Aug 152017
 

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Not sure why they want to fuck us. Is it because we look like children never been adults? Or is because we look like adults always been children? Either way the pretty tall boys keep on coming down from Colorado and California and stay at the El Paso Camino Real looking for a KILLVest® and some hot dwarf action. They say they can’t die up north anymore. KILLVests® illegal now. Dwarves mostly exterminated back in ’48. They tired of sitting around in their big houses going to work everyday, making money. Tired of all that life, all that living. They ask at what point living no different than death? They need a way to tell the difference. To remember who and what they are. Get themselves fake-killed. Be fake-resurrected. Fuck a dwarf. Maybe then they see the point of living again, go back to work refreshed, happy, love their wives like they should, give to charity, be good.

Problem is we don’t have no KILLVests® in the Free Zone of El Paso neither. We poor. All we got is my Big Billy Boy’s bowie knife and some old Texas Army Kevlar vests. We got to real kill with fake-KILLVests® just they like they got to fuck a dwarf so they ain’t cheating on their tall fake-boobed blonde wives. It makes sense somehow. Not to me, I’m just a dwarf, but to somebody somewhere, I suppose.

Billy Boy gives them a fake-vest don’t look nothing like a real vest and I start taking off my clothes real slow. Then right when they getting all into it, get a little taste, Billy Boy starts hacking. They excited for the knife until they realize they ain’t got no real vest and they going to real die. Or maybe not. Maybe they real die just like they fake die. Who can tell the difference? Not me. I can’t even watch.

Sometimes I get cold feet, beg Billy Boy to stop. I ask, can’t we just take the man’s money? But Billy Boy says how we going to let him go, Darling? Where they going to go to? They got to die because that’s what they really want to do, that’s why they here in the first place. He says if we let them go they just go back and tell more people where we are. Then they’ll come with the drones and the dogs and they’ll kill us for sure. I don’t know, I say. They people. My mama taught me all people got a right to live, tall, short, everyone. But he says life don’t matter much, anyway. All life meant to die. Whether they do it now or later just a matter of time, and time ain’t anything at all.

Can’t argue with him. He’s been all over the old U.S. with the Texas Army before he went AWOL and settled in the El Paso Free Zone. He’s done read a bunch of books too. Well, one book actually. But he’s read that one a lot. It’s a book about science. Explains the universe. Says we just bugs, all of us, talls, dwarves, even Billy Boy, and we all come from the sea and one day we all going back.

Hard to believe that’s true but I never read no book or seen no sea. Been in this desert ever since my mama brought me all the way to El Paso from Brazil when I was a little dwarf just like my grandmother took her from Naples to Brazil when she was a little dwarf. I told Billy Boy the other day I want to see the sea with my own two eyes, see if it’s true. I want to make it to the real water before I die. I tell him that’s how I know the difference between life and death.

Billy Boy smiles real big. Billy Boy thinks that’s the funniest thing in the world. Sea’s so big, he says. You so small! Go ahead and laugh, I tell Billy Boy. You know for a scientific fact we dwarves fuck. Think we can’t swim too? Think we scared of the sea?

***

Three weeks back I was coming out the Camino Real bathroom in a poofy-white halter-top antebellum number with more makeup than an albino clown and this boy says his name’s Absalom and he’d like to buy me a drink. But he says it all nervous like, like he doesn’t know how to use the words he’s saying, like they don’t sound right to him or he’s reading them from a book. He’s hardly a man at all, not tall, a boy really, might even have a little bit of dwarf in him, with those wrinkles around those bright blue eyes and pretty lips. I take his hand and lead him to the blue circle bar and say why, certainly I’d like a drink, we dwarf ladies do get parched during the summer months.

Billy Boy’s waiting in the truck outside. Good thing too. Way Absalom’s friends laughing on the other side of the blue bar, making faces and sticking fingers in finger holes, Billy Boy might start the slaughter early, then we’d never see no sea; we’d be murdered by the robot police or strung up on a West Texas crucifix. I ask for another Shirley Temple. Talls always love that. Think it cute. Sure tastes like shit though. Tried getting the bartender to slip some gin in there on the sly last year, but he’s an ancient Mexican with cataracts the size of dimes, thinks I’m a little girl. Always asking me about my momma. She’s upstairs I tell him. Got a wicked headache.

Absalom’s saying he’s here to economically develop the area around the Camino Real. He wants to revitalize the Border, show the South what the West can do for them because we all friends in the end. His friends saying they’d like to revitalize something all right and it’s about three feet tall with boobies like a Texas Barbie doll. I say I think that’s right and proper, decent of him, being so concerned with our border welfare and the good people of the El Paso Free Zone. The boy blushes real hard and I feel bad because I can’t remember the last time I blushed actual rather than used a brush. Days like this I don’t want to fuck no mark and certainly don’t want to see a man die. Days like this I just want to go home and watch a movie with Billy Boy, a movie about a different world than this one, ones that used to be or the talls used to imagine the world might be. But Billy Boy don’t watch no movies. Says they rot the mind.

“Aren’t you the sweetest thing I ever did see,” I say. Absalom’s friends think this is funny. “You sure are sweet, Absalom,” one of them says. “Absalom too sweet for a dried up dwarf.” Absalom tells them to shut up, but I say it’s all right, putting my small hand on his forearm, giving them other boys a meaningful stare. “We just having a good time,” I say. “Don’t none of us here mean no harm.”

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Billy Boy drives Absalom and me to the hotel like he a cab service and says he always likes seeing young love and for a little extra he can get the both of us some real thrills. Got him some authentic KILLVests® back at the place. It’s the same old song and dance. Absalom don’t know what to say. He tongue-tied. Keeps on looking into my eyes like he found something he’s been looking for his whole life. But his is a short life, maybe twenty years, going to stay short too. What he know about what he’s been waiting for? How someone live so little know anything at all?

Back at the apartment, Absalom’s feeling the whiskey and starts talking about his wife, how they just married and she don’t really know who he is and he don’t know if he loves her, because what’s love? Billy Boy’s already got the fake vests out, lined up on the table like they bumps of coke. He’s telling me to get comfortable too, show off my lacy underpants, telling Absalom what fun it is to die and then come back again, pushing the murder and the sex along, like he heard what Absalom’s friends were all saying to me inside, like he sees in this poor baby Absalom all those other men Billy Boy’s seen kill and rape and pillage dwarves and talls in those battles he fought on the other side of the border, or like he’s seeing Absalom for a number in that book he reads, like this boy all boys and all boys the same boy and it don’t make no difference how they die and who makes them die because they all already dead.

“Billy Boy,” I say. “Maybe Absalom just wants another drink. Maybe Absalom don’t want no KILLVest®. Maybe he just wants an old-fashioned good time. We don’t even know the boy yet. As an individual.”

Absalom’s picking at the vest, holding it up to the exposed light, eyes lizard big. Ever since they banned them up north ten years back, these northern boys want to know what the fuss’ about. Want to know why you got to ban something that kills and don’t kills a person. You think people would’ve sense enough not not kill themselves, especially one as pretty as Absalom. But next thing you know he’s got it on, and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. Feels himself a man now, big, taller than Billy Boy even, and sits down next to me on our old couch, a smile on his face like he just popped the prom queen’s cherry.

“You want a good time, don’t you, Absalom?” asks Billy Boy. “You want you to have a good time with Darling here. Maybe get yourself into a fight. Maybe get yourself killed. You want to see what it’s like don’t you? What it’s like to live like us? We got real lives down here in the El Paso Free Zone. This ain’t no Denver.”

Absalom’s laughing now. Thinks he’s a man. They no good. I know that. Even a pretty one like Absalom. They gladly fuck me and then see me strung up on the tiny crosses lining the road to Colorado. Wouldn’t even blink their giant eyes. Take all kinds of pleasure in beating me up. In seeing me hurt and then forgetting that dwarves can hurt all at the same time. But that don’t mean I can’t stand the light in their eyes going away. Light ain’t meant to go away. That’s all it ever seems to do. Especially with Billy Boy around. He’s got something awful for the light.

“Absalom’s friends saw me at the Camino, Billy Boy,” I say, pulling my dress back on, over my lacy underthings, not really thinking, just stalling, not liking the way the knife just stop things, all sudden. “Friends got big mouths. We don’t want trouble from the law. Maybe we should play with the KILLVests® some other time. Maybe Absalom needs to go back to his mama.”

Billy Boy gives me a look like he might kill me instead. He’s got big features, like a bat ate too many mice and then got so sick it can’t fly. Makes me want to laugh sometimes. Hard to imagine a face like that saw all the violence it seen, did what it did to these northern boys. Hard to imagine a face like that hurting cockroaches skittering up our apartment walls. But don’t matter how many dwarf wrinkles you got or if your face pretty and smooth as a baby’s butt, stabbing a knife is stabbing a knife, don’t take no monster to do it.

“Absalom’s a grown man,” says Billy Boy, pulling out that knife, staring now like Absalom a fish with a hook in the lungs, can’t go back in the water, going to die anyhow, so someone’s got to be a man, someone’s got to stand tall, finish the flopping thing off. Absalom got a big grin on his face, glancing back and forth at me and Billy Boy, like we at a movie about a dingy El Paso apartment with roaches on the walls, water leaking through the ceiling, like his life something his momma didn’t give him, just be thrown away like ours already has been. “Pull up that skirt now, Darling,” said Billy Boy. “Give pretty boy a sight to see before the end.”

I started pulling up my skirt, taking my underpants off, and then stop. Absalom crying. Scared. Like my momma was before the militias shot her in the head. Like I was before Billy Boy found me in a rain gutter up underneath Highway 10, eating banana peels and drinking Thunderbird, turning tricks for a motorcycle-meth gang. Billy Boy says you can’t show pity. You show pity, you die. But I can’t help it. I go to rub Absalom’s crotch, like I’m going to take off his pants. Absalom starts sobbing hard and I roll around him, onto the floor, kick Billy Boy in the shins. Billy Boy so surprised he drops the knife. It clatters on the linoleum like a gunshot. “Run!” I shout. “Run, Absalom! We going to kill you. You really going to die!”

Absalom’s not crying no more. Rubs his face. Backs toward the door.  “You can’t,” he says. “I can’t die.”

“We all die,” says Billy Boy, picking up the knife. But Absalom’s already off, stumbling through the door, down the stairwell. I hear shouts down the way, illegal boarders cussing him something awful for messing up their hallway blankets and their tents. Billy Boy picks up his knife, goes through the door, stands at the top of the stairs, his shadow hunched. I’m laying on the couch my skirt hiked up, my organ showing to the world, thinking about my dead mama, where dwarves and talls come from, wondering why there’s so much coming and going, so much undressing and putting back on, why we can’t be naked and stay that way, without no vests or knives.

Billy Boy walks back in, stands over me. “I’m sorry, Billy Boy,” I say. “I couldn’t do it.” Billy Boy leans down from up high, kisses me on the forehead. Says it ain’t no fault of mine. Says softheartedness an evolutionary condition. Price of being a dwarf, says Billy Boy. I aint got no perspective. Can’t see the big picture. I grab his fingers, tell him to come close, lie down, relax for a bit, talk to me. But he says he’s tired. He says he’s going to read his book, book says alls there is to say.

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Absalom had friends in high places. Should have known, pretty tall like that. Turns out he’s the son of a north general in charge of an army wants an end to all dwarf sanctuary towns, sick and tired of dwarf lies, wants peace forever and ever. They say on the loudspeakers and on the floating televisions screens if the El Paso Free Zone can’t control our dwarves then they can’t economically develop the city and if they can’t economically develop the city we all going to die and kill each other like wild dwarves so they going to clean up the city with their drones and their robots and their Assault Rifle Patriot Clubs.

But first they have to kill us. It is beautiful from the top of a mountain—the killing. The city glows like it never done from inside. Dark shadows, could be talls, could be dwarves, explode like moths flaring up in candles the size of Jesus. Drones dart in and out of the fire, putting it out with more explosions.  Camino Real and a few other hotels crumble. Highway 10 breaks in half. Billy Boy says many cities have done the same. No use getting upset. Billy Boy had some friends of his, Indian tribes come down from Ruidoso, take me up to Franklin Mountain to be safer. He says what’s going to go down no place for a pretty dwarf like me. I say it’s my fault. He says it ain’t no one’s fault. Bound to happen eventually. I say I can fight just like the rest of them. He smiles and says Darling, you a lover, not a fighter. I said he the same. That’s why we in love. But he says, no. He don’t believe in love. We just bugs in the end.

So I’m sitting on the Franklin ridge, holding Billy Boy’s science book, split like a hump between this world and the next, my small body peering down into the crackling flames, smelling the charring, waiting for my Billy Boy to come back, not believing it but knowing in my heart that he will, and then just when I’m about to give up hope, picturing him head shot like my Mama by some boy in blue, Billy Boy does come back, crawling up a path guarded by two fat young Indians. The Indians tell him to put his arms up but he says he can’t, his legs no good, shot to hell by drones. Indians says they better shoot him just in case. To be safe. Billy Boy says he just needs to say goodbye to his Darling. One Indian tells the other it be easier to shoot.

I scream, “Don’t you dare shoot!” and push past the Indians to embrace my Billy Boy. His face gone black with gunpowder and dried blood. He smiles. His teeth red as Texas wildflowers. They got my legs good, he says. Ain’t felt this kind of pain in a while. Ain’t felt anything this real in forever. Reminds me of the old days.

“Bullshit,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Stop your moaning,” I say.

“But, Darling, this is the end.”

“Answer me a question,” I say. “Why you ever alive then, you don’t like life?”

“Why Darling, I don’t know. I’m hurting. I can’t think right. I’m in pain.”

His legs bone white and chunked red and black. Smells like burnt bacon. Fatter Indian smoking a cigarette now, says it sad but Billy Boy’s a goner, cooked like a turkey. Says they’ll bury him with the dead Indians if I want. Maybe he go with the dead Indian God though they seen no evidence of their god being a particularly powerful God, being how they living on a mountain and still dying in droves even five hundred years after they got their land taken from them. I tell them to shut their depressing mouths. We ain’t dead yet, I say.

Billy Boy tells me to calm down. Tells me he wants a kiss before he goes, one more kiss from Darling. I bend down to kiss but stop short, rip my skirt off. Indians start hooting and hollering and whistling. I rip my dress in half, wrap Billy’s boy’s legs above the knee, shove a piece of dress in Billy Boy’s mouth. Take his knife, jab it in the campfire for a minute. “Wha yo don?” Billy Boy mumbles. He’s fading fast. “Don’t burn my knife. My knife a good knife.”

I bring the knife down on his thick good thigh meat above the knee. “You the devil!” Billy Boy screams, spitting out the cloth. I do the same to the other. The Indians watch on, taking swigs of purple liquor, like they feeling his pain, like they wearing KILLVests® and I’m doing it to them. “Shit,” they saying. “Shit.” I cut harder, all the way through the bone, until I’m down in the dirt stone, until I’m stabbing into the Franklin Mountain itself.

“I thought you said we just animals?” I scream at Billy Boy, wiping spit and tears and blood from my mouth. “How I a devil too?” But Billy Boy can’t hear me. He’s passed out, drops of sweat beading like clay on his forehead, teeth sticking out of his lip, blood all over the place, like he a mosquito been popped by Jesus. The city burning harder now down below, more robots and drones and rampaging armies coming in from the South, and East and West, Mexicans, Arizonans, New Mexicans, Texans, Americans, Hell’s Angels, Banderos, Rangers, Zetas, Christian Nationalists, Jihadists, Shiks, Nazis, Communists, Libertarians, Anarchists, Russians, Brazilians, Montenegrins, all going to clean the place up, make it pure again.

I get the Indians to help me drag Billy Boy’s legs to a green bush, the only one on the mountain not burnt. We dig a hole and put the legs and Billy Boy’s science book in there. Then we drink purple liquor together, damn sight better than a Shirley Temple. “I never bury no legs before,” says one of the Indians after the last clod goes over Billy Boy’s chopped legs. “Don’t seem right.”

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We make it across Texas in Billy Boy’s truck, stopping only in small towns, telling them Billy Boy’s my papa. Cars and empty buildings flicking by so I feel like maybe I’m dead, maybe I died in El Paso with everyone else, and now I’m just running like I’m on rewind, repeating like a stuck video. But it’s not a bad feeling. It’s better than being afraid of ghosts like I was, killing and whoring because I didn’t know no better, because I can’t imagine a world different than it is. Billy Boy’s mostly quiet, sweating bullets, begging for death. But I tell him to hush. I tell him all you talls think you get to choose when you die, like you in charge of heaven and earth. But that’s not how it works.

Politician on the radio say dwarves’ evil. Got no soul. Maybe it’s true. How something with no soul know it ain’t got one? I don’t got no answer, so I turn the radio off and keep on driving, passing green trees, green lawns, green fields, so green it hurt my eyes. Then the truck’s engine and brakes screaming something awful, like a thousand child demons being cut to pieces under the hood, and I’m thinking we have another few hours driving left at most. I take Billy Boy’s hand. He’s moaning now, kicking his stumps, saying he don’t want to go back, go forward, go anywhere and in the engine racket I almost think this is the end, that the Four Horsemen caught up to us, going to split us in half, worse, split us apart, won’t let us be together. But then I look down and my stomach flips up into my chest: the sky’s in the wrong place. It’s come all the way down and around, rolling and running along the earth, eating up the green and the black and the brown all the way to the truck tires.

“Billy Boy,” I whisper, pulling to a stop, turning the engine off. He mumbles something I can’t make out. “Billy Boy!” I shout. I can’t wait. I’m already out of the cab. I’m taking off my clothes, my burnt white skirt, my bloody t-shirt, my underpants, peeling them off like shredded skin, like I’m a snake and venom in my scales not my teeth. I stumble on the soft gold sand and roll into the blue.

When I’m far enough out, when I coughing and choking on tinfoil blue, when it’s running along my hair and in between my toes, up my mouth and out my nose, I look back to shore. Billy Boy’s managed to get out the door, out onto the sand, and sits with his back against the truck’s burnt red-black wheel, bandaged stumps white eyes staring back at me. Truck hood puffs a string of gray smoke up into dark-bottomed clouds.

“The sea, baby!” I shout, standing up, letting the water run down me, like I’m a frog-fish and this the earth’s first day. “What I tell you? We made it to the sea!”

“We in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Darling,” he shouts. “It’s just a lake. We miles from the sea.”

I laugh and kick water, stumble back onto shore, out into golden sand, crawl up to my Billy Boy, lean over, touch his stumps with white-blue drops, kiss the drops one by one, suck the water up into my no-soul.

“What do you know of life?” I ask him real soft, touching his lips with mine. “What does a man like you know of the sea?”

—Michael Carson

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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He holds an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Aug 142017
 

  Walter Benjamin

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My Red Heaven is collage in form. This piece centers on Walter Benjamin, and moves back and forth in time as he sits on a bench on Unter den Linden, beginning what will become The Arcades Project.

 

1.The only way of knowing a person is to love him or her without hope, Walter Benjamin pencils in his notebook, hunched on a dark green bench in the dark green shade of a linden.

A bear occurs, a man playing a flute followed by twenty beautiful children.

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  1. Walter crosses out the sentence. He has spent his entire day here, the last three, in this park running up the center of Unter den Linden, in combat with a three-page essay about Parisian arcades for the Frankfurter Zeitung. The essay refuses to stay in its skin. It keeps wanting to unfurl into something larger, messier, less itself.

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  2. Suppose I were to begin by recounting, he pencils in his notebook, how many cities have revealed themselves to me in my expeditions through them in pursuit of books. Suppose I were to speak of a time, ours, when even the best readers have become frightened of imperfect, torrential monographs — ones that fan out into a maze of dangerous branchings.

    Suppose I were to bring up how easy a certain kind of completeness is.

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  3. He crosses out that paragraph, writes in a choked scribble I am falling in love with lostness, then the brakes, a woman’s shriek.

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  4. When he raises his head everything already exists in another tense.

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  5. An old truck, advertisement for a brewery across its side, run up onto the curb in front of the Adlon Hotel. Several empty barrels burst on the sidewalk. A smartly dressed man splayed in the street, pedestrians vectoring in.

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  6. (When a world war breaks out, all you can do sometimes is begin to translate the works of Baudelaire as faithfully as possible.)

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  7. The bear man stops. His triad of notes. The twenty beautiful children stop, at first confused about where to look.

    One points, a perfect girl, mouth opening, nickel-blue eyes wide with the world.

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  8. Walter squints through his chunky spectacles to determine if the man is alive or the other thing.

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  9. Suppose, he considers, his weak heart twinging, I am falling in love with disjunction. Medieval alleys full of flowers. Suppose I am falling in love with learning to interrupt my —

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  10. Three years ago. Island of Capri. Ernst Bloch crumpled down the newspaper he had been reading and glared at Walter over the dried-seagull remains. The pair reclined in chaise lounges on their pension’s balcony amid a tumble of shiny white houses overlooking the Bay of Naples.

    How just so fucking absurd it must seem, Bloch proclaimed, for an immortal soul destined for heaven or hell to find itself sitting in the kitchen in the form of a maid.

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  11. The bear waiting for orders.

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  12. The children.

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  13. We may call these images wish images; in them the collective seeks

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  14. But most of all the tiny squares. Medieval alleys full of bougainvillea clinging to stone walls. Plumbago. Yellow, red, powder blue rowboats pulled up on the Marina Grande’s pebbly beach. And Bloch saying: The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security. It is the loss of the capacity to imagine things other than they are.

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  15. For you were born under the sign of Saturn, planet of detours and delays, blunders and stubbornness; of those who see themselves as books, thinking as a method of gathering, organizing, yet always knowing when to stray, wander off.

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  16. For to lose your way in a city or a person requires a great amount of willpower.

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  17. It is Bloch proclaiming from his chaise lounge, newspaper seagull crumpled in his lap, and emaciated Rilke all those years after that first meeting at the University of Munich, praising in a letter to Walter from somewhere among the Swiss Alps Mussolini’s New Year’s Eve speech.

    What soaring language! What beautiful discourse! Fascism, our great healing agent!

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  18. The hotel doormen holding onto the driver of the truck until the police show up, and the belief Jewishness means a promise to further European culture, each epoch dreaming the one to follow.

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  19. Inaccurately.

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  20. These moments, those hours, the other days: Had Walter really accomplished anything at all?

    Wonders Walter.

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  21. It is Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap of paper Sois toujours poète, même en prose — Always be a poet, even in prose — and the ambulance disturbance rising on the far side of the heavy, coal-smoked Brandenburg Gate, and the found object, the readymade, the already extant message, the chance encounter, the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, that half of art of which the other half is eternal and immutable.

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  22. There was the juncture at which he understood he was not to become an academic instructor.

    There was that injury.

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  23. Wine. Bread. Thickly sliced salami.

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  24. The lizard with azure scales panting rapidly on a fence rail.

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  25. The sun, a glossy orange in the sunset sky: Capri.

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  26. There was that juncture, and there will be the one in which he can no longer remember what he wants as he reaches languidly for the bottle of tablets on his hotel nightstand in room number three.

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  27. Yet now it is those days with Bloch on that balcony, the nights with Asja Lācis in her bed, long umber hair tousled.

    Naked.

    Yawning.

    Her unselfconscious stretching, her body Y-ing on the mattress.

    Walter was completely open about the Latvian Bolshevik theater director when his wife, Dora, asked in her letters.

    But only when she asked.

    (She asked only once.)

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  28. Writing about a given place at a given time puts its existence between quotation marks, plucks it from its native context by engendering unanticipated new ones.

    This is collage’s capacity, through cutting up and cutting off, to open up and ou

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  29. We won’t be getting married, mana saulīte. I find divorce too hard on the nerves.

    Asja footnoting in mid-stretch.

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  30. Dora remaining behind in Berlin with their nine-year-old son, moody anxious Stefan, and Asja introducing Walter over dinner to Marxism as historical mutiny and late night Prosecco to sex as whirlwind.

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  31. Writing that looks like writing, however, thinking that looks like thinking, has come to feel to Walter progressively flat, faded, fated.

    Suppose, he pencils in his notebook, I were to rethink everything.

    Suppose I were to start all over again.

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  32. And thirteen years later, twenty-some-odd changes of address, standing outside the Bibliothèque Nationale on a thick spring day, twenty-four hours before the Germans howl into Paris with orders to arrest that Jew intellectual at his flat, Walter hands over his color-coded notes — green language, yellow, red; diagrams; copies of images that have collared his curiosity — to his grouper-mouthed librarian friend Georges Bataille.

    Over Georges’ shoulder, Walter’s last glimpse of the filthy Seine glistering.

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  33. Asja’s double enlivening: the erotic and the political slurred into a single unfathomableness.

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  34. Or this man, weak heart, weakening lungs, a mobile intelligence unit moving through the metropolitan streets, he likes to think of himself as, likes to believe he believes, maybe others, too, although what would happen if you began to imagine the essay you are composing, not as a —

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  35. After this shitty war, Georges telling Walter outside the library on that balmy pre-invasion day, Europe will resemble a de Sade novel. Watch out for Duc de Blangis. He will be everywhere.

    Georges not grinning then, but rather turning away, repairing to work.

    Walter watching his friend’s lightly pigeon-toed gait decrease in size down the sidewalk.

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  36. Suppose you began to imagine the essay you are writing, not as a piece of music that must move from first note to last, but rather as a building you could approach from various sides, navigate along various paths, one in which perspective continually changes?

    This building, we might submit, would constitute a literary architectonics that pits itself against narrative’s seemingly inflexible arc from birth to the other thing.

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  37. These lines written by the man who earned his Ph.D. cum laude eight years ago with a dissertation on art criticism amid German Romanticism, yet who has been assiduously unable to find academic employment ever since.

    That injury, too.

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  38. (Among others.)

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  39. There is that brief deliberation over emigrating from Germany to Palestine and how the bottle of morphine tablets catches the caramel sun in his tiny room at the Hotel de Francia on the Catalonian coast one autumn afternoon in 1940, police guard posted outside Walter’s door demurely clearing his throat every now and then.

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  40. Written by the thirty-four-year-old journalist unable to support himself, let alone his family, through his own labor, and so forced for a time to ask his wife to stop loving him so he could return to Berlin to reside with his parents.

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  41. To reside with his

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  42. Ne cherchez plus mon coeur; les bêtes l’ont mange.

    Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap.

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  43. There is that slightly less brief deliberation over emigrating to the United States through neutral Portugal as the Germans howled closer, and how Max Horkheimer negotiates a travel visa for Walter, who will only be able to flee as far as Spain over the Pyrenees before the Franco regime cancels all transit permits and orders the authorities to return those carrying them to France.

    .

  44. And on 25 September, 1940, there is that Spanish official with the pinched lips telling the group of Jewish refugees Walter has joined to prepare for deportation the following morning, and the emptiness on Hannah Arendt’s face taking in this information, on her husband the poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher’s, on their friend the Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler’s, on the German photographer Henny Gurland’s, her son Joseph’s.

    .

  45. Yet, despite the future, the bear man steps into motion again, melody picking up.

    .

  46. One by one, the beautiful children.

    .

  47. Do not look for my heart anymore; the beasts have eaten it, scribbling the poet who spent his last two years between Brussels and Paris, semi-paralyzed and unable to speak after the massive stroke.

    .

  48. The emptiness on the ambulance driver’s face as he employs a plain white sheet to cover the bodily fluids held in by tender skin.

    .

  49. Or the emptiness on the doctor’s face during each of his four visits to tiny room number three through that late September afternoon and evening, administering injections and blood letting as if these things might in the end somehow alter the configuration of that space.

    .

  50. It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Asja’s body in her bed, sheetless in silvery sun, along with the belief writing as collage draws attention to the sensuality of the page even as it strips itself of the tedious, tendentious pretense of originality.

    Suppose, therefore, it could be argued

    .

  51. Suppose we were to call it a meditative practice that allows one to be surprised by what one says next.

    A practice, we could even submit, of reading.

    .

  52. Or the other manuscript, completed, which Walter will carry in his suitcase from Paris to Portbou, which will disappear forever.

    That manuscript, too.

    .

  53. Suppose, therefore, it could be argued that we are all collage artists, pencils Walter, then crosses out the sentence, for there will be that juncture in two years at which Dora and he will have become separated, then divorced, the juncture in thirteen at which the other Jews in his party of refugees for no discernible reason will be allowed sudden passage through Spain into Portugal.

    .

  54. Four days later all will safely reach Lisbon.

    Minus one.

    .

  55. It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Hannah Arendt admiring the terracotta rooftops, the pale yellow dwellings, bunching down the steep Lisbon hillsides into bluegreen seasprawl.

    .

  56. The Spanish police will refer to the deceased forty-eight-year-old in their correspondence with Max Horkheimer, who will query about the details of his friend’s passing, as that German gentleman.

    .

  57. That German gentleman about whom you inquire, the Spanish police writing, died of heart failure.

    .

  58. Cerebral hemorrhage, the medical certificate will state.

    .

  59. The town judge listing Walter’s possessions at the time of death thus: suitcase leather, gold watch, pipe, passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, one pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, a few papers, contents unknown, and some money.

    .

  60. A few papers, contents un

    .

  61. How, because of confusion surrounding his identity, Walter will be buried in leased-niche number 563 in the Catholic section of the Portbou cemetery. When no one remembers to keep up the payments, Walter’s remains will be quietly exhumed and moved in the summer of 1945 to the town’s common burial ground, where their exact location will over time become unremembered.

    .

  62. Four days after Walter reaches for the bottle of morphine tablets he brought with him from Marseilles, just in case, Hannah Arendt will lean out the window of her hotel room in Lisbon, relishing the act of breathing, just that, while admiring the terracotta rooftops and pale yellow dwellings bunching down the steep hillsides into the bluegreen seasprawl.

    .

  63. Below, the streetcars clanking by.

    .

  64. Mosquitoey scooters revving.

    .

  65. That greasy scent of reprieve billowing up around her a flash before she steps back into life.

—Lance Olsen

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Lance Olsen
Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing. His latest is the novel Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017). A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

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Aug 142017
 

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—after Rabelais

The Marquis had a grandson, Jake. As a child, Jake would spend weekends with his grandpa who’d make a very nice from-scratch pizza before retiring to the inner sanctum to play Halo. These pizzas that the Marquis lovingly made were really something. To see the smooth globes of dough sitting on the counter—a little dusting of flour on top like little round baby bottoms in talc—makes me sad to remember.

For they are surely gone. All gone.

Well, the kid could have grown up to live a straight, true, and happy life, but, man, things can get messed up. For Jake it was not so much the stuff that most kids have to go through these days, now that the maturing process and its rites of passage require the use of handguns. Like it or not, Glocks are the new normal for these kids. Like it or not, it’s become part of growing up. That first court restraining order is now a milestone equal to a driver’s license, high school diploma, college admission, and so on. Happily for Jake, the Marquis gave him a sort of happy, dopey reality apart from all that. As a consequence, he was as close to innocent as a young man could come in these withered days.

At a young age, Jake married and settled down in a modest split-level ranch house with his new wife, Fanni, let’s call her. Jake learned to make pizza for her, just like his grandpa’s, and they settled in for life…as it were. Here’s the future he saw: he’d cook pizza and after dinner he and Fanni would play computer games, kissing now and then. On Fridays they’d have grandpa le Marquis over and play Halo. They’d drink root beer. What he neglected to figure into this delightful scenario was the fact that Fanni also had a notion or two about what married life ought to be like. Unfortunately for Jake, she was of the opinion that her life with her husband ought to be different in important ways from her husband’s life with his grandpa. In particular, the eating of pizzas and the playing of computer games was boring to the point of wishing that her high school biology teacher would come by and “pith” her with a straight pin in the frontal lobe, just as he’d done with frogs. After a month or so of Jake’s idea of happiness, buyer’s remorse was the primary fact of her life.

Jake was a simple person. Fanni was not a simple person. She did not have Jake’s stable, happy background sharing time with a grandparent in blissful side-by-side interface with the good old X-box. What Fanni had was a single mother who lived on the left side of a brick duplex in the spiritually destitute region just south of Chicago. Their house was one of those structures that census workers look at and say, “Does this count?” Her mother supported their little family through frequent “presents” from various “close family friends” in the form of cocaine or cash equivalents. What these friends got in return is irrelevant or almost. In spite of all that, Fanni grew up a smart kid capable of wandering away from the daily horror show at the old duplex. She thrived at school, went to college, met the son of a Marquis (!) and, without giving it a lot of thought, married.

In the sad thereafter, their marriage counselor suggested to her that she should have known what Jake was like, she’d been to his house before they married, hadn’t she? And she said, “Yes, I knew what he was like, but I thought he was kidding.” Then she added, “And he did kiss me once under the grain elevator, and so I asked him with my eyes to ask me, and when he did I thought, ‘Well, as well him as another.’”

Jake was sitting right there, holding her hand as she said these hurtful things. The therapist’s response was to put his head in his hands (the closest he could come to neutral affect in the moment). The counselor, at least, knew that it was too late and Fanni had already gone to blazes. On the other hand, he could now also confirm that Jake’s form of innocence was, just as Fanni claimed, morally exhausting. He could see how it could drive a person to unpleasant extremes.

As for Jake, he didn’t yet quite know what to make of it all. But when he saw the counselor bury his head in his hands he had to wonder, “Is that how I should be responding to what she’s saying?” He looked at her sitting by his side. She was smiling pleasantly.

There was something damaged in Fanni, something broken. She was, in a sense, not “there,” not present. For instance, she could not seem to tell the difference between the good things that she did and the bad things. Make breakfast? Hit their barky Yorkie with a shovel? Essentially the same for her. But when Jake showed how they were not the same, she would get confused and start crying. “How can you be so sure about everything?” she’d ask, and then she’d go after the dog with a hoe because it had stuck its cold snout inside her summer shorts and smelled her fur. (She kept garden implements in the kitchen for such moments.)

She was also someone with the interesting and organic conviction that if the world spread out from her, it was her job to take it all back in. Perhaps it was some sort of bizarre maternal instinct gone wrong, but she had faith in the thought that everything should go back to her empty inside.

And then there was the shopping. She shopped with tenacity knowing that it was her responsibility to buy it all, to take it all inside. She was the Imelda Marcos of any- and everything. She didn’t shop in Big Box stores, she shopped for Big Box stores. She created shopping lists like the card catalogue at the Library of Alexandria.

When she wasn’t shopping, she was eating. Unfortunately, this duty, this “moral imperative to internalize the world,” had horrible consequences in restaurants. She did not understand the purpose of a menu. The idea that she should choose only one thing from each section—one salad, one entrée, etc.—simply made no sense to her. The idea that there were sections didn’t make sense to her. Appetizer. Entrée. What? Explain as Jake surely did, it was all beyond her. She thought Jake was yammering metaphysics when all he might be saying was, “Darling, you don’t start with the chocolate mousse. It is not an appetizer.” There were some meals that took the form of quest legends. It was as if she believed that there was some food, some perfect food, that would make her world right if only she could find it. In spite of all his goodness and his love for her, Jake lacked the will to enforce what he called, for her benefit, “food reality.”

When he said things like that, in what she took to be a knowing and superior way, she would say, “There is nothing so dull as innocence.”

Touché!

Once during the Christmas season Jake and Fanni were eating at the legendary Stockyard Trough down in Decatur. She started in her pell-mell way with a dilled Blanquette de Veau. The chef had prepared six portions for the evening and she ate them all. She followed that with dozens of pizza hot-pockets off the children’s menu. (Yes, some of the little darlings cried when they were told that there were no more pizza hot-pockets, but she insisted that some people would have to sacrifice for the greater good, and she volunteered the children.)

The headwaiter scrambled with a sponge to erase the featured dishes as they fell from the little chalkboard out front, inexorably, one after another. At neighboring tables, the waiters sensed the drift of things and began encouraging guests to order quickly while there was still something more than bread and butter to eat.

“What!!??” one obese old-timer complained, a Cargill seed cap cockeyed on his head, bloody stains from rib-eyes past on his overalls. “No beef? None at all? Not even an old piece of flank? Not even a burger? How is that possible? This is the Stockyard Trough, isn’t it? Do you know what a stockyard is? What’s that you say? Her? That little girl over there with the Marquis’s boy? Are you saying she’s eaten the entire cow? I’ll be damned!”

Having decimated the main courses, she retreated to the soups and polished off one pot each of borscht, split pea, and, soup du jour, potato/leek. (“André! Scratch the soups!”)  At this point she observed that her napkin was soiled and asked for another. Pitiless, she ate the herbed caviar roulade, the crepes with caviar filling, potatoes with caviar, caviar éclairs, oysters and caviar, and—a coup de main, de resistance, de theatre, d’etat, de grace, and de foudre—a cobbler with knuckle truffles (the low, obsequious sort common to the Aberdeens), creamed clotters, and crushed sweet-rind. (If you’re looking for the recipe, it’s in Mark Bittman’s Cobblers and Gobblers: Cooking with Cottage Clusters and Custard Clotters.)

And why did she eat these things? She ate these things because that’s just the kind of gal she was.

—Curtis White

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“Dining at the Stockyard Trough” is an excerpt from Lacking Character, forthcoming from Melville House Press, 2018.

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Curtis White is a novelist and social critic whose work includes the novel Memories of My Father Watching TV and the recent book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House).

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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 112017
 

Kinga Fabo black and white

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Vibrato

I. Hidden in distortion

Back into the body; may commotion reach her no more. Busy people had disturbed her relentlessly. Bad memories—noises—had showered her, even amid the strain of—inner—tunes. All rhythm, sheer sound. Tension ever at the ready—ready for rhythm: attuning to the other, conjuring up any of her own rhythms, indeed, any sound she’d ever heard. That which it didn’t conjure up, that, she composed. No one knew of her rare ability; she kept the secret well. The concealed sounds now began storming within her—all of them, at once. (Making their word heard?) A fine orgy flooded through her. Perhaps her overblown need for a personality, her oversize ability to attune, was linked to her singular sensitivity to sounds. Effortlessly she assumed the—rhythm of the—other. Only when turning directly its way. She is in sound and she is so as long as she is—as long as she might be. Yet another orgy flooded through her. She would have broken through her own sounds, but a complete commotion?! May nothing happen! “VIRGINITY  IS  LUXURY, MY  VIRGINITY  LOOSE  HELP ME,” T-shirts once proclaimed. This (grammatically unsound) call to action, which back then was found also on pins, now came to mind. An aftershock of the beat generation. And yet this—still—isn’t why she vibrated. Back then, everyone wore tight T-shirts and jeans. T-shirts emblazoned with words, wrapped snugly around breasts. She should have bulged on the outside—now too. Campaigns bent on conquering—those, she didn’t undertake, after all. Beautifying operations—she was weary of those. No ambition, no action; no action going forward, either. Because externals were all sucked into her at once, they were stuck in her—hiding her. No aligning of perspectives. She’d become mired in authoritarianism. Under a one-way communications blackout she’d been forced into a singular pleasure—a self-pleasuring (art). The vibrations within her were too many. Sound or prosthesis? No longer did it matter. If only she could be done with them. Her whipped-up body knew that an unanticipated stimuli would one day cause its explosure. Her perpetual doubt about whether she lived up to her body’s demands, satisfying it, had now seen dubious proof. Her unique sensitivity to sounds had heightened to the extremes. At every sound she shrank all the more. Now she herself—putting into practice the performative act of naming—dubbed her unprecedented illness, which she was the first to suffer from, “ego-atrophy.” (In the absence of use, personality fades away. Through sound—it comes, and so too it goes. In the meantime: totally tied up.) And, indeed, as her body slowly gobbled up her shrinking self, the exertion bent it out of shape. Having formed a parentheses, it was charged with covering its once (already, then) perfect shape; depriving her of her womanhood before it would deprive her of everything. Until now her shape and form had not overlapped, and so the gaps, where they did occur—there had always been some, and they remained—are for voyeurs to peep through. She tolerated no eyes upon her. For being watched neither on the outside nor the inside; nor for peeping upon her through the gaps. She wore a cuirass. No one could see—in—there. Her onetime desire, slow with the body, was realized in here in distorted form and late (in delay is the pleasure—but whose?). In a distorted mirror, she seemed tinier. Her full, sensual mouth—in parentheses; lying fallow (in reserve, words squelched). Doors and windows elsewhere: she had to fear in two directions. As far as goings-on were concerned, mornings were more radical even now. The house made a big hoopla over her. It screwed her down—one turn, every sound. He abounds at my expense, she thought, my thyroid minds. Can the soul be seen, or only if its stain is? Not wanting to injure an ear, she all but thought this only. My body—a smoothly turning screw; my soul—a metabolic disorder. This, she really did think, but—still not injuring an ear. A great advocate of silent bouts of being left alone, that she was. But, bewitched by the degree of her exploitation (the screw is turning), still driven by the centrifugal force (away from the centre!),[1] words came to the mouth: “I will not share in your degree of noise.” This, she didn’t even think. The late declaration of her stifled demand for her ego—extruding from the mouth—derailed at once: lost in the general commotion. Thus she was compelled to keep sharing. It was to her that every ringing noise pulled in. There was always noise—at the ready. Continual reinforcements: lines waiting. Her anachronistic organs cramped; as with heart and soul. Her love organs could not interlock, her working organ went kaput. If a glance could kill! Alas, it couldn’t. By now her hearing had turned cocky: she differentiated between people based on sound alone. The difference was not too big—only a matter of who happened to fling off which portion of his/her own sound back upon her. Of a certain ringing she claimed to know: surely is to be continued. (It was.) She didn’t want to hear it. She switched to her own volume. She opened all her sources of noise and leapt into their dizzying waves.

(Optional musical closure, cadence)

A singular life—she chose: for it a singular—death. Always she drew on her own source, and so on her own she would have—run out. And yet she didn’t wait it out.

“Shall I regard you as absence?”

“Feel free.”

Never had—the scene and in it, her: simultaneously—become a fact, given that she really had gone away, by homeopathic means: with noises. She couldn’t stand them, so with them she killed herself. Her neighbor, who was not at all rhythmically attuned—helped her unwittingly in this. Or too attuned? With noises he murdered his unknown partner into—into—suicide.

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II. Bestial rutting; the tension degenerates

Out of the body; ready for noise at once. Bad memories didn’t bother him; his were that too.

(He was quite willing to forget anything.) Not even busy people; he too was one. Most of all he liked to make noise (bent on it, he was, hissing from the mouth), but he irritated (tormented, molested) other organs too. His act hit home patient at once. He screwed onto her with every noise. He kept screwing onto himself, too, until—he became erect and stayed that way. His body, prancing as a sheer exclamation mark (a priapism?) but feeling no desire (a priapism indeed) covered everyone: to swarm and to occur! Out and in all directions; dispersed and every which way. And in fact: he was constantly flickering and buzzing. At first he scattered—compliments—properly. His tool gradually took over—on him. His glance—blocked—an operational territory. Storms of communication got stuck there—all of them. He knew no—joke—when it came to noise level. His hyperactivity—mounting to the max—as much as could be. He partook of—singular pleasure. Because his attention could not be riveted, he always adhered to other loose ends. (Perfect cementing.) As a signal of his recognition, at such times he gave forth all sorts of clicking and knapping sounds. He always pulled another to his constantly subservient threads—rotating them often. They were a tool; a silent partner. When he managed to tie himself down, he had pleasure—lots of it. With them—totally tied up. Thus it was he turned cocky (became free). Time having passed, his mood having been satiated, his public disturbances became routine. He organized splendid little mornings (orgies) for himself. He could cause a ruckus as he wished on the house. Spirits set ablaze—the screw turned higher and higher. (Squeezed, pressed, screwed.) Passions set ablaze awaited their turn in subservience (in bonds). His whip was frayed, while he was marching on his own. The chronic, pleasureless swelling of his male organ (the aforementioned priapism)—has entered into a chronic ego-hypertrophy. His onetime desire, May a woman never deflate me, has now reversed, distorted, late: Someone deflate me already! He moved an entire crowd. His great big ego ensured a spewing of pleasure to behold. So much spewing that it almost emptied out, cut to shreds. The tool, the object, the method changed along the way, but—not the aim: to cleave the ear with noise, for he is a homeopathic—murderer. The mass of naked torsos didn’t bother him. Everyone gathered, links in the chain; a public in line (canon fodder). But then one day (malfunction? rigor mortis?), silence fell. His singular mercilessness (exquisite dispassion) toward noises intensified to no end. He rang the doorbell of a random neighbor. A door can’t stand in the way, he thought, indeed—and, intoxicated by this repository of burgeoning opportunities—he flung himself on all potential sources of noise, among them his neighbor, who was just starting to give an overdose of sound,

(Optional musical closure, cadence)

and who, in the end, died multiple deaths. Opening the sources of noise (like turning on the gas on a stove), she overdosed on the noise (as on medication); jumped (as from the fourth floor); and—drowned—in the waves. Finally, she exploded (like a gas tank) due to the simultaneous inner and outer pressure.

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I. and II. Homeopathic murderer and suicide up and away for good . . .

The bodies, and those who take pleasure in them (both of their own), could get mixed up and away even when exploding (much energy in a tight space) but no later than when plummeting. And in the foams! The organs and events are similar, after all, as is, indeed, the method—homeopathy—though in their lives they could have done so. Now—not by chance—they were preparing to plop into a black hole. Explosions yielded many of them everywhere. Nearing the event-horizon, its current immediately sucked everything in. No goal was kicked. And had one been, the black hole would have gobbled it up, too. Neither she who (would have) received it nor he who (would have) kicked it—felt it. Enormous anesthesia, as if after orgasm.

—Kinga Fabó, translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry

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Kinga Fabó is a Hungarian poet, linguist, and essayist. She is the author of eight books. Her latest, a bilingual Indonesian-English poetry collection titled Racun (Poison), was published in 2015 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Fabó’s poetry has been included in various international journals and zines, as well as in anthologies. Some of her individual poems have been translated into Persian, Esperanto or Tamil. One of her poems, “The Ears,” has six different Indonesian translations by six different authors. She has also written an essay on Sylvia Plath. In everything she’s done, Fabó has always been between the verges, on the verge, and in the extreme. Kinga lives in Budapest, Hungary.

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Paul Olchvary

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Paul Olchváry, a native of Amherst, New York, spent much of his adult life in Hungary and has translated numerous Hungarian novels into English for such publishers as Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Hougton Mifflin, Northwestern, and Steerforth. He has received translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Hungary’s Milán Füst Foundation. The founder and publisher of New Europe Books, he lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Desire, never yet so fast; maybe—because it is—already it is away from there.
Aug 102017
 

Photo by Roelof Bakker

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1.

A couple lived on a farm far away from the rest of the world. They had land to grow vegetables, chickens that gave eggs, and a well for water. Nearby, there was a stream jumping with fish and, right at the edge of their land, a wood with trees to chop for the fire.

The couple had everything they needed except for one small thing.

On their wedding day, to mark the occasion, the couple had planted an apple tree at the entrance to the wood and, exactly five years later, it bore fruit for the first time, as though celebrating their anniversary.

“Surely, it’s a sign,” the wife said.

The husband patted her stomach and smiled.

The years passed and the woman’s belly showed no swell, and though deep love slept within them, the couple stopped lying with each other.

The man took to going to the edge of the wood at the end of his working day to sit underneath the apple tree. At times, when he hadn’t come home for supper, the woman would go looking for her husband only to find him sleeping against its trunk.

“See what you’ve done,” she said, one evening, while helping her husband to his feet. “You’ve worn a dent in the tree with your back.”

She smiled through a sting of jealousy. Being of a sensible nature she shook her head and laughed at herself, returning to the calm she knew.

One day, when the man was tired from his work and felt the cool of the setting sun in his bones, he went to the wood and sat, leaning in the nook he had worn in the trunk of the tree. This groove his body had made over the years seemed to welcome him. Before long he drifted off to sleep.

In his dream, he was exactly where he’d sat to rest but the heat was unbearable. He took off his shirt, then the rest of his clothes, and lay naked at the foot of the tree. Despite the heat, a blanket of cool damp leaves covered the earth beneath the shade.

I wish there was a breeze, he thought, and closed his eyes.

What felt like a cool breath, ran over him, making the fine, blonde hair of his stomach stand and his skin bump and tingle. When he opened his eyes, the five-flowered blossoms on the apple tree waved. The branches swayed. He knew it wasn’t the wind but the tree itself fanning him. The branches came toward him, wrapping around his body and pulling him up and in until he was pressed against the trunk of the tree.

