contact at Davis and another woman in Berkeley, who was working on her PhD in classics and was closer to him than the others—and kept calling. The others started making calls themselves, the calls reaching out in a widening circle, those calls among those who knew Bill better, where perhaps private knowledge was shared. Then again, it didn’t appear in my calls that anyone knew much. The only thing that was certain was that no one knew where he was, though all agreed there could have been several reasons for his absence, well within normal expectations.

I also made more trips to his apartment, where all was exactly the same as before, nothing moved, nothing out of place, and again debated breaking in, even more disturbed I thought about doing so. I felt like a spy. And the tension I felt might have come from my own misplaced fears. I was also part of a chain reaction in which I wasn’t sure of my influence. I worried I had violated Bill’s privacy by making calls and asking questions, that I may have raised undue doubts about him among the people in his life. Suspicion is insidious and even in the best of us can grow into a monster. And I had disrupted the working assumption of all of us that keeps our lives in order and sustains us when all is quiet, that we are well, that all is well, that all is as it should be.

I had this troubling thought: if I went away without giving notice, could someone find me? If he or she talked to those I knew, what would they say? What suspicions might be unleashed? What would anyone have to say?

Still it seemed we all moved around something that would not go away, but it was only an object of indefinite shape that could have been the ghost of our uncertainty. Yet after another week we were settled that something was wrong. Reserve melted, barriers broke. The police were called. We opened up and talked frankly and pushed the search, extending the net of our humanity to catch one of us who might have fallen.

.

I grew up looking at pictures of order, demonstrations of function and purpose, of meaning, models of the world that located me and reassured. In grade school science texts I saw diagrams of atoms that looked like miniature solar systems, clusters of balls, perfect spheres, neutrons and protons in their nuclei around which smaller balls, electrons, revolved in perfect orbits. I don’t think I ever wondered what kept the nuclei together since their protons had the same positive charge and should have pushed away, why the world did not fly apart. I also saw colorful pictures of our solar system, more balls, more perfect spheres, the nine planets revolving in their orbits around the sun, moons around the planets.

Here on earth I was presented with diagrams of men and women in various uniforms and dress walking between buildings that represented our institutions, who carried a dollar bill or a law to show the orderly workings of our society, of our government, of our economic system. Also pictures of the people here to help, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, entering hospitals and courts and schools. Along with these, pictures of our enterprise, more people moving raw materials from building to building to create finished products and put them in our hands. I saw strings of dollar bills, and of products and other things we made and carried, stretched around the earth or sent to the moon and back to give me some idea of the magnitude of our order. Elsewhere I saw pictures of heaven, a radiance among clouds. On the dollar bill, a pyramid atop which hovered a shining eye.

Somehow all the pictures were of a piece.

Elizabethans looked at a picture of the world as well:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check to good and bad. . . .

Shakespeare.

The Elizabethan picture was based on a cosmic understanding, with earth and us at the center, that located and reassured as well, that established hierarchies of functions and status, a picture that radiated harmony and correspondence throughout, infused with the light of divine inspiration shining upon the royal court.

As I got older I was attracted more by pictures that questioned the pictures of order I saw, scathing parodies, distorted, scattered views. The problem, of course, was with who got to wear which uniforms and go to which buildings, with what we were left holding in our hands. I reacted myself in simmering restlessness against their neatness, their constraint, the narrow roles.

None of the pictures, however, early in my life or later, gave much to charge the heart, or the spirit, or whatever we can think to call the part of us we most want to name, something that might move us separately to warmth and fullness, that might bind us together.

Or put us at ease on sleepless nights

Many of us were upset by the discoveries of Planck, Einstein, and the others, whose theories of nature shook the ground on which we stood and disrupted the harmony of solid balls pushing and pulling and revolving against, toward, and around each other. With the shaking, doubts were raised whether anything worthwhile might be built on top. Everything is relative and indeterminate, life is arbitrary, an unleashing of random forces. I suspect, though, we would have come to the same conclusion without physics. We had the evidence of the collisions on the battlefields of the last century as well as elsewhere to unsettle our beliefs.

In a sense, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, what scientists find at the atomic level depends on what they’re looking for. They can design an experiment that observes the position of a particle, say an electron, or an experiment that observes its momentum, but they cannot observe both because both cannot be known at the same time. The indefiniteness is not a problem of observers and their assumptions or their equipment, but a matter of the essential nature of electrons themselves, dual and indeterminate. Our solid balls are not solid. Yet either experiment can yield precise, meaningful results. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is fundamental to quantum mechanics, which provided the foundation for the atomic theory that followed. Physicists embraced the indefinite to develop an understanding more precise and thorough. The new physics did not disrupt the order of the world but brought us closer to what was beyond our vision, strengthening our grasp after classical physics had reached a dead end.

Then again, the desire for order is not the order of desire. The Elizabethan picture is built on gross cosmological error, though many knew otherwise at the time. Metaphorically, however, it is perfectly valid and has value. Our lives can matter, and putting us and our planet at the center reinforces that desire, its force, its possible extension. A context is provided that helps explain the marriage of our actions and our beliefs when all goes well, or at least contain them, and what is wrong when our lives, our world fracture. It does not matter where the planets are. Science helps us understand the world, but metaphors are where we live.

Now older still I tire of being unsettled and uncontained, yet remain restless. I have also begun asking questions that did not concern me when I was younger. What I realize now is that I did not reject the pictures of order I saw because I did not believe in order but because they did not hold the order in which I wanted to believe.

I do not care about chains of command. Power over others, however large its effects, is a sterile study. Still I read Shakespeare for what might be left after aggrandizement is factored out. I want to feel I have a place where I can move among others and be moved alone, where there is a picture of understanding that explains that motion. Even if Shakespeare’s explanations are incomplete, even wrong, at least the possibility of understanding is constructed, and looking at a picture of order moves us to think of other pictures that might help us help each other, and sustain us, and keep us together.

Or help us, on rough nights, to know the place where we will wake up.

Yet I want to believe that pictures are not made up, that there is some connection between them with what I see when I look out.

But a picture of order is only a picture of order.

After another week Bill’s Volvo was found parked by the Golden Gate Bridge, his eye patch resting on the dash.

.

The reason why the spokes of the wheels of my toy car appeared to go backward when they were rotating forward is because of a stroboscopic effect created by the pulsating fluorescent light that hung overhead in my grandmother’s kitchen. The phenomenon can be observed in continuous light, though here theories vary.

The reason why protons in the nucleus of an atom do not push apart is because they are bound by the strong nuclear force, which is greater than the positive charge of their electromagnetic force. Or more precisely, neutrons and protons are made of quarks that are bound by the strong force, and it is the residuum of that force that keeps the nucleus together.

I do not know what happened to Bill and never will.

If we only knew—is what everyone says at times like this, but no one knew, no one saw it coming, and that is what is often said as well, and it was. Even after the funeral, when we gathered, when talk was freed, almost nothing was revealed. I had a long talk into the night with the third woman that only ended in more questions and exhaustion. I have also since talked to the family with similar results. And I have tried to contact others over the years but only one email has been returned, the silence lately perhaps because some of them may no longer be with us.

It’s not just that no one knew what happened. Not much precise or substantial was said about Bill himself. I don’t think any of us knew who he was.

I would like to examine a world where his life had not ended so soon, and it wouldn’t matter what kind of world it might have been, or would matter less. But I have to look at the world where it did, and now there is a concern not of helping but of understanding, which might help us in our own lives, and of preserving a memory before it decays. I am left, however, only with contexts and their reasons.

There is his work and the context it might provide. I have searched online databases from the labs and physics organizations and found his name among teams of others in some twenty documents describing proposals for experiments, experiments performed, tests on and refinements to the detecting equipment, a computer program to speed analysis of results, those and whatever thought and time and effort and strain they might represent.

Search for strange baryonium states in p-bard interactions at 8.9 GeV/c

For example, this abstract of an experiment, his largest and longest running, that had that title, published by the American Physical Society posthumously:

A search for SU(3) manifestly exotic Q2Q-bar 2 baryonium states in antiproton-deuterium interactions was carried out at the SLAC 40-in. hybrid bubble-chamber facility. The I = (3/2, S = 1 channel, X-, produced in conjunction with a forward produced neutral antikaon was studied. Such X- states would decay into an antihyperon and a baryon. The fast forward K-bar 0 was detected in a three-view segmented calorimeter placed downstream of the bubble chamber and used as part of the trigger. Upper limits of 0.50–1.63 μb are reported for the X-→Lambda-barnπ-, Sigma-bar -n, Lambda-barpπ-π-, Sigma-bar -pπ-, Sigma-bar /sup +- /nπ/sup minus-or-plus/π- exclusive channels based upon ≤13 events per channel.

The abstract refers to the developing body of the standard theory in which his experiment was designed to find a place. Nature, at its core, is vastly more complex than revolving spheres and their order. There are other particles than electrons and the quarks that make up neutrons and protons, a host of them, many flying free in the universe, most of which can only be observed an instant at high levels of energy before they disappear. It is by studying those that physicists hope to understand the universe of all particles and the nature of all forces. The language is impenetrable to anyone who does not know the physics and the words are odd because there are no common words to signify what is not part of our common experience. The term quark was lifted from James Joyce. Physicists, like writers, have to appropriate their words or make them up. Strangeness, though, is not some ambiguous term that hints at mystery and uncertainty but rather refers to a property of particles that has precise meaning and can be stated in a formula that describes their decay in strong and electromagnetic forces.

The only thing I understand from the abstract is that the experiment produced no meaningful results. It only had two citations online, an indication of its influence in the physics community and its contribution to the theory. His other, earlier, experiments had few as well. But science depends as much on failure as success. A failed experiment points to reformulation and another try. Yet a particle physicist only gets so many chances. Bill could only advance in his research by performing experiments, but there were just a handful of accelerators in the world powerful enough and only three in the US. Getting the time needed on them depended on having success and building a reputation, but time was expensive and scarce, and he had to compete with others. A team had to be assembled who might impress. Scientific committees had to be convinced, as well as the US government, specifically the Department of Energy, who provided most of the funding and for whom his work had no practical value, adding the difficulty of all the maneuvering and sidetracks involved in convincing committees and government agencies. Bill talked about another experiment he performed that he thought was not worth running—he said the reasons for its being accepted were political—but he had to take what opportunities presented themselves, and there were few. We see this situation elsewhere, in other pursuits.

Add to those difficulties the demands of the science itself, so involved, so complex, so abstruse, particle physics still hovering over the borders of the unknown, along with the pressure of always having to be exactly right. Factor in the ambition, the desire for final comprehension, total grasp. It is possible for physicists to get stuck in the wrong theory. Some hit the ceiling of their abilities and can’t make the leap to the next level of a theory. But it is possible Bill never had a chance to find out what he could do. Practicing particle physics can leave a physicist stranded.

Then there are the effects of channeling oneself into abstract thought, which might exclude other ways of thinking, and multiply those by the strain of staying there for years. It is a place where it is easy to put too much importance on some details, or not know what others are worth, or let a few slip, where one can get caught in loops.

But I am just guessing and speculate only on possible tensions, not the desire that might have sustained him, nor the parts of him not involved in science. Some of the challenges, instead of taxing, might have driven him and given him a place where he thrived.

No one saw mood swings, though there was talk of withdrawal. But we all pushed ourselves and withdrew from time to time. I did have reservations about what was said by some I met and what wasn’t, about what they knew, how broad, how human their understanding, and not just the scientists. We all had committed ourselves to fields that channeled thought and limited understanding, not that we were self-absorbed but that our selves could become absorbed in what we were doing. And we all had hit ceilings, or were aware of them and knew we might be approaching.

The funeral was a brief, quiet session, a diffident motion towards uplift and comprehension, yet still it brought revelation, but not insight into Bill, but what I saw in us, in our quiet, drawn faces. What was opened up is the impression of Berkeley that still shadows my other impressions, what I had not seen before or was fending off. There would be days when our energy dissipated toward nothing, when we didn’t know ourselves, leaving us separate and alone in broken silence.

Not just Berkeley, but what I began to see after, or had put off seeing, elsewhere, everywhere, and still see no matter how we think or what is thought—how distant, how disconnected we all are, how little we understand.

When his apartment was cleaned out, the only thing discovered out of the ordinary was a file he kept on the UC Davis campus police, who he apparently thought were keeping an eye on him. Likely, in his head, there were other spies.

.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. . . .

They are the words of a man whose connections with the world have been severed, who questions the value of his existence and debates keeping it, a man who talks to himself, and to ghosts.

Perhaps it is his noble father Hamlet has in mind, as well as himself, or what he might have become had it not been for the murder that ripped apart the fabric of Elsinore, where now there is no beauty and nothing is apprehended well. His words create a model to set against his corrupt stepfather and corrupted mother, and against the others, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sent by his parents as spies and to whom he speaks those words, his suspicions aroused.

Yet his words only create a picture of perfection, impossible in its reach and wholly abstract in conception, a container that does not contain anything. The picture could be the obsessive projection of a man who has become disturbed, one that invites a comparison against which no one will stand up well, not even a noble prince. He has already began to slide, just before, in his talk with Ophelia, where his feigning of madness gets out of hand.

Whatever the case, Hamlet’s options are narrowing to a single exit and there is almost no one he can trust.

There is this context and its reasons, and I have no other to examine. The Earl of Oxford, those books Bill had on his shelf—how could anyone question the identity of the author whose writing has set the standard against which all of literature is measured, unless he identified with one he believed was misunderstood, unvalued and unknown, an interest that could only have grown as his frustrations mounted and fed suspicion as he narrowed his gaze to pictures of subatomic events to find their perfect order, his world shrinking to a nutshell. That interpretation fits the facts and has the most compelling logic, or the most compelling logic we know.

But I have read the books Bill showed me and others more recent and am convinced Oxford wrote the plays. The evidence is large. The plays are filled with correspondence to his life and knowledge. I have more reason to accept his authorship than much else I believe, including the nature of our universe, the existence of quarks, the play of forces. If knowing an author matters, even if Oxford didn’t write the plays he provides a fuller study than the man from Stratford, about whom we know almost nothing. Reading those books has made me wonder about other certainties to which our sanity clings.

Oxford’s family ties to the court went back centuries, but, while intimate with the queen and her entourage, he was alienated from that life and had little room to move. Praised as the man whose countenance shakes a spear, he took that pseudonym because the code of nobility forbade peers staging plays or publishing them under their own names. Nor could the court, unsettled and conflicted, allow the common public to know one of its own was revealing its inner tensions, reflected in his plays. Oxford’s pursuit, writing, like particle physics, like other ambitions, contended with contingencies and risks.

Hamlet especially reads like autobiography both in overall conception and in its details. Oxford’s father had an untimely death, and, like Hamlet, Oxford lost much of his birthright through questionable maneuvers. He had to contend with his meddlesome father-in-law, Lord Burghley, the source for Polonius, and with Burghley’s spies. He was captured and ransomed by pirates; his brother-in-law was sent on a mission by the queen to Elsinore, where he met courtiers with the names Rosenkrantz and Guldenstern.

I don’t know where Oxford takes me, though. Like the passionate and aspiring Hamlet, he could only brood on what might have been, and, like Hamlet, he stumbled in several places. He may have lost himself in writing the play, at least a moment, but also an eternity.

Bill, Oxford—differences aside, I am left with the essential common term: Hamlet. And there’s the rub. The problem with thinking about Hamlet, and wondering who created him and why, and wondering why someone should have wondered who his creator was, and thinking about someone who might have been like Hamlet, is that you become Hamlet yourself, doubting everything and not knowing where to stop.

Maybe the Elizabethan picture of order itself is an obsessive projection of the times, against which Oxford, like Hamlet, strains. Or maybe it is the order they both embrace. Either way, putting us at the center, metaphorically, can be a kind of madness. The play itself asserts and at the same time questions identity in almost every line, while its repressed plot and swelling individuality push against the seams of structure, against any kind of order.

And perhaps physics itself is an obsessive compulsion to grasp, a breeding ground for neurotics.

But such an analysis, however tempting, however compelling, is closed off itself and can lead to more obsession. A picture of madness is only a picture of madness, from which there is no escape. The only thing I am certain of is that if you look for madness you will always find it.

