Aug 122016
 

Revulsion

Photo by Nina Subin

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

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

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

— Benjamin Woodard

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

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

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

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moya_nina_subin

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

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Klein

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

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Aug 082016
 

Evan Lavender-Smith

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I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—How is metal made?

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

—Thanks. Back in a jiff.

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I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—How are mountains made?

—Mountains?

—Mountains. Ever heard of them?

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

—Mountains.

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

—Great. Back in a lickety-split.

.

I have a question.

—You going to eat your burger?

—Yes.

—When?

—The Earth.

—The Earth? You mean the planet?

—Planet Earth, ever heard of it?

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

—Back before you know it.

.

I have a question.

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

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

—Fine.

—Can we get the heck out of this place?

—Good question. Now eat your burger.

.

I have a question.

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

—What’s your job?

—My job? Being your father.

—That’s not a job.

—Writer..

—I have a question.

—Shoot. I mean, get back in the pool.

—How much do you make from your writing?

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

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

—Shoot.

—How much does Mom make?

—Get back in the pool, young lady.

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I have a question.

—Shoot.

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

—What?

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

—You must be joking.

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I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

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

—Now hold on a second.

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

—I’m sorry.

—See?

—I mean, I understand.

—You must be joking.

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

—See?

—I’m sorry. I mean, I understand.

—You must be joking.

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

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Song or just a back rub?

—I wish he were dead.

—Who?

—You must be joking.

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

—Exactly.

—Song or just a back rub?

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

—Shoot.

—How old was he when he stopped getting songs?

—Couldn’t say. Don’t remember.

—Couldn’t say or don’t remember?

—Don’t remember.

—You don’t remember anything, do you?

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

—You must be joking. See?

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

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

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

—It does?

—Yes. What did you think it meant?

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

.

I have a question. Water.

—Water. Water is a combination of …

—Hydrogen.

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

—Stars.

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

—Gravity.

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

—The universe.

—The universe?

—The universe, ever heard of it?

—Well.

—The universe, well?

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

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

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

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

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

—You must be joking.

.

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

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

—I’m sorry.

—I knew you would say that.

—I mean, I understand..

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

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

—I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Why are you so mean?

—Song or just a back rub?

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

.

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

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

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

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

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Death.

—Death?

—Death. That’s my question.

—Death.

—Lay it on me.

—Well.

—Death, well?

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

.

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

—You sure?

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

—Okay. You ready?

—Ready and rearing to go.

—Okay, here we go.

—Lay it on me.

—Heaven.

—Heaven? You must be joking.

—Heaven. God. Angels.

—You must be joking.

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

.

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

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

—What I have to look forward to.

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

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

—Couldn’t say.

—Couldn’t say or don’t remember?

—Eat your burger.

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

—Just eat your burger.

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

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

—Couldn’t say or don’t know?

—Burger.

—So you admit that heaven isn’t real?

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

.

Song or just a back rub?

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

—Of course.

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

—How?

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

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

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

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

—So you don’t think I’m a real angel?

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

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

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

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

—Song or just a back rub?

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

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

—Promise.

—Okay, here we go.

—Lay it on me.

—Okay. Heaven. Not real.

—Got it. Heaven, total sham. And?

—Angels. Also not real.

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

—That’s it.

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

—Song or just a back rub?

—Death.

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

—Your angel of death, maybe.

—What?

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

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

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

—Fine. Nothing’s going to happen.

—You must be joking.

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

—What do you mean?

—Think back to before you were born.

—What do you mean, before I was born?

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

—I don’t know. Nothing.

—Exactly.

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

—Yes.

—But that’s not so bad. Right?

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

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

—Game Boys.

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

—Absolutely. Song or just a back rub?

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

—Evan Lavender-Smith

 

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

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Aug 062016
 

Margaret Nowaczyk

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

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

dg

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bentley eyed the dresses.

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

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

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

“This color does nothing for you.”

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

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

“I know that,” she said.

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

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

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

“I thought it was funny,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He loved her so much.

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

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

“This?”

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

“I’m not good enough?”

Adèle lifted her head and stared at him, unblinking.

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

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

“Don’t ever leave me,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

It was as if they both held their breath.

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

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

Neither spoke until the kettle whistled.

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

—Margaret Nowaczyk

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

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Aug 022016
 

Curtis White

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From a work in progress, Lacking Character

 

At Last, the Reading Public Gets the Trees It Deserves

—after Cormac McCarthy

 

“Science slanders matter.” —Schelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capture

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

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

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

—Curtis White

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

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Aug 012016
 

Brightfellow1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir—”

“Billy.”

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

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

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

“No—”

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

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

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

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

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

Doing! Dang! Doing!

Doing! Dang! Doing!

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

*

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

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

“Biblical!” he exclaims.

“Why biblical?” Billy wonders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Rikki Ducornet

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

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ducornet01_body

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

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Jul 122016
 

Capture

ericdupont~614

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

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

—Joseph Schreiber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Eric Dupont, Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

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

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Eric-Dupont-Photo-Credit-Sarah-Scott

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

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Photo_Peter-McCambridge

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

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Jul 102016
 

John Gould 2016

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First Kiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wiped my face and said that somebody had died.

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

I said, “I don’t know.”

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

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

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Word of Mouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From there, things just sort of took off.

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Your Wellness This Week

Dear Doctor Barry,

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

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

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

R.S.

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Dear R.S.,

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. B.

—John Gould

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John Gould 2016
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John Gould is the author of a novel, Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good, and of two collections of very short stories, including Kilter, a finalist for the Giller prize. The stories appearing here on NC are from the manuscript of a third such collection. Gould has worked as an environmental researcher, tree planter, carpenter, and arts administrator. He served for years on the editorial board of the Malahat Review and teaches writing at the University of Victoria.

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Jul 062016
 

Lance Olsen

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

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

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

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

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

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe we should give it more thought, Elise says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now Delia is here.

And now she is here.

And now she is here.

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

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

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

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

Eight years, and they will wake up married.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now, though, none of that is happening.

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

A black shadow scrambles across their feet and flickers out.

Elise thinks cloud.

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

—Lance Olsen

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

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Jul 012016
 

Before_Cover_Consortium_CMYK

The following excerpt appears early in Vaseline Buddha (translated by Jung Yewon) yet contains all of the important themes and patterns, including the narrator’s interest in writing non-traditional narratives, his illness, and his reflections on death. It also contains crucial metafictional commentary on how the novel is constructed sentence-for-sentence, with its repeating use of “thought,” the book’s most important word. —Jason DeYoung

Read our review here.

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I’m somewhat curious as to what kind of a distorted story will result overall when you devote yourself to the details with no thought to the overall structure. One of the reasons why I don’t write stories with a clear structure or theme is because there’s something about such stories, in and of themselves, that make me shudder with their boredom, and another, because just one look at our reality will show you how far removed such stories are from our reality—or my own life, at least—and how different the truth of our reality is from what’s depicted in them

What I can write is a story that’s not quite a narrative, and is much too obscure and unstable. Not being obsessed with a completed story will create an opening into different territories in novels. A story with gaps and cracks and leaps and loopholes, a story that’s incomplete somehow, may more faithfully reflect real life. What exerts the greatest influence on my life is things without substance, and I’m turning my life into something without substance, and as I regard the struggle against things without substance, or tangible substance, as the only genuine struggle—this problem of mine seems to be a fundamental problem of the world as well—I have no choice but to clumsily write something without substance.

Make it a story, if possible, that’s not full of the power of narrative, a story seeking to break away from narratives whose naivety makes you smile, narratives that are dull because of their inherent tendency to seek power, and because their dull ideas are generally audacious, and their audacious aim to enlighten is inevitably dull. The persistent tendency in me to prevent the unfolding of a story, and the belief that there’s no narrative to life, could perhaps make that possible. There are, of course, people who believe that there’s a narrative to life, some of whom seek to turn their own lives into something with a narrative, through whatever means possible, and some of them do so with ambition, and some write narrative texts, and some reveal their ambition without hiding it, for it’s difficult to hide such an ambition when you have it, but among such people, there are probably some who come to realize that in the end, their lives can’t be a narrative, and that a narrative is not a principle that penetrates life, and turn their attention to something that’s not narrative. What I want to write is something  that depicts the fragmentary aspects of life, which are like a tangled skein, in a fragmentary manner, something that reflects my own life, which in itself is a great chaos, by creating and maintaining chaos, the greatest constituent of life.

Perhaps I seek to write something that’s fit to be read on a rock in a forest you come to while on a daily walk, or in a café on a street where you’re traveling. I would bring into my story fragmentary stories whose pages, turned by the wind, can be read at random, stories that allow you to close your eyes while reading and dwell for a moment on a scene that can be taken out from the book and savored, stories that are far from being narrative. Even when I talk about the anecdotes, they will be stories that are not quite narratives, stories that cannot be narratives. Perhaps even as I talk about the anecdotes, I could talk about my impressions on the anecdotes and the thoughts created by those impressions, preventing the anecdotes from developing into narratives.

What I seek to emphasize as I write this story, which perhaps says nothing, and in which something becomes nothing when the standards are changed, or whose meaning or importance changes (Some of the stories I tell could end up being told somehow even though I had no intention of telling them, or tried not to tell them. And there will be almost no difference between some of them, even if there’s a difference between those that are told and those that are not told), is not the story itself, but ways in which stories are told (The ways would include saying something that doesn’t seem to make sense at one glance in a clever way so that it does make sense), and ideas that prevent something from degenerating into a story—ideas that prevent a story, even as it is told, from developing into a story in the end, or at least into a complete story—or, since many ideas come from things, something that is developing into ideas on things, or thoughts on thoughts I’m thinking, or on the pleasure or the difficulty of thinking, or thoughts on pleasure or difficulty itself.

And I’d have to subdue the various voices within myself that raise themselves or speak simultaneously—some of the voices seem to plead some kind of a difficulty, and some of them are on their way to understanding a cruel, merciless heart—or give weight to one of the voices. I’d have to close my ears to the end to the nastiest of them all, and press and suppress it, the voice that comes from the part deepest within me, the voice that denies everything, the voice that is used to silence or has learned to be silent.

Perhaps that is the result of a certain conflict between a figure I have designated as the first person narrator of the story I’m writing and myself, for it could be difficult for a narrator, who feels uncomfortable that the author’s voice slips in, and that his autonomy is violated, and the author, who sticks his head out while hiding behind the narrator, to speak in one voice. I already sense that the figure I have designated as the narrator would spoil the fun of the figure identified as the author, and dash cold water on the thoughts that the author has, possibly leading the author to stand up to him even more for fun, and the person actually writing this story could find himself in an awkward position between the narrator and the author, and have a difficult time arbitrating between the two and side with one of them at times, but find himself in an ambiguous position at times (Perhaps this story will be written by at least three people), and I’d have to write so that a calm tone and a cheerful tone cross and collide like dissonance, so that the unity of tone is broken, and tell the darkest story in the most cheerful way, or vice versa.

*

Anyway, there are other thoughts I’m obsessed with now, thoughts about death. Thoughts about death, of course, have always followed me around, and I’m as familiar with death as I am with the spots on my body I’ve had since I was born.

In light of the fact that although many things in life seem predetermined, nothing, in fact, is predetermined, and that you yourself can decide everything at every moment, and if you think carefully, very carefully on that fact, there come moments in which suicide, the best choice you can make, becomes very alluring, and such moments come to me far too often.

What I think about mostly, however, is death in general, not suicide through which I would murder myself, and not actual death, but something abstract, like the memory of a day when you shivered terribly in the cold, or a feeling you had upon seeing an abstract painting, or a sudden thought you have when looking at a dead fish, still intact, on your plate in a restaurant.

It’s summer now, and in full bloom by my bedroom window are trumpet creepers, which are known to be toxic, or which I somehow came to believe are toxic, though I don’t know whether or not it’s true, and which I could touch by reaching out a hand, over the wall of my neighboring house, and looking at them, I think of death once again. For some time, I had indulged in the idea that the toxin in the showy flower could make me die slowly, or at least go insane, and felt a strong desire to eat a trumpet creeper, and at one time had to realize that desire in another way, by coming up with the sentence, When a trumpet creeper dressed in the wrong clothes is going round and round many horses, you need to make an effort to row and go to the bottom of the lake.

Summer was always the most difficult season for me to endure; in any case, it was difficult for me to feel that way about any other season besides summer. It was difficult, at least, for me to do so as I did about summer. And that was because I thought summer was a difficult season for me, that it was inevitably a difficult season for me, but there really were aspects about summer that gave me a difficult time. For several years when summer came around, I felt that the summer would be difficult to endure, and each time, summer came to me as a season that would take me to a point of no return. Thus, summer seemed to be a season I had to stand up to, and I thought I could write something about an exhausting struggle and tragic loss of a summer, with the title, “The Record of a Summer’s Struggle,” or “The Record of a Summer’s Loss.” And I considered using one of them as the title of what I’m writing, but concluded that they were more fitting as the titles of certain periods you went through.

Nevertheless, I managed, barely, to endure through several summers that came to me, and was faced with another summer. And yet, although I didn’t know the exact cause—for I didn’t try to find out the exact cause—my condition was steadily growing worse, and so for a long time, I had a sort of a belief, the belief that I, or my condition, wouldn’t improve, that it would never improve, that it could go terribly wrong at one point, and the belief seemed excessive in a way.

But when this summer came around, I passed out in my house, as if through a miracle that comes to someone who has unshaken faith and clings to it, as if through the realization of a long-held belief, and the incident was something that had been foreseen through dizziness that had been growing worse for a long time, and I’d prepared for it in my own way, that is, by not doing anything. My terrible negligence of everything made that possible for me.

The physical ailment that I’d imagined would come to me, however, was seizure or leg trouble or something of the sort. I’d also thought at one time that if one of my legs became impaired, I could procure a nice cane, and with three legs, now that one had been added, take more complicated, rhythmic steps, which wouldn’t be possible with two legs (I actually took a very careful look at an old woman with bad legs at the park one day, taking modest steps, relying on a cane, submitting to a certain rhythm, and afterwards when I saw normal people walking, they seemed somewhat stupid and awkward. And if I carried around a cane, I could raise it and politely scare off a dog on a walk with its master, delighted to see me and about to come running even though we didn’t know each other, and prevent it from coming toward me, or use the cane to make the dog come closer as it changed its mind while coming toward me and refused to come any closer, feeling threatened by the cane I was holding or by me, holding the cane, or, before all this happened, I wouldn’t have to chase away the tiresome dogs one by one, for the dogs could lose their nerve early on, seeing the cane, and not come close. And as occasion demanded, I could scare someone off, acting as if I would beat him if necessary, even if I didn’t actually beat him with the cane, or I could, using the cane, pluck a ripe apple or a rose, hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, at a height I couldn’t reach with my hand. I’m of the opinion that anyone passing by should be allowed to pluck an apple or a rose hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, but once, I was caught by the owner while plucking a rose, and was somewhat humiliated. The owner of the house was a philosopher, well known to the public, and he was furious at me, as if quite upset that one of his roses had been stolen. The aged philosopher seemed to be of the philosophy that nothing that belonged to him should be taken away from him by anyone. But it was my philosophy, if I had any philosophy at all, that something so small as taking an apple or a rose without the owner’s permission should be allowed on this earth, still the only planet among the countless planets in the universe known to have life forms. A world in which you couldn’t pilfer a luscious fruit or a rose while taking a walk on a bright afternoon or in the middle of the night would indeed be a world without hope. After that, I saw the philosopher in front of his house, severely scolding a dog, though I’m not sure if it was his dog or someone else’s, or what it had done, and he was scolding it as menacingly as he did when I plucked one of his roses. In other words, I was scolded by him just as the hapless dog was scolded. Mercy was possibly the ultimate sentiment that a human could have toward other humans and living things, but it seemed that he had no mercy. He always seemed fraught with anger, and it was possible that he became angry even with his desk or dishes from time to time).

