Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
Staff Editor Kelly Grey Carlisle
Managing Editor Spenser Stevens
Design Mallory Conder
Assistant Editors Paul Cuclis
All staff participate in the reading and selection of work and the production of the magazine. 1966 is published with the support of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and its English Department. http://www.trinity.edu The copyright of all work contained in this magazine belongs to its author. Photography provided by Mallory Conder, Spenser Stevens, and Michelle Amor(p4-5,12). Shoelace Font by Tomas Pasma on pages 44-45.
Everything Was Beautiful They Call This the Dismantling Thirteen More Miles
Studying the Trees Mbuna
The Minetta Stream Elephant Bird Egg Our Contributors
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
On Saliva Alicia Catt Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
I. If the human body is an exquisite machine, and the human mouth a single cog in that machine, and the tongue and epiglottis day laborers in that massive corporeal factory, saliva might be the Gatorade sold in the employee break room: an often overlooked electrolyte powerhouse. Of all the body’s fluids and secretions, saliva is perhaps the most modest. Saliva is not flashy like blood, does not call attention to itself like urine. It does not nourish like milk or spark life like semen. It does not drip incessantly like sweat or overwhelm like vomit. Saliva is not pushy. Saliva waits its turn. Consider the composition of human saliva: all but one-half percent water, the rest a mélange of enzyme and mucus, protein and hormone. Consider that on an average day, a healthy adult produces around a liter of the stuff, and without it, food would be of little value. Dry your tongue and mouth with a paper towel, then try to taste anything at all—a potato chip, a slice of orange. You can’t. What our saliva cannot break down, we experience as flavorless. II. On jagged cave walls across Indonesia and Southeast Asia, colonies of edible-nest swiftlets—aerodramus fuciphagus—build nests entirely of their own saliva. The swiftlet, somewhere between a swallow and a hummingbird in appearance, is, in fact, more like a bat in its ability to echonavigate through the dark. Each swiftlet might spend a month or more weaving her domicile from gummy strands of bird spit, knitting and purling it to perfection with her beak. When dried, the saliva hardens, forming a waxy yellow nest. When harvested by humans and cleaned, these nests are, quite literally, worth their weight in silver. The reason? Bird’s nest soup, a gelatinous Eastern delicacy— and rumored aphrodisiac. III.
It’s only hard the first time…you’ll see what I mean. This is what “J” assures me in an email from October 2005. It is the first of four messages we will exchange before meeting. Your mouth shouldn’t be too clean, he warns, no toothpaste smell, no gum. I am a prematurely jaded 22-year old escort with an appetite for easy cash and bizarre, anonymous sex. In the seven years to come, I’ll rake in money by indulging men in all manners of degenerate shit. Not literal shit, but piss, period blood, my well-worn panties, the filthy soles of my combat boots. Kink is kink, any way it’s sliced—nothing sacred, nothing sinful, and after a few years, nothing to even cock an eyebrow at. But “J” is the first and only of his kind I’ll ever encounter: a friendly fifty-something with an appetite—no, a thirst—for female saliva. When we meet, “J” produces an empty two-ounce spray bottle and a threadbare hand towel. On my nightstand, he places an envelope stuffed with a generic greeting card and six twenties. He puts his nose to my face and cordially sniffs my unwashed mouth, then shuts his eyes and says, “Alrighty. Go for it.” As instructed, I hawk a large wad of spit directly onto his cheek. It drips toward the corner of his mouth. His tongue darts out to retrieve it; his hand darts into his unzipped fly and stays there. I have the sinking notion that I am going to be violently ill. It is just like a kiss. Just like a kiss. Just a kiss. The mantra echoes in my head and soothes my stomach. “Now into my mouth, please.” I spit into his open and eager mouth: four, five, maybe six times, each eliciting from him a deep groan. My tongue has gone dry as dust. With his unoccupied hand, “J” offers me the tiny spray bottle. “For later,” he says, “to mist on my face while I masturbate.” Just like that. So matter-of-fact, so polite and unabashed. How could I not oblige? In theory, filling a miniature spray bottle with spit seems like a fairly simple task. In practice, my parched mouth can barely produce a thimbleful.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
I try to take a sip of water, but he stops me. Water, he tells me, will dilute the scent. Within fifteen minutes, “J” is finished, never having touched me or removed his clothing. He uses his own towel to tidy himself, then folds it neatly in quarters and places it in his laptop bag along with my disappointing accumulation of saliva. “We’ll get more out of you next week,” he says, unfazed. I nod, but I’m quietly embarrassed—I haven’t given him his money’s worth. My mouth has never failed me quite like this before. IV. It seems to me that there are two distinct sexual fetishes revolving around saliva. For people like “J,” excitement stems from the secretion itself: smelling it, drinking it, using it as one might use a water-based lubricant. Consider the unfortunate case of Toshiko Mizuno, a Japanese man arrested in 2011 for deceptively obtaining saliva from young women on the street. Mizuno, under