This too I saw in Berkeley, where we learned to doubt and were doubted at every turn, where people talked to themselves or bottled up. There were days when our minds would flare, separately and together, on the streets, in the cafés, in the classrooms, in our gatherings at our apartments, when the air was filled with suspicion, leading to injury or injuries contemplated, to random disruptions, Hamlets all of us pulling or sheathing swords.

And saw elsewhere later.

And everywhere.

The world is filled with spies.

Hamlet, of course, was right about the ghost and much else.

Oxford remains a ghost.

I do not know what else Bill was right about or where it left him in a life where occasions might have informed against him.

I—no one—knew him to be anything but kind and honest.

He must have been in pain.

I will never know who he was.

No letter.

.

It is late, and I have been up staring at a screen where I see these words:

There has been no one else in my life like Bill, little as he was in it. Slender and soft spoken, not withdrawn but not forthcoming, had he found himself in a crowded room. . . .

When I look away to rest my eyes, I see only night black against the window, the glare of a desk lamp, and my glassy reflection, looking back. On my face, lines of weariness and anxiety I didn’t know were there.

We are well, all is well, all is as it should be.

Everything I once thought solid has melted into air.

I grew up looking at pictures of order that located and reassured. Really, they did not explain anything but rather closed off questions and explanations. There are advantages here, however, and at times I miss them. Equality itself was only a bare concept that told us nothing about ourselves, but at least it provided a vanishing point in a perspective that slowed us down, gave pause, and allowed some changes.

Now I look at pictures not of buildings and people moving among them, but of long rooms where men and women sit at long tables and make decisions, and of larger rooms divided into boxes, where more sit and work, though it isn’t clear what any of these people do. And I see pictures of performance and aptitude in lines on graphs that are supposed to rise, and of shifting bars of attitudes and desires, though it isn’t shown where the lines should end or the bars settle. I also see pictures of an outside world where there are pretty trees and pretty skies and people moving in a soft ether, not quite smiling, and at the bottom pastel pills to ease depression, along with words of warning.

I do not know why this world exists.

Our metaphors have slipped.

A proton is made of two up quark particles and one down; a neutron is made of three quarks as well, two down, one up. In both protons and neutrons the quarks are bound by the interaction of gluons between them, particles that carry the strong force, just as photons carry electromagnetic interactions, such as light. Some of that force escapes the binding of quarks into neutrons and protons, and through more particle transformations binds neutrons and protons together to form nuclei. All this interaction occurs in an atom’s infinitesimal heart.

Particles of what? Gluons, like quarks, like all particles, are only bundles of energy with various properties, in various states and motions, or that is all we can know about them. There is nothing to pick up and throw against a wall or hold before your eyes. The process of binding cannot be pictured but only explained by complex formulas that analyze fields, by making calculations and observing how it works. And the process is still more complicated, and much is still debated, still not understood. Gluons may yet be replaced by something else. Yet experiments continue to return consistent results and point to fundamental order. Other evidence is unassailable: the energy from the interactions that bind a nucleus, when released, can be used in nuclear reactors and bombs.

It must be exhilarating to come this close to nature and feel its pulse. It is exhilarating to think about those who have looked and what they have discovered, the complexity and power in the smallest things, their order. And it is exhilarating not to rest with commonplace appearances of anything, not let them pass, but inspect them closely and think about their order. These thoughts, those efforts, their possibilities, charge the part of us that stirs us. It is exhilarating simply not to stand still.

. . . in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Perhaps Hamlet is giving in to his mood, or perhaps he is losing his grip, but quintessence is a term used by the Greeks, the fifth of the five elements, the eternal stuff of the heavens, the spark that inhabits the smallest part, yet from which Hamlet has been divorced by circumstances and whatever else, further in and further out.

The black picture from the bubble chamber I saw in Bill’s office, however, did not show tiny people walking its white lines carrying pieces of paper or sitting at long tables, much less golden men and women on thrones or fantastic animals or winged spirits or tailed demons, not malevolent stirrings or glowing benedictions, not even a mysterious tremor of an unvoiced sign that indicates one thing could or should be another. The order of the world has nothing to do with the order of our world. It has always been that way. Physics just brought the point home. And if we think about it, we realize the order of our world has never been that orderly or good. It is exhilarating, too, and anything else we might want to feel, and we can feel anything we want, to think about all the things we do not see in the black and white picture and what not seeing them might mean.

Ashes to ashes—there are other ways to look at dust.

There was a condition, not named, not diagnosed, not treated, whose cause could have been internal, chemical and/or psychological, or it could have been environmental, or a combination of all those causes. Most likely there was a nexus of causes, accidental to us but which followed a nexus of orders whose complexity cannot be sorted out, though I do not know what sorting them out might explain. There is no name, however, for the condition that makes one wonder and reach. We only have names for conditions when life goes wrong. Nor do I know if the first condition might not be related to the other, whether the two can be separated. I only know it is impossible to think of Bill’s life without the second. I doubt it is anything he would have wanted to consider or could even have imagined.

There is an order to the world and we have a good grip on its process. Ultimately everything at its root is the result of the interactions of particles. It is possible to theorize the process extending to consciousness itself. Yet the complexity from quark to the simplest molecule is vast. The complexity to extend the process out to a mind, to thought, is unthinkable. It would take—and my guess is as good as any—a computer larger than the size of all of our imaginations an eternity to make the calculations. But also such a study would reduce awareness to the terms of the process, self-referring.

In the beginning—

The ultimate goal for particle physicists is to discover the single force that unifies all forces, which, they theorize, was the force that existed at the very beginning of time before it split into the other forces. Yet most concede they will never have test equipment anywhere close to being powerful enough to perform an experiment to find it. There will always be a ceiling.

I did not reject the pictures of order I saw growing up because I did not believe in order but because they did not hold the order in which I wanted to believe. I have not stopped wanting to believe, though I am less sure why. I want to feel I have a place where I can move among others and be moved alone, where there is a picture of understanding that explains this motion. And I still want to believe that pictures of the order of our world are not made up, that there is connection between them with what I see when I look out, even though I know none exists.

We only know the orders of processes that only know themselves and infinite complexity, further in and further out, infinitely beyond our reach, those and our metaphors, and whatever terms we can manage to stick between the terms of tautologies, whatever ambiguities we can suspend.

I have read Hamlet at least a dozen times over the years and still reread it. Every time it is a different play. I do not know what it means. When I reach the final scene I feel a dozen different ways. Sometimes I feel charged, with varying qualifications of thought and mood, because order has been reaffirmed. Its collapse shows its force, the possibilities that remain had it not been corrupted. Sometimes I only see senseless death littered on the stage. A prop has been pulled out that supported nothing. Sometimes I don’t know what I feel but am left with complex moods split in intricate ways, none of them coherent.

Every time I leave the play I am a different person.

Every time I return to my world it is a different world, brighter and darker.

The problem with thinking about Hamlet, and thinking about someone who might have been like Hamlet, is that you become Hamlet yourself, lost, not knowing who you are. I have also seen a half-dozen film productions, and I don’t think any actor gets him right, or even that it is possible to stage him. But it is the actors who think they know Hamlet, who fortify themselves with wrongful injury and brace for just revenge, I most question and least understand. Only the Hamlets who reach and doubt and lose themselves seem close to whole.

It is only by projecting our hearts and minds into the world, and whatever else we can think to project, then looking at what is returned that we have a sense of what the world might be worth. But it is only by testing the world, and ourselves, and doubting both, that we have any sense what we might be worth.

Sometimes in the cracks between the words that create the world of Shakespeare’s—Oxford’s?—plays, those ironies, I find release. Sometimes, even if there is no explanation in the words, or the explanations do not explain, at least I find a container and the possibilities of containers that might provide a context for a fall, that hold our doubts and pain and suffering and give them full expression and allow them, allow us, to exist a little longer. Here I see some light.

We should always extend the net of our humanity and not question why it exists.

But I cannot rest without looking at the complexity and power in all things.

And remembering those who once were moved to understand.

While searching the online documents, I did find one sentence I fully understood. It was from a PhD dissertation by a Berkeley physics student with this dedication:

I gratefully acknowledge the friendship, advice, and encour­agement of Dr. William Michael, whose enthusiastic interest in all areas of physics will always be an inspiration.

Gary Garvin

.

.

Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewCon­frontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

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Aug 092017
 

Ralph Angel

.

1.

When I think of art I think of an uncluttered state of mind, which doesn’t last, of course, and so call it inspiration.

And inspiration, well, it comes and goes, doesn’t it.

Little sister, arranging
bottle caps. Little brother, back

and forth you run
from one side of the pier

to the other.

Oh young mother
pulling your thin dress

to yourself
tighter

and tighter.

When I think of the artist I think of an attentive state of mind. There is no criteria. No possibility for criticism.

It’s risky business. There’s no help anywhere. The intellect is useless. Whether looking outward or in, what one discovers can be neither predicted nor controlled.

Paying attention is making oneself present, no matter what’s happening.

Immediacy is inspired. Presence is inspired.

Children, without having to think about it, make immediacy and presence possible all the time. Children pay attention.

Children and artists see with their minds.

Thinking is a secondary experience. The critic’s pince-nez glasses is the greatest symbol of secondary experience.

For the artist, giving up thinking is called discipline. Giving up hope, giving up certainty, comparison and judgment is called discipline.

For the artist, wasting time, which the French perfected, is called discipline.

“Those who depend upon the intellect are the many,” wrote the minimalist painter, Agnes Martin. “Those who depend upon perception alone are the few.”

Agnes

Here comes perfection. xWhen I think of art I think of beauty. xI put
xxxxxxxmy arm around it. Around my mind, I mean.

You may as well give up judging what you’ve done. xThe day is
xxxxxxyoung, the grey sun stayed that way.

Here comes an iron shade, partly down. xTheir heads are gone.

Please don’t print the negative. xI love their shoes. xIt’s where the
xxxxxxlight is.

.
2.

I am taking a walk in the city. I am enjoying a meal. Someone is running a bath. I have just spilled my cup of tea. The cat steps into a flower pot. A pencil rolls off the desk. I’m working! I’m working!

Two thousand five-hundred years ago, on her birth island of Lesbos, or in Sicily, the island of her exile, Sappho sang a lonely lyric:

for I would not be like these
toys

but may it happen to me
all

Artwork is not similar to something else. Artwork exists within itself, as tone, as mood, as state of being. All inspired artwork exists within itself. The insistence on art as reality when you’re doing art, or experiencing art.

messenger of spring
xxxxxxxxxxxxxnightingale with a voice of longing

sang Sappho,

and gold chickpeas are growing on the banks

xxxxxxxxxxxxxspangled is
the earth with her crowns

In response to an interviewer’s question, Sir Lawrence Olivier said: “I always thought that my job was to make people believe that the play was actually taking place.” Exactly. The insistence on art as reality when you’re doing art.

And is it not the same when you’re experiencing art? When Charles Simic experiences one of artist Joseph Cornell’s luminous, inexplicable boxes, the reality is clear.

Postage Stamp with a Pyramid

The lonely boy must play quietly because his parents are sleeping after lunch. He kneels on the floor between their beds pushing a matchbox, inside which he imagines himself sitting. The day is hot. In her sleep his mother has uncovered her breasts like the Sphinx. The car, for that’s what it is, is moving very slowly because its wheels are sinking in the deep sand. Ahead, nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.
xxxxxxxx“Shush,” says the father sternly to the desert wind.

In Cornell’s world, Charles Simic could see with his mind an essence of himself. Visceral, palpable, the whole narrative of a moment of a child driving a matchbox, of a child as voyeur among adults, of a child at home in a desert with “nothing but wind, sky, and more sand.”

Children and artists are happiest when they experience things in which they seem to be identified.

In solitude, children and artists can be happy for hours. And if they don’t recognize themselves in the artwork of others, they don’t return to it, they don’t remember it, it will never become part of them.

“An inspiration,” wrote Agnes Martin, “is a happy moment that takes us by surprise.”

.
3.

It would take an epic psychological study to explain why we gravitate toward any given poem or story, or film, or painting, or song. Or why we make the kind of art objects we make. And that study, of course–like human history, so drenched in blood–would be flawed.

The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock investigated the possibility of having his belly button removed because he found it annoying and especially unattractive.

He was a neighbor and frequent dinner guest at the home of a friend of mine when she was a young girl in London. And one night in particular, when Mr. Hitchcock arrived with a sack of bones, he scarred her to this very day. Different kinds of bones, actually, which he passed around the table. And he took note of each one, as each one was snapped, until he heard the sound of a human bone breaking in his mind’s eye for the scene he would shoot the next day.

Alfred Hitchcock feared above all, by his own admission, arrest.

I don’t know why or how some of Hitchcock’s films have so become a part of me.

A lovably shallow Cary Grant being subdued by feelings.

A quietly intimate and refined Tippi Hedren’s emotional insecurity exploding into outrageous catastrophe.

An aristocratic Ingrid Bergman shunned by society for love.

Or the voyeuristic James Stewart and me sitting in the dark spying on the lives of neighbors.

Or James Stewart and me following the otherworldly Kim Novak around, and falling in love with her, and with her descent into madness, and killing it.

I watched a recently restored copy of Vertigo, and, as I am prone to do after such way-cool experience, I got up the next morning and watched it again. And I carried it around with me for some time, I suppose. It was already inside me, like an homage. And so I stole the title.

Vertigo

Only one is a wanderer.
And when she was sad she’d go into the street to be with people.
Two together are always going somewhere. xThey lie down beneath
xxxxxxcypress,
next to a bird. xI imagine the sky. xIt fans her mountains
and waves. xShe’d left some small town
where they used to make tires.
Stories are made out of stairwells
and rope. xI’d been interrupting for years and didn’t
know it. xThis old park. xThe dark hatchery. xWorkers in jumpsuits
throw down their poison at dawn.
Not everyone can be described. xIt’s perfectly
natural. xIf she’s thinking about love
does she break down

the door of the bedroom. xOf course not. xNot publicly
speaking. xTo the left there’s a sofa. xWe all lived in rented rooms.
That’s how it goes with subject matter.
Nude figures in profile
floating among palm trees. xThe idea was touristy,
like a postcard. xI was given a small auditorium. xI watched over
rush hour. xI write down everything as I forget it,
especially at night.
I lock the door from the inside.

.
4.

My studio is a mess:

Piles of papers. Piles of books, and open books, everywhere. Flowers, rocks, a toothpick dispenser in the shape of a crow. A turtle shell. Incense ash. An apple core alongside a stained demitasse. Flash drives and hand cream, pens and ink brushes, a gyroscope. Free weights of 10, 15, and 20 pounds. Boxes of discontinued Polaroid film. Eyeglasses, and glass tumblers, and blood-orange toffee. Cobwebs. Snorkeling gear.

And I like it, just writing it down. It serves no purpose, but keeps me real.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” a young Ernest Hemingway wrote one afternoon in a café in Paris trying to become a writer.

A thousand years ago, Sei Shōnagon, an empress of the 10th century court in Heian-kyo Japan, was given a pile of paper which she called “pillow.” A thousand years ago one of the first recorded journals, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, was listed by subtitle:

In spring, the dawn,” as in “when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.”

Markets –”

Peaks –”

River pools –”

Things people despise –” as in “A crumbling earth wall. People who have a reputation for being exceptionally good-natured.”

Infuriating things –” as in “A guest arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages.” Or “to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping round inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them, and forcing the sake cup on others. ‘Go on, have another!’”

Rare things –” as in “A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.” “A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.” “A person who is without a single quirk.”

Refined and elegant things –”

Insects –”

I encountered Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book while researching a seminar, “The Art of the Journal,” that I thought to offer because I had yet to forgive myself for never journaling. But there they were, in many rooms, in the garage, even the Moleskines on this very desk, tens of notebooks of various sizes comprised almost entirely of what other people had said or written.

“You can always come back,” sang Bob Dylan, “but you can’t come back all the way.”

“Your shadow is—how should I put it? Faint.” wrote Haruki Murakami.

“Everything terribly,” wrote Guillame Apollinaire.

“In poker, it’s better to tell the truth. The others think you’re bluffing,” spoke Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless.

