Jul 042015
 

Matt Jakubowski

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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.

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Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuente

Jun 172015
 

Cary Fagan

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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.”

“No.”

“Yup.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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
 

CW

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.

“Sugar.”

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.”

“You’re…”

“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?”

“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.

“Why?”

“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
 

game-for-real-web-294

Richard_Weiner2

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

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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

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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

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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

Physics_of_Sorrow_Cover_2

From The Physics of Sorrow
Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Press

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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.

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Socrates on the Train

If everything lasted forever, nothing would be valuable.
—Gaustine

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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The dark of the moon was a black circle where the moon once had been. A socket from which a white tooth was pulled.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The white wolf was my mother, and I her favorite son.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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`~

                                                ~                                  ~~~~~~~

                        ~          ~   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~                 ~   ~   ~   ~~~~   ~

`~~~~~~~~~~~~

                        ~~~~   ~   ~   ~ ~ ~                        ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

~~~                                                                 ~~~

                        ~~~                                                                 ~~~~

                                                ~~~~                                                              ~~~ ~~~~~

                                                                        ~~~~~~~~~ ~ ~   ~   ~

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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

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Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997)  and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989.  Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990).  In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson.  Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and  Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.

Bell’s eighth novel, All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.

Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York and in London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003. For more details, visit http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell

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May 032015
 

tumblr_msh9wzikn81rp46e4o1_1280Photo by Jowita Bydlowska

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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.

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“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — Margaret Atwood

—Jowita Bydlowska

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AuthorJowita2014
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.

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May 022015
 

karl ove
The fraught interplay between the teenage Karl Ove and his father, who is now divorced and living a different life with Unni, his girlfriend, is caught in this extract. One of the first changes the sixteen-year-old notices is the informal way of dress for a formerly carefully put-together man; the second is the steady drinking; the third is that infractions he commits that would have been punished before, such as spilling a drink, smoking, or having another glass of wine, pass by unremarked. The narrator’s disorientation is clear; this is not the father he once knew. However, everything can change back quickly, and the alcohol-induced state of cheerfulness on the part of both adults descends into anger once Karl Ove’s mother is brought up too many times for Unni’s comfort. Abruptly dismissed from their home, Karl Ove boards a bus. He doesn’t dwell on the mood shift any more than we consciously think of the air we breath. The narrative jumps forward a quarter century to when he has possession of his dead father’s notebooks that indicate Karl Ove’s visits, along with other matters.

—Jeff Bursey

 

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From My Struggle: Book Four
Karl Ove Knausgaard; Translated by Donald Bartlett
Archipelago Books

The following afternoon I went to Dad’s. I had put on a white shirt, black cotton trousers, and white basketball shoes. In order not to feel so utterly naked, as I did when I wore only a shirt, I took a jacket with me, slung it over my shoulder and held it by the hook since it was too hot outside to wear it.

I jumped off the bus after Lundsbroa Bridge and ambled along the drowsy, deserted summer street to the house he was renting, where I had stayed that winter.

He was in the back garden pouring lighter fluid over the charcoal in the grill when I arrived. Bare chest, blue swimming shorts, feet thrust into a pair of sloppy sneakers without laces. Again this getup was unlike him.

“Hi,” he said. “Hi,” I said. “Have a seat.”

He nodded to the bench by the wall.

The kitchen window was open, from inside came the clattering of glasses and crockery.

“Unni’s busy inside,” he said. “She’ll be here soon.” His eyes were glassy.

He stepped toward me, grabbed the lighter from the table, and lit the charcoal. A low almost transparent flame, blue at the bottom, rose in the grill. It didn’t appear to have any contact with the charcoal at all, it seemed to be floating above it.

“Heard anything from Yngve?”

“Yes,” I said. “He dropped by briefly before leaving for Bergen.” “He didn’t come by,” Dad said.

“He said he was going to, see how you were doing, but he didn’t have time.”

Dad stared into the flames, which were lower already. Turned and came toward me, sat down on a camping chair. Produced a glass and bottle of red wine from nowhere. They must have been on the ground beside him.

“I’ve been relaxing with a drop of wine today,” he said. “It’s summer after all, you know.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Your mother didn’t like that,” he said. “Oh?” I said.

“No, no, no,” he said. “That wasn’t good.” “No,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, emptying the glass in one swig.

“Gunnar’s been round, snooping,” he said. “Afterward he goes straight to Grandma and Grandad and tells them what he’s seen.”

“I’m sure he just came to visit you,” I said. Dad didn’t answer. He refilled his glass.

“Are you coming, Unni?” he shouted. “We’ve got my son here!” “OK, coming,” we heard from inside.

“No, he was snooping,” he repeated. “Then he ingratiates himself with your grandparents.”

He stared into the middle distance with the glass resting in his hand. Turned his head to me.

“Would you like something to drink? A Coke? I think we’ve got some in the fridge. Go and ask Unni.”

I stood up, glad to get away.

Gunnar was a sensible, fair man, decent and proper in all ways, he always had been, of that there was no doubt. So where had Dad’s sudden backbiting come from?

After all the light in the garden, at first I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in the kitchen. Unni put down the scrub brush when I went in, came over and gave me a hug.

“Good to see you, Karl Ove.” She smiled.

I smiled back. She was a warm person. The times I had met her she had been happy, almost flushed with happiness. And she had treated me like an adult. She seemed to want to be close to me. Which I both liked and disliked.

“Same here,” I said. “Dad said there was some Coke in the fridge.”

I opened the fridge door and took out a bottle. Unni wiped a glass dry and passed it to me.

“Your father’s a fine man,” she said. “But you know that, don’t you?”

I didn’t answer, just smiled, and when I was sure that my silence hadn’t been perceived as a denial, I went back out.

Dad was still sitting there.

“What did Mom say?” he asked into the middle distance once again. “About what?” I said, sat down, unscrewed the top, and filled the glass so full that I had to hold it away from my body and let it froth over the flag- stones.

He didn’t even notice!

“Well, about the divorce,” he said. “Nothing in particular,” I said.

“I suppose I’m the monster,” he said. “Do you sit around talking about it?” “No, not at all. Cross my heart.”

There was a silence.

Over the white timber fence you could see sections of the river, greenish in the bright sunlight, and the roofs of the houses on the other side. There were trees everywhere, these beautiful green creations that you never really paid much attention to, just walked past; you registered them but they made no great impression on you in the way that dogs or cats did, but they were actually, if you lent the matter some thought, present in a far more breath- taking and sweeping way.

The flames in the grill had disappeared entirely. Some of the charcoal briquettes glowed orange, some had been transformed into grayish-white puffballs, some were as black as before. I wondered if I could light up. I had a packet of cigarettes inside my jacket. It had been all right at their party. But that was not the same as it being permitted now.

Dad drank. Patted the thick hair at the side of his head. Poured wine into his glass, not enough to fill it, the bottle was empty. He held it in the air and studied the label. Then he stood up and went indoors.

I would be as good to him as I could possibly be, I decided. Regardless of what he did, I would be a good son.

This decision came at the same time as a gust of wind blew in from the sea, and in some strange way the two phenomena became connected inside me, there was something fresh about it, a relief after a long day of passivity.

He returned, knocked back the dregs in his glass and recharged it.

“I’m doing fine now, Karl Ove,” he said as he sat down. “We’re having such a good time together.”

“I can see you are,” I said. “Yes,” he said, oblivious to me.

***

Dad grilled some steaks, which he carried into the living room, where Unni had set the table: a white cloth, shiny new plates and glasses. Why we didn’t sit outside I didn’t know, but I assumed it was something to do with the neighbors. Dad had never liked being seen and definitely not in such an intimate situation as eating was for him.

He absented himself for a few minutes and returned wearing the white shirt with frills he had worn at their party, with black trousers.

While we had been sitting outside Unni had boiled some broccoli and baked some potatoes in the oven. Dad poured red wine into my glass, I could have one with the meal, he said, but no more than that.

I praised the food. The barbecue flavor was particularly good when you had meat as good as this.

Skål,” Dad said. “Skål to Unni!”

We held up our glasses and looked at each other. “And to Karl Ove,” she said.

“We may as well toast me too then.” Dad laughed.

This was the first relaxed moment, and a warmth spread through me. There was a sudden glint in Dad’s eye and I ate faster out of sheer elation.

“We have such a cozy time, the two of us do,” Dad said, placing a hand on Unni’s shoulder. She laughed.

Before he would never have used an expression such as cozy.

I studied my glass, it was empty. I hesitated, caught myself hesitating, put the little spoon into a potato to hide my nerves and then stretched casually across the table for the bottle.

Dad didn’t notice, I finished the glass quickly and poured myself another. He rolled a cigarette, and Unni rolled a cigarette. They sat back in their chairs. “We need another bottle,” he said, and went into the kitchen. When he returned he put his arm around her.

I fetched the cigarettes from my jacket, sat down and lit up. Dad didn’t notice that either.

He got up again and went to the bathroom. His gait was unsteady. Unni smiled at me.

“I teach my first course at gymnas in Norwegian this autumn,” she said. “Perhaps you can give me a few tips? It’s my first time.”

“Yes, of course.”

She smiled and looked me in the eye. I lowered my gaze and took another swig of the wine.

“Because you’re interested in literature, aren’t you?” she continued. “Sort of,” I said. “Among other things.”

“I am too,” she said. “And I’ve never read as much as when I was your age.” “Mm.”

“I plowed through everything in sight. It was a kind of existential search, I think. Which was at its most intense then.”

“Mm.”

“You’ve found each other, I can see,” Dad said behind me. “That’s good. You have to get to know Unni, Karl Ove. She’s such a wonderful person. She laughs all the time. Don’t you, Unni?”

“Not all the time.” She laughed.

Dad sat down, sipped from his glass and as he did so his eyes were as vacant as an animal’s.

He leaned forward.

“I haven’t always been a good father to you, Karl Ove. I know that’s what you think.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Now, now, no stupidities. We don’t need to pretend any longer. You think I haven’t always been a good father. And you’re right. I’ve done a lot of things wrong. But you should know that I’ve always done the very best I could. I have!”

I looked down. This last he said with an imploring tone to his voice. “When you were born, Karl Ove, there was a problem with one of your legs. Did you know that?” “Vaguely,” I said.

“I ran up to the hospital that day. And then I saw it. One leg was crooked! So it was put in plaster, you know. You lay there, so small, with plaster all the way up your leg. And when it was removed I massaged you. Many times every day for several months. We had to so that you would be able to walk. I massaged your leg, Karl Ove. We lived in Oslo then, you know.”

Tears coursed down his cheeks. I glanced quickly at Unni, she watched him and squeezed his hand.

“We had no money either,” he said. “We had to go out and pick berries, and I had to go fishing to make ends meet. Can you remember that? You think about that when you think about how we were. I did my best, you mustn’t believe anything else.”

“I don’t,” I said. “A lot happened, but it doesn’t matter anymore.” His head shot up.

“YES, IT DOES!” he said. “Don’t say that!”

Then he noticed the cigarette between his fingers. Took the lighter from the table, lit it, and sat back.

“But now we’re having a cozy time anyway,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “It was a wonderful meal.”

“Unni’s got a son as well, you know,” Dad said. “He’s almost as old as you.” “Let’s not talk about him now,” Unni said. “We’ve got Karl Ove here.” “But I’m sure Karl Ove would like to hear,” Dad said. “They’ll be like brothers. Won’t they. Don’t you agree, Karl Ove?” I nodded.

“He’s a fine young man. I met him here a week ago,” he said. I filled my glass as inconspicuously as I could.

The telephone in the living room rang. Dad got up to answer it. “Whoops!” he said, almost losing his balance, and then to the phone, “Yes, yes, I’m coming.” He lifted the receiver. “Hi, Arne!” he said.

He spoke loudly, I could have listened to every word if I’d wanted to. “He’s been under enormous strain recently,” Unni whispered. “He needs to let off some steam.” “I see,” I said.

“It’s a shame Yngve couldn’t come,” she said. Yngve?

“He had to go back to Bergen,” I said.

“Yes, my dear friend, I’m sure you understand!” Dad said. “Who’s Arne?” I said.

“A relative of mine,” she said. “We met them in the summer. They’re so nice. You’re bound to meet them.”

“OK,” I said.

Dad came back in and saw the bottle was nearly empty. “Let’s have a little brandy, shall we?” he said. “A digestif?” “You don’t drink brandy, do you?” Unni asked, looking at me. “No, the boy can’t have spirits,” Dad said.

“I’ve had brandy before,” I said. “In the summer. At soccer training camp.” Dad eyed me. “Does Mom know?” he said.

“Mom?” Unni said.

“You can have one glass, but no more,” Dad said, staring straight at Unni. “Is that all right?”

“Yes, it is,” she said.

He fetched the brandy and a glass, poured, and leaned back into the deep white sofa under the windows facing the road, where the dusk now hung like a veil over the white walls of the houses opposite.

Unni put her arm around him and one hand on his chest. Dad smiled. “See how lucky I am, Karl Ove,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, and shuddered as the brandy met my tongue. My shoulders trembled.

“But she has a temper too, you know,” he said. “Isn’t that true?” “Certainly is,” she said with a smile.

“Once she threw the alarm clock against this wall,” he said. “I like to get things off my chest right away,” Unni said. “Not like your mother,” he said.

“Do you have to talk about her the whole time?” Unni said.

“No, no, no, not at all,” Dad said. “Don’t be so touchy. After all, I had him with her,” he said, nodding toward me. “This is my son. We have to be able to talk as well.”

“OK,” Unni said. “You just talk. I’m going to bed.” She got up. “But Unni . . .” Dad said.

She went into the next room. He stood up and slowly followed her with- out a further look.

I heard their voices, muted and angry. Finished the brandy, refilled my glass, and carefully put the bottle back in exactly the same place.

Oh dear. He yelled.

Immediately afterward he returned.

“When does the last bus go, did you say?” he said. “Ten past eleven,” I said.

“It’s almost that now,” he said. “Perhaps it’s best if you go now. You don’t want to miss it.”

“OK,” I said, and got up. Had to place one foot well apart from the other so as not to sway. I smiled. “Thanks for everything.”

“Let’s keep in touch,” he said. “Even though we don’t live together any- more nothing must change between us. That’s important.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes. It’s important we keep in touch,” I said.

“You’re not being flippant with me, are you?” he said.

“No, no, of course not,” I said. “It’s important now that you’re divorced.” “Yes,” he said. “I’ll ring. Just drop by when you’re in town. All right?” “Yes,” I said.

While putting on my shoes I almost toppled over and had to hold on to the wall. Dad sat on the sofa drinking and noticed nothing.

“Bye!” I shouted as I opened the door.

“Bye, Karl Ove,” Dad called from inside, and then I went out into the darkness and headed for the bus stop.

***

I waited for about a quarter of an hour until the bus arrived, sitting on a step smoking and watching the stars, thinking about Hanne.

I could see her face in front of me.

She was laughing; her eyes were gleaming. I could hear her laughter.

She was almost always laughing. And when she wasn’t, laughter bubbled in her voice.

Brilliant! she would say when something was absurd or comical.

I thought about what she was like when she turned serious. Then it was as if she was on my home ground, and I felt I was an enormous black cloud wrapped around her, always greater than her. But only when she was serious, not otherwise.

When I was with Hanne I laughed almost all the time. Her little nose!

She was more girl than woman in the same way that I was more boy than man. I used to say she was like a cat. And it was true there was something feline about her, in her movements, but also a kind of softness that wanted to be close to you.

I could hear her laughter, and I smoked and peered up at the stars. Then I heard the deep growl of the bus approaching between the houses, flicked the cigarette into the road, stood up, counted the coins in my pocket, and handed them to the driver when I stepped on board.

Oh, the muted lights in buses at night and the muted sounds. The few passengers, all in their own worlds. The countryside gliding past in the dark- ness. The drone of the engine. Sitting there and thinking about the best that you know, that which is dearest to your heart, wanting only to be there, out of this world, in transit from one place to another, isn’t it only then you are really present in this world? Isn’t it only then you really experience the world?

Oh, this is the song about the young man who loves a young woman. Has he the right to use such a word as “love”? He knows nothing about life, he knows nothing about her, he knows nothing about himself. All he knows is that he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before. Everything hurts, but nothing is as good. Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old and sitting on a bus and thinking about her, the one, not knowing that feelings will slowly, slowly, weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity that doesn’t hurt so much, but nor is it as good.

***

Only a forty-year-old man could have written that. I am forty now, as old as my father was then, I’m sitting in our flat in Malmö, my family is asleep in the rooms around me. Linda and Vanja in our bedroom, Heidi and John in the children’s room, Ingrid, the children’s grandmother, on a bed in the liv- ing room. It is November 25, 2009. The mid-’80s are as far away as the ’50s were then. But most of the people in this story are still out there. Hanne is out there, Jan Vidar is out there, Jøgge is out there. My mother and my brother, Yngve – he spoke to me on the phone two hours ago, about a trip we are planning to Corsica in the summer, he with his children, Linda and I with ours – they are out there. But Dad is dead, his parents are dead.

Among the items Dad left behind were three notebooks and one diary. For three years he wrote down the names of everyone he met during the day, everyone he phoned, all the times he slept with Unni, and how much he drank. Now and then there was a brief report, mostly there wasn’t.

“K.O. visited” appeared often. That was me.

Sometimes it said “K.O. cheerful” after I had been there. Sometimes “good conversation.”

Sometimes “decent atmosphere.” Sometimes nothing.

I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day, why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations, but I don’t understand why he documented how much he drank. It is as if he was logging his own demise.

—Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Apr 092015
 

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Late-Night Caller

LAST NIGHT, EXACTLY WHEN nothing was happening, I got a call from someone who couldn’t speak. He mumbled into the phone. His mumbling was fast, superabundant, and I think at one point he tried to tell me that he ‘never sleeps a wink.’ I said ‘Yes’ as many times as I could. And then there was a shift in his tone, a shift toward anger, toward annoyance, toward outrage, and it was all directed toward me. I told him to stay calm, to stay where he was, and that I would meet him in the next few minutes. I told him he was in distress. He ‘unhummed’ confirmation. When we hung up, I was relieved and grateful that in his distress he didn’t try to mutter an address to me. He was certainly a man without a tongue.

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Val

In high school, I had a friend named Val and I believe she intentionally exposed her crotch to me one afternoon by propping her legs up and holding them just so her soccer shorts billowed, allowing sunlight to penetrate the fabric. She flashed a shaded panty-less groin in my direction while twitching her legs back and forth. Leaning back to take in the sun while our friends sat nearby unobservantly, she gave no knowing smile or wink. Cunning or clueless? How could I not look? This is what I remember of Val from high school: nonconformity concerned her the utmost. She read how-to books on the subject, she chose her boyfriends by their eccentricities, her face was trussed up with piercing and chains. But her crotch was normal, as perfect as anyone could find. She had great teeth, too.

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Generosity

Pauline from next door said, ‘I’ll tell you the truth.’ I said, ‘Please don’t. Please don’t.’ We turned to face the T.V. to see a pugnacious cartoon selling soap hoot a good-humored halleluiah at the shine his soap wrought. We were watching a doc about priapism. Her choice. I’d wanted to watch something on nest building. I thought fondly about a tiny down of hair that ran from the top of Pauline’s cheek to the curve of her jaw. Pauline said it was all mental. ‘What is?’ ‘The truth, silly.’ ‘I said enough.’ Pauline arched an eyebrow in a disagreeable way and didn’t say another word until the end of the show, and then I said goodbye. And she hiccoughed a nearly honest goodbye, too. Her personal perfume stayed behind until morning, smelling it vigorously before starting my day.

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Take Cover

For years I’d lived where lights polluted the sky, occluding the stars from view. As far as I was concerned stars could have blinked out existence, and I would have been one of the last to know. Then one summer I went to Canada to stay for a week, for rest, for recovery, fortification. I met a woman there who was from Boston, and like people who live in cities we stayed outdoors more than normal, and we walked faster than other people on the streets. She had dazzling shanks. One night near the end of my stay, a night I thought I might try to kiss her, we found ourselves at a public picnic table, where we slowed, and got all reflective and confessional. We shared a bottle of rum, our fingers touched—a crisp-lit moon (an authority on romance, if coldly) hung before our eyes and felt just for us. We were feeling young, selfish; we were feeling that nothing in our lives had been our fault. We felt a prefiguring. Who looked up first, I don’t remember, but we thought we saw a shooting star. It crept across the sky, and we said we’d never seen something so amazing as a falling star in ‘slo-mo,’ as if it knew we both wanted this night to last as long as it could. A homeless woman walked by and looked up and said, ‘Fucking satellite. Spying. Reading our brain waves. Stealing our thoughts! You kids better take cover.’

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Mother’s Cats

My mother asks things like: ‘What are you going to do with your time?’ And I say something like: ‘Live?’ She corrects me: ‘Work.’ When I go to her house, I wake up puffy around the eyes, nearly blind, and tongue-tied. I think it’s her cats. She has four. She says: ‘You overact.’ Of course, I have no retort. Nothing much happens at her house except the occasional cat fights. She likes to brag about how well-balanced her life is now that she has just her cats and no husband (my father).

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Speechless

This time I was trying to be serious when the man with no tongue called back. I told him not to ring me again. He grumbled. I asked him what made him think he had the right number. He hummed and grunted. I couldn’t agree or disagree with him, and felt nothing short of stupidity.

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Tough, Tragic

I saw Val some time ago with her daughter—a skillful and cold child, who furrowed her brow like an adult when I asked her name. Val appeared tough, tragic, and terrifically dressed in slacks and a low-cut shirt—no longer so concerned with nonconformity. As she dithered to keep her other guests busy, I tried to make polite conversation, but I got lost frequently in words as I wondered if Val’s vagina had changed after childbirth. Would I even recognize the once-prime image from my adolescence? I took a beer she offered me and nearly asked, ‘Can I see inside your pants? Again?’ I’d plan also to say, ‘I imagine its image is vastly more important to me than it is to you.’ Which could be possible, I thought, knowing how seldom I looked at my own crotch. But I held my tongue, as it were. Everyone else at the party was being polite. And so what if Val’s genitals were changed? So what? I saw it. Glimpse it. I’m sure I understood its power even then.

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Au Pied De Cochon

I took my Canadian love interest to a fancy restaurant, where we saw three men each wearing the same label on their shirts—a lightening bolt with a name written across it. They sat hunched, haunches to haunch. They were so close their smell had to be one. They scarf up meats, exotic meats. They ate tail, head, foot, tongue, eyeball. These men were hungry and their server was proud to bring them more. ‘I just love your enthusiasm,’ their server said, grinning at the slobbering bunch. They looked up, grunted, and put their faces down once again. ‘What on earth?’ my Canadian-love-via-Boston-brown-eyed darling said, eating a slice of pie with stonecutter patience. This spoiled our evening, somewhat. I told her my plans for law school. But nothing could take her attention from those men. So, I didn’t go to law school.

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Fingers Around My Neck

‘The meanest dogs live in the smallest cages,’ Pauline said. ‘Still it felt like fingers around my neck,’ I reminded. The tongue-less man had shown up at my front door, frothing mad and ferociously mute. How had he come, car or carriage? He wielded a worn farm-knife, the kind you might clean a chicken with and then dice potatoes. To Pauline I said: ‘And then I held out my arms and said Welcome home. And then he throttled me, tossing the blade aside. He throttled me.’ ‘Obviously a man of action,’ Pauline said, admiringly, and then asked: ‘What then?’ I said: ‘I threw him off. He hit his head. I grabbed the knife and held it to his throat. He looked like some homegrown hillbilly hayseed, like he was from some small town.’ And then that was when Pauline said, wisely: ‘The meanest dogs live in the smallest cages.’ ‘Where is he now?’ she asked. ‘God knows.’ ‘Truth?’ ‘Not right now, Pauline. Not right now.’ I don’t think she felt insulted. She profited a can of cheese whiz toward my mouth, which I took smilingly. I think Pauline’s great. She stays so up-to-the-minute with our friendship.

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Jamestown

Recently I spent a weekend with my mother touring historical sites. We strolled down one of the streets of God’s original world and came to a shop where they sold old-fashioned puppets. ‘You need to find yourself a girlfriend, Jake. You need someone.’ Grim was my mood over this. We each held up a puppet to our face, their little wooden limbs clacking together. ‘I’m not a virgin, mom.  There was Mavis and Molly and Maggie and Magda,’ I said to my puppet. ‘Of course you’re not. Of course you’re not,’ she said to hers, ‘besides, son, one of these days you’ll be married and you’ll be so bored by sex your eyes will fall out.’ ‘Did my father’s eyes fall out?’ ‘Yes, yes they did. When he died he was as blind as a mole.’ We left that shop, walked down the cobblestone path, dodging the great piles of horseshit. Perhaps I do overreact every time I get around my mother? Perhaps I project my overreactions onto her? Perhaps she just acts the way she thinks I want her to act? She tugged on my arm and pointed to a very large man in a mechanized wheelchair. ‘Don’t ever get fat,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t kill yourself, son.’ I don’t know if she meant those two things went together. A child in my mother’s presence still, I thought kindly about being on my best behavior, which must be both insufferable and pride-inducing for her. Not that I haven’t said unkind or unclean things to her. But I wonder if all this dancing around the subject wasn’t hurting me somehow. Mother and I always want to be our best for the other, which brings out, you know, irony.

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Our Last Night

‘It’s not going to happen, is it?’ the woman from Boston said to me on our last night. ‘Why would you want it to happen?’ I asked, knowing that I had nothing to offer her except a small adventure. ‘Why wouldn’t you want it to happen?’ she retorted; she was desperate for something to happen. ‘What made you think we could make it happen?’ I said; I felt hopeless and depressed, the way I get when anything important could possibly occur. ‘Why not make it happen? It is our last night,’ her final words on the subject—the opening, the invitation, the entry. In the end, nothing happened. Something happening had become too heavy. When we parted at the hotel it felt like something important was missing. Pecks were exchanged. I’ve not spoken to her for years; I have to wonder if she seethes with as much disappointment as I do.

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Questionnaire

1. Do you feel your life is without purpose?
2. If so, explain fully. Use complete sentences.
3. Would you prefer your spouse or love ones to die before or after you?
4. Have you ever been willfully blind? Explain.
5. What is your most personal demon? Give it a name.
6. What makes you think you’ve answered the proceeding questions correctly?
7. Mind your thoughts, in geological time?
8. Which memory means the most to you?
9. Name the bones you’ve broken.
10. Now the organs.

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Showdown

The man without a tongue came to my door again, while I was filling out a questionnaire. For personal reasons, that is. This time he carried a broom and as soon as I opened the door he jabbed the broom’s bristles in my face. It felt like a thousand dull needles. He hummed and grunted the most terrible things to me. At one point I thought he called me a ‘whiskery pervert,’ but I couldn’t be sure. Nevertheless, I was soon on the floor, my face submerged in broom bristles. The tongue-less man, standing over me, howled. Why had I become the center of this man’s attention? I wished Pauline had been there to see this lunatic, perhaps she could have observed him and come up with a reason since the tongue-less man couldn’t explain for himself. He grunted and cried and garble-cursed and moaned and blubbered while jamming the broom into my face. I knew for certain that if I didn’t move quickly I would eventually loose an eye or both. I scrambled to my feet and rushed to other side of my den where I had a paint-by-number canvas on a homemade easel. I used the canvas as a shield. What was there to talk about? taking charge of my situation. Who needed a questionnaire? It was action and impediments to our will that makes us come alive (Pauline might have said this in her better moods; she was the smartest person I knew). I swung my paint-by-number canvas at the tongue-less man and he swatted at it with his broom. Things and thoughts were happening, quickly. And it is while we are fighting that I recognize that I’ve been assembling my whole life, mending back together something. My mother ever-so-often tells me how after she had me she was never ‘right again.’ Imagine the wrong. The tongue-less man clobbered me. I let him. I threw my paint-by-number canvas aside. As I allowed him to scar my face with the broom, I saw through his intermittent brush strokes the faint outline of an unfinished satellite, as if its image was flickering.

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Tap

Veiled hunger, awkward leer, constant insipid smile: this is how I see myself as a young man, around the same time I saw Val’s cunt. (I cannot decide if I like that word or not, but what else to call it? The situation deserves a better word than its bloodless clinical substitute.) The man without a tongue rests on my couch. I suppose he’s homeless. He makes a tapping noise when he wants my attention. Sometimes, I swear, I think he’s asking me to go to church. My face wasn’t cut by the broom; slightly abraded, yes. My mother called asking how things were going. I lied and said nothing was happening, that I was painting and that I had plans to go out the following evening with a new friend. ‘Jake, whose there with you?’ ‘No one.’ I tell her I’m planning to make a phone call, though. ‘To whom?’ ‘To a woman in Boston.’ ‘Don’t be off-color, Jake.’

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Ba-ba-ba-bam-boo

