Oct 012015


To accompany our interview with author Noy Holland, we’re pleased to feature a brief excerpt from her novel, Bird, which comes out in November 2015. This section takes place very early in the narrative, and contains the first conversation between Bird, Holland’s protagonist, and Suzie, Bird’s best friend who exists throughout the novel as a voice on the telephone. 

— Benjamin Woodard




The phone rings in the dark. Word finds its way along—no matter how far out you live, no matter what you say.

For years now, Bird has said it, for all the years since she has seen Mickey, all the things she has thought to say. “I wish you’d stop,” Bird says.

But this is Suzie. Newsy Suzie. Her voice high and bright, “It’s me.”

“Me too,” Bird says. “I was sleeping. You have no fucking clue.”

What Suzie has is the next word on Mickey. She has a new name to give Bird. She has had the names down the years, a trade sometimes. Beatrice. Once a dancer, Brigitte, a girl who painted. Rosemarie. Country girls, exotics. Clara, Angelina, Racine.

“That’s enough,” Bird tells her.

“Oh it isn’t. I keep you posted. Early girl news. He moved.”

Moved, moved again. He thought to marry. He’d marry another, think of that, just as Bird had.

“He’ll never marry,” Suzie says, “he’s like me. She would have to swear to die in three months’ time of an incommunicable disease. I don’t care who—Racquel, Ruby Lou, Victorine. He’s like me.”

Suzie lives among the samplings. The saplings, and the fathery men. Men and boys and girls. Ship to shore; hand to mouth; bed to bed. Not for her: the leaky tit, the pilly slipper. The dread of the phone that rings in the dark: It’s your turn next to suffer.

“You hear nothing,” Suzie claims, “you can’t stand to, not a whiff of the world, a radio show. You cringe at the least of the news.”

Which is true. And the rest of what Suzie says? This much is true, too—that the feeling is forever gone from Bird, god willing: of disappearing, of ever again being alone. Lonely doll. “Remember,” Suzie insists, “the sentence you get to finish? The dream you’re not wrangled from?”

The next first kiss to fall into.

“The old looseness, come on, you must miss it. You miss it. Your brain makes a drug to subdue you is all. Look, I see it. Suzie sees it. Those babies are everywhere at you, needing anything they find. Your every living tissue, sugar, is pressed into service—gone.”

Bird makes her slow laps as she listens—kitchen, wood- stove, dripping milk, her shirtfront sopped, stewed in sour juices. She holds the phone out away from her ear: Suzie’s on a tear. It’s a club, Suzie claims, and she’s not in it, thanks. No, no thank you, honest, she’s not signing up to stew. Talky, stewy mother-club, virtuous, how little sleep and still she— look at her!—still she’s cheerful. Seems to be, look at her, cheerful. Or maybe she’s just smug, Suzie says. Clubby, you know, needed, every last speck of the day. Mama near. Little wife. A little respite comes, a little breath: nobody needs her! But she can’t quite believe it, or let herself step outside.

“When’s the last you stepped outside?” Suzie asks.

Or: “When’d you last look at your backside? That’s the flapping you feel when you walk, sugar. You need to walk, sugar. You need to move.”


He moved to France. Moved to pecan country.

Wise boy, getting out, flee the season. Winter coming on.

Oh I could help, Bird thinks, at least she thought it then. Pecan country. Pecans, best little nut. She could toss her smelly boots out, toss her stinking hat. Lie among the trees, among the shadows. She would like that. Watch the tough nuts fall.

She thinks of a boy in Kansas hung up on a swing, cripple boy, a boy they saw once, a little rope swing, a log on a rope, among the shadows. Among the signs. She and Mickey drove a Drive Away out, setting out from Brooklyn, dark, when the stars lined up how they sometimes do and anything you look at, everything’s a sign. SLEEP SLEEP SLEEP, the sign says. It says, Move while you still can.

The dog was dead, the ragtop towed. The up-neigh-bors tub had fallen through. A rat sprung a trap and came at them, hissing, its haunches caught, dragging the thing down the hall. Glory days. Dirty dark-bar days. A mouse ran up Bird’s sleeve and nipped her.

Her mother came to her in dreams. She was dead but in dreams, she lived.

I smell fire, she said, your toilet froze. I made you my nice kitten soup.

Her mother set a bowl down before Bird. The kittens simmered there, plump, unfurred—her mother always plucked them first, their bodies small as peas.

Her mother sang: the tune of the plastic shopping bag the wind had hung from a tree. Old winter wind. Old mother dead. Mickey slept and slept. Bird carried his child, tiny yet; they called it Caroline, little Caroline, which had been her mother’s name.

— Noy Holland

Copyright © 2015 by Noy Holland from Bird. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.


Noy Holland is the author of three story collections, Swim for the Little One FirstWhat Begins with Bird, and The Spectacle of the Body. Recipient of fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, she teaches writing in the graduate program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


Sep 122015

Jeff Bursey


SWAYING AND STAGGERING against their companions, the commuters grimly pretended that each was the sole occupant of the subway as it careened over the Northern Line tracks taking hairpin turns without slowing, scraping its sides continually and leaving small fires in its wake, fires which died after briefly lighting up the darkness of the long tunnels beneath London. While even in this miserable winter the occasional tourist’s face could be seen, at this hour the tube was crowded with workers heading home. There were labourers too, sweaty and grime-faced, adding to the stink of the close atmosphere produced by the unwashed and uncared for bodies of most of the train’s inhabitants. Bill regarded them all with disgust from his corner near the doors while waiting to arrive at King’s Cross where he could extricate himself from this sulphureous mass. He hated subways at this hour, and the only thing that took his mind off the stench while being crushed against structural pipes or the Plexiglas was to survey his fellow passengers.

In the midst of a stop a familiar couple got on, a man of about forty, neither worker nor executive. Somebody with money by his clothes, and his wife, who was wrapped in a warm coat that reached to her ankles. In her hand as always she held the white cane that at another time of day might have elicited sympathy but on this train simply reduced her to an easy mark for pickpockets. Bill had seen pickpockets nosing their way around her before, but her husband commonly got in their way. He may see her robbed yet, because her husband didn’t always pay as close attention to her as he could have.

Seeing the woman, whose husband he’d heard addressing as Edna, he tried to imagine what it was like to be blind, to be led around or always tapping a stick wherever you went. Wouldn’t be so bad not to see these faces every day, mine too. Only last week on a less crowded train he’d been reading a magazine when he overheard two black girls talking as they moved to stand in the middle of the car holding on to the suspended handles. One of them said, in not so quiet a voice as she may have wanted, “Let’s not stand next to him, he’s ugly.” He had looked over the top of his magazine to see her, his features as unperturbed as if she hadn’t spoken at all. The girl was looking at him, perhaps aware of the loudness of her voice, but as Bill didn’t show he had heard, her face wanting to broaden with a smile at what she’d gotten away with, she turned and laughed, relieved, with her friend. Inside he simmered with rage that a complete stranger should think he was ugly and say so out loud where everyone heard her. It wasn’t that he thought himself handsome. He figured he looked as appealing as anybody who had just spent eight hours in a warehouse. His clothes were stained with dirt, his sneakers were torn up and his pants were grimy. As for his face and hair, well, they couldn’t be helped. He had learned to live with them. Undoubtedly there was a bit of dust on him that he had missed when cleaning up hurriedly in order to catch the damn train, but he didn’t think some stupid girl—what is she, sixteen?—was allowed to say that he was ugly out loud. She’s no prizewinner herself, thin, scrawny, with thighs about the size around of my wrist. Jesus, talk about me, but I don’t say anything out loud, do I? And I didn’t cause any fuss.

Thinking about that again made him angry so he went back to looking at the blind lady. He couldn’t see her eyes because of the shades, her eyeballs must roll around like marbles, but the rest of her face wasn’t bad, a bit sallow, but then that’s English beauty for you, topped with short, light-brown hair. Her face had nice bones though, and the wrinkles weren’t too pronounced. Her figure he’d only seen once and it seemed okay, smaller breasts than usual for here and that was good, not bad legs. Her face when she laughed was pleasant, and her husband was always talking to her, reading the poems off the displays and just keeping her amused, yet lately his eyes strayed to another person who got pushed on the train by the crowd that waited impatiently at one particular stop along the –

His thoughts were disrupted by a familiar jolt that struck everyone by surprise nonetheless, causing a woman’s scream to burst out from the middle of the car and end in an embarrassing silence. Men cursed softly after that pause, and the metronomic beat of the complaints that invariably began after a wrenched “God!” from someone built steadily to presto fortissimo before subsiding into an uneven scattering of whining notes until even these sotto voce remarks died off leaving a quiet interlude, broken eventually by a squeak like a violin peg tightening a flat string, then the entire orchestra tuned up, slowly, and the train once again moved, the solo note from the violin taken up as a theme, hurriedly and with reckless brio, as if by musicians not willing to play one minute more than the scheduled time of a musical’s closing bars, anxious as they are to pack their instruments away before joining their friends for drinks after the performance.

These interruptions in the ride were as normal as the husband’s growing attraction to a quite beautiful girl, naturally red-haired, who used little makeup, unlike most women here. She had a tight, automatic smile, the one anybody in a large city comes to possess, and long legs enticingly wrapped today in black silk stockings with encrustations of bold silver sequins above shapely ankles. She wore a bright jacket, a blouse and short skirt that matched her perfectly, and around her neck was a gaily-coloured scarf. In the last few weeks of London’s foggy, wet winter she was dressed in pleasant, cheerful clothes as if for summer, and Bill’s mood lifted momentarily at the sight of her. He hungered for another sight of her cleavage, for he had once seen her black brassiere against her pale skin and it had scored a mark on his memory. He also realized that the husband, whose name he heard for the first time this particular day, when his wife, alarmed at a long silence on his part, called out “Eric? What?” then became flustered as her voice sounded so loud in her own ears, while her husband had been looking as the young girl adjusted her skirt squashed in a press of people surging onto the train, had been eyeing her closely but arrested his interest, swung round to his wife, looking as he did so directly into Bill’s eyes with a smug and slightly scornful proprietary look, murmuring reassurances in her ear, calming her down.

Over the course of the next weeks the husband generally paid better attention to his wife when the attractive girl was not present, as far as Bill could tell, for they were not always together on the car, and many days would pass before Bill saw either the couple or the girl, so that he received a series of pictures that seemed to jump in time when the four were on the same car together. He was conscious, once again, of the habits of the British, who would often choose the same car when going to and coming from work. When the girl wasn’t present Eric would release acerbic remarks on current events and other people who had just left the train, or else told stories he made up for her, describing an individual who had left the subway and musing about the private life this or that one might lead. His wife was constantly amused by him, yet desperation showed in her laugh. Not hysteria or anything crazy, more like loneliness, and in Bill’s mind her blindness accounted for that. She talked often about their domestic affairs, and over the usually meek voices on the train he could hear them discussing the redecorating of their home, a visit to this or that opera, a dinner engagement with close friends, never a word about children. Perhaps they had been married too late, though he looked older than her, in his forties, she probably in her mid-thirties, though an initial view of her face might make one think, like Bill had on first seeing her, that she was the older of the two.

When the girl was on the train Eric paid a great deal of time in answering Edna’s questions after asking her to repeat them above the sound of the train, responding when the noise of a sharp turn began to mount. Amid the clanging of train on track he would begin his response, the frustration of only partially hearing his reply reducing her to silence for the rest of the journey. His interest more obviously attached itself to the girl, particularly as his wife accepted that conversation had gradually become impossible on such a noisy car and increasingly received no more than terse comments from her husband.

One day Bill had located himself quite close to the couple, behind them in fact, and could smell the faint scent of their intermingled colognes. He came upon them in the middle of one of the husband’s stories. “And hunted later, as you well know, by the rabid right-wingers there, McCarthy and that sort, not an easy life. The story is that once he was headlining in Las Vegas, singing in one of those posher establishments. A club, of sorts. Just himself and a man at the pianoforte, a grand piano at that. He was singing a few light arias, some popular songs that he had made famous, and the audience loved him. In the middle of the second set, one mostly of love songs? I think. I’m sorry, dear, I don’t remember that part. Anyway, there he was and quite comfortable, so he took it into his head to sit on the piano. He was in front of it, and he took his hands, placed them on the edge of the grand piano, and hoisted himself up onto it.”

“What happened?” she asked quickly.

“The most embarrassing thing, and it’s also so funny too. He pushed himself up on the piano and then overbalanced.”

“And broke his nose!?”

“No, no,” testily, then smoothly again, “tipped over backwards into the piano, splintering the wood because of his massive weight and size, you see.”

“Dear goodness!”

“And then there he was, caught in that piano,” and at that moment they reached a stop and the girl got on. “Just a minute, dear, let’s wait for the train to start moving again, I don’t want one word left out” while looking lustfully at the girl who returned his stare and Bill felt certain for the very first time smiled back making “Eric?” colouring as he turned to his wife and in a louder voice “Here I am, where was I? Had to, wait, wait, ah yes,” and his composure regained, “there he was, his feet up in the air, waving his legs wildly. The audience thought this screamingly funny, and laughed at him as if he meant it to happen but,” as his eyes swung openly to the girl and he fixed her with a broad smile that paralleled his story but ran independently of it, her own flashing back as she stood in the crowd listening to him, “he was trapped, do you see? Caught within the piano by his weight, he then went through the piano, so you could only see his hands holding on to the piano’s frame, his feet, and his head too, where there was some blood.


“Oh, he was all right, just a scratch, and they tried, the piano player then a stagehand, to pull him out, then some other people helped until they realized there was no one to bring down the” girl’s hands playing with her long hair as she watched “curtain and he could only grunt and moan all the while the piano strings snapped around him, wood cracking and crashing.

“But Eric, he didn’t hurt himself too badly?” imagining this patently false story even to Bill in her mind as a case where someone at a disadvantage unwittingly became an object of fun.

“No, no, let me finish, and then you see,” winking at the girl with a meaning in his eye Bill couldn’t decipher but which made her flush and turn away, though not too quickly, “someone got to the ropes and brought the curtain down. Well, the audience was howling but when they heard these men and the commotion behind the velvet drapes, heard them grunting and hollering as they pushed the piano across the stage, with him saying Am I all right? My head ain’t bleeding, is it? Get me out! Get me, and of course they nearly went through the floor –”

“Oh no!

“Not the piano and him, the audience because it was so funny!” And yet his wife did not find this story humourous, even if the girl did, covering her mouth and looking with disbelieving eyes, and his wife’s drawn face, looking a little more beautiful when seen up close, could not stop her husband from continuing, because of course he told this story in a voice loud enough to carry to the girl, his intended audience now, forgetting his wife even as she trembled against the time of the train.

Things remained like that over the next week or so, the girl remaining at a slight distance, but eventually she moved closer. Bill watched her and them, Eric watched the girl, isolating Edna, and the girl watched Eric with a slight effort at discreetness. The day that she stood two people away from Eric dressed in a smart suit which complimented her figure exceedingly his wife looked around sharply, exclaiming in a voice a shade too loud for public transport, “There’s a rather nice perfume here, whose is it?” to which he replied “Some office girl, I expect,” his voice then lost in the noise of the train pulling into King’s Cross. Bill and the couple got out, Bill looking around to see the girl standing in the open door of the subway car looking purposefully in his direction. Turning around Bill saw Eric staring at her, then the crowd swallowed everyone.

Bill felt intensely curious about what qualities the redhead found attractive in the man. He acted like someone with a good bank account. But not like someone with a wife. Is that what she’s interested in? Wasn’t it a little easy to think that money was all she was after? She didn’t look like she shopped at any two-bit stores, a Sainsbury’s girl, not a Tesco’s. Where did she live? One evening he stayed on the train with her until it stopped at the British Rail station at Moorgate. She got off then and continued, Bill speculated, out of town. Maybe she was looking for someone in London itself, a man to set her up and help her buy everything she wanted. Bill thought this too easy a conclusion.

Days later chance, and the habitual choice of the English, brought them together again, each converging inside a ferociously crowded car. Bill was positioned behind the three of them, the wife and the girl on each side of the man, Bill behind the girl. This was the closest he had ever been to her and during the trip he compared the young beauty to the older woman. The man answered his wife in short bursts while working his arms free from where they were pinned to his sides, and put his right arm around his wife’s waist, at which she lay her head on his shoulder and seemed to drift asleep. Delays occurred along the line. “Probably another bastard offed himself,” from one commuter, who was answered peevishly by another with “And at this time of day too. You’d think they’d have a little more respect. Absolutely no consideration for others.” The subway remained stuck for fifteen minutes, the air poisonous, then the tube resumed its sluggish motion, allowing people to shift their limbs with relief.

As Bill changed hands, allowing one tortured arm to rest while keeping the other hand wrapped around the rubber knob suspended on coiled wire from the ceiling of the car, and as he moved his head into the path of the pathetic draught of subway air that leaked in through a small grill, he noticed the husband’s arm around his wife’s waist almost mirrored by his arm hovering around the girl’s buttocks, though he had not as yet touched her. Perspiration stood out on everybody’s foreheads but Bill thought that there might be an additional reason for Eric’s sweat. A sudden turn compressed the standing passengers into one lump, bringing Bill’s waist in contact with the girl’s shapely behind, the husband’s hand between his stomach and her back. Great, he thought, until he saw a face staring at him, not the girl’s but the wife’s. Why’s she looking at me? I haven’t done anything to her. Still, he felt embarrassed at the thought he’d had. Desire, more like it, when her ass hit my groin, boy, and could Edna read that from me, or can she feel that coming from him? Did she pick it up somehow? Now she gazed around, not seeing anything, but for a moment he wondered exactly how blind she was, then another jerk pulled them into a different configuration, and this time the long slender fingers of the husband settled loosely on the purse of the girl.

Another delay a stop later as the train pushed slowly into a station, a man holding shards of reddened wood leaving the scene of a suicide, body bags filled with what looked like round hunks of meat carried out by four bobbies, their shoes leaving faint traces on the cement, with the train cruising leisurely through the station, everyone crushed together straining for a view at the gory scene on the side of the platform. As they gathered momentum the husband’s hand began slowly fondling the girl’s behind. She turned around to her right, then behind her, flushing, glaring at Bill who responded to “You fucking pervert, get your hand off my backside” with a gesture that showed his other hand had been nowhere near her. “Well it better not be,” but she had embarrassed herself and him amongst the people there. If she knew it was that guy what would she do? The rest of the trip contained nothing eventful, for the husband’s hand retreated to his side.

Some days later the weather had warmed sufficiently for less heavy clothes to be worn, and Bill could see the husband looking eagerly around the car for the girl who did not disappoint him by not appearing. As the train was not overly crowded a carelessness in behaviour on his part became evident when she stepped on the train. She wore a long skirt and an off the shoulder top, revealing her neckline and the beginning of her cleavage. Eric stood transfixed, then started his usual conversation with his wife, though he no longer had to tell her stories as she had given up trying to hear him, defeated by the noise on this route. And maybe she knows something funny is going on, the way animals smell things before they see them. The glances between the girl and the man were frequent and she looked with brazen curiosity and challenge into his face as she stood by his side. He almost backed away but decided that with his wife on his other side rendered mute, and the noise of the train covering any sound he might make, he could take a chance, and cautiously leaned over, kissing quickly, then once more, slowly, “Eric, that smell, it’s that perfume again,” but Edna’s following words were drowned out as they roared into a station.

When he could Bill sought out the couple and the girl, and while they were aware of him his presence didn’t bother them because it was obvious he wouldn’t interfere. On a Wednesday he managed to get a seat on a two-person bench, the other spot vacant. Tired and numbed by a hard day he was unaware of anyone else in the car until a passenger sat down heavily next to him. He had been looking out the window at the pipes and wires running the length of the track when he felt a sudden sharp blow of a stick across his knees. “Jesus Christ, what the –” only to stop and see the blind woman’s face in front of his.

“I’m sorry,” her voice came out hesitantly, liquid and soft, “I didn’t mean to hit you. My husband lost his balance helping me here and I came down a little awkwardly, I’m afraid. I hope I didn’t hurt you.” He had never heard a voice so modulated and warm.

“Sure, no problem, just unexpected, that’s all.”

“Oh, you’re American, how funny. Are you here on business or vacation?”

“Canadian, not American. No, I work here.”

“Ah, I see. I do apologize for my mistake. Where’s Eric? Eric?”

“He’s trapped by everybody in the middle of the car,” supplied Bill after looking over his shoulder through the Plexiglas, her husband in plain sight, side turned away from his wife and openly kissing the girl whose arms guided his hands over her body.

“I just see his arm,” said Bill, afraid to tell what he could see.

“Oh, the dear man, he gives up so much for me.”

“Yes,” and then regretted using that word and lying for her husband who had by this time pressed the girl against the Plexiglas wall that separated them from the seat his wife was on. The girl’s back was to Bill and the man’s face leered down at her, totally oblivious to the looks from other passengers who had woken up to the fact that some kind of drama was unfolding, a rather smutty sex one in their view, although they had missed Eric dumping his wife into the seat next to Bill.

“Excuse me for interrupting, you’re not reading are you, I don’t hear you turning any pages.”

“No, I’m not, what is it?”

“Have you been in England long? Where do you work?” Bill paused before telling her the truth. As with many English people she would not think of asking a complete stranger his name.

“I’m here for a few years, just working odd jobs, to see if I like the place.” He told her briefly about his job.

“A regular job, then? I mean, you go to work every day at one time and leave at a regular time?”

“Oh yeah, five days a week, always.”

“And you can’t afford a car?”

“No, I’m always on this tube,” and a manicured ageless hand waved slightly in the air while she said, “Then you can tell me, I’ve noticed a delicious fragrance, a trifle too something or other for me, mind, that someone who also travels on this train wears, some office girl, Eric says, but that seems a little too dear for her to be able to afford. Can you smell it?”

Bill felt caught by the answers inside him. Dumb, dumb, I didn’t see that coming, and he cast a glance at the two absorbed lovers in a furious embrace behind them. I hope this tube stops on a dime and you bite each other’s tongues off. He responded slowly. “Let’s see, there’s a couple of women over there who look familiar, maybe it’s them, sorry, they’re a few seats down I mean, in the next part of the car,” and once again his sentence was chopped off when she somewhat crossly.

“No, nearer, nearer, and it has to be someone you see fairly often, who travels alone. I can smell it from here.” He looked up and saw King’s Cross approaching, thinking not soon enough.

“There are a lot of people here, and some of them are on it every day, sure. Maybe it’s a new perfume.”

“Thank you for your help,” drily, “I truly appreciate it.” He began to move from his seat. “Are you going?” He would have if he hadn’t seen that neither her husband nor the girl was moving from where they were. Should he leave the woman by herself? Would that be fair? “Sorry, I… no, it was just… I thought I saw someone I knew. I was wrong. No, this isn’t my stop.”

“Which stop is yours?”

“Elephant and Castle,” choosing a far enough away destination in order to give himself as much room as possible for leaving after the girl departed at Moorgate. He watched King’s Cross until it vanished.

“So far away to come for work, and that must be tiring. How do you pass the time?”

“Sometimes I read, sometimes I doze, most times I just think of things.”

“What things?”

“Just things, you know, things. I’d rather not –”

“Of course not, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…. I’ve always been dreadfully curious about people. Like that scent that girl is wearing, whichever one she is. She paused, considering. Whatever else she might be she isn’t stupid, Bill reflected. “Do you see my husband? Is he still standing, poor man?”

“No, I mean yes, he is standing, I just lost sight of him for a minute. He’s rather pinned in the middle of a group of fat men and one or two secretary types.”

“Rather,” she repeated, “rather, an odd word for a Canadian, you must be here too long,” her laugh sounding fresh and younger than he had heard it before. “My husband so entertains me with little stories about the people on subways whenever we go anywhere. He really is a clever mimic. When we get off at Moorgate I’ll introduce you.”

Moorgate, great, with the girl, he’ll have me with him in a cab probably talking to this woman while he screws that piece in the back seat, us sitting on those little fold-out chairs those cabs have, even now he’s got her Jesus I don’t believe this he’s sitting down with her at the end of the car. At that moment the train lost speed ominously, coming to a complete stop between King’s Cross and Angel. “What is it, Eric?” and he somehow reached her before a high note escaped her throat.

“Nothing, my dear, nothing, it’s just a delay, probably a fire on the line, one of those small fires.”

“Have my seat,” began Bill, but he interrupted him.

“Have you been bothering my wife?

“No, Eric, no, he’s not, no. He’s just been sitting here and we’ve been talking while you’ve been stranded with those dreadful Grub Street types.”

“The fat bankers and those secretaries,” put in Bill without consciously realizing until after he had said it the alibi then provided for the husband who winked as he had that time before only now it meant complicity.

“Ah yes, those men, and their dreadful… you know, dear, I’ve found out that that girl with the dreadful perfume, the one you asked about, she works at one of those job agencies, can’t make out which one.”

“But she was behind me and I could smell it,” she said with an acuteness unimpaired by blindness.

“Yes, and she met a man she knew down at the part of the car I was in. Most rude of her, she just waltzed down that crowded aisle without the slightest consideration for anyone, spraying that scent when she got there because she’s going out to dinner with someone when she gets off at the station. And,” his voice dropping conspiratorially, taking in Bill too, “she’s as big as a house. With that perfume! Vulgar woman, vulgar.”

“Why don’t you join your wife, then –”

“And what do you do? You look… dear, this is the man I was telling you about, the worker, the one who always looks as if he’s put in an incredible day’s effort. You recall me telling you about him. You do look knackered, you know. Thanks very much for the offer of your seat, now I’ll just wait until you get up and –”

“Oh, him!” She turned slightly to regard Bill. “No, he can’t, he’s got a long way to travel, Elephant and Castle, dear, and we get off in just two stops. Let him rest, the poor boy.”

“He’s strong, he can stand for a while, surely, then you can take one of our seats, yes?” I could take you out, pal, if you don’t watch your fucking lip, thought Bill.

“Yeah, no problem, just let me get by –”

“Oh, now see, you’ve made him mad, Eric, he’s tired.” The strength of her hand alarmed him as she unerringly clasped his arm. “Sit, please. Eric, don’t cause a fuss, dear, he’ll have to stand all the way if you don’t let him have this seat.”

“But are you sure? Will you be all right? He’s not—I’m sorry, no offense, you won’t mind, Edna? Are you sure?”

“Of course I am, dear. Don’t worry so much about me.”

“Fine then, I’ll just find a spot somewhere.” He went back to his seat with the girl and both looked every now and then at Edna and Bill without guilt. The train eventually limped into Angel. The crowd of commuters was larger than normal due to the delay, every inch of space taken up by loud businessmen and arguing contractors who blotted out Eric and the girl. Instead of making up for lost time by rushing to the next destination the train kept its doors open, waiting for the next load of travellers, most of whom would not be able to squeeze on. Eventually the subway listlessly proceeded to Moorgate.

“My husband’s like that.”

Startled that she knew what he was doing Bill said “Do you mean you… I don’t understand.”

“What? That he cares for me? Thank you.”

“No, I didn’t mean that, I –”

She laughed again. “Obviously you don’t have a girlfriend or wife. My husband said you spent a lot of time looking around at the women. Is that all you think we’re good for, to be looked at?”

“No! You don’t understand –”

“I gather I don’t. What I was about to say is that my husband is worried strangers might take advantage of me. And the reason he guides me around so much is that four years ago I took a bad fall and damaged my sense of balance. That’s why it’s so important for him to stay with me at all times.”

“And I’m like that, huh?” he responded, thinking, what is it about me that brings out the best in people?

“Don’t get me wrong,” and it was her turn to be embarrassed, “really, he’s only said you look, ah, rumpled and tired, not harmful, if you know what I mean. Curious, I suppose –”

“I see.”

“He meant it as a compliment,” faltering, revealing that there might be more to whatever inventive story he’d made up about him to amuse her. They travelled along, conversation stopped by her remarks and impossible anyway due to the orchestra’s fanfare of drums and trumpets as they arrived one stop short of their destination at Old Street. If he told her so much about me then he knows I get off at King’s Cross. What does he think I’m doing here? Helping him or something? The bastard.

“My husband makes up little tales about people, the ones on the train and famous people,” she inserted into a sudden quiet stretch. “He only told me that you seemed to work awfully hard, should you wonder if he said anything… else about you.” He appreciated that remark, and her old tone was back, not the one of laughter and easy speech from earlier but the one composed of lonely notes and almost inaudible sighs he’d heard on first seeing her.

“You asked me a question awhile back, let me ask you one. Do you and your husband have a car?”

“That’s a little embarrassing, for my husband, not me.” She rushed out those last words. “He had a tiny too much to drink and wrecked our car, well and proper this time, plus they took his licence away for six months. Of course, I can’t drive, and it’s fun in a way to be in a subway.”

“He only lost his licence recently then.”

“How did you know?” and the surprise in her voice was real. Bill could not imagine a voice more beautiful than hers.

“If you’d been taking this tube regularly all that time it wouldn’t be too much fun.”

“I suppose you’re right. But at the moment it has all sorts of charms, like interesting sounds and hearing all the different conversations, all of it running together, although my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Part of the accident that damaged my balance.” She bent closer to him. “There is sometimes quite an odour here, isn’t there? How is Eric doing, please?” Bill stood up and looked over the crowd. Through a momentary unravelling of a knot of people he witnessed the girl handing a piece of paper to Eric, her streetfinder out for him to see where she lived. So goddamn public.

“He’s doing fine,” as he sat down, unconsciously patting her knee, quickly taking his hand away, his gesture surprising both of them, disturbing them for different reasons. She did not talk much during the rest of the trip, saying only a hurried “Goodbye!” when her husband came for her bearing a locker-room smile across a flushed face. The girl had already left the car. Bill followed the couple out. He then went to the subway heading back in the direction of King’s Cross, using the cleaner Circle Line, and this time had an easier time getting a seat. He felt strangely disconcerted yet could not quite locate the reason for his mild agitation. As near as he could discover, it had a root in twice aiding Eric in his philandering, and he had not fathomed that action by the time sleep came over him.

All the next day he contemplated his behaviour on the subway the evening before. Why did I lie for that scum, make up a story that helped him get away with what he had been doing? And even before I knew what I was saying I gave him a way out. He must have lied to her lots of times before, been with a lot of women on the side. He’s a pretty smooth guy, can’t take that away from him. And he just knew I would lie for him, didn’t he? How did he know that? What stopped me from leaving at King’s Cross, or telling Edna that her husband was rubbing up against some sweet young pussy with everybody looking on? Well, Jesus, you couldn’t tell some stranger you’ve only talked to once, Hey, your husband’s with another woman right in front of you. What would she do? The thought occurred to him late in the afternoon that perhaps in some odd way envy had prevented him from telling his wife. Certainly he enjoyed looking at the young girl too. But her taste bothered him. How could she go for someone his age, and with a wife? She’s probably AIDS city, he thought sourly, knowing he wasn’t being entirely honest, because he wouldn’t stop some night in an alley or bedroom to slip on a rubber raincoat before screwing her. I wonder if her pussy is red-haired? Maybe gold-red. She looks like she knows all kinds of tricks, and that son of a bitch is going to enjoy them. Bill ruled out the idea that the girl was interested in money. Maybe she just thinks he’s good-looking, maybe she’s bored. It sure helps kill the time on the train, right? And maybe she, like the husband—and me too, sure—we’re just hunting for a piece of ass out of it. There’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to get humped or sucked off when she feels like it, but coming on to someone’s husband while his wife’s right in the same car, and her blind and not even able to stand straight without him, that was shitty.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that was the thing she was doing. If you could steal money from under the nose of a teller in a crowded bank, knowing no one would butt in, and that the teller couldn’t see you, why wouldn’t you? This girl, there she is, in a car full of boring men, people with nothing special, and this guy with a bit of dough gives her the eye. Maybe she’s interested, maybe just playing. Then she looks at the wife and thinks, Hey, I could go right up to him and she’d never know it. Oh, she might hear me, smell me, sure, but in a crowded car you’re gonna be close to people. I could just rub right up against him and feel what he’s got. No problem, and he wouldn’t mind. The thrill of it was that she could do it with everyone else watching, betting no one would say a word. How would the wife be any wiser? So why not.

What Bill couldn’t understand was the reason the husband started all this in the first place. It isn’t the girl’s fault if he’s giving her the eye. She was just standing there looking pretty. What was wrong with him? So what if his wife isn’t a beauty like the young one, she was his wife, for Chrissake, married to him for years. Maybe he got tired of leading her around all the time, of all the talking and that. Maybe he wanted someone who could handle things on her own, who wouldn’t be straining him every day. Still, he knew she was blind, knew about her balance problem, what the hell is he looking for? Why do some husbands, money or no money, got to screw things up for guys like me who don’t have anybody? That bitch is a looker, and he’s got a wife, so that makes two women. What’s he doing, comparison shopping? It’s probably not your first time, sport. I don’t understand it, what way is Edna no better than her? Beauty, sure, but she’s not bad-looking, a helluva lot more refined than her, or him for that matter. That voice, so lovely, smooth, maybe she sounded a little odd at times when she’s left alone, but is that enough to dump her? What was it he was looking for?

That evening he boarded the train with his familiar companions, the first time they had ever been together two days in a row. As it was one of the warmer days at the end of winter people were wearing less bulky coats and had discarded hats and gloves. Eric was nattily dressed in an expensive Italian mid-weight suit while Edna had on a more casual dress that for the first time exposed some of her neckline, though she did wear a light coat wrapped around her. All eyes were on the girl, however, every male hormone activated by her attire. Her hair had been swept up to reveal ivory skin and prominent shoulder bones. Her black dress had a collar around the throat, then was backless down to the middle of her spine. A deep slit a little too wide for modesty opened her chest to view from where the collar ended to just below her breasts. The entire garment ended below the knee and from there pale stockings revealed the perfection of her legs. Bill assumed she was wearing garters. A fur coat lay to her side, not the best fur, but one obviously saved for special occasions. What would Eric think of this, he wondered. If he feels like I feel his cock’s a little uncomfortable right now. Eric nodded to Bill, whispered to his wife, then beckoned him over. Warily he approached.

“Edna has a favour to ask,” and Bill backed away suspiciously. “I have a business appointment in Hampstead, about some investments, and my wife has to get back home. I’ve arranged to have a friend meet her at King’s Cross to take her back to our apartment. Would you be so good, we were wondering, since you don’t get off until Elephant, if you could just stay with her to help her off the train?” His smile was almost real. “It would only delay you ten minutes, fifteen at the most.” Tempted to say no, Bill saw Edna’s face, her smile tentative, her face pulling anxiously at the edges as it must always do when she thinks she’ll hear a no.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Wonderful, good, you see, dear,” and her saying “Thank you, I didn’t want to drag Eric away from such an awfully important meeting.”

“I’ll make sure you get a seat,” Eric said, and as the train pulled into Hampstead led them to the place where the girl and her coat were. “Excuse me, Miss, would you mind terribly if my wife sat there? She has a problem with her balance.” The girl got up and put on her coat without a word, and Eric pecked his wife before leaving. A moment later Bill idly turned around to see where the girl had gone but she was not in the car. Glancing out the window he saw her disappear arm in arm with his companion’s husband. Furiously Bill twisted his attention away to stare at Edna, who today in her pale summer dress appeared quite vulnerable.

“Did he get off all right?” she asked with a slight touch of worry.

“He got off all right.” To himself, He’ll be getting off all right in a little while, too. Christ, what an idiot.

“How are you?” he began. She responded pleasantly, and eventually Bill asked her why they always took this train.

“Oh, it isn’t always this one, is it? Although we English are pretty predictable. Well, you see, we have an invalid friend of mine who lives near the tube station, she’s just gotten out of the hospital, having had a… woman’s operation, you know, and she feels quite sad. I try to visit her as frequently as I can because her family lives away. She’s so lonely, and I know how…. Then we head back home for a late supper.” His curiosity satisfied, Bill and Edna talked about other topics until the train pulled into King’s Cross. Bill got out with her and looked for the friend she had described who would pick her up. Twenty minutes later she had to sit down, dizzy, and Bill’s patience was thin. “Are you sure someone is meeting you here?”

“Why yes, Eric called a friend this morning to arrange it.” Probably took the phone off the hook and pretended to dial, thought Bill. Hello, Tess? Yes, I have a wife who needs picking up at King’s Cross. She’ll be with a dirty-looking sucker named Bill, a Canadian. You’ll have no problem recognizing them, a blind dizzy woman and a grime-streaked young fellow. Don’t worry if you can’t find them, or don’t make it, they’ll be able to get home on their own. Ha ha ha.

Bill got up when Edna said she felt better. He realized she was close to crying, that she had probably never been on any arm but her husband’s for years. Frightened to death I’ll let her trip or knock her down myself. Is this what he doesn’t like, her reliance? Always having to worry about her? Is she always this afraid? Or does she think he’ll never come back if she lets go of his arm?

“You okay?”

“I’m… fine, yes, but I think….”


“Could you tell me where we are, I need to know, or… please take me to a phone booth, I’ll call a friend who’ll take me back, she should be home now.” Bill walked with her to the telephones. There was no answer at her friend’s.

“How far do you live?”

“About fifteen minutes’ walk.”

“I’ll take you there,” at which she pulled back as if he’d touched her knee.

“No, that’s not necessary, thank you, I’ll…,” trailing off into a trembling silence.

“You’ll what? I’m not going to leave you here to be mugged or something.” Don’t say things like that, he thought, or she’ll really be scared. Think, think.

She acquiesced after a few minutes to his guiding her home, although he kept the pretense alive that he was a stranger to this part of London, more at home in Elephant which he had only been to once. Edna guided him, and the quarter-hour walk extended to forty-five minutes, made longer by her pointing out this shop there or that one there, the map of this area a Braille grid in her head for which she had no coordinates. She could tell you the stores and sights, but to find them on her own? No chance. Bill remembered a movie he’d seen about a blind white girl and a black man, Sidney Porter was it?, and how he helped her and she loved him. Her parents didn’t care enough to teach her to get around a city, making her like Edna, helpless. They made their slow way along, a young man rougher looking than he was escorting a trembling, older woman whose staccato raps with her cane underscored their conversation.