“Doing almost nothing,” Marina Abramovic said, “is the hardest performance, because your story’s gone.”

“I’m not going to get my Coca-Cola,” yelled Louise Bourgeois. “My make-up is wrong. I am afraid to be interrupted. I am afraid not to remember what I intended to do.”

“Let us take down the old notebooks,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “which we all have…and find…beautiful things.”

Among the pages of Joseph Cornell’s journals, tens of lists:

January 4, 1943

Into town late – bank – down to Lexington and 24th. Goldsmith’s – assortment, Mexican midgets, dancing bear, Hungarian cards, Bay of Naples litho. colored. Over to Madison Square for bus. A brief swirl of snow suddenly came covering everything with a fine coat and then letting up before the short bus ride to Twelfth Street. Unexpected illumination and evocation of the past in these circumstances with feeling about Madison Square, etc. Lunch with Pajarito and Matta. 2 hours. At Reading Room then to Motherwell’s. Penn Station 1:42. Interest in Savarin Restaurant seen through glass windows in waiting room, etc.

And the poet, James Schuyler, made the list into art:

Things to Do

Balance checkbook.
Rid lawn of onion grass.
“this patented device”
“this herbicide”
“Sir, We find none of these
killers truly satisfactory. Hand weed
for onion grass.” Give
old clothes away, “such as you
yourself would willingly wear.”
Impasses. Walk three miles
A day beginning tomorrow.
Alphabetize.
Purchase nose-hair shears.
Answer letters.
Elicit others.
Write Maxine.
Move to Maine.
Give up NoCal.
See more movies.
Practice long-distance dialing.
Ditto gymnastics:
The Beast with Two Bucks
and, The Fan.
Complain to laundry
Any laundry. Ask for borrowed books back.
Return
junk mail to sender
marked, Return to Sender.
Condole. Congratulate.
“…this sudden shock…”
“…this swift surprise…”
Send. Keep. Give. Destroy.
Brush rub polish burn
mend scratch foil evert
emulate surpass. Remember
“to write three-act play”
and lead “a full and active life.”

.
5.

And music.

Always music in the other room.

And the songbirds there, too. The Beeptones, Slick and Trina, from Nicaragua, and Ella and Louie, from South Africa. And the gran canario, Cesar, a jazz-cat god, the Caruso of the household, belting out one aria after another.

Like waking up in the morning in a pensive, sour mood. “Lighten up, King Baby,” they’re singing, ever since the light came.

Today it’s Coltrane, A Love Supreme, replaying itself over and over and over again long into the afternoon. Long into evening.

Part I: Acknowledgment
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfor John Coltrane

We spin
and we deny it.
We speed through space and
hold our ground. xWe stand firm.
We sprawl out
in the shadows of cobwebs
and swim to the surface
and toast again the staggering
stars and the planets
and our getting away from it all.
We’re nobody’s business—
and the truth,
the truth’s wooden-clock voice
actually lives here.

When the night sky
for example is spattered with paint
and the forest is reduced
to a few glowing windows
and a curlicue of smoke
above a train,
I was at once inside
our cabin after all, and frankly
sick of friends, though
not the close ones,
of people, maybe,
not you.

Like something in the body
reflecting streets and chance interiors
and yelling Silence,
Camera,
your heart, your
family, inappropriately,
your clothes
against my idiocy,
not you.

.
6.

Upon a mountain top in China, sculptor and performance artist Zhang Huan piled five naked bodies, his own included.

He recalled the ancient idiom: “There are always higher mountains behind a high mountain.”

“When we left the mountain,” he said, “it was still the same mountain. Without change. Life is full of limitations and failed attempts. We tried to make the mountain higher but our attempt was futile.”

In Canberra, Australia, Zhang Huan gathered a hundred sheep and a large number of naked volunteers.

In New York City, a few months after 9/11, Zhang dressed his naked body in a hundred-pound suit of beef. “In New York I see many bodybuilders who, for long periods of time, do training exercises beyond their bodies’ capabilities. They have every kind of vitamin or supplement imaginable…, oftentimes it’s more than their hearts can bear.”

Zhang Huan invited three calligraphers to write the story and the spirit of his family on his face. By evening his face was ink-black. Its features had disappeared entirely, and nobody could tell the color of his skin. He disappeared. As if he no longer had an identity.

The calligraphy told a well-known story, and its moral is that as long as a person is determined, there’s nothing that he or she cannot achieve. Other characters included predictions of one’s fate. For example, the symbolic meaning of the shape of a cheek bone and the location of a mole.

Zhang Haun hung on to the roots of a tree rubbed with dog food and flour, which the dogs devoured greedily.

*

The Belgrade-born performance artist, Marina Abramovic, said she “wanted attention to my work, but much of the attention I got was negative.”

“The photographs of me naked in Galleria Diagramma were especially scandalous.”

“What if instead of doing something to myself, I let the public decide what to do with me?”

“In black trousers and a black t-shirt, behind a table of many objects: a hammer, a saw, a feather, a fork, a bottle of perfume, a hat, an axe, a rose, a bell, scissors, needles, a pen, honey, a lamb bone, a carving knife, a mirror, a newspaper, a shawl, pins, lipstick, sugar, a Polaroid camera. Various other things. And a pistol, and one bullet lying next to it.”

“For the first three hours, not much happened…someone would hand me the rose, or drape the shawl over my shoulders, or kiss me.”

“Then, slowly at first, and then quickly…the women in the gallery would tell the men what to do to me, rather than do it themselves (although later on, when someone stuck a pin into me, one woman wiped the tears from my eyes).”

“After three hours, one man cut my shirt apart with the scissors and took it off. People manipulated me into various poses.”

“A guy took Polaroids of me and stuck them in my hand.”

“A couple people picked me up and carried me around. They put me on a table, spread my legs, stuck the knife in the table close to my crotch.”

“Someone stuck pins into me. Someone else slowly poured a glass of water over my head. Someone cut my neck with the knife and sucked the blood.”

“There was one man—a very small man—who just stood very close to me, breathing heavily.”

“After a while, he put the bullet in the pistol and put the pistol in my right hand.”

*

Holding You Sober Close to Me

The city’s
behind us. The water’s calm. There are many heads
above the water.

Show me a victim and I’ll show you
a bathroom–a man slathered
in honey, a carpet

of flies.

Orange blossoms
and salt. Even the creepy doorman
tastes the salt

in the air.

If a child’s brought in, well, that’s something
different. We don’t want
our animals

to suffer.
You’re the last person on earth
prepared for the death

of your parents.

.
7.

When I think of art I think of beauty.

It’s where the eye goes, autonomously, on its merry way. For children and artists the message is about happiness—all across the sand.

Beauty is writing itself, and I’m always one step behind. Where the throat is. And the tear.

“And to speak again of solitude,” wrote the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, “it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something that we can choose or reject. We are solitary. How much better it is to realize that we are thus, to start directly from that very point….”

“For all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is intimately far….”

“A [person] who was taken from his study, almost without preparation and transition, and placed upon the height of a great mountain range, would be bound to feel something similar: an uncertainty without parallel, an abandonment to the unutterable would almost annihilate him.”

Immediacy is inspired. Presence is inspired.

Being this close is everything. It’s a discipline, like a child at play.

You’re the Rub

Murmured in loneliness, round and round.
Let’s not go inside. The cliffs drop off, and the ocean’s
a friend–on the boardwalk
enough people alone
have died.
So relax, take your feet
off–nobody’s
missing. There are many parts
of the mind. On that old
open day we let out our long green grass. A night’s passed
and you expected it
to be there.
You’re the rub–the love
that loves the loves. I like especially the puddles
and your wire. I like your mud.
I like your part
of it.

—Ralph Angel

x
Ralph Angel’s latest collection, Your Moon, was awarded the Green Rose Poetry Prize. Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 received the PEN USA Poetry Award, and his Neither World won the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets. In addition to five books of poetry, he also has published an award-winning translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.

x
x

Aug 082017
 

Tabucchi himself said of For Isabel, “it’s a wacky novel, a strange creature, like an unknown beetle frozen on a rock.” — Natalia Sarkissian

For Isabel: A Mandala
Antonio Tabucchi
Translation by Elizabeth Harris
Archipelago Books, 2017
144 pages; $16.00

.
Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.” So states Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012) in the opening note to his posthumous novel, For Isabel: A Mandala. Recently translated from the original Italian into English by Elizabeth Harris, For Isabel revisits a theme that is dear to its author: that of the journey during which truths are revealed.

Thus, the one hundred luminous pages of For Isabel follow the narrator, Tadeus, as he travels from Lisbon to Macao to Switzerland to the Italian Riviera, looking for Isabel, the love he lost during the dark days of Salazar’s Portugal. A leftist, Isabel seems to have been arrested while a university student. Rumored to have been pregnant, not only did Isabel disappear, but so did any trace of a child. Proceeding from eyewitness to eyewitness, Tadeus assembles the pieces of the puzzle. As he progresses, not only does he learn of Isabel’s fate, but he also arrives at a clearer understanding of photography, of writing, of the impermanence of life itself while meeting wild and zany figures, some of mythic proportions, from the past.

Divided into nine sections, here called circles, the novel’s structure evokes the mandala of the subtitle. Indeed, the word mandala refers to a circular figure that in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism represents the universe. As a spiritual tool, the mandala serves to focus attention and aid meditation. Tadeus is conscious of the power of the mandala. As he states: I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center…. It’s simple to reach consciousness, you photograph reality.”

The story begins with the First Circle, the circle of Evocation, which is set in modern day Lisbon. Tadeus states he is from The Greater Dog, or the Canis Major constellation. According to myth, Canis Major guarded Europa, but failed to prevent her abduction by Jupiter. Likewise, Tadeus failed to protect Isabel from Salazar’s thugs. It is therefore his fault she is gone: “You might say I’ve lost track of her and I’ve come from the Great Dog just to look for her, I’d like to know more about her.”

He meets her childhood friend, Mónica, who recounts how she and Isabel would catch frogs, slice their heads off and then turn their legs into a sumptuous dish à la Provençal; it was while chopping off the frogs’ heads that Isabel tells Mónica how she might commit suicide: “Listen, Isabel would say, someday if I kill myself, I think I’ll go just like this, with a few kicks, because if you can’t cut off your own head, you can always hang yourself, which is something similar, four kicks into empty air, and goodnight everybody.”

But at university, Mónica too, loses track of her friend when she joins the Communist party. Not able to give up-to-date news, Mónica directs Tadeus to Isabel’s old nanny, Bi, in the Second Circle, who also doesn’t know what has happened to her. Tadeus proceeds onward. In the Third Circle, the circle of Absorption, set in a Lisbon nightclub, nostalgia reigns. Not only does Tadeus drink absinthe straight up, because in so doing it’s a serious drink, like in the past, but he meets Tecs who plays tributes on her saxophone to Sonny Rollins, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. Tecs sadly informs Tadeus that long ago Isabel was arrested and taken to Caxais prison:

“… we heard news of her from a prison guard who risked coming to the university and giving us a note, he was a prison guard in the opposition, who aided political prisoners … I went off … and when I returned, they told me Isabel had died, that she committed suicide in prison and they showed me her death notice in the paper … But they told me that she killed herself in prison … that she swallowed glass.”

Not convinced by this version of events, Tadeus prods Tecs who finally remembers the prison guard’s name, Mr. Almeida.

In Circle Four, the circle of Restoration, Mr. Almeida relates what happened in prison to students protesting the Salazar regime. They arrived beaten to a pulp and then were beaten some more. While Isabel suffered this fate too, Tadeus also learns that not only was Isabel not pregnant, but that she did not commit suicide. Rather, Mr. Almeida and ‘The Organization,’ helped her escape. Her contact in The Organization, according to Mr. Almeida: “It was Mr. Tiago, he said, enunciating each word. … He had a photography studio in Praça das Flores.”

In the Fifth Circle—Image—Tadeus rings the bell at World & Photo photography studio, where he meets with Tiago, a foppish, elegant sort, in a linen jacket with an Indian foulard around his neck and a cigarette in a long ivory holder. The two reflect on the nature of photography; Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is alluded to, in particular to Barthes’ idea that the photograph attests to death, to what has been.

When Tiago gives Isabel’s photograph to Tadeus he says: “I’m reminded that someone said the photograph is death, because it fixes the unrepeatable moment.”

But unlike Barthes, Tiago wonders if the photograph, if indeed, art as a whole, can also be life:

…but I still ask myself: and what if [the photograph] were life instead? –immanent, peremptory life that lets itself be caught in an instant, that regards us with sarcasm, because it’s there, fixed, unchanging, while we instead live in variation, and then I think the photograph, like music, catches the instant we fail to catch, what we were, what we could have been, and there’s no way you can counter this instant, because it’s righter than we are …. life against life, life in life, life on life?

In the Sixth Circle, the circle of Communication, a dreamlike, hallucinatory chapter, Tadeus visits the Grotto of Camões in Macao. For a time, this was the home of Portugal’s greatest poet, Luis Vaz de Camões (1524/5-1580), the author of the epic poem, The Lusiades. While in the grotto, next to a bronze bust of the dead poet, Tadeus converses with a bat possessed by a woman named Magda, an old comrade of Isabel’s, who directs him to speak with a priest. Tadeus then confesses to the priest that he is an author who has sinned: I wrote books, I whispered, that is my sin…. There was nothing dirty, just a sort of arrogance toward reality…. I got it into my head that the stories I imagined could recur in reality … I’ve steered events, this is my pride.”

In the Seventh Circle—Worldliness—Tadeus, still in Macao, meets The Ghost Who Walks. A poet, European in origin and always dressed in white, The Ghost Who Walks is Tadeus’s guiding light:

“… you, in your infinite wisdom, might be able to tell me where to find [Isabel]…. I’m looking for Isabel … I’m making concentric circles, like the concentric circles squeezing my brain at this very moment.”

“The Ghost Who Walks took a long pull from his pipe. Isabel, he said, there might be an Isabel in my poetry, or in my thoughts, they’re one and the same, but whether she’s in my poetry or in my thoughts, she’s a shadow who belongs to literature, why are you looking for a shadow who belongs to literature?”

“Perhaps to make her real, I answered weakly, to give some meaning to her life, and to my rest.”

“You have to look in the country of William Tell, he murmured. And then he was quiet again.”

In the final two circles, Expansion and Realization, Tadeus journeys to Switzerland and then to the Italian Riviera. In Switzerland, he learns that the universe has no boundaries, that cardinal points can be infinite or nonexistent, and that a man who has lost his way “needs to symbolize the universe with an integrative art form,” such as the mandala. On the Riviera, from the Mad Fiddler, Tadeus discovers that he has finally arrived: “We’ve reached the center, he whispered, give me Isabel’s photo. I gave him the photo, and he laid it at the center of the circle. Then he stood up, raised his violin to his shoulder, and quietly began to play Beethoven’s Farewell Sonata.

And while the Mad Fiddler plays, Isabel appears, as if from thin air. She tells him:

“… you think your search for me is over, but you were only searching for yourself…. you wanted to free yourself from your remorse, it wasn’t so much that you were searching for me as yourself, to pardon yourself, a pardon and an answer, and I’m giving you that answer tonight, the night we said goodbye… you’re released from all your guilt, you’re not guilty of anything, Tadeus, there’s no little bastard child of yours in the world, you can go in peace, your mandala’s complete…. If you walk up the narrow road leading from the Riviera station where you arrived, she said, halfway up the hill, you’ll find a very small cemetery, and down the central path, in among the plainest graves, there’s one that no one visits, with a few wrought-iron flowers and a simple headstone that has no dates, no photograph, just an epitaph….”

Tadeus opens his eyes and the Mad Fiddler erases the circle he has drawn in the sand. “Because your search is through, he said, and it takes a puff of wind to lead everything back to the wisdom of nothing.” Because impermanence is the way of the world.

Antonio Tabucchi (1943-March 2012) began writing For Isabel long before it was finally published. His wife, Maria José de Lancastre, a Portuguese translator and critic, together with Carlo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher, explained in a note to the first edition—in Italian (2012):

He had written it over the course of many years and spoke about it enthusiastically in interviews…. In the meantime, he wrote other things, going in other directions; he traveled, went to different countries; he gave the manuscript to a dear friend for safekeeping; in the end he asked her to give it back so he could reread it, possibly publish it. But it was the summer of 2011, and that autumn he became ill.