I called the young woman whom I had a near-fling with in Canada. I heard her child in the background, cooing and saying ba-ba-ba-bam-boo. As we talked, I cleaned out my medicine cabinet. I took out pills I’d not taken in years, swallowed them. I bandaged myself where I had no cut or abrasions: preparing myself, I guess, for whatever pain I might feel after the conversation. ‘You ever fill out questionnaires?’ I asked her. She said she did before she had her daughter, but not now. ‘Why? Is it because you think you’ve got it all figured out? Your child gives you some insight?’ ‘Maybe. Or… I guess I just don’t feel the need to question myself. I don’t want to disturb my thinking, perhaps. Children need consistency. I can’t crack open my skull and start searching for new answers this late in the game. I’ve got to go with what I know.’ ‘Do you wished something had happened?’ ‘God, Jake, don’t start it.’ Silence. ‘After childbirth was your vagina scarred or deformed?’ Silence. ‘Is that any of your business? Is that why you called?’ ‘No. I’m just curious.’ ‘Well, it’s fine. It’s fine.’ She sounded distant and hurt. We talked some more. She told me about her husband. I told her about the tongue-less man who lives in my apartment. She told me that it sounds weird. I told her his speech is weird. ‘I’m going to send you a painting I’m working on, of a satellite.’ ‘Oh, that would be nice,’ she said; she said it like I just told her I want to read her a poem. ‘Do you remember the satellite in Canada?’ She said she does, and then we dropped the subject and talked some more. She said vague and unimportant things, and I did similarly. We were both feeling out the conversation, searching for a stopping point. And then she said, ‘Ta.’ I went back to my painting. Now, I don’t think I’ll send it to her after all. Like Val’s vagina, the painting means more to me than it does to her, symbolically, of course. I take out some tapes and I pop one in the stereo. I hear the tongue-less man down the hall humming and growling to the lyrics. I had no idea he was a music lover. ‘Ta,’ she had said. And I think, ‘Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.’

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Theatre

This morning I woke up thinking about the future. Ol’ Tongueless was scrambling eggs. He had written me a note: ‘Not killing you. Leaving today. Please don’t be afraid to speak to me. Invited Pauline over for breakfast.’ He had beautiful, jaunty handwriting. Why he had he waited until now to pass me a note? Maybe I’d ask Tongueless to stay. We three sit, eating omelets, talking about my conversation with the woman from Boston. I was still bandaged from head to toe and had awful hangover from the all the pills I’d taken. ‘What to do you think?’ I asked Pauline. ‘Do you think I would have been better off not calling at all?’ ‘Honestly?’ I sigh, ‘Yes.’ ‘You done good, Jake. You done good.’ Tongueless yarbbled and waggled his jaw in agreement. Bodily, we laughed, the picture of happiness. Pauline patted my leg under the table, and left her hand there. She was my best friend, the smartest person I knew. Idly I wondered what she looked like naked. Why not, she already knew me through and through; and she’d become fast friends with my one-time potential murderer.  Looking at Pauline across the table, she smiled, an open smile, not knowing what I was thinking. Things could really start happening now.

—Jason DeYoung

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Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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Apr 042015
 

tsvoboda-early-pix2

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DIRTY THIRTIES

PEEL THESE COUPLE of potatoes and make the pig happy, her sister says. It’s been eating dirt.

Molly gets taken by the arm into the kitchen, Molly looking right past her―she is the shorter sister―right past her ear. You see another duster out there? That spread of cloud isn’t a thing to worry over, says her sister.

She gives Molly the peeler to grip. Molly takes up a potato in such a way as to break your heart, like it was left alone in the bin. Which it almost is.

Her sister goes about her business, ripping feed sacks into strips. She has been up to this since early, since she saw her head shape in dust around her pillow. She has seen that before, when she was sure no weather like this could go on and on and she didn’t fuss with caulking the windows with feed sack. She’s going to fuss now. She was never so careful a cleaner as Molly, Molly used to sweep at the dust in the middle of the night.

She steps out to the barn to get another sack and returns quick.

The kitchen’s empty. She throws down her burden, she wipes her hands on her bum. Molly!

Where she finds her, this time in the bedroom, Molly’s face is wet, teared-up. The pump’s about dry out there and you’ve got it spurting, says her sister. She drags her back into the kitchen.

She finishes the potatoes herself with Molly looking on, Molly looking on and on. You got to keep busy, she says. She gives her the scrub brush.

Molly sinks to her knees. There is hardly room for both women in the kitchen and Molly works wide, will scrub out a whole corner in a single swath. Her sister splashes down some dishwater and Molly scrubs and scrubs, then sits back on her haunches and looks toward the bedroom and coughs.

You catch that dust cough now? Her sister pours milk into a cup and gives it to her. Tastes like tumbleweed, she says. Cow doesn’t eat anything else.

Molly stares into the cup. Molly drinks it.

Her sister starts ripping the strips of feed sack again, humming what song she heard on the neighbor’s radio. Car coming, she says after a bit.

Molly’s already half legged it back to the bedroom. Her sister doesn’t aim to stop her, she hasn’t the heart for it, she knows who’s coming too.

The old young man drags in, his britches gone to thread and his head low. Molly any better?

She’s in the room, she says.

He takes a seat in a turned-around spindle-back chair. Well? Get her out.

You do it.

He does not so much as move a muscle.

She goes in to coax. Molly, come on, she says. He’s here. He’s tired of coming.

She has to pull her out this time, pry her fingers free of the door frame, then she forces her to sit beside him at the table that he’s pulled the chair to.

Molly coughs.

Honey. He takes her hand.

I kept her in the house all day today, her sister says. It’s not so far to the road that if she’d run, with her luck, there’d be a car coming. There are more cars today, going away.

Molly turns his hand over and touches where it is lined with dirt. The baby, she says, quiet like it will wake.

He flips his hand and holds hers down so she can’t get away. He heaves a sad sigh and sticks his head even with Molly’s so as to look her in the eye.

Molly breathes heavy as if her stomach’s about to turn.

After a while of watching the two of them, her sister says, You got to try to work the plow again. We can’t eat a plow.

He drops Molly’s hand, runs his own through his hair, says, Another duster coming.

You’re as bad as her.

She takes things out of the cupboards they’re kept in, flour goes in a cup, she ladles water into it.

He watches her as if he’s out of practice looking, then he looks into Molly’s face again, where it is crossed with dirty tears, then he stops. Sawyer said he found his way back to his house today only because his fence was glowing like a light bulb.

You don’t say, her sister says. She has a paste of flour and water going.

Some kind of electricity that comes with the dust. Lit it right up, made the fence come alive.

Molly starts―what does she hear? She wrenches free of him and gets up out of her chair and takes a step for the door of the bedroom.

Dead is dead. She knows it, says the man.

Molly has her back to them, she’s almost to the threshold.

Her sister says, Cold for July, and shifts the cup toward the window where a single cloud sits over by where they once wanted to put in a big new street, or so she says and then goes on: old man Dickens walked all the way over here to give me these feed sacks.

Nice of him, he says.

Molly has slipped out of the room.

Her sister slathers a strip of sack with the flour paste, her hand running it the whole length.

He watches her. I tore up the cover, he said, yesterday. Before the storm. Just before.

The cover? The bed cover? She turns to him in shock at the talk of such violence.

I mean–he puts his hands to his eyes and rubs–I mean land cover. I did plow, and the land pulled back all as nice as a piece of cake. It would’ve grown corn, it was that kind of dirt. I plowed it and it come up and then the wind blew it away like it was waiting for me to get a mouthful of it.

He scratches at his stiff hair. I want the flour sifter if you can spare it.

No, she says.

After Sawyer told me about the electrified fence, he showed me an arrowhead the size of a knife blade. Yea size, he says, his hands wide. He said he took a flour sifter down to his blowout and found it.

Not with a sifter did he find something as big as that. You find it yourself with your eyes.

I ain’t got the knack, he says, looking hard at her.

She wipes the paste off her finger and goes in and brings Molly back into the kitchen, gets her set up with her scrub brush again. Molly scrubs out a new corner, moving the dust and water in dark swirls. Maybe if she were expecting again, her sister says. Maybe that would perk her up.

The man slaps his thigh, and dust from his pants rises into the air. I don’t know how that will happen. She won’t won’t let me set foot in that room.

Molly scrubs.

Her sister applies the wet feed sack strip to the window crack, the one side where the dust blows in worst.

A corner of land, he says. I just wanted to stomp the land back down. Weeds grow anyway. Why not what I try to plant?

Molly starts sobbing.

He looks at her sister, they both step away from Molly’s shaking shoulders as if the kitchen is huge, they step back.

Four months almost to the day, he says, and shivers. She was watching him just fine in that room. I don’t see why she thinks she wasn’t.

Stray dust smacks the window.

Even wrapped him with rags of turpentine, says her sister. He hardly coughed.

Molly coughs, gets up off her knees and, stumbling, runs back into the bedroom again.

Her sister starts pressing the strip into the window wood but the top of the strip is so heavy with paste it bows and peels down. You could help, she says.

He stands at the threshold of the bedroom, then he doesn’t, he is over by the stove, he is beside her. He holds the strip into place while she rubs more paste onto another, more flour they don’t have much of, less water.

His arm sweats not so far from hers, his filthy hand is right next to her face.

The sister bites his thumb.

He doesn’t pull it away. She bites him again, holding the new strip against the dust that is coming, that is coming through no matter what she does.

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RUGBY

HERE COMES HIS BROTHER. I can tell by the tread, bear-heavy but light-footed, even more solid than his brother’s, who tiptoes into some game position I don’t know the name of, being ever-so-slightly rugby-educated, but certain he blocks. I’m mostly asleep from the exhaustion of teaching three-year-olds to pinch pots for their mothers all day, preventing them from throwing the pots at each other. The brothers like art like honey-on-pancakes, good if that’s all you’ve got. The younger isn’t home yet, the one whose room I rented while he roamed various continents rugby-free, who, still jetlagged, claimed his room and me the night he deplaned. You can stay, he said, the fey kerchief of vacation still wrapped around his forehead.

His brother is light-footing his way into what is still referred to as my room. It is dark but he can probably make out the blow-up of his brother and I unclothed, a lot of negative space going positive, hung over the bed. I like this brother, the one now hovering, beery-breathed and gentle with his punches when the two of them fight after games, mud-caked and happy having either won or lost, the game played all over in the living room. Furry in the face, arms, legs, and back, a nimbus of soft, the two of them doubled, exhale male.

He touches my face. I play-sleep.

My lover and I take three ferries, hike to a promontory and sleep in bags. A sort of sleep: sausaged with his big body and member, there’s not much turning room other than inside each other. Then there’s dawn and food: we knife open oysters from their beds. He’s lithe across the rocks in his nudeness despite his size and fur, he’s ridiculous running after me, mock caveman. I’m restless when caught, asking for another story about his trip abroad. I was so stoned, he says. All of it was art. I set the timer for the picture of the two of us anyway.

I’ve never seen a rugby match, just the aftermath, the blood and crossed eyes, the storm of beer. They tell me not to. No—they never say. They practice and practice, ramming the house beams, then one day they don’t, they play for days in a tournament, blood and beer morning and night. They can’t hide their lust for the sport, I don’t get it, so they tell me okay, go, and I witness a hugging mass of milling men, grunting, for an hour. Not much with regard to a ball. Both of them are shy afterwards, sleek from the shower, all warrior and new gut. They never disagree about who did what and they never tell me the rules.

Toward their parents they are deferential: Please pass the butter. Their mother, though cordial, could wallop them as well as the father, at least with her love-torn eyes at the least. The brothers arm-wrestle the father, a ritual demanded and met with some regret from the brothers: they now win. But their father is happy, all congratulations, a kind of Eden is breached, they’re men on their own.

I’m inspected and fed. They’ve seen the photo, the art over his bed.

It’s not you is what I try to say to him, then I say it. It’s everything else, my pot-muddy job over and there’s another job so far off I have to live elsewhere. You can visit.

He’s shy about feeling, what does he feel? He strokes his fair beard for an answer. Out of the house means out of his long reach, means it’s a decision he’s tentative over, me being still art-alien, unknowable, me with my will and my wont that he wins with his out-of-character respect. We stand on the porch with my bag, ready for transport.

Fuck respect, he’ll keep the photo.

There’s a roommate too. He drinks late at night and says his door isn’t closed, and he plays rugby too, on the better team, and it’s the season of switching love-fests and rock and roll heavies. I try him for luck but his chest is too hard, I can’t even lay my head on its ridges and sigh. My foolishness makes him drink late and later, but neither of say anything to either brother. You want coffee? he states now, holding his cup out to me. I can’t shake my head. He’s gathered at the door too, as if I’m baggage to be handled. I kiss them all but my lover’s brother is the saddest, he’s the one who cries out Goodbye.

Driving to the game drunk a week later, his brother screams at the traffic, he goads us to scream with him, the road twists and carooms while he hardly holds the wheel. We miss many cars so close we could be two-wheeling. And there’s still the ride home. How to get home where I live in my room so far away without anyone else for a roommate? They won’t visit. I’m here now to show them I’m the same from my place not so convenient, but what game am I playing? You have only one life, my lover says, as if that’s why I should risk it, kissing me so hard in the back seat that I have to close my eyes, that I should.

—Terese Svoboda

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Terese Svoboda‘s most recent novel, Bohemian Girl, was named one of the ten best Westerns by Booklist. She has stories coming out in The Common and Exterminating Angel, and she won a Guggenheim last year. www.teresesvoboda.com.

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Apr 022015
 

Toni Marques

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“WHERE’S IT?”

The question sounds as if he’s chewing a living centipede, and she thinks about Daisy and that thought almost makes her cry because Daisy wasn’t a bad centipede at all, she was just doing the stuff centipedes are supposed to do, for instance when she bit that little boy the other day while he was sleeping or something. God rest Daisy’s soul. By the way, sometimes Mrs. Kidder can be very annoying. She said she had no idea whether Daisy indeed got a soul. How come, Mrs. Kidder? Mrs. Kidder and all the gang are supposed to know everything about anything, right? However, Mrs. Kidder sometimes can be very dumb. The Daisy thing is a good example. If that favela has so many centipedes, how could you be sure Daisy is really the Daisy? Mrs. Kidder once had asked. Simple answer: Daisy used to be the largest centipede around. And how did she know Daisy was a female centipede? Mrs. Kidder had insisted. Because Daisy used to live with the girl’s family and never bit anyone inside the house, and there was that day, Mrs. Kidder said she didn’t remember it, when the girl found the little eggs. More than that, many times the girl saw how Daisy curled its body to protect its brood, right? She showed it to Mrs. Kidder, right? But, yes, no baby centipede was ever spotted in the house, just the eggs, Mrs. Kidder was right on that. Mrs. Kidder can be very dumb but also can be very cruel, because then Mrs. Kidder said that probably Daisy had eaten all the eggs. Or the babies. Mrs. Kidder is also very funny. The girl knows Daisy was no stranger to Mrs. Kidder. The truth is Mrs. Kidder enjoys playing games. But the girl enjoys playing games too. Mrs. Kidder is the best friend a girl can have.

“What did you do to my bong, you little fucker?” the man says, his voice now sounding as if his mouth is a little dark bucket full of dried saliva, a toothless bucket, of course, because neither buckets nor his mouth have teeth.

“You should ask her,” the girl says. “She is impossible.”

The girl had already finished her homework and there is nothing else to be done at night. They have no TV set, computer, anything. They just have each other, but she also has Mrs. Kidder. It’s not her problem if he refuses to be friends with Mrs. Kidder, a very distinguished lady who came all way down to Rio de Janeiro just to spread kindness and love.

“Mrs. Kidder hid your bong somewhere. Why don’t you try to find it? You can walk, can’t you?”

“You don’t play games with me, you little sucker, or I’ll sell you to The Madame. I mean it.”

The girl is now playing with her dolls. The dolls yell at each other, and the fight saddens the girl, but what can she do? They are pretty old dolls, tired pretty old dolls who are not tired of fighting, though. They argue about anything. Mrs. Kidder doesn’t like to play with the dolls, not because Mrs. Kidder is not a child anymore, but because, the girl thinks, Mrs. Kidder gets jealous when the dolls are around.

“Gee, The Madame is in jail now, you should know it,” the girl says. “The new drug lord is someone else, I don’t know his name. I don’t think Mrs. Kidder knows his name either, otherwise she would have told me, you know. Mrs. Kidder tells me everything.”

“How many stones do you think The Madame will offer me if I sell you to her?”

“I don’t know. But you can visit her in jail and ask her.”

Now the dolls are friends again. They are very complicated dolls.

“What’s the new guy’s name?” the man says.

“I told you a million times I don’t know. You should know his name. You are his client.”

“I’m gonna ask him if he wants you. Unless you give me back my bong. Where’s the goddam bong?”

The man’s voice now sounds like his tongue is made of melted rubber. Words are so beautiful, even ugly words are beautiful, you can’t talk like that. Words are very precious, that’s the reason she doesn’t like to talk when she’s at the school.

Tourist Nº1 takes his headphones off and says:

“Poor guy. He looks like an anorexic elephant, if that’s possible”.

“Very authentic stuff,” says José, the Tour Guide.

José the Tour Guide never knows the tourists’ names. Instead, he assigns mental numbers to each one. His job doesn’t make him happy.

“The stench is even more authentic, I should say,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “This plexiglas can’t hold it. We should have had those creams medical examiners spread under the nose.”

“Not all coroners use it,” says Tourist Nº 3. “They are used to it, you know.”

“Well, I’m not a doctor. I hope the next sight-seeing activity is a nose-friendly one,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Wait a minute. There’s a woman over there.”

“Yes, there is,” the Tour Guide says. “It’s her mother’s corpse. I mean, not a real corpse. A prop one, you know what I’m saying?”

“The stench could be hers, don’t you think?” Tourist Nº 1 says. “She looks real, very real.”

“No, no. It’s a prop corpse. They’d really spent some days living with the corpse here, until city hall people were warned by neighbors and came over and removed it. Crack-cocaine overdoses or something like that, I don’t know, had just killed her. It took a while until they’d noticed it, I mean, the family.”

“There’s a lot of things you don’t know,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “The programme says this kind of tour started in…”

“2014,” the Tour Guide says.

“Ok. Still, 20 years later, a tour guide does not know what’s being shown? I want my money back.”

“Wait a minute,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “If you guys have a doll representing whoever here…”

“The girl’s mother,” the Tour Guide says.

“The girl’s mother, ok. If you have that, what else here is, like, fake? This ain’t a reality tour.”

“I want my money back,” Tourist Nº3 says again.

“Shhh,” the Tour Guide says. “You are missing their exchange. Put the headphones back on.”

“You should be more polite, you know?” the girl says. “Mrs. Kidder appreciates good manners. She’s British, you know. No, you don’t know. Forget it.”

Now the dolls have become boring, and she decides to kill them. Before killing them, though, she explains very carefully that there’s nothing to worry about, sooner or later they will be alive again.

There’s something she doesn’t like about the dolls: they used to be afraid when Daisy was around. The dolls feared being bitten by Daisy. No one in this world can imagine a centipede biting a plastic doll or any kind of doll. Poor dolls. Dolls can have soft hearts, that’s correct, but their bodies can handle almost any dangerous situation, with the exception of the heat. Rio de Janeiro is very, very warm. So the girl would like to have a job so she could buy a refrigerator so the dolls could be feel safe from the heat and from the favela’s centipedes.

“They have another woman running business here? Fuck,” the man says.

She finds it funny, the time lapse between what she says and the man’s response. Sometimes he needs a couple of days until he can find an answer to one of her questions. She laughs when she remembers that day when she asked how old he was. He couldn’t remember. When she’d already forgotten the question, he’d remembered to answer it. A wrong answer, but that doesn’t matter. He never delays the answers to Mrs. Kidder questions, though. Now he is pretending he doesn’t know who Mrs. Kidder is. He does that very often. Of course he knows Mrs. Kidder. The other day he tried to punch Mrs. Kidder on the face when she swore at him. It was a pretty funny moment, the furious but tiny, frail, toddling man speaking in tongues and throwing his fists at random because he couldn’t control them nor could he stare at her, his usually frozen eyes floating on his face like a pair of dead seagulls on the surf. The girl knew that Mrs. Kidder was a big woman and, despite not being young anymore, Mrs. Kidder was able to defend herself against him or anybody else, for that matter. That day Mrs. Kidder threw out one more stone and, more than that, she kicked everybody out the house, all his stupid crack-head buddies, a bunch of living skeletons who got so scared that they never came back. Good job, Mrs. Kidder.

Now the man is crying. He’s able to cry without shedding tears, something the girl finds remarkable because the dolls do that too.

“Give me a drink”, he says, like an old baby.

He stands up from the ground where he spends most of his time at home and looks for things they don’t have at home: drinking glasses, a refrigerator, things that he himself had exchanged for money, and the money, for crack-cocaine stones. So she knows he will go out, and out he goes.

“I understand the addicted population…,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“City Hall supplies a regular amount of stones on a weekly basis,” the Tour Guide says. “Haven’t you read the e-brochure?”

“I have. There’s no word on alcohol, though.”

“They don’t get alcohol.”

“What about food?”

“Her school provides all her meals, on-site. He receives food stamps, which he probably exchanges for stones.”

“Then the old lady must be starving,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “That’s interesting.”

“There’s no solution to the crack-cocaine epidemics,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “That’s Rio’s solution.”

“In the beginning, part of the money the city gets from you tourists was funneled to the public health care system that handled the crack-head population. After a while the city gave up. Those people can’t be treated.”

Now she can play host to all her friends. They don’t like to come when the man is at home. That’s why she likes Mrs. Kidder more than anyone. But she understands the reason they avoid visiting her when he’s around. Whenever she can, she visits them as well. They live nearby and they’re a very nice gang.

“Mrs. Kidder!” she says when Mrs. Kidder comes in.

“Who is this Mrs. Kidder she’s always talking about?” Tourist Nº 4 asks.

“An imaginary friend, I guess,” the Tour Guide says. “The family briefing I have here says nothing about eventual family’s relatives or acquaintances. The State Tour Company selects stuff you guys can understand immediately. With a little help from the interpreting software, that is.”

“This girl does not speak English, does she?” Tourist Nº 1 says. “Or is Kidder a common Brazilian surname? She says ‘Kidder’, right?”

“I think so,” says Tourist Nº 2. “Excuse me. I have a question.”

“Yes?” the Tour Guide says.

“Why can’t we talk to the subjects? This is a stupid rule, I should say,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Let’s talk to her.”

“Why are you laughing?” Tourist Nº 3 asks the Tour Guide.

“Forgive me. Brazil and more specifically Rio de Janeiro needed centuries and centuries to get a sense of establishing and following rules, and now an American asks to bypass the rules. It’s just plain funny. I’m sorry.”

“The girl is obviously suffering,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “This is not just a matter of curiosity, you know?”

“She is suffering indeed. She and hundreds of thousands in the same situation all over the city, all over Brazil,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “That’s precisely why we are here. Next time you try a reality tour in Finland or something.”

“Anyway, it seems to me that probably the interpreters must know whether the girl does speak English or not,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“I’ve told you this is machine-translated,” the Tour Guide says.

“Does she speak English?” Tourist Nº 4 says. “She’s the cutest girl ever.”

“And one of the dirtiest,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“’Neglected’ would be the proper word,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “Is she available for international adoption?”

“I don’t think so,” the Tour Guide says. “She’s available to reality tours, therefore neglected she must remain.”

“I see.”

“I don’t think she does speak English,” the Tour Guide says. “They don’t teach English in public schools anymore. And she has no access to the Internet. She’s too young, you know.”

“But you have an Internet café over here, I saw it,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Maybe she’s been learning it online.”

“I can see some books,” Tourist Nº 1 said. “Books and textbooks, I guess”.

“That’s right,” the Tour Guide said. “None of them in English.”

“What if that Mrs. …”

“Mrs. Kidder,” the Tour Guide says.

“Thank you. What if she is a representative, a field officer with a foreign NGO and is teaching English around?” Tourist Nº says.

“No foreign NGOs are allowed in the reality tour zones,” the Tour Guide says. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be poverty shows for your enjoyment, right? So let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Are there expats living here? I mean, we’ve seen Americans and Chinese people, lots of them, side by side, on that big favela, how’s it called again?” Tourist Nº1 asks.

“Rocinha,” the Tour Guide says. “Don’t forget the Brits. They’re here in throngs. The gentrification thing has happened in the South Zone favelas, where they have the best view. Here, downtown, we have no foreigners. Rio has like what? Over two thousand favelas? The gringos moved into the fanciest ones. Actually there’s no reason to call those places favelas anymore. Here in Morro da Providência we have some South Americans, you know, Bolivians and Venezuelans and Argentinians… Our amigos can’t afford the South Zone favelas.”

Valeriy the poet showed up as soon as the man left the house. A very sensible and funny man.

Valeriy asked the woman if she needed something.

“Wait a minute!” Tourist Nº 3 says. “The lady, she’s not a doll. She’s alive.”

“I don’t think so,” the Tour Guide says.

“Is she a talking doll?”

“Nope.”

“Then she’s definitely not a doll, because she’s talking or trying to talk. See her mouth? It’s moving.”

“You’re right,” Tourist Nº 4 says. “And our guide here has no clue on what he’s supposed to show us!”

“It’s not my fault, ok?” the Tour Guide says. “This is my first time with that family and my briefing says we have a doll.”

“I thought you’d referred to Brazil as an organized country,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“You wouldn’t believe if told you how messy we used to be. Anyway, let’s see it from the bright side, my fellow tourists. That’s what crack-cocaine does, alright? It destroys a person to the point that you don’t know if a person is really a person or if a person is a corpse or if a person is a doll. I assume you all know that, but wait until we visit Downtown Crack-o-land. You’d wish they were dolls, the fucking zombies.”

The woman tells Valeriy she just needs some of his poetry. Valeriy’s poetry is a gay man’s poetry, and she likes it, despite not knowing the Russian language. She enjoys the effect of his words hammering her head. The poetry reciting sessions make Valeriy happy. He feels like a doctor managing a drug substitution therapy: crack-cocaine out, Russian poetry in.

Valeriy starts to recite his poems, but the girl can’t pay attention to him. She’s busy playing with Francis the Sailor. Francis the Sailor enjoys playing hide and seek. It’s very difficult to play hide and seek with him or anyone else because of the furniture: there are two mattresses, the man’s and the one she shares with the woman, there are the makeshift shelves where the TV set used to be and where her few books and textbooks are. But she can hide beneath the stacked clothes or in the bathroom or even outside the house, at the neighbor’s place.

“Where is the little mermaid?” Francis the Sailor asks, while Valeriy recites a poem. The woman shakes her head as if it were punched by several pairs of colorful sponge fists, and the girl is somewhere trying to keep her mouth shut, something very difficult to achieve due to the thrilling joy that overwhelms her.

“I’m here!” the girl says. “Francis the Sailor will never find where the little mermaid is!”

“Francis the Sailor?” Tourist Nº 4 asks.

“Don’t look at me like that,” the Tour Guide says. “I have no answers, alright? Let’s watch and have fun.”

“But your company should have briefed you about what you’re dealing with,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“We’re Brazilians, ok? We should do this, we should do that, but we don’t do anything because we are Brazilians, period. Nowhere else in the world can you get something like this tour. Yes, this is something totally new. Yes, we need to improve lots of stuff. But, hey, you’re in Rio’s oldest favela watching a typical day of a crack-cocaine torn family. It’s a crack-o-rama if you will. Anything can happen to a crack-cocaine favela family, what else can I say? You see the girl running around like crazy? Perhaps right now she’s high, you know.”

“Crack-heads don’t run like that,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“Whatever,” the Tour Guide says.

Now Petty Officer Bradley has joined the play. He tells Francis the Sailor to look for the girl outside. Francis the Sailor is not a smart man. He’s still looking for the girl in the empty house.

“Ordinary Seaman Bell!” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“Yes sir!” Francis the Sailor says.

“How many times have you two played hide and seek here?”

“We’ve played it many times, sir!”

“And how many times have you found her hiding outdoors?”

“About every time, sir!”

She loves Petty Officer Bradley’s imposing manners. Petty Officer Bradley never hesitates. Petty Officer Bradley just hesitates when Mrs. Kidder is around. Mrs. Kidder’s imposing manners can be very intimidating, even if you’re a Royal Navy Petty Officer.

“So you better find that girl outdoors right now,” Petty Officer Bradley says. “Unless you think the gallows are your destiny, Ordinary Seaman Bell!”

“No, they are not, sir!” Francis the Sailor says, before leaving the room.

The Tour Guide is feeling weirder by the minute. Nothing is happening, the girl is out of sight, and the tourists are clearly feeling weird too. They don’t want to stay here anymore.

Now they’re arguing. The Tour Guide shuts his ears down. He doesn’t want to know what’s going on. He wishes he wasn’t here. In his mind, he belongs to a happy place, full of the stuff Rio dreams are made of: laidback clients, beachfront cocktails, bikini-clad women, men in thongs, booze-fueled tips, raining yuans. No tourists searching for “culture”. No guilt-driven European and American sensitive scavengers looking for “authentic” stuff.

“I think I’ve had enough,” Tourist Nº2 says. “I want to get back to the hotel.”

“Me too,” Tourist Nº 3 says.

“I’ll go with you,” Tourist Nº 4 says.

“You?” the Tour Guide asks Tourist Nº 1.

“Yes, let’s go,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“Praise the Lord,” the Tour Guide says in Portuguese.

“Tomorrow we have the favela extra-judicial killing sight-seeing, is that correct?” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“What?” the Tour Guide says.

“Just kidding,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

Valeriy gets worried when the woman stops shaking her head. He checks her out. Then he calls the girl.

“Dearest, where are you?”

“I can’t find her,” Francis the Sailor says.

“We need her right here, right now,” Valeriy says.

“I can sense something,” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“You can sense what?” Valeriy says.

“I am feeling weak,” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“So what?” Valeriy says.

“I don’t know,” Petty Officer Bradley says. “Never mind. Let’s find her.”

Valeriy and Petty Officer Bradley join Francis the Sailor to look for the girl.

“Where’s Mrs. Kidder? She can be useful,” Valeriy says when they leave the house.

“The old witch… Who needs her?” Francis the Sailor says.

This is the girl’s happiest moment. For the first time it takes more than an hour for her to be found. She knows it because she carefully listens to the TV soap opera someone is watching nearby. When she had found the perfect hideout, the soap opera hadn’t started. Now the neighbor’s TV is on the news show.

Tourist Nº 1 couldn’t help coming back to Morro da Providência as soon as the Tour Guide left the hotel.

Morro da Providência is a safe place, tourist-wise, so he had no problem reaching it. He gets disturbed when he arrives at the family’s place. The observation deck is closed, and it takes quite a while until he finds a safe spot where he can see what’s going on inside the house without being disturbed. He’s not sure what to do, actually. He wants to talk to the girl, yet he fears the possible outcomes of interacting with her.

The man is not in the house. The girl is sitting right beside the woman’s body. He can’t understand what the girl says. The real-time translation service is off. The few Portuguese words he knows are not enough. They should have developed a smartphone app for this, but they haven’t.

“Mrs. Kidder, have you seen him?” the girl says. “We need to tell him.”

“No, but I am afraid he will ever come back,” Mrs. Kidder says.

Mrs. Kidder feels very sad.

“You will need to be even stronger from now on,” Mrs. Kidder says.

The girl looks at Mrs. Kidder wondering how Mrs. Kidder knows the man won’t come back. But then she asks something else.

“Mrs. Kidder! What’s wrong with you?”

“The end is near,” Mrs. Kidder says.

“What do you mean?”

“Look, there’s something I want to give to you before leaving.”

“You can’t leave, Mrs. Kidder! You are my only real friend!”

The girl’s little arms reach Mrs. Kidder legs, and she dumps her face on Mrs. Kidder long, dark skirt and starts to cry. But suddenly Mrs. Kidder’s legs become softer than ice cream, and Mrs. Kidder slides away from the girl.

“This book belonged to me. Now I want you to have it, please. See, this is my name here.”

The girl holds the book, opens the first page and reads the name out loud: “Cynthia Harriet Russell Kidder. It’s the most beautiful name in the whole world.”

Tourist Nº 1 grabs his smartphone, opens one of its mobile browsers and types the name. The first web link triggers a shock wave that makes him babble and after babbling he feels suffocated and after suffocating he babbles again and after babbling again he cries. His trembling hands refuse to click further on the smartphone, and then his tongue sticks out and it’s the tongue itself that does the job his hands can’t do, and now his eyes shut, his tongue can’t do the job, he needs another part of his body to become his eyes’ burglar, and he fears his hand, if let loose, will break into his eyes and throw them away, what now?