He placed his hands on the bark and looked up at the dance of the branches above.

“How beautiful you are,” he said, then kissed the tree tenderly. “How I’ve ignored you all this time. Have I been blind?”

The groove he had made with his back was now hip-height as he stood, and it yielded as he pressed against the tree. Leaves whispered in his ear and the smell of apple blossom filled his head and he became aroused. He made love to the tree in way that dreams allow. As he came, the tree caved, and he sank deep inside the damp, darkness of the hollow.

When he woke, he found he was lying naked on the earth. He tried to piece together what had happened, grasping at images from his dream, but, like snowflakes, they disappeared the instant he touched them. All that remained was a feeling of deep shame. He was cold and became self-conscious. Dressing quickly, he hurried home, his head thick with fog and full of fear and the sense of something very important lost.

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2.

The tree waited for the man to return. Every day, as the sun rose, the tree unfurled its leaves to the cottage in the distance. Every afternoon, the tree waited, hoping to see the man appear walking towards her through the long grass. But he was never again to rest himself on her bark.

As the days grew hotter, apples burst from its branches, tiny and sore. One, sprouting from the tip of the highest branch, caused the most pain. Within a week it had grown ten times the size of the others. It weighed down the branch until it rested on the earth. As the summer had its way, while the other apples matured and fell, the huge fruit stayed and did not stop growing.

One morning, as the tree opened for the sun, something was different. The large apple had disappeared. The branch that had held it now led inside the hollow that had been made the last time she saw the farmer. The tree pulled to bring the fruit out, bark cracking from the strain. The tree called upon its deep roots to help. And with the strength of the earth itself, it strained until there was a cry. A human cry. Now the branch came easily. It rustled out from the hollow and with it a baby boy, the tip of the branch attached to the boy’s belly.

The tree slid some branches under the baby and lifted it off the ground. The tree wept leaves and blossoms of joy at the sight of the boy. The boy screamed and cried. The tree curled a branch around a rock and bashed its trunk until its bark split. It brought the boy to the bark and he drank the sap.

The tree was devoted to the boy. It shaded him under its branches when he was hot and sheltered him in the hollow when he was cold. It let him drink his fill of its sap, held and rocked him till he slept. And the boy was content, playing among the roots. The farmer never returned.

When the boy had been with the tree for seven years, and the autumn had painted them both brown and orange, a tiny figure appeared in the horizon and came towards them. The tree became frightened for the boy, ushering him into the hollow and concealing it with its branches.

A little girl emerged from the grass swinging a small basket. She sat on the ground and picked the apples, throwing away the bruised and wrinkled but keeping the golden and shiny for herself. The girl began to sing. Clear, high and pure, her voice hung in the air like a sweet smell.

The tree resisted as the boy pushed at the branches to escape the hollow. The boy growled, a sound he’d never made before. The little girl jumped. The growling became a whimper. The girl looked at the tree, glanced back at the cottage in the distance, then stood. Flattening down her skirt, she tip-toed towards the tree trunk.

“Hello,” she said, tugging at the branches that covered the hollow. The boy struggled on his side, too, and soon the two of them were standing face to face.

“Who are you?” she said.

The boy reached out and touched her hair then touched his own. The girl spat on the hem of her skirt then wiped the earth from his face. The tree shivered at this, its leaves whispered a warning.

“That’s better,” the girl said.

The boy glanced back at the tree and then at the girl.

“I’m not supposed to come here,” she said. “It’ll be our secret.”

She held her finger to her lips.

“I have to go, but I will come back.” The girl smiled, picked up her basket, and off she skipped.

The boy run after the girl until the branch that led from his belly to the tree snapped him back. He pulled at the branch. The tree felt those tugs deep in its sap. As the girl disappeared over the horizon, the boy dropped to the earth with a thump.

The boy didn’t return to the tree straight away but sat watching the sun grow tired and heavy until it sank from the sky to rest. When the chill of the dark came to rouse him, the boy stood and, with his foot, made a circle of turned-up soil around the tree, mapping his boundary.

As the autumn darkened, the girl came to the tree every afternoon. She brought books with drawings inside and taught the boy about the world beyond the field. Even after he understood her talk, he would not speak back. He was ashamed of the rustling whispers that came out of his mouth when he practiced alone. The girl didn’t seem to mind that he was always silent – except when he laughed. He couldn’t keep the wet, sticky clacking sound inside.

The next summer, while the tree was busy bearing fruit, energy low, busy with so much life, the girl came all day, every day. The children started whispering. They were keeping secrets. When they did this, the tree would tickle them with leaves or drop apples on their heads. They’d laugh then move further away.

One sticky, late summer’s day, under the pale blue sky, the boy ran to greet the girl. This time they lingered at the very limit that his branch allowed. The summer had been a hot one, and the apples on the tree had grown heavy and begun to drop before their time.

When it happened, it was like an explosion. Every branch shook, every apple fell. When the surge passed, the tree saw the girl and the boy running across the field, hand in hand. In the girl’s other hand, shears glinted in the dying sun.

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3.

The boy’s hand felt crushed by the girl’s, but he didn’t mind. He ran through the field, down and then up the hill. He breathed deeper than before. Running in a straight line, knowing he could go on, running until he dropped, amazed him. But soon he grew tired and felt sharp, stabbing pains in his chest. He’d never felt so frightened. He stopped, trying desperately to breathe. The girl didn’t seem to notice. She pulled, dragging him on.

Ahead he saw a cottage, just like the pictures the girl had shown him. It was where people lived. People like him.

At the door, the girl said, “Wait here,” and kissed him on the cheek. He nodded and watched her go in. The door clicked but didn’t catch and remained slightly open. The boy was glad for a moment to breathe and rest but, left alone for the first time in his life, he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. He watched through the gap in the door.

“Daddy! I’ve brought my friend home,” the girl cried.

“A friend? Where?” The father squinted at his daughter. “Don’t leave the child outside.”

“It’s the boy I’ve been telling you about,” she said, “the boy from the tree.”

“The apple tree, in the far field?” her mother asked. “That’s your father’s tree.”

“I’ve told you to stay away from that tree,” her father scolded. “And it’s not my tree!” He glared at his wife. “No wonder her head is full of nonsense.”

The girl ran out the door and grabbed the boy by the hand. He was scared and reluctant to come, but she dragged him in and helped him onto a chair.

“See,” she said, pointing at the boy.

“Oh yes, he’s a lovely boy, isn’t he?” the mother said. “He looks a little familiar.” She winked at her husband.

“Can we get him some clothes?” asked the girl.

“You’re not dressing a piece of wood,” her father snapped.

“When I start school, he can come too,” said the girl. “We can say he’s my little brother.”

The father slammed his hand on the dinner table.

The mother laughed. “He does have his father’s eyes.”

At that, the girl’s father jumped up, lifted the boy from his chair, snapped him in half over his knee, and threw him on the fire.

As he burned, the boy saw the little girl cry on her mother’s lap while the father picked up an axe and walked out to the field.

—Paul McVeigh

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Paul McVeigh began his career as a playwright in Belfast before moving to London where he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End. After turning to writing prose, Paul’s short stories were published in literary journals and anthologies, and were read on BBC Radio 3, 4 & 5. He is co-founder of London Short Story Festival.

The Good Son, Paul’s first novel, won The Polari First Novel Prize, The McCrea Literary Award, was Brighton’s City Reads 2016 and chosen for the UK’s World Book Night 2017. It was also shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, a finalist for The People’s Book Prize and is currently shortlisted for the Prix du Roman Cezam in France. His work has been translated into seven languages.

After living in London for 20 years Paul has returned home to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

McVeigh will be in the U.S. in October to promote his novel. Catch him at Litquake in San Francisco or the Los Gatos Irish Writers Festival.

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Aug 092017
 

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On the other side she’s there with me too. But not in this way, amongst these salts, with this compact touch. We come to the same room of the same house at the same hour, to inhabit the same translucence…

Was there any doubt? Of course I would come back to this seaside town. Lucky I got here when I did, two days after the storm that made waves lash the shore, ripped precarious habitations from the sides of the hill, filled hallways with water, swept away kiosks, dragged the mayor before bobbing cameras to speak the expected set phrases in his low voice, changing nothing. We watched the scenes of destruction on television, and this formed part of our romance.

Now, cracking open shells and forking out the rubbery flesh, rolling our tongues over these fruits of the sea and washing them down with the cherries, blackberries and spice of a good Carménère, I ask myself: Is life sensuality, and death silence?

Visible from the window of our home, two dogs, one black and one beige, lie with their noses poking over a sand cliff. At home on the beach, oriented by instinct toward the sea, they don’t even open their eyes at a stranger’s approach, just turn over with complete trust for a scratch of the belly. Matilde covers my hand with hers, and we watch as an intrepid young man and a young woman in raincoats ruffle the canines’ fur with affection, before continuing on their way.

The two of us used to have a chow-chow named Panda. A ridiculous ball of fur, that creature. He went straight to heaven, not even stopping briefly in this half-here, half-not-here place where Matilde and I spend our days, apart, together, waiting for a storm.

Matilde is there in the other life too, of course, but it’s not the same. There we are together as minds, not as bodies. When we move toward each another, it is as if we are in a dream. But the rains allow us to move in a different way, one that is capable of grasping, one in which our glistening opacities, our half shells with their lustrous insides revealed, enter into irresistible contact with the pearl of life between us.

For me, the relationship between life and non-life is something like the relationship between the ear and the sense of hearing. In non-life, the flesh is guided by reason; in life, it is guided by instinct. In non-life, the self becomes pure abstraction, while in life the whole body is receptive, an ear. An oyster still alive and in the sea, capable of movement and thrashing fury.

A pigeon lands on the beach, and from far off I can see the gleaming waves come in, the colored blocks of the Hamburg Sud storage containers. It’s the hour to make scratches on paper, to stretch out, to listen for the barks of the sea lions taking shelter. On a sunny day I might hop the bank and go down to the beach to pile sand into a mound. Or perhaps I’d choose not to descend, and just stay here, where I want to be.

Our forks scrape the plates. I remember just how I felt when I wrote my poem ‘The disinterred’, with its line about the ‘furious oyster’. At that time I was quite taken by the Count of Villamediana, a Spanish poet born in the 16th century. I was living in Rangoon, and in despair because for the first time in my life, I could not understand what I was living for, in such loneliness, in a place so far from where I was born, spending my days sunk in alcohol, filing piles of paperwork that mattered to no one, grappling with a local woman who was violently and jealously in love with me.

The Count of Villamediana did not suffer from these doubts. He knew how to live well; he wrote satire and carried on the business he liked at the theater, at court, at dinner parties, at the brothel, not caring for social norms. He was murdered under suspicious circumstances by those jealous of his relationship with the queen, and was buried a knight. I couldn’t help but think about him and the contrast between his brilliant life and the quiet of his existence afterward, under the earth. My poem imagines his restoration to life amidst ‘brimstone and turquoise and red waves and whirlwinds of silent coal’, a clanking return to sensuality.

I want to see a flesh waken its bones
​howling flames,​
​and a special smell run in search of something,
​and a sight blinded by earth
​run after two dark eyes,
​and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster,
​rabid, boundless,​
​rise toward the thunder,
and a pure touch, lost among salts,
come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.*

It can only be obvious that I wrote this poem with a sense of anticipation for my own end and what follows. In the poem, the Count rises up on the Day of the Dead, a fanciful holiday that I have always liked. I didn’t know then about the other life and its in-between way of being, incorporeal but capable of returning on certain days, when in the heavy rain and wind, the flat expanse of the Pacific surges up to push great masses of water onshore.

When the count is resurrected, he is also given back the ‘furious oyster’, his sense of hearing. All at once the flesh of the ear opens up, and unblocked of dirt, it is enraged and delighted by the rich variety of sounds available to it after so long in silence. Something similar happens when the power is cut and one’s hearing begins to sharpen, one sense replacing another in a forced transition to a different way of understanding. The oyster is unhinged to reveal the nacre, the waiting treasure, the ability to pursue sound as well as other senses…

Matilde and I move into the other room. Three times during the night, her face turns to mine. It’s always the face first, or is it the hands, so subtle they make the drawing near of all else both possible and necessary. One body pressed to one body, subtle axis spin, angular momentum of composite particles. Beneath my hand her hair is wire fluff; beneath my other hand, her belly firm elastic. Metatarsal joints, cuneiforms, fibulae, all the parts of her feet meet with mine in the search for heat.

Her legs are pure cold bone, torque and scissor. Like that, yes, it does take a few moments to ease the way in. Slight fatigue after travel sharpens every sensation; warm and soft in my hands, all at once she is tense: what is living is both delicate and firm, hard exoskeleton and tender inner mussel. My salt flesh gives out a substance of pearl capable of vanishing with no trace, dissolving within to form a part of her essence. Outside the window, a soft gray smears into white, an oil of flowers, an anointing that lulls us into sleep.

Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time? It never happened just this way, yet it is always happening. This is our collective dream, the dream I share with Matilde. A dream into and not away from life; a vivid picture drawn in aquarelle crayon, so intense that when made possible by the rains, it brightens into reality.

She rustles in her sleep, waking when she feels my presence. Her kisses alternate soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know. I know, I know. And with a swift change of the tide, we are back in the other life.

—Jessica Sequeira

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* ‘The disinterred’, an homage​ to the Count of Villamediana by Pablo Neruda, appears in Residence on Earth, translated by Donald Walsh

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Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French, currently in Santiago de Chile. @jess_sequeira

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Aug 072017
 

 

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They were known principally for the clarity of their communication, having abolished speech, leaving them only writing. This happened in the reign of Graphus I.

The technology of speech was first banned from public use on grounds of its fallibility in conveying the intended meaning and its restrictiveness in access. Recording media, until then ubiquitous, had failed to convey all of the complex nonverbal visual cues that not just accompany but are integral to oral communication and modulate its sense. At the end of decades of crippling unrest, a time known as “the Troubles” and sparked by a series of miscommunications of this kind, writing emerged as the only viable solution. All communication of political importance would be instantly disseminated in the written language used by all—“taught until learned” in every school in the realm. The program (“Taught until Learned,” or TUL) was instrumental in the enormous advances in clarity and transparency that came with implementing the resolution.

Of course, much nuance was lost in the process, but it was not mourned for long; the baby, orality, was thrown out with the bathwater of facial expressiveness. Gradually and naturally, even private communication was being conducted exclusively in writing. Writers seen in the act of writing adhered strictly to the no-expression rule, which diverted attention from their face to the text committed on the transparent scroll interposed between interlocutors. Emotional concepts and terms, after a period of proliferation (when they were desperately needed to substitute for previously unconstrained nonverbal expressions), all but vanished as the suppression of expressiveness became normalized. The gestures, habits and practices that underpinned and imbued words like “love” with meaning were gradually lost. The reduction of conflict which this unforeseen consequence brought about was hardly to be believed.

While speech did become obsolete, it never disappeared completely. The long reign of Codus II saw periodic mass protests against the hegemony of writing. The latter, once so elementary, had evolved a number of distinct symbolic systems, such that it was ever less likely for any one individual to be fluent in all of them. In effect, while most speakers could communicate in one or another system, the occasional cases where no common “language” could be found became a source of social upheaval. Predictably, the development of further specialized government-sanctioned “languages” to handle increasingly complex defense and security operations made such incidents, where communication between groups was impossible, more frequent. With the erosion of trust entailed by this state of affairs, many accused the government of fostering divisions among the people. The government in turn charged the protesters with conspiratorial activity and with undermining the legitimacy of the state. The regime of Cryptus I, under whom most of these de-universalizing changes took place, became known as cryptogarchy.

Then ambiguity began to creep into the practice of writing, much of which was again being done by hand in a broad movement to re-personalize communication. It started with the attribution of significance to any number of previously “invisible” features of the writing act: the urgency and speed of typing, the angle of the hand, and of course the formation of the symbols themselves, whose decoding exceeded the skill of our most competent graphologists. This attention eventually resulted in the development of a secondary system, whose significance took a long time to become known but whose meanings were notoriously ungraspable and uncommunicable in any language, detracting from the clarity of the written word. Over time, this delicate emotional dimension and the potential for “equivocation” with which it corrupted all writing became the main invisible threat to state power. As the art of reading by insinuation spread so the conscious use of this new communicative channel became more pronounced and its connection to the written message more legible. Arrests followed of those seen as responsible for its promotion; tremendous amounts of funding were funneled into the effort to decipher “chirographics.”

The threat, however exaggerated, was real. It soon became clear that things would not stop at communicating by hand, and that this “supplementary” system would claim the whole body, and finally, despite all counter-measures, also the face. And from there it was but a short route to the vocal chords. By such slippery-slope arguments radical changes could be justified that would otherwise seem irrational, lending support to the government’s repressive policies. Once the inept Cryptus II succeeded his uncle, the paroliements rallied popular support to outlaw writing altogether. Everyone agreed it was the best thing. And then they fell silent.

—S. D. Chrostowska

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S. D. Chrostowska is the author of Literature on Trial (2012), Permission(2013),  and Matches: A Light Book (2015).  She teaches at York University in Toronto.

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Aug 052017
 

Bruce Stone

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From a work in progress.

The kid takes a steady, probative sip, but still the half-moon ice clatters in the glass and he feels the jolt on the lip like electrocution. He’s pretty sure that it’s possible to ascribe volition and malice to the Alpha. The kid had been out in the yard, tossing wieners to the dogs, per ma’s standing request, and the dogs had gone apeshit, per usual, racing wildly around the dog run, stamping frenzied at the frozen soil, Dolt so aboil with nervous ecstasy that he seemed practically to levitate, and when the kid had backed into the door, his own heart buzzing with the infectious joy of the animals’ apeshit cavorting, the Alpha had timed his standard rebound off the trailer’s side wall—a kind of climactic farewell trouncing of the aluminum-sided hull—and struck the still-canted door such that the knob had nailed the kid right in the balls, and as he lunged reflexively forward, convulsing into a protective fetal crouch, the blade edge of the door panel itself, somehow missing the protuberant schnoz, smacked him square in the mouth with enough residual maentum to ding the buried nerves in his gums and split the top lip, which subsequently swelled up like a gumdrop.

Before he could boot the door closed, three or four dogs had breached the aperture, and they set upon him like a felled carcass, deploying tongues, sniffing furiously, basically giving him concerned what-for.

The pain, each time he dips his face into the cup, is uniform, the same low-voltage sting of slung acids on raw skin, and it bothers him not too much because he is, above all, a compound kid, and has long since grown inured to all manner of grievances and disappointments, physical and spiritual. This shit is atmospheric, elemental. Like eight fit Dobermans who have never known a leash, a non-negotiable term of existence. Like most of the compound’s kids, he’s learned to live with it.

The kid has mastered the ability to see himself clearly, and to love himself somewhat, regardless. He reads his life’s unfolding as if it were an entry in a dictionary of North American childhood, a dictionary with a narrative logic and sensibility, as if every experience were representative and definitive.

See, for example, his pose, in his Eddie t-shirt and toughskins, Indian-style on the oval weave rug superfluous in the carpeted living room, near enough to the tv to change the channel manually, as needed, glass of cheap cola off one knee’s port bow, craptronic Intellevision controller in his clawed grip. It feels, to the eye as much as the hand, more like a calculator than a joystick, like someone’s crude idea of futuristic technology, a flat plastic plank with a nonsensical keypad and an odd disc-lever for steering. Slick game-specific inserts of flimsier plastic slide over the buttons to sheathe the worst of the keypad’s nonsense. The cord connecting controller to console is coiled and insulated like the one for the touchtone, the gizmo’s basic color palette echoing the unit’s own drab interior, its mix of wood-paneling and dingy laminate—the technological future being, in this case, just a hodgepodge of the here and now’s constitutives recombined in the most awkward way possible.

The cola is RC, Royal Crown, the kid’s ma’s beverage of choice for reasons unbeknownst to him, though the kid sometimes speculates. The console is Intellevision (not Coleco or Atari); the cartridge, Burger Time, and the kid steers his avatar up and down ladders, across spindly girders, shambling over cross-section components of a deconstructed hamburger, with veg, while fried eggs and hot dogs for some reason try to thwart his tiny chef’s progress. The guy has to march across the surface of, say, a bun, the traversal of which makes his jaunty steps go gummy, as if the guy has to sort of smoosh the bun’s dome with his wingtips to get it to descend to the next layer of the board—this being the game’s sole object. And he has, in some apron pocket too detailed for capture by code this primitive, a pepper shaker with which he can dust the bogeys and slow them down. They flop on the ground, wither and writhe as if they’ve been effectively singed or tased. The kid, as he plays, feels an appropriate amount of resentment for the gift’s quality and thoughtfulness quotient. He keeps things in perspective. The dogs in the yard are quiet, the winter cold more without than within.

After a while he knocks off, does an air-kung-fu roundhouse that makes the coffee table wobble, scarfs a few bland ChipAhoys with a finger-swipe of low-sucrose frosting from his birthday cake, and before snuffing the last lamp and bedding down on the sofa, he peers through the slats of the home’s port window, sees the light still glowing in the trailer opposite, where the twins used to live, the current occupant just a suspicion or phantasmagoria behind the heavy curtains, and the dogs all seated in a row like eight little Indians, backs straight, rumps down, pylons of darkest night at the fenceline, peering too.

Morning, the kid wakes to the sound of an infant wailing. He strides to the far end of the trailer to dress, inspects the lip in the mirror (less swollen and tender—just a small scabbed divot in the flesh betraying injury), then doubles back to the kitchen where he gulps a shard of kringle before stepping out into the dog run. Nighttime temps above 25, the dogs sleep outside, ass to muzzle in the shed. Most of the dogs rush him (he counts incursions by Intake, Mischief, Dolt, Pinto, and Hammer, though the Alpha still sits, distracted, at the fenceline and nothing could disturb the inviolable idiocy of Dipshit), jaws open and teeth gleaming in the icebox air, all menacing smiles and corded muscles, stump tails waving. The kid’s bottom half’s bedecked in the other jeans, the heavier wool sweater up top, so he acclimates pretty fast to the weather situation, and he hauls out the kibble bin from its slot under the trailer, peels off the lid, and the dogs’ snouts descend ravenous, lifting to nip at his sleeves, dragging tongues that leave a trail of chill across his hands in genuine canine gratitude. Though he stands amid eight adult, feeding Dobermans, the kid feels not a jot of fear, and he slaps at their flanks, pats their skulls, congratulatory.

The dogs hoist inquisitive heads and emit woofs, ears antennaed, jaws still chomping, when they hear the cage door rattle: that’s the kid making for ma’s Concord, the button locks erect as golf tees behind the frosted glass. The kid’s got large-denomination birthday money in his billfold, but he slides in and roots in the cupholder where he scores three gunked quarters which he funnels into a pocket with an air of permissible transgression: ma’s said she doesn’t begrudge him as long as the dogs get fed. She’s still snoring in the front bedroom. Fewer kennel sounds, pacified infant, maybe the kid hears her. The closed climate of the cabin alerts him to the fact that he’s squashed a fresh turd under his Pumas. He inspects his soles, takes it all in, and he feels that sensation, almost like discovery, dawning inside him, some knowledge that’s always at the edge of his consciousness but never countenanced squarely and redressed. He lets the knowledge fester like that, subcutaneous, an ingrown hair.

If there had been a time before the dogs, the kid couldn’t recall it because, far as he was concerned, ma had always been breeding. He’s still not sure whether dad’s untimely exit was cause or consequence of ma’s decision to surround herself with seedstock Dobermans, but he’s seen the nativity photos of the dogs dipping their muzzles like jailbreak felons into the laundry basket, where the kid lay cushioned on beach towels, that placid dazed expression of a baby contemplating umpteen canine teeth and whiskers stiff as brush bristles. Also inexplicable is how the kid survived infancy when the possibilities for carnage were so numerous and imminent, but here he is, lo these dozen years later, still consuming resources and riding upon the Earth’s surface under the lucky Dog star of his birth.

He’s long since stopped trying to deduce ma’s angle in this, her apparently unremunerative second side business. Because she doesn’t actually breed Dobermans, the lone attempt to integrate a female into the pack having ended catastrophically (ma refused to disclose details), so now, ma just trafficked in purebred semen, which she collected in labeled vials by mysterious means, though the kid sometimes speculates, and shipped still refrigerated during winter months only to likewise icebound clients in the upper Rust Belt. Excepting these business transactions, ma showed little interest in the dogs, expressed no affection for them, and harbored no fondness for wildlife in general, broadcasting her mute, tough-titted scorn via pitchfork and wheelbarrow when tetrapod vertebrates got flattened in the compound’s drive. For ma the non-human world held about as much fascination as the human, which is to say, not much.

The kid knew, obviously, what the other kids thought of ma in her role as the compound’s property manager—this being her main side business, which secured for ma and son the dubious privilege of tenanting the first accessible unit lot, nearest Sheridan Road, as well as screening potential occupants. To the other kids, ma was just a flabby troll in a battered housecoat, dark southern Italian, with the kid’s large schnoz but her own large pores, eyes black and smeary as motor oil.

The kid has time to kill before the arcade opens. He feels the contours of said time, its spongy form and mass, like the pressure of the chill air seeping through his meager layers, clamping down on his frame with escalating firmness and conviction. Still the kid lingers at the roadside in his soiled Pumas, tests the damaged lip with his tongue, takes in this view of the #2 trailer, its blue waffle cone siding and balustered porch deck, the notch in the gravel where the twins used to park their Spree. Decorative wedges of beveled 2×4 ring the welcome sign that abuts the main drive, and the kid’s wheeled to scrape, head down, his shoe clean against them, but the process leads him, wedge by wedge, in a tight semicircle until he’s fronting again this diagonal view of units #1 and #2, slice between them of the pointless field that borders the compound, fanning out across space between here and the drive-in before arcing around to bracket the park’s far west end. Along the pointless field’s near margin runs a single track scuffed into the earth, like a property demarcation line, just a wobbly foot-scrawled boundary drawn between the compound’s something and the pointless nothing of low scraggly vegetation legible only in the language of bees, bent stalks of indestructible weeds, pendant shapes of burst seed pods, general aura of interred garbage, eighty-sixed cola cans’ slow erosion, lumpy hillocks of cast-off moped tires, and motley slumbering soil-borne contaminants—a topographical barrier of what isn’t, walling off stuff that evidently is—along which track the kid was last summer speeding on the twins’ Spree, spraying soft apples at bug-bit runts skulking in between-unit yards, spewing streams of smacktalk in the compound’s unrepeatable vernacular, and the kid’s hair’s all torn up by the wind of his loco-motion, shit-eating grin stretched from ear to ear. Kid’s scouting loci of memories.

Aladdin’s Castle’s change machine converts quarters into flimsy faux-gold tokens, stamped with the arcade’s logo and a suitably Arabian backdrop (oil lamp, minaret). The kid recognizes that this is a shrewd business practice, on the casino model, requiring kids to burn their money at this arcade, instead of strewing quarters all over town. Bun N Games, the nearest competing sanctioned arcade hall, is practically audible from the parking lot of the Market Square mall-space housing the Castle, but every retail outfit, gas station or bowling alley, with both cash register and wall socket boasts a cabinet console to sop up the city’s flow of loose change. The kid’s even heard tell of a porn-style game at the train station—reportedly called Cherry Popper—whose graphics, per his informant, were virtually jerkable. This kid himself has dropped incalculable amounts into the Punch-Out! machine at the southside Supervalu, but he still can’t beat the third Bald Bull, a kind of cartoon Clubber Lang whose savage uppercut combination, preceded by a crouched, pogoing bull rush, is all but unstoppable. A good game, he concedes, can be enjoyably vexing. The Aladdin’s Castle token strategy feels tacky, bespeaks an abject desperation with which the kid can readily identify, but if the kid were a betting man, he would pick this chain, with its shameless pandering and anxious larceny, to outlast all contenders and comers.

The kid has a feel for these things, the slow creep of death’s stench across everything that’s knowable.

—Bruce Stone

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Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

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Aug 052017
 

George Saunders

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Reading, around the same time, Pastoralia (2000) by George Saunders, “Money” by Douglas Glover (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015), and “The Evil Gesture,” by Russell Working (Numéro Cinq, 2017), I have the sense that each of the stories could have been written by either of the other authors. What is it about these stories, characters, and prose styles that makes them appear to have come from the same hand?

I have to answer, verisimilitude—a word that appears in Saunders’ title story, when the guy playing caveman in the theme park gets a memo from his boss:

In terms of austerity, it says. No goat today. In terms of verisimilitude, mount this fake goat and tend as if real. Mount well above fire to avoid burning. In event of melting, squelch fire. In event of burning, leave area, burning plastic may release harmful fumes.

In terms of verisimilitude, indeed. Saunders in the earlier story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” features a narrator whose job (at another theme park) is “verisimilitude inspector.” Which I suppose is what I want to be in this essay.

While Saunders’ premise is typically absurdist—a middle-American couple has a precarious job at a theme park playing cave people, a kind of kitsch Flintstones—the lens of the characters is our given anchor in that sketchy reality, and so it comes across with a convincing punch.

In Glover’s “Money,” a miserable con-man named Drebel is painted faithfully, without fanfare, just as he is (“His favorite words were liquidate and fester”). Even as Drebel imagines himself (at the end) as “a demonic messenger, an immense black figure towering above a smoking, lifeless plain,” we have seen him from the inside out, knowing him, for all his self-serving crimes, as fellow human.

Russell Working’s protagonist, a boy named Jordan, invites us to inhabit his existence for a spell, fixated on his quest to go trick-or-treating, thwarted by the funeral of his uncle Aaron, beheaded in Afghanistan.

Russell Working

In each of these stories our immersion in the characters is so complete that we become them, and in that merger the larger themes of exploitation, evil and violence are absorbed in our experience: not so much cogitated but integrated.

Other masters of ironic realism come to mind. Thomas Mann launched a career with his unstinting recreation of bourgeois life in Buddenbrooks; wherein all the weaknesses and limitations of the society and its citizens are exposed to full view. Invited to see the unforgiving truth of our commonplace nature, we can smile with scorn, yet earn the gift of distance from such foibles. We emerge with a larger capacity to see the failings not only of others around us, but then also ourselves, because the muscle of discernment has been well toned.

Thomas Mann

In the case of Mann’s last work, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the verisimilitude of character works to earn the roguish con-man our sympathy because we have been so hospitably welcomed into his, yes, confidence. In this merger, again, comes sympathy, empathy, forgiveness of sins—because he and we are one.

The verisimilitude is achieved with a recreation of the culture, whether in the manner of Saunders’ (or Glover’s, or Working’s) fabrications of superficial Americanisms, or Mann’s faithful rendering of the furnishings and fixations of the German bourgeoisie. Along with the convincing setting, whether elaborate or sparse, the diction of the characters and narration is organically suited to convey the same conditions and values, exposed to the witnessing eye.

Realpolitik and the Moral Imperative

In his own essays and interviews, Saunders notes that an early influence was Isaac Babel, and he also cites Tolstoy, particularly Resurrection. Babel’s Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003) offers the war correspondent’s firsthand depiction of the Polish front under the assault of the murderous Cossacks—the leading wave of the Bolshevik Revolution trying to export itself by force upon its western neighbor. This unnecessary campaign, presented with complete reportorial objectivity, is at once horrifying and galvanizing. In response I feel with vicarious rage and repulsion the contrary of this bloody senseless human history—rather, the necessity to shout the moral imperative, to love one’s fellow human. But first we must taste the fresh blood of murder.

Between battles, Babel rides with the Cossack horsemen across fields of rye littered with corpses, sparkling in the sun. They find lodging in ruined villages, each with its churches desecrated, its women raped, its foodstocks looted, its prisoners shot point-blank or slashed with sabers, its livestock slaughtered summarily for the single pleasure remaining for the syphilitic soldiers: eating.

These men so degraded by war inveigh to their superiors about injustices concerning ownership of horses; they stumble in bloodsoaked rags, insisting on slogans of the people’s party; they sleep when they can on piles of louse-ridden hay; they gnaw at green meat, awaiting the next village to plunder. And they long, like Babel himself, for home and the peaceful life.

Babel’s war, like every war, is hell on earth. The enormity of its suffering stands in contrast to the comfort of our privileged existence, apart from such madness and strife, coercion and fear. Yet our private fate, in war and peace, is compromised just as it is in the collective evil of war. In Babel’s pithy phrase, “To save his own goods and chattels a man will gladly set fire to another man’s hide.” (Glover’s Drebel stands as exhibit A of this uncomfortable truth.) And regardless of one’s own circumstances and moral choices, the arrival of hell looms in the chaotic demise of one’s own body, subject to the nonpetitionable torture of decay, that universal finality of death.

Literary realism, to be complete, it seems, must, like Saunders in his latest work, the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, bravely make a centerpiece of death. The frequent theme and device of Saunders’ short stories, complete with likeable zombies and unfortunate Asian women strung on wires as lawn ornaments, is precisely that dark heart of reality, giving us the gut punch that will wake us past the corporate-speak and juvenile pablum that passes for speech in our day. Death is a wakeup call for all.

Luckily we get to try it out first, while we have the luxury of living, if we try on the world as it is according to Babel, or Tolstoy, or the characters of Saunders’ world. That world, so truly painted and finely drawn, in spare lines, yet in details and phrasing so breathing and alive, is none other than ours.

In the face of human depravity and suffering, if one fully identifies with its victims and perpetrators, one is moved to the moral imperative of human love, instead. Saunders quotes Tolstoy to that effect:

“If once we admit—be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case—that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds…. Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances.”[1]

Yet, Saunders qualifies the temptation to assign too much moral or thematic impulse to the creation of the story.

The assumption trickles down that artists have this viewpoint we want to ram down your throat.… I’m not really trying to say anything. Most people assume you have an intention and then you execute. There are some writers like that. But for me, I’m trying to not have an intention. I just have a little fragment and start working with it to see where it goes. When I’m done, sometimes I go, Wow, I said that? I didn’t know I thought that.[2]

In the end, the purpose is more “literary” (Babel), objective in the sense of Buddhist “witnessing,” and  “simple… almost invisible.” [3] The morality is not expressed but felt, in the successful literary rendering of reality, no matter how disturbing: “Love, at least in the fictional sense, is… clearer sight.”[4]

Praxis and Witness

In Babel’s notes published with the Red Cavalry stories, I’m struck by certain phrases that seem like a manifesto for minimalist realism:

Simply a story… Very simple, a factual account, no superfluous descriptions.
No continuity… Pay no attention to continuity in the story.

Short chapters saturated with content.

[and from the concluding remarks by his daughter, Nathalie]: “Babel’s ultimate aim in the stories … was literary effect.”

What can we make of this confluence of realism and literary effect? If the aim is verisimilitude, then it seems almost as if writers achieving that aim would sound the same as each other: as indeed the school of Raymond Carver spawned a generation of barebones writing, lean of telling and laconic of both narrative and dialogue… or Hemingway before him, another primary influence Saunders cites in a New York Times Magazine interview.[5]

Yet intrinsic to the “literary effect” of the realist is each writer’s given praxis. For Saunders, that means stylistic devices such as the use of extra question marks; jargon such as “due to,” “plus,” and “per”; speech authentically bastardized from media and corporate tropes; the use of capital letters for the iconic branding of everyday aspects of mundane American life. And there is that particularly American flavor to the thoughts, actions and speech of the characters. Parroting trends in the superficial culture, steeped in bureaucratese, fearful of stepping out of conditioned roles.

Compared to Babel’s graphic tapestry of setting, elemental in its rye fields full of corpses, its ruined churches and commandeered farmhouses, Saunders’ settings are stage sets for the play of the characters in dialogue or monologue; outlines constructed only for context, as the real world that is created resides in the characters themselves. The character is the world, and herein lies Saunders’ spiritual depth of compassion for any and all personalities enacting the divine and wacky human (or animal: dog, fox…) experiment.

In the absence of elaborate framing of setting, or any kind of authorial interpretation offered, there is allowed on the part of the reader a complete identification with the character/subjects. The monologues in the form of letters, reports, columns, or diaries all immerse the reader in the world of the character, richly rendered to allow us to experience fully the living of that life.

Saunders has said, in a recent CBC interview,[6] that it is detail which, because it makes the character come alive, earns them sympathy from the reader. Thus Saunders distinguishes between realistic description, and “nondescript” writing.

In terms of irony, it is the humor which flavors the reader’s final evaluation, knowing that no malice is intended, but only truth—which is understood dispassionately, or compassionately, as we are invited with Saunders to simply witness all that is—in the Buddhist way that Saunders is known to subscribe to.

Absurdist Therapy

A key dimension of Saunders’ realism is the absurdism embedded within it: a natural discovery given the inherent absurdities of American culture (“America has always been nuts.”[7]). And it is the absurdist dimension that gives free reign to the writer’s unique imagination, that sets him apart from contemporaries who might strive only for a more limited realistic approach.

The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to “real life”—he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.… Our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.[8]

The absurdist imagination allows not only the distinctive style of the writer to emerge; it encourages us to question everything. In this more profound state of decoupling from a reality that is at once both transparent and weird, we are jarred from our own comfort zones of self-satisfaction and denial.

“If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it… then the possibility exists that you can convert it.”[9] The truth will set us free: or at least, it gives us the possibility of freedom, if we so choose.

Does George Saunders translate this stance from its spiritual, aesthetic and moral grounding into any kind of real-world political action imperative? Or is it left for each of us to find our best way forward, better attuned to the lives of others?

The latter course is pointed to by

the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities.[10]

—Nowick Gray

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Cited and Selected Works

Douglas Glover, “Money” (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015)

Russell Working, “The Evil Gesture” (Numéro Cinq, 2017)

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003)

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901); Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954)

George Saunders:

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) (short stories and a novella)

Pastoralia (2000) (short stories and a novella)

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) (novella)

In Persuasion Nation (2006) (short stories)

The Braindead Megaphone (2007) (essays)

Tenth of December (2013) (short stories) 

Fox 8 (2013) (novella)

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) (novel)

George Saunders Interviews

“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year”, Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.

2014 George Saunders interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.

“Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” George Saunders, NPR, January 6, 2013.

Radio Interview with George Saunders on “Read First, Ask Later” (Episode 27).

“George Saunders: On Story,” by Sarah Klein & Tom Mason, Redglass Pictures, The Atlantic, December 8, 2015.

CBC interview, Q, 13 April 2017.

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Numéro Cinq production editor Nowick Gray is a writer and editor based in Victoria, BC. His writings span an eclectic range of themes, structures and styles in fiction and creative nonfiction. Educated at Dartmouth College and the University of Victoria, Nowick taught in Inuit villages in Northern Quebec, and later carved out a homestead in the British Columbia mountains, before finding the “simple life” in writing, travel, and playing African drums. His mystery of the Arctic, Hunter’s Daughter, was published in 2015 by Five Rivers. Visit his website at nowickgray.com or Facebook page at http://facebook.com/nowickg

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Tolstoy quoted in Saunders, “Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” NPR, January 6, 2013.
  2. Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star, January 11, 2014.
  3. Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.
  4. CBC Radio, Q, 13 April 2017.
  5. “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.
  6. CBC Radio interview.
  7. CBC Radio interview.
  8. New York Times Magazine interview.
  9. New York Times Magazine interview.
  10. Joel Lovell, New York Times Magazine interview.
Aug 042017
 

This excerpt comes early in Igiaba Scego’s novel, Adua, available from New Vessel Press, and follows the character of Zoppe, Adua’s father, as he adapts to life in an Italian prison. Scego is journalist and novelist born in Itay in 1974 to Somali parents.

Adua was translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards.

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Zoppe knew that the best escape route was through his head.

That was the place where he found all the lost scents of his childhood. There, caano geel, shaah cadees, beer iyo muufo.

Candied ginger. Marvelous cinnamon. His Wonderland Somalia.

Zoppe thought about all this crouched down on the cold floor of his cell in Regina Coeli. His head between his knees and his thigh anxious against a battered chest. Vertigo and stabbing pain coursed through his tired veins. And his aching limbs felt defeated. He suspected he had two broken ribs. It was hard for him to breathe and even to bend over.

“Those bastards really mangled me.”

And as if that weren’t enough, they had tossed him unceremoniously in solitary. “This way you’ll learn what happens when you mess with us.”

Beppe gave him a pat on the head before handing him over to the prison. He touched him like a mother her young. Then he had him sip a yellow liquid.

“Drink, nigger, drink.”

Zoppe gulped with difficulty. He made a horrified grimace and felt something burning inside. Was he dying?

Beppe patted him again. “Drink up, you’ll feel better.”

And Zoppe drank and died once, twice, three times. Then with the fourth sip, the warmth began to reach his spent cheeks.

“My aunt’s walnut liqueur can revive even the dead. You’ll feel better soon, you’ll see,” the soldier said, smiling.

In that miserable cell where they’d stuck him there was a cot and a bowl of slop. Limp potatoes floated alongside prickly worms. Zoppe was young, he was famished, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat.

“I don’t want to shit myself to death in this stinking cell.” The room was square, gray, repugnant. Words inscribed with bloody fingernails covered the walls with pain. Zoppe started reading to try to figure out what lay ahead in his increasingly uncertain future.

Mauro da Pisa, Alessandro da Bologna, Antonio da Sassari, Lucio da Roma, Giulio da Pistoia, Simone da Rimini, have all passed through here. The oldest date was 1923. The best inscription was dated 1932. Zoppe recognized it immediately, the supreme poet was one of his favorites:

Through me is the way to the city of woe.
Through me is the way to sorrow eternal.
Through me is the way to the lost below.

“They’ve never cleaned up, that’s clear,” he said, addressing an imaginary audience. Actually, he didn’t mind the quiet of that isolation. It was a reprieve from the torture, from the senseless beatings that had defiled him down to his soul.

His tormenters would soon appear with their stinking farts and vulgar taunts. But in the meantime there was that strange, rat-scented calm to cradle him.

The pain didn’t subside. It was his groin that hurt to death, especially his testicles. Beppe had really beaten him badly. Zoppe asked himself if after all those hits his seed would still be fertile. His testicles throbbed and a yellowish liquid dripped from the tip of his penis. He felt heavy. And he could barely open his puffy eyes.

At the age of twenty he was an old man.

A premature oday, with a drooling mouth and achy bones.

He had his visions to comfort him. His mind catapulted him back into the home of Davide the Jew and his little girl, Emanuela.

He had recently been their guests, and the details were still so effervescent and fresh in his mind that he could almost remember without trying.

He could see the sour cherry preserves that Rebecca, Davide’s wife, had prepared for dessert. He’d filled up on that delicious tart and had also relished what had come before.

“What is this dish called?” he’d asked, astonished at his overflowing plate.

“It’s rigatoni con la pajata,” Rebecca replied.

Just then Zoppe noted how much mother and daughter resembled each other. The same wide forehead, the same big ears, and those sparkling emerald eyes. But whereas Emanuela was exuberant like all children, Rebecca had something mysterious and seductive about her.

Zoppe envied Davide.

And he said: “It smells good. I envy you this rich dish.” Davide accepted that sweet envy.

Looking around, there was really little to be envious of. It was all so small. Even the furniture was tiny. The house was composed of two rooms united by the reddish light that filtered in through a small window. The kitchen with an iron stove was in plain view. In the middle, a table, some tattered chairs and a flesh-toned armchair. The space was packed with furnishings. In every detail there was a certain affinity for symmetry that made such a chaotic space endearing. Zoppe was drawn to a blond walnut cabinet with drawers covered in faux vellum. It was an exquisite object that did not fit well with the overall simplicity. It was a little bit like Rebecca, that cabinet, too refined to be the centerpiece of that set.

Rebecca … Davide … Emanuela …

It was incredible for him to see white Jews. Zoppe had known only Falasha Jews, the Beta Israel, from Lake Tana, even though his father had told him that in the West there were Jews “with skin as pale as the moon.” These were pink Jews, so cordial, and their Roman house so cozy and inviting.

Zoppe was blinded by the ochre walls that matched harmoniously with the violet flooring. He was impressed by the hoard of books; they formed a cathedral. And the knickknacks scattered all over the place: ceramic dolls with real hair, decorative wall plates, tasseled colorful boxes and lots of photographs of old people in shiny, faux, silver frames.

Zoppe liked this middle ground where sour cherries intermingled with knowledge.

If he had his basin with him he’d have read the fate of those three people. He would have seen their beginning and their end. All their happiness and their atrocious suffering. Their passionate kisses and betrayals. If only he had his basin he would have warned them about all the dangers and joys of the world.

§

“Water,” he requested to the guard. “I’m thirsty.”

“Not so fast, Negro,” was his answer. “You’re not at the Grand Hotel. Learn some manners. You say ‘Water, please.’”

“What dfference does it make? You people don’t have good manners anyway,” Zoppe retorted.

“Ah, we’ve got a rebel here,” the guard said. “If times were different,” he added, “we would have shown you, you piece of shit. In Regina Coeli we don’t like rebels. You’re ticks, useless lice of humanity. In Regina Coeli it’s easy to die of hunger or thirst, learn that. It’s easy to bring down that cocky crest you’ve got. In Regina Coeli it’s a short path to the graveyard. But you’re a damned lucky louse. They told me not to let you die. So I’ll bring you your water. But mind you, I might not be able to kill you, but put you through hell, that I can do.”

Zoppe said nothing. He wanted to smash that fatso’s face. But he was in chains. And weak all through his insides. Eventually he ate the slop of potatoes and prickly worms. From the very first bite he could tell that his stomach would refuse to digest it. Vomiting was the logical consequence of an unwanted meal.

Zoppe was a cesspool. The worms dropped from his mouth whole. Restless worms, still alive and a little stunned. He could see them creeping slowly over his wasted body.

“Where’s my water?”

He needed to try to sleep. But could one sleep in such a state?

He wondered whether his father, Haji Safar, knew that he was in prison now.

“I’m sure he had a vision.” And Zoppe prayed that it hadn’t made his father suffer too much.

Happy images from his former life stopped the pain. The lively eyes of his sister, Ayan, his father’s gentle hand, the discipline of the Jesuits who had taught him Italian, and the intense letters from his Ethiopian friend Dagmawi Mengiste. They surrounded him and urged him not to give up. He saw their prayers spiral around him in an embrace of courage. “They love me,” Zoppe thought, “and they’re thinking about me right now.” Even the Limentani family was thinking of him.

He could hear the little girl asking her mother, Rebecca, “How do you draw a wildebeest, Mama? Do you think it has the same hump as a camel? Why don’t we invite the brown man over for lunch again and ask him to draw one for us?”

Zoppe saw Rebecca’s face tensed in a mask of fear. Maybe she knew about him.

Maybe news of his arrest had spread.

He’d ended up in trouble over Francesco Bondi, that Romagnolo with the flat nose and yellow teeth.

Zoppe appreciated nothing about that man. He was too tall, too invasive, too chatty.

He detested the droopy mustache and red hair that the Romagnolo showed off like a trophy. Bondi was always there asking question after question, waiting for amazing answers that Zoppe was never able to give.

And also, he only ever talked about women—bottoms, bosoms, lips, sex. Zoppe found him vulgar. Obviously.

“Do you have a girl?” the Romagnolo often asked. But Zoppe didn’t open up.

Of course he had a girl, but he had no intention of telling that guy about it. Asha the Rash was his woman. Every night in his dreams he savored the moment when he would make her his. But he didn’t want to share such private thoughts with anyone, let alone that lout Francesco Bondi. He didn’t want to sully her beautiful name with a filthy person like him. The Romagnolo ruined women, for sure. Every day he went bragging about his conquests. Mirella, Graziella, Elvira, Carlotta. All of them with big busts and big bottoms. All snatched up under the nose of distracted husbands. These provincial Don Juan routines bored him. He didn’t have all that time to waste. He had to work, not dawdle around. Zoppe’s greatest desire was to impress his superiors. He wanted honors. He wanted cash. So he had to look active. Lots of work didn’t scare him. Especially when he thought of the nice gifts that he would be able to give his Asha the Rash one day.

But then that strange morning came.

Francesco Bondi pounced on him with breath that still smelled of sleep.

Zoppe wasn’t alone. In that miserable and miniscule room he was ashamed to call an office, there was a man with yellow hair.

“Hey, Negro,” Bondi yelled euphorically. “I saw another Negro like you on the street yesterday. I thought you were the only one in Rome.”