Tabucchi himself said of For Isabel, “it’s a wacky novel, a strange creature, like an unknown beetle frozen on a rock.” Be that as it may, it shares elements with other works by the author. Its mixture of reality and hallucination recalls Indian Nocturne, Tabucchi’s 1984 novel, where the protagonist embarks on a metaphysical search in India for a mysterious friend, all the while looking for his own identity. For Isabel also shares elements with Requiem: A Hallucination (1991). In this latter novel, Tabucchi centers his narrative on an Italian author who meets the spirit of a dead Portuguese poet.

An academic as well as a writer, Tabucchi divided his time between Siena, Italy, where he taught Portuguese language and literature, and Portugal, where he was director of the Italian Cultural Institute. During his lifetime he won numerous prestigious international prizes including the Campiello Prize and the Prix Médicis. He was also named a Chevalier des Arts et des Letters. After his death, the Portuguese cultural minister declared Tabucchi’s work was the most Portuguese of all Italians. His novels and stories have been translated in over forty languages.

After the publication of Salman Rushdie’s publication of the Satanic Verses, and the controversy that ensued, Tabucchi helped to establish the International Parliament of Writers, an organization that highlights censorship and the loss of writer’s freedoms around the world.

Translated elegantly and seamlessly by Elizabeth Harris who wrote an MFA thesis in translation and who teaches creative writing, For Isabel brings, as she says, “good, complicated fiction to American audiences.”

Like Tadeus, Tabucchi’s mandala is now complete. If we listen, perhaps we can hear the Mad Fiddler playing, softly, very sweetly. And if we look up, we might see Isabel as Tabucchi describes her in the last line of his book. “Waving a white scarf, and saying goodbye.”

 

— Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and was  an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq from 2010-2017.

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Aug 082017
 

The she-wolf of Roman legend from William Kentridge’s reverse graffiti frieze along the Tiber Ricer in Rome. All photos by the author.

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Rome is burning. Every day it catches fire somewhere. On the edges a spark blazes up in the vibrating air, in its place a blue ghost-flame quivers and burns a hole into the map. In the pine forests of Villa Ada, Castel Fusano, along the Flaminia and Casilina the fallen pine-needles rustle softly, start glowing and burn through like the finest cigarette paper. The flames pile ever higher, the angle of their crests is that of the summer’s temperature curve. Smoke brims the holes, thick and black: in the unstirring heat-wave it spreads, flat on the ground, like the riverside mist on humid winter nights, is soaked up into the house walls of Prati, Monte Mario, Monteverde, rolls its cottonwool waves relentlessly along the Orbital.

The pine-tree needle catches fire with a tiny snap, like a thread of hair, one needle is one snap, but the needles snapping in at the same time flare up with a hollow boom. In the explosion of flames the black needle glares up white and falls to ashes in an instant, but black flies from it, becoming smoke, colour-ash, which flakes down on the burnt soil, it rains down, black, in the air, on the travertino facades, on the granite cobblestones, moves into the sky, into the blue: fossilized scent, resin becomes the colour of time, black. In Ostia’s pine forest, where in August people gather cones to pick the pineseeds, tall orange-red grass is undulating around the tree-trunks. The pine-trees do not catch fire from below though, but from above, as if they needed the sun to harry the last heat through them to be filled with fieriness. They stand the firestorm the way they stand tempests: not bending but stretching taut like a veil, as if the sky pushed down on them with all its weight, their needle foliage undulating in all directions at the same time, like bird-swarms in the evening. The papers report arson. Roghi, stakes send up their smoke everywhere, places of execution; fires are general all over the country. In northern Rome, in Torrevecchia, on the street named after Cesare Lombroso, the tent camp of the Roma goes up in flames, the makeshift lodgings and covers burn with greasy smoke. Every hour the ululation of a siren breaks into the hardened noise of traffic.

In Palazzo Sacchetti, close to the river, an inward-curving hairlock, on which the photographic light had lit up with such blond reflexes, and the neck’s soft skin above the high blouse neck, where it is the whitest, flare up – the picture burns into its negative, its contours blaze white-hot, showing up the face for one more instant. Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt. Its edges curl inward like ferns, the wide stretch of the forehead resists yet, its place now fire-torn; the smile born on the teeth’s mineral white turns into a ghost flame, then smoke-black. Time sediment. White and light, consumed, Verlorne, in the flame-shelter, bearing still the shining and the pain in the descending evening light, between the wind-sheltered walls of Palazzo Sacchetti, where her name is not written. The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it.

*

On the street climbing up the Celio, under one of the drooping little trees that hem in the Ospedale Militare’s parking lot, a thin African boy sleeps on the asphalt, face upwards. He looks barely twenty. Abandon of sleep that makes the arms fall open and the head roll sideways in the syncopated noise of cars speeding upwards across the speech noises; trust that the feet stepping over will not kick him in the face. Or a tiredness beyond circumspection. He is lying on the asphalt cracked up by the inveterately trespassing cypress roots that will not accept the status quo of street maps. As if a gently rippling sea had washed him up here, quietly depositing him on an asphalt dune, for some awed grown-up to clumsily hoist him up in his arms. The sea sends its voice up here: beyond the wall, in the gardens of Villa Celimontana the wind pendulating cypress and pine, oleander and myrtle scent is the radial ripple of sea-waves in the air. On their surf the ancient marble paper ship, the Navicella had once sailed up, to be shipwrecked on the crest of this wave-shaped hill, in the vineyards overgrowing the debris. Across the street, among blackish-green foliage, the 5th-century monolithic bulk of Santo Stefano Rotondo; in its external ambulatory thirty-four scenes of martyrdom, variations on a theme: how gracefully the beturbaned centurio moving on mannerist dancer legs gathers momentum, to chop off the hand of the girl standing in counterpose. According to the script, during Hadrian’s reign Eustachius was burnt together with his Christian mates inside a bronze bull. The brown animal stands with head thrust up and feet planted wide apart, in an opening in its side several praying men huddle together, smoke is already rising under its belly. Tuning-in of a giant tuba in an orchestra; cleft-hoofed ancient death truck. A funerary monument removed from the mosaic floor stands alone beneath the splendid spoglio columns, a compact hooded effigy. Only the cut of the majuscules and the Latin diction signals that, although born in a faraway, frosty land, he belongs here: Roma est patria omnium. The deceased, Johannes Lazo, was the commissioner of the first Renaissance chapel on the edge of the known world, Transylvania: frail Italian souvenir, the filigree monument, carved with urns, fruit wreaths and sea-shell niches, of the homesickness for Rome. Entering the park of the Celimontana, on the pebble path that coats the sandals with white powder, an improvised sign bids those who have come to the birthday party of the little Francesco follow the butterflies. Pink, orange, violet, green plastic butterflies are hung on the greenery, jolly Christmas decoration in June: in the tangible half-shadow of pines, magnolias and oleanders, minute buoys signalling the haven of parents giving out generous helpings of ice cream from thermal bags. At the park’s further end space is hollowed out into a bay around a fontanella’s babble. The name on the signpost is new: Largo delle Vittime di Tutte le Migrazioni. In memory of the dead of the 2013 shipwreck at the shores of Lampedusa. A reminder that the sea-mill grinds pneumatic boats and bodies. In early July five thousand refugees are brought ashore in one single day by the rescue ships. Eight hundred land in Brindisi. One woman sings when she steps on dry land. On the boat a child is born, they baptize him Cristo. Below in the news a report of a Bangali refugee savagely beaten up by a group of teenagers because he obtained social housing.

The name of the street descending from the Lateran to the slopes of the Celio, along the walled-in complex of Ospedale San Giovanni, is Amba Aradam. It has an outlandish ring. One evening I stray there, spotting no sight-buoy that could lead me back to one of the known places. As it turns out, I have ended up behind the Celio: I climb back to the Navicella and to the parking lot where the African boy had been sleeping with his head on the asphalt. There are people sleeping here at all hours in the shallow niches of Severus’s walls on cardboard sheets, staffage figures in the Roman landscape, like the vedutists’ shepherds, signs that the place is populated. Amba Aradam, Celio: names. That of the celestial-sounding hill is the name of an Etruscan king, Caelius Vibenna, Rome’s first conqueror. That of the street at the feet of the hill is the name of a giant mountain in Ethiopia. In February 1936 General Badoglio’s troops, complete with fighter-bombers and several blackshirt and alpine divisions besieged the mountain and the mountain pass leading to the capital, Addis Ababa. In a few days the battle is won: the Ethiopian defence entrenched high on the mountain is caught in the enemy’s clench, and for four days on the remains of Mulugeta’s fleeing army the Italian aircraft drop forty tons of mustard gas. Mulugeta’s son is killed by members of the Galla tribe, allied with the Italians, his corpse mutilated; the father, who returns to recover his son’s body, is killed by an Italian bomber. Beneath the name of the mountain covered in contorted bodies suffocated in the poison gas a tunnel is dug, the third subway line will cross sedimented time in this direction from the Colosseum. During the excavations a spectacular discovery is made, a frescoed villa from the imperial age, a rare wooden structure destroyed in a fire; among the remains the skeleton of a dog comes to light, together with what is believed to have been a puppy, probably trapped in the building on fire.

*

The refugees have been cemented into the structure of this city made of images in the form of other imaginings. The Trojan refugee who was to found Rome, Aeneas, stumbles toward Rome clad in heroic nudity, in the body’s beauty, with his father astride him. Anchises, who saddles his son’s shoulder, bears aloft the statue of the house-gods with his thinning but still vigorous arm, while Aeneas’s young son holds on to his father’s knee: petrified dance movement, the allegory of the three ages of man, of the three human times. The young body spiralling inward with the energy compressed under high pressure, like a pillar, the promise of history.

Refugee human times are not always as muscular as on Bernini’s statue. On undergrowth and under foliage that are at once a Renaissance cliché and could be a grove in Villa Celimontana or Villa Ada, in the half-shade two exhausted adults and a baby receive a guest on their flight: a messenger with tempestuous drapery blown here from non-natural light, an angelos who – for what language could he indeed use with them – makes music. Embarrassingly bare-assed, on a tangible fiddle and from a score that Joseph holds for him – the one who has not given in to sleep like Mary, whose bun and hand embracing her child have come loose. Joseph holds the score and hides one bare foot with the other with the same old man’s clumsiness as his lookalike Matthew, whose lumpy hand is folded on the pen by the patient teen angel boy. The only one to look both at the angel and out, at us, is the half-hidden animal: one difficult non-human eye, its expression more unreadable than the angel’s backside. We see the music: although it can be played from the score, the fiddle’s voice is the fluid light itself, coming from an unlocalizable source, making everything freeze and setting everything aquiver at the same time. It doesn’t draw the contours of the body but wraps them up in aural shining. Magnetic storm, in which only the angel’s hairlock, unfolding loincloth and fluffy plumes of the lower wing stir, because he has two pairs of wings: one that looks like a chicken’s wing at most, and one leaden-heavy, folded into a strict vertical, perhaps a raven’s wing, in any case one that can by no account be supported by the malleable puberal shoulder. Teen cherub. Across the painting’s plane, the donkey’s dark shoulder echoes it. Mary, the chosen one does not see, does not hear the angel, but her red robe’s hem dropping to the ground starts glowing, as if shot through with radioactive rays, and is lifted from the ground in the same way in which the leaves curl back, their edge turned phosphorescent. Useless, gratuitous, almost inappropriate gift: it doesn’t feed or quench the thirst, it doesn’t even soothe the poor blistered feet, doesn’t offer directions or background info; no help or compassion, only an instant out of joint in the time of those whose lives have come out of joint. To receive it, to connect to it is only possible in the way in which the unpracticed hand does as it holds up the score, or the quietly radiating stone between the angel’s and Joseph’s feet, on which it is not the angel but Joseph who casts light. Perhaps in fact it is all about an angel descending to practice his instrument and do field research who, finding himself a live stand for the score, with his newfangled knowledge composes a mellifluous ciaccona on what it is like to give birth in a manger.

Self-abandon, the body’s surrender starts on the edges: the ankles and knees give way, the hands hang dumb and senseless, the neck is broken into an impossible angle by the dropping head. One of the most bewildering statues to be copied in Rome captures the stages of the body’s resistance and self-surrender: the Gaul killing himself and his wife erects a memorial to the vanquished that puts all triumphal symbols between inverted commas. In the pyramid-shaped composition everything is in movement, before the collapse everything fills up with life like a wound filling up instantly with blood: the warrior’s stretched thigh, stepping forward, the acute angle inscribed by the underarm that thrusts the blade into the neck, with the outward-turning head and the blade, and the other acute angle to echo it, that of the Gaul’s left hand holding up the collapsing woman’s left to keep her from falling to the ground. The direction of the step forward is also the direction of falling; the line of the supporting right leg, about to kick itself away from the ground, is repeated with stormy flutter by the cloak which, for one sole moment evicted from the passage of time and even from itself, resists gravity. In the spot-light streaming down from the museum ceiling the marble sends out into the room the taut skin’s mortal beauty: do not go gentle. The upward-spiralling movement is escape artistry. It starts from the helplessly toppling two feet of the stabbed woman, who is now only supported by the still living arm.

The childlike, soft soles turn outward, giving up balancing, they tumble the way the hem of the dress falls: living flesh and lifeless matter fold onto one another, unresisting, the clothes still preserve the warmth of the breathing-out body, but they fall upon one another with the great, meaningless co-belonging of organic matter that starts decomposing that very instant, while above them life rages in an acute angle against the dying of the light.

To look up at it are the fallen barbarian horses on the lowest layer of the giant sarcophagus placed to one side, trampled by four layers of victors and vanquished. The figures of the uppermost layer are too busy slaying the last enemy in trousers, lifting the eagle banner, or blowing with puffed-up face into the trumpet that winds round their head like a halo. In the museum rooms quietly sizzling light splashes against the plinths and pedestals and, breaking on them, splatters shiny drops up the marble feet.

In the afternoon the sky moves closer and pours down its liquid light down the bodies, the walls, covers the skin and the windows’ volute consoles in shining. With its overflowing waves it washes off all the dull, leaving a wet sheen on the stones, windows, faces, the bare legs of tourists pushed onwards by the systole-diastole of Via dei Fori Imperiali. Every single gull crossing the blue, every travertino facade, cornice blotting up the light radiates into the blue that stretches like a dome and opens with a lantern: oblique light cascades upwards and downwards at the same time.

*

On the crest of the Celio the two courtyards of Santi Quattro Coronati are sluices that let the noises of the outer world trickle into the acquarium of silence inside in a thin stream only. In the shade a man and a woman stand talking. The woman must be fiftyish, slender legs on tall sandal platforms, slender neck tilted slightly toward her interlocutor. Trespassing beauty: for how long does form hold its contours together in the face of time. The cloister is soundproofed by light-striated air walls, the background noise is caught up on the small twin columns’ grid of shadows.

It was built in the early 13th century out of the Roman debris of the Celio: the toy-size plinths grow water lily capitals from the rich soil of inscribed marble slabs, frieze fragments; the fraying-edged majuscules are larger than the blunt stone leaves curling upwards on the plinth corners. Under a filigree arch, a densely engraved marble slab: the squares, x-es, triangles of ancient draughts, fossilized friendliness in a convent.

The corridor’s stones, which can be read like a library, are deep black, only their worn-off, polished edges are bone-white; every engraving, inscription seems to add yet another layer of deep black. On the sunlit side the columns modulate from sun-bleached brownish-white to deep black: the  most light-worn white trickles down in thin lines on the inner, shady side, then from the parapet down to the stone floor, white light-inundation areas on the corridor. Restoration started a few years ago: the nearly thousand-year-old dirt, pollution is cleared away, erased from the stones with laser, with dentist’s instruments. The restored patches are almost ostentatiously white – small-scale transfiguration. Black: the colour of time, its material: dirt, stain, pollution, smog. The miniaturist’s painstaking back-erasure leaves sharp black-and-white contrasts. In only a few years the difference between the two ends of the cleared cloister corridor becomes visible: time starts silting immediately.