   His head still seems to function like any head is supposed to function, so he bangs it against a tree several times until he gets his eyes open, and if the head is functioning his brain can order his mouth to bite his hands until they obey him, and that’s what he does, and now his eyes can finally read again the web address brought by the name search, findagrave.com, and his hands can tell his fingers to click on it:

Birth:

Nov., 1817
Salisbury
Litchfield County
Connecticut, USA

Death:

Apr. 16, 1840
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cynthia Harriet (Russell) Kidder was the daughter of William P. and Eleanor (Dutcher) Russell. She was the 1st wife of Rev. Dr. Daniel Parish Kidder. They were married Wednesday evening, November 9, 1837, at Salisbury, Conn. by Rev. O. V. Ammerman. Rev Kidder was a minister in the Genesee Conference, New Jersey Conference, Newark Conference and Rock River Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Methodist Episcopal Church
Missionary Society
The Gospel In All Lands, Vol. 21, c1900, Page 87

Rev. Daniel Parish Kidder and Cynthia arrived in Brazil, South America, January 8, 1838. Mrs. Kidder died in Rio de Janeiro April 16, 1840. Mr. Kidder left for New York in April, where he arrived in June 1840. He died in Evanston, Illinois July 29, 1891.

Family links:

Parents:

William P Russell (1788 – 1865)
Eleanor RusselL (1789 – 1856)

Spouse:

Rev Dr Daniel Parish Kidder (1815 – 1891)

Inscription:

“Sacred to the Memory
of Mrs. Cynthia Harriet
wife of Rev. Daniel P. Kidder
American Missionary
Died April 16, 1840
Aged 22 years and 6 months”

Burial:

Gamboa British Cemetery
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

He needs to pay attention to what’s going on with the girl, but now his hands look for other names on the web site, and there they are: Valeriy Frantzevich, dead on October 7th 1992, Francis Norman Bell, dead on November 22nd 1917, B Bradley, dead on June 23rd 1917. Where are they? Where is this Gamboa British Cemetery? He needs to click more and he needs to click fast. Right there, he finds out, now his whole body working in a terrified harmony, right behind Morro da Providência, Rio’s oldest cemetery.

The terrified harmony of his body makes him storm the house. He doesn’t know what else he can do.

Now the girl is crying, and there’s a book on the floor. The girl doesn’t notice him. He talks to her, but she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t even look at him.

He then carefully picks up the book. It’s a very old book, and there’s the full name of Mrs. Kidder on the title page, beautifully handwritten, and the title page says more: it’s a Bible by the American Bible Society, 1837 edition.

Tourist Nº 1 sees himself being buried in the Gamboa British Cemetery of Rio de Janeiro. And collapses to the floor.

—Toni Marques

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Toni Marques was born in 1964 in Rio de Janeiro. A journalist, he is a former NYC correspondent of O Globo newspaper and currently is a story editor with Globo TV’s “Fantástico,” a leading weekly news show. He has published three books and is the co-editor of The Book of Rio (Comma Press, UK, 2014). His short stories have been translated to Spanish, French and Arabic. This year HBO Brasil will air the series “Magnífica 70,” based on his original screenplay. He was the curator of the first two editions of FLUPP, the first and only international literary festival hosted by shanty towns in Brazil.

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Apr 012015
 
john connell author

Photo by John Minihan

Born in County Longford, where his debut novel is set, John Connell like many Irish before him emigrated to Australia. The success of his short story The Little Black brought him to the attention of Picador Australia publisher of The Ghost Estate. Set during the Celtic Tiger, the novel explores the psychological and emotional “boom and bust” of those reckless times:

“Gerard McQuaid has been waiting for his start in life: his house, his girl, his land. And with rural Ireland being swept up by the Celtic Tiger and villages becoming towns, the electrician’s moment has finally arrived. With the chance to run a big job, McQuaid finds himself on Birchview Manor, a decrepit estate where the dreams of modern Ireland crash up against the weight of history. As McQuaid gets further into the restoration, he falls deeper into the story of the estate’s previous owner, Lord Henry Lefoyle, whose fate begins to loom ghost-like over McQuaid’s own.”

 

 

Gerard Beirne (GB): John, your debut novel, Ghost Estate, somewhat unusually for an Irish writer is being published in Australia (Picador). How did that come about? Are their plans for it to be published in Ireland or England?

John Connell (JC): Yes it is quite unusual. I was an Irish emigrant living and studying in Australia and wrote a short story which was included in two short story anthologies in the country and happily for me it received quite a bit of attention and a few different publishers approached me with book offers. I decided to go with Picador as they said I could write about whatever I wanted so that was a really great gift. I have just engaged an agent at the moment who is looking to see about publishing the book in UK/Irl and other regions. So hopefully 2015 will see the Ghost Estate get an Irish release.

GB: Tens of thousands of Irish have move to Australia in the last decade with many staying on to become permanent residents or citizens? Why did you move there and do you intend on staying?

JC: I went to Australia as an exchange student studying journalism, I was then offered to finish my degree there and did my final degree project on the aboriginal communities in remote Australia and produced an investigative radio documentary, That piece won a journalism award and secured me work with ABC the national broadcaster. I had only ever intended on being in Australia for 6 months which later turned into four and a half years before moving to Canada.

GB: Many of those who have emigrated have done so because of Australia’s “booming” economy – having written a novel about the boom and bust in Ireland, do you see any similarities there, any concerns, warning signs?

JC: Ah yes of course, Australia is in a boom and the refugees of the Tiger are driving that boom in so many sectors. In my few years in Australia I saw the price of living increase, the price of houses, the proliferation of money and its wasting, all the hallmarks of a country running away with itself. Australia unlike Ireland has mineral wealth that won’t run out any time soon, but it is dependent on its trade relationship with China, its number one trade partner. In my opinion, Australia won’t crash like Ireland, but it will slow down (and it has started to slow down- I have Irish friends who work on rigs and mines that have been let go with that same slow down). The greed is fairly pronounced there at the moment sadly.

GB: Where was the book written? If Australia, did this make a difference to the writing of the book? If Ireland, was it necessary to go back to Ireland to write it? If both, was this a necessary part of the process and why? 

JC: The book was wrote in Ireland in a portacabin in a field in Longford. It was necessary to write the book in Ireland (I even did the rewrites here). I needed to be in the atmosphere of the place and listening to the local people talk, and I also gained so many stories from local people that ultimately found their way in some form into the book. It would not be the same book if it had been written in Australia. I just actually can’t imagine what it would have been. Ireland was the canvas and the book was the paint if you’ll pardon that bad analogy.

GB: How does the literary world in Australia compare to that in Ireland? — The literary community, the publishing scene, the literature itself? Is there an Irish literary community there?

JC: The literary scene in Australia is quite small compared to Ireland. There are lots of publications and publishing houses but not the sheer volume of writers as we have in Ireland. However, there are wonderful Australian writers with a unique Australian voice. It was only in living in Australia and Canada that I realized the tremendous output of Ireland in world literature. Thomas Keneally author of Schindlers’ List is Irish-Australian and would be the one stop shop for Irish literary scene to my opinion though other writers such as David Malouf have wrote books on Ireland or Irish-Australian subject manner.  Ireland and Irishness is part of the history and story of Australia and many Australians have Irish heritage so I suppose we are part of the Australian story in many respects. I mean Ned Kelly was Irish after all. Peter Carey would not have got his Booker without us convicts!

GB: The novel is set in Longford where you grew up – how did the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath affect your home and community? Depression plays a central role in the novel. We know that suicide rates increased due to the recession particularly amongst those in the property business. What has been the psychological impact of the “bust”?

JC: The Celtic Tiger and its death had a huge impact on Longford and other rural communities. Longford was a very quiet place as a child, but it gradually became very busy during the boom years, and in the death of the tiger a ghost county as opposed to a Ghost Estate. Suicide was sadly all too common and still is. We have 10 suicides a week in Ireland. 8 of those are men. Many young men who had known nothing but success in the boom years suddenly found themselves in debt, unemployed and caught; and sadly far too many remained silent, suffered quietly and took their lives. It is a sad, sad truth but one that has yet to be fully talked about. For many, it was either emigrate to Australia and now Canada or face the quiet lonely Longford nights and the dole queue.

GB: You grew up on a farm — how has that played a role in your life? How has farming been impacted by the Celtic Tiger years and how have the changes affected rural communities?

JC: I enjoy the countryside and I’m proud of my rural roots but that’s about it. The Celtic Tiger changed everything in Ireland even farming; farmers were builders and developers too.  Thankfully that has calmed down now and people are returning to the land in a more healing and respectful manner.

GB: On a final note, you mentioned that you know Yanis Varoufakis the current Greek Finance Minister. What is your connection to him and does it have any relevance to the book?

JC: Yanis and I talked a number of times after I heard a lecture he gave on the GFC. I was on the rewrite of my book at the time and Yanis’s ideas combined with those of Tony Judt whom I met before he passed away, really cemented some of my economic thinking on why things got as bad as they did. Yanis had offered for me to study with him in Texas, but I had a wedding to plan and he a country to run. Maybe in time we might get to reconnect on that one!

—John Connell & Gerard Beirne

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Listen to John Connell read an excerpt.

 

cover

Excerpt: Kane – a short chapter about the developer

John Kane balanced the car keys and mug of tea in his hands as he opened the sleek black door of his new Landrover. It was a bright if somewhat cold morning. He let the engine warm before he turned the ignition. One, two, three. He sipped from his mug quietly, as the window slowly defrosted.

He was used to this morning routine now. The Landrover moved smoothly along the country roads. He could hear the scrape of briars and overgrown branches against the vehicle as the lanes narrowed towards the cottage.

How many times had he come up this lane? It was beyond measure now. The house was still the same, had been since Noel had lived there. Old Noel, his distant cousin, the bachelor, the man who had left him everything in his will.

But wasn’t that what he had wanted, he reminded himself, all those visits, the shopping trips to Longford, the dinner in the Landmark. Had it all been for the hunger, the want of land, those twenty acres and the plot of turf in Kelleher bog? Yes, he admitted, and no. He and Noel had shared a friendship, and while it was not a surprise that one day the man asked to be brought to the solicitors in town, some part of him felt that he was entitled to it. It was in a way a gift. Though Noel’s niece had never seen it in that light. Not at the funeral when he had taken the front pew reserved for immediate family, nor at the reading of the will when she had received nothing, despite nursing him in those last few months.

Friendship had a price and that was not his fault.

He rolled to the door and beeped the horn. The vehicle hummed quietly as he waited on the cracked concrete. The house was old. Sheds dotted here and there around the yard were filled with turf and old creamery cans. The turf was never burned any more. The house ran on oil.

The Poles emerged with their shaved heads and plastic bags full of sandwiches. Odd they never seemed to have a lunchbox, not one between them, Kane thought to himself.

They had lived here for over two years. He’d done little with the house: put in some bunk beds, a lick of paint and that cheap oil burner instead of the range. The walls were still damp on cold winter mornings. They had probably brought on Noel’s bad chest and would, in time, would make the Poles sick too. But they were young and hardy.

‘Good morning lads,’ Kane said as Jans and the others began slowly to climb into the vehicle.

‘Morning boss,’ said Jans quietly.

‘We’re all well I hope?’ asked Kane, looking in the rear-view mirror towards the others.

‘We well, yes,’ they agreed sullenly.

Each morning was the same. A talk, a half-hearted chat that petered out. There existed in the car two different worlds with many incomprehensions.

‘I drop you at the manor today, okay?’ he said.

The group nodded.

‘Jans, can you come with me to the office? I need you to give me a hand.’

The Polish had arrived with the boom, come like a wind indeed. The country had woken up to find new names and faces that spoke of towns and villages no one had ever heard of. They were good workers and in so many ways were what the Irish had once been, Kane thought. Strong-backed, fond of a drink and, yes, ignorant. They were in search of a better life in another land and yet dreamed only of returning home.

Jans, who spoke the best English, had been a teacher of sorts, but there was more money to be made lifting blocks than teaching children. He, like all the others, had made that Ryanair migration across Europe and somehow, somehow, ended up in Longford.

It still puzzled Kane, Longford being multicultural, and was there not enough trouble between the two native groups that lived here already, not to mention the travellers? How were they ever to come to terms with foreigners when they had yet to come to terms with themselves?

But there was work to be done, and these men, these Poles, were ready to do it.

They never complained, they never questioned, they simply shrugged and worked. They had become serfs in a way; a man’s success could be measured by how many Poles he had working for him.

Kane drove toward the estate. Big Jack would be waiting for them. It was the same routine each morning. And they would be set to work on some menial task around the sites, something a contractor would refuse to do. They were the workhorses of this boom and when it ended, whenever that might be, they would be sent away like all old nags.

On Fridays after work he would bring them to town to wire their wages back to Poland, back to their families. It was perhaps paternalistic but he knew the minds of young men well. If they had the money, they would spend it, and an arsehole pub in the middle of Ireland was no place to waste a week’s work. He would give them their pay slips and drive them to the Western Union branch and the rest was their own choice.

It was not really a life, Kane often thought, to work and save and never be able to fully communicate your thoughts and fears for the lack of words. It was little wonder the men took to the cheap bottles of vodka at the weekend.

They were not so different, not so very different at all, Kane thought. A picture of Poland instead of Ireland on the cheap bedroom walls and a set of rosary beads under each man’s pillow. Poverty had a way of repeating its motifs.

‘Come on, Jans,’ he said as Lech and the others packed out of the Landrover. ‘The gutters in the office need a good clean. They’re full of fucking weeds.’

‘Yes, boss,’ Jans said simply, and returned to silence.

Was it better than teaching, Kane thought. It must be. It must be.

—John Connell

 

John Connell was born in 1986. He grew up in County Longford, Ireland. An award-winning investigative journalist, playwright and producer, The Ghost Estate (Picador Australia) is his first novel.

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Mar 122015
 

Cordelia Strube

Ten novels in twenty years. Cordelia Strube is no slouch, and bear in mind that she is also a long-time dedicated creative writing teacher at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education. I’ve always been deeply impressed by the mix of heart and smart contained in her novels, and when you add a steely sharp writing style and dialogue that feels overheard rather than written – well, don’t take my word for it. In the section below you have a chance to read a chapter from a novel not yet published. On The Shores of Darkness, There is Light will be published in the spring of 2016 by ECW Press.

 Along the way in her career, Cordelia has been nominated for most of the Canadian national literary awards such as: The Governor General’s award for literature; The Giller Prize (long listed); the Re-Lit Award; Books in Canada/W.H. Smith Award for best first novel – and she has won the CBC Literary Competition.

—Ann Ireland

 

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THERE’S A BABY STUCK in a car.” Harriet waves anxiously at the crowd of parents watching T-Ball. They don’t notice. She runs back to the SUV, across grass turned to straw. It hasn’t rained in six weeks. Smog chokes the city.

The baby, mottled pink, purplish around the eyes and mouth, is strapped to the car seat. Wailing, she jerks her chubby arms and legs, her cries muted by the latest technology in road noise reduction. She looks like the baby Harriet pictured when her mother told her she was pregnant; a cute baby with a normal head and curly blonde locks. Harriet presses her nose against the window, causing the cute baby to stare at her as though she is the one who has trapped her. “Don’t blame me,” Harriet mutters. “When in doubt, blame Harriet.”

Just this morning her mother blamed her for losing the plastic pitcher for bagged milk. “Why can’t you put things back in their place?” When it turned out Harriet’s little brother used the pitcher to shower his plastic animals, her mother didn’t apologize to Harriet. Or scold Irwin. There’s no doubt in Harriet’s mind she’d be better off without her little brother. She should have snuffed him when she had the chance, after they took him out of the incubator and handed him to her, all red and wrinkled, with his stretched head, and veins pulsing weakly under his see-through skin.

“Say hi to your brother,” her mother said. She no longer looked like her mother because she’d stopped eating and sleeping when Irwin was cut out of her. The furry-lipped nurse, who’d helped Harriet put on the sterile gloves, said, “Your brother is a miracle baby.” Harriet didn’t see why. The other preemies in incubators looked like fat turkeys compared to Irwin.

The cute baby trapped in the car seat has stopped wiggling and isn’t pink and purple anymore, just pale. Harriet tries the doors again before scrambling back to the crowd of parents. She pushes her way to the front of the pack where her mother and her boyfriend coach Irwin as he swings wildly at the ball balanced on the T.

“Keep your eye on the ball, champ,” her mother’s boyfriend says, bending over, revealing his butt crack above his track pants. Gennedy claims he was a jock in high school and consequently unable to kick the track pants habit. He has a shred of Kleenex stuck to his chin from a shaving cut. Harriet considered telling him about it this morning but decided to see how long it would take to drop off.

Harriet’s mother, in short shorts because, according to Gennedy, she’s still got the gams, fans her face with her hand and says, “Try again, peanut, you can do it.” The other parents pretend they don’t mind Irwin getting extra turns because he’s developmentally challenged. They order their unchallenged kids to be nice to him, and Irwin thinks people are nice because everybody acts nice around him, they just don’t invite him for play-dates, so he is in Harriet’s face 24/7. Harry, check on your brother. Harry, help your bother with his buttons. Harry, be a sweetheart and wipe your brother’s nose.

She squeezed toothpaste into his slippers this morning but he went barefoot.

“Good swing, champ,” Gennedy calls.

What Harriet knows about adults is that they say one thing while thinking something completely different. For this reason she doesn’t believe a word any of them say. She won’t have to deal with them anymore when she gets to Algonquin Park. She has two-hundred and forty-eight dollars in her bank account, but because she’s only eleven, her daily withdrawal limit is twenty dollars. Emptying her account requires thirteen withdrawals, and she’s worried the ladies at the bank might rat on her because Harriet’s mother worked there before Irwin was born. She’d often pick Harriet up from daycare and take her to the bank to finish up paperwork. As the doors were closed to the public at six, Harriet was allowed to sit at a big desk and draw with an assortment of pens. After Irwin was born, Lynne quit working at the bank and lived at the hospital. She came home on weekends to do laundry. Trent, Harriet’s father, sat in the dark absently plucking his eyebrows, until he started going to farmers’ markets and met Uma.
Harriet tugs on her mother’s arm.

“Bunny, please don’t do that, you’re not a two year-old.”

“There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

When Harriet’s parents divorced, her mother went back to work at the bank until her breakdown. Harriet loved the bank and plans to work in one when she grows up. She craves the quiet, and the soft sound of bills being counted, the clicking and sliding of metal drawers, the tapping of keyboards, the dependability of safety deposit boxes, the finality of stamp pads. Everybody’s polite at the bank and nobody shouts or swears. She tugs on her mother’s arm again. “Somebody’s forgotten their baby.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. The baby’s probably just napping.”

“It’s not.”

Irwin bats the ball and it bounces feebly to the side. “Way to go, champ!” Gennedy shouts. “That was awesome!” Other parents jerk into phoney smiles while Irwin chortles, bobbling his big head.

Harriet sewed some rags together to make a voodoo doll of Gennedy that she sticks pins into daily. Last Christmas she asked her mother why he moved into The Shangrila with them. “You wouldn’t understand,” her mother said but Harriet insisted she would. She pestered her mother until Lynne slumped on a kitchen chair, fiddled with a busted angel decoration and said, “Because when he says he won’t leave me, he means it.” Harriet understood then that she was doomed to co-habit with Gennedy, the shouter and swearer, who says she’s negative, and can’t even cook a decent tuna casserole. When her mother’s at the hospital, Harriet lives on Lucky Charms.

“The baby isn’t sleeping,” Harriet repeats, more loudly this time even though her mother hates it when she’s loud.

“Harry, it’s none of your business. I’m sure the parents are here somewhere and keeping an eye on the car.”

“They’re not.”

“What’s the problem here?” Gennedy asks, wiping sweat off his nose. The Kleenex is still stuck to his chin.

“No problem,” Lynne says, swigging on a water bottle.

“There is a problem,” Harriet says. “There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

Irwin stumbles towards them. Gennedy grabs him and swings him up in the air. “How ‘bout some burgers, big guy?”

“Wowee, wowee, burgers with cheeeezze!” Irwin squeals, causing other parents to stare and jerk into phoney smiles again.

“There’s a baby stuck in a car!” Harriet shouts.

“Harriet.” Her mother grips her arm but Harriet jerks it away and shouts even louder, “There’s a baby stuck in a car! Right over there.” She pushes through the crowd and points at the SUV.

“Oh my god,” a rumpled man in a Blue Jays cap cries before charging to the SUV. He gropes frantically in his pockets for his remote, repeating, “Jesus fucking Christ” and “Fucking hell.” His T-ball player son chases after him, hooting and flapping his arms. Finally the man unlocks the car. “Tessy,” he croons in a baby voice as he ducks in and frees the listless infant.

*

“Whassup?” Darcy asks, lying on her tummy on the couch painting her fingernails black.

“Did you shoplift that polish?” Harriet asks.

“Damn fucking straight. No way I’m paying eight bucks for this shit.” She flashes her fingers at Harriet, “Like it? Black is the dope, dude,” and sucks the straw on a can of diet Sprite. “I’m going on a date later. I am single and ready to mingle.” Darcy moved into The Shangrila a month ago. She’s twelve and knows how to give blowjobs, suck on bongs and inhale fatties. Harriet has no interest in blowjobs, bongs or fatties, but she feels flattered that an older girl wants to be her friend—although, in her experience, friendships don’t last. Eventually the new friend finds out Harriet has no other friends, can’t text because she doesn’t have a cell, or an iPod, or an allowance, plus a freak for a brother. Darcy’s mother rips ladies’ hair off with wax. She doesn’t shout or swear and lets Darcy eat junk food, go on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and watch whatever she wants on YouTube. Gennedy only allows Harriet an hour of computer time per day, and he’s constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure she isn’t frittering away her time absorbing useless pop culture. He shouted at her when he caught her watching the Brazilian cab driver singing Thriller just like Michael Jackson. Harriet didn’t know anything about Michael Jackson, except that he died a long time ago and looked creepy. But Darcy showed her the Thriller video and Harriet was impressed by his moonwalk. Gennedy caught her practicing it while watching the cab driver from Brazil singing Thriller. “How is this improving your mind?” he shouted. According to Harriet’s mother, Gennedy is the only criminal lawyer in history that’s broke. If he works at all it’s legal aid, defending drug addicts, thieves and vandals. Lynne could have done better than Gennedy, Harriet thinks, because she’s hot. Men have always ogled her mother. Construction workers and loiterers all whistle and snicker Nice ass, Come to papa, or Whatever you need, I’ll give it to you, baby. When Harriet was little she’d turn on these pervballs and shout, “Stop looking at my mother! Leave my mother alone!” She doesn’t defend her mother from pervballs anymore because she can see her mother likes the attention, especially now that she’s older and has had two kids.

Darcy flaps her hands to dry the polish. “The Shangrila is a downer, dude. How can you stand living here? It’s, like, seven floors of seniors, a freakin’ old people farm. My mom says the carpets haven’t been replaced since man wiped his dirty feet on the moon. She says they’re moon carpets and she’s going to split her head open tripping over a crater.” She sniffs the polish in the bottle before screwing the lid back on. “Want to go to Shoppers World?”

Harriet sits in the armchair Darcy’s mother keeps covered in plastic to protect it from cat hairs. “You just said you had a date.”

“Before that.”

“Not really.”

“Don’t be such a douche bag.”

“Do you even know what a douche bag is?”

“It’s a bag, duh, to put douches in.”

“Do you know what a douche is?”

Darcy pulls on the cat’s tail, causing it to dart across the moon carpet. She hates the cat because she has to feed it and clean its litter box.

“You don’t even know what a douche is,” Harriet says, “so why are you always calling people douche bags?”

“LOL, so what is it then, Miss Super Brain?”

“It’s a nozzle women shove up their snatches to clean them out. The douche bag has water in it, and other stuff.When you squeeze the bag, the stuff quirts up.”

“Cool story.”

“It’s true. My dad’s girlfriend squirts herbs up her hoo-ha to make her mucous friendlier to my dad’s sperm.”

“FML, would you shut up, that is so gross. That is like … nobody does that. That’s sick.”

“I just think you should know what a douche bag is before you call people douche bags.”

“Okay, fine, thank you, Einstein. OMG I was just joking around.”

Darcy moved into The Shangrila because her parents got divorced. Her mother, Nina, is being fucked over by her ex, Buck. “Buck’s fucking me over,” she often says, or, “Fucking Buck is fucking me over.” Harriet has adopted this phrase and consoles herself, when alone, by muttering that … fill in the blank … fucked her over. Lynne doesn’t say Trent is fucking her over although, since he cut back on child support to pay for Uma’s expensive infertility treatments, Lynne has been referring to him as the asshole.

“I wish my dad was here,” Darcy grumbles. “He’d take us to the DQ.” Harriet likes Buck because he calls her The Lone Ranger and drove them to Canada’s Wonderland in his MAC truck, bought them candy floss and ride tickets. But, according to Nina, Buck’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. This is why she divorced him. Lynne doesn’t say Trent’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. Harriet’s not sure why her parents divorced other than her dad freaking over Irwin, and meeting Uma and deciding she had a brilliant mind. He wouldn’t have met Uma if Irwin hadn’t had a seizure at the farmers’ market.

“You reek,” Darcy says. “Have you been dumpster diving again?”

“I found some wood, not warped or anything.” Harriet paints on primed plywood or stiff cardboard because she can’t afford canvas. It consoles her that Tom Thomson sketched on wood. Uma, when she first started dating Trent, took Harriet to a Group of Seven show. The painters’ worn wooden paint boxes and palettes fascinated Harriet. Tom Thomson’s box was small, just a rectangular box. Frederick Varley’s was fancier, with compartments. Even though Tom Thomson died too young to be officially part of the Group of Seven, Harriet thinks of him as her favourite Group of Seven painter. She was mesmerized by his small, simple box, imagining him hiking through Algonquin with the box stuffed in his rucksack, entranced by a piece of sky or water or a tree and sitting down to paint them. She imagined him taking out the box, balancing it on his lap, rubbing his hands together to warm them, and resting his wooden sketch board against the box’s lid. She yearned to watch him pick and mix his colours, and make his first stroke, touching his brush to the board. She felt if she could sit quietly behind him, he wouldn’t mind. He was so handsome, even though he smoked, and she loved it that he never went to art school. “Harriet,” Uma huffed, “we’re here to look at the paintings, not the paint boxes.” Harriet memorized the colours on Tom’s palette, determining to recreate them at home. It seemed as though the lights dimmed when she moved away from his paint box, and the studio paintings held none of the vibrancy of the sketches he made in the wilderness. She couldn’t feel him in the studio paintings the way she felt him in the paint box, palette and the sketches. She wanted to understand why he died at Canoe Lake, why he let that happen when he could paint like that. She couldn’t imagine letting herself drown if she could paint like that. In her room, she tried mixing the colours but they were lifeless on the board and it occurred to her that maybe Tom Thomson let himself drown because he could no longer paint like that.

“One of these days,” Darcy warns, “you’ll get the flesh-eating disease from a dumpster and die.”

Harriet searches the capybara on YouTube again.

“OMG, quit looking at that giant hamster,” Darcy says.

“It’s the world’s largest rodent.”

“Who gives a fuck?”

“They don’t bark. My mother won’t let me have a dog because it barks and might scare my brother.”

“You hate dogs anyway.”

“Just Mrs. Schidt’s.” Mrs. Schidt is eighty-one, lives down the hall in 709 and pays Harriet fourteen dollars a week to walk her skinny white dog with yellow eyes. She’s been paying Harriet fourteen dollars a week for three years and always has to scrabble around in bowls and drawers for toonies and loonies to make the fourteen.

“I bet giant hamsters shit bus loads,” Darcy says. “You’d spend all day stooping and scooping giant hamster turds.”

“You can house train them, and you don’t have to walk them.” Harriet avoids dog people because all they talk about is dogs, and they act snarky when you don’t let their dogs jump on you, lick your hand and sniff your crotch.

The capybara’s lady owner holds a green Popsicle and the capybara nibbles it. The lady lifts the Popsicle just out of the capybara’s reach. The world’s largest rodent taps the lady’s shoulder gently with its paw to signal it wants some more. Repeatedly the capybara and the lady exchange pats for nibbles on the green Popsicle. This looks like so much fun to Harriet.

“What kind of name is Harriet anyway?” Darcy asks. “I mean, it’s like, an old lady name.”

“It’s my father’s mother’s name. And my grandfather’s name is Irwin. My parents named us after them thinking it would make them forgive them for eloping. They’re rich and my parents keep hoping they’ll give them money, or drop dead and leave them money. But they’ll never die.”

“Everybody dies.”

“Not mean and cheap people, they live till a hundred. Look at Mrs. Butts.” Mrs. Butts lives next door in 702 and sends Harriet on errands for a quarter. She’s fat, eighty-two, humpbacked and addicted to pain-killers and sleeping pills. When she wants Harriet to do something she smiles and puts on a nice little old lady voice, but if Harriet brings back Minute Maid orange juice with, instead of without, pulp, or beef, instead of chicken flavoured Temptations for her cats, Mrs. Butts turns into a mean junky.

The word among the seniors at The Shangrila is that Harriet will go down to Hung Best Convenience for a quarter. Mr. Shotlander in 406 has her picking up the paper on Fridays for the TV listings, and Harriet suspects she’s under-priced herself, but at least the errands get her away from Gennedy.

What she can’t understand about her mother shacking up with Gennedy is why Lynne has to be with somebody in the first place. Harriet prefers to be by herself than with anybody. Around people she feels bound in one of Gran’s pressure stockings. She also doesn’t understand why Gran is nice to her but mean to her mother, even though Lynne cleared the junk out of her house when Gran was evicted for health violations after Grandpa died. Lynne furnished Gran’s new place with nice things from IKEA, but still Gran complains about her, Where’d that know-it-all mother of yours put my muffin tins? Where’d that high-and-mighty mother of yours put my electric frying pan?

It seems to Harriet people are better off by themselves and not caged together in apartments and houses. When she escapes to the ranger cabin she won’t have to talk to anybody. Lost Coin Lake is isolated from road and canoe routes, and the marshy shoreline is unsuitable for swimming. Nobody goes there. This makes it perfect.

—Cordelia Strube

©   All Rights Reserved  Cordelia Strube  2014

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Interview

Ann Ireland (AI): The new novel features a brainy, observant, original sort of girl as narrator. This isn’t the first time you’ve used such a main character to tell the story, I’m thinking of your novel, LEMON. Obviously there is something about entering this kind of character that feels natural to you, that attracts you. Care to comment?

Cordelia Strube (CS): There are 2 narrators in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light (you wouldn’t know this from the first chapter)–the story is told in two movements. The Before segment is told from Harriet’s 11-year-old POV. The second segment, After, is told from the POV of her younger brother, Irwin, 7 years later, when he is 14. Writing a 338 page novel through the eyes of children was risky. My biggest fear was sounding twee, or being forced to use a limited vocabulary, but both Harriet and Irwin are so uniquely sighted, I stopped worrying. Harriet’s voice came at me forcefully, but Irwin’s required more patience. She is a comet, he is the Milky Way. Spending time inside the head of a developmentally-challenged, hormonal boy isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time. It took me many walks and thinks to figure out how to approach his side of the narrative. After is a completely different rhythm than Before.

Lemon, the narrator in Lemon, is 16 and already jaded and pissed off. I used her as a reference point because she is an avid reader and I could counterpoint her 21st century sensibility with that of 19th century fiction where the psychological novel took off thanks to Ms. Austen, the Georges, the Brontes, Sam Richardson etc. My objective in Lemon was to say to the reader, “Look at what we’ve done, are you okay with this?”

