Oct 122016



THE SIGHT OF you in the bustle of the late winter street paralyses me. I had better turn tail and flee, I think: my words squeeze me out of my apathy, seeing you I am embarrassed as though I had inadvertently opened the bathroom door and found you standing naked in front of the mirror, I am startled and would like to back out. What strangers would settle with one phrase I embellish with a lengthy explanation and over-emphatic apologies until my patience runs out and I turn on you because you don’t answer. But how come this imaginary bathroom scene occurs to me? We met on the street by accident, mother and daughter. I recognize myself in you, I find this intrusive and despair at once: how dare I appropriate what is yours, your beauty, as if it were my merit in the least, how dare I presuppose that you inherited it from me, that you resemble me. You fear my love as I do yours, I ratiocinate to myself, and despair at once. If you are weary and the premature, erroneous shadow of age shows on your young face, my heart shrinks, for I cannot help thinking that if one morning you should see yourself as I have just seen you, you will be hurt. Still, I don’t want to rush time: may you stay young yet, I wish, a cruel teenager; I have already burrowed myself in my hole, but please don’t demand explanations from me.

You were around eleven; through the window the light of the full moon illuminated our home: the stage. I tidied up your room while you two were fast asleep; I picked up your scattered things from the floor: a book, one sock, paper tissue, a ballpoint pen and lastly, the half-gnawed apple fallen on the rug, and went out into the bathroom to wash your white blouse for the school festivity the next day. I spotted my careworn face in the misted-over mirror. I was washing your blouse as romantic heroines wash their child’s linen shirt in the rippling creek. Self-commiseration brought tears to my eyes, they flew over, into the water foaming with the washing powder, into the world, into the thick steam, I don’t know why I consumed so much water to wash one single blouse. I tried to cool my swollen eyelids in the cave-like bathroom but my tears continued flowing, I kept wiping my eyes, that is, I was lacerating myself in the usual way. How do you see me, I asked myself and answered my own question: A shadow, a body no longer living, a black contour chased by the routine activities. I jotted down my words on an envelope at hand—for what we write down we manage to distance from ourselves: a mute slave, an hour hand—so I phrased my complaint—that unprotestingly walks the clock face of days, nights and years for you. I hung up your blouse above the bathtub to dry, then sat on your bed and watched you sleeping, taking in your beauty, relishing your free-flowing tresses, my lovely terrorist: as if you were permanently running away from your hunters. A few years later—you were no longer living with us—you showed up on the street all of a sudden, with your cascading gold-chestnut hair: a strange girl in a black shawl, a strange woman was walking uphill on the other side of Török Street. At her sight my heart jumped, but she pretended she didn’t recognize me, she didn’t even greet me. Had you really not noticed me, or did you merely not want to see me? I haven’t dared to ask you ever since, for you always tell the truth and would say, Yes, I had seen you and avoided you.

Quite understandably this time I am overcome by the desire to flee, to disappear in the opposite direction before you see or don’t see me, to be spared the disappointment: you are not happy to see me. I immediately recall that the year before, during the first term you were coming to my university to attend English classes—by that time you had been living apart from us for seven years—we finished at the same hour, we could at least have walked together to the subway station, but you chose to walk with your girlfriend instead, only sparing the time to say hello. So I get off the bus like one drawn on a string, I hasten my steps towards you. I often feel as though I were pulled on a string by a foreign will, for I wouldn’t otherwise stir an inch by myself. I will not put on it the label: on such occasions I get a whiff of the cellar breath of depression. You are approaching with arms wide open, quickening your pace. We wear identical jackets. I had bought you, your little sister and myself identical jackets in America—for financial reasons, it had been a rational decision. They were available in one colour only, this fashionable off green, I risked wearing the same jacket as yours. I rejoiced at the thought of us wearing identical clothes and I thought you wouldn’t mind. On that despondent winter, far from each other on the overcrowded city’s streets, three women would go on their shadowy errands, unaware of one another’s itineraries. But why should winter be despondent? From now on we would embrace each other when we met, for from now on you would come towards me with arms wide open, and I hardly dare believe my eyes.

I would have liked so much to finally tell you—we have always liked to discuss men—that not long ago, on an empty Sunday when your little sister was baby-sitting in England and I, slowly recovering from an unreal love, was going to the swimming pool on a tight schedule, on one of my swimming sessions I suddenly halted in the middle of the pool as if an engine had stopped in me. (The engine had tired of the tight schedule, strength ebbed from it, the water reached up to its mouth.) I made my way to the lane rope and gripped it. I had known the man who was swimming on the next lane for years, our paths often crossed at noon when the others would be eating their lunch, napping or whatever, when there were few people in the pool. He swam to the lane rope in his strange, funny swimming cap (I had anticipated this) and said hello. What a pretty cap you have, I smiled at him (I often smile in self-defence). He took advantage of the situation and proposed that we walk together for the length of a few bus stops after swimming. I said yes. I had indeed wanted to walk, bored by the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon (as if I were kicking an empty barrel upwards on a ramp), I longed to hear a man’s voice next to me. I was of course not a bit embarrassed because of the ambiguity of the situation, for I had no plans with him, I merely wanted him to talk to me in his deep voice—as though social mores did not apply to me (and they did not, indeed). He was well-proportioned, a bit younger than me. At that time I, too, was still considered beautiful or, more precisely, one that’s got the look. On the same summer a short, pig-faced professor who was to become the rector of the Technical University shortly, and whose twin daughters had been your groupmates in kindergarten about twenty years ago if I’m not wrong, came up puffing after me on the roof terrace, stopped above my chaise-longue and renewed his boorish proposal, familiar from the years before, but, as he pointed out, for the last time. My refusal had been unequivocal, but it seems he hadn’t learnt his lesson (neither have I ever learnt how to shame those who make loutish proposals. In addition, the pig-faced man happened to be my colleague.) Next year you won’t be so attractive any more, he warned me, huffing. He stayed some more by my bedside, expecting his sincerity to make me think twice. Even if his offer fell on deaf ears, his prophesy proved to be astute.

I could hardly recognize the man with the swimming cap who was waiting for me at the entrance according to our agreement. He wore a check shirt, jeans and worn trainers. Dressed like that, he looked penniless, which made me feel embarrassed and moved at the same time. We walked in the heavy smog along Mártírok Street (or was it already Margit Körút?), we could hardly hear each other in the traffic noise. The ambiguous situation irritated me and I was sorry for wasting the day. He stopped in front of a restaurant whose name sounded familiar, I couldn’t recall from where. I invoked some non-existent appointment for family lunch to get rid of him; at this he asked if I would like to have a glass of wine with him. I felt ashamed for my fib that he must have seen through, for up to that moment I hadn’t appeared to be in a hurry. Against my better will I ended up saying yes, for the second time already. We entered the dining hall redolent of kitchen smell, sat down at a table with soiled table cloth; with princely nonchalance he ordered a bottle of white wine. The restaurant and the bad wine made him more self-assured. I asked about his profession but, lest he might take my question for a cross-examination, I added that I taught literature at the Faculty of Arts. This was another lie (of course I wanted to cover up the traces beforehand). He asked me if I knew Shakespeare. Well, I’ve heard his name in conversation, I laughed. Do you also know Richard III?, he inquired further. “My life would be incomplete without him”—and this was even true. But he made a remark that suggested strong skills of observation. “You tend to exaggerate. Or are you just doing it for my sake?”

Ever since I bought these three olive-green jackets in America I have often toyed with the idea that if somebody observed us from high above and placed us next to one another on account of the identity of our outfit, then we three do belong together. You look at me with tenderness, it is perhaps the first time you notice that the lines around my eyes show not only when I’m laughing: they stand at attention, ready to grow deeper, even when I’m watching something with my face going stiff. “What’s up with the two of you,” you ask, “how’s life?” Well-behaved, I answer your question as though it were a stranger’s, quickly going over the tissue of my days and weeks, but can’t find anything worth mentioning, anything your eyes should linger on, or in which your palpating fingers should get caught. Still, I cannot whole-heartedly say I feel this way because of my forsakenness. I myself cannot tell what was first, the thousand small signs of your love withdrawn from me, or this even more unbearable, even more telling feeling of forsakenness in me. (I feel that everybody is happy with their grown-up children, except for me with you.) So I bravely drag forth some promising topic, academic success, travel, I don’t remember what. I can obviously not speak about what preoccupies me most, what I phrase to myself, alluding to its unbearableness, as “I live wounded to death,” and that “I ought to see a doctor before it’s too late.” Not only because of you but also because of the fresh break-up that put an end to our seven-year affair with K. “Nothing worth mentioning,” I answer, but immediately start wavering, perhaps you will find me indifferent and would say good-bye rightaway and then the magic will dissipate. My sharp-eyed swimming-pool acquaintance might be right in the smelly, smoky restaurant: I exaggerate when I talk about myself. Although I might bring up an excuse: it is not only my words but also my feelings that are so passionate. Throughout my teens I was convinced that everybody was like me. I couldn’t understand where the indifference on the faces of others came from, their sheepish patience in front of injustice, I couldn’t comprehend why they didn’t rebel. Later, in my arrogance, I arrived at the conclusion that the others saw halfway and dimly, while I saw far and clearly. I was already a grown-up, the two of you were born, when I realized that the ability of too sharp phrasing was at once my strength and my weakness.

“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. / Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, / Our bruised arms hung up for monuments, / Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, / Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.” My acquaintance in a poor man’s apparel halted for a moment in the middle of his recitation, I thought his number was over but I was wrong. He gave me a searching look to see if I was with him. I could see the unuttered question in his eyes, so I named the play. Like an award-winning student I added: first act, opening scene, but it seems I misunderstood his question, for he waved his raised finger at me to be patient and continued quoting Gloucester, the future Richard III: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasure of these days. / Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate the one against the other. / And if King Edward be as true and just / As I am subtle false and treacherous…” At this verse he halted and gave a laugh with a mysterious expression. My face was all amazement. “So you are an actor?” I didn’t quite believe it, I was trying to acknowledge his stunt rather. “You missed it narrowly,” he said in a mystifying tone, but I could see on his face that my guess flattered him. “Then let me ask something else, do you have a regular day job or are you a freelance?” “I am unemployed.” I tried to avoid the dangerous high waters. “And where did you get your swimming cap?” His answer was no less surprising than his performance: “I had sewn it myself,” he said. “So you are the one with the sewing, while your wife goes to work,” I was trying to joke, although I would have liked to steer clear of discussing our family situation by all means. I felt like biting my tongue, but fortunately he didn’t take up the issue, he merely answered that he was not married and lived with his mother. In the meantime he was diligently pouring himself one glass after another, his eyes were shining already, while I barely touched the sour wine and, although thirsty, didn’t dare to order water for fear I’d offend him, as a short while ago I warded off his invitation saying I was not drinking of the wine because I was not thirsty. So I returned to the play: “Do you really love Shakespeare so much?” “I needed him. I can quote whole acts by heart.” I liked the past tense, and the arbitrary, lordly “I needed him” suggested an adventurous life or else, serious professional dedication.

You will of course have your own stories of me, memories that I perhaps don’t remember at all, or at the very least remember differently, out of self-defence. Not for absolving myself but rather, in order to be able to lull myself into the conviction: basically everything was all right between us. For I love you, and the birth of the two of you has been the best decision of my life. And you love me too, it is only our temperaments that are not suited. The realization that one’s treatment of one’s children can be tackled as a methodological issue, and that the books on parenting give outstanding recipes for coping with conflicts with teenage children, came like a cold shower—to stick to the imagery of the bathroom memory. I found the awareness that we ourselves could be characters in a case study, and that the positive or negative outcome of our conflict depends on my skillfulness, humiliating. I refused to believe that the first child, if a daughter, is a rival of her mother and if a son, a rival of his father. My shelves were laden with psychology handbooks, I fooled around with ha’penny horoscopes you could pick up everywhere on the street, with cheap booklets about famous people born in different zodiac signs, I bought everything to persuade myself that it was not my fault and perhaps not yours either, to doom our lives was maybe the unfavourable constellation only. It was chance that helped me learn the lesson “at the dawn of our love” with K. (to use his phrase). His presence changed our relationship. I simply had no courage to burden this relationship with my despair over the latest evidence of your inability to love me. At fourteen for instance, one Friday afternoon you announced that on Tuesday you would move out. K., as my sympathetic witness, said that I should be glad, for this way the situation would be solved in the most peaceful manner possible, and that I shouldn’t be brooding over the fact that you told me in the last moment. It was the last possible moment anyway, it would have been too late to fight for you, something that I would never have done to your detriment or against your will, by the way. We were invited for a dinner that evening, so there was no time to get engrossed in my failure or inquire about the practicalities. (I knew so much that instead of your mother’s, from then on you would be under a father’s supervision.) I can remember well the moment when you chose to communicate your decision, I was just putting on my thinnest coffee-coloured tights. “I have already arranged about moving my things out on Tuesday,” you said. I answered only that I was sorry I would not be at home and therefore unable to help with carrying your things, because I had classes that afternoon. You were so taken aback by my calm that on the day after your moving out you unexpectedly came over for a visit. We were just celebrating K’s birthday—alone for the first time. Perhaps you felt that you were losing me, that day you stayed with us late. Your little sister was away on a school trip.

“Do you need the Shakespeare quotes for your work?” I inquired. I would have been glad to hear that my interlocutor sought an outlet for his intellectual energies, or that he had learnt lengthy scenes for emotional reasons, but he said nothing of the kind, just continued to play mysterious. “Indeed. And not just in general but in the most concrete way possible.” I suspected that he wanted to test my inventiveness and that it would please him if I guessed sooner or later, even if slowly and with some help, what he did for a living before becoming unemployed. But nothing came to my mind apart from the theatrical professions, because the thought that he was getting drunk and I couldn’t get rid of him paralyzed me. Much help it will be to me, I joked to myself, if he turns out to be a prompter who is a dipsomaniac. I also remembered why the restaurant’s name rang familiar: the waitress living in our house worked here, where I was sitting at a table decked with a soiled tablecloth, in an intimate tete-a-tete with the stranger of doubtful circumstances. If she spots me, she would spread rumours in the house that I led a double life, I panicked. I hastily removed my elbow from the table, knocking over the wrought iron ashtray. At the loud clatter that startled everybody on the premises the waiter came to our table; I apologized but he didn’t grace me with an answer. With a commandeering gesture he replaced it, as if I had pushed it off the table deliberately. “Are you a theatre prompter?” I risked the question I came up with a moment ago. “You’re getting closer and closer,” he laughed complacently, with satisfaction, as if he had hidden an object from me that I was supposed to find. “I give up!” I answered impatiently, at which he said: “There is a time for everything.” And added that he wanted to see me open up entirely, whereas I was very reserved. As though I had been at a police interrogation, his unmasking observations uttered in a tone of superiority rained down on me. On top of it, every time the waiter passed through the swing-door, the light of a naked electric bulb pierced my eyeballs. “I loathe it when they analyze my soul,” I answered, closing my eyes. “How typical!” he commented without apparent rancour. “But allow me, how do you know that there is such a thing as a soul?” “I feel I have one.” I immediately realized the stupidity of my reaction. How can I be debating this issue, with this wretch? So I suggested that we talk about him rather. “Ask me, and I will answer,” he offered. “What do you live on if you have no job?” “I hold a few shares.” Once again I was surprised. “I had always imagined shareholders differently.” “You don’t live in this world, do you?” He fixed his velvety eyes on me.

I don’t even know for how long I’ve been living not in this world. I would have liked to tell you this when to your question, what was up with us, I answered, nothing special, I was just busying myself with my dream of the Last Judgement. It must have been about ten years after the death of my mother, your grandmother. In my dream we were all together in the garden expanding into an infinite square, of our last common home: not only the family, but all the living and the dead. The people came stepping on one another’s heels, in a controlled vortex. Trams pulled in with passengers hanging in clusters around the open doors; taxis came; crowds of pedestrians. The air filled with the excitement of apprehension. People were walking to and fro on the road, on the pavement, along the garden paths strewn with pebbles, their mouths moving mutely as if they were memorizing something, or trying to remember some important event by reciting their story. I heard the flutter of angels’ wings approaching and, now and then, a clash imitating the striking of a clock. All through, a dull, repetitive popping, as in the houses, through the wide open larder windows the souls of preserves tore open the cellophane and broke free from their jars and, crossing the airspace above the square, the erstwhile fruits flew back on the branches of surrounding trees. In my dream I felt the beatific state of belonging together; the boundaries separating me from the others dissolved, my senses were sharpened as if I had taken drugs. But I knew that if I started relating my unrelatable dream I would phrase it wrongly and you would correct me at once, saying: rather than beatific, my vision seemed downright terrifying.

Do you remember the Christmas Eve we spent with your grandmother, when she was no longer let out of the hospital? We brought in the plates, the cutlery, the Christmas dinner. We laid the table on the corridor, dressed the Christmas tree—it would be undressed in an hour and a half—and started eating. Unexpectedly the doctor on night duty stopped by our table—he bore a serious grudge about the fact that every Monday mother’s one-week pension would go to the ward doctor, never to him. “Are you at least aware that you have become a drug addict from taking so many painkillers?” he unleashed himself on mother. Never has the worn-out cliché sounded more truthful: “food turned bitter in my mouth.” We were eating the dessert, the Gerbeaud cake, its taste instantly turned to gall; I spat it out into my napkin and mother, too, pushed the plate with the cakes away from herself, we all put our forks down and started packing. I don’t even know why you came home with us after dinner at all? Probably for the books you got as present, in order not to offend me by leaving them there, or for your lovely leather gloves that you left in a taxi that very night. When you said good-bye I was arranging your shawl; you pulled out violently and shouted at me: Take your hands off me! At this I smashed a cracked Meissen plate on the floor. I can’t even say I grabbed it up in an irate moment: I knew exactly that I had placed it on the edge of a library shelf because I decided it was ready to be thrown out. So I dashed it on the floor and it broke to pieces. I have often heard that the best way of releasing built-up tension is to smash plates. I followed the advice like a half-hearted reveler, and it brought little relief. But my clownish role hurt me to the quick. As though the stage-prop wooden rifle had gone off, shooting the one who was brandishing it. I gasped for air, my heart stopped, I collapsed into an armchair. From that time I stopped sharing my dreams with you. Just as I don’t tell you that at Christmas time the Child is not born for me. Even though not from that day—for there had been signs before that I was on the doorstep of peril. I even phrased it for myself: “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.” I had believed myself to be strong enough to drink the bitter cup and stand without a scratch, for I had sufficient routine in unhappiness. At most I would sleep more, or sit listlessly in the armchair mentioned above. But, however concise my phrasing, later it proved to be too self-indulgent. I had smashed a cracked plate. I had not denied the world but merely the circumstances I lived in. I chose another place for my home: music. For weeks I would listen to the same pieces of chamber music. But instead of sounding ever clearer, the trios or quintets repeated to the point of madness became increasingly fragmented; the possibility of continuous reading between the lines was lost, the weighty beats were punctuated by overlong pauses, the musical phrases rapped like so many clots of earth on an (imagined) coffin lid. My workplace, too, became a stage, although it was at exactly that time that I was appointed chair and so could travel all over Europe. I couldn’t have imagined earlier how many things you can do by being half present, without anyone taking notice of my half-absence. I was overcome by a strange feeling: it was as if I were invisible and anybody could stick their hands or walk right through me. At times, riding tram 4 or 6 to work, I fell out of time; at the sight of a Gypsy girl’s beautiful, bare shoulders my eyes filled with tears and I forgot I was going to the exams. In short, the ever thinning sentence, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore,” losing its complements (or concessions), was soon reduced to five words, not reducible any further, and my wish—which by that time appeared far too compromising—became “I don’t want to live.” As soon as I found this brief negation I felt relieved. Soon I resigned from my position at the university, thereby losing the severance pay, the condition of which would have been common assent, but I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t want to profit from my behaviour. My dream of the Last Judgement seemed to justify, retroactively, my rash decision.

So for the moment my swimming pool acquaintance observed that I was not living in this world, although his observation was meant to refer to the world of shares and dividends. “I remember a poster of a fat capitalist with a top hat and cigar,” I answered lightly, “with a gold signet ring on his sausage-like fingers. And you forgot to put on your signet ring!” I joked, gazing at his shapely hand and suddenly a clever idea about his profession struck me. “Are you a psychologist by chance?” “As you could have seen, I have studied psychology,” he answered, placing his fingers on the bottom of his glass. And—” He stopped suddenly. I looked at him: “And?” “And I have known lots of people like you.” “You have no idea how consoling it is to know that there are many people like me,” I continued joking, “so I’m not such a strikingly pathological case after all.” “At least not among my former acquaintances,” he nodded approvingly at his own words, “there are many similar ones.” He leaned back in his chair. The light of the naked lightbulb glared in my eye, I saw our waiter, holding the swinging door open with his foot, exchanging a few words with the receptionist. After your births I would have loved to have a third child, but had to realize that our marriage would not last another trial. Then I kept daydreaming about adopting an abandoned newborn from the nearby orphanage, before it became “manageable,” that is, before it got used to the lack of love. As a result, our walks took a turn towards the home on Lóczi Street, perhaps you remember the terrace, sunny even in winter. According to the strict rules, the nurses weren’t allowed to form closer bonds with the babies, for it would have made it even more difficult for these to cope with the fact that at one year old, then at three, and then at regular intervals throughout their school years, they were taken out of the community imitating a family where they may have taken roots. With my hopes connected to you and then with their repeated dissolution, I myself became distorted into your easily manageable, abandoned child. Don’t worry for me, but don’t try to love me either, I wished for later, for my eyes got used to the dark and your love would blind me.

“When the Company was dissolved,” my swimming-pool acquaintance revealed his cards suddenly, pulling the ashtray in front of him while his dark brown eyes pastured on my face, “they gave us a few shares.” It was the first time I heard the code name Company, but I knew at once what he was talking about. Perhaps I had already solved the riddle when I phrased my experience, inwardly, it is as though I were at an interrogation. So, I was having a conversation with a member of the dissolved Legion in the third-rate restaurant. I knew exactly what kind of shares he was talking about, because on one of our organized trips the driver informed the passengers about them when he stopped at a certain gas station. I must have become stand-offish. “Does this rule out our meetings from now on?”, my acquaintance asked. “Does the truth disturb you?” “It does.” I couldn’t tell anything else. Slowly we got up, he fished an one-thousand banknote, the only one, from his seedy purse, I protested in vain to share the bill at least, he insisted to pay.

The third yes. She was lying on the fresh bedsheet bleached from overwashing, covered with a blanket. She was numb, she remembered her negation, “I don’t want to live!” She was surprised that she had believed it to be irreducible any further, but now she knew one sentence that was shorter even. “I don’t live”: this was her conclusion. The ticking of an alarm clock was chasing the dust on the shelves decked with lace coverlets. The lace hung over the edge of the shelves. She could never understand why someone who is not good with plants would keep greenery in pots, if not for wanting to test the endurance of agonizing with leaves turned yellowish-brown. “Since my mother was taken to hospital”, the man apologized when they entered the flat, “everything’s been untidy.” She took a good look at the room. In fact everything was tidy. Tidy and dusty. She started dressing before becoming herself a stage prop, she rushed through the mechanical gestures, wanting them to be over the soonest possible, just as she wanted the ones to which she had lent herself a short while ago in the bed to be over. She picked up her blouse from the chair, disturbing the daytime sleep of a moth. She remembered her first love, the overwhelming bliss of thirty years ago, that barely let her sleep at night. Back then the flutter of a moth’s wings would wake her up at night, or at least she would have liked to believe so, as her senses got so sharpened that even noises inaudible to the human ear could startle her. In those days she was sorry for the time spent sleeping. Probably it was not the moth but the sense of her happiness that shook sleep from her eyes. She had read somewhere that in the empty hours, while waiting for a bus, queuing in a shop or bank, the thoughts of ninety percent of grown-ups revolve around love. It is curious, although perhaps understandable, that in this very situation she should remember this word, so out of place. She glanced at the door: the key which the man had turned at the moment of their entrance, probably mechanically, was no longer there. She tried to open the door but couldn’t. “How will I escape from here?” she asked, aghast. In the meantime they must have been talking about some thing or other with the man, because she could remember his pleasant voice coming in from the kitchen now and then, but had no inkling what the subject was. Did he want to hold her captive? Or was he merely warning her that she had walked into a trap?

To this day I can’t understand how it could happen. For a month my parents took care of you while I was in Madrid with a research scholarship—almost fifteen years ago now. I worked from the morning into the afternoon in the Cervantes Library. I lived in a depressing hostel where a lone 40-Watt lightbulb spread its sickly light in the windowless room, in utter solitude, without friends or company, dividing up the two-week grant to last a month. I lived like a hermit, even if not on berries and roots but on the two-course menus of cheap restaurants; rising early and going to bed early in the narrow iron bed; forever warding off the insistencies of the postman who would knock on my door on his free Sunday afternoons, put his foot in the gap when I opened the door, and whom I had to push out into the corridor. I toyed with the idea that I was all alone in the world, I didn’t even have you. I was always hungry, eating or carnal desire was forever on my mind. Often I dreamt of my father who had been dead for six years already. He had had a beautiful death, as they say, a heart attack took him away very quickly. It often occurred to me that, had he been alive, I could have asked him for advice. I didn’t see him die; perhaps he was still alive in some intermediary state, I codded myself. I would have liked to tell him that in my dreams I got letters from him, as thin as gossamer, they were handed to me by our dipsomaniac postwoman from back home. Leaning over the railings of the stairs I could barely reach her held-out hand, I would have complained; the sheets of the letter, sticking to one another, became unreadable and were torn in my hands. But, to return to my story: I had agreed with you that when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel I would call you. I had reckoned that it would happen halfway through my stay, so I had asked you to be at home on the 17th, on a Thursday afternoon at 6 o’clock. Back then it took twelve days for a letter to reach me from Budapest, and ten for one from me to travel home, so I didn’t have any fresh news from you, or you of me. From your little sister’s doodles I gathered that she missed me very much. In my happier days there I recognized her in all the black-haired little girls in long skirts. Once a little girl of about seven even greeted me: “¡Buenos días, seňora!” and I answered happily, to be ashamed in the next instant when she corrected me with the self-confidence of a proper young lady: “It wasn’t you I greeted, Madam!” Howeer absurd it sounds, her rejection made me very despondent. Her greeting was answered by the woman walking behind me. Your plump, trusting letters I interpreted now as a promise of the return of our lost happiness, now as its refutation. When I imagined how good it would feel to hear your voices, I immediately became insecure: you might be dismissive. I conjured up the possibility that they organize a school-wide ping-pong championship on that day, or that you would want to enroll in an orienteering competition but either have to drop out or leave earlier because of me. I feared that my mother might over-emphasize my importance and this would fuel your resentment. I tried to ward off my depressing thoughts with diligent note-taking and museum visits at luxury entrance fees. Then one morning on my way to the library I saw a poster announcing the screening of Bardem’s film, Calle Mayor, at a reasonably priced downtown cinema.

I had a season ticket for ten single journeys, I had to be tight with money, so I only took a bus or trolley-bus for long distances. That afternoon, too, I started out on foot on the Princesa to the cinema, leaving myself sufficient time. I had already bought the ticket and still had about half an hour to spend, so I walked on for a few streets’ length when I noticed a large glass office building or emporium on the corner; according to the billboard, a “Sala de Conferencias”, a “Conference Hall”. There were rather many people waiting inside, I thought I would take a look around the hall flooded in light, to see with whom you could have a conversation in there, and on what. I would like to ask my father, I toyed with the idea, if I was allowed to have cheap adventures. I craved the velvety skin of men and the touch of their long fingers, exactly as he used to crave women. As if my yearning had no further aim beyond aesthetic pleasure, and as if one step did not engender the next one, my desires appeared in lamb skins. As if I could stop this side of the instant of complete abandon and could be satisfied by running my fingers along the line of their mouths, or rest my head on their naked chests. Can I keep my name secret from them, and—as soon as I step out the door—become a stranger to them, just as they would remain strangers to me? I would have liked to hear his approval to such questions. But he kept silent until the night of our return from America. He only spoke to me in the mist of the night separating All Souls Day from All Saints Day, when I said good-bye to K. with whom I met for the first time after my long absence in an acquaintance’s flat. When I was groping in my handbag for my key to open the gate, at that moment he addressed me: “You live rightly.” But perhaps you have already guessed what the glass office building or emporium was in reality? The post office headquarters for long-distance telephone calls. The day of my cinema outing fell on April 17th, the Thursday of our agreement, and the hexagonal clock on the wall showed exactly a quarter to six. So I called you exactly at the time when you expected it. Your sister picked up the receiver, then my mother followed, and in the end you arrived (you had a ping-pong championship at school). There must be a rational explanation, to do with the working of the unconscious, for the fact that I didn’t forget about the call, although I had well-nigh forgotten about you. I was filled with gratitude towards providence that you were not disappointed in me, that I could keep my word.

The secret police agent soon reappeared in the shabby room with a flowery majolica plate full of sandwiches. On the one hand she was hungry, on the other hand she thought she couldn’t offend her one-time partner, provided he would let her out at all, so she took a bite. The bread with pork grease and Lajta cheese wrinkled up around her teeth. The grease reminded her of the most tortuous period of her childhood, the months she spent on a farmhouse without her parents; fortunately she couldn’t detect in the taste that smell of the pigsty, the swill and of the boar, which always made her stomach turn; it was its consistency rather that disgusted her. She watched the man’s boyish upper body, familiar from the pool. She didn’t even feel a passing tenderness towards him, her head would not rest on his smooth chest, although she had believed that in her dejection she was ready for this betrayal even.

Thus we started out together with my swimming-pool acquaintance from the restaurant to the bus stop. I wore his company like a thistle sticking to my coat after a walk through the thicket, all the way to Moszkva Square and from there on tram 59 for a few more stops, until the thistle finally detached itself from my coat and got off, for, as he said a short while ago, he lived around there. I imagined his apartment (his mother had been in hospital for some time). Perhaps women go up to his place and help with the cleaning up, perhaps they even cook for him, I mused. Provided he kills his time with women. His neighbours hardly knew anything about him, he told me when we were still in the restaurant, because his apartment opens on a closed corridor, so they can’t check. He must have a secret cabinet with drawers from which he takes out his documents, starts a strategy game, lays out photographs. With me too he proved to be a sharp observer, so at home he would open a new file and put down accurate notes on my behavior. “She has two grown-up daughters. Teaches literature at the Faculty of Arts. She is easy-going and open by temperament but is cautious and backs out before the decisive step. Has a bit of intellectual arrogance. Makes hostile statements on the past regime, doesn’t like to talk about herself, her behavior is tense. The one surveiling her should expect her to lose her nerve at any moment, or to simply turn round and leave. She has her weak spots through which she can be easily approached, these are to be specified, provided the relationship with her continues.” I had already got used to the fact that you would ridicule me. That my feeling of isolation would culminate this evening and I would drown in its high waters, but tomorrow morning, eternal survivor, I would surface again. It is not entirely bad to be a stranger—even to our own child—if we dive into the depths. By giving a shape to my story I tried to gain your sympathy, but I am not trying to get anything, for I’m afraid of change. That you should send me into exile among the happy, and be born to me again? It caught me unprepared that you embrace me, that two identical jackets embrace each other—this makes me lose my bearings. Once the daughter of a well-off family left off her university studies and went to work in the Renault factory: from that time whenever somebody spoke to her kindly she thought their kindness was merely an effect of a misunderstanding. For a long time to come I will live with the faith that you are mistaken, and that your error will shortly become obvious to you, too. Yet out of weakness, for a moment I rest my head on your shoulder.

— translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa


Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature OnlineShe lives in Budapest.



Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.



Oct 072016


Tanga, May 28

‘Can’t you see what he’s trying to get you to pay for?’