Into the stones faces are inscribed, face-stones. The statues of the historical collection of Palazzo Altemps did not only dilapidate but also shot new limbs. The collectors had the unearthed marble bodies restored, that is, the famous sculptors of the day, Algardi, Bernini supplied the missing arms and legs, sometimes even placed heads from other statues on the torsos: marble prostheses, transposed ancient heads. In the collection there is a monumental bust of Antinous: of the portrait of emperor Hadrian’s lover made into a god on account of his beauty only the nape with the thick locks, the neck and the shoulders was found. The face had been consumed by erosion, smashed in by iconoclasts or lime burners perhaps, its inward-turned gaze long soaked up into walls that had themselves crumbled since, adding to the debris.

To recognize among hundreds of torsos, from the angle of the nape, the arc of the shoulders, the tilt of the faceless head, the peerless loved one: to see back the face and the gaze, the shining, the pain and the name. Face transplant bridging one and a half thousand years.

In Rome the stones are more brittle. They had been tenderized by the incessant touchings, fallings, by the procession of wheels, sandals, hooves. Their species are as known, tended and pruned as fruit trees in other lands. A pulvinum, cushion receives the weight of the architrave before passing it onto the capital, a mediator between two kinds of hardnesses: there exists an imaginary that would carve even a pillow out of stone. Working in soft matter is out of the question here.

In the Ghetto, in the courtyard of Palazzo Mattei, paved with ancient reliefs, there is a stone seat for the weary: a stone cushion carved to measure onto a small sarcophagus, complete with tassels, mattress-like dimples, seams and bumps. Stone upholsterer, a Roman craft by excellence: to upholster the brittle lid of stones, sooner or later put to practical use, with stone layers against the engraving of human bodies; to wrap into stone. The fraying and thinning of the stone-down-filled marble brocade is in fact acquired burnish.

*

On the Trastevere side of the river, the stretch of embankment between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini is populated with a spectral procession that is barely visible at first sight. Its figures are too large and too tangible to be truly visible and identifiable; the joints of the embankment wall and the weeds growing in them keep pushing themselves into the foreground.

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The images themselves seem to have been deposited here by the river, to belong together with the driftwood and plastic bottles stuck on the pillar, cemented into a compact cream by algae. Seen from the other side, however, they lose their tangible materiality, becoming merely visible. The place they ought to be looked at from, their true audience is the river itself. The pageant of triumphs and losses is headed toward Ponte Sisto, the Tiber’s triumphal arch on William Kentridge’s giant frieze, engraved into the material of Rome. The images are negatives: they are not painted on the stones, it is their background that has been carved out, the patina has been cleared away, so the drawings stand out in sharp black-on-white contrast. Their material is the stuff of time: dirt, silt, pollution, smog. The ceaseless procession performed to the river doesn’t remove itself from time: in time, the contrast will fade and eventually vanish, together with the images, as smog is deposited, thick and black. The parade of the triumphal symbols of history and of Rome is literally in decay, and of decay.

 

The silhouette of Marcus Aurelius’s equestrian statue is still complete, only the white patches of light on the shin and the horse’s rump foretell the coming erasure of edges and distinctions, but the horse and chariot arriving after him are themselves ruins: the horse appears to be a ghost animal patched together from spars and barbed wire, body posture without a body; the chariot’s wheel and gearbox stick out, lean silhouettes, as the vehicle rolls unmanned into the void.

The flesh of the Capitoline she-wolf seems to be melting downwards, two jugs placed under her dugs; a skeleton-wolf lopes along after her against an empty horizon where only a tree stump grows.

In a black square rolling on four wheels, the white-on-black shadow-puppet silhouettes of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, a vehicle or a blown-up ad on the vehicle’s side, which pulls a barrow with a gigantic statue head, perhaps Constantine’s head, the pendant of the Capitoline gigantic foot. In the easily recognizable composition of the Rape of the Sabine Women, the man brandishes an oversize machine gun.

Everywhere the images freeze on the threshold of recognition, with their transpositions, re-orchestrations and bewildering contingencies slide into foreignness, displace and evict that which we believe to be our common visual heritage, our common fatherland of images.

Agallop on his shady horse, a long-maned skeleton with drawn sword: perhaps one of the mutant horsemen of Dürer’s Apocalypse, perhaps death flogging the blood-curdling blind horse of the Palermo Trionfo della Morte – but the debris which it tramples is indistinguishable: the body of an infant blown out of proportions? a shapeless heap of corpses?

The two figures pushing a wheelbarrow are perhaps transporting a body with a bishop’s mitre, the scene is that of the translation of relics, the de rigueur element of a saint’s legendry, but perhaps they are depositing a plague corpse. In the procession they are followed by a group picture with execution: stooping men with hands tied behind are pushed before a man who stands with sword raised high, and will most probably cut off their heads; at their feet, an almost amorphous trunk – the transfiguration, disquietingly stripped of context, of what scene of martyrdom, by what painter? Who are the ones to be executed, where, when does the slaughter happen? Rome’s archive of images is here the collection not of knowledge but of the imprints of unsettling gaps and lacunae, of non-knowing: everything looks vaguely familiar, but is dislocated to the point of unrecognizability. A Goyaesque figure with a goat’s (or wolf’s?) head and hooves bows down to a piously kneeling, headscarved heap of clothes, giving a gift or offering communion, an oversize espresso coffee pot in his hands. On a forward-pushing horse with head thrust up and one foreleg lifted into an improbable height, a faceless figure in frenzied, cambered Napoleon posture; the horse pulls a Fiat Cinquecento weighed down by a pile of bodies, which distantly evokes the pyramidal composition of the Florence Pietà. On top of the pile, Bernini’s Saint Theresa collapsing in ecstasy, beneath her the murdered Aldo Moro. The horse’s lifted and supporting forelegs are in pieces, the hooves hang in thin air, there is nothing to prop up the body, which is itself an image-ruin, the sole thing that rests of it is the blind forward thrust. Left behind, a monolithic figure in diagonal foreshortening, one of the corpses; it lies face downward, its shirt slid up to the shoulder-blades. What is the blackness smeared around the upper body: a pool of blood? the arm, twisted back? torn clothes? Four men leaning forward in Roman tunics carry indistinguishable objects on their shoulders, among them a menorah. The image is the imprint of the relief inside Titus’s arch – but only here does it become conspicuous how porous the image is, how full of gaps: the first man in the row has no legs whatsoever, he propels himself forward into the void on what appears to be a single crutch, according to the impossible physics of drawing; the others all lack a limb, part of a face. What the eye fills in readily on the arch’s worn-off relief, now suddenly appears uncannily holed, perished, fallen to pieces – we see what is, not what we know. The moment the historical context does not shroud the image into reassuring loftiness, patina, it is revealed that what we believe to know is a mere ruin, and to what extent the material of our images and stories, taken for granted, is filled in with the mortar of imagination-supplement.

About halfway in the procession in a black square it is written in brackets, QUELLO CHE NON RICORDO. But the image-less field is not blank, it is not erased, cancelled, scraped away, on the contrary: it is black deposit, unstirred time. The archive can also be empty, useless, if all silted layers are at our disposal. Here where black is the colour of saturation, of time, and white, that of emptiness, of non-time, the colour of erasures, damnatio memoriae and tabula rasa, the saturated black archive becomes the place of non-knowing. Perhaps it is no accident that in this very place someone scribbled a graffiti over the black – time takes back and inscribes these non-knowing images without delay. Below, a portion of the path is cordoned off with yellow tape where in a storm branches from the plane-trees of the Lungotevere broke and fell a few days before: the mound of debris started growing instantly, it is only a question of time when it will reach the bracketed words.

On a plank two men are crossing over water into a boat’s bow, one bends double under the weight of a chair: what are they loading in, where is it they are bound, where they can make use of a chair? The image doesn’t continue in a shore, as logic would demand, but in the prow of a boat full to the brim with people staring at some horizon: from the visual echo of the group propped up above the dying and looking up at their frantically waving mates on the Raft of the Medusa, it is impossible not to think of the cockleshells setting out every day across the Mediterranean. The boat itself is unaccountably strange, metamorphic. What seems to be drawn-in veils or an improvised awning that can hardly give any shade, looks disconcertingly like a horizontal gallows. Beneath, the water surface morphs into something that is at the same time a row of beam-thick oars (who are these men, galley-slaves?) and a makeshift raft’s cross-beams, half submerged – another echo of the Raft of the Medusa. Yet, in front of the raft of hope or hopelessness no rescue ship comes in sight on the horizon: in an empty wasteland the ghostly skeleton of the Capitoline she-wolf slogs, all that remains of her is the bones and the hanging dugs. In front of her, uncannily unlocalizable images, a group of faceless men carrying heavy bundles on their shoulders: history as ceaseless lugging, coming-and-going, eviction, removal with the dead, house gods, shapeless bags, lives. In front of a general’s prancing horse, the advance guard is a hussar-shakoed dummy saddling a vaulting-horse, the legs of his mount are gun barrels and crutches, its head a flag – unforgettable summing-up of the nauseatingly repetitive iconography of nationalisms. A big-maned silhouette dashes ahead with an oversize machine gun, like Ronan the barbarian, the foldover flaps of his combat boots flutter after him like Hermes wings. A horse skeleton drops to its knees in front of him, its clutch-legs put together from gunbarrels. Behind him, a quixotic vehicle rolls in: a bathtub in which Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg kiss as water (or gas?) pours down on them from a showerhead hanging from a pole that is fastened to the tub. The imprints of the images of culture are hauled hither and thither among the other bundled goods, becoming ever more brittle, their edges break off, their fate is that of classical or early Christian iconography: they can be deciphered only fragmentarily, painstakingly, and with gaping lacunae. Our culture as ruin. Overlooking the procession that sets out in the direction of the two bridges from the black square of non-knowing and non-remembering, under Ponte Mazzini, two meters above the driftwood island, humanity in ruins: the gaudy plastic tents and shapeless piled-up bundles of refugees and of the homeless.

*

Pizza bianca, focaccia al rosmarino. Salt, rosemary and oil: taste of friendliness. L., stranger, unknown friend. Flashing blue eyes, flashing white teeth. She talks about the flavor of the soil in pizza dough and in vegetables. At the shaky small table our plates touch, we taste one another’s food. It is only steamed leaves – my favourites, bietola, cicoria – she refuses, for their substance, she says. On the first evening, a group of cheerful half-strangers, we walk up the Palatine hill after closing hour, when the gulls and songbirds take it back from the crowds. All through she talks about the poetic justice in the fact that the erstwhile triumphal arches, the columns of the forums are taken apart, the emblems of one-time victory become lintels, construction stones, the symbols of power do not survive the demise of power but as objects of daily use, shedding their former meanings. The triumphal arch is turned into a gate in the shrunken walls of the shrunken city, lime-burning stoves spring up inside what used to be a theatre, weavers spread their starched linen, goat herds graze beneath the columns of Fortuna Virilis, on the ruins a little, scarce life sprouts. She speaks in Italian, fast and with gusto, mixing in some Spanish turns-of-phrase every now and then: mongrel Romance, she says. We toast to mongrelizing. Every day early in the morning she walks up the Aventino hill to the Giardino degli Aranci, when there are no people there yet, only the birds, the trees and the sky. Thirty-five kilos of animation. She is first and foremost interested in the way the language of science frames the body. Before becoming a freelance she was an engineer and designed attack helicopters for the US army. It is from there she took to the world, lived on orange and oil farms, started speaking in other languages. At one of the lectures, about the biopolitics of the early 20th century, there is a lengthy quote from a letter reporting with wry humour the death of one of the imprisoned participants of the Easter Rising. To demand prisoner-of-war status, he goes on hunger strike, the authorities try force-feeding on him, but in the course of the operation the bougie is jammed into the larynx instead of the aesophagus. It couldn’t have escaped her that they share a surname. At dinner she relates how she got ill with a sombre autoimmune disease, and was hospitalized for a long time; she was declared an anorexic, so she was excluded not only from the numbers of the healthy but also from those of the anorexic, who sensed she wasn’t one of them. One morning she faints on the Gianicolo hill – having walked up all the way in the merciless sun, crossing half of Rome; the physician who consults her is of the opinion that she is critically undernourished and prescribes infusion, but she rejects the idea of hospitalization. It’s only the level of her blood sugar that tends to drop, she says. She is walking away on the immense, treeless square, Giacometti woman, fluff-haired bare life, her thigh the width of a child’s wrist, sore skin and bones in the moving boots, away into the glaring light. The university doesn’t take responsibility for the costs of eventual treatment, the doctor’s diagnosis is anorexia, so they would send her home halfway through the program, with the recommendation to heal; she turns down the offer of a flight the next day and will not accept the diagnosis, prefers to travel on southward, seaward; in a farewell message she invites me to a good meal somewhere, sometime.

*

On the right side of Termini the Via Giolitti’s row of palaces is a breakwater, against which the relentless waves of tourists smash, to be drained into the Piazza della Repubblica, or along Via Gioberti and Corso Cavour into the communicating pools of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Forum. Only the spumes are splashed into the parallel streets; they, too, mostly seek out the cheap little souvenir shops and street vendors, and the kebab and pizza-a-taglio shops pouring out their burnt oil smell day and night. Tourists grown into strange centaur forms with their backpacks count their coins in the sqeezed-in little places where with sparing movements, Filipinos eat their supper at the end of a day’s cleaning, or Africans who spend most of the day in the blade-wide shade on the deserted end of Via Giolitti, between the De Chirico tower with its winding stairs and the shell of the Tempio di Minerva, hoping for some daywork. In the district mornings start very early: the mercatini move out on the streets, the always too narrow pavements brim over not with passers-by but with hurriers-to and luggers. The intonation of Filipino and Romanian blends readily into that of Italian, while the various Chinese, Indian and African languages stand out distinctly with their vowels hollowed out by different configurations of the throat, tongue and palate. On the instantly heated asphalt, amidst the general busy-ness there are a few islands of slowness, unwashed-looking shopwindows, unopened-looking doors. On a corner, the once modern art deco masks of Cinema Moderno watch over a few parking motorini and the rear entrance to a deposit. Above an exchange office, an antiquated font from the ’60s proclaims in a husky voice, CAMBIO; in its shop window rows of commemorative medals and 19th century coins, a whole numismatic collection – as if sullenly drawing aside, outside of time; the day’s exchange rate is posted almost apologetically sideways. With calligraphic letters, as though in the hand of some award-winning primary-school pupil, a painted sign above a shop window in which dust gathers on military orders and decorations: Ma Mi – La Sartoria del Militare. Ma mi: Giorgio Strehler’s song about the hardened thug of the Milan malavita who, past his years in the resistance and facing a long term in prison for some unspecified criminal act, when the captain offers to set him free in exchange for the names of his mates, refuses to chirp, standing the clouts in San Vittur prison quaranta dì quaranta nott, as he once had at the hands of the todesch de la Wehrmacht. Ornella Vanoni removes her earrings and with head thrown back sings out in her untamed throaty voice in the sixties, sbattuu de su sbattuu de giò, like a real duro. Up-yours spite, the tomcat stink of the ballad of the malnati growing up on the streets like feral kittens sprays the uniforms that step over the threshold; the words of the explosive hit of the antifascist generation are sewn into the military finery of retired army officers. Two outlandish words in a faraway dialect, remnants of the republic’s sun-bleached spirit, blend in with the Chinese names on shop windows.

The largest island of the archipelago of stillness is the improbably silent little park in front of the Acquario Romano, meant to be a monument to water. Under the two flights of stairs leading to the entrance, safely out of reach at the bottom of a minute fake grotto, a toy fountain sends out its tantalizing gurgle to the thirsty. There is no fontanella on the surrounding streets, only throat-parching exhaustion gas, heat that massacres the feet; in the shops mineral water bottles are everywhere placed well in sight. In the prolonged draught not only Rome but the whole province is suffocating: with the level of Lake Bracciano, where most of Rome’s water comes from, at a historical low, and environmental disaster pending, the city administration decided to switch off the water of the fontanelle, free for all in all parts of the city. A sentry box guards the entrance; a uniformed policeman watches over the few Africans who sit in loose groups on the benches of the shady side, immersed in their cellphones  or merely trying to get a few hours’ comfortable sit instead of sleep. In a corner of the park, a group of singular objects: a haphazard structure, a shaky assemblage of a few elements, and two chairs put together from a few metal sheets and circles.