Nevertheless, the culmination of the persisting poor condition of my body in the form of dizziness seemed to be something that suited me as the final outcome, although I hadn’t secretly anticipated it, and it felt a little like a miracle when it actually happened because I’d been hoping in my heart that something would throw my life, which was much too tranquil in a way, and almost unrealistic—I had an earnest desire to disturb a stable condition, even as I sought stability—into confusion, albeit slightly.

When I was severely dizzy, I felt as if I were suffering from seasickness on land, and I accepted dizziness as my natural state of being by thinking that I knew that I was on a rotating earth because of my dizziness, and that dizziness was something quite natural you could feel on the earth, in this dizzy world, and sometimes, even when I kept still, I felt as if I were standing on a slab of ice floating down the river, or as if I were falling slowly, while at the same time soaring with an infinite lightness, into a seemingly bottomless space devoid of gravity, but also as if I were sinking, like some kind of a sediment, deep into the ocean where enormous pressure weighed down upon me, and at the same time, I felt as if my entire body were a building that was collapsing, unable to endure its own weight after many years.

But the dizziness I felt was something that could not be described properly through any color, shape, texture, figure of speech, or anything at all (One day, it seemed as if the floor of my room were slowly tilting this way and that—one of the symptoms of dizziness I felt could be described in this way—and it seemed that if there were balls on the floor, they would roll around here and there, but the problem seemed to lie in that I couldn’t free myself of the thought that my dizziness wouldn’t cease so long as it felt as if the nonexistent balls were rolling around on the floor and I failed to make the balls come to a stop), and I was frustrated, while at the same time fascinated, by the impossibility of describing the dizziness—I felt a bit of joy that I couldn’t describe the dizziness, which was purely because I was thinking about how easily the modifier “indescribable” was accompanied by the word “joy”—and thought that the only adjective that could describe it, inadequate as it was, was “uncontrollable (But is this an adjective?),” and that the dizziness some people felt was something that separated them from others, and would be as distinct and diverse as their personalities or appearances.

*

The moment I lost consciousness, I felt as if I were clutching the hem of a woman’s long skirt, that I was grasping it with more strength in my hand than was necessary, but I thought that in reality, the strength in my hand that was grasping it was leaving, and when I woke up after being unconscious for I don’t know how long, I was, in fact, loosely clutching the hem of the curtain on my kitchen window, made of thick velvet.

But what I couldn’t understand, above all, was how I’d woken up by the window, which was several steps away from the living room, when it seemed that I was in the living room when I collapsed. Perhaps I walked slowly toward the window the moment I collapsed, losing consciousness, or crawled quickly, when it wasn’t necessary, like some animal that
crawls quickly.

The sudden swooning brought me a peculiar sort of pleasure, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I could think that I was clutching a woman’s skirt hem, even as I lost consciousness and collapsed—I wasn’t sure, however, if this very Kafkaesque experience was an experience of Kafka’s, penned in one of his works, or my own—or if there was an inherent pleasure that could be found in the loss of consciousness, a pleasure that could be found if you sought to find it. The moment I lost consciousness, I actually thought that I was pulling and taking off a woman’s skirt, a daring yet rude thing to do, but one that was delightful in a way, and also thought that I couldn’t help laughing, though it wasn’t something to laugh about, but I don’t think I actually laughed.

The swooning also brought a peculiar sort of satisfaction, for there seemed to be an infinite space within the dizziness of swooning through which I could spread out infinitely, after being sucked up into the whirlpool of dizziness because of dizziness. And the incident gave me a sense of anticipation, a great sense of anticipation, for more to come in the future (Anticipation is a very strange thing, making you anticipate such things, and making you, at times, anticipate your own fall and decline above all).

Having woken up by the window, I felt as if I could lose consciousness again at any moment, and everything seemed like a lie, and I thought somewhat clearly that everything seemed like a lie, in a way that was different from the way in which life itself seemed like a lie, but that there was nothing strange about it. In the end, I felt an acute pain in my knee joint, which had been bad for some time, and while trying to focus on it, wondered, This pain, where’s its origin, and when was its origin? but it occurred to me that these expressions weren’t correct, so I wondered again, What is the origin of this pain? and wondered if this expression was correct, as I lost consciousness again, and this time, I woke up in the bathroom. I couldn’t remember how I’d made my way from the window to the bathroom, and why there, of all places, either.

Sitting crumpled on the bathroom floor, and feeling great sorrow this time, I thought that I’d never be able to regain my consciousness if I lost it again, and agonized over whether I should stay where I was, hoping to get better, or go to the emergency room, and if I were to go to the emergency room, how I’d get there, and thought that I’d never gone to the emergency room in an ambulance and felt an urge to do so, but in the end, I called a taxi, and while being taken away in a taxi, I clenched my hand tightly, as if I holding onto a string of consciousness which I’d lose forever if I let go, and thought that it wouldn’t matter that much even if I did lose consciousness, as if falling asleep, on my way to the hospital, and again thought, somewhat playfully, that if I swooned again, I should make sure to grab the hem of a woman’s skirt.

I got to the emergency room, and lay on a bed without being able to properly explain my symptoms to the doctor, and as he took certain measures, I wondered whether or not I should let go of the string of consciousness, and felt a strong desire to do so, even while fighting against it, and saw the curtains flapping in the open window, and remembered that it was while I was staying cooped up in a hotel in New York that I thought, looking at the curtains that were flapping in the same way, that I wouldn’t go outside unless a gigantic sailboat, with a full load and the sails taut with wind, entered through the window, and the memory brought me a strange, almost unbearable pleasure.

—Jung Young Moon translated by Jung Yewon

N5

Asia Talks: Author Jung Young Moon
Jung Young Moon is the author of numerous works of fiction including Vaseline Buddha, A Contrived World, A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and A Man Who Barely Exists. Jung has also translated more than forty books from English into Korean. In 2005 Jung participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Jung Yewon

Jung Yewon is the translator of One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jung-eun. She is also the translator of No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin and one of the co-translators of A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young Moon, both published by Dalkey Archive as part of their Library of Korean Literature series.

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Jun 112016
 

A D Jameson

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You’ve probably heard about me. I was murdered by women. It’s OK. I had it coming. I deserved it. And it made me kind of famous. I’m pretty famous. My death was all over the evening news. It was the murder of the decade, a ratings sensation. The details are not for the faint of heart. They’re fairly gruesome. Sheila used a frying pan to bash in my head. Antonia tore open my throat with a paring knife. The coroner, later, couldn’t determine who struck first. I wish I could shed some light on the subject, but it was a blur. A whole lot of things were happening at once. Margaret stabbed me with some scissors, in the heart. It wasn’t the center of my heart, but very close. Her RN training served her well. Cecilia slashed at my legs with a knitting needle—a pity. I had magnificent legs, very sexy calves. I know she admired them, Ceci did. In the end, she destroyed what she couldn’t have. At least, I think that’s what she was thinking. I can’t be certain.

The women were nice to me beforehand, gentle and sweet. They invited me over for dinner. I should have suspected something then. I knew they despised me. They had good reasons to be vengeful. But I thought they loved me still. So when Melissa called, I was eager to believe. She said she’d been talking with the gals, and that they all felt the need to get on with their lives. She said they’d decided: let bygones be bygones. It seemed too easy, but I agreed. What can I say? I couldn’t deny them anything. I never wished them any harm. In retrospect, they got into my head.

The meal was nice. They cooked me lamb chops, which were my favorite. As well as roasted baby potatoes, and sautéed mushrooms and asparagus. And for dessert, they made lemon sorbet. Which later turned out to be poisoned. The women weren’t taking any chances.

We had a lot of drinks with dinner: wine and bourbon and shots of Malört. At last, Barbara stood up and hoisted her glass. She proposed a toast on my behalf. It was an intricate, rambling speech. She must have spent hours preparing and practicing it, the dear. I wish I could remember what she said. But I wasn’t paying much attention. I was staring at Amanda, who was winking and smiling at me. And Constance was toying with her hair, and winking, too, and blowing me kisses.

Barbara concluded. Sally stood up and said it was time for the entertainment. Some of the women started to dance—Mandy and Megan, Deborah and Grace, and Sherry Ann. They’d choreographed it. It was kind of like a striptease. I was intrigued. I straightened up, started paying more attention.

That’s when it happened. Lulu crept up from behind and started to choke me. Samantha meanwhile pinned down my hands, with help from Mindy and Denise. Vanessa struck me across the chin, while Kelly and Madelyn castrated me. The rest is history.

To their credit, they didn’t deny it. The women didn’t conceal my body. Instead they threw my corpse from the balcony into the street. “See what we’ve done!” they loudly proclaimed. “It is we who have murdered him! We have his blood on our hands!” And with this they held out their hands and let people photograph them, and interview them.

Of course they were arrested and there was a trial. There had to be. They spent their time in the media spotlight. It was a bit of a circus, really. There were debates and oversized headlines. Pundits pontificated, and politicians argued. Academics presented papers at conferences. The nation was scandalized and thrown into an uproar. Some called for justice, while others said that justice had already been served. The women grew famous far and wide. Men sent them proposals, begged them to “come and murder me.” But the women ignored them, god bless their hearts. They said they’d been after only me. They’d taken their fury out on me. They proved a class act, declining book deals and record contracts. They refused to pose for Playboy, or any other magazine. And when the TV movie got made, they issued a statement, urging people not to watch it. They said my death wasn’t entertainment, but a necessary correction. They’d done what they’d done for humanity’s sake, and the good of the land.

In the end, they were acquitted, one and all. Due to extenuating circumstances, or evidence tampering—technicalities. It made no sense to me, but law wasn’t my strong suit. I’m no legal scholar.

I bet you’re wondering if I hate them. No. How could I? I had one of the finer deaths. If I’m being honest, it’s how I secretly wanted to go—hence the curious manner in which I lived my life. The heart is crafty in its steady pursuit of desire. I have no regrets. If you had asked me, I wouldn’t have said so at the time, but deep down, I always knew, in the end, I’d be murdered by women.

—A D Jameson

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A D Jameson is the author of three books: the short story collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence & Gibson, 2011), and the inspirational volume 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium, 2013). His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, Brooklyn Rail, PANK, and dozens of other journals, while his articles on film and pop culture have appeared at HTMLGiant, Big Other, and Press Play. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he’s finishing up a book on geek cinema.

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Jun 102016
 

Julian Herbert

 

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

The sign juts up suddenly in the sky above the beltway. It’s a hazy deep green, rectangular and rusting away. Sitting shotgun, with my notebook in hand, it takes me a few moments to understand and write down the words. Fevers bring on this sort of sluggish lucidity. I want to laugh but the purple bolt of pain that slashes from my jaw to my ear is so bright that I find myself curled up into a ball in the seat. Without slowing her Mazda the least bit (the bitch has a Mazda; three years ago she was barely surviving by turning tricks, picking up paying pricks at El Diablito Tun Tun to the sound of reggaeton rhythms), Lisandra looks at me and says:

“You want an aspirin, baby?”

It’s neither a question nor a statement. It’s just polite auto-babble. A salicylic silk handkerchief to dull the razor blades of varying thickness slicing my face, the face of nothing. I answer no with a shiver: that was the babble I used to sputter out when I was a kid and thought about murdering Mom.

My mom made a living as cold mill laminator in the AHMSA Steel Plant No. 1. Every day she returned home from work encrusted from head to toe in metal shavings, and white from saltpeter, the soles of her feet cracking, her knees tight and creaking like knots, her calves hard as a cutting board. She made me massage her with Stanhome Foot Repair the whole afternoon while we watched reruns of tacky soap operas: “A Girl Named Miracle,” “Rina,” and “The Strange Return of Diana Salazar.” Once in a while we could hear Papa shouting as he played marbles out in the garden with the little kids. It made me really angry that he had permission to go out and play while I stayed inside.

“It’s you I love the most,” she said if I argued, her face taking on an expression she meant to look sweet but which always struck me as obscene.

Sometimes when I gave her massages I daydreamed, imagining Mom toppling into an enormous blast furnace, her body vaporized in the boiling pig iron (in school I’d seen some crude sketches of those gigantic ladles used to hold molten steel). It was a nightmarish vision and it made me feel enormously sad, almost bad enough to want to die too, but I consoled myself by playing marbles with Dad and the kids next door.

Sometimes Mom complained of a headache.

“Do you want an aspirin?” I’d ask her, imagining that maybe the pharmacist had accidentally dropped a few sleeping pills into the bottle of aspirin. Or better yet, a cyanide capsule like secret agents used in spy movies.

It wasn’t quite dark yet but she gave me my late afternoon snack and sent me off to bed.

“You’re the best boy in the world,” she would say, bending over me, before switching off the light. “Some day God will reward you so much, because there’s nothing holier in this world than someone who looks after their mother.”

Then she’d leave me there in my dark room. I’d lay awake for a long time. I’d listen to the television through the wall, trying to imagine a face and a situation for each character. I’d listen to the voices of the neighbors’ kids in the street, making fun of Dad’s stupidities. I’d review my plans for how to kill her until I was finally overcome by sadness or sleep.

“C’mon now, stop that,” says Lisandra. “You can’t go on like that, baby. Really.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel until she remembers the prescription. “You’ve got to take a shot of that stupid Cetri-. . . .”

“Ceftriaxone.”

“That’s it.”

“And Acetaminophen.”

“Stop writing in your notebook, man, and listen to me. You’ve got to take your medicine and give it to your wife, too. Because, look, with that scrawny, flea-bitten body of hers, Cecilia isn’t gonna be able to put up with your little joke until you decide you’ve got the balls to tell her the truth, ok? You inject her or she dies, and then let’s see how you get rid of her body.

We cut across the edge of the city by a side street before hitting the bottleneck from the construction on the new bridge. Lisandra stops to get my prescription filled in a Guadalajara pharmacy. I stay in the car with my head leaning against the glass, reading over my notes. My hands are throbbing. I feel a spiral of pressure in my chest and my head, a spiral of pressure sliding out of my mouth like a vaporous boa constrictor. My fever must have risen to more than 102˚. They can all go to hell: I’m not taking any pills or injections. And Cecilia isn’t either.

Lisandra is just scornful of Cecilia’s body; the last vestige of the fact that she was once my wife.

I’d gone to Havana to play a show as the bassist in Daddy Dada. We performed in the Plaza de la Dignidad on the same bill as Elvis Manuel and Gente de Zona, playing on stage with our backs to the office of foreign affairs. There were about fifty or two hundred or two hundred thousand black flags with a white star in the middle (the number varies according to the level of patriotism of the Cuban who tells you about them), waving over our heads and making one hell of a racket throughout our whole set. I felt that I’d landed on a Caribbean island of heartless but well-intentioned pirates. Pirates with short-term collective amnesia: every so often they hoisted their corsair flag, as if that would stop the merciless English commandants from raping their mothers the way Blackbeard did.

The moment the show was over all of us musicians in Daddy Dada, like good little Mexican boys, immediately took off to scour the town for whores. (A Mexican is easy to spot in Havana, the taxi driver explained to us: he’s got a big belly, he’s demanding, he’s stingy, he dresses well, he sports his bling, and he asks where to find the blonde whores with the lightest skin.) They took us in a Chinese van to the legendary Diablito Tun Tun, the whole club throbbing with the sound of yet more reggaeton. I’d almost jump out a second-story window to get away from that hellish music, and the fans even clamor for autographs. It drives me fucking nuts: I was once an aspiring artist but a couple of rappers already have everything I ever dreamed of.