He must have had this planned, keep her nervous and occupied all the way home so she won’t think too hard about where he might be gone. When I see him next time I’ll bust him so hard he won’t be able to screw a light bulb. What am I doing here with his wife? Why am I babysitting her? Boy, he had my number pegged. A sucker born every minute –

“What are you thinking?”

“What? Nothing. Just looking for your street. Like I said, I haven’t been in this area before, I usually –” and caught himself as he was about to say “go in the other direction,” instead finishing with “only visit other parts of town.”

“It’s nice here, isn’t it? Such a difference, Eric tells me, when you come out of King’s Cross and go to Islington instead. I enjoy the park so much in the summer, and on days like today when it’s warmer than normal, it’s so nice. I know the flowers are out, the smell is so wonderful.”

“When is Eric’s meeting over? I mean, you won’t be home alone for long, will you? Or are you used to that?” He wondered if she might get alarmed at that question, or whatever the hell it was she felt when Bill said what he thought were innocent things. He was curious if there were any other surprises waiting for him along the way, like holding her hand until her husband could drag himself away from that girl’s bed. He looked at her face to gauge the response, surprised that a great deal of the nervousness that had been there at the beginning of their walk had disappeared.

“Not until late. The friend he mentioned invited him to supper, and after that some other people who deal with stocks and such are getting together there. Apparently it’s about an important opportunity Eric has been looking at for a while. I don’t know precisely when he’ll be home. As for me, well, you probably don’t think the blind can get around at all, but I know every inch of our flat, renovations and all.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it, you know.”

She softened, her arm clinging a little more tightly to his, as a consequence of which he almost ran them into a pole. He shook his head and stopped thinking how this March light and this false spring day combined to wipe years away from her features. Though it was slightly chilly now she preferred the breeze wrapping around her to the coat’s protection, and her dress fluttered merrily in the wind. At length they reached the apartment, not normally a walk-up, but as the lift—elevator, he said to himself—didn’t work he helped her up the stairs. “How do you,” hoping she wouldn’t take it the wrong way, “make your way around the apartment with your balance like it is?”

“You don’t give people like me much credit, do you? There are chairs there, and tables, lamps, couches, that sort of thing. Eric made sure all the furnishings were placed in such a way that I always have something to hold on to or lean against,” which Bill could see as the door opened and she turned on the lights.

“You know, I’ve never talked to a blind person before, I don’t know how you get around. You’re not very understanding,” fighting back churlish strains that might seep into his voice, “of what someone who’s never led anyone around might wonder about. I’m sorry for asking what are probably dumb questions but I just don’t know the answers.” She was silent as she navigated the room adjusting lights and temperature, closing and opening blinds and doors, turning the radio on to a classical music channel.

Bill watched her move around from room to room, waiting for some moment to say goodbye without leaving her to wonder if he had indeed left. “Can I get you a drink?” she called out from what he presumed was the kitchen, “some tea or coffee, unless you’d prefer something stronger?” She appeared back in the room. “Ah, good, you’re still here. Sometimes I can’t tell when people are in the room but I always know when they’re in the same room as I am. What about that drink?”

“No, I don’t think so, I think I’ll be on my way.”

“Yes, you have a long ride, don’t you? And I suppose you’ll have to cook your own supper when you get back? My goodness, it’s,” as she felt her wristwatch, “late, isn’t it? I didn’t realize how much time we’d spent getting here from the station. What time will you get home? It must be a good hour or so before you’ll eat. Stay here, since you’ve been so kind to help me. I’m sorry about what I said. I didn’t think that it was hard for someone to know what things a blind person can do, I’m so used to Eric being around.

“I don’t think that, I probably should get going, you know,” unable to walk away from her as she stood there, feeling in part sorry that her night alone was due in part to his furnishing Eric with a cover yesterday. He had become involved and felt obligated to see this evening through. I’m curious about her, and them too, yeah. It hasn’t been much more than a piss-poor day anyway so I might as well clue the thing up halfway right.

“I already have dinner on,” she said in the silence, “it’s in the microwave, timed, and Eric always puts in more than I can eat, he thinks I don’t eat enough. Maybe he likes them with a bit more flesh.” Lady, that girl with the tissue-box dress he’s squiring around as we stand here definitely has a bit more where he likes it than you do, with your catching his thoughts about her before they took more explicit form than he would have wanted. Clearing his throat he agreed to stay and asked where the toilet and washroom were, returning a few minutes later cleaner and relieved. She had changed while he was away into a casual green blouse and black slacks which replaced her fragile demeanour with something more confident.

“Do I,” blushing, “look askew?,” laughing at her words. “Sometimes my hair goes everywhere when I change in a hurry, and I can’t always tell if what I’ve got on matches. I leave,” giggling, “my clothes around a little too negligently, Eric says, so I’m not sure what’s where sometimes.

“You look… fine,” he said, not sure whether to tell her of a missed button on her blouse that showed unblemished skin where her bra had been.

“Do you like this gray top? I bought it only a few days ago, and I have a green one like it because Eric said it looked good on me.” The result was that he could not find a way without embarrassing them both to tell her that when she bent over to pick something up, or moved to one side or another, he could see more of her breasts than either person would likely feel comfortable about. A few minutes later they sat down to eat and he could focus on learning more about them while they talked.

Eric was a stockbroker who retired recently in order to care for her and to enjoy the considerable success he had had in his business. Through schemes and an occasional gamble he had taken their money and parleyed it into something approaching wealth, getting out of the game, as he called it, while he had his health. She had been blind since birth and when she married Eric only six years ago had given up all thought of children due to her not being able to care for them. She detested the idea of governesses, nurses, and maids. It turned out Eric was unable to father children and both had resigned themselves to being uncle and aunt for their few nieces and nephews. I’m not so sure she’s not hurting over that. She was thirty-seven, he was forty-three, now he’s screwing a girl twenty years younger while I’m sitting here at his mahogany table eating off expensive china and drinking out of fine crystal. Not bad for a stock boy, but he’s a stock boy too, and he laughed for the first time in days. “What is it?” she asked, joining in with him once, after careful editing, he told her what he had found amusing.

Despite his earlier sentiments he had a good evening with her, and over Irish coffee they talked about her childhood, her dead parents, Eric’s care for her—a topic she referred to often, which grated on Bill’s nerves and made him wonder how much she actually knew abut him—and of lighter subjects, such as trips and aspirations. Not surprisingly she had many when a young girl. Now she was content. “Married to a handsome, successful man, who has the most delightful family and friends, and who is fiercely protective of me, you know. If he knew I had a man in here, a handsome young man, especially, well,” she laughed a delightful scale, “he’d have something to say about that, oh yes.”

“What makes you think I’m handsome?” he asked, not out of vanity as much as puzzlement.

“Oh, as, well you see, he’s told me about you – didn’t I say that? Perhaps not. And he –”

“You said he told you I looked rumpled and tired, that was what you said. I know. I have that kind of memory. Phonographic, I think it’s called.”

“No, he told me, yes that’s right, he –”

“It doesn’t sound like something a man would say, somehow.”

“You don’t know my husband –”

“No, but I know men, and they don’t call other men handsome to their wives, maybe they say, I suppose you’d call him handsome, if you go for that sort of a face, or whatever it might be. That’s what I think,” and as before he wondered if he had said the wrong thing.

No, you’re right, he didn’t, he—there’s no need to… it was from your voice and how you treated me, even when I was saying those rude things to you, I’m sorry again, it seemed as if you might be handsome. Not like I understand movie stars are handsome, but—you know what I mean.”

“I think so,” and this time it was Bill’s turn to be a little dry. Her face fell and she shifted uneasily in her armchair.

“May I ask you something?,” her timidity ensuring his positive response. “This is so awkward. May I feel your face, to see you, if you understand? Please.”

He looked at her and thought, If those glasses were off would I see your thoughts? She was waiting. “Are you sure about… do you, is it what… Jesus, it is awkward,” he laughed, and that dispelled their reservations. She moved quickly to the couch and sat next to him, then slowly placed her hands on his cheeks.

“You shaved this morning.

“Yeah, I did.”

“And cut yourself, as one finger brushed his throat.”

“Where?,” and he put his hand up to check for himself, to feel her soft dry hand under his, and to hear her say “I made that up. It used to drive…. Now, keep your head up and let me see what you look like.” It was hard to do that as her proximity on the couch let him look at her as well, examining her face, her neck. “Chin up for just a moment, please,” his eyes seeking against his will her breasts that were now much closer to him, her aureoles faintly visible when she moved. Couldn’t she feel a draught, then realized this was the first house in London that was warm in the winter. She couldn’t tell, could she? Could she? Her mouth was close and he could see the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she concentrated with her fingers.

“Maybe I was wrong about you the first time,” and he felt disappointed, “but not now,” and she slowly took her warm hands from his face, returning them to her sides. She settled back in the chair. “You are handsome, but not only for how you look. If I take these glasses off I know people can’t bear looking at me, I can tell from how quiet everyone becomes. It’s what you are like that made me right, and how you look, but mostly, that you aren’t uncaring. It may be your culture, because we English aren’t too caring sometimes to people we don’t know, or even people we do know. Except for Eric, and some others.”
“I don’t know, he practically whispered, “some people where I come from aren’t that warm either.”

“You must find it hard here, not having anyone who respects and loves you like I have Eric,” she said unsteadily, to which he could only reply “Some people are a little unfriendly. Not like you,” and he could only look at her while she rested, her face having lost the strain he had become used to seeing, a face that had lost ten years since earlier this evening.

“Can I ask you something? Can I see your face?”

“You mean my eyes. I never show them to strangers, not even friends, unless—but yes, you can, I don’t know why,” and she leaned into him. He took her glasses off gently and looked at her, then her hand raised his to her cheek below her right eye, saying hoarsely “I have to have people look at me as I look at them,” and he stroked her face wordlessly.

After a minute he put her glasses back on. You have a beautiful face, he would have said if she did not get startled easily, so consequently remarked, “I think your husband is very lucky,” which he meant but thought it struck her in a peculiar way, and she eased herself up with “How about some red wine?,” and the evening continued. When he left two hours later he thought about assholes who have a nice woman waiting home for them and screw it up with a girl who you meet on a train, but abruptly stopped. I want to have her, don’t I? Isn’t that what this is all about, he got there first? Resentment burned inside towards Eric who had succeeded where he hadn’t. Her soft skin and attractive figure, what else could I feel? This miserable line of thought occupied him all the way home.

The next week he had to work late, and decided to reward himself with a night out at a much-talked about club on Saturday. Around one in the morning he glimpsed Eric and the girl. A step down for him, pretty normal terrain for her, it looks like, and they can do what they want here without anybody saying anything. Gossamer threads of lace reined in her breasts, the sides were scooped out of her dress, and a slit up the leg to the top of her thigh allowed his hands inside. Soon she was on his lap and by watching very closely Bill observed him unzip his fly before she settled on him, pretending to dance over him to the music blaring from immense speakers. Who’s watching her now, he wondered, obscured by the gloom of his corner at the booth adjoining theirs. “Get rid of her, why don’t you? Fucking hag, she’ll ruin you, can’t you see that? You want to take care of her the rest of your life? Now settle back, let me finish off.”

“I’ll be damned if that’s the way things stay.”

“Right, right, now you see, it’s better that way, only do it soon.

“No, no, it’s not that easy, children, lawyers, contracts, property, you don’t understand the ties.” Why is he lying about this?

“But don’t you want me, and this, every night?,” the flurry of drumbeats from the dance floor forcing their words back into the booth, Eric trapped in the discord with her legs wrapped around his waist, one hand rubbing the side of his head.

“I think I’m bleeding from that noise, the percussion, can we get out of here?,” grunting and pushing against her while she let him up and they argued across the floor out into the cool night air.

On Thursday Bill took the same car as he always did, seeing the couple’s backs as he waited for the last of their party to come on board at the next stop. Edna was pale and cloaked in her long coat, the winter weather having returned, her husband irritable but managing scattered remarks. When the girl got on he expected Eric to ignore Edna entirely and moved up for a better view, the girl seeing him first. She ignored Eric, motioning with her head to Bill who, confused, made his way to her. “Look, get talking to her for a minute, would you, luv, I’ve got to talk to Rick,” flashing a mechanical grin and looking away while she waited for him to do what she asked. Bill decided to do so out of curiosity, feeling suddenly tense. He made his way through the crowd and was about to say something when Eric spoke first.

“What the hell do you want? After getting my wife drunk you come around and act like we’re friends. Is that your game? I don’t appreciate it, lad.” Her face wore a strange look of contentment and something indefinable, blended with sympathy and wistfulness.

“I’m sorry, Eric’s so jealous, about the other night.”

“Be quiet, Edna. Don’t think I don’t know what you were up to, trying to get her drunk, a woman with her conditions. You’re lucky we don’t press charges. Get away, get away from us!”

Bill made his way back to the girl who, like the other passengers, had heard Eric’s tirade. “Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know, what a bastard,” and he realized her anger was with him and Eric. “What the fuck are you staring at? Goddamn pervert. You get off doing it to blind ones, do you? You’d been looking at her with that stupid dreamy look for how long? Then you fucked her, he says, and what am I left with? He went back to her once he knew about you. You screwed me out of what I wanted.”

“You knew what he was going to say?”

Her face changed. “No, I just had to know what he wanted, me or that bitch. Now I do. That’s all. Now just keep the hell away from me, understand?”

Bill retreated to the back of the car. What did Edna tell Eric? What did she make up on her own? The drinking, the missed button, could he have made something of that, something that never happened? Then it came to him that the indefinable look in Edna’s face might be one of victory in winning her husband’s attention back from the dangerous distractions she had sensed were connected to the perfume and his silences. She thinks he’s back with her like before because he holds her and gets angry at me for something he has to know didn’t happen. As soon as the girl wanted him to leave Edna the fun was gone out of having her on the side. He only wanted a mistress who wouldn’t want anything from him, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts searching around again.

Another, less pleasant, thought occurred to him, that perhaps Edna had purposely used that evening’s dinner to pretend she had been interested in someone else. The drinks, the loosened blouse, her touching his face, her natural intelligence, all could be convincing, and if she embellished things even a small amount Eric would be convinced that at some time she could find a lover, and feel threatened at a sudden show of a type of cunning he had presumed not possessed by her. Or, and this was worse, perhaps she had wanted something to happen that night between them, waited for him to take a cue from her actions. But being friendly with some man didn’t mean trying to get in bed with him, just because you were alone, and maybe she only wanted to see if he would try something with her. Bill tried pushing these ideas away, abruptly refusing to think any more about how he felt. Huddled in the back of the car he regarded the others. The girl stood glaring at the ads, the floor, the ceiling, playing with her hair absent-mindedly. The couple were close together, Eric casting black looks around to make sure Bill was not near, arm tightly embracing Edna, she nestled into his shoulder, murmuring into his ear from time to time. He had lost that face he’d thought of for so long without fully knowing it, until this moment when he could view it for only a few minutes more, what it meant to him, her softness and fineness, her curiously appealing unease in the world, all gone for good. He left at the next station taking with him a last glimpse of her delicate features and exquisite hair, the touch of her hands on his skin burned in his memory, already missing her musical laugh, missing that instrument he had seen briefly at rest once between her husband’s acts.

—Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Sep 112015
Kathy Page2

Kathy Page


Mitch has been waiting all week for Tara to get back to him. Only when in the water is he separated from his phone. It’s lucky, he thinks, as he punches in the code to disable the alarm and lets himself in, that he has to be here. The pool rested overnight, and now lies smooth, ready to give him a break, to take him elsewhere as it always has. Outdoor, indoor, underground, rooftop, exclusive, inclusive, filthy, sparkly-clean, Olympic, twenty-five metre, salt water, UV – any pool will do. Mitch has his favourites but Fourth Street, with its banner: “Home of the Sharks” is the one he thinks of as his. Twenty-five metres, eight lanes, three metres at the deep end, it’s housed in an ageing and never splendid building, yet still seduces him with that turquoise glow, with those threads of reflected light knitting and releasing themselves in a dance that is both loose and contained. The pool promises buoyancy and escape; it taints the air with a tang of chlorine (fainter these days, due to the UV) to which he has no objection at all.

He pulls off his sweatshirt, dumps his backpack on the floor, and pushes through the door at the back of reception on to the deck. The air is warm and moist. Condensation gathers on the picture windows that look out into the woods. The hum of the ventilation and mechanical systems seems oddly loud when the pool is empty, but it is always there, lurking deep beneath the shouts and splashes that bounce themselves to mush between the water and the walls and mount to a crescendo at about four in the afternoon: it is a kind of silence that you only hear if you’re there first or last thing, when the swimmers have gone and the water is, as now, very nearly still, waiting for a dive to break its surface, for the dive which will connect Mitch to all his other dives, and to all the waters of the world.

For a racing dive, you climb on the blocks, which angle towards the water, one leg at the back one at the front. You keep your back straight, offer your chest and the heart beating steadily inside it to the water. Waiting, you push with your legs and you pull back with your arms so that when the light flashes and the buzzer sounds, you spring forward with doubled force. Your arms come back to your sides but right away you bring them up so that they point your way in. You hyper- extend, tense your core and extend your legs so that once your fingers part the surface, you slice into the water and enter it without wasting any of the power you put in to the spring. You’re looking for horizontal distance. On the other hand, diving for diving’s sake from a platform or a springboard depends on the take-off, but is all about the flight and the entry. Straight, pike, tuck, free: it is, when you get down to it, mainly about being in the air, and that has never interested Mitch.

The water closes behind him. He kicks hard, stays under for three quarters of a length before he surfaces, ready to start the routine that will set him up for the day: practise what you preach. Swim the swim. Well, Mitch likes what he does. Whatever happens with Tara, he’ll hang on to that.

“And whatever she says, you are going to have to be fine with it,” Annette told him last night when he couldn’t sleep and tried to slip out of bed without waking her. They sat up and talked in the dark.

“Yes,” he said, “but still…” He stared straight ahead, out of the window, picking out the shapes of the garden trees he’d planted, but he could feel Annette studying at his face. Beneath the sheets, she put her hand on his leg.

“And either way, it’s just good she agreed to think it over.”

“I know.”

“And it will be fine for Tara, whatever she chooses to do.” Annette took her hand from his leg, touched his face, made him look at her, pulled him into a kiss, offered her body for him to forget himself in. Afterwards, he plunged into oblivion and did not wake until the alarm sounded at five. Her side of the bed was empty, and he found her hunched over her tea in the kitchen downstairs, looking every bit of her age. Five, O! More importantly, five years older than him, which these days she could not forget, whereas, left to himself, he would. A decade ago, when he was thirty-five the gap had seemed like nothing at all. In five years’ time it would be that way again, or even something to celebrate: if the years were laps or miles, you’d be proud of them, for heaven’s sake! But the thing is, they’ve not had kids of their own. They met that bit too late for that.

“So then I started worrying,” Annette said, “but not about Tara. One way or another, Mitch, she’ll be okay.”

“Don’t worry,” Mitch told her, “I promise you, the last thing I want to do is drink.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Annette said. She was worrying about the potential impact on their relationship. It was all connected, she said.

“Please. Just don’t,” he said. Running late, he squeezed her shoulder and hurried to the car.

He’d been with Annette for about a year — they had just bought the house – when Tara first showed up on a Friday, late afternoon. He was teaching a shared lesson and noticed a family come on the deck. The mother, skinny, had thick blonde hair and a pierced belly button; the man stood very tall and fit. A tattooed dragon coiled up his arm. The girl Mitch put at about seven, and they’d dressed her in a turquoise bikini — Why, he asked Annette later, do people do that? He watched as the mother, showing off her own figure in a similar suit, crouched down, felt the water, mock-shivered, stood again. For a moment, all three of them waited in a line at the shallow end, considering the expanse of water ahead of them. Then the little one threw herself in – not exactly a dive, and perhaps the lifeguards weren’t looking, or else they let it go. She surfaced, gulped some air and hurtled towards the deep end, her hands smashing into the water, but fast – and, the thing was, it looked messy as all hell, but she pretty much had the stroke: face in, the arm’s reach coming right from the hip the twist of the neck, the timing. It was all there, ready, and Mitch just had to stop and watch.

He didn’t know it then, but nature versus nurture was a topic he and Tara’s mother would in the coming years return to many times. Of course, he’d tell her, you need to train. But some people start from a better place. Height is good; long limbs and big hands and feet are a tremendous asset (look at Mr Phillips, now!), and some (not necessarily the same ones) just have a better constitution and a more efficient metabolism than others. To some extent the lack of any of these assets can be overcome with hard work and the right mindset… But an understanding of how to move in water, feeling the physics, not knowing it – that’s probably innate, and, he’d tell her, that feeling is worth more than anything and it is the very best place to begin. That’s what he’d say, and certainly it seemed to him as he stood waist deep, watching, that this girl had more than begun. She was halfway up the pool before her mother jumped in after her, breast-stroking along with her head up, arms and legs out of sync, fighting her own efforts every inch of the way.

“Tara,” she shouted, “wait! You’ve got to be able to stand!”

Forget that, Mitch thought, as Tara closed in on the end rail, slowing down a bit, but not much. She was pushing it – another thing not everyone wants or is able to do. The two boys in the water with him, for example, were time-wasters, reluctant to go a hairsbreadth out of their comfort zone, and therefore doomed to progress at a glacial pace, but there were ten minutes of the lesson left so he turned his back on Tara and went back to the drill for the dolphin kick.

“That kid could go a long way, very fast,” he told Annette in the evening. “Could be a great swimmer. I’m absolutely sure of it. And I could help. I feel like I should. It’s weird. I’ve not felt like this before.”

After the lesson, he dried off and pulled on his Coach tee shirt for maximum professional effect. The new family were back in the shallows, and he went right over and squatted down.

“That’s some awesome swimming you do,” he said to Tara, then looked at her parents. “Who taught you, your dad?” The man with the tattoo laughed.

“Afraid not, ” he said. “You’re looking at the world’s worst.”

“Her cousin taught her in the lake,” the mother said.

“You’re a bit of a fish,” Mitch told Tara. “How old are you?”

“Seven and a half,” she said. She was looking right at him, had been ever since he came over. It was clear to Mitch that she very much wanted to hear what he had to say.

“One thing,” he told her, “try keeping your hands like this, and sliding them in forwards without a splash, then you can pull more water… See? Angle them like this. It should feel like you’re pulling and the water’s pushing back. But don’t quite close up your fingers. Like so. You’ll catch more water. Feel it? That’s the way.” He turned back to the mom.

“You know, she might enjoy our swim team.” He kept his tone light, even though he had a very serious feeling about it.

“We’re not really joiners,” she said, and looked away. There was no point in being pushy, and, as he explained to Annette, it was all too easy for parents to think you were some kind of pervert, especially once your hair started to thin: these days, he said, it’s probably better all round to be female, but some things can’t be helped. Thank God, Annette said. So Mitch didn’t ask whether they were passing through or new to the area, or where the kid went to school. He just grinned and backed off.

“Mitchell McAllister,” he told them as he stood up. “Here most mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Enjoy the pool.”

“It’s freezing!” Tara’s mother said. They did keep the water cool. That was what swimmers needed. Management appreciated the needs of the club, plus those few degrees saved a fair bit.

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” he told her, smiling. “You’ll soon warm up.”

“Maybe I’ll never see them again,” he told Annette.

Back then, the house took up all their free time. That night they were painting the lounge in Ivory and Arctic Moss. He was on the ladder, she was cutting in by the baseboard. They each craned their necks to look at the other.

“Well,” she said, “let’s see how it goes,” and there was a feeling that they had agreed to something, though neither of them knew exactly what.

A week or two after their first meeting, he ran into Tara’s mother in the lobby. Her hair was wet, and she had a rolled up towel under her arm; a nice woman, he thought, but a little too thin and too intense, her eyes shiny-bright, the angles and planes of her face more like sculpture than flesh. He was just arriving, she was on her way out.

“Hey, Mitch, right?” she called out. “We chatted the other week. Tara pestered me to bring her back so she can show you her new arms. She’s been practising in the air.”

“Cool!” he said, feeling his heart rate pick up: excitement, self-justification, hope –a cocktail of many things.

“Well,” she shrugged, “it’s a half hour drive, and we have a lot to look after right now. Fencing the yard, keeping the darn chickens alive, re-plumbing up the house. We just can’t make too many trips. And I’m not a fan of your freezing water! So finally we made it – and then we missed you. Sabrina, by the way.” She offered her hand.

“I start later on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons,” Mitch explained as Tara emerged with her dad from the family change-room. Josh: Mitch shook his hand, too. It was cold still from the pool.

“Scoot back in I’ll watch you now,” he told Tara. The parents looked at each other.

“You two stay dry,” he told them. “Get a coffee, tell Chris it’s on me. Five minutes, okay?”

She jumped right in, looked up at him. She was waiting for his say-so, but at the same time he had a feeling she was in charge. Okay, he thought, I’m yours.

“Up to the end and back,” he told her, “but remember, it’s not a race. I want what’s called good form. I’ll walk up on the side here and I want to see you make your hands go in perfectly and pull back the water just as I told you, every single time.” At the end, she was breathing hard which told him she had tried for speed and form, and that her endurance needed work. But the hands were perfect, and her eyes sought his: How was that? What did you see? What next? Show me! They were blue-grey eyes, big, the same as her mother’s, but her gaze was untroubled and they picked up some of the colour of the water. She was all about what came next, about being in the water, about wanting something from him and wanting even more from herself.

“Attagirl,” he beamed back at her. “You got it. Next time I’ll show you the flip turn.” He picked her out a decent pair of goggles from the lost and found and told her to ask her parents to get her a one piece and book her in for a free trial lesson: that way, they wouldn’t have to get wet themselves.

There was another long gap and then over the course of a six week set Tara learned her dive and turn, and the beginnings of a pretty decent fly. They started on her dive.

“It’s like I’m giving her what she’s wanted all her life,” he told Annette. “Amazing. Totally committed. But she needs to be part of something.”

Maybe she needs other kids to swim with, was how he would put it to Sabrina.

“If your folks do say yes, at this time of year you’d practise every day before school and the dry land training Tuesday and Thursday, after school. Meets, that’s the races, are every month or so until the real season starts and you don’t have to come to every single one. Later it gets to be a little bit more. But we do take August off. You need talk it over with your mom and dad.” Take a deep breath, he told himself. Submerge… Hold it. Let it out very slowly. Wait.

Depth is about the water pushing in on you and separating you from the familiar world. Some of those drawn to go deep want none of the careful calculation of pressure and gasses, the attention to time and meticulous checking of equipment that scuba entails; they prefer to extend their innate physical capacities as far as possible and dive free of equipment, with just a lungful of air to sustain them and a dangling rope to help them find their way back up. A free-diver learns his or her body as if it were both friend and enemy: how deep it will willingly go, how to push it further, how to increase lung capacity and oxygen absorption, how to slow the heart beat and move without wasted effort; to evaluate, accept and transcend pain.

Mitch once witnessed a free-diving record. He was on the crew of the Shirley, waiting for Herman Fischmann (could you make up a name like that!) to surface. He held his own breath in sympathy, but managed only two minutes. He burst into tears when the bloke’s shaven head emerged ¬– it was like seeing a baby born ¬– and on top of that he felt a kind of water-man kinship, though personally he was not especially drawn to depth. For him, it’s speed, economy and distance, not depth, not so much. But he certainly understood the dedication involved.

He knew that Sabrina and Jason did not quite got where – who ¬– Tara was, but he had high hopes that they would.

“If you think about it, what I ask of these kids is no different from, say, learning the piano,” he told Annette. They had the new kitchen in by then: granite, gas stove, the lot, and made a point of using it.

“Hmm… You don’t have to play piano at six-thirty, travel half an hour to get to it and pack your breakfast,” she said, which was fair enough.

Annette owned Valley Fitness, the gym in town. She had it first with her ex, then on her own; she was hoping to sell it before too long. She was a keep-fitter, not an athlete, but she understood training and competition.

“I’m not strict,” he continued. “Intrinsic motivation is where I come from, not carrots and sticks. After a year, I expect a little more, and so on. And she’d lift the whole team: it’s not just about the obvious athletes. Some kids are signed up to get a bit of exercise, others for the friendships, but then once they are in, it changes, and some of them suddenly take off. They all get something out of it. But with Tara, I have to tell you, I’m thinking the Nationals in a few years and then looking right ahead to the Olympics in 2016.”

“That’s an awful long way to look,” Annette said. “What about here and now? Could we forget Tara for an hour so?” He grinned back at her and complimented her on the salmon she had cooked, tried to bring his mind back to the two of them and the here and now, but the truth was he could not forget: even when he did not think of Tara she was there, waiting in the back of his mind. And before long it got to the point where both he and Annette dreamed about Tara, her times, her moments of victory, but also things like injuries, forgetting her suit, losing her goggles, or beginning to struggle for her breath. Many times, in his sleep, he dived in and rescued her.

You must do whatever the lifeguard says, Mitch always tells his swimmers, and use your common sense: don’t swim alone. Remember that water, however much you love it, does not love you back. It simply does what it must do according to the laws of physics and the conditions at the time, and while it is essential to life, it can also end it, and swiftly, too. Humans are not amphibious… How can you tell if someone is drowning? he asks. Hardly anyone has ever had the right answer: swimmers in distress splash and shout, but drowning itself is silent and swift. There’s just not enough air to make any noise. The head goes back, the arms spread out and push down on the water until for a moment or two the mouth breaks free of the surface, exhales, gasps – but then it goes under again. With each surfacing the inhalation is smaller, the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood greater, the arms weaker, and in a minute or less it’s impossible to surface at all; water is inhaled and the larynx constricts, sealing the air tube to protect the lungs. The brain, starved of oxygen by now, soon shuts down – though the victim may still be resuscitated, if pulled out of the water and treated before cardiac arrest occurs.

In order to flush the carbon dioxide from their lungs and so delay the breathing reflex triggered by its build-up, some swimmers hyperventilate before a distance or depth dive. It’s a high-risk strategy, since the diver may black out due to oxygen deprivation before they feel the urge to breathe. Typically, these drowned divers are found, too late, on the bottom of the pool. So, no panting and gasping before you dive in, he tells his swimmers, and no breath-holding contests: I know what I’m talking about, believe me. And even though you are going to be excellent swimmers, please wear your flotation devices when you row across the lake or go sailing with your uncle. Suppose the boom swings and knocks you unconscious before you fall in? And by wear I mean buckle it up…

Sabrina and Jason’s overgrown acreage and 1910 farmhouse with authentic shingles came cheap, but they had to install fences and drains, fell trees, extract rocks from the soil, and then plant five hundred grape vines and two hundred lavender bushes, all at the same time as trying to run a web design business, grow their own ultra-healthy food, including chickens, without using chemicals, and raise a family. Eventually they would be showing visitors round on tours and tastings as well, and Sabrina would be making and marketing organic lavender products: oil, hand cream, soap and such. Big dreams and laudable aims, was how Mitch put it to himself. You never knew how things would turn out, but it sounded to him like a miserable amount of work, unless you had money behind you.

“Nice property,” he said when they showed him and Annette around.

“I wish you hadn’t put this team idea in her head,” Sabrina said. “All that time spent on one thing, especially at this age, seems crazy! The reason we chose home-schooling is to avoid competitiveness and peer pressure and have her enjoy her childhood.”

“Well, yes,” Mitch said, and met the eyes fixed on his face, the mottled grey irises darkly ringed and suspended in blue-tinged white. His feeling was that Sabrina desperately wanted to do the right thing, but had no instinct for what it was. Part of her knew this, but another part, the part mainly in charge, did not.

“There is all that,” he said. “And it would be a big commitment. And you’re her mom, so you know best. The club is competitive, but it’s not just about competition. It’s very sociable. They work hard and they have a lot of fun together – that might be a big plus if she’s mainly with you guys. And some people just naturally like to strive. Look at it this way: she’s competing against herself right now. It might be healthier to let her do it with other kids around.” He kept his voice light. “Why not just try and see?” he said.

“Remind me,” Sabrina said, still locking eyes with him, “how on earth did we get to be having this conversation?”

“You showed her the water,” Mitch picked up on her tone and pulled her towards the laugh they’d share, “that’s probably where you went wrong.”

Her whole body softened when she laughed.

“She’s beginning to understand. But I can’t tell her too much at once,” he told Annette.”

In training, the body is pushed beyond its limits. It suffers, then reconstitutes itself. Muscles strengthen and develop a tolerance to lactic acid. Lung-capacity increases. The heart grows in size. At the same time, understanding of the stroke accumulates. Young swimmers begin with a general impression, and move into the detail. As each new element is assimilated, the swimmer reaches a plateau, or even loses ground before progressing further. The mind too must remake itself.

Mitch swims the sets that he’s written on the sandwich board for his faster swimmers: five hundred metre warm up. Pull four times 150. Swim ten times 100 intervals. Kick for 500, then kick fifteen times 25 metres, intervals. Five hundred butterfly, five hundred choice. He’s working his way one stroke at a time towards the finale, towards sprint 100, 75, 50, 25 with a fifteen second recovery. These days, some of his swimmers are faster than he is.

He working hard enough that the air tastes very sweet when he gets to rest. Water rushes past his ears, his breath’s bubbles burst around his face; each time his ears surface there’s gasp of his inhalation, the sudden emptiness of the air above the pool. When his hands meet the tile another turn begins… The hands of the deck timer mark each second as it passes and sometimes, for length after length he thinks of nothing at all, just feels the stroke.

Though not today. He’s remembering that first time he saw the pool at Braeden Manor: no deep end, the water opaque, unused lane dividers tangled together at the far end. The windows along one side were almost obscured by the bushes and creeper growing outside. A faded sign pointed out that students who swam without a qualified life guard present did so at their own risk. He remembers how his heart lifted, how he almost cried when he saw it. Just the sight of the water, the thought of being immersed.

People evolved from fish. In the early weeks of pregnancy, the human embryo develops the beginnings of gills, which later become part of its ears. Air-breathing and lungs evolved in fish as a way of coping with oxygen depleted waters. It makes perfect sense to Mitch that our brains and bodies carry traces of the distant, aquatic past, and this must account for the affinity some feel for water, for individuals with extraordinary skills. Those free divers, for example: no one can really explain how they descend on a single breath six hundred feet below the surface, much less why they are drawn to sink to such lonely and dangerous depths. Yes, their lungs are more capacious than average, but even so, after fifty feet, they’re compressed to all but nothing, and theoretically, after three or four minutes, all those divers should be dead. Some do die in their attempts, but most live… It’s quite possible, Mitch thinks, that this is because they have retained some fishy capacities, some metabolic trick that scientists don’t yet understand – and it’s got to be the same for exceptional swimmers like Tara. They see the water and feel its pull; they know what to do because it’s buried somewhere in the fish part of their brain.

He volunteered for 5.45 pick up in the mornings and said he could find another parent to drive Tara home after practice.

“All right, then,” Sabrina said. Tara’s arms were wrapped around her waist. “It’s very kind of you to help. I can’t promise, but we’ll take you up on the month’s free try-out.”

That was it. A month later Tara formally joined the Sharks: sixty swimmers from six to seventeen, their coach, Mitchell McAllister, assisted by a series of university students and volunteers – brilliant, abysmal and everything in between. Josh, they decided, could manage the evening sessions. He could sit with his laptop and work while she trained. A bit of time out for you, Mitch pointed out to Sabrina.

“I don’t particularly want that,” she told him, but she returned his smile.

At the first meet, both parents leapt to their feet, yelling and cheering. At last, Mitch told Annette, they saw it: how swimming against someone good could take four seconds off Tara’s time; how close to each other, how grateful rivals can feel at the end of a hard race.

Soon Josh was asking questions about interval versus sprint and making up spreadsheets on his computer, to the point that Mitch had to rein him in. Though Sabrina, who had yelled just as loud, once came up to him at the coaches’ bench where he was packing up his things, and said, “Thanks, Mitch. But this whole thing is weird. What the hell is it about?”

“Being in the water,” he told her. He pointed out how Tara liked the fun stuff, too, water polo, the pyjama swim, all that. That she was not full of herself. Just happy. She was learning how to encourage those in the team who weren’t sure they wanted to be there. The training and the competition, he explained as they climbed the concrete steps and finally emerged from the fuggy humid air into the late afternoon sun, would provide her with many life-lessons: how to decide what she wanted and work for it, short and long term. How to deal with setbacks. “Swimming is a way to find out who you are,” he told Sabrina. She seemed to take it on, but she didn’t often come to the meets after that.

Sabrina missed seeing Tara win the 200 breast, a stroke she’d learned from scratch with Mitch. It’s all about timing, he’d told her: the amount of glide, the moment to pull the arms back, getting the kick and the reach to work together. You begin by thinking it through but in the end, you learn to feel when it’s right. In the pool that afternoon, Tara pushed a v-shaped wave of water ahead of her and overtook her rival in the first of eight lengths.

At the end, she gripped the rim of the pool, heaving for breath. Mitch, watching from the coaches’ bench, knew that she’d be disqualified for not touching properly on her second turn. He watched the white-coated official zone in on Tara as she went to pick up her towel. The woman, hugely fat, squatted down to Tara’s level, holding onto the railings for support. Quite a picture, the muscular little girl who knew how to part the water and pull herself through it with the minimum of wasted energy, the woman who had to drag the equivalent of another person wrapped around with her, day in, day out. On the face of it, Mitch thought as he watched the thing play out, you’d say the wrong one is giving advice here, though the fact is a lot of these amazing little swimmers end up as beached whales in middle age. Tara, he thought, would be bright enough to do the math. She was a great kid all round. She stood straight and looked the whale-woman in the eye. He wished he’d brought a camera with him.

Then she was there in front of him. Subdued, but no tears yet.

“DQ’d,” she told him, looking to see how he took it. Her time, 1:22, would have been a meet record.