 

Two examples of Yona Friedman’s communal, utopian, improvised shelters, variable at will and designed for those in need. Friedman obviously knew quite a bit about scarce, improvised dislocated life – himself a survivor of fascism in Hungary, who first moved to Israel after the war, then to Paris in 1957. His oeuvre is a collection of shelters, homes, spaces that anyone can join together according to their needs out of ‟crumpled sheets” and supports chosen at will – the polar opposite of postwar International Style subordinating life to the structures born on the drafting table; one of his insights is that a sheet, if crumpled, gains in solidity and resistance. The chairs are here as part of a Friedman show at MAXXI. There, in Zaha Hadid’s sculptural, ostentatious space, in the histrionic museum light Friedman’s mobile mock-ups sit awkwardly, like blistered feet in a posh shoe shop; the project of the street museum – bearing the motto, it is the exhibits that make a museum – is especially ironic here, where the building is the main spectacle, pushing all the exhibits into the background.

Inside and in front of it museum death is general, not even Mario Merz’s glass igloo and Piero Gilardi’s carnivalesque, anarchic set of demonstration masks and still lifes cut out of psychedelic-coloured polystyrene can resist its pull. The two chairs stand in the park corner like two exhibits with attached labels – extensions of the architecture centre inside the Acquario. None of the Africans occupied either of them, although they were made for them, even if not placed here for them. I sit down in one, it’s surprisingly comfortable and roomy: radical design for the middle-class flâneur. Inside, beyond the cafè  an exhibition of the works of the visionary architects of the ’60s, Mario Ridolfi and Mario Fiorentino, among the first to sense that modernity’s faith in reason cannot hold. In the bookshop on a stand, designer’s items, bookmarks with catchy mottos and maxims from Confucius to Bob Dylan, you must change your life, one euro apiece, the price of three bottles of mineral water in a neighbourhood grocery.

*

A fresh globe of horse-turd is smoking, gleeful find on the Via Appia. On a cypress trunk a sign with picture missing Titù, friendly medium-size black female dog, lost on the stretch around San Sebastiano. Waif on the petrified luggage conveyor silted in sand, from which the soutward-bound carts, litters, odd-toed or cleft hooves, the entering and exiting troops, those destined to promotion or execution have long tumbled off, only the funeral monuments, steles rest with a petitioning look on their portraits, unreclaimed luggage. The feet get used to the passage from the uniform basalt cobblestones to the broad, flat lava-stone slabs with their humps and hollows, with their notches impressed by cart wheels: unfinished lithography, its technique long forgotten, its forms can be only intuited. Functional roads leading somewhere are the most nondescript buildings, non-places. The Appia Antica, too, leads, but not somewhere: pure procession without goal,end, terminus, and without a route – it became Antica when it ceased to be a roadway. Wayward road, only proceeding wayward, into itself. Space evicted from journeying, space become time: its face stopped aging, like the effigies on the funerary steles. It ran out of time.

This is probably the world’s most refined grand orchestra of cicadas: it does not concentrate on the beauty of sound, it treats rhythm as a sound architect, and doesn’t fidget too much about the odd mislaid tone. Of Rome’s many skies this is the widest and of its many lights, this is the most caressing even at its brightest. Among the bitter little cotton-tufted herbs a propped-up marble statue, with a hole where the head should sit: perhaps a standard half-figure with custom-made head, available in right- or lefthanded version. In the hollow in place of the neck a handful of pine needles, cypress cones, seeds gathers: humus that will germinate with the first autumn rain, unrepeatable vegetal life in the mass produce antiquated into uniqueness. Below their multi-storey flowerings, preposterous drawings, the bone-hard agave leaves twist and coil like octopus arms seeking to free themselves. To the right side, a forward-looking little arboretum, its saplings barely rise above the wilted grass.

From San Sebastiano bus 118 drives to the Ardeatina among walls and clouds of greenery, then on to trafficky Appia Nuova. The landscape spreads out wide. On a tall hillcrest against the sky, in counterlight the washed-up backbone of a prehistoric whale, the Villa dei Quintili. In the late imperial age the largest of Rome’s suburban villas stood here; to lay his hands on it, emperor Commodus, who loved posing as Hercules, ordered the killing of the two Quintilianus brothers, the most cultivated patrician heirs of the day. Slow light- and sunward ascent in the descending afternoon brightness. A seamless inverted v-shaped board fence, undulating matte eel’s spine establishes the directions; in the dried-up soil cracks go in all directions, lines of flight.

Fourten years: at the two ends of rising and falling light, the elongated shadows cast on the pathway, their contours do not overlap precisely. Perhaps not even the skeleton building’s contours overlap precisely. In that other time there was wild origano to gather here, and dried-up wild figs whose astringent sweetness lingered in the mouth for days. Perhaps they fell victims to systematization. The unauthorized little farm, too, disappeared from among the ruins, with its sad-faced, drooping-eared sheep and goats that obdurately practiced land occupation with their stench: now crows sit aligned in geometric order on the fence, uniformed uni-squatters, trickling musical notes on a splintered score. But at the entrance from the Appia Nuova a hoopoe bird is hopping, gleeful anarchist, light-discharges at the ends of its orange crest.

The caldarium’s gigantic window is practicing how to capture the most of the sky. How to turn entirely into sky, and the walls, into openings. First it shed its alabaster windowpanes, the ceiling mosaic, then its sills and in the end it stripped down to the brick layering. Its edges are now drawn by the blade-sharp shadows. Lidless eye gone blind in the incessant procession, into which things swim, so it responds to them with its substance. In the early Middle Ages a lime-burner set up shop among the ruins, marble excavated from here had the reputation of yielding prime lime, after it had been broken and matured in deposits for years like wine. Giant stone tuning-fork: to sound it one doesn’t need the wind, the touch of the gaze is enough. Its A is the purest, distilled Rome-homesickness, Rome-sickness. It can only be heard in silence, for otherwise the other, more mixed Rome-sicknesses outvoice it: the street noises, the gull noises, the fluttering of the tree-crowns, the wind-shielded shade, the grass scent, the pine scent stocked away for years in a cone, the undulating tread of sandalled feet, the laughing together.

—Erika Mihálycsa

§

Source of quotations and paraphrases in the text:

…summer’s temperature curve: Zsuzsa Takács, The Pillar of Salt [A sóbálvány] (2016)

harry the last heat through them: ‟harry the last few drops of sweetness through the wine”, Rainer Maria Rilke: Herbsttag, trans. Mary Kinzie

Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen]

White and lightVerlorne wind-shade: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen], trans. Michael Murray

sea-mill: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

do not go gentle… rage against the dying of the light: Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

…the shining, the pain and the name: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

…humanity in ruins: Samuel Beckett, The Capital of the Ruins (1945)

quaranta dì quaranta nott…todesch de la Wehrmacht…sbatuu de su sbattuu de giò: Giorgio Strehler, Fiorenzo Carpi, Ma Mi (1959)

you must change your life: Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo, trans. Stephen Mitchell

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Erika Mihalycsa
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Aug 072017
 

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When I was recently invited to deliver a talk at the institution where I have worked for the past thirty years, it was suggested to me that while I was free to speak about anything at all, my hosts would be pleased if I spoke about something that interests me deeply. So, after long and extremely contentious negotiations with myself, I decided to speak about literature. And more particularly still, about fiction. And still more particularly still, about the kinds of spaces that fiction defines. For we are creatures of space, after all. We dwell in many different kinds of space, often simultaneously. We think about space in a variety of ways, some of them fairly straightforward, others more than passingly vexed. It is legitimate to say that as much as we inhabit space, space inhabits us, significantly shaping the way we imagine ourselves and the way we come to be in the world.

Granted that, it seems to me that the notion of space is far more intriguing when it is conceived as a cultural topos than when we think of it as a natural phenomenon. Rather than something merely given, something that simply is, it is productive to think of space as something constructed, something forged both in and through culture. That sort of perspective provides more room for maneuver, more room for speculation, more room for play—in short more room for us.

Observations such as those may seem to be perfectly patent when it is a question of literary space, rather than of the space defined by the Grand Canyon, the Kalahari Desert, or the Mariana Trench. Yet I would like to suggest that there is no compelling reason for us to read those latter spaces more literally than we do the spaces we encounter in the books we read. And conversely (but in that very same light), it is from time to time both useful and tonic, I think, to imagine literary space in a very literal manner indeed—a relatively easy task for those literalists among us. I count myself as one of that breed, as a person consistently delighted by letters, and by the spaces that they limn.

Among the many pleasures that fiction puts on offer, the opportunity to lose oneself in mild abstraction is by no means the least; and I imagine that all of us have availed ourselves of that opportunity, whether sparingly or in a more insouciant manner. For my part, I am intrigued by the different shapes that state of abstraction assumes, and by its conditions of possibility. I would propose to parse it closely and methodically here, were it not for the fact its dimensions are so mutable, as mutable in fact as individual readerly experience can be. Instead, I shall focus on a few textual passages that seem to me to incorporate clear invitations to the kind of abstracted state that interests me, hoping thereby better to understand that phenomenon.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint

The first passage I would like to visit occurs when the narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom is gazing out of his window into a rainswept Parisian street:

It was raining. The street was wet, the sidewalks dark. Cars were parking. Other cars, already parked, were covered with rain. People were crossing the street quickly, going in and out of the post office in the modern building across from me. A little vapor began to cover my windowpane. Behind the thin coat of mist, I observed the passersby sending their letters. The rain gave them a conspiratorial air: stopping in front of the mailbox, they would draw an envelope from their coat and thrust it through the slot very quickly so as not to get it wet, meanwhile pulling up their collars against the rain. I put my face close to the window and, eyes against the glass, suddenly had the impression that all these people were inside an aquarium. Perhaps they were afraid? The aquarium was slowly filling. (20)

Many things could be said about this textual moment. I am chiefly interested, however, in the way that the narrator imagines his own situation with regard to the world around him. On the one hand, he is clearly inside his apartment, looking out at the street and at the people hurrying along it. On the other hand, as soon as he imagines that those people are in an aquarium, his position shifts to that of someone on the outside looking in. That inside-outness is more than passingly uncanny; and yet it seems to me perfectly exemplary of the kind of site that we inhabit when we read fiction.

For clearly, reading is a real-world activity. By that I mean that it takes place in the world of phenomena, a behavior that is conditioned (and sometimes constrained) by real-world considerations. We sit upright in our favorite chair or sprawl flat out on our sofa; the dogs are barking or they are silent; the telephone rings or it does not; our gimpy right knee is bothering us or it feels okay; we have paid our taxes on time or we are badly in arrears. Yet when we read fiction, we also dwell in the fictional world. Therein, we partake of the heady fruit of the lotus and lose ourselves. We gaze aghast upon the tortured souls in the eighth circle of Hell; we listen as a peer of the realm sounds his horn too late; we test the keen edge of a harpoon honed by a tattooed Kokovokoan; we detect the very particular aromas emanating from the kitchen as a middle-aged Irishman prepares to dine on the inner organs of beasts and fowls; we taste a perfectly prepared martini cocktail, shaken, not stirred.

In other terms, we are always divided when we read fiction. We are here, but we are also there—and vice versa, as it were. And in that light, we are very unlike the fictional characters who fascinate us. In her novel Western, Christine Montalbetti remarks that “only fictional characters are completely wrapped up in what they are doing” (Western 53). She is undoubtedly correct, insofar as fictional characters remain within the boundaries of their fictional worlds. For one imagines that if Emma Bovary or Stephen Dedalus were to set foot in the phenomenal world, they might find themselves just as divided as you or me. On the face of it, that latter eventuality seems absurd; yet we readers emigrate quite blithely from one world to another. We step into a fictional world, and thrash about therein in an effort to make it our own, suspending certain ways of thinking about the world, and heightening others, depending upon local circumstances.

One can be more literalist about this matter, or more coolly figuralist. Either way, one is obliged to realize that our readerly self is significantly divided. Ross Chambers has argued that certain kinds of literature promote that kind of divided attention far more than others. Pointing toward works that play upon the dilatory, upon apparent idleness and diversion, Chambers coins the term loiterature to designate them. “Critical as it may well be behind its entertaining façade,” he argues, “loiterly writing disarms criticism of itself by presenting a moving target, shifting as its own divided attention constantly shifts” (Loiterature 9). That kind of literature wagers squarely, I believe, upon our own willingness to be divided. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, in the passage that I quoted, invites us to read in that divided manner through the mediation of his protagonist, whose attention is so patently divided. Now, it is reasonable to imagine that the extent of that division (or the proportion of our attention devoted to the real or the fictional world at any given moment) will depend upon a variety of factors: the excellence of the text; the suggestibility and general humor of the individual reader; the local circumstances in which the act of reading takes place; and other considerations still more imponderable. Yet it is legitimate to say that any reading will entail a division of the subject’s attention, to a greater or a lesser degree—or, in other terms, an abstraction.

Seen in long focus, what is surprising about our behavior as readers is how easily we migrate from the phenomenal world to the fictional world, and back again. Indeed, that migration is so fluid and so constant that it may be more useful to imagine the reader as inhabiting both worlds simultaneously. In his study of the mise-en-abyme, Lucien Dällenbach suggests that that figure can assume three broad shapes. First, the simple emblazonment of like within like: a play within a play, a novel within a novel. Second, a structure of infinite emblazonment: the Quaker on a box of Quaker Oats holding in his hand a box of Quaker Oats upon which a smaller Quaker holds a box of Quaker Oats, and so forth. Finally, an aporetic emblazonment in which the relations between container and contained are shifting and unclear (Le Récit spéculaire 37-38, 51). That latter structure is a good way to conceive of our situation as readers of fiction, I think, because it accounts for the difficulty we experience as we try to analyze the relations between our divided readerly selves, and it allows us to imagine the real world and the fictional world in an isotopical and mutually implicative fashion, rather than in a hierarchical manner where one is always subordinated to the other. That perspective provides us in turn with a more lucid vision of our behavior as readers, a set of gestures that is sharpened, intensified, and refined by the immersive power of fiction.

Fiction constantly reminds us that the real and the imaginary are both mobile constructs rather than static ones, that they can be conceived only in their reciprocal mobility, and that we, too, are constantly in motion. We cannot survey either world, thus, from a fixed and stable vantage point; rather, we must apprehend things in their proper flow while we ourselves are in a state of flux. Such a process can be extremely arduous, and sometimes our mind rebels. Sometimes our need for stability is so imperious that we persuade ourselves of our stillness, against the evidence of our senses. Chris Scott constructs a scene like that in To Catch a Spy: “The train’s hydraulics hissed and the station moved backwards as if jolted by an unseen hand” (310). The sensation that his character experiences is familiar to most of us (though these days it is more likely to occur when a plane we’re in pulls back from the jetway). The very brief moment that it takes for us to recalibrate and realize that it is in fact we who are moving never fails to produce an uncanny feeling, one that hinges largely on a jarring shift from subject to object. We prefer to occupy the former site if we can, until incidence or coincidence evicts us, for it is a place of privilege with regard to everything that surrounds it. It enables us to survey things as if we were not part of them, nor subject to the laws that govern them. It allows us to think that we are central. It indulges our wish to believe that things are about us.

Hélène Lenoir

Upon rare occasion, one may experience a sensation that plays out in a fashion contrary to the one I have just described, that is, where one has the impression of moving, though one is in fact remaining still. Consider for example this scene from Hélène Lenoir’s Le Répit, where a man seated in a train at rest in a station gazes out the window at another train: “The train slowly pulling out on the other side of the platform made him think for a few seconds that he himself was leaving” (122; my translation). The impression that this event produces in the man is no less uncanny than the one that Chris Scott’s character experiences, even though the circumstances appear so different. In both instances, it is a question of misinterpretation, of course; yet that misinterpretation is itself brimming with meaning, a meaning that focuses most fundamentally upon how we conceive the world and our place in it.