Then the Romagnolo noticed the man with the yellow hair. “You’re not military,” Bondi said, a little irritated. “What are you doing here?”

“Don’t judge by appearances. I’m even more, in a sense. The name’s Calamaro.” The two men shook hands hesitantly.

“And this Negro you saw on the street, what was he like, if I may ask?”

“He was a Negro, what do you think he was like …”

“They’re not all the same, did you know that?” said the man with the yellow hair. “There are different types, in every region. Their hair and noses diverge wildly. It depends on the climate.”

“Hair? That stuff this guy has on his head, you expect me to call that hair?”

“Yes,” said Calamaro, calmly.

“Are you kidding me?”

Zoppe buried his nose in his papers and mentally wandered through the city of Rome in search of the other African Bondi was talking about.

There was definitely Menghistu Isahac Tewolde Medhin. The Eritrean hothead. He ran into him one day around the Pensione Tedeschi on Via Flavia. The Eritrean walked slowly, he didn’t worry about being seen too much like Zoppe did. Medhin didn’t want to hide, let alone disappear. His movements were filled with pride. He walked with his head high. He had just finished at the Monte Mario international college run by the Methodist Episcopal Church and was trying to figure out what the future held for him. Zoppe didn’t like the man. His words were too learned, complicated. And his avid anti-Italian ferocity terrified him. That man would soon get himself into trouble. “I shouldn’t have anything to do with him, otherwise he’ll ruin me.”

As he was lost in these thoughts he saw Francesco Bondi’s hand sink into his curly hair.

“You call this hair? is is wool, not even good quality wool!”

“It’s hair,” Calamaro replied calmly. “It’s not pretty, but it’s hair. The gentleman is a Negro, but his features are less Negroid than the anthropological specimens I examined in the Congo.”

And then he too, no different than Bondi, sank his hand into the hair on Zoppe’s exhausted head.

The Somali exhaled with all the strength he had in his lungs and sat there despairingly listening to the two Italians.

He couldn’t say exactly when the discussion turned into something more serious. Had it been Bondi who offended Calamaro, or maybe the reverse? Zoppe was confused. He saw only, through his hair, that the two had moved on to hands—their hands. Fists, in short.

“Please, gentlemen,” said Zoppe, disconsolate. “Please,” he repeated. Then he got the inauspicious idea of trying to break it up.

The police arrested only him for that strange morning brawl.

— Igiaba Scego, Translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards

Published with permission from New Vessel Press

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Igiaba Scego is an Italian novelist and journalist. She was born in Rome in 1974 to Somali parents who took refuge in Italy following a coup d’état in their native country, where her father served as foreign minister.

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Jamie Richards is a translator based in Milan. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Oregon. Her translations include Igort’s Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, Giovanni Orelli’s Walaschek’s Dream, and Jellyfish by Giancarlo Pastore.

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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.

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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.

At night a central hanging light illumines.

The cenotaph, however, was never built.

She puts a hand on the closet door beneath the stairs, stops, turns, and gives him a raised-eye look that asks may I, and he replies with a wave that says by all means. She flicks the switch and looks inside, then extends her exploration further, gaining momentum, as she studies the fireplace, the moldings, the windows, the fixtures, the recessed and suspended lights, the appliances, and the many kitchen cabinets, which she tests and opens—most empty. She has an obvious purpose, yet there is a quiet mystery about her look, her movement as she inspects, that is not mysterious.

She reminds him, actually, of Portland. The people are friendly and supportive, and it is easy to talk to strangers. When he steps out on his porch, passersby look up and say hello. If it is morning, they say good morning. They don’t let their guard down because they don’t have one up. Many walk dogs, who also have a friendly face. They accept you for who you are, or don’t make distinctions. There’s a civility, even, in their advertised weirdness. The city itself shows it cares.

He wonders if Portlanders lack drive and sharpness, and feels superior to them, an attitude based on nothing, that he’d better get rid of quickly. Perhaps it is a matter of priorities. Many he’s run into are feeling the pinch, however, especially from housing, which has heated up the last years. Yet they take things in stride and remain upbeat, though he sees hunger when they conduct business, restrained but gently aggressive.

Then there are the tattoos that he sees everywhere, on everyone—skulls, demons, and monsters; crosses and ankhs and stars and circles of yin and yang, and cryptic words and unknown names; mythological figures across time and from around the globe, and gangsters and saints and comic book characters and common faces, also unknown; roses, vines, rocks, trees, waves, and celestial bodies; geometric figures and crude scrawls; chains, barbed wire, and enclosing arabesques; erotic poses and sudden gestures—tattoos that cross the lines of race and gender and class and age, that cover entire bodies, the hidden parts revealed in open blouses, a hiked skirt, a flapping shirt, a pants slip at the waist, a chaotic language spreading like a contagion, or like an efflorescence.

But they wear their tattoos with composure, an apparent not knowing they are there. Do the tattoos reveal a brooding darkness within, the possibility of excess or dissolution, waiting to emerge? Or do Portlanders place those doubts and fears and desires on the surface so they can get on with their lives, maybe even enjoy them?

And there’s still more, catalogs’ worth, more signs and images and patterns that push context and recognition, as if Portland is trying to expand common language and go beyond—or exhaust it?

Is this madness or transcendence?

Or both?

Or neither?

Do tattoos have to mean anything?

Does anything have to mean anything?

But what does he know. He’s only been here three months.

He gives her arm a few quick looks as she circles the room. Eyes among the bright colors, animal he thinks.

She completes her tour and comes to the kitchen counter where he stands. He wipes his brow with a handkerchief. She follows with a hand. Bottled water is offered and accepted. She takes a long draw, and his throat feels the water go down hers.

Again a pause. He doesn’t want to see her go and she isn’t in a rush to leave.

This is not the time or place for life stories. She’s young and he doesn’t want to pry. Nor does he want her be anything other than what she appears to be, a woman finding her way, on her way up. His daughters, one in New York, one in Boulder, both are having problems, two different sets, and there’s nothing he can do. Likely she has just seen all she needs to know about him and can tell by what is missing, that he is an aging man on his own, nice enough, with some interests she may or may not find boring.

As it is there’s not much he wants to say about himself, or can. He is—or was—an architect for a large firm with a reputation in San Jose that has had several scores with the tech industry. He entered work with goals and with passion, but those dissipated over the years in the long hours, the manic schedules, the endless compromises, the suspicions, the not talking among his superiors and colleagues beneath the veneer of the firm’s professed creative community. He wasn’t especially proud of anything he did nor felt he made any dent in the architecture there, construction that looked forward without looking at anything, buildings without identity or architectural distinction. Above, beyond, or somewhere, the invisible spirit of Silicon Valley, its ceaseless wonder.

His marriage followed a similar course, more or less.

Now he doesn’t give either much thought. There is too much that is too tangled, too indistinct, and little that might carry over. Resurrecting those years would only get him lost again. No thought of starting over again in either. He’s too old and doesn’t want to go through the process again.

Boullée was the son of an architect, a brilliant student who went on to teach and become a first-class member of Royal Academy of Architecture in Paris, who had clients among royalty and the wealthy. It is late eighteenth century. Neoclassicism is in full bloom and ideas of the Enlightenment are in the air.

Names have not been exchanged. That moment has passed. He still has questions to ask, however, before she leaves.

What would his condo go for now?

She smiles and gives a number in the ballpark of what he paid.

Does she think that price will hold?

She hesitates, but says it should go up.

What does she think about St. Johns?

She loves it.

St. Johns is a neighborhood north of and out a bit from downtown Portland, once working class but now, as real estate agents say, up-and-coming. When his agent showed him the place he jumped on it, padding his bid.

After the divorce he rented a townhouse in Sunnyvale that he hated. Last September his landlord gave notice so he could sell, plunging him into a housing market that had once again exploded. Rent for comparable space was twice what he was paying or, if on the market, houses like his were going for well over a million. Nothing was in range, nothing looked good, everything was bad fifty miles out. It made no financial sense to stay there. He had no close ties. He might as well leave and retire.

He had no idea where to go.

He didn’t want to return back east, a forty-year-old memory almost lost. Most of his family were gone or had scattered, and he didn’t want to brave the winters again. Some urban areas were depressed, most were difficult and hopelessly out of reach. Small towns lost appeal when he looked closer. Retirement communities depressed him. He spent weeks studying online real estate listings and making virtual tours with satellite maps and street views, and what he most saw was what he already had in the Bay Area but had put out of mind, the sprawl of suburbs, everywhere, further out than he realized and still spreading, all of it the same. There wasn’t a good place to live in this country.

Portland is a great town, his friends said. Go to Portland. Late one night, after a week online wandering its streets, he committed without even flying up. It looked affordable and interesting, with much going on. At least, with its oddness, he wouldn’t feel out of place. Most, he saw no other options. He knew no one there.

The route that took him to Boullée was even less direct. Two weeks ago another online search, whose object he has forgotten, took a wandering path, impossible to trace now, and landed on the image. He recalled seeing it in a history of architecture class, back in school, decades ago, struck then by its boldness, its simplicity. Memories and desires surfaced and filled the huge sphere. It signaled a fresh start and possibilities, a future. He found a print online and ordered on the spot.

St. Johns looks iffy, he says. Many of the shops and bars and cafes are struggling.

They have been here for years.

These prices can’t last, can they? Why isn’t this market another bubble?

Another downturn and he’s lost money and is stuck for years with a place that will not move.

She doesn’t respond.

Real estate in Portland was a trauma from which he is still recovering. When he arrived April inventory was at a historic low. Places he saw last September were going for fifty thousand more and got snapped up in a few days. He had fifteen minutes to look, then had to make a bid the next day against other buyers. He felt he had fallen through a crack.

Where are all these people coming from?

He knows the answer in part—California.

She shifts her weight to her right foot and turns her head to the left, again sending angles down her shift.

None of the options were right, and he looked everywhere, downtown, at all the neighborhoods surrounding. Skinny infill houses, condos too basic, dubious construction in both, studios impossibly small. Locations too rough or too remote or both. The better condos and the Craftsman homes that give Portland its character were too risky for his reserves. Still he considered each, thinking about a possible life and trying to make it fit, but saw it shrink or tear apart as he imagined the sacrifices and compromises. After two months of running up hotel bills he thought he’d have to bail out. Then what?

How are people making it?

The numbers don’t add up. Income is not that high here. Something has to give.

Is Portland going under?

What most got to him were the homeless, and they were everywhere. Their tattoos, the unhealing sores, the embedded dirt, the streaks of vomit on the sidewalk, the bottles, the hidden needles. Their withdrawal, their hermetic possession, their unconscious states—yet they seemed to own the streets. If he caught their eye they returned a black recognition he could not deflect and still cannot shake. Homeless were better hidden in San Jose.

She shifts to the left foot and realigns, her long face twisting with an anxious thought.

He has gotten carried away and sees he is troubling her. His agent couldn’t answer his questions either.

“Portland is a great town,” he says.

She smiles again and straightens. She has a sweet smile that doesn’t melt his heart but glides through it.

“Where is—” she asks.

“Upstairs. Through the front bedroom.” Better upstairs for privacy.

“Feel free to look around.” He thinks his bed is made and clothes are off the floor, but can’t remember.

He watches her rise, seemingly weightless, her bare feet soundless on the carpet, her shift ascending like a spirit.

O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the sublime nature of your Genius, you have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery. That is as it were to envelop you in your own self.

Boullée says about his cenotaph in a treatise.

Newtonian physics still works and explains most of our lives day to day. But the cenotaph was never built because the monument was, practically, unfeasible. Boullée was a visionary.

Actually the front bedroom is his office. He has already begun work—quick sketches on the walls of a school, a housing complex, a museum, a community center. On a table, assembled blocks of wood and cardboard scraps and wads of crumpled paper, just to give him a rough sense of texture and form. He wonders what she makes of it.

His projects, of course, will never be built either. He is out of the profession now and lacks the means and clout. Still, they might provide him with a virtual world to replace the one he has left, restoring, creating what it missed, a place where he might feel at home.

The cenotaph didn’t look right the moment he put it up, however, and his impressions, along with his mood, have been pulling away from it all day, and they return now and start to take form—profoundly mysterious, deeply absurd, or downright silly—but these shift to other thoughts and moods that do not settle either but take him to a single thought:

It his hot.

He stares at the room, at the open pattern of the bookshelves, and watches his plan fall apart.

The toilet flushes.

The animals on her arm, he realizes, are dragons.

In Boullee’s time there was a belief in reason and basic truths and the truth of basic forms, in orderly fitting together of parts, the power of architecture to reform.

The French Revolution was around the corner.

Has Boullée taken Neoclassicism to its logical culmination? Or is he trying to look past? Or has he, unknowingly, trapped in its assumptions and contradictions, pushed those into tumescence? Postmodernists took a liking, for a while.

His world is a mess. Beneath all the exuberance the signs on all fronts are bad. In architecture everything built now is glass and steel and grassy planes and white walls, pure abstractions making the same blind projection, covering the the same confusion.

There are other things he sees now, coming into focus.

He has no idea where he has been or where the world is headed. If he hasn’t recognized it before it’s because he has only been busy and distracted the last forty years.

Most of the crumpled papers on the table in his office are rejects. His projects will never get built because he doesn’t know what to do.

What he most realizes is that he is tired. He has been fighting the heat all day and now it has caught up. But not just today’s, but the fatigue that has been building the last year, especially the last three months, but has been displaced by the urgency of of his search, the strain of dislocation, the surge of doubts, his single, anxious desire to finally settle down, the displacement only making the fatigue deeper, longer when it finally springs, only postponing what he knows is coming.

Portland is a mistake. He won’t be rejected but he won’t fit in. Beneath its friendly surface there is only torpor, into which he will eventually sink.

His blood sugar is up and he has occasional chest pains his doctor said were only nerves though he still advised adjustments.

More can crop up that he sees now, once again.

The real estate agent has not returned.

What is she doing? Casing the joint? Going through his things? Secretly defiling them? None of those suspicions can be possible, but he can’t think of anything likely that might dismiss them, and his mind races for other possibilities without stopping. The dragons’ wide eyes widen further, their open mouths show teeth, their coiling bodies prepare to strike from depths unknown.

He waits until he can wait no longer and starts to head upstairs. At the landing he pauses to look at the Boullée, knowing and thinking about but not voicing what lies inside on the floor, at the center.

“Get lost?” he asks loudly up the well to warn her he is coming, then starts his climb. Ascending the stairs is like descending into a pool, where the greater heat, like the denser water, slows motion and sound.

He stops at the top to catch a breath, then turns right.

Not in the office, the bathroom is silent and vacant.

He looks up the hall and sees and hears nothing, then looks down and sees her shift lying limp and loose on the carpet, pointing like an arrow to the back bedroom, his, and he follows.

Then he sees her lying naked on his bed.

Then he is beside her, then he sees the tattoo close now, sees that it stops past her shoulder, that the coiling dragons in the design lead to a softer pattern of faint hair, swirling, rising with her breasts, twin basic shapes too subtle for geometry, each subtly different, and descending down the valley of her stomach to a darker pattern.

She cups his neck, pulls him close, and kisses hard while grasping him firmly with her other hand.

And then it isn’t hot.

.

.

He does not feel the post sadness of legend. It is the first time he can remember not feeling complications or having questions return.

“How was—”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “It was however you want it to be.”

She pauses a moment, thinking.

“Don’t tell my boyfriend.”

And pauses a moment more.

“I’ll tell him.”

He does not give a reply because he doesn’t have one. Instead he lies there, next to her, both on top of the sheets, both fully extended, not quite touching, the sweat not quite cooling, both lightly breathing in the shaded light, both quiet, still, and mortal. Not much else, a bed, a nightstand, a light and clock—he still hasn’t figured out what to do with the room. The lines of the walls and floor and ceiling define a simple box that contains them, their lying bodies. But they reach in diminishing perspective to the grid of Portland streets and extend beyond, forever. Or, instead, the lines converge on them, their breath and sweat. It is as easy to imagine cities rising within these lines as falling.

Below them, downstairs, on a wall, a picture of a dark sphere.

The dragons are Asian, he is sure. They have a stylized complexity in their exotic curves that goes beyond their western counterparts’ singleminded malice. There are meanings. He does not know if the dragons are Japanese or Chinese, however, or the meanings of either, or if the meaning of the dragons before him has moved away from those meanings into some other. The curves, their black outlines, cannot be separated from the curves of her arm, nor can foreground be separated from back, or from her flesh, rather all pulse together almost imperceptibly with her each breath. The dragons coil tightly at her wrist and disappear behind her forearm then return and begin to unwind, unevenly, among a dense pattern of flowers, yellow and orange and blue, and of foliage, the leaves the same green as the scales of the dragons, with shapes of exotic plants he doesn’t know either, the dragons part of the pattern of the plants and the pattern part of them, yet they continue their ascent past her elbow and up her arm and separate themselves, still among the pattern, as much preserving as disengaging, and at her shoulder they do not look at each other but outward and up, fierce intelligence in their eyes and passion in the flames of their bright, red tongues.

The tattoo speaks terror, and hope, and he sees both but does not feel one or the other. Instead he continues to rest next to her, a long time, not knowing how long. Time has stopped, the moment can go on forever. An illusion he knows, but what else do we have. But not an illusion, because he isn’t thinking about either, appearances or time.

Gary Garvin

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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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Jul 142017
 

Grant Maierhofer

 

My name is Lyle. I’ll leave it at that so far as ID. I’ll go on however to say that, if you’re feeling generous, I may contain multitudes. I may be dense with potential. I’m a failure in so many words. I’m tired of feeling this way and so I’m trying to contain those words myself, to write them out. I want my feelings to be expressed so I might move on from them. I want to put some distance between myself and this place wherein I find myself. Other night I went to the gas station only to find half of my face still caked with black makeup. I live in sorrow. My days are full of thorns, people and bosses. I tend toward the sad, the weary. I’m an avid person though, romantic. I want to contain the world. I am a male but I would like a womb to contain the world. I should be so lucky.

 

I think I’ve slept for most of my life. I don’t mean it literally. I mean that as I graduated high school, as I saw my youth pass, I had these glazed eyes and didn’t care to open them beyond mere ability to see. Sometimes this can happen. Sometimes people aren’t meant to express themselves in any recognizable way. My father was, by and large, this way. He had nasty tendencies, though. He’d hurt my mother loudly. I think this is what happened, anyway. I was sleeping.

Lately I’ve returned. I work now at the high school where I used to hide away. When you’re young everybody’s terrible. When you grow up everything’s terrible. Something changes between these in that things get worse, darker. Mostly, however, they are the same.

Each day I put on gray coveralls that you have seen. I push a cart that was given to me by an old man. This old man, my predecessor, had lost his wife. His kids were away, succeeding. This old man had lived a full life before this work. Then, losing his wife, his children, he found himself wanting. This old man sought work and found the position he’d occupied for seven years before I took it on. He trained me for a few weeks and then supervised, then left entirely. I think he might be dead.

The cart holds a garbage can that I’ll fill three or four times each day, depending. Kitchen staff attend to their cans and I’m grateful for it. Some days, events or come what may, I might focus primarily on trash. The school isn’t large. It would take an event or more to fill my can beyond three or four times each day, I’m saying. I remember when I was younger, going here, and we’d attempt to fill the can from distances with paper cartridges of milk. These were shaped like ships or small homes. We called them cartridges, and lofted them into the janitor’s can as he’d walk by. Looking back he’d never register this, even once maintaining composure when my cartridge of chocolate milk pelted his chest and landed. I’m now more understanding of his intimacy with death and suffering.

 

So anyway, I don’t live in my father’s basement. So anyway, I’ve got my own place. I’m fairly certain the person who lived here previous was a criminal, a felon. He left quickly and so far as I can tell the rent plummeted. My neighbors pay dearly. I pay a pittance because some crook likely opened his scalp where I eat my dinners. Give and take, sure. I spend my days when not working walking around this area. I like to grab a pizza, maybe, or Chinese, and sit with it staring off. I’d like to say I appear as some kind of threat. I hate this town, is all. I don’t think that’s what happens, though. Sometimes people recognize me and laugh. The worst is the high school kids. They’ll get pizza themselves, sure. Chinese, whatever. They’ll be out to eat and talking, talking and building their lives together. They’ll look over and see me, it’s often tough to stomach.

 

Then, after this, then, I’ll often try to make for the city. You understand, I hope. This town where I work is small but aware enough. They talk, you see. They’ll talk, each and all of them. I’m not a fan of talkers. I’m a fan of light. So what do I do?

In my room I go to the closet. There I’ve hung them, and others. Most nights I’ve got these leather pants, sure. I’ve got my T-shirts. I’ve got my boots, they shine a bit. I’ll put these on and sort of air my hair a bit. Somewhere when I was younger I loved KISS. Now they’re just O.K., mostly morons. I think maybe that’s where it started, though. So I’ll put on black lipstick. I’ll put on eye makeup and smear it down. I’ll light some Salems and put on my music. I’ll put on Pentagram. I’ll put on Venom. I’ll put on Saint Vitus and sort of air out. I’m tall, you see. My outfit’s black. My pants are leather. Living when I live, then, it can be tough to feel free. So where to go? I’ve found some places. I like the leather bars on karaoke nights. Mostly people there will want a pickup. It’s fine, sure. I’ve made it with men and women. I’ve dated a bit. I don’t go for this, though. I like the sounds. I like to feel a speaker press my body. Sometimes a burlesque, maybe, but often I’ll worry about teachers on a whim. Bored depressives with throbbers. Have at it, I mean. I’m O.K. with all types. I just want noise.

My favorite kind of blurs the whole bit. These barflies from the ’70s and ’80s had taken it upon themselves to give strange metal bands and such their due. Having no patience, however, for meatheads and fascism, they catered to groups of outsiders who’d play pool and dance, drink and come together, take drugs or write their names on walls. Some performance endeavor rumored to have been Prince’s fallback had his tenure at First Avenue, proved too tame, and these lifers took it upon themselves to keep his assless chapseat warm. Good citizens, all.

I’d like to state, however, a pressing thing: it took me fucking years to find my way. Where I worked, forget it. You find all sorts of lonely gentlemen after handjobs in parking lots. I partook. I’m grateful I partook as I was lonely too, but something always missed. I sat in audiences at drag shows and queer karaoke nights in otherwise square bars with no sense of welcome. I wore out my eyes on the internet until having eventually to masturbate myself to stupor. It took me fucking years.

 

I used to read a lot about New York and want to go there, before AIDS and before David Wojnarowicz had to sew his lips shut and before the murder and definition and language seeped through everything. I wanted bodies in rooms and their voices muffled against what? A shoulder or bathroom divider. It was my way home of seeking peace I think. I was always performing. I don’t know that this is a bad way to live. We have jobs, right? We have accounts and ways of being sought and keys to apartments and homes. We have children and responsibilities and worlds. I feel that we earn performance through this, even brief stints of fucking in cars, bodies blurring. The more I worked the more I drenched myself in black.

 

One day in question I had found myself hiding frequently at work. This happened often. I became tired of the same faces staring at me as I pulled their stuffed plastic bottles of trash from drinking fountains and whatever else. I’d clean the bathrooms thoroughly then. I’d work my way from floor to ceiling with bleach and whatever materials I had in decent supply as all of this was fairly unnecessary. Students were superficially disgusting. Teenagers were superficially disgusting. They’d cake layers of themselves onto the tiles but this was easily removed. What I was doing didn’t matter, but looked appropriate enough. I had let life reach me and get to me and all I wanted to do was curl up someplace institutional and weep. I couldn’t weep, though, so I did as I’ve suggested. I put things off as long as I could to get my work done. I smiled at my boss and I made sure every bathroom looked excessively clean and jotted somewhere that I’d done something of necessity.

 

At night, however, I might be free. I went to the gas station near me on walking home and purchased a tall can of cheap booze. I don’t often drink before arriving in the city but I was feeling rotten. On arriving home I removed all of my clothes from work. I paced around my living room smoking and cursing the day before opening my booze. My bathroom is small and dimly lit. My body looks alright in dim light, I’ve hoped. I looked at myself. I pulled my hair back and made lips at myself there in the dingy mirror. I ran my hands up the sides of my frame and felt my ribs, warmed a bit with pleasure or sex. I put liner on my eyes and smeared it down, kissing the mirror and leaving the day’s worker grease. I put black lipstick on and stood briefly on the tub’s ledge staring, then pulling on my leathers and a too-small shirt from when I played baseball as a boy. The shirt rose up just above my navel and as I hunched over to pull on boots I felt it stick first then rise above my spine, my lower back. The feeling of new fabric against me that smelled like smoke and perfume was enlivening. I wanted more.

 

I think about stories I could tell. My father could tell stories, could lie. I wonder about this. What creates a tendency toward fabrication? Is my split a fabrication? Would I be better off in therapy than writing out my thoughts? Where do I start and end of my need for writing is purely selfish? I do not have answers, but in the car I listened to Whitney Houston. I find what I think of as her transmitted vulnerability empowering. I left town and drove to the city amid lights and drank at my can of booze. I’d ease my arm out the window and let it sway there on wind. I’d smoke with the other as the can cooled my crotch. I felt feral. I felt set free. I felt my body boiling up with all the misery of my days and the stares of the students and I ran it out my hair, stared at myself in the sundown mirror and the running makeup, performing.

 

I wanted to quiet my head further so on arrival I drank several vodka tonics and sat sneering from the bar. I felt the booze warm my gut and my mood began to lift, yipping maybe toward a nice oblivion as the room filled up with nary clothed bodies kissing and sucking at each other. Men running hands over one another or women twirling hair to rhythms. Everyone reaching some fluidity and pushing to the edges of abject fucking on leather and neon fabrics only to be pulled back. I sat and watched until the pulse of it warmed me over.

 

I went into the bathroom after writhing against some fleshy bits and denim and found two gentlemen fucking. They were taller, like myself, so it wasn’t much to see them in the stall pressed to the wall and howling. The music in there was slightly quieter and thus I heard their groans as I stared into the mirror and ran the sink to wet my hands. Eventually I noticed someone crouched in the corner of the space and turned to see.

I haven’t made a point of meeting many people where I work. I don’t care for them nor they I. This is as it is. I am O.K. under these circumstances. This person I’d seen perhaps helping around the office, perhaps guiding buses toward the end of day. I can’t and couldn’t recall, but I knew her and knew her from work. I walked to her and registered a horror peeling the skin of her face back at being alive. Her eyes bugged out. The swelter of the room became heavy and miserable then. The gentlemen the stall over persisted in their fucking. She looked at me and didn’t seem to register a likeness, a fellowship in being human. I went to the sink for water and wetted a paper towel, returning and pressing it to her forehead. Her skin was pale. She was sweating incessantly. She smelled medical. I tried to touch my hand to her cheek to check the temperature there, encourage some level of identification. She grabbed my wrist and began pulling me toward her. I stood and she came with me. We stood together and she seemed barely to note the gentlemen in the stall near us. I don’t know or care much for drugs. I drink and have partaken, little more. This was something horrific. This was all the world pressing at my chest. I felt my fingers. They were dried up. They were shriveled. I couldn’t make sense of it. I’d run them under water awhile. I’d been sweating. I felt my chest heave and wanted to collapse.

The girl wanted to leave. I could see it. She wouldn’t vocalize. She grabbed my wrist again. We walked together through the black and swelter, the light and drink, until the cold night air shocked something into us. I felt myself coming together. I felt myself falling apart. I vomited there, or somewhere, walking toward my car. I vomited and it hit the knee of my leathers and I only know it in retrospect. She pulled my wrist. Next day, maybe, I noticed redness there. She was quiet. Her hair was short, brown but slicked in spots against her skull. Her shirt was white and not ripped but mangled against her chest, small gut and arms. She wore a coat and dressed in pants and shoes as if she’d only just left the school to come here. Her hands were shriveled and I felt them abrade my wrist and slither. I suppose she had a car as mine was only caked with my debris.

 

I don’t remember fucking then. I remember laying back or being fully prone on her backseat, our legs however they needed to be to mash us there. I remember staring up at the back window and feeling calm through its fog, its slightly frozen coat and her hands against my ribs. I do not think that she and I in fact fucked. Both of her cold hands, though, these pressed against the sides of me and held me there and she made no recognizable sounds. She made groans, sure. She perhaps whispered things against me and sweated through her clothes and mine. I felt the sickness of bile at the back of my throat and through to the next day. I can still feel the cold of her seat against my head. I remember knowing something. I remember the sounds of those gentlemen and wishing life could be that simple. I recognized her and felt pulled to her. I don’t know what my sense of responsibility was that night. I might’ve called 911, though I found no evidence the next day. We might’ve fucked, sure. I have experienced memory loss. I have missed days of my life staring off, asleep, not caring. I can piece together fragments only. Fragments of her wrists, say. Fragments of her hair and its slickness against my cheek, my mouth. The whispering and grunting at my chest, the howling even. These are my memories. This was an anomalous moment, a night that doesn’t fit. I found myself in complete lack of control and things seemed to spiral out in front of me. Perhaps she wanted to die. Perhaps she’d found that room to hear people fucking nearby so she might die near them. This makes sense to me. I can appreciate this impulse. Perhaps someone drugged her and she barely escaped. I trust the people there but I have a male body and there are differences, bars and clubs vary in degree of insidiousness or threat, perhaps. I’m uncertain how to piece anything together in retrospect. I only remember the window. I only remember the gloss of night and the armor of our coats around us as we held there against whatever death.

I woke with her stomach’s skin against mine, cold but for the small strip where we touched. I worried she was dead, then my head felt like it was being crushed beneath the sea, then a drunken bubble rose and I smelled vomit. I must have spoken with her but all I remember is her mumbling. I must have sat up and tried to figure things out but all that stands out are the lights on driving home. I think I spoke to her. I think I sat her up and made sure she could function well enough. I would’ve looked for something to straighten her out, a bottle of water maybe or a bit of food. I would’ve tried to do these things. I’m not sure which things I did and didn’t do. I hoped that I did everything. I woke later and hoped that I did everything.

I don’t know how to advocate or speak for another. I couldn’t have made her situation better or worse. She looked like me: her hair was matted in memory, her clothing a messy sprawl of unkempt materials, I remember all of it looking like escape, the both of us seemingly wanting to flee. I don’t remember what we said or whether we touched more on waking. I don’t remember if she was O.K. that night or what. I don’t remember feeling any relief or vomiting in my walk to my car. I only remember the lights as I began to surface driving across a bridge to my town. I remember sitting at a McDonald’s terribly early and drinking cup after cup of water and coffee, slowly putting myself back together only long enough to return to my small home and fall asleep caked in sweat and ugly smells until the afternoon.

 

Later on that week when I saw her outside of school as I walked my can toward the large dumpster I felt nauseous. I doubt if she recognized me. When I woke up from that night and looked in the mirror I might’ve been any anonymous body soaked in strobe and the mud of people. It didn’t matter if she recognized me. I walked by and felt my anonymity. I felt myself return to my youth in that hell and was calm and glazed over by the notion; asleep and it started at the eyes. Bells rang and children abounded. Groups assembled themselves at the doors of classrooms wherein they’d make minor messes throughout the afternoon. That evening two shows were being put on and I was asked to keep things orderly afterward. I’d accepted gratefully as things had felt amiss since waking in that car. I was always fairly close to death, I figure. I had never seen someone OD and this was something to process, maybe. I was feeling my whole world curl in on itself and become ruinous. I tended to ruin. I was a ruiner. I moved the can across the sidewalk having left a numbered door and made my way past the lot of them leading to lives filled with people. That night I might dress myself and lie on the floor naked to feel my limbs sprawl out. That night I might drink myself stupid and feel aligned with planets. I wasn’t sure. I walked by and felt the identifying touch of stomach as I passed her. Everything seemed O.K. Everything would be O.K. for me in turn. This has always been my problem. These have always been my problems. I am always gnashing my teeth against the low guts of life only to rise again to my mediocrity. I await the weekend when I’ll flee.

—Grant Maierhofer

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Grant Maierhofer is the author of Postures, GAG, Flamingos and others. His work has appeared in LIT, Berfrois, The Fanzine and elsewhere. He lives and works in Idaho.

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Jul 132017
 

“The Black Lace Veil” is one of the stories from Fleur Jaeggy’s collection, I Am the Brother of XX. It was translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

— Joseph Schreiber

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My mother had an audience with the Pope. I found this out from a photograph of the Holy Father with her looking at him, wearing a black veil. From that photograph I understood, perceived, in fact clearly saw, that my mother was depressed. Depressed in a definitive way. The smile is sad, the glance, which is trying to be kind, is without hope. Mother was a rather sociable person, elegant, lovely jewelry, a lot of charm, Givenchy, Patou, Lanvin — ​in fact many aesthetic qualities which are not dissimilar to internal ones. In the photograph I noticed for the first time that Mother was all in all a desperate woman — ​or almost desperate. In spite of her little bridge tables. She entertained a great deal, now some of the bridge tables have been left to me and sometimes I hear the calls: sans atout, passe, hearts. Then I ask myself why she went to see the Pope. I am her daughter and would never have thought of going. What made her seek the blessing of the Holy Father? Maybe her despair: she wanted to be blessed. Wearing the dark lace veil, partly obscuring her face that was so sad. There is something frightful in realizing from a photograph that one’s own mother was depressed. Definitively depressed. Or perhaps she only was at that moment. The presence of the Holy Father threw her into such a state of bewilderment that it made her expression unhappy. With no way out. As she desperately tried to smile and the eyes were already in darkness. They are — ​one could say right away — ​extinguished, dead, closed. Yet she was still beautiful. Beauty could not conceal the despair, as the grim veil she wore on her head could not hide her beauty.

Now I’d like to know why she went to see the Holy Father. Did she seek solace? Maybe I was wrong. It was the first impression that made me say that her gaze was desperate. She looked the Holy Father in the eye, with a distant and very direct gaze. She looked him straight in the eye. Even though her gaze was far from cheerful. It was cold and hopeless. She had no hope. Her son was beside her. And he, too, had a sad expression in his eyes. And so her son looked at the Holy Father in the bored manner of a little boy who doesn’t believe in anything. The mother wants to take him to the Pope, an audience for the very few. It is a luxury to be able to see the Holy Father, they say. I don’t know if the word luxury is a suitable one, but it is not common to be received by the Holy Father, so close that one can kiss his ring or bow one’s head or genuflect. Perhaps genuflecting is too much. I don’t know a great deal about ritual behavior toward the Holy Father. But my mother who knows the etiquette and was immediately granted an audience, she must have bowed as she started to bow before destiny. Before a not too favorable destiny that was undermining her life. Her beauty hadn’t altogether faded, there were still flashes of it, which to a careful glance might have been quite fascinating and moving. Her daughter, who does not have the depth of the mother, has always believed in the surface of things. And so in beauty. In appearance. What does she care about what is inside? Inside where? And what is the inside? Anyway the daughter believes more in photographs than in the people portrayed. A photograph might tell more than a person. Perhaps. Naturally perhaps. Always perhaps. No affirmation could lead her to grant total credence to the affirmation itself. So, to return to despair. A theme that is dear to her. What could be better than despair? If one discovers from looking at her in a photograph that a person is desperate, after the first shock a kind of calm sets in. A remission. I had never seen my mother so desperate, I would never have thought she could be desperate. It was we, her daughter and her son, who always thought we were — ​the two of us, he and I — ​desperate. Not Mother. That was our prerogative. Mother does not even know what despair might be, we thought. Well, she deceived us. To put it crudely. The card player, and perhaps a player in life, the woman who for a while protected us, who protected her children — ​and then let them go. Because all that was around her left her. Like a flash of lightning, there is an instant that descends, wounds, and is gone. And leaves an aura of spoliation. All it took was a photograph, the photograph of Mother in the presence of the Holy Father, to convince her daughter that she was desperate. She will continue to repeat that word, because she, the mother, never uttered it. She never uttered a word that concerned her. That concerned any malaise of hers. Any possible malaise of hers.

Even now, though many years have gone by and Mother is no longer here, I’d like to know what made her go to the Pope. Why the audience? And why that look in her eyes. If she felt the desire to see the Pope, and perhaps receive his blessing, why did she have that terribly sad look in her eyes? So much so that her daughter, many years later, was jolted — ​as though her mother were alive at that moment and told her that she’s had enough of life. Sufficit. The daughter was jolted, felt a pang of love for her mother who perhaps had always hidden from her that she was terribly unhappy and let herself be found out in a photograph.

— Fleur Jaeggy, Translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff

Published with permission from New Directions Publishing Company.

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Fleur Jaeggy (1940– ) was born in Zurich, Switzerland and lives in Milano, Italy. In addition to her own work, she has translated the works of Marcel Schwob and Thomas de Quincey into Italian as well as written texts on them and Keats. The London Times Literary Supplement named Jaeggy’s S.S.Proleterka a Best Book of the Year: and her Sweet Days of Discipline won the Premio Bagutta as well as the Premio Speciale Rapallo.

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Gina Alhadeff is the author of The Sun at Midday and Diary of a Djinn. She translated to great acclaim Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World.

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Jul 102017
 

The Death of the Perfect Sentence Book Cover

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At the moment when the telephone rings, Raim is sitting having lunch with his parents. There is a tablecloth on the table, not because it is some sort of special occasion, but because that had always been the custom in Raim’s mother’s home, even if it meant they had to wash their tablecloths more often; they had a washing machine for that very purpose. Not one of those front-loading Vyatka automatics with a window in the door – she wasn’t sure whether she could really trust one of those – but the far simpler Aurika, where you had to lift your washing from one compartment to another so that the drier could do its work. But anyway, Raim’s mother has made meatballs today. And at this very moment Raim’s father has just lifted up a meatball on the end of his fork, and it is halfway to his open mouth. We don’t realise straight away that they are meatballs, because they are swamped in sauce. Raim’s mother is in the habit of simmering her meatballs in sauce for a few minutes before serving them, again because this was the custom in her family – even though Raim and his father preferred the meatballs dry and crunchy. But the meatball on the end of Raim’s father’s fork hasn’t come to a standstill halfway to his mouth because he’s fighting an aversion to the food. No, Raim’s father’s mouth is open because he is preparing to say something. And he knows exactly what that will be, even if he hasn’t fully formulated the sentence yet. Clearly it will be something to do with politics. Raim’s father wants to say that in the current situation only a crazy person, someone who is totally ignorant, who has taken complete leave of their senses, an idiot in fact, would say anything to rock the boat, which is sailing steadily towards a better and freer life. It’s never a good idea to poke a sleeping bear. The finest minds in the West have said that too, experts in their field, Sovietologists in academic institutes, each with a budget bigger than the whole Estonian economy. Moscow holds the keys. It isn’t a good idea to be hasty now that the straitjacket is starting to come apart at the seams. They should just keep moving cautiously towards the destination and be happy with what they have. For him personally it’s more important that he can go on a trip to Finland without having to apply for permission from the relevant departments (and that he is allowed to exchange more than thirty-five roubles), not whether the blue, white and black flag of Estonian independence flutters on the Tall Hermann tower of Toompea Castle. And he is convinced that the majority of the Estonian people, or at least those who are capable of thinking rationally, are of exactly the same opinion. Raim’s father knows that once he has formulated and stated his sentence it will lead to an argument. That Raimond, his only son, this blond-haired, broad-shouldered boy with his wilfully jutting chin, who can become all those things which he was not, will disagree with him again. That’s how it normally goes. He doesn’t like it, and who would, but he has resigned himself. At least that way he has some sort of relationship with his son. It was the same way with his own father when he was young. And so he is annoyed when the phone call interrupts his chain of thought. But Raim is not, because for him those arguments with his father have long since lost any purpose. He doesn’t yet know who is calling, or if the call is even for him, but he has already decided that if someone is looking for him, then he will use it as an excuse to flee this scene of domestic bliss. So what if he is still hungry. If the meatballs weren’t covered in sauce, he would pick one up as he ran out of the room. But this is the way things are.

*

Things weren’t exactly how the authorities thought they were back then: that a multitude of isolated, downtrodden people were embracing a vision of happiness and a historical mission which required them to speak a foreign language and to celebrate a foreigner’s victories – a vision which promised to unite them, to restore them, to make them greater. Neither were things as some people like to remember them today: cinders glowing valiantly in every hearth, ready to blaze up into a tall, proud flame as soon as the first bugle call was heard. There was a quiet war being waged for sure, but it was so quiet that even the sharpest ears might not pick up the rumble of its cannons, and the clever chaps abroad had concluded that peoples’ backs were so bowed that they would never stand upright again. That is until the newspapers told them quite how wrong they had been, leaving them unable to explain exactly what had happened. There was a quiet war being fought, but without a frontline moving backwards and forwards on demarcated territory. In the place of trenches there was something more like the circulation of blood, or mushroom spores: thousands, hundreds of thousands of little frontlines, passing through meeting rooms, wedding parties, family photographs, through individual people, who could be upstanding Soviet functionaries from nine to five and then turn into fervent idealists watching Finnish television in the evenings. But there is no point in asking if things could have been otherwise, only why those people’s descendants are the same to this day, even if they have changed their colours. The printed money wasn’t worth much back then, even if there were plenty of sweaty-palmed people with no scruples about handling it. There was however another important currency in circulation – trust. Some may use simpler terms such as acquaintances, contacts, but nothing would have counted without trust. Because in the end it was impossible to trust anyone if you had not gone to school together, shared the same sauna, gone scrumping with them, studied together, worked in the same office, done military service together, stolen something, eaten and drunk with them, slept with them. If you trusted someone, you could share your books, your telephone numbers, your smoked sausage, your summer house, anything you had, even trust itself – names, places, times. You didn’t use a dentist whom you didn’t trust, you didn’t ask someone to pass a letter to your Swedish relatives if you didn’t trust them. If you could help it you had nothing to do with people you did not trust – they might very well be working for the other side.

Trust was the only valid currency.

It was just so exhausting.

And so we used that trust to pay for our freedom, and we’re still collecting the change to this day.

*

There were two of them walking along, one of them taller, with broad shoulders and a chin which jutted determinedly forward, he was walking a bit slower. The other was older, shorter, but more edgy and animated, evidently his companion’s mentor, the one who was in charge. They walked back and forth along the road between the Victory Square underpass and St Charles’ Church, making sure that no one was watching in front or behind. Raim was speaking while Valev listened with a worried expression on his face.

“It’s a real drag, that’s for sure,” Valev said, casting a quick glance over his shoulder, “and I hope that Karl bears up. It’s going to be really tough for him. I’m afraid that if they don’t let him go after a couple of days that means that they’re getting properly stuck into him. They’re particularly brutal at the moment.”

A passer-by looked in their direction and Valev fell silent for a moment.

“Because we’ve actually won already, you know,” he said. “I found out – don’t ask how – that an order was sent from Moscow, from the head of the KGB himself, telling them to work out a plan for going underground. Including cover stories for their own people and contact points for transferring funds in the future. And of course a network for blackmail operations.”

“Aha,” said Raim.

“That means two things,” Valev said. His voice almost became a whisper, and his cheeks started to flush. “Firstly, that we’ll get our country back, sooner or later. That’s certain. No doubt about it any more. But secondly, because there is a secondly as well … if their plan succeeds, we might end up with a maggoty apple. You understand what I mean, an apple full of maggots.” Raim thought he could see Valev trying to trace the shape of an apple in the air. “A maggoty apple.” Then his arms fell limply on either side of him, he cleared his throat and recovered his voice: “That is if we don’t do anything to stop it.”

“So what can we do?” Raim asked.

Valev started to explain. He looked around again and then took an object wrapped in yesterday’s paper from inside his coat.

It was a miniature camera, originally invented by one Walter Zapp, an engineer of Baltic German extraction who had lived in Tallinn’s Nõmme district in 1936 before moving to Riga. Now known as the Minox EC, it had been significantly improved in the intervening years, was being manufactured in Germany, and had earned renown as the world’s smallest photographic device, capable nevertheless of producing very high-resolution pictures.

And he also had a name to give Raim. Someone who had been stirred from the silence of the shadows: Gromova.

*

Clearly Raim did not ask where Valev had got hold of the information about Lidia Petrovna Gromova, but in the interests of clarity let it be explained. As it happened the source of that information was the same woman from the block where Lidia Petrovna lived, the one who had helped her find work in the security organs. Which had also come about by chance. A certain very handsome man used to visit this woman to comfort her during her husband’s long drinking binges and other absences. He didn’t wear a uniform, but he carried a work-issue gun with him at all times. And this woman was happy to be helpful in other ways too. One time the man told her about a well-paid vacancy, obviously hoping that she would apply; unfortunately she couldn’t type, but she knew that Lidia could turn her hand to that kind of work. Later, when it turned out that this man was only interested in getting information about her husband’s colleagues, they fell out badly. After that another man started to come round and console her. He was no less handsome, but he had completely different views, he was one of the leading figures among the local Russian nationalists. Lidia’s former neighbour was happy to be helpful to him in every way possible too. And this nationalist really liked those plump women with pale skin and a slightly motherly appearance, so they were well suited to each other. You might not believe it but back in those days the Estonian and Russian nationalists got on marvellously, united as they were by a common hatred for the Bolshevik regime – although the Estonians believed that the Soviet occupation which started in 1940 was a much worse crime than the execution of the last Russian tsar and his family, as ugly as that might have been. At the necessary moments they had helped each other out of trouble before. Moreover, the Russian nationalists thought that if copies of KGB files made it through to the West, then it would be a great help for their cause too.

In addition to Lidia Petrovna’s name, two other names reached Valev’s organisation in the same way, but it proved impossible to make an approach to them. And the fact that Lidia Petrovna had once worked at Raim’s school was certainly going to be useful.

Valev knew nothing more about her. And that was for the best.

*

At the precise moment that Lidia opened the door of her apartment – dressed in her dressing gown and feeling some trepidation, since her doorbell rarely rang – Raim had still not thought up the words with which to address his former Russian teacher after all those years.

But when he saw the immediate, complete and unambiguous look of recognition in her eyes, he realised that sometimes it was not necessary to think – only to be.

He closed the door behind him, put the cake and flowers on top of the cupboard in the corridor, took hold of Lidia’s shoulders, pulled her gently towards him, slid his hands under her dressing gown, across her naked back, and pressed his lips on to hers.

In other words, he did exactly what he had always wanted to do every single time he had seen Lidia Petrovna in his life.

*

Who cares about cake when there are fingers, hair, a nose, lips, a hollow in the back, shoulder blades, buttocks, and breasts? Who cares about flowers when a warm, moist welcome beckons from between the legs, and trousers can no longer contain the urge which has been suppressed for all those long years. Fortunately Lidia managed to edge slowly backwards, guiding them into the bedroom, so that they could become one for the first time on her quilt rather than on the corridor floor. But could anyone rightfully demand greater self-restraint when every square centimetre of their flesh yearned to be pressed against the long-awaited other, pressed so firmly that it could never be prised loose? Can you ask why someone who is parched after weeks in the desert drinks so greedily that the water sloshes out from either side of the jug?

If only he had thought to come here before, and not for the reason which had eventually brought him.