I’ve just mentioned Jamhuri, who has told me about his child. She’s very sick. Gloria is driving me to the Amboni Caves north of town. She takes the road past the Hindu crematorium—a pretty, white colonial-style building surrounded by frangipani trees. It’s right next to the town’s fuel depot, and I wonder if this is a cause for concern.

‘The child has epilepsy,’ she says. ‘He wanted me to take her to a witch doctor. I won’t pay for that crap. So now he’s asking you.’

‘A witch doctor?’ I attempt a look of minor incredulity.

‘You can’t sling a cat in Tanga without hitting one,’ Gloria says. ‘But of course Jamhuri only wants the big gun. A certain Mr Sese.’

‘What does a witch doctor do?’

‘Oh, it’s not so much about the witch doctor, doll. It’s about the believer.’

I frown as if I don’t understand. But I’m thinking about Dorothea. ‘There is a place where many strange things happen. There are ghosts and spirits.’ I see her clearly in my mind, her grief and her terror of the box: ‘Take it away from here, take it far away from here.’

Gloria interprets my expression as disbelief, and rises to the challenge. ‘Last month, I took Jamhuri’s little girl to a specialist in Dar. He prescribed phenobarbital and reckoned she’d probably grow out of it in her teens. But you know how these people are—well, you don’t, do you? Jamhuri was expecting she’d get an injection or an operation and be completely healed, just like that. I don’t think he even tried the pills. That’s why he wants to go to Mr Sese. He thinks she’s possessed by shetani. He wants you to pay for his daughter to see Mr Sese.’


‘Ghosts. Spirits. They’re everywhere. Apparently.’

‘And Mr Sese is—’

‘The pre-eminent witch doctor.’ She leans toward me in a stage whisper.

‘Headvises the president.’

Gloria brakes at an intersection, takes this opportunity to turn and regard me with her curious owl stare. She’s trying very hard to locate the rat she senses scurrying through my words.

A loud honking erupts behind her. ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going in such a hurry?’ she yells out the window, but shifts into first and pulls forward. ‘Don’t get me wrong. These guys like Sese are very powerful. When I first got here, I had a girl who came to cook and clean. She was a little thing. After a couple of months, I noticed she was turning gray. No kidding, her skin was turning gray. Like wet cement. I finally got her to talk to me. She said she was dying. I didn’t doubt that to look at her. I took her to the doctor. Full panel of blood work. A small fortune. No AIDS, no cancer, no TB, everything fine. The doctor told me she was indeed dying—from a powerful curse. I said, “You can’t be serious, you’re a doctor.” He said, “Of the body, not the spirit.”

‘He told me there are certain curses so powerful that the person who casts them must also die. The only way you can kill your enemy is to kill yourself. For instance, there’s this cooking pot curse. You sneak into your enemy’s kitchen and steal his cooking pot. You shout a curse into it, wishing their death. Then you smash the pot and bury the shards in the bush. If your enemy manages to find all the pieces and put the pot back together, then he will be saved. If not, well, kufa kabisa—he’s dead. But—’ she sticks a stubby finger in the air to make her point. ‘But, you die too. That’s the deal you make with the shetani. A twofer.’


‘Sure. Two fer the price of one. And, you know, that little gray girl, I found her one morning in her room, curled up like a dead moth you’d find in the window. I suppose she’d died in her sleep, there was nothing to be done, she’d got it into her head that she was going to die, she’d willed herself to die. And so she died. I don’t know why she thought she deserved it. But that’s a powerful thing: to do with a thought what most of us can only do with a gun.’

I glance at Gloria’s profile. She is all soft. A small, putty nose, skin loose and soft as dough, her great soft body pillowing in her soft, drapey clothes. I notice for the first time that her pale blonde hair is actually dyed. Her roots reveal a mousey gray. Did Mary dye her hair—or does this belong to Gloria alone?

After a moment I ask her, ‘What do you believe, Gloria?’

She hoots a laugh. ‘Moolah, doll. I believe in Almighty Moolah.’

We pass the old Amboni Sisal estate, just bush now perforated by the occasional row of sisal. How precisely the sisal was planted, the immaculately measured rows. What were the colonial farmers thinking? That they could take this unscrupulous bush and make it neat as a formal garden? This Africa where people smash cooking pots and die of curses.

At some point, Gloria makes a left turn onto an unmarked dirt track. Only when we’ve driven several hundred yards do I see a small sign announcing: Department of Antiquities—Amboni Caves. Gloria makes several more turns—none of which are signposted—past a school, through the middle of a small village and a flock of chickens, cutting a hard right in what looks like someone’s front yard, and then down a steep, rocky hill. The bottom of the car crunches over rocks and jars against rills of erosion. Gloria doesn’t seem concerned. The car rattles and squeals.

We enter a thick screen of fig trees and cross a dry riverbed. The shadows are deep and cool and grateful, and soon we arrive at the caves. An old man in a Muslim kofia gets up from his chair under the trees. He stands very erect, like a soldier.

Gloria turns off the car. ‘Watch how he doesn’t give us a receipt. Not that I blame him, given what he must get paid.’

She greets the old man with great politeness, which he returns. They speak at some length in complicated Swahili.

He takes the money and disappears into a small, dark hut. He emerges carrying a flashlight and no receipts. ‘Swahili or English?’ he asks, looking at Gloria.

‘Oh, I’m not going in. I’ve been before.’

‘But you’ve paid, madam,’ the guide says in perfect English.

‘I’m waiting for a call. You go on.’ She opens her handbag and scrambles for her phone ringing inside. ‘The Ministry of Health. Let’s see how much they want.’ Then she sneers, ‘Uchawi, my ass.’

The guide leads me up a set of steps carved from the rock. ‘This is limestone,’ he says. ‘Long ago, it was beneath the sea. And the sea created these caves. But now the sea is very far away. Yes, the world changes.’

The entrance has been domesticated. Beneath the tall archway of stone and the canopy of wild vines, the sandy floor has been swept and plastic patio furniture placed on a natural terrace. There are potted plants and, on the table, half a clamshell for an ashtray.

From here I can see Gloria. She is standing with her back to us, gesticulating, as if she’s angry or perhaps just adamant.

‘Let us begin the tour, madam,’ the guide insists. And so we enter the caves.

He talks about the bats, which cluster like dark grapes on the cave roof above. When he shines his flashlight they twitter and fidget. I don’t have to worry about them, he assures me, they never attack. The danger is not from the bats but from the cave itself.

A couple and their dog were exploring the cave, he says, sweeping the flashlight to the right, illuminating a small chamber. ‘The dog fell down this hole.’ The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

We walk on. I think about the story, how it doesn’t make sense. If the couple were never seen again, how does anyone know they went looking for their dog down this particular hole? But I have no doubt that people have gone missing here, in this maze of dead ends and sightless corridors, unseen holes. There is no natural light. We are within the earth, like rabbits. The guide says the tunnel system goes so deep and is so extensive that cave experts have not been able to chart it. However, some believe it goes all the way to Mount Kilimanjaro—five hundred miles west.

He shows me another low and unexceptional cave where three Mau Mau fighters hid during the war for independence in Kenya. And here, around the corner, the rock has formed a chair. He is not satisfied until I sit in the chair and say, ‘Why, yes, it is exactly like a chair!’

We climb up a ramp of earth, squeeze between a crack. ‘Are you afraid of the dark?’ he asks. ‘I am going to make it very dark.’ He turns off the flashlight.

This is not darkness but a kind of obliteration.

I think about Strebel’s daughter telling him she thought she was dead.

The guide turns on the flashlight.

‘No,’ I say. ‘Just a few more minutes.’

He turns it off, makes a dry little cough.

My body blends with the darkness. The barrier of skin dissolves. I diffuse into the air, into the exhalation of my breath. I am the tiniest particles, un-being.

He sighs, turns the light back on. ‘Now I show you the image of Jesus.’ When I hesitate—for I feel the loss of that moment—he registers his annoyance, ‘You must come, please. The tour is for a limited time.’ We walk down another tunnel and he illuminates a smudge of mildew that vaguely resembles a face.

‘Yes, it looks exactly like the face of Jesus.’ My voice surprises me, as if it is coming back to me, an echo, from very far away. ‘Exactly like the face of Jesus.’

I have no idea that we have turned toward the mouth of the cave, only that I can feel my pupils begin to shrink. Daylight filters in, low down along the ground. We surface slowly into light.

Just before the entrance, I notice a small side chamber crammed with plates of fruit, sticks of incense, bottles labeled as rose water.

‘What is this?’

The guide hurries on, waving his hand impatiently, ‘Just local people. Pagans.’
‘But what is it for?’

‘I am a Muslim! This is for primitive people.’

‘Can I look?’

He sighs. He is a repertoire of sighs. This one expresses long-suffering acquiescence.

‘Why do they make the offerings?’

‘For good health, for money. Some women ask for help to get a child. For many different things.’

I kneel down. ‘Has this been here for a long time?’

‘Yes. Many, many years. As a boy I remember it.’

In my place, exactly here, the desperate have knelt with their hopes and desires. Women have begged to conceive. Mothers have prayed for their children to be well again. Men have asked for opportunity, for rain, for a new fishing boat, for good luck at sea.

How foolish to believe life could change with the lighting of incense, the purchase of rose water, the offering of eggs. And yet, when you have reached the end of yourself, what else is there? When the tangible world has failed you, why not indulge in the possibility that a corner of the universe might stir, send a shiver of atoms through space, that you might be delivered after all.

The guide shifts his weight. Any moment now he will sigh. I am about to obey, to stand.

But something among the bottles catches my eye: a small jar containing a piece of flowered cloth. I reach in and take the jar.

‘No, no!’ The guide steps forward, alarmed. ‘You must not touch the offerings!’

I’m not really listening. I take out the cloth. It is red cotton flannel with yellow and white flowers.

I look up at the guide, showing him the jar, ‘Do you know who put this here?’

‘Madam, please, I do not know. How can I know? Local people coming here do not report to me. They are free, this is their place. You must not touch these things.’

‘But if a white man came here you would know. Everyone would know.’

‘These are not your things. They are not for you to touch or meddle. You must be respectful.’

I replace the jar, stand and wipe the sand from my knees. I try to sound sensible. ‘Is it a curse?’ I want to see the truth in his eyes, I want to have some instinct. But he is hidden, he is vanishing back down a path into the bush.

‘I know that cloth. I recognize it. I want to know who put it here.’

‘The cave, madam, it has had an effect.’

‘I have money. I can pay you. More than he did.’

He moves nervously, definitively toward the entrance, ‘Your friend is waiting for you, madam.’

Back at the car, Gloria seems preoccupied and barely greets me. She turns the ignition. With a little cough—rather like the old guide’s—the engine starts.

‘Why did you bring me here?’

‘What?’ She’s looking straight ahead.

‘Here. Why are we here, Gloria?’

She grips the steering wheel and takes a deep breath, so her whole body expands and subsides. ‘Have you got a thousand bucks?’

—Melanie Finn


Melanie Finn is the author of three novels: The Gloaming (Two Dollar Radio, 2016); Shame (W&N, 2015) and Away From You (St. Martins Griffin, 2014).

Oct 062016

German Sierra


sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

— Virgil, Aeneid, 1.461


Nothing is colossal.

The air is almost water, the trees rachitic, the sea sweats dead dark clouds of filth and salt,

She walks away from the couch, stamping sweaty footprints on the floorboard, leaving a tingling vibration in the wood that spreads like a scent through the cold air. Be jewelled by numbers! he mutters—echoing the sequence of her perambulation until the room absorbs all the fluttering sounds and she vanishes like the photograph of an argentine greyscale ghost.

mountains are collapsed hills, beasts are torpid and blind, towns are tiny clusters of ruins, kings were thin and weak, people die young, rocks are eroded pieces of furniture inhabited by frogs, heat is cold, the land is wet, love is lukewarm, gold is a lethargic rust over the earth’s crust, the green is diamond and it laughs at you like a mossy hell of water and weed. No gods could have been brought to life there—they had to be seized from the future.

Creepy crypto-CRISPR. Fuck genomic darkness.

The rain is plain plan B.

Death rides the dirty waves; death rides dust, exactly like a moth.

 A saint, a bearded flea-bitten hermit shrouded in burlap and fed by the generosity of a chestnut forest was living on top of a wormholed bubonic hill in a wooden hut asphyxiated by ivy branches, hiding in there from the slimy touch of the rotten photonic wave-stream (distilled through the cloudwall into a filthy dark smearing fluid) that ran through the air to splash over the burnt-and-drilled crust of the earth. A ghost town would eventually emerge from that watery land, colloidal dust in a dizzy river—a space then occupied by the greenish-grey woods and the unbelievable mess of emerald-green moss, tarnished leaves, vinyl lichens, camo toads, and ampersanding golden fern blossoms.

So dendrites volupt. Like it matters, wrote Amaranth Borsuk.

Now, undead people go phantoming around over the cobblestone shattered-mirror pavement—but back then it was the wild, under the same lead-dead sky.

Real life is like the outcome of a zombie apocalypse—but you’re expected to restrain yourself from slashing the zombies.

All zombies are undead equally.

A collapsant sky, a vertical horizon of crystalline Damocles’s swords.

A swarming soil and soul.

Splashing sounds, splashing souls.

A murderous sea, infested with seaweed-smeared, mud-vomiting necrotic-skinned creatures.

Once upon a time, swirl-crowned monsters emerged from the depths, swam to the shores, crawled up creek streams leaving threatening footprints in the sand, feeding themselves with exhausted salmons and lampreys. They crept over the hills waving menacing tentacles, surrounding the man-of-god with extra-terrestrial arrogance. Until he found himself encircled in a ring of unsurpassable evil beauty.

He lifted his baculus and turned the monsters into boulders…killing all beauty around, immortalizing evil.

This sounds more proper of a sorcerer than a saint, she replied.

Later on, the saint’s followers carved the sea-monsters’ stone corpses into churches, their tentacles into sinuous arcades that branched in spiral alleys leading nowhere. Nowhere was everywhere—the pavement blobbing and cracking like fried fish skin, and the dark deformed houses growing clustered and superimposed like bad teeth, hovering over automatic people.

But this is not how the story goes!—although the actual one is also a fairy tale, nothing more credible in any of its multiple details.

Both are professionally concerned with the past.

She’s an archaeologist: She unearths eerie things, such as the big tin bird with golden eyes hypothetically intended for astronomic calculations that, since exhibited in the almost-empty local museum, has encouraged a kind of weird cult: people killing birds—crows, lost seagulls, jays, sparrows—and hanging their corpses from street lamps.

He’s a historian, he works with texts instead of mud, he knows the past is just a lie that’s been around for enough time to be used as foundation for future falsity.

Recently, she’s been unearthing certain stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there and hiding it at home: a fairly well-conserved but unidentifiable iPhone 20, a real-size Barbie doll, and a sophisticated-looking metallic prosthetic hand. All of them prevenient from the underneath of a never-before-excavated Romanesque chapel. All of them, most probably, originated in what is commonly called the future.

She wonders if there is a market for relics of the future.

She cares about money, because money, in pure capitalist logic, means the possibility of change.

Who would want to keep objects from the past? But then, who would like to pay for vestiges from the future?

In pure capitalist logic there’s not an outside of pure capitalist logic, so money is time.

A few days later, she and her colleagues meet to discuss what to do with the found futureware. On one hand, it’s obviously new—nobody ever saw an iPhone 20 before and, although they won’t publicly discuss its appearance to avoid conflict with Apple’s confidentiality policies, they coincide in acknowledging that it doesn’t look like anything they would easily identify as an iPhone. On the other, it’s evident that the objects are old—dirty, rusty, worn out, with some broken or missing pieces. Does a market for old future things exist? The most plausible explanation would be that they’re fake—it wouldn’t be the first time future objects are forged by some artist and exhibited in museums—, but whoever might have done it must have been really cautious about fabricating their placement: the stone blocks didn’t seem to have been removed in centuries, and the relics were buried under seven feet of mud and medieval debris.

The saint’s followers came also from the shore, sleepwalking like oxygen-drunk overdeveloped fish insisting on evolving into batrachia. They arrived from small fishermen’s port villages, carrying the sulphurous smell of rotting seaweed with themselves. They were squid-eaters.

Later on, they developed a taste for a wider diversity of cephalopods and crustacea.

From time to time, those who had built the town stacked up new stones over the monsters’ relics to prevent their awakening. Every winter, the mountains chanted and cried hypnotic black tears of granite. The squid-eaters’ offspring secured the monsters’ backs with buttresses, nailed their heads to the ground with hefty needle-towers. However, they never felt safe inside the creatures’ golden bellies, so they finally turned to the Bishops for help.

Bishops, the true lords of the land, drank blood and raped men and women with no regret. They gave instructions to paint the churches’ intestines with children’s gore. The walls absorbed the blood to the last drop and the old stones showed again their grey, grainy, shimmering surface. Bishops were terrified their sins would reanimate the primeval beasts, so they willingly paid in gold coins for the heaviest and hardest stones to be carried and carved and piled up on top of the ancient, ruinous chapels. Chapels grew into churches, churches into cathedrals—people died young and returned as rocks. How did they invent killer languages? From time to time, stone people uproot themselves from the walls, carrying singing swords, hideous musical instruments, and fearsome religious symbols. Flesh people tried to stop them from bubbling out by painting them over, but sponge-stone people kept drinking all the paint and all the blood they were able to smear over the walls.

All that was forgotten.

We live in an empire of mud and weather, wrote Janice Lee.



The slashed eye of the monocular chapel stares at him from the other side of the grimy window glass. The city is still, deeply rooted in the centre of the earth. It’s the kind of city you run from, not the kind of city you run across. He is the one who remembers the untold story, the one who listens to the grey silence screamed by the crushed beasts. While sipping his coffee, he fantasizes about becoming a necromancer and bringing monsters back from death. He dreams of godzillating the town: crushing cars and skulls and trees and houses. Dust to rust. The sky is a greasy low ceiling, made of goo, just an indistinguishable extension of the warped and dull and miserable land. He misses the feeling of her weight on his chest—her weight, maybe the liquid pressure of her skin on his skin, maybe her warm sweet-and-salty sweat as a membrane of sea water flowing like a tiny flat tide between his and her body. His illusion is now just to lay still beneath her heavy flesh until his joints and muscles begin to hurt. Just the pressure and the pain, and nothing else. There’s nothing like being enlegged by her mediterranean cities of white marble.

Nothing else matters, says the song.

When the enemies left the still city, they buried radioactive debris under the pavement to slowly burn the feet of its inhabitants.

When he was young, he was a pulsating black hole. A computer moon buried in dewy jelly. A naught surrounded by a universe wanting—perhaps pretending—to collapse onto him. His body was constructed with nanosize bits from that same selection of the cosmos that was destroying him—the outside. Booze, new drugs, old books, boys and girls he was fucking…All the elements, the bits; all the universe’s demons rashing and competing against each other to occupy the void. They eventually abandoned his inner space while he was growing up—exorcised from his hollow flesh with every ejaculation, with every vomit, with every nosebleed—leaving, nonetheless, some traceable imprints of their presence in the void until the void started to collapse over itself.

Now, after a long battle, he believes to finally own his anti-body, and ongoing destruction comes autoimmunely from the inside, from the inner mirror side of naught. Every time a demon managed to leave the void, the void emitted light. Then, for a second, he became visible, viable, a true phenomenon, superimposed to reality like a Pokémon.

Dust against the machine—it’s chalk, it’s sand, it’s ice.

Ashes from a lost life—stardust is, in fact, a gas, swirling, a lost gaseous world that was a father’s world. It’s a death-city where people wear stone—he’s cold, but tombstones are his clothes—due to their failure in having thrown some sand on the brain. It’s b-rain, it’s blood.

There are sand and ashes in the machine.

In the machine, every word is made of pixel dust and blown away by the swirling gas coming from disintegrated stars, never ever cracking the mistaken mystery of the world, the crashing world he wrongly chose to be himself, just to be chalk and dust in the machine.

He’s seen the greatest minds of his generation bored to death, asphyxiated by ridiculous institutions, wandering the social media labyrinthoids in search of a quantum of meaning, masturbating to the screen’s visual white noise of polished pixel dust, crystals of b-rain to keep him running as fast as possible over the cracked screens of life.



They met for the first time during one of those unusual visibility events: I can only see you when you’re orgasming, she whispered. He jerked off for her visual pleasure. She wasn’t visible most of the time either, which was fine for him. More often they weren’t able to see each other, they just felt some gravitational-attraction pulses directed towards a particular location of the invisible-out-there. Touching was like the clashing of two clouds: confusing, humid, gaseous and electric. He licked her with perfect parsimony to make her almost visible—a fluctuating white-noise shadow like a Hollywood ghost. Like an intermittent reflection on a dewy mirror under a throbbing neon light. They buzzed and glitched the observer’s perception systems while somehow haunting the house. When they fucked, a vibrating protoplasm acquired form on the bed, on the couch, a misty blanket floating a couple of inches over the living room’s wooden floor. They were faithful to multiple and different savage dimensions. Possessed by a succession of objects in order to acquire temporal corporeality. Invisible to each other, most of the time, but each one longing to become visible to the other. They were beautiful when perceivable and then they were gone.

They grew hard, thick, solid, filled with the world’s debris. Their waste-stuffed bodies were eating them from their hollow intestines. As time went by, they became more easily perceivable. They tried to get rid of the debris by acupuncturing each other in rooms full of candlelight and essential oils, but it didn’t work. They remained visible for longer times and it was boring, and only pain could made them disappear again after a while, so they hurt each other with fire and lashes. But as soon as pain melted into pleasure they became solid and opaque again, so they sat separately, crying transparent tears of transparent xanthan gum.



He never sleeps well at night. He looks so pale! If he could be true to himself, he’d vanish, he’d collapse into information…fornever. Uncoloured like a broken zero, like the theoretical in-between of quantum states. In-between morphospaces.

Insects become translucent-white during metamorphosis—don’t they? She doesn’t want to lose him—even though neither of them know very well what they mean to each other.

Presence: it should be enough.

Absence kills the brain.

Has this skin been ever burned by the sun? Long ago, perhaps. It was another dimension, not just a former life. Extinct life forms. Monumental fossils. A lost realm of old cheap paperback editions, itching vegetal blade cuts and cigarette burns, boys and girls waving towards the drunken boats from the abrupt dark-grey rocky shore, diving in the cold and salty waters. Orbited in the water by evanescent sea snakes and phosphorescent plankton. Swimming by night among the Tesla lightnings of dinoflagellates.

He never quit smoking or masturbating, keeping himself connected to the mental dinosaurs from that lost teenage world. She is younger, she must have been a toddler back then. Before mobile devices, not even a reliable phone number during summer vacations; just the books, the grains of sand between the pages, just the water, just the misty freezing reverberation of sunset, the hour of eclosion, the night dropping its veil of light, the cloudwall like a cotton pad over the bleeding neck of a beheaded god, just the pleasure of licking salty goosebumps on a girl’s leg. Just the aura of the burnt golden sea around the naked bodies. She’s a tree, he’s an epiphyte. Do they live in a venetian internet? When did sex become a problem? Is it a problem at all? It seemed to be fine when they were regularly fucking, and it seems to be fine now after they stopped almost a year ago. She thinks he never really believed it would be possible to be living together, that he would go crazy and would start screwing around and finally leave. He dreams of gardens.

Town people dream of gardens to bury their pet’s bones, eventually their children’s.

He doesn’t understand the urge to own land. Land is just dirt. And grass, and worms, and bugs, and plants, and trees….He doesn’t understand how those things could ever be owned. Land that has been conquered and shed with blood and exchanged for money and seized again and inherited and given as dowry and sold again.


Every funeral is a cannibal act. A reading of minds. A nanodust-bleeding crack line on the silky screen of time. Never mind if (they) devour the corpse or the corpse renounces to the kind gesture of devouring them. The (he) the (object) hopelessly waiting for a watt-less fuck under the dim glow of low-intensity light bulbs and air-pixelating TV white noise, light hissing on the mirror’s surface, a moth, mechanically, repeatedly trying to collapse into the other side of itself. The air is old black-and-white TV hiding from light. Clean clothes lay on a chair. She dreams of cities—of a warm comfortable house in a megalopolis covered by snow. She dreams of being other, of being somewhere else.


He spent most of his young age lost somewhere in the future.

In some (fortunate) places the past is just a fine powder that might be dusted by the winds of future, where dry bones may be easily crushed just by walking on them. In the still city, however, the past is a heavy and soaked tombstone: He learned from her that truth doesn’t matter when you approach the past, the only thing that matters is weight. Maybe this is the reason why he misses her weight.

The most obvious, albeit improbable explanation of the objects’ presence was time travel. This was initially discarded as irrational, especially because she wanted to avoid making public that they might be the victims of a hoax. Her colleagues, however, were very inclined to call the press immediately—they were picturing the headlines: ‘first evidence of time travel discovered by…’, but she was much more conscious of her reputation. Reputation is a currency for the non-rich. People who are very conscious of their reputation often consider a black market.

When they first started thinking about time travel, they did it in the popular, fictional way: people coming from a future civilization, carrying with them some objects that might have been left behind. This could explain the iPhone and the prosthetic hand, but who would travel to the past with an oversized toy doll? A family from the future on vacations in the middle ages? One of her colleagues proposed an alternative explanation: why should we always think about people travelling in time? Why should the objects be leftovers instead of protagonists? Time travel might pose many risks to living beings, but it could be much easier for inanimate matter. This was equally unlikely, but it somehow seemed a more rational approach. Maybe the result of an experiment designed to send things across time? But if any future civilization will find the way to send stuff back to the past, why has nobody found evidences of future objects before? She imagined a future engineer working on a way to get rid of disposable junk: let’s just flood our stupid ancestors with our trash! Of course, there are all those temporal paradoxes and causal loops that might have stopped him, which could be the reason why he made just one experiment, or very few ones, and, despite the technological possibility, he finally decided to abort the project.

When did sex become a problem? Is it a problem?

From the first time she warned him that she would never cope, that nothing would be granted, that he would have to seize her every time.



Bodies are a lot more that candy genitalia. Bodies are tiny time-points in an ever-changing morphospace. Sex is the digital version of a much more complex body-to-body-to-non-body communication network. Sex could be just stored in a hard disk, or somewhere in the cloud, leaving it there until new software has been implemented.

Software, however, has never been updated.

She doesn’t understand the desire to own a body. Bodies are dirt, hair, bugs, blood, thoughts… She doesn’t understand how these things could ever be self—not to say shared. Her flesh—that has been conquered and shed with blood and exchanged for comfort and chocolate and peace and dreams.



He can’t recall recalling his first time. Not to recall recalling is supposed to be weird. This kind of stuff is expected to draw emotions and to be emojified somewhere into the body of the self—preferably close to its outer surface like scabies or tattoo ink. He does remember, from past dust, abstract-expressionist mats of wet hair and blood stains and wet wool pullovers and tiny shining corneas. Some of them might have belonged to the hypothetical first one—he might even be right if randomly bricolaging a candidate. Riddle as past. Deciphering previous propensity codes that shape the present network of brain cells.

He does recall some encounters with a woman in particular —what he cannot remember is her placement in a specifically databased chronological order, if any of the encounters he is capable of picturing happened as part of a logical sequence of events or if he has precisely forgotten the first one because others were more intense or fun. He doesn’t see the reason why sexual inception should be of particular interest. Love is not an action but an environment, a particular arrangement of reasons growing from a particular arrangement of things. Love is neither action nor pathos—it is, in fact, a variant of boredom, a conscious refusal to be entertained. He can’t either remember the first novel he read, or the first time he got drunk. He can’t usually remember the order of things—but are things ordered anyway?—, what happened before and what came later. Why is (sequential) order important? He feels/thinks about his life as a turbulent flow rather than a succession of events. A cycle, like the blood circulating across the body, continuously looping nowhere. For most people, sex encounters are like transfusions, but for him they’re bleeding, a way to melt into something more eager to drip. Fluids go effortlessly everywhere, slaves to gravity, never caring about when they were before or where they will be later. Solve et coagula.

Then, the most important thing to investigate would be when (in the future) the objects were time-transferred to when (in the past). Have they’ve been there for centuries, for millennia, before one filthy beast was transformed into a chapel? Buried under the dark soil of the woods? Or did they appear one thousand years ago? Or maybe last month, or last week…? Is time-transferring one-directional—for instance, always to the past—or multi-directional, and in that case, does it require matter exchange? Could the (future) objects substitute for (past) stuff, such as someone in the future sending back the objects and receiving some pounds of mud in exchange, so the objects could be delivered anywhere assuming (Eureka!) they would dis-time exactly the same volume of matter?

She, however, guesses it all depends on the person who forgets or remembers. Liquid people’s memory spills everywhere, turning itself into environment, and their remembrances are a knock on the door of an empty cabin.

He always liked old, recycled, used clothes, long before vintage was a fad. Specially black clothes. He remembers when almost everybody was wearing black, with that eclectic style mix that characterized the version of afterpunk that managed to arrive to his country. Hiding from everybody, they arrived to the seashore, where sea monsters once emerged, from where they slithered to the hermit’s hut. It was wintertime and there was only wind. Wind blowing up foam, not a horizon ahead but a fog wall. When future is not imagined, memories are not recorded. What keeps the REC button pressed is the belief that there will be a future from which the present will be remembered. Sand and clouds and water and wind were the same thing. A cinnamon-colored dog was looking from a corner, but he was not looking at them.



He had been dancing at the disco. He was barely visible. He was recovering his breath leaning on a pillar when an unknown girl just jumped on him. He didn’t see her approaching him, and he was unable to see her face during a long, asphyxiating kiss under her long soaked hair. Like he had been wrapped in a wet blanket. Hooded like a man sentenced to death while his mouth was being drilled by a muscled mollusk. It was raining hard when they went out to smoke a joint. He hates the rain, but he remembers she was turned on by rain because it reminded her of Rimbaud. She also wore black, or very dark blue, and she never put any underwear on. Now he thinks of her as one of those dripping-wet glitched Japanese ghosts emerging in the form of white noise from the TV or the bathtub. Student apartments were often cold, humid, uncomfortable and utterly disordered. Mold stains on ceilings switched shape and color as if every house grew its own clouds, its own ameboid god. He remembers being threatened by monsters. Students burned sweet brandy and drank it to fight the winter cold. They shared stolen drinks in the disco. Moss grew on old stone houses’ facades. Rhododendrons on balconies. Moss, mold, stone and paint talked to each other in their own language of mutually assured destruction.

But then, what if time travel is a rare spontaneous phenomenon occurring without human intervention? What if chronotaxia is a physical property of some particular objects, or some particular locations, or some particular times? What if it hasn’t been detected before because who would care if some non-human-related inorganic stuff such as a stone, a few gallons of water or some cubic feet of nitrogen had ever arrived from another time?

Never mind to wait.

She had been living abroad and mothered a child.

All was unexpected.

One of these occasions you jump into the void to realize the other person was just expecting you to follow your desire. Maybe she wasn’t wanting him, just wanting to be wanted. There was weed and rice and coffee and a few poetry books at her place, and many vinyl records and posters on the walls and dried blood drops in the bathroom. No memory, no pictures, no representation of pleasure. Joy always happens on the B side of remembrance.