“Bad luck, great time!” He watched her break into a grin. Later, he’d explain to her that every disqualification is a gift, and that by the end of the season, she would have her time way further down: it was a given, really, if she just did what he asked of her, and kept on growing, which she surely would, and did.

Annette sold her business and began to come along on the meet weekends. She helped pack up the car, took photographs for the website, and looked after the younger swimmers, the girls especially. Once Sabrina had the twins and needed Josh home to help, it was often just the three of them in Mitch’s car, making jokes, talking things over.

But the first two years were in some ways the best, because then all of it was so fresh, so very exciting. Tara qualified for Provincials with times almost two seconds faster than required. She would have been seeded first, but couldn’t go because of a trip already planned to visit to Josh’s parents in Ontario.

“Of course that comes first,” Mitch told Sabrina. They were in her kitchen; she’d invited him in for coffee when he dropped Tara off. “No problem,” he said, raising his mug as if in a toast, and he more or less almost meant it. He saw her jaw relax as she let go of the fight she’d been preparing for, though the next morning at 5:45, Tara red-eyed, was crying up boulders next to him in the car.

“I hate my parents!” she spat out as they turned into the freeway.

“Whoa!” He glanced across, then grabbed her shoulder for a moment. “They didn’t know. And who pays for all this? Who brings you here, who washes your towels? All you’ve got to do is wait until next year.”

“Next year?”

“Next year, you could be six seconds faster. You’re eight,” he told her. “You have nine more years of Provincials. Missing this one will save you from getting bored. And remember, you’re part of a team. All this year, you’ll be pulling the others after you and speeding them up, too.”

Actually, he was sure she’d be in the Nationals by twelve or thirteen. And when she did get to her first Provincials she beat all records and ended up with three gold medals, which she wore to the team dinner that night. The skin on her face looked taut, almost as if it had shrunk, and her eyes were very bright. She looked more like her mother, he thought. There was something other-worldly about both of them.

“I’m starving!” Tara told him as he passed by where she was sitting with her friend Alice and both of her parents. Sabrina had protested earlier about the unhealthy choice of restaurant but now she waved at him and seemed happy enough.

“Good to see you wearing your jewels,” he told Tara.

“Did you get medals like these?” she asked.

“Not at your age, no,” he told her, “I didn’t get any hardware until I was much older than you.”

“Why not?”

“I was never in a team at school,” he said, moving on.

He had not always been Mitch, though there was no need for Tara to know that. He grew up under the name of Sebastian McAllister, in England, the only child of an actress and a history professor who believed that from beginning to end, their son’s school experience should be intellectually stimulating, rigorous yet also creative and free. There was no need for Tara to know Mitch’s story, but Annette had required detailed background information. Comprehensive life-story exchange had been part of the deal. And was quite probably worthwhile, he admitted once it was done.

“They were prepared to pay through the nose,” he told her, “but nowhere was good enough.” Sebastian, as he was then, attended four different elementary schools before ending up at Braeden Manor, a cutting edge progressive secondary based in an Arts and Crafts style mansion in Hampshire. It was famed for its dedicated staff, small classes and picturesque, wooded environment. There were professional quality art rooms, laboratories and a well-equipped theatre, in which, despite or because of his mother being an actress, he had absolutely no interest. Braeden was a boarding school, and by that time, he was happy enough to leave home.

“Would he go for arts, languages, or sciences? Perhaps he’d prefer some middle ground between the two? Philosophy? What about the Law?

Braeden’s teachers were on first name terms with their pupils, who were encouraged to create their own curriculum. There was endless freedom, provided it was something intellectual or artistic that you wanted to do, but the school was too small to field teams for any of the local leagues and sports hardly figured at all. In any case, the feeling was that team games were warlike and suspect; the life of the mind was what they were there to explore and the body figured only as an aesthetic object or the subject of scientific enquiry. Physical Education took the form of recreational tennis and occasional runs over the fields, and, tacked on to the side of one of the older buildings, was a neglected twenty five metre pool which students who knew how to swim were allowed to use provided a waiver had been signed.

“That pool saved my life,” Mitch told Annette, on one of their early dates, a hike up the mountain. “They meant well, but it’s tough having parents who ignore what you are. They wanted me in Oxford, never understood that books bored me, much less how I loved the water. By the time I got into swimming, I’d stopped telling them anything. There was the pool, and I was in it, timing laps, practicing how to breathe, growing my shoulders. I got a book, The Science of Swimming, and worked from that. Can you imagine learning technique from a book? But it was a good book, and taught me everything. The strokes, how to train. I still think it’s the best… I timed myself and kept a log. No one took much notice. Perhaps I’d like to make it into a science project? Well, perhaps.

“Poor grades saved me from Oxford, but university of some kind seemed unavoidable. I picked Bristol for its pool, and persuaded them to let me try out for the swim team. I wasn’t quite good enough. If I’d started proper training and competed earlier, they told me, I’d have had a decent chance. Fuck this, I thought, it’s my life. I went AWOL, took off, for years: Turkey, Thailand, India, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand…”

“I’d love to go to New Zealand,” Annette said. And maybe they would. Because it was getting to the point that he couldn’t go on coaching, year on year forever, and financially, a time would come when he would not have to. For a while now, he had had it in mind that he’d at least semi-retire in 2016. Go watch Tara in Rio and leave it at that, that’s what he had been thinking.

The last part of the mountain trail was steep. They passed through old forest and he’d drifted away from where his story was going… In water, he told Annette, you learn yourself. Who you are. How far, how long you will go, what you think and feel as you set yourself on a course, just you and it. Water is always stronger than you, even when you’re the best you can be, and if you make a mistake, it is waiting to fill you up. And if you’re drunk, you shouldn’t swim, especially in the dark, however warm the water and the air and however beautiful the glittering firmament above.

Between Sebastian and Mitch he went by a variety of names. He had been that tanned guy picking grapes, selling sunglasses on the beach, or fish, or worse; he was the bloke running the little boat over to the island, or taking tourist money to see the turtles hatch. Also, he had been that guy passed out on the beach. He did the necessary to keep moving on from one sweet spot to the next, and at the same time he found his own way down and out of his own head. He sent only occasional postcards home.

By chance Mitch arrived at Lake Taupo at the time of an open water meet: a whole scene he had no idea about. Short haul swimmers wear out fast, but he could still train for distance, and had been, informally, for years. So he took up open water competition and for a while it gave a shape to his life: training, and saving for the race fees and travel from one event to the next. And between times he set out solo, crossed bays and straits, swam to distant islands, rested and returned. Though he still drank. But at least when he came to grief it was the in the Mediterranean, and not the North Sea. A yachtsman who’d done a lifesaving course fished him out.

“Chance in a million. I’d passed out, was probably a minute away from death. I remember him slapping my face then going back to pump my chest some more. I vomited up half the ocean. And after that, I went home. My father was dead by then. Mum put me through detox and rehab: nine months, lord knows what it cost. I changed my name to Mitchell, and I met Laura, who brought me back to Vancouver. We lasted almost six years, and here I am now, five thousand miles away from where I began, on the Pacific rim, coaching the swim-team at the Fourth Street pool.”

“What about your mother?” Annette asked. By then, they were sitting at the summit, the city, fields islands and sea spread out below them; the sky, intense cerulean, wisped with puffy clouds. Not a bad view to be sitting in, not at all.

“Annual visit and talk on the phone. She’s forgetful now, lives in a retirement complex with helpers, and is lined up to move into care. She’s never stopped calling me Sebastian. And the way she puts it is that I’m a teacher… She forgets the divorce and tells everyone including me, that my Canadian wife and I live near Vancouver. Some things just stay out of shape and you have to let it be. It’s about as good as you could expect.” Mitch put his hand on Annette’s shoulder, and she leaned in to him. Her story, which had come first, was simpler: a father no man could live up to; difficulties with men who found her too assertive. One of the many things he liked about Annette was that she did not judge or argue with what he’d made of his own tangled experience. She didn’t try to tell him what it all meant.

By the time the twins were toddlers, Tara’s parents had put the property with its lavender and baby vines up for sale. Bad timing: it was on the market for years, but before Tara got to the Nationals, they’d managed to cut their losses and sell it to another set of hopefuls. They moved to the edge of town. Tara got to go to regular school. Jason had a job in IT but they were struggling financially.

“It sucks, but we just can’t come,” Sabrina told Mitch. Her voice was tight and he guessed she was holding back tears. “It’s what to do with the twins and the cost of the flights out east.” Annette offered to donate her flight to whichever parent most wanted to go; Sabrina said they’d be too embarrassed to accept.

“Really, they’re splitting up,” Tara told them on the way to the airport. She sighed, examined her hands in her lap. Mostly she looked older than twelve, though sometimes it went the other way.

“First Mom was bringing the twins to watch and Dad was staying home, then it was the other way around. Now they’ve sent Charlie and Louie to stay with Aunt Karen so they can take the time to try and talk things through, just the two of them. I don’t care.” She glanced at him in the mirror, her ponytail whipping to the side as she moved her head.

“I guess you’re better off without them around,” Mitch said, “if all that’s going on. That’s probably what they think, too.”

“No,” she said, her voice wavering, “it’s not. They just couldn’t agree.” He gripped the wheel as if to throttle it and managed to say nothing. Annette twisted right around and put her hand on Tara’s knee.

“Well, kiddo,” she said, “that sucks. But you know I have a very loud voice and I’d like your permission to cheer for three when you’re on.”

“Sure,” Tara said. Her shoulders seemed to relax a little; she looked out the window. Planes were taking off and landing, and the runways shimmered in the heat. “Do we get a meal on the flight?” she asked, and Annette said no, but she had brought chicken pasta and banana bread in her carry-on.

At the hotel, Tara and Annette shared, leaving Mitch in a room on his own. Mitch barely slept, could only hope that Tara was drinking enough and visualising as he’d taught her to, each stroke of the race, every breath and every single turn, in real time. The feel of the water and the wall of the pool, the sounds, her time on the clock. It had been proved that the same neurons fired whether you were visualizing or swimming for real. You must make a memory of what you wanted to occur.

“You can either let stuff get to you,” he told her when they said goodnight, “or you can say, none of that comes in the water with me. Just swim.”

A 6:30 warm-up. An hour and a half later, she appeared on deck sheathed in her turquoise and black knee-skin. She looked for him and Annette, gave them her thumbs up salute, then as soon as they’d returned it, looked back at the water and rolled her shoulders. She was about in the middle for height, Mitch noted. There were no real giants, no surprises. But he thought she looked pale. No, ¬¬¬¬Annette said, it was the light, they all did except the black girl from Toronto in lane three. And they were all brilliant – he and Tara had studied the stats. This was where you met your match, which for the hundred free was Josie Georgeson, lane five, next to Tara in four: their times were a whisker apart. Across the board it was tight: the race was down to who wanted it most and had best accepted and nurtured that knowledge, fed and groomed it, let it take residence in their mind, day and night – but also on who had a bad day, not enough sleep, or too much going on at home.

“On your marks.” Eight of them, strong, slim and streamlined in their racing suits, climbed up onto the diving blocks, adjusted their goggles and bent to grip the edge. What was she thinking? Of the water, the strokes ahead of her? Of nothing at all?

When the light flashed and the buzzer sounded the swimmers sprang from the blocks, hung for a split second in the air, then sliced into the pool; they came up together. Buried in the crowd’s roar Mitch was counting her strokes, yelling Ra! Ra! Ra! and praying for the turn, because with this talent, a perfect or an imperfect turn would make the difference: arm, arm, tuck, kick up your butt, stay compact in the roll, feet slam the wall, push, rotate, yes! She surfaced half a length ahead of the rest. Mitch and Annette were on their feet with the worst of them, roaring as she came in almost a tenth of a second ahead. She yanked off her goggles to see her time. Mitch was in tears. It was not her fastest, but it was better than anyone else’s and it had got her through. It was good to keep something in reserve. They worked their way down through the sea of parents and coaches.

“Cool!” she said.

“Very cool. Good work! You’re well in,” he said as Annette handed over the recovery drink; she nudged him and he backed off, managed not to say, in a choked voice, I’m gonna be so proud of you. Though as it turned out he was: Two golds, one silver, and one bronze over a long three days: emotionally exhausting in the very best way. The pool and the hotel, the heats, finals, food, drink – it was as if nothing else existed. After dinner, they returned to the rooms and watched old Disney films. And then it was over, and they cracked jokes and gossiped all the way home.

When they got there, things changed. Josh did not appear. In the hall, Sabrina explained to Mitch and Annette that things had been falling apart since before the twins were born. She and Josh were pulling in different directions, couldn’t agree on anything; it had always been that way to some extent and was even part of the attraction. Now, with the three kids, it wasn’t possible any more, not even bearable. Not for her. Counselling was useless. They were going to split. They were aiming to do everything fairly and with as little pain as possible. The twins would stay with Sabrina. Tara could choose where she wanted to live. Either way, there would be plenty of flexibility.

“I’m very sorry,” Mitch told Sabrina. She grimaced, shrugged, turned away.

“I don’t want to live with either of them!” Tara told Mitch when she called him later that night. “Can I come live with you and Annette? You guys are a such a lot of fun.” And now he wonders: supposing they’d said yes, sure, come right on over, we’ll work it out somehow? Supposing they had taken her in? How might things have turned out then? But instead, he called Sabrina.

“Look,” he said after he’d let her know what Tara wanted, “I’m just letting you know. If we can help in some way, please say and of course we’ll do what we can.”

“I think we’ll be fine, but thank you, Mitch,” she replied. Did “we” include the kids? he asked Annette. Couldn’t they have waited a bit, given how long they’ve waited already?

Tara did not choose. She moved between the two homes. After six months, Josh decided to move to Toronto for work. He pointed out that it would make sense for Tara’s training, if she wanted to come too, and by then, she did.

“She’ll keep in touch,” Annette reassured Mitch. He wasn’t convinced, but she did. She called or Skyped pretty much every week, and wrote Mitch long emails packed with details about her training. They still got to watch her major events. She was in a documentary about young athletes, and on TV several times. Her new team practiced in the varsity pool and at the Olympium, great fifty metre pools. School went well and she was being tipped for college scholarships. She was sixteen, and almost six feet tall, with the perfect swimmer’s build. She kept her hair in a pixie cut, for convenience, she said, but it looked great on her. There had been two boyfriends, both swimmers, but neither relationship seemed intense or disruptive: they were probably too tired to get up to much, Annette thought.

After the move, Mitch found it uncomfortable running into Sabrina and the twins at the grocery store and realizing that in many respects he knew far more about her daughter than she did. There was that on his side, and something else on hers, a distance that seemed like restrained hostility. Did she think it was all his fault? Did she blame swimming for the breakup, or at least for the loss of her daughter? Blame him, in fact? Annette thought it very likely, though he hated to think that way. He’d always liked Sabrina. Still, it was Tara that mattered.

“The coaches here aren’t any better than you. Mitch,” she’d told him. “But the thing is, there are three of them.”

“Well they must be doing something right,” he pointed out. It was all going very well, come 2013.

It’s properly bright outside now, almost time for the lifeguards and then the early swimmers to arrive, dropped off by whichever white-faced parent drew the short straw that day. And Mitch has swum the last sprint; he’s feeling the workout, and he’s had enough waiting. He just wants Tara to call as she promised she would, and he wants to say – well what? He’s said so many things in his head that now he doesn’t know what’s best, or even exactly what he thinks. He just wants to hear her voice. He goes, dripping, straight back to reception, and digs the phone out of his backpack.

Nothing. Doesn’t she owe him some respect?

Kelly the receptionist gives him an odd look as she comes in and turns her screen on: semi-naked colleague dripping in office.

“I’m going to get a coffee,” he tells her, makes for the door, then returns for his shirt. During the five-minute drive he remembers something Tara said when she called a week ago with her news: Suppose I was pregnant, what would you think then? I’d be fucking furious, he’d thought.


“I’m not, by the way.”

“Well, I’d be wanting to know how you felt about it… And to be honest, I’d be thinking, well, babies are great, but that is something you could do anytime over the next two decades.”

He had wanted to say:

Look, sometimes it’s hard to honour your gift, but you’ll feel better for doing it in the long run.

You’ll never forgive yourself if you turn away now.

This is just a blip.

Just hang in there a bit longer and it’ll feel good again.

Hang in three more years.

Get what you came for, then quit.

Why would you not do this?

You are so very, very lucky¬!

How dare you throw your chance away!

“But the thing was to handle it so that she didn’t get backed into a corner. “Look,” he said eventually, “It’s a big decision. Just do this one thing for me. Take a week to think it over every which way one more time, then call me again.”

She said yes.

So where is she?

He should get some breakfast, but can’t decide what. He stirs cream and two sugars into a cup of strong coffee, carefully fits the lid to the cup, then drives back to the pool. He carries the coffee to the little outside area where there are picnic tables and some play-equipment. He places the phone on the table about a foot away. I’ll drink this, he thinks, and then I will either call her and say What the hell? or smash this fucking phone with a rock. He enjoys the idea of the rock: it’s ludicrous but that does not mean that he won’t do it.

The taste of the coffee, its sweetness and temperature are perfect; he drinks slowly, pausing between mouthfuls to look at the pool building, the yellowing rhododendrons sprawled against it, the car parking area with its forlorn planters and lamps. He waits a little before taking the last mouthful. And then it’s gone, and the phone rings.

“Hi, Mitch!” her voice, light and even, gives no clue as to what she’ll say. “You okay? Got a few minutes?” He doesn’t mention that he should be at work.

“So, like you said, I’ve thought it over. “

“Great, Tara.”

“Well, Mitch… I am a hundred percent certain that I’m not stressed. Or in love. And I’ve not over-trained. It’s a fantastic program and they switch things up a lot. And it’s definitely not Max’s or Roxy’s or anyone’s fault that I’ve come to feel this way. They’re great coaches. I talked to them a few weeks ago, and they said to take a break and see if it freshened me up. I’m on my third week of the break now, and I really like it. I really, really like taking a break. And they sent me to a sports counsellor twice a week. Basically, I’m thinking, maybe I’ve swum enough?”

A counsellor once asked Mitch what the water represented for him and when he said nothing, suggested it might be the womb.

“Tara–” he begins, but she doesn’t stop for him.

“Of course, yes, there’s the Big O. And the Pan Am. All these goals I’ve had, we’ve all had, for years. And it’s been great to look forward to, but Mitch, my motivation’s zilch. I’ve lost interest. In winning stuff. In the podium. It’s like, done that.”

But no, Mitch thinks, you haven’t! You’ve got very close, but turned away, which is a completely different thing. He knows he’s right. Also, that it is worse than pointless to say so. Tara’s voice does not waver as she continues: “I don’t hate it, as such, but I don’t feel the pull any more. You just can’t train, you can’t get there unless you really, really want what’s at the end of it… It’s changed. I’ve changed. At first I ignored it, then I freaked out, but now it’s fine, I think. Good, actually. Because why not? Why can’t I be something different? I want to think about new things. The environment, stuff like that. And Mitch, it is so cool to pick up a book and not fall asleep by the end of the second page.”

You have your whole life to read books!

She’s still talking: how she might do volunteer work, and wants to see the world, not just the 50 metre pools in its major cities and the corridors of budget hotels. Could go to Guatemala. Bhutan. Thailand. Peru.

Beware of open water! Wear the life-jacket!

She’s thinking that when she’s earned some money. How? She’ll make some long trips, journeys that include biking, kayaking and camping, but also spend time in cities.

Always learn some of the language. Travel with someone. Buy your own drinks, and watch them!

“I feel awful about disappointing you all. But it is my life. I feel,” Tara says, her voice growing slower and less certain, “like I’ve ended a very long swim. When you climb out of the pool and stand on dry land ¬– you know that soft, heavy feeling while your body adjusts? Odd. And it is scary, because who am I without the water? What’s left of me? I have no idea. But I want to know. And Mitch, I don’t want to fall out over this. I really, really, don’t. Are you hearing me?”

He wants to advise her to at least keep her fitness up – after all, who is he to her if not her coach? He wants to tell her that in six weeks or even six months time, if she changed her mind she could probably still come back. But he takes a deep breath and says none of it.

“Yes,” he says and small as it is, that word comes hard, but then it’s done. The tears that course down his face are a relief. “Loud and clear. Got it, Tara.”

“Cool!” she says, her voice bright and free. “Thanks so much for everything, Mitch. I mean that. I’m heading west in a few weeks time. Guess I’ll visit you guys then.”

“All right, Tara. Take care.”

It’s over. He sits head in hands, alone on the bench outside the pool, his swimmers inside waiting for him, his face wet: it’s a strange feeling, a kind of passionate emptiness, an unexpected calm. Shock? Relief? Release? In any case, the best thing is to keep moving. Mitch stands, slips the cup in the trash and goes back in to the pool.

“It’s just how and what it is, and good luck to her, but I can’t pretend to like it,” he tells Annette later, the pair of them folded into each other, pressed close, rocking back and forth.

“It’s could be the best thing ever for her.” Annette pulls back a little so she can look up into his face. “And now, we have a truly empty nest… Please, Mitch, don’t you dare turn us into a cliché. Let’s go somewhere together, soon. Let’s get away and start thinking about something else.”

He has two weeks coming up. She’s thinking about Iceland. It’s mild and light almost all night long in August. You can cycle right round. It has puffins, geysers, hot springs, black beaches, all sorts of pools. You can scuba dive in the Silfra rift, swim in Viti lake.

Sure, Mitch says. It does sound great, though it’s not cheap, and somehow they don’t make the booking right away.

About a week later, he glimpses Sabrina and the twins in the grocery store, ahead of him in the tea and coffee aisle, and it floods through him: how much she must have been through, how much she has had to let go. He catches up with her in produce, and asks her if she’s heard from Tara. She nods and pulls a quick smile, meets his gaze.

“Apparently Josh took it very badly,” she says. “But she said you were just great… Once she knows where she’s going next, well, we all know she’ll work hard for it.” They’re standing quite close. Her face is open, relaxed. He’s not seen her like this before.

“I worry,” Mitch finds himself saying, “that as time passes, she may miss the training routine itself far more than she expects.”

“You could be right.” Sabrina touches him on the shoulder and her hand rests there a second or two. “Mitch,” she says, “when Tara gets back, we’ll do dinner or something with you and Annette.” Then she gathers up the twins and pushes her cart on towards the baked goods.

It’s such a soft but sudden feeling – something like waking up, something like his first sight of the Braedan Manor pool or of Lake Taupo, something like déjà vu: the sensation of what used to be turning itself, in the space of a breath, into the beginning of something else.

—Kathy Page


Kathy Page‘s current love is the short story, but her fiction ranges widely in both form and content. Paradise & Elsewhere, her 2014 collection of fabulist fictions, was nominated for the Giller Prize and short-listed for the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction. Her six novels, include the grittily realistic Alphabet (a finalist for the 2005 Governor General’s Award), The Find (a 2010 Relit Award finalist), and The Story of My Face (long-listed for the 2002 Orange Prize). Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, a novel that interweaves realistic and fantastical elements, will see Canadian publication in the fall of 2015. Two more collections of stories are forthcoming.

Sep 042015
Larry Fondation

Larry Fondation


Traditionally, novels tend to have a single central character, the focus of the action — the protagonist. All other players in the drama are ancillary, even peripheral. The trajectory happens to — and centers upon — a single person.

Yet in this quickened era — the epoch of text and email and social media — events affect many people simultaneously, en masse and all at once.

By and large, fiction has not kept up with the contemporary change of pace. Music and the visual arts have been more advanced in this regard. Since Marcel Duchamp and Cubism, painting and sculpture have sought to represent — and to not represent (e.g. abstraction, conceptual art, etc.) — the multiple cacophonies of the rapid world. As far back as 1952, John Cage’s “4’33″” represents the apotheosis of radical music, stemming from the dissonant and atonal movements of the earlier 20th Century, not to be outdone by jazz or rock.

Despite the radicalism of other art forms, most contemporary literature, especially American literature, remains rooted in the forms of the 19th Century. Seemingly skipping glibly by the advances of Beckett and Jean Genet, Donald Barthelme and Pierre Guyotat, Ron Sukenick or even John Dos Passos, writers such as Jonathan Franzen (and most others atop the literary bestseller lists) revert to the forms of Flaubert and Balzac and Henry James. Perfect perhaps for 1900; less fitting for 2015.

Meanwhile, many other current writers (usually published by the small presses) now seek a new form for new times, just as Alain Robbe-Grillet and others did more than 50 years ago with the nouveau roman.

I am by no means alone, but I am certainly among those writers looking for new ways and means to reflect our times.

I have published five books of fiction in the U.S. – three have been translated into French and published in France, with my 4th due out there in 2016. Not a single one of my books has a single narrator or even a solo protagonist. I’m not sure this is on purpose, really; but a choral voice is what comes out of my pen.

Urban life seems to me to be marked by a multitude of occurrences, of discontinuous incidents and syncopated rhythms. Traditional narrative arc works well for certain kinds of portrayals. But not necessarily for the jumble of urban living, especially living on or close to the streets. Indeed there a lot of unintended consequences in contemporary life on both large and small scales. I try to approximate the discontinuity with short, stark vignettes that I hope, when taken together, add up to more than the sum of their parts.

I don’t want to write in a trendy way or to mimic social media conventions, but I do want to try to find new means to communicate.

In a French review of my first novel (Angry Nights in English; Sur Les Nerfs in French), critic Frederic Fontes called the book an “unidentifiable literary object.” The description was a compliment, and I took it to be so.

In English language reviews of my second book, Common Criminals, novelist Barry Graham wrote: “…this is not life as we normally read about it in books — this is life as we actually live it.” (Detroit Metro Times) …. and Matt Roberson, in an insightful essay for The American Book Review, called the texts: “… Shocking and shockingly strong pieces.”

Stories and pieces — but what is the book as a whole?

When pressed, I describe myself as an “experimental realist.”

What I mean by that term is that I try to write in the rhythm of my times — in the way that the gangster rap group NWA depicted Los Angeles and Compton in the late 1980s and early 1990s – in musical idiom that matched their reality.

In other words, I am trying to find new forms. In a sense, it harks back once again to Duchamp — the found object, objet trouvé. Now — in words, not pictures — that means hard, fast, and staccato.

In a Rain Taxi review of Unintended Consequences (my 4th book), Canadian novelist Jeff Bursey wrote that the texts told the tale of Everyman, limning the stories of the seldom-heard, and often-neglected “Greek Chorus,” rather than the well-known stories of Oedipus or Antigone.

In yet another review of the (same) book, Tony Rodríguez wrote: “… (Fondation) doesn’t level the playing field with books found in a similar genre. Plainly stated, (he) aggressively razes the genre (crime writing, literary) and seemingly creates something new.” (East Bay Examiner)

In my view, these critics get it. Indeed they nail it dead on. I am not trying to write traditional — or even “postmodern” — novels, and I am not writing “short stories.”

The idea that animates my work is the notion of a “collective novel” — in French, “un roman du collectif.” From my vantage point — in the inner city of Los Angeles — the “new, new novel” should not be the story of a single protagonist, not the tale of one man or woman — but rather the fictional “biography of a place,” a tale of a tribe, the Iliad more so than the Odyssey — Las Meninas, by both Velasquez AND Picasso.   Not either/or; rather both/and.

In my view, the post-realist book of fiction is an “ensemble novel” — a collage, owing more to Alberto Burri and Robert Rauschenberg than to Henry James.

Twentieth century French novelist Raymond Queneau opined that all Western literature was derived from either The Iliad or The Odyssey. Despite the fact that we are so clearly now living in an Iliad world, our literature largely ignores the vast number of ordinary men and woman playing at the corners of the stage.

The contemporary British poet Alice Oswald has written a book of poems based on The Iliad – only she has removed the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon and retained only the stories of the lives and deaths of the bit players. In The Guardian (U.K.) review of Oswald’s book (Memorial: An Excavation of The Iliad), critic Sarah Crown writes: “In [Oswald’s] version, the absence of the monolithic main characters leaves the histories of the foot soldiers who died in their shadows exposed and gleaming, like rocks at low tide.”

In a time of historic economic inequality and the deaths of countless poor people in worldwide wars, both civil and international, it is indeed time for the chorus to have its say. To paraphrase Barry Graham, it’s life as we live it now.

—Larry Fondation


Mass Migration of the Homeless (Novel Excerpt)

They packed up their tents and their cardboard boxes and everything they owned, all now and all at once, and they began to move. They put their things in shopping carts and in backpacks and in anything else mobile and nothing else changed except they were on a march. The dirt brown smog still blocked the San Gabriel Mountains and there was of course still no way to see the sea.

“Who said for us to go?”

“It is time to go.”

Later, no one could say where those voices came from.

Yet no one ceased to follow the sourceless command.

Dare is an awkward word, one destined to ambiguity and the ash heap. Doubt fares better. Nonetheless doubt in complete abeyance causes stirrings still.

At each step something was left behind: a shoe, a blanket, a memento mori, gravestones at Old Granary. Samuel Sewall is my hero.

From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust is no more than the 1st Law of Thermodynamics and vice versa.

But the shopping carts continue to roll.

The Army of the Ragged crosses Central Avenue and soon approaches Main, barricades at the gates, barbarians hard to find.

The trucks full of immigrants dispatched to gather back the stolen shopping carts meet resistance around Broadway and have no choice but to turn around.

The dreadlocked blonde girl is cuter than most. We stop along the route, pause along the pathway.

“What prompted this march?” I ask stiffly.

Through one bend of earshot and through the same refraction of the honeybee’s eye, she says, “We must move on.”

Another listen, ears bent 90 degrees, and she says, “I don’t know.”

Either way, the caravan approaches Main Street.

People are drinking Veuve Cliquot at Pete’s Café. The widow watches warily.

Time stops.

The LAPD intervenes.

But there is no time to go home, no turning back.

Godel is triumphant.

The parking meters are full of remnants, stuffed with memorabilia.

Soon to be capped, the contents captured for all time.

The migrants do not get to Flower Street, let alone Figueroa. They magically turn up at MacArthur Park.

Shopping carts are unpacked, tents are reassembled.

Police presence vacates as the sun sets, officers off to greener pastures.

We de-camp.

Clara Bow dances at the Park Pavilion.

We fuck in the dark hotel. Nobody’s paid the electric bill, nor for running water. Darkness is so romantic, candlelight hard to find. Moonlight is scarce. Her thighs are so pale they shine.

Nothing changes.

Little changes.

Everything changes.

The tent I pitch is not my own.


Though not studied by Darwin to my knowledge, crows are said to be the smartest birds. I rarely fear the ravens that gather on the electric wires and perch on the telephone lines. O’Casey’s crows steal hen-house eggs with impunity. Is it blue or rose, Picasso’s “Woman with a Crow” of 1904? Or right in between? Crows crack open nuts using traffic, deploying signals — stop, go, walk, don’t walk. This in Sendai, Japan. While across a thousand seas, Betty bends a wire. Not to mention New Caledonia.

Gleb returns home, to Dasha, but all is gone, all has changed, everything gone to shit. Livestock roam the streets, factories barren, most men dead, all life ravaged. I want to live in Pleasant Colony. I know what I am talking about, dammit!


The Eviction (Short Story)

The house
It’s the last night
She has a bottle of wine
Helicopters fly above us
Let’s fuck
She says
I worry and struggle to respond
The bank and the realtor
Lawn signs
Elections and evictions
No difference
Revolution deferred
Sand scrapes my face
In the last night in my backyard
I love her
Tonight is different
Divorce shows on TV
Watching intently
Looking at the news
I hear your point
Earlier she’d gone to the salon
Nails sharp
The Exodus from Saigon
Better than now
She comes close to me
The Abbot in full control
We did not prepare
The Marshals arrive in the morning
I cannot get hard
Monks and morning
Stars require night
She persists
We will not live here anymore
Limits approach zero
I drink her wine
Light dawns over darkness
No reason the night should end
She has my cock in her mouth
I try to prolong
Not the moment but the history
My mother says we can stay with her
Mother’s nails are long
She has her price
Sequester is approaching
I can pay her bill
The Borgias didn’t last
Real estate in the desert
Value lost
I love my mother
I love my wife
The Ganges is an end game
I stagger to the stereo
Lou Reed, the Gap Band, Tame Impala, Cody Chrdnutt
Will the pawn shop pay?
She pulls her pants down
She takes off her bra
She talks dirty about my mothers fingernails
I cannot help myself
The truck comes in the morning
Eight o’clock
I can’t come prematurely
A Catalogue of deaths in the desert
I’ve always hated sand
Sleeping in the truck
Both looking at the sky
The stars invisible
Streetlights blurring light
Next steps
Is she mine?
I have books and plants
I’m sad about the Children’s Crusade
Savanrola was not all bad
History sucks
She makes love to me
We have a home no more.


Mistaken, misbegotten (Short Story)

Mistaken, misbegotten —
They gather in the parking lot.

The streetlights flicker on and off,
The power almost gone.

She looks at me like Circe;
I chew the plant leaves of my own accord.

She tells me the victory at Plataea still weighs heavily on her mind;
I let her know that I have stopped thinking about it .

The flavors are all pungent now;
Everybody here has wished for adoption —

At one time or another,
Or evermore.

We move inside to darkness,
Then some lights turn on, though darkly, dimly.

I once was lost at sea, she says;
“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.

As a soldier, I never surrendered.
Perhaps my time has come.

She will drink with me but I can never touch her;
I tap her glass with mine.

Out there: the sounds of gunfire;
Here it seems quiet perhaps.

The band begins to play.
She pulls out a knife.

“Will you die for me?”
“Yes,” I say.

We are not in Spain or France, but the music is basque:
Alboka, Txistu and tambourine.

She motions me to stand and I do;
She dances beside me without touching me, and I follow her lead.

Time is decades earlier;
I don’t want to know where I am.

Her dark hair is much shorter than mine;
Her long nails glisten in the inconsistent light.

I believe in infinite divisibility, the definition of atom notwithstanding —
She has me now.

I try to find things to say;
We order another bottle of wine.

“You know that you’re remanded to me tonight?” She says.
“I know,” I say.

I pay our bill;
We leave into darkness and night.


Larry Fondation is the author of five books of fiction, all set primarily in the Los Angeles inner city. Three of his books are illustrated by London-based artist Kate Ruth. He has written for publications as diverse as Flaunt Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Fiction International and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. In French translation, his work was nominated for SNCF’s 2013 Prix du Polar.

Sep 022015

Mark Jay Mirsky




I was going to say, “hating” but that sounds grandiloquent, as if there was something massive, majestic, in the weight of who I have been.

No such luck.

Gravity was not holding me down in the bed.


Nor the thought of those perfect round twin globes of yours.

Above, below.

I have been watching the energy level drop lately, the bounce of electrons, so that it’s hard to roll out of the sheets and rise up. Science tells us that this may be a general phenomenon. It’s not just me. It means the critical mass has dissipated further, passed out of the universe, space, in a loss of gravity that is accelerating our expansion towards nothing, absolutely nothing—Einstein’s “Cosmological constant” which became his nightmare.

We aren’t made of much anyhow it seems. More of that later, but the statistics shows that everything we know about and identify as “matter,” every bit, is only a possible paltry five percent of the universe. And this together with all manner of whatever else makes up everything we know for sure of, or can postulate with any assurance might exist, according to the physicists, is rushing. It can’t get away from itself fast enough, every moment faster and faster through the vast space of the galaxies. Yes, the negligible five percent of the universe that Science in the year 2004 thought we were made up of (who knows what the future will bring?) together with the rest of all of space and time’s normal matter; protons, neutrons, electrons, our bodies, minds, thoughts; everything we can touch and feel—sand, rock, water, the swell of your belly (no matter how much I want to stop and stroke it) was expanding faster and faster like the skin of a repulsive balloon into emptiness from which there is no return.

This is our birthday card from Science, with a capital S

On a more intimate level, a former student writes that her new teacher is, a light unto the universe. This latest professor, predictably “a brilliant woman,” has taught my student finally to “feel, express herself,” explicated texts that “make everything obvious,” and promises to make my former charge’s life “worthwhile.”

After this last, my student adds—a barb to points just scored—a meager phrase in which she acknowledges my “brave effort” a year ago to help her.

Why did she do this?

I never touched her belly. Never even thought about it. Not seriously.

Negative gravity, repulsive gravity, in some intricate flip-flop Science tells us is going to do us in.

Science, which is supposed to make things clearer, has concentrated on Dark Matter in the past few years. Dark matter! O Massa! Words like these are sheer metaphor. They say everything.

Science, which is supposed to shine light into darkness, tell us what lies in there, or out there, be a lamp unto the universe, speaks “darkly.” The best it can do is spin me around with the table of elements in a Black Hole.

Just as a matter of political correctness couldn’t Science have spared us the Black Hole, packed all the Dark Matter into one “White Hole,” “Rainbow Hole”? Wouldn’t that brighten life on the “Event Horizon”—the thought of a wild burst sucking us into the Mother of All Holes?)

Didn’t the Elizabethans think of sex as a form of happy extinction?

I am ready, however, to pass quietly into the Dark Matter and be done with it deep in a Hole.

You had denied me even a gentle movement of my fingers over your belly.

You didn’t need to say anything, just shudder, and I felt it.

Negative gravity.

Negative gravity is responsible for the measurable disorder into which I am disintegrating as I speak.

Negative Gravity is a repulsive force.

This explains why you didn’t just let a tremor of repulsion brush “it “when I put my hand on your belly charmed by its youthful shape; but turned your haughty eye on me.

Why did I have three children, embark on a university career, write six novels, four of which are presently gathering dust on my shelves?

Was it all just a futile battle against Negative Gravity? There is a more terrible threat than just Negative Gravity looming over my bed. Einstein in a discouraged moment imagined it, dismissed it but too late. (He understood the consequences of letting it into the scheme of things).

Einstein remained an optimist. Getting along, in the eyes of the world a lonely old man—he took off his socks. Imitatio Einstein. I intend to go out on Third Avenue without socks. (In former days, Third, or the Bowery, was the haunt of old men without socks or shoes too for that matter. Were they reaching toward a further asceticism, a horde of sun burned gurus? Third below Fourteenth, under the old, lamented subway ell, avenue of intoxicated Einsteins!) What did Einstein on his legendary walks without socks think of his nightmare, the Cosmological Constant? Its bugaboo—negative gravity pushing things apart in the whole universe, between me and you?