the guise of “scientific research,” convinced more than 200 women to spit into jars while he videotaped them—then kept the saliva to drink in private later. And these two salivaphiles are far from alone. It takes only a carefully crafted Google search to find two underground auction sites, eBanned and NaughtyBids, both with plenty of spit-soaked items for sale, naturally, to the highest bidder. The concept of saliva as a potentially erotic substance is not that outrageous. It contains many of the same sex pheromones—copulin, androstenone, testosterone—found in sweat and labial folds, the same chemical compounds emitted by a cat in the throes of heat. Saliva also carries fragments of a protein known as MHC—major histocompatibility complex—that determines the body’s ability to fight infection. In the search for a suitable mate, we tend to prefer the kisses, smells, and intimate flavors of individuals whose MHC is different than our own (thus assuring a diverse immune system for any potential offspring). Perhaps this explains why “J,” after only three visits with me, puts the
kibosh on our arrangement. Maybe he simply feels jilted by my continued inability to fill even the smallest of containers with my saliva. I mourn for the lost paycheck, but am equally thrilled to resume my regular oral hygiene habits. V. The concept of sexual fetishism was popularized in the late 19th century by French psychologist Alfred Binet. But long before the word fetish conjured up mental images of stiletto heels and ball gags, it had a more supernatural implication. From the Latin facticius, “artificial,” and facere, “to make,” a fetish was any inanimate or man-made object believed to have magical or spiritual powers. It could be argued that, by the very nature of religion, fetishes exist in all belief systems: the rosary, the totem pole, the tarot deck. The mystical fetishization of saliva is nothing new. “Toi, toi, toi!”, a German folk saying routinely accompanied by knocking on a piece of wood for good luck, is an onomatopoeic phrase meant to emulate the sound of spitting. The same thing in Yiddish sounds more like “Tfu, tfu, tfu!” Spitting as a defense against evil—usually done three times in succession—is an almost ubiquitous tradition throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. In northern India and Pakistan, mothers commonly spit lightly at their children. Shopkeepers, too, often spit on their first cash proceeds of the day. In order to ward off the envious gaze of the evil eye, it seems, one must never appear too fond of anything precious. VI. The second type of saliva fetish, and certainly the more common one, is not really a saliva fetish at all. It is more concerned with the act of spitting itself: to humiliate or, alternately, to be humiliated. To be spitter or spittee, depending on one’s preference. It is usually part of a larger power play in the
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
sexual counterculture of BDSM, where consent is king and nothing is taboo. The acronym BDSM is a blanket term to describe various acts of bondage and discipline, and of domination and submission, and of sadism and masochism. For those who are really serious about embracing their freaky side, there are several online versions of a BDSM checklist—an exhaustive alphabetical roster of fetish: “branding,” “diapers (wearing),” “diapers (soiling),” “electricity play,” “interrogation,” “ice cubes.” And so on. Meant to facilitate negotiation with potential sex partners, the checklist invites you to rate each activity on a scale from zero to five. Zero means you’d rather carve your own eyeballs out with a butter knife (which is not, in fact, one of the listed activities). Five means it’s your wildest turn-on. On most lists, you’ll find the particular concepts in question nestled somewhere between “speculums” and “spreader bars”: “spitting (giving),” then “spitting (receiving).” At 22, I am no stranger to the checklist, having considered it from two separate perspectives: the things I am willing to do for money, and the things I am happy to do for free. There is a startling lack of overlap. As an escort, I play the unwavering top: I am the spitter, the spanker, the cruel, interrogating mistress. Even when my work remains squarely outside the realm of fetish, which it often does, there is no questioning who is in control. I am. My clients, the generally well-behaved bunch that they are, do nothing without my permission. A john who calls me a bitch or uses his teeth on any part of me is reprimanded once; a second offense and his time is simply finished. For my safety, my peace of mind, this is how it must always be. In my personal life, though, I am ravenously submissive. I would rather be dragged across a room by my hair, or be bitten until black and blue, or choked, or called any number of unfeminist slurs. I would gladly slurp water from a dog dish. Saliva does not interest me. Spitting does not interest me. But for a brief period of months, I entertain the fantasy that perhaps—in the right context, by the right person—I might enjoy being spat on. Some time after my salivary tryst with “J” comes to a halt, I am on