The Red Queen and the Red King in “Through the Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There” (1871).

I wonder if we may have been struck by the sensation that Scott and Lenoir invoke in yet another context. I wonder if we may have had a very similar feeling from time to time when reading fiction. When some event in the phenomenal world jolts us out of our immersion in the fictional world, for instance, and we shake our heads for a moment while we recalibrate, not quite knowing which world trumps the other. Much like Alice, waking from her dream, when she wonders if the Red King was a figure in her dream or if she was a figure in his dream (344). I am encouraged in this line of thinking by another passage in Toussaint’s novel. Once again, it takes place in a train, traveling between Paris and Venice:

I had spent the night in a train compartment, alone, with the lights out, immobile. Aware of motion, only motion; of the outward perceptible motion that was transporting me despite my immobility, but also of the inner motion of my body that was destroying itself, an imperceptible motion that began to occupy my attention to the exclusion of all else, a motion I desperately wanted to seize hold of. But how to grasp it? (39)

How indeed? The narrator’s situation is a peculiar one, for he feels himself to be immobile contrary to all evidence. Immobile both with regard to the world outside, as the train speeds across the landscape, and with regard to the world inside, as his own bodily processes push him toward death. Belonging thus neither to the outside nor to the inside, where in the world can he be? Once more, it seems to me that the sites toward which Toussaint is pointing are spaces that fiction constructs; and his text invites us again and again, in a variety of manners, to inhabit those spaces. It is not simply a matter of suspension of disbelief, nor of a deliberate forgetting. It is more like an invitation to multiply ourselves, to imagine our selves as dwelling in different places simultaneously, and acting productively in each. Toussaint’s invitation involves thus a choice taken deliberately and lucidly; it puts on offer a significant franchise in the production of meaning; and it inevitably prompts us to reflect upon literature and its uses—an activity that is almost always advantageous, in my experience, and very unlikely to cause permanent damage.

My brief for an abstracted, inside-out mode of reading is a simple one, and undoubtedly naive. Though it may seem utopian to some, it is chiefly founded in pragmatics, for to my way of thinking it describes the way we actually behave when we read fiction. It suffices to realize that we are far more supple, more tolerant, more agile, more playful when we approach a fictional world than we typically are when we grapple with the phenomenal world. It also helps to recognize that we can immerse ourselves up to our necks in fiction, while never abdicating our critical faculties, that the one gesture does not debilitate the other. To the contrary, immersion actuates our critical sense, and our critical sense stokes our desire to inhabit the fictional world. If such were not the case, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s protagonist would see nothing more than a rainy street when he gazes out the window. And gazing upon him, we would see no more than random scribblings on a page. Odysseus, Panurge, Eugénie Grandet, Gregor Samsa, Humbert Humbert, Oskar Matzerath, all of them from Ahab to Zeno, mere constructs! And their worlds pure figments: no more flying carpets, no more hansom cabs, no more magic lamps, no more tartar steppes! Such a perspective does not bear contemplation for long. Its very bleakness urges us toward another position, I think. One that we can occupy at our leisure, and wherein we are no longer obliged to choose between subject and object, self and other, inside and out.

—Warren Motte

§

Works Consulted

Carroll, Lewis.  Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  In Martin Gardner,     ed.  The Annotated Alice.  Seaton: Bramhall House, 1960.  167-345.

Chambers, Ross.  Loiterature.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Dällenbach, Lucien.  Le Récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abyme.  Paris: Le Seuil, 1977.

Lenoir, Hélène.  Le Répit.  Paris: Minuit, 2003.

Montalbetti, Christine.  Western.  2005.  Trans. Betsy Wing.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press,    2009.

Scott, Chris.  To Catch a Spy.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe.  The Bathroom.  1985.  Trans. Nancy Amphoux and Paul De Angelis.              Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008.

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Warren Motte is College Professor of Distinction at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary French literature, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), Mirror Gazing (2014), and French Fiction Today (2017).

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Aug 022017
 

 

The man with a hunchback missed a few steps and his hunchback was gone. His body was found by the river at the end of the street. They said it was the ritualists who cut off the hunchback, and that they believed it would yield money for them. The river overflowed its bank and washed the worshippers away. They said that the mermaid had taken her revenge. A drug dealer appeared one morning in a canoe. He moved into the empty island in the middle of the river. We called him Rasta Man because of his dreadlocks and the way he spoke in Jamaican patois. Three months later, he disappeared without a trace. A man appeared claiming to be Jesus and traversed the streets with good news and disappeared soon after, too. Uncle Israel moved into one of the apartments beside us. He was one of the weirdest man I ever saw. He had Krishna Consciousness symbols hanging everywhere in his house. He placed a small casket in the living room. I swear he was good man, too. He made friends with a few people in the neighborhood, including my father. Soon after, he disappeared, clean, without a trace.  No one knew his whereabouts.

A man chopped off a young boy’s head. He lured him to the back of his hotel and butchered him. When they found the head, it had tears in the eyes. That shit was all over the television, the saddest thing I had ever seen. They said he wanted to sell the organs to hospitals in Saudi Arabia. He rotted away in prison. He awaited trial until death took him. I swear everyone wanted to see him hang. The man lived ten blocks away from us before the event. A brave citizen alerted the people when the severed head was discovered at the back of his hotel. Everyone woke up and decided that enough was enough. An angry mob burned his house. For two weeks, smoke still escaped from charred remains. For two weeks, it smelled like a burning foam at his house. Whenever I walked past it, I felt sad. A month later, a bee hive formed. Three months later, a mad man moved into the house. A year later, the children of the murderer came back to claim their father’s property. Madness ruled these streets. Charred insanity rained here. I swear, the street ran itself for a long time. No government authority was effective here. Well, not just the street, the country ran itself, too.

These streets, these roads, this space, had more stories to tell than the fantasy land of elves and goblins. Here, everything was alert and alive: dogs, ants, chicken, goats, lion, roofs, men, women, children, vigilantes, trees, merchants, sand, sky, air, priests, lovers, demons, sea turtles, and fishes, and me. To survive here, you had to be alert. No slackers.

You could make a few bucks seating down in your house and selling worn out rubbers and bottles for kobo’s and pennies to the men that wondered around with worn out sacks hanging on their backs. Rumor had it that when no one was watching, they could steal little kids, too; turn them into yams and throw them inside their worn out sacks. I swear, I will tell you everything.

It was a road that branched into two. The smaller road we were asked never to take a night. Men and woman poured garbage in it because they were too lazy to walk all the way to the market road to throw away their garbage. A girl got raped here. She wailed until her throat dried up. Before the men could organize themselves into vigilantes, the assailant had already fled. No one dared to confront the rapist alone, cowards. For people that believed in so much about being a brother’s keeper, that said a lot. We all wanted to believe that we were our brother’s keeper, I too. Father was the only one who ever accepted the truth about existence, and us, and brotherhood, and the neighborhood. Each man was for himself. Each man with his own god.

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Uncle Max always roared that he fought for the people. He boasted about how he could take on all criminals alone, and he never took one down. That man never said anything without shouting. Uncle Max was full of shit, I swear. Uncle Max never cared about anyone but himself in reality. He lived two blocks away from us. Broad shouldered and tall. Terrible, terrible man. He was an awesome liar, too. One day, he disappeared and never to be found again.

Two people were suspected in the rape, one who limped when he walked and another guy I will tell you about. The one who walked with a limp was considered more dangerous than those who walked with two legs. You would find him at carpenter’s shop arguing. Getting into fights. Dodging blows and knocking men down. He was a well-known brute. You dared not call the police against him because he would still get out and come for you.

The other suspect was tall and brutish man called The Jaw Breaker, the only person who dared to knock the limping man down. He was a fine chiseled handsome man who won his respect on the street with his fist. I watched them fight, The Jaw Breaker and the one walked with a limp. I was small. Barely thirteen. On the day of the fight, I was returning from the market with two sacks of vegetables. I dropped them on the ground, close by the security gate, and watched. The Jaw Breaker matched the limping man face to face, blow to blow, until he overran him. The limping man bled like a scene in Spartacus; blood splashed on the wood fence meters away. He forever set a record on the street. There were no rules here. Winner took all, including name.  After that fight, The Jaw Breaker took over the street.

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If you had a daughter, you dared not let her out at night, the night might swallow her. The girl who had her legs sprawled in the moonlight by the little road, learnt the hard way. We, who heard the cry of terror, learnt fear. Fathers heard the cry and felt less manly. They felt the sting in their souls. These are places that God dared not go to. Men were losing face. Men were broken..

I was thirteen when I encountered the Bakassi Boys. They parked by bridge and dragged a thief out of the van. In one swift swing of the cutlass, they slashed his arm away. By the bridge. The arms of a human wriggled and spasmed in pain. The mouth cried out in pain. The man begged. I was mortified. I didn’t know whether to go forward or backward. I couldn’t move. When they slashed the next arm, the blood splashed on me. Three drops of blood on my white clean school uniform. I swear, my heart was pumping blood faster than normal. I feared that the Bakassi Boys would flash their cutlass at me, and it would show red. Legend had it that their cutlass flashes red once you’ve stolen something, anything. I remembered that I had stolen a piece meat from my mother’s pot of soup that morning. I did not know if I was to be next, or if I should cry for the macabre scene before me. For a boy with a soft heart, I was broken.

I watched a man severed from limb to limb, and his blood gushed straight into the river. The river licked its fingers clean, and bees buzzed across the strange river plants and flowers and rotten garbage floating atop. The angry Bakassi Boys found a tire and set the body, or what was left of it, on fire. I swear, he shit on himself before dying. I saw this, and my life was never going to be the same. Ever. It was as if angels had plucked innocence from my eyes and thrown me into the depth of pain. I couldn’t tell if I was ready, but I walked miles back home under the sun. Clutching my friend’s hand and muttering nothing that made sense. I spent the rest of the evening washing the blood off my clothes. I never said a word to anyone, not my mother or father. I understood it all, things disappeared, and so did the blood. I swear, the world seemed upside down, and dark.

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I was thirteen, but never bookish. Never clutching a copy of Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy or Achebe to walk with on the street. I swear, here, you never wanted to appear bookish. Here, you never wanted to appear weak.  Strength was everything and brute force was a sign of manhood. I read at night.

In the evening, I washed the darkened glass gloves and filled the lantern with kerosene. When the electricity went off, my mother, armed with a match stick in her hand, struck it and lit the lamp. I sat with the lamp in my bedroom and read all the beautiful books in the world. I swear, it was then that I read Charles Dickens, Peter Abrahams, and Achebe. I loved Peter Abrahams most, he mirrored the street the way I wanted it. His character Zuma was part of my existence. I watched Zuma struggle through the unknown.

Mother loved Efuru most. I don’t know why it was so. But before I could read Efuru, my brother tore it in pieces, and I had nothing to read. My brother was quiet and could walk round you the whole day without you knowing. He always disappeared into the street and came back at night. Never in trouble, never brought trouble home. For me, that wasn’t enough to survive here. I observed the street as much it observed me. Most of my friends in school were never bookish, they were mere brutes. Walking weapons. Deadly brutes. That was all I needed on the street and not a copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I swear, I loved Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but in the street, that was real shit, and you needed your head and brute force most.

Not just men roamed the small road, ghosts roamed it, too. A man with fire on his head that my father saw. A lady in white gown that Mama Daniel saw. A forest riding itself in the wind that Mama Ekene saw. They all lived to tell the tale. The carpenters never said anything about what they saw, even though their workshop was by the small road. They only made caskets and sweated under the sunlight and talked about Biafra and how it could rise again from its ashes. They talked about our secret ally, Israel, and how they will help us conquer these uncircumcised northerners. It was there that I first learnt about Ojukwu and his bravery on the battlefield. In our destitute classrooms at school, no teacher dare talked about it. Our tongues dried in want of our own history. These carpenters told us stories while they sawed wood and applied glues at the ends. Even though their versions of history were tainted with acrimony, yet we savored it. The young minds that roamed the street, they all savored it.

We listened to our fathers tell tales of hunting for food during the civil war. Our fathers were broken by the war. These men were never taken care of. Their insides were bruised. They were insane. When they declared “No victor, No vanquished”, no one cared about their insides, about repairing them psychologically. I swear, our fathers were walking time bombs. Most of them bruised their sons in turn. They bruised the government. They bruised the women. They raised the men who were now bruising the street and knocking teeth out.

Father was a brute. Sometimes in his eyes, there were sharp pain and deep kindness. Sometimes, he swung his arms at us. Cursed us. We walked around without hope, hoping for a fix. Hoping that we could be saved. Hoping that someone was coming to save us. When some of us realized that no one was coming, they went mad. Hope was something a man needed to live. It made us wake up. I found hope in the hope that hope was coming. I hoped. Biafra was never to be the same since we lost hope. Biafra had died.

Father said, in that war zone, there was no God. Children with bloated stomachs, ailing. Ailing to death. Ailing for photography and flashes, and media news, and a cry for help. Ailing at a leader that asked them to pray that God would win the war for them. Father never went to church after the war. On Sundays, he sat on the balcony and drank beer and cursed every living thing and told stories. A man whose shadow filled the whole house and whose footsteps could be heard from miles away.

Mother was meek and beautiful. Mother believed that God could help us. God could flush open through the dense cloud and bring down his might, and the beauty of the earth that had once belonged to Adam could belong to us. We could live in paradise again and worship God and sing hallelujah at the call of the last trumpets.

One day, I asked the catechist who the trumpeter would be, and he said it was angel Michael. The same night, as I was walking back home, I saw a baby that had been thrown into the dirt by the market. The sun had dried the body to death.  Angel Michael must have blown his trumpet too early and too loud, damn.

We were already in our own beautiful kind of hell. The priest that raped a girl did it by the altar, and God said no word, not that we heard. The priest went on living. The girl went on living. The parents went on defending the priest instead of their daughter and bowed down to him every Sunday. The priest continued to celebrate mass, and the Christian apologists forgave him, they said, “Even though he is a priest, he is still human.” I said: “Fuck that shit” in the dead of the night, when no one was watching me.

Mother ended every prayer like this: “Do not let the evil men ask us ‘where is our God? Where is your God?’”. She believed so much in what she believed. She believed God would vindicate us against all the evils parading on the street, in the air, in the village with malicious uncles seeking our souls. God was there to cut out all the black magic and deliver us. I swear, we prayed for deliverance every day. We read Psalm 35 every night waiting for the angels to come down from heaven. I was thirteen, but I was getting tired of being in an everlasting battle with the devil. I was getting ready to account for myself and blame the supernatural less. I swear, I was. Let the devil be. Honestly, let him be.

The street ended by a river. The river flowed into the world. Our house was a bungalow surrounded by ixora flower. The ixora flower attracted beautiful butterflies in the hamattan. They sucked the life out of the flowers and they withered. But the flowers always grew back again. Beautiful things always grow back again, and evil things come back again, too. They do. The ixora was locked in an endless circle of beauty and death and birth. I watched it every season. I wasn’t small. I wasn’t thirteen anymore. I was looking at the fiery world.

I was eighteen when Donald came to visit us from the university. I was eighteen and the warm wind was filled the sunlight and gently glided over all the fallen leaves towards the river. I was eighteen and strong in my faith and had tasted my first alcohol and vomited on the passage of our house. Father watched me and laughed and said I was becoming a man.  I was eighteen, and life seemed more hopeless than hopeful because I had failed the entrance exam to the university. I was eighteen without hope. I swear. I was eighteen when the snake crept of the hole at the backyard and launched it assault at us, and father furiously cut off its head in one swift swing, with a machete. The body danced and danced until it couldn’t move anymore. We buried it. But I learnt that snakes dance before they die.

Donald and I walked into the night to the cyber café. To my surprise, he pulled a gun, his tall body hunched over this shiny death object. He loaded it. He was the gentlest of figures I had ever met in my life.  I could not believe that he owned a gun until I saw him with one. He was like one of those sweet movie characters in a suit, wearing a rimmed spectacle and singing love songs. Very soft spoken. Very smooth. Pastoral. Like a man looking after God’s sheep.