There’s a massive divide between the mind set of a 16 year-old and an 11 year-old. Harriet is free of conditioned responses to things. She has no filter. This informs on the art she produces, and her interactions with the self-absorbed adults around her. Societal expectations, peer pressure and pop culture overload can beat the originality out of us. Harriet, at 11, has nothing to lose because she has lost so much already and is consequently fearless; unsettling for the reader who fears for her. Peril keeps us reading.

AI: Darcy and Harriet scene: lots of current slang. How did you manage that? Eavesdropping? And what about slang dating; do you worry about that, that by the time the novel is published no one will be saying OMG?

CS: I eavesdrop whenever possible; hard to do with all the ambient noise. I never worry about “dating” my fiction. I use the current world as the backdrop for my novels. We live in interesting times. Part of my job is to document them. Before takes place post recession, after Kate and Will’s wedding. I use the wedding (and what was current in People Magazine: hashtag, Jennifer Anniston, and Obama) to date it because After takes place 7 years later. The 2008 recession had a devastating impact on Harriet; her father was laid off, her parents divorced and lost their house, her brother was hospitalized, her mother took up with a deadbeat who tried to control Harriet. We are the result of what happens to us.

AI: Your sentences always have pop and energy. You have been teaching creative writing for many years now; do you think it is possible to teach how to write ‘live sentences’?

CS: Listening, I believe, is what creates good dialogue. We can’t write down word for word a conversation we hear because that would be boring, but we can use fragments and build from there; reveal the essence of a character through their phrasing and word choices.

AI: You are prolific and I know you rewrite a good deal. What is the nature of your work discipline or routine?

CS: I am prolific because I don’t stop. Without a novel to swim around in, I sink, but I don’t write for hours a day, don’t push myself to produce a particular number of pages. Some days I write nothing new, just revise. Rarely does a first run at a sentence work for me. I rewrite constantly, especially at the start of a novel when I’m trying to figure out the voice.

AI: It’s been noted that your characters live in a dangerous world where bad things happen, sometimes really bad things. We all know that the world is a perilous place and that no one lives without suffering. What do you make of the current ‘Happiness’ fad? So many books written about how to achieve happiness.

CS: The title of this novel is a line from a Keats poem:

Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green,
There is budding morrow in midnight,
There is triple sight in blindness keen.

This poem is full of light and hope while acknowledging the dark. We can’t see the light unless we’ve been in the dark. Shadows, as Harriet points out, are produced by light. Imagining that your life should be free of suffering is debilitating. Suffering adds perspective and makes joy vibrant. It’s when we become immobilized by pain–physical, emotional or psychological–that we need help. That’s when I reach for a book written by a mad man, or woman, like Mr. Blake or Ms. Dickinson. It makes me feel less alone, stranded in our “think positive” culture. Happiness isn’t a constant state for me. It’s a piece of sky, a brief human interaction, a glance at a painting, a scrap of prose or poetry, a child’s expression, the feel of a loved one’s hand, a good cup of coffee.

AI: Do you see yourself as having an ongoing Project in your writing? Is there something you seek to do in all your books? Something you continue to explore?

CS: My ongoing project is not to go completely mad like Mr. Blake. A critic once described my novels as “exceedingly well-written pleas for awareness.” I don’t have answers, just many questions. Above all I aim to entertain my readers, keep them turning the page while laughing and crying. I hope also to provoke thought about how we’re managing things (or not) during our time on this miraculous planet. Fiction allows us to fly straight into truths, both ugly and beautiful. We don’t need to be careful when we’re making it all up.

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All photos by Carson Linnéa Healey.

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Ann Ireland

Ann Ireland‘s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture  called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, recently reprinted by Dundurn Press, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

Mar 092015
 

bag air strike

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February 23, 1991

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You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

What on earth is Eliot talking about? I should know: I’m an English teacher. But that doesn’t mean anything. I should know that, too.

It is Saturday morning, early, or early for me. I’m sitting by the gar­den, our garden on a hill that overlooks South Bay, reading his Four Quartets. On the bench beside me, coffee, a radio. Every now and then I turn the radio on to catch the news.

I’m reading the Quartets the way I have always read them, in fits, bits and pieces here and there, skipping around. I’ve read the whole work over the years, but have never read it all the way through in one effort, and I only know it as so many frag­ments. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding—I can at least put the poems in order, but if there’s any order to that order, it has escaped me. All the shifts in voice, the abstractions, the faint sym­bols, the ghosts of allusions—the thing tries your patience. It’s not a poem I would try to teach, if poetry were what I still taught. I don’t even remember our spending much time on it back in grad school. Still, I come back to it. There’s a meditative lilt to the sounds, to the rhythms that has stayed with me. It’s the closest I get to religion.

Today, however, Eliot irritates me. His words sound like chants of an old man trying to settle the uneasiness from a worried life, of the ache of brittle bones. I woke at six with a rush of purpose, full of resolve, only to real­ize there wasn’t any­thing I particularly had or wanted to do. Too much wine last night. I ended up here by default. It’s not the kind of thing I do, sit by a gar­den. It is not like me to sit still, and after an hour of sitting here, dipping into the Eliot, lis­tening to the news, look­ing at the garden, I feel I have come to the end of something. No ecstasy—do I get points for that?

The news is not news. We have been bombing the shit out of the Iraqis for over a month. The deadline approaches for invasion, 9:00 here, noon in Wash­ington, some other time in the Gulf, soon to pass. Rumors of last min­ute nego­tia­tions. Nothing will come of either. Bush won’t give this war up—he needs it. But he won’t commit troops as long as he can keep up the aerial attacks. And it has been a clean, pretty war for us, the U.S., from what we see on the tube. Vast stretches of desert sands, the floral splendor of night raids over Baghdad—the bombing will continue. We will keep bombing until there isn’t anything left. That way we maintain world order.

Our garden is not pretty; it is a disaster. We were hit by a hard freeze a few months ago, around Christmas, the worst in more years than I have been here. Everything is dead or looks dead. Dead plants on dirt—dead leaves, dead stalks, dead vines, dead buds of what­ever it was that bloomed in winter—a brown mesh of deadness blending into darker shades of brown. Even the few plants Margaret had been holding out hope for it can now be safely said are safely dead. The only green has been the weeds, which she pulls as soon as she sees them.

After a light rain last night, the rich, bitter smell of decay.

Yet it is a beautiful day, shirtsleeves in February, another freak of Cali­for­nia weather. Cloudless, smogless skies, the skies an unqualified blue. Not the transpar­ent blue that threatens ethereal dissipation, but a blue soft and full, with unforced presence. The morning chill has already burned off and the warm air caresses with­out crowding, as if you belonged here, as if the world were a place where you could live without protection.

The bombing, dead plants in a garden—there is seeming correspon­dence. I will not be sucked into pathetic fallacy, however. Nature has its rules, we have our own, such as they are. One has nothing to do with the other. Only the sentimental would make something of the accident that has brought them together. And even if I tried, I can’t imagine what kind of causal link might be established or what could be made of the balm of this morning sun.

But back to the Eliot. I also feel vaguely guilty, or vaguely sense the need to feel guilty. Perhaps the poems will give my life this grace. And the poet has gone through a couple of wars himself. In fact he wrote these some time around the Big One. Maybe he can give me some pointers on how to do this war, or at least on how to sit it out.

In order to arrive there—

He is talking about a kind of humility, a kind of vigilance. His point, I think, is that if we’re ever to get closer to anything larger, anything beyond our­selves, we need to deny the self in some way, get outside the self in order to see the self and whatever might lie past it, presumably a whatever that is worth the trip. He is trying to get us closer to Something Else. The figure of travel is a metaphor for that desire. This is too myste­ri­ous, or too mysterious for a Satur­day morning, too mysterious for a hangover.

Time present and time past—someday I should go through the whole poem, beginning to end, alpha to omega, soup to nuts, because I think there is a progres­sion, an argument that unfolds, at the end, a conclusion to be reached, maybe an understanding, maybe, God forbid, a revelation. I sus­pect if I did, though, I would only be disappointed. One more literary nut shelled and digested. Better to keep the possibilities of ignorance alive. In the cracks of doubt, of the unknown, maybe a chance—

Margaret—

The English teacher’s wife—

Comes out with her coffee, sees me, and winces softly. Winces because though she’s an early riser, she wakes slowly, also because she did not expect to find me here, by the garden. Softly because that is how she would wince. Then packing her surprise, she lingers a second, composing the Margaret face, a face that respects the decorum of a working marriage, that recognizes that I exist, will continue to exist and have a right to con­tinue to exist, that shows that, even though I have existed with her in civil matri­mony for almost twenty-five years, she has not yet lost fondness for this existence nor will she take it for granted—but today a face that also says she does not want to come to me just yet. Fair enough. Instead, she walks over to the garden and stands there surveying the dam­age, arms folded, coffee cup poised above their cross, her cheeks furled before the winds of a dilemma, as if she is trying to decide what to do about it.

Margaret, not Madge, Marge, Margie, Maggie, Mag, or Meg—she made that clear at the outset, her only condition for marriage. A native Californian, there is such a thing, and some of them have some sense. Second wife. My first marriage was to English, while in grad school, which blew up before either of us had fin­ished our dissertations. We both reached a critical mass of literature and frayed egos, of our exhilaration and desperation over criticism no one cares about, or should. Next a period of celibacy that I thought I chose but really just happened. Then Account­ing. Not that Margaret is another convert to the faith of the busi­ness of business; that is just what she teaches. Every day, before meeting the hordes who have chosen her discipline as the light and the way, she dresses in a sober suit, before the mirror flounces her scarf to a calculated carelessness, then puts on the face, a face of businesslike compassion, that hybrid of concern and practicality that seized me when I first saw her standing before her class at State where we both still teach, the face she now wears before the garden, before the thought of me, a face that doesn’t fend off despair and disorder as evil or unnec­essary but takes them as giv­ens, matters not to be questioned but measured and arranged. Accounting is not a subject but a manner, a way of dealing with what­ever life dishes out and finding it a place. Margaret is all manner and manners. I don’t think I could live without her.

Now she steps through the garden in a winding pattern, following some invisi­ble map, still pondering. It is not fair to her that I pick this day to be out by the garden. Except for minor demolition on my part, it is all her work, and her work lies in ruin, ruin brought into relief by this bright, smiling sun. And given my ignorance about plants, she knows I don’t appreci­ate what has been lost.

I don’t understand much about what makes things grow and am perversely proud I do not. I do know, however, that a garden at best is a complicated problem. I know because she gives me quarterly reports, and now it has become an im­probability. After three years of scant winter rain, last sum­mer she shifted to drought resistant plants, but then these cannot stand the cold. And while it sel­dom freezes here, after last December and the deadness now, she now has to factor in that chance. But plants that can take a freeze need lots of water and are averse to too much light, yet it does not rain here in summer and we have little shade, so anything she puts in next has to be able to withstand a full season of sun—and until the drought lets up, another season of ration­ing. I take these contradictions as evidence that we really aren’t supposed to be here in Califor­nia, any of us, though we have all gold-rushed here and over­run the place, straining the water supply, our dreams of a better life. Margaret does not think that way, however, about our intents or fool­ish­ness, or about the vagaries of the weather. She takes things as they come.

But I know she is not thinking about her plants. She has said she will wait until late spring to deal with them, when the rain stops, the weather settles, her classes are over and she has the time, and she always sticks to the Plan. What she is really doing is debating whether or not she wants to deal with me today. She has read my look and sized me up: she has seen that I have the desire to talk. Yet if she is bothered by me, by the garden, she does not show it.

I’m her second go around, too. I don’t know anything about her first. She never talks about him, I never ask. Not that she’s hiding anything. It’s just part of the decorum, I suspect. She won’t say anything about me, either, if we ever split up. I admire that in her.

Just the two of us. The girls have flown the coop.

She slides her foot through the dry waste, making static noise, then nudges a bush with her toe It does not spring back.

I try to get a rise out of her. I pick a passage at random and read aloud:

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

“What do you think of that?” the English teacher asks.

“Sounds like good advice.” She doesn’t turn, but bends over and tugs at the withered stalk of some unrecognizable plant. She still looks good in jeans.

No rest for the weary is what I think the poet means. I don’t think Mar­garet heard me. I try again.

“The war will start soon.”

No response. She does, however, succeed in pulling up the plant, and, holding it close to her face, examines the shriveled leaves.

“It will be a bloody mess. Body bags on the way.”

She taps the roots gently, shaking off the dirt.

“I’m thinking of enlisting.”

She throws the plant over the fence. My heart goes with it.

“I’m thinking of retiring.”

“Fine,” she says. With that, she mumbles something about breakfast and goes in. She knows I’m in one of those moods, that I want to start some endless conver­sation that will only result in my getting both of us upset. Mar­garet will not indulge me today.

She’s a good woman.

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No word of war. High noon in Washington, the deadline has come and gone. The English teacher has suc­ceeded only in rising to get a stack of papers to grade, which now rest on a bench by his chair, unmarked, unread. Students fear his judg­ment—they don’t know what a sweetheart he is—but he has decided to spare them another day. He is not up to see­ing what they have done to words and still has a headache from his hang­over to boot. So he’s just sitting by himself by a garden on a hill, a hill that overlooks the valley by the bay, the valley that is called Silicon Valley, the bay that is called the Bay. On his lap, a poem by T. S. Eliot; on top of the papers, more coffee, a radio.

Saddam lobbed another Scud missile at Israel a few minutes ago—that much is clear. And the reports that he has been setting oil wells on fire, hun­dreds of them, have been confirmed: smoke can be seen on the hori­zon. But the other reports are confusing. Negotiations have failed, they still continue. Our troops are rehearsing for assault, the invasion has been put on hold. Either Kuwaiti civilians have been rounded up, tortured, and executed—or they have not.

He has a tough job, the newscaster, casting the news, juggling what his report­ers can scrounge up and what little the government lets him know with what he wants to tell me. And he has to find the pitch that prepares me for sud­den drama yet won’t frustrate me with false anticipation if I have to wait—or if nothing happens. He does that very well. A poet, my newscaster. And he needs me, he wants me, he loves me, and does not want to let me down. For this I will never forgive him—

But I leave him on, just in case.

I don’t know how I got hooked on this war except that I watched it on the tube a few times from boredom, and then once I started, could not let it go. First the six o’ clock news, then the late night special reports to see if any­thing had changed. Then the car radio frozen on the news station, then this portable I carry to school, around the house. Much has been said, day to day, and there has been much to see, but all that I have heard and seen over the past months could be summed up in a few sentences. Still, I feel that if I ever stop following, if I step just once out of the flow of current events, I won’t be able to get back in it again. A continuity will be lost, and we’re running out of those. Besides, how are you going to know when the parade passes you by unless you watch it?

This quarter has not gone well. Listless students, flaccid prose, insin­cerity, incoher­ence. More dropouts. Ted, a colleague, thinks it’s the war, that it has depressed them. I doubt that. Their spirits have never been very high and they drop out all the time. It’s the dismal business at home that gets them down. If anything, the war is a good distraction. It gives them the illusion that some­thing is being done somewhere about something. And perhaps it will stir up some jobs in Silicon Valley, now languishing at my feet. What really depresses them, I told him, is our mak­ing them write papers. Nonetheless, the school is sensitive to our stu­dents’ psy­chological states, and the Dean has recom­mended that we talk about the war in class to ease whatever tensions it may have caused. So I have been holding discussions:

Anybody bummed out about this war?

—Not really. Maybe. Are they supposed to be?

Why is Saddam Hussein there?

What are his interests?

Why are we there?

What are ours?

—Oil. The rest is fuzzy. Uneasiness in the class, though. They sense the teacher is trying to wrack their political souls, to exact from them a confes­sion. I assure them I am not. It’s the young guys in the department, the guys with ideo­logical hairs up their butts that have made them suspi­cious. They talk about empower­ment, difference, and liberation. Really, it’s their way of tell­ing students they’re unreformed boobs. I tell students I respect their freedom. I tell them lots of things.

Who is on our side?

Who is not?

Who is Saddam?

Who are we?

Where is Kuwait?

No one seems to know much of anything. More questions from the teacher: they have grown tired of them. I am tired of them myself. There is con­sensus among them, though, that Saddam Hussein is evil and should be taken out. At least here we have moral clarity. Bush has done his job.

Do they realize that if there is a ground war, it might be a long one, that they could be drafted and have to fight?

The guys are not concerned. Yet why should they be? Why would the gov­ern­ment trust them with its complicated, expensive machines when it doesn’t trust them with anything else? Computers in the tanks, computers in the jets, comput­ers in the foxholes—they’d only screw them up.

Why should anyone wrack their brains over this one? Someone will tell us what it all means later.

But then this is how to do it, stage a war. Dazzle us with technology, mini­mize our risk. Bomb, bomb, bomb. This way Bush maintains the symbol without spill­ing the sub­stance of American blood. Because my students know what we all know, that he does not want to lose our hearts, much less our lives, because he wants us, he needs us, he loves us, too. He wants us to have a good night’s sleep. He wants to give our lives Meaning, to give us a word that does not mean Viet­nam. And to show that he loves us, he has to put on a good show. Our generals pride themselves on their precision bombing, but if those bombs are so precise, why do they need so many? And the TV cameras they use with smart bombs aren’t for guid­ance but are part of the production. In the cross hairs, on the screen: city, block, building, roof, air shaft—boom! Boffo! We are amazed, we are ful­filled, we are head over heels in love.

No war today—too much is at stake.

The world is as thick as our skin.

But what to do?

Where’s my wife?

Margaret has not yet returned. She was busy at her desk when I went in to get the papers, or was busy looking busy and did not speak. She will come when she wants to come. There is still the aging poet to keep me company—but I have lost my place. I’ll start again, somewhere else. Which is the one with the garden? Today I’m in a mood to read about gardens.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Burnt Norton, first quartet, first page. I have some notes:

1936
Norton: manor house, Gloucestershire. Burned down, 17th. cent., rebuilt. TSE went to 1935 w. Emily Hale (wishes had married instead?)

You can’t read Eliot without notes. He visits a garden at some old house, or remembers visiting it, and takes off from there. Each of the Quartets is linked to a place that has some personal significance, which is what I think he is trying to do, locate himself in space and time. Not a bad idea—I’d like to know how that is done. Not a bad idea for Eliot in ’36, given the noise in Germany. Nothing else on Hale—I don’t know who she is—but at the bot­tom of the page, another note with an arrow pointing to rose, circled:

Rose: symbol sexual love/Divine Reality (Dante)

How can a rose be a symbol of both? I’ll have to get Margaret’s opin­ion on this. She has—had a dozen bushes in our little plot, though I doubt she saw blooms past the aphids and mildew. And before they had a chance to wilt, she lopped them off and threw them in the trash. I’ve never gotten around to Dante. I was an Americanist before I moved down into comp. Maybe tomor­row, maybe the next war.

Down the passage we did not take—who is with the narrator? Is he still hung up on Hale? Or is he trying to take us all along? The door we never opened—so do we open it now, or just imagine? Are we contem­plating opportunities missed? Should we have married someone else? We all know better than that. Maybe we’re just trying to recoup from the mess we’ve made of our lives.

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?

What is this damn bird? No notes on the echoes, either, but we follow, or pre­tend following—what else is there for us to do? The door we never opened, the first world—is he talking Paradise here? Has he fallen? Have we fallen? Do we care? Or the first world might be something private, something personal—a chance he had but blew? A garden could be any­thing and suggests too much to pin down. Another Eliot ghost. But we follow and open the gate, or maybe we don’t, but somehow

There they were

He shifts to past tense—is that a memory? Yet since we never opened the gate, is it something we imagine might have happened? Anyway, somehow there they were, but we don’t know who they are, there they were in the gar­den, dignified yet invisi­ble, saintly people they must have been—maybe it’s their echoes we heard, they must know something we do not, they must know Something Else—and the pace relents, and still we followed, now slowly, there they were, whoever they are, our guests he calls them, accepted and accepting, there they were, and they moved with us, in a formal pattern, but not as if in memory or imagination, but as if in a trance, in a dream—

Jesus, this stuff makes you dizzy. The old poet is so careful to be so con­fusing. Each time I read these lines, I feel I have never seen them before. They only recall from past readings echoes of vain attempts to fig­ure them out. But this is not the wry Waste Land Eliot; I sense we are supposed to be lightly moved. And there is, I suppose, something lightly moving, moved lightly with the rhythms, with the sounds, with the scar­less words. And there was, I sup­pose, a time when I could be thus lightly moved—

But we aren’t so stupid now. Yet we followed then and we follow now because we’re hungover and can’t think of anything else to do, we follow the movement in the figures of motion, of flowers, of sight, of patterns and light, whose delicate associations rise and connect in airy matrix, building scaf­folds around what they reach for, try to construct, to contain, and still we fol­lowed, we follow, follow them along the empty alley, into the box circle, follow to the drained pool, where we stop, where we think we have a glimpse—

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light

Zen stuff here—the poet also listened to voices from the East—but a cloud passes, the pool is empty, and the moment, the light is gone.

Glimpse of what?

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Blue skies soft overhead, a poem on one’s lap, a freeze-dried garden, a news­caster’s pleasant voice, the news of war, a pounding in one’s head; a long, black ghoul, the shadow projected from a teacher sitting in a lounge chair on his deck: these things are real, and they’re as far as one can go. They’re also more than one can bear.

Glimpse of what?

The scaffolds collapse.

There’s no there there.

There’s nothing there but words.

More Eliot hocus-pocus.

I realize I know little about the poet’s life, save for some gossip, but then I make a point of not learning about authors’ lives. Let’s save our questions, our revenge for the living and unlettered. And it is the measured words, not a writer’s beliefs and other casual slips that deserve our attention. Today, however, I am curi­ous. The poet has gotten under my skin. What else do I have? I flip to the front. Next to the title page, the epigraphs:

Heraclitus. I don’t know Greek, and only have scribbled a translation for the second:

The way up is the way down.

I have forgotten what that is about. Underneath the title, more notes:

T. S. E. 1888-1965
royalist in politics!
classicist in literature!!
Anglo-Catholic in religion?
anti-Semite????

At the end, Little Gidding, he makes some kind of one-for-all-and-all-for-one pitch for England, if I remember right. I must have written those notes in grad school, back when such things could surprise me, back when Modernists were still modern. I doubt Eliot is a hot item at Stanford now—but we all screw up sooner or later. Yet this is one fear I have about the Quartets, that for all their delicacy, their complexity, their diffuse sug­gestion, what they mask is very small.

My other fear is that Eliot wants to convert me.

A screech—

The patio door—

Margaret at last, love of my life, the yin to my yang. But she stands there in the opening and waits for me to speak—a bad sign. I hit her with this, con brio:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.

She stares at me. No games today.

“You’re not serious, are you.” She does not raise her voice at the end to make a question. She seldom does.

“No, never.”

“I mean about what you said.”

“What, about enlisting?”

“I mean about retiring.”

“Sure. Why not?”

“I don’t think you could stand it.”

“What is there to stand?”

“I don’t think you could stand yourself.”

Suddenness, maybe anger from Margaret—another bad sign.

She remains a moment, either giving me a chance to reply or trying to think of some way to mollify the abruptness of her remark. But neither of us finds anything to say. I make a mental note to fix the door. She takes a slow breath, releases a gen­tle heave. Then the door scrapes shut.

I read aloud to the door, its cry still scratching in my ears:

The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars

Nothing happens.

Couldn’t stand myself—not irony, not from Margaret. What has got­ten into her? She must be in some kind of a funk. I suppose I should be careful with my sar­casm. Then again, she could tell me when she is going to take me liter­ally. Something has started here. More later. Film at eleven.

But why should she be upset? She must know I wouldn’t do it. I’ve never really thought about it, yet now, for the first time, it occurs to me: I could. I’m not that old and don’t feel old. I can still go three sets at the courts with­out tripping off a riot in my chest. Old age, disease, death—those worries I displace each month with the slice the school takes from my check. But I could retire. I’ve put my time in for the state, the house is almost paid for, and I have enough socked away. The girls won’t need help. Eliza­beth’s mar­ried to a lawyer handling Apple’s suit against Microsoft, so she’ll be set up well into the next millennium. And Mary wouldn’t ask if she did. As for Marga­ret, she wouldn’t know how to quit. It would be against the Plan. She’ll clock in until she’s 65, so she won’t need anything, either. And if I can do it, why not?

Why should anyone be upset here? Because it also occurs to me I have been lucky. I had the right age for the wars, too young for Europe and Korea, too old for the rest. I got into the state system when California was still flush, when the pay showed some respect for the profession. And we moved to Sara­toga when a teacher could buy a house, when you didn’t have to be a million­aire to buy a house in the hills. Because isn’t that sup­posed to be part of what we work for and look forward to, a place of quiet, the means to inhabit it—a house with a garden out back, a garden, our peek at paradise, our reward for not getting divorced too often, for not covet­ing our neighbor’s wife, for rais­ing two kids who did not turn into junkies or wel­fare mothers, for kneeling twenty-five plus years in the temple of American higher education?

I look at our garden—

Only lucky.

There is a plan to a garden, practical and esthetic. She studies the habits of insects and fungi—Margaret has an aversion to spraying with chemicals—and our odd lot has to be factored in. The terrain is uneven; ground water comes up in unexpected places. Dig down one spot, and the hole fills; a few feet away there is nothing but hard clay. And plants have to be arranged in a pat­tern by their size, their foliage, and the color of their blooms, and the times of their blooms scheduled, annuals interspersed with perennials—

None of which matters now. Yet if the loss of the garden has disturbed her, she hasn’t shown it. And if these plants have meant anything to her over the years or moved her in any way, I have not seen it, or know what it is. There is no plan to her Plan. It is just something she does.

War news, then. But my newscaster has beat a retreat to make way for other news. The other news: a bloodless military coup in Thailand, a military crackdown in Albania, bloody; divi­sion in Yugoslavia, some hope for some reform. In the USSR some guy named Yeltsin wanting Gor­bachev to step down. Software piracy by a firm in Chicago, a hefty fine slapped on Du Pont for toxic waste, the Administration’s proposal to deregulate banks. Governor Pete’s railing against the state teacher’s union, the snow pack down in the Sierra, more drought predicted. The usual murders and rapes.

I spin the dial.

On the other stations: self-help on investments, cars, computers, home improve­ment, and divorce. No sports yet, but plenty of music, some cham­pagne classical, the rest pop stuff I no longer recognize, run­ning a spectrum from raw to schmultzy sentimental.

Not retire. One might as well work until he is feeble-minded enough to believe his life has been worthwhile.

I thumb through the poems, looking at my notes—when did I write all these? My scratches crowd the margins, different hands in varying slants with varying cramped postures, ciphers on the yellowed pages of my vari­ous selves, fading voices from the past. The temptation is to trace a progression, like fail­ing eyesight, of a falling from legibility, but I don’t know when I wrote which or if they follow that order.

I look at my notes on Little Gidding. 1942 minus 1888—actually, Eliot wasn’t that old when he finished the Quartets. He went on another twenty years, but I don’t think he wrote much else.

Somewhere in the pines, the raucous call of a Steller’s jay.

He was a year younger than I.

She’s right. I couldn’t stand it, retirement. But I have stood the self I have been stuck with long enough, and could stand him a few years more.

Bitch.

.

.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.

It’s a prescription for a hangover. It’s not working. The poem is not becoming any clearer and the English teacher’s headache is getting worse.

Still stuck in Burnt Norton. He picks up themes and reconsiders them in other contexts, other images, other rhythms, different voices. I guess he’s talking back and forth to himself, like instruments in chamber music, hence Quartets. Hence the teacher’s head. But here he must be getting down to brass tacks so I’ll give it my best shot. Not this, not that—he’s trying to talk about Something Else again. There must be a Point to the still point, and he’s trying to figure out how we can get it. Dancing is a fig­ure of partici­pation, our move­ment in the world. But since Something Else is beyond the transience of life, the metaphors of place and motion are not enough. We can only make our best guess at what it might be, what our relation­ship might be to it. But if we’re caught up in the move­ment of the dance, we lose sight of what we’re doing, so we have to step back and let go.

First:

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving

Then:

both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood

But we have to dance first to find that out. Yet since beyond us, we’ll never get it right, our eyes deceive us, our best guess will fail, so we detach our­selves from our selves, purge our desires, our wish, don’t look, don’t hope,

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation

No ecstasy—maybe then the light will come. We attach ourselves to the world and do the best we can, or negate our attachment to it and put on hair shirts.

The way up is the way down.

It’s the way the poem works back and forth, up and down, move­ment and countermovement, assertion and denial, hope and despair. One is the way of sub­tle adjustment, the other of prostration.

I’ll never make the first and am not ready for the other yet.

The way up is the way down.

Both somehow get you there.

Both will drive you crazy—

What’s with Margaret? The English teacher is lonely. Today, how­ever, he may have to fend for himself.

Back to the war, then. Still more talk of negotiations from the box. Aziz, the Iraqi Foreign Min­ister, has left Moscow; Gorbachev’s been on the horn with Bush. Meanwhile, the Security Council is meeting behind closed doors. Every­one is just talking. My newscaster hides his shame.

Saddam upset us all last week with his bid for a truce. He can’t be seri­ous, though, yet has to pretend that he is so he can buy more time to save his skin and/or wear us down. Then the Soviets got into the act, and they’ve been shuf­fling plans back and forth with Iraq all week. They can’t be serious, either, but have to try to look more so than we if they’re going to get anything in the Mid­dle East when the show is finally over. And Bush has to pretend to be interested so he won’t offend our Arab allies or embarrass the struggling Gorbachev too much, but he won’t give in—he can’t and keep his face. Yet if he isn’t careful, he will lose his gorgeous war and have to fight, or worse, settle for some kind of peace.

But no one’s serious. More bombs today. We’ll bomb again tomor­row. And there is always this to lift our spirits: we’ll never run out of bombs.

Or words.

Back to the poem.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.

Words, words, words. Eliot talks about them, too, words. He talks about the difficulties of making sense of one’s life, of getting it down in words. About whether or not what one writes is worth the effort, whether there is anything that can be said that hasn’t be said before, or if anything can be said at all. Speech/reach, a nasty rhyme—he has his doubts. As if what a poet says makes a difference.

Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness

The pattern, the stillness, and music again—these are only words about words.

When in doubt, transcend.

It’s what I did in grad school. I wrote some junk about the influence of nine­teenth century Transcendentalism on the American novel in the twenti­eth. There isn’t any, of course, which was kind of my point: those scabrous novels were determined by what wasn’t there. We all need something to pee on. When I got the job at State, I cleaned up the disser­tation, sent it out, and some­one published a few copies, which was enough to get me tenure. For all I know it’s still buried in the basements of a couple of university libraries along with the rest.

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish

I took over freshman comp because no one else would do it. No regrets on leaving lit, however. I was tired of having my students make me feel I was pull­ing one over on them. Also I was beginning to wonder if I wasn’t. Traipse through this century and see what you get. You learn the writers are made of the same stuff as the rest of us. We’re crude oil, they’re high octane—the only difference is that they have been refined.

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Actually, I did have a plan, a reason for doing comp. My idea was to let students figure out the world for themselves. If I could get them to under­stand the order of words, just look at what they were saying, they might come up with something better, or at least something different.

Who am I kidding. I was unsure of myself in school and lacked ambition. Also the ex wanted to stay in the area.

Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

All these damn papers—I know what I will find. The topics, the play­ers have changed over the years, but I always get the same responses. From some, righteous approval, anger against unseen enemies; in a few, holy indignation, the whimpers of martyrdom. Either way, the furious desire for self-justifica­tion. But for the most part, resentment against any assault on their place in the middle of the curve, and grunts, groans, and stammering, a frenetic dash to get to the last of a thousand words. Yet why should they bother? They know school is just a way to weed them out for the corporations. If they ever get a job, busi­ness will tell them what to think later and pay them for it.

I got the awards that come if you stick around long enough.

A few students have come back to say hello.

I could have gone higher in this racket. I also could have gone lower. But I couldn’t have done anything better or worse—

I haven’t done a damn thing.

You spend a lifetime trying to gain the quiet that comes from comple­tion, the coming together of parts—

All you get is the quiet.

Maybe it is time to get out.

The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

Margaret really looked pissed off.

Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Burnt Norton, last lines.

The English teacher is getting depressed.

.

.

An hour past the deadline, still in the garden, the garden is still dead. You get used to it, though, and sit here long enough it takes on its own esthetic. All the subtle shades of umber, the intricate pattern of vines and leaves—it looks like a cubist painting, or wild embellishments, rococo. And there’s something about the smell of dirt and deadness that stuffs the sinuses but clears your head. But this will pass too. You can’t even count on the perma­nence of decay.

The sky is still blue, but less soft, and the sun is almost overhead, but hot­ter, less kind. The English teacher who sits by a garden that sits on a hill still has not found resolve or reason to get up. He is still hung­over, but the focused pain of his headache has become a sloppy blur. Worse, the coffee pot is empty.

Margaret’s in the kitchen, cleaning up, banging pans. Whatever is bugging her, there are repairs to be made. But they can wait. For now, I wish she’d keep it down.

And I wish they’d get this damn war over. It’s getting on my nerves. One moment my newscaster tells me preparations are being made for the inva­sion, that Saddam’s time is running out; the next he says the White House is reviewing Gor­bachev’s plan. Israel, he claims, is in a state of panic after the Scud missile and fears another attack. Our troops, massed on the bor­der, are restless, and our generals worry that the moment will be lost. I suspect, how­ever, my newscaster is making all that up. He is the one who is panicky and restless. He has lost his art, is fumbling badly, and has run out of things to say.

Every­one’s on edge and sloppy today. More bombs will calm us down.

Or more Eliot:

In my beginning is my end.

East Coker—I have straggled into the next Quartet. There is a time, he tells me, for houses to rise, houses to fall, for houses to live and die, a time for building and generation, a time for the wind

to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

My notes:

1939-40
East Coker: West Country village. TSE’s ancestors departed from, 17th. cent.

Departed for the New World. I don’t know if they made it to Califor­nia, though. He returns to his ancestral home, then harks back to the past. I sup­pose you have to start somewhere, and home as good as any. It’s where you end up that is the problem.

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman

He imagines some ancient rite. Too close, too close—the repetition is haunt­ing, but the rest is rather quaint. Dancing again—we are supposed to be reminded of the still point, of the pattern. Of whatever. Now he adds mar­riage to the stew.

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde.

Eliot’s first, as I recall, was less than stable. But we won’t hold that against him. I think he was weird about sex, too. So hard to be normal—we won’t hold that against him, either. My note in the margin:

E Coker: home of Sir Thomas Elyot—related? Wrote The Boke named the Governour, 1531: moral treatise on education of rulers; dancing/soul

He has slipped in a direct quotation from Elyot’s book, he does stuff like that. It’s what endeared him to us in grad school. What’s his point? Good dancing makes good marriages, good marriages make good kings? We should all dance to the music of the spheres? Eliot the royalist rearing his purple head. But someone as subtle as T.S. couldn’t be so obvious.

Then again, maybe that is where subtlety leads.

Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time

He is getting sentimental—is Glen Miller next? Lots of corn has been nour­ished since Elyot’s time, more is on the way for Eliot, because as he writes this Germany has run through Poland and France, and England is waiting its turn. I suppose he is trying to find an anchor in a time of crisis and turns to the past. And his point here is not final, he has more to say—

But why look back at all? What can we learn from the past except how to perfect the mistakes we have repeated?

Tedious crap!

Rite, ritual, and romance—they are ways to make us blind. Good tyrants make good kings. Try to get them to dance to another tune. And marriage gives us the illusion we are together, then sets us up to be led by the nose. Marry us off, get the flocks together, beat the tribal drum. Put clogs on our feet, dress us up like rubes, and have a hoedown. Dance, dance, dance. Dance our blues away. Then stick a gun in our hands. Hitler and Mussolini knew that very well. As does Saddam. And Bush. And every­one else.

And good craftsmen make good fascists. I’ve listened to recordings of the poet reading his work, heard his careful pronunciation of all those dif­ficult for­eign words in his tremulous, singsongy voice—it is the music of a fastidi­ous, failing fop who licks the first boot that comes along.

Dance, dance, dance.

Bomb, bomb, bomb.

Here there may be correspondence.

Because how did this thing happen? OK, Saddam’s not a very nice guy, but Jesus, what a dancer! Because didn’t Saudi Arabia and Kuwait foot the bill for Saddam’s holy war against Iran a decade ago because of their uneasiness with their Persian brothers in the faith? And while the Soviet Union pro­vided arms, didn’t Europe’s weapons merchants cash in as well? And, in spite of the Soviets, didn’t we kick in a few bucks and support him, too, because of our holy hatred of Khomeini who deposed that angel of democracy, the Shah our coup stuck in? And then, in our soft-shoe shuffle of linkage, didn’t we also sell arms to Iran so we could maintain balance against all those wayward Muslims, so we could fund our own sacred war against the Sandinistas next door? Eight years of stepping to the music of mass slaughter—the world trained Saddam how to boogie very well.

And now Gorbachev has his generals on his back, mad about his los­ing Soviet presence in the Gulf, so he does his two-faced two-step, he tries to strike a deal. And now Saddam wants to get Israel in the dance. A few well placed bombs, if he can get them there, would do the trick. But the Israelis have too much to lose if they hit the floor because that would break the coalition and could turn the Arabs against them, against us. We have to show Israel we won’t skip a beat—our Holocaust guilt, the Jewish lobby, our love for non-Arabs who will bear the brunt of Mid-East flack—yet still tap-dance to the tune of peace because our bombing of Iraqi civilians has upset the Arab world. Europe has been upset with us, too, and only grudgingly follows our lead, yet they can afford to waffle—they aren’t so much involved. And what did they expect when they armed Saddam, or when they passed the baton to us? England, how­ever, Eliot’s precious England, has been behind us all the way, Eng­land who, after the Nazi waltz, left the political mess in the Gulf when they pulled their Empire out. We could trace this tune back to the Crusades.

But the blood from the bombing is nothing compared to what will be shed if we attack. And if more Arab blood is spilled, the poor Arabs will see their oil rich Sheiks shake and shimmy in their dependence on us, their part­ners in this dance. And spilling U.S. blood would not play well with us, or the mixing of our blood with Arab. So we dance and we bomb and we bomb and we dance. This is the way the world works, this is the new world order. This is the tune of linkage, the music of the spheres, this is the dance along our arteries, the circu­lation of oil through our lymph.

And we probably would have let Saddam take a little of Kuwait, maybe a lot, because that would not have broken up the dance. Saddam’s only crime is that he got too greedy. Or not even that. He was just unlucky: he was left standing without a chair when the music stopped—

But the thing will happen.

It will happen, and it will have to happen soon.

Because how much longer can we let all that oil burn? And not just because of the oil, or not even because of the oil, because we never kidded ourselves about that, but because of the lyrics, because of the words, because if Bush waits any longer, Gorbachev will come up with a plan whose terms match his own, because then we will all see what we don’t see now, what lies behind the words or, rather, what does not, because when words fail because they always fail, the only thing left to do is act—

I read aloud, to the garden, everyone, all together now:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

It is only the Eliot who doubts I can believe.

Margaret—

At the kitchen window—

What is she looking at?

She is looking at me.

Now she’s gone.

How much longer is she going to keep this up?

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there

No help from my ancestors. My people were Scotch-Irish, the Low­landers King James sent to Ireland to tame the unruly Catholics. When they got to Penn­sylvania they became Americans: they cleaned the slate. Only a few words from a great-grandfather who fell at Chancellorsville, letters from Libby Prison of desperate, starved faith.

Give us the time and the resources, and we will find a way to clean the slate for good.

Not retire—

.

.

“What will you do.”

Saint Margaret—

“What will I do about what?” I didn’t hear the door. She has come straight to me and stands in a rigid pose that struggles with ease. Her long narrow face, serenely, solemnly attractive when unworried, is taut not with anger, but with her attempt to compose her indignation and turn it into something pleasant. From her breasts, a weary sigh. She is preparing to get down to busi­ness.

“What about school.”

“What about it?”

“When you retire.”

“When am I retiring?”

“When you do retire.”

“They will replace me. They’ll hire two part-timers and save a few bucks.”

“What about your students.”

“They won’t know the difference.”

“What about you.”

“What about me?”

“What will you do.”

“What am I doing now?”

The muscles in her cheeks ratchet one notch tighter. Her tone, how­ever, does not waver. In her eyes, the avoidance that comes with a direct look.

“What will you do with yourself.”

I will not give in to this. “I will write a novel.”

And tighter.

“What will you do.”

“I will eat a novel.”

And tighter.

“What will you do.”

“I will burn a novel.”

Still tighter—it is not a pretty sight. If she would just lose her temper so we can both see what this is, then we could take it where it should go, or at least have a decent fight.

“What will you do.”

“I will dig a hole and bury myself in the garden. Maybe something will sprout this summer. Why don’t you sit down?”

“Why don’t you turn that damn radio off? This war has made you morbid.”

“Someone has to listen.”

“Someone could find a better way to spend his time.”

“Better an honest bum than a busy fool.”

“Better to do something worthwhile.”

“It is because people are trying to be worthwhile that the world is so screwed up.”

“I’m not as clever as you—”

“I’m not clever at all; I’m an idiot. And you could do a better job of hid­ing your contempt.”

“It is difficult to appreciate what is put to ill use. You will only get worse at this.”

“I will get better.”

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers—”

“Then what do you have?”

She stops and retreats without lowering her eyes, gathering herself inward to that wordless, weedless place where she wants to put me. Prone on the deck, side by side, two shadows, dwarfs of a married couple; one slouched, one erect, both sadly comic, not touching.

“I have a life,” she says at last.

There is no reply to that. I stare at her, her cheeks go slack, then she loads up to start again.

“I think I could take your becoming an alcoholic.”

“It takes practice.”

“Or maybe you could have an affair with one of your students.”

“I will give the matter full consideration.”

“I don’t care that you don’t care about me. I don’t care what you care about. I think I could take your scorn, I’ve taken it so long. But if you think I’m going to spend the rest of my years watching you abuse yourself, you are wrong. You’d bet­ter find someone else to do it.”

“Then I shall become an accountant. I will learn to keep the books on men’s souls.”

With that she turns and goes back into the house.

That shriek, the door—

She isn’t serious. We’ve been at it too long to start over. This one’s good for two or three days, a week, tops. We will avoid each other the rest of the day, then have din­ner without speaking. One of us will stay up late until the other falls asleep. Sunday will be a little tricky. But gradually we will get back into the rhythm. Her pointed silence will yield to embar­rassment over losing her cool, then she’ll start acting as if nothing happened, and we will pick up where we left off. It’s part of a dance rou­tine we’ve worked out. It’s called not stepping on each other’s toes. We will find little things to talk about, then our jobs will take over. Neither of us will apologize, a frivolous step we dropped years ago. And I will man­age to behave. It is a good diversion and I can be good at it—

I will not give in to her. I will not be turned into something pleasant.

But her first time. I’m always the one who talks about splitting up.

She isn’t serious—

Her car—

.

.

You think you know someone, but all you know are the habits, the posi­tions you work out to keep each other at arm’s length, at that unbreachable distance that comes when you are close, and then some­thing disrupts the rhythm, a pause in the music, a break between numbers, the noise of a war, and you wonder who she is before you, her stiff hand already sliding from your shoul­der, you wonder what it was that kept you together, and then you find yourself in the middle of the dance floor, by your­self, and you wonder where you are, you hope the music starts back soon—

We dance and we dance and we follow—

And the bombs keep coming down.

In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin

Little Gidding. 1941-2. My note on dove: Nazi bomber—the irony is too large to be ironic. Germany has finally made it to Eliot’s front door. He sees himself as a fire warden surveying the damage after an air raid in London, a nice pose for a poet. Then a schizophrenic passage where he pretends meeting someone on the streets who reminds him of himself yet also other poets, the greats, long dead and gone. He imagines them talking to him, and they give him this advice:

‘From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.’

Still the worry, still the doubt, but I sense elation breaking through. Terza rima without the rima—he’s hitting his stride, he must feel he’s got his hands around something at last. He is only a man, only a poet, one of us, but has decided what is true for him could be true for us all, that, in case we missed it in the first three poems, to dance we need to pray.

Little Gidding, my note: the site of an Anglican religious community cleared out and burned down by Crom­well and his faithful Puritan crew. It is where Eliot wants us to return to contemplate Nazis, where he wants us to get dive-bombed again.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Because now the dove has become the Holy Spirit, a flaming angel pound­ing us into absolution, redeeming us from the fire of destruction with the purifying fire of faith.

What’s the difference?

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame

Because since we can’t love ourselves or each other but only what flees from us, what is beyond us, we turn love over to Someone, Something Else. But Something Else is only the burning residue of our selves extin­guished by the flame, selves collected and displaced, selves hidden from us by the act of conse­cration, selves blinded by the purity of our beseeching. And in the after­glow of self-immolation, our pain becomes a joy, we think we have found something. We call it meaning. And we think we can go on.

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

And all shall be well.

Let us pray.

Either:

We take despair, our failures and throw them up into the air, then let them fall on our heads until we are beaten senseless. They fall, we fall, we hug the ground and chastise ourselves with our selves and make them bleed and sing.

Or:

There is no other course but the one we have chosen, except the course of humiliation and darkness.

Or someone does the burning for us.

Saddam Hussein. He said that a few days ago. My newscaster has just quoted him, trying to set the stage for today’s events. Now he puzzles over Saddam’s words, trying to figure out what they might mean. A ruse, he’s bluff­ing, he’s putting up a front to scare us—

Or Saddam could be pure and humble, too. Also Bush and all the other Roundheads. Because who’s to say they’re not believers? They’ve just found the way to turn faith inside out, to turn it not on themselves but on everyone else.

Because what’s the difference between their fire and our Anglican’s? We get turned into ashes either way.

And one kind of faith may feed the other.

Now he measures his words carefully, with reverence and with awe. Over a half million troops on either side, the newscaster tells me, and it is difficult to know how many of theirs we’ve taken out. Between us and them, just as many land mines. And miles of berm and razor wire. And kill zones all mapped out. And trenches they’ll fill with burning oil. They have been months getting ready for the attack, have buried themselves deep in sand and cement. No airplanes, but they still have big guns. And chemicals—we’d bet­ter count on all stops being pulled.

Now his voice lifts cautiously as he talks about our preparations last night. Mas­sive carpet bombing to soften them up, and cluster bombs, steel rain. And phosphorous shells. And fuel-air explosives—the mist that turns air, lungs, and spirits into living fire. And napalm—there’s a memory, our dove in Vietnam. The argument about how many soldiers we’ve hit is largely a debate over degrees of hugeness. As for the living, only the Republican Guard is well trained, which Saddam may try to protect. The rest are poorly trained civilians pushed to serve—poor slobs like the rest of us, like us all.

Still talk of negotiations, but they’re only a formality, he says with a joy he can scarcely contain. He is happy now, my newscaster, he sounds ecstatic. He sounds not only as if the thing has begun, but as if it is already over.

But his ecstasy is premature. Those slobs can’t go back to Baghdad in defeat, nor can they expect anything from us. Either they lie down and get slaughtered or they come out and fight. They will have to become believ­ers, too. The faith of the world has given them no other choice.

History is now and Kuwait.

Let us still pray.

It will be a long and bloody war.

It will be a long and bloody war, but we will be able to claim a word, and that word will be Victory.

It will be a long and bloody war, but we will restore our faith in our­selves and in our faith.

It will be a long and bloody war, but it won’t be long before we find the need to forget it.

Not retire. Maybe it is time to enlist.

I can’t remember the last time I saw her cry.

.

.

Eliot, objective correlative:

a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the for­mula of that particular emotion; such that when the exter­nal facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emo­tion is imme­diately invoked.

I went into the house to find this. It’s a theory of poetic expression.

Against the back fence cling the corpses of desiccated vines. The fine, fern­like leaves on the jacaranda have lost their color and curled even finer. The delicate patterns they once made against the sky now look like so many fish skeletons, hanging limp from the tree. The pods that carry its seeds, hard and black, have started falling, too soon, too dead. Whole limbs have dropped from the other trees. The leaves on a cape honey­suckle by the house, which she pruned to look like a tree, rained down last week, almost at once, still green, now brown. At the base of its thick stem, black cracks have appeared where water gathered, froze, and swelled. A jade tree and some other succu­lents, whose names I do not know, have turned into dark rubbery monsters, crip­ples with gnarled, drooping limbs.

And there are many more plants whose names I never learned, each differ­ent in its individual decomposition, in the writhing twists and breaks of its stems, the failing filigree and serration of its leaves, the particular clench of shriveled petals if it was a plant that flowered in winter—all of them now beyond identification. On the ground the litter of debris piling upon debris, a complexity of runners and roots and vines and fallen leaves and branches, resolving into the simplicity of dirt.

The roses—a dozen bushes—only show their thorns.

What do I feel.

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.

On a clear day like today, if I got up and looked over our fence, I would see all the way from the foothills to the bay, the hills green with indifferent, indige­nous weeds, the bay a sliver of silvery reflection. And I would see all that is between them, the valley, the roads, San Jose and the other towns where we have transplanted ourselves, miles and miles of the spread of our sprawling lives, of the grid of our motion, of the cross­ings of our lives together, of the improbable constructions that house our aspira­tions, of the breath of our uncertain, weedlike growth—

But I do not get up.

If I looked up, I would see a sky that thinks it’s blue, a hot sun short of midday that strips me of that illusion, of the illusion a sky can fill empty space—

But I do not look.

Instead I stare at a poem.

He tells me he does not know much about gods, but he thinks the river is a strong brown god.

I have skipped The Dry Salvages. How did that happen?

I skim through this one without reading it. Not much underlined, no notes. Either I understood it well enough some time past, or did not under­stand it at all. Or perhaps I understood it too well. Salvages—Eliot provides his own note—some rocks off the coast of New England. Rhymes, he tells me, with assuages. He can’t wash the New World off his hands.

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God.

He should have stopped there.

Better not to have said anything at all.

.

.

The sun is directly overhead, white hot; the blue has gone away.

A portable radio has been thrown over the fence—

A rose is a rose is a rose.

A rose was a rose was a rose.

Light is light is light.

The world is the world is the world.

A word is a word is a word.

The world is a word is a war.

The way up is the way down.

The way down is the way up.

The way down is the way down. . . .

.

.

The sun. . . .

.

.

The door—

Margaret—

She’s back—

I didn’t hear her car—

She stands again at the opening, wearing leather gloves and black rub­ber boots that trumpet at her calves. Dry-eyed, without expression, she pauses there a moment, gazing over the fence. In her hands, across her chest, a new pruning saw with a bright chrome handle and the straight smile from a blade of large, angry teeth.

This is how the day has gone. This is what one should expect—

But she acts as if I am not here. Instead, she goes over to one of the rose­bushes and hacks away with vigorous yet steady strokes. The thorns grasp and tear her clothes. She doesn’t seem to notice. She stops, she drops the saw, then stands back and contemplates her butchering, par­tially complete. A hushed world gives silent approval. On her face, the look of satisfaction.

Pathetic. This gesture was meant for me—

Back to work. She stoops and yanks a small shrub by the rosebush. It breaks off at the roots. That does not satisfy her and she hurls it against the fence.

Because what she is doing to the garden is what she thinks I have done to her—

She shakes her disappointment, turns, and, crushing crisp deadness under her boots, trudges to the cape honeysuckle. Grabbing high on its trunk, she pulls back with all her weight. A few hard tugs and it snaps; she falls on her rear. But she is up before I can think about giving her a hand, and holding half a tree, she stares at it without anger or regret. It is heavy, she lets it fall. On the shoulder of her white blouse, already dark with sweat, a few spots of blood.

But what she is doing to the garden, what she thinks she’s doing to me, she’s also doing to herself. Still, I don’t get up, but sit and watch. There is nothing to think about here, nothing that can be done. I know I cannot stop her.

She steps back, and, arms folded, considers what to do next. She has decided. She walks to the house, unloops the hose from the hook, opens the faucet, and goes back to the middle of the garden. Then she adjusts the nozzle to a narrow, violent spray and turns it on the plants. Vines jump, branches shudder, the spray deflects and scatters. Dry leaves crack, snap, and fly, which she beats back down with the hose.

Not to me, not to her—

Yet still she keeps on spraying, eyes focused where the stream hits, strafing long strips, then shooting individual plants until they are drowned in mud and water. A few minutes is all it takes to turn the garden into thick soup.

I don’t know what this is—

Now just the loud but even sound of the torrent from the hose and a splashing in fresh puddles. And still she keeps on spraying, her face still serene and full of pur­pose. And still I don’t get up, but sit and stay. It’s the least I can do for her. But I can’t watch this anymore, so I pick up a book and read.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is un—

The stench hits me, a fecal smell of dirt and rotten life, heavy, wet, and sick—I can’t sit still any longer. I don’t know what she’s doing, but I might as well get up and join her.

When I come back from the garage, she is stooping, lifting plants, and throwing them against the back fence. It splatters with mud when they hit. Already at its base, a small pile growing larger.

I plug in the extension cord and run it to the jacaranda. Then I con­nect the cir­cular saw. Whatever this is, I will make quick work of it.

The purplish mist of the tree’s tiny blooms always embarrassed me some­how when the thing was alive. What is now left disgusts me. The pods, the fronds, the way they cling—lock­ing the switch on the saw, I reach high and rip through slender, sapless branches. With a few flour­ishes I have the tree down to a stump.

I try to pull the stump up. The bastard will not budge. I kick it hard, and still it doesn’t move. I go to the garage and bring back an ax. Swinging at the base, I aim for its roots, not knowing where they are. When I’ve cir­cled the stump, I try to lift again, but it has scarcely weakened. So I swing wildly, deep into the ground, not thinking about my feet or damage to the blade. Then I try once more to pull it out, and now it comes out easily.

I stare at the upturned stump—a black, gnarled hand with severed fin­gers—feeling queasy and contrite. Then I look at myself—I’m a mess, and I forgot to change my clothes. Then I look at the carnage in the dirt, then down into the pit I have just made. Lightness in my head, a vacant joy. Mur­der must feel something like this. Or suicide. Or both.

No passion on Margaret’s face, but squatting now, she has found momen­tum. She thrusts, she grabs, she tosses; plants sail and slap against the fence. The pile is huge—she’s almost half done, the fence is almost half cov­ered, almost half the gar­den is down to dirt. A kind of passion, though, in the rhythm of her motion, a kind of passion in the sensuous mud that clings to her and makes her pulsing torso shine. It is the kind of passion that has moved the world today.

What next? I’m at a loss for procedure here. I decide I might as well pull the remaining roots, which don’t come up without a fight. Then I go to the cape honeysuckle and finish it off with the saw, then give its stump a hard yank. But it comes out with all the roots intact—her spraying must have loos­ened the ground. Then I saw the roots and branches of both trees fireplace length and stack them on the deck. When I see the neat pile sit­ting there, I feel the passion myself.

The roses, then. I take the ax to the nearest bush, the one she first attacked.

“Keep an inch or two off the ground,” she says, not turning, before I have a chance to swing. I am not going to argue with her again today.

I don’t trust my aim with the ax, however, so I try the circular saw. But the branches are too low and the thorns too thick to get the blade on its base, so I start at the top and attempt to work my way down. Yet as I shove the saw into the upper branches, they close around my hands and scratch, and I can’t push the blade hard enough against them to raise the metal guard. So I hold the saw with one hand and pull back the guard with the other, baring a full half circle of its whining rage.

I lunge, I feint, and still get scratched. My hands sting, my back hurts from bending; the passion turns to fury. But only after many fierce attacks and quick retreats do I finally succeed in taking the bush down to a stub. Then I lift the branches gin­gerly and carry them to the deck, and still get scratched. And still eleven more to go.

I charge into the next bush. When I finish, my hands are screaming. Then I realize I should have worn gloves, but no point in going back to get them now. When I finish the third, I look at Margaret, and see she’s three-fourths done. I rush through another and throw its branches on the deck instead of carrying them, trying to catch up with her, but doubting I can.

Mister Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth, Eclipse, Camelot, Cathedral, Honor, and Pink Peace—I tear through rulers, virtues, cosmic events, and mythi­cal and religious places, and slash memories of their buds’ subtle colors and soft flesh, turning them all to caustic dust. But I tire and begin to lose the passion. Then my method decays to sloppiness, then to desperation. And anger dissi­pates into numbness, the pain from scratches into to a dull burn. Then I don’t feel that. Then I’m on my knees at one bush, and don’t rise to go to the next. This must be the way that a massacre goes. I don’t know, how­ever, why it took me over fifty years to realize such behavior is normal.

I look up, and she is nearly done, the ground is almost clean.

I look up again, and she is gathering the debris and putting it in plastic bags.

I look up again, and the bags are on the deck.

I look up again, and she is smoothing the ground with a rake.

When I finish the last bush, weary and still kneeling, I look at my red hands. The pain, I think, will come back after they heal. What I feel now is what one feels when he has passed the point of feeling. Then I stand. My knees cry, my back cracks, blood rushes from my head, the sky, the earth turn black—

When my eyes regain focus, I see she has finished raking the last bush, then see the result of our separate labors. Dirt one somber color, dark but no longer slick with water, the ground clean and level, with faint, even fur­rows from the rake that cross the terrain in so many parallel lines and circle the stumps of a dozen roses—the yard looks grimly marvelous, like a Zen garden or something else. Then I see Margaret, leaning on the rake. Filthy, ever expressionless, she doesn’t look like anything, yet looks mar­velously grim in her exhaustion. She looks sublime.

Only now do I see her plan today: she just wanted to clear out the dead accounts.

Also that there’s a chance I have made a few other mistakes.

So much can be predicted at this point. A hot shower, some place of seclu­sion. One of us will probably go out to dinner. Maybe I’ll drink again, but I doubt it. I really don’t enjoy it that much. Besides, Sunday I’ll need to be sober to prepare for Monday’s classes. Maybe instead I’ll give Eliot another shot—there may be a point or two I missed. And then I’ll watch the news tonight to see if anything has happened in the Gulf. But this is the miraculous part: after the news, I don’t know what will happen next.

“The roses will come back” she says, but not to me.

She tells someone they are sturdy.

— Gary Garvin

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Gary Garvin

Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel.

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Mar 042015
 

perec

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions. As translator David Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. –Jeff Bursey

il condottiere

Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
Georges Perec
Trans. David Bellos
University of Chicago Press
Cloth, 144 pp., $20.00
ISBN: 9780226054254

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1. OVER THE LAST number of years small presses have been addressing gaps in the knowledge of English-language readers when it comes to the shorter works of the acclaimed French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982), best known for his novel Life A User’s Manual (1978; translated into English in 1987), by issuing An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010), The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (2011), La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams (2013), and I Remember (2014). Now we have his first novel, Portrait of a Man. In 1960 it was rewritten for the publishing house Gallimard, who had issued a contract and paid royalties ahead of receiving the completed work. According to David Bellos, when Perec finished revising it he affixed these words to the typescript: “YOU’LL HAVE TO PAY ME LOADS IF YOU WANT ME TO START IT OVER AGAIN.” Even after that effort the manuscript failed to succeed, and it gradually fell out of sight until rediscovered by Bellos while he wrote Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993; rev. 1995). In 1960 Perec predicted that his first novel would experience one of two fates: either he would revisit it in later years and turn it into a “‘masterpiece’” or he would “‘wait in my grave until one of my faithful exegetes comes across it in an old trunk… and brings it out.’” There’s no word on if the former approach was tried, but as Bellos says, “it’s not like anything else that he wrote,” and perhaps there was no way for the Perec we are more familiar with to venture back to that earlier version of his writer self. (What goes unexplained is why it took until 2012 for the novel to appear in French.)