Watching my children’s movie fables, Lord of the Rings, etc., a heap of rubber Boogie men and their dragon mounts, push out of the corners of the family toy chest, I sigh. Happy Days are Here Again. At four and a half the Atomic bomb went off unexpectedly and with it proof that my toy chest only held a negligible fraction of nightmare. Every ten years the shadow on the horizon looms larger, proof of the expanding universe. Atomic explosions, then Hydrogen, followed by Black Holes, and looming, the Cosmological Constant—acceleration towards chaos!



Every person carries a locked box full of forbidden thoughts, acts, possibilities with them, you think hurrying to your appointment with the young woman. She has alternately teased you—brushing her long limbed body against yours so that the heat of her lithe excitement passed into your legs and lap sodden with the beer she poured continually from the cask brought at her request—then lightly pushing you away, finally responding stiffly when you took her hand to say goodbye.

At the end of the evening, the box feels empty though on the way over its secrets threatened to burst the lid.

Why is the box empty? Symmetry would seem to underlie the cosmos. As she withdrew her excitement in you, an electrical spark flickered fainter and fainter toward her. You noted the lines burnt under her eyes. The disorderly charm of her hair dissipated and left it simply unattractive, a bird’s nest. Her description of her present boyfriend who was not sure what he felt toward her seemed more and more to fit your own feelings for her and the decision she articulated to simply withdraw from this man, ill matched it seemed except for that initial rage of voluptuous desire, and spend the time instead in books was exactly what you recommended to yourself as you walked, weightlessly, from her front door.

Entropy suggests the arrow of time in some models of the universe. In the most accurate modes of this one so far, all things process toward greater disorder and appear to fall apart.

What had been in the box for that brief moment when it seemed to contain not just an irrepressible amount of energy, but the secret of time turned back, bending the powerful arch of its arc? At least in your eyes you saw from another angle, one in which you could recover youth.

Is each human body a cosmos in which the story of the universe after the Big Bang is enacted? In the world of chance or planned encounters does the body set the individual spinning from the tight order of conception and birth to the disorder of death?

O it was too abstract!

Touching her breasts you had wanted to feel them swell with the promise of excitement she could not contain, and wanting that same lightning thrust from you to her. She drifted off into sleep instead. You got up bewildered, leaving her peacefully passed out on her couch.

Why had you come there though, feeling as if you held in a locked box what you missed previously? Was it the words, sentences that seemed to vouch for what you had missed, touching her breasts’ perfect tips, the sudden charge of pleasure, blinding, transfixing them both?

“Beyond time lies cold space and what does that imply?”

She is mute.




How can you tutor her into seducing you? Try to break the silence? “Words, yes words are what allow human beings to escape into another dimension, even if it is an illusion. Dante is taught that lesson in his The New Life, by the “women who have intelligence of love.”

“‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.’”

“Are you going to give a lecture?” she asks.

Why don’t you go to the bathroom now? you grumble in your thoughts, anticipating her question, your reply. “Take The New Life with you.”

It’s hopeless. The copy you brought last week lies bedraggled on the couch. She is immersed in Home Economics, “How to Catch a Husband.” Nevertheless, your fingers strum over the little silver cords.

“‘Women who have intelligence of love!’ Why does the Florentine address with these particular words those teases of the 13th century?”

You hope your barb is sinking into her creamy flesh. You declaim. “Tall, slim young women, still unmarried, they gather at a street crossing, then walk to and fro together.

“They have all been to the right school.”

Her nose twitches. She is still insecure about not attending an Ivy League institution. Good! It’s unfair, cruel, but for a moment you have her. “‘Laughing among themselves,’ Dante tells us, the women exchange secrets in the street. One of their schoolmates is now locked behind the bedroom doors of marriage, but she, Beatrice, obviously confides to these abettors of Love, instructors in the arts of mystical courtship. Dante has advertised his broken heart. Prepared himself with wan expression, suppressed groans as these daughters of the best families approach. Courteously, he pretends to encounter them by accident. Con cio sia cosa che per la vista mia molte persone avessero compreso lo secreto del mio cuore, certe donne.

You read the Italian from the copy you gave her, retrieving it from the cushions. As she looks puzzled you are forced to speak plain English. “When that thing was so in my face that many people had understood the secret of my heart, certain women . . .

“Do you talk about me?” you want to ask. “If so, to whom? To what do you admit? Can’t you see that I am making a fool of myself for you?

“Why do you stare at me?” she asks taking another swig from the can in her hand, looking up at the ceiling. She has seen nothing in your face or chooses not to. Dante’s “secret” doesn’t interest her.

Why am I here? You ask yourself, but mutter, “Fortune.”

“Fortune?” she echoes, a dutiful but bored chorus.

“Dante claims Fortune brought him by the knot of heartbreakers parading up a street where they sweep along, daily, gossiping.

“Fortune? Do you believe that?”

A pause. “Or his story about encountering Beatrice’s friends ‘in the street one day’ quite by chance?”

“I didn’t get to that part, yet,” she sighs.

You try to greet her where she sits across from you, reclining in a collapsing armchair, as if she was one these women, girls in grace but beyond their years (nineteen, twenty?) in sophistication. Dante’s appreciation is summed up in the words he speaks aloud to the young woman and you apply it to her, crying out, “Donne gentili.”

A wrinkle of boredom in her brow signals to translate. “One might ring a series of adjectives, Women who are gentili—‘noble, elegant, well bred, heartbreakingly lovely.’ One steps out of the circle to mock. ‘She called me by name. “Dante, Alighieri, to what end do you love this, your lady, since you are not able to endure her presence? Tell us, for certainly, one may agree that the end of such love is bizarre, novissimo.”’”

You taste the condescension in that phrase, “novissimo.” “I could translate, ‘strange, novel, singular, most unusual,’ but somehow I feel the throat of Dante’s speaker warbling the ess’s, her eyebrows raised, and so, ‘bizarre.’”

The young woman you address ignores your hint. Instead she echoes, “To what end?” It has an ominous ring.

You ignore her question and go on. “‘When she had spoken these words, not only she, but all those who were with her, began to observe me, waiting for my reply.’

You take a deep breath, hoping in the silence the she opposite will express some interest, in your explication of La Vita Nuova (for a week now you have been praising it as a manual of secret love), or at least respond to the suggestion that through poetry she can engage in an elaborate dance with you.

“He sets the donne gentili a riddle. ‘Ladies, the end and aim of my love was but the greeting of that lady of whom I believe you are speaking; wherein alone I found that bliss which is the end of all my desires. And now that it has pleased her to deny me this, Love, my Master, of his great mercy has placed all my bliss there where it will not come to less.’”

By this time, you are convinced it will “come to less,” at least this evening, but continue as if you could achieve the force of irresistible, positive gravity with words.

“Dante has changed the subject. They have teased, ‘Why should you pay attention to a woman whose beauty so upsets you that you cannot bear to look at her?’ Dante complained that Beatrice will not longer look at him, but, no matter, he has found a source of ‘bliss’ that is just as good as her greeting.” You hope for a stir of curiosity.

“‘Then those ladies began to talk among themselves; and as I have sometimes seen rain mixed with the beautiful snow fall, so I seemed to hear their words come out mixed with sighs. And when they had spoken among themselves awhile, again, she addressed me.’

You listen. You hear no sigh, just the sip of beer against her lip as she guzzles her sixth can. You wonders if she is letting you go on because she is dead drunk.



You go on with your Dante since she has abandoned you, to speak of the noble young woman. “‘She addressed me,’ which indicates that we are to fill in for ourselves the silence in the street, the sighs in the circle of women who no longer laugh, but feel for the young man who stands before him, sighing himself softly, so he hears it as a hush on the pavement. That image of death, the snow mingles in Dante’s head with the incessant cold rain as beautiful, comforting. The princess among the young women, who mocked his behavior as ‘bizarre,’ takes up the poet’s challenge. ‘This lady who had first addressed me, spoke these words, “We pray you tell us where this ‘bliss’ abides?

“Dante’s reply is arrogant. ‘In those words which praise my lady.’

“The young woman, who is the arbiter of the group, now trumps him. If your speech is true, those words describing your condition, would have been fashioned with another intent.’”

The young woman gets up from the armchair. “I’m sorry, she says. I have to go to the bathroom.”



He thinks he has been rebuked and given a lesson in courtship. Either he is lying to them now, or his poetry has fallen short of his intention. He has been whining in his verse. These young women in the street, the friends of Beatrice have administered a shock to his pride both as a poet and a young man intent on love. In plain vernacular they sum up his problem, ‘This is no way to woo her or any one of us. What praise is this talk of earthquakes, this perpetual weeping? Our beauty should cause joy not misery? Stop whining!’”

“Should I stop?” you ask. She has come back from the bathroom in the interim and waves you on. The pause has taken four or five minutes, in which time you have decided with the poet to take another tack.

“Dante’s tongue is frozen for several days as he admits. He still wants to write poetry, but now he doesn’t know where to begin. When he does, his “words” are different and he addresses them in gratitude to, “Women who have intelligence of love, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.” “Refined and sensitive in love,” one translator proposes, but it is the lesson that Dante is referring to, and therefore the ironic echo of the pedantic, addressing the young women as students echoes in his compliment.”

I am counting on your intelligence too, you think, for something to come of this.

“It is a ‘love so sweet’ Dante sings about now, that it threatens as the musical rhyme comes tumbling, ‘to make lovers of you all.’ Don’t stop, dear words, my verse, he cries, with anyone vulgar, but ‘solo con donne o con omo cortese,’ ‘only with women and men of refinement,’ who can help. ‘Sensitive,’ the translator offers in English for the Italian of ‘cortese. linking it to his previous ‘refined and sensitive,’ ‘Stop and sing only to those who are themselves lovers.’”

“Love is with his lady, Dante is sure. She is already in love, not just with one, but many. Can she begrudge Dante Alighieri her marvelous greeting that transforms all who receive, who obtain just the glance of her eyes?

“How does Dante know this?” you ask out loud.

She is mute with alcohol but you supply the answer. “The circle of young women buzz in agreement. ‘Love and the heart that is gentil, gracious, /are but one thing,

“‘Beatrice, you are consumed. I feel it. You radiate love.

“‘You and love are the same thing!’ Dante cries aloud. And Beatrice’s friends go singing this.”


“Are you leaving?” she asks.

“Yes” and you mumble at the door, hoping for a reaction, Despite the fact that she let The New Life you gave her, get soaked in the rain while she trekked around the city with a boyfriend, she might have thumbed a few pages in it. “I can’t endure your presence.”

“What did you say?”

“Were you listening?”



It is the cosmological constant that is at fault here. Gravity working against us: everything flies apart. I have to use the force pushing me out of existence to assert itself. Reverse engineering of a sort.

“Come into the shadow of this red rock, Jack and Jill. I will show you something… Entropy!

“Jill, let me rest my head on your tummy.”

“I am reserved for a great one of the land,” she whispered. It came out a bit more crudely when I asked, persistently, why I was no longer allowed proximity to what lay under her clothes, or even flashed out between her belt line and her blouse, as pure temptation. In fact she said nothing at the moment when I made the gesture in the direction of her belly button. It was earlier, discussing a fellow poet’s attempt to book a hotel room for the two of them in a city where he was giving a lecture, that she remarked, “Who does he think he is? If he were a great writer, I would consider it.” She laughed, tossing her head, seeing me nod in agreement with her admirable taste.


Later, not much later, maybe a minute or so, I understood her attitude toward my own talent, implicit in this regard.

I tried to scare her with the Cosmological Constant. “Gravity is coming to get you,” I warned. “You better watch out.”

Gently, very gently, I explained how her belly with the rest of the universe was expanding and that soon it would not be fun to spread my palm over it.

“No, no,” she cried, truly convinced, in awe of the approaching Constant. I congratulated myself. I prepared to snuggle up when she whipped out a cell phone and called a girlfriend. She was ready to curl up in a hidden dimension but not with me—“words, words, words,” floating free of gravity.



“Words are things” is the insistent refrain of the testament of Moses.

It is those laughing words of hers that have filled the box and he has lived in them for a moment, building in their dimension a hidden abode, resting, from the speed of light bearing him off in his own trip toward entropy.

His own words had weight as well for a moment. Our narrator felt that, but also the danger of extending his fingers: trying to fix her in their web instead of what he had just recited—rhymes meant to vibrate in her now as if he had reached into chords running through her musculature where she responded in delight.

Why follow up those delicate tremors that passed between them in the air at a space of six, seven feet with the brutal thrust of knees, wrists, assuming he pinned her on the floor, couch—or pushed her back into her bedroom, with the emergence of a third party insisting on a corporal, probably unwelcome entry.

Still one wants words to do things. Wants words to translate into mass, and mass into energy. Dante, who pretended to take comfort in his lines of poetry tripping through the streets of Florence, sees words in their character of sounds, images, as only the first stage in his courtship. Academics rarely hear Dante’s wry humor, as he appears to bow his head and accept the rebuke of his beloved’s girlfriends, resign himself to being hopelessly removed from her body’s pleasures in the wake of her marriage.

Words pass though the windows, and come like a fever’s germs on the lips and tongue of those who repeat them, the magical rhymes which go on singing, singing in the ears of Dante’s Beatrice. She locks herself in her bedroom the better to hear them, as they inscribe themselves in memory as a code that turns the body to desire as the secret strings of the genetic code.

This is Dante’s string theory. It works if one is to believe the testimony of La Vita Nuova. Beatrice unites with him in perfect union, indivisible symmetry; if one can specify mystical love in contemporary syllogisms.

Is string theory nonsense as physicists try to understand it? No one knows for sure. The tropes of Science served Shakespeare, Dante, but the box of words, which my personal pronoun carried back and forth to her apartment in the East Village, is empty.

The spirit has fled the vowels. The consonants lie collapsed.

What did she write?

“I miss you.”

What did he read into that as it flew into the box?

“Snuggle up”?

“I have ten dimensions, only three exist in space and a fourth in time. Find me!

“Most of me is missing.”

The “dark matter” in the box begins to move as he thinks about it.

How about the “dark energy” that seventy percent of the universe that’s really missing?

No, better to stick closer to what one might be able to grasp, the twenty five percent he can guess at.

With words though, he is down to the five percent of real matter, since they generate sound waves, measurable amounts of energy expelled at her from his voice box. And the words held in memory? Don’t they flash in tiny electrical currents each time he thinks of them?

Don’t they summon up the smooth touch of her skin, as she lay back naked against him on the bed? He can feel his pleasure again at her high, small breasts and the curve of her buttocks against the mattress; the way the classic line of her face recalls a fragment of classical statuary; its nose roughened in the excavation after a millennium or two under the earth. He wants to enfold himself in her porous marble and take flight.

What energy had given the image the power to make him whirl, giddy, barely holding on to the box for a moment?

Like a speck of quantum matter, in being observed, it had changed direction, spin, position.

There, and now, it was gone.

—Mark Jay Mirsky


Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

Aug 092015

Timothy Dugdale


BENZEMA TURNED THE KEY and the big black frigate with wounded bumpers roared to life. Every car in town took its lumps. People drove wild, aggrieved at things beyond their understanding. Here comes The Duke was the prevailing attitude at the wheel.

It was a day of errands. Benzema was not enchanted by the agenda even though he knew he’d be splashing in the surf of Cuba’s best beach in two weeks if he succeeded with the item at the top of the bill. He had lost his citizenship card and it was impossible for him to renew his passport without the card. The immigration office had called the day before, announcing the arrival of a replacement card from some godforsaken piece of rock on the edge of Nova Scotia where they paid hillbillies to push paper for the government because there were no fish to catch nor coal in the mines. All he had to do was show up at the office and sign for the card.


After downing an espresso and a brandy at a local cafe on the way, Benzema trawled to the immigration office, a low-slung gray bunker in an industrial park. The lot was almost full. Just inside the door was a ticket machine and he took a number. He cast a wary eye over the room and its steerage rabble, all come to the True White North. Benzema was no blue blood and he knew it. His people were Dutch drunks who farmed for a a few generations and then moved into the factories. His wife came from a line of scoundrels in Suriname including a dodgy mortician who was not beyond grave-robbing for profit. A coffin in the ground by noon would be back on the showroom floor the next day by noon. Benzema folded himself into a seat at the end of a row of orange plastic chairs, closest to the wickets. There were three wickets open, one large one and two smaller ones. The churn seemed pretty good. People were smiling, even the Chinese clan fussing with a folder of paperwork.

But after twenty minutes, one of the wickets shut. Ten minutes later, another one shut. No more churn. No more smiles in the room. All eyes drifted to the wicket that was open. Three women in full length burkas were seated in front of the counter. Off to the side was a young man intensely watching the women. A swarthy middle-aged man in a ratty sport coat was saying something to the big lady behind the counter. At one time, she might have been a biker’s mama, she had that hard-bitten look. She probably had some tats, thought Benzema, perhaps a rose over her tit that was now a full vine. Whatever abuse she had to take was long gone because now she had this iron-clad sinecure. She was behind a choice piece of glass, not unlike one at a zoo, looking into a pen.

“Sir, I’m going to say it one more time. He’s not coming into Canada. Your daughter’s fiance has three convictions. And he is on not one but two lists,” she said, her voice made tinny by the microphone.

The man leaned his shiny dome into the wicket and shouted, “But the wedding is planned.”

The woman let out a little chuckle. “Go ahead with the wedding, have a big one, but it’s not going to happen in Canada.”

“My daughter… I have guaranteed…everything is set with his family.”

Aha, thought Benzema, a deal. But what could be the deal? Money. Perhaps. Not this man’s money. No, it had to be a passport and his daughter, his daughter’s virgin fresh self, ensured by his son, the appointed protector of the collateral. That’s the deal, thought Benzema, he was sure of it, a deal probably made while the groom and the bride were still growing in other wombs. Some people run swindles with coffins, other people run swindles with wombs. It’s a jungle, a zoo.

The woman in the middle chair said something to her father. The man frowned and muttered a retort. The young man turned up his scowl a notch.

“What I’m telling you, sir, is that your daughter can marry this guy anywhere she likes and they can live anywhere they like. Just not in Canada.”

“Where are these lists? Show me these lists.”

“Sir, you’re going to have to contact the minister in Ottawa. We only have the information that they send us.” The microphone clicked off with a squelch of finality.


All three of the women had started weeping openly. The young man, leaning against the edge of the wicket, never took his eyes off them. As Benzema was watching this stalemate, he noticed that the reedy black man in an immaculate suit seated across from him had also taken an interest in the show. At first the man only glanced over but then his expression changed, as if he recognized a foul odour, like a Frenchman sniffing a bad cheese. Now the black man was not just watching. He was glowering. On one of his cheeks was a raised scar and his eyes were bloodshot daggers. He glanced at Benzema. Benzema cocked a brow that the man must have read as both solidarity and license. He stood up and moved to the counter.

“Excuse me, ma’am” he said loudly to the woman behind the glass. His accent was British.

“Can you tell me when you will have more personnel?” He waved his arm out over the room.

“Many of us have things to do.”

“Sir,” the woman said brightly, “everyone is on break but will be back. Please be patient.”

The black man nodded towards the crew at the wicket. “Ma’am, I have been patient. You have been patient. Now please send these people on their way.”

Benzema glanced around. What was happening was lost on the room. “Sir, someone will be with you soon. You have your number.”

The black man exploded. “I will not sit down. I have been sitting down. I’m finished sitting down. This country must not sit down!” He pointed at the father. “You will not infiltrate.” And then he pointed at the women on the chairs. “And you, you will not breed.” He turned and sauntered away in dignified pique.


The woman behind the glass lumbered to her feet and followed him with her eyes. Benzema could see her head nodding ever so slightly. She descended into her chair, shimmying the carapace of her bosum. Her microphone crackled. “Number 78, please, number 78, you’re next.” Benzema glanced at his ticket and stood up. He stepped towards the counter, the trio of women in black and their keepers still implacable.

—Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale is a veteran copywriter and brand manager. He writes existential novellas and poetry as well (http://dugdale.atomicquill.com). He records electronic music as Stirling Noh (http://noh.atomicquill.com)


Aug 062015

Brianna Berbenuik


“To escape from horror, as we have said, bury yourself in it.”
-Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers

straight lines

We are sitting on the floor of the file room because somewhere, an exhibit transfer sheet is in the wrong file in the wrong box of a homicide that is over two decades old. Everything smells like dust and cardboard, old handwritten reports are like parchment and yellowing. The door is closed and I am sitting with my back against it. He pulls out an old photo album from the latest box.

“Wanna see some old autopsy photos?”

It’s a strange level of intimacy, a weird brand of seven minutes in heaven, locked in a murder file room with a photo album, like someone showing you their family portraits, their childhood.

Inside there is a woman with her throat flayed open, deep red congealed blood hugging her esophagus.

“See, that’s how we know the pressure that was used to strangle her was enormous. It’s actually pretty surprising. Like the fucking Hulk did this.”

Aerial photos of the backroad she was found on.

“If you look at a map, and you can kind of see it if you stitch the photos together, you can tell the person was panicked. It happens when you do surveillance a lot, when someone’s trying to get away or shake a tail.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look. Here’s the main road. Here’s where she was found. What do you see?”

“Left turn, left turn, left turn.”

“Exactly. He was scared when he was dumping the body. Panicking. We never go in a straight line when we’re trying to get away.”




A: I once killed a deer with a 5lb hammer.

It was a buck, stuck in the fence. It was injured and clearly in a lot of pain, struggling to get free. I called the parks people – they’re the ones who will come out with a rifle to put the deer down – but they said the guy who did that wasn’t even on the island. So I asked him, “do you have a gun?” he says “nope.” what did I have? I didn’t have a gun, I didn’t even have a knife, but I had this hammer. So I went up to the deer, struggling in the fence and I killed it. I hit it in the head.

Q: Did you kill it in one hit?

A: Hell no. it took more than one, i’ll tell you that. Christ, I don’t even want to think about it again.


A: When i worked up north there was a floater stuck in a log boom on the river. Came from way higher up, floated down for I don’t know how long. he’d been dead a while. So we had to go get the boat to drag him in, and I had the long hook you were supposed to get ‘em with, and bring them to the side of the boat so you could grab them and heave them up. But this guy was so far rotten, I thought I had his arm but it rips right off, starts floating down the river. So I go for his leg and think it’s all good, but that breaks off too. Eventually we end up with the torso.

Q: did you get the legs and arms?

A: Oh yeah, we went chasing after them down the river, eventually got them all. But that guy didn’t smell very nice, I’ll tell you.


A: Once we got a call to retrieve a floater off of [redacted] road, right on the beach there. But the tide was out, and he was stuck in this really rocky area where the water was about waist high. There were emergency responders on the beach to help us, but they couldn’t get him because he was too far out. So we are trying to grab this guy from the boat and I realize it’s not going to happen. I said to my partner, “well, looks like we’re going in.” I grabbed the bag, the one you use to put the body in, and I cut the corners out of it so the water could drain and we jumped in and managed to coax the body into the bag. My partner’s turning white and trying not to gag, and I’m egging him on like, ‘you’re in the fucking water with this guy!’ Anyway, we get him back up on the boat and we’re both soaked, and fuck he smelled.

Q: So do floaters found in fresh water smell worse or better than the ones in salt water?

A: They’re both pretty rank. I don’t know if there’s a difference. Decomposing human is worse than any other smell. It’s terrible. You can recognize it a mile off, you know it’s not an animal. Maybe we’re just hardwired to know the scent of our own species.

They will take apart your daughter when she is fifteen years old. They will flay her from head to toe, removing skin, fat, muscle: dismantling her. You handed over her body after she was driven into the woods by a man only a few years older than her where he beat her to death with a hammer. He beat other women to death with the same hammer and now, as they take your daughter’s eyes from her sockets, and they fold her skin off her face, they will press a substance like thick mud into the broken parts of her skull where it will harden to match the wounds with those of the other women.

(You hear that one of the other women, found partially buried and burned somewhere, animals pulling her out of a shallow grave, was so far decomposed they had to ship her rotting corpse, maggots and all, to a forensic osteologist who boiled her down to the bare bones so they could study her wounds, the wounds that will be compared to your daughter’s)

You didn’t want to let her body go.

She will come back to you in pieces. The man who killed her will be sentenced to life in prison but it will never be enough because he is still alive, and he beat your daughter to death with a hammer, and you had to send her body away to be taken apart.

(All the king’s horses and all the king’s men)

You will stop believing in god and live with the emptiness of loss and grief that will be endless and the cold, hard stone in your chest that is the knowledge that he is left and she is gone.


wounded animals

There are two cameras in the interview room and you are a voyeur. Face view. Full view.

Face view shows only the face of a young man, twenty-something, who killed a woman by beating her, and then throwing her in the trunk of an old car and lighting it on fire after dousing her and the car with gasoline. Before he closed the hood to the trunk, he took one last long look at the girl.

Full view. The girl’s mother is brought into a room to face her daughter’s killer.

The mother asks the murderer what her daughter’s last words were.

He replies: what’s that smell?

The smell was her burning flesh.

The mother looks him in the eye and doesn’t flinch, she says, “her greatest fear was fire, and you burned her alive.”

Imagine that.

With only a small table between them, the strength it takes not to try to strangle this man, to launch forward and press a thumb in each eye, gouging the orbs out of their sockets, tearing out his oesophagus with her teeth, to ruin him and adorn herself with his insides, to not throw a single punch, is a feat few can claim.

She is escorted out of the room, and the door clicks shut quietly behind her.

Face view. Now the man is seated, hands folded on the tabletop, staring forward.

Full view. A man sits at an empty table. He is still.

And outside, a wail.

I wrote about it in a letter to a friend, weeks after I had seen it.

i can’t forget the sound. i will never forget it. i dream about it. it follows me. i’ve seen so many crime scenes and dealt with horrible things by laughing at them, but i can’t laugh at this. there is no way to. it is one of the few things you can’t ever find the humour in, you can’t protect yourself from. a parent’s ache of losing a child. the demolishing of their entire world, their reason for being. how do you measure that loss?

i once saw a rabbit get hit by the wheel of a bus, leaving its back end entirely crushed. it tried to pull itself off the road but its entrails were ground into the asphalt and anchoring it there. it was screaming. the scream was so jarring and unnatural, frightening and deeply piercing.

the woman screamed like the rabbit screamed, only deeper and more prolonged. it isn’t a sound i’ve ever heard a human being make. it was rage and loss and everything primal exiting out of her mouth, like an exorcism.

except there are no demons here. it’s been said that all demons are just humans. and all humans are just animals.


shaken baby

Infant autopsy photos.

the tiniest of human hearts
barely 7 centimeters.
insides pink and clean.

When they do forensic autopsies on babies they need to
strip away all the skin and muscle on the back to get to the spinal cord and then
they take the spinal cord out and look inside that and the baby’s body is like this deflated balloon face-down on the table like that stupid fucking puppet they used to teach kindergarten kids about ‘private parts’ because adults need some kind of comforting displacement when they talk about the truth of the horrors of the world and of adults and therefore themselves with children.
there is a drawer in the morgue that is labelled:

“legs & infants.”

I’ve never opened it to verify the contents.

—Brianna Berbenuik


Brianna Berbenuik has a Bachelors degree in English from the University of Victoria, where she was also an avid student of Slavic Studies. For the past several years she has worked in various positions in emergency services and currently assists in Major Crime investigations. She has a modest collection of skulls and bones, enjoys horror movies and detective shows, and has an apartment full of thriving plants. She lives in Victoria, BC.

You can request to follow her on Twitter, @ukrainiak47, or follow her on Instagram  @ukrainak47.


Aug 042015


Louis Armand is no stranger to the faithful readers of  Numéro Cinq. At the end of 2013, we published an excerpt from Cairo, a swirling novel that found itself shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s 2014 Not-the-Booker Prize. And we’re pleased to now present a snippet from Armand’s latest, Abacus. Publisher Vagabond Press calls Abacus, “A decade-by-decade portrait of 20th-century Australia through the prism of one family … a novel about the end times, of generational violence and the instinct for survival by one of Australia’s leading contemporary poets.” Like his earlier novels, Abacus sinks its teeth deep within an environment—this time Armand’s homeland—providing the reader with a visceral understanding of the territory, and thus a greater empathy for the individuals who roam each page.

This excerpt is a condensed version of a later chapter in the novel, titled “Lach,” though it was originally titled “King Shit.” In the following, childhood carelessness butts heads with the lingering aftereffects of wartime trauma. This is, of course, just a taste of what Armand has to offer. For the full picture, seek out the novel itself. It’s well worth the time.

— Benjamin Woodard


The morning the spastic girl walked out in front of morning assembly with her undies down, bawling for her arse to be wiped, was the last time they ever had to sing “God Save the Queen.”

It was March and the Drover’s Dog had just won a landslide victory for the ALP in the federal election. A republican was made Governor General. “We’ve got our own bloody anthem,” Lach imagined him saying to the knobs at Buckingham Palace, Sir Bill, because you couldn’t have a Governor General, even Billie Hayden, who wasn’t a “Sir.” Just like their headmaster, Crazy Crittendon, who went purple when the spastic girl came up in front of the whole school like that, skid-marked knickers round her ankles, you had to call him “Sir” if you didn’t want a caning or detention for a week.

“Bwoo! Mnaaa!” the spastic girl wailed.

The teachers were all standing out the front singing the nation’s praises while all the kids just mumbled along not knowing the words, they’d only ever heard it on the tellie when someone on the swimming team won a medal at the Commonwealth Games. “Australia’s suns let us rejoice,” what was that supposed to mean? But when the spastic girl did her thing everybody suddenly went silent. Three hundred kids sweating under the hot sky in turd-brown uniforms, waiting to see what Old Cricket Bat’d do next.

Which was exactly the moment Buzik, standing in the middle of the back row, chose to crack the loudest fart in history.


“They make a lie so big, no-one can see it,” Wally Ambrose said once. Reg could hear the old bloke’s voice in his head clear as day. Could see him, too, sitting on the verandah, handing him a model spitfire. Who knew how old he was back then? Wally’s voice came to him while he was sitting in the parking lot at the Holsworthy Army Base, across the river in Liverpool, waiting for Eddie. They’d called him in for some medical checks. Ever since Eddie’d come back from Vietnam, he’d been having trouble sleeping at nights, couldn’t breathe properly, kept getting headaches, skin rashes, sometimes couldn’t feel his hands.

The doctors said there was nothing wrong with him, but one doctor thought it might be something to do with the war. Agent Orange. The stuff the Yanks dropped by the metric tonne to kill-off jungle cover along the Ho Chi Minh trail. There’d been talk in America of child birth-defects. Both of Eddie’s kids had the worst kind of asthma. As a matter of course the Fraser government denied everything. The army wanted their own doctors to have a look, so Eddie got the call and Reg’d offered to drive him over to the base, knowing his brother’d be too shook-up afterwards to manage the traffic alone. The vets had been bullshitted all along the line, it was just a question of time before enough of them cracked and took matters into their own hands.

Finally, now Fraser’d got the boot, there was talk of a Royal Commission. “Yeah,” Eddie said, “Royal fuckin’ Whitewash.” Reg switched on the radio and got Rex Mossip in mid-stream, then dialled across to a different station — Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs — and tilted his seat back, closing his eyes with the music on low. Politics didn’t mean anything to him anymore. He had enough drama of his own to worry about, a fucked-up marriage, a smartarse kid and a job that had him pegged for a cardiac before he hit forty. He never did get called to the bar, working his way through the NSW Public Service instead, “faster than a rat up a drain.” It didn’t take long to earn a name for himself as a hatchet-man. They sent him to balance the books in every dysfunctional underperforming redundant backwater of government. From Attorney General’s to Education to Consumer Affairs and finally Premier’s, kicking heads at the personal behest of Neville “Wran-the-Man” on a Grade-11 salary. Another ten years, he could sign-off in style with a harbour view.

But Reg wanted out. Besides, there was nowhere left to go, he’d already bagged the number two job to the biggest hatchet-man in the service, Gerry “Bottom of Darling Harbour” Gleeson. To get his job, he’d have to stiff the fucker. Only alternative was to bide time till the next election and hope Nifty Nev took a nose-dive at the polls, but even then. Besides, in this game, you sat still and you were a dead duck.

Reg dialled-up the volume on the car radio so as not to think about his glorious future any more. A commercial ended and he found himself listening to Acker Bilk. He stabbed at a button blindly and got a different station. “History never repeats,” someone sang over background guitar in a high nasally voice, “I tell myself before I go to sleep…” He made a wry grin, seeing himself exactly like that, stuck in a vicious circle of his own making and trying to bullshit his way out of it. Bullshitting a bullshitter. It was a sure way to fame and glory, peace and happiness, whatever the fuck he’d been pretending all these years he wanted out of life. And what did he want? He didn’t know. To be King Shit maybe.

There was a tapping on the passenger-side window. Reg lent over and flipped the handle. Eddie pulled the door open and slumped into the seat. His face looked sunken and puffed-out at the same time, dark around the eyes, bloodshot. His fingernails were yellow from chain-smoking, to give his hands something to do so he wouldn’t scratch all the time. Had to drink himself to sleep, too, because none of the pills the doctors gave him worked. “Fucking placebo shit.” Whatever they’d been sprayed with over in ’Nam had its claws in deep and wasn’t letting go.

“What’d they say?”

“Usual,” Eddie said, rolling the window down and reaching for the car lighter, a Winfield already wedged in the corner of his mouth.

“Any chance of compo?”

Eddie dragged on his cig, killing half of it in one go while plugging the lighter back in the dash.

“Buckley’s, mate,” he said, exhaling a long plume of smoke out the window. “Only way the government’s forking-out’s if someone proves liability. But to prove liability, they’d hafta prove they used the stuff in the first place. And since they deny the stuff even exists, we may as well just hand ourselves straight to the head-shrinkers, ’cause as far as the experts are concerned, this whole Agent Orange shit’s in our fuckin’ imaginations.”


Buzik had freckles and was the shortest kid in the sixth grade, though he acted like he was some sort of Daniel Boone. He lived on Kingarth Street, near the park ruled by an ancient magpie called Big Eye. A strip of concrete in the middle of the park served as a cricket pitch, but no-one ever wanted to field at long on, because that was right under Big Eye’s tree. Legend had it Big Eye once tore a ball to shreds mid-air on its way for a six. All that was left of it were bits of string and leather and scabby cork raining on the boundary. Or maybe Buzik just made that up.

Short-arse though he was, Buzik was the undisputed king of the tall tale. He could cook-up an adventure out of anything. One day he came to school with a copy of Huckleberry Finn and decided their gang was going to build a raft. Buzik, Lach, Robbo and Robbo’s lisping kid brother, White-as-Wayne. He drew up the plans from a Scout’s handbook. To make a raft, he explained, first you had to find some empty forty gallon drums, then some timber to make a frame, some rope to square-lash the drums to the timber, and finally some planking to build a deck. There was a dam just off South Liverpool Road he knew about, past Wilson’s, all they had to do was find the stuff they needed and get it there, then they could lie about on the water pretending they were floating down the Mississippi.

The rope was the easiest bit, the drums were trickier. Buzik found a dozen lying around among the car wrecks in the wasteland behind the Liverpool Speedway, but most were rusted full of holes. They managed to salvage four that looked like they’d float, but the problem was how to get them across to Wilson’s — you couldn’t haul a forty gallon drum on a BMX. White-as-Wayne said they ought to use shopping trolleys, so they hiked across to the gully where the drain at the end of Orchard Road emptied out, to see what they could find. People dumped all sorts of stuff there, but especially shopping trolleys. There was always at least one upended in the grass whenever they went by on the way to school.

You’d never know the dam off South Liverpool Road was even there. It was trees and dense bush all the way along the roadside with a three-strand wire fence. But if you climbed through the fence at the right spot there was a path into the undergrowth that about fifty metres from the road forked left and right, and to the right it ran smack into the reeds along the shoreline of a wide dam. To the left, the path eventually found its way along the top of the dam wall, a berm of compacted earth with a steep run-off into a ditch where a farmer’s septic tank overflowed. You could follow the path half-way around to the other side of the dam or veer left again where soon you came across old chicken coops stacked high against the side of a barn, a tower of corrugated rust with a wrecked school bus parked in front of it. On the other side of the bus was the farmer’s house.

The four of them must’ve made a queer sight ferrying old diesel drums balanced on a shopping trolley across South Liverpool Road, then wrestling them through the fence and into the bushes, but who would’ve seen them? White-as-Wayne stood sentry on the corner of Wilson’s and shouted the all-clear when no cars were coming. And whenever one did, they dived for cover among the weeds that grew waist-high. The trolley and the drum were just more of the usual wreckage camouflaged into the scenery. It took all morning, but eventually they had the drums stashed in a clearing under the canopy of a low-hanging she-oak. Then they went off scavenging.

Buzik, crawling on his belly, snuck into the creaking barn and found a cool-box full of beer bottles. He came back with six of them slung inside his shirt. Robbo and Lach meanwhile had wandered off onto the other side of the dam and found some corrals and a pile of timber that’d been cut once upon a time for fence posts. The posts looked ideal. White-as-Wayne guarded the drums. Buzik had already cracked one of the bottles and was down by the water sucking beer when Robbo and Lach came back with the news. The rest of the beers were bobbing at the edge of the reeds, keeping cool. White-as-Wayne was busy climbing a tree.

“Where’d you get the Tooheys?” Robbo said.

“That’s for me ta know ’n’ youse ta find out,” Buzik grinned.

They parked themselves beside him and cracked a couple of more bottles and sat there drinking thoughtfully.

“This stuff tastes like piss,” Lach gagged.

“In one end, out the other,” said Buzik and proceeded to whip out his dick right there in front of them and, holding the bottle of Tooheys upended in his mouth, arced a stream of piss into the water.