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“Always be on guard,” he said. He looked at me, and put the pistol in his back pocket. We walked down towards the hospital and took the path towards the tarred road. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t surprised either. I had always known that Donald was a bad boy. But I never imagined that he had a gun on him all the time he was chatting with my parents, and pretending to be immaculate.

“You always have this on you?” I asked.

“Yes. Never underestimate the strength of your enemies. Never be off guard. Always believe that they are coming for you. Maybe I am being followed,” he said, and smiled. He looked at me like I was just as smart as he was. Like I had a role to play. I was a quiet person. Just as innocent looking as he was.

“Who are they?”

“They. They. People I have hurt that want to hurt me back. People that are after my life. They have tried many times to end me and failed. I am a master of illusion. They can’t find me,” he said and spit angrily. A dog barked. He spit again and continued, “Ninety percent of senses, one percent rugged. I like you because you are smart. You are the future.”

Honestly, I didn’t understand what he meant. I was young and never a cultist nor planning to be one. If mother had the faintest idea that I was even having this conversation, she would have had a heart attack.

We walked that night under the shinning neon street light until Nigerian Power Authority took the light, and the only light that illuminated our path was from moving cars. When we got to the cyber café, it was dark. We paid for two people. I read all about the unknown world out there. About America and Europe. I read about aliens and the universe. I read about universities around the world, until Donald tapped my shoulder and said that he was having a bad feeling. We walked into the night. Donald could smell danger miles away. That was his specialty.

We walked. Two men walked behind us, carefully. Donald slowly removed his pistol and clicked off the safety. The men kept their distance. We kept walking towards the garden and when we entered the green vegetation, they followed us. We hid and watched them. They looked brutal, like they could snap necks with their muscles. Donald aimed and fired. He gripped the pistol against the recoil. He fired again. I don’t know what happened to the men. We walked into the night, and back home, and slept peacefully. When I woke up, Donald was already up laughing with my parents. He was a devil of a man and as smart as a ghost. Very smart. I never said anything. He left in the afternoon and went back to the campus.

“They will all pay,” he said to me before boarding the bus.

I was walking on the road, armed with nothing but my consciousness. That I existed. That I was alive. That was mind boggling in itself. Here, we survived. I didn’t know if I had been a witness to murder or not. I didn’t know if Donald shot to kill or not. All I knew was that rounds were fired and none replied. All I knew was that it was dark, and I ran as fast my feet could carry me. All I knew was that Donald’s escapades never stopped. He became the king of the street and everyone bowed to him. He became of the best known sniper in town and gunned down whomever whenever. Rumors had it that he gunned for politicians, too. He told me a lot about the game. He said I should join the game for protection and because I was smart. He was the first man to ever speak to me about Albert Camus in an insistent way. I swear, he worshiped Camus.

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I kept on walking on the road, dust and debris flew around me. I kept on walking on the road towards to the cathedral for a grand mass celebrating the Corpus Christi. I kept on walking on the road to seek God’s face, asking him to come and help us all. I kept on walking on the road to St Anthony to pray, to recover all the damned things we’ve lost throughout the years, including my sanity. I kept on walking on the road believing that God was with us, and for us. I prayed for the street. Donald prayed for the street, too. The street prayed for the street.

I was growing and the street was growing. I was home and hadn’t gained admission to college and life was pain. I prayed endlessly before the effigy of Virgin Mary. At some point, I wondered what sort of life it was in which one would pray endlessly for every little thing. We prayed for safe road, for clean water, for healthy food, for rain, for admission to the university, for love, for marriage, for our going and coming back. No one was responsible for any shit, just God and his angels patrolling our condemned streets.

When drugs came to our street, they took John. The rumor was that he smoked something too strong for him to handle. But that evening we watched him rave naked mad on the street and his testicles dangled like a worn out sack hanging on tree in a windy day. His tinny penis was lifeless, as he ran naked down the street, and all the children watched. The men held him down and tied him to a pole and we watched. Fresh mad. He was never to be seen again after they took him away to a Christian madhouse where the pastor cured madness with strokes of cane and colorful candles.

When death came, it performed strange rituals and held my friend strong. She was the strongest girl I ever meet. Her stomach bloated and she fought and fought till the sun went down. She drowned in the fight. I watched her pregnant with nothing and all the medical facilities in this goddamn place had no idea what. They said nothing. She walked into the house of God and all the promises. I watch her dance in with a bloated stomach in the house of the Lord. Death chased her into those blocks with a sickle and sliced her soul away.

The sun was falling in the horizon and the earth was orange in color. Beautiful orange. I held the rail and watched her dance to psalms and violent church songs. I watched the prophetess tell her all the messages from God, that she would be victorious. She died smiling. She died strong. She died with the hope of afterlife and all that promises. I knew, I knew we were alone. I knew she was alone. We all tried to love her to death. But, I swear, she took that journey alone.

I was twenty when we heard the cry in the night and no one dared to go out of the house because the cult boys were raiding the street. When we woke up, the dismembered body of The Jaw Breaker littered the street. Some said his evil had caught up with him and he was no longer the king of the street. Some said it was the Vikings Cult members that cut him to pieces. All we knew was that his liver was cut out and placed on his body as a warning to the Black Axe Confraternity. That morning, the air was frosty and foggy. We walked to the river bank and watched the gore. These streets of sorrows and black nights that wheeled and wheeled into nothing. But it made me. It was me.

I was twenty-four when I survived a bomb attack by Boko Haram by just a few meters. I swear, a few meters. I left the country. I left the street. All those images pulsed in my head playing a series of films, streaming unceasingly. Picture by picture of what life might be like out there. Outside my little town. It became clearer, the brute force of winter and the shy sun. I was twenty-four when it dawned on me that I was black.  I was on the streets of Europe examining its sanity and insanity. Whatever I left behind, came with me.

I was twenty-four when black men were being hunted down on the streets of Vienna. I was twenty-four when I realized that the educated lot on the streets of Europe was more dangerous than the uneducated.

I was twenty-four when I walked into a whore house in Europe and met sisters who had lived in the countryside. They swung happily on poles, wearing shiny underwear, and danced to German ululation in a brutal winter. I swear, I nearly shouted hallelujah when their ass-shapes shifted under the disco light.

I was twenty-four when I met Henry and shared hemp under the lights of his master cook kitchen and talked about brotherhood and colorlessness. Before him, I was just a man. I was happy when I walked up that hill with my brothers under the blessing of the full moon. Dramatically, the church bell tolled. I swear, it tolled and I kept walking. The moon appeared three times its size before my eyes and I kept moving. If I had been thirteen, I would have stopped and recited the angelus.

I kept walking. I was twenty-four when I saw a black man being arrested at the train station in Vienna. He was pushed around while he protested in a thick accent. The thick German Polizei weighed him down and weighed him into the car. I swear, his first crime was being black and then other things.

I was twenty-four when whispers passed around about a black man who died while being transported back to Africa. They gagged him to death. All the big media in Austria and Germany said nothing. Amen brother. I swear, amen brother.

I was twenty-four when I refused to perform my life in Berlin, Vienna, Zurich, and all the cities still shinning in their medieval glory. I was twenty-four when I hiked mountains, shared beers and weed with brothers and sisters who wished to be left alone. I watched the fields and beautiful plants, fell in and out of love and drank myself to stupor. Yet nothing happened. Just a song forgotten and the sound of ghosts of people who died on streets that God wouldn’t go to.

I was twenty-four when I saw brothers on the streets of Geneva hustling, passing drugs for survival, with stories on their faces. Looking at them, one would shriek and yawn and listen and drown. The streets of Geneva could be passive and gentle, but these men do not ask to be loved, they wanted to make a living. Just a living.

I was twenty-four when I fell in love again and it seemed like God had finally appeared to me. She was everything hidden on a traveler’s path. Hidden in the rail station. Hidden behind me until I turned back and our eyes met. Her eyes were darker than mine, her skin were darker than mine. When she smiled at me at the train station that night I thought that I had it all. I thought that everything had turned magical in one snowy night. That all my broken places were beginning to repair themselves. Her name was Salisha, and she was on her way to Zurich. We shook hands and smoked on platform two and talked about all the beautiful things Africa had to offer us. And the ugly ones too. I hadn’t smoked for hours, and when I did, it hit me like it was my first day smoking.  I had watched her all day at the train, the way she comforted herself and leaned on the coach, I swear that I loved everything about her. When I saw her lighting a cigarette, I walked to her and said it.

“I swear, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever set my eyes on.”

Those eyebrows lifted up like the wings of a tiny angel, and her smile perfectly fitted on her slim face. I swear, the world shrunk at that instance and fell at her feet. I wouldn’t had wasted a moment to ask her to marry me, I swear. And if she had asked me to take her with me, I would have taken her. Her beauty was indescribable, and I spare it by not describing it.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Originally from Cameroon,” she said, “but live in Paris now.” She had apparently been traveling for a day on her way to visit her brother in Zurich. Her voice was a natural symphony to my ears.

“And you?” she asked me.

“Nigeria, I am studying here,” I said. “Tu parle francais?”

“Oui…,” she said with a symphonic voice, and laughed. It sounded straight into the heavens and to God himself. Her clothes were light, her leather jacket must have cost a fortune. She wore a dark blue jeans and boots. She was classy, she had style. I had style, too, despite how poor I was. Even though I had cheap jacket from Lidl on, I felt rad inside. My boots came from the mall in the little city I was living in where white boys and girls stared at people like morons, like I dropped from the sky, like they had never seen a black man before.

We spoke a little French and laughed. We talked about school and laughed. We talked about the beauty of Paris and laughed. I told her about my school and laughed. She told me about Zurich and laughed. We laughed like the world was ours, like the platform belonged to us. We watched cartoons on her Ipad and laughed. We watched Nigerian and Cameroon songs and laughed. We watched a girl from Hungary searched by immigration as if she was nothing, we pitied her. We talked about it a little and forgot it. Deep inside of me, I loved her, and laughed.

.

We talked in the train and watched the mountains outrun us. We talked and watched the houses on the mountain and valleys and neon streets and roofs with snow. Whenever the train made a stop, we stood in the beautiful platforms and smoked. We were stuck in the train together for hours. I swear that when I got off, I felt like it had all been just a few minutes. I felt like I needed more time.

“I hope we meet again,” I said.

“We keep in touch, add me on Facebook,” she said.

I found her on Facebook and we became friends. We talked all the time. Almost every day. I continued my journey to Geneva in one piece. She promised to meet me in Geneva. I watched out for her in Geneva the day she promised, but she never came. Her brother had been caught in a drug burst. He would rot in jail. She went back to France and I tried all I could to make life easier for her with words, I swear words are never enough. She disappeared one day from all the social media never to be found again.

The ground ate her. Life ate her. Existence ate her. I swear, it has eaten many people I’ve known and been friends with. My greatest fear is that one day it would eat me. I swear I will bite off its ear before it eats me.

—Chika Onyenezi

 

Chika Onyenezi is a writer living in United States. Born in Owerri, Nigeria, he holds two degrees, including an MA from European Peace University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in The Fanzine, Identity Theory, Litro Magazine, Ninth Letter Online, and elsewhere. He received Honorable Mention in the 2016 Glimmer Train Fiction Open.

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Jul 152017
 

The doorbell rings for the second time today and only the second time since he moved into the condo a month ago. He opens the door to a slender woman in a sleeveless shift of pale color and pattern.

“You got my card,” she says, politely, though with some insistence.

The first time the bell rang was this morning for delivery of a print of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s cenotaph, which he hung in the landing of the stairs he just descended, now hovering above, behind him, a huge dark sphere against a dramatic sky, set on a massive circular base.

It is August and it is hot, pushing a hundred at least. It’s the kind of heat that slows thought and melts reserve and makes you aware only of the present moment, the only apparent truth of which is that it is hot. There is, however, a faint breeze.

“Yes,” he says but doesn’t know what she means though feels he should. Somehow her flat question, like her unexpected appearance, feels related to the heat.

She explains. She is a real estate agent who is looking for sellers so she can find buyers.

Now it makes sense. Actually he has received a dozen cards with the same request but doesn’t tell her. He doesn’t remember hers, however, though her picture must have been on it. He tells her he has just moved in so isn’t interested in selling, but instead of motioning towards parting he rests. He’s not eager to go back upstairs where it is hotter.

She lingers too, listing in the heat with weight on her left foot and head to the other side, creating slight asymmetric angles that show in folds down the looseness of her dress. She is quite young and likely new to real estate, likely indecisive and uncertain, perhaps a bit afraid. Plain, with auburn hair that falls to her shoulders and a long face that does not promote or defend, she has a quiet presence that appeals to him, an unstudied grace.

Actually she’s rather pretty.

But it’s the tattoo that holds him. It runs from her wrist up her right arm, covering it wholly, and disappears into the shoulder of the dress, a complicated design in fresh, bright colors he cannot make out in a single glance. Flowers, at least, but more, and it’s too involved to find attractive. He avoids looking, and it’s the not looking that locks him in its grip. Not that he hasn’t seen tattoos before. They are part of the cultural landscape. But now they are everywhere. This is Portland.

The sky is clear and bright, contradicting the clouds and drizzle he was led to expect. If he was high enough he could see the sharp, snow-streaked peak of Mount Hood starkly rising above flat Oregon. But the sky, like the heat, feels permanent and absolute, as if there never was and never could be any other kind of weather.

A cenotaph is a monument honoring a person whose remains lie elsewhere, in Boullée’s case Sir Isaac Newton.

“Two bedroom?” she asks.

“No, three.”

And he explains the layout of the complex, some twenty independent units, each with six condos, that line one side of a long block, turn at the end, and return down the other side, making a U with an open court and drive in its middle. Two one-bedroom condos on the first floor front the streets, with two two-floor three-bedroom above them. Two two-floor two-bedroom at the back sit above the garages and face each other and the court.

She takes all this in.

The architecture is modern and distinctive, with odd angles and gray and muted orange and blue planes arranged in a varied but subdued design that makes a relaxed yet orderly procession down the street and around the U within. He rather likes it. Landscaping is obviously done on a budget, but it is interesting, with many plants and trees he does not know.

Circling the cenotaph on three levels, cypress trees, symbols of mourning, tightly spaced.

Would she like to see the place?

There can be nothing suspicious in his offer. He has two daughters, older. She must be able to see him for what he is, a man in his early sixties with some refinement, scarcely imposing. He does have a motive, however. He is curious if he got a good deal on his place and wants to know where the neighborhood is headed. Now it occurs to him he wants to help her. She has stiff competition, and he might be able to give her an edge.

Actually he has no idea how he looks. He is sweating down his face and has dark circles in the armpits of his t-shirt. He hasn’t shaved today and must look haggard and maybe something else he cannot see but suspects. Then there is the feeling he does not voice in his thoughts, that the heat has brought out what and who he actually is, which, again, he cannot see.

It is the effect of the heat, that it dissolves illusion and reveals actuality, or seems to.

She would, and she takes off her shoes and he lets her go first and watches her ascend with speed and resolve that surprises him, then follows her up into the rising heat. She stops at the print, pauses and stares without comment, then turns and gives the room the same look, curious, taking in, not judging.

The layout is open, a large room with space for cooking, dining, and living, plus a small recess to the right next to a door that opens onto a small porch. The open plan, he thinks, has become a cliché, whose inspiration has been lost in years of unexamined accommodation. But the space is interesting, with a tall ceiling cut by the visible diagonal ascent of the stairs to the three bedrooms above. He has divided the space with low bookshelves in a loose cubist design. Much is in place, much still has to be resolved. The room should work for the new life he envisions.

But even though the windows are wide open the air is still, and with the blinds drawn the heat has turned dark in the shaded room, making his plan look static and confused. Yet she walks about, studying space, taking mental measurements and reassembling, tentatively but with an easy acceptance that puts him at ease.

The scale of the cenotaph is enormous. The sphere has a diameter of 500 feet and human reference is nearly lost. Broad stairs lead to entry through a round opening, large yet small compared to the sphere, which dwarfs. Then a long tunnel leads to the interior where there is only the vacant sarcophagus, in the center, and vast, empty space.

Holes are cut in the exterior to simulate inside the points of light of stars in the universe, the interior otherwise dark and seemingly without end.