The plot of the book is simple. Gaspard Winckler, a forger of painters, works for a group run by the shadowy Anatole Madera. After 12 years in this occupation, preceded by four as an apprentice to Jérôme, an older forger who also works for Madera, Winckler chooses, as his next task, to create a painting supposedly by Antonella da Messina, based on the latter’s Portrait of a Man known as Il Condottiere (1475). This new work would have to come from Winckler’s soul and not be a technical exercise, yet having inhabited for years the habits and work of other painters, it is not going to be easy for him to find out who he really is. In addition to burying himself in studies of the esoteric natures of painting, wood, and visual perspectives over the ages, Winckler has been cut off from people and world events since he started his career as a posturer in 1947. What he runs into is a blunt fact: masterpieces can’t be willed into existence, and originality doesn’t emerge based on wishes. The failure of his attempt leads him—or rather, it may be one of the reasons—to rebel against his employer, and to do that he must commit an act that irrevocably cuts him off from his former life. He kills Madera, and then flees the isolated house that contained his laboratory.

Portrait of a Man is divided into two parts: the first describes Gaspard’s attempt to escape from his past; the second is comprised of a set of chapters where he tries to describe, to an inquisitive friend named Streten who is sheltering him, what he had done and why, how he entered into a lucrative career, and what propelled him out of it. Part I is filled with action and pell-mell sentences, and for a while it seems like this novel will fall into a pattern found in the “detective novels” Winckler reads now and then for mental release from the pressures of work. (This puts in mind We Always Treat Women Too Well [1947] by Raymond Queneau, written under a pseudonym, Sally Mara. Apart from being set in Dublin in the mid-1910s and using names found in James Joyce’s Ulysses, this novel ramped up, in protest and with deliberate irony, the violence and sex present in gangster novels then popular in France. Perec and Queneau were friends and members of Oulipo.) The opening lines of Portrait of a Man are startling for their pulpiness:

Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like trails of slightly glinting snot side-racked by the slightest roughness in the fabric, sometimes accumulating into drops that fell to the floor and exploded into star-shaped stains. I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned.

On the novel’s cover a cascade of crimson obscures the top half of the Antonella painting that gives the novel its title; and that passage, with its shadows, the descent, and that dance, brings to mind the fondness the French have for murder mysteries and Edgar Allan Poe.

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As Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. The figure of the forger bundles that thorny topic together with Perec’s “extensive learning” in art history, the controversy in 1945 surrounding the arrested Dutch art dealer and forger Han van Meegeren (readers of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions [1955] will recall that name and his importance in the creation of that novel), and, to my mind, looks directly at uncomfortable historical events: in the 16 years covered by Winckler’s training and output to his abrupt retirement—so, beginning in 1943—France endured, among other things, the Occupation, collaboration with Nazi Germany, the role of its citizens in sending Jews to death camps, the Resistance, and the violence of the Algerian War (1954-1962). In these atrocities, state scandals, and actions some Frenchmen led false lives. Also, during the Second World War Perec’s father was killed in battle and his mother died either in Auschwitz or on the way to it. It’s impossible to read this book, which in the second half turns into a confession-cum-self-exculpation, without wondering, in a cautious and limited way, how Winckler’s half-life symbolizes an absence within Perec (what he might have been like if his parents had lived) and within the soul of his country.

Unlike the bloody events and fevered prose of Part I, the second part is hesitant and revolves around a set of intellectual and emotional questions. Asked by Streten why he killed Madera, Winckler replies: “‘But I had to wake up one day … It didn’t matter when or where … It happened, it had to. It happened because of Mila [a girl he had some interest in], but it could have happened because of something else. It doesn’t matter.’” Further along Winckler will say: “‘My own story written down once and for all, in a closed circle, with no way out other than dying ten or twenty or thirty years on. Needing to go on to the end without meaning, without necessity …’” Streten, in his search for precise answers—he comes off as a character who has been placed in the wrong novel—pursues what he sees as a vital question:

“Why did you kill Madera?”

“I don’t know … If I knew, I wouldn’t be here … If I’d known, I suppose I wouldn’t have done it … You think it’s easy … You commit an act … You don’t know … you can’t know … you don’t want to know … But after a while it’s behind you … You know you did it … and then …”

“Then what?”

“Then nothing.”

“Why do you say ‘you’?”

“No reason … It doesn’t matter … I killed Madera … And then? It doesn’t make things any simpler … A last act, the least act of all …”
“Just to see …”

“As you say … Just to see what would happen …”

“And what did happen?”

“You can see for yourself … Nothing yet … Perhaps one day something will happen … Something worthwhile …”

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions (Bellos points out that Winckler reappears in Life A User’s Manual)—these are themes returned to, with variations, particularly in Part II. Streten insists this or that “‘doesn’t make sense,’” acutely observes that Winckler “‘pretend[s] to be a victim,’” and repeatedly demands that there be explanations for why his friend behaved as he did, which Winckler argues against: “‘You’d like there to be a solid point of departure, a sudden insight […] There wasn’t any turning point in my existence … There wasn’t a story … There wasn’t even an existence … Of course, if things had been logical […]’”

(As an aside, Perec uses ellipsis to slow the momentum of the second part of Portrait of a Man, and it’s worth noting how the same device, in the hands of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, achieves the complete opposite: in his books those three dots act like stones that trip you down an endless set of stairs at breakneck pace, leaving you breathless, dizzy, and bruised at the fall of the last line.)

Inside the “false world… a world without sense…” occupied by Winckler, where there are no narrative arcs, where he is cocooned from national and world events, where other countries exist as study locations (galleries, libraries, museums) or vacation resorts, where nothing is connected, where the insignificant and the significant weigh the same, and where fate is first invoked and then denied, the forger fitfully dreams of the possibility of a cohesive existence: “To be at long last, in your own right, the captain of your soul and the world in an irrefutable ascent, a single movement towards unity.” Winckler believes he can achieve those aims by painting a new Antonello, with its subject a man who is kin to the Condottiere—a figure who “…has nothing to lose: no friends, no enemies. He is brute force.”—yet who is sufficiently distinct so that experts will accept the forgery. How the painting turns out is not predictable (like so much else in a novel that relies on the words logical, perhaps, nothing, and so on), and the result shows Winckler what he needs to know about himself:

I looked at myself in the mirror in the middle of the night. That was me. That was my face, and my year of struggle and sleepless nights, that oak board and that steel easel, that was my face too, and so were those pots and those hundreds of brushes and the rags and the spots. My story. My fate. A fine caricature of a fate. That was me: anxious and greedy, cruel and mean, with the eyes of a rat. Looking like I thought I was a warlord.

It might be this revelation that is the impetus for the murder and the escape, but as Winckler states numerous times, it could be any reason, or simply something that just happens; even the notion of fate, shaky though it is, could be why his life went along as it did. No final justification or motive will be found, and that debate is a sizeable portion of the content. What is easier to conclude is that in this novel Perec, via Winckler, tends to explain everything (while answering little), leaving less of the pleasurable ambiguity readers might prefer. As Bellos observes: “This is a novel, not an essay. Almost.” The action of the first part is replaced by rambling talk in the second, yet nevertheless, Portrait of a Man is at times an engrossing read, with early hallmarks of the later author—a fascination with exactitude, on painting techniques and on numbers, an intellectual apparatus that undermines the structure of the novel—as well as unusual features that Georges Perec fans will want to encounter for themselves.

—Jeff Bursey

 

Excerpt from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
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Bellos makes clear that Perec started educating himself in visual art in the mid-1950s, and proceeded from there. He “visited exhibitions and galleries in Paris and made a trip to Berne to see a large collection of works by Paul Klee,” studied general and scholarly works and catalogues, and engaged in discussion with “Yugoslav art historians he had befriended in Paris…” Using these sources and his imaginative powers, he invested Gaspard Winckler with the language and thought processes that get across the practical, physical, and mental aspects that lie underneath the act of painting, as this extract shows.

—Jeff Bursey

The hardest part obviously was that celebrated tautness in the jaw. It was impossible to pastiche without creating a double, and there was no sense in that. In the end I settled for using Memling’s portrait as my model: a very thick and powerful neck, with the first minute signs of a double chin, very deep eyes, a line on each side of the nose and a fairly thick mouth. I would put the strength into the neck, into the articulation of the head, in the very high and straight way it was held, and in the lips. It was all fine on the drafts. On the trial paintings in gouache it even turned out rather splendidly: a complex melange of Memling and Antonello sufficiently corrected, with a very pure look in the eyes, immediate contours that yielded easily at first and then thickened, became impermeable, turning hard and merciless. No cruelty, no weakness. What I wanted. Pretty much exactly what I was after . . . It was another month before I started really painting. I had to get my pots, brushes and rags ready. I took three days’ rest. I began to paint sitting in the armchair, with my palette within easy reach, and the panel set on the easel with its four corners wrapped in cotton wool and rags so that the metal angles that held it in place would leave no mark. I had an elbow support and a crutch to keep my hand steady, a huge visor to keep the glare of the spots off my eyes, and wore magnifying goggles. An extraordinary set of safety devices. I would paint for twenty minutes and then stop for two hours. I sweated so much I had to change three or four times a day. From then on fear never left me. I don’t know why but I had no confidence at all, I never managed to have a clear vision of what I was trying to do, I couldn’t say what my panel would be like when I’d finished painting it; I wasn’t able to guarantee that it would look like any of the dozens of more or less completed drafts lying around the room. I didn’t understand some of my own details, I was unable to get a grip on the overall project, to recognise it in the smallest touch, to feel it taking shape. I was stumbling onwards, despite the innumerable safeguards I’d set up. Previously, I’d been able to paint any Renaissance picture in a couple of months, but now, after four months’ work, in mid- September, I still had the whole face to do . . .

Reprinted with permission from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere by Georges Perec. Published by the University of Chicago ©. © 2012 by Éditions du Seuil Introduction and English translation © 2015 by David Bellos. All rights reserved. Published 2015.

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jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He 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.

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Mar 032015
 

Julie2 (1) - Version 2

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HER MOTHER WOULD give her lovely teeth. Pale slabs designed for wide smiles in long afternoons, for precise first kisses with elder boys. She’d never see crookedness or the tang of blood swirling in a porcelain basin. She’d never need to mute her grin or remember it in photos as lukewarm, a twitchy ordeal. Hers would be tough things, tougher than sticks and stones and the growing pains that would grip her peers.

Her mother had planned for this. She’d grown up poor in the West of Ireland where there were no orthodontists. Like the rest of the kids in her village she’d walked miles barefoot to school in summer. During the wet months, she was taken out of lessons to help her family plough fields. In the evenings she’d stare up at framed photos of her American cousins, fixated on their plumpness and neat teeth.

At sixteen, she got the boat over and moved in with relatives with hearty laughs. She took a job cleaning a church in Chicago, sweeping dust from its steps and nave. She was lonely but didn’t mind. She’d make up great romances, their melodies pinballing the sides of her skull.

Her Aunt Nancy and cousins never stopped talking when she got in when all she wanted was peace and a sit down or to write a letter to mammy about the things she’d seen. It was true — everything was bigger over here. They were a more evolved people compared to the Irish who’d crawled from a peat bog, squinting at each day’s new sun.

Aunt Nancy was not a strict sort and encouraged Brenda to go out to dances, to enjoy herself after a hard week’s slog. Brenda and her cousins would get ready together, cinching and spritzing themselves for excitement in the dark. She could not stop staring at their tanned fullness, their scarless feet. These were girls who had never gone hungry, who’d never stooped in fields, whimpering from the weight of toil and equipment cutting into their young hands. There was no sadness lurking heavy in their flirting. She was jealous of their exuberant smiles. Her own teeth were fighting bread queues too aware of their humiliation.

More than brains and beauty and a reliable father figure, she wanted perfect teeth for her daughter. Hard confidence you couldn’t argue with or underplay. It’s what people saw first, what said the most about you without speech. A dream that wouldn’t fade long after the sag of age that curdled faces and the parts underneath. People noticed careful maintenance — American girls wouldn’t get far with a lippy grin. Never mind that the girl was shy or struggled with fractions and ran across roads to escape oncoming dogs. She’d be known for her smile.

Brenda moved up the job ladder into a country club in the suburbs, backed by gentle sweeps of land and manicured lawns out front. She worked as a kitchen porter, wiping surfaces and loading plates into a dishwasher, her face a blur in vast steel. They were heavy days, but every hour stood closer to straight slabs for the girl. When waitresses called in sick, Brenda would volunteer to help deliver meals and drinks. She’d pour generous measures while chatting to golfers about what it was like back home, the differences between Ireland and America, the relatives and funerals she missed, what Irish kids had to go without. Despite mixing up their orders, they enjoyed her stories, her lilting accent, her soft pear body leaning toward the more expensive bottles. They listened with slow nods, imagining her Jaysuses as they stabbed her flesh in rapid spurts.

Sometimes, they’d offer to drive her back to her home in the city. “You can’t wait out in the cold for the bus, Brend” they’d say, their eyes milky with drink. “Oh, don’t worry about this tough old girl”, she’d reply while polishing the last glasses, the light dusting of fur on her top lip lit by a chandelier at its brightest.

He walked her to the car with cowboy legs — all loose, gossipy. She waited at the passenger side, counting, not sure for what and how long it would take. For how quickly to get into the warmth? For when was too late to say no, she preferred to get the bus back? He unlocked the car on his second attempt. She sat down on the leather seat which squeaked. “What’s that?” she asked, looking straight ahead. “Sorry, that’s Finley’s toy.” In the rear-view mirror sat a dog showing off its fat bacon tongue. The sky dropped as they pulled out of the drive. The man seemed to have his eyes closed a lot. There were no other cars. She toyed with the radio dial, hoping to find a song she liked, remembered, an intimate voice in the dark. “Sorry, it doesn’t work doll”, he drawled. Trees both sides of the road were scant, tight-fisted. “I couldn’t live out here”, she said. The road disappeared under them and kept making itself anew.

The man rubbed her thigh like a tide keen to break free from the moon. His nails were too short. She wasn’t sure she’d finished her period. They sky was turning dusty pink but held onto its cotton. The dog’s tongue went nowhere in the mirror.

The man parked the car cleanly, overlooking the town. “Come on Finley”, he said as he led the dog out by its collar. Street lights winked at them below.

The dog spindled among grass gone blonde at its stubby lengths, immersed in scent. In the car, Brenda’s face fused with glass as she watched the oblivious animal. Cats have barbed cunts don’t they. She breathed a pale O. The dog disappeared.

The man groaned behind her, willing his thumbs round her waist to kiss. Each pulse into her made her face move further up the window. This must be how you get to heaven. Her smudged eyes clocked the dog again, a rabbit twitching in its mouth.

“Oh god, oh god, ohhhhh I’m sorry I can’t help it.” He groaned again then inspected the condom, offering its contents to the last of the light. “Sorry that was a bit fast. The old chap had one too many whiskies.” “It’s fine,” she said, pulling her knickers out of her stockings, looking for the dog outside. “Did you?” “Yep.” “I can never tell with you, Brend.”

The dog jumped up and scratched at her window with the rabbit still in its mouth. The rabbit’s bloody head was connected by a strip of fur to the rest of its body.

“Leave it! Finley! Finley! That fucking dog.” The man got out of the car, tossing the condom into dark.

“Here’s just fine.” He pulled the car over into a bus-stop. A pruned woman in a rain hood glared at the car. The man leaned his head against Brenda’s. “You’re so special.” His breath stank of dead animal. “The babysitter will be waiting”, she said, rubbing mascara from under her eyes.

“She’s asleep”, said the woman removing the chain from the door. “I’m really sorry. I had to cover at work again”. “You need to give me a bit more warning. Shoes off, if you don’t mind.”

The child’s mouth was ajar and spelling slow breath, the kind reserved for last words and hexes. The metal across her face was a cold spider. Brenda sat down on the bed, bathed by the night light. “Maaaauuuuuuuuugh! I thor you wurrr a monnnshta.” “Shhhhhhh, sleepyhead. Let’s take this thing off.”

—Julie Reverb

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Julie Reverb is a London, UK-based writer whose fiction has appeared in publications including The Quietus, 3:AM magazine and Gorse journal. Her début novel – NO MOON – explores language, grief and a family-run porn cinema. It will be published by Calamari Archive in Summer 2015. Find her at www.juliereverb.com and @juliereverb on Twitter.

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Feb 052015
 

Ian Colford

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As a young man, Francisco Cordoba had but a single living relative: an uncle who made a modest living selling feed and other supplies to local farmers working in the hills above San Gregório. Upon the death of his uncle, Francisco—who had not settled on a profession—left his home in Envigado and moved to San Gregório to take control of the business. When he married, it was here that he took his young bride to live. And it was in the village of San Gregório nine and a half months after the wedding that Claudia gave birth to the first of their ten children, a girl, María Concepción, known to her family as Conchita.

Claudia, who was ten years younger than her husband, had been pampered as a child and was nervous about leaving home. She missed her family and sometimes regretted the choice she had made. But with Conchita to occupy her she quickly forgot her homesickness. Francisco’s business prospered, and like the naïve little fool she was, Claudia allowed visions of comfort and affluence to fill her head. She gave birth to Antonio José less than a year after the first, and now had two babies to keep her busy. Her mother arrived unannounced from Huelva to maintain order within the house, and Claudia was grateful to have help with the cooking and cleaning. But she also wanted to succeed on her own, and once she was back on her feet she sent her mother home.

Life was good. Francisco had men working for him, men he trusted to watch the shop while he was gone. He took Claudia in the bus to Huelva to see her family and show off the children whenever time permitted such an extravagance. After she gave birth to Eléna Serafína they built a bigger house, with room for César Javier when he came along. They were so happy they did not see that trouble was brewing, that within shabby apartments and tiny houses crowding one another on narrow side streets Francisco’s men were struggling to feed their families. They did not know that even in a village the size of San Gregório there were people without homes of any kind who stayed alive by working at menial day jobs and, when these were scarce, begging for food in the open air.

The strike caught them by surprise. It was not a strike against them, or even a local strike, but a general strike that paralyzed the economy and dealt a lethal blow the fragile national currency. Workers everywhere agreed the only way to get a raise in wages was to bring the country to its knees. But their leaders were a dissolute lot who had not bothered to think beyond the day after tomorrow. Francisco offered his men more money and expected them to return to work, but other employers were not inclined to be so humane. There was a standoff.

It was at this moment, with store shelves quickly emptying and people queuing up around the block to withdraw their savings from the bank and the country in a state of turmoil approaching anarchy, that General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte seized power.

Aguaria declared an end to the strike. Those who defied his orders were arrested and never seen again. The historians depict him as a monster, but his intentions were honourable, at least in the beginning. He tried to restore order and get the economy moving, for he had recited an oath of office and even though the oath was recited behind closed doors with a gun held to the judge’s head, Aguaria took his oath and his office seriously. However, he suffered feelings of inferiority that resulted from his diminutive stature. He was a short man and because of this happiness had always eluded him. He never married. He rode a big horse and wore thick-soled boots, and there was a fat cushion on the chair where he sat behind his desk in the presidential palace. Officially, his personal aide was the only one besides himself who knew of the cushion. But in truth everyone knew. The whole country knew. And he knew the whole country knew.

Aguaria’s mother had been wild and promiscuous and to compensate for her frequent absences his father lavished praise on his only son for any accomplishment, no matter how trivial or meaningless. It was said that for simply getting out of bed in the morning he was rewarded with a dozen gold escudos. Aguaria entered manhood with an ego swelled out of all proportion. His ego was as large as he was small. He took himself very seriously and could not tolerate being the butt of any joke. But because he was small he was sure that everyone everywhere was laughing.

As time went on his dislike of laughter grew into a dangerous and obsessive paranoia. His dreams were filled with the smiling faces and laughter of other people. Amongst the clamour of traffic and the raised voices of street vendors that poured through the windows of the presidential palace, he could always identify with uncanny clarity the ring of a young girl’s laugh. He imagined laughter surging through telephone wires up and down the entire length of the country. He heard the echo of receding laughter whenever he entered the Council Chamber for a meeting and was sure it started up again the moment he left. The burble of water circling the toilet bowl and flowing through pipes sounded to his ears like laughter. His horse, his dog, his parrot: they were all laughing behind his back. When the wife of the man whose office he had seized went on the radio and called Aguaria a “nasty little troll,” he went crazy for real. He made himself president for life and sent his troops into every corner of the country to root out the opposition, which had rallied behind the old president.

In San Gregório Francisco’s men had returned to work and the business was flourishing again, but when the troops arrived everything came to a standstill. The soldiers, operating on orders that were at best vague and at worst contradictory, didn’t know who to arrest first, so they arrested everybody, all at the same time. People fled in every direction. Some managed to get across the mountains and over the border; others were killed or died in the effort. With Francisco in jail and no one to buy the products he sold, the business failed. Claudia, not yet twenty-five and living in a large house with eight children and pregnant with a ninth, had no husband, no source of income, and no food. She began baking. Soon she had taught herself so well that she was able to build up a small regular clientele and support her family on the proceeds. Francisco had been released from jail by the time Aguaria was removed from power, but the business was gone and the only job he could get was in the mines. Before leaving for the mountainous interior, where the men who worked the nickel and zinc mines lived in camps, he sold the house and moved Claudia and their nine children to an old farm, where there was space for the children to run about and an opportunity to grow crops. He also impregnated his young wife for the tenth, and last, time.

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The Death of Federico Adolfo

Federico Adolfo was born weak, but did not seem more seriously endangered than other infants born at that time and in that place. In a short while he developed a robust cry and a tenacious grip. María Concepción, who was ten, fed and bathed him while Claudia saw to the others. Francisco, taking a break from the mines to help with his new son, was home working in the fields. To be sure it was a tragedy, but at least it happened quickly and, so one would hope, painlessly. Young Federico was crawling about, playing with Sara Violeta and Carlos Vincenzo, who were not much older than him, when he must have come across a stray button from Claudia’s mending. He popped it into his mouth. In a few seconds his eyes were bulging, and this made the other children laugh. When his face turned blue and he began making ugly sputtering noises, one of the children ran for their mother. Foam was coming from his mouth when Claudia took him into her arms, and soon he was not breathing. Terrified and confused by what was happening before her eyes, she called for her husband, but the boy was dead before Francisco reached the house. The doctor who examined the body found the button in the boy’s windpipe, but he said it was nobody’s fault, these things happen. The entire family and many from the community attended the service at the Iglesia de San Gregório and watched the tiny coffin interred in the little sepulchre. Claudia cried for a week, and for months afterward tears hovered at the corners of her eyes. The bitterness of those tears was still on her tongue when Sara Violeta developed the first symptoms of the disease that would claim her life.

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The Death of Sara Violeta

It started innocently, with the child sleeping a few minutes longer each morning. But nobody thought anything of it, and in fact Claudia was thankful because it meant the precious morning hours were less hectic without the youngest clamouring for attention. Sara had been a demanding baby, colicky and greedy for the nipple. Claudia had only just weaned her when Federico Adolfo was born. But Sara had fussed and fumed all through Federico’s brief life, and now Claudia was thankful her youngest daughter was finally quieting down. With reluctance Francisco had returned to the mining camp at the beginning of November, with the hottest days of summer just around the corner. But even with his income they were still just making ends meet and could not afford to hire anyone to help out. Maybe Claudia was relying too heavily upon María Concepción, who had a delicate constitution and was, if truth be told, not the brightest girl in the world. And that summer proved very hot and dangerously dry. Fires consumed the forests all around them and the sky was so thick with smoke the birds took to bedding down in the middle of the afternoon. With all this going on Claudia was unaware that Sara Violeta was not eating as she should, that she was sleeping more and more each day, and that during her waking hours she exhibited a degree of lethargy that most professional observers would agree was alarming in a child that age. When María Concepción came to her mother one morning and said she could not wake Sara, even then Claudia did not believe there was anything seriously wrong. The girl was tired, maybe had a stomach bug or an ear infection. Claudia entered the room and found Sara in her crib as always, but when she took her into her arms it was like she had lifted a bundle of dry twigs. The girl had lost flesh and weighed almost nothing. With shame she wondered, When was the last time I held her? And what was she to do, with no husband to take charge, no telephone, no vehicle? She sent Antonio José running across the field to Cristián Pérez, their nearest neighbour, who grew alfalfa and maize and who had a truck and would know what steps to take. But the boy was gone for more than two hours, and it turned out that Cristián had just moments before left the house to visit friends. It took his wife that long to find out where he was and get him to come back, pick up Antonio José, and drive the boy home. Cristián, a young man with religious leanings but not much tact, was the first to raise the possibility that Claudia and Francisco had somehow offended God and were being punished. But his comment, though well intentioned, provoked only tears and anger, and he drove Claudia and Sara Violeta into San Gregório to the free clinic without further comment.

It was too late. Claudia stayed by her side but the girl never woke up. She died that same day. The doctor made reference to a wasting disease, showed Claudia some charts, and read a passage from a thick book that was full of big words. It was not her fault, he said. The disease had no known cause, no known cure. Some children—he linked his hands together on his desk and, though he was normally a happy man, assumed his most solemn professional manner—some children choose to die, and once they do this there is no going back.

Claudia returned to the farm alone. She wrote to Francisco and told him there was no reason for him to come home. She would make the arrangements and see Sara Violeta to her final resting place. She wrote to Cristián Pérez and his wife, thanking them for their help. Many came out to pay their respects, but not as many as the first time. For a fortnight after the funeral the house was silent, but Claudia did not cry. She could not. She sat in a chair and with a fear of death in her bones observed her eight remaining children occupied with their innocent amusements and wondered which would be taken from her next.

 .

The Death of Carlos Vincenzo

Carlos Vincenzo, now the youngest, had just started school. The bus that picked up all the Cordoba children, along with others from the area, passed along the road in front of the farm every morning. Claudia worried as any mother would, but the driver of the bus was well known to everyone. He did not drink, he had never had an accident, and his own daughter rode on the bus with the other children. Carlos was a patient, gentle child who could sit for hours staring out of the window, watching the birds flitting from tree to tree and the grass waving in the wind. He loved nature and spent his time in a never-ending quest for answers to the questions that were always on his lips. He chased butterflies and collected grasshoppers. He dug worms from the soil and studied them before returning them to their homes. He loved standing in the field on clear nights and watching the stars trace a path across the heavens. After his death there was general agreement that insatiable curiosity had been his downfall. He left with the others in the morning but when the bus brought the children home in the afternoon he was not among them. Claudia held her breath. She would not panic. After all, Carlos Vincenzo was easily distracted and could wander off in search of ladybugs or follow a trail into the woods simply because it was there. He would come home when he got hungry. She questioned the others, and they all insisted he had been on the bus, until Eléna Serafína expressed doubts about this. She had not seen him on the bus, she said. She had only assumed he had been there because everyone said that he was. And when the very last question was answered Claudia understood that Carlos had stood with the group waiting for the bus after school, but had not boarded it. With this, she left María Concepción to cook the supper and hitched the cart to the horse. She followed the road into San Gregório all the way to the schoolhouse, searching for traces of her son. She stood where she believed the bus would have picked them up, looking all around.

It was a time when the country’s farms were producing more food than people could eat. Prosperity was just around the corner, and so, either for sport or out of jealousy, the Gods were sending coyotes and pumas down from the mountains at night to steal sheep and goats from farmers who were not looking for trouble and did not deserve it. Whenever a farmer shot a coyote trying to steal from his herd, he mounted the carcass on a stake and left it as a warning to others. Some farmers had more than a dozen rotting coyote carcasses stinking up their fields. But the pumas were quicker and craftier than the coyotes, and the thefts continued. Both sides suffered losses, but people were afraid that because the farmers seemed to be winning this contest, the Gods would become angry. What would happen, they asked, when the Gods decided enough was enough? All of the thefts had occurred at night and no one dreamed the animals would be so bold as to enter the village during the day. So when Claudia made her discovery, she feared she had found out something that could not be true. For at the edge of the school grounds she found fresh tracks that had been left by the feet of a big cat.

By this time it was late afternoon and the light was fading, but she told the schoolmaster her suspicions and he raised the alarm. The next day all the children in the village stayed home. The farmers joined the local police in the search, and when they found poor Carlos Vincenzo there was nothing left but bones. Claudia recognized his schoolbag, though it was torn and bloodied, and this was the only vestige of her son that was returned to her. The cat was never caught, but Carlos Vincenzo’s death was taken as a warning, and the farmers decided that to appease the Gods they would have to sacrifice one lamb every night to the coyotes and the pumas sent to keep them humble. Each evening, in a rotating schedule, one farmer tethered a newborn to a stake in a field and in the morning buried the remains. Claudia wrote to Francisco and told him to stay where he was, but when he read the letter he was on the next train to Envigado. The sparsely attended funeral had taken place, but he went to the cementerio and stood by the grave of his lost son and wept, for he had harboured a special affection for his little Carlos Vincenzo, his little cientista. When he came home he announced they were selling the farm and moving. He did not let on that he was convinced the place was cursed and that even if it didn’t sell they would have to leave anyway.

It is a common belief that misfortune begets misfortune, and Francisco thought that if they made a clean break with the past they would break the cycle of calamity. Agriculture was booming and the farm was purchased by a business concern that relegated sentiment to the trash heap and entertained no fear of curses or the evil eye. Francisco moved his family into an apartment in a busy section of Envigado. Here, surrounded by the bustle of a modern town that housed thousands of souls conducting their daily affairs, they would be shielded from the spirits that for some reason had singled them out, and safe from the misfortune that had stolen so much life from them. He would get a job and come home every night like other fathers. Claudia could see the children off to school and spend her days free of the worries that wore her down and were making her old before her time. The building was clean and situated close to the school, close to the Iglesia Corazón de María, where they would all go to worship on Sunday morning. What harm could befall them in such surroundings?