When the beer was finished the four of them tramped back to the horse yards to collect the timber Robbo and Lach’d spotted.

“Jesus Christ,” Buzik said, trying to haul one of the fence posts off, “this stuff weighs a tonne.”

“Yeah,” Robbo gloated, “solid as. The raft’ll never break, no matter what.”

“Give us a hand, will ya?”

Two-by-two they carried and dragged the wood all the way back around to the other side of the dam. The dam was bigger than it looked. It was getting dark by the time they’d hauled the six posts they needed. Four for the frame to lash the drums to, and two for cross-beams to keep it square. There was an old tarpaulin in the barn, Buzik said, which they could use for a deck, and even a couple of oars that must’ve belonged to a row-boat once. They trudged off home in the twilight and pulled the splinters form their hands and next morning went back for the canvas and oars and set about putting Buzik’s grand design into effect.

Lashing the posts to the drums took some finesse, the rest was easy by comparison, it was just a question of getting the ropes tight enough so the whole thing wouldn’t just come apart. Then they had to cut a path through the reeds down to the water. They cracked a few more of the farmer’s beers and poured some over the raft to christen it. The Graf Spee, Buzik wanted to call it. But in the end they just called it “The Raft.” On the stroke of midday they pushed off. It was heavy work, hauling their contraption out of the clearing and down the bank. Then all of a sudden it slid out into the water and down, down, catching the sunlight faintly through the murk. The raft came to rest about a metre beneath the surface, a faint trail of bubbles rising from the drums, the hardwood posts making immobile shadows beneath the canvas as it flapped in the cold current.


Robbo’s house was a block east of Buzik’s, on Trevanna Street. Lach lived on the other side of Whitlam Park. All three of them played footie for the under-11s. Maroon-and-blue were the locals colours. The school colours were yellow-and-brown, like flying-monkey guano Buzik said. On weekends when they weren’t kicking a ball in the park or roaming about on their bikes, they’d hang out at Robbo’s place. If no-one else was home they’d stuff about on the phone impersonating Robbo’s neighbour, ringing the taxi companies or the pizza delivery man for giggles. Their record was three taxis at the same time, parked one behind another outside the Hogans’s front gate, honking their horns. Mr Hogan knew who the culprits were and bawled at them over the side fence. Said he’d kick their arses so hard his boot’d poke them in the back of the teeth. So then they phoned a towing service, an undertaker, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well.

There were three Roberts brothers, the eldest played guitar in an AC/DC cover-band and was the stuff of legend. White-as-Wayne was in fourth grade, short and skinny with blond hair and a lisp. They teased him a lot but let him tag along, though he had to swear on his life not to tell anyone about The Raft.

Buzik was never one to let a minor setback get in his way, so the weekend after their first effort sank they went back with their shopping trolley and hauled four more empty drums up to the dam. This time they found a couple of planks from a scaffold on a building site and tied them crosswise like an outrigger. They pushed off and this time it kept afloat. White-as-Wayne, who was the lightest, sat up front with Robbo at the back. Buzik and Lach, one oar each, sat on the outside drums and rowed, careful to avoid the snags.

They could’ve floated around the dam for days, it seemed to go on forever, one fjord opening onto another, and yet you could’ve walked the long way around it in an hour beating through the bush.

“There’s eels,” Buzik said, peering down into the black water.

White-as-Wayne pulled his feet up and crossed his legs at stern. Robbo stared glumly over the side.

“I’m goin’ in,” Buzik said, “see if I can catch one.”

He propped the oar on the cross-beam and stood up on the barrel. They were all wearing only their shorts. Buzik bounced on his feet, jumped, did a donkey kick mid-air and splashed down into the black. The outrigger swayed and bobbed. Lach paddled it in a half-circle towards one of the fjords. The undergrowth came down thick to the water’s edge, overhung by dangling willow trees. Dragonflies hovered. Skaters raced about on the surface. It was a warmish spring day and the air was full of insects. White-as-Wayne shivered.

“Hundreds of ’em,” Buzik shouted, flinging his head above the water. “Huge. Big as morays!”

“Bullshit,” Robbo moaned.

“What we need’s a fishin’ line,” Buzik said, catching hold of the port-side drum. “A bloke showed me ’ow to do it. You catch eels wiv a pin, tied to the line, like this.” He made gestures with his hands none of them could decipher. “We’ll catch ’em ’n’ roast ’em on a fire.”

Lach was busy with a pencil working on a map of the dam. He had a square of paper in a plastic bread bag which he kept wrapped up and tucked in the waist of his shorts. Right now he was adding the fjord they’d drifted into. There were roots jutting out from the bank and slimy reeds under the water and a tree stump with a skink lying flat atop it with only its head sticking up.

“What d’ya reckon we should call it?” Lach said.

“Call what?” Robbo shouted.

“This place,” he gestured with his pencil at the fjord in general.

“Something different from the last place,” Buzik said, clambering aboard. “Like Fuckwits’ Cove. Or Silly Cunts’ Bay.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t a cove, or a bay neither.”

“Haiwee Quack,” lisped White-as-Wayne.

“The Arsehole’s Arsehole,” crowed Robbo.

“You bastards’re no help. We’re meant to be explorers. Yer s’posed to give things proper names.”

“What like?” Robbo said. “Sydney Harbour?”

“Call it Lizard’s Bight,” Buzik said, grabbing his oar and pushing off from the tree stump, so they wouldn’t get snagged on its roots.

The outrigger drifted around on its axis. Lach stuffed his map in his pants while Buzik manoeuvred himself into position and they worked the paddles out to deeper water.

“Who d’ya reckon’s better looking, Jenny Carter or Helen Heckenberg?” Robbo said from the back.

“Carter’s a stuck-up bitch,” Buzik yawned, “’n’ Heckenberg’s an old stuck-up bitch.”

“Helen Heckenberg’s the biggest piece of class in these burbs,” Lach drawled.

“Helen Heckenberg’s got melons out to here,” said White-as-Wayne, hands groping the air in front of him.

“How d’you know?” said Robbo, splashing water at his younger brother’s back.

“Piss off!”

“Jenny Carter’s got a head like a sucked mango,” Buzik yawned again, “but I’d still root ’er.”

“You’d woot anythin’,” lisped White-as-Wayne. “You’d even woot one a tha spazos at school!”

“I ’ope ya can bloody swim,” Buzik growled, launching himself between the crossbeams and knocking White-as-Wayne right off his perch.

The two of them thrashed around in the water for a while before Buzik swam away towards the shore where their secret base was. White-as-Wayne clung to the drum at the head of the outrigger, sulking. Lach climbed onto the middle of the cross-beams and paddled legs-astride.

“Don’t ya reckon Jenny Carter’d be a real goer, but?” Robbo said.

“Bit skinny,” Lach said pensively, “’n’ she’s got more freckles than Buzo ’as. They might be related, you never know.”

“Yeah, but Buzo’s sister’s fat’n’ugly.”

And as if on cue the three of them started singing, “Who got beaten wiff tha fuggly stick? Buzo’s, Buzo’s. Who got beaten wiff tha fuggly stick? Buzo’s sister did!”


Lach had never seen his father fall down drunk before, but that’s what he did after the taxi driver helped him in the front door the night Lach and his mum stayed up to watch The Battle of Britain on the old twelve-inch black-and-white tellie. Midnight matinee. In the movies, people drank coffee when they had too much booze, to wake them up, so Lach took the matter in hand and brewed up a pot while his mum tut-tutted over the prostrate figure in the hall. He made a couple of guesses at how much of what went where and came back a few minutes later with a scalding cup of black sludge.

Various enigmatic expressions coursed his mum’s face as she watched him kneel down beside the groaning lump Reg Gibson made on the floor and with commendable effort pour the vile stuff down the paternal throat, not spilling a drop on the new carpet. Until, that is, Reg Gibson screamed, hurling a mess of steaming black bile down the length of a polyester suit that looked like it might dissolve on impact.

Lach was on his feet in the blink of an eye, fleeing on instinct, before his father’s paws could get a grip on some part of him and throttle him blue. The drunken mass heaved bellowing into life and stumbled up, ricocheting between the walls. What Lach remembered was the hallway getting longer and narrower the harder he tried to run and Reg Gibson charging up behind him, mad as a bullock, fumbling blind at his belt buckle and then the singing of the leather as it swung through the air. He remembered his mum’s face, just the way it always was, blurring at the edges.

Somehow he made it to his room & dived under the bed as the blows began to rain. Just because of the coffee! And then something went crash and all was silent before the light came on. As quietly as he could, Lach manoeuvred among the junk under his mattress and peered out. Reg Gibson seemed to be standing stock-still in the middle of the room. The room somehow had been altered by the silence. With utmost stealth, Lach inched forward for a better look. His father, belt hanging from his right hand, arm limp at his side, was teetering as if in a trance, staring wide-eyed at the floor.

There between Reg Gibson’s feet were the remains of a model spitfire, the one Lach’d found in a box on the top shelf of the linen press at his Nana’s house. A pair of green-and-brown camouflaged wings with the red-and-blue bullseye decal projected from a wrecked fuselage. Like in The Battle of Britain, when the Heinkels were blitzing the RAF airfields. Only instead of a hundred-pounder, it was Reg Gibson’s Florsheim that did it. The blind rage seemed to’ve drained out of him, replaced by an emotion Lach was unable to decipher. The lull, perhaps, before an even more terrible storm.

He’d meant to keep the spitfire a secret, but in his excitement before the film he’d taken it out of its box to look at and see if the wheels still turned. Behind the smudged cockpit window was a pilot done in so much detail you could even see his eyes. But there was no sign of the pilot now. Bits of the cockpit lay scattered on the floor. The gun sights. The radio set. A shattered prop, piston rods, landing gear. Then all of a sudden Reg Gibson booted the wrecked fuselage across the room and stomped out, muttering how it served someone right, only Lach couldn’t hear who it served right and he huddled there, under the bed-head with his feet touching the wall, and shivered, trying not to cry.


Uncle Eddie kept all his stuff from Vietnam in a drawer in the back bedroom at Nana’s house on Dartford Street. Slouch hat, poncho, tie, a couple of belts, mozzie net, jungle greens, dress uniform. Whenever he could, Lach snuck in there to try everything on in front of the mirror, like a midget on parade. He asked Eddie if he could take some of the stuff home and Eddie shrugged.

“Just leave the hat. Ya can do what ya like wiff the rest of it. It’s only there ’cause Mum kept it.”

“What’s special ’bout the hat?”


Lach couldn’t make sense of that so gave up trying. His uncle’d always been a bit strange, though they didn’t really get to see him very often. He lived way out in Campbelltown on a dead-end street. It was the war that made him like that, his mother explained. Lach wondered how she knew.

He took the belt and poncho and mozzie net up to the dam, for the secret base they were making in the clearing under the she-oak where they’d put the raft together. They’d woven branches into a camouflage that hid the whole thing from view, and hung stuff inside, trophies from their raids on the farmer’s barn and the old school bus, bottles of beer, centrefolds from mildewed porno magazines, hubcaps. Lach draped the mozzie net over one side. Buzik and Robbo dragged a couple of car seats over from the back of the Speedway, stinking of sump oil. They scrounged some ratty drop-sheets to spread over them. The ground was littered with dead cicada skins, like the husked shells of aliens zapped by a secret particle beam, the death ray or the doomsday box.

White-as-Wayne dug up a billycan from somewhere and they built a fireplace out of rocks, close to the water, with a smoke hole in the canopy. Buzik scooped dam water into the can and a fistful of gum-leaves, to make billy-tea. They sat around waiting for it to boil, smoking tubes of coiled-up bark as if they were cigars. White-as-Wayne gazed at the pin-ups. Christy Canyon, Sharon Kane, Amber Lynn. Big hair and parted lips making the kind of invitation a ten-year-old’s nightmares are made of. Robbo absently flicked dead cicada skins into the fire and watched them flare and crackle and dissolve into white flame. Buzik blew out a smoke ring that rose up through the twilight of the branches. Faint shafts of sunlight filtered down.

“We should bring a girl up ’ere,” Buzik said at last.

“What’d a you want a girl for, it’d just ruin it,” Robbo said, pulling the legs off another husk.

“No girl’d come ’ere anyway,” said Lach.

Steam gusted up from the billycan. White-as-Wayne crawled over with a stick and lifted it off the coals. There was a sharp hiss.

“Don’t spill it all over the bloody place,” Buzik growled.

“It ain’t spilt,” White-as-Wayne protested.

Robbo set out the tin camping mugs and went to pour the tea.

“Yer s’posed ta whack it wiv a stick first,” Lach said.

“Wot’s that for?” said White-as-Wayne.

“Makes it taste right or somethin’. Me uncle said that’s wot you’ve gotta do when ya make billy tea. Gotta whack it wiv a stick.”

White-as-Wayne tapped the side of the blackened billycan with his stick. Lifted the lid and peered inside. Shrugged.

“Can’t see tha diffwence,” he said.

Gingerly Robbo poured the yellow brew into their mugs. Buzik reached over and took one, tossing the remainder of his bark roll into the smouldering campfire. All four of them blew into their mugs to cool the tea, stirring it sluggishly with their breaths. Buzik was the first to taste it, his face gave nothing away though. When Lach tried it he almost spat it straight out. Robbo had a sip.

“Jesus,” he gagged, “it tastes like friggin’ tadpole piss.”

They all hooted with laughter. Buzik splashed his tea on the coals.

“Give us one a them beers,” he grinned.

Robbo pulled out his Swiss Army knife with the bottle-opener on it and cracked three stubbies, passing them around. Only White-as-Wayne kept hold of his mug, gazing into it and swishing it about like he expected to find something alive in there, some sort of primordial guppy perhaps.


The art was in somehow not gauging your ribs with the valve when you slid up through the tyre tube. It was mid-morning before they started across the river to the island. “Wide as the Mississipi,” Buzik said. They had to dodge the water-skiers spraying up plumes of yellow-brown and the speedboats slapping their bellies on the water as they throttled up and down between the bridges. Lach’s uncle, Pete, owned a caravan on the Hawkesbury. He’d sit out under the awning in a deckchair with an esky of beer and get sunburnt feet. With a little persuasion he let the kids spend the weekend as long as they kept out of his hair. Uncle Pete’s mates usually showed up around five and barbequed some prawns and sank Tooheys. “Get yerself some fish’n’chips,” he’d say to the kids, handing them a couple of dollars and waving in the direction of the shops. Deep sea bream with salt and vinegar on the chips, wrapped in newspaper, though really it was shark. They’d sit down under a jetty, tossing the butt-ends of chips to the guppies mouthing about in the shallows.

The sand on the shore of the island was dark and wet, with a bog smell and mangrove roots worming up through it that stabbed into their feet. In from the water the ground turned solid and dirt paths wound through the undergrowth, so thick you couldn’t see more than a couple of metres at a time. They left the tractor inners by the shore and went exploring, but couldn’t get to the other side of the island, all the paths seemed to wind back. And then, starting out of nowhere, was a clearing with a tin shack and voices. The voices sounded drunk, a couple of men and a woman, so the two kids slipped away again into the bushes.

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had our own island,” Buzik whispered, “wiv a house on it ’n’ everythin’. ”

Of course they hadn’t been alone in taking possession of the dam off South Liverpool Road, either. A gang of local kids had set up headquarters in the old school bus in front of the farmer’s barn. When they’d discovered the secret base Buzik, Lach, Robbo and White-as-Wayne had built, they smashed it up and burnt the mozzie net and poncho and centrefolds and slashed the car seats and scuttled the “raft” by unscrewing the caps on the forty-gallon drums. “I’ll chop their bloody skulls in ’arf,” raged Buzik, who went and broke all the remaining windows in the wrecked school bus, but he never found out who the other gang was.

When they got back from the island, Uncle Pete was asleep under his awning, fist clenched around an empty beer bottle. With nothing better to do, Lach and Buzik grabbed a couple of Pete’s fishing lines and a bait box and wandered down to one of the jetties to see what they could catch. Past the jetty was all thorny blackberry bushes hanging over the water. Someone had snagged a lure in one of the bushes and Lach spotted it glinting in the sun. With a scaling knife in one hand he waded down the jetty to cut it free. Buzik meanwhile was scooping among the green slime that wafted off the jetty for fresh bait. He caught some guppies and threaded them on a hook and was just casting out when Lach slipped arse over tit on the algae, only just failing to disembowel himself with the scaling knife but almost taking his thumb clear off.

“Ya silly bugger,” Uncle Pete said, laying a role of sticky plaster aside, “yer old man won’t be too impressed.” He’d rinsed out the flap of skin hanging from Lach’s thumb with Detol then stuck some gauze on it and wrapped the whole thing in plaster. “Lucky it ain’t too deep or you’d need stitches.”

There was blood everywhere, it looked a lot worse than it probably was. Lach was all pale around the gills, with his head leaning against the side of the caravan. Uncle Pete faked a tap on his chin.

“You’ll be right,” he grinned, gathering up the first aid kit. “Just a scratch. Next time, do it proper ’n’ see if ya can cut yer ’ole arm off.”

The sun had gone down and there was a halo of bugs around the kerosene lamp slung under the awning. Buzik lounged in one of the deckchairs breathing in the river stink. Lach stared at his cartoon thumb swaddled in plaster.

“Reckon there’s bull sharks in the river?” Buzik said. “Wouldn’t wanna go in there bleedin’ like that, they’d smell it ’n’ come after ya.”

“Ain’t no sharks in the river.”

“There is. I saw it in a documentary.”

“You kids talkin’ bull again?” Pete lurched down the caravan steps. He held out a couple of longnecks. “Now don’t tell yer folks, ’cause they mightn’t like it.”

Buzik smirked like an idiot.

“Thanks Mr Gibson,” he said, grabbing one of the beer bottles.

“Call me Pete,” said Pete.

He handed the other one to Lach who sat there with his wounded thumb sticking up, holding the bottle in both hands like it was Communion.

“Cheers,” Pete said, settling back. “Youse fancy some prawns fer supper?”


“Aw, Miss,” Lach moaned.

It must’ve been thirty-five degrees, but still they had to stay in the classroom and finish the problem that’d been set on the board.

“And if you don’t get it right,” said Mrs Hajek, “you’ll stay here all afternoon until you do.”

The class fidgeted with their books. Buzik fired a wad of chewed up paper from his pea-shooter at the back of Robbo’s head. Robbo, marooned in the front row, tried to look diligent as the Dragon Lady turned towards him. Lach jabbed at his workbook with a blunt pencil. He got half-way through the sum and then gave up, hacking at what he’d written with a dirty eraser before starting over again. He could feel the sweat working down his back between the shoulder blades. The ceiling fan creaked. The Dragon Lady stopped in front of his desk and peered at the mess he’d made. The moment he dreaded had arrived.

“Can’t you perform one simple calculation?” she snapped.

Lach gazed morosely at the tangle of symbols he’d smudged all over the page. The Dragon Lady huffed, grabbing his pencil from his hand and leant over his desk to cross out the mistakes. He glanced up into a pair of huge sweaty boobs swaying in a white lace bra. They were so close, he could count the pores. Her perfume made his eyes and nose water. Rancid patchouli. Lach grabbed at his nose so as not to sneeze all down the front of Mrs Hajek’s blouse and in the process grazed the teacher’s fat left nipple.

The Dragon Lady jerked upright and gave him a funny look that made him gulp, nose gripped between thumb and forefinger, so now his ears popped as well. He tried to nod at least, like he understood whatever it was, trigonometry, she’d been scribbling in his workbook. There had to be something strange about her, anyhow, he thought, to make them do trigonometry on the last day of school. Maybe she was some kind of sadist, like they showed on the news, who got a thrill letting schoolkids ogle her jugs while she stood over them with a cane or whatever and made them recite the logarithmic tables.

“Lachlan Gibson,” Mrs Hajek proclaimed, “I have my eye on you!”

“Yes miss,” he honked, still clutching his nose.

There was general relief when Crazy Crittendon announced over the PA that they could have the rest of the day after lunch for cricket on the front oval and other sports activities. “Other” meant sitting in the shade and picking your nose while netball girls jumped around with their skirts flapping up. Anyone who wasn’t an outright sissy tried to get onto one of the two cricket teams. Sadleir and Buzik were picked as captains and chose their sides accordingly, one gang against the other, with sundries filling-out the lower order. Crittendon in his big floppy Denis Lilley hat was umpire. He pulled a shiny fifty-cent piece out of his trouser pocket and flipped it in the air. Sadleir called the toss heads and elected to bat. Robbo groaned at the prospect of a long innings standing out in the heat.

“No fear,” Buzik grinned, shinning the ball on his shorts before chucking it to Lach. “This bastard’ll ’ave ’em all carted off on stretchers before the end a the sixth over.”

Lach grinned. He made a lanky slinging motion with his right arm.

“Bodyline the fuckers,” Buzik said, pulling on the keeper’s gloves as they all trudged out to the middle, Crittendon with his knee socks and long sleeves, Sadleir and his chief lieutenant, “Pig Shit” Partlett, with their pads flapping and a pair of battered Duncan Fearnleys.

Lach dug his heel into the dead grass to mark his run-up, making a scar of fine reddish gravel. Buzik crouched down behind the stumps. Robbo and White-as-Wayne stood well back in the slips cordon, hands-on-knees, waiting. Partlett swatted at the weeds with his bat while Sadleir, lazily guarding middle stump, brushed a fly from his nose. The rest of the fielders shuffled forward expectantly as Crittendon, like a scarecrow sagging under its own weight, dropped his left arm and bent towards the batsman. Lach, seam gripped at a cunning angle across his fingers, fixed a beady eye on Sadleir’s stumps and loped into his run-up. The ball flew in a wide arc, bounced, leather crunched into wood. A shout went up. Sadleir and Partlett, unconcerned, jogged down the middle of the pitch, stopped and leant on their bats as scarecrow Crittendon signalled the first boundary of the day.

— Louis Armand


Louis Armand is a Sydney-born writer who has lived in Prague since 1994. He is the author of six novels, including Breakfast at Midnight (2012), described by 3AM magazine’s Richard Marshall as “a perfectmodern noir,” and Cairo, shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s 2014 Not-the-Booker Prize (both from Equus, London). His most recent collections of poetry are Indirect Objects (Vagabond, 2014) and Synopticon (with John Kinsella; LPB, 2012). His work has been included in the Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry and Best Australian Poems. His screenplay, Clair Obscur, received honourable mention at the 2009 Alpe Adria Trieste International Film Festival. He directs the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University where he also edits the international arts magazine VLAK.


Jul 132015

Fernando Sdrigotti


To Steve McQueen, who was that sort of guy

THE CAT HAS BEEN DYING for two days and two nights when Eleanor finally drops the Steve bomb. She says the cat’s suffering, someone needs to do something and we can’t afford a vet. Steve in my place would work things out — he’s that sort of guy. Now it’s either the cat or her: I never got over that thing with Steve.

“OK, I’ll sort Toto out,” I say and she opens her eyes wide.

“What do you mean you’ll sort him out?”

“I mean I’ll sort him out! Do you want to do it yourself?”
“Are you going to kill Toto?”

“Yes!” I say and she starts crying.

“Oh my God, poor Toto! He’s like the son I never had…”

“Eleanor: Toto’s suffering. We need to put him to sleep. It’s the only decent thing to do.”

“How will you do it?”

“I don’t know yet. But I’ll Google something.”

“Make it something painless,” she says and suddenly she isn’t crying anymore.

“I will. Give me a while and I’ll have him meet his cat god.”

“I hate it when you want to sound tough,” she says and goes back into the room where Toto is dying and the telly is on showing a rerun of The Antiques Roadshow.


Online I come across thousands of links discussing how to kill a cat. I click on the first result, a page titled “7 Things You Probably Have at Home That Could Kill Your Neighbour’s Pets”. Broken-glass stuffed meatballs: slow and painful and a hassle. Poisoning the cat with anti-freeze liquid: I don’t drive. Bleached milk: barbaric, for some reason. I search once more, filtering the results with words like merciful, nice, happy, practical, cheap and I end up in someone’s minimalist blog –– apparently the latest thing is decluttering and living a frugal life. The post discusses how to put suffering animals to sleep, humanely and without paying through the nose –– there’s a minimalist approach to everything. The methods discussed are: shooting the cat in the head, drugging and drowning it, or taking it to a shelter where they’ll do it for free. The shelter seems the best idea: we aren’t far from Battersea. But is this something Steve would do?


“I’ll drown Toto,” I say to Eleanor.

“You’ll drown him?”

“Yes, I found a way to drown him fast and without pain.”


“I’ll feed him some of your Valium and then drown him in the river when he’s asleep.”

“Can’t you drown him in a bucket over here?”

“I don’t want you around.”

“That fucking river is rotten,” she says.

“I’m supposed to kill him…”

“I’m not sure… What will you do with the body?”

“Listen: I’ll take the bus to Richmond, where I can drown and bury Toto in a nice spot overlooking a garden or a stream or a mansion. By the way, did you know that Ronnie Wood lives in Richmond?”

“Do you really have to do this now?”

“You’ve asked me to do something! What else can be done?”

“What does Ronnie Wood has to do with this? Do you think this is funny? You’re so immature!”

“Chill out, honey. I’m trying to let off some steam… Let me handle this,” I say.

“No! You’ll fuck it up. You always do!” she says and slams the door shut in my face.

“Eleonor, open the door, please! We can’t let Toto suffer any more!”

“Fuck off!” she shouts from the other side.

“Come on, Els…”

“I’ll sort this out myself! WHY DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING ALONE!”

A minute later she comes through the door crying with the cat in his cage. I lock myself in the toilet and feed Toto four 5mg crushed Valium mixed with milk in a syringe. He swallows every drop without moaning. I almost feel sad for him.


It’s cold and it’ll snow any moment. Toto seems to like it: he’s quiet — the cold must ease his pain. My hands are freezing, my whole body is freezing. I walk fast, changing the cage from hand to hand, and in ten minutes I reach Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

The place smells of wet dog and cat shit, even from the door. I go in: dogs barking, cats meowing, and other unrecognisable animal howls coming from who knows where. I check the signs and get to the reception. I stop at the front desk and tell the security guard I need to put Toto down. He says he’ll get me to see a vet and tells me to wait. No questions are asked –– I guess many people turn up nowadays, because of this minimalist fad and the Tories, to get rid of their pets. Five minutes later a fat guy with a thick double chin, wearing a white apron, turns up.

“Come into my office,” he says.

I explain to him that Toto has been dying for days on end and that he’s almost twenty years old. Animal euthanasia, heavy doors, antifreeze, Richmond, decluttering, Steve, I keep thinking but I just say that I’ve found out that here we can put him down for free.

“It’s a terrible decision to make, but we can’t let him suffer anymore, you know what I mean…” I say and he nods.

“I know what you mean,” he says, “let me see the cat.”


I open the cage and gently shake Toto but he doesn’t wake up. I pull him out onto the examination table and he doesn’t move. The vet looks at me with a blank face and then takes his stethoscope to the cat’s body and listens for a few seconds.

“Too late: the cat is dead,” he says.

“Is he?”



“I’m sorry.”

“He was like the son Eleanor never had,” I say. He looks at me with compassion and I look at dead Toto, pensively, for like three seconds, to make up for very likely OD’ing him. Then I ask if they might be able to get rid of the body themselves and if it’s free. He says yes and that it’s free and what do I want to do with the cage? “You can keep the cage too,” I say and leave quickly after thanking him for not killing Toto.

It must still be early to go back home — I’m supposed to be on my way to Richmond. I check the time on my phone, and realise that I’ve missed eight calls. Before I can listen to my voicemail the phone rings again.

“DON’T DO IT,” Eleanor shouts.

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t drown Toto,” she says, “I’ve changed my mind!” I stay quiet for a moment. “WHERE ARE YOU?” she asks. I don’t know what to say. “WHERE AAAARRRREEEE YOUUUUUU?” I hang up.

The phone starts ringing once more but I don’t answer. There’s nothing to say and there’s no coming back from hanging up. Now she’ll keep calling and leaving increasingly violent voicemails. Until she ends up bringing up that thing with her cousin and me. She never got over that thing with her cousin Anna.

It finally starts snowing and I cross the road and walk into a pub with my pocket vibrating. Perhaps after a few drinks I’ll be able to answer. Or not. Maybe it’s better if I never answer the phone again.

—Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and Numéro Cinq and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.


Jul 122015

photo 2


“I went to the house but did not enter. Through the opening, I saw the black edge of a courtyard. I leaned against the outer wall; I was really very cold. As the cold wrapped around me from head to foot, I slowly felt my great height take on the dimensions of this boundless cold; it grew tranquilly, according to the laws of its true nature, and I lingered in the joy and perfection of this happiness, for one moment my head as high as the stone of the sky and my feet on the pavement.” Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day

Kevin’s story about the nightclub once again propelled Lucy into a world of doubt about her recent return to Ireland. It was a sort of panic attack – and it had not been the first. The attacks had caused her to book her return flight three times since her arrival, yet she had not actually left.

‘Shambles? Not a great name for a nightclub, is it? Can’t imagine what made them call it that,’ her father said to Kevin, who was now getting fat in his twenty-fifth year.

‘It’s just a place to drink and dance,’ Kevin said. Her father’s pupil’s latest tale, about his peers openly having sex in the town’s most popular nightspot, confirmed to Lucy that the generation that had come after hers (and which was already leaving the country for work as hers had done) pretty much got straight to the point when it came to meeting someone in a club, and that they had no need for the foreplay suggested, perhaps, by the monikers of the nightclubs that had been in the town when she’d grown up in it, such as Whispers or Amber.

‘What did you get up to on the weekend, then, Lucy?’ Kevin asked, as he moved a chess piece across the board.

‘Went up to Dublin to a play,’ she replied. Kevin did not ask Lucy which play, nor with whom she’d seen it. It occurred to her then that she’d been living something of a double life since returning. There was her domestic life – taking care of her father, the house and garden; some writing (letters, emails, half-hearted attempts at applying for jobs), and her cultural life, which consisted mostly of lone visits to Dublin’s theatres and galleries.

‘Find nothing like that in this town, ‘the arts’,’ her father said, as if to say, I told you so. And in a way he had told Lucy so, for her parents, after sixteen years away themselves had also returned to the town, which they’d found to be largely as she found it now, many years (including those of the Celtic Tiger) later: dull, inartistic, beautifully scenic, a pleasant-enough place in which to await death. Yet, in London, Lucy had found herself pining for the place; real melancholic pining; had put aside its borderland small-mindedness and could not remove from her mind the swathes of persimmon-coloured heather that would appear each June on the hills outside the town, nor the late-summer hikes to those hills – where she might see a hawk or fieldfare dart out from the bog, nor her walks along Shelling Hill in winter where the sea could be as wild as the Atlantic Ocean. No, these memories, which all seemed less vivid to Lucy now that she was actually home, had been pivotal in her decision to leave London. And the longing for them, as well as the inability to inure herself to this longing, had, she believed, brought about her eventual incompetence at her job (over time she found herself unable to make the calculated decisions required of her to fulfill her initial promise). This yearning for the town in which she was born and reared was, then, finally, Lucy’s Achilles’ heel, and not, as her friends believed, Arthur Hackett.

Lucy had reached a point in her career where the fact she’d made no substantive mark upon it had become something of an embarrassment – to herself and to her work colleagues. The Gallery tried to avoid this by promoting her. Lucy was experienced enough to know that promotion in such instances is often a sort of skewed version of the Peter Principle, applied, in the Gallery at least, particularly to female employees, whereby the employee is ‘promoted’ to a job with an impressive brief but which has no real power. In other words, Lucy had been put where she could do no harm, either to the Gallery nor to block the way of more exciting newcomers. So, it had come as a terrible realisation to her that after eighteen years of devotion to Modern Art she was not the high-flier of her university years, but, rather, a bit of a deadweight, an earnest plodder, with an over-developed sense of fair-play, and that if one’s career could be measured like a degree, she would probably get a third, at best a 2:2. (It was, Lucy thought, as if the pastoral backdrop of her upbringing needed to be erased for any kind of progress in London to occur. As if Modern Art itself could sniff her out; needed her to stamp out the tone of nature she must have carried always about her before it would let her come close and trust her with its frosty cleverness. As if it could smell the heather and tawny hawks off her, the salt of Shelling Hill, and no matter how much Lucy wanted it – it clearly did not want her.)

Of course, the whole business with Arthur had not helped. He’d been her mentor (he was the Gallery’s first owner and, after selling, remained as Chief Consultant), and in her second year in the job she had moved in with him, into his superb flat in Brondesbury Park. She knew that at first she’d been indispensable to him; she was acquainted with most of the YBAs, had (as a student) attended Damien Hirst’s Freeze and been on intimate terms with a couple of friends of the Chapman brothers. Arthur had a nose for the new and cutting-edge but he was not young, and so was known to use young women as spies into the habits and trends of the youthful. He was also a shark, and had often said to Lucy, and not in jest, that in the business of Art one should always have friends in ‘low places’. He certainly had contacts with dubious people, and Lucy knew for a fact that he had more than once brokered deals for stolen artworks.

‘You should go to Ice House Hill next weekend,’ Kevin said, as Lucy slotted the plates into the dishwasher.

‘Why, what’s out that way?’ she asked.

‘Shakespeare. In the open air. Saw something about it in The Leader.’

‘There’ll be none at it,’ her father said, emphatically, his face aflame now with annoyance at Kevin’s inattentiveness to the game (as a result of speaking to Lucy).

‘Well, if everyone took that attitude,’ Lucy said, and enquired as to which of Shakespeare’s plays was being performed.

‘King something,’ Kevin replied.

‘They do take that attitude, isn’t that the problem?’ her father continued, cutting across Kevin who was still trying to remember the name of the play being staged on Ice House Hill. Lucy had always considered that her father rather relished the cultural poverty of the town, for it had let him off the hook all these years: the lack of any significant artistic activity (in his mind, all the ‘arts’ were grouped together) had become the perfect dumping ground for his many failures. For it was tangible enough evidence, for all to see (surely), that he had just been too ‘advanced’ for the people he found himself living among, hence their rejection of him and his inability to succeed in anything other than board games upon his own return. So when something ‘artsy’ did occur, especially something exciting or innovative, Lucy knew he would most likely shoot it down.

King Lear?

‘That’s it,’ Kevin said, without looking up, ‘we done (sic) it at school.’

‘It’ll be the usual am-dram shit they have on here,’ her father said.

All the same, she had isolated herself, had not made friends upon her return, had certainly not linked up with her former school friends. The thought of having to explain her sabbatical from a flat-lining career to ‘the girls’, now middle-aged women, filled Lucy with horror. For ‘the girls’ would also want to know about her personal life. Hence, a scenario began to play out in Lucy’s mind, in which she would meet said girlfriends and they would judge her for her material lack and she in turn (as if defensively) would judge them for their lack of culture. (Prior to 2008 and the country’s financial collapse Lucy had observed the spread of what had become known as ‘status anxiety’ to a town once hinterland enough to have been referred to as ‘El Paso’ by the writers of The Rough Guide to Ireland (1989), and, despite the recent recession, she did not feel relaxed enough to accept her comparatively lowly ‘status’ amongst these ex-friends who in her absence had become doctors or lawyers or prominent business people or the wives of such people.) The reigniting of such friendships was therefore doomed and, Lucy considered, best avoided. Plus, she dreaded that awful question asked of every returning émigré to the town: when are you going back? Because she simply didn’t know when she was going back nor if she would ‘go back’ at all.

Lucy had done well at first, moving to London for her Masters, landing at twenty-two an assistant position (with the Gallery) while ‘the girls’ were still struggling at home in the remainder of the earlier recession of the 1980s. It’s just that after the acrimonious break-up with Arthur she remained in the assistant position (or some version of it, a fact that her various promotions failed to disguise), running out of ingénue years, never making a real mark, finding her instincts were not the market’s, and for one reason or another (most likely, she believed, as a result of Arthur’s malign influence) she had not found the right conditions in which to bloom. At forty-one, Lucy was, she considered, very much a thing unbloomed. She could easily have left the Gallery, and had been encouraged to by well-meaning friends, but was determined not to let Arthur Hackett think he held any power over her. Suddenly, as she pressed the dishwasher tablet into the plastic pocket of the machine, she remembered something she’d read.

‘Ice House Hill? Wasn’t that near the house where that woman was killed?’ she said, as she searched for a sharp knife with which to dig at the cuds of caked sugar now stuck to the worktop after her father’s slovenly attempt at making tea.

‘Aye,’ Kevin said, ‘the Ice House. They say the husband done (sic) that.’

‘They always say it was the husband, Kevin. Sometimes it isn’t you know.’ Of course Lucy knew quite well that (at least in the crime movies she’d seen) more often than not it was the husband, but she wanted to make a point.

‘Hadn’t he an alibi? He was at work in Dublin, in the bank,’ her father said.

Some of the details of the Imelda Woods’ murder returned in a flash to Lucy’s mind. It had been a gruesome act, which, she recalled, had seemed at the time to capture the town’s imagination (of all the other gruesome acts of the border region), perhaps, as it had come at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger and the beginning of the more recent recession, and was rumoured to have been connected to a property dispute. The town had gone quiet for months afterwards, as if the crime was the apex of something – perhaps that whole torrid period between two recessions that saw a simple house in a not-particularly-thriving part of the country valued at over a million euro.

‘Never mind that alibi. Supposed to have got three fellas to have done it for him,’ Kevin said. ‘The Doyles. From the Demesne Road. Hard fellas, them Doyles. Border heads. Father’s a Provo, has half his face missing from a beating. One of them Doyles was going out with Imelda’s daughter, battered her once with an iron bar. They done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.’ Lucy’s jaw dropped at Kevin’s elaborate new theory on the Ice House Hill murder. She felt that Kevin could easily have yammered on all day about the hard men that lived around the Demesne Road. For in a way he was a ‘hard man’ himself, and only that he’d developed a talent for strategy, for board games, chess in particular, at which her father fancied himself an expert and teacher, he may well have got caught up in town violence himself. She wondered how he was able to tell such stories while making his winning moves on the board. She made her excuses and left.