*

In the town which Lidia Petrovna originally came from, wherever it was (Voronezh, Suzdal, Irkutsk, some other Russian town, Raim couldn’t remember exactly), they believed that the vocation of Russian teacher was well suited to a pretty, decent girl who had the good sense and motivation to take seriously her studies at the local pedagogical institute. All the more so that with her looks there was slim chance she would be one of those long-serving teachers who end up as shrewish old maids. They taught her how she was supposed to understand those obscure poems, and she even got to stand in front of a class a bit before getting herself fixed up with a man and leaving. Naturally, her love and respect for the great language of Pushkin, Turgenev and Mayakovsky did not go anywhere. And wherever she lived they would beckon her out from the four walls of domesticity to go and follow her vocation. After all, there were schools everywhere, and a shortage of good Russian teachers – here in Estonia too. How could she have known that by choosing to come and live in this country she was getting herself caught up in someone’s grand project, a project which aimed to deprive all those clumsy, lanky boys and precocious plaited-hair girls, together with their parents, uncles, aunts, neighbours, relatives and their colleagues of that strange, incomprehensible language which they spoke amongst themselves? But gradually she started to realise that something was not quite right. It was evident from the way some of them started looking at her in the classroom or corridor, as if she were a guest who had outstayed her welcome. It was evident from the way in which the other teachers suddenly stopped talking when she entered the staffroom. Why didn’t they realise that she was not the problem? She wanted to explain, but somehow she couldn’t get her mouth round that strange and incomprehensible language; it was as if it just didn’t want to give up the sounds it was used to. So she preferred to stick to her wonderful mother tongue, which she spoke beautifully, and she knew that they understood, so it was easier for everyone that way. But some things remained unsaid of course. Over time she got used to the situation, just like everyone else. She comforted herself with the thought that Pushkin, Turgenev and Mayakovsky would stay who they were regardless of what was said in their beautiful language in sepulchral tones on the nine o’clock news on television every night. She didn’t know that not a single one of those lanky boys or plaited-hair girls, nor the women who fell silent when she entered the staffroom, ever watched those news programmes. She took pride when one of her students occasionally saw themselves reflected in the heroes and heroines of Russian literature and she saw a spark of comprehension in their eyes which spanned the gap between two worlds. The chance of that happening made her life worth living. And at home she had her books. She went to the ballet, and sometimes the opera. And to concerts. Occasionally the cinema. There wasn’t much else. And the situation remained the same when she left her position at the school. She used to shrug off any doubts about the nature of her new work; she didn’t have anything to hide. Anyway, the salary was nearly two times bigger, the hours significantly shorter, and she didn’t have to wear a uniform. She quickly got used to leaving gaps in the right places, and she was quite happy that she was not authorised to know what the papers were about. It was other peoples’ business to fill them in.

*

But sometimes things take many years to reach their culmination, and if the outcome is a good one, then why not be happy?

Raim was in the eleventh grade back then. He was standing in front of the class, and Lidia Petrovna was saying nothing. Strictly speaking, Raim had been caught out, but there was something about him which resembled a budding exhibitionist who was savouring being completely naked for the first time.

Raim was good at drawing, especially pictures of things which were important to him. He had gone to art class for six years before his father decided that it was better to be good at one thing than mediocre at many, and so Raim had chosen volleyball – there was no other way, he was already captain of the team by then. But of course he kept on doodling away for his own pleasure. And the picture which he had accidently left in between the pages of his Russian exercise book was a really good one. An Art Institute lecturer wouldn’t have expected anything better from one of their student’s life model sketches – except this picture was not drawn from real life but from imagination, from desire, from adoration.

Lidia Petrovna was lost for words. She raised her eyes and looked at this boy – to be honest he was virtually a man already – who had seen her like that in his mind’s eye. It was clear that the picture had been drawn from the purest and truest of motivations. Of course she knew where to draw the line of propriety, but she couldn’t restrain a fleeting thought which sent a shudder right through to the tips of her toes.

She knew very well that she would have to handle the situation like a normal person. Not like a teacher. If she wanted to remain a normal person, that is. Because she would still be a teacher whatever she did.

“Sit down,” she said with a slightly hoarse voice, and gave the exercise book back to Raim. That was it. She kept the picture, and never raised the subject again.

But Raim would have been happy to know that the very same evening Lidia Petrovna stood naked in front of her mirror for a while, looking at herself. And for the first time in ages she liked what she saw.

In fact Raim had come to Lidia Petrovna’s block two days earlier, but without going in. He remembered the address from his school days; one evening he had followed her all the way to her front door, without her even knowing. It was strange, but after all those years he still mentally referred to her by her first name and patronymic, Russian style. He had just got used to it. Of course the other students had called her Lidia Petrovna too, because that was required as a sign of respect, but when her back was turned everyone knew her simply as Gromova, and that was who she remained, since not a single nickname stuck. Everyone apart from Raim that is, who knew her as Lidia Petrovna, even in his thoughts.

Raim wasn’t sure that his former teacher would still be living there, but Lidia Petrovna was very happy in her small Pelgulinna flat. She had moved there after separating from her husband, part-exchanging it for her three-room Mustamäe apartment, which had left her with enough money to decorate properly and even to buy herself the occasional dress to go to the opera in – so that the men who saw her wouldn’t think she was one of those culture widows. Maybe her new place wasn’t as comfortable as the old one, but she couldn’t stand the sympathetic looks of her husband’s former colleagues who lived in her old block. And she had got used to the new place by now.

And now, it should be added, she certainly didn’t want to move anywhere else.

Raim had stood on the other side of the street, trying as hard as he could to think up what he would say on the off chance that Lidia Petrovna’s flat was not occupied by new inhabitants who might have her forwarding address. But when Lidia Petrovna appeared at the front door he recognised her straight away. Fortunately she didn’t glance in Raim’s direction but headed straight off towards town. Beautiful, majestic and completely her own woman, just as if all those years had never passed.

“I’ve been living here for ages,” said Lidia Petrovna, “and you only just found me.”

It was actually a question, but Raim didn’t yet know how to answer.

“I still have that drawing of yours somewhere,” Lidia Petrovna said with a grin.

*

“What a total bastard you are!” said Lidia Petrovna, trying to hide the tremor in her voice.

She was sitting up in bed and smoking, with her satin pyjama jacket open. Raim had just placed the Minox EC camera on the bedside cupboard and explained to Lidia Petrovna how to use it, and what kinds of pictures she should take with it.

For Raim the moment which followed seemed to last much longer than it actually did, because he had little experience of such situations.

But Lidia Petrovna now had two options.

Her employers would assume that she would inform them about the conversation which had just taken place, and as a consequence Raim would then be arrested, most probably followed by several of his friends and acquaintances, especially the acquaintance who had given Raim that wonderful piece of equipment invented by the Baltic German engineer. In other words, her employers would have assumed that she would betray her lover.

Her lover, however, assumed that she would put her liberty and maybe even her life on the line to join a struggle that she didn’t necessarily identify with in order to enable something to pass across the border between two worlds, something which might eventually determine the fate of many people, most of whom she didn’t even know. In other words, that she would betray her employers.

The question was which of those scenarios would result in Lidia Petrovna betraying herself.

In other words, there was no question.

—Rein Raud translated by Matthew Hyde

Published with permission from Vagabond Voices. Click here for more information.

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Rein Raud was born in Estonia in 1961. Since 1974, he has published numerous poetry collections, short stories, novels, and plays. For his works he has received both the Estonian Cultural Endowment Annual Prize and the Vilde Prize. Having earned his PhD in Literary Theory from the University of Helsinki in 1994, Raud is also a widely published scholar of cultural theory as well as the literature and philosophy of both modern and pre-modern Japan.x

Matthew Hyde is a literary translator from Russian and Estonian to English. He has had translations published by Pushkin Press, Dalkey Archive Press (including the Best European Fiction anthology for the last three years running), Words Without Borders, and Asymptote. Prior to becoming a translator, Matthew worked for ten years for the British Foreign Office as an analyst, policy officer, and diplomat, serving at the British Embassies in Moscow, and Tallinn, where he was Deputy Head of Mission. After that last posting Matthew chose to remain in Tallinn with his partner and baby son, where he translates and plays the double bass.

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Jul 082017
 

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Two years after the last time we spoke, an old friend of mine was convicted of having committed a terrible crime. The news came to me from a mutual friend with whom I’d also largely lost contact. The three of us once shared a flat on the Meadows until a hike in rent and rates pushed us onto separate paths. Now by herself in a bedsit in Leith, somewhere close to the water’s edge, Lindsay told me what she had heard of the things that Noah was said to have done. She set it all down in a long email and sent it to me with links to the verdict and the proceedings and a dozen reliable news reports written at various points in the process. In a photograph embedded in the text of one report, Noah sat despondent in the dock. He bowed his head with eyes askance and a tension to his pallored lips. A shadow curled in a sunken cheek as he turned to avoid the camera’s flash. The crime had occurred while the last of autumn was darkening into a savage winter. With ten days of police enquiries followed by fourteen in court, Christmas was only a fortnight away and the polar winds were howling. The court was preparing to recess, according to what Lindsay wrote, while Noah still sat behind bars awaiting delivery of his sentence.

When I think back now on my response to that shocking news of Noah, I’m sure I left Lindsay unsettled by what must have seemed like a failure to care. I’d just returned home exhausted after back-to-back shifts at both of my jobs when I found her message waiting in my inbox. I bent towards the computer and read the things she wrote about Noah and in an instant I felt numbed, robbed of all action, unable to piece together even a disjointed reply with questions or denials or crude and blunt expressions of revulsion and disgust. Noah’s crime had muted me before I could find any words to address it, and so, with no notion of what to write back, I never wrote back to Lindsay at all. I offered her only a silence, enigmatic and resolute, which I know I would have despised, would have denounced as unforgivable, if somehow our places had been reversed and she had offered that silence to me. In my thoughts I envisioned her baffled, pacing between her bed and her laptop while waiting for my outrage to burst across her screen. But what Lindsay couldn’t see was the chaos thriving beneath my inertia. Just the first few words of her message unleashed in my mind a rampage of memories, replays of all my exchanges with Noah back when we three shared that flat.

Noah and I had bonded as strangers who happened to share an accent and learned we shared a hometown as well. We met as far-flung expatriates in a pub on the Bruntsfield Links and quickly realised we were already connected by degrees. I had friends who had friends who lived near his parents in Oxley. He had a cousin who’d gone to my school and finished a year ahead of me. Bit by bit we exchanged anecdotes from our lives back home in Brisbane. Day by day we shared observations on how to survive being new to Britain. Had he said anything to me then that held no meaning the first time I heard it but might, in hindsight, have hinted that he was capable of doing the things he’d recently done? How much of the monster he’d go on to become was already there when we forged a friendship? Had that monster shared my house, had it shared my company, nestled somewhere deep inside Noah, hidden away from the wider world, like a parasite slowly gorging itself into the fullness of its being? He’d once returned home from work with the news that he’d been abruptly reassigned, transferred from customer service to a new desk that denied him contact with the public. He’d once said he had an uncle he loathed for reasons he didn’t divulge, and in passing he’d once mentioned to me that he no longer spoke to his younger sister. He’d once admitted, too, that what led him to move abroad, to start afresh in Scotland, was an urge to put himself at a distance from some disturbance in Queensland and, with luck, to find himself a wife and settle down.

Only briefly did I meet the woman to whom he’d been engaged. Dour, demure, and nine years his junior, Iliya came from Russia but longed to live in the west and she once stayed with us for a weekend to see if Scotland could meet her hopes. I remember distinctly the way the tears welled in her eyes as she prepared to fly home and endure the wait for her residence permit. Beyond that, though, I recall nothing more than the night the four of us shared a meal and Noah told the story of how he and she had found one another. Candlelight bathed his face as he spoke and wine brought life to his words. Chance had drawn them together, he said, one night in a lodge in Tralee. He’d been close to the end of the year he’d spent skirting the coastlands of Europe. She was scouting out new attractions for the travel agents she worked for in Omsk. She sat alone beside a fire when he asked if he might join her, and with those words he sparked a discussion that didn’t end until daybreak. When I heard this, I remember, I felt myself swept up in the romance of their union. Could it really have been as simple and almost predestined as he suggested? Could two total strangers fall so suddenly in love that marriage plans would be in place before they’d known each other a week? Only when Noah’s story returned to me much later did I start to think of the sorts of things it probably elided. Iliya’s longing to live in the west must have enticed her to accept whatever lifeline he might throw her. A young wife made submissive by the threat of deportation must have seemed to Noah to be worth a considerable cost. As melodramatic as I know it sounds, and perhaps this was one more symptom of my shock, my view of Noah underwent radical revision and as I looked back he became, for me, a spider exactingly snaring a fly. I saw how he’d spun bonds around a person’s vulnerabilities, selecting his victims from those too trusting to anticipate his moves, and then I felt my thoughts swerve towards the victim he’d most recently seized. I surprised myself when I saw that they hadn’t earlier taken this turn. I suppose that the crime and my knowledge of the criminal had sharpened my focus on his web and blurred my view of those he caught in it.

The real name of the girl involved was never released to the public. I now know what it is but I’m not able to disclose it. As soon as she tumbled into my mind, I returned to the reports in search of clues to her condition. What few clues appeared in print afforded only hints of her existence. I leapt from one report to the next, printed them out until they covered the carpet around me, sat on the floor and read and reread them and then I read through them again. Drawn in by dissatisfaction, sensing some vital lack, I felt my curiosity fuelled by the absence of the very disclosures I’d hoped would feed it. Estimated periods of recovery, ranging from ten days to more than two weeks, were circumscribed by subtle redactions of all other details of the girl’s wellbeing. Of course the nature of the crime made her situation sensitive. Only so much could be said before the limits of what could be said would be breached. Although she’d clearly been looked upon as a subject of urgent discussion, the girl was also somehow taboo and not to be discussed directly. From page to page, report to report, a fog of unsaying occluded her. Reading on, reading again, reading between the lines as closely as I could, I fought to retrieve the girl from this fog and I forced myself to feel for her at least some scraps of sympathy until, spent, I stopped. I stopped because I had to. The whole thing left me exhausted. Time and again I’d lunged after a shade that vanished upon the slightest approach.

What came next was anger, anger that simmered into a rage, as I saw how the words that evoked the girl turned against her to conceal her, treating her like a plaything waved about to pique the public interest. It was then, in the heat of this rage, that I thought back over all those reports and felt my floundering sympathies drift towards someone else, some other person in her story. Each report made passing mention of the victim’s father. He was, I learned, an influential member of his local community, widely respected for deeds that remained undefined. Despite the lack of further details, I allowed my thoughts to dwell on him and I saw that the two of us shared a strange yet subtle sort of kinship. In my mind’s eye he took form as a man of discomposure. Long limbs and ungainly height, and a restless, nervous energy. Tufts of thinning hair and a face creased with frown lines and crow’s feet. I fancied that this man, whoever he was, was out there somewhere engaged in business much like mine. Perhaps bent over an oldtimer’s bar and nursing a bottle of whisky, perhaps alone and sober at home in a room of dim light and shadows, he too must have been led by rage to scour all his memories of Noah in search of any strangeness he should’ve questioned when he had the chance. My own behaviour struck me as the resonance of his, and so I supposed I might know the troubles that plagued his mind. Shame burns through my body, of course, upwards from heart to head, when I put these thoughts into words and see them here in black and white. They strike me now as audacious at best and, at worst, unforgivably arrogant. Even so, in the moment, they were the thoughts I entertained and the thoughts I acted on. Despite the distance between us, despite our having never met, I felt close to the father of that nameless girl and I felt as well a powerful need to feel closer still. I tamped down whatever faint flickers of shame might have sprung up inside me and I threw myself headlong into the thoughts I’d thought would be his.

If I was that girl’s father, I thought, I could not now direct my thoughts to Noah without awakening a craving for violence. I envisioned myself as that man, that father, beating the blood from Noah’s face, capillaries bursting around his eyes, crimson snot slung over my knuckles, using the very same hands that had earlier stroked the hair of the girl in her hospital bed. I imagined that all my love for that child would simply dissolve into fury at Noah, I suffered the inexpressible fury that just the sight of him would provoke, and then I withdrew from the other man’s mind to imagine the two of us as friends so that I might stand beside him, rest a hand on his shoulder, and quietly offer support for whatever vengeance he planned to pursue. But I mention these details only to show how my own turmoil distorted the things I thought I could know of him. It clouded my vision with misapprehensions that real life quickly corrected. I later learned that what made this man so prominent in his community was his service as fulltime rector of his family’s parish church. He delivered sermons and provided counsel and conducted various ceremonies, and his reputation for doing these things upended what I’d assumed of the way he’d likely respond to Noah. Violence suddenly seemed to me beyond his capabilities. Vengeance contravened the dictates of his moral code. His heart might have beaten with rage at the monster, but I became suddenly certain that it would never compel him to beat at the face of the monster himself. The hands with which he might have punched and pummelled Noah would only ever be clasped and wrung together anxiously, or otherwise offered to other people in dutiful gestures of comfort.

The first time those hands touched the girl in the wake of her ordeal was when he embraced her outside their home in the keen air of a wintry dusk. He stood in the garden awaiting her while her mother parked the car in the driveway. He stepped forth and opened the passenger door, moved aside while she climbed out, and then with a weak but welcoming smile he put his arms around her, kissed her on the cheek, and whispered some words about feeling better now that she was home again. But how must it have really felt to embrace her there, at home, beside the neighbouring terrace? Only a month or so beforehand, he and she had watched their new neighbours haul an entire household indoors under the threat of a downpour. Stormclouds had blackened the sky and raindrops pecked at the pavement. Overhead thunder promised a deluge and distant lightning, drawing near, demanded faster movements. The fridge and the sofa, rushed inside, were followed by bookshelves, a dozen or more, and then came all the books crammed into fifty or sixty cartons. When I try now to picture Noah’s face as the girl and her father would have first seen it, eyes alert but nose and mouth obscured by the boxes he held in his arms, I see that he must have appeared to them much as he appears to me these days. Every so often when I go out, and more so since I actually saw him, I glimpse certain details of passing faces that for a moment convince me I have seen him in the flesh. Those faces are never actually his, just a fringe and brow and a sharp gaze over the top of a book or a ledge, but when they catch my eye at an angle I can’t avoid extrapolating the rest of his features from them. All I need to be certain that I have seen him again are those few attributes glimpsed by the girl and her father when he entered their lives.

What I learned, eventually, was that the man whose thoughts I hoped to know had stood and awaited his daughter’s return after having made no visit to her bed on the hospital ward. I can’t imagine he took his absence lightly, especially for a man with his daily occupations, and I sense it came less from an empty place in his heart than from the trauma of his failure to protect her. I couldn’t do it, I hear him murmur to his wife on the night of his daughter’s discharge. He sits opposite her without looking at her, a man shrunken down to a wraith in an armchair too rigid for him to relax. The listlessness in his tone shows his wife the distance that divides him now from the man he used to be. She has just spent twelve days at the bedside of the wounded girl, the girl safe again in her own bed on the other side of the wall behind her, and she listens to her husband confess the pain that lances his tortured soul. I pulled myself together, he says, I got ready to visit, I showered and dressed and I walked out the door every day and I—

He cuts his words and draws a deep breath before his defences devolve into babbles and stutters and whines.

The shock of what Noah did to his daughter had shackled him to the seat of his car. I sat there, he says when he manages to calm himself once again, I sat and I turned the engine over and over, and then I got out of the car and I came back inside and I sat right here in this chair. I knew what I had to do. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to go and see her, hold her, say something to comfort her, but to actually stand and leave this house to do those things—

He drops his gaze to the ground and rakes his fingers back through strands of grey.

I didn’t have the will, he says, and so I didn’t, couldn’t, go.

He’d been the one, after all, to reach out and welcome the new neighbours into his home. He was on his way to work when he saw her, Noah’s wife, standing outside on her stoop the morning after moving in. During their light conversation, as I have long imagined it, he noticed her rest a gentle hand on a belly beginning to bulge with new life, and I’m sure this was why he asked if she and her husband would join his family for dinner. They arrived near dark with a knock at the door. The girl in her bedroom heard her father entreat them to step inside. Refuge from the chill. Fire in the hearth. Faint amber light danced across the walls of the living room and exuded a warmth that confined the cold to the corners.

While wine flowed freely around the table, as I know it did, I suppose the girl sat down in silence and watched the adults laugh and drink, and I’m told that her awkwardness there among them was what led Noah to catch her eye.

Flickering flames wavered atop the last few stubs of wax. Crumbs scattered doglegging paths across a tablecloth stained with drink. Clinks of spoons against bowls of strawberries filled a lull in the conversation and then, to break the silent spell and cast a spell of his own, Noah leant across to the girl and, in a mock aside, in a loud theatrical whisper, he posed an unpredictable question for her alone to answer but for everyone to hear.

Is there any chance, he asked her, that you have a fondness for poetry?

Although he arched an eyebrow as if he expected an instant reply, his words refused to wait for the girl to make a response. He leapt to his feet, drunk on high spirits, and with a smile he launched into spectacular recitation. Nonsense verse that no-one could place. Something obscure from his graduate years. The vibrant energy of his performance overwhelmed all other chatter. He rose from his chair and ambled around with sing-song rhyme rolling off his tongue and brought smiles to the faces of all who sat at the table. I’m told that the girl was especially beaming. I’m told that he had her entranced, enchanted. I’m told that with this performance put on for her pleasure, he shone a spotlight in her direction and saved her from being lost in the thick of the adult world. Now, though, I hear her father lament, she’s just one of those kids they tell you about each night on the news. I see the man sitting at home with his silent wife. He scratches his scalp, behind his ear, and shifts his weight to one side of his chair. He runs his tongue over trembling lips and stares into vacant space. I used to have a daughter, he admits to his wife with a sigh, but now I feel I have only some girl who someone made a victim.

The girl’s mother sped her to hospital as soon as she stumbled across her. At first, I’ve been told, the victim awoke to find the woman at her bedside. A friendly face amidst the glowing graphs that monitored her vitals on the screens nearby. Warm hands on her hands, a voice of calm and comfort, and with them both a fledgling sense of reassurance. Then the victim suffered a horde of doctors and counsellors and policemen asking questions, endless questions, investigating this and that. The victim refused every meal she was offered and had to be force-fed through tubes that gagged her. The victim could not even see her own face until three days had passed and the swelling had subsided a little. She raised the mirror someone gave her and winced and felt the wincing hurt. A face beyond recognition snarled and squinted with blackened eyes. Smashed and crooked rows of teeth robbed her of any reason to smile. A bandage held fast to her broken wrist and padding encased her aching bones, and somewhere she felt the tingling heat of stitches clasping together a wound still rough and raw.

All she’d wanted to do, as far as I can tell, was return a borrowed book to the man who’d loaned it to her. When Noah’s performance had come to an end he’d told her she could read it and he’d darted home to the neighbouring terrace to find it and retrieve it. A book of poems, he’d whispered as he handed it to her, and later that night, before he went home, she’d been lying on her bed, wholly immersed in the volume, when he approached her to say farewell. I see him in the doorway as a shadowed form backlit by light from elsewhere in the house. I hear him shift with a sound that captures her attention, and I see her whip her head around to fix her eyes upon him. Assuming he must have come to ask her to return his book, she rises from bed and approaches him with the book held in her hand. I see her shrouded in coy pyjamas, only minutes away from lights-out, with balloons of blue and gold coasting across her stomach and chest and up and down her arms and legs. Did she catch his gaze sweeping over her, rising from bare feet on carpet to take in her ankles, her thighs and her waist, her hips just beginning to widen and the barest hint of breasts? Her collarbone protruded beneath taut white skin. Her pale pink lips drew down in a pout. Her auburn hair cascaded over the nape of her neck and dangled in front of her brow in strands whose shadows hid her eyes.

The girl offered Noah the book and offered awkward thanks for it.

Keep it as long as you’d like to, he said. He forced a smile at her and added, Return it whenever you’re done.

She was done by the following Friday and set out to return it that morning. She left the house before she even got ready to leave for school. The transcripts of the trial reveal that she stepped outside barefoot and wearing the same ballooned pyjamas she wore to bed each night. Apparently when she glanced out her window she’d seen Noah’s car exhausting smoke with its engine idling in the driveway. Apparently Noah had set it running to fend off the biting cold of the snow that fell overnight. On a moment’s impulse, then, the girl had deduced that he was still home and dashed across to the neighbouring terrace to find the door wide open. From someplace she wasn’t able to see, through the hallway bisecting the house, the airflow carried the kick of burnt toast. A tentative knock at the threshold. No immediate response. The girl wiped her feet on a welcoming mat and took a step inside. She paused a moment to call out a greeting and then a muted voice gave way to footsteps and Noah drifted into sight. He held a cup of steaming coffee. The girl extended the book for him to take with his free hand.

All done? he asked as he claimed it. Would you like to borrow another?

He turned and gestured for her to follow. She found herself trailing him down the hallway and into an open-plan kitchen. On the countertops and on a table and on the floor around her feet, books lay strewn about and stacked together and thrown haphazard into boxes. I remember the mayhem of all those books. I remember how they’d very nearly owned the flat I shared with Noah. I remember, too, how just a hint of interest in them would elicit generosity. Feel free to read whatever you like. That’s what he’d say whenever he noticed anyone browsing the covers and spines. I’m sure that’s what he said to the girl when he saw her gawping at them. Feel free to read whatever you like, just let me know what catches your fancy. He retreated down the hallway and disappeared from sight as she thanked him and set about examining his trove. But I’m told that over the following days, struggling to answer the questions put to her in hospital, she never was able to say exactly how Noah came to constrain her by the wrist.

Confusion must have flourished between them in the house. Perhaps she tried to find him to thank him once more for the loan or to show him which new titles she’d selected. Perhaps he had vanished into the hidden spaces of his home or darted outside to turn over his engine for better defence against the cold. Apparently, as she searched for him, she’d found the door to the bathroom open and glimpsed herself reflected in the head-and-shoulders mirror within. Apparently, acting on impulses that escape my understanding, she’d entered the bathroom and drawn close to the mirror to peer at the image it cast and that was when Noah came to her. He confessed at trial that he’d spent some moments at the door to linger and watch her watching herself. She’d opened her mouth to bare her teeth and even to poke out her tongue, he said, and then she’d stood on tiptoes and turned side-on to see her reflection from the waist up. She drew a deep breath and puffed out her chest, sucked in her stomach, puckered her cheeks, and then with some sense of human presence she startled and spun to find Noah behind her. At that stage, as I understand it, there was something amiss with her hair. Faint strands became trapped in a breath of wind that ghosted in through the open front door. For just a moment she turned back to the mirror and gathered her hair in a ponytail. Someone at school had told her she’d look better if she wore it that way. He told the court she’d told him this and that he’d agreed. Then he’d rested one hand on her shoulder and raised the other to hold the ponytail for her. How she felt when he did this, tense or ill at ease or something else entirely, I’m not able to say because I can’t even guess. She must have let her hair drop then, to let her hand fall to her side, but as she released it she must also have felt it brush over her shoulders and neck. Her hand remained behind her head where his hand held it fast. He tightened his grip around her wrist with fingers tensed against her veins. She found she could move her own fingers but could not move her arm. She must have tried to speak, must have stammered some protest, but must have done so without effect because at that point something snapped.

How would it have unfolded from there? Before she could have known what had happened she likely felt hot tears down her cheeks and perhaps even heard someone shriek. Fabric ripped, cast aside, threw coloured balloons across the tiles. Cold air clutched at her toes and thighs and pawed at the small of her back. Her hand, I imagine, slipped into the bathtub and blasted out a trombone blare. She said she tried to grab something steady, felt herself falling, struggled to stand, fell at last. She said she saw tiles, a drain, the ceiling and the light and then tangled pipes beneath the sink, until she felt herself overturned and felt her face against the floor. Her hair blazed like fire in front of her eyes. Her lungs swelled up as if to burst and her heart pounded blood so hard it threatened to blow a hole through her chest. Inside her there was movement as he moved against her and then her teeth moved back and moved around in her mouth. She split her lips when her face smashed the sink. The porcelain grinding into her gums gave her her tortured grimace. Her left eye pulsed with pain as well, blackening into a bruise as tears began to pool in the socket. Finally, when the ordeal was over, she collapsed with a slap on the floor. All she could hear, she later said, was heavy breathing not her own. All she could smell was sweat, she said, and all she could feel was the pain that would afflict her for days to come.

Those were the days during which her father did not bring her comfort. I wonder if she overheard his excuses the night of the day she went home again. I wonder if she lay in bed, awake and alert in the dark, and heard him unburden himself to his wife on the other side of the wall. I couldn’t, he says, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t leave this house, I couldn’t. The girl, I imagine, goes rigid when her father’s confession reaches her ears. I couldn’t do it, she hears him murmur, I couldn’t go, and she hears him trying hard to hold himself together simply by repeating those words over and over until he can’t say anything else. His words fragment and fall apart into senseless heaves of air, the jagged breaths of a man who can no longer contain the anguish that scalds his insides like acid.

He had good reason to feel that anguish and he has it even now. He could not have known, would not have dared suspect, that the trial would end with such a whimper. I learned about it when I read the reports I received from Lindsay, tracing the course of the courtroom arguments until they reached their grim conclusion. The prosecutors appealed to the humanity of the jury. They played with emotions and pulled at heartstrings and pressured the jurors to imagine themselves in the place of the traumatised girl. But the defence team did not counter the charges in hopes of winning Noah’s freedom. Noah’s lawyers vied only for leniency in the sentencing. They dodged the question of accountability and asked instead for respect to be paid to Noah’s established character. They dismissed the morality of the charges against him to speak of a submission to awful impulses. They attributed his crime to a fleeting lapse of rational thought from a man who had strived for years to accrue a reputation for integrity. After he and I parted ways, all those years ago, he’d patched together a career as a fledgling intellectual, a tutor and casual lecturer at half a dozen colleges scattered across the county. His lawyers defined him as a scholar in the making, a dedicated teacher, a loving husband who would soon become a proud and devoted father, tragically born with a flaw in his soul and upstanding enough to not deny it. What they meant by what they said was that his crime was not his fault. What they did was portray him as a man so enslaved to his passions that he was, in a sense, imprisoned already. The man was of course summoned at trial to speak in his own defence. Yet when the time came to account for his actions, he not only made no denials but made no attempt to even explain. He offered only a meagre apology, a token show of remorse, in what one report described as a choking voice through which the slightest glint of humanity tempered the inhumanity of his crime. He was sentenced to nine years in prison before he’d be eligible for parole. He wouldn’t be free at least until the girl had grown into a woman, but he could be released at almost the very moment her girlhood was over.

I’ve often wondered what a sentence so weak did to the girl and her parents when they heard the judge deliver it. I imagine her father and mother alone, together in darkness sometime after dinner, staring intensely at empty plates as the verdict gnaws away at them. I imagine mumbled complaints about the processes of the court. I imagine fleeting vows that they’ll have their lawyers launch an appeal. But I imagine, too, conflicted feelings about the prospect of further legal pursuits. Although the girl’s father must have craved some harsher retribution, he must have also felt averse to the torment of a second trial, and all the more so because the torments of the first had afflicted him least of all. His wife had been there when the injured girl was found, and for that reason she, too, had been summoned to the stand. She testified, trembling, through tears that flowed without relent. She wiped at her tears with the back of her hand and smeared them across her scarlet cheeks. When she raised her voice to speak directly into the microphone, her words went suddenly weak and she had to speak in a rasp.

She spoke of how she had woken that morning to find her daughter not in bed, not inside the house at all. She’d taken a glance outside, noticed footprints in the snow, followed them where they led her to the neighbouring terrace with its door still open wide. She spoke of her rising concern and then she spoke of explosive panic. She called out for Iliya, she called out for Noah, she strained as hard as she could to listen for a response, and that was when she caught the shudders of someone, somewhere, weeping. When she came to the bathroom, she said, she found blood across the ground and found her daughter covered in it. The girl’s hands were stained the colour of rust. She curled into herself like an injured animal helpless beneath the sink. At that sight the woman felt a plummet in her heart. The girl tried to pull her torn pyjamas down over her naked thighs, down to her knees or even her toes, but then a voice struggled for something to say and the woman became aware of someone else in the room.

Iliya sat on the edge of the bathtub. Tears streaked down her face and enflamed the rims of her eyes.

The other woman stood at the door with a stillness that urged Iliya to speak.

She wouldn’t let me touch her, Iliya said without releasing her gaze from the injured girl. But, she went on, she’s hurt so bad, I couldn’t leave her here alone.

Iliya said the same thing to the jurors when she was called to testify, and she said it again to me when we spoke just before she departed. She told me much more than that as well. She told me about the trial and about its aftermath, and she gave me the details I’d sought in the reports that left so much unsaid. Of the girl or her mother she knew almost nothing, but she said she’d heard that the sentence brought the girl’s father to breaking point. Lost his faith, lost his job, left his wife, lost his mind. She told me this in a torrent of words that belonged to a woman very different from the waif I’d encountered years before. She told me the story as best she remembered the way she’d originally heard it, she said, when she sat down to confront the man with whom she’d hoped to share a life.

At first, she revealed, Noah flat-out refused to receive any visitors. Only after the authorities prevailed upon him did he finally relent. One fine day in his first year behind bars, he sat down behind a glass barricade while the girl’s father stood and waited for him on the other side. The glass captured and mirrored the ruined man’s features and overlaid them on the face of the monster he sought to confront. He’d fled his church that morning with resentment throbbing so powerfully through him that he couldn’t care any longer if the building stood abandoned. His wife had always sworn she would divorce him if he quit. I’m told that that was the first thing he decided to share with Noah. His job, he said, had been the reason he’d uprooted his family to move to Scotland in the first place. What would it mean for his family if he were to give up his work? As he spoke he refused to let his gaze to settle on the prisoner. Then he stood and ruminated on all the things he might yet say before he resolved to speak at greater length.

I was the only one who wanted to leave Kent, he said. But I was blessed to have married a woman who’d sacrifice her wants to help me achieve my dream. But it’s a pathetic dream now, anyway, isn’t it? To rise every Sunday and address my own congregation and have people come to me as their friend and confidant and unburden themselves on me and place in me their, their faith, and to have them trust me to be there for them in times of need and to promise them that all will be well and God forgives them for whatever they’ve done, and on and on, on and on—

He threw his hands in the air and banished the emptiness from his eyes and he glared down at the man sitting silent behind the glass.

The glare was a defence, of course, as he sought to conceal from Noah the confusion he can’t conceal from me here in my thoughts. Questions harrowed his brow. Why even bother with this life? Why go on with it at this juncture? Why preach hope when you lose your own faith in the very thing on which you have founded your being? Why advance the word of a God who won’t protect the family of so devout and devoted a servant?

I wonder if Noah could sense the outrage rising in the other man. I wonder if he saw the agony in the squint, the flare of nostrils, the clench of fist and flex of fingers. Perhaps a flicker of fury did indeed colour the other man’s expression, or perhaps its being written here has less to do with reality than with my reading of him. Nevertheless, some signal of his inner state must have shone through clearly enough to move Noah to speak in turn.

I’m told that he offered a simple apology and that this was what triggered the tirade. You don’t need to say you’re sorry! That’s what the other man spat at him. You feel regret for your actions, I know. Some days you’re consumed by it. This doesn’t come as news to me. It’s what I expect of a man behind bars. But what sort of regret do you feel? I don’t think it’s anything even close to true remorse. It’s severe enough to compel you to beg my forgiveness, I’m sure, but not out of deep regret for having broken a moral limit. Only out of frustration with the consequences you’ve had to incur. So, of course, when I hear you mutter your worthless little apology I can’t help but wonder. Do you apologise because you are genuinely sorry for what you have done to the people I love, for having torn our lives to pieces? Or do you apologise out of fear that if you and I were alone together I might try to harm you, hurt you, so that your most urgent desire right now would be to say or do something drastic to push me out the door?

Noah had no chance to speak before the other man pressed on. I used to have a daughter, he said, but she’s dead to me now because you killed her. She’s lost, an enigma, tangled up in the mess you scribbled over her life. He raised both hands in front of himself, palms up in a gesture of hopelessness, and then he let flow a stream of furious accusations, infection and corruption and pollution and perversion and worse words that vanished into the air only when his tongue tripped and he tumbled into speechlessness. He chewed at his lip and stared at Noah, and stared at Noah, until the sudden slam of a hand rattled the glass in its pane. What followed was a stillness in which he disappeared into depths of thought. What musings came to him in that room? I wonder if he wondered, then or at some other stage, what might have happened, what he might have done, if his daughter’s ordeal had hurtled towards its most intractable conclusion. I wonder if he’d wondered which horror would have been worse, a newborn being brought into the world or otherwise denied the chance, and whether he would have been strong enough to help his daughter cope with either trauma. He must have wondered, he couldn’t have helped it, and I’m sure that all his wondering went with everything else inside him into the slap at the glass that left the blur of his handprint trapped, suspended, between him and his adversary.

What troubles me most right now, however, as I dwell on what I know of this scene, is a question that began to trouble me when I first learned of their encounter. It can only have troubled Noah as well from the instant he sat and peered through the glass and watched the girl’s father lingering, lost, on the other side. Why exactly had he come? What could possibly be his agenda? What did he hope to achieve with his presence? The heartache that drew the man into the room could have been no mystery, but mystery shrouded whatever he thought he might take away with him. The mystery hovered somewhere around him, able to be sensed but not to be perceived, until once again the girl’s father drew breath and set forth to say something more.

Speak, he commanded. Speak to me now. He didn’t glare at Noah, didn’t even glance at him, but let his eyes wander over the glass without exactly gazing through it. Speak, he said. Speak to me, will you? Open your mouth and say her name. Say her name, Noah, he said, and with those words he said the name he’d promised himself he’d never say. Say her name, he said, say her name to yourself and make her a human being.

Only after he said this much did his eyes meet Noah’s. Then he whispered a question that I know he asked although I cannot say exactly how he meant to pose it.

Make her a human being, he said. Can you begin to do that?

Perhaps he meant it as an honest request, perhaps he laced it with spite. Perhaps he intended to put to Noah a challenge that would haunt him with uncertainties about his innermost nature. But a consequence of its being asked is that it haunts me here as well and leaves me to wonder, to really wonder, if Noah was at all able to do what that man asked of him. How could he begin to humanise that girl? How could he have been capable of it? How could he make himself see a human being, a true and living human soul, where before he’d seen only a body lacking every human quality more immanent than flesh?

Whether Noah, when he spoke, demanded to know the point of this exercise or only bluntly registered his visitor’s distress, I can’t say for certain. I never thought to question Iliya on the outcome of the other man’s approach. It’s possible, if I’m to be honest, that I just didn’t want to know any details beyond the ones she volunteered. In my version of events, in my speculations on how things unfolded, Noah did not speak aloud the name of the girl because he wasn’t able to force himself to the task. On some level I guess I must have wanted him to not be able to speak and, as I write these words now, I suppose I still want him to be unable, to be unable forever and always. As I see it, he simply sat there and watched the other man flee, abandoning him to solitude in the emptiness of that room. There, I hope, Noah heard in his head the name he’d elected to not utter, heard it echo inside him, and tensed up as it lodged itself deep in the conscience he thought he could fortify against it.

 

 

A little bit more than a decade went by between the events I have detailed so far and the first time I felt the need to coerce them into words. After Noah received his sentence I spent eight more years in Scotland, then I grew restless and got the idea that a better life could be mine if I flew back home to Brisbane. Instead, a long spell of illness there upended all my plans. Something inside me went haywire just a few weeks after I’d touched down, and I struggled on for more than a year before I’d regained enough strength to start rebuilding who I was. The fallout sent me back to the last place I’d felt like someone real. I wanted to try to reclaim a sense of selfhood I worried I’d lost forever.

That’s how I returned to Edinburgh, two years after leaving, feeling more or less as adrift as the first time I saw the city. Despite the onset of winter, the place seemed to me like a refuge. I set aside some time to properly rest and recover, to do whatever I had to do to keep a relapse at bay. But because my limited means left me with nowhere to live for long, I ended up on the sofa of someone I used to sleep with, and because her limited means didn’t allow her to heat her flat, I took to rising early each day and wandering the streets in search of cheap coffee and respite from the cold. Then one morning in late November, as an icy gale assaulted the city, I strayed into the St. James Centre, up the stairs from the ground floor and into the food court above, and there I caught an unmistakable glimpse of the features I thought I glimpsed all the time.

A decade’s difference had thinned his hair and worked worrylines into his brow. His lips had drawn and his shoulders rounded, and he wore a shade of stubble across his cheeks and chin. Even so, there was no denying that those features belonged to the person I knew and not to some stranger with similar looks. He stood behind a countertop that shimmered with shocking luminosity. He braced himself with both hands gripping onto the service bench. He wore an apron uncomfortably over a uniform starched bright white, and pinned to his lapel was a red plastic tag that broadcast his name in big bold letters for all the world to see.

Without a pause I sat at a table and watched him from afar. He spent a long time idling there and drifting off into thought. He straightened piles of serviettes, he refilled a box of straws. Occasionally, sporadically, customers appeared and spurred him to act. A herd of teenage boys pressed him for a round of milkshakes. An old lady out on the town ordered a boxful of donuts. As I watched him I found myself flexing my fists, pressing my palms against the yellow matte of the tabletop. I didn’t know at all what to think of seeing him in front of me. Should I rise and speak to him? Should I stay seated, hold back and observe? Until I found my thoughts in a jumble, I hadn’t realised I’d made assumptions about how he’d be living now that he was free. I’d assumed he wouldn’t have stayed in Scotland after he’d been released. In fact I’d assumed he’d be ordered to leave the country for good. I thought he’d run home to Queensland, like me, to hide away and lick his wounds. I even remembered convincing myself that we’d crossed paths in Fortitude Valley a month or so before I fell ill. Standing in the doorway of a café on Brunswick Street, I could’ve sworn I saw his face through the window of a bus in traffic. But here I was and there he was, each of us still on the far side of the world, and now, despite my assumptions about him, we’d both been brought together again on the far side of a decade as well.

All morning I sat at the table, unmoving, and watched him perform his work. At lunchtime he made a hot dog and ate it in two bites. Then he whipped up a smoothie and slurped it down in less than a minute. He swept the floor of the service area and swiftly cleaned the coffee machine, and neatened a basket of croissants and pastries gone stale throughout the day. I went on watching, on towards dusk, until he reached the end of his shift. Approached at five by a thin young woman no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, he was relieved of his duty and he readied himself to leave. He gathered up a beanie and wrapped a scarf around his neck. As he walked off he slipped into a coat whose hem fell past his knees.

What I did next was in no way something I had planned to do, but as soon as he started to leave I knew I couldn’t let him leave alone. I felt no desire to follow him or to know where he was living. I felt no compulsion to find out where he went after work or what sort of life he’d made for himself. I felt not the slightest need to fill in the gaps in his story and learn his reasons for staying in town instead of starting again elsewhere. And yet, though I can’t account for it, some outward pressure made me set off after him. I suppose I felt moved by some vague sense of duty, some responsibility to his fate, issuing straight from the shock of having been there in his presence. I felt obliged to follow him much as I might feel the need to seek the source of a strange noise in my house. I felt as if the world had cast him back onto my path for a purpose, binding me to tease out the roots of his return before I could be free to continue on my way.

Downstairs, outside, into the wet of an early dusk. I walked behind him at a distance of about a city block. We headed towards the Haymarket as the last of the sun pierced the clouds overhead. I crossed the sheen on the wet cement and felt the wind behind the rain scorching into my cheeks. As dark set in I followed Noah briskly along Dalry Road. The tyres of passing traffic swished spray onto the pavement. The downpour strobed through the beams of rushing cars, and puddles in gutters soaked commuters stepping out to hail buses. Finally rounding a corner and then edging around another, where streetlights laid glowing arches across the stones of a cobbled road, I came to a block of terraces with a bus shelter next to the footpath. I paused and let Noah walk on a little. I watched him swipe at the latch on a gate outside one of the houses. When he swung the gate open I dashed through the rain to slip inside the shelter. Noah halted at the gate to unlock a postbox beside it. He reached into the box and removed a paper that ruffled in the rain and stuck to the back of his hand. He peeled it from his skin and stood to read it in the dim light, and he fell into a sudden stillness that set my mind to wandering. Whatever that paper might have said, it kept him standing still for far too long in the cold.

I suppose I should say I’m ashamed to admit that I saw it as vigilante propaganda. The truth is that I wasn’t ashamed to see it that way at the time. I wanted Noah to hesitate because he’d been immobilised, because with a spotlight shone upon him he’d been frozen by the fear of having his ugliness exposed. I pictured a pamphlet that named him and gave a name to his crime in enormous print. Beneath the tabloid headline lurked a grotesque caricature. Two beady eyes, slanted and evil, peered through a gap in a hedge where bony clawed fingers parted the leaves beside a white picket fence. The new address of the criminal sat beside details of his crime and his sentence. What followed from there was a declaration that the people have a right to know, to be informed when a man like that attempts to settle where parents are raising their children. Summed up in only three sentence fragments, sketched out in the broadest of brushstrokes, his life became something larger than life and made public for all to condemn.

He shuffled towards his door, unlocked it, clicked it closed behind him. His absence robbed me of anything to focus on except the shadows that washed across the front of his terrace. In one sense, that’s where this story ends. There were, there are, no further events for me to record or report. In another sense, though, it was exactly the threat of that ending that led me to refuse it. Despite his departure, I couldn’t leave. I continued to stand where I’d sought refuge in the shelter. I continued to keep my eyes on his house. I felt a more disquieting fantasy enter the edges of my vision, and as I stood there I allowed myself to focus on its unfolding.

The ease of the afternoon’s escapade had thrown me into a trance. The ease of slipping into it, of noticing him out there by chance and then, without betraying my presence, returning with him to where he’d resettled. Why should that be so easy for me and not just as easy for anyone else? If I could do what I’d done, I thought, then surely the girl who would now be a woman could follow in my footsteps. If she ever saw him out there, if she ever chanced upon him in public, if she ever managed to trail him through the city streets as well, then what? How painfully would her going there rupture whatever life she was living? What might her life even look like at this moment?

As these questions and others like them started to plague me, alone in the dark, I watched her walk into view beside me and stand nearby like a stranger awaiting the 6.26 to the city centre. She moved with a stiffened gait and with her face fixed against expression. Far too thin with thin red hair and freckled cheeks flecked with rain, she made no sound, no sound whatsoever, ensconcing herself in a shroud of silence, and she stood and stared at Noah’s house with a gaze that gave no hint of feeling. Then with that image of her by my side, summoned into existence by me, I led my thoughts towards more realistic questions. If she ever saw Noah in public and felt inclined to follow him, could she actually do it, one foot in front of the other, or would she not be able? And if she could, then could she do what I could not and make her way through the dark to the front door of his house? And even if she could do that, forcing her feet up those steps, could she bring herself to knock, to announce her presence to him, and then await his answer no matter what form it might take?

I don’t know this girl, this woman, whoever and wherever she may be today. Intellectually, of course, I know I have no right to subject her to speculations, nor any real justification for having done so then or after the fact. All the same, I can’t deny the wanderings of my mind. I conjured her up from thin air and projected her onto my world. Those are facts I can’t write around. My suspicion is that she would have fallen into fantasy, too, if it ever came to actually knocking on that door. The knock would have drawn out her sense of passing time. It would have stretched the space between the lowering of her hand and the turning of the handle on the other side. In that brief eternity her mind would have spun with all the things she thought he might say when he stood there looking out to the street and saw her once again in front of him. He’d wrench open the door and tell her she didn’t need to knock because he heard her heavy breathing as she gambolled up the path. He’d glare into her eyes and command her to leave straight away because the restraining order prohibited him from being anywhere close to her. He’d stare at his feet or at her feet, or at an empty spot on the ground, and he’d find that he wouldn’t be able to say anything to her at all.

But no, none of these things would happen because really it would unfold nothing like the way she might imagine it. First a tired shuffle from somewhere deep inside the house. Then the squeak of metal on metal, a peephole cover pulled aside, the paralysed pause of a man standing only inches away from her and sweltering in thoughts he cannot calm and order. Nothing would happen for some time until the creak of the door and complaint of a hinge would open up clear air between them. The first thing the woman would see, however, wouldn’t be his face. He’d steady himself at the threshold where the cold would grip his bare arms and there she’d watch a whiteness pinch at the flush of his skin.

What next? What then? What’s truly unknowable is not whether she might arrive at his door but whether she might step through it at his invitation. I can’t believe she’d ever really put herself inside his house, but standing with her in the shadows I felt I needed her to do it and so, obediently, she did. Noah held open the door and asked if she’d like to come out of the cold. Some reflexive sense of courtesy? Some drive towards self-flagellation? I watched him turn and retreat down a hallway while, once again, she trailed him at a distance. Then he moved aside, stepped into his living room, and waited for her to follow his lead. When she entered he gestured towards a lonely armchair in the corner. She folded her arms across her chest and turned a little away from him. She rejected the only offer he was capable of making. He blushed from throat to temples and pressed the heel of a hand to his forehead. He tried to suppress his humiliation, and with a slump of resignation he let himself drop into the seat.