Claudia did not like the town of Envigado, which she thought was noisy and dirty and full of unsavoury characters—nothing like her childhood home, the pristine seaside village of Huelva. But she was willing to accept the possibility that Francisco had hit upon a truth that she, in her agitated state of mourning, which had not subsided for three years, had overlooked.

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The Death of Eva Cristina

Eva Cristina was a placid child who liked nothing better than to play with her two little cloth dolls, one with short hair, one with long hair, which she had named Bella and Lorenzo after the characters in the famous adventure books. She played quietly and by herself in the corner of the room that she shared with her surviving sisters, Ana Luisa, Eléna Serafína, and María Concepción. They were all older than her and watched over her, always asking how she felt, always telling her to be careful going down the stairs and crossing the street, escorting her to and from school as if she were a baby. With a grave expression her mother felt her forehead every morning and at least once a week asked her if she felt any pain when she peed. Even sitting by the window reading a book, “Be careful!” was all she could hear. When she scraped her knee on the sidewalk, her mother fled downstairs in a panic to use the telephone and called a doctor, who smiled oddly at both mother and child as he placed a small bandage on Eva Cristina’s bruised knee, which didn’t even hurt and had stopped bleeding. On one occasion—Oh, the embarrassment!—when her friend Rosalinda Iglesias was passing around figs from her father’s garden, María Concepción snatched it from Eva Cristina’s hand before she could take a bite and threw it into the gutter. Eva Cristina was not supposed to eat anything that did not come from home, her eldest sister scolded her in a loud voice. All the other children were eating figs, but Eva Cristina was not allowed. Days afterward snickers and laughter were still heard all around the schoolyard. She longed to escape from the overbearing kindness of her sisters and did not know why they treated her, and no one else in the family, like a patient in a hospital. Because Eva Cristina had only a dim recollection of her sibling’s deaths and did not understand that in the Cordoba household the obvious was not up for discussion, that behind her back every measure was being taken to avoid another tragedy but that to her face, all was well. There would be no talk of untimely demise, no mention of the mortal peril into which Eva Cristina placed herself every morning when she got out of bed. No. Even Francisco, whose feet were planted firmly on the ground, could not bring himself to tell his youngest that they only wanted her to live a long and happy life.

And so it transpired that over and over again Eva Cristina allowed her thoughts to stray into dangerous territory, and when they returned from these expeditions they brought with them childish notions of infection and disease. She went to the public library and, looking in the medical encyclopaedia, found such horrors as she never knew existed. For she had decided she was sick and that her ailment was of such severity that her death was not only inevitable but imminent. Why would they treat her like she was sick if she were not? It made perfect sense. But because the subject was shrouded in secrecy and veiled in silence, she asked no questions and said nothing to her parents or her sisters about the discovery she had made. She simply went to bed and waited for death to come. Shadows appeared beneath her sky-blue eyes, her hair began falling out, her teeth came loose in her head, her skin, which had glowed with vitality, became sallow and dry. Her joints ached, she lost her appetite. Dreaming that Federico Adolfo, Sara Violeta, and Carlos Vincenzo were waiting for her on the other side, she was comforted and lapsed into a coma. The doctor left the sick room shaking his head, unable to put a name to Eva Cristina’s illness. Claudia responded to this latest crisis with serene acceptance as she applied a cool damp cloth to the child’s forehead. Francisco cursed and wept. She died on a warm Saturday night, during festival. Through the window came the singing and laughter of revellers on the street. The entire family was in the room when the priest applied the holy oil to her lips and palms. Moments later she breathed her last, and once it was over all eyes turned to Pedro Diego.

 .

The Death of Pedro Diego

Pedro was neither daunted nor fearful because he had ideas about his future, ideas that included football, marriage to a girl who, like his oldest sister, was named María, and maybe even playing drums or flugelhorn in a mambo band. He had no plans to die young and expressed this intention loudly, boastfully, to anyone who would listen. He had too much to do, the world was large and there was so much in it he had to see. Rather than become morbid, as he might have given that he was next in line to die, Pedro told jokes and seemed determined to drag his family out of the pit of despair into which they had descended. His mother’s long face sent him into fits of exasperation. His father’s drinking made him angry but never sad. He would not submit to the forced care of his older siblings and did what he wanted when he wanted. He played forward on the school football team, joined the school band, and when he had some money took his friend María to the soda shop for malted milks, just like they did in America.

Gradually, influenced by Pedro Diego’s irrepressible good humour, the Cordoba household shrugged off its mourning weeds and one by one its members ventured outside to join the living, to draw the pure mountain air into their lungs, to feel the heat of the sun on their skin. Claudia was able to laugh once more. Francisco limited his drinking to weekends and settled down to his job at the train station, where he managed a maintenance crew. María Concepción ceased her scolding and the other children felt gay and carefree, as children should, for the first time in years. The apartment was filled with light and laughter.

Pedro saw this happen and was proud to have contributed to his family’s recovery. With each success—a smile on his mother’s face, the delighted squeals of his sisters when he teased them about their boyfriends, his father’s booming laugh in response to a joke—he grew bolder and more confident. As different from his unfortunate sister Eva Cristina—who never escaped the echo of death’s heavy tread—as night is to day, Pedro ignored the very existence—the very possibility—of death. He lived as a boy might who had never seen another life end. Some would say he was heedless. The chances he took made it seem so. He was certainly willing to call attention to himself, performing dangerous stunts as if wagging a defiant finger in that dreadful hollow-eyed, hooded face. On a dare he climbed the flagpole behind the school. Once, he laid down on the tracks and refused to move until the roaring of the train was deafening and his friends thought he was dead for sure. Another time, in defiance of both reason and those who said he couldn’t do it, he ate a lit cigarette. Drunk on notions of invincibility and showing off for María, who always attended his games, his play on the football field became swaggering and aggressive. Ignoring the etiquette of the field, not to mention ideals of sportsmanship, he openly taunted the other team’s players when he scored a goal, thrusting his fist into the air and pelting them with insults. For Pedro Diego, nothing was trivial. He lived his days with such intensity that he almost seemed to emit a glow, as if a fire smouldered within his slim body. During the championships he castigated his own team mates for the sloppy play that led to their elimination, mouthing off to anyone who would listen. When Claudia said Pedro, please, it is over; you should think of other things, he did just the opposite. He thought and spoke of nothing else.

And so it came about that word spread through the school that he would teach the two prime offenders a lesson, Luis Gomez and Alonzo Díaz, who had each committed numerous fouls and turnovers. He would take them by the throat, wring their necks, kick the stupid teeth out of their stupid heads. He made these threats to show off to María, not meaning any of it, but speaking so convincingly that Luis and Alonzo became afraid. For protection Luis brought a knife to school, and one day, on the way home, there was an altercation behind an abandoned warehouse. Two against one is never fair, especially when one of the two has a knife, but Luis and Alonzo were not interested in fairness, and when the blade penetrated the tender flesh between Pedro’s ribs and punctured his lung, and his blood had left its stain on the grass of the empty lot, both boys felt that justice had been served. As for Pedro, whose only regret was that he would never have the chance to tell a soul what it was like to die at the peak of his youthful form beneath a blazing afternoon sun, the moment was everything he had longed for.

It was with an air of resignation that the remaining members of the Cordoba family conveyed the body of Pedro Diego back to his final resting place in San Gregório, and saw him interred beside his siblings. Claudia was numbed by the loss and said hardly a word, shed hardly a tear. Soon after the funeral, which was attended only by family members and Pedro’s girlfriend María, Francisco lost his job with the train company and was forced to return to the mines. He was not drinking, but some claimed he had the smell of death on him. As this did nothing to bolster the morale of his companions on the maintenance crew, he was asked to resign. Francisco understood that he was a victim of fear, ignorance, and superstition, but for him it was a relief for the moment to be able to place many miles between himself and Envigado, for the population of the mining camp changed from one season to the next, and he could travel there confident that tales of his family’s agony would not follow him.

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The Death of Ana Luisa

Claudia kept her eye on Ana Luisa, who was a shy girl, and very bright. She was thin, but also strong and athletic. She was never ill, and this gave her mother hope that she would grow and thrive. In addition, Ana was sober and reflective, possessing an even temperament, given to excess in neither tears nor laughter. Claudia was worried that she would suffer from Pedro’s death more than any of them, for the two had shared a close bond. But when a few months passed and the girl showed no signs of depression, Claudia breathed a sigh of relief and got on with her chores.

Ana hid her passions well. She was going to be an actress or a dancer, and pursued both of these interests at the school, on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, after her regular classes. Her teacher was Mrs. Durany, who had come over from England with her elderly husband, who had since died and left her not as well off as she had hoped. As a result, she was forced to make a living in the only way she knew how, by providing basic instruction in the twin arts of dance and acting to youngsters who might very well grow up to practice one of these professions, but in all likelihood would not. Because she suspected that most of her students were dilettantes, she resented the time she had to spend with them, even though she was paid for her efforts. Her sourness was manifest in the nagging tone of voice and the expressive gestures that accompanied her commands, her favourite of which was an indifferent flick of the wrist as she gave up trying to impart some difficult notion in a language that confounded her. Ana Luisa was perceptive enough to see that her teacher did not relish her duties, but she also wished to make the most of these lessons, which, as she well knew, could come to an end at any time if her mother ran out of money to pay for them. Her desire bordered on desperation, for she also laboured under the impression, false or not, that time was short. This was not something that had ever been expressed in so many words, but the surviving Cordoba children could surely be forgiven for believing their days on this earth were numbered.

More so than her brothers and sisters, Ana Luisa was haunted by the link she saw between passing time and dwindling opportunity. She had spent all her years in the warmth of Pedro Diego’s passion for life. It was she who came closest to understanding his reasons for flirting unabashedly with death. When his flame was snuffed out she vowed to make something of herself or die in the effort. A part of her went beyond simply cherishing the memory of her younger brother to transforming him into a romantic icon, a martyr who had perished for an ideal, and though she was only a girl whose understanding of such matters could never be other than hazy and incomplete, she knew that she loved him and that whatever she managed to accomplish in her lifetime would be to keep his flame alive. It was she, and not the girlfriend María, who, every day for two weeks, until the rain washed the stain away, had placed a bouquet of fresh daisies on the spot where Pedro Diego’s lifeblood had flowed into the ground. It was she who kept one of Pedro Diego’s shirts, grotty with his sweat, folded beneath her pillow. It was to Pedro Diego, and not the Lord Jesus, that Ana Luisa directed her prayers at night and in the morning. But she was also wise enough to know that even if she tried to explain it, nobody would understand how a normal girl could harbour an obsessive longing bordering on lust for a younger brother who was dead, and so kept her passion a secret. Ana Luisa, outwardly as calm, patient, and reasonable a girl as you could ever hope to meet, was on the inside seething with thwarted desire and conflicting emotions. When Mrs. Durany threw up her hands for the last time and, finally packing in the lessons, boarded the first steamer bound for her native England, and her mother told Ana Luisa that it was just as well because there was no money to continue the lessons anyway, she realized that her great hopes had been dashed. Assuming the cool demeanour with which she had deceived her entire family in the months following her brother’s death, she took Pedro Diego’s shirt into the front room and cut it into strips with a pair of scissors. When Claudia asked what she was up to she smiled and said she was going to make a quilt. Then she took the strips into the bathroom, tied them together into a noose, and hung herself from the hook on the back of the door.

The news of his daughter’s death reached Francisco long after the fact, because Claudia had delayed telling him and then bad weather had brought down the camp’s supply plane. Two months after Ana Luisa had been laid to rest in the cementerio at San Gregório (because Claudia had convincingly argued that it was not suicide but “despondency” that had killed her daughter), a salvage team found the plane, buried the pilot, and brought the cargo, including the mail, back to the camp. Though the mines have long since closed, the story still circulates among those who heard it from those who were there, about the man who received bad news from his family. Hours after he had collapsed on the floor of his hut, a crumpled piece of paper in his hand, his inconsolable wails were still being heard for miles in all directions—echoing through mountain passes, reaching into valleys and across the high plains, frightening the animals, and sending the innocent goatherd to his knees with a prayer on his lips.

Francisco did not return to Envigado but instead asked for longer shifts. During this difficult time he performed his labours, ate his food, smoked his cigarettes, in the mechanical and submissive manner of a doomed man waiting for the next blow to fall.

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The Death of César Javier

Of all her children, César Javier was the most aloof, the most enigmatic and difficult for Claudia to understand. When he spoke, everyone listened because it happened so rarely, but the words issued laboriously from his mouth and his observations, mostly of a mundane nature, touching upon the weather or events at school or the exploits of friends, did not reveal anything of his soul. Unlike Pedro Diego, he was not interested in sports or girls. His eyes were heavy lidded and there was no gleam in them. She did not like to think of him as dull, but he was indifferent to the flesh accumulating around his middle, his grades were poor, and the way he chewed his food reminded her of a cow. He collected comic books, and whenever Claudia went tidying in the room shared by her two remaining sons, she pulled the box containing the comic collection out from under the bed in the hope that his reading habits would convey to her something of his essence. But she was disappointed. Action heroes with names like The Flash, Superman, and Hulk did not speak to her of anything meaningful. Their eyes were empty, which she took to mean their souls were empty as well.

At thirteen César Javier seemed to have no ambition and few interests, and when his teacher told her that her son was not suited for school and study, and that he should be apprenticed out to a trade, she did not argue. The boy did not oppose this decision either, and as if he were capable of a response such as relief or gratitude, Claudia interpreted the grunt he emitted when she shared with him the news that he would not be returning to school as an indication that her efforts on his behalf were appreciated.

One of her neighbours in the apartment building was Támar Rodriguez. He worked for the tram company, and when Claudia explained the situation, Támar was only too willing to help. He would personally oversee the boy’s apprenticeship and ensure that when the time came, a position of some sort would be made available. Támar Rodriguez did not make this offer out of the goodness of his heart. He had been an admirer of the attractive young mother Claudia Cordoba for many months, casting a furtive eye over her slim black-clad body whenever he happened upon her. Because he was no longer a young buck and not yet a lascivious middle-aged boor, he had only admired from afar and not made any overtures, which instinct told him would be unwelcome. His contact with her had been therefore limited to infrequent but cordial greetings in the stairwell or in the hallway. He was naturally shy, and normally he would keep his distance until he had made inquiries to determine her situation. But as she had approached him, and he saw no evidence of a husband, the opportunity to ingratiate himself with a young woman by performing a service that would cost him nothing by way of money or inconvenience seemed too good to pass up. He would make his move only when he judged by the light in her eyes that the time was right.

Claudia had no intention of being unfaithful to Francisco, and if someone had caused her glance to linger upon Támar Rodriguez with the suggestion that this man wanted to seduce her with kindness she would have laughed out loud had she not been in mourning. As it was, she had no suspicion of his designs upon her and did not feel compelled to explain where her husband was. She simply believed that César Javier’s need for a trade had to fill a corresponding need somewhere in the town, that by the merest chance someone close by worked for the tram service, and that she should make it her business to consult him about the possibility of her son receiving training and, eventually, employment. Támar was very tall and pale like a cadaver, and he manoeuvred his attenuated limbs in the stiffly awkward manner of a man wearing stilts. His small eyes were recessed so deeply in his head that the skin encircling them seemed bruised, and he had a little moustache that he stroked unconsciously, but in a most repellent manner, whenever he spoke to a woman he found attractive. Claudia recoiled at the sight of him, and it was only out of politeness that she met his gaze and responded to his greeting whenever they encountered one another in the hallway. She did not want to, but because her only goal was to secure a future for her slow-witted son, she would consort with Támar Rodriguez in order to accomplish this, and she would not complain about it.

César Javier remained an innocent bystander as agreements were made on his behalf and arrangements put into place for his benefit. It did not occur to him to question anyone or anything, and when the Monday morning arrived on which, instead of going to school with María Concepción, Antonio José, and Eléna Serafína, his mother gave him his lunch in a paper bag and turned him over to their neighbour Señor Rodriguez, he accepted it as both natural and inevitable.

Támar Rodriguez did not himself work on the trams. He performed duties related to scheduling and payroll in a small office building, and it was here that he intended the boy would serve his apprenticeship. He had been so delighted to find himself the object of Claudia’s attention that he agreed to act on her request without giving much thought to the tasks that would have to be carried out. As the day approached when Claudia Cordoba’s son would accompany him to work, he began to entertain a fantasy about the boy. He envisioned a young man with a flare for numbers who was both funny and interesting, who would become not only his assistant on the job, but also his eyes and ears within the Cordoba home. Ensconced together at the office, they would have leisure to discuss all manner of things. Through the son, Támar would come to know the mother with great intimacy, and when César Javier returned home each evening he would sing the praises of his mentor so lavishly that soon, like a love song, the mere mention of his name would be enough to melt Claudia Cordoba’s heart. And so on that first, and, as it turned out, last morning, many doubts and grave misgivings flooded into his brain while he briefly endured César Javier’s limp handshake and met two expressionless eyes staring at him from out of a doughy face. Instantly he regretted not having taken the trouble to previously make the boy’s acquaintance and neglecting to even ask about his interests and capabilities. By the time they reached the office building, Támar Rodriguez had decided that if César Javier was the price, then he was prepared to completely forgo Claudia’s affections, for he did not think he could tolerate this boy’s slack-jawed company for a single morning let alone for the months it would take to successfully complete an apprenticeship in payroll.

Once they were in the building, Támar went to the reception desk and made a phone call. He had heard of an opening in the mailroom, and he told the mailroom supervisor, Julian Nuñez, that he had brought someone to help out. Julian, a thin ingenuous young man in blue overalls, emerged from his basement refuge, and the instant his hand touched César Javier’s in greeting, Támar Rodriguez considered his commitment to both Claudia and the boy at an end. Whistling a carefree tune, he took the two flights of stairs up to his office at a brisk sprint.

Willing to attribute his unfavourable first impression of the boy to nervousness, Julian asked César Javier to follow him down to the basement. But after a couple of questions, to which César Javier responded either with perplexed silence or his signature grunt, Julian realized what he had been saddled with. From the mailroom he phoned payroll services to tell Rodriguez that his joke was not funny, but was informed that Támar had called in sick and might not be in for the rest of the week. He hung up and allowed his disappointed gaze to drift across the room to César Javier, who sat where he had been told to sit, staring gape-mouthed at the single light bulb suspended from the ceiling, holding on his lap the paper bag containing his lunch. Plainly, since there was a good chance he could not read, he was an unlikely candidate for sorting mail. And since he was abnormally heavy for his age and had almost tripped going down the stairs, he was probably unsuited to pushing a trolley from office to office delivering mail. Could he find anything for this boy to do in the mailroom? Julian thought not. He phoned custodial services and told them that their new employee had wandered into the mailroom by mistake. In response to the question, What new employee? Julian made a sound that was unintelligible and yet had the unmistakable ring of infuriated authority to it. Presently, a buxom woman with grey hair tied in a bun and wearing a green uniform appeared and, much to Julian’s relief, escorted César Javier away.

Through all of this, and through all that followed, César Javier behaved in the compliant manner that had enabled him to reach the age of thirteen with a full belly and relatively few scars. He smiled and did what he was told and accepted everything that appeared before his eyes as the inexorable result of what had come before. He had never liked school and so was happy to be taken somewhere else, but this new environment—in which many people who were strangers to him were asking the same questions and leading him back and forth from one place to another—made little sense. By mid-morning he found himself seated in a dark basement room cloudy with cigarette smoke surrounded by a group of people, young and old, all wearing identical green uniforms. This was the staff room for the custodial crew. The epithets they were directing toward him—imbecile, moron, fat boy, pigface—were all familiar and therefore no cause for alarm. There was, however, something vaguely sinister in the laughter, which was general and uproarious, and in the manner in which some of them thrust grinning, gap-toothed, contemptuous faces before him while emitting hoots and donkey brays and sounds that perhaps a monkey might make. Of course, César Javier had no way of knowing that hiring standards in custodial services were very low, and that many of those taunting him had been victims of bullying and prejudice all their lives and, having been forced to put up with it, were all too willing to dish it out. He might have found a home for himself here were it not for his trusting disposition and utter lack of malice, which set him apart and made him a natural victim. The limits of his endurance had never been tested as they were tested on this day, but he sat and smiled for an hour, perhaps two, clutching the bag containing his lunch, waiting for the onslaught to end. He remained calm and did not experience any fear—that is, until one of the men took the belt from around his waist and another kicked the chair out from beneath him.

In his second-floor office, Támar Rodriguez was suffering twinges of guilt and feeling that perhaps he had been too hasty in his dismissal of Claudia Cordoba’s son. How onerous would it be, after all, to put up with the silent maniquí occupying the corner of the office, even for a month or two? Trying to teach the boy the subtleties of double-entry bookkeeping would be a wasted exercise, but surely he was not totally impervious to learning. During slack times he could tutor him in the ABCs, perhaps teach him a dirty poem or two. And if the prize awaiting him was Claudia Cordoba’s trust and, eventually, affection, then maybe it would be worth troubling himself to that extent.

He had picked up the phone, intending to call young Nuñez in the mailroom and ask him to have César Javier sent up to his office when his attention was drawn by a commotion on the street, which his office overlooked. To his shock, surprise, and dismay, there was César Javier himself, his face bruised and bloodied, his trousers down around his ankles, cradling the paper bag with his lunch in it as if it were an object of tender reverence. The boy had obviously suffered a bad fright and somehow injured himself. He was looking up and down the street, taking one step this way, stopping, taking a step that way. People passing by gazed at him in wonder and then sidestepped him, as if they suspected he was mad or dangerous. Seeing the expression of terror on the boy’s face, Támar understood how selfish and ill-advised his decision had been, to abandon him to a pack of unsympathetic strangers, and, wishing to redress what he now saw as an act of disloyalty, flung open the window and called down to the street, “César Javier wait! I will come down! Wait for me!”

It was too late. Hearing a voice calling his name from somewhere up in the sky, César Javier’s terror was multiplied. No one will ever know what lunatic notion sent him on a wild dash into the busy street, where he was knocked down and crushed by a truck delivering furniture. Támar Rodriguez turned quickly away and covered his eyes. However, the sounds—the impact of metal against flesh and bone, the squeal of tires, the screams of people running to and from the accident scene—were not so easy to escape. Somehow he got word to Claudia, who arrived just as the debris was being cleared away and her son’s lifeless body was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. Támar spoke to her just long enough to explain that he had let the boy out of his sight for only a minute and had no idea how this could have happened. He wanted to wrap her in his arms and draw her to him, but the cool formality with which she received his excuses kept him at a polite distance. He could see that attempts to console her would be pointless and that he could forget about ever winning her affections. He fled back to his office, where he shut the door and instructed his secretary to hold his calls for the rest of the day.

But Támar had been wrong. Claudia was not angry. She spoke to no one else and after a few moments of brooding contemplation drifted away from where her son’s blood stained the cobbled street, clutching to her chest all that remained of her inscrutable but beloved César Javier: one of his shoes and the bag containing his lunch—two cheese and tomato calzones, still in perfect condition.

The death of César Javier marked the end of a dismal chapter in the history of the Cordoba family. Francisco returned home from the mines, and with the money he had saved from working hundreds of extra shifts was able to purchase a small farming property in the hills outside of Envigado, on the San Gregório road nearby the little hill village of Lasanía. As quickly as could be arranged, he moved his wife and three precious children out of the town that he had thought would be a haven for them and tried to put this latest misfortune behind him.

 .

The Death of Eléna Serafína

Eléna Serafína, as her name suggests, had an angelic disposition, but she was also beautiful. She had a small upturned nose, inky black hair that fell straight to her slim waist, small delicate feet, and, at only fifteen, breasts that had grown to the size and firmness of ripe grapefruit. Claudia had difficulty both purchasing and making clothes to fit her comfortably and that also retained a degree of modesty. Fearful that Eléna’s extraordinary beauty would ignite the passion of every boy in the province—for you had only to take one look at the girl to fall in love with her—Claudia tried dressing her in a loose-fitting bodice covered with an old-fashion blouse, in a plain baggy skirt, in overalls, in a dumpy cotton dress that reached to her ankles and covered every inch of her. But the shining beacon of Eléna Serafína’s beauty was not to be dimmed, even when buried under multiple layers of unflattering attire. She cut the girl’s hair into a disorderly mop, but it grew back straighter and more exquisite than ever. She told her daughter that it was sinful to enhance her beauty with lipsticks and blushers, which were finding their way on to the grounds of even the most rigidly protective Catholic schools, but Eléna Serafína did not need help from artificial cosmetics in order to be declared the most beautiful girl for miles around.

Because it had been necessary for Francisco to return to the mines, Claudia wore herself out trying to protect her daughter, staying up late into the night, listening and watching for suitors who might try to creep through the window into the girl’s bedroom, chasing off the packs of young men who gathered like hungry wolves on the road leading to the farm, weeding the love letters out of the day’s mail and throwing them unread on the fire. At school Eléna Serafína was shielded from unwelcome advances by her older sister and, at Claudia’s request, by her teachers. But with Eléna Serafína growing more womanly by the day, Claudia, in despair, realized that nothing short of consigning her to a cell in the monasterio católico hidden deep in the hills would keep her daughter safe from harm. Though she would argue until the last breath had left her body that it was not true, she had, unconsciously perhaps, already resigned herself to a loss that was foreordained.

A boy named Ramón Casimiro finally bypassed all the precautions and safeguards and insinuated his way into Eléna Serafína’s heart, and, shortly thereafter, her britches. The incident happened in an empty field near the school, just beyond the Lasanía precincts. Like many others smitten by her unrivalled beauty, Ramón had been observing Eléna Serafína ever since she arrived at the school, hoping to catch her eye and, in not too subtle a fashion, communicate his intentions. Eléna, indifferent to her looks, which she regarded as nothing special, was not a flirtatious girl, and if left to her own devices would have been perfectly capable of spurning the advances of boys and young men who did not interest her. However, camouflaged beneath the dowdy outfits provided by her mother and shielded from reality by her sister and the teachers at the school, who were anxious to avoid scandal, she had retained far too much childish innocence for a girl of fifteen and had not even the vaguest inkling of the impious thoughts that her body inspired in the male of the species. She did not care that her hair, her skin, and her breasts were perfect. She did not care that boys ogled and whistled at her. However, Ramón Casimiro caught her attention because he was a few inches taller than the others, his shoulders were broader, and his biceps were just that much more developed. He was also smart, in a nefarious, conniving sort of way, and after observing how her sister María Concepción and the teachers fussed over her to no end, had determined that a direct approach with this girl would get him nowhere. He would have to plan a sidelong attack, and with this in mind elicited the services of one of Eléna’s closest friends, a squat and graceless girl named Carola Gómez, whom he charmed and corrupted with a promise of sexual escapades once she had helped him to seduce Eléna Serafína.

For Eléna Serafína her beauty was truly her downfall, for not only did it inflame the lust of every man she encountered—from the elderly gentleman whose nether regions had been asleep for decades to the boy just entering puberty—it stirred to life envy in the hearts of girls and women who believed themselves above envy, including those whom she counted among her friends. Carola Gómez, as empty headed and selfish as only those can be who fail to perceive beneath the surface of things, was blind to all but the physical beauty of her friend and of the boy she wanted desperately to be with. That the price for gaining the one was losing the other did not trouble her, and she agreed to convey Ramón’s notes to Eléna Serafína the same moment the request was made.

What began tentatively soon became a passionate exchange of lover’s vows. Carola Gómez was kept very busy as go-between and sometimes wondered if the erotic high jinx that Ramón had pledged would be sufficient recompense for her efforts. She was also disappointed that Ramón’s affection for her friend seemed to be sincere. When he had solicited her aid he had made it sound as if he regarded the whole episode as a lark. But now, reading his notes to Eléna Serafína before passing them on, she always wept because the words were full of poetry and the most profound understanding of sentiments that all women long to have whispered in their ear. She went down on her knees at her bedside and prayed that when he had had his way with Eléna Serafína, whom she had grown to hate, he would write such things to her. What she was too ignorant to realize was that Ramón, coming from a sophisticated household, had consulted his father’s library, where he discovered The Collected Works of William Shakespeare in translation and was cribbing liberally from The Sonnets and Romeo and Juliet. Eléna’s notes in response professing gratitude for Ramón’s courtesies, though passionate in a restrained, and ultimately childish, way, were far less forthcoming, and after the first two or three Carola did not bother to read these before placing them under the stone in the schoolyard, where Ramón came by later to retrieve them.

There is no getting around the fact that Eléna Serafína was all too easily duped by Ramón’s borrowed eloquence, and she soon agreed to a clandestine meeting, away from meddling influences and beyond the range of prying eyes.