Lisandra was standing there at the door of the club, with her almost transparent eyes and her lightly freckled breasts, swaying more gracefully than a Las Vegas table dancer (collectivist and affable: “You’re not a penny pincher, I can tell you like to share.”) and asking for some Cuban pesos so she could get through the door. I paid her way in, treated her to a Red Bull, and fifteen minutes later we were back outside. Her “cousin” gave us a lift in his broken-down Ford to the half-dead entrance into central Havana where her “aunt” loaned her a room (with a TV with an antenna that could pick up the channels out of Miami) so she could spend some time alone with “her friends.”

I paid in advance.

Lisandra handed me a condom. I told her that first I wanted to give her head. She stripped naked without a word. She lay on her back, looking at the ceiling, spread her legs and let me sink my face between them. As I was stroking her soft hairy mound, I felt how she was getting excited little by little. There was a moment––the most intense one we’ve ever experienced together––when her back arched and her fingers very softly brushed the hair on my head. It barely lasted a second. Then she sat up all of a sudden, grabbed the condom from where I’d placed it on the bureau, and said to me:

“Alright: now put it on and get it over with.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a tourist; you can’t touch me that way.”

“Why not?”

“Because tourists make me wanna puke.”

I was so offended that I immediately had the idea that I wanted to marry her. I wanted to drag her back to Mexico, chain her to the wall of some shadeless, sun-bleached patio, force her to scrub the floors, wrapped tight in a pair of denim short-shorts that would allow me to comfortably appreciate (from the imaginary recliner of a postmodern creole slave driver) her legs and her ass.

“OK,” I told her.

I slipped on the rubber and came inside her as fast as I could.

Courting her was the easiest thing of all: three short days later we were already engaged. She gave me only two conditions: first, that her “cousin” not find out yet, and, second, that I let her keep going to the Diablito Tun Tun the same as always while we waited for her visa to be approved. It seemed reasonable to me. The afternoon that I had to catch the plane back to Mexico, Lisandra took me home to ask for her hand. Her father cried.

We got married. I got her out of Cuba and, for a few months, we lived together in my old apartment. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was going to be impossible to humiliate her, hate her, or fall in love with her: Lisandra is the sweetest person I know. She’s also as greasy as a pig and as hard as a hammer: everything slides right off her, and she puts a dent in everything. On the other hand, the sexual aura she so strongly exuded when I met her disappeared completely as soon as she stepped foot off the island. It was as if her body just suddenly powered down or got old or was suddenly drained of life.

One day she found a job (whoring didn’t spoil her schooling: she’s a certified nutritionist from the University of Havana and she speaks four languages). Placing her open palm on my crotch as a sign of peace, she told me: “Listen, darling, you and I have got nothing left to do together.” She packed her bags and moved in with a woman I know.

Lisandra returns to the car with the little bag of medicines. I ask her:

“How much do I owe you?”

“Quit fucking around. You just better take the prescribed dose and stop driving me crazy with all these trips to the doctor. Any day now my patience is going to come to an end.”

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Acetaminophen, commonly known by its brand name Tylenol, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication used to reduce symptoms of pain. Occasionally it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. People who take it in place of aspirin run a greater risk of heart attacks or cerebrovascular accidents.

Ceftriaxone is a third-generation cephalosporin for parenteral use against serious gram-negative bacteria. It penetrates the blood-brain barrier, which makes it useful in the treatment of meningitis. Its spectrum is not effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It must not be physically mixed with other medications. It can produce neurotoxicity if administered simultaneously with aminoglycosides.

Acetylsalicylic acid, the chemical name for aspirin, inhibits the activity of the cyclooxygenase enzyme, which diminishes the formation of precursors of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. It can induce bronchial spasms in patients with asthma. Children and adolescents with viral symptoms must not consume it owing to the risk of it causing Reye’s syndrome, which is usually fatal.

“Do you want an aspirin?” is a poisonous question.

One day Mom and Dad were arguing about the which way they needed to set a new beam in the house. “Like this,” she said. “No, this way,” said Dad, his voice shrill, about ready to throw a fit, and he turned it around. I was sitting on the floor, very close to them, monkeying around with the tools. The beam slipped out of their hands and landed on my head. They slapped a bandage on me, filled me up with pills, and bought me a carton of vanilla ice cream. Then Mom beat Dad with her belt and sent him off to sleep in the doghouse.

Lisandra turns the car onto Calle Pedro Aranda and we roll into the neighborhood of Colonia Bellavista, the uppermost district in the city. Below us lies the flooded quarry, a hard reddish pool, where they extracted the stone used to build the cathedral of Santiago Mataindios––St. James the Indian Slayer––constructed between 1745 and 1800 with the meagre funds of the rich people in the valley of Zapalinamé.

I am both the son and heir of a legendary man: Santiago el Cavernícola––the “caveman”––the hippie guitar hero, the mestizo twin of Robert Plant who sold his Chevy Nova to pay for a coyote to lead him up the stairway to heaven, to the land of stars and bars, to the house of the rising sun, and the dark side of the moon: I am son and heir of a handsome Mexican who became a wetback to get to California. Not to pick tomatoes but to become a rock star.

Santiago el Cavernícola left the barrio of Alacrán––a place whose name means “scorpion”–– long before I was born. He packed only a double change of clothes and the second-hand Takamine twelve-string he had bought at a flea market. Among the flock of teenage girls sighing and pining away in his absence was my mom.

There is a drop of blood trembling in the white of my left eye. I don’t see it: I feel it. I tried to turn my pupil inwards. I know perfectly well it can’t be done. I try. My fever must be close to 104˚. I need a cold shower to bring it down without any pills.

For years, nobody in our town heard anything about my dad. Not until a bus driver on a company shuttle for metalworkers ran into him trying to thumb a ride on Highway 40, near Cuatro Ciénegas. They say it was pretty difficult to recognize him: he’d shaved off all his long hair and his eyebrows with a straight razor. He was carrying a woman’s purse with a big wad of money: twenty thousand dollars. He spoke confusedly about Saint Francis of Assisi, and he hid from trees because, he said, they were trying to recruit him for the war.

Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Everyone realized that he was flying high on a permanent acid trip and nevertheless, for some months, he once again became one of the most popular young people on the scene. Partly because, as his hair started to grow back, the scars on his scalp became less noticeable and his brown face was as handsome as always. Partly because, by Alacrán standards, twenty thousand dollars was a fortune.

“Step on it,” I tell Lisandra. “I’ve got to get under the shower.”

“Again?” And she feels my forehead with the same hand that she uses to shift gears. “You’re going to take that fucking Acetaminophen.

It was thanks to my father’s acid madness that my mother, a shy and ugly woman, managed to seduce Santiago el Cavernícola. They got married. I was born. By the time my earliest memories begin, my dad’s mind had come down from its hellish time warp but he was now stuck somewhere between eight and ten years old, and maintained that emotional age until the day he died. We were great friends. He showed me a number of tricks for how to copy on exams. He was my biggest rival on the Atari console. And he became a true thug at playing marbles.

My mother, however, could never forgive the fact that he had destroyed his mind before letting her make love with him.

The car stops. My house. Black iron gate. The garden destroyed, kicked to pieces in a sudden attack of gastric infection. Cecilia is standing in the doorway. In pajamas. I think: if she continues trying to follow me in my experiments with feverish illnesses, she’s gonna kill herself. And Lisandra, again:

“You’ve got to take this fucking Acetaminophen. You’ve got to inject it right now.”

I’m slipping into the nirvana of fever: that sea of tranquility where thermometers burst and the blood swirls slowly behind the eyelids, and the fleshy matter (that well-congealed gelatin) begins to fall silent.

Cecilia.

I sell sheepskins.

A surge of explosions or rustling leaves tearing me a part as if I were a saint.

— Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley

 

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.

§

Brendan Riley

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

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Jun 022016
 

Bydlowska BluePhoto by Jowita Bydlowska

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Before

WHEN I COULD finally stand up, my husband ushered me out of that room.

I was wearing bloody pads. I was numb. Anesthetic: mind, body.

I wanted to turn around and come and get her. A mistake has been made.

“You’re just in shock,” he kept saying.

I walked like an elderly person. He grabbed my upper arm gently but firmly, walked me faster.

The hospital was no longer the good place where we used to go, waiting to see her again, growing inside me. In the blurry ultrasound pictures, she was already baby-shaped; her heartbeat was like a techno track; it seemed to go too fast but the OB-GYN assured us that this was normal.

I loved the feeling of cold gel spreading on my belly as they looked for her. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling but I loved it anyway.

Back then, when I would leave the hospital I’d look at it with affection. There were monitors and birthing beds inside and skilled doctor hands that would get her to out of me and I would get to hold her and kiss her tiny, scrunched up face.

*

I kissed her tiny, scrunched up face.

I did get to hold her. Then she was gone.

*

Afterwards, the hospital looked like prison to me, like Alcatraz.

*

In the six-level parking lot my husband wandered around trying to find our car. I sat on concrete steps and waited for his text letting me know he’d found the car.

I shivered but it wasn’t cold. I couldn’t stop shivering.

When he walked me to the car, I cried; it felt safe to finally cry, locked in the metal can that drove us away from Alcatraz. I saw it disappear in the rear-view mirror and I blamed it for what had happened inside.

My husband’s mouth was a tight line; he was concentrating on driving. He sped and passed cars as if we were late for an appointment.

We got home and I went to bed, covered myself in blankets and waited for nothing. Waited for sleep, which came eventually, mercifully, and I didn’t have to deal with the sudden vacancy inside my body.

My husband didn’t check on me. He woke me up in the evening. He cooked dinner—blobs of food matter in different colours. I put the food in my mouth like a machine.

He was silent the whole time.

It’s a crazy thing to despise someone for how they deal with death but there you have it.

*

After days, weeks or years in bed, he ordered me to get up. He said I looked like death. He was right: my cheekbones were like knives and the lines around my mouth were deep ridges.

“I don’t know how to help you,” he said.

“I don’t know how to help me.”

He said, “Let’s go shopping. It’ll distract you.”

He bought me dresses and stockings.

He bought me shoes.

He dragged me to see a movie about something; I can’t remember what and afterwards we went to eat something. I can’t remember what. We sat in the restaurant and he said I looked beautiful. Tired but beautiful. I should start wearing more make-up.

“I’m in so much pain,” I remember saying.

“Life goes on,” he said.

He held my hand and I felt nothing.

“You need to take better care of yourself. You’re too beautiful to waste away like that.”

I laughed in that restaurant and it wasn’t a nice laughter. I laughed like a hysteric. I was a thing he couldn’t fix.

On his computer he had a folder with hundreds of pictures of me in different underwear and dresses and shoes he had purchased for me. I was a thing, a doll, and I had to behave like a doll, otherwise he didn’t know what to do with me.

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Before Before

It wasn’t always like that.

After we got married, we flew to Europe where we rented a small Cinquecento to drive from Denmark all the way to Greece. After hours of driving, we’d stop at hotels in cities we wanted to spend some time in. Mostly small cities with small hotels with small rooms with big beds. We’d have sex and shower and change and go out to eat. There was always a pretty town square in each city, a restaurant with tiny tables and chairs spilling out onto the sidewalks, where we’d drink sparkly wine and eat a dish of the local interpretation of carbs, and the local cheese and fruit for dessert. If this was lunch, we’d stroll around the city following no specific direction, going inside buildings and churches that were open, taking an occasional photo of things that impressed us: a fading fresco, a gargoyle head, weird vegetables, scrawny kittens, dark-haired children running in the streets, backs of other tourist couples holding hands.

Back then my husband wasn’t a planner—I was never a planner—and this mutually agreed-on freedom made us feel free; made me feel free. We would walk around holding hands and not talk or we would talk but I don’t remember any of the conversations; I just remember the mood and it was light, lots of laughter.

If it was evening, and the city was bigger, we’d try to find a venue that played music. We would get drunk and dance and kiss as if we had just met. Sometimes we’d talk to locals or other tourists but sometimes we wouldn’t—we wouldn’t even talk to each other. This kind of thing is not an uncommon experience—I’d read books about lovers not having to talk to each other—that’s how deep their connection was—and it was happening to us, in real life.

We would go back to our hotel, my hair curling from the moisture that seemed to be ever present the closer we would get to the Adriatic. We smelled of sweat and smoke and alcohol and perfume and we would intertwine our legs and arms, our snaking snake bodies between sheets, which would end up on the floor after many rounds of passionate fucking.

The mornings would be pleasantly hungover, two-dimensional with lazy breakfast in bed, always eggs and orange juice. The hotels catered to dumb, careful tourists; you had to go out to get the local food.

We usually didn’t stay for more than one night and we would get back into our Cinquecento and drive through smaller country roads—we avoided highways—and stop sometimes to have sex or check out a falling-apart church or eat a meal.

We agreed on the stops; there were never any arguments about not following the plan because there was no plan. There was just point A—Denmark—and B—Greece—and after that a plane back to Canada.

.

Now

Maggie, Sarah, Lucy, Olive. Helen. Names I like.

(I never named her.)

Olive. I like Olive best. Olive, an actual name, a usual name for a regular girl who would’ve been alive to begin with and who would inhabit a name as live girls do, give it personality: Maggie loves horses. Lucy is really peculiar about her hair. Sarah hates apples.

Salty and bitter olives—like the ones my husband and I gorged on in Greece—for Olive.

Sometimes I see her in little girls on playgrounds and she’s mine—she has dark hair like my husband’s, my big brown eyes—until she squeaks and calls some other woman,” Mom!” and runs towards her.

I shouldn’t be bringing it up with my husband any more. If I bring it up, he’ll probably say, as he always does, that his company has good insurance. Fifteen hundred dollars in psychological services, Babe. Fifteen sessions at least maybe more if I can find someone who charges less.

*

“Olive,” I say and he rolls his eyes.

“I’m not crazy.”

He says, “Please. You must stop. You can’t go on like this.”

“You mean you can’t go on like this.”

“I can’t go on like this, you’re right,” he says and we don’t talk about it any more because now it’s a Sunday morning and it’s warm outside; it’s quiet and beautiful outside, and we are still together because I still remember Greece when I look at him.

*

After lunch, we go out to the newly opened outdoor market in our neighbourhood where you can buy everything—from weird mushrooms to old medals.

We pass stalls like we’re in a museum.

In a vegetable stand I buy beets and multicoloured carrots. The carrots and the beets inspire me; they could become a minor creative project. Not a novel but perhaps a stew.

My husband puts his arm around my shoulder, pulls me close to him.  When he turns to me his eyes are half moons, happy. I love him in this moment, deeply, fiercely like I used to. It’s a flash of light, a promise of summer perhaps, maybe another Greece.

I grab and hold his hand.

His hand is polite in mine, not particularly interested.

I squeeze his hand harder.

People pass us by and look at us and see us. We must be a reassuring image, a manifestation of everything working out in the end.

We let go of each other’s hands after my husband sees a stall with hats. He stops at it and picks out an ugly hat and puts it on his head.

It looks awful on him, a disk of straw like a dinner plate someone threw at his head.

“It looks silly. What about your other hats. There are other hats in the basement.”

“They don’t fit,” he says and adjusts the dinner plate but it won’t stay adjusted; it moves and pops up as if it was planning to fly off.

I try not to comment on his clothing, his fashion choices that upset me, try not to be the bitch laughing at her husband’s fumbly attempts at dressing himself. He’s not so bad at it anyway, no polyester shirts, no Khaki pants. My mother used to do it to my father, used to berate him for his Khaki pants, his terrible Khakiness.

It was inevitable that he had rediscovered his self-esteem between the legs of a clear-eyed girl who was quiet and didn’t give two shits about Khaki pants.

My husband blinks at me, “A dinner plate. Funny.” He pulls the brim of the hat down, tries to jam it further onto his head. It makes no difference, the hat pops right up.

I say, “Let’s see if they have other hats over there—“

My husband takes out his wallet and gives the hat seller a twenty.