a date—the traditional, unpaid kind. I am drunk on cheap liquor and higher than heaven’s weather balloons. He is two decades older and rugged, a dirty kind of handsome, a violent kind of sexy. He is the kind of man who pours drink after drink and waits until his date is toes up in the tulips, until she can barely speak her own name, until there is no way for her to consent to the degradation she might have enjoyed otherwise: heavy backhand to her face, bruised collarbone, sticky rivulets of his spit bubbling and dribbling down her cheeks, her chin, her breasts, her back—my cheeks, my chin, my breasts, my back. The next morning I wake up alone in his bed, saliva-encrusted and sore. Reality has a difficult time living up to fantasy. Years after this, even the sound of someone spitting will make my stomach turn. VII. In 2006, scientists discovered opiorphin, a pain-killing polypeptide found exclusively in human saliva. The compound, said to be six times stronger than morphine, was used successfully to soothe lab rats forced to stand on a platform of needlepoints. But so far, humans seem immune to their own bodies’ creation. Opiorphin can’t penetrate our blood-brain barrier, and once swallowed, it degenerates quickly. Research, as far as I can tell, has come to a standstill. The recreational opiate enthusiasts of the Internet may not have gotten the message. On Yahoo! Answers, someone asks: “What wud [sic] be a feasible way to extract it? Spit in a jar and evaporate water?” On the drug forum Bluelight.ru, one user suggests “banging” spit (injecting it intravenously), but only after boiling it to sterility. Someone else indicates a saliva enema—or that’s what I imagine “browning” must mean, because Jesus, what else could it possibly be—might be the way to go. But not everyone on the forum is convinced. One user interjects: “Yawn. More spit-smoking dregheads.”
Volume Volume 1, 1, Issue Issue 2. 2. Fall Fall 2013 2013
â&#x20AC;&#x153;At 27, I am again an unconsenting spitee.â&#x20AC;?
VIII. Russell’s Viper, a snake native to India and Indonesia, is notorious for an extremely high death toll among its human bite victims. A YouTube video shows a researcher holding a viper by its head and milking it for venom, enticing it to sink its fangs into the rubber lid of a jar. The researcher then mixes one drop of the venom into a petri dish of human blood; less than ten seconds later, the blood has congealed into a single spongy clot. It is no longer even liquid. No longer even something a pumping heart could comprehend. Snake venom is saliva, too—highly modified and weaponized. For snakes, generally unable to outrun, outfight, or outsmart their natural predators, venom evolved primarily as a defense mechanism. It still contains many of the same digestive enzymes humans possess, but it also contains zootoxins, which efficiently target blood and brain. Aptly named “spitting cobras” can project a stream of venom up to eight feet when threatened— aiming, of course, for the perceived predator’s face. IX. At 27, I am again an unconsenting spitee. This time I am at work—a king suite at the Hyatt—entwined in a paid tryst with my dysfunctional friends Veronica and Ed. “Friends” is perhaps an oversimplification of what could easily be a soap opera subplot. Veronica, a fellow escort and unrelenting sociopath, once mentored me in the fine art of professional fucking. Ed, a client of Veronica’s, has recently become her full-time boyfriend. More recently, as Veronica and I have both noticed, Ed’s gaze has begun to wander in my direction. It’s not entirely unreciprocated. In fact, I find both of them attractive. In any number of parallel universes, this is a ménage I would not particularly need to be paid for. But in this current universe, I quickly realize, there is nothing erotic about it at all. I suppose for Ed there is—he’s the one paying me, and by
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
avirtue date—the of having traditional, a penis, he’s unpaid blindkind. to theI subtleties am drunkof on female cheap rivalry. liquor When and higher than Veronica pins heaven’s me to weather the bed balloons. and pinches He ismy two mouth decades open older with and herrugged, hand, a dirty then launches kind ofa handsome, huge wad ofa spit violent into kind the back of sexy. of myHethroat, is theleaving kind ofmeman no who pours option but todrink swallow, afterI imagine drink and Edwaits sees only untilwhat his he datewants is toes to—his up in kinky the girlfriend and her submissive lover. “Bad girl.” She smiles at me, sweetly, and flashes a set of sharp, perfect teeth. Two years after this, someone—Veronica?—will send an anonymous letter to the dean at the college where I’ve begun teaching, outing me and calling me unfit to be an educator. I won’t lose my job. Instead, I’ll invite Ed to my office after hours. Later I’ll send him home to Veronica, drenched in the scent of my mouth. X. My cats, like all cats, mark their territory with saliva. They rub their slack jawlines against furniture and walls. One of them drools incessantly when pleased; the other suckles on a catnip mouse. Their tongues bathe everything in sight. For them, to groom something is to love it. To love something is to own it. My housemate Beth, a quiet, placid introvert, spends evenings writing in her rocking chair in the corner of our living room. Across the room is my own writing space, where I’ve been wrestling with spit for a week. Every few minutes I disrupt her concentration to share my latest research findings, a progressively disgusted look on my face. “Snake venom turns blood into Jello,” I say. “Jello.” She humors me and watches the YouTube video. I can tell she’d rather be working. I am as greedy for human attention as Beth is satisfied without it—as feral and territorial as she is relaxed. The first time she has her boyfriend over, I make polite, clipped conversation and exit quickly to my bedroom. The second time, I make a point to slam every door and cupboard in the kitchen. The third time, I throw a fit as soon as he leaves.