They had chosen the past for very different reasons. For him, the past was a game—an approach that, depending on her mood, amused or infuriated her. For him, everything was a child’s play, and the only unavoidable requirement to keep playing, as any toddler knows, is a subjectively safe environment. He was unable to take anything seriously except, perhaps, the particular disposition of some random spatial arrangements that helped him to establish that subjectively safe environment. The critical mess. His past was loaded with future. He didn’t see disorder, and that was another reason why he couldn’t remember anything from his past—or from their shared past—in an orderly way. Only professional players and some committed amateurs, remember the details of previous play. How he managed to keep his job as a teacher was a complete mystery to her until she realized that he had that extraordinary memory for books. Books were part of his daydreams but, unlike other daydreams that were continuously appearing and disappearing, allowing him to happily contradict himself in a question of seconds, what he obtained from books was a specifically structured world, so that, although considered as another portion of his imagination, although never taking the historical records as facts but as thoroughly malleable fiction, he was able to present books in an entertaining way—something he rarely did with personal experiences. Maybe the gap opened itself between different concepts of experience. For her, experience was a serious thing, something to be cherished and cared for and curated: there were essentially good experiences and essentially bad experiences. Experiences became her—you are what you eat, you are what happens to you, you are what you unearth. But for him, experiences were also toys, people were also toys, pain and happiness and despair and death were also toys, so they could be whimsically loaded with diverse emotional and symbolic charges at will. His way to stand life was to transform anything into a delirious game, including himself, including her. She wouldn’t understand how he could be so responsible and so irresponsible at the same time. He wouldn’t understand how she could be so engaged, so serious, with such trivialities. What was for her an obstacle to overcome, was another piece on the tableboard for him. If he was able to see the world with that sharpness he would certainly be terrified. So she knew she couldn’t ask him about the future objects because he would understand their presence as something natural, like if a green alien or a flaming demon just appeared in the middle of the room. It’s not that he would refuse to find a rational explanation, but that searching for a rational explanation wouldn’t be the first thing to do. It probably wouldn’t be the second thing to do. For him, the future was mixed with the past, so the objects’ chronophoresis was not shattering his world in any way. He would just keep lying down in his voluptuous ennui, as trying to rule the world with a telekinetic superpower. And he would say something like the objects are a clear evidence of the existence of a post-techno-capitalist leisure middle class developed from the unemployed masses for whom some abstract machine will be covering their basic necessities, so property will be meaningless and they will focus on communication (the iPhone), entertainment (the doll), and enhancement (the hand). At the end, he would sound as a regular historian, producing narratives to preserve the present by protecting the past from future’s influence. And she would think fuck you, you always have to tell the last word.

She walks away from the couch, stamping sweaty footprints on the floorboard and leaving a tingling vibration in the wood that spreads like a scent through the cold air. Time is a crystalline construction seen through occult windows of life. Left to the past, sex becomes an obsolete skeuomorph. Be jewelled by numbers! he mutters—echoing the sequence of her perambulation until the room absorbs all the fluttering sounds and she vanishes like the photograph of an argentine greyscale ghost. Is a dead star still a star? Is a shining star hydrogen plasma, or is it the light travelling across spacetime? She turns back to him. He’s reading, or pretending to read. All the objects she had previously unearthed were pieces in a puzzle, things that could become tiny details in networks or narratives. Lantern fishes lost in the abyssal depths but sparkling anyway. Inserting their existence somewhere—a museum, a journal, a hidden corner of the mechanoic city—produced a vaguely disturbing meaning beyond their own presence in the here and now. Even unusual gadgets such as the tin bird were perfectly fitting into an accepted model of the past. The products of her last excavation, however, couldn’t be interjected in any preexistent context, they were existing by themselves, as an indirect proof of something that might have happened—that something will have happened. Yesterday, she washed them carefully in the bathtub and placed them in her studio room over a blanket. As an evidence of the present existence of a future, at least a near one. Humans weren’t going to be extinct tomorrow. Or maybe humans will vanish and intelligent machines will start disposing human trash in the past bin. She understood that she wouldn’t be able to obtain any proper knowledge from the objects. She understands that she will never be able to live in the still city but she will never cross the cloudwall. The past is broken, he says, we can’t hold on to it. Let’s fill the cavernous diseased holes of memory with sink water and molten silicon. Fake or not, to her, the objects must be art. Put a frame around them. Real or not, their shared endurance would be love. He wouldn’t dare to touch her. I can’t see you, make yourself visible to me, please, she says. She’s packing the objects carefully. She’s sending them beyond the cloudwall, to a laboratory in America. Let’s see what they can find.

I open shafts, I expose categories, minerals. I slit face-mouths, open wounds that heal on the other side of time, wrote Aase Berg.

—Germán Sierra


Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido (Debate, 1996), La Felicidad no da el Dinero (Debate, 1999), Efectos Secundarios (Debate, 2000), Intente usar otras palabras (Mondadori, 2009), and Standards (Pálido Fuego, Spain, 2013)—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje (Mondadori, 2004).



Oct 042016



An Attorney for the Bureau of Consumer Affairs of the
Federal Trade Commission, Midwest Region, Inspects Natural
Path Sanctuary, a “Green” Cemetery, near Madison, Wisconsin

In the end, consumers are consumed by grief, morticians’ easy marks. No sign of that here. Nothing. Nothing but graves, graves turning over in graves.

— § —

Before Today’s Session, a Supreme Court Clerk Sharpens the
Twenty Goose-Quill Pens, She Will Later Arrange, Neatly
Crossed, at Each of the Four Counsel Tables

I wear this suit of morning clothes. Forgetting whom he was fitting, the tailor asked on which side I dressed. The inkwells are for show. Dry.

— § —

A Biologist of the Fish and Wildlife Service
Confirms the Success of the Plague Vaccination
by Observing that the Prairie Dogs’ Whiskers Have Turned Pink

Now, predate, my stressed, my endangered black-footed ferrets, my BFFs. Aerial drones vector laced M&Ms to your flea-infested prey. Prey away. These sweet sweetened treats.

— § —

The 45-Foot Mail Boat, J.W. Westcott II,
the Postal Service’s Only Floating Zip Code, 48222,
Hails the Freighter Mississagi Steaming North on the Detroit River

Our motto? “Mail by the pail.” On the fly, not stopping, making ten knots. The bucket hoisted aloft! Its passenger? One postcard from the Pacific.

— § —

The Last Army Cobbler Fits a Horseshoe-Shaped Heel Plate
to a Tomb Shoe Worn by a Sentinel
of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard)

Nineteen steps: Sand the leather. Tack the toe-taps. Peen the kick plates. “Every.” “Shoe’s.” “Different.” Twenty-one tomb steps. The marble worn into a trench.

— § —

The Public Affairs Specialist 2nd Class
of the USCGC Hollyhock (WLB 214)
Launches the Infrared Equipped Aerostat
for the Houghton-Portage Elementary School Kindergarten’s
Future Guardians

What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? Tend Keweenaw Waterway’s buoys, beacons? Aid Aids to Navigation? To nowhere? For forever?

— Michael Martone


Michael Martone is the author of Michael Martone, a memoir done in contributor’s notes. His newest book is Memoranda, hint fictions celebrating the various jobs done by the United States federal government.


Sep 152016

Lewis Parker


“It’s one man, one vote, quite literally, Jim.”

“The one man who will be casting a ballot to decide the next President of the United States is actor Christopher Walken.”

“After a six-month ordeal that has brought the U.S. political system to the brink of ridicule, Christopher Walken has entered the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. He’s wearing brown slacks hitched high up his torso and a senior citizen’s cardigan. There’s that grey blizzard of back-swept hair, the moonbeam stare. He’s limping past camera flashes with a walking cane and a strangely elongated stride.”

“The brink of ridicule, Bob? He’s standing outside the voting booth having his I.D. checked by Bob Furris of the Federal Election Commission.”

“Until we hear of any further developments, Jim, I know you’re a fan of Christopher Walken. So I wondered if you could answer a question that’s bugging one of our listeners, Hank from Ohio.”

“Howdy, Hank.”

“Hank asks in an email, can somebody please tell me, what’s the movie where a young Christopher Walken sits in a darkened room talking about his desire to crash his car into oncoming traffic?”

“Is that a trick question, Bob?”

“No, it’s a legitimate question from Hank in Ohio. Hank goes on, ever since I learned that Mr Walken would be choosing our next president, I have not been able to sleep for this scene flashing through my mind. It’s scaring the bejesus out of me.”

“OK, Hank, thanks for calling in. I can picture the scene. He’s wearing some sort of checked flannel shirt. And a guy, the protagonist, I can’t remember who, comes into Walken’s room late at night, and he delivers this monologue about hearing voices in his head.”


“It’s in The Dead Zone, a movie based on a Stephen King novel. About a teacher with supernatural powers who intuits that a politician played by Martin Sheen will send America into a nuclear holocaust, and so he goes to one of his rallies shoots him.”

“Final answer The Dead Zone?”


“You’re wrong, Jim. The unsettling scene you’re thinking of is in Annie Hall.”

“The Woody Allen movie? No.”

“Look, we have a widget printed out right here. He plays Annie’s brother.”

“It’s a great movie that won a lot of awards, Bob, and I think Christopher Walken’s scene is one of the best things in it.”

“I am personally not reassured by this at all. If Christopher Walken is the only man alive who can make Annie Hall feel like a horror movie, no wonder the bond markets freaked out when they heard he’d got the nod.”

“I think Walken was a perfect choice for the brother in Annie Hall, and he’s the right man to choose the next President. He’s the impact character this script needed.”

“One man’s impact character is another man’s nightmare scenario.”

“If you’ve just joined us, the Supreme Court building is draped in American flags, a giant clock has been set to zero and the world’s media is crammed into the marble hall. Armed U.S. Marshals are swarming all over and Christopher Walken is having his identity checked. Bob Furris of the F.E.C is holding Christopher Walken’s driving license next to Christopher Walken’s face and comparing the two. I really don’t think this is necessary, Bob.”

“Bob Furris has to be absolutely certain that this is not an actor or impostor come to hijack our political system. Before he arrived in the Capitol this afternoon, there were calls among the population for the Academy Award winner to recite the speech about his grandfather’s watch from Pulp Fiction as an extra security measure.”

“The F.E.C.’s lawyers said making voters recite speeches would breach voter registration laws, although there is a movement in Alabama campaigning to make all registered voters reel off two pages of the Independence Day screenplay from memory.”

“But Walken’s not a voter, Jim, he’s now a kingmaker. And let’s remember that from the outset, Christopher Walken has been a reluctant kingmaker. When his nomination was announced, he was spending the weekend foraging for wild mushrooms in his Vermont woodland retreat, reading Edgar Allan Poe to himself by a campfire. The great American news media tracked him down and demanded to know whether he was ready to play ball.  ‘Let’s see what I’m doing on Thursday,’ he replied.”

“A true American enigma, Bob.”

“He’d been given the honour of choosing the next president, Jim, and he didn’t even crack a smile or say thank you. When the great NBC newsman Bob Waffle jumped into the campfire circle and confronted Walken on what that meant – could he please elaborate, could he at least maybe promise not to turn his back on the American people – he said, ‘It means I’ll see.’”

“The thing with Walken is that he’s really a poet. You have to parse what he’s saying to get to the kernel of truth. When he says, ‘I’ll see’, he didn’t just mean I haven’t made up my mind. If you listen closely to that clip, look in those adamantine eyes, ‘I’ll see’ means I will perceive.”

“Our nation was in the most serious political crisis since 1824, when Andrew Jackson was gazumped by John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. Walken had 72 hours to register himself at the Capitol, accept the nomination and cast his ballot. That morning, he brushed the great American news media aside with his cane, and didn’t answer a single question as he got into his old Sedan and started off on what the nation hoped would be a direct route to the Capitol. Millions of people across the globe tuned in to see helicopter footage of Christopher Walken driving – maybe to the Capitol to choose us a President, maybe to the grocery store to buy more marshmallows. Federal agents had blocked the roads to give him a clear run. What did Walken do? On the freeway near Northampton, Massachusetts, America watched in horror as Walken drove up to the police road block. When a police officer tried to tell Walken, no, he couldn’t exit the goddamn freeway, we saw blurry footage of a cranky old celebrity giving a servant of the people what looked like a volley of abuse.”

“Christopher Walken doesn’t have an abusive bone in his body, Bob. He’s an eighty-one year old man on his way to elect the next President with the news media watching his every move. He shouldn’t have to empty his bladder into a Sprite can.”

“He went to his favourite eatery called Kathy’s Canteen fifteen miles out-of-the-way. A convoy of New Englanders were waving flags, holding placards and ‘Go, Chris! Go!’ bumper stickers. Soccer moms came out with cookies to give to Walken. A local business owner offered to lend him his Porsche to get him to Washington quicker. People had brought take-out food to give to him, but he didn’t give a damn.”

“Cool as you like, a consummate gentleman the whole time, Walken got out of the car, thanked his supporters for the cookies and the take-outs, but said, you know what, folks? I’ve been driving all day without a rest stop. Kathy-who-owns-the-restaurant is a personal friend. I need a break. I’m going to eat in. And you know what, Bob, I think that’s fair.”

“Walken enters the restaurant and Kathy, whose political allegiances are suspect to say the least, bolts the doors behind him like a French café owner welcoming Robespierre. He sits in a booth in the middle of the room and orders a plate of Philosopher Quinoa. That’s a reference to the socialist philosopher Aristotle.”

“It’s a reference to Plato’s Republic, Bob.”

“Americans are uncomfortable with the next President being chosen by an unpredictable vegetarian who eats salad named after Greek intellectuals, and I understand their concerns. If I was there, I would have throttled him.”

“On Tuesday night when Christopher Walken drove into Washington, D.C. in his sedan, half a million people had come out to greet him. Now here he is, in the lobby of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., proving his detractors wrong, about to save the nation from a constitutional crisis.”

“We hope.”

“The Interim President and Leader of the House is here, looking extremely relieved. His gamble to railroad through a 28th amendment to the Constitution, to elect a popular kingmaker in the event of political gridlock, appears to have paid off. All nine Supreme Court justices line the front row in gowns. They are here along with the F.E.C’s Bob Furris, United Nations election observers…”

“Let’s not forget the great American news media.”

“… all here to make sure this election meets the highest democratic standards.”

“We can now confirm that Christopher Walken’s documents have been given the all-clear by the F.E.C. and the Chief Justice. His hair’s standing on end and I still haven’t seen him blink yet. He cracks an eerie half-smile to somebody in the audience, but that does nothing to calm the atmosphere in the building. In fact it just sent a shiver down my spine. The Chief Justice is stepping forward with a Bible. Christopher Walken is being sworn in. He’s even making the Pledge of Allegiance sound menacing.”

“The mouse that turned the cream into butter and walked out!”

“A Japanese news anchor is being ejected by a U.S. marshal for heckling one of Walken’s lines from the Steven Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can.”

“Talk about tension, Jim. With the formalities over, the Chief Justice and Bob Furris are ushering a barely compliant Walken towards the voting booth. It’s a solid wooden shed roughly the size of a phone box, manufactured by Shrubb Electoral Solutions in the great voting state of Florida. Inside there’s a mechanised voting system that was perfected in the 2000 Presidential Election. It’s a stunningly simple process that I hope will be good enough for our national enigma. The voter puts his ballot card in a slot and pulls a lever to stamp the name of the candidate he’d like to be President. Sort of like a fruit machine.”

“The Chief Justice is now reminding Christopher Walken that once the door closes, he will have one hour to stamp the card.”

“Here we go, Walken is approaching the booth. He’s taking his own sweet time.”

“The big clock hasn’t started yet. Christopher Walken is only halfway inside the voting booth. We can still see half his face as he confers with Bob Furris. He’s making a movement with his wrist to check that there’s a lock on the door. Furris nods and reassures him that it definitely locks.”

“I never thought I’d say it, Jim, but Christopher Walken is now inside the voting booth procured especially for him with the door shut.”

“There goes sound of the voting bell.”

“A patter of applause has broken out among the sleep-deprived press corps.”

“Stewards are reminding the press to be quiet, lest they try to influence the election.”

“The Leader of the House of Representatives is tentatively shaking hands with a couple of the Supreme Court justices. He has a right to feel relieved.”

“I’m not so sure this is all over yet, Jim. Can they lock it from the outside, to make sure Walken doesn’t run away?”

“Show some respect, Bob.”

“I don’t understand why he has to lock the door when his vote won’t be a secret.”

“Voting is not a rational process, it’s a deeply personal ritual akin to prayer. I met a group of folks on the West Coast who told me that it is a mystical experience, akin to something called pataphysics. That’s the study of unobservable phenomena. By training their minds to think intuitively, these folks can tell you what’s inside a box without looking inside. They can guess the codes to safes and predict earthquakes. They have also predicted the outcome of the last five elections correctly. That is why they are now being courted by the elites of both main parties to try and get ahead of the game in the next election cycle. I also have it on good authority that Christopher Walken has been in contact with these people in Oregon, who call themselves the Ubu Roi.”

“I don’t know what to say, Jim. You may be onto something, or you may need counseling.”

“I believe in the Ubu Roi and I believe in Christopher Walken’s ability to choose based on their teachings and his own mystical intuition.”

“But what’s your belief in the Ubu Roi based on?”


“Whatever you say. One of our researchers has just handed me an article about Christopher Walken in Vanity Fair magazine from 1997. The journalist who interviewed Walken in his house in Los Angeles discovered that Walken had two tissue dispensers in every bathroom, one on each side of the toilet bowl. This means, if you can believe it, that Walken wipes his ass with both hands.”

“I wonder what the Ubu Roi say about that. I know what I make of it.”

“Hey everybody, listen to this. Did you know Christopher Walken wipes his ass with both hands?”

“Christopher Walken still has fifty-five minutes to cast his vote. Bob has left us momentarily while he confers with some of our network TV colleagues as to the possible meaning of this revelation. If you can believe it, the media are now wondering if Walken expects there to be two levers on the voting machine. Bookmakers have slashed the odds of Walken taking one look at the voting machine and leaving the booth – and the political system in disarray – to 3/1. Using my own intuition, I have to say, I still don’t believe that will happen. Closing my eyes for a second, I’m envisaging Christopher Walken inside the voting booth pulling the lever, walking out and declaring a winner. Who that winner will be, I’m not sure, it isn’t my job to speculate. An anchor behind me is asking his people if they remember whether Walken ate his quinoa in Kathy’s restaurant the day before yesterday with both hands. I’ve seen this footage dozens of times, and I remember Kathy bringing him a knife and fork, but him only using the fork, and doing so with his right hand. That’s what Fox News thinks, and they’re predicting a Republican president on this basis. (Don’t they know that people who hold the fork in their right hands are left-handed?) A blogger in front of me says she has found photographic evidence of Walken at a Hollywood diner in 1982 using a knife and fork to eat a plate of fries. Bob’s leaning over the blogger’s shoulder and pointing at the photo, screaming.”

“Who in God’s name uses a knife and fork to eat fries?”

“News is coming thick and fast from behind me now. It emerges there is a photo of Walken in Times Square eating a slice of pizza from a plastic plate with a spoon. Meanwhile NBC is claiming Walken shook hands with his left hand when his arm was in a cast. Bob’s still shouting.”

“This is un-American behaviour!”

“Bob, come back here, buddy.”

“But what about using both hands to wipe his ass? Listen to Karryn Kelly at Fox:”

“I’ve alternated hands over the course of my life, but by god I’ve never been so depraved as to use both at the same time.”

“Bob’s walked off again. He’s with around ten other anchors who’ve approached Bob Furris and the Chief Justice. They’re demanding an immediate suspension of the voting process while we figure out exactly what’s going on with Christopher Walken.”

“Somebody drag that fucking maniac out of there!”

“Welcome back, Bob. Can you tell listeners what you were doing?”

“Is that booth sound-proofed? I hope he can hear the shouts of Traitor! Communist!  Reptile! Get him out of there before America becomes Iran and we’re wiping our asses with our hands!”

“Marshals are dragging Karryn Kelly out by the nostrils. Unprecedented scenes.”

“Tom Cooley from Nevada FM says the legislature in his state is already putting the wheels in motion to secede from the union.”

“A martial also has an apoplectic Ben Bozier of NBC by the feet and they’re tasering him. The Chief Justice and eight other Supreme Court judges have backed off behind a martial cordon. The Leader of the House has been escorted away from the increasingly hostile press corps.”

“In amidst all this chaos in Washington, D.C., Christopher Walken has used twenty of his permitted sixty minutes.”

“The networks may be happy to see this go down to the wire.”

“But I’m sure Christopher Walken isn’t the kind of man who would string things out for ratings.”

“Ratings are astonishing!”

“I’m now starting to wonder what he’s doing in there.”

“All this dithering jackass has to do is stamp a piece of paper. Is there a clock in there? I wonder if he’s even wearing a watch.”

“Our democracy can’t handle another vote.”

“The folks behind me are now calling Walken a space cadet.”

“Has it crossed your mind that he’s fallen asleep in there, Jim?”

“If he has fallen asleep, the United States of America, our democratic traditions, and most certainly, the great actor Christopher Walken, will have become a global laughing-stock. That would be a sad day for us all. But I’m sure this outstanding American, who was chosen precisely for his ability to make one decision and one decision only, would never allow that to happen. The Ubu Roi would not allow that to happen.”

“Believe me, if you fall asleep in that booth with the whole world watching, you hand world supremacy straight over to China. This is how crucial it is that Christopher Walken doesn’t fall asleep right now.”

“Come on, now, Christopher Walken. You’ve had plenty of time to think about this. There are only two options. Put your card in the machine, select the least-worst option and pull the lever. You can use two hands for all America cares.”

“All my eggs are in Christopher Walken’s trouser pocket, Jim. It galls me to say it, but they are.”

“Holy shit!”


“Oh my god, take cover!”

“America’s at war!”

“Bob, come back. Bob’s running towards the booth. The news is going crazy with reports that. With reports that. I’m looking over the heads of cowering journalists, in fear of their lives, trying to make sense of what just happened in the Supreme Court building, where a shot has been fired. Marshals are packing the area, surrounding the booth, our democracy, with uniforms. We’re being told to get down and stay down. I’m trying to see over the top of my monitor, to report to you what is happening. The Chief Martial is opening the door of the voting booth. The door has been prised open, and there is a commotion now as the martial appears to be summoning Christopher Walken from the booth, but he does not appear to be coming out. The Marshals appear to be dragging Christopher Walken out. They’re blocking my view. Now I can see that they’re trying to smother the bloody mess of pulp and spine where his head has been blown off and his brains are dripping like stalactites onto the marble floor of the Supreme Court building.”

—Lewis Parker


Lewis Parker is a writer of fiction, poetry and journalism who is trying to get out of London. A hand-typed book of his poems, Suicide Notes, collects the best things he’s written while working as an écrivain public in the streets and at festivals during the last year. His prose has been in the Guardian, New Statesman, Dazed & Confused and Minor Literature[s], and he has taught at Kingston University in England.


Sep 132016

MLbuganvilias1 (1)


IT WASN’T LIKE they’d been invited, but when they saw that house in the distance, they left the highway and took the dirt road that led to it. Nor were they accustomed to dropping in at strangers’ homes, but the fact was the long trek from Belize to Guatemala, the hours it’d taken to cross the border—as if the young couple traveling in a camper with the young man’s father were suspicious—had left them hungry and thirsty. If they drove up to the house it was to ask where they could eat. As they neared the structure of amber wood, evidence of the occupants’ life comforted them: a bicycle tossed on the grass, a tire swing hanging from the branch of a tree, sheets hung on a line. The sound of their motor attracted the attention of the inhabitants. First the children, then two small blond women and then a man with a long beard came onto the porch and smiled as if they had been expecting the visit. The couple and the boy’s father got out of the cab and the latter took the lead, greeted them in a mix of English and Spanish and quickly discovered English was the language to communicate with that friendly family. Rose, Wendy and Bob introduced themselves and gestured at the children, indicating that they were Wayne and Stephanie. The man and the young people also introduced themselves and then explained that they were looking for a place to eat, if they could give them directions, but Rose, Wendy and Bob immediately insisted that they were their guests, they were making lunch and would be delighted to share it with them. They emphasized the words “share it” and among the three exchanged glances as when a husband and wife consent to a decision taken on the fly, without consultation. Rose, who was wearing an overall which exposed her shoulders crossed by the turquoise straps of a bikini, directed the children, by way of giving them the news: we have guests, set three more places at the table. The children, without copying the welcoming smiles of their parents, said, yes, Mamá, and with looks of annoyance went into the house. Wash your hands, Wendy ordered, lost within a shimmering red dress. Yes, Mamá, the children answered without enthusiasm. The young couple exchanged a fleeting look, trying to disguise their discovery without being able to say a word; only confirming their suspicions by squeezing each other’s hands. They’d heard about communes, different ways of living together, thought they knew all about it, thought they owned the word “freedom” (maybe this trip derived from such a conviction) but now they were witnessing a lifestyle that embodied that word. When they were seated at the table, a bowl of salad was passed around, accompanied by rice with carrots, squash, sprouts, beans and eggs, the main course. They were vegetarians, they said, smiling; they were sorry not to be able to offer anything else, but the eggs supplied protein, Wendy said, and the legumes, the lentils and beans they mixed with the rice. The boy’s father, who traveled with a plethora of vitamins and minerals lined up each morning like beads on a string, endorsed Wendy’s nutritional knowledge and said that in addition these were foods rich in lecithin and nobody took lecithin into account.

During the meal, while Wayne and Stephanie opened their mouths and showed the guests their chewed balls of vegetable protein when their three parents weren’t looking, the young pair and the boy’s father learned their hosts had moved to Orange, Belize five years ago. Before the children were born, the three took a trip to Tikal and were convinced that Central America was the place to start a new life, far from the conventions of capitalism and hypocrisy, with the mystic force of the native cultures. They found a bit of land they rented from a British relative of Rose’s stepmother, and as it was very complicated to explain that, they summed it all up. Here they were, they had chickens, they made soy cheese, ground wheat and corn to make bread, grew fruit trees because vegetables were difficult; the climate didn’t permit tomatoes, for example. They said it rained a lot. We have beehives, Rose informed them when she served the dessert, and it was she who took care of the bees; the guests had to try the mango blossom honey. And she passed the pot with its dense aroma so the guests could pour the divine product over the mangos of their orchard.

The young couple kept exchanging glances; they had arrived in a place as sweet and yellow as the flesh of the mango that they lifted to their mouths in juicy bites. They were eighteen and on the point of deciding what to do with their lives. In the light of that golden well-being, their world seemed made of asphalt and motor noise, too much clothing and too many school exams: insipid routine. The boy’s father talked enthusiastically, asking about methods of cultivation, how they made compost, collected water. He’d just sold his automobile wheel factory and had bought the camper to explore his new life. He’d invited the couple to come along on this journey of recovered freedom, if indeed he ever had freedom, he told them when he spoke of his plans. Wanting to be together and on the road, they readily joined the father’s curiosity and imagination, felt an astonished and joyful complicity with that man twenty-five years their senior. They supposed it was his attitude about the trip and adventure that excited them. They didn’t realize that they shared the same question—what was happiness?

When Rose, Wendy and Bob invited them to see the water reservoir which supplied the house, and which they drank after boiling, the three were elated by the goodness of the paradise their hosts had built. One could live isolated, eat well, laugh and love each other, create a home. The young couple walked slowly in the tropical heat, seeking refuge in the shade of trees on the path. The children got on their bikes and sped by, splattering them with mud from the puddles. But all that was fine. Much more than taking the camper through the middle of the city, much more than the parties where they danced and drank, much more even than going to La Marquesa and climbing to Cruz Blanca at nearly 13,000 feet. Here they were more together. The boy said his friend Aldo would be happy to go with them. She understood his meaning: the three of them could be hand in hand and sleep curled up in the same bed of the camper if need be.

As if to demonstrate he was versed in engineering issues, Bob explained how the water drained down the sides of the pond and how it was fed into another lower reservoir from which it was piped into the house. The gradual slope and quantity of rain were ideal. If the reservoir overflowed, the canals they’d designed carried the water as far as the orchard and then the river below. Under that high sun, the children took off their rubber boots and stripped rapidly to throw themselves into the pond. Bob watched them with satisfaction: the water’s fresh and irresistible, he informed the guests as if he were the narrator of an ad. And he also sat on a stone to take off his shoes. Wendy and Rose joined forces to advise the guests to swim: they had to refresh themselves before getting back on the road. The young couple looked at each other again because they’d left bathing suits in the camper, but their hostesses had already taken off the red dress, the overall and blue bikini, and Bob his pants and t-shirt. He didn’t wear boxers. How annoying they are, he said, when he saw that the boy’s father lingered in his briefs before exposing himself completely. The girl looked at her boyfriend, hesitating. They were still protected in their pants and tee shirts, and even worse, lacked the skill to undress quickly and fling themselves into the coolness with the naturalness of their hosts. The boy began: took off his tennies and shirt, and she, without looking at the boy’s father out of modesty, rushed to take off her playera, bra and finally her pants and socks. When she saw the boy going ahead to jump into the water, she tossed her clothing carelessly on the grass. Alone and naked on the shore she felt destitute. Running after him more as a chore than for pleasure, she submerged herself in the water that revealed their bodies. She looked for the boy because she needed his protection, but it was Bob and Wendy who swam to her side and bragged about the benefits of bathing in their crystalline water. Rose emerged naked and round on the shore, the sparse down of her sex dripping, her breasts pink and large, while the boy and the girl, separated, avoided looking at each other. The women shouted to Wayne not to urinate, which he was doing in a sumptuous arc, on the water where everyone was swimming. And Wayne took off running after his sister.

The young couple began to feel comfortable in the water, in front of the others. As Wendy went over to Bob and embraced him sweetly, as Rose hugged Wendy, as Bob kissed them each tenderly, and then gave them a pat on the butt when they moved away, kicking toward the boy’s father, the shame of nudity seemed to abandon them. It was a thing of the past, of the shore minutes earlier. Submerged near the shore the boy’s father needed a little push, Wendy and Rose said, challenging him to a race. Then he, without saying a word, left his reserve and set out swimming, leaving them far behind while the young people looked at his white rear emerging from time to time. The two women revenged his triumph by splashing him, and then warmly embracing him. Rose kissed him on the lips and swam across to Bob, who laughed while Wendy boldly kissed the guest. The young couple got closer together, there in that water, whose muddy bottom they dipped toes in. They didn’t go near the others, although Bob called them to where he and Rose were playing. He cupped water in his hands and let it fall over her breasts. The young couple weren’t prepared to share their nudity with others; it was enough to feel their submerged bodies beating with a pulse that hadn’t ever manifested like this before: in the midst of a liberty without restrictions, a naturalness like mango flesh. They kissed their wet mouths and his erection brushed her thighs. They’d made love before the trip and during it had dared to while the boy’s father slept in the upper bunk, and also when she stretched out in the back bed, because the tight curves had made her carsick.

This time, with the laughter and nearness of the others, they discovered secret, prohibited sex. There was something public and private in that rubbing under the water; their nakedness, no different than that of the others, excited them. They didn’t talk to each other nor let Bob coax them over; there was enough mystery between them to add something new. The children came back asking that one of the parents peel them a green mango and fix it with lime and salt. Rose moved away from Bob, Wendy from the boy’s father, and Bob stopped calling the young couple and started getting out of the water to take care of the kids. No help for it, he said, and invited the others to eat green mango. He’d wait for them on the porch. He walked his naked, hairy body in front of them all and only the girl looked at it openly. The nakedness of men was something recently added to her experience, and she compared the sex of the boy with that of Bob, who had not been circumcised. The pubes of Wendy and Rose, whose rosy bodies passed near them to get dressed and help with the green mango ritual, didn’t provoke the same curiosity in her.

They didn’t notice when the boy’s father got out to get dressed. Now that only they remained, they wanted to stay, oppose themselves to the rest and the children, kiss each other rabidly because they had participated in a definition of happiness they hadn’t known before. They didn’t know if they wanted it for themselves or if the boy’s father would adopt it.

They said goodbye to Bob, Wendy and Rose, and the children Wayne and Stephanie, who ran next to the camper along the dusty stretch of road, throwing dried mango pits, irritated by that world of smiles and living in harmony, of rice with vegetables and pond water, of nakedness and shared bodies, of Papá and Mamá and Mamá and we love you very much, of that way of being happy. The couple looked at the approaching highway. They paid no attention to the sound of pits striking metal, had their hands interlaced as if to protect them from the need to find answers. When they reached the asphalt and the camper slid along smoothly, the boy’s father broke the silence: good people those Dutch. They didn’t respond, only abandoned themselves to the serpentine road in the midst of the luminous green of the countryside.