Lucy stood with her bike on the pavement. The Ice House did not look from the outside as if such a heinous crime could possibly have been committed within. It was an unfussy building with its name scored in white paint on a large rock set slantwise in the front garden. But despite the house’s cheerful new yellow paintwork (Kevin had told Lucy it had been painted by the victim’s family in an attempt to put behind them the horror of what had taken place inside), and the trimmed speckled laurel hedge, Lucy sensed something strangely knowing about it, something prescient and dark. Within, it seemed to her, as if represented by the two top-floor windows, were a pair of judgemental eyes looking out onto Demesne Road, to the back of the busy town. The house seemed to call out to passers-by, relaying the message that one of the town’s biggest secrets remained locked within its walls – and desperately required solving. It is possible in a small town not to know the slightest thing about some people, including those as apparently popular as Imelda Woods. Lucy, nor her father, had ever met the middle-aged aromatherapist. But, Lucy vividly remembered reading about the Woods’ murder, the twenty-seven punctures to the upper back, the image of which had haunted her mind because it was so brutal. She’d cycled down Demesne Road the year before and then there had been Garda cars everywhere. Now, with the white and blue tape gone from around the house, the longer Lucy stared and noted its ordinariness, its deceptive quietness, the more she saw that something was dreadful about the property. An atmosphere of pain engulfed the place, as if the unresolved nature of the crime had become a palpable thing, had entered the atoms of the freshly painted yellow bricks. What had happened to Imelda Woods seemed to sit there, still and heavy, stubbornly unhidden by the new paintwork, as if it sat also on the conscience of the whole town.

The fact that the house, at the end of a row of similarly square-topped Art Deco properties, cut into the edge of Ice House Hill gave it an added gloom. The Hill had once been a fort, beneath which, hundreds of years ago, people had supposedly hidden from marauding Vikings. The ancient forest on top descended to the edge of the house’s back garden. Lucy recalled reading that a couple of men had been seen running from the garden into those very woods on the morning of the murder. Something, too, about peaked caps. A shiver ran down her spine as she glanced up at the trees: black-green cedar, a few sally, some rowan and alder, all packed together on a heath that blocked the sun from entering the back of Imelda Woods’ now empty and silent home, but which, Lucy realised, would nonetheless make a perfect backdrop to Shakespeare’s moodiest play.


In the Tourist Office she came upon a leaflet advertising Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s tour of the northeast. There were to be two shows in Monaghan, one in Newry and one on Ice House Hill. The image of a castle, visible in the distance from the heath on Ice House Hill, featured on the front of the leaflet and was overlaid with an image of a woman cutting into a deep meat pie. (King Lear was in repertory with Titus Andronicus.) A few details on the reverse of the leaflet revealed the company to be local.

‘Have they been around long?’ Lucy asked the fair-haired man behind the counter in the Tourist Office’s modern wood-panelled foyer.

‘Sure,’ he said, in a local accent. ‘They won an award last year. I saw their Tempest in Stephen’s Green.’

‘Any good?’

‘Aye, they are,’ he replied. ‘A real physical company. Visual and intelligent. Are you thinking of going?’

‘Shakespeare here in the town? Doesn’t happen every day.’

‘Oh, there’s lots of stuff happening now. Oh yeah. Lots of bands, too, and exhibitions.’ The fair-haired man got up and walked to the front of the desk. He was lean and smelled of patchouli. He pulled a postcard from a carousel of postcards that stood in the centre of the foyer and handed it to her. The image on the card was of a voluptuous naked woman coiled around a tree. Lucy was embarrassed. Not by the naked woman but because she thought the work was terrible. She hoped the young man was not about to tell her that the picture was one of his. ‘That’s one of mine,’ he continued, and flicked through the cards to see if there were any more examples of his work in postcard form. ‘I’m in a group, you see. In Carlingford. You missed the exhibition in the Town Hall, but I’ve another coming up.’ Lucy nodded and said she’d love to see his next exhibition (while simultaneously feeling the enormous effort of lying course through her body). She noted the man’s name on the back of the card: Larry Doyle. She’d heard that surname once already that day (the family of psychos from Demesne Road). She pumped up her enthusiasm and left. On the way out she berated herself: Why did she have to know that the lad’s work was bad? Why couldn’t she think it good? Why did she have to be such a bloody expert?

Still thinking about her encounter in the Tourist Office, Lucy decided that twenty years in London, however difficult some of them had been, had, overall, spoiled her for anywhere other than big cities. She could not help but feel that everything at home was substandard; the theatre seemed amateurish, the visual art derivative and idea-less. What poets there were published themselves and went about local pubs selling glossy chapbooks of their rhyming quatrains. She’d been home two months – two months in the very same country it seemed the entire world believed was bursting with artistic talent, and still she felt starved of real, meaningful stimulus. She either needed to go back to London, fast, or move to Dublin or Belfast. Or, perhaps she needed to dig deeper; surely she had dismissed the place too soon. If she was to survive in this town at all she certainly had to stop coming across like a one-woman art Gestapo. Artistic mediocrity was not a crime: stabbing a woman in the back twenty-seven times as she washed the dishes was a crime.

As she cycled home, Lucy looked out at the streets once so familiar to her. There she had climbed a wall to pilfer apples, there she had stamped out her first (mint-flavoured) cigarette, there she had walked with her then best friend – hair slicked back, hands in cream Macintoshes with collars upturned, eyes heavily lined, faces pale as dolls – while loudly singing Ultravox’s Vienna. No, she would not, could not change her view. Artistic mediocrity was, she reasoned, very much a crime. Perhaps it was no coincidence, she considered, that when a town had no real art gallery, when the most popular theatrical performances were the local musical society productions of Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, when the Tourist Officer himself had a penchant for lurid Celtic designs, the benchmark was somehow lowered, and so this was why, in this town, murders, particularly of quiet aromatherapists, seemed somehow less horrific than they should be, and, as in the case of Imelda Woods, one year on remained unsolved. After all, Lucy reasoned, lows are really only perceived as such against highs, otherwise they can be tolerated. This town, she concluded (though she fancied she’d absorbed something of its grit and obduracy), seriously needed to raise its own personal bar.

Passing the Ice House on her way home, its dusty white nets hanging in dense creases so as to permit no view inside, for some reason Lucy thought of Arthur. Perhaps he missed her. Perhaps now that she was away, no longer part of the proverbial office furniture, he would realise the full extent of what he’d lost: a lover, a loyal employee. Or perhaps not. However bad this sabbatical thing was proving, that cold, empty life in London could not be rekindled in a hurry, she reminded herself.

She parked her bike outside the Centra shop her father frequented and went inside. She saw the headline in the local newspaper immediately: Woods’ Husband Declares Innocence. Lucy picked up the paper, turned the pages. Imelda Woods’ husband’s letter to the editor had been given pride of place. It read: Dear Editor, I would like to put an end to the terrible rumour that has been circulating through this town about my involvement in my wife’s murder. I am devastated at the level of hostility shown to me by the people here, some of whom I believed were my friends. The letter continued to the effect that Mr Woods’ life had been destroyed by the kind of remark Kevin liked to dish out casually in her father’s kitchen. The writer seemed a far more sensitive type than the money-hungry fiend Kevin had described. In fact, this letter suggested that Mr Woods was quite heartbroken. She felt distraught reading the man’s plea to the town’s gossipmongers to leave him alone. She brought the paper, along with a carton of milk and a small loaf of bread, to the counter, and paid.

‘Poor fella,’ Dympna, the young You’re a Star contender remarked, as she placed Lucy’s purchases into a bag.

‘People thought he killed her, right?’ Lucy said.

‘Only the fools. And there are fools every place,’ Dympna replied. ‘What would be his motive? Sure they’d been split for years and he still won’t get the house.’

‘How do you know?’ Lucy asked.

‘Because she sold it a month before she died. To the council. She sold it for a song, too, so they’d let her live in it till they were ready.’

‘Really?’ Lucy replied, ‘ready for what?’

‘Aren’t they going turning it into an arts centre? About time we got something like that. You’d swear we’d nothing going for us here only The Corrs.’ Lucy took her change. An arts centre in the home of a murdered woman: was that not a little weird, grotesque even? Surely there would be something still there – a residue, a ghost, a revenant of some sort? But then she thought of Drury Lane and other such theatres in London that were supposed to have resident ghosts, often carrying their own heads. She was glad then that something good was coming to the town at last and that Imelda Woods had had the foresight to sell her home for such an excellent cause.

That night, Lucy got a text from Cindy, the Gallery’s junior assistant:

Lucy, ffs the grad intern covering u is now shacked up with Arthur. I thought u should know! Cx to which Lucy replied:

Who’s Arthur?

She began to worry that she’d mentioned Arthur’s name a bit too often in the office – and that she’d been too keen to share (with Cindy – and therefore the whole office) not only her anger over how he’d treated her over the years but also her pain in knowing he’d moved on while she hadn’t, her ongoing sense of loss. She should have kept such things to herself. But the break-up had felt like grief, had followed the same key stages, and she had needed to talk to someone. That night she felt much more than a renewed determination to make a go of her new life at home; she felt that Arthur Hackett had pretty much brought her to her knees, and began to feel again her former intense grief-like rage, for he had, effectively, with his charm and promises and eloquent mentorship, robbed her of her future. And that night she not only passionately wished him a swift demise but began to think of what Kevin had said about the hard men from the Demesne Road, the Doyles, the ‘scumbag assassins’ who would kill for hire and at a cheap rate, too.


Neither Kevin or her father could come to Ice House Hill to see the play. But a large crowd attended nonetheless. Around seventy people laughed and cried (and screeched at the blinding of Gloucester). The company was, as Larry Doyle had said, very physical and it put on a good show. Then, just as Lucy was about to depart the spectral darkness of Ice House Hill, she spotted Larry Doyle – chatting to the heavy-chested actress who had played Cordelia. He saw Lucy and beckoned her over. Lucy congratulated the actress and within minutes was being swept up in a buzzing horde of people, actors from the theatre company, local artists like Larry, and a few others, all heading for a bar in town. Excitement crackled in the air. A few hours into the drinking session in the bar on Park Street it occurred to Lucy how talkative and cheery she was being, and that a slight trace of her former accent was returning to her voice. She felt ever so slightly happy – and was enjoying herself.

Larry introduced her to Don Shields, the town’s arts officer. Shields was very keen to know about Lucy’s work in London though she neglected to mention her lengthy sabbatical. As the evening went on it became apparent that it was Shields who had been responsible for the purchase of the Ice House and that he would be at the helm of the project that would transform it. He was full of ideas. The house would have a small cinema, he said. He had in mind already the first season: rotating weeks of Italian neorealism, German expressionism, weekends devoted to David Lynch, Tarkovsky. Lucy sounded her approval. She didn’t want to appear to know too much about the gory details of what had occurred inside the house, to which Shields referred only once. The man had a strange way about him; he spoke hurriedly, with a trace of hostility, and looked beyond the person to whom he spoke as if he expected a row of people waiting to speak to him. He made Lucy feel as if time with him was precious, valuable. He was also loud, strident even and managed to down an entire packet of cashews in one go while he spoke to her – making him seem more clinically efficient than rude. The crowd with whom she had gone into the bar seemed to hang on Shields’ every word. It was Shields, too, she learned, who had suggested the performance on Ice House Hill to Chapterhouse Theatre Company. His boundless confidence recalled to Lucy, one Arthur Hackett, and because of this she was not quite as impressed with him as she thought he thought she should be. But her slight disdain towards him gave her the courage to speak frankly. So when she mentioned that surely the murder of Imelda Woods would need to be resolved before the arts centre was established and a cinema set up inside, Shields became sharp and defensive.

‘We’ve been as cooperative as we can with the family,’ he said, ‘but the house is our property now. Besides, the town should really just move the fuck on.’ Even deep in the sticks, Lucy thought to herself, the arts world had its stonehearted men of ambition.

A few hours later, Lucy walked home, merrily drunk, from the bar (alone). She went into a restaurant with a busy takeaway section to buy chips, something greasy. True to the town’s reputation for violence, a fight broke out as she waited in the disorderly queue. Two men emerged from the back of the dining area and dragged one of the men who’d been in the fight out onto the street. Through the glass, Lucy could see the two men screaming at the younger man as they slapped him about the head. The young man’s slate-blue eyes were wild, as if he wanted nothing more than to burst back into the restaurant and continue the fight from which he’d been dragged. She guessed that he was brother to the other two as all were tall, long-legged, had the same chalky pockmarked skin, the same crazed unfocused look – and there seemed to be a kind of understanding between them. The owner of the restaurant, a little Italian woman, banged on the window for the three to move on, but the younger one, still full of bluster and rage, ignored her and the two men rebuking him and continued his attempts to re-enter the place. It began to rain then, a light summer rain, and the young man calmed, and Lucy watched as he and the other two took similar-looking black peaked caps from their pockets and fitted them snugly onto their heads before moving off.

Done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.

‘Fucking Doyles,’ she heard the man behind her say, ‘bad bastards, the lot of them.’ Lucy paid for her order and set off home on the balmy night with her oily chips and onion rings. She did not go home via the back of the town and so did not pass the Ice House, but walked along Park Street towards home. The Doyle brothers walked animatedly ahead, their dark round heads bobbing before her like a group of seals. As she observed their loud playfulness, at once humorous and violent, she became overwhelmed with a deep sense of belonging, of rootedness. Something inside her had finally relaxed. She wondered, how – when she would eventually catch up with the Doyles, as she was resolved to do – she would go about striking up a conversation with them (at least before they made the turn for Demesne Road). She wondered, too, if any of them had ever been as far a-field as London.

—Jaki McCarrick


Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer. Her play, Leopoldville, won the 2010 Papatango Prize for New Writing, and her most recent play, Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. It recently premiered in Chicago to much critical acclaim. Jaki’s short story, The Visit, won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and appears in the 2012 Anthology of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Her story collection, The Scattering, was published in 2013 by Seren Books and was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. Jaki, who was longlisted this year for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate, is currently editing her first novel. Represented by AM Heath. Her blog, CloudNine, can be read here.

Jul 042015

Matt Jakubowski


AT WORK ON THE thirty-first floor Anna would stand up at different times during the day to stretch her back and face the long bank of windows. A few steps from the industrial glass she could look beyond the silvery condo building and see the northern half of Philadelphia far below, the streets and rivers branching away toward the dark green ridges of the Poconos.

When the light was right Anna could shift focus and see her reflection in the thick, sealed glass, a fairly tall woman standing among the cubes as a few other people walked around. In that spot, if she focused below on a taxi driving along the parkway, the road corresponded to an aisle in the office behind her. If she focused on the reflection of a co-worker walking down that aisle, he also appeared to be strolling along the parkway, a giant in ghostly form, an apparition only Anna could see in that moment, in that light.

Anna called this office game the overlap. She enjoyed it. Though once when it happened the space in the immediate foreground between her body and the windows seemed like a sun catcher that had fused with her consciousness. That space contained her and she imagined it had compressed into a transparent object on the other side of the glass that she was forced to look back through. Her days and her body had been placed on the window a long time ago, projecting weak colors onto the shapes and shadows of the office space, always present but visible only at certain moments, like an eclipse, the same way she could look across at that great height and sometimes see workers in other buildings who may have been looking back at her.

She’d had this particular office job for almost five years. Beyond the glass there was always the open air. Old towers or new, it didn’t matter. Anna felt she could live forever in such places. She had been laid off and rehired by different companies eight times in twenty-five years. She was good at finding work and had listened to the buildings, knew the meaning of their sounds and vulnerabilities. She liked how the towers swayed and creaked a little in high winds, like old ships rocking the crew to sleep. She liked believing that somehow the green hills weren’t giving in, they were surging back toward the city from the horizon.

She knew that the different industries she’d worked in, like so many others across the world, were a dead end. Talking over the years to certain people about this, some had agreed and could admit it. Others smiled, but politely ignored her afterwards. Smart people around them in the air thirty stories off the ground must have known it was true, too, Anna thought.

Knowing something larger like this made it pleasant to feel somewhat invisible in the office. The pay was regular, the commute was a breeze. Why feign ambition? Be safe and smart about things. Stand up and take a few deep quiet breaths each day and let the week go by. Paint a scene now and then. Put it up at one of the little galleries. Raise a glass when one sells on first Fridays. Walking back to her desk Monday morning, passing the other cubes where people clicked keyboards or swiped at their screens, it felt good telling no one about her hobby and pretending life was the same as before that first stroke ever touched the surface.

Of course the whole place was terrible. People played along because it was important to have a job and money. Old towers went into the shadow of bigger ones every decade. After half of them went bankrupt, whole blocks stood vacant again. Everyone would grumble about the losses. Few believed that anything could be done about it that might matter.

Surviving depended so much on your ability to truly see and hear, Anna liked to think. Even in the office towers certain moments can contain everything or nothing. They could sustain or ruin her happiness for a long while if she let them. After a meeting one summer, for instance, Anna had walked back to her cube and anticipated the overlap, seeing herself getting closer in the window. She looked at the horizon first and smiled until the city appeared far below her. She saw a red, double-decker tour bus full of people traveling along the parkway at the perfect moment and deliberately stayed beside her cube to let it crush right through the middle of her reflection. Someone else might have seen the bus coming and moved or looked away out of superstition. High above, though, Anna stood her ground and watched, imagining her heart taking in all those tourists, holding them, expelling them later on, or not, whoever they were.

During moments like those there was always someone around who’d sneeze from behind the cube walls or laugh at something on their phone. It was Anna’s cue from the environment to get back to work. Who knew how many more towers she’d work in before it was over? She looked outside proudly once more before settling back down in her rigid, expensive chair.

Trying to distract herself by reading an email, she thought of how she’d never gone over and put her palm flat against one of the large windows. She figured the glass this high up would be cold, even on a sunny day. It was bad enough when someone noticed her staring outside for too long. People needed things to smirk and whisper about. Why risk getting caught by actually touching the glass? She thought about doing it and imagined it probably wouldn’t feel as good as those times at home when she watched the snow through the back window on the second floor. There the sting in her palm felt nice, with warm air from the heating vent rippling the hems of her pajama legs. It eased the memory of touching the window the first time she took the bus to school, leaving home for someplace worse. She’d held so much back then and on so many other days since. She was wise enough to know what would happen at the office. If she went up close to put her hand to the glass and saw her handprint evaporating after she took it down, she’d feel she was just standing alone with nothing to lose on the edge of yet another steel platform high above the earth.

—Matthew Jakubowski

Matthew Jakubowski‘s writing appears regularly in publications such as gorse, Kenyon Review Online, 3:AM Magazine, Black Sun Lit, and The Paris Review Daily. He has served as a fiction panelist for the Best Translated Book Award and section editor for the translation journal Asymptote. He lives in West Philadelphia and blogs at truce. @matt_jakubowski


Jun 302015

Julian Herbert

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.

         His English language debut came in February 2014, with the publication of “Mama Leukemia” (trans. Brendan Riley), a chapter from his novel Canción de tumba, which has been translated into Portuguese and Italian. 2014 also saw the publication of Jesus Libt Dich Nicht / Cristo no te ama (Christ Doesn’t Love You), a bilingual Spanish-German anthology of his poems translated and compiled by Timo Berger.

         In January 2015 Julián Herbert completed his novel La casa del dolor ajeno. Crónica de un pequeño genocidio en La Laguna. (The House of Someone Else’s Pain. Chronicle of a Minor Genocide in La Laguna ).

         La casa del dolor ajeno revisits a shameful event from Mexican history: the worst massacre of Chinese immigrants to have occurred in the Americas, which took place in the city of Torreón de Coahuila, in northern Mexico, between May 13th and 15th, 1911. As Herbert describes it:

         “The Chinese community that settled in that area were merchants. They even had their own bank. Part of the massacre had to do with resentment from the local people, but also envy from the Mexican businessmen. It was carried out at the behest of the bourgeoisie. After the Chinese were killed, their bodies were thrown into a common grave.”

         Herbert points out that some things have not changed in over a century:          

         “Mexico is full of pits filled with the bodies of people who disappeared. A few years ago in Coahuila, a whole town disappeared: 300 people were found buried in a common grave. And none of these cases ever get solved.”

         This includes the tragic events of September 2014, in which 43 Mexican student-teachers disappeared from Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.

         “In the case of the 43 students,” Herbert says, “the response from politicians shows an egregious level of cynicism and indifference,” and, in mordant summation adds, “I’m starting to get depressed.”

         Set in a hellish, crumbling Mexico City that refuses to die, Herbert’s story “Z” offers a wry psycho-sexual twist on the ever-popular zombie motif. The story, whose narrator might be the last sane man in Mexico, focuses on the tenuous trust between analyst and analysand, and ponders the problem of whether we are the engineers or willing victims of our own languid apocalypses.

         “Z” was originally published in Spanish in October 2014 in the multi-author collection Narcocuentos (Narco Tales) (Ediciones B).

—Brendan Riley



I SPEND THE MORNING talking on the phone with my analyst. My analyst’s name is Tadeo. Tadeo pretends to be an impartial judge but I think that he’d really prefer that I let him take a bite out of me. It couldn’t be any other way: they started slowly devouring him almost five months ago.

“This really isn’t a question of ethics,” he says. “This is about loneliness. What your increasing isolation means for you at an existential level.”

I almost burst out laughing: he talks about existentialism as if he were really alive. He’s a nice guy from UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I change the subject simply to avoid laughing about his condition.

“Y’know, it might be better if you come over and we can talk face to face. Or at least mouth to ear.”

“We’re already talking mouth to ear.”

“Through the door, I mean.”

“No, my friend,” he responds in a very sober tone, with the hypocritical tranquility instilled in him by his studies. “I’ve acquired the discipline of not sniffing my patients.”

“Except for Delfina,” I say, to rile him.

Tadeo guards a brief silence, then answers:

“Delfina doesn’t smell anymore. And she’s no longer my patient.”

For more than a year I’ve lived in a room on the fourth floor of the Majestic Hotel, overlooking the Zocalo, the great central square of Mexico City. Once a week, Tadeo comes over to my place and guides me through a session of psychoanalysis. At first he always came up to my room. We’d make ourselves comfortable ––he’d sit on the badly upholstered little armchair, I’d recline on my bed–– and chat with the television on low to make some background noise and to muffle the bloody carnivorous chomping sounds coming from my next-door neighbor’s room.

Tadeo was the most sensible man I’d ever met until Delfina (I’ve never seen her: I imagine that she’s quite pretty) seduced him and took, by way of tribute, several bites from his left forearm, infecting him and thereby destroying for me (without meaning to, I’m clear about that) six months of therapy.

Since then we’ve had to conduct our sessions through the insipid tones of the phone downstairs in the hotel vestibule.

“Human,” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“You mean that Delfina no longer smells like a human. Wouldn’t it be just the same if you phoned me from your office?”

“Human, yes . . . As far as coming over here, I swear I’m not doing it out of desperation. It’s a question of professionalism. Besides, who else was going to give you the message? There’s not a single soul left down here.”

He talks about professionalism but he’s had sexual relations with a number of his patients, and eventually fell for one of them. And now, for the sake of love, he’s let himself be transformed into a beast. Well, not entirely a beast: a transitional cannibal. I’ve said as much to him and he’s admitted it. Now he adds sadly:

“Maybe I should be your patient instead.”

It’s a polite thing to say. We both know that I’m a rotten person, a selfish and frightened master of ceremonies, incapable of helping anyone at all; never mind that half the world is currently mutating towards death or depression.

Tadeo says that it’s not a question of ethics but rather loneliness. What’s certainly true is that, lately anyway, it’s a question of food. I’ve been slipping out at night to look for some. That’s when there’s less of a chance of bumping into the ones I call mature sleepwalkers: they prefer to hunt by day, although their favorite time is sundown.

(There are no precise facts but it seems that the prolonged consumption of human flesh ends up destroying –among other things– their retina: the intense light damages them, and in the dark they’re as blind as moles. When they become completely blind they turn into carnivorous flowers: groaning invalids writhing about on the ground. They continue to be dangerous but being almost completely sedentary they’re relatively easy to avoid.)

At first I was frightened of going outside, so I lived on stale foodstuffs from the hotel kitchen: semi-rotten cutlets, rancid cheese, chocolate, frozen soups, dried fruit . . . . As the months went by, however, I gathered my courage, not only to undertake excursions in search of food in nearby stores, but also to have something resembling a social life. My greatest success in this area has been serving as master of ceremonies at the skateboard tournaments in Eugenia Alley.

My quests for food manage to provide me with everything from Pachucan empanadas to granola bars. From gallons of purified water to all the bottles of booze I could drink. The other day I found a bag of marijuana and another one stuffed with pills stashed behind the counter in an old printing shop. I put them back where I found them: I’m strongly opposed to any kind of illegal substances.

As long as nobody kills me, it’s all mine. The country has become a minefield of fangs and grinding molars but also a vast open air bargain. Thanks to the vain imaginings of some, whose willful denial impels them to keep performing their daily duties, I enjoy certain services formerly taken for granted, tasks that once made life with other humans unconsciously pleasant. For example, fresh milk in Tetra Briks in the morning. The truck keeps showing up, dropping off its deliveries and invoices at the 7-11 on the corner of Moneda and Callejón de Verdad; maybe they don’t notice that the store, which was looted four times in the last week alone, is a mere shadow of its former self. It has no regular workers anymore, only the occasional looters posing as cashiers. With their face like junkies and their backsides all bitten and gnawed away, they stand there, trembling like old boxers stricken with Parkinson’s, ringing up my selections even though they’ve only come around to steal the little that’s left on the shelves.

A few nights ago I found some excellent spoils: some nice packages of moldy falafel and humus, nearly two pounds of pistachios seasoned with garlic and chile de árbol, half a strip of Coronado caramel lollipops, a bottle of Appleton Estate, and an iPod that included –among some tolerably dark gems– Smetana’s From My Life string quartet… I waited until sunset on Friday to celebrate my discovery. My plan was to have a little picnic in the open air: I put on my headphones and, loaded with goodies from my raids, I went up to the Majestic’s observation deck.

When I relate all this to him, Tadeo returns to the line of analysis he’s been trying to use on me for the past month.

“Have you thought about why you did that?”

“I already told you why, to celebrate.”

“And you don’t think there’s any other reason? Some stubborn strain buried deep in your need to put yourself in danger?… You know that sunset is your riskiest time of day.”

I try to change the subject again but he insists:

“How do you think your neighbors took it? Have any of them followed you to the terrace?”

“A couple of them came up to catch a whiff of me, of course. It always happens. But they did it politely: they sat down several tables away from me.”

Except for Leah, a Jewish woman ––still perfectly human and healthy–– who lives on the second floor, and who only leaves the hotel to scrounge for pirate DVDs around the Bellas Artes Metro station, all my neighbors in the Majestic are bi-carnal. Although they’ve not yet decided to attack me, they’ll follow me anywhere with a desperately transparent look, the very look that used to belong exclusively to the brain-fried crystal meth smokers on the street.

Tadeo just keeps insisting:

“Did you say anything to them?”

He’s really starting to bug me.

“I didn’t really pay much attention to them. I was keeping my eye on the soldiers.”

“What soldiers?”

“The ones who show up every afternoon to take down the flag.”

Every day it’s the same routine: just before sunrise, a military squad marches along the esplanade of the Zocalo, unfolding an immense green, white, and red flag. They open it to its full size and then, after attaching it to a thick rope, they raise it up a giant metal and concrete flagpole, perhaps one hundred-fifty feet tall. This accomplished, they depart, marching away with the same gallantry as they arrived. The flag hangs there all day, fluttering and waving in the wind, magnificent, floating above thousands of shambling cadavers and hundreds of hungry carnivorous plants crammed together around the Metropolitan Cathedral. In the afternoon, shortly before sunset, the soldiers return to take down the gigantic flag: they perform their martial ballet in reverse motion, lowering, unhooking, and folding the linen of the motherland with exasperating solemnity. Part of their ordinance is to show up perfectly armed. It’s not just for show: almost every day they experience the tedious obligation of executing a few creatures that, completely out of their minds, attack the squad despite their uniforms. The soldiers usually fire at point blank range, directly above the temple: the .45 caliber slugs strike the flagstones with a dull crack, and the heads of the flesh-eaters, splitting wide open, rehearse the final Grand Slam of Mexico City. Even so, the soldiers find it quite difficult to completely avoid getting bitten; they rarely all escape unscathed. That must be why, invariably, more than one of them stumbles or tries to hide his stumps by readjusting the dirty bandages that cover his flaking, peeling flesh.

Almost the entire army suffers from some phase of the contagion. Who knows if this is due to their ceaseless patrols or their long, lonely nights in the barracks. While it’s true that the best vaccines are destined for the armed forces, it’s also true that on a daily basis (or at least that’s what CNN says: our own national media is completely extinct) cells of deserters appear, serving as security for roving bands of wormoisseurs. That’s how anything works that still works around here: corrupting everything in its orbit until it all becomes an allegorical mural of destruction.

However much these events resemble any other major epidemic, our situation began with a pair of isolated cases, indistinguishable from the furor usually caused by the sensational and now disappeared (or, depending how you see it: omnipresent) red line journalism. First, a construction worker murdered his lover and co-worker in the area near a building site. The authorities found fragments of intestines and human hearts roasted on a piece of sheet metal over some coals. During the trial, the suspect committed suicide. A year later, a young poet and professor from the University of Puebla was sent to jail when the authorities searched his refrigerator and found pieces of his dead girlfriend, which he used for masturbating. Although no one demonstrated that he’d killed her or consumed her flesh, the symptoms that this individual presented in the months to come left no room for doubt: he was ground zero for a new reality breaking out along the border, beyond the animal species and the plant and animal kingdoms: a walking virus.

The first person to come to Mexico to study the phenomenon was the English scientist Frank Ryan, a virologist whose theory proposed, in general, that humanity’s tremendous evolutionary leap forward was not owing to our DNA connection to other mammals but to the great percentage of viral information absorbed by the human genome. What at first seemed a polemical intuition capable of explaining sicknesses like AIDS or cancer turned into Ryan’s Evolutionary Law or the Clinamen of the Species: all organic entropy will eventually lead to the triumph of an entity neither alive nor dead, whose only activity will be to feed and reproduce itself by invading host organisms.

The most atrocious thing about our epidemic, and what makes it distinct from any other, is its irritating slowness. Once the sickness is contracted, the organism is defined by two characteristics: first, the unstoppable anxiety of having to feed on human flesh ––an impulse heightened by olfactory stimulation––; second, a gradual multiple sclerosis directly proportional to the quantity of human flesh consumed. It’s here where the individual willpower affects the processes, because one’s capacity for restructuring gluttony and administering consumption (such ridiculous but actual socioeconomic similes are issued daily by the Secretary of Health) define the speed at which the transformation will take place.

So far no formal catalog exists to describe the exact phases of the entity’s devolution. In my hours of leisure (which are many) I’ve derived four categories that I’ll here offer for the consideration of future carnivegetal realms:

The Transitional Cannibal: this refers to the phase in which my psychoanalyst currently finds himself. It can last from a week to a year, depending on the victim’s previous health, dietary habits, and experimental drug usage (“Retroviral and antipsychotic drugs have proven effective,” Tadeo told me the other day with a professorial thrill in his voice). In this phase, the infected person loses many of their vital functions, which allows them to stay alive while eating very little. Their interaction with his surrounding environment doesn’t change very much; for example, this group includes the President of the Republic and all his prominent detractors, opposition party leaders, many doctors and teachers, and almost all the business people that remain active. The only trait that distinguishes them from someone like me is that they show withdrawal symptoms ––nausea, dizziness, hyperventilation–– when they detect the smell of normal, healthy human beings.

The Bicarnal Beast: the individual suffering this phase is nearly unable to resist the temptation to take a bite out of you but, still governed by shame, delivers their overture with the classic exaggerated politesse of the well-bred Mexican: “Would you kindly allow me to accompany you, sir?” or some such courtesy. They turn out to be the most repulsive ones. I call them bicarnal because, to soften their anxiety, they deceive themselves by eating pounds and pounds of beef, pork, or lamb. I’ve come upon them in shattered minimarts, wolfing down frozen hamburgers straight out of the box. Once I even saw, from the terrace at the Majestic, the way in which a group of them sacrificed a fighting bull in the Zocalo (God knows where they managed to find it) and then devoured it’s raw flesh right there on the flagstones. I also call them junkies or wormoisseurs: their principal post-human activity is the buying and selling of cadavers. They are the lords and masters of what was once the Historic Center of the nation’s capital city.

The Mature Sleepwalker moves a little clumsily, with a crooked shambling gait, and is always filthy with bloodstains from eating any living thing that happens to cross its path. It’s blind and weak and doesn’t utter a single word; beyond its terrifying aspect, it’s simply a depressing creature. Not really very interesting. Relatively scarce, its condition represents the shortest stage of the infectious process.

Lastly, The Blossom: the immortal aspect of what we will all soon become: nascent vegetative man-eaters in a perpetual and pestilent state of putrefaction. As the sclerosis overtakes them, Blossoms, with their last remaining shreds of instinct, search for some place where they can drop down undead. Although I’ve occasionally seen these flesh-eating flowers on their own, you usually run into groups of them, almost as if the need for socialization was the last human trait to die. Once I saw one of these living cadavers remain standing on two feet. But normally they end up stretched out on the ground, whether it be in the street or locked inside rooms, or sometimes on benches, planter boxes, fountains, the hoods of cars . . . . More than actually moving about, they suffer from spasms. They clamber over one another, biting each other, snapping at anything that moves near them, ceaselessly opening and closing their jaws clack clack clack clack clack all night and day, the sound of a teletype in an insane asylum. At first it kept me from sleeping, and later gave me long nightmares, but lately it has become a sweet lullaby.

The largest garden of flesh-eating flowers that exists grew spontaneously around the Metropolitan Cathedral, along one side of the Zocalo, facing the patio of my hotel . . . . Could it really be any different in a Catholic country? Not only do the terminally ill in this epidemic keep arriving at all hours: every day also delivers an almost industrial quantity of the nourishment they require. Every morning finds rows of buses parked around the Zocalo. The buses disgorge groups of fervent pilgrims who pray to God for the world’s salvation and, as a test of their faith, try to pass through the bramble rows of teeth separating them from the doors of the cathedral. Nobody ever even makes it halfway through the atrium: they’re all devoured alive in just a few minutes. That keeps the garden well watered with fresh blood. If Mexico weren’t already the vast cemetery that it is, this perilous garden would be considered the country’s most peculiar tourist attraction.

As my session comes to a close, Tadeo asks:

“So, are you going to come over to install it? . . . . I live in La Condesa, really close to Avenida Amsterdam, a block and a half off Insurgentes, along Iztaccíhuatl. Just get off the metro at Chilpancingo. It’s on the sixth floor. You can’t miss it.”

I think it over a bit.

“You don’t even need to come see me,” he insists. “We can do the whole thing over the intercom.”

“It’s not about you. I just never go that far.”

“Come on, man. Nothing’ll happen. I go out every day and nothing happens.”

“Sure, but you have a car.”

“Consider it an exercise in socialization within the frame of therapy: one way or another you’ve got to go on living in our world.”

In the end he convinces me and we agree that next Monday (today is Thursday) I’ll go by his apartment to install a satellite television hookup.

“On one condition,” I clarify: “None of this shit about doing everything over the intercom. I want to see you. I want to see your house. And Delfina, too, of course.”

“What for?” he asks, suspicious.

“I don’t know . . . . To see what kind of beauty could get you to agree to become a human sirloin steak.”

Now it’s Tadeo who’s unsure. But 142 TV channels and 50 different music stations, as well as 10 hardcore porn sites and an all-access password for Pay Per View––all for free––is the kind of high quality blackmail that nobody, not even a Lacanian psychoanalyst and cannibal, could ever resist.

“It’s a deal,” he says.

He hangs up the phone.

I consider myself the ruler of this realm but once, up north, I was the ruler of a different one: regional maintenance manager for one of the most important satellite television companies in the world. For years I accumulated a huge assortment of things in my desk drawer: all kinds of keys, serial numbers, computer chips, cards, code numbers. After the first outbreaks of the epidemic, I moved to Mexico City and brought with me masses of tools and toys and doodads. These small bunches of talismans represent the multitasking treasure that I sometimes spend in place of money: for example, I can use them to place bets in the skateboarders’ casino on Eugenia Alley, where young skaters leap over long rows of the bodies of full-blossom cannibals lying side by side on the ground; the kind of thing you used to see at monster truck shows. We spectators bet to see who can jump the most bodies on their skateboard. Some, the best skaters, survive. Most of them end up with their calf muscles chewed to raw meat from the strong, virulent bites. I’m not complaining. Sometimes, in that hippodrome of cadavers and imbeciles, I win enough money to rent myself a toothless whore. And when things don’t go quite so well, I pay off my bets by installing residential satellite service in some building in the neighborhood: the worst thing that can happen in a day is that I end up having to scale a wall and cross over twenty yards of rotting flesh without a safety harness.

The thing is, everybody wants to keep on zapping: surfing a never-ending wave of 140 different channels even as they’re being ripped to pieces by the love of their life. Everybody, including the dead.

—Julián Herbert; Translated from the original Spanish by Brendan Riley, 2015


Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico.


Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuente

Jun 172015

Cary Fagan


THEY CAME INTO MY CLASSROOM to arrest me, two polite police officers, male and female, burdened with the heavy accouterments of law enforcement—guns, walkie-talkies, night-sticks, sprays, flak-jackets. It was the woman officer who asked me to put my hands behind my back so that she could put on the handcuffs. Even while being compliant, it was hard not to tense with resistance. The only student to witness this scene was Jeffrey Millenberg, who had come in for extra help. As they led me out I said to Jeffrey (probably out of some desire to make everything appear normal), “There’s just no getting around memorization. There’s stuff in chemistry you just have to know.”

Jeffrey stared at me but even as the officers led me out of the classroom I nodded, to let him know that I knew he could do it.