He sat precisely where I placed him, where I wanted him to sit, and felt his further humiliations alive in the surrounding space. How dark and dank the hovel he had taken as his home. Kitchen and laundry both in one room. A sink stacked full of dirty dishes and cupboards stocked with readymade meals. Boxes of books atop one another, lined against walls bereft of shelves. His name tag remained fastened in place on his lurid white lapel, boldly announcing to her who he was as if she wouldn’t know him by his face. He must have felt these humiliations because I wanted him to feel them, and why, after all, shouldn’t I want him to feel them and try my best to make him feel? Think on what he did to that woman. He did more than break her body with his brutal force. He broke her capacity to be seen by others for who she was, to be seen as herself. He reduced her, for me, to a means to an end, an instrument to be snatched up and used to strike at him. He flayed her into a crude abstraction lacking form and force, a legion of weightless words with which I might hope to torment him for everything he inflicted on her, even though I know those torments will not leave a scar. She was once a human being, a living, breathing, thinking person, but he stripped her of her humanity in more eyes than his own. Now I find I’m not able to see it. I can’t know enough of her thoughts and feelings to bring her to life on the page. Worst of all, I can’t shake the feeling that I am finally just like him because I too can’t do anything other than use her for my purposes.

So it is that her wandering eyes alight on the first thing to light up my mind. A picture, framed, atop a table. A pale boy with black hair and a heartwarming smile. Probably no picture like that ever occupied any such place, but certainly the boy in it occupies my thoughts. At first, as I see it, Noah says nothing of what the young woman has noticed. He simply hopes that her eyes roam past it, until they have lingered there so long that he feels compelled to explain.

My son, he mutters, and he mutters a name before choking his words with a cough.

The last time they ever saw one another was the very first time they’d met. Watching the boy through the glass he must have wanted nothing so much as to reach across and touch him and know, at last, the feel of him and the scent and to hold him in his arms. The glass made his whole body ache to be on the other side. The ache pinched his face into a cringe he had to strain to ease away. For Noah the meeting ended five years of only imagining the boy, five years of knowing no more than the facts of his name and date of birth and physical features conveyed in others’ words. What he couldn’t have known at the time was that the meeting would also usher in still more years of isolation. He gave the boy a book for his birthday but he chose a title he should’ve suspected would be too demanding for someone still so young. Call it a stark reminder of his displacement from the world. Then his efforts to lighten the mood with friendly conversation only heightened the dislocation the boy already clearly felt. What grade are you going into at school? What’s your favourite subject to study? What do you like to do on weekends? These were the sorts of questions he posed, bewildered and superficial, and in return the boy offered only bewildered and superficial replies.

When Noah found he could probe no further, he let his questions fill the air until, in a move to dispel a silence, he asked the boy where he and his mother were living now. He didn’t need the name of a street or a suburb or even a city. In the hills. By the sea. Simple descriptions would be enough. But the boy turned around in his seat to face his mother where she sat behind him. With a shake of her head she killed all hope of a bond between father and son. The rest of their conversation dragged on to the ticking of the clock and came to an end, at the top of the hour, as the boy and his mother switched places. She told me all this herself when I met with her later on, not long before she left for home and not long before I moved on as well. I have taken care to record it here as faithfully as I can recall it, not least because what she said then, what she went on to do to Noah with words, feels to me like an echo of the impulse that drives me to say all of this.

She stood before him with poise and command, her hair drawn back severely and her posture tense. Then she took her seat and made herself the centre of the room.

Noah thanked her, respectfully, for bringing his son to visit him.

A flick of her hand told him she wouldn’t waste time on petty pleasantries.

Honestly, he whispered with a wince, I’ve said I’m sorry, haven’t I? I’m so sorry for all of this, for everything I’ve done. I’m sorry and I’m sorry and I’ve said it a thousand times but I’ll say it once more if that’s what you need me to do. I’m sorry. How many apologies do you want me to give you? What more can I possibly say?

No, she told me she said. She remembered clearly how she laid bare her nerves by answering his questions with such a blunt non sequitur. Don’t, she went on. I’m done with apologies. I’m here with you now only because I want something else from you.

Really, she said when I spoke to her later, I wanted to see him again for one reason. I wanted to see him so I could say something to hurt him. At the police station where he’d initially been held, before he’d been questioned with his lawyer in the room, she’d ridiculed him by playing dumb and pleading with him to insist on his innocence. They sat together, he in handcuffs, in a room with concrete walls and a radiator that struggled to combat the cold. She leaned back in the seat that a constable had provided and she waited for the constable to leave. Her rounded belly had started to show in the fifth month of her pregnancy. The constable closed the door behind him. She turned her eyes to Noah.

Tell me you didn’t do it, she said. Tell me they made a mistake.

He did as she’d asked and held himself together to prove the truth of the words he’d utter. I’ll be out in no time, he said. All it is is they got the wrong guy.

So she told him she’d been in the bathroom to see for herself the damage he’d caused. Yet in spite of her admission, he wouldn’t drop the façade she’d asked him to assume.

It’s no mistake, she told me she told him as he grew more insistent. I know what I saw and I know what you did, so please just come clean and tell me the truth. I know what it is but I know I can’t rest until I hear you speak it.

Still he pressed on with rote denials and without any waver in his voice. All it is is a mix-up, he said. I told you before, they’ve got the wrong guy. Whatever it was they were saying he’d done, she said he said he didn’t do it. Even as she turned aside and left him to sit by himself behind bars, he didn’t seem able to force any more truthful words from his mouth.

He must have known, he must have known, how false his words would sound to her. In the bathroom of the house he knew she’d have to return to, a stockpile of forensic equipment would put the lie to his claims. And when she’d seen the girl’s mother break down at the sight of the child on the floor, she’d had to summon the strength to call the police and point them in Noah’s direction. Even if she couldn’t be certain that he was responsible for the carnage, she also couldn’t have seen many other possibilities. Only half an hour had passed since she’d run to the shops to feed a craving. Noah had been there when she left the house and he was gone when she returned. His hasty departure all but announced his guilt. What must it have cost her then to alert the police to his crime? What effort to take the phone in hand and speak the words that would ruin her? And what price did she continue to pay? She would feel her husband’s deeds returning vividly to life whenever she entered that room again to brush her teeth or wash her hair or draw herself a bath, and her nights would be lost to sleeplessness in a bed left cold by his absence. Even so, when she spoke to him afterwards, he still would not speak to what she knew of his deeds. He talked and talked and talked, she said, but what he said was nothing.

She told me she’d had to brace herself before she could say what she said to hurt him. She had to brace herself even for me when I asked her to repeat it. Creases at the corners of her mouth were not quite concealed by the hair she let hang to her jawline. Her weathered face went blank and her eyes, exhausted, went empty. After the birth of their son, she said, she’d succumbed to postnatal depression. Her days started bleeding together, dissolving into a haze of numbness with no escape in sight, and having admitted this to Noah she lashed him with revelations. Every time she was pulled out of sleep by the bawling of that newborn, every time she blew her budget on new clothes and food and toys, every time she lost hours at work because the boy required care at home, she felt the urge to just leave her child behind and abandon the life her husband had thrust upon her. Her immigrant status denied her any substantive support from her family, and Noah’s defence costs had robbed her of all her meagre savings. She said she’d often wondered what value there was in living her life. Suicide beckoned, she admitted, it beckoned more than once, until she somehow tapped a new reserve of fortitude. She said she couldn’t say exactly how the changes came about, but gradually she came to feel that she, of all people, might make amends for the things her husband had done to that girl.

I confess I don’t understand her logic, even after long reflection. I concede that’s likely because her logic isn’t explicable so much as it is emotional. It had to do with justice, she said, with striking a moral balance. If Noah had ruined the life of a child, she might make recompense for him by doing her best to struggle on and raise one. But to find the resolve for that to happen, her son, their son, could have no hope of ever being close to his father. She’d whispered all this to her husband in jail with the boy sitting there at her back, and she’d asked if Noah could see the sense in what she was trying to say. If you weren’t locked up in here, she said, I would never have felt so strongly about the need to not fail our son and I would’ve followed that downward spiral to disaster. I’m alive and I’m here beside him only because you went away, because I felt for him a sense of total responsibility that could not have been mine to feel if you had not been absent. What makes this boy so perfect now is the care I have given him to compensate for your crime and your captivity. But take a good, long look at him here, she said as she sat before Noah, because when I take him out of this room I will take him forever out of your life.

Of course he protested that she and the boy could visit whenever they wanted.

She cut him off and told him they couldn’t because she intended to move away.

Those words threw weight on his shoulders and sank him where he sat. Moving? he said. How far? To where?

Abroad, she said. It’s paid for. We’ll be gone in less than a week.

He’d protested again, she told me later, until she stressed that she held exclusive custody over the boy. At that he began to beg, to entreat, blathering to her about his visit from the father of the girl, the grief he’d seen in the other man’s eyes, the deep consideration he’d given to all the things that were said to him, but she told me she spoke up over his pleading and said she hadn’t finished with what she had come to say. He shut himself up with a pained expression and watched her raise her hand and flash her wedding band at him.

By that stage she’d had the divorce papers with her for more than a year, she said, but when she’d first received them she found she’d lost the will to sign. He didn’t understand, she told me, and he’d stared at her, dumbfounded, until she made her intentions explicit. Even if I find love again, or if you find it when you walk free, I will never in this lifetime sign my name on the dotted line. I will never sign, she said, because I will never divorce you. Our marriage will live as long as we do because, she added as she stood and saw realisation sweeping over his face, because I want a splinter stuck beneath your skin.

He shook his head in hopelessness. Just to hurt me? he said. That’s your reason?

Just so, she told me. She wanted to hurt him, that was all, so she’d done what she could to cause him pain. His crime had hollowed out their marriage. She would keep him encased in its husk to prevent him ever recovering from his own betrayal of their bond. She farewelled him with only a nod of the head which opened a flood of grovelling. She guided their son away in silence, exacting and patient in all of her movements, and quietly revelled in her revenge for what he’d inflicted on the future he had promised her and forfeited.

What turns through the years must he have taken to move from that seat behind the glass to the armchair in that house in Dalry? Swerves along a narrow path with no space for deviation. Good behaviour most of the time. Parole and release as foreordained. The dole and a place in the jobseeker’s queue. The drudgery of a pointless job and regular contact with the authorities who’d promised to monitor him to his grave. What I’d seen in the food court was an aching and decrepit wretch, a transient thing so wearied by the world that he seemed to want to fade away and forsake it altogether. But as I lingered outside his home and thought of him as he actually was, and as I imagined that young woman standing and watching him take his seat, the powers that coerced the two of them into this confrontation faltered and froze the scene.

It seemed improbable, impossible, that those two people could ever come together to converse in peace. The sort of silence that would beg forth words from others yielded nothing, as I envisioned it, between the man and woman in that room. There were no courtesies or curiosities or casual updates on personal progress that either of them could coax from their tongues. And as I prolonged the time I imagined them spending together, I recognised, inside myself, a burning irritation, a vexation, born from my awareness that their exchange must remain unresolved. It grew in me as I thought on their lives without hope of ever knowing any fixed or certain thing about them, and as soon as I felt it and knew what it was, I felt that Noah would feel it as well when he looked across at his visitor. It was what he’d received from the father of the girl, from the irresolute words with which that man had taken his leave. Make her a human being, he’d commanded. Can you begin to do that? The question, the unanswered question. It opened a vacuum never to be filled. It called out for an answer that lay beyond it. And when the woman at the heart of it came forward to confront him like this, how could the question fail to prompt further words from Noah?

I know you wonder, he whispered to her despite being fuelled by a failure of knowing. I know you must wonder, he said anyway, if it will ever be possible for you to say, perhaps, that you forgive me. He kept his eyes fixed on a point, a stain, on the armrest of his chair. You must wonder about that, he mumbled, right? You must wonder because I wonder. I wonder about it often. I can’t help it, really. It’s the people, other people, that set me off, set me thinking. People on the streets, for instance, gathered in cafés or pubs, a park, perhaps a food court.

Although he had to have suspected that she followed him home from some public place, these last words did not draw from her the response he surely hoped for.

These people set me off, he said, I guess because they seem so free. They’re not like us, you and me. They’re not like us at all. Here we are, caught up in this thing, this history, that even now orchestrates every second of my life, and yet when I walk out the door and see all those people I can’t walk past a single one who has the slightest awareness of it. Something like this, this thing between us, is everything to me, but it’s nothing, it’s trivial, it’s nothing at all, to everyone else out there.

He sighed and closed his eyes.

The woman, as I saw her, turned aside to look away from the beast. Actually, then, she also turned herself away from me. Who was she, exactly? How could I possibly say? I had, I have, no proximity to her, no access, no way of getting close. Certainly not directly, and not obliquely through other people. Noah’s actions obstruct my view. Her father remains too distant, too far removed from her private turmoil. Iliya told me only the things she had heard secondhand, and the newspapers effectively excised the girl from the story of her own life. I’m left to look at her strictly from the periphery of events, and yet what I want is to see her so clearly that she might look back and see me as well. Shouldn’t she have a chance to see that someone out there looks upon her not as prey, not as a victim, not as a locus for outpourings of grief, but just as a person deserving of sympathy and understanding? Instead she grows blurry, becomes opaque, recedes into her own space, encased in the history of all the things that have been done to her.

She stands almost frozen in Noah’s presence. What she sees is frost in the corners of windows facing the street, and passing headlights lighting up the sprinkle of rain on the glass. At last, after some minutes slip by, Noah’s voice returns to him and sends a shock through the silent room. I guess his story remains the only one that can really be told.

Maybe five minutes, he murmurs with no further movement.

As the woman turns back to him, I force her and I force myself to focus on his face and watch him quiver while he speaks.

Five minutes, he says again with eyes shut tight and a voice that flinches in frustration. He nods gently until he is satisfied that she knows what he means to relive.

He’d fled his house in a stupor and left the front door open. He’d slipped inside his idling car and felt an inferno engulf him. He’d thrust out a hand to turn off the heater and only then noticed blood on his skin. The car lurched ahead. It lunged to a halt. The grass nearby was brown where melting snow had slushed. Thin mist whitened the Meadows and blurred the public toilets across the way. Harsh light glared across the dull steel walls inside. A tap banged on with force. Icy water turned his fingers a bruising shade and shrinkwrapped skin around veins and knuckles. He massaged first one hand and then the other and finding no soap he scrubbed so hard he broke the flesh. Blood flowed then and mixed with the blood he’d gone there to wash away. It waltzed together with the water and swivelled down the drain.

When he returned to the outside world he still mimed the washing of hands. One hand moving over the other, squeezing and tensing to pressure the wound he’d opened at the base of his ring finger. He moved through the slush to his car. He reached forward to open the door. He stopped himself at the sight of his reflection in the rearview. He peered at himself, as closely as he could, but the glass was so fogged that he couldn’t see his eyes. His exhalations steamed across the surface. Until he saw that, he hadn’t realised he’d been breathing so hard. That’s one of the things he said when the time came for him to take the stand.

Now, he went on, all he held on to were vague recollections of clambering up to the podium and spreading out a jumble of papers and notes on the lectern. Students later approached by police said he’d launched into his lesson midway through a sentence and shut up when he’d seen detectives at the door. He said he could feel his shirt stick to his skin where sweat had soaked the fabric. When asked to step aside, he said, he’d heard his own protests booming around him. The microphone pinned to his collar gave them volume for his audience. Finally he’d relented and did as commanded and swallowed the impulse to speak out and defend himself. He’d hunkered into his jacket and cast his eyes to the ground. The murmur that flowed through the crowd crescendoed when firm hands gripped his shoulders to lead him out of the lecture hall and he’d crumbled under the weight of his shame.

Maybe just five minutes, he mumbled to her again while I stood outside and watched. That’s all it took for things to change. Five minutes and maybe not even that. How easy it is to reduce an entire life to ruins. How suddenly the whole thing can be blasted into rubble. With one hand raised he shielded his eyes to hide from her his welling tears. It was nothing, he said to her softly, nothing, it was nothing. A quick fix, an instant release, that’s all. It was impulse, that’s all, that’s really all. That’s all it was, and look, just look, at what it did to us.

She looked down at him sitting beneath her, trying his best not to tremble, but the trembling only quickened until he could not stop himself from breaking.

His composure cracked with his voice. As he slouched in his chair his hair fell forward over his eyes and then his mouth contorted and ran ridges down his face. When he wept his bottom lip quivered and splotches of red spread over his cheeks. Strings of saliva dangled from his chin until he brushed them away and they clung to the back of his hand. He let out a jabbering cry that was something close to a howl. Perhaps, of course, this is too perverse, this zeroing in on the details of a pain that is only speculative anyway, just to prolong it and deepen it for my own satisfaction. But I can’t deny that it captured me as I stood beneath that shelter, as rain cast static over the city and I listened to his stammering. Please, I imagined he said, I’m sorry. Please, he said, if I say I’m sorry will you say you accept my apology? Will you just say something now? I don’t care what it is. Talk to me please. Just speak. Even if you’ve got nothing to say, it doesn’t matter anymore. Even if your words are empty, please just say them anyway and I can believe they’re not empty at all. And so he went on speaking like this, not to convey any meaning but only to make a noise, and begging that woman to make a noise as meaningless as his.

She didn’t because she couldn’t because I would not allow it. She stood and watched him wordlessly, her face adamant and gaunted by shadows, while Noah sputtered on towards total incoherence. Please, he muttered, please just, please, and choked out whatever words I gave him and fought off the silence that might have allowed her to do what he implored. That was when I realised just how much I despised him, and I realised, too, that my hatred arose from exactly what he did to me then. I hadn’t seen him for more than a decade and yet I still felt a duty to use my thoughts to torture him, an image of him. Not only for what he did to that girl, not even mostly for what he had done, but simply for having done something so beyond my comprehension that I couldn’t help but fixate on it and strive to understand it, even to internalise it, in a way that made me resent him and made me spite him even more.

My narcissism is clear, I know, because of course his victim’s distress belittles whatever discomfort I feel. But my own sufferings, no matter how facile, are what I have to live and contend with, and they are the only ones of which I’m truly able to speak. I hated him for having stolen so much of my time, for having exhausted my emotional resources, for having caused me to waste my energies on him and for not being able to banish him from his lodging in my mind. I hated him for the fact that I possessed no greater means of wounding him than some illusory version of the girl he ruined, simplified beyond all plausibility. Worst of all is that I still saw her so firmly in the terms he cast her in, I couldn’t even envision for her an exit from that room. She flickered out of my sight like a picture on a television unplugged without warning. Her disappearance from his house forced me to exit the scene as well and cast me into the cold again. I hated him even more for that, for denying me any chance of offering her a resolution, and so I went on helplessly tending to my hatred.

I lifted my eyes from the gutters to watch the rain streak through the night air. I backed up against the bus shelter wall to avoid the spatter at my feet. I felt in the hurried beat of my heart an urgent need to leave at once and spring through the rain and leap towards Noah’s door and thump on it or kick it in. I wanted to confront him for his deeds and for all he’d done to the people around him. I wanted to berate him, to brutalise him, for everything, for all of it, for concealing his secret self from me when I shared a house with him, for having emerged as a different person to the one I thought I knew. I wanted to beat him, to break him, and to do it all for my own pleasure as well as on behalf of those who I knew would dream of it but would be too timid to take it upon themselves. But of course I too suppressed my wants, forced myself to suppress my rancour, and closing my eyes I listened awhile to the rhythmic gushes of distant wheels slicing through water on asphalt.

The dark, the rain, the senses sparked by standing there alone. So much inertia, even now, and so much embroidery on my stasis. I watched Noah enter his house and then I stood outside in the shadows. That’s what happened and that’s all that happened. That’s how the story ends. When it comes to what truly matters, the rest of what’s written here is only decorative stuff. At the time, I told myself I stood so still because I thought it wise to behave as a respectable, responsible citizen. Leave justice to the system in place. Enough lives had already been thrown into turmoil. There was no way for me to untrouble them and nothing to gain in troubling them further. I thought of myself as a man of restraint, and with that thought I stepped out of the shelter and set off into the night. But I’d hardly reached the end of the street before I saw that my restraint was really only a retreat into my habitual state of doing nothing at all.

I stopped at the corner of Noah’s street. I didn’t care that the rain fell on me in a torrent. I felt a groundswell of disgust, disgust from deep in my bones, for having so long lived like such a coward, for having swallowed my words instead of spitting them in his face. It wasn’t true that I’d had no words with which to address Noah’s crime. They came to me more than a decade ago, as soon as I received the news from Lindsay. I’d had them all the while, I knew, and now perhaps they were all I had. But they were raving, disordered, inchoate, thrashing senselessly in my head, and rather than trying to master them and shepherd them into the world, the truth was that I kept them caged because that was a simpler way of keeping my anger at bay.

Now here they are, and my anger as well, a slew of words gushing out from the blackest, most craven part of myself. Gushing into a safe haven of stillness and silence, flooding across the desert of the empty page. I turned the corner and, looking back, I watched Noah’s house disappear from sight. The rain lashed my face and soaked through my clothes as I pressed on for the city. Lives I might have changed forever continued to unfold as if I didn’t even exist. I took my punishment in the cold, with rising gorge and the scalding of bile on my tongue, and as I set off I searched for words to cleanse me of all the things I couldn’t contain anymore.

— Daniel Davis Wood

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Daniel Davis Wood is a writer and editor based in the United Kingdom. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and was followed last year by the monograph Frontier Justice. He regularly publishes literary criticism online at Infinite Patience and is currently working on a new novel entitled Winter Fugue.

Jul 062017
 

 

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Umberto Saba is an Italian novelist who wrote this classic novel of gay adolescence in the 1950s when he himself was in his seventies. It’s just been published by New York Review Books in a translation by Estelle Gilson, and we are excited to be able to offer this tantalizing excerpt. In this scene the boy Ernesto takes the first step toward the sexual relationship with an older fellow worker.

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The man put his hand on the boy’s, which lay palm down on the sack. He looked nervous. “It’s really too bad,” he said, surprised and pleased that the boy hadn’t withdrawn his own.

“What’s too bad?”

“What I said before. That we can’t be friends, and go walking together.”

“Because of the difference in our ages?”

“Not that.”

“Because you’re not dressed well enough? I already told you, things like that don’t make a bit of difference to me. So. . . .”

The man was silent for a long time. He seemed to be uncertain of himself, as though he wanted to say something and yet not say it. Ernesto felt the hand resting on his own trembling. Then the man stared directly into the boy’s eyes, and as though taking a desperate risk, suddenly blurted in a strange voice, “Do you know what it means for a boy like you to be friends with a man like me? Because if you don’t know yet, I’m not going to be the one to tell you.” He was silent again for a moment. Then realizing that the boy was blushing and had lowered his head, but had not withdrawn his hand, he added almost belligerently, “Do you know?”

Ernesto withdrew his now damp and sweaty hand from the grasp, which had become tighter, and placed it timidly on the man’s leg. He moved it slowly up his leg until, as though by accident, it brushed lightly against his genitals. Then he raised his head, and smiling brilliantly, stared boldly into the man’s face.

The man was consternated. His saliva dried in his mouth, his heart beat so quickly that he felt sick. All he could manage to say was “You understood?” which seemed more addressed to himself than to the boy.

There was a long silence that Ernesto was the first to break. “I understood,” he said, “but where?”

“What do you mean, where?” the man answered as though in a fog. Ernesto appeared more at ease than he.

“To do that stuff that you shouldn’t be doing, don’t we have to be alone?” he asked.

“Yeah,” the man replied.

“So where do you want us to be alone?” whispered Ernesto, though his daring had begun to fade.

“Tonight, out in the country. I know a place.”

“I can’t,” said the boy.

“Why, you go to bed early?”

“I wish! I’m practically asleep on my feet by the time I get home, but I’ve got to go to night school.”

“You can’t skip once?”

“I can’t, my mother walks me there.”

“She’s afraid you won’t go?”

“Not that. She knows I don’t lie to her. It’s an excuse for her to get out and get some exercise. She wants me to take stenography and German. She’s always saying you can’t go far in the world if you don’t know German. Anyway, I’d be a little scared to be out in the country.”

“Scared of me?”

“No, not you.”

“Then what? My clothes? If you’d be ashamed I could wear my Sunday stuff.”

“Someone could come by and see us.”

“No way in the place I know.”

“Well, I’d be scared anyway. Why not here in the warehouse?”

“There’s always people around. It won’t work,” he said (though he knew that Ernesto had keys to the warehouse). “If the two of us came out of here together after closing, it would look real suspicious. Worse, the boss lives right across the street. And you know that wife of his is worse than him. She’s always looking out the window.”

“Can’t we fake an excuse? Make believe we forgot something? When I’ve got a lot of work to do, I come back in at two, right after lunch. I don’t wait for the boss to come in at three. That’s why he gave me the key. Sometimes I’m alone for more than an hour. And you can always say— Hey, here comes the cart!”

First the heads, then the bodies of two sturdy draft horses appeared in the open doorway. The cart followed, then the carter standing up with the reins and whip in his hands. But even before the horses obeyed his order to stop, a large, heavy man who was to help with the unloading leaped down from the sacks upon which he had been seated cross-legged like a Turk and called out drunkenly to Ernesto’s friend.

“We’ll talk later,” the man said hurriedly and gruffly. Replacing the kerchief he had removed from his head while talking to Ernesto, he headed toward the exhausting task awaiting him. His legs trembled slightly as he walked.

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After the two men had unloaded the sacks (not without the fat man’s curses and insults), and after Ernesto had completed the work of listing and marking every one of them, Cesco (the fat one), who with all his beggary and bitching must have drunk more than usual that day, started a furious argument with the boss. Ernesto’s friend, however, wasn’t in the mood to argue with anyone. There was only one thing he wanted to do: get to a fry house, gulp down everything they put on his plate, then go home, get into bed, and think. What had happened, or, rather, what was going to happen with Ernesto, was something he’d been dreaming of for months (from the first moment he’d seen him) and he was (if one can ever make such a claim) happy. But his happiness was not untinged by fear—that the boy might have regrets beforehand, feel insulted afterward, or be dumb enough to go around talking about it. But he always accepted whatever payment the boss offered without batting an eye when Ernesto had come looking for him in the piazza. In fact, to his mind, that little bit of money had become much more, because it was Ernesto who was relaying (not setting) the amount. But the fat man didn’t have any such reason not to gripe about money. Moreover he was drunk. The boss, a Hungarian Jew—much enamored of Germany, where he said he had studied and lived for a number of years—was defending himself in dreadful Italian, which gave away his foreign birth. It was an Italian that didn’t merely offend Ernesto, who in addition to being a Socialist was staunchly pro-Italian; it downright pained him. As a child he had read biographies of Garibaldi and of Victor Emmanuel II, the only books in his home, forgotten there by his uncle. What irritated Ernesto most was the word “Germany,” which the boss mispronounced as “Chermany” and which he used frequently (in fact, as often as possible) in order to praise the (unique) virtues of its people. However, Cesco’s violent threats, which the man, as co-worker, was obligated to support, finally prevailed over the boss’s miserliness, which I can’t say had violated any law (there were no laws in those days to protect workers, much less day laborers), although it did violate the accepted practices of the piazza. Grudgingly, he agreed to an increase. That day and from then on, instead of being paid three florins, the two men would be paid four florins to be divided equally between them. It was the amount Ernesto’s friend had wanted, and he immediately turned to leave when the boss called him back to tell him that he needed him to work the next day. He hired him for the entire afternoon. In fact, because it wasn’t possible to deliver the sacks to their destination before three o’clock and many were leaking and required repair, he told him to come in an hour before opening time. He would pay him, he added (though through clenched teeth), for the extra time. Then the very distrustful Signor Wilder, who never assigned a laborer to work in the warehouse without Ernesto’s supervision, turned to the boy to tell him that he too would have to be at work earlier the following day. It was fate speaking (in Signor Wilder’s voice) in a way that was as unexpected as it was peremptory. The man and boy turned away immediately, not daring to look at each other. But something flashed in the man’s eyes and one could see him swallow softly. He left quickly, barely saying goodbye. The boy turned back to his correspondence. But his thoughts too were elsewhere.

— Umberto Saba, translated from the Italian by Estelle Gilson

“Copyright © 1975, 1978, 1995, 2015 by Giulio Einauldi editore s.p.a., Turin; Translation copyright @ 2017 by Estelle Gilson”

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Umberto Saba (1883–1957) was born Umberto Poli in the city of Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and continued to live in Trieste for the greater part of his life. The child of a broken family—his father, who had converted to Judaism to marry, soon abandoned his wife—Saba attended the Imperial Academy of Commerce and Navigation in Trieste, and then moved for some years to Pisa, where he studied classical languages and archaeology. In 1909 he married Carolina Wölfler, also Jewish, and the subsequent year she gave birth to a daughter; a first book of poems, published under the name of Umberto Saba, also appeared that year. Saba’s marriage was at first troubled—his wife’s affair with a painter led to a brief separation—and the couple was poor, and for a few years they moved around Italy in the hopes of improving their fortunes. After the end of World War I, however, Saba bought a secondhand bookshop in Trieste—he called it La Libreria Antica e Moderna—and in the next decades he made a comfortable living as a bookdealer while working on Il Canzoniere, the book of poems he published in 1921 and would go on adding to for the rest of his life. During World War II, Saba and his family were forced to flee Trieste and go into hiding in Florence to avoid deportation by the Nazis. Though the postwar years brought him many prizes and widespread recognition as one of modern Italy’s greatest poets, Saba suffered from depression, which had plagued him all his life, and opium addiction and was repeatedly institutionalized. He died at seventy-four, within a year of his wife.

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Estelle Gilson is a writer, translator, and poet. Among her translations are works by Stendhal, Gabriel Preil, Natalia Ginzburg, Massimo Bontempelli, and Giacomo Debenedetti. Her translation of Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba was awarded the MLA’s first Scaglione Prize for the best literary translation of the previous two years.

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Jul 052017
 

 

The 5th Race

I forgot to tell you this, but it’s incredibly important. Her grandfather was Joseph Malta, one of the two hangmen for the Nuremberg executions. She would take me to his house for dinner when we were working doubles, and we’d watch him bumble around the kitchen, serving cucumber sandwiches with Earl Grey, the razor blade cucumbers forgotten on the cutting board. I never asked about his past, but it seemed to dangle in the air, straining with its own weight.

After the hangings, he moved to Tallahassee, where he returned to work as a floor sander and lived in a bungalow with no hot water. He didn’t care about my parents or my career prospects or my intentions with his granddaughter, who—even from across the table—I could hear grinding her teeth. He only cared about the dogs. Again and again, I would tell him that I didn’t know, had never actually seen a race since that was the easiest time to muck the kennels. But his granddaughter, I said, was allowed into the track’s inner circle and watched the hounds wheel the corner for their final sprint home.

He ignored her and leaned towards me. “This world,” he whispered, “is not fit for man nor beast.”

At seventeen, I could hardly be called a man—could hardly be called much of anything. But since his granddaughter was in her early twenties, perhaps he assumed I was too. Or perhaps he had seen such horrors by the time he turned seventeen that there wasn’t much growing up for him left. Or perhaps I wasn’t the man in that saying at all.

After wishing him goodbye, we biked to the Presbyterian parking lot and blew tendrils of pale smoke into each other’s hair. Across the lot, three girls sang the ghostly singsong of double-dutch.

“I want to see fireworks,” she said, pausing for a coughing fit. “I need to see something explode.”

I held my breath. “We could put a pear in the microwave,” I replied on the exhale. Behind her, the girls accelerated their tempo until the rope snapped with speed.

 

By the time we returned to the track, the veterinarian was waiting. “You know,” he told her, tapping his watch, “vet techs are a dime a dozen. Six months and they churn you out like butter.”

“A bit of a mixed metaphor,” I said, to which he told me to go fulfill myself sexually.

I watched her follow him to the kennels. She had all the trappings of beauty but was actually quite ugly. Yes, she was thin, had distinguished features, with skin so soft and pale you’d paint your bathroom that shade. But she was also anemic, had a brutal bone structure, and skin so white it was as if light no longer touched her.

I checked in with my own boss, who was dipping each of his rings into a paper cup filled with vinegar. At this time, he’d either just gotten parole or was just about to break it—I forget which. But I don’t forget the small seam of kindness running through him, a seam that the world was bent on exploiting.

“Did you talk about the trials?” he asked, rubbing each ring with a rag until the gold burned. He asked me this after every dinner, and after every dinner I’d respond with the negative.

He torqued each ring onto its finger—including his thumb—and then pointed at his computer. On his screen were grey-scale photos of dead men on wooden planks, rose petals of blood strewn over their faces.

“It says here the trapdoors were too small. Each man dropped and fell face-first into the wooden sides.” He brought one of his scarred and shined hands to his face and lightly slapped his cheekbone.

“Do you have a pear I could borrow?”

 

I was scouring the bathrooms, buffing the hand dryers so slick there wasn’t any need for me to polish the mirrors, when my walkie-talkie beckoned me to the operating room. The OR doubled as where the vet inspected each dog before a race, checking heart rate, joint movement, and for any signs of doping. The check was state law but never taken seriously. More often than not, he’d get his tech to fit each dog for a wire muzzle and forge his signature on the government form.

The operating room was empty, save her. She was washing her hands in the sink. “I didn’t find a pear,” I said, “but I got—”

She turned and revealed her smock to be covered by vomit. She smiled.

Earlier that summer, she’d adopted some eastern religion, one with uncountable gods with uncountable arms. “The scriptures say,” she’d informed me, “that the moment this world achieves perfection, we will no longer need heaven. And heaven will cease to exist.”

“And what?” I’d asked. “The End of Times?”

She’d seemed bemused as she shook her head. “Much worse.” But then her smile backtracked into a frown. “Much, much worse.”

In the operating room, she shimmied out of her smock, dripping vomit onto the tile.

“What’d you give him?” I asked.

“Three tablespoons of laxative.” She dragged a finger through the brown-green puddle on the stainless-steel table. “This isn’t even the start of it.”

A white greyhound named God Speed started racing a couple years prior, and since he was only sixty pounds he was expected to caboose every race. But instead, he won them all. Nine races a year, one every other week in summer, for two full seasons. This was his last year, and he’d won four races already. There were only five left.

I opened a fresh package of rags. “Don’t you think you’ve gone a bit far?”

She shook her head. “The perfect season, the perfect career. The perfect dog. It cannot happen.”

God Speed was racing in the evening’s nine o’clock slot. A track is 565 yards long, and a quick hound can lap that inside thirty seconds.

As we scrubbed the operating room spotless, the overhead speakers popped on. The announcer (a man who was currently headlining in Tallahassee Theater’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar!) began his colour commentary. I couldn’t understand any of it, just the rising crescendo of his voice until he was screaming into the microphone and the crowd turned feverish with love.

“God Speed!” he yelled. “God Speed!”

The operating room smelled like bleach, like the very end of time. She buried her face into her latex gloves, and I peeled my boss’s hard boiled egg. “All I want,” she whispered, “is to save the world.”

 

That night, our heartbeats turned into ticker tape as we biked to the wolf sanctuary in Tallahassee’s northern hills. As usual, we never saw any wolves, but in the stretch of her flashlight, we caught their eyes, orbiting like planets before blinking to black. We slept spooned up on the human side of the fence and awoke beside a coiled imprint in the dewed grass.

***

The 6th Race

The week of the sixth race was the week I urged her to phone in sick, but she said destiny was depending on her.

As I hosed down the kennels, I heard the click of nails on concrete. I turned around but didn’t see anything. I had unplugged the overhead speakers to give us some quiet, and the only noise was the distant crowd and water trickling into the drain. I dipped my face into the hose’s metally flow.

I heard the nails once more and spun around—again, then again, then again. On a dry patch of concrete, the flowers of paw prints.

“Do you see these too?” I asked, but the kennels responded by saying nothing. Through the slit of the above window, a wind picked up. I closed my eyes and let the breeze whisk the water off my face.

“Why are you crying?”

The vet was standing in front of me.

“It’s the hose,” I said, kinking its flow.

“Do you know where she is?”

I shook my head.

“Well, when was the last time you saw her?” His voice was so slow that I felt the seconds thicken.

“I don’t remember.”

“Well, tell her,” he said, “that God Speed had peanut butter smeared all over his gums—” he pulled back his lip with one hand and pointed to his gum line with the other “—and he could not stop licking.”

I ran my tongue over my own teeth and found them all solid.

“It is a miracle,” he continued, “that he still won. Tell her—”

“Do you see these?” I asked, pointing at the paw prints.

He looked down. “See what?” I pointed harder. “See what? Your footprints?”

My eyes widened with otherworldly wonder. “May the saints save us,” I said, but he just checked his watch, spat on the concrete, and left.

She was curled in the back kennel. “Wake up,” I told her. “The dogs are coming.” Her tongue had slugged out her mouth. I rolled her head upright, her face checkered from the chainlink. “They’re almost here. Wake up.” How many times does our world end? “Wake up, wake up.”

And she did.

***

The 7th Race

The sore on her jaw had opened again, and the weeping red now caught the chandelier light like a ruby. Her foot was jittery on my chair as her fingers thrummed her thighs, her whole body squirming out from under itself.

But Joseph Malta didn’t notice. He was dangling a tea bag above his Earl Grey. He fidgeted with the paper tag, and the bag slowly rotated on its string, rusty water dripping from its face.

“He made the drop too short,” my boss told me. “The fall’s supposed to snap your neck, but they didn’t fall far enough. So they dangled. Strangling.” He tapped his screen with his pinky ring. “One guy, Jerlitz Fruster, took thirty minutes—thirty minutes!—before he finally passed out so they could just shoot him.”

I sat on the chair beside him and saw he was watching a grainy video of the trial’s final moments. I rested my head on his shoulder and breathed in his lilac cologne. And as the British judge read the verdicts—the pronouncement of the coming plunges—I confided to him that history was too cruel for my liking.

“We need to be reminded,” he said, restarting the video, “reminded of the sixty million dollars lost.”

I sat upright. “That’s it? Seems low.”

He clicked around on his computer. “Maybe it was lives. Sixty million lives.”

My head back on his shoulder: “That seems better.”

 

Constellations of cigarette butts were scattered around the parking lot ashtray, and I swept them towards the storm drain. She crept behind me and put her hands over my eyes.

“What the fuck’s on your fingers?” I said. I couldn’t pry open my eyelids, and when I did, the parking lot’s lights had been smudged with celluloid.

“Vaseline,” she said. “I’m testing it.”

As I rubbed the thick light out of my eyes, she left for the operating room. When sight returned to me, I looked down to my pile of cigarettes and saw she’d nicked the best ones.

After God Speed raced blind to his seventh win of the season, she decided to not get sad but get happy.

Behind the kennels, not a human soul around, the floodlight tapping with insects. On the other side of the corrugated steel, the dogs smelled us and started to whine.

We stared into one another’s eyes and, giggling uncontrollably, took turns slapping each other in the face. Gradually, our limbs dropped to black like banks of lights in a warehouse. When we could no longer lift our arms, we started swinging from the loose socket.

The whines turned into barks which turned into yelps. She hit me with a dead-fish fist, and my right eye swelled shut. In response, I corkscrewed my body, torquing it as far as my spine allowed, and let my arm soar through the air and land hard across her mouth. A tetherball of red arced in the lamplight, and the kennels screamed as the dogs threw themselves against the wire.

Her face uprighted. Her eyes wild with happiness. Her teeth and lips clown-faced with blood.

***

The 8th Race

I had been mopping the concession all afternoon before my boss pointed out there wasn’t any water in my bucket. I was shocked by how dry and smooth the yellow plastic was. “It’s like the skin on her heel,” I told him as I stroked the basin. He nodded slowly, his face full of pity.

I collected my “Caution: Wet Floor” signs and wheeled the bucket towards the tap in the bathroom. In the women’s washroom, she jabbed her fingers into my ribs.

“Don’t do that!” I said, spinning around. “You’ll pop my lungs.”

From her breast pocket, she produced two white pills.

“They’re not pills,” she corrected. “They’re Q-tip tops.” She took the cotton swabs and, holding my chin, slid them into my nostrils.

“Is this supposed to be fun?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “it’s supposed to be hard to breathe.” She smiled. “Hard to race.”

“But I can use, like, my mouth.” In the bathroom’s interrogating light, her face crumpled. The speakers crackled on for the nine o’clock showing.

You know, I still don’t understand the thrill of the race, perhaps because I’ve still never watched one. But I know that the dogs keep chasing the lure well beyond the finish, and there’s a perfect pain in that.

The announcer was the voice of Christ. And he told us that we were special and that it was a wonderful time to be alive. Because he told us that God Speed had shattered the track record by a full quarter second.

***

The 9th Race

We pedalled past the city’s cage of light pollution. My mind was full of wolves, but hers was someplace else.

Earlier that evening, my boss told me about the elementary school gymnasium. “I mean, they did it right there. Where kids had played badminton, had eaten lunch, learned to dance. Afterwards, they burned the building to the ground.” He noticed the clock and left to get an early seat for God Speed’s career-closing race. “I’ll empty the garbages for you on my way,” he said, leaving me alone in his office. And as I emptied his wallet, I believed I would never see him again. I also believed the garbages would be the last nice thing he’d ever do for somebody. But when I ran into him decades later in a bar in Saskatoon, I was incorrect on both counts. He introduced me to his wife, a bottle-blonde who had pen-palled him letters, and when I asked them for money he gave me one of his rings. “My finger’s too fat for it anyways,” he said to his wife’s scowling objection.

When I entered the OR, a scalpel was on the table, the blade shining in the middle of a dark puddle, the bright centre of a blossom.

She didn’t make me ask. “I cut his hind paws. Right across the pad.” Her red velvet hands held my cheeks. In the corners of my mouth, I could taste the iron of the dog’s heart. “Why are you crying?”

 

Halfway to the wolf sanctuary, she skidded her bike onto the shoulder by a roadside payphone. The small screen blinked 8:59, and we held hands until the digits switched to 9:00. In thirty seconds, destiny would be decided.

Out beneath us in shimmering Tallahassee, I could almost see the race unfold. The slips swinging open, the lure throttling along the rail, the cameras flashing, and then the sightline of the final turn, lips brandished white, tongues hung through wire muzzles, eyes so desperate with desire it is all they know. And while they do not realize it, the finish line approaches.

9:01.

That was also the day Joseph Malta had spilled boiling water on himself. I’d thrust his hands into the sink and opened both taps to cascade cold water. And as I stroked an ice cube along each of his tender fingers that once held a rope which held the world, I looked over my shoulder.

If I told you that in that moment I loved her, would you believe me? At the kitchen table, eyes shut, letting the evening light cut between the venetians and fall straight through her.

“This world is not fit for man nor beast.”

9:02.

She was shaking with relief. “I’ll call the track,” she said, “to see what he placed. Maybe third, or even last.” But picking up the phone, her face sunk to shadow. “The line’s dead.”

I turned to Tallahassee. The uncountable streetlights above the uncountable lives beneath them glowed like all of heaven’s haloes.

My hand back in hers: “Look.”

We watched the lights of our city, street by street, flicker to black.

—Richard Kelly Kemick

 

Richard Kelly Kemick is an award-winning Canadian writer. His debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run (2016, Goose Lane Editions), was included as one of CBC’s fifteen must-read poetry collections. His poetry, prose, and criticism have been published in literary magazines and journals across Canada and the United States, most recently in The WalrusMaisonneuve, The Fiddlehead, and Tin House. His work has won national awards, including a National Magazine gold medal, and has been accepted into Best Canadian Essays 2016, among other Canadian and British anthologies. Richard lives in Calgary. His website is www.richardkemick.com.

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Jun 162017
 

Cynthia Huntington

 

This is the book of the night. Night goes down on the hill, into the body of the world; my eyes close. The light of consciousness dims and glows, held in the body of the soul. Returned, sunk down in the heart, sunk and rested in the heart, sink down to nest there. Inner chambers are lit.

Turn around. The oval mirror, that black-backed glass, holds a doorway made small. Objects are reversed and reduced—yet the image is real to us. Go through the door behind you by gazing ahead into the glass. Yes. Gazing forward, I travel back. If space is time. Here space I enter is condensed to a miniature narrative: how does the mountain range fit into my eye? Distance is also mystery, how if you move toward the image in the mirror behind you, it recedes…

These are introductory remarks. I do not know what this book of the night will tell me. It is taking shape in liquid, the pen leaving marks on the page.

It is motion leaving a trace. Guide my hand. I know I am writing this on Samhain, on the brink of midnight, the night of the dead. Bless them, the ancestors and forebears. The lost and forgotten. In the eye of night we are one. Bless us. Today the sky was bright, and colors on the hills flared and subsided. And there was green in the fields still, this last October day.

***

In dream I fled the burning hotel; the fire was fast and high, I felt it on me, the heat coming ahead of the flames, and I fled in a boat with several others, all strangers. We floated upstream, I think for days, and I was troubled in mind, wondering that we had no food, that we rowed on and did not stop to sleep, though it seemed many days had passed. I wanted to make a call to tell my family I had escaped, but when we stopped at last, at some way station that must have been a house, with many rooms, and food set out on a table, I had no coins for the phone. We did not eat. All was delay, the murky delay of dream, but there was waiting for me a packet of air letters on pink and blue and yellow tissue. I opened the letters and saw your handwriting but could not recognize any words. That is when I realized I was dead, that I had died in the fire and could no longer call or send a message or read a letter. That I would not anymore know hunger or need to sleep, that I existed in a permanent now, and the boat was not taking me away, I had only invented the boat so as not to see myself perish in the awful fire.

And still, where did the fire begin? What lit that old hotel in the mountains, that quiet home in memory, what made it blaze? And destroy all that came before…

***

God exploded into souls, or, as the Zohar says, a lamp was shattered, and broken shards of light flew outward sharp as razor points, slicing up the dark. Light bled. Perhaps a black hole turned itself inside out and scattered all the energies of the universe abroad.

In any of these renderings creation does not begin with building—it isn’t a construction, not a matter of piling up bricks ,or fitting pieces together. Neither is it vegetal. Something breaks. And that something is all that is, so it has to break or all being would be confined in one light or object, or a mass of atoms self-held like a fist, all the energy locked up and nothing moving.

First something moves. God-force at play, then the beautiful loneliness of being may begin.

***

Detail subsides to pattern. Which opens to the possibility of metaphor, or magick.

Because new understanding changes reality; this is proven. Before the heart was known it did not beat, it was as a tide slowly rising and falling, and gave out rays to feed the blood.

Strange things are becoming clear.

***

“We have the body.” This is how Edgar Cayce would begin his trance readings for the sick, who came to him most often after all other help tried and failed. First the initiatory illness. The person is broken and remade. I may be cooked to soup, pupa dissolved digested and made again in dark. Quick notes on a guitar light the journey, an unseen person playing.

The organism is fragmented, here on the cusp of dark, looking first to day, then night. To emerge, come forward, or be absorbed? A parlous voyage. The illness decided for me, a disease that was, in itself, all daimon, that could not be predicted, called up or banned, never gainsaid. After thirty years I realize at last the gift of that initiation, always liminal, striking and going away. Leaving shards of broken light.

I am told to repeat that the organism is fragmented, here at the twilight hour. Quick notes on a guitar upstairs. I would lie at the feet of the singer and be healed.

Aristotle believed that the unconscious mind dwelt on the moon. I read that and can’t promise it is true.

***

Dust, and the broken bone heals, stronger at the break. The scars’ adhesions ache, bone thickens there while words shine, glancing off. Done. A man sighs, stepping through a doorway as if giving up were the cost of going forward. An ending is a door, a way of disappearing—to go away is to go on—we disappear into something––another room, a gap in stone leading to a world reversed, a space of dream light. An empty place, a wasteland of sorts: we sift through evidence, objects, shoes scuff on tile, rhyme our passing. The world has passed away, what remains is incidental, a handful of dust tells the story of the past. The break disappears into the healing. In my dream a priest, a kind of sacred butcher, is slicing between each joint, so clean my body falls apart in discrete units. There goes an arm; it is piled neatly with other arms. I must give myself up to this; it is understood. This defeat pictured as a rending. I am all skeleton and flesh clump, still he keeps on carving. I feel no pain but a sharp sense of loss, an unbearable sadness as my body is dissected, rent. Now all is lost. How will I go forward with no body? This must not be how it ends. The dream is a dismembering—breaking down and de-creating world. What follows? We are ghosts, we are fish and birds. We are old children believing our bogeymen. The law that what is taken must return. So moon-dance shadow up from the ground wakes the sleeping daimon and we rise.

***

Then it is morning, and down the road from my house a great hole has opened in the earth. Yellow machines at rest. It is the hole in the earth that interests me. As if I could see in, but of course you don’t see in, it’s earth all the way down. Remove surface to reveal new surface. What, finally, is not surface?