The Textbook Case
for Emilia

HAVE YOU EVER dialed a wrong number? I’m talking about when you’re stressed because you’re not going to get to an appointment on time and then in the car, at a red light, trying to keep the traffic cop from seeing you, you open your day minder, quickly punch in the number of the person you’re going to meet? Since he doesn’t answer, she leaves a message on his cell: “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, wait for me.” Relieved, she drives to the meeting and there he is with the documents that have to be reviewed so that her paper can be considered for the conference, the first in her anthropology career: “Single mothers in middle class neighborhoods of the city.”

Has it happened that you don’t even realize you’d left a message on a wrong number because the person you had the appointment with doesn’t mention the call and has simply waited the fifteen minutes imposed by familiarity with city traffic? She parks and apologizes before sitting down, but he has no complaints because after all, he’s been comfortably waiting in a café while she’s been the one driving and dodging through traffic, her mind racing like the motor of the car. They begin immediately to review the objectives she had posed for the research: he’s a member of the committee that selects presenters and had been her professor besides. He knows she’s brilliant. During the discussion, her cell vibrates within her jacket pocket; she feels it because she didn’t take the jacket off. She wouldn’t have answered it anyway, because she doesn’t like to be interrupted. She knows when she should take a call and when not to. This isn’t the time. Warming up by her second coffee, she sheds the jacket, so doesn’t feel the insistent vibration–like a dentist’s drill—demanding an answer.


She’s back home before she realizes that she has five calls from the same number. The number hasn’t been registered under a name—it would have shown on her screen. There’s a message. “What do you want? Stop bothering me.” The number appears to be similar to her professor’s, which she’d called when she was going to be late. She checks the call and confirms it. But it isn’t her professor’s voice. It’s someone else who answered her call while she was in the café. The voice is unpleasant; she listens to it again. The “what do you want” is loaded with irritation. While she searches for the professor’s number to see what the error was, someone leaves another message. She listens to it: “I told you not to call me.” It’s the same irritated male voice. The insistence angers her and she thinks how absurd it is that an attempted apology set off this series of calls. When she gets a call from someone she doesn’t know, she simply doesn’t bother to answer it. To do this, someone must be very lonely. At best, it’s a message in a bottle washed up from the sea, like in the story she read by some Bernardo Ruiz, where a girl calls numbers at random from prison to see if someone sometime will answer from the outside. And someone does.


She fixes dinner: a sincronizada, grilled tortilla sandwich with lots of salsa and beans. She’s happy with the professor’s comments: it’s likely that she’ll be chosen to read her paper at the conference. She feels good, like when she made paper boats with her father and blew on them so they’d sail in the fountain at the park and the boat didn’t fall on its side, but kept going straight. As she sits to eat, the cell phone buzzes. She’d put it on vibrate, and on the table the sound resembles a compulsive cicada. That’s what her mother says: “Answer your compulsive cicada already.” She’d never seen a cicada. Her mother said they were big, ugly, nocturnal insects. That their looks match the disagreeable sound they make. She answers without thinking, and the voice at the other end scolds her: “I told you to never leave me messages.” She thinks about the cicada’s appearance; suspects this man has a wart on his big nose. “Look, mister, I don’t know who you are. I called a wrong number,” she says, liberated and looking at the sincronizada on her plate. “I made a mistake,” she mutters in an exasperated tone after a silence. The cicada seems to have realized he doesn’t know her voice. Another silence; she’s on the point of hanging up but he finishes with: “Then don’t go around making mistakes, stupid,” and hangs up. She returns to her lukewarm dinner. Now on top of feeling guilty for arriving late to her appointment, she’s supposed to feel bad for having dialed a wrong number. She has the urge to call the imbecile back and tell him that surely he’s never made a mistake. He’s never confused a two with a seven, which is what happened to her.


Has it ever happened that the mistake you made kept coming back? That once you’ve sighed the relief of confusion clarified and begun to forget the voice of the bothersome, disconcerting cicada, and are in bed reading the novel that lulls you to sleep, the phone rings again and you find that at such an hour (when normally only family or your partying friends would dare to call) the wrong number is calling again? She doesn’t even consider answering. If it wasn’t clear enough and he can’t stand getting an erroneous message, then he should see a shrink, give that a shot, just stop bothering her. She mutes the phone and sleeps. The next morning its red blinking makes her realize there’s a message. She sighs, reluctant to listen to this intrusion. She thinks the word and it seems curious to qualify someone who calls that way, because actually she was the one who inserted herself into a stranger’s life, by bungling a simple courtesy call.


While drinking her coffee on the edge of the bed she listens to the message. “Slutty woman, leave my husband alone. Damned whore.” The strange voice is fraught with aggression. It’s astonishing that her misdialing has resulted in all this. She supposes that it’s the old, where there’s smoke…or she fit like a glove in the wrong place at the right time, someone’s tail has been stepped on…She’s upset, making explanations in proverbs like her grandmother. She wants to call the woman and shout at her that she’s done nothing, that they need to leave her alone, that their fights are their problems and if her husband is despicable, they have to deal with it themselves. She clears herself with those words with which she would like to pierce the idiot’s ear. Then she starts thinking about how absurd the situation is and how laughable. What if she calls and says to the man: Look, I already told you I called your number by mistake, straighten things out with your wife but don’t put me in the middle of it? She imagines him explaining: “Sweetheart, honestly, the girl called by mistake. She can tell you herself.” He hands over the phone. She says: “I’m Elsa, an anthropology student, you’ve mistaken me, ma’am, and I’m neither a whore nor do I get mixed up with repulsive cicadas, and even less married ones. If you are not disgusted by your husband I am.” And the wife replying: “Ah, you know him? Don’t think that I’m going to believe you, dead mosquito. It doesn’t matter to me whether you study seals or whistles, don’t students fuck? Or do books inhibit sex?” She wasn’t going to bare her breast for the other woman to unload on. She didn’t want to begin her day that way, fed up to here, or better yet, up to her ass, in the middle of the bed of Mr. & Mrs. X.


Haven’t you done the same out of sheer exhaustion? On the tenth message from the wife infuriated by the infidelity of her husband, by her jealousy justified or not, after receiving insult after insult each time more obscene, more grotesque, wouldn’t you opt to put an end to the situation? Of course, she could have shut off the cell, asked for a change of number. But she thought she shouldn’t have to be made the victim of the game and suffer the consequences: having to advise everyone that her number’s changed, especially the professor who should call her in the next few hours. And no way he ought to get that “the number you called is no longer in service” routine. The messages have intensified so drastically that she thinks only confronting the gross, obscene woman will resolve things. So she answers the tenth call in the afternoon and tells the woman they can meet in the Vips on Revolution. Sufficiently far from her house. She will explain who she is and why the woman should leave her in peace. Perhaps the two of them can get a load off their minds.


She sits at the table nearest the entrance, as they’d agreed, and orders a coffee. She doesn’t like the coffee in that place but only wants to pass the time and calm her nerves. She doesn’t know how she’ll react when she sees the enemy: what’s the woman like, with her shrieky voice and beside herself? Short? Curly hair? Does she have a big nose? Doesn’t wax her moustache? Dresses in loud colors? By the jealousy, she supposes the wife’s neither very young nor very old. Forty-something, she thinks. Typical case of the husband who betrays her with young women because her fading looks and domestic preoccupations have killed his appetite. Typical case. She, young, nice-looking, tall, a bit plump but acceptable, fell into the middle of a textbook case (so says the professor). If the jealous wife sees her, she won’t doubt that her husband has been having an affair. The thought floors her. She looks at her watch: the fifteen minutes have lapsed. The woman ought to be there already. She looks around: tables with couples, groups of women, two men, a family, various young people. She realizes that she’s the only woman by herself in the place. The cell rings. She recognizes the number and answers cautiously. Nobody speaks on the other end. She looks around thinking that a cell at the ear would allow her to discover the accuser. She feels afraid. Better to go.


Wouldn’t you have done the same? Now she doesn’t want to face the person who has not appeared. She’s been naive. The textbook case doesn’t end like this. Go. She leaves quickly after paying and stamping the parking ticket, looking around as if she were guilty of something. Not wanting to run into the woman who was perhaps just calling to say she was late. But the voice didn’t speak. Would she repeat the situation that started this distasteful appointment in the first place? She gets in her car and goes down Revolution, takes Rio Mixcoac to her house: she’ll get home and throw the cell in the trash. She’ll send her professor an email, trying to make sure he doesn’t think it’s just a way of trying to find out the committee’s decision; she’ll say her cell’s not working, that she missed anything if he called or texted her. If there was anything, of course; and then she’d tell him what happened as a result of her appointment, the textbook case…


The last two blocks seem interminable; she turns, parks in front of the house and when she starts to get out of the car it hits her. Noticing a car parking behind her, she’s struck by an urgent need for safety. Instead of walking away, she runs to the front door of the house. She goes in and, without lighting the lights, closes herself in her room. Then the cell rings again. She knows that if she looks out the window, a woman will be standing on the sidewalk with a phone to her ear. She moves the curtain and peeks out. The woman’s a tall redhead. And determined. The cell continues to ring. She has no reason to get rid of it now.

— Mónica Lavín, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava


Mónica Lavín is the prolific author of short stories and story collections, including Manual para enamorarse, 2012. Her novels include Yo, la peor, about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, which won the Elena Poniatowska Prize, 2010. Lavín has also won the Gilberto Owen National Prize for Literature among other awards. www.monicalavin.com.



Patricia Dubrava is a writer and translator whose translations from Spanish include stories by Mónica Lavín in Metamorphoses, Reunion: The Dallas Review, K1N, Lunch Ticket, and Norton’s Flash Fiction International, 2015. Most recently, in 2016, Lavín stories have appeared in Aldus Journal of Translation and Mexico City Lit. Dubrava blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com


Sep 122016

Henighan on ferry on Lake NicaraguaStephen Henighan crossing Lake Nicaragua on a ferry.

The Path of the Jaguar cover image


In this excerpt from Stephen Henighan’s new novel The Path of the Jaguar, just released from Thistledown Press, the protagonist, Amparo Ajuix, an ambitious young Cakchiquel-Maya woman in rural late 1990s Guatemala, has just been mugged and robbed of the savings of the cooperative she belongs to. At the time of the mugging, she is almost nine months pregnant and her husband suspects that the child is not his.

Mist condensed around her head. She felt the child’s twisting far down in her entrails as though it were marooned in a place beyond her reach. The Maker, the Modeller, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, wrought the world out of mist. Her mind strayed through the spaces beyond that haze when the mountains rose out of the water and the first people were fashioned out of corn and took the name B’alam. Her child was slipping away from her. Before she could reach through that space to pull the child back into the light which, inhabited by the first mother and the first father, would yield life, her strength abandoned her. As she floated on the waves that must recede before people of corn could take to the earth, a sharp smell penetrated her nostrils. Pom. Someone was burning incense. She heard voices: Eusebio’s words derogatory, Mama’s tones implacable in resistance. Amparo tried to reach out to them. She slipped away into the silence of the mist. She saw the people of mud who had preceded those of corn, deity’s failed experiment in human life. The mud people’s noses and eyebrows crumbled. People of wood, the heart of the sky’s second failed experiment, who could not speak or worship their makers, stared without seeing her. As the people of wood drowned in the great flood, she slid farther down into darkness.The tendrils of incense prickling her nostrils were the lone thread leading back to the world. She saw four roads of different colours crossing. Cold fear that she was already a corpse and this was Xibalbá, and the four crossing roads were the gate to the underworld. A chanting tapped through the walled-up silence. Nothing moved. She was blind, the cold rivetting her to the meeting point of the four coloured roads. The first four men, Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Jaguar Not Right Now and Dark Jaguar, fathers of all subsequent lineages, hung before her eyes, then faded away. The tapping mingled with the tang of incense. The two sensations blended until they were a single interwoven fabric like the rope of terror that runs up a woman’s spine when she fears for her child — yes, she had a child, and another one inside her — and in that instant her body swathed her in its aching weight and she was back in her room listening to the sound of the curandera chanting. The child turned in her belly, moving her body with its body, two bodies moving as one, as she and her husband had moved as one to make the child. The curandera must be Doña María’s sister Eduviges, a woman simpler yet wiser than her sibling.

Raja q’o’,” she said. “She’s here.”

Eduviges stepped back from the side of the bed. Mama began to sing the song she sang when they were ill as children. She had sung these words over the beds of the children who had died in infancy, and over those who had returned from illness. Her voice was harsh but strong: 

Kapae’ wakami
Katz’uye wakami
Kapae roma utz qaw’a
Katz’uye wakami

(Stop here today
Sit down today
Stop here for our food is good
Sit down today)

Amparo, feeling the bulk of her hair beneath her on the pillow, whispered: “It’s all right. I’m here.”

“You’ve been away for two days.”

At Mama’s words, she remembered the man with the gun, the other thief’s dragging gait. She lifted her hand, felt the bruise on her temple and began to cry.

“Stop crying,” Mama said. “No one was hurt.”

She passed from sleep to waking without lapsing into the mist. Every time she woke she felt sad. Eusebio entered the room and held her hand. Esperanza visited her and said: “In the next meeting we’ll start saving again. I’ve spoken to the señora gringa and she says we cannot allow misfortunes to discourage us. The only solution is to start again.”

The señora gringa had spoken to Esperanza, not to her. Her powers were ebbing. She had lost everyone’s respect. Her child would be the offspring of rumour.

The day after emerging from the mist she sobbed until dusk. Esperanza came in for an hour but had to leave to look after her children. Eusebio and Mama poked their heads in the door. Mama told her that Sandra was staying with her.

That evening her contractions began. Eduviges returned, not as healer but as midwife.

Her son was born at the stroke of midnight, his body lodged across the line between one day and the next so that they were never certain which date to count as his birthday. From the moment she held him in her arms she could feel his timidity. He was afraid of life. Spirits had infected him with poisons in the womb. Her first thought was that his sickliness would make people think he was Ezequial’s son. His nose and brows looked about to crumble like those of the people of mud. She held him against her breast, blinded by her need to protect him. When Mama and Eduviges told her that Eusebio wanted to see the child, she whispered, “No . . . ” But they had already left the bedroom. Eusebio came in the door. He was unshaven. She wondered if he was sleeping on the couch. He lifted the infant off her breasts, which had been untouched by his hands in months. She gasped. Eusebio raised the boy to head height and stared into his face. She could hear the child breathing in throaty gasps.

Eusebio started to cry.

“Don’t hurt him!” she said. “Give him back to me!”

Eusebio was sobbing more loudly than a child. “He looks just like my grandfather!”

“He doesn’t look like anyone yet,” she said, finding the strength to sit up. She tried to pull the child away. “He looks like the people of mud. By tomorrow,” she said, feeling herself growing calmer, “he will look like the people of wood. Later he will look like a human being made from corn. Then we can have him christened.”

Eusebio gave the child back to her. He kissed her cheeks and her lips and her neck and her breasts. “I’m sorry, Amparo. Will you forgive me? I’m so sorry. I’m worthless, I don’t deserve you. I promise I’ll never treat you badly again. Amparo, please forgive me, can you ever forgive me–?”

The words poured out of him as though they would never stop. She let him go on long after she had decided to accept his apology. His conversion was a miracle, and she knew that miracles must be savoured. At last, she lifted her hand to his cheek.

That night they slept together in the bed with the child between them. She woke in the morning to a loud knocking on the front door. When she reached the main room, the child slung across her shoulder, Esperanza was coming in the door. Though exhausted from hours of feeding the child at short intervals, Amparo felt a great calmness ease through her at the boy’s weight on her shoulder and the memory of her husband’s sleeping body.

“Amparo,” Esperanza said, “I’m going to have to bring Sandra back here— ”

“Already? Can’t you . . . ?”

“It’s Yoli. She’s run away with a gringo— ”

“Run away? To Antigua?”

“She’s going to be travelling with him as his girlfriend! Amparo, nothing like this has ever happened . . . I’ve neverseen Papa and Mama so ashamed. Mama says she can never go to the market again. She’s too humiliated to go to Mass.”

“She has to go to Mass,” Amparo said, struggling to absorb the news. “Maybe we can get her back before anything happens. We can go to Antigua— ”

“You don’t understand, Amparo. She’s in the capital, at the airport. She’s going back to his country with him.”

“She’s leaving Guatemala?” Amparo wrestled with her inert brain. “Leaving Guatemala?” They were speaking Spanish, but she said the word “Guatemala” in Cakchiquel: Ixim Ulew, Land of Corn. The idea of a girl travelling with a man she was not married to was horrible—but to leave Guatemala was beyond imagination. “What will it be like for her, Esperanza?”

Esperanza shook her head. Amparo felt the baby on her shoulder begin to cry. Trembling, she asked herself again what the world was like.

—Stephen Henighan


Stephen Henighan is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently the novels The Path of the Jaguar (Thistledown, 2016)  and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives (Linda Leith Publishing, 2017). He has translated novels by the Angolan writer Ondjaki from Portuguese and Mihail Sebastian  from Romanian.  He teaches Latin American literature at the University of Guelph.


Sep 112016



The setting is rural Catalonia in the early years following the Spanish Civil War, and the young narrator of Black Bread has been sent to stay with relatives on his paternal grandmother’s farm. His father has been jailed and his mother is too busy to care for him. In this excerpt, Andreu and his cousins, Quinze and “Cry-Baby,” enjoy that last days before school resumes playing in the orchard and spying on the TB patients in the monastery garden. They have, however, the clear sense that the adults in their lives are not entirely truthful about what is really going on during this troubled time.

Black Bread was originally published at Pa negre in 2003, and is translated from the Catalan by the great Peter Bush.

— Joseph Schreiber


WE LIVED UP the plum tree until autumn came.

When the days began to shorten, nighttime sometimes caught us in the tree and Ció had to shout to us to climb down.

“Blessed kids!” she’d gripe after she’d stopped bawling, when we were standing in front of her. “You spend too much time playing for the age you are. One of these days a branch will break and you’ll crack your skulls open.”

“They’re all up to no good, they run riot,” said Grandmother, keeping her eyes glued to the knitting needles her fingers moved over her ample bosom, while she kept her arms still.

The Novíssima didn’t start until early October, and for the early weeks of school when we three chased back to the farmhouse, the first thing we did was put our cardboard satchels on the stone bench in the entrance, go into the kitchen and grab the slices of bread spread with oil and sugar or wine and sugar Ció or Grandmother had prepared for us on a dish in the middle of the table, then we’d run with our snacks to the plum tree so we could climb up and eat them lounging back on our branches.

Now and then, when a colder breeze blew and the reddish sun didn’t linger as it did in summer, when evenings were like the inside walls of a bread oven that retained the heat from the flames of logs burnt moments before, we took blankets up the tree to wrap around us and fought off as best we could the cold and early nighttime damp coming out of the woods. The damp, stifling heat, treacherous cold or gusting wind all emerged from the forest that was like an immense belly or huge pantry full of small compartments that hoarded all the good and bad luck that existed in the world. Up in our plum tree we often thought we’d be able to catch the moment when the leaves changed colour, but the change in the leaves, like moulting feathers, always happened from one day to the next; overnight an area of wood turned a dazzling saffron yellow, and a few days later the beech trees had turned wine-red, soon to be followed by the silvery white of the poplars, the dark brown of the chestnut trees, the humid greens… We looked at each other in dismay, as if someone was making fun of our wait and one year Cry-Baby suggested we stay there the whole night to catch the precise moment of change.

“You’re such an idiot!” laughed Quirze. “How would we ever see anything? It’s pitch black at night and we won’t see the new colours until the following morning, when it will all be over and done with!”

However, Cry-Baby was stubborn and ignored him. She’d say nothing and I could tell from her determination, from her staring eyes, firm lips and jutting chin that she wouldn’t give up until she got a proper answer.

From the tree we used to gaze at the mysterious little lights in the cells in the Saint Camillus monastery as they lit up one after another, indicating that the friars, brothers and novices were getting ready to go out to care for the moribund souls in the neighbouring farmhouses or village.

Until someone howled from the gallery: “Where have those little blighters got to?”

“I want to see them here breaking up the sweetcorn. Or fetching buckets of water for the troughs or the sink.”

Cry-Baby was such a ninny nobody ever included her in their summons.

“They’re back up the plum tree!” shouted an astonished Dad Quirze or a farmhand, usually Jan, the oldest hand, who was like a piece of the furniture.

“Where did you get those blankets?” raged Ció, as she watched us walking towards her, shamefaced, with our blankets. “No corner of this house is safe with you drones buzzing around. I’ve told you a thousand times not to touch the things I keep in the two big baskets in the doorway, whatever they might be. These blankets don’t belong to us! Put them back where you found them right away.”

And when we were just about to return them to the big basket, before removing the lid, Ció snatched them from us, looking alarmed: “Leave them on the floor! Don’t ever touch them again. Nobody must touch them. They are all infected. Go and wash your hands at once, you naughty devils! You’re disgusting!”

We three didn’t know what to do next. We knew Ció was contradicting herself and we put that down to her being so upset by our mischief-making. We didn’t understand why the easygoing Ció was getting worked up by what we thought was a worthless pile of cloth no doubt destined to be used by the livestock, the mule, the mares, the horses or the colt, that was small and frisky like a toy and the one we liked best.

“They are the blankets the Saint Camillus friars threw out because they stank to high heaven. Ugh! They used them to cover their ill patients until they breathed their last. Most were draped over the ones with TB who sun themselves in the heartsease garden. Ugh! I wasn’t very keen to take them, and I only did so as a favour, and I didn’t touch a single one with my hands, I stuffed them in the big basket using tongs and a pitchfork.”

However, whenever we spied on the heartsease garden from the top of the plum tree, or, especially when we’d stood by the wall separating the land around the farmhouse near the pond and hazelnut spinney from the monastery gardens and orchards, we were horrified to see a row of naked, skeletal bodies stretched out, all young men, sunning themselves in a meadow full of yellow daisies, pale pink carnations, bright red poppies and purple, almost lilac or mauve heartsease, the colour of the habits the Saint Camillus order reserved for Holy Week. All those boys, or rather, young men, lay on the whitest of sheets, some clutching a corner to cover their nether parts, the area that most drew our attention, the bit that fascinated us infinitely more than their emaciated faces, sunken eyes, the small beads of sweat on their temples, their chests striped by protruding ribs, bellies, collapsed in some cases, swollen in others, and their off-white or yellow rancid butter skin…, those blackened, shrunken genitals and a crop of lank hair like an obscene black bloodstain…, monsters in our eyes, phantoms from a forbidden world, sickly, worn down and consumed by a horrible microbe, victims of a contagious, suppurating disease like the rabies dogs spread or sheep’s foot-and-mouth, that can be caught simply by breathing the air or drinking from the same glass a TB sufferer has used, an accursed disease, contracted as a result of an errant life of vice, sick men condemned in life, proof of the deity’s pitiless punishment of sin, swaddled in white sheets like premature cadavers in dazzling white shrouds… Yet we’d never seen one under a blanket.

A black umbrella was planted next to the sheets of just three or four TB sufferers, so the shade protected their heads. The presence of those faceless bodies, some shamelessly displaying their sexes, were shocking in our eyes and beyond words. A mystery and a secret no one could fathom. And a friar sat next to the little gate from the vegetable plots to the monastery garden, reading his breviary and never looking up, as if to have sight of the infirm was to behold evil, physical evil, a palpable sign of invisible spiritual evil, a repugnant manifestation of sin.

We didn’t touch another blanket that autumn. But the two baskets, especially the big one, were inexplicably marked out as things only adults could handle. Why did they keep those dangerous blankets in that place of transit, within everyone’s reach and what should the movers and shakers in the house—Dad Quirze and Aunt Ció—the delegates of our invisible masters, do about them? Why didn’t the friars destroy them in the monastery if they were worthless? What deal had they done over those ignominious bits of cloth?

“They should be washed back and front, boiled, scrubbed, scraped, dusted and dried and then we’ll see if they are any use,” said Ció on that occasion, after she’d calmed down. “On Saturday when we go to the market in Vic, we’ll leave them with the wenches who launder the lovely linen from the Poor Hospital, and let’s see what they can do. The Town Hall allows those nuns to use the communal wash-house all night, when nobody else washes and the water is filthy from all the daytime washing. On Sunday, when the sisters have finished, they change the water. And even then the wretched Saint Camillus folk won’t make anything from them.”

However, one day, surely another autumn, when we were looking for clothes to keep us warm, when the weather drove us from our tree, when we’d all forgotten her little rant, Aunt Ció mentioned those blankets again.

“Don’t touch the blankets!” she said this time. “God knows where those damned friars found them! I expect they collected them up after the war, when they returned to the monastery the lice-ridden militia had occupied like a barracks, and the church was full of shit, with hens running round the altar and sheep penned up in the Chapel of the Most Holy Spirit as if it were a stable… I bet they found them on the floor abandoned by the Republican soldiers who’d had to beat it hell-for-leather when the fascist troops, led by the Moors, entered Vic. And now they don’t know what to do with them, they can’t use them, not even to wrap up the sick, and they want us to sell them in the market: I wonder what we’ll get for rags that are so old and filthy not even the novices in the monastery want them, ugh, and so full of bugs they need washing at least ten times.”

We never saw anyone take the blankets to Vic market on that Saturday or any other.

Adults think children have the same poor powers of recall they have. They forget we children have no memories of anything, that words and acts are all new to us and every little detail remains automatically etched on our brains.

— Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Excerpt from the novel Black Bread, translated into English by Peter Bush, and published by Biblioasis.


Born in 1933, Emili Teixidor‘s first novel, Retrato de un asesino de pájaros, was published to tremendous acclaim in 1988, followed by several more which established him as one of Spain’s greatest contemporary authors. Teixidor died in 2012.



Peter Bush is a prize-winning English literary translator. He has translated works from Catalan, French, Spanish and Portuguese to English, including the work of Josep Pla, Joan Sales and Merce Rodoreda.


Sep 082016

bojan louisBojan Louis reading.


As long as he stayed ahead of the project manager’s bullshit for the next two days Phillip George could have the weekend to take Jared, his older cousin’s son abandoned to him, to the base of Mt. Elden, where unconnected caves offered refuge and seclusion to both amorous teenagers and the homeless transient. The kid had been cutting bat shapes—since a unit about volcanoes, caves, and bats in his gifted second grade class—from the delicate pages of the Bible he’d found in the dresser drawer of the weekly/monthly motel. Phillip’s health-major-minded girlfriend had protested that the distance might be too far for the kid’s physical and mental capabilities, no thanks to his down syndrome. But Phillip was intent on nothing obstructing his plans.

His shift ended after another twelve-hours and a call from his project manager asking him to remember to lock the gate to the job site, which he did every day since he always left last. Vick was a knew-enough-to-be-dangerous construction lackey turned PM, probably because he was the general contractor’s relative or a favor owed to a friend. He arrived to job sites in his overly chromed and small-dick lifted Ford F-350; clean shirt tucked into ironed jeans, boots more shiny than used, holding a clipboard of meaningless to-dos and a list of places where he’d eaten lunch and with whom. He was the perfect middleman between the GC and clients/investors for his readied knowledge of available tee-times and recipes for wine spritzes.

While Phillip chained and locked the gate he imagined Vick yammering among clients and contractors his annoyances regarding employees, the rising price of material, and the perpetual failure of other sub-contractors meeting deadlines. Shit-talk that made the workers seem like ignorant numbskulls, though most actually were, Phillip included. Without a false sense of dignity there was no assurance that what the clients and contractors paid for was actually hard work or craftsmanship, but projects completed just good enough.

When Phillip secured the site at the end of the day he rode the bus home, glared at his reflection in the opposite window; the florescent lights making him ashen, his negative-like image superimposed with dated storefronts the bus rumbled passed. He dozed, tried to ignore the lurch from potholes left after winter storms, and the conversations crackling around him.


The dusk sun left the clouded and smoke filled sky a flare of fire as Phillip side-stepped puddles and runs of mud on his walk across the parking lot of the Elden Motor Inn to the office. Inside the heavy glass door he set down his tool bucket and drill bag, rang the bell like he’d done every week for the past few months.

The motel owner/manager appeared in his typical collared rayon shirt rolled to his knotty elbows, a brightly patterned tie, and tight Wranglers stretched painfully over his large and well-sat ass. Boots, fashioned out of ostrich skin, creaked and clopped as he positioned himself behind the front desk. He often wore a white cowboy hat, but today he appeared with black hair bushed on top of his head.

“You just missed the hura cabrón,” he said. “Rolled out of here ten minutes ago.”

“No shit,” said Phillip. “Saw a couple cruisers from the bus on the way in. What was it? A little domestic violence, meth-heads exposing their freaky fucked up nature?”

“None of that, ese. Just the locotes from 1A and 2D arguing and coming to a half-assed fistfight over going halfies on the last bachita and who hot-boxed it. Pinche borrachos. You’d think they die of agua or straight oxygen.”

Phillip nodded. More of the same down and out, struggling to keep one’s head above water bullshit; generally meaningless and harmless, though as consistent and disheartening as shirked overtime pay. He slid two hundred seventy over to the manager who pressed his tree trunk like fingers on the crinkled bills until Phillip released them so that he could pocket the money. Phillip never saw him use the register or any sort of record book. The couple times he asked for a receipt the manager simply pulled a notepad from behind the counter, wrote the name of the motel, the date, Phillip’s name, the amount paid, and scrawled figures resembling a T and M; all an act of show, nothing official or legit.

“That chica of yours not being too hard on your pockets, hombre?” asked the manager.

“No,” said Phillip, “she’s too busy keeping her head in her books and fucking exercising. What makes you say that?”

The manager shrugged, tongued at something between his teeth, and opened his mouth to say more but didn’t. Phillip palmed the counter, waited for whatever might be said next.

“Well, hombre, just before the hura got here I found your niño playing around back, close to the basura. Nothing to stress about, I took him back to your pad. The puerta wasn’t locked and your chica was laid out cold, snoring on the bed. Don’t worry, ese, I didn’t see her tetas o coño. She had on one of those fantasía track suits.”

“Fucking hell,” said Phillip.

The evening reds had faded, the night air warm but cooling. Many of the other tenants had their doors open, the noise of reality television mixed with the dying traffic on Route 66. Phillip’s tool bucket and drill bag banged against his numbed calves, his shoulders felt as if nearly pulled from the socket. The single window of his room glowed at the edges of the drawn curtains. His eyes itched and watered slightly from the ever-present smoke of the first series of controlled burns. It was still early in the fire season, but he and the rest of town hoped a substantial monsoon might dispel the previous decade of drought.


Before Phillip moved into the Elden Motor Inn his lady, Benita, was living in the dorms at the university, which was required of freshman that didn’t already live in town. They’d dated a year long distance by then. He’d worked for a commercial electric company that landed most of its contracts with another company that built resort hotels in and around Phoenix. A large and temporary employee pool assured him work for no less than six months and also the knowledge he’d be laid off once a certain phase of the work was completed. He never saw the resorts in their final glory, never got the job to finish or trim-out the receptacles, light switches, or lighting fixtures. He only bent and secured what felt like miles of half-inch to two-inch conduit, pulled circuit-boats to and through junction boxes, and made-up and readied the wires for the eventual installation of chandeliers, sconces, dedicated circuits, and smart-dimmers. His work was invisible, necessary that it work the first time with nothing to troubleshoot once the main power was turned on. He would hump a slow Greyhound north every other weekend to visit Benita, play stow-away in her dorm room, flip idly through her textbooks while she studied and he waited for sex or a meal. It all seemed perfect. Fucking, eating, fidgeting through movies, and being asked to parties, since he had five years on her, where she drank drinks called skinny-something-or-others. The calorie count so low she could indulge in one or two, three maybe. She was consistently counting and calculating: calories, miles, reps, fat percentages, heart rates, cholesterol levels, grade point averages. Her major’s focus was on obesity and diabetes in Navajo communities, the lack of education in regards to healthy eating, and dispelling the myth of fry bread, which she told him was a significant health hazard due to its high calorie content. Fry bread was, in effect, a remnant of colonization and forced removal, The Long Walk. All of which he could understand though at the end of his long workdays could give a shit about.