Is this is going to be the deciding moment that I will talk about in the future? Will it be me saying to a Sangria-drunk table of newly acquainted divorcee girlfriends: “It was when he bought this dweeby little hat.”

I’ve read of people walking out on their spouses over burnt pasta dishes, missing toothpaste caps.

It is never just that, never just an ugly hat, just a missing toothpaste cap.

“No, it looks great,” I say but he walks ahead of me and he rests one hand on the hat; holds it down.

It is never just an ugly hat.

He speeds up but I don’t catch up to him.

(Olive.) I walk behind him rolling my daughter’s beautiful bitter and salty name in my mouth.

—Jowita Bydlowska

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Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

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May 142016
 

IMG_0444Art work by Greg Mulcahy

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Julot Calcascieu and I have not spoken in years. Estrangement between writers once friends is common; its reasons are always personal and complicated.  In this case, I’m not sure what the reasons are. Perhaps it was a long-forgotten insult given and received, or growth, or change, or life. And really the reasons don’t matter.

Calcascieu and I were first associated with Abigail Allen’s magazine, Phantasmagoria. We were both contributors, and we shared, or I thought we shared, similar views on where literature was and where it needed to go.

Perhaps my views have changed.

Perhaps his have.

A conversation that was pleasant turned unpleasant, and each of us discovered who the other really was.

As I’ve said, we haven’t spoken in years, but things find their ways to me sometimes, so I will state categorically that I did not steal from Calcascieu or cheat him out of money.  I covered our expenses for a joint reading we did in a nearby state. I asked him to reimburse me for his share. He refused. Maybe there was a misunderstanding—I grant that possibility. But there was no swindle or theft and absolutely no attempt at either.

Arguments about money are always arguments about money, especially when money is, as it was and continues to be, scarce, but they are often arguments about something else as well.

Maybe this is an argument about disappointment, both personal and professional, or about the disappearance of an imagined solidarity, or sympathy, or world.

But I can tell you this. Julot Calcascieu has a hat, a hat he wears at readings. Julot Calcascieu calls this hat a “poet’s hat” and believes it essential to his image as “poet and theorist.” Now I live in a cold climate that seems, contrary to fact, to be growing colder. Consequently, I own a dozen hats. But none are magical or empowered or definitions of my identity. Julot Calcascieu is a construct, self-constructed perhaps, but no less so for that. Yeats’ “tattered coat upon a stick” if that.

Maybe all poets are.

Still there are the poems.

The poems, still.

—Greg Mulcahy

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BIRDS

Went to Lakewood
Pond.
Didn’t see a swan
Or fifty-nine
Or
Anything, but some
Gull
Confused
In a parking
Lot.

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COUNSELOR

Finding another
Via internet
With my name
& did his mother
call him
ti’ bijoux
or what
& how
&
momma?

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MECHANICAL

There are times
When a
Man
Needs a
Really sharp
Probe.

.

GENESIS of my CORRECTION

I was not
The good
Brother.
Always two:
The good one
And
The other one.

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DIFFERENCE

And if you did not love me
I would not mind.
The poet said.
But she
First she
Made a world
In her poem for them.
That was the difference.

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ASPIRE

Poetry has
Use as the
Movies teach—
Use it
To engage
Poor students
In
Poor schools.
You’ll need—
Of course—
Inspired teachers
As heroes—
Heroes
Who do not
Cost too
Much.

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COSMOLOGY

First, there was no money.
Then the War.
Then money.
Then money and small wars.
Then no war and money.
Then money.
Then money and small wars.
Where did that money get to?

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STORY

And the prisoner of the story
Given a page a day
A page
A day
To write on. No more.
Picture him sitting on the
Bunk
Pencil and page in hand.
Looking out the dark bars
For enough.
No more.

—Julot Calcascieu

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Greg Mulcahy is the author of Out of Work, Constellation, Carbine, and O’Hearn. He teaches at Century College in Minnesota.

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May 112016
 

Mary Byrne

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When Bea and I first came to Paris, we were still so wrapped up in each other we didn’t see much of our neighbour, Marie-Louise. She and a Vietnamese couple were the only other people sharing the lift with us. I did notice she was peculiar, with big fuzzy hair that was obviously dyed and glowed purplish against the light. She had a gummy smile, the seldom time we saw it, but as my girlfriend Bea said, that was hardly her fault. There were times when we would meet her down on the street and she wouldn’t even see us.

She rarely had visitors, although she had a mother in the suburbs and a sister who was married somewhere in town. Bea (who found out most of this) swears she actually met the mother once, helped carry her bag up the stairs, and found her strangely unfriendly.

“You fabulate, my dear,” I told Bea that time. “It’s the causal breach. You women are obsessed by it. Spend all your time trying to plug it, searching for reasons and explanations.”

Marie-Louise had a cat. We first got to know her when she asked us to feed the cat one time she went to a clinic to lose weight. I hated the cat, its litter, its smells. I mentioned toxoplasmosis.

“One always hates other people’s cats,” Bea said.

.

Marie-Louise was clearly obsessed about filling the causal breach, that void between an event and its explanation, something that fascinated me too, although I didn’t say so to Bea.

Marie-Louise had a selection of odd occurrences she brought up from time to time, as if requesting or hoping for an explanation. One story was the day she and her husband were traveling along somewhere in Europe in what she called Our Bug (a VW beetle), on a normal bright partly-cloudy day. The countryside was hilly but the road – an old coach road – instead of going round the hills went up and down each one as it came. This was fun. You could see she was reliving the experience each time she told it.

The climax was that they topped a hill and suddenly there was a line across the road where snow began and beyond it a winter world of white, with several trucks backed up at a service station surrounded by drifts. Her husband, who was driving, got such a fright he almost skidded, and had to slow down gradually before he was able to turn and go back.

Go back? Why? Where were they headed?

She couldn’t remember, and always closed up at this point.

Bea said it was a freak snowstorm, and nothing more.

.

Marie-Louise worked at the Post Office next door, along with what I considered to be a selection of other social cases, all swollen from a lack of exercise and the drugs they needed to regulate their serotonin. That was how I explained them to myself, although Bea just laughed. “You’re the one with the problem,” she’d say whenever I complained about their queuing system or the fact that they refused to sell me international reply coupons. “We don’t do them anymore,” they’d say firmly without even checking, and I’d have to lope off to another branch.

Marie-Louise and her husband had traveled the world, once: Russia, the east-bloc countries in their darkest days, southern Europe, the great outdoor spaces of the American West. She knew all the most beautiful spots, the have-to-see places in every country, although she often preferred to fix on something peculiar. Her favourite story was of the laughing clubs they’d visited in India. “They’d start with the vowels,” she’d say, then she’d shout: “He! Ha! Ho! Hi! Hu!” Sometimes it seemed to be the only thing they’d done or seen in India.

Those days we didn’t know exactly where the husband was, although Marie-Louise never mentioned being divorced, or referred to herself as a divorcee. Eventually it emerged that his name was Vlasta and that he had come from Eastern Europe and gotten rich, a long time ago. “Ah, Vlasta!” she would say with a despairing wave of her arm. In winter she gave Saturday theatre classes to small groups of people like herself, in an under-sized sitting room lined with cheap reproductions of old masterpieces. She pretended her family had known many of the most famous modern painters and reckoned that, as a young girl, she’d shown her bum to more than one of them. “Small girls do that, you know,” she said. She had gone on to being their model.

At 12 years of age, she had ceremoniously binned her very ancient and much-thumbed copy of Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Tenniel, with its talking sheep and sinister cats. I thought this chain of events worthy of psychoanalysis, but Bea said she was just chatting. Bea sometimes made a cake and invited Marie-Louise to share it. I would come home and find two sets of big teeth grinning over tea and cake, sharing gossip about the building and its occupants.

Marie-Louise called our concierge The Queen of Hearts. “Queen of Hearts giving orders again?” she’d enquire when some directive appeared in our letterboxes. Residents must realize… Residents should note… The Queen of Hearts was a tiny dark Portuguese Catholic, trying to be a tall blond one. She had a small white poodle and a huge Rottweiler (these I referred to as her Manichean aspects). She took lunch with her parents every Sunday in a public-housing block to the west of Paris which had replaced the shanty town where they lived on their arrival in 1960s France, fleeing Salazar and all that. She was convinced that some saint or other had recently saved her kid from certain death in a scooter accident. She also reckoned we were in constant danger of our lives from local hooligans – hence the Rottweiler – and had organized teams of solemn young men in what looked like Ninja-turtle outfits to patrol the yard and gardens. When the details appeared on the annual charge bill at the beginning of the year, I almost had a fit.

“Get interested in your fellow man,” Bea advised. “This one has been coming at us for a while.”

As a teenager Marie-Louise had been propositioned, very correctly, by a painter friend of her parents. Politely, in his car, after school. When she refused, equally politely, he drove off and she never saw him again. The thing was she fancied him terribly and had cried when his wife died and he married a second time. “Wanting things to stay forever in one place,” she said, “that’s kids for you.”

On Sunday afternoons in winter she sometimes went to what she called a “thé dansant” in old-fashioned Paris ballrooms where tea and cakes were served and polite men asked her to dance dances you really had to know: “You can’t improvise a tango,” she’d say. She had some kind of regular dancing partner at these dancing teas, whom she called her “bon ami” and whose name we never learned.

“’Cos he doesn’t exist,” I said.

“You should cut down on philosophy and read more fiction,” said Bea, “they say it helps us empathize.”

.

Someone pinched my shoulder-bag one day in the metro when I was lost in a book. Bea wasn’t home when I got there, so I knocked on Marie-Louise’s door. I’d even contemplated asking our Vietnamese neighbour rather than getting involved with Marie-Louise. But I knew the Vietnamese woman would have her own story about a woman’s life in Vietnam, how she only ever went out on her own to go to Mass (our neighbours are Vietnamese Catholics) and how even their watches and wedding rings were taken from them as they left Vietnam. She’d told all this to Bea, who concluded they were terrified of anyone with administrative power over them. Rather than question any authority, they paid all bills without question, including the one for the Ninja turtles.

So I knocked and explained why I needed somewhere to wait till Bea arrived. Marie-Louise ushered me into the sitting room with the reproductions. I was halfway across the dark room when I realized there was someone else there.

“Vlasta,” she said simply.

“Get a glass for him,” Vlasta told Marie-Louise, as if he came every day, lived there, or even owned the place.

For a while he interviewed me like a prospective husband for a daughter, then settled into the story of his own life. He seemed to have a wife, although I couldn’t be sure, and he certainly had two teenage sons who seemed to cause him endless hassle. I presumed he’d made them with someone other than Marie-Louise.

“Bought them a 7-11,” he said, “and they’re about to run it into the ground as well – they’re too lazy even to sit at the till and take in the money.”

He launched into wider subjects. “The Americans organized the Twin Towers themselves. Did you see the way they came down?” – it wasn’t a question – “The plane only hit the corner of the building. Had to have explosives planted all over it. And the Americans didn’t care,” he said, “because the towers were full of foreigners.”

Glued to my chair in horror and fascination, all that seemed to be working was my tongue: I tried to move him on to other things, like the newly reduced Greater Serbia. “Yugoslavia was ruled by non-Serbs, but the Serbs got the blame,” he told me. The trouble now was the Albanians. “Import two of them Sheptar,” he said (I thought I saw Marie-Louise wince), “and in no time you have hundreds.”

According to him, Yugoslavia was made to fall apart eventually. “Stalin was a priest before he came to power. He got rid of the soutane and attacked religion. Tito wasn’t a Serb either, no one knows where he came from.”

“Wasn’t the man who killed the Archduke Ferdinand a Serb?” I ventured, glancing at my watch.

“Sure, but he lived in Bosnia,” he replied. So he wasn’t really a Serb either.

“If you meet a Sheptar” – Marie-Louise definitely winced – “on a country path, he marches towards you and you have to step off the path. Then he steps off the path too, to confront you again. Some people are always spoiling for a fight, like the man who comes up to a peaceful coffee drinker in a café and says, ‘Why did you fuck my wife?’ Coffee drinker says, ‘I didn’t go near your wife, what do I want to go fucking your wife for?’ And the belligerent one changes tack: ‘What’s wrong with my wife that you wouldn’t want to fuck her?’”

And so on. My ears were tuned to the bump of the lift, but there was still no sign of Bea. Vlasta couldn’t be stopped, now he had an audience. Marie-Louise busied herself with tea. “Marx and Engels had excellent ideas that were meant to be introduced gradually,” Vlasta continued. “But no, Lenin had to go and have his Revolution. Communism is a complete misnomer. It brought to power men who only knew how to herd sheep. Down they came from the mountains and found themselves addressing crowds. They didn’t know the difference between Communism and Capitalism. They were told that Communism meant if a man has two chairs you take one off him and give it to someone who has none. One of these former shepherds, before a crowd and stuck for words, saw a tramp go by at the back of the crowd with a sack on his back. ‘A capitalist!’ he cried. ‘There goes a capitalist! Take the sack off him and divide its contents among you!’”

Vlasta looked very pleased with himself. Marie-Louise winked at me surreptitiously.

Suddenly Vlasta glanced at a very expensive watch, leaped to his feet and said he couldn’t delay, as if we’d tried to hold onto him.

When he was gone, Marie-Louise opened the window and beckoned me over.

“Come and look,” she said. “He likes me to wave goodbye.”

We waved as Vlasta got into a Mercedes that was several generations old and roared off in a cloud of black fumes. Just then, Bea rounded the corner. We waved at her too.

“I must apologize for Vlasta’s behaviour,” Marie-Louise said. “It is part of why we are no longer together. A lot of things about Vlasta were masked by language and culture, from the start.”

She paused.

“The original and correct word is Shqiptar,” she said, “from the Albanian language. It’s related to the word for speak. The word Vlasta used is extremely pejorative, like ‘Barbarian’ once was for the Greeks, or ‘Welsh’ for the Germans.”

I’d had enough by then and was in no mood for linguistics. I made for the door in haste, but Marie-Louise caught me by the arm:

“How can you see something in a mirror that isn’t reflected in it directly?” she wanted to know.

She pointed out a rooftop opposite and then to its reflection in a mirror on her wall that lay at right angles to the window.

First I sighed. I could hear the lift. Then I went to a lot of trouble with paper and diagrams and angles and so on, but it was clear that she didn’t believe me. She was convinced it was some kind of magic.

“I had a dream,” she said. “I came into a room and saw a small man – tiny, really – dressed in bulky but shiny clothes, lying, obviously dead, on the floor near a chair. My first reflex was to reach out for it” – she definitely said ‘it’ – “more for tidiness than anything else. Just then a very large speckled bird – as big as the little man, anyhow – took him by the beak and pulled him under the chair out of my reach.”

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“So what’ve you been up to?” Bea challenged me as I burst into our apartment.

“Plugging the causal breach,” I said.

I kept it going for a while before telling her about Vlasta. Bea and I had reached that stage in our relationship where the lives of others filled a space between us that we couldn’t fill ourselves.

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That summer was the famous ‘canicule’, as they called it here (somehow a deadlier word than ‘heatwave’), during which France killed off some 15,000 of its old folks.

Early on, Bea and I enjoyed the weather, the city. One weekend we rolled out to watch the Queen of Hearts participate in a parade celebrating Portugal in all its aspects. I was truly astonished at the sheer numbers of them, their costumes, their faithfulness to regions and habits. There were groups from all over Paris with banners related to occupations, way of life and regions in Portugal. All in costume, there were brides and grooms, kids, people carrying peasant farming tools, playing music, dancing.

I said, “What, no tools for digging ditches?” I told Bea this was over-the-top folklore, a memory of the times before they all had to flee dictatorship and poverty and getting called up to fight wars in Angola and Mozambique.

The Queen of Hearts smiled and waved as she jigged by in a black and white outfit topped with a kind of lace mantilla.

When I said, “No sign of the concierge’s tools there,” Bea dragged me away.