I teach chemistry and biology. I had been at the same school for six years. I coached intramural basketball and led the monthly lunch-time music jams with my guitar, so I was pretty well known in the school. And rather liked, I believe, although I wasn’t one of those teachers who needed to be loved and affirmed by the kids. Although only Jeffrey was in the classroom, there were plenty of kids in the hall as the period was changing, not to mention teachers, and they all stared at me too. So did the kids smoking on the sidewalk, although Dan Reddin, a kid I almost failed last year although even though he was smart, called out, “What they bust ya for, Mr.B?” I couldn’t have answered even if I wanted to, for the officers kept me moving, right to the police cruiser where, just like on TV, one of them put a hand on my head to lower me into the back seat.

So my arrest would have been the talk of the school even if there hadn’t been a short article in the local section of the Star. “High School Teacher Charged with Assaulting Orthodox Jew.” The headline made me sound like some anti-Semite, although the article did state that the orthodox Jew was my cousin.

My first cousin Leonard, to be precise. Born the same year as me, also a youngest child, the son of my Auntie Doris. Lenny who lived on the same street three blocks away, whose birthday parties I attended, who I envied because his father, a retail distributor, was always bringing him the latest toys, although even then I suspected his house wasn’t as happy as my own. We didn’t see each other much after the age of eighteen or so, when he began to turn religious, but I would hear about him from my parents. How he now had a beard, how he wore baggy suits and tzitzis under his shirt, how he devoted all his free time to some small synagogue that my father said was “almost a cult.” We got married about the same time and sent each other invitations but neither of us went to the other’s wedding. His own bride, Zipporah, had been introduced to him by his rabbi; my father said it was probably arranged.

Lenny had five children but I didn’t know their names. My own kids, Josh and Leah, were nine and seven. I hoped to keep the arrest from them but Josh heard something at school so I had to sit them down and explain. I was living in a bachelor apartment near the house (Jennifer and I had been separated for four months) and sometimes they stayed over and slept on air mattresses on the floor, although mostly I would go to the house and take care of them there while their mother was out with her boyfriend.

“I’m very sorry to say that it’s true,” I said to Josh and Ella. We were sitting on the Ikea fold-out sofa that was my own bed. “It’s always wrong to hit somebody.”

“Did he deserve it?” Josh asked.

“Nobody deserves it. There’s always a better way.”

“I don’t want anyone to hit me,” Ella said.

“And nobody’s going to.”

“How do you know? Did your cousin know that you were going to hit him?”

He should have known, I wanted to say. But I wished that I hadn’t. I didn’t want my kids to have a father who hit people, or got arrested, or lost his job. It was enough that they didn’t understand why I had left the house.


What happened was that my Auntie Doris, a sweet and much-burdened woman, decided to hold a fortieth birthday party for her son, Rafe. Rafe is Lenny’s older brother. He is what we called mentally retarded growing up. As a boy I was told that Rafe’s air supply was momentarily cut off during birth and that if the doctor had been quicker, he would have been a normal, fully-functioning person. He grew up to speak with a thick tongue, and, it seemed to me when I was as a kid, childish in the way he said certain phrases over and over, “You’re fired!” being his favourite, or how he would poke a person with his finger and tell you the vacuum cleaner didn’t work, or the furnace, or the lawn mower, and that you should fix it right away. Later, I realized that he was frustrated, lonely, and possibly frightened. My father blamed my uncle Ben for not spending more time with him but instead running off to every convention he could, or staying at the club to play golf. Over the years Rafe went to different schools and later to special-skills workshops and group homes but he always came home again, to be taken care of by Auntie Doris.

I’d hardly seen anybody in my family since the problems in my marriage began—or more precisely, since pathetic me began to realize that something was wrong. I avoided family events so that I didn’t have to answer questions about Jennifer, and so I missed even my great uncle’s hundredth birthday. I did, however, go to his funeral shortly after, where no one thought to ask me anything.

When I finally saw that the marriage was lost I decided that it was time to get on with things.   Besides, my mother begged me to come to Rafe’s party. Only she and my father knew I was living alone and my mother thought that the isolation was doing me harm. It seemed I needed a coming-out party.

My cousins still lived in their modest house off Senlac Rd. in North York, on a dead-end street that used to be noisy with kids but had grown silent. It was dark when I drove up in a leased car. Through the picture window I could see everyone mingling—uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. A few wore paper hats, and balloons and crepe paper were taped to the walls. Under my arm was a present in store gift-wrapping, a shirt from the Gap. I took a deep breath, ran my hand through my hair, and practiced smiling as I went up the stairs.

Inside the door I smelled smoked meat, pickles, coffee. Auntie Doris was lining shoes up under a coat rack. “Michael! How good to see you. It’s been too long.”

I kissed her cheek. She was small like my mother and getting smaller with age. She wore a bright blue dress but looked tired. “I see it’s quite the party.”

“You know Rafe. He likes to see everyone. I’m sorry to see you’ve come without your lovely wife. And the kids. How is everyone?”

“They’re fine. Jennifer and I are separated. It’s not my night with the kids.”

“Oh, Michael.” She put her hand on my arm. “I’m so sorry. When did this happen?”

“A couple of months ago.”

“Your mother didn’t say a word. Is there any chance of patching things up? Don’t tell me, let me just hope. Come on in, Michael. Eat something. No wonder you look so thin. It’s good to see people who care about you at a time like this.”

“Thank you, Doris.” I took off my shoes and added my coat to the rack and went up the carpeted steps to the living room. A few people turned and for a moment I thought I might get sick. But then my mother came over and whispered that everything would be all right and my uncle’s business partner, Ned Rossoff, gave me a bone-crushing handshake and started to tell me a joke about a Jewish Buddhist and a gaggle of kids banged into me as they ran giggling through the room.

“Hey, it’s the birthday boy.” I clapped my hand on Rafe’s shoulder. His eyes shone with the excitement of the party. There was a bit of tissue stuck on his neck where he’d cut himself shaving. “I said, “You look good, Rafe. Is that a new blazer?”

“You know what the gardener did? He pulled out the rosebush. With the roots!”

“He wasn’t supposed to?”

“I told Mom he’s no good.”

“Here’s a little birthday something for you.”

“Put it over there,” he bellowed into my ear. “I’m getting a Coke.”   I added my present to the tottering mound on the sideboard. When I turned back, my cousin Judy stood grinning at me.

“Howdy stranger,” she said.

“Hey, Judy. It’s been a while.”

“Still playing with puppets?”

Judy and I had been close growing up. Together we put on puppet shows for other kids’ birthday parties. But I rarely saw her now.

“Where are your adorable kids? And your adorable wife?”

“Jennifer and I are separated.”

“Crap. It’s like an epidemic these days. Are you surviving?”

“More or less. I didn’t want the kids to see everybody until they knew.”

“Yeah. Trust me, it gets better. All my friends say so. Just don’t let her take the kids away from you.”

“She’d never do that.”

“Dads don’t always feel entitled. Josh and Ella need you.”

“It’s good to be reminded.”

“Let’s go stuff our faces. It’ll do you good. Doris is the only person I know who still serves kishka.”

There’s never much drinking at one of my family’s events. Still, there’s always a bottle of Seagram’s among the oversized plastic missiles of Coke and Seven Up. When I made my way over, Rafe’s dad, Uncle Ben, handed me a shot glass from Disneyworld. “Have one,” he said. “It’ll put hair on your chest.” He always said that to me. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, given the state of my emotions, but I raised the glass and clinked it to his own. The stuff was pretty smooth.

“So Michael,” he said, “have you got a real job yet? I mean one that actually pays some decent money?”

He always said that to me, too. “Still considering my options, Ben.”

“You can always come work for me. At least relatives don’t steal. So where’s your wife? I don’t see that doll around here. She’s got a million-dollar smile, that one.”

“We’re separated.”



“The kids?”

“Doing all right, I think.”

“What a shame. But at least you can play more golf.”

“I don’t play golf.”

“Take it up. Also, the way women are these days, it’s easy to score. Back when I was single trying to have sex was like the siege of Leningrad. Except for Noreen Hochkiss.”

“I don’t think I want to hear.”

He filled my glass again. “The secret is to give the woman what she wants. That’s something else we never understood.”


Rafe stood on a chair and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Time to open up the presents!” He grabbed the box on top and tore off the wrapping. A 500-piece puzzle. Next was a cardigan. Then came a shirt (mine), another shirt, a book on animal life, a computer game. Each time he held it above his head for everyone to see.

Maybe it was the whisky, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t mind being around my family. These people had known me all my life. And on this cloud of good feeling I decided to float my way out. I found my parents to say goodbye, responding to my mother’s anxious look by giving her a kiss and saying that I’d bring the kids over for dinner on the weekend. In the hall I found my shoes and jacket and before anyone else could stop me I went out into the night air.

For a moment I stood on the porch, clearing my head and reveling in the feel of approaching summer. When school was over I would begin looking for a small house, not too far from their mother, with a room for each of them. We’d take a holiday, maybe a car-camping trip. The thought of it all scared and excited me both.

“Is that Michael?”

I knew the hardy voice, and the figure coming around from the side of the porch in a bulky coat and fedora. Lenny. As he came into the circle of light he looked a little heavier, his beard broader. I came down the steps and he gave me a hug, squeezing half the air out of me.

“You’re leaving already? I’m coming late from my Torah study group. You should come some time, it’s very philosophical. Remember those late-night discussions we used to have?”

“That was a long time ago. I hope everyone’s well. The kids.”

“Thank God, they’re thriving. But you’re leaving already? Come inside for another few minutes.”

“I really have to go. But it’s good to see you.”

“And your own? How’s Jennifer?”

I didn’t look away this time, but into Michael’s soft brown eyes. He had eyes like his mother and mine. “Actually, Jennifer and I separated a few months ago. We’re getting divorced.”

I heard the huff of his breath and felt a sting on the side of my cheek that shut my my eyes.   A slap? Lenny had slapped me?

Shame on you,” he said quietly.

There are so many things I wish I had remembered at that moment. That Lenny’s own childhood had been less happy than my own. That his wife had suffered serious health problems for years. That his jewelry import business had been struggling. I wish I had been able to stop time and at least try and understand what he had done. But of course I couldn’t.

I hit him, a fist to the jaw. Knocked him backwards on his ass.

“Fuck off, Len.”

Trembling with rage, I stepped over him and walked to my car. Fumbled with the key, turned on the ignition, and pulled away. In my rear-view mirror I saw him slowly get up.


The only other time I’d tried to hit someone was at summer camp when I was eight. A kid named Kevin Edelstein stole the leopard frog that I had spent an hour catching in a stinking swamp. Kevin claimed that mine had escaped from its jar and that he had caught a different one. We rolled around on the ground—neither of us even threw a punch—before the counselor separated us.

I discovered that when the adrenaline leaves your body you feel weak and nauseous. My hands could hardly hold the steering wheel. My cell phone rang, my father’s name appearing on the screen. I didn’t pick up, nor when it rang three more times. I got back to my apartment and parked in the small back lot. The building was five stories without an elevator and I ran all the way up, gasping for air as I reached my door. In the bathroom I turned on the light and saw a faint hue still on my cheek. I drew a bath but instead of reading, I lay with my eyes closed. Then I crawled into bed.

When I awoke in the morning, there was a brief, blissful moment when I didn’t remember what had happened. But when I did, I tried not to feel so bad. After all, Lenny had slapped me, the prick. Who did he think he was, my father? God? In fact, he was three months younger than me, as if that somehow mattered. Naturally my conscience would nag at me for a while, and some of my relatives would express shock, but wouldn’t others still be on my side?   And then the story would fade, if not entirely disappearing.

I was just leaving the house for school when my cell rang. I saw it was from the house, and thinking it one of the kids, I answered.

“Michael?” It was Jennifer. “What exactly is going on?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said coldly.

Your parents called me. You hit your cousin Len?”

“I really don’t want to talk about this with you.”

“Jesus, Michael. You wouldn’t hit anybody. Maybe you should talk to a professional.”

“I’m hanging up.”

“Your cousin called the police.”


“That’s what your mother said.”

“I’ve got to leave for school. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

I hung up without waiting for an answer. Then I walked to the subway and got on a crowded train. I held a strap and tried to read my book, a history of eighteenth century science, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was glad to get to school, where a couple of students were waiting for extra help. I taught my classes and then went to a science department meeting where I was gratefully bored. Everything was as it was supposed to be. The next day followed, and the next, and just as I became confident that things were going to be all right, the cops arrived.

They kept me for five hours, not in a cell but sitting on a bench in a hallway. Then they told me to get a lawyer and stay clear of Lenny and any of his immediate family, as if I might suddenly kidnap his children. The article in the Star appeared and two days later my teaching duties were suspended. My principal, Audrey Tatcheva, was a good egg and I didn’t blame her.

“I think you should say that you’ll never do it again,” Leah told me. “And then you can make your cousin a card.”


The incident did cause a rift in my family, with most of my relatives siding with Lenny. Doris wouldn’t talk to my mother, which hurt her, although she claimed not to care. My cousin Judy called to say she had a mind to go over and hit Lenny herself; maybe that would shake this religious superstition out of him. But I saw it differently. I didn’t understand Lenny’s faith or how he could live within the confines of such strict practice, but I did sense his genuine need for it.   The same need, perhaps, that caused him to slap me.

My summer began early but, unsure of my professional future, I doubted my eligibility for a mortgage and had to put off looking for a house. I found myself avoiding most people I knew, whether they knew what had happened or not. I avoided going to the gym and went on long, solitary bike rides instead. I caught up on back issues of Scientific American and watched re-runs of The Antiques Roadshow. Of course I had my time with the girls, taking them to school and then day camp, cooking dinners, keeping playdates, visiting my parents.

In late July the divorce papers arrived by courier. I thought of phoning Jennifer to make sure she wanted to go ahead with it, and then I thought, what the hell, and signed. A few days later the three of us went on our camping trip to Killarney. It rained the first two days, but then the sun came out and everything more or less dried out. We caught five-inch long bass and sunfish and threw them back, went on nature walks, drove into the nearby town for hamburgers and a movie. We were going through the Narnia books, which my father had read to me, and at night we lay in our warm sleeping bags while I read another chapter of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And then the light went out and all of us slept through till morning.


A trial date was set for February. That meant the charge wouldn’t be resolved until after Christmas, and the school would have to hire someone to teach my classes starting in September. I couldn’t but think this was another step towards losing my job, even though the union rep who came to see me swore up and down that they would argue for reinstatement.   I didn’t feel that I had the strength to fight but I needed my job, for my kids, too. I had another meeting with the lawyer, who urged me to find a couple of character witnesses. He suggested again that I file a counter-suit; Lenny had slapped me first, and that, too, was assault. But I couldn’t do it.

With the divorce settled, Jennifer bought out my half of the house with the help of her parents and a larger mortgage of her own. My father said that he would co-sign a bank loan and that waiting for a house of my own wasn’t doing the kids any good. So I began to look and almost right away a house came up just ten blocks away, the modest middle home in an attached row of three. It had rather ugly mottled brick but it was well laid out, and when I took the kids to see it they immediately ran to their bedrooms without fighting over them. The sellers were eager to close as the woman had just been transferred to some job in Edmonton. Almost before we knew it, we were eating pizza on a new Ikea table and laughing about nothing at all, as if we were on holiday. The kids had new pets, a pair of guinea pigs that seemed to me as dumb as bricks but Josh and Leah loved them. Those first nights, with the kids in their beds, nightlights glowing, and me reading in my own, made me feel as if happiness was possible.


Labour day, last day of summer. The kids had gone off with Jennifer and left me on my own. A teacher friend invited me to a barbecue, but I didn’t think I could bear the chatter about a new school year, the recounting of first-day back dreams which all teachers have.   Instead, I spent the day painting the girls’ rooms as I’d promised (blue for Josh and, yes, pink for Leah.) It took me the whole day and evening and I was tired and aching. I took a long shower, scrubbing paint off my skin, then fried up some eggs and home fries and took the plate out to the porch with a bottle of beer. Evening fell but I didn’t turn on the light but sat in the shadows nursing a second beer, watching the occasional car pull up and the kids spill up, the parents urging them to get ready for bed because they needed an early night. Somebody whistled the “Ode to Joy” as he walked by smoking a cigarette. And then the street was empty but for me and the occasional slinking cat.

A car turned the corner and pulled up. I recognized it as Lenny’s by the wire holding on the back fender. The door sprung open and he hauled himself out and looked up and down the sidewalk, no doubt unsure which was my house. Then he must have seen my outline in the dark as he came up to the bottom step.

“Hi, Michael.”

“Hi, Lenny.”

“This is the new house?”

“It is.”

“I brought something.” I hadn’t noticed the paper bag in his hand. He fished inside it and pulled out one of those plastic honey containers shaped like a bear. He looked at it and then put it down on the step. “You know, it’s symbolic. So you’ll have a sweet life here.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“Can I come up?”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

“Right. I’ll stay here. I shouldn’t have called the police. My mother didn’t want me to. I don’t know what I was thinking. Angry, I guess. But I wasn’t angry at you, Michael, not really. Everybody else in the family, they think I believe that I’ve got all the answers.   But I don’t, it doesn’t work that way. Anyway, I told my lawyer that I wouldn’t testify. They’re going to drop the charges. I’m sorry for all the tsouris it caused, as if we don’t all have enough, eh? Okay then. Be well.”

He waved and I waved back and then he got in his car and drove away. I finished my beer and went inside.


Josh and Leah, thank goodness, both liked their teachers. I didn’t get to start teaching again until the end of September, when I discovered that my classes had learned almost nothing. A couple of other teachers seemed wary, but with everyone else nothing seemed to change. The kids stayed with me every other week but the two houses were so close they could walk over for visits, and Jennifer and I tried to be flexible and helpful to each other. We got to know our neighbours. The guinea pigs got fat. I made reservations to take the kids to Florida at Christmas to visit my parents, who wintered in West Palm Beach.

It was my mother who told me that Lenny’s wife’s health was deteriorating, and had been for some time but they had kept it quiet. I don’t know if that was behind his anger, although it’s possible. Angry at God, maybe, although that was probably simplistic. I realized then that Lenny’s slap had been something other than it seemed. That it had been a kind of reaching out.

I didn’t know if I should call about Zipporah, or if I’d be bothering them. So I called my mother in Florida for her opinion.

“Here’s my rule,” she said. “If I’m not sure whether to call or not, I always call.”

She’s good about this sort of thing, so I followed her advice.

“Hello?” Lenny said. Even in that one word, I could hear everything.

—Cary Fagan


Cary Fagan‘s books include A Bird’s Eye (finalist for the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize), the story collection My Life Among the Apes (longlisted for the Giller Prize), and Valentine’s Fall (finalist for the Toronto Book Award).  He is also writes books for children and recently received the Vicki Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature.  Cary was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.

Jun 152015


It’s the discovery of the naked child in their camp that sets Haints Stay in motion. In the following scenes the killers, Brooke and Sugar, wake to find Bird asleep between them. In some ways Haints Stay is about parenting in the surreal world Colin Winnette creates in the novel. Here we see what kind of tough-love parents Brooke and Sugar could have potentially been. There are also hints in this scene that Sugar is suffering from morning sickness due to his pregnancy. What I love the most in this section is the kind of hardscrabble wisdom that comes at the end when Brooke teaches Bird to hunt: “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guilt is all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever…”

—Jason DeYoung

From Haints Stay
Colin Winnette
Two Dollar Radio

BROOKE’S HAND WAS OCCUPIED by a foreign object. He felt it before opening his eyes to greet the day, which had rose up around them like a warm fog. Here they were, back in the woods again and holding one another as they had always done on cold nights. But Sugar felt different to him that morning. Smaller, thinner. Cleaner. Brooke felt a bone protruding, sharper than those he knew to be Sugar’s. He spoke a few casual sounds and received no answer and opened his eyes to reveal a young boy, hardly a hair on his body, sleeping between Brooke and his brother as heavily as a dead horse.


His brother did not stir.

“Sugar, there’s a boy here.”

Sugar rolled slightly but did not rise.

“Sugar,” said Brooke, and this time the boy was rocked casually in place before opening his eyes to discover the two men at his flank.

“Who are you?” said the boy.

“I’d like to ask the same question, and add a ‘How did you get here and between us?’” said Brooke. He rose and dusted himself, examined the woods around them for a set of eyes or ears or a broken nose. The woods were silent but for the small birds plunging into the pine needles gathered at the base of each enormous tree. They were utterly alone, the two brothers and their stranger.

“I don’t know,” said the boy. He said it plainly and without fright. He seemed as comfortable as the leaves around them.

“You don’t know which?” said Brooke. He kicked Sugar, finally, to wake him.

“It’s horse shit,” said Sugar, unsteadily, his eyes still shut.

“It’s an escape,” said Brooke. “You’re hiding out?”

Again, the boy said, “I don’t know.”

“Well,” said Sugar, “who are you?” He was up finally, watching the boy, puzzling out how slow he might actually be, or how capable a liar.

“Who are you?” said the boy. He put his hands to his face, rubbed, coughed. He brought his hands down and examined the two men. “You’re going to hurt me?”

“Let’s assume no one is going to hurt anyone,” said Brooke. “I’m Brooke. This is my brother Sugar. We’re killers by trade and we’re hiding in the woods after a rout of sorts.”


“Killers,” said Sugar, “hiding out.” He was waking up, pacing again and looking between the trees.

The boy seemed weak, a little slow. Incapable of harm, or at least uninterested.

“Who… who did you kill?”

“Which time?” said Sugar.

“Stop it, Sugar.” Brooke poured something black from a leather pouch into a tin cup. He handed it to the boy, “My brother is trying to scare you.”

“Why?” asked the boy.

“Because you’re wrong not to be frightened of two men sleeping in the woods,” said Sugar. “Especially these two men.”

“When you say you don’t know where you came from or who you are,” said Brooke, “what exactly do you mean? Where were you yesterday? Where were you an hour ago?”

“I don’t know.”

“Everyone comes from somewhere,” said Sugar. “Where are your clothes? What have you got in your pockets?”

“I don’t have anything,” said the boy. He was nude and empty-handed. There was nothing in the piles about them that did not belong to Sugar and Brooke, that they had not bedded down with the night before. The boy had nothing to him but his person.

“There’s meat on your bones,” said Sugar. He cracked the bones in his fingers, one by one, then his neck and back. He rose and stood before the boy. “You’ve eaten recently enough. You don’t look ill or wounded.”

The boy nodded slowly. “I don’t feel ill or wounded.”

“Hm,” said Sugar. He leaned forward slightly and set his hand to his waist. He turned and walked into the woods around them and after a few moments his figure disappeared into the mist. They could hear him crushing leaves and cracking twigs with his boots. They could hear faintly the sound of his breathing.

“What’s he doing?” said the boy. “Where’s he gone?”

“Don’t mind it,” said Brooke.

“Are you going to hurt me?”

“I don’t think so,” said Brooke. “If you tell us why you’re here. If you can tell us why we shouldn’t. You can tell the truth, boy. Are you a scout? A young gunslinger trying an impoverished angle? Did you grow up on a perfectly normal farm with perfectly simple parents who were very casual people and did not bother much with towns or neighbors? Were you looking to get out and see the world? Or did your people torture you and send you running into the night?”

“I haven’t done anything,” said the boy. He was crying without whimpering or whining, letting the tears roll from the corners of his eyes in crooked lines down to his mouth. “What’s he doing?”

“Don’t worry about him,” said Brooke.

“Where’s he gone?”

“He’s ill,” said Brooke. “We’re not doctors. We don’t like them. It will stop eventually.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. He’s my brother. It’s always been this way.”

“What’s your name?”

“Brooke. Now yours.”

The boy examined his palms.

“I don’t know,” said the boy. “I don’t know anything.”

“Where were you before?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you remember?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you remember about where you were before? What do you picture in your head when you think about elsewhere?”

“I picture you and… Sugar?”


“You and Sugar. That’s all I know. And some voices.”

“What are they saying?”

“I can’t tell. It’s just sounds. From a distance.”

“You don’t remember anything else?”

The boy shook his head.

“Your mother? Your father? What you had for breakfast yesterday?”

The boy was silent a moment. He examined his palms.

“Can I… can I see your hands?” said the boy.

“Where are these words coming from then? What you’re saying? Who taught you to speak and speak like us?”

The boy shrugged. He was crying again.

Brooke put out his palms. They were caked in dirt, a little blood in the deeper wrinkles, which had run from a small crack in the skin between his knuckles. The boy slid his hands under his legs, palms down and pressing into the dirt.
Sugar approached.

“What’d you get?” said Brooke.

“What business is it of yours?”

“Are you sick?” said the boy.

“No,” said Sugar.

“Are you hurt?”

“You’re a curious little egg, aren’t you? We’re done with this. You need to get along anyhow. Back to nowhere.”

“Sugar,” said Brooke.

“And if someone comes looking for us tonight, tomorrow, or any day after this, for that matter,” Sugar leaned in, “we’re going to know where he came from. Whether or not you actually said something, we’ve got to act on what we know, pursue reason and statistical likelihood above all else—so we’re going to find you and the people who matter most to you. Did we explain what it is we do for a living, son? Did we make it clear enough? We’ll go right to work on you, and anyone who knows your name.”

“Sugar,” said Brooke.

“We’ll erase you. Any trace of you.”

“Sugar,” said Brooke.

The boy was crying openly, his palms still buried beneath his thighs. He was flexing his fingers and digging into the leaves beneath him, loosing small rocks and the end of a buried twig.

“I’m telling the truth,” said Sugar.

“You’ve scared him, Sugar. Now leave him alone,” said Brooke.

Finally the boy brought his hands to his face, tried to turn away from them. Sugar snapped him up by the wrists and held out his arms as if the boy were pleading. The boy stared up at him but said nothing.

“Sugar, let him go,” said Brooke, and Sugar held out the boy’s palms to Brooke and pointed with his chin. The palms were blank, staring back at them. Smooth as stones.


“Have you ever caught anything before?” said Brooke.

The boy was on his belly at Brooke’s side and they were watching two deer hoof their way crosswise up a steep and sudden incline only a mile or so from where the men had been camped that morning.

“I don’t know,” said the boy.

“Let’s say you haven’t,” said Brooke. “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guilt is all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever. You can rid yourself of all that if you just accept what’s coming to you in the general sense, and work to prevent it in the immediate sense. No matter what you let live you’re going to die and it’s just as likely it will be of a rock falling on your head or getting a bad cough as it is that someone will decide they want you gone. So accept it now and move on.”

“Okay,” said the boy.

“Are you ready?” said Brooke.

“I think so,” said the boy.

“We’ll wait then,” said Brooke.

The deer worked their way up the steep incline without struggle. As they neared the top, the boy said, “I don’t think your brother likes me.”

“He doesn’t trust you,” said Brooke.


“He’s no reason to.”

“Okay,” said the boy.

Brooke watched him a moment. Then the boy said, “I’m ready,” and they rose up and loosed their stones from their slings.

The boy missed entirely, but Brooke’s stone made contact with the larger of the two and when the creature stumbled, stunned, a few feet down the incline, Brooke took off. He collapsed onto the stunned animal, gripped its jaw, its shoulder, twisted and snapped some hidden, necessary part. Everything about the deer went still, then it kicked, shuttered, and went still again.

“We’ll eat,” said Brooke.


“I won’t eat it,” said the boy.

Brooke was sawing the skin from the kill, its legs spread and tied to two separate trees. Brooke shrugged and placed the knife beneath a long length of flesh.

“Then you’ll die,” said Brooke.

—Colin Winnette

Jun 112015



Long recognized in Europe as one of the most important Czech writers of the twentieth century, Richard Weiner’s surrealistic fiction, often compared to Kafka’s, is now available for the first time in English with the publication of The Game for Real by Two Lines Press. Described by translator and Weiner scholar Benjamin Paloff as a “novel-in-two-novellas,” The Game for Real plumbs the subconscious mind through two metaphysical mysteries: The Game of Quartering and The Game for the Honor of Payback (read the Numéro Cinq review here.)

In the following excerpt from The Game for the Honor of Payback, the nameless protagonist travels aboard a train en route to Paris, a brief interlude between the principle settings in this tale of estrangement. Although the nameless man shares the train compartment with a jovial group of people, he remains isolated, the narrative style mimicking his feelings of alienation by juxtaposing the surreal landscape of his consciousness with a naturalistic description of the other travelers. Representative of Weiner’s prose and Paloff’s masterful translation, the third-person narration elucidates the nameless man’s anxious state of mind through symbolic, imagistic language, and in the world of Weiner’s psychological projections, we see the reflection of our own insecurities, our own fears.

The publisher Two Lines Press granted permission to publish this excerpt. The reviewer would like to thank Benjamin Paloff for his personal communication.

—Frank Richardson

From The Game for Real

Richard Weiner; Translated by Benjamin Paloff
Two Lines Press

THE TRAIN OF THIS auxiliary line ran daily, but it wasn’t used to it. It was a homebody. Three hundred sixty-five departures a year, and each one as tediously awkward as the frightened excursion of an antediluvian aunt. Express trains, which make sense to everywhere and nowhere, carry people whose yesterdays have all been shed behind them; they take them to tomorrows, which are innumerable. On express trains, everything is possible, express trains bar nothing. – This little train, however, was shambling in vain: it was already far out of town, and yet it couldn’t be rid of it. It drew it behind; the town was inside it,its presence petty, bespeaking sulkiness and hardship, and like them it lined the horizon, the little town calling itself importunately, pitifully to mind, like a dog barking behind a truck: nothing, but so puffed-up that what had been there could no longer find room for itself. Love, let’s say, had boarded the train; love, which might alter the world’s appearance; hatred had boarded the train, pledged to the same miracle; hostility toward life and death had boarded the train, or else it was a fidelity that depersonalized people into virtues—it was loaded with destinies, sins, and saintly deeds, invisible as atoms and heavy as worlds—but the train got the better of everything: it squeezed down everything that was within it, to the point of fussiness. A single chance remained: the transfer stop. The little train was carrying an impatience for the transfer stop.

There one awaits the express to Paris. The little train pulls into the station, still not entirely awake. Under a low, yet already promising sun, the chaotic optimism of a September morning, which befriends the sleepers returning to cities from their vacations. The tracks awaken to their infinitude with such enthusiasm it’s as though they’ve discovered it today for the first time. It has dawned on the warehouses that they are significant and anonymous, they’re even beginning to attain a barbarian beauty. A platform full of people. They marvel at the reassuring sense of their solidarity, but they marvel even more at the fact that they haven’t discovered the reason for this sureness: yet it’s as delectable as an ample vacation breakfast in the mountains. – So far, nothing has yet shattered this superhuman concord, but a spry inkling that there was worldly disorder nearby has already snuck in; it’s imponderable and pronounced. Heads turned to the right as if on command. The train was still far away down the ruler-straight track, so far away that they guessed its arrival not so much by the blackpoint into which it withered, but by the overbearing white plume with which it announced itself, and the immense din of this as-yet unheard announcement was such that it overpowered everything, everything and everything. It was the din of an obstinate and disciplined dominance that subjugates while reassuring and ennobling. You might think of the Pax Romana: that’s sort of how it was rushing, at the head of proud and perceptive legions. A throng of latecomers descended onto the platform. Boys and girls. They were laughing and shouting. One, large, proud, with straight chestnut hair, is next to him, dancing, stepping back. He was dancing his courage, but he was dancing it for one of the girls (you could immediately tell), and you could tell immediately which one. It was the one who, being too happy, was the only one brooding: her conquest was still a flower unto itself; it had happened last night. The platform was now entirely subject to the onrushing train-tyrant, beside whose arrival there was nothing in the universe at this moment that would be “worthy”; and on the platform the shouting throng, for whom the only thing “that’s worthy” was last night, because that’s when the two had met; this was a cluster of the free within a crowd of the enslaved. They alone were not waiting. They were going to meet the emperor, who was coming to meet them. The carefree among the solemn, the unhurried among the bustling, they roared and skipped all the more provocatively for being oblivious. The train! If they miss this one, they’ll catch the next. The nine-thirty train’s as good as the eight. They cared about the direction, which is invariable, not about the trains, which are innumerable.

The locomotive was coming in on the first track; it was only inadvertently—for the rambunctious group fascinated him—that he’d caught sight of the train’s eccentric, wheels, and rod. A fleeting dissatisfaction: that the relationship between the dizzying speed of arrival and the nearness of the goal, where that speed would be impressively renounced, seems incongruous to him, as always. – He’s lost sight of himself. The cluster dashed for the car it had arbitrarily selected; it dashed as though betting on a lottery number, knowing that there was no reason not to bet on any other number: that’s why, by all that is holy, it won on just the number it had bet on. The train exerted all its will and worked itself down to a spare trot. He saw it all, waiting for the door that would stop in front of him. Why run after the car he’s selected when there’s one, when there’s surely one that will stop right in front of him? Why bet if he knows for sure that he has to win something? He was standing here, waiting, disengaged, for it was to no purpose. And while he was waiting thus, that is, waiting while awaiting nothing, all of a sudden he discovered, just as we discover something that doesn’t concern us, that he was unhappy.

No, he didn’t discover his unhappiness so much as that he was unhappy. He beheld it with all his senses, each of which had as though assumed additional sight—perhaps to compensate for some enigmatic virtue of his.

He beheld it out of the blue, having anticipated anything but just this. It was a surprise for which amazement failed. He beheld that he was unhappy. He beheld it like a thing that is quite peculiar, though by no means awful; a thing apart from everyday reality, yet not at all imagined. It was a vision, but so cohesive that it outlasted even the shock of physical torpor, that is, the moment when he stepped forward to board. This thing—that is to say: that he was unhappy—gripped him, even though it accompanied him like a trusted friend, even though, like an atmosphere, it had became his environment, even though he carried it with care and respect.

The express had already departed again; with a tread each time more drawn out and pinioned. At last it took a shot at levitation, and a lucky one; it encouraged it with the bribes of intermittent bounces off its soles. The train became a self confident gale. Now, once again, there was nothing besides the rumbling that had begun somewhere where individual destinies had ceased, and that would become somewhere where any destiny could emerge. The travelers’ past had been obliterated, they had not yet arrived at the future that would sort them all out again: they were for the most part from among the favored, each one empowered by all the others, and their lack of skepticism was multiplied by their glee. –He, too, was aware of this, but only as information. Yet what he knew was that he was separate from that simultaneously destructive and unifying solidarity. There is no centrifugal force powerful enough to part him from the broodingly unexcited phantasm “I’m unhappy.” There is no centrifugal force that would pull him back into that forgotten self, like a Segner sprinkler spouting from a spinning wheel of destinies that had ceased being destinies. He is apart, unsociable, monstrous.

These monotonous testimonies! He’s asked his neighbor whether he might place his attaché on top of his thick rucksack. He has to depend on someone: he was coming off as affable, he even borrowed a smile (from where?); he sought his neighbor’s eyes so obtrusively that he found them, but in vain: consent was mumbled; the eyes, averted. And the person opposite him, a lady whose lips prepared so many times to ask a question, which she finally took to the adolescent, though he was sitting so far away! (It was just the one who’d been dancing for that happy throng; he replied—astonishingly!—so politely, obligingly, and almost sadly.) And the talkative conductor who misheard his query, as though professionally; his query alone . . . Right . . .

That he’s unhappy is a limpid phantasm, and it is also he: the two, inseparable. He’s not scared of it. As a companion it is seldom encouraging, but that it would weigh him down: no! –It searches patiently, ransacks itself, digs into itself, thinking itself simultaneously both the soggy finger and the fisherman who wants to find earthworms in there, and the more, the better; it searches the worm-soil, and with so certain a certitude finding itself that it has to guard against self-congratulation for so great an ardor: well no, not really, as many worms as it seems it finds there, it’s nothing against how many it won’t find; not even close. It’s just: where, where do they come from, all these misunderstandings, disagreements, losses? Where is it from, that unbridgeable hiatus between what he says and actually does and what can be heard and seen from his words and actions? Between what he’s intended and what he’s expressed? Between what he’s wanted to do and what he’s had to do? Where? From this thing that materialized so suddenly, transparently, and convincingly amid the screeching of the axles and the racket of cheerful country youths, from this thing so immaterial yet existing, from this thing shining with a kind of faint, stable, and interior moonlight, from this serious, real, calm, and collected thing. How to begrudge, how to bemoan an attribute so loyal, constant, and innocent! More and more he sees that he is unhappy. But no, that’s not really how it is; the fact that he’s unhappy—this thing made for his sake already long ago and decreed once and for all—he sees with increasing clarity, subtlety, persistence, and bitterness, but astonishingly he sees it bitterly without having experienced its bitterness, without a grudge, without bemoaning or lamenting.That’s how it is. It is neither weirder, nor more unfair, nor more hopeless than being happy, deserving, or famous, it’s pretty much like being loved by someone. That’s how it is. That’s how it is: this is his world, his share, his reward. The sun of his day and the stars of his night. And because it is so, all he needs now is to make a rather slight effort: to say “yes,” and from the fact that that’s how it is something even more cosmically positive will emerge, something that could not and cannot be anything else . . . and that’s all there is to say.

Benedictine Mill and its ignominy, and the spiteful and insidious town, and the frenzied circuit closed the previous night by that monstrous and unadulterated calm: to be compensated with money for a loved one’s ugliness (how majestically foul this love is!)—what remains of ignominy, spitefulness, and frenzy if we know that we are under the protection of this eternally present, broody-looking attribute, next to this thing whose unwittingly evil eye no prank will cheer up, nor deflect from us? That’s how it is. Why say that it could just as well be some other way if—and who cares if it is—we’re the only ones who know, we and no one else, that now and then we maybe feel like something else? Perhaps something better? But if there’s no choice, then what’s worse, and what’s better? –“I’m unhappy” isn’t threatening, it’s not scary; it simply is, and it’s one of those rare things that doesn’t go sit somewhere else. How loyal it is, how self-sacrificing this inscrutable and indiscernible thing outside us is, to which we have no obligations. It answers for mistakes and blunders, it shields from wrongs, it assumes failures and shame upon itself. It’s the screen he is safe behind; and right away, again, the sacrificial lamb he redeems himself with; and right away, again, the confessor with absolution. That he’s despised by them? But out of ignorance! That he’s treated unfairly? But out of misunderstanding! That he’s unappreciated and deprived? What does it matter, so long as there’s this “I’m unhappy” of his, behind which and within which his innocence, his human worth, and his unrecognized right have found refuge? – “I’m unhappy” is broody, but not dismayed; poor, but tidy; weak, yet not cowardly. To him it imparted so suspiciously great a respect that he was awash in anxiety as to whether he might have started to love sinfully. He was seized with some puritanical fear that he might be flirting with incest.