When Phillip entered his one room domicile he found Benita snoring open-mouthed on her back, hands clasped death-like over her stomach. He grabbed her leg and shook. Her limp body moved as if her joints were loose. This incensed his anger, made him shake her violently until she woke.

“You can’t stay awake another hour to keep an eye on the kid?”

“What?” she asked drawing out the vowel. “Don’t shake me like that. I’m not some wasted, passed out ‘adláanii.”

He let go her leg, removed his hoodie and t-shirt, threw both toward the clothes piled beneath the sink outside the bathroom, and attempted to pull off one of his steel-toe work boots, which he didn’t unlace completely. It nearly hit him in the face once free and he shouted fuck, threw it against the wall, and got a muffled yell and pounding in response. While he fussed with the other boot Benita said she’d wanted to fit in a Body Pump class before picking up Jared from after school daycare. This was a tension grown between them; her poor time management and agreeing to get the kid no later than five so he wouldn’t risk losing overtime. There was no one affordable to look after the kid no matter how much overtime he worked. And anyway, who would want to look after a nine-year-old with down syndrome whose trust in strangers was lacking at best and who also took issue with anyone other than Phillip touching the back of his neck or ears?

“Jared was asleep and I locked the door. I thought we’d both nap until you got back. He’s never done anything like this before. Never wandered out alone. It’s something to pay attention to from now on. It won’t happen again.”

She faced him and smoothed her green warm-up top, curves tight beneath the soft, plushy material. Fuck his anger, he thought, and hoped she would turn away from him so he could see her from behind, approach and press his tired body to hers, caress the firmness between her breast and thighs.

“Fucking shit. You know the manager found him playing in the trash around back? What if those cops from earlier found him? Deep shit. We’d be in deep shit. Hell, his mom already fucked him over. We don’t need to, too. Even if it’s . . . because one of us fucks up.”

She turned, awaited embrace and apology, and blamed final semester stress and the need to carve out time to care for herself.

The argument waned and Jared, hunkered quietly beneath the round two-chair table next to the window, called out hello. Strange how he became invisible, thought Phillip, despite being what occupied his mind and energies most. Maybe that’s how he escaped earlier. His presence demanded all of one’s faculties, yet he could vanish and still seem to be all places.

“Hey, little man, I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to yell so much.”

The kid emerged from beneath the table to hug Phillip, a hug that forced the breathe from him. He wondered if the kid would ever become strong enough to crack his ribs.

“I’m cool, man. I’m cool, man,” he said.

Sure that Jared hadn’t been in any real danger, and the manager was a person who he could count on, though he’d never make it a thing between them, Phillip reassured himself by lightly squeezing Jared’s shoulder, and headed toward the bathroom.

“You need to pee or anything? Or is there some business that you need to finish before the weekend?” he said over his shoulder.

“I don’t need to go. I’ve got bat business.”

While Jared returned to his task Benita sat facing the opposite direction sobbing. Rather than reengage the argument they were having, or about to have, Phillip asked if she could keep an eye on the kid. She acknowledged by looking toward Jared, who waved at her. She waved in response and turned the TV on.

In the shower, Phillip imagined his life differently. His final years of high school and not quitting the club soccer team before a couple of college scouts had taken the time to watch a few matches, offer scholarships to a handful of players. Had Phillip stayed it was likely that he would have been one of the guys selected to play with a full ride to one of the state universities or, at the very least, a community college. Had he stayed he would have gone. From there was a life he never fully envisioned. Pro, semi-pro? Would he have finished his degree? Would he have had a major? Construction management or hotel and restaurant management? Something that required little academic vitality but with the potential to have made him more money than electrical work? Would he have dated Benita, or some sorority blonde who’d he fuck how and whenever he wanted? He most definitely wouldn’t have honed in on the young Benita giving him eyes; he the potential bad boy, though the truth was that he was the best thing for her. Stable, mature, and in no way related by clan. But there he was living check to check, with an abandoned retard, and a girlfriend who would probably leave him once he got fatter, once she found her dream job after she graduated. There he was, beholden to everyone else with the soap and hot water rinsing off the grim of another fucking day and maybe, more of him.

Relieved with clean he slid open the shower curtain, found Benita leaning naked against the door, her clothes piled neatly in the corner. He hadn’t heard her enter, so deep in his own head as he’d been. Her brown figure had toned up in the past couple of months. Her hair lay in black strands across her small breasts. He felt himself get hard.

“You’re leaving him alone again,” he said.

“That’s what’s special about you. You never think of yourself first.”

She grabbed a towel, dabbed his body, and used it to soak up clumps of his wet hair. She frowned, whispered that the kid was occupied with his bats; she would pay more attention later. He kept quiet, didn’t want the momentum to be lost, and guided her to the top of the toilet tank, lifted her leg, slowly pressed into her. He’d go to bed hungry: exhaustion and an apology his dinner.


He dreamed of volcanoes erupting suddenly, all at once. The town was the town he lived in but different, spread out with houses overlooking cliffs that didn’t exist. Lava poured from the angry cones, fire ash fell from above, and cracks opened the earth. Escape wasn’t likely. On a strip of land he watched the black sky descend; heat beneath and around consuming him.

At 4:30am, startled from the dream, he staggered to the bathroom to piss, began to dress. Work pants from the day before, a fresh t-shirt, and a collard button down. Back in the single-room he kneeled over Jared, woke him by smoothing his hair.

 After the kid was showered and readied he took Benita’s keys from her purse and drove him, half-awake staring out the window, to his elementary school.

“Hey, kid,” he said poking him, “before we get you to school tell me what you’re going to tell the bats when we find them.”

“I love them being my friends,” he mumbled. “What will you tell them?”

Phillip wasn’t sure, but maybe something about how he appreciated the bats being Jared’s friend. He added that he thought it’d be a good idea if Jared brought along the bats he’d been making so that his bats and the bats supposedly in the caves at the mountain base might become friends, too. The kid told him, duh, that was why he’d been cutting them out.

Benita was never awake when he returned her car in the mornings. Wouldn’t even stir if he bumped the furniture or creaked the door open and closed. Girl can sleep through anything, he thought. A quality he both admired, looked down at.

He retrieved his tool-bucket and drill bag, walked the two hundred yards to the bus stop that took him across town. Every day the same ride: sparse traffic; chemical white billows above the toilet paper plant south of the train tracks; an abandoned steel mill turned junkyard that advertised auto-repair and estimates; the refurbished historic downtown beyond his price range.

At twenty past seven he arrived to the job site where Vick waited to tell him he was late.

“I’m this late every day,” said Phillip. “I don’t control the bus schedule and you can’t get me a ride, or anyone else, here on time. I’ve got the kid to take care of and there’s no use jerking off here before seven if the gate isn’t even open.”

Vick waved him off, muttered yeah, yeah, even though none of the other trades ever arrived before eight, and if they did it was always to stroll around with donuts then fuck off for the day. Phillip was the only electrician onsite; reliable, his lack of a vehicle the assurance he’d stay put, and still he’d never been given a key to the gate.

While Phillip unchained and positioned the ladders, Vick brushed the rat end of his ponytail against his lips and examined the conduit runs across the ceiling; traced each run to where they ended at the service panel or hung unfinished.

“Might get close to finishing the runs today,” said Vick. “If you can hustle and don’t fuck up. How are you on materials?”

Phillip needed spools of ground and neutral wire to begin pulling circuit boats by the end of the day, and asked if he could get off early, hoping Vick wouldn’t put too much thought to it. Vick sucked the tip of his rattail, took more than a minute to respond. Wouldn’t be possible. Not with all the added dedicated circuits, subpanel, phone, co-ax, and ethernet for the reception area, break room, and bathrooms. The facility was going to be top of the line, which meant as much distraction as possible. The patients would want to ignore the fact that they were in a dialysis center. There would even be TVs in the pisser. All overtime for the week and, Phillip suspected, through the weekend. He reminded Vick that he’d requested time off, who responded that it was out his hands. But with Phillip’s request in mind—which was bullshit—Vick had hired a helper; older guy who claimed ten years residential wiring experience and countless skills in other trades.

“Sure, that’s all a load of shit,” said Phillip.

“That’s what I’m thinking. But he’s got no qualms working for ten an hour without overtime despite the experience he claims to have. Shit, if he were a Mexican I could pay him seven. Anyway, you’ll probably have to teach him to bend pipe, pull wire, and whatever else. You’re going to have your work cut out for you. And I don’t imagine he’ll be too keen on a young tonto telling him what to do. Guy’s name is Nolen or something. Told him to show up around nine. Give you time to set up and get going. I should have your material here by then.”

Vick spat a loogie on the polished concrete floor, smeared it with the toe of his boot, and walked to his truck.

After he drove away Phillip cursed him for being an inept and ignorant piece of shit who had managed to fuck him by hiring some old lackey, probably a drunk if he possessed no real skill, who would only slow Phillip’s progress. Just another benign action from the managers that reminded Phillip of his unappreciated and unacknowledged skill being a reliable electrician who made twelve to the ten dollars an hour that his helper was going to be paid.

Around nine-thirty Phillip smelled the sour stench of cigarette smoke and days old body odor. He turned, looked down from the twelve-foot ladder he was working off of at a man, probably six-six, wearing clothes that hung off him like the tattered sails of a ghost ship. The man clomped across the job site in large desert boots, reached into what remained of a shirt pocket for a pack of cheap cigarettes, lit one using the one he’d smoked to the filter, and flicked it behind him aimlessly.

Phillip descended the ladder, uncertain if this was the guy Vick had hired or a random homeless.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked.

“That’s what I’m for,” said the man, “to help you.”

“All right. Vick said your name was Nolen? I’m Phillip.”

The man shook his head.

“It’s No-Lee,” he said.

Phillip watched him and the man explained that people always asked if he had any leads on any jobs and he’d tell them no, no leads. So the name No-Lee stuck. The two stared at one another quietly until Phillip told No-Lee that he would start him on running conduit. They’d work together until No-Lee got the hang of it; it’d be easy since they were only using half-inch, a little three-quarter.

 They worked atop ladders eight feet apart, the length of a single stick of conduit. At the butting end, No-Lee tightened the coupling with channel locks and secured the conduit to the base of a wooden truss with a half-inch strap, eight inches from the coupling. Phillip held the opposite end, measured off the wall to assure a straight run, and strapped the conduit loosely. They moved across the truss work in leapfrog fashion until they reached a point in the run that required a ninety-degree bend toward the service panel. Phillip explained the fundamentals of conduit bending: from the point of measurement mark back five inches, toward the dumb-end of the tape—six inches if using three-quarter—make sure the foot pad of the conduit bender faces the foot; make sure the bend is a perfect ninety by applying equal pressure on the foot pad and handle, and use a level to be precise.

No-Lee repeated the instructions and the work continued smoothly, faster than expected.

They took lunch at two. Phillip estimated that they’d accomplished a little more than the day’s anticipated work. Two more days working like this past sundown and he would have Saturday secured. While he jogged to the corner gas station, No-Lee sat where the breeze was strongest and smoked, eyes closed as if gathering substance from the tobacco and wind. Phillip returned with a microwave burrito, a bag of dollar chips, a gallon of water, and sat far from the rancid breeze.

“You eat that shit every day?” asked No-Lee.

“It’s cheap,” said Phillip. “I don’t have time to make lunch. I’ve got the kid I take care of. Eats up most my time.”

“You got a kid?”

“Not mine. My cousin’s. I raise him here so that he can go to a decent school, have more opportunity or whatever.”

“Mother drink herself to death, huh?”

Phillip crumpled his burrito wrapper, threw it to where it suspended for a second, and was blown backwards.

He was used to this passive-aggressive, not uncommonly aggressive, shit talk from white, conservative co-workers and bosses. Back in Phoenix was the worst ignorance he’d encountered. It was everywhere, as much as there was heat and blowing dirt. Proud right-wingers who boasted about the guns kept locked in their glove boxes, some with handguns strapped to their hips, talking God and country, rights, and who deserved to live and who to die. Sad harbingers of death that Phillip could only do his best to ignore, though he was often confronted because he was brown, mistaken for being Mexican, and always given a pass because he wasn’t them, but neither was he an us.

“None in my family drink,” he said. “The kid’s mom fucked off to Portland with a bunch of vortex, vision-questing dykes.”

No-Lee drew long and the cigarette ember flexed; dragon smoke fell out of his nostrils.

“Bitch can’t appreciate her own dying culture. Funny. All that pride you redskins powwow about and most of you fall for New Age bullshit. You sell out your faith then build fucking casinos.”

Phillip ate his last chip, dropped the bag. He rose, told his helper to sit and smoke for the rest of the lunch hour while he got back to it. No-Lee responded, I work when you work, and was told to clean up. He stood, examined the job site, which was clean except for some unusable scraps of conduit and the trash Phillip had tossed. No-Lee picked up the burrito wrapper and chip bag, stuffed them into his pocket, and organized the material without comment; his only noise the exhalation of smoke and the gurgled hack of clearing his throat.

Phillip called the day sometime after seven, watched No-Lee walk east beneath streetlights until he became a burnt match in the distance. He made note of the next day’s work—pull boats, pull lighting circuits, low volt, land the panel—grabbed his gear, and trudged to the bus stop.


He arrived back to his place late. It sat dark, still between the noisy brightness of the rooms on either side. The curious tunnel of it drew him in. Benita had left a folded note. The explanation was simple: she was tired, needed to consider herself and her final semester, had left Jared with the manager. Anger shook Phillip’s throat and he punched a hole in the wall, smashed one of the two chairs. On his way to the manager’s office he gathered himself by tapping his chest imagining he and the kid excited, out of breath before the mouth of a cave. They’d enter a cool damp darkness; shine lights on walls that held something he couldn’t think of. In the office, Jared and the manager watched a cartoon show Phillip didn’t recognize. Their laughter settled the tension in his shoulders and he watched for a few minutes before announcing himself. It wasn’t a big thing for the manager, since Phillip hadn’t ever been a problem, but it also couldn’t keep happening. Phillip needed to figure it out.

Back in the room he and Jared continued watching the cartoon until both dozed and slept, their shadows playing oddly on the wall behind them.


The morning bus that took Phillip and the kid to a stop a quarter mile walk from his school was empty. At the school, they waited until the doors opened for students who needed an early drop off. Before entering, the kid told Phillip that Benita would come back, she’d cried before taking him to the manager’s office. The kid was probably right, Phillip told him. They’d have a boy’s weekend and everything would be the same afterwards.

At the job site, No-Lee sat against the locked gate smoking, said there hadn’t been hide or hair of Vick. It was close to eight. Phillip made the decision to dismantle the tension bands so that the chain-link fence fell slack and the two could crouch down and through. Let Vick fix the goddamned thing; they needed to get to work. When Vick arrived after lunch he shouted at Phillip for fucking up the fence, went on about added cost and time. But the fence wasn’t damaged, only taken apart, and if Vick actually knew anything, he could reassemble it. In response, Vick threatened to fire Phillip, who packed up his tools and walked out the gate, where he was stopped, told to calm down, and asked what was needed in order to fix the fencing. Phillip told Vick that No-Lee knew. So, the two of them reassembled the tension bands, spoke quietly, and looked and nodded toward Phillip.

Before the day’s light began to fade Phillip told No-Lee that he needed to leave to pick up and return with the kid.

“You work late Fridays?” No-Lee asked.

“Twelve to fourteen is average. I don’t care if we to work all night. We’re getting this shit done.”

“Whatever you say,” said No-Lee. “I’ve got my cash in hand. See you when you get back.”

It took an hour to get the kid and what remained of daylight when they returned cast deep shadows throughout the interior of the job site. The gate was locked and from what Phillip could tell from behind the cold links the ladders had been left standing. Since he’d left his tools behind he told the kid to wait while he jumped the fence. Inside the unfinished building material was strewn about, his tools gone, along with a couple spools of solid wire.

Phillip dropped to his knees, held his head between them, and screamed into his shirt. No-Lee had probably been waiting for a moment when Phillip lent him any modicum of trust, so that he could leave him fucked. No regard for his livelihood, his need to care for himself and the kid. He dialed Vick, got voicemail immediately. Piece of shit had already disappeared into the weekend, obviously hadn’t even returned to check on the site.

He stood, a friction among the shadows, and threw his phone against the polished concrete, its shattered pieces skipping outward. He turned and jumped the fence once again, told the kid, to hell with it, it’s all fucked, and took his hand to walk to the gas station for a couple dinner burritos and provisions for their trek to the cave come morning.


The kid didn’t fuck around. He sat in the unbroken chair gazing out the window at thunderheads separated by cuts of sunlight that spotlighted down making dew of the predawn rain. Phillip snored on the bed, a pillow over his head. It was well past the time they’d planned to depart. The kid slid off his chair, opened the door: crisp, cool scent of vanilla from the ponderosas and the dusty mold of the morning’s moisture engulfed the room. Phillip stirred, woke to see Jared dressed, his pile of cutout bats ready on the table.

He rubbed his puffy face. “Guess I better get my lazy ass in gear, huh? Let me shower and we’ll get the hell out of here.”

The kid nodded, shut the door. He gathered the bottles of water, granola bars, and two Snickers that Phillip had bought. He took the flashlight kept in the nightstand drawer, located both his and Phillip’s bus passes. Everything was ready.

The trailhead lay northwest of them, the nearest bus stop next to a grocery store a half-mile walk away where Phillip lifted two oranges from an outside display of produce. He told the kid they needed to survive and they continued their trek. Beneath the shade of large ponderosas they paused to drink water. Phillip asked the kid if he was hanging in there ok, there was a mile and a half left to go. The kid said he was fine; they’d go on, they’d survive. The two pushed forward and the day warmed up, a little humid from the morning’s rain. Phillip felt the hardened shell of his heel crack, the tender flesh beneath sticking to his sock, which slowed his pace. The kid noticed, told Phillip there was no need to rush, the bats would be there. They stopped once more where the tree line broke into a clear cut for a natural gas pipeline and service road. Logs were piled into long triangles about twenty feet away from the treed edge, the brush cleared for when fire crews would come to complete controlled burns. Across the road the trail inclined into the shade of the ponderosas.

The mountain base was a jumble of volcanic boulders and hardened lava flows that created climbing opportunities, as well as, shelter in the caves and dead-end tunnels. Lichen, an assortment of small trees, ferns, and cacti covered the unreachable parts, higher up on the rocky ledges. The cover of tall ponderosa pines made the day appear later than it actually was. Phillip and the kid walked the base, went off trail to where a cluster of ferns grew, and came upon a small, man-sized entrance into the rocks. Phillip suggested they eat before entering. The kid ate quickly, reached into his pocket for his pile of bats, peeled one off, and handed it to Phillip, asked him to read its body.

“It just looks like notes from the bottom of the pages,” said Phillip. “This bat must be a nerd. Hand me a different one.”

The kid laughed, set the bat in what he deemed the nerd pile, and peeled another off.

“Let’s see, it says ‘11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 13 Better is a poor and wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.’ Damn, kid, these Bible bats are fucking intense. Let’s see one more.”

The kid off peeled bat after bat while Phillip read the bodies. The pile wasn’t substantial, but since Jared had worked slowly and meticulously cutting them out, Phillip was proud of his handiwork.

Some dexterity was required of the entrance, though the squeeze of it wasn’t tight. Cool air exuded the rancid stench of piss, body odor, and alcohol. Water trickled somewhere in the darkness. Once inside and on flat ground Phillip flicked on the flashlight the kid had brought, shined it toward the sound of the water. A figure, more detritus than man, wavered cock-in-hand, pissing against the far wall.

“You gonna come suck this thing or fuck off with that light?”

No-Lee’s smoke and drink broken voice. He’d been drinking all night, all morning; face a grotesque swell of skin.

Phillip panicked, more for the kid’s safety than his own, and hurried to push Jared back from fully entering the cave, but the kid tumbled off the rocks and in, yelped painfully, and lay holding his ankle in the faint light of the entrance. Phillip knelt to urge the kid up, didn’t see the spool of neutral wire thrown through the darkness. He felt the hard weight strike his temple, swirled into the void of his volcano dreams: pools and rivers of lava, the burning of his face and body, the burning of Jared and Benita’s bodies, screaming and laughter from someplace far.

“I was hoping you were some bitch,” echoed No-Lee. “Ain’t easy for a guy like to me to get any gash out here. When I’m lucky some stupid cunt will happen on me. It’s good. It don’t happen much, but when it does, oh, is it so good.”

Phillip stood wavering, felt blood beating out of his head, and fell back on his ass.

He couldn’t see No-Lee or the kid, but discerned Jared’s frightened sobs, the twist of a plastic cap against glass. He listened as No-Lee swallowed hard twice, twisted the cap back on. Heard the whoosh of something tumbling through the musty cave air and shattering near the kid’s noise. No-Lee laughed, gagged from the effort. Phillip rose and rushed into the black toward the sound; arms bent ninety at the elbow, hands curled to grasp what he could of No-Lee. When his hands met the man’s chest he gripped and drove his shirt collar to his neck. The two grappled, staggered in the darkness until No-Lee began to vomit and threw his body into Phillip’s, and they fell hard against the wall and ground. An object was knocked over and others crashed out of it near them. From what Phillip could feel with his hands and body, No-Lee was on his side, back against Phillip’s knees. He skimmed his right hand across the dirt, found what felt like a screwdriver. His left hand found the hair on the back of No-Lee’s head, gripped it tight. He rolled himself until he felt that he was on top of No-Lee’s back and brought the screwdriver in his hand to the head in his other quickly, with force. The body beneath him bucked. Phillip struck his left hand on his second stabbing attempt, deeply, and his grip on No-Lee’s hair went slack. So he hugged his head, shook it like he did when Jared was a small child and would ask to be picked up by Phillip to be swung back and forth so that his legs looked like a pendulum. He felt a pop, No-Lee’s body go limp. He collapsed, took his gashed hand in his shirt, and tried to focus on the dimming light of the cave entrance.


Phillip never carried a gun before working in Phoenix; had only plinked cans off dirt mounds with small caliber rifles out on the rez with his cousins. The day he decided to carry, a short Guatemalan man had been hired to remove the stucco and chicken-wire siding for an addition. Racial slurs and death threats were being slung at the man because he hadn’t completed the task before Phillip and his boss had shown up to remove the electrical wiring and outlets before the framing could be redone. He remembered the man’s panicked expression and watery eyes, the erratic swing of his sledgehammer, and pleas in Spanish, which Phillip couldn’t understand. The other contractors stood by in an arc, showed each other their handguns and crossed the man with the barrel ends. It would be a temporary thing for Phillip, carrying a handgun. Once he realized he was outnumbered and viewed as no better than the immigrant workers, the other contractors and tradesmen directing their attacks at him, he decided to sell the handgun to a cousin for a couple hundred less than what he paid for it. But the anger and humiliation remained, festered in him, made him judgmental and prone to hate anyone paler than he was. He often dreamed of shooting the racists, the far right-wingers, torching whatever ignorant, upper class project they were working on, and letting everyone and everything burn to ash.

The kid wasn’t crying anymore when he shook Phillip awake, shined the flashlight in his eyes.

“Are you cool? Are you cool?” he repeated until Phillip told him that he was.

“I want to go home,” he said. “We need to go home.”

Phillip sat up and held the kid, told him, ok.

Outside the cave a breeze rustled the pine needles and a far away dog barked once. Phillip felt nauseous and weak, the sensation of the air on his skin made him aware of the heat he felt flaring within him. He wanted to call Benita, have her come get him and the kid. She wouldn’t, he knew, even if he told her the truth. She was driven, career oriented. And, anyway, what good was there thinking about it, he’d smashed his phone yesterday. He felt lost, without purpose. He needed a solution, needed one given to him.

He thought of the body in the cave and his fucking tools. He needed his tools. He told the kid to wait, climbed back into the cave, and gathered his scattered tools; left the screwdriver plunged into No-Lee’s cheek where it was, and hefted the tool bucket and drill bag outside to the base where Jared waited. He smoothed the kid’s hair, told him to stay put, to keep his bats safe and the tools safe. The kid nodded, removed the bats from his pocket, and held them. Phillip, as if driven by instinct, headed toward the pipeline road, some sixty feet through the ponderosas, to a burn pile at the road edge. Something needed to be done about No-Lee’s hateful body, it’d be found sooner or later. Phillip estimated a half an hour to forty-five minutes, if he hustled and didn’t fuck up, in order to remove enough logs to cover No-Lee’s body back in the cave before the forest gave way to complete darkness. He would burn the motherfucker. Char any evidence of him or the kid ever being there. After, he and the kid would walk beneath the night, find a pay phone, if pay phones still existed, and call Benita, beg a ride back to the motel. She’d give in; she would, for him or the kid, it didn’t matter.

As Phillip finished building a pyre over No-Lee’s body, having stuffed the gaps with dry twigs and pine needles, the kid climbed quietly into the cave, sat next to where Phillip knelt, peeled off one of his Bible bats, and set it in an open space between the logs. Phillip began to hiccup and sob, the kid hugged his bruised ribs, and he winced.

The kid said, “We’ll leave them. The bats will protect us.”

Phillip took Jared’s dry and calloused hand, smoothed his hair, and began placing the bats in cracks along the perimeter of the pile. While the kid watched, Phillip ignited the kindling on the far side of the pyre. As it took flame and illuminated the already blackened walls of the cave the two noticed how the smoke wafted up through a natural chimney in the rock. As the bats burned their curled bodies drifted upward until the ash and char of them filled the interior. When the whole of pyre began to burn and the smoke was too much they exited, retrieved Phillip’s tools. When they came upon the far side of the service road they turned around, saw nothing of fire or smoke in the darkness.

Phillip’s tongue fat and course in his mouth. He asked the kid if he was thirsty. He was. But both were without water.

—Bojan Louis

BOJAN LOUIS is a member of the Navajo Nation — Naakai Dine’é; Ashiihí; Ta’neezahnii; Bilgáana. He is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist who earns his ends and writing time by working as an electrician, construction worker, and a Full Time English Instructor at Arizona State University, Downtown Campus. He has been a resident at The MacDowell Colony.


Sep 062016

Erika Mihalycsa


According to her medical record, the translator was suffering from hypochondria. Now she’s even a hippocondric, as her mother-in-law remarked to her son, that is, the translator’s husband, four neat syllables, with the stress falling on the third, when she thought the translator was in the bathroom and out of earshot, but a translator has an ear for everything, especially for the half-swallowed sentences and the words implied in the emphatic upward jump of the eyebrows.