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After that we fled south – “Because they know how to deal with heat down there,” Bea said – until it became too much there too. Then on to Morocco to friends, until I tired of seeing rich people in rich houses surrounded by the poor padding about them, cleaning, cooking, trying for invisibility.

“And they wonder why they want to come to Europe,” I said.

”Don’t start,” said Bea.

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Then I had a summer school in Ireland, where my temper improved immediately in the more modest temperatures. Things in Ireland had never been better: you could sit on the grass, swim every day, organize a picnic, all without having a Plan B. Demand was so brisk that every garage and supermarket in the country ran out of charcoal for barbecues.

Late one night after Bea went to sleep, I stuck in my earphone and switched on the radio on my cell phone. A scratchy French station was talking about hundreds of deaths all over Paris. The funeral parlours were overflowing, they said. They were requisitioning cold storage places to put the bodies, there were so many of them.

“What the hell is this?” I said, into the night.

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It was all over by the time we got back. Paris had settled into a sinister post-disaster calm. I bought the papers in the station. The media were down to the usual ding-dong about who was to blame: society was at fault, there was no respect for the old. One family, abroad on holidays (I think – perhaps they were only in the south on a beach) asked the authorities if they would hold on to the grandmother’s body till their holidays were over, “She’s dead, she’s going noplace anyway,” they were reputed to have said.

The big heat was over. Our building would be pretty well empty, we reckoned, which was normal for late August. However, when we punched in our code and the door opened stiffly, who should we find standing in the hall but the Queen of Hearts.

“Still here?” we said.

“What with all that happened,” she said.

She had opened the glass door on the notice board and was fumbling with a black-edged handwritten sign. She held it up to us.

It announced that Marie-Louise was dead.

“Family won’t do it,” she whispered.

Before I could ask why she was whispering, she hissed: “Body’s still up there.” She raised her eyes, “They haven’t even appeared once. No one to sit with the body. Think of it. No priest said the last prayers.”

“Left it all to the undertakers,” she concluded, folding her arms and studying us for reactions. “A civil funeral, they call it – they bury people like dogs in this country.”

It was Bea who said, “But she was far too young to die from the heat!”

“Not the heat,” said the Queen of Hearts. “The loneliness.”

Marie-Louise had even phoned Vlasta the night before she did it and asked him to come into town. He told her to take a sleeping pill and go to bed. How the Queen of Hearts knew all this is anyone’s guess. When Marie-Louise didn’t turn up at work the next day, the Post Office called around and it emerged that she hadn’t left her apartment.

I pictured the Queen of Hearts in full authoritative mode, a locksmith at her feet fumbling with instruments.

“She was lying on her right-hand side,” she hissed loudly, “The stuff she took was on the bedside table.”

In a way, I thought, the Queen of Hearts’ curiosity was healthier than any French attitude to family. Then, with considerable misgiving, I began to wonder if religion might not have a role to play after all. I was careful not to mention this to Bea.

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Later, as we lay in bed studying the cracks in the ceiling that needed redecorating, Bea said, “Just think of her going through that, and us on a white beach in the Aran Islands.”

“I’ve decided Marie-Louise wasn’t bonkers,” I said after a while. “Everything is so complicated, it simply has to have a cause,” I told her.

She sat up on one elbow and looked me straight in the eye.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to fall back on Intelligent Design and all that? After complaining for all these years about how even Descartes leaned on God, in the end?”

I realized it was too late to wrench the subject away from the possibility of supreme beings. It dawned on me that Bea’s was an anger built up over years of packing boxes and moving them with me and my philosophical career.

You were the one who wanted to come to France – because of ideas, because of the Enlightenment. You fled Ireland because of the priests! We moved here – lock, stock and barrel – because of Reason!”

By now Bea was yelling.

I tried to calm her by telling other stories by Marie Louise – her nightmare about being pursued into a room full of furnaces and another about lining up for punishment by burning. “I was always with other people, always accompanied,” Marie-Louise had said.

Bea rolled her eyes. “Please,” she said. “Don’t start.”

“We humans are hard-wired to want lies,” I plunged into ever deeper water. “Lies plug the breaches we find in causality. When we don’t have answers, we content ourselves with lies. Fictions and stories comfort us, where the truth – the absence of a cause, the lack of a reason – would disturb us.”

I warmed to my subject. Bea turned away from me and got out of bed.

“Cave paintings were stories people told themselves about themselves too,” I said, as she closed the bedroom door behind her.

—Mary Byrne

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Mary Byrne’s fiction has appeared in: six anthologies, including Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, Phoenix Irish Short Stories and Queens Noir; in dozens of literary journals in Europe, North America and Australia, and broadcast on British and Irish radio. Her chapbook, A Parallel Life, was published in 2015 by Kore Press https://korepress.org/books/AParallelLife.htm.

Tweets @BrigitteLOignon

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May 072016
 
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Photo by Jill Jennings

Eoin McNamee is well regarded as a master of noir literary fiction. Fictionalising real life violent events, his language is stark and brooding but ultimately complex and illuminating – shedding light on the human capacity to conspire with corruption and violent wrong-doing. His Blue Trilogy, focused around Lancelot Curran (a Northern Irish judge, attorney general and parliamentarian), being considered one of his best works: “Eoin McNamee may well be one of the finest writers at work anywhere; sentence for sentence, he is superb – the Blue trilogy is a poised, artistic achievement of compelling menace” – Eileen Battersby (Literary correspondent, The Irish Times). The Blue Tango (2001) was nominated for The Booker Prize and Blue Is the Night won the 2015 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.

The extract below is from his forthcoming novel with Faber and Faber, The Vogue. As Eoin writes, “The finding of a woman’s body in an illegal dump on a disused runway uncovers other wrongs. New lies compound old untruths that have held sway since GI’s were billeted on the windblown aerodrome. Darkness descends on a small town.”

—Gerard Beirne

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Cranfield Aerodrome, November 16th, 2014

The sand pit had been opened. A yellow excavator stood by the side of the opening, its bucket raised. Swags of unfurled bandage hung from the bucket tangs, filthy and dripping. An articulated Scania with a covered trailer was backed up to the opening in the ground, its hydraulic rams half-extended. A fluorescent works light hung on jack chain from a corroded derrick. Three men rendered into silhouettes stood between the pit and the light. They stood without moving, their heads bent towards the opening at their feet, functionaries to the merciless night.

The bottom of the pit was half-filled with water. Syringes. Wound dressings rank with old blood and human tissue. Rusted scalpel blades and theatre gowns bundled and discarded. Used drug vials and transfusion sacs floated in the water. A woman’s skeletal remains clad in vile rags lay half-way up the pit wall as though she had crawled from it, matter adhering to her hair and clothes.As though she had looked for mercy and found there none. Across the sandy fen to the north of the darkened aerodrome chapel bells rang for the ascension.

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One

The Negro

17th January, 1945, Shepton Mallet Prison, Sussex.

The negro sits without moving. In the execution shed the apparatus is being made ready.The hood. The rope. The pinnings. Coir matting has been placed on the floor and against the walls to deaden sound but the prisoners can hear the hammering and tool work.

In his 1956 autobiography the hangman Albert Pierrepoint states his dislike for the American hanging method. Pierrepoint likes to have his prisoner sitting with his back to the door so that he can be taken by surprise and pinioned. Pierrepoint says he can get the prisoner from the cell to the drop in ninety seconds. He prides himself on it. The Americans insist that the prisoner wear full dress uniform with all marks of rank and insignia removed. The charges and sentence must be read to the condemned man at the foot of the scaffold. The Americans wanted the execution to be procedural, ornate. The prisoner must be reminded of his guilt. The executioners must be reminded of their duty. They imagine the antechamber of death to be a place of drama, laconic asides, last minute admissions.

‘Pierrepoint won’t sneak up on me,’ Martinez said, ‘I’m going out the American way.’

Martinez had been sentenced to death in August for the murder of a military policeman.

‘Kind of justice I like,’ Martinez said, ‘court martial took a day. No appeal. Straight and to the point. I got no complaints. Except the bastard Redcap had it coming.’

Martinez said he was going to stand facing the door of the death cell so that Pierrepoint could not take him by surprise.

‘Full dress kit. I’ll be standing to attention. Walk out of there like a man.’

There are other Americans in the cells. The prison has been under United States military jurisdiction since 1942. The men call to each other softly from the windows. They are not normally permitted to communicate but on the eve of an execution the Guards are lenient.

‘Hooper,’ Davis said, ‘you there?’

‘I’m here.’

‘I seen Pierrepoint go into the Governors house when they brought me down.’

‘What’d he look like?’

‘Ordinary man. Owns a pub in Oldham. He hanged one of his own customers, gentleman by the name of Corbitt. Corbitt killed his girlfriend and wrote Whore on her forehead.’

‘Man deserved to hang then.’

Hooper had been shackled to Davis in the back of the Utility truck that brought them to the prison. Davis was from Chicago, a thin, talkative man. He said he was doubled-jointed. He could slip his hands out of the cuffs any time he wanted, he said. All you had to do was give the word, They passed through Bristol at dead of night, the town under blackout. Driving through the Mendip hills. Stubble fields, gold and red as though the moonlight burned them. Passing through the towns of Clifton and Winterbourne. Passing through Evercreech and Frome.

‘Where you from, son?’ Davis said,

‘Near New York. Oxford, New Jersey.’

‘Your first time out of the States?’

‘First time out of Oxford, New Jersey.’

Davis spat over the tailgate of the truck.

‘And dearly you wish you had never left it.’

‘You got that right.’

‘Likely you won’t be going any further than Shepton Mallet. Last stop on the line.’

The negro asked where they were and the MP escort said they were close to Glastonbury. Davis told him about Glastonbury tor. He said that ley lines ran under the front gate of Shepton Mallet.

‘What are ley lines?

‘Lines that connect places of power. The ancient people knew them.’

‘Boy is all caught up by the the ancient stuff.’ The MP said.

‘Caught up by it til he’s caught up by the neck hisself.’

‘Reckon the negro here believes in that voodoo stuff?’ Davis said.

‘Voodoo’s from Haiti,’ Hooper said.

‘Same difference. Nothing godly in any of it.’

The Negro says nothing. There are demons out there. He seen it himself. The devourer of souls.

If he stood on his bed the negro could see the execution shed. The execution shed was a windowless red brick two story extension attached to the limestone wall of the old prison. An internal door opened from the main body of the prison into the execution chamber. The trapdoor opened onto a downstairs room with an external door. The external door faced the steel door of the morgue in the next building. October. Early frost on the ground at first light. Fifty minutes after dawn the ground floor door opened. Two men carried Martinez body on a stretcher like something they had stolen. He could hear the sound of their boots on the loose clinker on the ground as though they struck iron there. His grandmother had told stories of graves opened by night and bodies thieved. She said the darkness claimed its own. The two men laboured under their burden.

The negro turned away from the window and lay down on his bed. He closed his eyes. He had left Oxford, New Jersey, two years earlier. He had come into New York by bus through the Jersey turnpike. The suburban city lost in dusk, snow flurries blowing through the grid of clapboard houses. America looking lost in a wintry dream of itself. He could see the towers of Manhatten in the distance but he was more aware of the cracked road surface, rubbish piled in the freeway margins, caught in broken chain-link fences. He had expected more. A city that was striven for, epic, rising out of the historic swamplands. Passing road signs. Newark. Idlewild. The lost townships.

He stayed in a Negro hotel on the margins of the wholesale district. There were braziers burning on the street. The night was loud with stoop-talk, negroid gutterals. The streets smelt of rotting fruit. Crates of vegetables piled high on the sidewalk. He looked into warehouses and stores, the massive girdered interiors, feeling that he was getting a grasp on the inner matter of the city, the iron-joisted substance of it. It was cold and he saw steam rising from the pavement grilles. It surprised him again that the city was gritty, earthbound. On a street corner a prostitute offered him sexual favours. She was a remnant of the night before, a carnal leftover, the rouged leavings of the night.

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Two

The Brethern

Cranfield Aerodrome, Kilkeel, 16th November, 2014

Early morning. Gray skies. You could see a long way across the aerodrome. The block plant. The remnants of some spent industry. Overworked resources, seeping pollutants exhausted. Machinery dented and rusted. A dumper truck with flat tyres. Machine parts leaked diesel sludge onto the concrete apron. You started to wonder what had led to this abandonment. What catastrophe had come to pass.

Cole imagined the malign traffic that had flowed through this yard. Customs, police, tax inspectors. The administrative weather set at steady rain. Cole looked in the largest shed. A door creaked somewhere at the back, the noise amplified in the girdered ceiling. The place reeked of secret histories, illicit commerce.

He got out of the car. A man was waiting for him under the sand hopper. An elderly man in a white shirt with blood spots on the collar. He looked like a lone survivalist, edgy, spooked. He kept looking past Cole. As if he knew what was out there. As if he knew it would come again.

‘John Uel?’

‘You’re from the Ministry,’ John Uel said, ‘Sergeant Corrigan said you were coming.’

‘James Cole from the MOD.’

‘There was never any luck in this land,’ John Uel said.

‘No luck for this girl anyhow.’

‘Any word of her identity?’

‘No.’

‘Nor any word how long shes been in the ground. The sand will hold you down there until its good and ready to let you go.’

‘How long has the illegal dumping been going on?’

‘I know nothing about no dumping.’

‘They had to cross your land to get to it.’

‘That land is nobodies.’

‘It can’t belong to nobody.’

‘Then maybe it’s the devils.’

‘My information is that this portion of it belongs to the MOD.’

‘That’s what I told the polic..’

‘They’ll want to talk to you.’

‘They already talked.’

‘They’ll want a formal statement.’

‘I have nothing for them.’

‘People always have something.’

‘And what do you have, Mr Ministry of Defence?’

‘I have the right to inspect all documentation in relation to the freehold, leasehold, transfers and otherwise.’

‘You think one of yours done her. A soldier? Is that why you’re here?’

‘We don’t know what happened to her.’

‘The sands not like right ground.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The sands shift. Things travel down there. You found her here doesn’t mean she was put in the ground here.’

Cole looked out over the tailings pond beside the block yard. A crust of dried sand on top and underneath the liquid tonnage. Deep tectonic movement. The land shifting beneath your feet.

‘The police will have questions for you. Did you not see lights down there? Who owns the excavator? Those kind of questions.’

‘They can question away. I have no answers for them.She should have stayed down there.’

‘I don’t think she had a choice in the matter.’

‘She should have stayed down there until she was called.’

‘Called?’

‘On the day of resurrection.’

A woman watched from the window of the Portakabin. Cole trying to make out her face behind the window streaked with wet sand and blown concrete dust. Dark hair, the features unresolved.

‘Who’s that?’

‘She does the books.’

‘Do you have land maps here, Mr Uel, deeds, anything like that?’

‘I won’t do your job for you Cole.’

‘I can just look them up in the land registry.’

‘Then you better do that.’

‘I need to find Sergeant Corrigan.’

‘Try the Legion at the harbour. Its the kind of place you might find a sporting man.’

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British Legion, Kilkeel Harbour, 16th November 2014

There was racing on the television with the sound turned down, jockeys in muted silk turning into the home straight. Kempton Park, Chepstow. Labouring towards the line in rain-blown provincial race tracks. Rain blowing against the Legion windows . The girl behind the bar was Latvian, product of some gritty baltic seaport. Her small dissatisfied-looking mouth turned down at the corners suggested a mean-spirited sensuality.

‘I was told Sergeant Corrigan was here?’ She shook her head. Cole looked at the other drinkers but they kept their heads down. There was a bar room atmosphere of low-key duplicity and letting things go for the general good. Cole lifted a copy of the Racing Post, set himself to studying the form. The door opened behind him and he saw the bar girl look up as the door opened. Corrigan. The policeman was mid-fifties, his face covered in old acne scars like a mask of affliction.