They were alone; that is, he was alone. In the unifying whoosh of the express train, slavishly and proudly alone. The rest had already lent themselves out to each other; they deserved each other, they communicated, they understood each other. They understood, without talking it out, all the way to the point of collaborating on that circle with which they circumscribed the solitude they’d assigned to him. Each one did only a section, but it fit the sections entrusted to the others so precisely that a literal circle emerged, a circle in the middle of which were him and his exclusion and his “I’m unhappy,” which he looked in the eye with suspicious pride. It was a circle of the spontaneously formed and colloidally diffuse tale of his leprosy, it was the guard of the healthy against the plague. He knew this, he didn’t suffer for it; he asked his “I’m unhappy” questions; it answered him with a melancholic, yet encouraging, smile. He was alone, he was grieving, he was dejected but—no, he wasn’t dejected; “I’m unhappy” was a sanctuary. What more can we ask for if we have a refuge?

A jolly, corpulent gentleman was telling a story; he was dumping it onto the person sitting opposite him (again, the inspiring youth from the platform). He began intimately; his neighbor added the punctuation with guffaws that, though sparing and concisely courteous, were getting longer and taking on an infectious virulence. The storyteller didn’t take his eyes off them, he was sizing them up, and then, as though having judged that they had grown to a size worthy of a counterpoint, he encouraged them and himself, and the slapping of the neighbor’s thigh became more frequent and substantial. The express train, too, finally eased off its enthusiastic levitation; it landed and dashed now only with attenuated, hulking strides. – The private joke was slowly being made public, admiring itself, reveling in its increasing gravity. And suddenly—as if it had remembered that it was actually that tiny crystal in which a helpless supersaturated solution had found its purpose—the sundry laughs ran to and fro like crazy shuttles and wove a net that no one wanted out of. But despite its having been woven with a speed that was utterly insane, it was careful not to miss him. The entire compartment had been as though gathered into a corner, where the overstuffed words were gushing, along with the youthful laughter that had been patronizingly surrendered: a fairy-tale prince, too happy to shy away from a graceless woodsman’s joy. – He, the whole time alone with himself, he, the whole time sad and with a torturously senseless dignity, for he was boasting of something (and knew it) that hurt. He didn’t surrender, not even when they started to dance the belly laugh, whipping into the walls like a downpour onto a slapdash rooftop, a shower as well as steam, both water and its benefaction. –

And just then, a settling down: a sudden, swift, noise pregnant silence. He looked up: the dancer had stretched out his hands, on the fingers of which—like puppet strings—was the travelers’ unbounded attention.

“He’s going to sing! Attention!”

And a solo, as notarially somber as hushed laughter:

“Dans le jardin de mon père …”

The refrain and chorus buried the solo, as the masquerade procession buries the buffoon’s monologue.

“Auprès de ma blonde …”

The refrain, a good-natured rascal, ruminated over what might be left of the individuals.

The people in this train compartment got along as no one had gotten along before, as no one would get along again: through words that were not the words of any of them.

And he suddenly understood that a great happiness had burst in here, that in which each would lose his trace, finding the trace of those similar to himself, and he is following it greedily.

His defiance broke into torrential relief: this is happiness! –Now he wanted it.

“Qu’il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon …”

He joined in, he felt like a fish in water.

“Qu’il fait …”

He shrieked into silence, into a silence ordered by the dancer’s outstretched hands.

“Hold on! That sounded off. . .Who’s spoiling it?” The eyes of the entire compartment are simultaneously upon him; halberdiers clearing the way; and behind them, the dancer’s finger, like the finger of a public prosecutor:

“It’s that gentleman there! Please, don’t spoil it for us . . .”

The song rolled out again like a ball in a steep trough; if only it could know what it was rolling through!

He, however, cast a timid glance to the side, where his encouraging “I’m unhappy” had still been sitting a moment before. Something shabbily diaphanous was sitting there. It had long, groomed eyelashes over ashamedly downcast eyes. It had the attractive and sticky-sweet smile of the fine-looking man from yesterday. It was only now that this yesterday was making itself manifest in its hidden truth. It was like a morsel that he couldn’t get rid of, and that tasted like a purgative.

—Richard Weiner, translated by Benjamin Paloff

Jun 082015

Zoe MeagerZoë Meager


Even with the door to the main street thrown open the post office was stifling. Having clawed back only a quarter of the year from the despotic winter, summer led a full-frontal attack all over Manchuria. It seemed to Hiromitsu that the mail had been frozen, a glacier of sacks bulked up over winter that now came flooding out in a sweeping rush of thaw. Propping himself against the counter, he sorted and re-sorted the undeliverable mail; some with illegible names and addresses, some written in good faith to dead soldiers.

A bead of sweat trailed from Hiromitsu’s hairline down his forehead, caught on a fine eyebrow and quivered, before raindropping silently to the envelope before him. It sat for a beat, magnifying the ink below it, interrogating the last downward stroke in the kanji for Manchuria. Then the moment and the drop were gone, as if absorbed by the great nation itself.

The letters, wrapped in envelopes like skin, were interchangeable from the outside but – the thought waded towards him – there were lives inside each one; the breath of loved ones caught in the cutaneous layers of mail, familiar gestures swept up in the brush strokes of gossip and pleasantry and duty. Paper was a strange messenger, inviting stains and creases onto the delicate surfaces of itself, hiding secrets made of nothing that slid across its planes and came to rest in its folds. Stuffing the letter into his lapel, Hiromitsu added his own story, as his thumb smeared the ink slightly across the paper.


Summer evenings were spent alone in the dim back room of the post office. Cloistered in the syrupy heat, surrounded by the smell of the family who had owned it, even the air seemed to begrudge his presence. It refused to circulate.

He sat at a low table, arranging his four netsuke in order of preference. The rooster, the snake, the tanuki, the rabbit — nearly a year ago he had chosen these four to travel with him to Manchuria. They all wanted to be on the far left of the row. Each time he reordered them he turned those that sat to the right of the favourite slightly to face it, so that three small carved animals displayed an act of proper deference to their superior. He rearranged them again and again, making them leap like Go pieces in competition. It had been a favourite pastime in his childhood, played with his grandfather’s and great grandfather’s cast off netsuke. He had built a little army of chipped animals and old favourites, their features worn smooth from so much care.

From the undeliverables, he allowed himself one letter each week. In the hot nights, at the end of hotter days, his skin gritty and slick, he would pull the chosen message from his lapel. The envelopes, wilted soft, were a marvel every time; they always came undone so easily in his hands —

Dear Son

All around the city, the cobblestones have nothing to say. As I walk to the shrine, the snow mutes my wooden shoes and engulfs them. I pray the gods will bless you, everyday. Do the wisps of incense reach Manchuria?

Your sister cracks the ice on the pond. One koi she fished out dead but the others seem to have grown rapidly to cancel the void. Or perhaps it’s the stretching illusion of the water.

Winter is the season for letter writing, don’t you think?

Your devoted, Mother.

Lying on his futon, motionless as a corpse, in love with the gaps between the floorboards through which drafts told stories across his skin, Hiromitsu sometimes wrote back, invisible letters in the air —

Yes, the wisps of incense reach me.

* * *

Winter. A month’s coal rations undelivered with no explanation. Days, weeks without a civilized word. The army had continued North and left Hiromitsu shouting at the locals, his mouth an angry train in the cold. Even official dispatches were lost, somewhere between the land and sky that together conspired to a sphere of unearthly, unheavenly, directionless white. There seemed to be nothing for Hiromitsu to do but stamp his feet and grind his inkstick into frozen water, scribing the official records ever-shorter.

The cold was creeping tight in his chest as he pulled on his thickest clothes. They blanketed him like a snow drift, softening his angles, rendering him as indistinct as the peasants in the street. He mounted his horse, Hachi, and keeping the village at their backs, together they were hoof prints disappearing.

All around them, lumps of landscape were shrouded with the same white blanket, like vast knees and shoulders and elbows in disjointed ruin. But who could say if there was really anything underneath? Before them, no distance could be measured between one gratuitous curve of snow and the next, and on turning, the village was gone. Hiromitsu’s eyelashes grew heavy with ice and air had to be sucked in past the damp fabric of his muffler. He took strength from the heft of Hachi’s body beneath him.

At last, there stood the two shacks he remembered, so tumbledown that the banks of snow seemed to be all that was holding them up. The weaker of the two was selected. He gave the peasants his orders and waited as the occupants of the rickety hut began scurrying back and forth to their neighbour’s, carrying furniture on their backs, bags of grain and babies under their arms. They looked up at Hiromitsu sometimes, their heads low.

Hiromitsu kept a distance that was proper, parading back and forth only for the sake of keeping the worst of the cold from Hachi. With the way clear at last, he dismounted, and went about securing a thick rope first to the saddle, then to the central post of the empty shack. On his command, Hachi pulled the shack down with a few locomotive paces.

Hiromitsu remounted, glad to raise his feet above the frozen ground, and watched as the peasants stacked the timber. They bound the wood together with twine plaited last season, then fastened the load like a sledge behind Hachi. The postmaster and his horse pulled away to retrace their journey, splinters of wood dirtying the snow behind them.


In a corner of the post office, a depleted mailbag offered a home for spiders. The small warmth of the fire, hard won from his journey, had enlivened the little creatures, so Hiromitsu thought, as he counted their webs and smoked his pipe.

The locals had been unable to dig a hole big enough for Hachi. Manchurian winter owns the earth a hundred miles down and the ground had shut itself off from any further invasions for the year. So the big body had to lie in the snow, the mane stiff as rope, the brown hide patterned with the story of snowflakes falling from the sky.

The end of winter is always the hardest to bear, and sure enough, whenever Hiromitsu looked out the window, all he saw was the hump of snow that meant Hachi. Another hill of snow, another victory for the Manchurian winter.

With delight the idea came to him. He struggled on with extra clothes and requisitioned one of the two rising suns that hung rigid on poles at either side of the post office door. With difficulty, he waded towards the hump and in snow up to his knees, stopped to consider the prospects. The flag would be even more visible from here. The pole plunged into the horse’s flesh almost by itself. Hiromitsu breathed hard from the exertion and gave a muffled whinny in celebration, his breath freezing almost before it left his mouth.

 —Zoë Meager

Zoë Meager is from Christchurch, New Zealand and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. In 2013 she won the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Pacific Region, and her work has since been shortlisted in a number of contests and appeared in various journals at home and abroad. There are links at zoemeager.com and tweets @ZoeMeager


Jun 072015
Photo: Focus Information Agency

Photo: Svoboda Tsekova

Individuals move against history’s current throughout Georgi Gospodinov’s fascinating, quixotic novel, newly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. In this excerpt, a memory of the narrator’s father becomes the catalyst for an imaginary Socratic spat, a tribute to the ephemeral, and a demonstration of how a writer’s sense of control on the page can evaporate in human interaction. Gospodinov expands and contracts time and drapes layers of self-consciousness over the narrative to amplify the internal conflict that powers the novel. The reader is rewarded with passage through an enthralling maze that pivots and advances in a nonlinear trajectory and conveys experience of a life filtered through fiction.

See my review here.

—Geeda Searfoorce


From The Physics of Sorrow
Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Press


Buffalo Shit, or The Sublime Is Everywhere

I remember how we walked through a historical town famous for its Revival Period architecture, uprising, fires, cannons made from cherry-tree trunks, history rolled down the narrow streets but my father was impressed mainly by the geraniums on the window sills, praising aloud those who had grown such flowers. Suddenly he stopped in a street and started hovering over something on the ground. I went to see what he had discovered. A pile of buffalo shit. It was standing there like a miniature cathedral, a church’s cupola or a mosque’s dome, may all religions forgive me. A fly was circling above it like an angel. It is very rare to see buffalo shit nowadays, my father said. No one breeds buffalos here anymore. And he spoke with such delight about how one could fertilize pumpkins with it, plaster a wall, daub a bee hive (of the old wicker type), how one could use it to cure an earache—you should warm it well and apply it to the ear. At that moment I would have agreed that the Revival-Era houses we were touring and the pyramids of Giza were something much less important than the architecture, physics, and metaphysics of buffalo (bull?) shit.

Even if you weren’t born in Versailles, Athens, Rome, or Paris, the sublime will always find a form in which to appear before you. If you haven’t read Pseudo Longinus, haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns, of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.


Socrates on the Train

If everything lasted forever, nothing would be valuable.

The world is set up in such as way that it looks obvious and irrefutable. But what would happen if for a moment we turned the whole system upside down and instead of the enduring, the constant, the eternal, and the dead, we decided to revere that which is fleeting, changeable, transitory, yet alive?

The train was passing through the hot stubble fields in late August, where they still use that barbaric method of stubble burning. The fields had been reaped and to make for easier plowing afterward, someone had set a match to them. I imagined the meadow birds’ scorched wings, the running and squealing mice and rats, the burned up lizards and snakes. Storks were anxiously circling above the burning fields—we’ve got to get out of here ASAP, ASAP . . . Everyone wanted to run away, the world was heading toward autumn. At the same time, I was returning to the town of T.

In the end, man, if we still insist on seeing him as the measure of all things, is closer to the parameters of the fleeting—he is changeable, inclined toward death, alive, but mortal, perishable, constantly perishing.

I sensed that my imagination was running wild, I needed an opponent. I invented an opponent, clever, with a sharp rhetorical bite, I generously endowed him with qualities and gave myself over to my favorite pastime, Socratic spats.

“So, my dear sir, you propose that we replace the lasting with the fleeting,” my opponent began.

“I suggest that we examine this possibility.”

“Very wellll . . . Just say it aloud and you will hear how absurd it sounds—to replace the lasting with the fleeting. Illustrate it with a concrete example, isn’t that what you always love to say, my dear fellow? Now then, imagine a nice, sturdy house on the one hand, and a tumbledown hut on the other. Would you exchange the house for the hut? In one hand, I’m holding gold, in the other straw. Which would you choose? Won’t the straw grow moldy after the first rain?”

“Wait, wait, my most noble opponent . . . You speak wisely and take shameless advantage of your right to peek into my own misgivings. Yet let us look at the other side as well. Imagine a world, in which everyone agrees to a new hierarchy. In which the Fleeting and the Living are more valuable than the Eternal and the Dead. The opposite of the usual world, which we share today. And so, let us imagine what consequences this might have. Immediately many of the reasons for war and theft fall away. That which entices one to theft is that which is eternal or at least lasting, like a bar of gold, for example, or sturdy houses, cities, palaces, land . . . That is what’s ripe for the taking. No one goes to war over a pile of apples or lays siege to a city for its fragrant, blossoming cherry trees. By the time the siege is over, the cherry trees will have lost their blossoms, and the apples will have rotted.

“And since gold will have lost all of its agreed-upon value (because that’s exactly what it is, a contract value), it’ll just be rolling around on the ground and no one will think to up and go on a crusade for it.

“And speaking of crusades, let’s look at that side of the question as well. The religions that stand behind every crusade or holy war will suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them. The old gods were the Gods of the Eternal in all of its aspects. Is there a God of the Ephemeral? If there are Gods in the new constellation—and why not?—they will be exactly that: Gods of the Ephemeral. Gods of the Fragile and the Perishable. And hence fragile and perishable gods. Sensitive, feeling, empathizing. What more can we say? Mortality raises the price and opens our eyes.”

“But isn’t all of that so fleeting and unstable . . .”

“You’re fooling yourself. Let’s take that straw, which you’ve been clutching in your left hand since the very beginning of our debate. That straw used to be wheat, which used to be seeds, which used to be wheat, which used to be . . . And here, nota bene: the perishable reproduces itself. And that is its first advantage. While the gold, which you’ve been holding in your right hand, is made once-and-for-all, it won’t give birth to gold even if you plant it and water it every day for two hundred years. Let me put it like this, paradoxically—the perishable is more enduring, precisely because of its death, than that which is imperishable and cannot reproduce itself.” (I’ve completely forgotten about the opponent I created.) “What do you say to that, my friend?”

“Wellll, what happens to tradition then? To all of art, to your own pathetic scribbling?” (We’ve left politesse behind, my opponent is pissed off.) “Let me ask you this—that book you’re writing, is it on the side of the ephemeral, or does it uphold the values of the eternal? How long do your own words last?”

“How long do words last?” I repeat this, because I don’t know the answer. “Let us assume that they last as long as the breath with which you utter them. You exhale the word, it’s so light, you fill its sails and send it toward the harbor of the Other. It might perish before reaching shore, it might sink along the way, shipwrecked against the flotilla of another’s words. Whether that is fragility or unfathomable endurance, I cannot say.” (I won’t apologize for this outburst of lyricism here.)

“I’ll ignore the lyrical explanation. So where does that leave your own identity, if you set store by the changeable?” He refuses to give in. “Where does that leave your forefathers, traditions, culture? All of that which was created from constancy? All of that which you call up so as not to forget who you are and where you come from?”

“And what has that identity of yours ever given you, ass-hat?” (Politesse has now definitely been left in the dust.) Blood and wars, busted butts, suicide bombers—there’s your inheritance. There’s only one true identity—to be a living creature among living creatures. To be ephemeral and to value the Other, because he is ephemeral as well.”

“Man is the measure of all things, thus what man creates must endure so as to outlive him.”

(Now I’ve got him—I invented him after all, I have the right to push him into a trap.)

“Exactly, man is the measure of all things. And everything that exceeds this measure and lasts longer and remains after his death is inhuman by its very nature, a source of sorrow and discord as a rule.” (Are you listening to me now? He’s listening, that’s what I invented him for.)

“But . . .”

“We live in houses that will continue to live on even after we die. We go into cathedrals, where long lines of people and generations who are no longer with us have trod, as if on Judgment Day. All of this tells you: you pass on, but we remain. We’ve buried plenty before you, we’ll take care of the ones you’ve sired as well. Think up at least one good reason why that which is built of stone should last longer than that built of flesh. I don’t see any particular point or justice in that. We can only wonder what sense of time and the eternal the ones who came before us had, in the dark night of the primeval, living in their flimsy huts, outliving their flimsy huts, outliving their hearths, moving from place to place, measuring out their lives in days and nights, in lighted and extinguished fires . . . They truly lived forever, even if they died at thirty.”


Things Unsuited to Collecting
(a list of the perishable)

cheeses – start to stink
apples – shrivel up and rot
clouds – constantly change their states of aggregation
quince jam – gets moldy on top
lovers – get old, shriveled up (see apples)
children – grow up
snowmen – melt
tadpoles and silkworms – anatomically unstable

If we draw the line, it turns out that nothing organic is suitable for collecting. A world with a permanently expiring expiration date. A perishable, shriveling, rotting, deteriorating (and thus) wonderful world.


A Place to Stop

I can imagine the look on the face of the first person to find these notes. He’ll probably think that some monster lived here. Indeed, inside me, the Minotaur shivers, afraid of the dark, but otherwise I look completely normal, I wear the body of a white, middle-aged man, a woman is carrying my child, I sometimes go to the seaside, alone, or travel abroad. I keep up what they call “a normal life” in the upper world. OK, fine, I do pass as quite withdrawn and reticent, but in my line of work, that absolutely goes with the territory. My books sell relatively well, which allows me the time and space to do my own things and guarantees me much-needed tranquility. I don’t give interviews.

I used to be able to take part—a bit sluggishly, true—in lively conversations and at the same time to be somewhere else entirely, in a different body or memory. Sometimes this would show ever so slightly, one or two women with whom I was in closer contact always caught me. I got off the hook using the alibi of a writer. You can be absent as much as you like, they’ll always understand when you want to be left alone or when you don’t respond to repeated invitations. At first they keep calling, then they quickly forget you. Here people forget quickly, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that already.

—Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel

Jun 012015

Mark-Anthony-Jarman-2Mark Anthony Jarman


Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home
Your house is on fire, your children all alone

OUR CASKETS LAND at Dover Air Force Base draped in flags; the boys fly home, the rookie drivers who were trapped in the roadside ambush, in the incendiary daisy chain. We tried to add hillbilly armour to the suicide wagons, but it didn’t help. All night the planes with the wounded lift off to the surgeons in Germany and I finally fall asleep to find my mother and father smiling in their sunlit yard, my childhood yard, but rising high above their garden is a murky medieval fortress on a broad hill. On the rampart walls are the silhouettes of bearded warriors in their distinctive headgear, on high paths tribal fighters in pie-crust hats walk with bulbous rockets hoisted on their shoulders – RPGs – carrying the weight of the rockets casually, the way a school-kid carries a baseball bat.

In their sunny yard I hold up a .22 rifle, pose for a photo like Lee Harvey Oswald, my childhood rifle, a gun that was later stolen from my car and used in a drugstore robbery that time my vintage coupe was in for repairs at the Green T Texaco and Lloyd the mechanic forgot to lock my car.

I hold the familiar rifle in my hands, open the oiled bolt, slide a tiny brass shell into the chamber, close the bolt, and I aim the sleek rifle up the hill at the outline of a distant head on the ramparts. I breathe out, squeeze the trigger slowly, and the human outline recoils from the blow. I have hit a man up on the medieval wall. Someone shouts and men start down the hillside paths. My mother and father smile and relax in the suburban sun, chatting in Adirondack chairs, seemingly unaware of my rifle’s report and the hajji hornet buzz I’ve drawn upon their heads, the scores of bearded men trotting down paths, robes picking up burrs in the long yellow grass.

I leave my parents, run under the elms to the railroad station, though I’ve never noticed this brick station before. On the iron platforms are more scared reservists – not even real soldiers. Some rummage in their gear, try on gas masks and night goggles, as if that might help them see where they are going next. I mingle in the great crowd and my father sits in his green and sunny yard in dark glasses and a yellow golf shirt, an exile some distance from his birth, but with his garden chair and daisies (she loves me, she loves me not) and honeysuckle hedge he looks very English and very happy with my mother and his life. My parents don’t mind fading away, they forgive me, they seem all right with what is coming for them in the sunlight.

—Mark Anthony Jarman


Mark Anthony Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Jarman has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, five story collections, including Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planetand nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. His latest collection, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (Goose Lane Editions, 2015), is reviewed in this issue of NC.

May 062015

Madison Smartt Bell


THE HILL PASTURE SPILLED upward like a green tongue probing the dark trees on its borders. There had once been red horses. Then the square black cows. Then sheep, unshorn, their wool gone grey and matted with bramble, dung clotted under their fat, heavy tails.

Now the deer brown as dry leaves, wind-rustled over the greensward.


At night I heard coyotes, but it was rare to see them. There was one once in the low pasture; I saw him hunting mice. Ears pricked, attention perfect, everything in him concentrated on his prey. Perhaps not mice after all, but larks in the lengthening grass, a bird pretending to be wounded, circling wider away from the nest. I could not detect the prey, only the coyote’s sharpening perception, straining forward, then the quick, spring-loaded pounce.


Since everything had been destroyed I lived in the feed room of the middle barn, with a board floor raised hip height from the dirt, and a door still stout. The heavy planks of the wall were thick with a fine dust and plastered with nests of the dirt dauber wasps. There were empty gunny sacks once full of sweet feed and others stuffed with uncarded wool.

In a shaft of sunlight slicing between the boards, a black dirt-dauber droned harmlessly.

In the creek was cress and water; I was no hungrier than that. By night I peed or crapped like an animal on the ground outside the barn.


The white wolf’s muzzle probed rotten burlap, avid for the taut pink bodies of the blind mice nested there. Each morsel burst on the wolf’s long teeth like a berry.



*   no words   *

no words



The white wolf was my daughter, child of my heart.


The dark of the moon was a black circle where the moon once had been. A socket from which a white tooth was pulled.


The bronze, oiled Indians, mostly naked and smelling of lard, dashed out my baby’s brains against the doorpost. She was no bigger than a rabbit. She never had a chance to cry. They had already scalped my father in the corn field, then broken his head with his own hoe.


The white wolf walked in the cornfield, disguised as a black-robed crone. Black crows moved elliptically around her, keeping the same safe distance from her fearfulness, lifting and lighting among the dead yellow stalks, the long narrow leaves that whispered in the wind.


Upon a day I will no longer have the strength to pull myself up onto the high floor of the feed-room. I may still crawl underneath, however. There I will be sheltered but not so secure.


Rain lashes the tin roof of the barn. The front stalls leak, along a faulty seam. Tomorrow their dirt floors will be a bog. I can smell hay rotting in the next chamber (also ground level like the stalls) but in the feed-room it is dry. Extremely dry, as I forgot to fill the rust-brown feed can with creek water for the night. This situation could be remedied by holding the can out under the rain through the open door, but I am too drowsy among the old sacks, and rattle of rain on tin is a great comfort.


Under the twisted half-dead hackberry wait the remains of an old wagon: paint bleached away, wood rendered back to earth, the metal wheels and tree and springs more slowly dissolving under rust. There is a wagon in skeletal form, infinitesimally more transparent day by day.


The white wolf was my mother, and I her favorite son.


On the edge of the creek I watched the water spiders darting over the water, their movement so abrupt as to be invisible. They disappeared from one place and appeared in the place and no line could be drawn between the two locations. A water spider gripped its spot on the water with its legs crooked like fingers of a mechanical hand. The points of its legs dented little dimples into the surface of the water, without ever piercing it.

At that time the creek water was perfectly clear, no more than a few inches deep in most places, so I could see the rounded rocks on the bottom, slightly magnified, and sometimes a crawdad moving among them.


Once I laid the corpse of a lamb on the bottom of the wagon bed beneath the hackberry tree. The lamb was the weaker of two twins and never stood up to find the teat. It was still warm though its life had scarcely spanned an hour. Its cooling wooly surface was limp as a wet rag in my hand. On the board of the wagon bed it stiffened into a shape of running with its neck and tongue stretched out. The grey beetles wandered in and out of its mouth and anus. Presently the flesh had withered away and there was wool still shrunk onto the bone, then the wool rotted and was washed by the rain and only a pattern of bones remained. Then a frail light imprint on the board to show how intricately those tiny bones had lain.

Now the boards are gone themselves, at the end of an imperceptibly slow burning which reduced them to ash, to dust I mean—to infinitesimal points of carbon scattered to the wind.


When the white wolf dropped the milk jug to shatter on the kitchen floor we did not know if it was the accident that infuriated her or if she had thrown the jug down deliberately in a rage that had already begun. We never learned the answer because we were afraid to approach her, my father and I, lest the wolf tear out our throats with her white teeth.

I picked up the large pieces of glass from the floor and mopped the half gallon of milk with a towel which over and over I wrung into the sink, and finally found the last near-invisible shards by cutting my fingers as I moved my hands over and around the floor like a mesmerist, mingling the milk with blood.

The white wolf paced an angry circle in the yard, hour upon hour.


I was afraid in the high garden, alone, also bored, discontent, recalcitrant if I had been sent there to pick beans or thin new-sprouted corn. It would be evening, night’s shade approaching, sun broken on the points of the dark cedars sprouting up behind the gnarled apple trees of the abandoned orchard, drooling the last red light of the day like the yolk of a rotten egg. The corn rows were interminable and it seemed to take forever to half-fill a basket with green beans, hurry as I might, breaking stalks in my haste and sometimes even uprooting a plant from the row. Such carelessness would make the white wolf snarl. The high garden was behind the horse barn well away from the house—behind the barn was a field to cross and a passage through woods that seemed long to me on my short cub’s legs.

There were no more Indians then. The coyotes had not yet come and the deer were rare. Rabbits, groundhogs, quail rustling the dry leaves. Bobcats were there, but we did not see them. Bobcats were shy. There was nothing to fear coming out the arched shadows between the darkening apple trees; rather fear emerged from shadowy niches inside my head only; as much as I knew it to be true my unease grew as the darkness expanded, the bean basket obstinately refused to fill.

The white wolf was inside the house, melting bacon fat on hot iron; she could not see me or protect me there.


An owl who cries by day is not an owl, except the screech owl who kept releasing its peculiar ululating trill into the midst of a sunny, snowy morning, perched on a chicken-wire corner of the henhouse roof, eyes squinched as if blind or injured or trapped, although, when we netted it and brought it inside, the owl proved to be none of these things.

We put the owl into a bird cage—an arched, frail and delicate thing, intended for a canary or a parakeet. The white wolf caught field mice for it, bringing them into the house pinched delicately between the tips of the wolf’s front teeth, so no mouse would be torn or punctured, save by the owl’s talons.

The cage must be covered with a cloth for the owl to kill and eat, so that the owl could operate freely in false darkness, and also as a matter of decorum. Afterward the owl slept on its perch in the dim daylight filtering into the room and after that I could pick apart the pellets to examine the dry shreds of hair and the warped little bones.

We showed the owl to visitors but these seldom came and we did not keep the owl in the cage or the house for long; it was a wild thing after all.


Dry–rotted for a decade, the gunny sacks still hold an odor, like a memory of the sweet feed they used to contain: cracked corn and a kind of rolled pellet like the Indian money fossils we found around the edges of the stock pond, the mixture globbed together with molasses. I tasted it a time or two, attracted by the pleasant scent, but sweet feed was not for human digestion; it required the four stomachs of a cow.

I lie mottled among the rotten sacks, remembering: damp muzzles nuzzling the feed from my open hands, the rasp of a heavy tongue drying the last sweetness from my palm.


With a start I woke and found the whole two sashes of window at my bedside filled with the head of a lion, maned and roaring. Terror stopped my heart—then the white wolf rushed in with her long jaws snapping and drove the lion away. She held me with her hands and calmed me, explaining that there was no lion at all, only an overgrown limb of the hackberry tree scraping its twigs against the window glass.

When the wolf had returned to her own nest, I lay in the dark considering; I did not feel the same fear as before, but no trust either. The wind still rushed around the house and the hackberry limb rustled on the window, with a sound that was nothing at all like that lion’s roaring.


How then could my father have believed those owls were owls, crying as they did in the broad light of day, and shifting to surround the cornfield? How could he have gone to hoe the corn without a gun? The bleating of a ewe cutting off so sharply, what did he make of that?

And yet, in the house where I waited with my babe in arms, I heard these things myself and still did nothing. I could imagine things to do but could not do them.


Horned owl at dusk.



*   xx xxxxx   *




I watched the tame hens watching the owl, great horned owl that settled on the barn lot pump-head—folding his long grey wings in the dusk. The large soft-feathered head was featureless in the gloaming, his wingspread wider than I could stretch my arms. The tame hens craned their necks and clucked. They were about to go to roost but going to roost would not help them.


Some of the Indians came toward the house on all fours, covered in the bloody skins of the sheep they had slain in the middle barn lot, but it could not be for any purpose of concealment as others of their band came on their hind legs capering and howling in a tongue beyond my comprehension. One of these had my father’s scalp already strung to his lance.


At this time the white wolf lay in a shallow grave with her head cradled between two roots of an old oak tree, with a wedge of bluish limestone piercing the ground to mark her feet.


The rifle my father ought to have taken with him to the cornfield hung on its pegs above the fireplace. I knew the use of this instrument but did not reach for it. Nor did I shut the door and pull the latch string. I stood in the doorway, my babe in arms, watching, struck still as if dried blood had glued me to the spot.


I was amazed when the white wolf first peered out through the eyes of my daughter. It impressed me also, how close my daughter could walk up on buck deer.



*               *




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                        ~          ~   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~                 ~   ~   ~   ~~~~   ~


                        ~~~~   ~   ~   ~ ~ ~                        ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

~~~                                                                 ~~~

                        ~~~                                                                 ~~~~

                                                ~~~~                                                              ~~~ ~~~~~

                                                                        ~~~~~~~~~ ~ ~   ~   ~


Starlings drift over the stubble of the cornfield, lighting and lifting, a sheet of them moving in near-unison, curling up and away from the yellow-gray stalks like a strip of torn black lace. Wind or their wings carries the starlings over the fence post and forms them into a spiral, a helix—and then they are gone, or almost gone, a set of pin-prick speckles on the sky above the hills.

—Madison Smartt Bell


Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997)  and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989.  Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990).  In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson.  Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and  Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.

Bell’s eighth novel, All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.

Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York and in London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003. For more details, visit http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell


May 032015

tumblr_msh9wzikn81rp46e4o1_1280Photo by Jowita Bydlowska


After Joe moved out of his bachelor apartment and got back together with his wife, I started paying attention to public bathrooms. Precisely, family bathrooms, the ones you could lock from inside, ones with a baby change table. The change tables were sturdy. They could hold you up even if you were not a baby. If you were a grown woman, too, getting it from behind.

Wherever I went in the city–museums, restaurants, malls–I looked for bathrooms like that. I wrote down the locations in a little notebook. It would be easier to make notes in my phone but I was still too ashamed that I was looking for them, the bathrooms, and I didn’t want my phone to send me reminders of my humiliation.

There was enough humiliation. I felt it all the time as I moved through the city like an animal, stupid and wet.


After the first time we had sex in a bathroom, I sat on the floor for a while with my head between my knees. He didn’t ask me how I was. I didn’t want to get up. I wanted him to get out, to leave me alone. I told him to leave. I meant leave as in: go home.

But he didn’t; he waited outside with his hands in his pockets and when I came out, we walked toward a table and sat across from each other. What we had just done seemed like a procedure. Like a thing you’d do in a bathroom.

The waitress came and asked, would we like to see the menu?

Just a half-a-pint of Stella for me, Joe said.

Stella for me, too.

He didn’t look at the waitress. He was staring at me.

We should go see a movie sometime, I said. I imagined us cuddling in the movie theatre. I missed our intimacy that was no longer possible because there was no longer an apartment to be intimate in.

Sure, he said.

The waitress brought the beers.

We drank the beers, talked about music we hated, music we liked. When the beers were finished, we parted, went home: he back to his wife, me back to my three roommates.

We repeated the procedure two more times. A high-end restaurant with a bathroom with a chair inside it and a flowery wallpaper—I was proud of this finding— and a Starbucks.


But the first time Joe and I had sex, I was menstruating. He didn’t mind, he said and didn’t ask me if I minded – I didn’t. He said, he and his newly estranged wife used to fuck on a towel when she’d bleed, would I like a towel?

Do you mind if not? I said. He didn’t mind. It was his bed. He had just moved into the bachelor apartment.

I’m kind of sensitive so go easy, I said, and he said okay, but then shoved himself deep inside me as if he intended to hurt me.

I had never been in so much discomfort. It was stabbing, over and over, every nerve split and pounded. I tried counting backwards, multiply minutes by seconds, think of what colour to dye my hair… to distract myself but it was impossible to ignore the pain. Eventually, I gave up trying to move from underneath him, trying to slow him down. He pulled my hair hard; he bit my face, my neck. It was like being fucked by a giant cat. I knew that it would have to end at some point; nothing lasts forever, neither good or bad fucks. I simulated an orgasm; I thrashed and moaned. I had a headache. I was sore everywhere. He came inside me with a roar and I felt a sudden urge to laugh: at the roar or from relief? I don’t know. I turned my laugh into a squeak; it got lost in the roar anyway.

My body smelled foreign—I was covered in his sweat. He was wheezing. He pulled out, there was blood on the condom. He collapsed, half on top of me. I moved from underneath him, rolled him over onto the side. He looked at me with love in his eyes. My knees were shaking. I couldn’t stop my knees from shaking.

My knees are shaking, I said, pointing to them. That’s never happened to me before.

He smiled; he probably felt proud of himself.

I smiled back.

Throughout that night, he moved all around me, half on top of me—but not to fuck me— and he would pull and hold me tight as if I was a blanket. There was some deep sadness there, I felt—no lover has ever cuddled me like that, like I was a blanket, like I was his mother; there was this insistence in Joe as if he needed to absorb himself into my body. He had said he normally didn’t do that with his wife and whether that was true or not, I felt gratified but I also felt great and peaceful sorrow.

We would cuddle and talk and fall asleep for a minute and wake up and talk and kiss and half-fuck till it was 7 am and I had to go to school with bleary eyes.

The next evening after that, I was bruised up and down; the insides of my thighs were splotches of grey-purple. My neck was covered in bites. There was a knot in my hair that I had to cut out with nail scissors.

I came over to his place late, half-drunk.

How are you?

I’m drunk. I want to go to bed.

He said, Whatever you like, baby.

He pulled my silk dress over my head. I was naked underneath it. You couldn’t see the bruises in the half-darkness. I lay on the bed. I looked down on my body – it was silver and pale; it seemed to glow. A bruise on my thigh like a shadow. Joe kissed my neck; he kissed the bruises.

How are you feeling now, he said.

I’m okay, I said. I was still bleeding but I was less tender.

The sex was just aggressive as before, and, again, I faked my orgasm.

That was beautiful, Joe said. It always amused me when men said that, how beautiful an orgasm was, as if I perfectly played an instrument or as if I were an instrument that they had played perfectly.

I like you a lot, he said.

He went back to his wife a week later. So many things are predictable like that; rebound affairs especially. I cried, looked for bathrooms to be banged in; hated myself for looking and for crying.


On the last day I would ever see him, right after we fucked inside the Starbucks stall, we were crossing the street together, me ahead of him. A fast car came from out of nowhere, from around the corner and I lunged to escape getting hit.

I looked behind me and he was standing on the sidewalk on the other side, big eyes. He ran across the street.

I should’ve pulled you to get you out of the way, I saw her coming. I’m so sorry I didn’t, he said. You almost died, he said. His voice shook.

I felt laughter coming up and this time I didn’t stop it. I laughed and he looked at me as if I spat in his face.

Fuck you, I said in case I wasn’t being clear enough.


“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — Margaret Atwood

—Jowita Bydlowska


Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.