Some things hide, others are hidden, but some things are by nature invisible. The hole in the earth covers the past as quick as it is revealed.

Things that hide or are hidden. My cat (not Schroedinger’s cat.) A secret. The mountain at night.

Hidden but not invisible. Here is the realm of mystery. The organs of our bodies are not invisible but they are not meant to be seen under normal circumstance. Blood may cause a strong man to faint. Blood is secret, personal, familiar. The primitive fear of a menstruating woman–a woman who bleeds without being wounded, who bleeds from the place where life comes, a terrible power that must be shunned. Put her away lest she curse you. I don’t mean primitive in time but in our deepest selves, that power in the blood.

There is power, power wonder-working power, in the glorious Blood of the Lamb. The Hebrews smeared the blood of the Egyptian’s god Khnum, their ram god, on their lintels to warn off the Angel of Death who was God himself in his purifying wrath, gone out to kill the first-born of the unsaved.

Blood is secret and must be kept in the body for it to live. Blood can poison.

Lady Macbeth convicting herself in her madness, unable to stop seeing the blood.

If you put a needle in your vein the currents are joined, the substance, the distilled essence of the flower, becomes you and you are changed. It’s in your blood as we say. Its molecules are part of you, a new signature.

I was speaking of things that are hidden by their nature, internal processes and entities. Other things are invisible by nature. Air. Mind. The fear of dying.

***

The words appear in the night. I click on the message and it opens, blue light in the dark room. He is speaking to me over thousands of miles, out of darkness, my secret friend with no address, somewhere in the west, where the sun goes when it leaves me. Is it any wonder the words go deep, toward my hidden dream self? The dark deep confidences of the soul. I can tell him anything. I cannot see him; I don’t know where he goes when he is not writing to me and I wait. I wait and words appear. He clicks off and I wait.

He must be a monster who can’t show himself, will not be seen. He must be a spirit or daimon. He must live in thrall to whatever goddess he serves, who will not release him willingly.

The words appear in the night: where is their source? Not content to be visited at will, only to wait and receive, I want to know. Nothing could speak to me in the night out of nothing, with sure aim at the mysteries that hold me, unless it is part of me. I go looking for my hidden self who speaks in promise and doubt. Uncovering shame: he is/ I am a monster, maimed, misborn. The heart begins its howling here; the voice comes from the wound, the blood jet. Uncanny. Beyond ken. What is its secret? The prisoner in every tower, we are all the prisoner in the tower.

A message from a prisoner to a prisoner, tapped on the wall in code. I am hungry for touch. I said I would stop this night-flying to whisper in your sleeping ear. You twitch and turn. I leave a white stone on your pillow, you swallow it and waking remember nothing, but a heaviness lies in your gut. The white stone glows like a moon in the dark, why don’t you keep it? Inside you it is a weight: you swallowed all that light.

You will not be commanded. They have left you no way out and so you stand.

***

“You are not obligated to complete the work
but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Talmud

 

The baby was taken at the hospital, the mother sent to detox then rehab. When God exploded into souls, some of us fell on hard ground. The moon’s mirror gazes back, yesterday in its face. What we remember is changed, aftershade of light. No pity for what cannot change.

How the day was torn, bloodied in the low sky, out of the resting body of the hills, the winter trees reaching and then the light was blue, a veil benign, gentling a face, outlines of a face, deep eyes, the Virgin’s head-bent gaze.

When God exploded into souls the primordial essense was too hot, a burning that was not fire such as the sun endures today (our sun a third generation star, reincarnated from two galaxies that died before). The sun does not shrink; it is not fire. It consumes and radiates, creating particles out of energy.

All night facing the dark of space. We are always facing space however we turn, but when the sun, our sponsoring star, heaves into view, things become local again. It makes the atmosphere of dust and water glow, enfolding us in our own reflections.

The infant, the firstborn, cursed. The mark on the lintel. When a child is born addicted, or “exposed” to heroin (it’s always heroin here these last few years) the baby goes into state care, to a foster family. The “state” is officially as well as practically, the baby’s parent until custody is returned or the child adopted out. The sacred terror of this, an infant sent out to strangers. Born to the state.

The women fought, I don’t know over what, they fought like junkies, it is possible they don’t even remember. Their baby, J’s baby has been in foster care six months, straight from the hospital. J’s visitation had been cut back and tensions were high. J ended up in the emergency room and immediately started walking back her story. WE didn’t fight; K didn’t do it. I fell, I tripped, I hit my head.

K already had a warrant, and now a No Contact order, and after J bailed her out she took the pills and ended up in the state hospital. Meanwhile the baby begins life elsewhere, placed with strangers. That the beginning of life offered so little safety these means must be found. The loneliness of the infant then, forever. Yet it must be done. Things have gone this far. What are we doing, how can things have gone so far, and so often, so regularly, that there are routines and offices set up to respond, there are forms already printed to be filled out, and protocols, and court hearings. Imagine that we have to keep carrying infants out of hospitals into new, temporary homes.

Bodies too are carried away. We are so used to knowing this we do not realize how little we grasp it, the dire, heartbroken, violent, repeating of disaster and protocol.The infant knows. He does not understand, but in every fiber he knows. There is a vacancy and a severing of safety. Already a sole voyager.

***

When the dream says weep, I weep. Because we are spun from star matter, debris, and in everything a hidden, immeasurable fire. The alchemists were right: fire is an event, verb not noun, by which matter changes itself. It is an action. It is impermanence, the mortality of matter, that transforms. What we have made with our hands – and our machines are extensions of our hands – is the same stuff of rock and tree. Objects are made of what made us… the table, the lamp, the metal rooster by the fireplace, painted red and yellow… all star stuff. Not of us, not us of them, but all of same… This is philosophizing, making meaning before events have fully appeared, but what will appear? The objects’ motion too slow for the eye to discern, the night blanketed and deep, my restless mind turning change in its gears.

The dog regards the old cat with sorrowful distrust. His woeful countenance. The cat a small blot on his contentment here.

“What about my peace of mind?” S said plaintively to his wife, arguing a minor point, a tedium.

“Dad, no one cares about your goddamn peace of mind!” his daughter, from another room, exasperated and annoyed with hearing him.

It’s true: who cares about your goddamn peace of mind? How deeply I love my shifting consciousness, follow it, trace details, subtlety of mood. The hell with yours.

We are, often, hilarious. Needing that audience from the next room to burst out and correct our self-importance.

Catch the shimmer. Maybe shimmer back at it.

—Cynthia Huntington

 

Cynthia Huntington’s fifth book of poetry, Terra Nova, was published in January 2017 by the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, Southern Illinois University Press. Huntington’s book Heavenly Bodies was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in Poetry. Currently a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry, she teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program and at Dartmouth College, where she holds the Frederick Sessions Beebe Chair in Writing.

 

Jun 162017
 

Photo by César Cid

Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part is a wild ride of a novel that takes on many different forms. The following excerpt comes from early in the book, and concerns two young documentary filmmakers who are working to put together a project on the novel’s nameless protagonist, a writer who recently threw himself into the Hadron Collider and merged with the God Particle.

As they piece together footage at the writer’s home, they also gather quotes and passages said by the writer in various interviews throughout his career. These are frequently hilarious and insightful, and they stretch over many pages. Presented here are just a few of the quotes collected by the filmmakers, which give the reader a sense of author Fresán’s playful approach to storytelling. Note: all bracketed ellipses are part of the novel’s text.

The Invented Part is translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden.

— Benjamin Woodard

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*A recommendation of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Glen Gould (his second version, almost a farewell) as “an ideal soundtrack for sitting down and remaining seated and writing. [. . .] Perfect music for trying to attain that thing Fitzgerald said, that thing about how ‘all good writing is like swimming under water and holding your breath.’” And “Big Sky” by The Kinks as “the best way to kick-start every workday. [. . .] A kind of supplication. An Our Father who is, indeed, in heaven because he is the heavens. And also a way to remember that, while a good part of the writers of my generation wanted to be U2, it’s not bad at all, better in fact, to want to be The Kinks. True, the tours would be more uncomfortable and less spectacular. And the loneliness of the backstage hallway before the instant glory of those hundred meters. But better to be like Harry Nilsson than like Bono. Do any of you have even the slightest idea who Harry Nilsson was or is? Or Warren Zevon? And, just to be clear, I’m not talking about their dissonant and clever self-destructive epics but about their constructive intimacy in the moment of composing subtle and perfect songs. The exquisite way they assemble and disassemble verses and choruses and bridges so their poetry can cross over to the other side where you’re waiting for it. So, that’s how I think about the writing of stories and novels. A particular balance of feelings and sound and phrasings and word games. And the Greek Choir holding hands and singing ‘He goes around saying he’d rather be a rocker than writer, doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do, do doo do doo, doo do, doo do . . .’ In the end . . . Where was I? Ah, yes, I’ll find an easy example: better to be like Ray Davies than like Bono, I think. And I’m repeating myself. I insist. The Kinks. The ones of ‘You Really Got Me,’ Right? But I think more about a song like ‘Big Sky.’ In ‘Big Sky’—like Harry Nilsson in ‘Good Old Desk’ singing to his divine desk; or Warren Zevon in ‘Desperados Under the Eaves,’ feeling down and listening to the sound of the air conditioner, which suddenly inspires a final and majestic crescendo—Ray Davies invokes, without getting too anxious, a sort of unknown deity who doesn’t care much about us. Bono, on the other hand, time and again desperately kneels down in intense prayer to someone he knows well—to himself [. . .]. Staying on topic—and band—I can’t think of a better song than ‘Days,’ also by The Kinks, as background music for lowering the blinds at the end of a workday. But it might be better to listen to Elvis Costello’s crepuscular version and not The Kinks’ original . . . Ray Davies. Thank you . . . All of a sudden I remember that once, a long time ago, Ray Davies rescued me from a University lost among the Iowa cornfields and made it possible for me to go to New York, to hear him sing ‘Days.’ I was there, as a sort of guest writer in an academic B-movie. And I couldn’t leave that place. I was held captive by the bureaucratic spell of a special visa that didn’t allow you to travel around the United States unless someone took responsibility for you. So I found out that Ray Davies was going to play in Manhattan. And I’d never heard or seen him live and in person. And I needed to see him and to hear him. So I tracked down the number of the hotel where he was staying, I was able to get them to put me through to his room and he answered and I explained the situation. He had to talk to the Dean so they would let me leave, so I could go to his concert. Of course at first Ray Davies thought it was a prank being played by some malicious friend, and then, to verify that I was an authentic fan, he made me sing several of his songs over the telephone. Not the easiest ones. No hits. Songs like ‘Polly’ or ‘Too Much on My Mind’ (one of my all-time favorites) or ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’ or ‘Art Lover’ or ‘Scattered.’ And I knew all of them. But pretty soon he got tired and hung up. A few days later, thanks to a message he sent to the Dean, I left heading east. Ray Davies invited me to have tea with him; he gave me a ticket, and said, ‘This is as far as we go and we’re never going to see each other again, right?’ A true gentleman, yes. An artist who merely raised an eyebrow above the Darjeeling-perfumed steam that rose from his cup and smiled somewhere between amused and sad when I mentioned, indignant, the gall with which, at that time, Blur and Oasis and Pulp stole and falsified his style and songs, reveling in money and fame and barely acknowledging his genius and tutelage and mastery. There are no writers, no writers of books like that. And if there are, I’m not aware of them. There are no fans of writers like that either. Fans of musicians are happy to know their songs and to howl them at concerts or inside rooms with doors shut tight. Fans of writers, on the other hand, are more dangerous: fans of writers want to write, to write something of their own and, with their own writing, to rewrite the other and what the other has written.”

* Something that John Banville said to him once, as they walked around the outside of Martello Tower in Sandycove, about how “style goes on ahead giving triumphal leaps while the plot follows along behind dragging its feet.” Later he wondered whether it might not be possible for the style to go back a few steps and lovingly lift the plot up in its arms, as if it were a brilliant and complicated child, and turn it into something new, different: into a stylized plot, into the most well-plotted of styles. It was Nabokov, and he almost always agreed with Nabokov, who postulated that the best part of a writer’s biography didn’t pass through the record of his adventures, but through the history of his style. Style as an adventure and adventure as style, yes.

* Something he once told someone, while they walked around the outside of who knows where: “The gods of one religion frequently become the devils of the religion that follows it. Something similar happens with writers, with the writers of a prior generation when they are evaluated by the writers of the generation that follows them.”

* Answer: “What would I like as an epitaph on my gravestone? Easy: my name, the word ‘Reader,’ and the years 1963-1,000,000,000 and increasing. And it’s not that I want to live that long; but, warning, the code for the impossible second number passes through the word ‘Reader.’ Which is to say: more time, all time, to be able not to continue writing but to continue reading . . . When I was very young and still concerned with things like my photo on the jacket flap of my books, I once posed wearing a black T-shirt where, written in white letters, it read ‘So many books . . . so little time!’ . . . I bought it in a New York bookstore that no longer exists. The T-shirt no longer exists in my closet either. It disappeared along with those other T-shirts: one with the legend ‘Likes Like/Like Likes’ and another with a reproduction of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, where a friend who designed album covers had inserted my face next to that of William S. Burroughs. But the thing from the first T-shirt—I still think that. It’s extremely unfair that, clearly, neither I, nor anyone else, has the time, all-the-time-in-the-world, to read everything you need to read first in order to write later. To write the best that anyone can write . . . Faulkner, without going any further. I have him here, all the Library of America tomes, waiting. I read him a little and poorly in my adolescence, in deficient translations (which, also, might bring me to all the time I lack to reread, which is like a glorified version of reading) and there he remains, waiting for me. To read? Or not to read? Now? In summer or winter? Is it better that the climate and temperature of the external landscape correspond to Faulkner’s South? Or just the opposite? Next year? Is my writer DNA ready to receive such an explosion and, maybe, find itself changed forever? Who knows? Faulkner is there and there Faulkner stays, howling, like one of those dangerous wolves with one foot tied to a chain whose exact length is unknown. So how close can you safely get without him jumping on you and eating your face? Or, unbeknownst to you, chewing through his own foot and lying there, waiting for you? A lone wolf. Never forget how Faulkner responded to Hemingway suggesting that writers unite and make themselves strong, like doctors and lawyers and wolves. Faulkner mistrusted writers who came together and formed groups and generations, saying they were doomed to disappear, like wolves who are only wolves in packs, but are nothing but docile and harmless dogs on their own, dogs that are all bark and no bite.”

— Rodrigo Fresán, Translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden

Published with permission from Open Letter Books

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Rodrigo Fresán is the author of nine novels, including Kensington GardensMantra, and The Bottom of the Sky. His works incorporate many elements from science-fiction (Philip K. Dick in particular) alongside pop culture and literary references.

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Will Vanderhyden received an MA in Literary Translation from the University of Rochester. He has translated fiction from Carlos Labbé, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Juan Marsé, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Rodrigo Fresán, and Elvio Gandolfo.

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Jun 142017
 

Photo credit: Javier Oliaga

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“Caps” (originally “Chavales con gorra” or “Boys with Caps”) by Fernando Aramburu, evokes the unease and uncertainty still present, sometimes prevalent, in Spanish society more than 40 years after the transition to democracy. Despite massive tourism, new infrastructure, the allure of Madrid and Seville, the prosperity of Barcelona, and the fame of Basque gastronomy, there is an undercurrent of malaise, not only from deep economic depression in rural Spain, especially Andalucia, but from the fact that political tensions both intraregional, and more obviously between left and right, are never far from the surface. Spain is restive in part because of the tacit agreement in recent decades that in order to move forward the past must be silenced; but other voices, other people, some who survived the Civil War (now mostly their descendants) and the hard subsequent years, demand that those times not be buried, and call for a literal exhumation of what’s been covered over—bodies, records, archives, and the need to confront the grim truths of political tragedy. “Caps” dramatizes the shadowy tension of a supremely capable nation at odds with its national identity, and the quiet menace one can sometimes feel in the poor back streets and quiet plazas of Spanish, Basque, and Catalan cities, the old stones pocked and pitted from bullets and bombs.

— Brendan Riley

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The morning light comes flooding into the room where he’s just thrown back the curtain. Motionless in the bed, the woman doesn’t notice a thing because, according to her habit, she’s sleeping with a mask over her eyes. They arrived last night, late. The town (eighteen thousand inhabitants, according to the pamphlet on the night table) is not such a popular tourist destination as the other cities scattered along the same coastline. That’s exactly why they picked it out on the map when they decided to get out of Malaga as fast as possible.

“If we can’t hide out here, Josemari,” the woman said as they rode up in the elevator, “then tell me some better place, unless you want to leave the country.”

The view from the hotel window embraces a landscape of white facades, rooftop terraces, television antennas, and the occasional silhouette of a palm tree. Save for a thin sliver of the sea glimmering in the distance, the houses block any view of the beach. Directly across the street is a funeral home. Two hearses sit outside, parked alongside a row of oleander bushes.

An hour earlier, he’d gone downstairs by himself to have breakfast. As he was giving his room number to the girl in the business suit in charge of writing down the guests who arrived to eat, he’d heard young voices and laughter coming from the dining room. With poorly disguised uneasiness he’d suddenly told her that he had to make an urgent telephone call and that he’d be right back, but he didn’t return.

He sits for a long time waiting for his wife’s sleeping pill to wear off. Among other things, the room’s minibar contains two small tablets of chocolate and a bag of salted almonds. These suffice for breakfast, and he washes them down with a few gulps of mineral water, not chilled quite enough by the little refrigerator. Then he drinks an airplane bottle of brandy, taking little sips; he usually doesn’t touch alcohol in the morning.

The bottle empty, he writes in the small Moleskine notebook that his son once brought back as a gift from London: My father, may he rest in peace, would be spinning in his grave if he knew that Im planning to sell the family machine shop. Its the end of an era, but I know full and well that at sixty-three Im far too young to be dead and buried. But I also want someone to know all this just in case those people find me.

The day they left Alicante to try their luck in Malaga, she’d suddenly had a different idea, that they move to London for a while instead.

“Until they forget about us.”

“Those guys? Forget? I really doubt it. Besides, I don’t think our daughter-in-law would be too thrilled to have to put us up again.”

“Put us up, that’s ridiculous, Josemari. We’ve helped them out so much. They’ve had no shortage of financial benefits. And we don’t have to move in with them if they could just help us find a flat to rent.”

“Alright. But let’s first have a look at Malaga while we’re at it. It’s a big city. We might have some luck there.”

The funeral home abuts a small plaza whose surface, from the fifth floor window, seems to be hard-packed sand. In the plaza he sees an old brown-skinned man seated on a bench. Across him stretches the shadow of a palm tree whose crown is thick with bunches of dates. Near the old man, three little girls jump rope. On another bench two young women are talking, each one with her baby stroller.

He jots down in the Moleskine: Peace and quiet, for the moment.

A few minutes later, the woman wakes up. As she claws off her sleeping mask, she becomes aware of her husband sitting by the window. Smiling, she asks him:

“What do you see, another boy in a cap?”

“This place is alright. It’s got plenty of light. The seaside and palm trees. I was thinking about maybe opening some little luxury hotel like you were talking about the other day. That would keep us busy. Just twenty beds, no more. And to hell with everything else. We could put it in your name just in case. And then about half a dozen employees to look after it, only from Andalucia, and we’ll just keep out of sight, all right?”

The woman slips out of her bedclothes before stepping into the bathroom. She has a scar where she once had a breast. The worst part of her treatment is over. During her last consultation Doctor Arbulu assured her that save for some unlikely new complication she was, essentially, cured. Her husband suspects that they must have spotted her on the way home from the clinic; and that made it easy to follow them to Alicante.

Even though it’s Sunday, white smoke drifts up from the funeral home chimney.

He writes: Well have to do what Maite suggests. If theres no way to settle down here then well go abroad.

A boy with gypsy features comes walking along in front of the funeral home. His long hair hangs down to his shoulders, and his hands are sunk deep in his trouser pockets. He walks with long rapid steps, and never turns his gaze towards the hotel. A good sign. Also, he’s wearing leather boots. Only the locals would wear boots like that in such hot weather. The kid waves to the old man on the bench without stopping. The old man replies by gently shaking his cane.

He hears the shower running in the bathroom. He writes: All this would make Dad so very sad. Youve got to hang on, son. Youve got to hold on, like I did during the war and the hard years after that. Its what he always said. But the old man lived through different times. I cant keep the business going from six hundred miles away. If youre not right there keeping an eye on things theyll just ruin you. The trucks, well, Ill sell those, and if I have to get back into shipping then Ill buy some more and reopen the company in Seville. With a new name, of course. Well maybe its because of Dad that Ive still not gone abroad. I have to write this down so someone at least will know.

An hour later they go downstairs, out into the street. She wears a special bra, with a foam rubber insert that allows her to disguise the fact she’s missing a breast. They both hide their eyes behind new sunglasses.

“Whenever we see a church,” she says, “let’s stop to see if there’s a schedule of masses.”

No sooner do they step out onto the street than he thrusts his chin towards the funeral home.

“They burn them on Sundays.”

“How do you know?”

“Shit, don’t you see the smoke?”

“Fine, Josemari, let’s change the subject. Left or right? Which way are we going?”

“The water has to be that way.”

They cross the street arm in arm. It’s a habit from when they first started going out, many years ago. Lately, they don’t do it so much anymore, not since that evening when they had to abandon their house and leave everything behind. Maybe they’re doing it now from the need to feel united in a new place filled with strange faces.

At first, Maite was convinced that her husband’s fear caused him to see a ghost on every corner. They’d be walking down the street in Alicante or Malaga, and suddenly he’d say to her:

“Turn but pretend you’re not looking. You’ll see two boys next to the stoplight. See them?”

“I see a lot of people, Josemari.”

“The ones wearing caps. I don’t know about you but they’re giving me a bad vibe.”

Maite didn’t really pay much attention to her husband’s jitters until that day in the rented flat in Alicante, when the telephone rang at three-thirty in the morning and a garbled, half-whispering voice mumbled some weird things about a dog and some shotgun shells and something about going hunting. Maite had arrived by train that afternoon. She’d showed up in a good mood because of everything that Doctor Arbulu had told her, but they must have been following her. Who else, if not one of them, would call at that time of the night with the excuse of asking about a dog?

He didn’t have the slightest doubt.

“They’ve found us.”

“C’mon, Josemari! How could they know we’re here?”

“What do you mean how could they know? I’ve got no idea. But obviously the way they pronounce their s’s is not the way people from Alicante talk. That guy on the phone was one of them. First thing tomorrow I’m saying that I’m not signing the lease. I’ll think of some excuse. We’re getting out of town as soon as possible.”

They make their way through a neighborhood of narrow streets, low houses with white walls, windows with wrought iron bars and balconies flush with geraniums. Here and there, locals sit just outside their front doors gossiping, lowering their voices as the couple strolls past. Also the children stop playing to stare at the strange pair. As they turn a corner, Josemari whispers to Maite that all these brown-skinned people must take them for aliens from outer space. Walking by, they nod their heads timidly, because they feel peculiar to be the object of so much curiosity. After all, they’ve got to do something because they surely don’t want to make anyone suspicious. Some people respond to them with customary greetings that sound strange to their ears:

Vayan ustedes con Dios, and other such expressions.

Fifteen minutes later, after following a steep, narrow street thick with the smell of frying calamari, they reach the avenue along the bay. From the open window of a high-ceilinged flat comes a woman’s musical voice. They see a grungy cat perched in a window gnawing on a fish head.

Coming in sight of the sea, Josemari suddenly feels his spirit sink again, like in Alicante, like in Malaga.

“It’s just not the same.”

“Water and waves, Josemari.”

“I don’t want to argue, but the Mediterranean is not what I call a sea. The Cantabrian has its different seasons, enormous tides and cliffs, now that’s a proper sea. Our sea. There’s no comparison.”

“So, then, what do you call this?”

“I don’t know. It’s something different. A big lake.”

And while Maite heads off to the bathrooms in the café where they’ve stopped for a drink, he writes in his Moleskine: I can get used to anything, but Ill always miss the sea from my native land. The sea, my sea where I grew up, is fundamental in my life. I realize this now.

He chews another olive stuffed with anchovies and adds: What matters is that I dont think like a fish.

Then he starts to carefully, slowly observe the passersby strolling past the café terrace, feeling a stab of apprehension each time some young man enters his field of vision. He thinks about how a few days ago, in Malaga, he was followed by a young couple, a boy and a girl, both of them wearing caps with visors. It might have just been a coincidence, given that when he turned up a street and slipped into a pharmacy to hide, they just walked by without a glance. Afterwards he followed them from a distance. And he really didn’t find anything strange. The next day, going for a stroll with Maite along the harbor, turning back after buying the newspaper at a kiosk, he recognized them. Or he thought that he recognized them.

“Josemari, are you sure it’s the same ones?”

“I’m not exactly sure of their faces, but it’s the same hats and I’m sure they were a boy and a girl like those two there. Maybe they work in shifts, because these kinds of people, if there’s one thing they know how to do, apart from fucking up your life, is to be organized.”

The waitress who’s served them their snacks now explains, in a strong Andalusian accent, the simplest way to get to a church situated just a few blocks away. When she understands Maite’s plan, the girl is kind enough to call her mother on her cell phone.

“No, really, it’s no trouble at all.”

So, it seems they celebrate Mass in the church at one o’clock. Now it’s just past twelve-thirty. Maite and Josemari express their thanks by leaving the girl a generous tip. Then, arm in arm again, they walk unhurriedly to the church. Five minutes later, they glimpse the church tower rising above the roofline. The bells are already ringing.

Josemari sits on a bench in the street, under a spreading lemon tree that gives him plenty of shade. Maite tries to persuade him to accompany her to Mass, saying how it will be nice and cool inside the church.

“You’ll roast out here.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Mass lasts about forty-five minutes. A little more than two dozen worshippers sit scattered throughout the pews. Maite sits down in the last row, occasionally glancing towards the door, hoping to see Josemari come inside. The priest is an old man with a raspy voice who speaks in a halting monotone. The church’s poor acoustics make it hard for her to hear his sermon. But, finally, the Mass is ended and Maite has fulfilled her obligation, which is what matters to her.

Coming out of the church she’s startled half to death to find her husband nowhere in sight. The bench where Josemari had promised to wait for her is empty. She looks all around but sees no one whom she can ask about a man in a white shirt, almost bald, who was sitting here just a short while before. In the center of her chest she feels a painful knot that makes it hard for her to breathe and makes her think about her past sufferings from her illness. The faithful who attended Mass walk off, disappearing in different directions. Soon the street is deserted. At this moment, Maite discovers Josemari’s notebook lying on the ground. She opens it and reads the last words her husband has written, and a terrible presentiment fills her with anguish: The same caps as in Malaga. She feels like she’s about to start screaming. Maite walks towards the nearest door hoping they’ll help her call the police. Then she sees Josemari come walking around the corner. Shaking with fright she runs to him and demands:

“Do you mind telling me where the hell you went?”

— Fernando Aramburu, Translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley

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Fernando Aramburu was born in San Sebastián in 1959. He has a degree in Spanish Language, Literature and Linguistics from Zaragoza University. He currently lives in Germany, where he has worked as a Spanish teacher since 1985. His work has been granted, among others, the Ramón Gómez de la Serna Prize 1997, the Euskadi Prize 2001, and for his short stories Lospeces de la amargura (The Fish of Sorrow), the XI Mario Vargas Llosa NH Prize, the Dulce Chacón Prize, and the Prize of the Spanish Language Academy. The movie Bajo las estrellas (Under the Stars) based on Aramburu’s novel El trompetista del utopía (The trumpet player of the Utopia) was awarded a Goya Prize in 2008 for best adapted screenplay by the Spanish Cinematographic Academy.

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Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

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Jun 122017
 

Herein is the chapter “She Is Like Me” from Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children.  Ally Moberly Cavendish, recent qualified as one of a very few women doctors in late nineteenth-century England, is working at an asylum in Cornwall while her husband travels in Japan. Ally is determined to change the treatment of female patients with “hysteria.” When her innovative approach is thwarted by the entrenched assumption that these women need discipline, not care or understanding, Ally reaches a breaking point herself. — Rohan Maitzen

 

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The fields lie bare to the plough now, and in the hedges the berries shrivel and drop, mouldering under the rotting fingers of hawthorn leaves and dead grass. Rain drifts around the peninsula. It is not cold, not cold enough to light a fire for one person, but the nights lengthen and the rain drips day by day. It is a preparation for the spring, Ally reminds herself. There will be wild flowers, violets and bluebells, that she will take to the asylum whatever the nurses say, and the white cottage will be bright in the sun, but meanwhile there is water seeping from the earth and running down the wall in the kitchen, and a musty smell in the cupboard in the other bedroom led her to find her blue wedding gown spotted with mildew. She can smell mould in the way the house exhales when she opens the door. It’s important to keep the windows open, Tom said, even when the fire’s lit, but for some days it has been no drier out- side than in. One winter, she thinks, Cornwall will simply dissolve and slide back into the sea, perhaps leaving the jagged cliffs of the north coast as a memorial and a hazard to shipping. Probably Atlantis did exist until the north Atlantic rains washed it away. She will write to Annie, who enjoys such whimsy and has been fretting that Ally is falling prey to low spirits and nervous strain at the asylum.

The stationmaster at Perranwell has somehow managed to keep his roses blooming, although each flower hangs heavy with rain and the soil in the flowerbed glistens wet. There is no nightfall these days, only a gradual dimming. Ally gets off the train and feels the saturated sky press low over her head. She thinks of Aunt Mary in London and Annie further along the south coast. Somewhere out there, somewhere upcountry, there will be room to move and breathe between the earth and sky, perhaps even a line of sight to the stars and sun. The solar system is still there, beyond the clouds.

She hurries home, her skirts gathered in her hand away from puddles and mud. Up the hill to the main road, from which she can see the estuary and the boats rocking at anchor, and then down past the taverns of Killigrew Street, brightly lit and leaking music and talk. A door opens and a man comes out with a woman clinging to his arm. A ship must have come in. She turns along Dunstanville, past the captains’ houses, where lamplight and firelight glow like beacons in the great bay windows. The curtains have not yet been drawn, and she sees a family gathered around a table where a maid in a white apron brings food, and two doors down a woman stitching at an embroidery frame by the fire. They would not sit so cheerfully, she thinks, if they had seen the back wards. If they knew that tomorrow, Mary Vincent who is not stupid and understands perfectly well what is happening to her, is to be moved to a place where she will spend her days sitting with deranged and incontinent women whose only advantage is that most of them are – probably – too mad to know that they will be there until they die.

When she wakes, her linen pillowcase is soft with moisture and the outside sheet is clammy to the touch. She rests her hand in the dry hollow where she has lain all night and then on Tom’s side, chill and damp. She pushes back the covers and stands up, knowing even before drawing the curtains that Falmouth is still swathed in rain. Some drops bead the window and some roll slowly down the glass, drawing trails thin as the finest etching. She watches a droplet roll into another droplet and gather speed, finds herself tracing their progress with her finger on the glass. Come now, Ally tells herself. She makes the bed, entombing the warmth and dryness under heavy blankets, and puts on layers of clothes. Her stockings cling and wrinkle on her legs as if she had just had a bath. This evening, it may be time to light a fire, for the house and for Tom’s possessions if not for herself. She remembers the verse on the bedroom wall in Manchester: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt. Even so, even Mamma might agree that the balance between the wastefulness of lighting a fire for one person and the carelessness of allowing cloth to rot and books to moulder is beginning to tip. Or perhaps the books and clothes are merely a specious excuse for self-indulgence, perhaps she imagines their peril worse than it is because she wants a fire. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. There is no health in us. I do not believe, she thinks. I do not believe.

And at the top of the hill, the rain clears, and she can see that there is white sky raised high over the north coast. Ally pushes back her hood, her vision unblinkered for the first time in days, and feels the wind on her ears and neck. The asylum stands before her on the hill’s apex, looking like Janus in two directions. To the south, Truro disappears into the mizzle, the spire of the new cathedral haunting the cloud like pencil under watercolour.

She has spent most of her time on the back wards and not been to Ward Four for a few days. Dr. Crosswyn, summoned for a consultation at the hospital, has left a message saying that Mrs. Elsfield seems to be failing and Ally should examine her. A medical problem, at least. The kind of call any doctor would make. She makes her way slowly up the stairs, noticing how washed sunlight floods through the high window over the landing and down the wooden stairs. There is dust on the ends of each tread and inside the spindles, and she can see where a patch on the wall has been repainted a slightly different colour. Perhaps it will be a different nurse on duty, someone who hasn’t already concluded that Ally is incompetent.

‘She is still with you,’ says Mrs. Ashton. ‘Stronger day by day.’

Ally straightens her skirt. ‘Good morning, Mrs. Ashton. Still sleeping well, I hope?’

‘She won’t leave, you know. Not until you hear her. Did anyone listen to her while she was among us, I wonder? Was she carrying secrets too heavy for her?’

Aubrey, she thinks. But what May did with Aubrey, with Papa’s friend, is on the wall of the Manchester Art Gallery for all to see. Not secret at all. Ally takes a breath. One can see how it would be so effective, the suggestion that the dead had terrible secrets. One would need to pick over the past, reimagine and re-examine the actions of dead hands and the words of a dead tongue, and then, presumably, one would pay a woman who claimed to be able to finish the story.

‘Oh, we all have our secrets,’ she says. The living and the dead.

The red-haired nurse backs out of the linen closet. ‘Oh. Good afternoon, Mrs. Cavendish. Sorry, Doctor. Come to see Mrs. Elsfield, have you? She’s on her bed. Not much a firm hand wouldn’t cure, in my view.’

Mrs. Ashton looks up. ‘She tried that. A firm hand. Didn’t you, Nurse?’

The nurse puts down her armful of sheets. ‘Now then. We don’t like liars on this ward, Mrs. Ashton. And you wouldn’t want to go upstairs, would you?’

If there are no bruises, Ally thinks, I can do nothing. And one has to pretend to trust the nurses more than the patients or the whole system will collapse.

Mrs. Elsfield looks oddly small lying on her bed with the swathes of a dress fallen over her body like a shroud. She lies on her right, facing the wall, and has turned her face into the crook of her arm. Apart from the blackberries, Ally has never seen any sign that Mrs. Elsfield is in any way disordered.

‘Good morning, Mrs. Elsfield. You’re not feeling well?’

Mrs. Elsfield turns her head, puts her hands over her face and opens her fingers to peek at Ally.

‘Mrs. Elsfield?’

Mrs. Elsfield turns her face back into the mattress. Ally looks around to find Mrs. Middleton gazing over her shoulder.

‘Poor old dear,’ says Mrs. Middleton. ‘She shouldn’t be here, not at this last. And it’s the vicar she’s needing, not the doctor.’ Ally meets Mrs. Middleton’s eyes, perhaps for the first time.

The first part of her statement is true. ‘I’d like to examine her and find out about that,’ Ally says.

She glances around. There are no screens here, and it seems unlikely that Mrs. Elsfield will rise from her bed and accompany Ally to an office or to the sick ward. ‘Nurse, would you help me to undress her? Gently.’

Watched by Mrs. Middleton, the nurse takes hold of Mrs. Elsfield’s hand screening her face and tugs. ‘Come along now. Don’t make this difficult, Maria Soon be over and done with if you help us.’

Mrs. Elsfield curls herself smaller, tighter. Her thin grey plait, sewn at the end, moves on the pillow. The nurse yanks her hand and Mrs. Elsfield whimpers and tries to burrow away.

‘Leave it,’ says Ally. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘They have to do as they’re told or we’ll have no order. Last chance, Maria, or I’m sending for another nurse. Do you want her stripped, doctor, or is it just her chest?’

Mrs. Elsfield shrinks again. ‘Neither. Please, nurse, stop this.’ ‘Right. Excuse me.’ The nurse pushes in front of Ally and seizes both of Mrs. Elsfield’s hands, hauls on them. Mrs. Elsfield spits and the nurse slaps her.

‘Stop it,’ says Ally. ‘Nurse, stop it.’

She remembers the housekeeper Jenny slapping May, holding her down and slapping her while May fought and shouted and Ally stood, hands behind her back, waiting her turn.

‘Now you see what we have to put up with.’ The nurse drops Mrs. Elsfield, who curls up again like a released spring. She’ll never get out now, Ally thinks, but she was never going to get out anyway. ‘I’ll call another nurse and we’ll soon have her ready for you. Not that I couldn’t deal with her myself, but we have to keep the rules, don’t we?’

‘No,’ says Ally. ‘Leave it. It doesn’t matter.’

‘It’s no trouble. We do this kind of thing all the time. Have to, in this line of work. Stop that now, Maria, you’re only making things worse for yourself.’

The others watch while two nurses hold Mrs. Elsfield down and open her dress so that Ally, with trembling hands, can listen to her chest. NAD, Ally writes. Nothing abnormal diagnosed.

She’s on her way down the stairs to Ward Two when there are running feet along the corridor. The nurse from the sick ward.

She sees Ally. ‘Where’s Dr. Crosswyn?’ ‘Out,’ says Ally. ‘At the hospital.’ ‘You’d better come.’ The nurse opens the door of the sick ward and stands back.

There is shouting. Mary Vincent, with blood running down her face and a contusion on her forehead with the white gleam of bone behind it, is struggling with two nurses. Her closed dress is torn at the shoulder. Leave me alone, she shouts, get off me. Stop that, say the nurses, stop that at once. The nurse who came to find Dr. Crosswyn goes to their assistance and uses Mary’s hair to pull her to the bed. They put her facedown and fasten a strap around her bare white ankles. Mary arches her bound body and tries to fling herself off the bed but they seize her again.

‘You don’t get out of going upstairs like this, Mary. Thought you could get some more time down here, didn’t you? Stop that now.’

‘Always been sly, haven’t you? Rather be lounging in bed here than on the ward.’

‘She’s hurt,’ says Ally. ‘Her head is hurt.’

The corridor nurse looks up. ‘Some of them’ll try anything. She thinks if she hurts herself she can stay here. Ran herself into the wall.’

Mary howls. The sound makes Ally’s scalp crinkle. Stop, she thinks, stop, I can’t bear it. The doctor can’t bear it.

The other nurse puts her hands on Mary’s head, stubby fingers over her eyeballs. Silence. The nurse looks up. ‘Often works,’ she says to Ally. ‘Don’t have to press very hard, see, on the eyes.’

Ally bites her lip, closes her own eyes. Fingers pressing on the darkness, and one’s arms tied.

‘We’ll take her up, shall we?’ asks the first nurse. ‘You’ll probably find her more docile after a few hours on her own.’ They are going to put Mary ‘in seclusion’, in a windowless room on the top corridor where Dr. Crosswyn himself has authorised the use of restraints on patients experiencing episodes of unmanageable behaviour. It is therapeutic, he says, for those who have lost all control and find themselves quite at the mercy of destructive mania, to remove all sensory stimulus and all means of destruction. It is not unknown for patients entering such a phase of illness to ask for seclusion.

Mary drags her face around. There may be some traumatic deformity of the frontal bone and her eyes are already blackening. ‘No, please. I’ll stop, I promise. Please don’t send me up there.’

‘Pity she didn’t think of that earlier, isn’t it, doctor? Get the chair, Nurse Crawford. We won’t chance any tricks on the stairs.’

They are going to tie her to a chair and carry her up those stairs.

Mary’s eyes meet Ally’s. ‘Please, doctor.’ ‘Trying to put one over the doctor now, are we?’ So which are you, Alethea? A madwoman or a doctor? Did I not know, did I not warn you from childhood of your nervous weakness, of your propensity to hysteria and unreason? You chose the asylum, Alethea, because you indulge yourself in feeble-mindedness. Because despite all your training and all your socalled qualifications, you are still crazed.

‘No,’ says Ally. ‘No. Nurse, stop this. You are unkind.’ Her voice is too loud. All of them, even Mary, fall silent. ‘Tell me, nurse, how would you have to feel, to do as Mary does? How bad would it be, in your head, for you to run against the wall until your skull cracks, or to force a knife through your own flesh to the very bone? What would it take, Nurse?’

There are tears on her face. She swallows.

‘That is how it is for Mary. That is it. She is like you, and like me. Like all of us. Only more sad.’

She cries, there on the ward. She has not cried for years.

They do not let her go. They take her down to Dr. Crosswyn’s office, a nurse on each side, where one of them stays with her, watching her, until he comes.

—Sarah Moss

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Sarah Moss teaches at the University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. She is the author of five novels: The Tidal Zone (Granta, 2016), Signs for Lost Children (Granta, 2015), Bodies of Light (Granta, 2014), Night Waking (Granta, 2011) and Cold Earth (Granta, 2009). She is also the author of Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (Granta, 2012) about living in Reykjavik in 2009-10, and academic books on Romantic-era British literature, food history and gender.

Jun 112017
 

 

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On ‘stress leave’ from the Afghanistan, Canadian soldier Elias Triffanis has recently arrived on the politically-divided island of Cyprus. In this opening scene, a doctor interviews Elias about the troubling after effects of a recent combat mission that went horribly wrong.  Elias’s troubles, however, are just beginning. —Richard Farrell 

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PAPHOS, CYPRUS, 26 OCTOBER

“How long is it, then, since you have slept?” the doctor asked.

Elias looked up at the ceiling, trying to recall. The blades of the fan turned listlessly—in fact, they seemed to be slowing, as if the power had just cut out again.

“Surely you’ve slept a little since we last met?”

“It was yesterday, right?”

“Yesterday morning.”

“Okay.”

“About thirty hours ago,” the doctor said.

“I’ve passed out a couple of times, for a while. I tried not to.”

“So, you did not remain asleep? You had the dream again?”

“Yes.”

“You wish to describe it again, or the incident itself?”

“They’re almost the same. It’s not really a dream. More like a video of an atrocity.”

“As I said, this is typical of your condition—diagnostic, actually. However—”

“And, no, I don’t.”

“Pardon me?”

“Want to describe it again.”

Drops of sweat glistened on the raw-looking scalp under the doctor’s blond comb-over. Thick glasses magnified his colourless, pink-rimmed eyes, which blinked often. “Avoiding sleep, however,” he said. “It’s understandable, but I fear that such a—such a practice can only make the matter worse.”

“I’ve never needed much sleep.”

“Men of your kind often boast of how little sleep they need.”

“You’re not meant to mock your patients, are you?”

“You do look tired,” the doctor said, as if he hadn’t heard, “though in fact you seem somewhat improved today. Still, I apologize—”

“Frankly, I don’t feel that bad, I feel relieved, because I’m awake now, not asleep and reliving things. Insomnia is a fucking joy in comparison to that.”

“Self-inflicted sleep deprivation—not insomnia.”

“What did you mean by men of my kind?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I have no idea myself anymore.”

“Large men, robust. Metamorphic. Pardon me, mesomorphic.”

Elias Trifannis looked out the window over the doctor’s shoulder: a white pebble beach, the calm Mediterranean pixelated with sunlight. The army was using this former student residence on the west coast of Cyprus to treat personnel on stress leave from the war. Last night, while Elias silently performed yet another set of push-ups on the cold cement floor of his room, trying to hold off sleep, the patient in the next room screamed catastrophically. That was helpful: a few extra hours of adrenalized alertness.

“It’s funny how people think they can look at your body and know your soul,” Elias said.

That magnified blinking again. In a faster, fainter voice the doctor said, “Ah, mais oui, you are quite right, one should never assume a correlation between, between . . . how could I put it . . .”

Elias yawned helplessly, gapingly, a pathological yawn that convulsed his whole body. “Sorry, Dr. Boudreau,” he said at last. “I really do enjoy talking to you.”

“Perhaps you will be able to sleep better on your weekend away? I hope so. You are going across the island, to visit family?”

“Distant relatives.”

“How is your Greek now?”

“Etsi ki etsi. If you don’t mind my saying, you look really tired yourself.”

“Yes.” The doctor’s blinking made it seem he was trying to communicate something in a sort of binary code, words he couldn’t bring himself to say. “It’s not simply this heat wave. Normally, one grows used to working with the—the traumatized, yet I seem to find it increasingly . . . But what am I saying? I must not say such things!”

The fan still gave the illusion of perpetually slowing without ever stopping.

“In any case, Master Corporal—I wish you a peaceful weekend.”

“Don’t call me that, okay?”

“And, please, don’t speak of what happened in Kandahar.”

“I wouldn’t know how to speak about it.”

“And bear in mind, it was not your fault! Not anyone’s fault!”

The doctor subdued his twitching by closing his eyes for a second, then opening them wide. “It was simply . . .”

“An accident. I know.”

“And don’t forget your medication.”

“No way. I love my medication.”

Dizzy, seeing double, Elias tried to focus his gaze. Out the window in the distance a sunburned figure in a swimsuit—who seemed impossibly to be the doctor—appeared on the shore and walked into the sea.

— Steven Heighton

Excerpted from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton. Copyright © 2017 by Steven Heighton. Published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Steven Heighton is the author of fourteen books, including three short story collections, three novels and six poetry collections, including he Waking Comes Late (2016),  The Dead Are More Visible (2012), Every Lost Country (2010), and Afterlands (2005) 

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Jun 082017
 

A tiger has lost his pride and seeks direction from a snake crushing apples in a tree. I’m not usually one for animal parables. But in this moral tale, the fifth in Emmons’ collection—A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales—the elegant prose, precise plotting, and ingenious dialogue transform a relatively straightforward—and often comic—exchange between two species into a remarkable meditation on futility and free will. —Michael Carson

 

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The tiger stopped at a break in the rain and realized he was no longer on the path he’d been following. He scratched the side of his belly against a coleus bush, shook free of the water coating his back and legs, and studied the ferns and mosses growing all around him, a blurred patchwork of greens. He listened for the rasp of Cousin, which like a gnat’s buzzing at his tail had annoyed him all through the hunt, and for the whelps of Sister’s underweaned cubs, and for the irregular footsteps of 2nd Cousin, but heard nothing.

“I’m six furlongs west of the den,” he thought, catching the scent of the dead opossum. “At most nine.”

He was tempted to scoop up with his tongue an ant dragging a webbed mass of tsetse flies, but refrained. What could be seen of the sun seemed to shift and ripple in the sky like its reflection in disturbed water. Was he west of the den, or north? Perhaps he was northwest. Cousin, despite his uselessness in a kill, had a perfect sense of direction, and the tiger felt his absence. Not long ago, for example, Cousin had found the way home after a two-day journey through alien trees that had marooned them in an unfamiliar glade, where they were so famished that Aunt had proposed eating 2nd Cousin.

“Sister!” he called out. “Niece!”

The chittering whir of life in the forest slowed and then sped up again.

“Can I help you?” came a voice from above.

The tiger looked up and saw a snake wound around the gnarled branch of a tree that curved at its base into thick tumorous roots burrowing underground. “Yes, you can go up to a good vantage point and look east for a pride of six tigers. One has a limp, another is missing both ears, and a third has no tail.”

The snake’s mouth opened slightly.

“They can’t be more than a furlong away. Maybe two.”

After making a complete revolution around its branch, the snake glided toward the trunk and then up to another branch. “What happened to your left eye?”

“It was removed by a great rhinoceros. You’re not high enough there to see any real distance.” The tiger sat on his haunches and felt the sharp pain in his groin that had troubled him since the last famine. He covered the furless patch on his stomach with his right foreleg, and the long, sparsely plotted whiskers on his face hung like wilted plume grass. “The rain must have disoriented them. They’ll be desperate to find me. 2nd Cousin already suffers from nerves. Go to the topmost branch and scan the area and you are sure to spot them.”

The snake projected a third of its body into midair and peered up at the tumescent sky. “There is an eagle circling.”

“You are too large to be carried off by such a small bird.”

“Just as you are too powerful to be maimed by a rhinoceros?”

The tiger considered leaping up to seize the snake in his mouth but suspected, with his injury, that he couldn’t.

The snake remained motionless.

“If you don’t help me,” said the tiger, “I will find them on my own and then return to kill you.”

With its tail the snake plucked an apple from a leafy nest and squeezed until it liquefied and streamed to the ground. “Before you arrived, I saw six tigers to the southeast, standing in an attitude of respect around a young tiger half again your size. When he trotted away they followed him in single file, and there were a tail-less male and limping female among them.”

The tiger protracted his claws deep into the earth and objects around him grew less distinct. His heart beat erratically. “You saw a different pride that coincidentally and superficially resembled mine.”