‘John Cole. Ministry of Defence. We talked on the phone.’

‘I hear tell you’re looking into the body.’

‘You hear well. The body and the dumping.’

‘Whats your interest?’

‘Two crimes on MOD land.’

‘There’s no evidence so far that the girl was the victim of a crime. Can you confirm that the land belongs to the MOD?’

‘I intend to.’

‘Your car was at John Uel’s this morning.’

‘It was. Has the body been identified?’

‘Female between ages of twelve and twenty. Doesn’t fit any listed missing person. We’re looking at historic.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Who?’

‘The dead girl.’

‘Where do they put dead people?’

‘The morgue.’

‘Then that’s where she is.’

‘Is it open?’

‘Only if you’re dead.’

‘Who’s in charge?’

The pathologist is Morgan. If I was you I’d stay away from John Uel.’

‘He looks like a religious man.’

‘The good-living are always the worst. An autopsy is scheduled for next Monday.’

‘Why wait so long?’

‘She’s been down there long enough. She’ll wait awhile. Morgan has samples took. He’ll wait for them to come back from the lab. He wants to establish how long she’s been in the ground before he uses the knife on her.’
Shes been down there long enough. The girl lost in the strata, the deep undertow of the sand.

‘What about the lorries doing the dumping?’

‘They’ve been coming in on the Ro-Ro ferry, going straight back out again. There’s no way to track them down.’

‘Somebody must have seen them.’

‘Theres a widow lives on her own out the Limekiln road,’ Corrigan said. ‘She made a complaint about lorries at night. Artics. Putting the hammer down. No lights. No-one paid her any heed.’

The Limekiln road. No place for a widow to live on her own. No place for anyone to live on their own. The road running along the seas edge, the salt water littoral.At night the east wind rattles the dry stems in the reed beds. In the dark there is the call of seabirds from the mudflats, eerie pipings carried across the shifting channels and dark tide races. Brackish drains carry run-off into the shallows. Dead alder trees on the verges. People come out from the town to dump on the scrublands.

‘We thought she was dreaming,’ Corrigan said.

‘I’ll take you up to the hospital ,’ Corrigan said. ‘You can view the body, if that’s want you want.’

Cole followed Corrigan out onto the quay. A north-east wind blew up the boat channel. Hanks of net twine blew through the harbour margins, caught on discarded trawl cable. There were scattered fish scales, marine diesel spills on the harbour margins. A white box van was parked at the inner basin. A group of women stood in the lee of the ice plant. They each held a leatherbound hymnal. Men in black suits took speakers dressed in black cloth from the rear of the van and set them on tripods. A portable harmonium was handed over the wall and placed between the speakers. The men moved deliberately. They were elect. A girl stood apart from the women with her back to the outer basin. She wore a floral skirt which touched the ground. She had on a white cap. Her hair was gathered under it and fell to her waist.

The women wore long dresses buttoned to the throat. They wore no make-up. They seemed to have come from a latter century, pilgrim wives. An elder sat down to the harmonium.

They reached Corrigan’s car. The voices of the women came across the harbour. This was the hymnal of the town, the voices cadenced, God-haunted. Rural sects who practiced in corrugated gospel halls. The girl stood with the other women, her back half-turned. The oldest man motioned to her to step closer. His eyes rested on her hair loose under her cap, unchaste livery of the fallen.

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Kilkeel Hospital, 16th November, 2014

The hospital stood on the high ground above the river. Built on the site of the Workhouse. Ungraven stone markers beneath the scrub grass. Coffins brought in a handcart down a sunken pathway after dark. The grave opened by lamplight. A paupers moon hidden by the scrub pines growing on the slope. The bottom of the coffin was bracketed with brass hinges screwed to the coffin base plate so that it could be re-used. Other inmates filled in the grave. The corpses stripped naked so that the clothes could be re-used. All surrendered before they entered the workhouse. They died of typhoid, pneumonia, tuberculosis. What prayers the dead got were lost in the boreal darkness.

The hospital building was closed save for the morgue. Wartime Nissen huts in the hospital grounds housed the elderly and infirm of the town and its hinterland. Cole could see residents in wing back chairs in the closed-in glass porch. Bone-thin, palsied.

‘They act like bloody royalty, Corrigan said, ‘and them the leavings of the town.’

‘You know them?’

‘Put names to every one of them, seed breed and generation.

They think they’re on the brink of salvation but they’re not. My own fathers in it.’

Cole looked at him. ‘I should visit more often.’

The old people seemed imperious to Cole, a peerage of their kind. One of them lifted a hand to the car.

‘After the war the hospital was all sorts. A pharmacy. A children’s home. Then they parked the geriatrics in it.’

They entered the hospital building by a side door. Part of the plaster had fallen away from the inside wall to show the granite rubble construction behind.

The morgue was in the basement. Corrigan led Cole down a stairwell. He feels himself part of the workhouse complex. He can feel himself deep in the ground. He can feel its fastness all around him, the earthhold. The basement corridors stored the hospital files. Dented grey filing cabinets against the wall. Medical records. Psychiatric records. The death-trove of the town.

Corrigan unlocked the morgue door. Cole saw chipped tiling to waist level. Above that the walls were distempered, the paint peeling and flaked, the ground-damp seeping upwards. There was rubber matting on the floor worn through to the concrete in places. Theatre lights from long ago were switched on over the autopsy bench. The fittings were stiff and tarnished and Corrigan adjusted the nearest so that its brass pivot squealed.

Corrigan opened the cadaver drawer. The body was chilled but Cole could smell the ground from which it had been taken. The stench of the opened pit.

‘Do you want to come back when she’s opened up? She’s well preserved. Pathologist says she might have found herself in a pool of some preservative liquid. They’re a fucker to get rid of, preservatives. You can’t just tip them down the drain.’

‘Did you test the ground water?’

‘Who would pay for that for some long-dead girl?’

‘You have a point. Where is the clothing?’

‘Over there. I bagged it.’

Cole crossed the room to the stainless steel shelving units. There were jars and stainless steel dishes on the shelves. You thought of them filled with viscera, the organs stored for journey as they might be for a pharaoh or his queen. He did not look again at what lay in the cadaver drawer. The figure seemed wizened and hag-like, come to him from some dream of corruption and he wished not to know her.

Corrigan took sterile gloves from a clinical pack. He used scissors to cut the cable tie on the evidence bag. He laid the clothing on the sterile surface, the odour of ground toxins rising from the fabrics. The material starting to stiffen. He placed the clothes as she would have worn them, stained beyond recognition and shrunken by long immersion to a child’s proportions.

‘A child?’

‘The size on the garment label. It’s a twelve. Stockings, suspender belt. Shoes size five. No child was wearing this outfit.’

‘Teenager maybe.’

Cole leaned over the body.

‘Odour of formalin.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Dilute formaldehyde. It may be that the formalin was part of the hospital waste.’

‘Formalin?’

‘Its used as a preservative and bactericide. Histology labs used it for keeping organ samples. Undertakers keep gallon flagons.’

‘If some of that has been dumped on top of her the body would keep.’

‘Complicates the autopsy process.’

‘How soon will you know how long the body has been there?’

‘I don’t know. John Uel is anxious to know as well.’

‘He owns part of the land. Wants us to own the rest of it. Lets him off the hook.’

‘It lets him off the hook with regard to having a recent corpse on his rotten property. Doesn’t absolve him of anything else.’

‘John Uel will have figured the odds. You can’t be liable for waste dumped on somebody else’s land.’

‘What about a body?’

‘That might be a different matter.’

The smell of formalin getting stronger now, the chemical stink working its way into the neural pathways. Cole felt as if cold nineteen year old hands were dragging him down into some elaborate devising of the underworld.

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The Hollow, Kilkeel, 10th December, 2015

Cole parked in the Hollow behind the Kilmorey Hotel. The river in flood. Debris on the margins. Water in choked drains, the sucking darkness. The far bank in blackness. Slum clearances here thirty years ago, the site levelled. Children with diptheria. His room was at the rear of the building, looking out over the hollow and beyond that the roofs of the town, the streetlights glowing like naptha, giving way to the shadows of old entryways, back yards, the towns unslept gothic. A rain squall blown in from the sea darkened the town.

He walked across the car park. Two girls were outside the off licence. They wore coloured blouses in pink and blue which stood out like damask in the stark yard. Two boys stood in the lee of the dance hall gable shoulders hunched against the driven blast. Cole wondered what they waited on for there seemed no prospect of anything other than more rain, more night.

—Eoin McNamee

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mcnamee, eoin

Eoin McNamee has written seventeen novels, including Resurrection Man and The Ultras. His latest novel is Blue Is The Night, the third book of the Blue Trilogy. He lives in Co Sligo.

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May 062016
 

Zsofia Ban by Dirk SkibaPhoto by Dirk Skiba

 

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I can see she’s unhinged the moment she gets in. She sits for long seconds on the back seat with eyes closed, pressing her head against the headrest. Breathing hard, with long sighs like one short of oxygen. She’s going to be sick in a second. The thought makes me panic a bit, not here of all places, in my cab.

Where can I take you?

I don’t care. Away from here, quick.

But is it Buda, or Pest?

Pest. That’s on the other side, isn’t it? The farther the better.

This is of course an invitation to dance, after two years of taxi driving I can tell that much. That is, that I should ask questions. “You had a bad day?”, “Did something upset you?” and the like. She’s expecting sanctimonious sentences, questions that should mean, “Come, sweetie, have a good hearty sob on my broad shoulder.” I’m not sure I want it. I’m not sure I want to hear the details of her emotional disaster. For that’s what it’s all about for certain. No, I’m not going to become a self-styled confessor or psychotherapist again. I’m tired of the vain, petty, endlessly repeating stories. I’d much rather touch her nape, which is reflected for an instant in the rear window, where her unruly black hair is severely cropped. This makes her look vulnerable and helpless. You could cut off her head smoothly with a guillotine any time. Her silky, surprisingly large and fleshy earlobes are curving strangely outward and upward, in a shape slightly reminiscent of a V. Perhaps she’s in the habit of twisting them when she’s nervous. Some fidget with their hair, some drum with their fingers, and there are some who keep twisting their earlobes. Sweet girl, stop twisting them, for you’ll end up with them twisted. If I bit them, a drop of her ruby-red blood would gush out at once. A gift of earrings. No, I’m really not saying anything. Her presence fills the car cabin like some strange material obtained through long experimentation, for NASA let’s say, it has the capacity to fill even the smallest and most hidden cavities, seeps in everywhere, into the trunk, ashtray, outer ear, bronchia, pores, Mari of course, at the Déli station at last the penny drops where this familiar feeling comes from, making those butterflies go off immediately in my stomach (when she got in they went off at once), it was Mari who could fill everything with her presence so, at the end I could hardly breathe, because her existence oozed into the nostrils and the mouth cavity and blocked the way of the air, making me breathe hard and staccatoed like this one in the back, I look into the mirror and she immediately looks back at me, looking for eye contact, looking for the thread of the conversation, she is clinging to my gaze like one drowning, begging me to throw her a rope, a word, anything that keeps her from sinking into the swamp of her trauma. No, sweetheart, I’m not going to be your Bruce Willis, your Stallone, you can safely sink in the back seat like the Titanic as far as I’m concerned, you are exactly what I needed in the night, exactly this convulsion of the stomach that is all Mari, I’m sure Mari has sent it just to remind me how useless to cod myself that, with a bit of cab-driving and white nights, I can wash her out of my system, that I shouldn’t believe I can atone so easily, although that chick didn’t mean anything, the whole affair barely lasted for two seconds, after five years I was simply curious what another skin smelled like, it was nowhere near Mari’s, I only wanted to try out for a second what it felt to be free, because Mari clutched me with her arms like a beautiful, fleshy octopus, a rare specimen, the likes of which you only meet in fairy tales. Seemingly fragile, frail, in need of protection, but once you’ve yielded she will crush you with her embrace sooner or later, and this one is splayed there on the back seat exactly like that, like one about to fall apart to atoms unless somebody helps her, she gives another well-audible sigh, hoping I will take pity on her at last, why me, why do these little monsters always pick me, why don’t they just leave me well alone to drive about in the night, so that in a suitably beaten moment I can feel I might manage to sleep again, because there is this strange physiological phenomenon, whenever somebody is released too abruptly from a too-tight embrace, they will not sleep for long, just keep shifting their body’s weight from one leg to another like a dog suddenly untied, looking around unsure, not knowing what to do with all this unexpected freedom, and it is not rare that they end up looking for someone else they might serve, rather than roaming together with the other discarded dogs.

We are on Chain Bridge already when she speaks again.

I’ve never traveled with a woman cab driver before. Aren’t you afraid?

Just like this. Aren’t you afraid, driver? Aren’t you afraid, woman? They’re going to kill you or worse, they’re going to fuck you.

And you? Aren’t you afraid to get in a stranger’s car, just like this?

I look into the rear mirror. I see she smiles faintly.

Well, there’s some truth in it.

We are stuck at the red light, József Attila street, an uncommonly balmy April night, silence. If she shut up now and would just stay put in the back until I drop her off somewhere, I could even enjoy this sudden spring.

But in all truth a stranger is better than someone you know. At least you don’t imagine you know him. With someone you know, you’ll always discover in the end that they are complete strangers. I’m being so fucking profound, sorry. I don’t want to burden you with my pearls of wisdom.

Well to this you just can’t say no. I have a heart too, even if a bit stony. Come now, here’s this stony, loving, cabby’s heart of mine. Take it. Shred it to pieces.

Just dumped?

Worse. I found out she has a husband.

Her look in the rear mirror is hard, provocative, she’s waiting for the effect. For the bafflement. She is preparing some grand statement to fling into my face. Sweet mother of mine. You have to get up earlier, darling. A cab driver who is not able to size up the client in half a second should go breed monchichis. My radar beeped in the first second, as it should. Hers is not yet functioning, as I see. After all, I’m sitting with my back to her, I have to grant her this. Some say though that you could tell from my nape alone. Anyway. Tears must obviously be blurring her vision. Do I have to say that by now they are rolling down in big fat drops on her freckled and strikingly white face. The turned-up collar of her black leather jacket surrounds it like an obituary announcement. I half turn around. Not without a touch of rancour, I must admit.

So, she screwed you.

For a moment she looks me in the eye, surprised. Then goes on relieved, like one who has unexpectedly gained absolution for a sin not committed.

Not only me. Her husband too. Her children. Everybody. The whole fucking world.

And how did you find out?

I can’t believe I’m asking this. Who the hell cares how she found out, who said what, who lied, how this or that one was caught, and what they said at that, and how she reacted to it, who cares about this pathetic little story, this scrap opera.

You won’t guess of course: Dad went off on a business trip, but Dad returned earlier than he should have, the airport workers were on strike, ha ha. I will never forgive her though for laying me in their marital bed. Only men would do such crap.

And, now you see, sometimes women too. Which is harder to recover from. This shows how nasty prejudice is. At least you’ve learnt something today.