Supercilious is the word, it crossed the translator’s mind, as she stepped out of the bathroom half a beat too early and caught in her husband’s look, beside the habitual let’s-drop-it-mom resignation, a new, yet unseen quality, a parry of the foibles: not now, she’ll hear us. It was not the first occasion when she caught her husband at it. A few weeks earlier when they went on a day’s outing to pick mushrooms with Tamás’s family, she saw all too well with what demonstrative diligence he was gathering dry boughs, voicing his expert opinion on the best place to make a fire for the barbecue, delivering with a puppy’s enthusiasm the peppery milk-caps into Ildikó’s hands. Ildikó, Tamás’s wife, is three years older than the translator, so she bosses her around with the utmost naturalness. She has two children, drives a car with relaxed nerve, is always bursting with high spirits – in one word, she’s a real sport. The translator doesn’t like peppery milk-caps, as a child she used to get sick from them, and she could take down quite accurately the score of Ildikó’s conversation with Tamás that evening while putting the kids to sleep, that this poor Karcsi has a hard enough life by the side of this party pooper, and here the translator’s name follows. Who, instead of mushroom-hunting with the others on the thick carpet of dead leaves lighted up here and there by the oblique sunrays, keeps moseying all day long along the edge of the wood with those myopic eyeglasses and a second-hand botanical atlas, trying to identify bear’s foot, buttercups, black hellebore, water crowfoot and similar never-heard-of weeds, months after flowering, although normally she couldn’t tell dill from daffodil, so hard is she set on collecting first-hand, first-eye and first-nose impressions about the shape, feel, smell of their unarmed stems, leaf petioles, lobed and whorled leaves, and about the taste of their poisonous milky sap, because she happens to be translating some novel whose cranked protagonist flees ever-present but, as it sometimes happens in fiction, perfectly invisible and imperceptible war, and takes refuge in a small hut in the woods somewhere up north where, poring day and night over the ever-more-prostrate basal leaf-stems, the increasingly broken-toothed leaf margins, and decreasing number of ovules in the pistils of the windflowers of the field, he reaches the conclusion that mankind is ripe for extinction. The translator came out of the bathroom, gripping a handful of fallen-out hair. On the threshold the hairs were slightly blown back by the barely perceptible draught originating in her mother-in-law’s word uttered in a histrionic whisper, with an intonation soaring toward the third syllable, only to plummet towards the fourth. The translator, staring vacantly in front of herself as usual, took in this word and the two stares hastily shifted from the sizable knot of hair in her disinfectant-smelling hand, in them two thirds of repulsion, one third guilt-feeling because of the repulsion, and an almost uncountable, but all the more rabid rage because of the guilt-feeling, like a cauldron in which words of all colours, consistency and smell ferment together into fruit mash, no, not that, mash is fermented in barrels, but rather like bits of meat and gristle simmering with the quarters of potatoes and peppers quite alien in consistency and character, a bit more patience children, the potato stew is almost ready. In the spring she started translating a novel, she has known the author for a long time; in the small hours when they were both at their desk, they used to send each other long e-mails with minutiae of folk beliefs connected to the dragon-herb, detailed rules of extinct board games, lengthy quotes from obscure authors. It all began in mid-May with a curt, parenthetical aside inserted into an answer, in the negative, to one of her questions, from which the translator learned that the author had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She despaired, was hopeful, could not sleep and work, and lost even the little appetite she had, so that she gave up the semblance of cooking she did, for better or for worse, on account of her husband, and after one and a half weeks of relentless tension not talked over, her mother-in-law moved in and took matters definitely in hand. When, smelling the fizzling breakfast bacon and eggs, the translator rushed for the first time headlong into the bathroom, bursting in on her husband who was shaving, and who clumsily embraced her from behind and held her head as she dropped to her knees in front of the toilet and with eyes blurred by tears and amid loud, croaking hawks coming up directly from her stomach, was throwing up thin air, she glimpsed a spark of cautious hope in his eyes as he asked, with a wink too big for the occasion and in his usual professorial manner, if he should run down to the pharmacy for a pregnancy test, at which she, with still tearful eyes, made a feeble gesture to push him away, but her husband took this for the opening move of an embrace and pressed the translator’s palm to his chest, with his other hand tore a bit of toilet paper and wiped off the whitish saliva from the corner of her mouth and, smiling indefatigably and with his head turned ever so slightly so as not to be knocked off his feet by the ammonia smell of her breath, gave a smack on her nose, then just in case patted her on the bum and gently ejected her from the bathroom, go lie down a bit, Bugs Bunny, you’ll see you’ll eat ten eggs in a minute like a good girl. Needless to say, the translator didn’t eat one single egg that day or the day after, she kept counting the hairs fallen with each brushing or hairwash, scrutinizing her scaly fingernails, scrubbing her skin for hours, which thus became more gray and flaking every day, palpating under her arm the nodes which she could now recognize with unerring precision even through her pajamas and the terrycloth gown, as one would intuit in the first, sinister beats of an opera overture the crime of passion to come inexorably at the end of the fourth act, or as she would foretell at the beginning of the writer’s meandering sentences the mindfully placed counterweight in the parenthesis opened one and a half pages later, the apparently casually tossed phrase from which all the silencings, all the bureaucratic complicity planted in the language used in the fictional world are revealed, that transfer the forsaken, uncomprehending human being into a rubric of the production plans, next to the pesticide statistics. Shortening her sleeping hours day by day, she repeatedly revised the translated chapters with reddened, burning eyes, because with every rereading she discovered some side-note, some dissonant chord tucked away in a subclause, for the text had known already at the onset of its writing, eight years ago, and at the very beginning of its 15-year gestation, not only the past it narrated, but also the way the body goes about blowing up its time bombs, it had known where the malignant growth is to start, how the old lingo’s old words hatch with the first spring thaw from the betrayals hastily buried under the December snow, how they eclose from their pupa, start swarming and lay their eggs in the new lingo of the new papers and new schools. The translator was not particularly well-known in her trade, having published few volumes so far, but the author insisted that his works should be dispatched by her because he knew that even if it took her years to complete a novel, she would look up every single pivot hinge, pattern of embroidery, or medical diagnosis. Sometimes at half five a.m. she would send, with amusing enthusiasm, a link to some blog on which she found a picture of a wicker rocking chair from the 1920s looking exactly like the one in which the novel’s grandmother, a camp survivor, liked to sit in the sunlit square in front of the parlour window. Now that the author was recovering at home after the second chemo, the translator perched all day long in thick woollen socks and pullover at her desk curtained off from the summerly sun, with hands and feet turned into icicles, and on the rare occasions when she ventured to the grocery around the corner to fetch mineral water, cigarettes and some fruit, she kept to the shadow like a beetle. Her wax-coloured skin recoiled from the sun like the skin of an amphibian, and she felt naked behind her sunshades among the people in bright summer clothes, like one whose eyebrows and lashes had gone the way of all her hair, that is, down the toilet. On the scraps of paper scattered on her desk, synonyms were listed in columns, on which she was trying out, like a piano tuner, the ululant screech like a siren, of the doorbell ringing for the interrogatory in the fourth chapter. Her head, sinuses, even her teeth and gums were throbbing now to the rhythm of the ambulance’s, now to that of bomb sirens, tiny points of light kept pulsating in front of her eyes, she was waiting with the heroine, hiding the wounds of her moth-eaten lapels beneath her worn fur boa, in front of the entrance door, and the moment she hit upon the most gratingly ululating word her skin, holed by the ultraviolet rays bombarding her through the windowpanes, at once sensed the inward suction of the draught caused by the door about to open, although the hand had only just grasped the handle, and she saw her husband with the sharpness of an overexposed photograph as he slams the trunk lid on his suitcase and the carefully wrapped LED TV two weeks later, to drive off to his parents’ after having told her that they need to talk over their future, and that he cannot wait until kingdom come, until his wife, i.e., the translator, would finally realize that she needs to change her lifestyle a wee bit, that is, radically, because he too has got only this one life, Bugs Bunny, and the clock is ticking. But in vain is the clock ticking, Bugs Bunny, that is, the translator doesn’t grab the phone and dial her in-laws’ so that, after amiably greeting her father-in-law who picks up the receiver, and hearing her mother-in-law’s voice from the background, well finally, and don’t you give in this time, in a shaky voice and clearing her throat as always when she is nervous she would tell her husband the long-rehearsed sentences about their perennial, herbaceous endosperm life together, how it lacks a persistent woody stem above ground, is in the winter only alive in their rootstock from which in the spring solitary bright yellow flowers shoot with rotate corolla and colourful sepals, whose sap is poisonous when freshly picked, but innocuous if dried. She acknowledges the situation with the same impassivity with which she does the fact that in the meantime summer has arrived, tempestuous showers wash the windowsill in the afternoons, then the stifling July heat comes back, the season keeps dripping the infusion, all her energy is taken up by calculating the sequence of days spent in dull torpor and with a clearing head, in her mind sentences start out gropingly, following the itinerary of the author’s sentences with sluggish feet, to get stuck sooner or later at a polysemic word whose meanings proliferate like a tumour in that other language, then by the much-awaited second half of the week the buttery, viscous mist lifts from her eyes and the words, so far clacking like a stuck record, bolt out impetuously, on these days she translates up to five-six pages a day, the text laboriously sheds its cocoon and spreads its tiny, raw wings, but tires soon, has to take frequent rests to warm itself up, breathing hard with chapped lips, at times looking exactly like a bunny with its small quivering nose. By the end of the summer the author is through three chemos and one surgery, still laid out in the no man’s land between life and non-being on a sterile hospital bed, whereas the translator is roosting in the disinfectant-smelling apartment that feels cold again, with a blanket on her knees and short of breath, in the posture that her spine would now automatically take up even in her sleep, and with which the novel’s criminal-prisoner-turned-revolutionary drives the once-elegant chaise with the three huddled members of the family destined to be deported, to the collecting point in town, the brick factory that had fulfilled its function to general satisfaction a short while ago. Above them, the swallows preparing for migration are practicing diving.

—Erika Mihálycsa


Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and BxOxDxY Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.



Sep 042016



Throughout the first three novels in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy, the unnamed narrator and his love interest Marie have been on the verge of break-up and broken up. Yet, in some ways, they’ve never really been apart. In this passage from the fourth and final novel Naked, after returning from a trip where the couple rekindled their love, the narrator sits alone in his apartment thinking of Marie, waiting for a sign that she’s thinking of him too.

Naked was originally published in 2013, and is translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.

— Jason Lucarelli


IDIDN’T DARE admit it to myself outright, but what I was waiting for now at the window was—already—a phone call from Marie. I even hoped to get her call before stepping away from the window, before I had time to do anything in the apartment, go through my mail or unpack my bags, so that when I picked up I could say, the amused modesty in my voice perhaps tinged with a zest of triumph, “Already?” and the endless half-hour I spent in front of the window waiting in vain for Marie’s call was like an abridged version of the two expectant months I was about to spend waiting for any sign from her at all. In the first few moments, fervor and impatience still held sway, feelings of love the days spent together on Elba had rekindled, the intact desire to hear her voice on the phone—perhaps intimidated, tender, light-hearted, suggesting we see each other that very night—and then, as the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks, and soon even the whole month of September went by without so much as a word from Marie, my initial impatience gradually gave way to fatalism and resignation. My feelings toward Marie went progressively from the impatient affection of those first few moments to a kind of annoyance I was still trying to get under control. After a while, I no longer held anything back and gave free rein to my resentment. Marie’s final act of fickleness, inviting me to spend two weeks with her on Elba just to ignore me and not make so much as a peep afterward, was but the ultimate demonstration of her radical nonchalance.

But now a new element, perhaps, since our return from Elba, was that Marie managed the feat of annoying me even when she wasn’t around. For up till now, whenever Marie hadn’t been around, I’d missed her immediately, nothing whetted my love for her more than distance—what to say, then, about her absence? This new annoyance, this more deeply ingrained irritation, taking shape right there at the window as I waited for her call, was perhaps the sign that I was readying myself for our separation and imperceptibly beginning to resign myself to it—except that, and here the nuance is vital, it might very well be the case that if Marie annoyed me so much when she wasn’t around, it was perhaps quite simply because she wasn’t around. There was also an odd, abiding element in my love for Marie, which was that as soon as anyone, even me, took it in mind to criticize her, and quite justifiably, with the best intentions in the world, I couldn’t keep myself from dashing to her rescue straightaway, as in certain couples where the one defending his or her partner tooth and nail is in the best position to know the extent of that partner’s shortcomings. In fact, I needed no outside detractors to come up with all the ill that could be said of Marie, I quite sufficed. I knew very well that Marie was exasperating. I knew perfectly well indeed, along with her detractors, who didn’t even know the quarter of it, that she was superficial, fickle, frivolous, and careless (and that she never shut drawers), but no sooner did I alight on this litany of deprecating qualifiers than I saw the other side to these complaints, their secret underside, concealed from view, like the precious hidden lining of too-flashy finery. For though glittering sequins sometimes kept one from seeing Marie clearly at first, to reduce her to the frothy society gossip abubble in her wake would be to underestimate her. A more substantial wave, timeless, ineluctable, carried her through life. What characterized Marie above all else was her way of being in tune with the world, those moments when she felt flooded by a feeling of pure joy: then tears would start rolling uncontrollably down her cheeks, as if she were melting with rapture. I don’t know if Marie was aware she contained, deep within, this unusual kind of exaltation, but everything in her bearing bore witness to her capacity for intimate harmony with the world. For just as there exists such a thing as oceanic feeling, so we may speak, where Marie is concerned, of oceanic affinities. Marie had a gift, that singular ability, that miraculous faculty, for being at one with the world in the moment, of knowing harmony between herself and the universe, in an utter dissolving of her own consciousness. Everything else about her personality—Marie the businesswoman and Marie the CEO, who signed contracts and closed real estate deals in Paris and China, who knew the dollar’s daily exchange rate and followed the latest market fluctuations, Marie the fashion designer who worked with dozens of assistants and collaborators the world over, Marie the woman of her time, active, overworked, and urbane, who lived in luxury hotels and dashed through airports in cream-colored trench coats, belt trailing on the floor, pushing two or three carts over owing with luggage, suitcases, clutches, portfolios, poster tubes, not to mention—dear God, I can picture it still—parakeet cages (fortunately empty, for she rarely transported living animals, apart from a thoroughbred—a trifle—as it happens, on her last trip back from Tokyo)—also characterized her, but only superficially, including her without defining her, encircling her without grasping her, nothing in the end but mist and spray beside the fundamental affinity that alone characterized her completely, the oceanic affinity. Intuitively, Marie always knew how to be in spontaneous tune with natural elements: with the sea, into which she melted with delight, naked in the salt water surrounding her body, with the earth, whose touch she loved, primitive and crude, dry or slightly slimy in her palms. Marie instinctively attained a cosmic dimension of existence, even if she sometimes seemed to spurn its social dimension entirely, and treated her every acquaintance with the same natural simplicity, ignoring age and formalities, seniority and etiquette, showing each the same considerate kindness, the same graces of sensitivity and benevolence, the charms of her smile and her figure, whether it was an ambassador having her over to dinner at his residence during a show, the cleaning lady she’d befriended, or the latest intern at the fashion house Let’s Go Daddy-O, seeing only the human being in each of them without a care in the world for rank, as if, beneath all the finery of the adult she’d become and her standing as a world-renowned artist, it was the child in her that had survived, with that child’s bottomless well of innocent generosity. There was something in her like a radical abstraction, an abrasion, a stripping-away of the social reality of things, such that she always seemed to be wandering around naked on the surface of the world, the “seemed” even being redundant with her, so often did she actually walk around naked in real life, at home or in the yard of the house on Elba, to the astonishment of creatures that watched her rapturously, a butterfly coming upon its alter ego in nature or the tiny, exhilarated fish quivering behind her in the sea, when I myself wasn’t the privileged witness to her innocent fancy for walking around nude at the drop of a hat, which was almost like her signature, her soul number, the proof of her integral harmony with the world, with what has been most permanent and essential about it for hundreds of thousands of years.

As we had just come back from Elba, these were the sunlit images of Marie that now came to mind as I stood before the window: Marie half naked under an old blue shirt of her father’s in the yard on Elba. I stared at the gray, rainy Paris street before me, and it was Marie who raced irresistibly through my mind without the slightest conscious effort on my part. I don’t know if Marie knew just how alive she was in my thoughts at that moment, as if, beside the real Marie who must have reached her apartment on Rue de La Vrillière by now, where the taxi had dropped her off, was another Marie, free, autonomous, separate from herself, existing only in my mind, where I let her come to life and move about my thoughts as she went swimming naked in my memories or took shape in the yard of her father’s house. I saw her again, then, in the little yard on Elba, that double, my personal Marie, wearing a basic swimsuit she’d pulled down and rolled around her waist because it was too hot (or even with no swimsuit at all, I kid you not). Cautiously, I drew closer to her in my mind, and through the tree branches in the little yard shivering in a light breeze made out her bare silhouette, the skin on her shoulder dappled with sun-shimmer, crouching by an earthenware jar, kneading the potting soil with both hands and tamping it down, evening out the earth around young shoots she’d just replanted and watered, watching the meager trickle from the hose intently, with a kind of meditative steadiness that seemed to wholly absorb her. I skimmed her shoulder as I joined her in the yard and told her in passing that for lack of a swimsuit, she could maybe put on a hat—people do that when they’re naked, you know (and she shrugged, didn’t dignify that with a reply). Marie, who always managed to surprise me, throw me for a loop, unpredictable Marie who, a few weeks earlier on Elba, had filched an apricot from the display at a fruit stand in Portoferraio’s old town, and kept the pit in her mouth for a long time, sucking on it dreamily in the sun, before suddenly pinning me to the wall in a shady alley near the port to press her lips abruptly against mine and dispose of the pit in my mouth.

And then I realized that I was chewing over these same happy visions time and again, the same summer images of Marie kept coming back to me, as if filtered by my mind, purified of any unpleasant elements and made more endearing still as they began to grow distant in time with my return. But since, I told myself, any true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.

I don’t know how much time had passed since I got back, but day was beginning to wane in Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and I still hadn’t budged from the window. The street had gotten a bit livelier, a few signs were now lighted near the Bourse. One of the houses across from me was being renovated. On the fourth floor, an apartment had been laid utterly bare, the façade gone, leaving the entrails of the building exposed, as if after a hurricane or an earthquake. Under the arc lights, a few workers in helmets passed to and fro over plastic tarps covering the floorboards of what must once have been the living room. The scene had something, if not hallucinatory, then at least not very Parisian about it (or I’m no Parisian), and seemed instead to be taking place in a major Asian metropolis, by neon light and the glare of welding torches. I contemplated the building under construction across from me, and thought back to the trip Marie and I had made to Japan at the beginning of the year. That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up, that was where we’d made love for the last time, in the room of a luxury hotel in Shinjuku. We’d left for Japan together, and come home separately two weeks later, each to our own lives, no longer speaking, no longer bothering to stay in touch. When I got back to Paris, I finalized our breakup, in a way, by moving to Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and we had barely seen each other at all till late summer, when she’d suggested I join her on Elba. But what Marie didn’t know—and still doesn’t—is that I, too, was there the night her show opened at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa.

— Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin

Excerpt from Naked appears by permission of Dalkey Archive Press.


Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels and the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Décembre for The Truth about Marie, which is available from Dalkey Archive Press. His writing has been compared to the works of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Tati, Jim Jarmusch, and even Charlie Chaplin.



A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Edward Gauvin was a 2007 fellow at the American Literary Translators Association conference and received a residency from the Ban International Literary Translation Centre. His translation of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Urgency and Patience was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015.


Sep 012016




Charles was in the yurt and would not come out. He had crept in at night when everyone thought he was sleeping. Despite the crooked smile and useless right arm he could still surprise them. At supper the next evening all eyes were on the empty chair. Jill, who was standing at the window, said,  “He’s still in there,” and everyone felt glum. Beth carried a plate of food out to the yurt. She knocked on the door. “Go away,” said a voice. Returning to the house, Beth reported that Charles sounded subdued. In later testimony she changed that to “muffled.” She left the plate on the ground by the door and next morning it was empty. They wondered what he was thinking about in there. They imagined him seated in the dark gnawing on a chop bone.


Every night one of them went out to the yurt and left a plate of food on the ground, and every morning when they looked out the food was gone. One morning at breakfast Beth came in from the yard carrying the plate, empty as usual, and Warren said “Raccoons,” and everyone’s heart sank. The next night Steve went out and put his ear against the side of the yurt. “He’s chewing,” he whispered. He tapped on the wall of the yurt and the chewing stopped. “He’s eating, that’s a good sign,” Lily said, and they all brightened, until Monica reminded them that she had eaten like a horse right up to the day she swallowed a whole bottle of pills after supper and they had had to pump her stomach out.


“He went in there to send us a message,” Rachel said, and they all agreed, though no one could think what the message was. Warren, who was interested in Zen, said, “Maybe it’s the message of no message,” and everyone nodded. They couldn’t imagine what Charles was thinking, and that took them aback. In fact they had never known what he was thinking, even on his best days, but they only realized this after he went into the yurt because that was such a surprising thing to do. Charles, everyone agreed, was a closed book. “Enigmatic,“ Beth added, trying to be helpful. “He played his cards close to his chest,” Marek put in, and they all glared, because that was the wrong tone.


Charles had seemed such a reliable, predictable person. He had never done anything surprising before except for having a stroke, though Rachel said that this didn’t count since he had been even more surprised than they were, and Lily said that it shouldn’t have surprised anybody who saw how he ate. They had missed the warning signs, and now they blamed themselves. They all agreed that they ought to have known something was wrong when he dropped the flag ceremony. Beth recalled seeing him alone in the yard listlessly throwing rocks at the chickens.  Ronald remembered the morning he had found him in the hammock reading The  Brothers Karamazov. Everyone agreed that this was not like the Charles they knew.


The flag ceremony had been such a comfort to him after the stroke. Everything he did was predictable until he went into the yurt. The ceremony had come off every day like clockwork, Charles out in the yard at sunrise with the bugle. Though nobody else was fond of the flag, which they all agreed stood for things they could not approve of, they admired the way he had worked the rope with just his left arm and his teeth. Standing at the base of the pole he had watched the flag unfurling in the morning sun. “There she blows,” he would say every time in the most chipper way imaginable. They were supposed to stand at attention, but they just glared and slouched or refused even to come out of the house. It was the flag ceremony that had turned them against Charles.


With Charles in the yurt life was easier for them all. It was a relief not have him popping up when you wanted to be alone, making irrelevant comments while you were trying to think, insisting on games after supper, and saying “Roger that” when you asked him to take the trash out. It was only now that they realized how tired they were of his war stories. Weeks went by, and they didn’t talk about Charles as much as before. Sometimes when they were having lunch at the big table under the oak, someone might, in the midst of the revelry, glance over at the yurt, and that would remind everybody that he was crouching in the darkness there, and the conversation would flag while they adjusted. The idea that he was listening to their laughter frightened them a little. They slept with windows and doors locked, not to be surprised again. He was still in there when the police came. They pointed their guns at the yurt and Charles crawled out. His hair was full of dirt and leaves, and he wore an expression none of them could read.

—Sam Savage

Sam Savage is the author of the novels The Criminal Life of Effie O. (2005), Firmin (2006), The Cry of the Sloth (2009), Glass (2011), The Way of the Dog (2013), and It Will End with Us (2014). He’s no stranger to Numéro Cinq: in May 2015 an in-depth and fascinating interview with him appeared here. In March and then April of 2016 we published his short story “The Awakening” and Zero Gravity: Collected Poems (1981-2015), respectively.

Savage’s short story “Cigarettes,” originally published in The Paris Review (No. 211, Winter 2014), was an O. Henry prize winner in 2016. It is published this month [here I mean September] by Anchor under the title The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016.

The Way of the Dog came out in Spain recently, and a French edition will appear soon. Firmin has already appeared in translation in over a dozen languages.

A collection of short stories is scheduled for publication sometime in 2018 under the tentative title An Orphanage of Dreams. “Dispatches” is from that manuscript.



Aug 122016


Photo by Nina Subin

The following excerpt appears about a third of the way into Moya’s wonderful novel, where we find Vega, Revulsion‘s narrator, describing his relationship with his brother, Ivo, to the author. Vega has spent fifteen days living at his brother’s home while trying to sell their dead mother’s house, and he has had enough of the noise made by Ivo’s family.

This passage works as an excellent example of Moya’s commitment to writing in the style of Thomas Bernhard. You’ll notice many of the Austrian writer’s techniques on display, from long, run-on sentences to a fantastic sequence of repetition when Vega describes soccer players as “undernourished.”

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador was originally published in 1997 in Spanish as El asco, Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador, and has been translated into English by Lee Klein. 

— Benjamin Woodard


MY BROTHER Ivo and I are the most different people you can imagine, Moya, we don’t resemble each other in any way, we have not a single thing in common, no one would believe we’re from the same mother, we’re so different we never even became friends, only a few acquaintances know we share the same parents, the same last name, the same house, said Vega. We haven’t seen each other for eighteen years. We never write each other. The half dozen times my mother would call me and he’d be with her, Moya, we’d hardly exchange hellos or commonplaces; we never called each other because we didn’t have anything to say, each of us lived without having to think about the other, because we’re complete strangers, we’re total opposites, living proof that blood doesn’t mean a thing, it’s random, something perfectly worthless, said Vega. I just turned thirty-eight years old, Moya, same as you, I am four years older than my brother, and if my mother hadn’t died I would have been able to live my entire life without returning to see my brother Ivo; that said, Moya, we don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, without anything to say, with nothing to share, no similar tastes, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte, nothing more, said Vega. I have nothing in common with a guy who dedicates his life to making keys, a guy who has dedicated his life to making copies of keys, whose only concern is that his business produces more and more copies of keys, Moya, someone whose life revolves around a business called “Millions of Keys.” His friends gave him the inevitable nickname “Key Ring,” his total universe, his most vital worries, fail to exceed the dimensions of a key, said Vega. My brother is possessed, Moya, it causes me true sorrow that someone could live a life like that, it causes me profound sadness to think about someone dedicating his life to making the most possible copies of keys, said Vega. My brother is worse than someone possessed, Moya, he’s the typical middle-class businessman who trains to accumulate the money he needs to buy more cars, houses, and women than he needs; for my brother, the ideal world would be an immense locksmith operation, and he would be the only owner, an immense locksmith operation where they would only talk about keys, locks, doorknobs, latchkeys. And it’s not going badly for him, Moya, on the contrary, it’s going very well for my brother, every day he sells more keys, every day he opens another branch of “Millions of Keys,” every day he accumulates more money thanks to his key business, my brother is a true success, Moya, he’s found his goldmine, I doubt there exists another country where people have the same obsession for keys and locks, I don’t think there exists another country where people so obsessively lock themselves in, which is why my brother is a success, because people need tons of keys and locks for the walled houses they live in, said Vega. For fifteen days I haven’t had a conversation that’s been worth it, Moya, for fifteen days these two have talked to me only about keys, locks, and doorknobs, and about the papers I should sign to make the sale of my mother’s house possible, it’s horrible, Moya, I have absolutely nothing to say to my brother, there isn’t a single minimally decent topic we could address with intelligence, said Vega. The principal intellectual preoccupation of my brother is soccer, Moya, he can talk for hours and hours about teams and players, especially about his favorite team, called the Alliance, for my brother the Alliance is the finest manifestation of humanity, he doesn’t miss a single game, he’d commit the most heinous sin if it meant the Alliance would win all its matches, said Vega. My brother’s fanaticism for the Alliance is so high, after a few days it actually occurred to him to invite me to the stadium, can you imagine, Moya, he invited me to the stadium to support the Alliance in a difficult match against their long-time rivals, that’s how he proposed it to me, as if he didn’t know that I detest huge crowds, that concentrations of humanity produce in me an indescribable affliction. There’s nothing more detestable to me than sports, Moya, nothing seems more boring and stupid than sports, most of all the National Soccer League, I don’t understand how my brother could give a damn about twenty-two undernourished morons running after a ball, only someone like my brother could almost have a heart attack about the stumbling of twenty-two undernourished men running after a ball and making a show of their mental deficiency, only someone like my brother could have passionate ideas about locksmithing and a team of undernourished morons that calls itself the Alliance, said Vega. At first my brother thought he would be able to convince me that we shouldn’t sell my mother’s house, that it was best to rent it instead, according to him the real estate market improves every day, my brother said he had no desire to sell my mother’s house, but I was emphatic from the start, I had no doubt that the best decision was to sell her house, it’s what suits me best, so I never have to return to this country, so I can break all ties with this place, with the past, with my brother and his family, so I don’t have to hear anything more about them, which, to be blunt, is why I was emphatic from the start, I didn’t even let my brother make his case against the sale of the house, I said I only wanted my half, if he could pay me the forty- five thousand dollars right then, he could keep the house, that’s what I told him, Moya, because I saw his intention to blackmail me with idiotic sentimentalities, with ideas natural to a guy whose life is limited to keys and locks, idiotic sentimentalities like saying my mother’s house represents the family heritage, like saying we were raised there and similarly the house is associated with the best moments of our youth, I didn’t let him continue with that nonsense, Moya, I told him that for me the family was coincidental, without any importance, proof of this was that the two of us had been able to pass eighteen years without a single conversation, proof was that if this house hadn’t existed we surely wouldn’t have decided to meet again, that’s what I told him, Moya, and I explained that I wanted to forget everything that has to do with my youth spent in this country, my youth lived in this walled house that now I must sell, there is nothing so abominable as the years I spent here, nothing more repulsive than the first twenty years of my life, said Vega, they were years committed only to idiocies, Moya, horrible years, associated with the Marist Brothers, with anxiety about getting away from here, the uneasiness caused by the inevitability of having to live my life in the middle of this rottenness.

—  Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein

Excerpt from the novel Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, translated into English by Lee Klein, and published by New Directions, on July 26, 2016.



Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras and grew up in El Salvador. The author of eleven novels (including SenselessnessThe She-Devil in the MirrorTyrant Memory, and The Dream of My Return), he is now living in the U.S.



Lee Klein‘s fiction, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Harper’sThe Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is also the author of The Shimmering Go-BetweenThanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox, and Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World. He lives in South Philadelphia.


Aug 082016

Evan Lavender-Smith


I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—How is metal made?

—Metal. Comes from the earth. From minerals inside the earth. We go down into a mine, gather up the minerals, the ore, iron ore, copper ore, whatever kind of mine it is, like the old copper mine out by the mountain pass I showed you and your brother, remember? Heat up the ore, turn it nice and smooth just like those iron poles supporting that slide there.

—Thanks. Back in a jiff.


I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—How are mountains made?


—Mountains. Ever heard of them?

—Are you going to eat your burger or just ask questions? Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.


—Plate tectonics. Crust of the earth moving around. There’s these huge pieces of crust called tectonic plates. Sometimes they smash into each other. Nowhere for the smashed edges to go except for up, kind of like how your brother will set two of his trains going at each other and when they collide they’ll both go up for a second. Remember? The plates smash together. Go up. Voila. Mountains.

—Great. Back in a lickety-split.


I have a question.

—You going to eat your burger?



—The Earth.

—The Earth? You mean the planet?

—Planet Earth, ever heard of it?

—Planet formation, the nebular hypothesis. Molecular hydrogen clouds. Protoplanetary disks, planetesimals, runaway accretions, like that young star I showed you through your brother’s telescope. Remember?

—Back before you know it.


I have a question.

—Eat your burger. You’re not allowed on the jungle gym again until you finish.

—But first you have to answer my question. And then I’ll eat my burger.


—Can we get the heck out of this place?

—Good question. Now eat your burger.


I have a question.

—Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you.

—What’s your job?

—My job? Being your father.

—That’s not a job.


—I have a question.

—Shoot. I mean, get back in the pool.

—How much do you make from your writing?

—You’re exactly like your brother. Go on, they’re waiting for you..

—I have a question. Then I’ll get back in the pool.


—How much does Mom make?

—Get back in the pool, young lady.


I have a question.


—Don’t do that. When did you start doing that, anyway?


—You must be joking. You always used to say I hope to have an answer.    —Go on. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Get back in the pool. You’re exactly like your brother.

—You must be joking.


I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—You keep bringing him up. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. It seems like you almost always bring him up every single question every single time. So my question for you is this. Why do you always have to bring him up? Is it because he’s a boy and you’re a boy and that means you think you have to bring him up every single question every single time?

—Now hold on a second.

—They’re our questions. You have things you do with him and you have things you do with me. The questions are our thing, not his. We’re two peas in a pod with our questions. I know what you’re going to say. You’re sorry. That’s what you always say when I say something I don’t like about you. You’ll say you’re sorry. And you understand. And then you’ll say you won’t bring him up again. You’ll say that but just watch. You’ll probably bring him up again by the end of my lesson.

—I’m sorry.


—I mean, I understand.

—You must be joking.

—I promise I won’t bring him up again.


—I’m sorry. I mean, I understand.

—You must be joking.

—You’re exactly like your brother, you know that?


Song or just a back rub?

—I wish he were dead.


—You must be joking.

—Dead? You know what dead means? You’d never see him again.


—Song or just a back rub?

—Just a back rub. I’m too old for songs, stop asking. I have a question.


—How old was he when he stopped getting songs?

—Couldn’t say. Don’t remember.

—Couldn’t say or don’t remember?

—Don’t remember.

—You don’t remember anything, do you?

—No, not really. Come on, it’s getting late. Song or just a back rub?

—You must be joking. See?


I have a question.


—Why do you say always shoot when I say I have a question?

—Shoot. It means go ahead and ask your question. Shoot, fire away, lay it on me. Ask your question.

—It does?

—Yes. What did you think it meant?

—That you were tired of me asking you so many questions. Like, oh no, here we go again. Like, you know, shoot.


I have a question. Water.

—Water. Water is a combination of …


—Hydrogen. Hydrogen is an element, see, it’s …


—Stars. Well, there are a number of ways by which scientists …


—Gravity. Gravity? Well, I’m afraid gravity’s rather …

—The universe.

—The universe?

—The universe, ever heard of it?


—The universe, well?

—Well, there are several possibilities concerning the origin of …

—Got it. Back in two shakes of lamb’s tail.

—Are you going to eat your burger? Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.


I have a question.


—Sometimes it seems like your answers come straight out of Wikipedia. Like you have Wikipedia in your head. But you’re just a total nerd dad right? You don’t actually have internet in your head?

—You must be joking.


Sometimes it seems like you’re asking your questions just to ask questions. That you’re not even listening to my answers. Or while you’re listening to my answers you’re listening only in order to latch on to some detail that you’ll focus on in a follow-up question. Are you even listening to the answers? Are you even trying to remember my answers or are you only trying to get to your next question?

—That is so mean. That’s probably the meanest thing anybody’s ever said to me.

—I’m sorry.

—I knew you would say that.

—I mean, I understand..

—I have a question. What’s time made out of? I have a question. What color were stegosauri? I have a question. What’s the difference, exactly, between a regular engine and a diesel engine?

—You can ask me as many questions as you like. Anytime.

—I have a question.


—Why are you so mean?

—Song or just a back rub?

—You must be joking. I’m too old for songs. Stop asking.


Do you remember when you were telling me about the universe? We were at Carl’s Jr. and I kept coming back to the table from the jungle gym to ask you questions.

—I don’t know. It’s all kind of a blur now.

—You said that the universe was going to keep expanding and expanding until the galaxies were so far away from each other that no one on any planet would ever be able to know that there were other galaxies or planets out there but it wouldn’t matter anyway because by that time all the planets and stars were going to be frozen solid and no life would exist anywhere and everything would be totally dead forever.

—Did I say that? I must have been in a grumpy mood. Go on, get back in the pool.


I have a question.




—Death. That’s my question.


—Lay it on me.


—Death, well?

—No. Well. Shoot. Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you. I’ll have an answer ready when you get back. You’re kind of young for this stuff, though, don’t you think?


Look, if I’m too old for songs, then I’m old enough for this.

—You sure?

—As sure as the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

—Okay. You ready?

—Ready and rearing to go.

—Okay, here we go.

—Lay it on me.


—Heaven? You must be joking.

—Heaven. God. Angels.

—You must be joking.

—Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you.


Don’t give me an easy answer just because it’s me and you think I’m too young for this. I want the truth. I want to know what I’m up against here.

—What you’re up against? Just eat your burger. Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.

—What I have to look forward to.

—Heaven. You’re an angel. You don’t have anything to worry about. Now your brother, on the other hand … Just eat your burger. You’re not going back on the jungle gym until you do.

—But I’ve heard you tell him that heaven isn’t real. That it’s a fairy tale. Why do you tell him one thing and tell me something totally different? How old was he when you told him the truth about death?

—Couldn’t say.