“Yes, certainly.”

“There is no possibility of one being the other.”

“I didn’t mean to suggest there was.”

After a minute in which he shivered as if still wet—a ringing in his inner ear, a cold hard trill, made him wish for the sun’s full return—the tiger squinted at the snake and said, “You are lying about what you saw. It is your nature to trick noble animals, as you did man.”

The snake dropped what remained of the apple to the ground, where it landed on a pile of rotting cores around which flies were buzzing ecstatically, and slid down to hang suspended with its tail coiled around a short spiky branch. From close up the tiger could see its skin reticulated into a network of fitted, glistening scales that were honeycombed with tiny red diamonds. A change occurred in the opossum scent; a new bloody aroma mingled with the old decay, as though its body had just been torn open; he could almost hear skin being ripped away and flesh stripped from bone.

“I will not tell—”

“How old are you?” asked the snake.

“I will not tell you again: either go up and look for my companions or prepare to die.”

“You shouldn’t blame them for following another tiger now that you can no longer procure food or protect them.”

The tiger rose from his seated position and paced back and forth unsteadily, trying to determine how high he could jump without further straining his groin muscle. If the snake descended another two branches and then lowered its head and relaxed, he’d have a chance. “I can procure enough food for twenty tigers; at this very moment I am hunting prey. As for guarding them against danger, in the last six months I have fought off two jackals, a wombat, a marbled cat, an olingo and a sambar deer. The few among my pride who have been injured during that period understand why I was unable to prevent it, such as, during our encounter with the rhinoceros, my own loss of an eye. They are loyal in a way that you, a solitary creature hated the world over, cannot understand.”

The snake seemed to consider this and then said, “I wonder how a sambar deer, or a marbled cat or an olingo, could threaten a tiger. An olingo! The smallest cub could swallow one whole without thinking. Though the real question here is why your pride has waited so long to abandon you.”

The tiger sprang up at the tree from a meter away, felt a sharp bolt of pain, and fell to the ground.

The snake said, “Despite your obvious helplessness, if your former pride comes this way its new leader will have to kill you. The old must ever make way for the young.”

The tiger turned away and tensed his muscles and clenched his jaw and didn’t make a sound. From between his legs agony radiated out in regular, insistent waves. It would soon subside. He watched a chameleon blend into a fern stem as hardy as a shoot of running bamboo; the wind moaned and the sky darkened two shades with the sun’s full retreat behind layered clouds. He felt a drop of rain, heavier and more deliberate than any in the shower that had fallen earlier. The opossum scent was faint. He said, “I look forward to meeting this other tiger. Before ending your life, I will beat him in front of you so that you can see your error.”

The snake plucked off another apple and reduced it, as he had the one before, to pulp. “Let us stop this absurd talk of you harming me, because the only animal you can hurt now is yourself. It would be best for you to accept this and everything to follow.”

The tiger said, “Do you want to know why you are everywhere despised?”

The snake said nothing.

“It isn’t just your willful insincerity, the way you manipulate the truth and consider honesty to be a sign of mental frailty, as though animals who treat each other fairly are too stupid to do otherwise, but rather that, unable to build anything yourself, you concentrate on destruction. I almost pity you.”

“Then we might start a mutual pity society.”

“Friendless, heartless, and deluded into thinking cleverness worthier than love and affection, you could vanish and no one would miss you.”

The snake’s head rested on its coiled body, ten feet off the ground. “And how are you any better off, since your life has come to the same solitary end?”

“I am not solitary or at an end.”

The snake looked meaningfully at the empty space around the tiger. “It’s especially unfortunate because your solitude is not the result, as mine is, of your possessing taste and refinement in a place that values neither, but because when young you used brute force to dominate all the creatures of the earth. Those you didn’t eat you frightened, displaced or ignored. How love and affection, which you claim to value, have operated on or through you beyond the limited confines of your immediate family, is a mystery.”

“Having limited sympathy is not the same as having none at all. Everyone privileges his own and his relatives’ survival above that of others.”

The snake’s forked tongue moved up and down in its open jaw at an invisible speed. “Whether or not that’s true, you’re exceptional insofar as power and compassion are directly correlated; the more one has of the former, the better able one is to bestow the latter. You, being all-powerful, have the potential to be all-merciful. You have chosen not to be, however, which is both convenient and beneficial to you, and which eliminates the moral advantage you might otherwise have had over me. In fact, it is safe to say that your obligation to help instead of hurt weaker animals equals or even exceeds your capacity to do so, making it the greatest mandate in the forest now that man is gone, something only a monster could ignore. And yet you think that having been born a tiger you can pursue your pleasure regardless of its cost to others.”

The tiger caught no more scent of the opossum. He did not need to keep listening to the sophistry of a snake when somewhere in the vicinity Cousin and Aunt and Sister and Great-Niece and Niece and 2nd Cousin were either huddled together, too hungry to move or cry out, praying to the hidden sun for his return, or under the influence of a young pretender stealing what belonged to him.

As he considered where to look for them, a rustling sound to the east preceded the appearance of fifteen zebras galloping across the clearing in a westward direction, followed immediately by a herd of long-necked giraffes. The rain was falling steadier now and vast puddles formed on the ground. Then from opposite corners of the clearing two new sets of animals emerged—from the southeast peacocks, and from the northeast rabbits—to unite on the path trampled first by the zebras and then by the giraffes.

“Where are they going?” shouted the tiger to the snake, who had ascended to the topmost branch and was staring into the distance.

The snake didn’t answer for several minutes, during which bunches of toads, rhinoceroses, goats, horses, gorillas, short-haired cats, mice, beetles and marmots filed past, until finally, with an unreadable expression, it returned to its perch on the fourth lowest branch and said, “They are headed west.”

“But why?”

Rain poured down so heavily now that the tiger felt a uniform pressure on his back. A flock of geese flew above while an assortment of chimpanzees and foxes and deer raced by. The puddles converged into an unbroken pool. Next came wolves and bears and badgers and lambs, and it was a marvel to see the peaceful—the non-murderous—lockstep of predators with their prey.

The tiger said to the snake, who still had not answered, “Is there higher ground to the west, or perhaps a fire to the east?”

“No.”

“Then what did you see?”

“Earlier you said that I delight in destruction and trick noble animals such as man. I’ll tell you what I saw, but first you must hear something.”

The rain fell insistently and the tiger was too weary to protest.

“When Eve came here she was a child. Not biologically, but in temper and intellectual development she was little better than the clay from which she and Adam were formed. I lived on the ground then, and ate a sparse diet of mice and other small fry, with little interest in this tree. Eve used to stand where you are now and ask herself whether she should or shouldn’t eat its fruit. Her life was tiresome, she’d say, without variation or intrigue or intensity of feeling—everything she did produced the same dull note—and eating the fruit would change that. Unless it wouldn’t. What if, she’d say, an unpredictable life of alternating pain and joy and mystery was as unsatisfying as the one of regular contentment and predictability she currently led? What if the afterwards were different from the before in kind but not in substance? And while the prospect of death might invest life with greater meaning than it currently possessed, on the theory that something’s value rises in proportion to its scarcity, it might do the opposite and fill her with a sense of life’s futility.”

The water level had reached the halfway point on the tiger’s legs, and he decided to start walking west with the blind hope of finding his companions, who might intercede on his behalf with their new leader. There was no reason to stay here.

The snake said, “One day, after months of ignoring me, she asked what I thought she should do. Stay and suffer in a familiar manner, with an inevitable increase in boredom as time passed meaninglessly, or eat the fruit and be banished to a place and mode of being that might as easily be worse as be better, and that would come to an end? She couldn’t ask Adam because he wanted nothing more than to love and admire creation; he wouldn’t condone her eating the fruit of this tree because he was not dissatisfied. I told her that if that were the case she could do no wrong that would not also be right.”

The tiger’s stomach now grazed the water’s surface, along which a thousand raindrops ignited in tiny explosions that added to and overlapped and canceled one another out. A memory came to him of standing on an open plain during a heat wave when he was young, under a bleached white sky dirtied in the distance by specks of vultures circling over the elk he had just slain, at which time, stupefied but not yet made frantic by thirst, and for a moment on the other side of a small hill from the others, a single droplet of water had fallen on his nose. There had been no clouds or birds above him, and no rivers within sight to produce this moisture. He’d licked it away and in the fraction of relief it afforded him he’d felt his yearning for more spike to an unbearable degree, and he’d had a vision then of endless water, of a flood like the one now arising, and he’d understood that the leadership responsible for taking the pride so far from a fresh drinking supply, and which just moments before had failed to help him bring down the elk, needed to be replaced.

“Do you know what she did then?” asked the snake.

The tiger could clearly see his father’s body perched that evening at the mouth of the cave where the pride was sleeping, his muscles thin and shrunken, his ears perfectly still, lost in a memory of the world as someplace new, when the cycle of rise and fall was not yet known.

“She walked away and never returned.”

A strong current ran through the water. The tiger’s feet were firmly on the ground, though he couldn’t say for how much longer they could stay there. The rain stripped leaves and pine needles from the trees around him and left bare branches stabbing the blackened sky. A bolt of lightning lit up the clearing in a white flash as the tiger bent down to lap up a mouthful of water, which tasted of loamy soil and bones and aloe and bark and insects and iron and sap and stone and the dust of an ended drought, diluted by tears and thickened by blood. As he drank more the tiger became thirstier, with every drop coming from nowhere and the last of its kind.

“To the west,” said the snake, now on a lower branch, “not far from here, no more than two furlongs away, is a giant ship. A gangway connects the ground and its deck, and is being used to convey up pairs of animals. Even in your condition you could reach it in time.”

The tiger kept his eyes down and drank away his recent hunger and the whelps of Sister’s cubs and the illusion that there would never be a young tiger half again his size. He swallowed his father’s murder and the years he’d led his pride through a shrinking forest and the moment he’d known that his confidence was built on a decaying foundation. He consumed the love and hatred that had once given him vitality, and the times when his survival had been in question, and when it had been a foregone conclusion, and when it had been a matter of neither indifference nor consequence.

The snake came down to the lowest branch and extended its head to within a foot of the tiger’s and said, “We could go to the boat together. I could ride on your back and navigate.”

The tiger didn’t look up or stop drinking. There was so much more to take in. He’d only just begun.

—Josh Emmons

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Josh Emmons is the author of two novels — The Loss of Leon Meed (Scribner, 2005) and Prescription for Superior Existence (Scribner, 2008)and the short story collection A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (Dzanc, 2017). Read a review of A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales here by Numéro Cinq‘s Michael Carson

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Jun 012017
 

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Once when I was in the eighth grade, my mother showed up at the school and told the principal there was a family emergency and she had to pull me out of class for the day. I didn’t have any family except her, but I kept my mouth shut.  I walked out with her and climbed in the car and waited to see what she’d do.  Mostly she didn’t do crazy things.  She was old when I was born.  She worked at the pharmacy and didn’t have any hobbies or anything.

“Something I wanted to show you,” she said in the car, giving me a sidelong look.  She was wearing a blue and white dress and looked kind of nice, not fancy, but nice.

“You going to tell me what it is?” I asked.

“Nope,” she said.

“Guess it’s some kind of big mystery then.”

“Guess it is,” she said.

“And you haven’t lost your mind,” I said.  “That’s not the mystery, right?”

She threw another sidelong glance at me, this time with an eyebrow raised.  That nearly broke me up, but instead I turned away and looked out the window as the town rolled past, pretending not to be too curious.  She took us past the Shop’n Save and the two thrift stores and the pharmacy where she worked, what she called the Business District.  That always made her laugh even though I couldn’t see the joke in it.  After that we turned onto Edgewater, which ran past the Starlight.  The Starlight had been closed as long as I could ever remember but I always checked the marquee anyway, just to see.  It looked the same:

KI GDOM OF THE SP D RS

LAS3R BLAST

I never knew if that three was supposed to be there or if they’d lost one of the Es, same way they lost some of the other letters in Kingdom of the Spiders.  Either way I figured it’d probably been a damn good double feature.  I wished I’d seen it.

Edgewater ended at the riverbank, and that’s where we got out.  I followed her through the trees, struggling to keep up with her, until we came to a picnic area by the water.  There was a stone overlook with a clear view of the river, and that’s where she finally stopped.  She straightened her dress and looked out toward the West Virginia side of the Ohio River.  I looked too, but the only thing to see was an old factory that had gone to seed.   Ivy grew up and down brick walls already darkened with graffiti, and all the upper windows were broken.  You could see tree limbs snaking over the edge of the roof.

She looked down at her watch.  “Ought to be soon,” she said. “Paper said it’d be one o’clock.”  She was shifting her weight from one foot to the other, the way she did sometimes when she was nervous.  But she was smiling, too.  I thought of asking her again if she’d lost her mind, but I didn’t.  We waited.

I didn’t know what we were supposed to be looking at.  But after a couple minutes there was a sound like a dozen firecrackers going off across the river.   Then the bottom floor of the factory crumpled in on itself like its legs were cut out from underneath.  All five stories of the factory came crashing down.  You could hear it from the other side of the river, a great whoosh of sound that hit you like a blast of wind whipping across the water.  A dust cloud bloomed where the factory had been, rising up and spreading over the water, blocking the sun.

I was holding my breath.  Next to me I heard a sound like I’d never heard come from my mother before, a great whooping war cry.  I turned to see her spinning around with her arms flung in the air, blue dress whipping in the afternoon light, hopping from foot to foot and hooting like she’d just cast a spell to bring down the sky itself.  Gray dust fell all around us.  She grabbed my hands and laughed and made me dance with her, and so I danced and I hooted along with her, yelling at the sky like a madman.  She smiled at me, and I thought she looked a lot younger then.  And I thought how nice it’d be if the two of us could stay like this.  Not on the riverbank with the sky falling around us, but just the way it felt right then.

Or maybe I didn’t think that, not at that moment.  Maybe it was only looking back when it seemed that way to me.  Because it was only a couple weeks later that Dutch showed up.

He was leaning against a post on the front porch when I got home from school.  I recognized him from the pictures even though he was older now and he was losing his hair.  He was thin and had a tan, leathery face, and he smiled too much just like in the few pictures I’d ever seen of him.  He was chewing a toothpick as I walked up.

“The man of the house,” he said, with a grin.  “You probably don’t remember me.”

I looked at him and didn’t say anything.

He shifted the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.  “No harm if you don’t.  You know who I am, though?”

“You’re Dutch,” I said.

His face clouded a bit, but then he smiled again.  “Dutch’ll do fine.  So you’re thirteen now.  That’s something.”

“Fourteen,” I said.

“Fourteen, that’s right.”

I was thirteen still.  But I wanted to throw him off.   I was off balance and I guess I wanted him to be, too.  “Where’s my mother?”

“Fixing some dinner,” he said.  “That’ll be nice, won’t it?  Give us a chance to get comfortable with each other.”

“It’s three-thirty,” I said.

“Just got here from Jacksonville,” he said.  “Long trip, your mom knew I’d be hungry.  Jacksonville’s some kind of town.  You want to hear about Jacksonville?”

I went inside.  There was a suitcase in the hallway, that was the first thing I saw.  In the kitchen my mother had three skillets going on the range, cooking red potatoes and broccoli and something that might’ve been chicken in a brown goop.  She’d put some make-up on and was wearing a necklace I’d never seen her wear before, and she smelled like perfume.  I didn’t think she even owned perfume.

She saw me and had to blink a few times, it looked like, to recognize me.  “Tell your dad it’ll be ready in twenty minutes,” she said.

“Dutch,” I said.  “His name’s Dutch.”  I was furious at her then, but I didn’t really know why.  I was as furious as I would’ve been if I’d come inside and found her setting the house on fire.

“I didn’t mean to say that, I wasn’t thinking.  I’m flustered,” she said.  “He just showed up, is all.  Called an hour ago and said he was at the train station, asked if he could come by and see us.  Can you believe that?”

“No,” I said.

“We’ll give it a try,” she said.  “How about we give it a try.  Be nice to him, Bo.  He’s had a hard life too.”

“You can’t even cook,” I said.  That was true.  She was a lousy cook.

“I’m inspired,” she said.  And she flashed a smile that broke my damn heart.

Dinner was rotten.  Not the food, just the company.   I didn’t say much.  When Dutch asked me a question I thought long and hard about whether it was worth answering, and then if I did answer, I tried to be as unhelpful as possible.  Mostly the two of them looked at each other across the table and made googly eyes at each other, and Dutch told stories.  He talked about trying his hand at farming in Colorado.  He talked about a stint with the Merchant Marines when he foiled a mutiny.  He talked about driving a rig in Florida and training elephants for a traveling carnival in Louisiana.   He talked about being one of those painted statues on the wharf in San Francisco and witnessing two different murders because he was so good at being a statue.  Everything was pretty interesting and most of it sounded like a lie.

After dinner I helped bring the dishes in.  “None of that’s true,” I said to my mother.  “Jesus Christ please tell me you know that.”

“Course I know that and watch your mouth,” she said.  “He sure is entertaining though, isn’t he?”  Then she started humming some old song, and I knew it was hopeless.  You can’t talk sense to anybody when they’re humming some damn old song.

I went into the living room where Dutch was settling onto the couch with a cigar.  There was a brand new glass ashtray on the table.  I looked at that glass ashtray and I hated it.  I knew that my mother ran out to the store to buy that damn ashtray soon as she found out Dutch was coming.

“So here we are,” said Dutch.  “We don’t got to like each other, I guess.”

I thought about saying something then.  I thought about saying we were doing just fine without his leathery face.  Instead I picked up the ashtray, holding it up for Dutch to see.  He didn’t react.  I flung it toward the living room window.  Only I never could throw worth a damn, so it struck the wall beside the window instead.  And it wasn’t even glass, just that kind of plastic that looks like glass, so all it did was scuff the wall and land on the floor in a pile of ashes, which made me even angrier.

My mother came into the room and saw the mess.  She glared at me.

“Little accident,” said Dutch, still smiling.  “No harm, no foul.  This’ll work itself out.”

I looked around the room and my eye fell on a ceramic lamp on the end table beside the sofa.  I lifted the lamp and Dutch gave me a look.

“Alright now,” said Dutch.

I threw the lamp at the window.  This time, my aim was true.  It cracked the window and made a nice satisfying sound when it smashed against the floor.

My mother screamed and Dutch jumped to his feet, but he didn’t move toward me.  Instead he held out his hands and said, “Everything’s still good, Nora.  It’s all good.  Boy’s acting up.  Nothing but a temper tantrum here.  A lot to process for the boy, is all.”

“It’s too much,” my mother said.  “I need to sit down.”  That was the first time I’d ever heard her say that, that something was too much.  Maybe she’d thought it before.  But I hadn’t ever heard her say it.

“Course you can sit down.  Sit down, Nora,” said Dutch.  He looked at me and said, “Think about your mother now, Bo.”

That sickened me, to hear him say my name.  I turned my back on them both.  I went into the kitchen and took a couple or seven plates out of the cupboard, and stacked a few mismatched soup bowls on top.  It was hard to carry but I walked the stack back into the living room.

“Oh dear god,” my mother said.  “Dutch.”

“This is what you think a good son does,” said Dutch, and he shook his head.

I was going to take my time and throw them one by one.  I thought that’d be the right way to do it, for maximum devastation.  But I hated Dutch saying that and shaking his head like that.  So I tossed the whole stack all at once.  It was pretty heavy and I couldn’t get a lot of air underneath, but it didn’t matter.  They made a sound like a bomb going off in a china factory as they hit the wood floor.

Dutch yanked my arm and dragged me off to the bedroom while my mother screamed louder than ever.  He threw me down on the bed.  He got in a few good licks on my ass, and some of them hurt some, but I didn’t make a sound.  Eventually he stopped.  I couldn’t see him because I had my face down in the pillow.  But I could hear him breathing hard.

“You’re a tough bastard,” he said.  “You got some of your old man in you after all.”  I must’ve made some sound then, because he said, “You don’t want to hear it, I get that.  I respect that.”  And he put his hand on my shoulder.  I had a thought about shrugging his hand off.  But I felt too ornery to do even that.  I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

I expected there to be some repercussions the next day.  But they were too preoccupied with each other to yell at me.  Dutch picked up a new set of plates and bowls at the thrift shop, and he had the window fixed before I even came home.

He took up residency after that, I guess.  It was mid-June and school was letting out.  I tried to be out of the house early so I wouldn’t see him much.  I’d pack a thermos and some sandwiches and set off on my bike to the creek.  Later in the day there’d be a few kids there, around the old wooden trestle bridge, fishing or horsing around.  But early in the morning it was quiet and real pretty there.  I’d sit by the creek and think on things.  Or I’d ride across town to the Starlight and sit in the overgrown parking lot and run through Kingdom of the Spiders in my head, the way I figured the movie played out.  Later I’d ride out to the ball field behind the school and meet up with whoever had a game going on.  Then I’d ride some more.  Eventually I’d make it home, tired and sore from riding and using that as an excuse not to be sociable.

Dutch said he had a friend who was a construction foreman.  He wanted Dutch to be a co-foreman on a new apartment building going up in Elkton, only they weren’t breaking ground till sometime in August.  I had my doubts that a co-foreman was a thing.  But Dutch kept busy.  He fixed the shower curtain, and he painted the baseboard trim, and he patched up the drywall in the hallway where the front door had banged into it for years.  He re-grouted the bathroom even though the grout seemed fine to me.  I thought the drywall was a little lumpy and the painting was sloppy, but I guessed he was trying.  He didn’t talk about it.  I’d just notice the things he’d done and that’s how I knew how he was spending his days.

One night I came home and found Dutch alone on the porch with a glass of whiskey.   He and my mother had a routine where they’d sit out on the porch with cocktails and listen to jazz music on my mother’s battery-powered radio.  He said he’d spent a year living in New Orleans with a roommate who was a jazz trumpeter—this was after he left that traveling carnival—and he wanted to share what he called his love of the art form with my mother.  Tonight it was just Dutch, though.  The sun had gone down but there was some redness left in the sky.  I asked him where my mother was, and he said she was laying down.  “Few too many mint juleps,” he said, and winked at me.

He was listening to a country station on the radio.  I asked him what happened to the jazz, and he waved the glass in front of him.  “Needed a break,” he said.  “Sometimes you need a break, is all.”

“From what?” I asked.

“Being somebody,” he said.  He stared at me for a bit, then held out his glass.  “You want a sip?”

I wanted to say no, but I thought he’d expect me to say no.  So I took a sip.  It was foul, and burned going down, but I made myself take another.  The second sip was worse.

He took the glass back and laughed.  He had an easy laugh.  “You’re okay.  You’ll be okay.  You just need—you know what you need?”

I shook my head.

“You need to be more generous,” he said.  “You know what I mean, generous?”

“I know what it means.”

“You’ll have a poor life if you go through it like that, not being generous with people.”

I didn’t say anything, because it didn’t seem like he was expecting me to.

He sat back and looked out over the streets, which were growing summer dark.  “This place,” he said.  “It’s kind of special, isn’t it?”

I didn’t answer him.  I thought it was special in some ways.  I liked the way the train tracks outside of town were all overgrown like they were from some ancient civilization, and I liked the look of the trestle bridge down by the creek even though it got condemned a while back.  I liked the abandoned drive-in theater and how you could imagine, when you were there, that there’d really been an apocalypse and there were giant spiders just beyond the trees, marching on River Oaks to take back their kingdom.  But Dutch wouldn’t know anything about those things.

“Seemed nice enough when we came here, your mom and me,” said Dutch.  “Seemed like the kind of place to settle down.”

“But you didn’t,” I said.  Not accusing him.  Just curious what he’d come up with.

Dutch tilted his head to look at me.  “I had too much in me,” he said.  “That fair enough?”

I shrugged.  I didn’t know what that meant.  It sounded like a thing you said when you didn’t ever look too hard at yourself.

He leaned back in the chair.   In the dusk I couldn’t see his face too well.  “This is a fine enough place,” he said.  “Only when you’re young like I was, maybe fine doesn’t seem so attractive.  Got to get some living under your belt is the thing.  Then maybe you reassess.  Then maybe you get a little worn down at the edges, and ‘fine’ starts to look good.”  He laughed again.  “Maybe ‘fine’ starts to look damn good.”

I had a weird idea then.  I had an idea that he wanted something from me but I didn’t know what it was.  It wasn’t love.  I don’t know that he ever thought of me as his boy or would’ve felt much for me even if he had.  But there was something he wanted right at that moment on the porch.  Maybe if I knew, I would’ve given it to him.

“I’ll tell you about a place,” said Dutch.  “Monterey.  Ever heard of Monterey?”

I shook my head.

He didn’t say anything more for a bit.  I thought maybe he decided not to tell me his Monterey story after all.  Either way was fine with me.  Then he did speak again, only his voice was different, quieter.  He talked like somebody telling a story, some particular story, for the very first time.  “Monterey is the edge of the world,” he said.  “That’s what I read once, in a magazine.  It was some kind of travel magazine and there was an ad for Monterey and it said, ‘Come to Monterey, at the edge of the western world.’  With a photograph of these pretty cliffs leading down to an ocean that was, Jesus, bluer than anything you ever saw.  Bluer than the idea of blue.”  He whistled softly.  “‘The edge of the western world.’  I read that and I thought, ‘There’s a place to go someday, Dutch.  Even if you don’t have a dime when you get there, Dutch, that’s a place where you’ll never feel anything but rich.’”

“You ever make it there?” I asked.

“I did,” he said.

I waited for him to go on.  I had questions, but I didn’t want him to think I was all that curious.

He said, “Mostly you’ll find that places don’t measure up to your expectations.  Mostly that’s the truth.  But Monterey measured up.”

“Because the ocean was all blue,” I said.  That sounded like I was making fun of him, and right away I was sorry I said it.

“You can stand there by the cliffs in Monterey and feel the whole continent behind you,” he said.  “The water’s blue, that’s for sure.  But there’s something grand and dark about the world stretching out behind you like that.”  He paused and seemed to think about what he’d said.  Then he said, like he was clarifying: “There’s something momentous about that.  Like you’re close to something.  You don’t even know what it is, only that you’re close to it.  And that’s an exciting place to be.”

I hadn’t ever seen the ocean except on television shows and in movies.   But I closed my eyes and tried to picture it like the way Dutch was telling it.  I pictured it with the sky like it was now, the color drained out of it, so I couldn’t even see the water.  I could just hear the waves dying on the rocks below.

“I had more than a dime when I got there,” Dutch was saying, “but not a whole lot more.  I ran a few scams to make some money.  Nothing too far out there.  Just enough to get me going, get me a place to stay.  Mostly I was running pretty straight.  I liked it there and I didn’t want to cause any problems for myself, or for anyone else either.  Eventually I took a job at a shoe store by Cannery Row—that sounds like it’d be a low-class sort of place, but the canneries all closed way back.  It’s an upscale part of town.  And this store was upscale too.  Respectable.”  Again he was quiet for a few seconds.  I shifted my position against the porch post and waited.

“There was this woman,” he said.  “Anamarie.  Came over from Spain, from Madrid, a few years before, but she spoke English better than I ever did.  She owned a vineyard.  Owned a couple vineyards.  She had long legs and a cool, dark face, and I thought she was a model when she first came into the shop.  I’d been in town about three months by then.  I sold her a pair of three hundred dollar shoes and didn’t stop talking for one second while she was there. I wanted to keep her there as long as I could, I guess.  Finally I asked her if she wanted to get dinner, and she said yes.  I don’t know why she did.  I never knew why.”  He turned his head to look up at me even though he couldn’t see my face now any more than I could see his. “You know that saying, that somebody’s above your station?  You ever heard that saying?”

“I’ve heard it,” I said.

“We ran together for a little while,” he said.  “We drove down to Big Sur on the weekends.  She showed me the vineyards and taught me a few things.  We drank a lot of wine together.  But she was above my station and I knew it.  I couldn’t ever quite—I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  What I was doing with her.  She liked the way I talked.  I’d sing to her sometimes, too.  I’d sing old things, like I’d sing ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ by the Duke.  Or Hoagy Carmichael, ‘The Nearness of You.’  My mother used to sing Hoagy Carmichael all the time.  I couldn’t really sing but it must have sounded nice enough.  Anamarie didn’t grow up in this country so she didn’t know how the songs were supposed to go anyway.  Anyhow, we’d sit out on her balcony on a night like this, but we’d have the Pacific right there.”  He gestured toward the road, which was dark enough by now that if you squinted right it could’ve been the ocean.  “She looked—I thought she looked as much like a part of that landscape as the ocean, or those rocky cliffs.  She belonged to it.  Even though she grew up on the other side of the world, she belonged to it.  She’d pour herself a glass of champagne—she drank champagne the way I drank everything else—and she’d say, ‘Sing me a song, Dutch.’  Or she’d say, ‘Tell me another story, Dutch.’  I knew it wasn’t anything permanent.  I knew I’d run out of stories to tell sooner or later.  But I kept her entertained for a while.  For a good while.”

He stopped, and this time he didn’t start up again, so I knew he was finished telling me whatever it was he wanted to tell me.

“So you ran off,” I said.

He thought about it.  “I didn’t measure up,” he said.  “If I’m looking at it square, then I’d say I didn’t measure up.”  He finished the last of his whiskey and set the glass down beside the chair.

I told him it was late and I was going inside.

He put his hand on my arm as I walked past, and leaned his head toward me.  “You want to hear a funny thing?” he said.

The smell of whiskey washed over me.  His hand felt hot against my skin, but I didn’t move it or shrug it off.

“River oaks,” he said.  “They don’t even have river oaks in Ohio.  We’re a thousand miles from anywhere that’s got ’em.  I looked it up once.”  He let go of my arm.  “It’s just a name, is all it is.  Just something to make the place sound like something else than what it is.   They’re just swamp trees anyway.”

He dropped his hand then and turned away from me, and I went inside.

§

For the rest of the summer, things were mostly okay.  Dutch talked a lot.  He kept trying to ask me questions even though I didn’t give him much reason to keep trying.  I knew he was going to run off again at some point, because that’s what he did.

I watched my mother to see how she was taking it all.  Some days she seemed happy enough to me.  Other times I thought I wasn’t seeing her right at all.  I’d catch her standing in the kitchen with her hands on the countertops, just looking out the window with a hard look on her face.  I thought that couldn’t be a good thing, to have that kind of look when you were just standing and looking out a window.  That couldn’t mean she was pleased with Dutch coming home and living with us after so many years of it just being her and me.   Then an hour later she’d be on the sofa with her feet up in Dutch’s lap, and they’d be watching television and talking as if they were an old married couple again, instead of whatever they were.  Or I’d watch Dutch make her mint julep and carry it out the porch, where they’d sit until the sun went down.  And there were nights when all three of us were out there.  She’d tell Dutch to play that jazz for her again, because she thought she was getting the hang of it.  And somebody walking by might’ve thought there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary going on, that it was just a thirteen-year-old boy hanging out with his mom and dad.  Sometimes I’d think about it like that myself.  I’d picture it the way a stranger would picture it.  And I’d be tempted by that picture even though I knew it wasn’t a true one.

Now and then that summer, when it was late and I’d gone to bed, I thought back on that day by the river, and I remembered the way she danced.  Not even a dance, but like she was casting some damn spell.  And I’d think maybe that’s what it really was, and somehow she’d brought Dutch back.  In the morning I’d forget about thinking these things.  But some of it must have stayed with me into the daylight hours, because I’d catch myself looking at her.  Letting that idea settle in.  Judging her, I guess.  For letting Dutch stay, and for bringing him back to us in the first place.

It was in the last week of August when I woke up to find him packing his things.

He was wearing just some wrinkled khakis and a t-shirt that he’d already sweated through pretty well.  The suitcase was open on the sofa.  I looked inside and saw that he didn’t have much in it other than his clothes.  A coffee mug, a Louis L’Amour book, a couple bottles of booze.  He was in the kitchen pulling a souvenir highball glass down from one of the shelves when I walked in.

“The farewell party arrives,” he said.  He walked past me and tucked the glass in with his clothes in the bottom of the suitcase.

I asked him where my mother was.

“In her room,” he said.  “Said she doesn’t want to see my damn face.”

I said, “Do you blame her?”

He looked at me then, and I could see he hadn’t slept.  His face looked older and more leathery than usual, and his eyes were glassy.  He hadn’t combed his hair.

“I don’t,” he said.

“Nobody needs you here,” I said.  I felt like I’d been waiting all summer to say that and have it come out the way I wanted, with some authority behind it.

He nodded.  “I know it,” he said.  “So I’m leaving.”

For a few seconds I didn’t get it.  Then it hit me that she’d kicked him out.

He laughed.  “I deserve that too,” he said.  “That look.”  It was the same easy laugh.  It wasn’t a happy laugh, either.  I wondered if it wasn’t ever a happy laugh, and if I’d just never paid any attention to it other than seeing how easy it came to him.

I didn’t say anything more.  What could I have said that wouldn’t have sounded hollow?  He knew I didn’t want him around.  Better not to say anything, I figured.  I just stood nearby and watched him gather up the last of this things.

A taxi pulled up outside, and I walked him out.

“Where will you go,” I said.  Because suddenly I did want to know.  I wasn’t ever planning to visit.  I just sort of wanted to know where he’d be in the world.

The taxi driver opened the trunk and Dutch tossed his suitcase inside.   He stopped by the open passenger door and gave me a long look that I couldn’t read at all.  Finally he said, “You’re a tough bastard, all right.”  That’s all he said.  Then he slid down into the cab and tapped the roof, and the car drove off.

It was ten in the morning before my mother came down.  She didn’t seem tired or beaten down.  She had a hard look on her face that I hadn’t seen before.

“He’s gone?” she said.  I nodded.

The day was a quiet one.  I asked her if she wanted to talk about anything and she said she didn’t.  I hung around the house anyway.  I thought maybe she’d be down even though she was the one who’d kicked Dutch out, but she wasn’t.  She wasn’t herself, I could see that, but she wasn’t down.  I figured she was resolved.  I figured that was the word for her.  And that had to be a good thing.

After dinner I helped her clean things up.

“We could sit on the porch,” I said, when we were done.  “There’s a game on.  We could sit on the porch and listen to the game, if you want.”

She gave me a weary look that lasted only a second or two.  Then she got that look of resolution back on her face.  Like it was something she maybe didn’t want to do but she was willing to go along.  She said, “Listening to the game sounds good, Bo.”

We went and sat outside.  There was a breeze and the streetlamps were just coming on as the daylight bled away.  The game was already in the third inning so we listened and caught up on what was happening.  I looked at her now and then and thought she didn’t look great.  Her face was sort of pinched, and I thought she was clenching her jaw.  I wished I had something to say.

I went inside for a Coke.  When I opened the fridge door, my eye fell on a little plastic bag of mint leaves.  I stood there with the door open, thinking.  It seemed like maybe it could be a good thing, but I didn’t know.  I took the leaves out, washed them and laid them out to dry on the counter.  There wasn’t much bourbon left but I figured there’d be enough.  I pulled down a highball glass and put some sugar and water in it, then set about muddling the mint the way I’d seen Dutch do it.  Taking my time, trying to get it right.  After I added the bourbon and ice, I stirred it up and threw in a couple of extra mint leaves.  It looked like a mess, but I thought I’d done it right.

She turned to see me come back out on the porch, and she spotted the glass before I could say anything.  She drew in a sharp breath and looked up at my face.  I didn’t know what she’d do, then.  I thought she might yell or knock the glass out of my hand.

Instead she smiled.  It was a smile I hadn’t ever seen before and I didn’t know what to make of it.  Maybe it was just the time of day and I couldn’t see her eyes so well.  But it seemed to me like she was looking right through to the other side of me.  Like she was smiling at something she could see on that other side, but I’d never be able to see.

“Well thank you, Bo,” she said.  She accepted the drink, and took a sip.

“I hope it’s okay,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “it’s just fine, Bo.”

We listened to the game without saying anything more for a while.  I was feeling better about things.  I felt like the summer was only just starting, even though that wasn’t true.

“I like it here,” I said.  I meant I liked it here on the porch.  I liked having the radio on with the game, and watching the night slip over everything, and things feeling still and settled at the same time.

She didn’t say anything for a time.   When she did speak, there was an edge to her voice that made me look over at her.  She was holding the mint julep but she hadn’t taken another sip since that first one.  She was holding it in both hands, the way a baby might hold a cup.

“This place,” she said.  “This goddamn place.  You know what I think?”

I shook my head even though she wasn’t looking at me.  She was looking out at nothing.  Or maybe at whatever she’d been looking at before, when she smiled at me.

“I think,” she said, “there are places you go to, and there are places you go past on your way somewhere else.  And River Oaks is one of those other places, Bo.  You speed by and maybe you wonder what kind of lives those people have, the people who live there.  Maybe you wonder.  But mostly you thank god you’re still driving.”  She looked at me then, and I was glad I couldn’t see her too well.  “Only there are people living in those places who can’t keep on driving.  And when you figure out it’s you—that you’re one of those people, Bo, living someplace where other people are just happy to speed past—well, Bo, that’s a bitter thing.  That’s a bitter thing to come to know.”

She didn’t say anything more.  The game kept going on the radio.  I was afraid to say anything more, so I only sat thinking.  A pick-up drove past, heading east out of town, its headlights sweeping across the porch.  I thought about that day on the riverbank.  And I wondered if I’d been wrong to blame her, for thinking she’d cast a spell to bring Dutch back.  Maybe she’d cast a spell to keep him gone.  And it just hadn’t worked.

I knew there was something for me to say.  It couldn’t be right, what she’d said, that couldn’t be all of it.  I knew there was something.  It felt close.  But maybe I only wanted to believe that.

The trees shook in the night breeze.  The fall was all of a sudden coming on.   I put my arm around her shoulders and asked if she’d come inside with me.  Her body stiffened for a second or two, like she was still caught up in whatever it was that made her say what she’d said.  But I kept my arm around her.  Finally she put her head down.  She didn’t anything, just put her head down and rested it on my arm.  I was okay with that.  The night was coming down, and we stayed like that, on the porch, for a good long time.

—Tom Howard

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Tom Howard’s recent fiction appears in The Cincinnati Review, The Open Bar at Tin House, Booth and Willow Springs, and individual stories have received the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction.  He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

May 162017
 

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The following is a story of desire and memory. It comes to us from Franci Novak, a poet and story writer from Slovenia. Novak’s debut story collection, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes), was originally published in Slovene by LUD Literatura. This English translation is by Olivia Hellewell. Hellewell has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.

— Benjamin Woodard

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The first thing I remember is the first bonfire and that drunk guy who came staggering out of the woods with a big log on his head, grinned, and then threw the piece of wood into the flames. It flickered fiercely, it was as if a storm was brewing over the fire, it was beautiful and magical. It was then that I summoned up the courage to go up to him, he was sat on the other side of the bonfire, on a bench, with friends, I asked him if he wanted to come and dance with me, his friends smirked and cracked jokes, the way boys usually do. I watched him all evening, I knew that it was him, that he was the right one that I had to have for myself. He was meant for me. I felt awkward, I was trembling inside myself, not that I let it show from the outside, but I knew that I had to do it. I led him away from the bonfire, away from his friends, and then the two of us danced; it wasn’t easy at first, then he yielded to me entirely, even starting to lead me over the pebbles which ground beneath our feet. We went back towards the bonfire where we talked and made jokes and stared into the flames, some girl was dancing around right in front of us, she was swaying back and forth as if making love to someone.

Whenever someone threw something onto the fire, thin red veins pulsed into the dark air, a fountain of sparks erupted again. The two of us were drinking a sweet spirit from a glass and our breath smelt strongly and intensely, but neither of us was bothered as we kissed; we had our eyes closed, as did the girl who was swaying with a glass in her hands and laughing and bending her knees.

A few of us stayed right up until morning, I remember the large warm rocks around the smouldering bonfire and the tiny lizards that darted over them.

But then I also remember those things before, even further back; it’s crazy how I return to the past so easily, how like lightning I dart back and forth, like lizards over warm rocks: I remember how I had longed for a boyfriend months before. I’d had guys, just like all girls my age, but I no longer wanted to search for anyone else, I wanted a boyfriend to just—materialise. So I took a piece of paper and described him: tall, dark-haired, slender, friendly and so on, I filled the entire piece of paper with beautiful handwriting—the best I could manage—and more, I imagined him in every detail. I pictured him vividly, how he moved, how he smiled and spoke, I really did imagine everything about him, then I jotted that image down, with all the details, on the piece of paper, even though I couldn’t jot all of it. But the image was complete, the pen and paper didn’t know how, but it would know how to see the image, how to create it out of the components I’d noted down, I thought to myself at the time. I pinned the paper to the wall, there above the table, and just beneath it made a mini altar. I wasn’t religious, not in the way others wanted me to be, but in my own way; I’d got a figurine of Mary and baby Jesus from somewhere, but any god would have been fine, it could have also been Buddha or some other god, as long as my image found a way, a passage. I stood the figurine in a corner of the table and surrounded it with flowers, and then I placed a whole armful of tea lights around and lit them, making my room quiver and prance in the flames. Then I put my hands together and prayed for my wish to come true.

If you truly wish for something, your wish comes true, for your wish affixes itself to strings of energy, that’s what’s written in books, that’s what I’ve read, a wish is like a plectrum which glides along the strings of a guitar and compels them to release a certain sound: the sound of your wish coming true. And what is written in those books is true, that is just how it happened, there I am once again, sat with my boyfriend, the drunk guy carrying a big log on his head, the dancing girl bending her knees, a fierce flickering, as if a storm is brewing above the fire, beautiful and magical. The two of us are sitting and dancing, sitting and dancing, his breath smells of strong, sweet spirits, my breath smells too, I look at him and quiver, he is here, my wish come true, we drink and we kiss and we chat long into the night, right up until morning.

And then there’s one other day I remember too, the one when the two of us went for a walk together: it was around a month after our first bonfire, it was an unusual day, the wind was blowing, storks were hovering high above in the sky and the white track that we were walking along was sunken in tall, wavy grass, like a long white tongue with small birds hopping along it. Our hair was tangled, I felt the wind on my body like a third body, we held each other’s hand and walked. A thick smoke swirled in the air, we heard the crackling of branches and leaves and noticed how smoke was coming from a bush beside the path and thought that the bush must have burnt down spontaneously like in those biblical tales; then we caught sight of people who were stood behind and setting fire to the abundant undergrowth. We laughed at their stupidity. I stroked the long, slender grass. We passed a woodpile, I placed my palms on the planks, on their skins which were warm from the afternoon sun.

“Why don’t we light a fire too,” I said. I took out a lighter and tried to light one of the planks with it. He pulled an amusingly serious face and looked around worriedly. I wanted us to play, but he was too serious for games, it seemed like he didn’t understand. I burnt my fingers from holding on to the lighter for a long time.

“I’d need petrol to light that,” I said to him with an entirely serious look on my face. “Shall we go and look for a can?”

He looked at me in astonishment, almost frightened.

“Just kidding,” I smiled, then we lit a joint behind the woodpile, it was getting dark, the clouds were piling up in the pure red sky, the wind blew and the tall grass rustled. For a moment it seemed as if he wasn’t beside me at all, so I had to take hold of his hand in order to feel him.

Then for a few months we lived together, the two of us went to lectures and worked, we never went out anywhere, only for walks nearby, or to the cinema or nearby town. He had his own flat, we cooked together and talked together and loved each other. It was nice.

But one day the fires came back, what had to happen, happened.

Tea lights were burning on the tables of the bar, in the half-light the DJ was dropping some crazy good house, we drank sweet, intoxicating drinks and danced, me and my friends, he and his friends. Before we set off to the party he said that he didn’t want to go, that he’d rather just be with me, that he was fed up of these so-called friends and useless parties and that he was already past all this. But I said that we had to go out, because people had to get together and re-establish contacts and build networks, like ants, colliding with each other all the time with those flickering, quivering feelers. So we just went, it was great, we all danced. When it came to the time that we’d all been waiting for, we ran out with glasses in hand and watched the fireworks. Shadowy figures ran across the car park in front of the bar and placed trembling rockets on the floor until blinding flames spurted out of them; the rockets shot into the sky, sparks hissed through the cold winter air and explosions rattled the window panes; the floor was illustrated with glorious patterns of light and a translucent smoke was carried away across the car park; it was like the start of some insane, new war. Light and shadows, the whistle of rockets and the smell of gunpowder settled into our bodies whilst fires bloomed in the sky.

Some guy wearing tattered gloves and a hat that was too big for him was stood in the car park, looking gloomy with a starting pistol in his hand, whilst the reflection of the fires slid along the metal of the cars like flowing magma; I felt sorry for him, but I knew that not everyone could be a wish come true and that’s the way it had to be. I looked into his eyes as I walked past, all the others looked away.

Then we returned and everyone sat around the table together, we ate, drank and talked, it was happy and noisy. Sometimes I looked at him, at my boyfriend, I saw that he couldn’t wait for the two of us to leave, but I didn’t want to go yet. The waitress came over to us and lit some sort of strong spirits with a lighter, we were drinking cold blue fire, we were drinking fire, the drink extended warmly in my body, I stood up to go and dance. I was wearing insanely good shoes, really tight light-brown boots, then I went to the bar and drank more blue fire; when I went back to the group and sat on a stool, I wanted to dance with him but he didn’t want to, as if his body was numb, he just sat and watched as if he were half-dead.

That guy with the tattered gloves and the hat that was too big came inside, he just came inside with his starting pistol in his hand; a throng of people gathered, everyone looked at him askew, because he was not anybody’s wish come true. The guy fell to the floor, the gloves came off his hands and the hat skidded across the floor. When he got back on his feet, I slipped a glove back on his hand and popped the hat back on his head, as if I were putting a new man together, while the others were laughing; then I stroked his face, his sad, angry eyes shining like tiny fires.

I went back to sit next to my boyfriend, people were still laughing at the guy, who’d left the bar with the starting pistol in his hand. Then it happened, I don’t remember too well, it was like a dream: I was gently embraced by a veil of smoke, it wrapped itself around my legs like a playful cat and crept up and tickled my skin and my shins from the inside. I felt a warmth in my boots, on my heels, burning me, it seemed as if I were burning from all the fire that I had drank; something in me was kindling, the fire was glowing, I jumped on the table and danced with burning boots, like in some film, but I only remember fragments, only still images come to mind: someone brought some water and poured it on my feet, someone else took one of my boots off, we were all laughing a lot, I remember fingers stroking my bare foot and the smell of burning, thick and intoxicating like the trains that once used to pass through my village. I cried out: “Find me the one who threw his fag end at my boots, find him, kill him”, but my voice was like the voice of another, separate and outside of my body. A glass smashed on the floor, from it slowly grew a damp star, blue flames shot out from the glass.

I took off my second boot and walked around barefoot for a while. I went back to him, my wish come true. He’d been sat at the table the whole time and he didn’t budge, he was just watching; I sat on his knee and asked him if something was wrong, he stroked me and said that nothing was wrong. He asked me if it stung at all and if everything was ok, without looking me in the eye. Then I asked him if he was ashamed, and he said he wasn’t ashamed, but I knew and I got angry, I sat on his friend’s knee and said to him that if he was ashamed of me I’d go with someone else who wasn’t ashamed of me. I then drank a whole load of other drinks and sat on his friend’s knee and danced barefoot on the tables.

He came up to me, drew me in towards him and said that I wasn’t capable of love. I stared at his talking mouth, his face turned into fire, went up like a piece of paper thrown into the flames; I didn’t tell him how big, how enormous the love inside me was, how in a moment of complete clarity, complete focus I cautiously look around, how I slowly, tenderly, lovingly let go of the burnt-out cigarette onto my boot, how I feel a slight sting, a slight ignition, a warmth down there, how I then dance, I light and extinguish my own fires, how I am my own fire myself.

When I stepped outside, everything was insanely open, winter was vast and free and thousands of fires trembled above, and a shot fired from a starting pistol burst into a single white flame in the sky.

— Franci Novak, translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell

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Franci Novak is a poet, who after leaving secondary education took classes in theory and practice at Ljubljana’s School of Art. His first poetry collection, Otroštvo neba (Sky’s Childhood), was published by Mladinska knjiga in 2011. In 2010, Novak was awarded the title of Knight of Poetry for Pivec Publishing House’s Poetry Tournament, marking the best unpublished Slovene poem of the year. His first collection of short stories, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes) was published by LUD Literatura in 2014.