This turned out lighter and harsher than necessary. That is, it turned out like this out of necessity. I just had to keep her at a distance. I had to try and wipe off her sad eyes’ burning, tattooing look from my skin. I had to air the sea, algae and seaweed smell of her breath out of my nose, I had to try to surface from the deep sea water and not let myself be caught by this stifling underwater garden; I had to try to erase her from my mind, I’m standing on the runway like Humphrey Bogart and don’t have to say anything, because the woman (who is also me) doesn’t get on the plane, but turns round slowly, comes up to me and takes my arm; I had to erase from my memory Mari standing in the corridor and shrieking into my face that she hopes someone will some day really break my heart into chips and smithereens, so it can never be put together again, and then I will learn what I did to her, because she can see I have no idea, callous brat that I am, I had to forget her thick lashes in the long first moment she closed them, her preternaturally dark eyes, the likes of which can only be seen in inner Congo, Tshad or Zambia, small wonder Dr Livingstone vanished for years on end because he set eyes on exactly such a pair of eyes, to his perdition, and this caught him so unprepared and off guard that it took Stanley, who went on an expedition, to drag him out of there. My goodness I thought, who on earth will ever start an expedition for me, who will ever find me and save me when everybody has long given up hope I am still alive, who will search this grimy urban jungle for me, who will be that fearless detective who decides to give the matter one last try, defying the explicit orders of his superior, and inspects that disused factory destined to be demolished, where he finally finds me, half dead. I obviously have to erase from my brain, like from a hard disk by pushing a single button, everything that passed my mind the moment I spotted her on the street corner where she got in; that this is like, this is precisely like when I watched the transit of Venus in front of the Sun two years ago and thought this was what people keep waiting for all their life, such a perfect constellation, which of course then slowly moves apart but as long as it lasts it is nothing but prolonged, perfect bliss.

Wouldn’t you like to have a drink after the fright you got?

I hear this sentence coming out of my mouth. It is my mouth, there’s no doubt about that, but I couldn’t tell who is speaking. I can see she is at least as much taken by surprise by the question as I am. Her face first shows the signs of surprise, then of recognition. At last her radar turned on, however late. I change gear, let the engine run out a bit, there is nobody on the streets, we are sweeping across the city like two survivors come from a different planet.

Why not, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to wash off this filth.

It’s only the street lamps’ light gliding past that gives some emphasis to her dull words.

But let’s not go to the Reflection. I don’t want to meet anyone.

Of course not there, I’m not in the habit of going to such fancy places. I switch off the taxi meter. By now the car must be going on the lead in the air, because the dashboard red light is on, showing there’s hardly any fuel. It feels like having been on the road for days, without food or drink, and now with our last strength we are reaching the oasis. Or rather, its mirage. We go next to Klauzál square, to Fater’s pub. That’s home territory, there I feel safe and there no one will know her, for sure. I take the corner on two wheels almost, a late dog-walker looks at us startled, what is this, not a chase scene again? Yes, a chase. I pull the hand brake and look into the mirror.

Shall we go?

I think I just felt a cool draught of air brush past my nape. In the mirror I can immediately see where it came from.

I’m sorry. I think I changed my mind.

A precise, professional blow to the heart, delivered with an iron bullet. I turn around to see her face, not only its reflection. She should shoot me face to face, properly.

What should we do now?

I’d like to… I’d like you to take me back.

She pulls her black leather collar closer around her neck. Her face is as small now as a shrunken Indian head.

Are you sure it’s a good idea?

I’m already sorry for saying it. I turn back and start the taxi meter again. I’ll have at least this satisfaction, of offering her to them on a plate. I can hear from the back:

No, but I must.

I switch on the radio and turn up the volume. Green wave all the way to Moszkva Square.

—Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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Zsófia Bán was born in Rio de Janeiro and grew up in Brazil and Hungary. Her writing often addresses topics related to visuality, visual arts, photography, personal and cultural memory, historical trauma, as well as gender. Her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and translated to a number of languages, including German, English, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian and Slovenian. Besides her volumes of essays, she has published two books of fiction. This story is from her book Amikor még csak az állatok éltek (When There Were Only Animals), 2012. She lives and works in Budapest, where she teaches American Studies, and is currently DAAD writer-in-residence in Berlin.

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Erika

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

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May 022016
 

gabriel-josipoviciGabriel Josipovici

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My brother!

I wait, holding my breath, for him to find me. But for the moment the flat is silent.

So silent that high up though we are the sounds of the street drift up to me.

Where is he? What is he up to?

I strain to hear if he is on the move, in search of me.

Patience. I always tell myself I must have patience in situations like these. After all, it’s not as if we have something else to do when this is over. We have all day and every day. So what are ten minutes here or there? Or an hour. Or even two.

Was that a sound? I stiffen in my corner between the wardrobe and the wall. I listen, but everything is still. Then I hear it again. A board has creaked. My brother is approaching.

But then the silence returns.

How long should I wait? For it sometimes happens that he forgets that we are playing and lies down somewhere and falls asleep. Or opens the fridge and makes himself a sandwich, then sits down with a magazine to eat it. And when I finally come across him and ask him what has happened he looks at me blankly. Don’t you remember? I say. We were playing. You were supposed to find me.

That was yesterday, he says.

No, I say. It was now. I went to hide and you were supposed to find me.

That was yesterday, he says again, munching his sandwich, gazing into my face.

It may have been yesterday, I concede, but it was also now.

Clearly, though, it has ceased to interest him. He’s like that, my brother. One minute pestering me to play with him, the next indifferent. He seems to inhabit many different worlds, all with complete equanimity, and each one as though it were the only one, but they are hermetically sealed off the one from the other and often in total contradiction the one to the other. Thus sometimes he will stand for hours behind some piece of furniture, or at the window. Nothing will budge him. Not the mention of food or  a walk or even a game, And then he will run through the flat as though pursued by a demon, screaming and whimpering and begging whatever he feels to be pursuing him to desist, to call off the chase. At first I was afraid the neighbours would hear and either come and complain or call the police. But when neither of these things happened I realised that the walls, floors and ceilings of these old apartments are marvellously soundproof and that we could make as much noise as we wanted and no-one would hear.

Then he will beg me to take him out and in the street he will either walk alongside me, nodding occasionally as I speak, like any respectable citizen, or run round me like a dog, dart up alleys or into half-open doors, so that I have to chase him and grab him and then hold him tightly until I sense that the fit of restlessness has passed.

He does not seem aware of these sudden changes of mood, inhabits, as I say, each of them as though that was where he had always lived. Sometimes he will eat up everything that is in the fridge and at other times go for days without food. At first I thought this would make him ill and I tried to remonstrate with him and force him either to desist from eating or, on the contrary, to eat. But he is as stubborn as he is strong, and anyway I soon realised that he must also have a remarkable constitution, for nothing seems to upset his stomach, neither excessive eating nor quasi-starvation.

I look at my watch. Surely it is time to go and look for him myself. If he was still playing he would have found me long ago, Yet I hesitate, knowing how upset he gets if I don’t play ‘properly’, as he puts it, and come looking for him without having given him time to search for me himself. On the other hand I don’t want to go on standing in my corner between the wardrobe and the wall if he has forgotten that we are meant to be playing and is lying down on one of the beds and sleeping, or flicking through one of the innumerable magazines that lie scattered about the flat where, barely opened, he has left them. If I come upon him like that and challenge him, reminding him that we had agreed to play and that I had spent the last hour hiding under one of the beds or squeezed behind the sacks of rotting potatoes in the pantry, he pretends he has not heard and goes on sleeping or turning over the pages of his book. I think he does not understand what I am saying. He turns his face towards me and looks at me, not as one looks at a person but rather as one scans the sky, searching for a cloud.

Ah! That was definitely him, creeping through the flat, approaching my hiding-place. He does not like me to hide too well, he has sometimes got into a state when he could not find me. So I crouch under tables or stand behind doors, so that I appear to be hiding but can in fact easily be found. I have often stood here, in one of the spare bedrooms, in the narrow space between the wardrobe and the wall. He comes into the room, spots me, but pretends he has not seen me, and goes out again. He thinks I imagine I have not been noticed. He goes on along the corridor, entering various rooms, walking round them cursorily, then makes his way back to the room where I am, comes straight up to me and pulls me out into the middle of the room, where he proceeds to embrace me, his soft wet lips making an uncomfortable impression on my cheek. Then he drags me to the nearest bed and we lie down in each other’s arms and often go to sleep like that, only to wake up cold and confused to discover that the sun has set and we are in the dark.

I must have made a mistake. The flat is silent as the grave. If a board did creak it was probably only caused by the central heating coming on. I step out of my corner and strain again to hear. What is he doing? Sometimes he is the most methodical of men, slowly working his way through each of the rooms, and in each room looking behind every sofa and every curtain, under every bed and every table. At others he flies through the flat, hurling doors open, glancing round and rushing out again, banging the doors behind him. But then he will suddenly lose interest and go out onto the balcony and immerse himself in the spectacle of the street below. If I come out and find him there, though, he will, as often as not, berate me for having broken the rules, or burst into tears and wail inconsolably, so that I have to drag him inside for fear the neighbours will see or hear. But at others he will look up surprised and welcome me, and we will stand side by side, leaning over the balcony, looking down into the street below.

He must have gone to sleep. He seems to have this capacity to lie down at any time of the day and immediately fall asleep, like a puppy or a kitten. But it’s a light sleep and if I enter the room he will, as often as not, open his eyes and turn his head, until he can see me. He will give no sign of recognition but watch me carefully. If I leave the room he will simply close his eyes and drift off again. Rarely can I come right up to him without his waking up. And that is usually after one of his bouts of hyper-animation, when he will sometimes sleep, dead to the world, for two or even three days and nights. This, however, has not happened for some time.

I leave my corner and go to the door. If I hear him I still have time to get back to my so-called hiding-place. But the flat is silent as a tomb. One might almost imagine that I was alone in it, and that it had been sealed off from the world forever. I put my head round the door. Silence. Should I give him another few minutes or is that simply condemning myself to anxiety and frustration? I step out into the corridor and the loose board creaks loudly beneath my feet. I freeze. If he is looking for me he will approach, without a doubt, and I will still have time to dart back into the room. I wait, straining my ears, but the flat remains silent. I resume my advance. The door of the next room is closed. I cannot remember if it was closed when I ran past it to reach my hiding-place. I have the feeling that it was. But then again, it might not have been. Try as I may, I cannot remember for certain. Should I open it or simply creep past it? If I open it I risk making a noise and if he is still looking for me he will be alerted and it will be too late for me to retreat to my original hiding-place. On the other hand he may have gone in and fallen asleep on the bed, if it is one of the rooms with a bed in it, and then my search for him will be over.

Surely if he had gone in and lain down I would have heard as I stood hiding and listening? On the other hand for the first half hour or so I was lost in my own thoughts and might perhaps have failed to hear him. He can, when he wants, be remarkably quiet when he comes looking for me in the course of our games. Sometimes he has given me quite a shock, jumping suddenly out at me and shouting to show he has found me.

I decide to leave the door closed and move on towards his room. Though he will lie down on any bed he finds if the fancy takes him, most often he returns to his room, or at least to the room that was originally his, for we both of us change rooms, and beds, as the mood takes us.

The door to the bathroom is shut and I stop for a while and listen, pressing my ear to it. Unless he has fallen asleep in the bath, and that has been known to happen, he is not inside. Beyond it, the kitchen door is open, but one glance is enough to show that he is not there.

Beyond the kitchen the corridor turns at a right angle. I dread this corner, for he sometimes likes to lie in wait for me there and leap out with a howl, and however much I prepare myself, it is nearly always a shock. I literally feel frightened out of my skin – as if my body had leapt into the air and my skin had stayed behind. It takes me a considerable time to recover. My heart beats so wildly I think I am going to have a heart attack. I have to lie down on the nearest bed, which is that of our parents, and in some instances I have fallen asleep there and not woken up for several hours, once even for a whole day.

I stand on my side of the corner and listen. However much of an effort my brother makes to try to breathe quietly, or even to hold his breath altogether, a little rasping noise always escapes him, which alerts me to his presence. It is sometimes difficult, though, to distinguish this noise from that of the water in the pipes. I close my eyes in order to hear better. The corridor is very dark here, for no window lights it and the bulbs are weak in the flat and anyway there is none near the corner.

I stand then and listen. Nothing.

I wait. Still nothing.

I advance again slowly, taking care to make no noise. I stop again, straining my ears. Perhaps my brother is in his room, listening to music. He may have forgotten all about our game, and have settled down with his music. His door is shut. Should I open it and risk disturbing him? Or simply let him be? After all, this might be an opportunity for me to read something or listen to a bit of music myself.

I decide to leave his door unopened but to go on with my search through the flat. If I do not find him anywhere else I can always come back to his room and open the door and see. I have reached what used to be the living room in the days of our parents, but it is now just another room, in which we sometimes sleep, on one of the large sofas, or in which we eat when we don’t want to eat in the kitchen because it feels too squalid, and we don’t want to eat in the dining-room because it feels too stuffy.

It is empty.

I walk round it, nevertheless, looking behind the curtains, though since it is I who was meant to be hiding I don’t know why he should be there. And of course he isn’t. I sit down on the sofa in front of the television and look at the white screen and at my pale reflection in it. Much as I dislike looking at myself in the mirror, I like seeing my shadowy reflection in the milky screen. Perhaps because it reassures me that I am really there while not forcing me to contemplate my features. And it might not be me, it might be someone else, all I can tell is that there is someone there, in the room. The television confirms that. Someone who is most likely to be me, since I sense that I am in the room, sitting on the sofa, looking at the screen.

All of a sudden I see, on the screen, something moving behind me. I turn round. It is my brother. He comes towards me, his mouth open, his face purple with anger. I stand up and take hold of his wrists. I know what he is trying to say. I should have been hiding, I have spoilt the game by my lack of patience, I am never prepared to play properly. I hold his wrists, and though he is a good deal stronger than me he does not seem to know how to use his strength to best effect. He spits at me and then begins to cry. I let go his wrists and draw him to me. His face is wet and when I seek to comfort him I taste the salt of his tears on my tongue. I want him to sit down beside me on the sofa, but he drags me out of the room and across the corridor. He pushes open another door and pulls me to the bed. We lie down on it together and very soon he is asleep.

—Gabriel Josipovici

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Gabriel Josipovici was born in Nice in 1940 of Russo-Italian, Romano-Levantine Jewish parents. He lived in Egypt from 1945 to 1956, when he came to England. He read English at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford and from 1963 to 1998 taught in the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of eighteen novels, four books of short stories, eight critical books, a memoir of his mother, the poet and translator Sacha Rabinovitch, and of many plays for stage and radio.

Read Numéro Cinq‘s interview with Gabriel Josipovici here.

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Apr 082016
 

Reactive

The following excerpt comes from The Reactive‘s brief prologue. In it, Ntshanga introduces the reader to the voice of Nathi, the novel’s protagonist, and sets into motion the background pieces that thrum throughout the novel: the death of Luthando, the commitment to Bhut’ Vuyo, and Nathi’s unforgiving conscious. Overall, it’s a gripping opening to a powerful book. — Benjamin Woodard

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Ten years ago, I helped a handful of men take my little brother’s life. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I told Luthando where to find them. Earlier that year, my brother and I had made a pact to combine our initiation ceremonies.

This was back in 1993.

LT was only seventeen then. He was broad of shoulder, but known as a wimp at Ngangelizwe High. My brother was good-looking in a funny way that never helped him any, and, like me, he was often called ibhari, or useless, by the older guys in the neighborhood. LT was bad with girls, too; most of them had decided against us pretty early. I don’t know; maybe it’s strange that I remember that about him most of all. I suppose my brother was handed the lousy luck of every guy in our family except our dad, who’d thrown us into different wombs one year after the other. We had cousins like that, too, all of them dealt a similar hand. In the end, it was winter when Luthando went to the hills to set things straight for himself. He went up thinking I would follow behind him.

It was raining when the bakkie took him on its back and drove him up the dirt trail. Inside the camp, they put him in line with a set of boys he shared a classroom with. Then they took out their blades. Afterwards, they nursed him for a week, and he kicked and swore at them for another two. They called him The Screamer, they told us later, when we gathered to put him inside the earth. Maybe it was meant with tenderness, I thought, the kind of tenderness men could keep between themselves in the hills.

One morning, they said, my brother had failed to make the sounds they’d come to know him for. Luthando wasn’t due out for another two days. The sky had been an empty blue expanse, easy on their duties around eziko, and they’d missed his peculiar fussiness. When they walked into his hut, one after the other, they found a memory instead of the man they were out to make. That was my little brother, LT, dead at seventeen, and I’ve never forgotten it was me who put him there.