—Couldn’t say or don’t remember?

—Eat your burger.

—I’m not going to eat my burger unless you tell me what death’s all about. If you don’t tell me the truth about death, then this cow will have died for nothing.

—Just eat your burger.

—What’s going to happen to me when I die?

—I don’t know. Couldn’t say. Two more bites and then you can play on the jungle gym.

—Couldn’t say or don’t know?


—So you admit that heaven isn’t real?

—Go on, play on the jungle gym. Leave me alone.


Song or just a back rub?

—Is God real then, even if heaven isn’t?

—Of course.

—You’re lying. I can always tell when you’re lying.


—Because your voice changes and you use different words. You wouldn’t have said of course if you were telling the truth. You would’ve just said yes or yep like normal.

—Listen to me, sweetie. Everybody gets to believe in whatever they want.

—So why do you always call me your angel if you don’t even believe in angels?

—It’s a figure of speech. Now, song or just a back rub?

—So you don’t think I’m a real angel?

—Listen. If you believe in God and heaven and angels, that’s great. It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what you believe.

—I believe that metal grows on trees. I believe that mountains are made of chocolate. I believe that the Earth is actually a very large flower.

—Well, I’m afraid that’s a bit different. There’s some stuff that science can tell us about and some stuff it can’t. Science can tell us about metal and mountains, but it can’t tell us very much about heaven and God and angels. That’s one of the problems with science.

—Or maybe that’s one of the problems with heaven and God and angels.

—Song or just a back rub?

—You tell me metal is all about mines and mountains are all about plates and planets are all about runaway accretions. Now it’s time for you to tell me what death’s all about. I know you already told him because he told me you did and he won’t tell me no matter what I offer to trade him for it. Now just tell me. Or else I’m not going to sleep tonight.

—You’ll go to sleep if I tell you? Promise?


—Okay, here we go.

—Lay it on me.

—Okay. Heaven. Not real.

—Got it. Heaven, total sham. And?

—Angels. Also not real.

—Angels, bunch of fakes, check. What else?

—That’s it.

—But what about death? You forgot death. What’s going to happen to me when I die? That’s the most important one.

—Song or just a back rub?


—You need to try to get this stuff out of your head, sweetie. I want to keep you innocent and naïve for as long as possible. You’re my angel.

—Your angel of death, maybe.


—Angel of death. Heard it on one of my shows.

—Well, please don’t ever say it again.

—What’s going to happen to me? I think about it a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I think about it almost every night after you leave. Sometimes I stay up half the night thinking about it. I’m freaked out. I just want you to tell me the truth. What’s going to happen? Tell me the truth and then I’ll go to sleep.

—Fine. Nothing’s going to happen.

—You must be joking.

—Nothing’s going to happen. That’s what’s going to happen. Nothing. You’re not going to be alive. It’ll be exactly like it was before you were born.

—What do you mean?

—Think back to before you were born.

—What do you mean, before I was born?

—What was going on with you before you were born.

—I don’t know. Nothing.


—So that’s how it’ll be? After I die everything will go back to being like it was before I was born?


—But that’s not so bad. Right?

—Right. Or, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it won’t be so bad. It’ll be fine. That’s right, death’s no big deal. See?

—They didn’t have iPads back then, did they? I’ll have to figure out something else to play with. They still had those Nintendo things. The little ones you could hold in your hands. What were those called?

—Game Boys.

—Game Boys, right. Will you buy me a Game Boy after I die?

—Absolutely. Song or just a back rub?

—Just a back rub. I’m too old for songs.

—Evan Lavender-Smith


Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of From Old Notebooks (Dzanc Books) and Avatar (Six Gallery Press). He lives in New Mexico. More at el-s.net.


Aug 062016

Margaret Nowaczyk

Just a little intro: A few months ago Caroline Adderson wrote to me about a student of hers who had just produced a stunning short story based on my exercise model in “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise” in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders. Caroline was right about the story, and I am delighted to publish it here.

But it’s not the first successful story written off that exercise. I am gradually collecting some great examples. So look at “Shame” by Benjamin Woodard and “Gunslinger” and “Angel of Death” by Casper Martin to get an idea of the range of styles and subject matter that can evolve from a simple prompt.



Bentley watched Adèle pass without a glance at the hydrocephalic skeleton of a five-year old child hung on a yard-tall metal pole, alien-headed, lights glaring on its glass case. She entered the next room down the corridor that curved to his right. Der Narrenturm, The Tower of Fools – not very PC back in the 17th century, were they, Bentley thought. The Museum of Anatomy and Pathology in the old psychiatric ward of the Vienna General Hospital was housed in a round, four-story tower separated from the main building by an expanse of lawn. The physical specimens of contagion and birth defects in two-hundred-year-old glass jars filled with murky fluid only compounded the barbarity of the place. Bentley had to admit that as far as medical horrors go it was a fitting setting – thick, whitewashed brick walls separated tiny cages of rooms on the outer wall, a circular corridor surrounded an inner courtyard where he imagined the less affected inmates had been allowed to take air. He had expected the place to reek of formaldehyde, like the pathology departments in all the hospitals where he had worked, but the building was odorless, sterile.

He didn’t want to come, not at all, but from the moment she learned about it Adèle became obsessed. Once here, she went from room to room, her eyes drawn from one specimen-containing jar to another – she never did anything half-way. Studying, work, sex. Having a baby. In the Contagion Room Bentley was reminded of the story Adèle told about the plasticine models of a syphilitic she saw as a child a French venereology clinic. The new nanny her mother had hired made Adèle promise not to tell anybody as she pulled her into the dark hallway and up the steep, wooden staircase. When the woman disappeared into the examining room, Adèle – curious, and a precocious reader – went from display case to display case, and made out the words letter by awful letter. Gumma, congenital syphilis, primary chancre. She was six years old. She had not been able to sleep for months afterwards, the speckled fetus and the caved-in nose floated in front of her every time she closed her eyes. Fifteen years later, during a medical school lecture on sexually transmitted diseases she darted out from the lecture hall, her chair clanging to the floor. Bentley found her in the quadrangle, sucking on a cigarette. “I’ve seen those before,” she choked out before the story tumbled all out.

But today she marched past them. Two rooms later she stood, transfixed, and stared at a preserved baby with its intestines floating outside its abdomen, its little fingers interlaced as if in prayer, put in that position by some well-meaning – or was it morbid? – mortician, and slumped forward, its nose flattened against the glass of the jar. The look on Adèle’s face must have been the look the child Adèle had – mouth slack, eyes darting about the specimen, taking in all the gruesome details. An anencephalic newborn in a jar behind her stared at Bentley from beneath half-closed eyelids.

He knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.


A few days after she ran out of the lecture hall Adèle dragged Bentley into Fairweather’s at Yonge and Eglinton. A rack in a back corner held a clutch of cocktail dresses, their cheap-looking fabrics glimmered in the bright ceiling lights.

“Ooh, can you imagine anything worse?” Adèle sung out.

Bentley eyed the dresses.

“I gotta try them on!” Lemon yellow, violent pink, green, and neon mauve tumbled off the rack into her arms and she disappeared into the fitting room.

“Stupid cheap zipper,” floated over the partition. “How’s this?” She flung the curtain aside and twirled out in the green dress. It cinched her around the waist, the straps drug into her shoulders; even though she was slim and toned she looked like a boiled ham in a netting. On a bed of stewed Boston lettuce. And yet, she was still beautiful.

Bentley pumped his index finger in his open mouth and made gagging sounds. He reached for the zipper. She weaseled out of his arms and ducked back behind the curtain. Soon she popped out in the neon blue.

“This color does nothing for you.”

“The color? What about the cut? Those flounces! Whoever came up with this deserves to die a long-drawn out death in the seventeenth circle of hell. Drowned in tears of women who had to wear this horror.”

“There were only nine circles of …” he begun, and Adèle rolled her eyes.

“I know that,” she said.

The next dress, the mauve, made her pale, freckled skin look like she had secondary syphilis. He bit his lip as he remembered Adèle’s shaking voice.

When she disappeared into the fitting room for the fourth time he was ready to walk out and never come back.

“Did you have to try all of them?” he asked long after they left the store. Something in his voice made her stop and look at him.

“I thought it was funny,” she said.

“You have no sense of proportion.” He stomped off, leaving her standing alone at the entrance to the subway.

The following morning, he waited for her at the same spot – she was late. He had studied way past his bedtime to make up the time, and was feeling grouchy and unkind. But he couldn’t go a morning without seeing her. He waved when he saw her in the crowd.

“Ready for the gynie exam?” Adèle asked when she reached him.

Bentley looked up at the trees just coming out in leaves – greenish mist hung around the branches. No apologies from Adèle, ever. A sparrow trilled and went silent over their heads.

“I’m totally not,” Adèle said. “This fertility crap. I have to put up with it every month, I don’t want to study it, too.”

“I thought procreation was every woman’s passion,” Bentley said carelessly. Adèle’s cheeks went brick red.

“I’ll have you know that I am not constantly thinking about babies and nursing and lactating and gestating and bringing life into this world and whatever other cliché crap you chauvinist misogynes think women are about.”

“Sex?” Bentley asked just as Adèle inhaled to continue. He wiggled his black eyebrows like a beetle. Adèle snorted and punched him in the shoulder.

“Hah! I am like a guy in that respect, eh? Men think about sex…”

“…every eight seconds,” Bentley finished with her.

Adèle laughed and leaned into him, her head on his shoulder. His penis stirred and thickened – obviously he was one of those men.

“You must have gotten too much testosterone exposure during your fetal life,” he said. He kept his arm around her shoulder the rest of the way to the hospital.

The first time he saw Adèle she was dancing on a chair at their med school orientation party. She wore autographed boxer shorts from an upper class man, the prize token for the scavenger hunt; a wide grin – all teeth – split her face, thick brown hair parted in a bob on the right. As she shook it off her face her eyes met Bentley’s and she winked at him, her face an invitation. Bentley felt his face grow hot.

They were sleeping together a month later. Bentley, virginal, realized right away that Adèle was much more experienced than he would allow himself to imagine. Her lipstick on his penis – kissing it, biting it, sucking it she smeared the crimson on the pearly pink of his shaft and foreskin. He pushed aside thoughts of the unnamed men, their greedy hands, their probing tongues and dicks that knew Adèle better than he did.

He realized then that he would never let go of her.


What are we doing here, Bentley wondered as he followed Adèle into another low-ceilinged room. And another. She had to see every last atrocity, every last crime nature committed against itself in forming these monsters. Teratogenesis – the study of monsters – he remembered from their genetics lectures. She shouldn’t even be here – after all those miscarriages what could be going through her mind, for god’s sake. What was she thinking as she stared at the specimens – better no baby than one of those? All that blood she had lost with the last miscarriage, she almost needed a hysterectomy. It took her months to recover but still she wouldn’t allow a transfusion. She was still hoping she’d get pregnant after five years of tests and fertility treatments.

He loved her so much.

That night, after he rolled off her, Bentley lay supine on the king-size hotel bed, arms splayed. The neon sign from the cafe across the street flickered blue shadows across the curtains.

“I want to try IVF.” Adèle rubbed her face in his hairy chest, a greying patch extending from nipple to nipple. “This… this isn’t working.”


“I’m not getting any younger.” She had turned thirty-six this past January.

“I’m not good enough?”

Adèle lifted her head and stared at him, unblinking.

“That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?” Bentley always lowered his voice as his temper rose.

I had all those miscarriages.” Her voice sounded wet. “We still don’t know why I can’t carry a baby to term.”

She rose from the bed and stood by the window, her body dark against the sheer curtain. Outlined in blue, the curve of her hips and butt, broad as if made for bearing children, made him want her all over again. He grabbed her waist and pushed her face down onto the bed.

“I’ll show you,” he hissed through his teeth as he lowered his face beside hers. Adèle turned her head and Bentley saw her perfect profile. A tear streaked down across her cheekbone. He kissed it, tasted salt. His body sagged.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Adèle squirmed beneath him, turned over, and wrapped her arms around him, scissored her legs across his buttocks.

“Don’t ever leave me,” she said.


The next morning Bentley woke up with an erection. Something tugged at his consciousness. A nagging, unpleasant something. Adèle, in a backless, shimmering silver-grey gown, the even beads of her spine bisecting her back with such grace it took his breath away. She turned and his penis flatlined. Bentley shook his head to dislodge the image – a line of blood down Adèle’s belly, from the ribcage to the pubic bone, in a perfect parallel to her spine, the dress gaping open, muscle and fascia slashed, a glistening globe of the uterus exposed. The bottom half of a baby hung out from the incision, buttocks and legs hanging. Pulsating coils of umbilical cord dangled down to Adèle’s knees, blood stains splashed down to the hem of the gown.

The bisected Adèle lifted a champagne flute at him. “Cheers.”

Bentley shot upright on the bed. Adèle slept peacefully next to him, wrapped in the white linen sheets crushed from last night’s sex.

As he padded barefoot to the bathroom the cold marble floor bit at his soles. The wall tiles were weeping long droplets of moisture when he stepped out of the shower, but he still felt the cold sweat on his back.


A week later, back in Toronto, Bentley had performed two kidney transplants and five bladder resections. Adèle finished a paper reporting her new research on gene therapy, and reviewed – and rejected – three others. They taught entitled surgical and medicine residents, they gave lectures to medical students who played with their smartphones. They attended patients in clinics and on the wards. They worked late and hardly spoke over their take-out dinners.

It was as if they both held their breath.

At home the crib grinned its slats at Bentley every time he passed the nursery they set up during the second to last pregnancy, when Adèle went beyond the twenty-week mark and they thought the pregnancy would keep. Once, when he came home from a late night in the OR, he stood outside the nursery door, his forehead against the cherry wood of the door jamb, and tried to imagine the snuffles, the mumblings of a just woken baby, but all he heard was Adele’s soft breaths in the darkness of their bedroom.

Two weeks later Bentley came downstairs as Adèle stood at the kitchen counter waiting for the water to boil, teabag label hanging over the rim of her mug. He had seen the tampon wrapper and the blood tinged applicator in the bathroom wastebasket. He reached for her, and she burrowed her face in his neck, her arms around and up his back like a vise, hands together, pushed against his spine.

Neither spoke until the kettle whistled.

“Not even a romantic interlude in Vienna,” Adèle said then. Not quite how Bentley remembered it – the pickled fetuses still haunted his dreams. He reached over and poured the boiling water into the mug, dunked the teabag in and out.

“You’ve always taken such good care of me,” Adèle said.

“I don’t want a baby,” he lifted her face up by the chin. “I just want you. I went along with all this, but I don’t want you bloated with hormones, needles stuck in your belly, rushing off at 6 am to have an ultrasound up your hoohah.”

Adèle chuckled, but a tear slid down her cheek. Bentley bent down and kissed it dry.

“We’ll be all right,” he said. “Just the two of us.”


That was before the nightmares started. Before Adèle stopped going to work and just lay on the living room sofa, the pillow beneath her cheek sodden. Before Bentley was able to count the ribs beneath her disappearing muscles. And before he found her lying in a lukewarm bath, her white arms and legs floating just beneath the surface, nipples poking through the surface of the pink water, twisted wet hair snaked around her neck like a coil of umbilical cord.

But at that moment, surrounded by the aroma of the mint tea, in the orange light of the setting sun puddled on the slate tile floor, Bentley truly believed that they would be all right.

—Margaret Nowaczyk


Małgorzata (Margaret) Nowaczyk, a pediatrician and a clinical geneticist, is a professor at McMaster University and DeGroote School of Medicine in Hamilton, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in Geist, The Examined Life Journal, and Canadian Medical Association Journal. Her short story “Cassandra” will appear in Prairie Fire. She is a co-editor of an anthology of short stories from the Canadian-Polish diaspora to be published by Guernica Editions in 2017. She lives in Hamilton with her husband and two sons.


Aug 022016

Curtis White


From a work in progress, Lacking Character


At Last, the Reading Public Gets the Trees It Deserves

—after Cormac McCarthy


“Science slanders matter.” —Schelling

In all honesty, I can’t even say I know much about trees except to say that they seem to be all over the place. But the Reading Public should admit that I have committed myself to a few things. Minnesota, for example. That’s a place. It’s even a state. Also, a lake with a name: Lake Mandubracius (ridiculous, I admit, but I’m new to this). And there are boulders (about which I’ve already said too much). So, since it makes you happy, I will say something more about the trees. Writers often do. Only painters seem to enjoy them more, use them, profit from them in all sorts of ways. Musicians I think couldn’t care less about trees. In fact, I suspect that most musicians are afraid of trees. Something about them. If only all of my readers were musicians, I’d be free of this obsession of the Reading Public!

I hope now that we can return to the wide-open spaces of the American interior, and I promise you solemnly, there will be trees, lots of trees.

From their camp at the crest of La Cordillera de los Arboles, they looked south toward Mexico, the vast Sonora, unbroken except for the dwarfish mesquite and chaparral that give the desert floor a fuzzy appearance, a world without qualities. About two miles out a pickup truck sped west, like something in torment, a long spiral of dust growing broad and indefinite, a trailing thought too grim to finish.

Mexico was a past that had lost all promise, not least because the pickup was carrying four drug gang foot soldiers with AKs and a grenade launcher they were always eager to use, and, worse yet, they were trailing Jake and his little party. For the moment, thank God, they were off the track.

Looking to the north, La Cordillera de los Arboles swooshed elegantly to the left, an enormous, rhythmic, comma-shaped line of pin oak and dry-green loblolly pine. They could just see where the comma’s trail ended, a swale softly settling to a hard-green river bottom of bald cypress, soaking in a patch of wetland fed by a shallow river running over brightly-polished stones. They would need to get to the sanctuary of the cypress grove by the early afternoon if they wanted to avoid the drogistas and the worst of the heat. Once they got to the trees and the wetland, Rory could make a moss poultice for the nasty gash in Jake’s shoulder, still oozing beneath the bandanna the girl had wrapped around it.

The girl was another kind of problem. She would slow them, but it couldn’t be helped. After all, it was she they’d come for. Their boss had given them each a ten dollar gold piece and nailed two more to a post, promising the money to them if they brought her home. He was called the Artist because of his imaginative knife-based talent for conflict resolution. What made this task difficult was that the girl loved those gangsters and their drugs, and she was none too happy about leaving them, especially since it meant returning to the Artist and his knife tricks. When she imagined him, he was pushing back his hat of fine-woven fibers, a black patch over his right eye, balancing a V-42 stiletto point on his index finger until a little drop of incarnadine blood puddled beneath it. The Mexicans were nurturers in comparison to the Artist.

As Jake saw it, if the horses held up, they’d make it to the trees. They could get water, then, in one of the clear ponds, full of darter and snails, up close to the river. The horses could eat the river grasses, and there’d be plenty of silver or rosy-eyed perch for dinner.

So, tired but dogged, they saddled the horses and cut the girl loose from her stake. She rubbed at the raw welts on her wrist but climbed quickly on to her horse without complaint. She was in withdrawal from one or more opioids, and so was starting to think that the best thing for her was to arrive somewhere, anywhere. She was a hard girl after the long months in the criminal camp on the desert floor, and she’d seen her share of addicts piled on the ground their bones clattering like castanets. She was a girl who paid attention and learned, Jake gave her that, but he also knew he’d have to treat her without pity. Pity was something he didn’t have time for. So what if she had some bloody welts from the leather cords. Let her keep still then.

They kept to the deer and boar path through the pines. It smelled wonderful, like rarest oxygen and dirt, dry and purged of every impurity. It was just simply World and it was so pleasant that it was distracting from their perilous task. At one point even Rory looked over at Jake and, well, he didn’t smile, but he seemed to think about smiling, which was a lot for a man whose face looked more like a carved mask of some island god, the slits of his eyes hard against the sunset.

The grove of ancient cypress that awaited them was thriving side-by-side with the dwarf palmetto and a fairy world of dream-like Spanish moss. The bark of the cypress is red-brown with shallow vertical fissures. Unlike most other species in the family cupressaceae, it is deciduous, hence the name “bald.” The “knees” they send up above the water line add to their elderly charm. But for Rory and Jake, it was just shelter, a place to hide before the long, open, and dangerous ride toward the Palo Duro and then the little tobacco shop in Amarillo, where the Artist waited, whittling and whistling “Danny Boy.”

The cypress swamps are home to marsh wrens, bittern, and red crossbill, and, high in the trees themselves, the barred owl and pileated woodpecker. Also, the ruddy ghost rail is a bird of legend. I linger on this point in order to determine more exactly the real character of trees and the nature of the comfort and aid they offer birds as well as, on that one day, our friends.

Looking up, Jake could see not only the birds but also small gray squirrels (upon which the cypress depends to spread its seeds). Both birds and squirrels were in numerous small wooden boxes obviously derivative of the boxed assemblages of found objects created by the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. The boxes were firmly and safely wedged into the “crotches” of the tree limbs. Jake couldn’t help but marvel at them, never mind that his situation was so dire that he might not live to see the end of the day. Moreover, the full aesthetic impact of the boxes was lost on Jake, a man for whom everything was already surreal. It was the real that shocked him. And I think it was the real that he marveled at in those boxes full of bottle caps, a yellowed ping pong ball, a lexicon for upholstery buttons printed on torn newsprint, things that jays might have brought and stored if Mr. Cornell hadn’t taken care of it first. Come to think of it, the jays might have resented the intrusion into their job description. It is, after all, their job to steal buttons and such and hide them in little cubbyholes in trees. That is well established in both high school textbooks and peasant lore.


One of the little boxes was low enough that Jake could reach in and pull out the contents. He froze in horror. In his hand he held a bullet from a Sharps rifle Model 1851. That was the one with the knife-edge breechblock and self-cocking device for the box-lock. It was also the prized possession of one Alvaro “Chingé” Alvarez, he who the Chispés cartel depended on when death at a distance was called for. 1851 or no, Chingé never missed, and he was notorious for leaving one of his bullets, unmistakable, as an invitation to a death that was foretold and not far off. Jake did a quick pan of the surrounding hills. He palmed the spent cartridge when Rory came over to see what he’d found, although the stoic Rory would not have deigned to show alarm had he seen the shell.

For a moment, Jake thought that maybe they should spend the night there, but, on the other hand, whether they stayed or went Jake feared that it was all one to Chingé. Wherever they went, he was already waiting.

For their part, the squirrels were no happier than the jays about Jake’s meddling with their boxes. He had pulled a miscellany of seeds and nuts out with the bullet. The squirrels eat the many small green cones the bald cypress produces, and drop many of the scales with undamaged seeds to the ground. Germination is epigeal. Once on the ground, the seed takes its place with years of dry, frond-like leaves shed each winter by the deciduous cypress. This provides an ideal environment for germination.

While few people would think to do so, if one looks just beneath this cypress debris (easily swept aside) there is a vast network of drips of liquid color, mostly alkyd enamels, spreading to the forest boundary in a sort of natural “all-over” style strikingly reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s No. Five, 1948, with its black base rising through brown and yellow to a white surface. A flute motif is provided by tubular, elongated, and thread-like filaments called hyphae of the basidiomycete fungae. (Of course, the filaments are a recent innovation by nature, not by Mr. Pollock, and are part of a product line dating back to the Mesozoic, although those beneath Jake’s boots were probably fungal apps released and then abandoned by Natquest.com in the late ‘90s—a very early example of digital pollution.)

Just beneath the colorful abstract expressionist surface—a very thin and sere layer of liquid colors—is the forest’s mechanics, its ductwork, which provides for heating, ventilation, and cooling of the forest floor, and in a manner that both the business community and local environmentalists agree is sustainable. In places where forests have been cleared away, archaeologists have been able to dig carefully through the “Pollock” superstratum and expose nature at her most ingenious. The forest itself may cause a warm feeling of distant admiration in a viewer, but to look upon what makes the forest work, a phenolic system of flexible fabric ducting (also known as “air socks”), is to see something truly rare. It is no wonder that nature is so often called a wonder of engineering. To see this is to understand fully the presence of God in the world. It was God that made the fabric duct available in standard and custom colors.

Finally, beneath the forest mechanics, sinking to profound depths known to German philosophers as das ur-grund, are three broad layers of “stuff” alternating purple/white/red with lovely, elegant, fleeting tracers, as if the “stuff” wanted to escape as well as “found.” (This is the world’s foundation.) Except for the tracers, these layers, seen in a cross-section, are plainly in imitation of Mark Rothko’s 1953 “Untitled: Purple, White, and Red.”


These final layers stretch from the forest to the horizon and beyond at a depth of, oh, let’s round it off at 300 feet. From that point on, the earth is hollow. If you bang on the “Rothko crust,” as it is called, with a frying pan (ideally) or any metal object, really, it’s not important (although a cast iron sautéing pan is deeply satisfying), you will hear a hollow clanging echo from immense depths up to the length of an American football field where lies the center of the Earth, approximately. (Contrary to legend, no, the center of the Earth is not molten but merely very warm, like air circulating from an enormous handheld hair drier.) The Rothko crust is not part of the forest per se, nonetheless the forest is dependent on it. Neither is it part of the soi-disant “drifting” of any continental “plate.” Rather, it is like a droning chord in the bases, the lied von der Erde, so to speak, on which the forest floats languidly, as does the flute in Debussy’s L’Apres-midi d’un faune.

Following his brief meditation on the miracles of the natural world, Jake looked back at his companions and found that the girl had placed Rory in a sleeper hold, or in Judo a Shime-waza (絞技), a grappling hold that critically reduces or prevents either air or blood (stateside, this is called “strangling”) from passing through the neck to the lungs and, in sequence, the brain.

Jake took appropriate measures with her, and they settled in for the night—“Chingé” and his prized Sharps be damned!—there among the trees!

—Curtis White


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).


Aug 012016


Herewith is a passage from Brightfellow in which its main character changes identities. No longer is he known as Stub—a strange and lost figure—but as Charter, a young, Fullbright scholar. The identity of Charter is a lie, of course, but in this brief section, he sees the possibilities and promise of becoming someone new. Asthma is a daughter of one of the other professors who lives on the Circle. She has captured the imagination of Stub/Charter, who believes she is the key to recapturing his lost childhood. —Jason DeYoung


Everything changes. Because Billy, Professor Emeritus, lonely, long in tooth, all angles, all elbows and knees (and he has always been this way, graceful and unwieldy at the same time, his broad shoulders holding it all together), open-faced, of sunny disposition, an optimist, wearing a cotton shirt the color of Dijon mustard, hunts down Charter Chase and finds him.

“There you are!” he says. “I’ve been looking all over. Been prowling the stacks!” He puts out his hand and they shake, like gentlemen. Billy cuts to the chase. “Charter,” he says, “I’ve been wondering about . . . well. About your digs.Are they adequate?”

“Ah . . . well . . .” Charter laughs uncomfortably. “You know what it is like to be a poor student, but—”

“Of course I do!” Billy cries. “Indeed I do! So here’s the thing, son,” and he pats Charter on the shoulder paternally (or so Charter supposes, having never received anything like this from his father). “I live alone, ” Billy continues as they make their way together down the steep library steps and into the full light of day. “The house is far too big. I barely enter the upstairs. There’s an entire living space up there, bedroom, bath, study.” They approach Faculty Circle and he points to one of the several gracious faux-Tudor houses with pitched roofs and screened-in porches. The stucco façade is a pleasant shade of sand, the wooden window frames painted a rich chocolate. “The place is shipshape of course. Nicely kept up by buildings and grounds. But I imagine you are familiar with the Circle.”

Charter is not only familiar with the Circle, but with Billy’s house. It was Billy’s countertop that had once provided him with a cooling pie. Charter nods. Says, “Yes. The Provost had a little get-together for the foreign students a while ago—”

“Of course!” Billy considers his rehearsed delivery. “Uh,” he says. “Here’s the thing. Here you are, a Fulbright scholar far from home living—or so I imagine—in inadequate housing and, well, surely you can see where I am coming from.”

“Sir. I do. I do. I do not dare . . . it’s too kind, far too kind.” Charter runs his fingers through hair he knows is in need of some attention, and which Billy addresses at once.

“Have you, have you . . . been to an American barber?”

“No, sir—”


“No, Billy. Short on funds and as you can see I am personally not too handy in that direction.”

“I’ll take you to town. I know a good man there. Now, the upstairs is nicely done up.” They stand together on the Circle now, looking at his house, which shares a lawn and a lilac hedge with Asthma’s.

“Terrific closets. Full use of the screen porch,” Billy says, “the kitchen. Do you cook?”


“Of course not. You are busy. With Loon! Who could have imagined this! My own days of being busy are over. I’ll cook for the two of us. I am bored cooking for myself. Losing touch! Look at this scar.” He throws a hand into Charter’s face. “Trimming a radish.” He thrusts the tip of a thumb into his mouth and sucks it. “I am, therefore, in all simplicity, no strings attached, proposing a proper dwelling, nicely done up by Margaret, who blessedly is gone to Wisconsin and out of our hair, yours and mine. One of the perks of being a college professor—in case of divorce, the professor cannot give the spouse the house! My campus digs are…on the house! On the house!” He laughs almost to tears, raving as they pace together around the Circle. I’ll get the upstairs tidied up and then, Charter, it’s yours. In the meantime, come for supper. Are you free?” Charter nods. “Six. I’ll show you your digs, get the cleaning lady—she’ll be here later in the week—to give the place a thorough…Do you need help moving?”

“Sir, Billy. You will be amazed by the little I have. My things, such a nuisance, but it’s o.k., really, were lost in transit. The authorities… nothing doing!” (Already Charter was picking up on Billy’s manner of speech.) “Nothing doing! But, hey! I get by! On a shoestring, of course …”

“That’s my boy!” Billy slaps Charter on the back. “Till six!” And off he goes.

Charter has a new good-looking back pack purloined from Hum Hall at the final semester’s end a month earlier: solid canvas duck, color of good tobacco, hand sewn, leather trim and straps—a Brunchhauser! He will pick up a pair of serviceable rubber-soled leather boots, heavy for the season but good for walking the woods, a top-of-the-line sweater, and two handsome striped shirts, all currently in a gym locker. He makes his way to the gym and showers, thinking: This could be good. Despite the risks. The heavy price if discovered. Then, suddenly ecstatic, he roars. That night he writes:

The chapel bells guide my hours. To their chimes (every fifteen minutes!) time unspools, the seasons and their constellations spill across campus like a sea. I set off for Billy’s a few minutes before six and arrived just as the bells chimed:

Doing! Dang! Doing!

Doing! Dang! Doing!

As I walked up the Old Boy’s path holding my head high, I considered the nature of destiny. A garden snake rode the grass beside me, the smell of garlic and tomatoes stimulated every nerve in my body, and a flock of swifts disturbed the quiet blue of the sky: And let fowl fly above the earth in front of the vault of Heaven. (Vanderloon quoting the Bible.)


Billy could not be happier having popped the question (a silly way to put it!). Once, he had popped the question to Margaret (fatal mistake!); this time he has simply offered a few vacant rooms to a young scholar. But loneliness has been leeching the marrow from his bones and as he tends to supper, rinsing greens thoughtfully, stirring spaghetti sauce, exuberance overtakes him. The boy, he is certain, will be an easy, grateful companion. He needs attending to; there’s something unfinished about him; he’s wounded somehow, much too thin, older than his years. Billy will feed him the meals he does best: spaghetti, beef with gravy—solid American middle-class fare—along with some of the great dishes of Normandy he came to love during summers spent abroad. Billy also bakes a pie. (Once, he had baked a perfect rhubarb pie that had volatilized as it cooled on the counter. He liked to say it was a miracle: That pie was so flawless it went to Heaven! But things did have a way of going missing on the Circle. Goldie insisted it was poltergeists.)

Billy sets the table. He grates the Parmesan, sets out a small bowl of red-pepper flakes, and sprinkles a pinch of oregano into the sauce for its final fifteen minutes. Precisely at six Charter arrives and the two sit down to supper, the one facing the other. Looking into a deep white dish brimming with hot noodles and large meatballs sweating juice, Charter is moved nearly to tears.