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Olivia Hellewell is a literary translator from Slovene and is currently writing her PhD thesis on ‘Translation and Cultural Capital in a Small Nation: The Case of Slovenia’ at the University of Nottingham, UK. In 2013 she was awarded the Rado L. Lenček prize by the Society for Slovene Studies for her essay on translating the poetry of Dane Zajc. Olivia has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.

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May 102017
 

As this section opens, the unnamed narrator is leaving the hotel in Rio de Janeiro where he has spent the night. He is anxiously embarking on some sort of necessary journey. But he is travelling without luggage and, it would seem, without a clearly defined purpose, or destination.

Atlantic Hotel is translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris.

—  Joseph Schreiber

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I went down the hotel steps half stooped, my legs and back were killing me. When I got to the door I put one of my hands against the wall to hold myself up, and with the other I pressed against the pain in my lower back. Maybe I should go back to my room? I wondered. Maybe I should stay, give up? Maybe I should marry the flapper from reception? Maybe I’ll be content with the company of a woman?

I’m old, I thought. Old at barely forty. Traipsing around would be madness. Legs, weak. Irregular heartbeat, I know. And my rheumatoid posture…

There, stopped in the hotel doorway, I felt vertigo. Foggy vision, out of breath…

But I needed to get going. I stepped down from the stoop and leaned against the wall of the building. Lots of people were passing along Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, just like every morning, some brushed against me, touched me inadvertently, coughed.

I felt on the verge of fainting but avoided the idea of asking for help. Resorting to another person’s assistance would be the same as staying, and I needed to go.

Then I thought about getting a taxi. So I went looking for one. I walked by moving one leg at a time, steadying myself on other people like a drunk. Until my feet stepped into the dark puddle in the gutter. I hailed a cab and it stopped.

I told the cabbie I was going to the bus station. I got in the back, curled up, lying down on the seat. The driver asked if I was sick. With what remained of my voice I said I was only tired. Bus station, I repeated. The cabbie kept talking, but I couldn’t follow.

At one point I understood he was talking about the cold. I said: Oh, the cold, as cold as the Russian steppes. He told me: The Russian steppes are cold as death. This I heard quite clearly.

I returned to my senses. The traffic. The cabbie commenting on the smog in the Rebouças tunnel. I leveraged my hands against the seat back and managed to bring myself upright. The car was emerging from the tunnel.

I was almost better, just a tremble in my hands.

“How come you’re so tired?” the cabbie asked.

“I was partying all night,” I replied.

He laughed. I showed him my hand and said, “Look how I’m trembling, it’s alcohol tremors.”

“You’re an alcoholic?” he asked.

“Yeah, but I’m going to a treatment center in Minas,” I replied.

He shook his head, gave a little snort of assent, and said, “I have a brother-in-law who drinks. He was in rehab three times.”

Suddenly, the cabbie said we’d arrived at the bus station.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Great,” I replied, almost startled.

I watched the commotion at the bus station and saw the hour of my departure had arrived, the way someone going under for surgery witnesses the anesthesiologist’s first procedure.

I took a wad of money from my pocket, opened my hand, and gave it to the cabbie. He asked if I wanted change. I inquired if he knew where to find the ticket counters for the buses to Minas. He smiled, gave me a look, and said he had no idea.

“I’m sorry.” I said it full of a sudden shame.

“Sorry for what, man?” he asked.

“Sorry for being who I am,” I replied, closing the car door softly.

I got on the escalator going up. The one coming down was jammed with people. Between the up and down escalators there was a long concrete staircase. People in a hurry were going up and down, skipping steps.

On the escalators everyone seemed totally immersed in what they were doing. Noticing this relaxed me. I too would manage: travel, take the bus, arrive somewhere else.

There were long lines at the ticket windows. A lot of people were milling around. Many others sat on benches. A man and a woman kissed shamelessly at a lunch counter. A man left the pharmacy looking at his watch.

I sat on a bench, way at the end. The rest of the bench was full. I stretched out one of my legs a bit, without letting my heel come off the floor. My leg looked a bit pitiful. Maybe it was the crumpled up unwashed sock, the fleck of mud on my shoe. A pitiful state I’d done everything I could to disguise. I brought the leg back over beside the other.

Now I was looking at nothing except the dirty floor on the upper deck of the bus station. Gazing at that dirty floor, I had nothing else to think about. Maybe a vague yearning for a child’s intimacy with the floor.

It struck me that my journey might bring me back to that intimacy. A voice inside me said, between excitement and apprehension, Who knows, maybe I’ll end up sleeping on the ground.

I took out the ball cap I always carried in the pocket of my blazer. I put it on my head in the position I liked, a little to the right side. I no longer needed a mirror to be sure the cap was placed in exactly that position.

The cap obeyed, loyal. My hands had memorized the way to execute their task. As always, when the task was completed, I gave a little tap on the cap’s brim to see if it was really on right.

I ran my hands down my body as though searching for something and felt a bulk in the blazer’s other pocket. It was a thick piece of paper folded several times—a map of Brazil I’d bought two days earlier.

I looked around, making sure there was room to open the map all the way. I put my legs over the armrest of the bench. Now, with nobody on either side, I could extend my arms.

As I opened the map I remembered what I’d said to the cabbie. That I’d be going to alcohol rehab in the Minas countryside.

On the map, the Minas countryside looked like a swarm of little towns. My gaze descended a little, crossing into São Paulo State and stopping on Paraná.

I was thirsty. I thought about getting a mineral water. I folded the map, discreetly tucked it under my butt. Then I got up and walked away.

I didn’t even make it five steps. A woman seated on the bench facing mine called out, “Hey, sir, sir, I think you forgot something there.”

I looked back, toward the spot where I’d been sitting, saw the paper folded on the bench seat, turned to the woman, and shook my head, saying, “It’s not mine.”

— João Gilberto Noll, Translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris

Excerpt courtesy of Two Lines Press; translation copyright 2017 Adam Morris

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João Gilberto Noll (1946–2017) is the author of nearly twenty books. His work appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he was a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of more than ten awards in all, he died in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the age of 70.

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Adam Morris has a PhD in Latin American Literature from Stanford University and is the recipient of the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize in literary translation. He is the translator of João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel (Two Lines Press, 2017) and Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press, 2016), and Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House Books, 2014). His writing and translations have been published widely, including in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. He lives in San Francisco.

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May 092017
 

John Bullock

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To kill time, Mia is studying the Hollywood Legends portrait gallery in the hotel lobby. A small furry spider is moving across George Clooney’s tuxedoed shoulder and then up and across his beaming face. When it gets to the exposed tip of his upper incisor, the spider stops, as if baffled by where it has landed, or unsure where to go from there.

Finn promised to be back by six. That would give them plenty of time to get to the cliffs to see the divers. Finn is a gifted promise breaker, and Mia hopes he’ll have no choice but to stand her up again—another crisis at the restaurant. She would prefer to see the divers alone. They are the main reason she came with him on the trip. Besides, if she goes without him, he can always catch up with her later, which he won’t.

After waiting ten more minutes she decides he is definitely not coming, and so takes a taxi from the hotel forecourt. The thrill of escape trails her like a vapor as the car winds down from Punta Diamante, past the clubs and hotels along the coast, the flashes of sand and water between the buildings. She is glad she won’t see the city when it’s packed with spring breakers, trashing the beauty. When she was in college, the most fun she remembered having at spring break was working at a camp for kids with cancer. They would go on daytrips to Rehoboth Beach, where the main event was crab. From what everyone kept telling her about it, she expected the taste to be so extraordinary that her life would change forever. But after she’d cracked the shell and fiddled with the bits and pulled out some of the meat, it just tasted sour and fishy. And her fingers were covered. Why hadn’t anyone told her that it was just a lot of gunk for nothing?

Lovers are clutched against the safety rail separating the road from the bay below. The driver points to the brightly lit cliff that veers in and out of view as they follow the snaking road. “Clavadistas,” he says, making a diving motion with his hand. Mia can’t believe she’s here. She remembers how she and Vance played hookey in his dad’s den all those years ago and watched Fun in Acapulco, with Vance saying there was no way Elvis had made the dive from the top of the cliff, that it was totally a stunt. If Vance were alive he would have loved to see the real divers. Mia is here for him.

They reach the top, where the El Mirador hotel sits curved into the cliff, its restaurant terrace facing the inlet where the divers land. Tourists and locals mosey through the square before descending the steps to the concrete pier that juts out over the inlet, thirty feet above the narrow strip of water facing the divers’ cliff. Mia’s a bit queasy: the expectant air and ritual drama, the tide bashing at the rock. She thinks of Vance getting sucked out of his canoe at Sullivan’s Weir, a month before graduation, of his dad jogging back along the riverbank, kind of whimpering for help. When Mia and the others reached Vance, he was snagged in a culvert, by a fallen tree, floating in foam from the nearby factories. The next time she saw him was at the funeral home. He looked flawless, better than if he were going to the prom. He would never dress up for that. Mia tries to believe it wouldn’t have mattered, that they wouldn’t have argued about it, though she knows they probably would have. He was so stubborn. But it was different back then. Arguing was easy. Rather than stewing in silence in bed together, you could just put on your shoes and go home.

She looks up at the hotel’s terraces, and for a moment her eyes fall into soft-focus, taking in the blurred dazzle of the night, the murmur around her, the warm bay breeze on her face. She hears hiccups. At her waist is a Mexican boy. His mother and sister are laughing at the faces he’s making to try to conquer his hiccups. The more they laugh the less he can concentrate, and the stronger his hiccups get. He’s mad. When he sees Mia smiling, it’s the final straw. He sulks off to the other side of the pier, takes a full breath, and then bends himself double as if to trap whatever air is inside him. When he stands normally and exhales, he looks hopeful. But his hiccups soon start again.

People crowd the pier. The first dive is scheduled for 7:30. Mia watches the tide surge at the cliff. She’s never felt so raw, so mortal. The night is vast and open, full of dark reaches. How small you can feel here, with so much beyond. There is time and she is idle and it feels wrong. Her hands in the open night. What to do with them? Her dress has no pockets. She takes off her cardigan and is wrapping it around her hands when she feels a brush at her shoulder.

“You are cold?” the man says. He’s older, lean, with an accent. He has a camera with a big lens and is holding it high.

“No,” says Mia. Then she says, “Beautiful.”

“I saw them lighting their torches at the top,” the man says. “The show is about to begin.”

“I can’t wait,” says Mia. And she can’t. Well, she probably could, but she’s here now, and her past is about to appear tonight and make a brave leap into the present. She sees the man looking at her bulge. “I’m replete with the future,” she says, touching her belly, not thinking about being heard.

“Ah,” says the man.

“Mine drift,” says Mia. “My eyes. If you let them slide they’ll pick up on things you normally don’t see. It’s like what things are when you let them be.”

“A philosopher,” says the man, looking expectantly toward the steps. “I’m afraid philosophy is an orphan here.”

Earlier, reading a magazine in the hotel’s breakfast area, Mia overheard a woman say, “Mexicanos son los elefantes de América Latina.” She had no idea why the woman said it, but it sounded far more like philosophy than anything she’d ever thought.

“There,” says the man, “the torches.”

The torch-bearing boys, in black Speedos, descend the steps. The crowd applauds. The boys dump their torches in a bin by a table and cut through the crowd to the low wall against which Mia and others have wedged themselves, to get the best view of the inlet and the spotlighted cliff across from it. One by one the boys hop over the wall and work their way down the sloped bank to the water. There is a splash: one has dived into the inlet. He surfaces, shakes his head. He sways in the current and swims over to the base of the cliff, then hoists himself out of the water. As he climbs, another boy dives into the water and swims to the cliff. In time all nine boys make it across and work their way barefoot up the eighty-foot cliff-face, just as Elvis had. Mia thinks of her rush-hour drives to work. This is a much tougher commute, but they make it look so easy.

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The diving was fabulous, of course. Fantastisch! But the fact that you knew what was coming somehow flattened the magic and made it seem like an experience you’d already had. But the boys’ monkey-scurrying up the rock was very cool.

“Barbary apes,” says the man, who is still there, angling his camera to catch a glimpse of a diver as he scrambles back up the sloped bank and onto the pier. “Do you know them?” he says over the crowd’s applause.

“Apes?” says Mia. “Of course.” Although she doesn’t. But in a foreign country, among strangers, a lie is the same as the truth, or better. She is watching the boy’s bird-lean body as he hops back over the low wall, his black hair short and shiny, the water thin streams down his shoulders. How do they not split on impact?

“Do you think skin has a memory?” says Mia.

The man doesn’t answer. Mia thinks some more about the skin thing. “Have you ever done something with your face, a look or expression, and then suddenly it’s like déjà vu and you’re totally someplace else, maybe years ago, the time when you last made that face?”

“There are two more performances,” says the man. Then he stops angling his camera and addresses Mia: “Why are you here?”

“Last week I was driving,” she says, “and I was thinking about my grandma. It was late, and I was a bit out of it. All of a sudden I start getting twitchy-eye. And then I looked down at the ground. That’s when I got this weird wiggly-sideways feeling. Like a flashback? And then it was like I was eight years old again. Not sad or anything, just that that was the last time — I don’t know if it had happened before then, but that was the last time my body remembered doing that twitchy-sideways face.”

Then she settles back into herself. “I’m here with my husband. For the divers.” She looks up at the shrine at the top of the cliff and frowns. “Is that what you mean?”

He smiles. “You are a tourist?”

“I guess,” says Mia. Then she realizes she isn’t, not exactly. “No, no. It’s much more.”

“We’ll discuss it over drinks,” says the man, nodding in the direction of the hotel entrance. “I am Dieter.”

“My name is Mia,” says Mia.

She is being gently guided by a stranger, and she is intrigued by how natural it feels, how uncomplicated, as though there is no reason for it to feel otherwise. So natural, in fact, that it would be inappropriate, ungrateful, to object. She can’t think of the last time she allowed herself to let something happen, to let herself be carried off. And when you decide, when you really make up your mind, things happen so easily. They want to happen. They just need a little nudge.

Dieter goes to the restroom. The waiter brings menus. Mia sits at the table and wonders about Finn. She is so glad he didn’t come. It didn’t mean anything to him, and if he was in the same mood he’d been in since they arrived, which was likely, he would have ruined her special evening. The restaurant’s main chef had quit again. Finn got rid of him. The temporary chef turned out to be the manager’s kids’ godfather, and a bus mechanic. Finn got rid of him too. So now they had an Argentine steakhouse — “Don’t ask,” Mia would say — with no one to work the grill. Even when they had friends over for cookouts, Finn would set up his cocktail station in the lounge and let someone else do the grilling. He hated getting smoky. It put him in a mood. He said he could still smell it in his nose the next morning. That it took him four showers to get out. Well, he was in a foul mood now. If he didn’t find a new grill-master today, the restaurant would have to close.

Mia is tired of the saga, tired of Finn’s “creative solutions.” Since being here she’s seen a whole new side of him. He never was much of a fixer, but Mia realizes now for the first clear time that he has no clue how to run a business. She’s mad because it’s taken her so long to see this, and even madder because Finn told her that it was his job, that he would handle it. Her job was being pregnant. Now that he hasn’t done what he said he would do, again, Mia is out of ideas. All she knows is that she’s quite capable of building a financially ruinous future with Toby Vance on her own, without Finn’s help. She also knows this is the last time he’s putting any of her money into anything.

.

When Mia gets back from the divers, Finn is watching TV in the bar. They order drinks and a snack and go out to the candlelit terrace overlooking the bay. It’s late and deserted, apart from the two waiters inside playing cards.

“They wouldn’t know an easy life if it smashed them in the face,” says Finn, talking about the feud between his chef and his manager.

“They must need the work,” says Mia. “Can’t you incentivize them?”

“Great idea,” says Finn. “I’ve got an incentive, it’s called ‘a job’. They can bullshit the paycheck all they want, they’re not taking money out of my pocket. No más.”

Mia listens, but her mind keeps drifting back to the sight of the divers, scrambling up the cliff-face and then leaping out into the impossibly limitless night, their arms high and wide in salutation. It’s then that she thinks she sees something, or half-sees it, moving around her. She might have imagined it. But then something knocks the table. She leaps from her chair.

“Raccoon,” says Finn. He hisses, and it backs off. But then another one appears through the fence.

“They look evil,” says Mia.

“Nothing a spade to the head wouldn’t fix,” says Finn.

Mia feels swarmed, overrun. Fear fogs her mind. “I’m going to the room,” she says.

“Go, go,” says Finn, dismissing her.

Mia leaves him to his raccoon impressions. She imagines the creatures advancing on him, ready to pounce and savage.

Later, when Finn comes into the room, Mia is lying awake in the dark counting all the single moms she knows or has heard of. Ashley, Andrea, Becky, Meredith, Jess . . . Actually, there’s lots.

Finn leaves the light off.

“You’re still alive then?” says Mia.

Finn doesn’t reply, but she can feel the sad weight of him in the dark.

“Drama, drama,” he says. His shoes thump against the far wall.

.

Squeezed in the backseat of a taxi, wearing a dress that does nothing to hide her bulge, Mia isn’t sure if she’s in the mood to make history. The feeling isn’t completely new: she felt the same in her gynecologist’s office, after she’d confirmed her pregnancy. But she’s alone here, with a baby, and that’s different.

She’d been lonely for much of her pregnancy, and that loneliness had been like a rising wall separating her old self from the Mia-to-be. It was supposed to be normal, but she knew it wasn’t. What would happen, she wondered, when the future became her present and the past just disappeared? She didn’t want to give up the past. And she didn’t want a present so draining and stressful that there wasn’t time for the past. The thought of constantly building a future was terrifying. The fear of it wore her down.

The taxi stops at the zócalo. She likes the oomph of the word, like a spade breaking earth, or an oar cutting water. Either way, she feels like she’s entered a different world. The air and sounds and light are from a time even before Elvis, before the airport was built, before Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller. Even if such a time never existed here, Mia believes that it did.

There’s music from speakers on the bandstand. And dancing. The dancers are a mix of old and young couples — the men in pants and pressed shirts, the women in dresses or skirts. Dancing unnerves Mia. Being near it. She isn’t good at it, and she makes sure she’s far enough away from it to not get roped in. But to her amazement, and in a way she has never known, the dancing begins to draw her closer, begins lulling her, like the sway of river grass. A lily opens inside her.

She watches the dancers go through their steps, never moving far. It’s as though the dance was invented by someone who lived in a box. The formal harmony of the dancers makes Mia stand a fraction straighter, newly mindful of her posture, vicariously elegant. How would she start to let go? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if someone did take her arm, like Dieter had, and led her to dance. It would be rude to decline. Mia finds herself moving through the audience and closer to the bandstand, to get a better view. An old man wearing a white fedora smiles at her. “What is this?” she asks. “Danzón,” he says, presenting the scene to her, as if in offering.

Just then Dieter arrives. He taps her arm.

“I didn’t know humans could dance like this,” she says. “The people here are not like us.”

Dieter nods. “In danzón the passion is so . . .” He mimics trying to squeeze something together. “Contained. Intense. Each move means so much.”

The trumpets are tinny and distorted, and Mia’s ears start to hurt. They walk away through the square. The sun is strong, but the banyan and rubber trees shade most of it and soften the heat. Men sit on benches and read newspapers, take shoeshines, or smoke cigarettes and look on. Women bustle about. On the far side is a blue church with two domes. In the middle of the square is a fountain, and a fan of paths lined by low hedges. Black birds caw from the trees.

Mia sits on a wall in a patch of sunlight while Dieter goes to buy water for the hike. She smiles watching him, his loaded backpack and camera. He is interesting, and he is making her think and feel differently. But she is happy to be alone now. The dancing has changed her. She feels poetic. For now she has become someone who can see further into things than the old Mia Pfefferle ever could. And then the sensation leaves her, like a regular melting mood, and she slips back to being plain old Mia. Now she doubts whether she has anything like poetry in her after all. Or dance.

It’s nice on her own, a white woman in a foreign city, but then that feeling also fizzles out and her mood sinks when she thinks of Finn, and how much difference he could have made if he’d thought of doing something nice for them after he’d fixed the mess at the restaurant. Like booking a surprise romantic trip. It would have meant so much. But he never thought about things like that, and it wasn’t likely to cross his mind now. He’s probably so enmeshed in disaster that he’s forgotten Mia even came on the trip with him.

Dieter is back with the water.

“Where’s your hat?” he says. “It’s very open up high.”

Mia feels good in her sleeveless sundress. She has a few things in her shoulder bag, but not a hat. She doesn’t like hats. His has fabric hanging from the back of it, the way of people in the desert. He’s wearing long shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Very roomy. Only his calves and hands are showing.

“Did you bring anything for the sun?” he says.

Mia doesn’t answer. She doesn’t know what he means.

§

Dieter has his own car, plus directions to the site, so he drives. Waiting in traffic, Mia hears a strained scale from a reverberating trumpet. It sounds as though somebody’s playing it in the bath. She looks to see where the sound is coming from. Above the pharmacy, through the open shutters of a rooftop apartment, stands a schoolgirl, perhaps ten. She has a trumpet to her lips, and her grandma is watching from a nearby chair. The scene reminds Mia of her cello lessons when she was young, how she wrestled the bulky instrument between her knees as though it were alive. She sees an image of herself now, with a full-size cello, in an unfamiliar room, sterile and vaulted. Maybe it’s a sign that she’ll take up music again when she returns home, though she doubts there’ll be time for such luxuries.

“Welcome to Palma Sola,” says the man in the Welcome Center, coming out from behind his desk. They shake hands and he shows them the visitors’ book. He fishes for a pen — Dieter produces one from his top pocket — and stands by to advise them on what information goes where. They are the first visitors of the day. It has been a quiet week. Two days ago a woman from Kazakhstan came to draw petroglyphs. The man points to her name in the visitors’ book. There is no admission fee, he says, but donations can be left in the box. When they’re leaving, he repeats the part about the donations. “Yes, yes,” says Dieter. “When we come down.”

Mia follows Dieter out the door and toward the stone steps. The blue veins in Dieter’s calves are like scrambled cells, how they look under a microscope. Mia thinks of the revolution her body has gone through in recent months — not the right thought for a hot day. She feels a strong pinch of heat in the backs of her knees, and can’t wait to get to the top.

The path winds steeply. Offshoots lead to rock formations and individual boulders, many smooth and oval, and so precisely placed they couldn’t possibly have arrived there by chance. Their presence, their being, feels too intentional, too inevitable, to be down to chance. Many are adorned with carved figures doing whatever the people there did three thousand years ago — worship deities, perform fertility rites, dance. Mia studies the stick figures carved into the boulders. She gets the drawings okay, mostly, and enjoys tracing the looping lines connecting the figures and symbols, like it was one of those find-where-each-string-takes-you puzzles she sometimes did while waiting at the dentist’s. If there’s a quiz when she gets back to the Welcome Center, she won’t be able to say for sure what the different petroglyphs mean. But they do make her think of connections. And of her baby, Toby Vance. And of plain old-fashioned Vance, who probably would have thought the petroglyphs fake or phony. Actually, no. He wouldn’t. She remembered that he’d gone on a caving trip once, to Virginia. He told Mia about how he’d crawled on his belly for what felt like a mile, with the rock shelf only inches above him, its jagged surface sometimes scraping his back. The same claustrophobic feeling she’d had at that time now comes back to Mia, even though she couldn’t be more out in the open.

A particular image strikes her: a regular stick-figure woman, but with a round rock of a body. Looking at the image, Mia is jolted by the unignorable fact of her own swollen self, and her ever-growing belly, which shows no signs of slowing. Once she was slim and fit, now she’s this . . . this fat lump on legs. The more she thinks about the image and about her body and about what it’ll be like when all this growing is over and she’s finally the mother of a helpless adorable blob, the more she feels a sort of kindredness, a connection to something old and wise. The nudity in the drawings seems natural, not vain or attention grabbing. She surprises herself by not jumping to the kinds of conclusions she might have at home. (She’d only once sunbathed topless, at a friend’s house, when she was fifteen. There were five girls. The friend whose house it was went into the kitchen and came back outside with popsicles. Then she laughed at Mia, saying she had the body of a twelve-year-old boy, and the smallest boobs in the school. Mia cried. She got dressed and went home. That was the last time she showed her body.)

Close to the top, Dieter guides Mia gently by the elbow. He seems to like touching her. Mia says nothing, but she likes it also, the way he does it without asking. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might not like it. After all, what’s not to like? Was that more European, she wonders. Unlike Finn, Dieter doesn’t spend most of his time explaining what he’s going to do or worrying about what he has to do or imagining all the things that might go wrong when he finally does whatever he decides to do. Something occurs to Dieter, and he does it. He doesn’t stop himself for no reason, and he doesn’t get in his own way. Mia likes that very much.

“Here it is,” he says. They stand at the cave entrance. In front of it are several long stones, again carved with stick figures connected by looping lines. Mia looks at the figures, then at the cave. It has a high roof and goes back into blackness, but she can’t see whether it’s the kind of cave Vance explored in Virginia. That cave was barely visible from the outside, he’d said. Just a few stones marking the entrance. This one is very visible. A giant waiting mouth.

“Are there bats?” she says.

“Let’s see,” says Dieter.

Vance said that in the cave in Virginia there were so many bats, and that they glistened from the light on his hard hat as he passed, as though dusted with sugar. They were hibernating. Vance was scared when the trip leader told them not to shine their lamps on the bats because the heat might wake them. What if all those bats suddenly awoke in a panic and took flight?

And then Dieter is gone. Sitting there, feeling his new absence, and her new solitude, the wind seems firmer to Mia, more resolute, as though it has rushed in to fill the new space.

“It’s nice and cool,” he calls.

Mia can’t see him, can’t tell where his voice is coming from. She climbs onto one of the rocks and looks down at the bay. She can’t see the whole horseshoe, just the middle slice, but the view is stunning. There’s a strong warm breeze rising, and she feels herself ease into it in the warmth of the sun, dropping her shoulders and tilting her head.

When Dieter comes out, Mia is sunning herself on the rock. She’s almost forgotten about him. She’s somewhere else entirely: at the weir, staring at the slick rush of water as it poured over the lip. It was so pure, so unbroken, like you could stand in it on a summer’s day and sing. She liked to sing. Vance said she was annoying, but he always said things he didn’t mean. That was how he loved her.

High above the bay, beyond the car horns and fireworks, the trumpets and steeple bells, one might believe that beneath the chaos and poverty, the corruption and violence, Mexico had in its earth an old deep peace, and that the surface havoc of everyday life came from a newer world, one lost and adrift from the old. But Mia isn’t thinking that. The bay is wide and shining, and she’s thinking she doesn’t want to go down there again, not if it means going back to Finn.

She sits up, feels her bulge. She looks at Dieter’s hand now on the rock beside her. He’s tracing one of the looping tails with a finger. But for the rustle of nearby trees, it is silent.

The quiet continues. Mia waits to hear a bird, but there aren’t any. Then after a while she says, “Photograph me.”

Dieter thinks about it. Then he says, “OK.”

He removes the lens cap from his camera and takes some warm-up shots of the line drawings on the rock, of the cave.

Mia kicks off her sneakers and socks, stretches her legs. The rock is hot and grainy, and her calves go tight with the heat. She lowers herself onto the rock, under the full afternoon sun, and lies onto it until she’s fully stretched. She is alone on the rock with her baby. This moment is hers. Finn is a roll of old carpet she’s been strapped in, her arms pinned, her breath stifled. With her eyes closed, she curls her fingers into the rock and grips tight. Sloughing his cracked-rubber shell, she feels his suffocating roughness slide down the length of her body, until at last he’s cut away, cast off to a past she’ll never recall.

Without the weight she’s been carrying so long, she feels inconceivably light, liable to rise up at any moment and float above the rock she’s been clutching.

She rests her hands on her bulge. “I want to go back to the dance,” she says. “Goddammit I do.”

“Very well,” says Dieter. The shutter clicks, clicks again. “Imagine yourself in the dance. What is the feeling?”

“My skin is new,” shouts Mia.

“You are in the dance,” he says, moving around her, clicking away. “What do you see?”

“My new skin,” she says.

“Dance, dance,” he says, coming in lower and closer.

“Meet my new skin,” she says to the lens, which is so close to her face now that Dieter has all but ceased to exist. “This is my new skin,” she says. “And it’s perfect for dancing in.”

—John Bullock

.
John Bullock teaches Language Arts to rural high schoolers in Ohio and parents an old male cat with a fang. He earned his MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Virginia, and has published a novel (Making Faces) and a number of short stories. He is currently procrastinating fixing up the old house he just bought and finishing a second novel.

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May 042017
 


 

.Marissa woke as intended to the sound of the unearthly chant: qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis. She sat up on her prayer mat, hands folded across her heart, breathing as she had been taught, sharp intakes of air through the nostrils, pulled down to the bottom of her belly, then harshly expelled. The rushing sound of her breath flowed in and out between the long sustains of the singing. Ten breaths brought her alert. What had been the dream she was just dreaming? — but she was not meant go toward it now.

Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Tu solus Dominus.

Now breathing normally, forgetting even that she breathed, she lowered her hands from her heart and let them lie palms open on her inner thighs, in the cross of her legs on the prayer mat. Her palms were full of heart warmth, as if they cupped warm fluid in the dark. The darkness was not total, though. A weak light flickered in a high corner, casting a horned shadow across the floor and the far wall where it broke on the black felt that sealed the window. She brought her memory to bear on the First Sin, which was that of the Angels—wanting to recall and understand all this in order to make me more ashamed and confound me more, bringing into comparison with the one sin of the Angels my so many sins, and reflecting, while they for one sin were cast into Hell, how often I have deserved it for so many…. In doing so she also concentrated on a point of warmth halfway between her navel and her vulva, as though blowing softly on a coal—this practice belonged to a different discipline yet she believed it might aid this one.

Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis the sin of the Angels, how they, being created in grace, not wanting to help themselves with their liberty to reverence and obey their Creator and Lord, were changed from grace to malice, and hurled from Heaven to Hell; and so then qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostrum but here Marissa’s mind hung up on the word hurled which somehow attached itself to a weakness in her meditation, whispering itself into meaninglessness, tawdry as the hidden disc on which she’d looped a Gregorian Qui Sedes, setting the player with a timer to rouse her from her idle dreams at midnight, false as the yellow Christmas bulb tucked on top of her tall corner cupboard which hurled the shape of its fineals across the room like horns. Mocked by her own monkey mind she trembled in frustration, hurled back and repulsed from the meditation even as she continued hopelessly to struggle, to move the feelings more with the will.

The music stopped, but she didn’t notice, and the light was gone too, something had changed, monkey mind was fussing over these changes but quickly completely she managed to smother it, turning her being into the new thing, whatever it was, or rather being snatched into it by three points, the one below her navel and the two aching points of her breasts. Across total darkness curved a sliver of light like a shooting star, going down and down, hurled down. 0, 0, 0, she thought, with unutterable sorrow, she is lost. Away in her room, which somehow her being had after all departed, her hands were fluttering in her lap. Far away in the other realm, among its splintering materials. Lost to me. To herself. Not to herself.

The spark went down a long way into darkness, but it did not go out.

§

“The eye of our intention,” Claude was saying, with the rasp and flare of a match as he scraped it on the striker. He leaned forward across his folded knees to light the candle between them on the wooden floor. Marissa looked down on the top of his bony, close-cropped head, sprouting a silvery down like dandelion seed. He wore his favorite sweater, a black crewneck riddled with tiny moth holes. The sight of it gave Marissa a peculiar watery feeling, like looking at a puppy before its eyes had opened.

She too was kneeling, sitting on her heels. It was a remarkably painful position if held for long. Claude had inured himself to it during a sojourn in Tibet. He tilted his baldish skull, whose shadow shifted on the wall behind him. In the dim his eyes seemed to acquire an ascetic slant.

“…makes the difference.” He breathed slowly. “Between an Exercise and ordinary trance.”

The eye of our intention. Claude had told her not to think of him as pastor or confessor, nor to call him Father, although he was a priest. He was her guide, through the Exercises. Like–

But he did have an intuition for her intention if it faltered. For her confusion, when she was confused. He looked at her now across the flickering candle flame, as if withholding a hint of a smile. As if somehow he knew the odd interruption of her Exercise two nights before: the image of a meteor hurtling down into the dark. The eye of her intention had wandered then—Marissa knew it, would not willingly admit it.

“Set and setting,” Claude announced.

Marissa rolled a little on her already-aching knees. “What are you talking about?”

His smile became visible now. “You know, we used to cooperate with other religions sometimes.” By we he meant the Jesuits. “Not here so much, but sometimes in the East. Considerably. Maybe too much. As if whatever religious practices were really all about the same thing—the Divine but in a different aspect.”

“And so?” She returned his smile with her mouth, eliciting, her eyes turned down.

“Set and setting is a phrase from the LSD culture,” Claude explained. “There’re a hundred ways to enter a trance. What happens inside it depends on your expectations and your guidance. The cultural surroundings, so to speak.”

Marissa raised her eyes from the candle to his face. “But you still believe,” she asked him.

“Lord, I believe!” Claude said, raising his open hands. “Help thou mine unbelief!”

They laughed. The room, which was drafty, grew a little warmer.

Claude said, “Shall we begin?”

§

The candle was a fat white cube, unscented, its four walls faced with thin slices of agate. The reddish-brown whorls of the cross-cut stone warmed with the interior light. Shadows of their two kneeling figures loomed in the corners of the ceiling. A voice resonated, Claude’s, not-Claude’s. … to bring to memory all the sins of life, looking from year to year, or from period to period. She was careful not to look at him first, to look at the place and the house where I have lived; second, the relations I have had with others; third, the occupation in which I have lived.

It was equally possible that Claude sat simply mute with his lidded eyes and his lips slightly parted and the voice she heard was an inner one, a fusion of her study and her familiarity with his tone.

§

Fourth, to see all my bodily corruption and foulness;

§

Fifth, to look at myself as a sore and ulcer, from which have sprung so   many sins and so many iniquities and so very vile poison.

§

She heard these phrases, as her eyes turned backwards in her head, and yet she was having trouble with the composition, which in this as in the previous Exercise seemed difficult because abstract.

 

to see with the sight of the imagination and consider that my soul is imprisoned in this corruptible body, and all the compound in this valley, as exiled among brute   beasts:

§

Her eyes, turned backward in her head, saw no such thing.   Nevertheless she was somehow aware how the candle was a barrier between them like a trench full of burning brimstone—why must it be so? The spark she saw tumbling into darkness now had a shape, a bright rectangle like the form of a small mirror, flickering and turning as it fell. The mirror image was a face, a long Modigliani oval, with something streaming away from its edges like hair or snakes or blood. Animal persons rushed at her from the walls of the cave: bison, bear, a mastodon.

§

an exclamation of wonder with deep feeling,

going through all creatures, how they have left me in life and  preserved me in it; the Angels, how, though they are the sword of the   Divine Justice, they have endured me, and guarded me, and prayed for   me; the Saints, how they have been engaged in interceding and praying   for me; and the heavens, sun, moon, stars, and elements, fruits, birds,   fishes and animals–and the earth, how it has not opened to swallow me   up, creating new Hells for me to suffer in them forever!

§

Now she struggled up through syrupy layers of this dark somnolence; her eyes burst open as she broke the surface. She hoped she had not groaned or cried aloud. The candle flame was ordinary, small. Across it, Claude seemed to look at her quizzically. She knew that much more time must have passed in this room than in the cavernous space where she had been.

Blood rushed painfully through her cramped legs as she cautiously unfolded her knees. An aurora of gold speckles swirled across her vision for a few seconds before it cleared. Claude’s regard was knowing now; he knew she had seen something unusual with her inward eye, while she knew that she could recover and understand it when she would, and that she would not tell him now.

Claude came up from the floor like a carpenter’s rule extending, long arms, lean legs in his black jeans.

“All right?” he said.

“Yes.” Marissa’s smile felt warped on her face. “All right.”

Claude looked as if he would offer a hand to help her rise, but didn’t. She got her feet under her and rose on her own. It was difficult to understand the awkwardness of their leave-takings, which were frequent after all. She had seen Claude spontaneously embrace fat foulmouthed drunken women from the rez. The space between their bodies seemed a chasm now. He reached across it, briefly clasped her hand, then let it go.

§

From the next night she could recall no dream but on the third morning she woke with a comprehension of what she had seen in the dark furrow where her Exercise had strayed. “But you know,” Claude seemed to be saying to her in the space of her mind, and she did know now, exactly. It hurt but she was more glad of the pain than not. She was proud to have figured it out on her own. She had something to bring to him now, like a treasure, her confession.

Early, but Claude was an early riser, and Marissa saw no reason to wait. Though they had not planned any meeting this morning, she might if she went quickly catch him for a bit before either of their workdays were due to begin. She dressed quickly, dragged a brush through her dark hair. No make-up, she decided with a tick of hesitation, for she didn’t normally wear it to work.

Her ancient little Toyota pickup rolled over the side streets of Kadoka till its windshield framed the church. Over the white lintel was affixed an electrified image of the Sacred Heart, exploding the burning cross from its upper ventricles, its Valentine contour wrapped in yellow-glowing thorns and weeping a tear of marquee-light blood. Marissa loathed this artifact and wished that Claude would have it removed. His predecessor as parish priest had raised the funds to install it.

Adjacent and connected to the church by a passage of coal-blackened brick, the small seminary where Claude resided was three-quarters empty, most of its windows dirty and dark. Vocations had dwindled on the rez, where a few handfuls of young men once had seen the Church as a portal to a better life. Of course, especially since the scandals, vocations were a problem nationwide…. An ambulance was parked alongside the seminary, its back doors open, siren quiet, red lights revolving slowly. On the far side of the white marble steps Sister Anne-Marie Feeney stood solid as a fireplug, her orthopedic shoes set apart on the pavement, cool wind twitching the black cloth of her habit.

Marissa’s mind could not yet construct the thing she wished to be other than it was, but as she got out of the truck she was already thinking, if I got up on the other side of the bed, put my right shoe on before my left, if a butterfly flapped its wings in China, if then if— A pair of shoulders hunched in a white scrub top appeared in the doorway, backing awkwardly toward the first step, while leaning forward into a load.

Sister Anne-Marie registered her presence and waved her imperiously back with her brick-red calloused hand. Marissa continued to advance; the nun pointed more insistently at something behind her. Her lips moved but Marissa heard nothing. She looked over her shoulder and saw that she had left her driver’s door hanging open across the bike lane which the town had recently established by dint of drizzling a line of white paint across the pot-holed pavement. Sister Anne Marie, who transported herself on a rust-red Schwinn three-speed, was militant on the subject of the bike lane.

Marissa turned back and slapped her door shut –irritably, though knowing herself in the wrong. She advanced again toward the seminary door, where the two paramedics had now emerged with their stretcher and the long figure laid out motionless upon it, covered from head to toe with a white sheet. With no particular urgency they rolled the stretcher in. No eye contact with Marissa or the nun.   Sister Anne-Marie had caught Marissa’s elbow in her blunt grip—had she looked like she would throw herself onto the, onto the—? But now the attendants had closed both doors and were climbing into the front of their vehicle.

She dipped into her front pants pocket and touched the rosary he had given her. This other sequence of events was so clearly present to her still; she arrived to find Claude sweeping the seminary steps, one of many banal tasks he claimed for himself around the grounds of the church. He looked up, mildly surprised, but already more pleased to see her than not, his smile still not quite perceptible as Marissa glanced at her watch and stopped herself from quickening her step. She did not have to be at work for forty minutes so there was time to go around the corner and have a cup of dishwater coffee at the donut shop there—time and so much to tell, and finally someone she could safely tell it to.

The sun broke over the peaked roof line of the church and flooded the sidewalk where they stood with light.

She had apparently missed a few things Sister Anne-Marie had been saying, “… a mickey valve, a mighty valve—oh I can’t remember exactly what but Father said it wasn’t serious, the doctors were watching it, supposed to be.”

She looked at the ugly electric sign. Claude’s heart had a hole in it then, if it had not blown up. Marissa brought her eyes down to the nun’s face, which was the same color and texture of the abrasive blood-red brick of which the older parts of the town were constructed. Take away the wimple and she might have been looking at the face of a career alcoholic, one of the sterno-strainers. Oh, it was only high blood pressure in Sister Anne-Marie’s case, she knew.

“I didn’t know,” she heard herself say.

“Father didn’t tell many people.”

And now Marissa searched the nun’s face for something along the lines of suspicious knowledge (an insight she had carefully denied herself)—an unspoken What makes you think you had a right to know, you little minx? Instead she found only a gentleness she could not bear.

“Child,” said Sister Anne Marie. Marissa broke away from her and walked stiff-legged to her truck.

§

Early to work, she leafed through her dossiers, barely seeing them with her parched eyes. It was supposed to be a paperwork morning; she had no appointments till late afternoon. Just Jimmy Scales, and he was not likely to show. Marissa knew he had skipped his court-ordered pee test and that she would most likely be spending a piece of her afternoon writing him up for it. The molded plastic chair across from her desk, where Scales sat sullen and uncommunicative for forty-five minutes every two weeks. It would be a paperwork day, then, not just a paperwork morning—well, she could catch up on some of those files. A break midmorning, telling her beads in her pocket while she watched Peggy smoke her weak, toxic cigarettes. Yoghurt or a stale packaged salad for lunch. She could populate her whole future with such banalities, as if instead of being doled out one at a time the events had all fallen out of their box.

She yanked the sheet with Scales’s basic stats on it out of the grubby folder and dropped the rest of the folders back in the metal file drawer. Peggy ran into her in the entryway, coming in as Marissa went out.

“Where you off to?” Peggy said.

“After Jimmy Scales,” Marissa told her.

“What? Would that be a rational act? He didn’t even miss his appointment yet.”

“No,” Marissa said. “But don’t I know he’s going to—am I Nostradamus or what?”

“Girl, you look you seen a ghost.” Peggy was wagging her head slowly. “No, you look you are a freaking ghost.”

§

At a gas station on the north bank of White River she stopped and bought a pack of Marlboro Reds and tossed it on the dashboard. She’d done that before when she quit smoking—once for a whole sixteen months. An unopened pack on the corner of her desk proved she was stronger than her addiction and that her clients might even be stronger than theirs. A parable in pantomime. Sometimes she had given the pack to a client, in the end.

At the border of the reservation she pulled over to enter Jimmy Scales’ reported address into the small GPS unit improvisationally mounted on the cracking dashboard of her truck. It came up somewhere west of Sharp’s Corner. Marissa wasn’t familiar with the area. She knew her way to the IHS hospital on East Highway 18, and to Oglala Lakota College, where she had briefly worked in the health center.

She missed the turn she should have taken at Scenic and drove blind across a narrow waist of Badlands National Park. On the far side she kept following 44 as it twisted south into the rez, and presently found herself passing through Wanblee. The wreckage of a couple of houses torn up by a tornado lay scattered over three acres of ground south of the roadway. A little further was a white frame church, with a quaint wooden belfry, photogenic. She pushed down the thought of Claude.   There’d be a funeral. When would it be? Her future….   A handful of boys in droopy shorts and shirts were popping skateboards off the concrete stoop of the church.   One of the more daring rode crouching down the welded pipe stair rail and survived the landing. Swooping in a wide turn over the asphalt parking lot, he glanced incuriously at her truck as it rattled by.

Her dry eyes burned. West of Potato Creek she began to overtake a pedestrian. Slender, with glossy black hair so long it swung around her hips. A half open backpack swung from her shoulder by one strap. She turned, lifting her chin, and signaled not by raising her thumb but pointing her hand peremptorily to the ground, as if to command the truck to stop.

Inez. Marissa’s heart lifted slightly. She leaned across to pop the passenger door. Inez slipped off the backpack as she climbed in, then shrugged out of the denim jacket she was wearing.

“Wow Miz Hardigan, whatcha doin’ all the way out here? Can you gimme a ride down to school?” Inez wore an orange tank top and the round of her belly pushed a gap between its hem and the waistband of her jeans. In her slightly distended navel glittered a small bright stud. She had not stopped talking: “I’d been late to comp class if you didn’t stop—“ she pointed at the corner of a rhetoric textbook sticking out of her backpack– ” I dunno it’s kinda boring anyway I thought I might switch to the nursing program anyway, Miz Hardigan you musta done nursing, right? Hey, can I take a cig? Hey, cool truck, I always liked ‘m, my uncle used to have one once back when they were sorta new.”

Marissa nodded at the pack on the dashboard. It was not like Inez to chatter this way. Marissa knew her as calm and slightly mysterious. She had already peeled the cellophane from her pack and lit a cigarette with a lighter she squeezed out of her jeans pocket, then let it burn down unnoticed between her fingers, as she picked obsessively at some invisible something between the hairs of her left forearm.

Oh Christ, Marissa thought. Do you know what that’s doing to your baby? Do you know what… she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t have, as there was no chink in Inez’ prattle for her to have slipped a word into before they reached the entrance of the college.   Marissa dug in the pocket behind her seat and fished out a scare-you-off-meth brochure…. Unfolded, it displayed the stages of a twenty-year-old woman aging forty years in two. Inez shoved it into her backpack without really seeming to see it at all, but she gave Marissa a hurt look from her wiggly eyes as she hopped out of the truck and slammed the door.

In a devil’s elbow beyond the college, Marissa narrowly missed a collision with a horse-trailer, though the road was otherwise empty and their speeds were low. She pulled onto the shoulder and sat there, shaking with the fading tension, watching the trailer recede in her side-view mirror. A painted rodeo scene flaked from its back panel: cowboys and Indians, horses and bulls. Marissa saw that Inez had dropped a lighter on the passenger seat when she got out. The blue translucent plastic showed a quarter full of fluid. And the cigarette box lay on the dash, cracked open. Another few months into a meth habit and Inez would have automatically stolen it.

Marissa got out of the truck to smoke her first cigarette in over a week. The blast of unaccustomed nicotine dizzied her so much that she had to brace a palm on the warm ticking hood of her vehicle. In one corner of her mind was the thought that this was not really a pleasant or desirable sensation. In another: Now I am going to cry. But she didn’t cry.

Sharp’s Corner was no more remarkable than Wanblee had been. The GPS led her west onto a gravel road that soon degraded itself into a packed dirt track. Where the track petered out into blank open prairie, the GPS unit went dark. Marissa had a state map in her glove box, but on that the reservation proved to be a nearly blank white space, like the African interior on the maps of Victorian explorers. Her tires were worn and it would be idiotic to break down out here; if the GPS had failed her cell phone probably wouldn’t get a signal either.

Nevertheless she drove on. The prairie was neither as featureless nor flat as it first seemed. There were billows and hollows full of thorny scrub and small twisted trees. In one of these pockets appeared a tin roof streaked brown with rust. Marissa steered toward it, thinking that she might have blundered onto the Jimmy Scales’ domicile after all.

She set her parking brake and got out. The small house sat half in, half out of a thicket of evergreen brush, at the bottom of a dish in the prairie, scattered with sharp white stones. It did not exactly look abandoned, but the door hung open in a way that dismayed her. She started to call to the house but did not. To the left of it the rusted carcass of an old Mustang stood on blocks and beside it a washing machine so ancient it had a wringer bolted on top. A dented aluminum saucepan lay upside down among the stones.

The sky darkened abruptly, though it could scarcely have been noon. Marissa looked up to see a black squall line hurrying from the west, dense inky cloud that blotted out the sun. She could no longer remember why she had come here. Out of the thicket to the right of the house came an old man with long white hair, wearing a green quilted vest with the stuffing coming out from its parted seams. He shook a rattle at the end of one bony arm and made a thin keening sound with his voice. Although he did not seem to see her he was coming toward her certainly, as if everything in this day, in her whole life, existed to carry her to this moment and him to her. When he had reached her, his free hand took hers.

Marissa said, Why?

You have a hollow in your heart, the shaman said. Or maybe he said hunger. The rattle shook in his other hand. Hunger. Hollow. Now Marissa was weeping, with no sound or sobbing. She only knew because the water from her eyes ran into the neck of her shirt and pooled in the shell of her collar bone.

Go to it now, the shaman said. Don’t hesitate.

—Madison Smartt Bell

N5

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997)  and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989.  Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990).  In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson.  Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and  Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.

Bell’s eighth novel, All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.

Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York and in London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003. For more details, visit http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell

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