The sexual history of our race is filled with stories of young women losing their virginity in untimely fashion to unprincipled young men. Eléna Serafína had fallen under a spell, and with her imperfect understanding of her own sexual potency, allowed—some would say invited—the worst to happen. Her friend Carola provided the pretext, agreeing to tell María Concepción that she and Eléna were going to her house to do their homework together, while in actual fact Ramón was waiting for the object of his desire in a field beyond the village. Carola led her friend, like the proverbial lamb to slaughter, along the road that took them out of the village, chattering all the way about how intelligent and handsome Ramón Casimiro was, and advising Eléna to be nice to him. Because the boys were segregated from the girls at school, Eléna Serafína had never been alone with any boy other than her brothers. In the field she took his hand and smiled. Ramón smiled as well and, placing his other hand on her cheek, gasped at the divine softness of her skin. Eléna looked over her shoulder to ask Carola what she should do next, but her friend was gone. This was not part of the arrangement, and her heart began to tremble. But Ramón quieted her fears, gently stroking her while saying that Carola would be back in a few minutes and in the meantime they might as well lie down in the grass and get comfortable.

To his credit, he was not rough with her, but in his eagerness to be persuasive tore several buttons from her dress, which was one her mother had pieced together from an old tablecloth and finished with a drawstring that had come from a sack of potatoes. Once he had her clothes off, he could hardly contain himself. Her beauty was far greater than he had imagined, even in his most zealous adolescent fantasies. All in all, for Ramón, though he achieved climax much more quickly than he would have hoped, it was a pleasing and gratifying experience, worth all the dishonest scheming in which he had engaged, even worth the embarrassment of having to ally himself with that odious little Carola Gómez, whom he had no intention of ever touching let alone taking to bed. When he was done he stood and, tossing her clothes toward her, curtly instructed Eléna Serafína to cover herself. Then, valorous to the end, he left the naked, weeping girl where she lay in order to go home, where his mother would be preparing his supper.

Claudia sensed a change had taken place, and within a week had determined that her daughter was carrying a child. The girl, innocent to a fault and utterly incapable of telling a lie, readily confessed what had taken place. Her naïveté was so complete that she was unsure if she should be proud or ashamed. Claudia knew of the family of this boy. The father was powerful in the unions and the mother, with her rich woman’s airs, had all of the teachers at the school eating out of her hand. There was nothing to be gained from making claims and hurling accusations, so she decided to keep Eléna Serafína at home until the baby was born.

And so the months went by. María Concepción, bitter with the knowledge that her mistake was costing her family so dearly on this occasion, lost the ability to smile, and at the sight of her stern elder sister Eléna Serafína, whose condition had made her excitable, invariably broke down into tears. Antonio José, encountering Ramón Casimiro on the street in Envigado one evening, gave the boy a black eye and would have done worse had his friends not been there to restrain him. Claudia wrote to Francisco that all was well, but her heart was heavy with foreboding because a child cannot develop normally in the womb within an atmosphere made poisonous by rancour and spite. She tried to lighten the mood in the household by baking sweet cakes and keeping all the windows uncovered, and by telling stories that she thought her children would find amusing, but often discovered she was eating the cakes alone and speaking only to herself. María Concepción’s scowls, Eléna Serafína’s tears, and Antonio José’s anger sapped her strength, and she had just taken to her bed when, halfway through the ninth month, Eléna appeared at her side saying that the moment had come.

The timing could not have been worse. Though Claudia was confident she could deliver a baby herself, when she saw it was a breech she decided that Antonio José would take the cart and go into town to fetch the doctor. However, the rains that had started the previous day continued unabated, and Antonio José did not get very far before discovering the road was impassable. When he returned home alone Claudia began to weep, for she knew that she could not deliver this baby without help. María Concepción assembled the necessary implements and provided plenty of hot water while her mother made Eléna Serafína comfortable, but when the baby had been delivered up to his neck, Claudia’s worst fear was realized. He was stuck and would come no further. Without delay, she would have to cut Eléna in order to make the passage easier. Placing a damp towel in the new mother’s mouth in order to stifle her screams, she ordered Antonio and María to hold Eléna still while she performed this delicate and risky manoeuvre. The incision she made with a kitchen knife was small but produced so much blood she could not see what she was doing. Finally the baby came free, but it would not breathe and Claudia’s efforts to revive it proved futile. This left them with the task of saving Eléna Serafína, who was bleeding to death before their eyes. They tried damp towels and bandages, even cauterization, but nothing would staunch the flow of blood. In an automatic gesture, the delirious Eléna had taken her two siblings by the hand and maintained a grip of unnatural strength. It was almost as if she thought they might pull her to safety. But as the seconds ticked by and the blood continued to flow, her grip slackened, and it was not long before the girl’s struggle ended. Soon the only sound to be heard was the rain drumming on the roof of the house.

Claudia had the baby with no name interred with his mother. Nobody dared voice an objection. The Cordoba family’s frequent visits to the cementerio of San Gregório had, in the most unfortunate way, earned them the right to dictate how things would be done. Even the new young priest was not above looking to Claudia and Francisco for advice on how best to conduct una misa por los difuntos.

 .

The Death of Antonio José

This was in the days of compulsory military service, and at seventeen Antonio José had reached the age when he could expect to receive the call. He awaited his conscription notice with anxiety, but also eagerly, torn as he was at the thought of leaving a home that had seen more than its share of tragedy but which was also familiar and dear to him. When the letter arrived, three days after his birthday, he was disappointed to learn that he was being assigned to a camp far to the north, deep in the desert interior. His friends had been telling him stories of others who had performed their service in towns on the coast, where during their leave they consorted with the local girls and visited the beaches and casinos that attracted cruise ships carrying American tourists who were always on the lookout for ways to part with their money. In his mind, Antonio José had constructed a vision of himself in a starched white uniform, a beautiful girl on each arm, raking in stacks of chips at the roulette table. He understood that the reality was probably less glamorous than his fantasy, but like most boys his age he also was not fully aware of the kind of humiliating, boot-licking grunt work that basic training actually entails.

By age seventeen Antonio José felt cast adrift in a dangerous, hostile world with no idea why he was there. The deaths of eight siblings had burned eight holes in his young heart and left it permanently scarred. His only means of shielding himself from more pain was to keep all people at a distance and hold himself aloof from serious emotional attachments. To this end he cultivated a callous and defiant public persona, pretending to care about nothing and no one, even though he cared deeply about everything and everyone.

After the death of Eléna Serafína, he pulled away from his mother and sister, and with menacing silences and accusing glances made them think he held them responsible. At home he quarrelled with María Concepción, bringing tears to her eyes by calling her a bitch and even una buscona—a whore—even though he had no basis for such allegations and did not himself believe she was anything other than a gentle young woman whose heart, shattered by grief, could never be mended. For her part, she told him he was behaving like a fool, causing them all to suffer needlessly when they had already suffered enough. To forget his sister’s pain, he went into town with his friends on weekends and caused trouble, getting into fights, breaking windows, defacing public property. But try as he might, he could not lose sight of the immense divide that existed between his true caring self and the delinquent identity he was working hard to adopt. Unaided, he would never become genuinely heartless and convincingly project the image of a sullen, disrespectful teenager. He needed help. And the instrument he chose to help him in his quest was alcohol.

Antonio José had seen his father falling-down drunk more than once, and it was true that Francisco had a weakness for drink. He could easily have destroyed himself in this way. But he demonstrated true strength of character by moderating his intake and exhausting himself through hard work. He had escaped back to the mines shortly after Eléna Serafína’s funeral, but when Claudia wrote to him about Antonio José he returned home determined to rein in the boy’s wayward tendencies and set him on the right track.

It was customary for boys to be initiated into the ways of men at an early age, and Antonio José had enjoyed a glass of red wine with dinner when he was only fifteen. Claudia had permitted this and Antonio José never drank more than a single glass and never exhibited a thirst for more. His habitual drunkenness at sixteen therefore came as a great surprise, and he was a surly, argumentative drunk. Francisco’s presence in the house did nothing to inhibit his craving and, if anything, made it worse since he was unable to avoid the disappointment in his father’s eyes. Prohibitions were put in place, but by Saturday night Antonio José had always managed to lay his hands on money that his older friends could use to buy a bottle of wine for him. However, despite the heartache he was causing, Claudia did not want her last remaining son to enter the military without fanfare. They held a celebration for his birthday, with presents, cakes, and wine, and Antonio José was allowed to get staggeringly, roaringly intoxicated. At midnight Francisco, Claudia, and María Concepción carried him to bed and tried not to listen while Antonio José, out of his mind and raving, scoffed at them for the misery they endured, for their regrets, for their constant state of mourning. He said he was going to be free. He would change his name and make a life for himself somewhere else, away from the pernicious influence of the Cordobas of Envigado province. He remembered none of this in the morning, but on a subconscious level some vestige of this sentiment must have stuck. As the day neared for him to leave home, he grew pensive and less cantankerous. A few weeks after his conscription notice, a subsequent letter had arrived with a schedule and instructions he was to follow upon his arrival in the northern military outpost of Puño. He had gone into town to purchase the train ticket and told everyone he was leaving Wednesday morning. Over several days, while Claudia prepared pastries and other tidbits he could enjoy on the trip, he packed his belongings. However, on Tuesday morning while it was still dark he got out of bed, took his filled duffel bag, some scraps of food, his shaving kit, and a few other important items, and quickly left the house. The train pulled out of the station at five a.m., heading north. He said goodbye to nobody.

Antonio José’s train did not go all the way to Puño. It made its final stop in Arica, where he was to board a military transport bus that would take him inland to his destination. Arica was a port town, located in a beautiful coastal region blessed with a dry warm climate that attracted thousands of native and foreign holiday goers to its glistening beaches. The schedule told him that he had a few hours of leisure before he was to report to the local Cuartel General, where the bus would be waiting. He was tired after his trip, which had taken more than forty-eight hours, and had slept only fitfully. But the sight of Arica, brilliant in the morning sunlight, with its winding cobbled lanes, resort hotels, coconut trees, and brightly painted buildings inspired him with a sense of adventurous longing. He had never been anywhere like this, and was instantly filled with resentment that his family should have held him back, as if this had been done deliberately, in full knowledge of the pleasures of which he was being deprived. Moreover, the follow-up correspondence he had received had long since dispelled the fanciful notions that had earlier filled his head. He was therefore not convinced that the military was where he belonged and regarded the two years of service awaiting him with suspicion and fear.

He carried his duffel bag with him into a café and took a table by the window. Instantly, as if by magic, a little man with grey hair and an unruly moustache appeared and with a damp cloth wiped down the table. With an inviting smile he asked Antonio José what his pleasure would be. Antonio José ordered a cup of coffee. However, he had already received two cheques from the state, one as an advance on his military salary and another intended to cover his transportation costs. He had cashed these and had therefore a substantial wad of pesetas stuffed into his jacket pocket. At this decisive moment his thoughts travelled upon two distinct paths through his mind: one which saw him spending the next two years in Puño, which was reputed to be a barren, desolate encampment where he would be living in uncomfortably close quarters in a tent with a mob of sweaty new recruits, performing menial labour from dawn to dusk, eating tasteless gruel, and pissing behind a cactus, and another which summoned him to live his life to the fullest, to experience all he could in the short time allotted to him. He called the man back to his table and ordered breakfast and, purely out of curiosity since he had never tasted it before, a whisky.

Of course, Antonio José did not understand that, genetically speaking, he had the makings of a true alcoholic and that the first drop of fiery amber liquid to hit bottom in his stomach would ignite a thirst that would not be quenched until he had consumed the entire bottle. His father had beaten back the demon only by sheer will power, but Antonio José was far from the sobering influence of his family. Having arrived in the cosmopolitan resort town of Arica feeling cheated by fate and in the mood to be more than a little reckless, with his pocket bulging with pesetas and two years of state sanctioned imprisonment on the horizon, he didn’t stand a chance.

The little man in the café was no innocent bystander. The duffel bag and the wad of cash branded Antonio José as a new recruit, away from home for the first time, and the little man knew that the military was willing to pick up the tab for whatever mayhem these inexperienced, vulnerable young men created. He also knew, though officially it was unacknowledged, that every season the military expected a small number of new recruits to go completely off the rails, to lose all their belongings, all of their money, their dignity, sometimes the clothes off their back, sometimes their freedom, and sometimes their lives. The little man had seen it happen on a number of unfortunate occasions. But who was he to go against fate? In fact, a widespread belief existed among the tavern owners, barkeepers, casino operators, pimps, drug dealers, bootleggers, and purveyors of pornography who did business in Arica, that this was the way in which the military weeded the weaklings and derelicts and perverts out of its ranks before they found their way in. Popular opinion held that these businessmen and -women were in fact performing a vital service for their country. By providing a source of temptation that only the most grossly substandard of its citizens would be unable to resist, they were saving their armed forces hundreds of thousands of pesetas in tribunal and court marshal costs that would otherwise be spent after the fact when these inferior young men showed their true colours. The little man in the café therefore believed that, though technically it was against the law to serve hard liquor to a teenager, and especially unethical to do it before eleven o’clock in the morning, he was bound by a sense of duty and national pride to fill the order. This was how Antonio José Cordoba found himself lifting a glass of the finest American whisky to his lips before he had been off the train for twenty minutes.

The first sip filled him with a warm feeling of kinship for all humanity and a supreme sense of self-confidence, and he quickly drained the glass. He drank his coffee as well, but suddenly the food he had ordered seemed repulsive, and without tasting a single bite of breakfast, he paid his bill and left the café in search of an open bar or taberna, where he could do some serious drinking.

Lined up side by side along the road that faced the beach was a tempting array of establishments suitable to the boy’s purpose. He selected one and went inside. Here, in a smoky interior made intimate by subdued lighting, the middle-aged woman behind the bar, who felt upon her broad shoulders the same weighty responsibility for her country’s welfare as the little man at the café, filled glass after glass according to the instructions of her young patron. When Antonio José could no longer hold himself upright on his stool, she assisted him into a back room and laid him down on a cot, where he instantly began to snore. She also rifled his pockets and helped herself to the money he owed her, along with a sizable tip. She forgot about the duffel bag, which sat abandoned on the floor of the taberna for a short while before another patron, who had been keeping an eye on these proceedings, walked off with it. Antonio José awoke an hour or so later aware of only one thing: he was going to die if he did not immediately have a drink. He did not know where he was, but in the muddle that his brain had become, this did not register as a concern. When the same woman refused to serve him—because she now recognized him for what he was: someone who would happily drink beyond his means if given the opportunity—he raised a stink and was forcibly ejected.

Outside, he wandered along the boardwalk beneath the afternoon sun feeling himself hard done by and craving that deep affection for all humanity and the supreme sense of self-confidence that had warmed him earlier. Without these the world was intolerable and all the people in it seemed deceitful and small-minded. Finally, in a side street close to the port, nestled between a boating supply store and a muffler repair shop, he found a drinking establishment that would serve him. He sat down and pulled the much diminished wad of cash out of his pocket and laid it on the counter.

Events become sketchy at this point, but the one thing that is certain is that Antonio José did not survive the night. He was found by the morning’s first light face down in the shallows near a wharf where amateur anglers went to collect bait and cast their reels. The back of his head bore the imprint of a mortal blow, but the autopsy, carried out under the watchful eye of a military coroner, showed that he had in fact drowned before he could die from the effects of his wound. The body was shipped home, with the costs graciously borne by the state, and delivered to his family, who had spent several frantic days trying to establish his whereabouts after his surreptitious early morning departure only the week before.

Francisco was now in demand at the mines and had been promised a good salary and credit toward a pension for the years of service he had already put in. After Antonio José’s funeral, and before leaving once again for a work term of indeterminate length, he sold the house that had seen the death of one child and delivered another to an ignominious fate at the hands of strangers, and relocated his wife and daughter to the farm where he intended that he and Claudia would live out their final years. This was also on the San Gregório road, but much further away from Envigado, in view of the mountains and situated in virtual isolation on the plains between the highest hills.

.

The Death of María Concepción

María Concepción wanted to make her mother happy. This, she felt, would be her mission in life. However, because she had lost the ability to smile, and because she was by nature dour and judgmental, humourless and quick to tears, she faced great impediments to her aim of re-inventing herself as a carefree, amiable presence within the home. She did not really enjoy housework and had no intellectual ambitions, though she had been a competent enough student and always received the praises of her teachers. She was also thin and gangly, with shapeless legs and almost undetectable breasts, and she wore her frizzy reddish-brown hair long and tied back from her narrow face. She had suffered the pangs of loss every bit as sharply as her parents, for she had been a mature ten-year-old when little Federico Adolfo had choked on a button, and her memories of her other siblings lives and deaths were fresh and never far from the active centre of her mind. She was, in short, a living repository for all the sad events that had taken place in her family’s history, and she became blushingly conscious of this every time her mother’s gaze lighted on her and then seemed, as if in response to a reflexive aversion, to shift quickly away.

Claudia was at a loss to understand her behaviour toward her daughter, whom she loved more than her own life. After a few months spent alone with her in the farmhouse, the girl’s grim presence was causing her the kind of physical discomfort with which anyone who has attended the sickbed of a dying loved one will be familiar. They did not argue, but the girl had a way of looking at her that seemed to peel the layers away and leave her exposed. Claudia stopped seeking her out and, in fact, began plotting ways to avoid her. When by necessity they must be together, she suffered her presence as she might an offensive odour or a nest of spiders that could not easily be got rid of. The meals they shared were particularly trying. María Concepción seemed to feel obliged to maintain a flow of conversation no matter what effort it cost her, all of it meant to avoid discussion of the one topic weighing most heavily upon both their minds and none of it anything that Claudia wished to hear. Claudia was always glad on those occasions when she could truthfully declare she was unwell and would take her supper alone in her room.

On Sundays they hitched the horse to the cart and side by side rode to church in San Gregório, where they endured the uneasy salutations of their fellow parishioners, every one of whom knew the family’s tragic history and none of whom were able to make their attempts to appear untroubled by the presence of the Cordoba women in the least convincing. On Saturdays they loaded the cart with the goods they had prepared for market and made the long journey together into Envigado. These simple activities should have given Claudia great pleasure, a pleasure one could reasonably assume would be heightened by the simple fact that she was sharing them with her daughter. But, inexplicably, Claudia derived no satisfaction from anything she did when María Concepción was at her side and found the girl’s austere company and forced chitchat a source of great anxiety. She did not wish her ill, but looked forward to the time when she would be free of her.

At nineteen, Claudia had reason to hope that María Concepción would, after attracting a suitor and getting married, soon be leaving home. She was, though unsmiling, not without her physical charms. Men sometimes approached her outside the church after mass, and others tried to beguile her with suave glances and bravura displays of eloquence at the market. But because she was timid and could not smile, none of these advances met with much success, and, seeing that the girl showed little interest in anything other than clinging to her mother with unseemly devotion, Claudia decided to begin laying the groundwork for an eventuality that, if God had any grace at all, could not be far in the future. She began talking with exaggerated enthusiasm about other women she knew whose daughters had married well and who were now raising families of their own. Into the awkward silences that were strewn like stones throughout their conversations she dropped the names of young men whom she regarded as suitable matches. As if the girl had ever expressed such a desire, she sighed and said she would have no objection if María Concepción still wanted to move into San Gregório and get a job as a schoolteacher. And finally, and in a regrettable moment of vexation brought on by the girl’s apathy toward everything but her mother’s needs, she reminded María Concepción that when she was nineteen, she was married and had already given birth to two children, a fact of which her daughter, having been one of those children, was painfully aware.

María Concepción could only see that her mother was roughly cutting off her attempts to form a meaningful bond with her, and it dawned on her one day over breakfast, while she watched Claudia tentatively slice into a hard boiled egg, that her mother was afraid, afraid in the same manner that a person fears an incident or experience that will cause her pain. Claudia might be blind to it, but her daughter—once she had analyzed the pattern of recent behaviour and understood her mother’s dread—realized in a blinding flash that when Claudia looked at her she did not see a healthy young woman who had every reason to go on living. She saw someone who had not yet died but whose time was fast approaching. This neither shocked nor alarmed her, but it did enable her to understand why her mother was always pushing her away.

With only these and similar notions to keep her company for hours at a time, the girl began to speculate further. There must be about her, María Concepción thought, a negative aura, a toxic cloud or vapour that, though invisible, influenced people and events around her in a harmful way. She looked back over the years, recalling her siblings, each one in succession, and thought about her role in their deaths. And for each she found a reason to believe that, had she said something at an appropriate juncture or behaved in a slightly different manner at a crucial moment, that child would still be alive. It was enough that she thought her mother was struck with terror at the sight of her, but in a short time she had also convinced herself that her mother would somehow achieve contentment if she were gone. From here it was a short leap to the conclusion that her mother wished she would die. And from here, it was logical to assume that she deserved to die.

The girl continued to live her life and perform her chores, but once she had allowed these ideas to permeate her consciousness she became less of a flesh and blood entity and more an ethereal, vaporous presence. She spent hours out of doors, in the full glare of the summer sun, tending to the rose bushes with which she had formed an unlikely attachment. As time went on and the roses flourished, saturating the air around the house with their perfume, her skin acquired a milky translucence and her body became even more willowy and fragile than before. She drifted about the house in complete silence, shocking her mother with sudden and unexpected appearances at her side, floating from room to room and, like a shadow, leaving not a trace of herself behind, only the faintly perfumed scent of rose petals. Claudia did not see her eat a morsel, did not hear her speak a word for days at a time. She tried to rouse herself to alarm, but found she had not the heart for it. It was like the child had died along with the others and was already beyond her reach.

And then there came the day when María Concepción failed to appear at breakfast. Claudia forced herself to go looking. The house was silent, but outside there was a breeze and already the birds were filling the rose-scented air with their song. She crept along the passage to the girl’s bedroom. Within her heart fear mingled with hope to create something she neither recognized nor understood. When she thrust back the door without knocking she was shocked to find the room filled with light. Through the wide open windows the rose bushes reached numerous tendrils forward like groping fingers. María Concepción lay on her bed with her hands clasped over her breast holding a single pink rose. Her skin was pure chalk white and her abundant red hair was spread around her on the bedclothes in luxuriant shining splendour, concealing the pillow on which her head rested. Her eyes were closed as if in sleep, but her slightly parted lips had curled into a smile at the thought that now, after years of suffering, her mother would be happy.

§

Many years later news of the death of General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte filtered down to the common man by way of gossip and innuendo. First it was the nurse who had pressed her ear to his mouth and heard his deathbed confession, then the priest who had been called in at the last moment to perform the rite of Extreme Unction. Then one of the General’s bodyguards, who had long been living abroad, went on American radio and spoke about the General in the past tense. Finally there was such a clamour in the street that the state-controlled media had no choice but to report the death as a fact. The President hung his head and declared it was true, adding that the reason it had been kept secret was concern for public safety: the fear that in the midst of their celebrations people would behave badly and cause themselves and each other harm. But in truth, the President feared that because the economy was not as robust at this point in his term as he had promised it would be, people would look back on Aguaria’s administration with nostalgic longing and, forgetting the insane and random brutality that had been his trademark, turn the late General into a saint and his grave in the Cementerio Parque el Prado into a shrine.

Claudia, when she finally heard the news of Aguaria’s death nearly a year after the fact, made no connection with her own life. She had to think for a long while to bring an image to mind, and when she did, she saw a little man with a big moustache wearing military garb riding a grey stallion. Then she thought no more about it.

But she thought often and deeply about her children, who had visited this world far too briefly and passed into the next as if lured by some enticement impossible to resist. Fifty years after the death of her last she could still be seen making her weekly trek to the cementerio of San Gregório, where she swept off the graves of her offspring with a wicker broom, paused over each to mutter a prayer, and then trudged home along the dusty San Gregório road. As the years went by she often spoke of these visits and the things her children had done with the lives they had never lived. Federico Adolfo was a famous poet and had read to her from his latest project, a series of dramatic poems depicting the great military victories from the country’s long history. Carlos Vincenzo had become a college professor and visited the Galapagos Islands, where he studied the climate and the marine environment. The creatures he described seemed so outlandish and unearthly that she could hardly believe her ears. Ana Luisa had become a dancer. People all over the world paid money to see her perform. Antonio José was a soldier, César Javier a tram conductor. The others had all become parents and gave her the news of what their own children were up to. To hear these stories never failed to lift her spirit because for a mother, there is nothing more richly satisfying than to listen to her children describe their accomplishments.

When she understood that the last year of her life had arrived she brought each a special gift, and if anyone had been brave enough to commit the blasphemy of opening the paper bags in which the gifts were delivered, they would have found:

For little Federico Adolfo: the button that had unfairly claimed his life, which the doctor had presented to the young mother after conducting his examination. Claudia had kept it all these years, intending she knew not what, but the time had come to return it. She had often taken it from its hiding place to examine it, a plain black button from a pair of Francisco’s trousers. It had gone missing, and so distracted had she been by the squalling of her children she had not given it a second thought. Until it was too late.

For Sara Violeta, who had been so irritable and greedy for her feedings: the rubber nipple off the baby bottle she had used once the child had been weaned. The bottle had long since been broken, but if it had not been she would have brought that too.

For Carlos Vincenzo: the school bag that had been found in the forest close by his remains, still stained with his blood. She had never washed it. It was empty and she had always been curious to know who had taken his books and pencils.

For Eva Cristina, who had perished most mysteriously under the influence of a pernicious but unknown contagion: the two little cloth dolls, Bella and Lorenzo, with which the girl had been able to amuse herself for hours at a time.

For Pedro Diego, her little daredevil, the boy who would not stop laughing: a photograph of his friend María, the girl who had won his young heart and who, standing next to the family, had wept long and hard at his funeral. Claudia had discovered the photo in his school bag among his belongings after he had been laid to rest. It bore teeth marks along its edges and this strange fact had always brought a smile to her lips.

Ballet slippers seemed an appropriate parting gift for Ana Luisa, who had dreamed such noble and ambitious dreams but who fell victim to the despair of failure much too early.

Poor César Javier. Something had prevented him from eating his lunch on the day he had died, but he had carried it with him until that truck had ended his life. For him she brought two fresh cheese and tomato calzones to appease his hunger.

What else could she have brought for Eléna Serafína, the only one of her girls to bear a child of her own? Few mementos remained, but the one that stood out was the oversized brassiere she had had specially made to contain the girl’s enormous breasts.

For Antonio José: the object of his single-minded craving and the instrument of his ruin, a bottle of red wine.

For her beloved María Concepción: a little basket filled with rose petals.

§

Francisco retained a deeper recollection of Aguaria’s tenure as president. He had often cursed the General under his breath, especially when bearing one of his children to an early grave. But when news of the little man’s death reached him one hot dusty day when he was enjoying a cigarillo and a drink of homemade aguardiente at a sidewalk café in San Gregorio, he waved his hand in front of his face as if chasing off a fly. “The damage has been done,” he said to his old friend Egberto, who had likewise suffered under the tyrant’s rule. The faces of his ten dead children passed before Francisco’s eyes as the two old friends raised their glasses. To dispel the memory Francisco looked upward, into the piercing afternoon sun, and briefly considered the anguish that human beings are capable of enduring. By silent and mutual consent, he and Egberto toasted General Allesandro Aguaria-Duarte, the little man whose vanity was the object of an entire country’s derision. It had caused mayhem far and wide, led to the demise or disappearance of thousands, robbed families of their offspring, ruined the nation’s reputation on the international stage, and brought close friends to blows. “The waste,” Egberto commented, shaking his head. “Imagine the waste.” Francisco nodded, knowing, after all, more about waste than anyone could ever imagine.

They turned back to their game of backgammon. It was Francisco’s move.

—Ian Colford

 

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Remarkably, more than 30 years after his first story was published, Ian Colford keeps finding things to write about. He gets most of his ideas from overheard conversations and from just keep his eyes open, but when the pickings are slim he makes things up. Often, an idea will simmer for a year or two before the writing starts, with the final product bearing little resemblance to the original concept. “How the Laughter of the Nation …”  was originally included in the draft manuscript of his novel The Crimes of Hector Tomas (2012) but was cut during the editorial process. He is grateful to Numéro Cinq for giving this story its web debut. A novella, Perfect World, is forthcoming from Freehand Books in 2016. At present he is working on a sequence of stories using characters that appeared in his 2008 story collection, Evidence. He works as a librarian at the Sexton Design & Technology Library at Dalhousie University.

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