“Biblical!” he exclaims.

“Why biblical?” Billy wonders.

“It’s ambrosial and…gives off beams of light!”

“You’ve been reading too much Loon,” Billy jokes. “I’ve only served you a dish of spaghetti.” Yet he is pleased. “Curious you say that, though…” He tells his young guest about the vanishing pie. Charter blushes, but briefly. Billy’s innocence in the matter is evident. “Are you religious?”

“No,” Charter tells him. “Although I like to consider just how horny Noah’s toenails were when he hit six hundred.”

“Moses had horns…,” Billy muses and then confides: “I am a private sort. Reclusive you could say. In this way I am much like your friend Vanderloon, although he has taken it to extremes. Perhaps campus life breeds recluses. Well. What I mean to say is you will find it quiet in the house. You will be able to work undisturbed. The Circle could not be more conducive to study. Well…there are the children and they have their games, but still…they really don’t create much disturbance. Let me show you your room!”

What impresses Charter about the house first of all is that there are no photographs, no family pictures on the mantel or sideboard, no dead parents, ancestors, pets. Apparently Billy is not only wifeless, he’s childless. This is comforting. If there had been photos everywhere Charter would have felt like an intruder. But he thinks instead that he can do well here. He will enter into a serious study of Vanderloon’s ideas, not just collect them as one collects curiosities. Not just wander in the books aimlessly.

The house is spare; apparently Margaret had brought along a great deal of family furniture that left the house when she did. Billy has gone for a certain modernist minimalism, uncommon on the Circle. The few pieces he has acquired are angular, blond, the lamps as disquieting as space aliens. On the walls are a few framed museum posters, someone named Rothko who Charter thinks must have been a house painter, and a Dalí that causes him so much anxiety he will stay clear of it during his tenure in the house. An inscrutable Boz Heiffer.

Together they climb the stairs and reach a hallway lit by a clearstory: the light! Billy leads him to a large room furnished with a desk and chair, a reading chair, and a number of those peculiar lamps, each one pointing at them accusingly. “Ah!” Billy laughs. “The cleaning lady, I don’t know why…” He redirects them into a more serviceable angle.

Above the desk is a large window. Stub’s heart leaps; his ears are ringing; he feels like singing: the room has an unobstructed view of Asthma’s own.

—Rikki Ducornet

This excerpt is reprinted by permission from Brightfellow (Coffee House Press, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Rikki Ducornet.



Rikki Ducornet is the author of eight novels as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a two-time honoree of the Lannan Foundation, and is the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. Widely published abroad, Ducornet is also a painter who exhibits internationally. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.


Jul 122016



The following excerpt opens as the narrator and his sister arrive on the Gaspé Peninsula. Eric’s father and step-mother, otherwise known as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, are expecting a child together and have decided to uproot the family from Rivière-du-Loup, mobile home and all, to relocate 300 kilometres to the east. The move to the town of Matane will effectively put an abrupt end to the children’s weekly visits with their beloved mother whom they refer to as either Catherine of Aragon or “Micheline Raymond, professional cook.” The year is 1977 and separatist sentiments are rising in Québéc. The king and queen are staunch Sovereigntists and want to solidify their influence by introducing a series of rules to define the protocols of “court life” in their new setting.

Life in the Court of Matane was originally published in 2008 in French as Bestiaire. The English translation is by Peter McCambridge.

—Joseph Schreiber


EVEN TODAY, every time I drive along Route 132 east of Rivière-du-Loup, I fall into a kind of trance. Something about it upsets me. Despite the picture-postcard scenery, despite the lovely people and the smell of the sea, something presses down on my lungs, reminding me that I’m moving away from where I belong. I watch in the rear-view mirror as Rivière-du-Loup slowly recedes into the distance. It’s usually at times like this that I feel my little earthquakes.

At Sainte-Flavie, they told us we had arrived in Gaspésie. The invisible line separating the Lower Saint Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula is much more than an arbitrary border drawn up by geographers with nothing better to do. People live quite differently to the east and west of the dividing line: The people of the Lower Saint Lawrence expect things will pick up, while those on the Gaspé Peninsula know they’ll only get worse. Both sides are sometimes disappointed. When Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn told us with a smile that we had just entered the Gaspé Peninsula and the north shore of the St. Lawrence was nothing more than a thin strip of blue land, I became a Gaspé man once and for all.

At the end of that day, I stood before Matane like Attila before Rome. Looking toward the town, I wished it would just disappear. When I awoke after my first night there, I waited in vain for the TV people to come pack up the miserable set. Truth be told, the main problem with Matane was that it wasn’t Rivière-du-Loup. Ironically enough, my father seemed to like Matane for the very same reason. And yet of all Quebecers, the good people of Matane are probably among the friendliest of the lot. Their cheeks have turned rosy from the wind that blows over the town three hundred and sixty-two days of the year. There, the supports below our trailer drew back, and on a cliff overlooking the sea the house fell down in a puff of smoke. We didn’t stay there very long. A year or two, I think. I was seven when we moved to Matane. I had already had six addresses. In the decade I was to spend in my new town, I would have six others. Henry VIII wasn’t the type to sit still. In Matane the rules of censorship were repeated even more firmly than the first time. We were given a helpful list of ins and outs:

In:………..Quebec (and all its symbols)
…………….Anne Boleyn
…………….Jacques Brel
…………….Cod in all its forms

Out:………Canada (and all its symbols)
…………….Catherine of Aragon
…………….Elvis Presley
…………….Drives in the Renault 5

They couldn’t have been clearer with us. In the same tone used to shout “Die, you pig, I’m gonna come spit on your grave!” the new rules of memory were presented to us. Over the years, a series of inexorable royal edicts were added. Edict 101: It is strictly forbidden to pronounce the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Edict 102: The eating of Cadbury products is forbidden. Edict 103: The telephone is not a toy. It is strictly prohibited to call anyone without permission. All conversations shall be supervised by the queen. Get used to it. Edict 104: The word of the Lord is outlawed in the royal court. The king and queen shall hear no talk of catechisms, nuns, the new or old testaments, or resurrection. The dead shall not rise again. Edict 105: It is forbidden to make any allusions to the past in front of the soon-to-be-born little brother. He will have to work out how we got here by himself. Edict 106: You shall lend your unfailing support to the sovereignty movement, on pain of being disowned. The fleur-de-lys is your emblem, and Quebec is your country. Edict 107: This home is no place for halfwits. It is therefore forbidden to watch television for more than one hour per day. All programs must be approved by the queen. All TVA programs are outlawed. Since we will have no truck with cable, you shall have to make do with Radio-Québec and Radio-Canada. You will thank us later. Edict 108: You shall do the dishes thrice daily, after each meal. Even when visiting. The queen shall inspect the plates. Edict 109: Saturdays are devoted to cleaning. The girl shall scour the palace bathrooms, and the boy shall ensure the floors are spotless. Everyone shall do his or her bit in the kingdom of Anne Boleyn. And even then, the queen shall not let you out of her sight as you go about your work. Edict 110: You shall respect and obey your queen, whom you shall address by her first name. The queen’s jurisdiction extends to justice, stewardship of the palace, financial management, culture, and telecommunications. You no longer have a mother. The king shall from time to time take it upon himself to remind you where you come from. For all questions about the matter, see Edict 101.

Oppression breeds revolution. The crushers will be crushed. Or at least that’s what we like to believe. Anne Boleyn was a boycotter. Her strategy was a means of survival. She forbade. Castrated. First came the boycott of our mother. There then followed a series of lesser bans that made everyday life tough. One of them involved Cadbury, the chocolate makers. In 1976, after the Parti québécois had been elected in Quebec, a number of English companies had seized the occasion to move their head offices to Toronto, preferring the comfort of boredom to the tribulations of Quebec politics. Outraged separatists launched a boycott of Cadbury (and Sun Life Insurance, among others). Chanting “Let’s bar Cadbury” as their slogan, they waged war against the English manufacturer of the sweet candy. Their movement would have left me completely indifferent at the age of seven had Anne Boleyn and the king not decided to buy into it. It was thereafter forbidden to purchase or consume any Cadbury products in the presence of the king or Anne Boleyn. The same glacial tones reserved for my mother were used to proclaim the banning of Cadbury.

There was just one problem: Cadbury was—and still is—the maker of the Caramilk bar, a chocolate bar with a soft caramel centre that at the time was high on my list of favourite things to eat. My mother would pass them to me in her Renault 5 as I sang Gérard Lenorman to her. “Caramilk” had become a hammer word. Whenever I managed to scrape together thirty cents, I would slip off to a store where no one knew me to buy a Caramilk. I had to bike for kilometres to make sure word didn’t get out. Anything not to get caught. Once we were in the depths of the countryside, beyond the village of Saint-Ulric near Matane, I settled on an old general store run by two senile biddies. It belonged to a different era, an old-fashioned general store that smelled of before the war. In the deserted store, you had to wait for one of the old witches to limp her way out of the storeroom. Children in the village used to say that they had both been dead for years and we were being served by ghosts. Their memory was so shaky that I could walk into the store four times in the same day without them remembering a thing about my earlier visits. Alzheimer’s guaranteed my anonymity. Even under the harshest interrogation, at best they would have been able to confirm I had been to the store. They would never have been able to betray the nature of my purchases.

The first time I did it, I remember I was wracked by guilt and high on the sweet smell of dissidence. I stood before one of the two old crones and asked for a Caramilk bar. A few seconds went by in silence. A clock struck three. Slowly, she asked me to repeat my order, tapping away at a small device lodged in her ear. “A Caramilk! I want a Caramilk!” I repeated, pointing at the coveted candy. She turned around. I heard her bones protest. Three short steps toward a counter in disarray. From there, she looked at me to make sure she had understood, pointing to a bottle of bleach. Patience was paramount. My finger tried to guide her shaking hand toward the Caramilk. Sometimes, she would break off to ask me if I was Armand’s son, a man who had probably been dead and buried for over seventy years. Then, a glimmer of reason flashed across her eyes, and her hand at last grasped the Caramilk. Her memory had also forgotten inflation. Thinking she was still in 1970, she asked me for twenty cents. Not that I was going to contradict her. I fled so that she wouldn’t have to denounce me if ever the king raided the store. Then I went to the beach, the place of all outlawed activities, where Anne Boleyn never set foot because it was too windy. Hiding behind a rock, I devoured my Caramilk while looking out to sea. I had to be careful not to leave the orange and brown wrapper at the bottom of my pocket. It would have been giving myself away too cheaply. I dug a hole half a metre wide and buried it there. Today I sometimes still buy a Caramilk, eat it in secret, and burn the wrapper to destroy the evidence. I am the only Montrealer for whom eating a Caramilk is a subversive, revolutionary act.

Back home, some first-rate lying covered my tracks. Always have an alibi. In the court of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, the sovereignty-association debate had plumbed the depths of the most commonplace candies. Some of their most memorable mini-boycotts included religious education, the TVA television network, my sister wearing makeup, anything made by non-unionized workers, and visits to relatives Anne Boleyn didn’t like. Boycotts invariably lead to other boycotts, until everybody ends up boycotting everything. After boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, the tables were turned on the Americans when the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984. What goes up must come down, apart from Cadbury, that is. Since 1976, the company has more than doubled in size, in spite of the separatist boycott. It just goes to show that sugar always wins in the end.

— Eric Dupont, Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

Reproduced with permission from QC Fiction, a new imprint featuring the very best of a new generation of Quebec storytellers. qcfiction.com



Born in 1970, Eric Dupont lives and works in Montreal. He has published 4 novels with Marchand de feuilles and in France with Éditions du Toucan and Éditions J’ai lu (Flammarion). He is a past winner of Radio-Canada’s “Combat des livres” (the equivalent of the CBC’s Canada Reads contest), a finalist for the Prix littéraire France-Québec and the Prix des cinq continents, and a winner of the Prix des libraires and the Prix littéraire des collégiens. His fourth novel, La fiancée américaine, has sold over 60,000 copies in Quebec alone.



Originally from Ireland, Peter McCambridge holds a BA in modern languages from Cambridge University, England, and has lived in Quebec City since 2003. He runs Québec Reads and now QC Fiction. Life in the Court of Matane was the first novel he chose for this collection and the book that made him want to become a literary translator in the first place. His translation of the first chapter won the 2012 John Dryden Translation Prize.


Jul 102016

John Gould 2016


First Kiss

To get to the cemetery you had to come along our street, under the dark archway of chestnuts and maples. It must have been enchanting for the mourners, or depressing, or something. And then the thonk of plums as we pelted the procession.

Our theory was that people would be too grief-stricken to come after us, or too worried about their good clothes. This is when we were twelve or so, too old for such idiocy, but anyway. We’d load an apple basket with plums fallen from the Barfoots’ tree, and we’d duck down behind the foundation wall in the abandoned lot next to Shithead’s house a few blocks down from mine. There’d be Shithead, and Dunk, and Kev maybe, and me. Somebody would yell “Fire!” and we’d fire. The plums were soft and slippery, half rotten half of them, so you couldn’t really pitch them, more like catapult them, cupping them in your palm. Most of them would miss, but not all of them.

Just one time the procession stopped. I don’t know how many funerals we bombed that year, it seemed like a lot but it was probably only a half dozen or so. Mostly the vehicles would just keep going, crawling along like a battalion of tanks in a movie. The hearse (you got double points if you hit that, though we never actually kept score), then a limo or two, and then a bunch of just normal cars, a line of variable length depending on how much the person had been loved, I suppose, or by how many people.

But this time the limo stopped, the one behind the hearse. The hearse kept going—maybe he didn’t check his mirror, or maybe he didn’t feel right stopping with a dead body in back. But the limo stopped, and the whole procession behind it. Out of the limo crawled this guy. Like my father, that sort of age, but smaller and more angular, and of course dressed head to foot in black. He looked over our way—we’d neglected to duck back down, too surprised I guess. And he came charging.

We had a plan, which was to split up. That was our whole plan. I don’t know where the others went, but I took off for home, down the back lane. When it occurred to me how stupid that was, I cut through a couple of yards over towards the school. The mourner had singled me out, the biggest and fattest of this gang of fat little pricks, and he was coming hard, I could hear him. At one point the nerve just went out of me. The mourner found me sitting in a patch of leafy greens in somebody’s garden, crying like a five-year-old.

And what he did was he comforted me. He told me he’d been young once too, young and senseless. He was still huffing from the run, and he patted my arm and told me to go ahead and cry, that there was no shortage of things to cry about in this world. He asked me if I minded if he had a little cry too, and he had one, a few dry-eyed sobs which turned into a  laugh. “Is that really the way I weep?” he said, and he wept some more and laughed some more. He had a beard, which he gripped as though to keep his face from slipping off.

By this time my fear had deepened to the kind you don’t cry about. I sat still while he told me about somebody named Neil, a friend from his childhood. It may have been Neil’s body in the hearse, but I’ve never been sure of that. What I do know is that Neil had a major overbite as a boy, and that he was crazy about birds. He could identify a bird from a silhouette in flight, or from a snippet of song. Warbler, thrush, you name it.

After a while the mourner sort of came to himself, remembering about his funeral, I suppose. “Yep, that Neil,” he said, shaking his head. Then he gave me another pat, stood up and trotted away.

It was dinner time, but I took the long route home, past the park. There was a girl named Yasmin, an almost-cute girl from my grade, just saying goodbye to some friends at the baseball diamond. “Wanna walk?” she said, and she came up beside me. We only half knew each other and hadn’t much to talk about. Mostly she kept staring at me, and finally she said, “Have you been crying?”

I wiped my face and said that somebody had died.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry about that. Who died?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

Yasmin laughed. I remember her laugh sounded like some people’s bawling. I stepped in front of her and turned and kissed her on the mouth, which I’d never done to anybody before. Yasmin kissed me back, or at least she didn’t pull away. She and her friends must have had cigarettes, because she tasted like my mother’s breath after she’d been out on the porch by herself. I put my hand on her cheek, Yasmin’s cheek, a hand still sticky and sweet with rotten plum.

My wife, Gina, doesn’t buy it. She simply won’t believe that what happened that day is at the root of what she calls my “problem.” Why call it a “problem” in the first place, if it isn’t actually a problem? That’s what I keep asking her. And she keeps laughing, which I love (Gina laughs like a cat after a bird it can’t quite reach). All that matters is that I want her, and that I’ll never stop. I’ll never stop.


Word of Mouth

Stan’s first career was inspired by the swoop of a heron past the window of the family cottage when he was a kid. Fish were floating to the surface of Sahahikan Lake that year, and talk was that soon birds and other predators too would be succumbing to the chemicals that had been allowed to seep into a feeder stream. Stan was already disturbed by this thought, and by the fact that he and his brother had been barred from the lake, but it was the thrill of the heron’s heavy flight that truly got to him, the notion that something so alive could soon be dead, and dead because of people. Ten years later he emerged from school with a degree in marine biology. Thirty years after that he cleared out his desk at Rant Cow Hive.

Fired, laid off, whatever—the agency (actually Envirowatch, but Stan and his colleagues diverted themselves creating various anagrams) was being eviscerated, middle-aged, mid-rank characters such as himself being set unceremoniously free. A trauma, not because Stan loved the job (he resented it, the long slow failure it made of his life), but because he’d just ended his marriage, and vacated his house, and was running short on things of which to be dispossessed.

Stan’s second career was inspired by Mr. Neziri, the man across the hall from his mother at the hospital, where Stan spent more and more time in the aftermath of his sacking. Mr. Neziri and Stan’s mother were both doomed, but they were going about their deaths in radically different ways. Stan’s mother, for instance, was deaf and almost mute. Save the odd noisy non sequitur (“Won’t you stay for dinner?!?” when she was being fed through a nose tube), she held her peace about her predicament. Mr. Neziri, on the other hand… What was that sound he made? A sob, a moan? A sob-moan, a yowl-howl, a wail-whimper. It was nothing, there was no word. Actually, there was what sounded like a word once, out in the middle of one interminable jag, but in a language unknown to Stan. And then back to the meaningless caterwaul once more.

Meaningless, that was the key. To mark death you had to make a sound that carried no meaning at all, that was in fact a constant obliteration of meaning. Mr. Neziri was mourning himself, articulating his oblivion before it arrived. But what of those, such as Stan’s own mum, who couldn’t muster the strength or the vision for this task? Who would cry out for them? Didn’t there used to be professional mourners? Why shouldn’t there be once more?

Stan’s old boss Bernie (who’d also been axed) had been sending Stan links to articles called things like “Second Time Around” and “Age as an Asset” and “Repurposing the Middle-Aged Man.” What you didn’t have anymore was youthful energy and enthusiasm. What made up for that was wisdom, worldliness. Your first career had been about duty. Your new one would be about love. You were done with obligation, time to follow your bliss.

Love? Bliss? Demand, there was plenty of that. Stan was one of about a billion people soon to be robbed of somebody. His fellow boomers alone, with all their ailing parents…

He began his rehearsals at “home,” the not-quite-wretched bachelor suite out of which he kept on not moving. He’d knock back a half-mickey of vodka (a poor man’s peyote, is how he thought of it, opening him to shamanic energies), bring the lights down to a funereal gloom and get started.

The idea was to have no idea. Stan’s sound needed to be free of all influence and intent, each act of mourning incomprehensible in its own unique way. He’d made the mistake of starting with online research and now needed to erase the memory of other wailers (the Yaminawa of Peru, the Nar-wij-jerook of Australia), along, of course, with the memory of every other human utterance he’d ever heard. To be meaningless, a cry needed to be innocent of all allusion and all shape. Free jazz but freer, no key, no time signature, no consistency of tone, tempo, timbre. Stan had a decent voice (he’d rated a solo on “Softly and Tenderly” with the boys’ choir back at St. Joe’s), which was both a blessing and a curse. What he was singing now was scat but more so, a series of sounds denuded of history and prospects, a pure racket. At every moment he needed to be saying nothing.

There was a dry spell, sure. Stan ran a few ads (“When it’s forever, you want the best!”), but he knew it was personal contact that usually got you your start. And so it was. A first nibble came from his brother, who wrote to say that he’d be staying on with his firm in Fukuoka for another year because of a death one rung up the ladder. Stan replied with an update on his new career, hinting that he’d be open to a contract abroad, to which his brother came back with, “You need help, man. Seriously, I love you, but you need help.” Promising. Any significant insight was bound to be met at first with dismay. How had people responded when they first learned the fate of the natural world?

And then the breakthrough. When the police showed up a third time in response to complaints from neighbors (whose wall-pounding served as accompaniment many nights), Stan got chatting with one constable while the other wrote up his warning. An almost frighteningly empathetic individual, this guy turned out to have a sick sister (Cushy disease, could that be right?) who was busy planning her own gala funeral. “A professional mourner,” he mused. “Hey, she might just go for that!”

The audition took place in the sister’s hospital room. On another ward, in another part of the city, Stan’s mother and Mr. Neziri were still at it. Stan had two months of daily practice under his belt by this time and was beginning to feel some confidence. Indeed, the audition went well. One little phrase from “Smoke on the Water” snuck in, but his bellowing was otherwise bereft of sense, of any discernible pattern or meaning. The siblings were perfectly devastated, as were the mourners at the sister’s funeral a month or so later.

From there, things just sort of took off.


Your Wellness This Week

Dear Doctor Barry,

My wife went through a bad time last year. She had a cancer scare, and instead of being relieved when that was over, she got anxious and depressed. At my urging she saw a psychiatrist, who tried her on a few different medications. She’s now on something new called Liberté, and for the most part it seems to be working. I’ve got my wife back!

I do have concerns, though. My wife has never been phobic, but she’s suddenly developed a fear of branches (that’s right, tree branches) and of the colour turquoise. I’m pretty sure she’s got other phobias too (is it possible she’s afraid of my chin?), but we haven’t been able to nail them down for sure. Part of the problem is that she doesn’t seem to care about them, or about much else either. She’s cheerful, but I guess the word is blasé.

Could the new drug be responsible for what’s going on? Help!?!



Dear R.S.,

Though Liberté is proving effective as a treatment for general anxiety, it was originally developed to combat thanatophobia, defined as a morbid or persistent fear of death. The health scare that preceded your wife’s depression likely caused her doctor to zero in on that issue.

The main component of Liberté is a derivative of toxoplasma, which you may recognize as the parasite associated with cats that can be harmful to immune-compromised individuals and unborn children. (Pregnant ladies, stay away from that litter box!) Researchers discovered that mice infected with toxoplasma lost their fear of cats. Extracted and modified, the same agent turns out to be well-tolerated by humans.

Clinical studies showed that this agent suppressed the human fear not just of predators but of death in general, and thus reduced anxiety. Some unfortunate side effects emerged, however, in particular lassitude and even ennui. Having lost their fear of death, people seemed to lose their zest for life. As one subject expressed it, “Without a fear of death, our stories have lost their sense of an ending. We’re left with a beginning and then a great big pointless middle.”

To combat this troublesome impact, BoothTiborMcGuane decided to add a psychostimulant to their version of the drug. The product known as Liberté includes a small dose of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine salts, the sort of combination found in ADHD medications. This stimulant has probably helped maintain your wife’s energy and initiative to some degree, but has perhaps contributed to secondary anxieties. Why her anxiety has manifested in these particular forms may remain a mystery. Incidentally, the fear of chins is termed geniophobia and is more common than you might think.

It’s a matter of trade-offs. Are these new fears preferable to the overarching fear from which she suffered before? That’s something she should discuss with her psychiatrist. In the meantime, you can of course support her by acknowledging the reality of her fears, even when they seem ludicrous to you, and by reassuring her that a certain level of apathy is natural for someone on this medication. You can also remind her that even though she doesn’t fear death anymore, she’s still going to die. Exercise is important too, and an active social life, areas in which you can certainly encourage her.

Dr. B.

—John Gould

John Gould 2016

John Gould is the author of a novel, Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good, and of two collections of very short stories, including Kilter, a finalist for the Giller prize. The stories appearing here on NC are from the manuscript of a third such collection. Gould has worked as an environmental researcher, tree planter, carpenter, and arts administrator. He served for years on the editorial board of the Malahat Review and teaches writing at the University of Victoria.



Jul 062016

Lance Olsen


Excerpt from his novel-in-progress, My Red Heaven, a kind of love song for the Berlin of 1927, when everything seemed possible except the future that happened.

The Doberman’s name is Delia. Delia won’t see the end of this day. She doesn’t know that. What she knows is she’s on the longest, most glorious walk of her life. There is no time but this time, no place but this place. She can scarcely endure all the smells and sounds and touches and tastes inside her. She is with her masters and they have given her these radiant gifts and it is impossible to conceive of a way to thank them enough.

She doesn’t understand the woman’s name behind her is Elise Lemme. She doesn’t understand the man’s name is Otto Hampel. Otto and Elise woke Delia improbably early this morning, asking her if she wanted to go out. Delia always wants to go out. That is her only knowledge. The flat she lives in is too small, the air in it too used up, hope nowhere to be found except on the other side of the front door.

The whole of Delia’s day, the whole of Delia’s life, is an almost unendurable waiting for two questions: Do you want to go out, girl? Is that what you want?

She bounds out of her dream (in which she is bounding for birds on the grassy shores of the Schlachtensee) and, barking rapturously, bounds from her masters’ bed into her food bowl waiting for her beside the stove. She wolfs it down, feels the choker collar going on, the leash clicking into place. Somewhere behind her she senses the nub of her tail, over which she is continuously bewildered she possesses no will, furiously aspiring to wag.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

Delia has no room for any other idea in her head.

Elise is making several short loudnesses in the direction of Otto. Delia can’t understand what they mean. Delia doesn’t care. All she cares about is this flawless motion she is inhabiting. All she cares about is the prosperity of aromas and music through which she advances. How can one being celebrate them all? Morning soil. Clang gods. Urine echoes. Flower breaths. Honk frights. The indescribably compelling shits of other dogs — some shoe polishers no taller than Delia’s hocks, some small-bear huge and hairy, some agile, some nervous, some crippled, some cocky, some bereft, some almost as elated as Delia herself.

Delia savors an instant’s elementary pleasure knowing she could kill them all.

Elise says to Otto, smoke bulging from her mouth up into the acute morning nip: I feel like an idiot.

It’s not going to rain today, Otto replies.

He considers the enlivening sky through the branches, adds: It should rain on a day like today.

Maybe we should give it more thought, Elise says.

She is twenty-three, barely finished grammar school before dropping away from ruler smacks and painful benches to become a domestic servant, and now her hands look forty-five, puffy, reddish, big-knuckled. Otto is twenty-seven, large-eared, thin-lipped, meager-chinned. He fell into factory work after the war and cherishes Elise’s hands intensely because they tell him the same story every time he looks at them: I know what life feels like. I know how to pilot this place.

Maybe we haven’t done the math right, Elise says.

But she already knows there’s no math left to do. All the numbers are all the numbers. If there were more numbers to do, they would do them.

Otto opens his mouth to respond but Elise’s frown stills him in mid-optimism. Wordless, they finish the cigarette they’re sharing. Otto kneels, calls Delia over, clicks off her leash. The Doberman wavers, wavers, looking up at him for guidance. Otto pulls a fist-sized dirty white ball out of the pocket of his double-breasted coat and chucks it far down the path between the lindens.

Delia explodes after it, passing a funny-eyed old woman with long gray hair dragging her large leather purse behind her on the sand like a comatose poodle.

Otto lights another cigarette, sucks the smoke deep into the abundant branches of his lungs, passes it to Elise, trying to let the burn in his chest overrun him. Near the end of the path Delia scoops the ball up, brakes two meters farther on, spins, and, imagining the skull of a small animal between her jaws — a squirrel, a baby — bursts back toward them, an ecstatic black visual slur.

Sentence fragments orbit around Otto’s head. He decides not to speak any of them. Instead he kneels, calls Delia over, clicks her leash back on. Elise bends and fluffles the dog’s neck and face and ears.

And now Delia is here.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

And now, slobbery dirty white ball in her mouth, she is trotting somewhere else. She can’t wait to find out where. She pushes forward into sunlight, proud, whirring with joy, oblivious that at the end of this walk she will meet a long line of puzzled fellow dogs. Delia will wait alertly with them, fragrances and loudnesses boisterous around her, utterly confident her masters have the situation in hand, and at the end of that line a sour-smelling man in a white lab coat will unceremoniously yank her choker tight as if she had just misbehaved (although she will be sure she hasn’t) and usher her into an airtight metal box with three young baffled yipping dogs whom Delia has never met (at which point her tail stub will decide to stop wagging), slam down the door, and flip on the gas valve.

For just under a minute Delia will remember bounding at those birds in her dream, feeling as if she is just at the gray edge of waking up again, and then she will be over.


By the time the sour-smelling man in the white lab coat opens the door, Otto and Elise will be gone, already several blocks away on their way home to their cramped flat in gritty Wedding, wordless, just two other dog owners among thousands who couldn’t pay Berlin’s raised canine tax.

They will miss Delia desperately for months, alternating between unconditional numbness and so much anxiety they will feel everything in the world will implode in ten seconds. They will relive that last betrayal, that line of rattled dogs, that metal box, that look in Delia’s eyes as the vet bent toward her over and over again in the middle of the night, sometimes together, sometimes alone, and then — wondrously — less and less, because, they will learn, that’s how damage intuitively diminishes itself in the human body.

Eight years, and they will wake up married.

Five more, and Elise will open her front door to be handed a curt telegram informing her that her brother has been killed in action somewhere in France fighting for something she can no longer fathom.

In the thirty seconds it will take her to read and reread that telegram, everything will convert into something else.

Perhaps as a way to honor her brother, her dog, honor all the feelings Elise and Otto almost forgot they were once capable of experiencing, the couple will begin writing hundreds of postcards in clumsy script and bad grammar that urge their recipients to refrain from donating money to their government, refuse military service, resist the thing their country has become.

Elise and Otto will leave those postcards in apartment stairwells and on park benches, in mailboxes and beneath neighbors’ doors.

Almost every one of them will be picked up by strangers and immediately handed over to the Gestapo. The sheer number will lead the Gestapo to conclude they are dealing with a large, well-orchestrated, wide-ranging conspiracy.

It will take nearly eighteen months for them to realize they were wrong.

Seventeen years after he throws Delia’s dirty white ball down that path for the last time, a weighted and angled guillotine blade in a backyard work shed at Plötzensee Prison will drop through Otto’s neck.

The blade will be reset and three minutes later drop through Elise’s.

Both Hampels will be strapped onto their backs so they can see their futures flying toward them.

What will be unusual about their executions is that nothing will be unusual about their executions. Otto’s and Elise’s punishments will constitute two among the nearly three thousand carried out in that work shed. Like all relatives of the beheaded and hanged in Plötzensee, theirs will be obliged to pay a fee of 1.50 reichsmarks for every day their family members spent in their cells, three hundred for the execution itself, and twelve pfennigs to cover postage for the invoice of expenses.

Like all bodies of the executed at Plötzensee, the Otto’s and Elise’s will be released to Herr Professor Doctor Hermann Stieve, physician at the University of Berlin, who with his students will dissect them for research purposes. The results over the years will generate two hundred and thirty important academic papers, including one providing irrefutable evidence that the rhythm method is not effective in preventing pregnancy.


Now, though, none of that is happening.

It is just Otto and Elise strolling along a sandy path between two rows of trees on a bluing day. Just Delia trotting proudly in front of them, leading the way toward that envelope containing the invoice of expenses.

A black shadow scrambles across their feet and flickers out.

Elise thinks cloud.

She reflexively raises her head to spot in the apartment house across the street two white faces hovering in two otherwise black windows, one directly above the other, peering down at her without expression.

—Lance Olsen


Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing. His next is the novel Dreamlives of Debris, forthcoming from Dzanc in the spring of 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.