I never went back home after we buried him. This isn’t a story about me and my brother from the Transkei, about the Mda boys from eMthatha or the village of Qokolweni, where my grandmother’s bones lie polished and buried next to her Ma’s. Instead, I want to tell you about what happened to me in Cape Town after Luthando had taken his death. It’s where I went to school and tried to make something of myself. It’s also where I began to reconsider what my hands had made, and my telling of how it broke won’t take us very long.

I went to college two times in my life. I might as well begin with how things went for me there. I first attended the university in Rondebosch, just up the road from the main strip, and when I’d dropped out of my journalism degree I enrolled at the technikon in town, where I got my science diploma and my sickness. I had an equity scholarship—there had been plenty of those to go around for whoever looked the way I did, back then. I got through on mostly average grades, too, like most of the guys in my class. When the year came to an end, there was a bunch of us who’d file into the Fees Office again to fill out all the forms required of boys who shared my skin tone. It didn’t take much to go to school for free, in those days, or rather to trade on the pigment we were given to carry. I think I did alright, if you consider everything else, and I graduated with an upper-second-class pass in the end. I still have that diploma sitting somewhere in my at in Observatory.

Now what else? In between university and Tech, I spent close to half a year at Bhut’ Vuyo’s place. Two weeks after dropping out of the university, I tried to go home, but I couldn’t set foot inside my mother’s house. The home I’d known since I was a child was barred to me. There could’ve been a tapestry of fire that owed over each of our walls that day. In fact, thinking about it now, even that feels like an understatement.

My mother felt disgraced by my decision to leave the university and my bachelor’s degree behind me in Rondebosch. It was too soon, she complained, first over the phone and then again in person. For a few moments, she even refused to turn her face up towards me. Instead, Ma arranged for me to enter the home of a relative.

Bhut’ Vuyo was known as a great mechanic, a recovering alcoholic, and someone who’d been a doting stepfather to the little brother I’d helped to kill. He’d met my aunt, Sis’ Funeka, when Luthando was only ten years old, and before then, sticking his hands into rusting bonnets had taken Bhut’ Vuyo to Okinawa as a man of barely twenty. Pushed forward by the locomotive of a lucrative Toyota scholarship, he’d gone to the city of Kyoto at the age of twenty-four, before coming back and accepting too many drinks on the house in a tavern called Silver’s. That was in Bisho, during the decline of the homeland years, and they’d served him on a cloth-covered tray every morning after he’d taken his table. It was no more than a month, people said, before my uncle was undone. There were decades that would nearly fell him after that: Bhut’ Vuyo barely standing on his two feet around the neighborhood, and Bhut’ Vuyo tottering on street corners next to the highway in Mdantsane. He was often seen with his toes busting out through the smiles on his black-and-blue gumboots, his head lolling as wispy as an old hornet’s nest over his shoulders.

Now, my mother told me, having wrung himself dry, and maybe for good this time, Bhut’ Vuyo lived with his second wife in Du Noon. They had two small children and her older son from a previous marriage, all of them born with bright eyes and strong teeth and each glowing with the promise of long-lasting health. For her part, my aunt had passed away shortly after we’d buried her son. Sis’ Funeka had had a cancer eating away at her throat, and I suppose it had grown too impatient with the rigorous hold of her grief.

In the end, it had been a punishment for me to be sent to Du Noon, I had known that even then, but thinking of my little brother, of Luthando, I’d made myself accept the idea. And so I went to Du Noon like my mother wanted me to and ended up staying there for six months. I suppose some things happened when I was out there, too, and I drew close to those folks who’d taken me in. The subject of Luthando came up, as I thought it would, and in my gratitude to them, I made a promise to Bhut’ Vuyo and his household.

Now, close to eight years later, I receive a text message from my uncle that reminds me of the words we shared back then, and of the promise I made, on a night so long ago I can hardly put it together from memory.

— Masande Ntshanga

Excerpted with permission of Two Dollar Radio. (c) 2016 by Masande Ntshanga

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Masande

Masande Ntshanga is the winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award, as well as a Finalist for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. He was born in East London in 1986 and graduated with a degree in Film and Media and an Honours degree in English Studies from UCT, where he became a creative writing fellow, completing his Masters in Creative Writing under the Mellon Mays Foundation. He received a Fulbright Award and an NRF Freestanding Masters scholarship. His stories have appeared in Laugh It OffitchImago and Habitat. He has also written for Rolling Stone magazine.

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Apr 062016
 

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakePhoto by Dean Sinnett

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S trong feet stepped into the boy’s dream, came nearer down the hall, and he sat up, but the sounds went past, outside.

Quick, to the window.

Down the dark quiet street came four horses, two by two, with police on top. Streetlights shone on the animals’ rumps, the riders’ yellow vests. Clop clop. Harness glinted, tails waved, manes lifted and subsided. The horses too wore reflective yellow, in bands round their ankles. No heavy traffic here, though, not like the last time he’d seen them, at rush-hour, walking calmly single-file between a moving bus and a line of parked cars.

Hesitation. Bad. His bruises still hurt.

I have to know where you are, she’d said, you cant just wander alone. You dont know this big city. And stay out of the Park! Who knows what’s hiding there?

Also, they’d taken his keys.

He found clothes. As he felt in the “secret” pocket of her rain jacket, from the other bedroom came sounds he disliked. Good, they’d sleep soon. He left the building via the rusty fire escape off the third-floor hall. At the bottom he must swallow, then jump down to damp earth — better than taking the dim stairs to the basement door.

He hurried then. Clop clop, and the horses headed west past shabby low-rises like his, past the corner store with posters stuck on its outer wall. One said Resist! What? Then past the school, the one he went to, with a map of all Canada on the classroom wall. Vancouver, a dot. The town where he’d lived before, not even that. On the bewildering drive to the city, she’d kept saying Look at the map, see where youre going! He didn’t. Hadn’t asked, ever, to make this move. Back there, the cops only had motorcycles.

The boy kept half a block between himself and the clop-clop, scuttling from hedge to street-tree to shrub. Where did they live? He’d seen them often, on busy West End streets or near the big beach. Sometimes the police halted them, so people could ask questions or even pat those enormous heads. He saw the cops’ holsters close up, and the animals’ big nostrils, and their strange eyes, bluish-brown. Soon the horses moved on. Their steady gait — lots of videos showed that, how the animals just kept on coming, calm amidst furious crowds. Did riots happen here?

As the quartet neared the big street he stayed even further back, waiting while the traffic light changed and changed again. On the restaurant at the corner, someone had half-scraped off a Resist! poster. Near this intersection, he did know his way. Homeless men slept in store entrances, their hidden faces probably familiar to him from the network of local alleys, of bins behind cafes and groceries. Once he’d taken home a cold burger, untouched in its box. They’d found it. Bad.

When green shone a third time he sauntered across, then hastened after the lifting hooves. Along these blocks, richer landscaping fronted condos recently built. To hide and move and hide: easy. Ahead waited greater darkness, though moonlight came and went as the clouds moved.

By day he’d wandered this terrain south of Lost Lagoon, grasping at its geography. Some lampposts in the Park and at its edges displayed a map, for tourists, so he’d learned some main routes. In the middle of the map’s big green stood a tiny surprising coyote. He hadn’t known they could live in cities. Mum said You never see whats right under your nose, but that wasn’t true. On his own he’d spotted a real raccoon snoozing in a tree, and a dead bird with a huge long beak, and sleeping bags inside bushes alongside piled bottles and cans.

Once he’d even circled the Lagoon, peering up at the forest north of it, but hadn’t ever entered the Park after sunset. In the small town, he with other kids spent hours nightly in the local park, only vacating when the teenagers took over — but no map was needed. You could see right across. Now he followed the horses into the dark.

Near-silence, but for the stepping animals. One lifted its tail. Plop plop, and that warm smell mixed with the night’s leafy earthiness.

He’d thought they might turn south, past the tennis courts to the Bay. No. A right turn. Where to? At first following the horses, the boy then dared to move sideways into the damp understory of salal, laurel, giant rhodo — and ahead, to crouch and peek as the nodding heads approached. Even when a rare midnight car drove past, the animals didn’t change pace. The videos showed that too, horses proceeding while police trainers waved flags and noisemakers in their faces, fired blanks, came unseen from behind to beat garbage-can lids. Calm.

Next they turned west. On one side of that road, he knew, lay open lawn, on the other just patchy shrubs, quite low. All the way, streetlights. Now what? Could he scrabble downhill, unseen, unheard, to the underpass, and so move roughly northwest? His insides heaved. No, not that tunnel in the dark — nor by day. It curved, so the exit wasn’t visible from the entrance. Im not a little boy any more. Im not! They’d laughed till they cried, though later Mum said Sorry, and then they smoked. Also, the meadow beyond the underpass gave no cover.

He slowed, guessing. Turned away from the horses, south and then west in a long watchful arc through open and wooded areas. Breathed leaves, a trace of skunk, someone’s cigarette. Uphill then, on to the high bank overlooking the ocean. Here he squatted under a shore-pine distorted by wind and weather, smelled algae, watched the incoming tide’s long frills of white collapse on the beach. Soaked runners, cold sock-less feet — he didn’t care, looked north. I was right. Only a hundred metres away the quartet walked towards a concrete ramp that sloped to the sand. Touching it, the lead animals snorted, and the riders spoke gently, stroking.

When hooves met beach the four horses trotted south, almost as far as the point, almost gone from view — then back again, under the boy’s high perch, to and fro, to and fro. The animals’ muscles created light-patterns on their coats while the waves gleamed under the moon, fell into silver marbled froth, and made their hssshing sound.

When the riders headed straight at the water, the boy gasped. He couldn’t swim. Nodding, the horses waded in. They stepped freely, splashed, came back to shore, reversed and went forward again into the waves, whinnying. Theyre happy! The riders got them to turn tightly, splashing through the shallows, as if in an enclosure rather than the Pacific Ocean. Turn, turn — and out of the water they came, dripping, tossing their manes, to shoulder sideways, back and forth, steady pairs dancing while the sand bounced up by their hooves.

Then they stopped.

Within a minute, the horses walked two by two up the ramp and disappeared eastward into treed darkness, trotting. Where?

Clop clop, clop clop, fading. At last the boy felt cold.

Once he slipped on wet leaves, falling, and without the horses ahead in the darkness he got muddled.

Emerging from the Park, he found the street wasn’t his but took it anyway, for traffic lights winked ahead. Resist! was stapled to four street-trees. At the corner he checked a tourist map. Im just two blocks over. By day he’d go in again, figure out the lay of the land. As the signal changed, he noticed at the map’s left side a legend that matched images to numbers dotting the Park’s green expanse. Seven: a tiny horse. Police Stables.

At home, somehow the key’s noise woke them. Bad. His wet dirty clothes enraged his mother. The man never needed a reason, but used that one too.

In bed at last, he did think a bit about how one day he’d shove them off, shove as if they were an enormous ball, six feet in diameter, rolling about a training ring to impede his progress. As horses do when skilled in crowd control, he’d shoulder them. Lean up against them, step sideways, step and step and another patient leaning step, till like him right now they’d have no choice. Steady he’d be, calm.

Mostly he imagined stables. He’d stand close, look up. Touch? Feed? Once he’d seen a girl hold out an apple. Big teeth showed as the hairy lips lifted back, and the horse bit the fruit. The boy raised his hand, held his palm flat.

—Cynthia Flood

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Cynthia Flood’s fifth collection of short stories, What Can You Do, will appear from Biblioasis in 2017. Her most recent book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor award. Cynthia lives in Vancouver.

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Mar 122016
 

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Present in this excerpt from A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, are some of the recurring themes of the novel: rescue, rebirth, metaphysics, and an example of unexpected kindness alongside violence involving individuals, factions, and nations, as well as the hint of remorse, perhaps on the way to redemption. The language is relaxed and the details vivid. In the last lines those who engage in brutality are said to acknowledge the power of words. Put another way, Agualusa shows that civilization is held in regard even as vengeance, chaos, and an eternal thirst for more, threaten to swallow his country. —Jeff Bursey

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Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin. Jeremias Carrasco had something very like this happen to him. He awoke, after facing a careless firing squad, in a bed that was too short for his six feet, and so narrow that were he to uncross his arms they would both hang down with their fingers touching the cement floor, one on each side. He had a lot of pain in his mouth, neck, and chest, and terrible trouble breathing. He saw, on opening his eyes, a low ceiling that was discolored and cracked. A small gecko, hanging directly above him, was studying him curiously. The morning was coming in, wavy and scented, through a tiny window high up on the facing wall, just below the ceiling.

“I’ve died,” thought Jeremias. “I’ve died, and that gecko is God.”

Even supposing that the gecko was indeed God, he would appear to be hesitating about what fate to assign to him. To Jeremias this indecision was even stranger than finding himself face-to-face with the Creator and the fact that He had taken on the form of a reptile. Jeremias knew, and had known for quite some time, that he was destined to burn for all eternity in the flames of Hell. He had killed, he had tortured. And if he’d started off doing those things out of duty, obeying orders, he had later acquired a taste for it. He only felt awake, whole, when he was racing through the night, in pursuit of other men.

“Make your mind up,” said Jeremias to the gecko. Or rather, he tried to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a dull, tangled thread of sounds. He made a second attempt, and, as in a nightmare, the dark rush of noise came again.

“Don’t try to talk. Actually, you’re not going to talk ever again.” Jeremias believed, for some moments, that it was God who was condemning him to eternal silence. Then he turned his eyes toward the right and saw a hugely fat woman leaning against the door. Her hands, with tiny, fragile fingers, danced before her as she spoke:

“Yesterday they announced your death in the newspapers. They published a photograph, it was quite an old one, I almost didn’t recognize you. They said you were a devil. You died, you were reborn, and you have another chance. Make the most of it.”

Madalena had been working at the Maria Pia Hospital for five years. Before that she had been a nun. A neighbor had witnessed the shooting of the mercenaries at a distance and had notified her. The nurse drove to the site on her own. One of the men was still alive. A bullet had passed through his chest, on a miraculous, perfect course that hadn’t hit a single vital organ. A second projectile had gone into his mouth, shattering his two upper incisors, then perforating his throat.

“I don’t understand what happened. Were you trying to catch the bullet in your teeth?” She laughed, her body shaking. The light seemed to laugh with her. “Yes, sir, those are some good reflexes. And it wasn’t even such a bad idea, either. If the bullet hadn’t found your teeth, it would have taken a different direction. It would have killed you or left you paralyzed. I thought it best not to take you to the hospital. They would take care of you and then when you were recovered they’d only shoot you again. So be patient, and I’ll look after you myself with what little resources there are. I just have to get you out of Luanda. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hide you. If the comrades find you, they’ll shoot me, too. As soon as possible we’ll travel south.”

She hid him for nearly five months. By listening to the radio, Jeremias was able to follow the difficult progress of the government troops, supported by the Cubans, against the improvised, unstable alliance between the UNITA party, the National Front, the South African army, and mercenaries from Portugal, England, and North America.
Jeremias was dancing on the beach, in Cascais, with a platinum blonde, and he had never been in a war, never killed, never tortured anyone, when Madalena shook him:

“Come on, Captain! We go today or never.”

The mercenary sat up in bed, with some effort. The rain was crackling in the darkness, muffling the noise of what sparse traffic there was at that time. They were to travel in a little old van, a Citroën 2CV, its yellow bodywork badly worn, eaten away by rust, but with its engine in perfect working order. Jeremias was stretched out on the backseat, hidden by various crates of books.

“Books instill respect,” explained the nurse. “If you carry crates full of beer bottles, the soldiers will search every inch of the vehicle. Besides which, you’ll get to Moçâmedes without a single bottle left.”

—José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn

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