“I don’t like men in my fucking house,” I hiss. (Evolutionary biologists posit that cats first learned to hiss by imitating snakes.) That I don’t like men in my house is only a third of the truth. What I don’t say is: I don’t like men in my house that don’t belong to me. I don’t like men I can’t control. What I also don’t say is: You are mine. When the boyfriend is absent, Beth and I get along effortlessly. On weekends, we barely leave the comfort of our respective writing spaces. We take turns buying dinner. We pretend to ignore each other’s bizarre food rituals—my tendency to sometimes spit out more of a meal than I swallow, or the sunflower seed addiction that leaves her lips puckered and burnt with salt. I am always the one that speaks first. “Did you know people try to get high on their own saliva?” I ask. She wrinkles her nose and extends to me a family-sized bag of sunflower seeds. In her lap is a Mason jar, half full of cracked, empty husks. “Spit?”
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
Everything Was Beautiful Alison Stine Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
We lived in an allotment, an asphalt circle that made a mile exactly— so my mom swore when she made us walk it after dinner. All the houses were built in the 1970s. They all had avocado-colored kitchens, dark wood paneling, small yards with big trees. But our home had the woods. Down a hill at the bottom of a dead end, there were only two houses on our street besides our own: one to the right, one in front. To the left and back were woods, only woods, a thick brown mystery, at least an acre, though at eight or nine-years-old it seemed endless. I thought our neighbor across the street, a retiree who restored cars, might be Daddy Warbucks. I thought another set of neighbors, their house deep in the trees, might be Russian spies. I had misread the flag on their back porch, the red, gray and white buckeye emblem of The Ohio State University, for the hammer and sickle of Communism, which we were learning about in school. The world was full of wonder. I thought I might as well hide. I found the abandoned place in the woods to the back of our house, up on a rise but still shielded. It was a dark, wood-planked building about the size of a minivan, square, with two windows on the lower story, real glass panes and casements, and a cupola with another little window on top. I had read The Four Story Mistake. I had read The Secret Garden. I had read The Boxcar Children. I had read. I had read. I had read. And in what I read, children always needed a hideaway, a sanctum, an escape. This was to be mine. I told no one, but set to sweeping out the mouse smell, polishing the windows with rags I had found in our garage. We didn’t grow up wild, my younger sister and brother and I, but we grew up free. Summer or winter, we were not expected home until dark or dinner. We had full range of the neighborhood, our grazing lands. Sometimes we hung out with the other kids in the allotment—the redheaded twins, the pale religious sisters and the judge’s son—playing capture the flag or ghosts in the graveyard, but there were problems. One of the twins was mean, and I could never remember which one until she burned me, pulled up the ladder
of the tree house just when I reached the first rung, changed the rules in the middle of a complicated game when I was winning. The judge’s son set fire to things, stole things, killed small things, and once climbed the telephone tower, looming over the neighborhood like a robot lord. I remember that happening at night, the last night of summer, a sudden early and awful night—too dark, too soon. We got in trouble for staying out. I remember the judge’s son was sent to military school after that, and he didn’t write us. But mostly we fended for ourselves, my sister and I (and brother, when he was old enough to catch up). We swung on the tire roped on a tree in our yard. My sister lined up her My Little Ponies in the driveway and ran over them with her Big Wheel. I gathered acorns and used rocks to try to pound them into flour—something I had read about in captivity narratives like The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. If we yelled, my mom said, Are you bleeding? If we said yes, she asked, A lot? Otherwise we were fine. We were occupied. And so, when I disappeared for hours in my abandoned place, no one came looking for me. Up north, near Cleveland, there is an inland lake: Chippewa. People used to picnic there, to boat, to hold tent revivals on its wide green banks. In the 1870s, a man named Edward Andrews had a beach built on the lake and organized the grounds, naming it after himself: the Andrews Pleasure Grounds. He added to the property a roller coaster with a single drop—really just one long, bumpy fall, built into a pre-existing hill. The roller coaster cars—actually old coal cars outfitted with benches, no seat belts—rattled down narrow-gauge rails, coming to a stop only when they hit the bottom of the hill. The riders would climb out, then employees had to manually push the cars back up the hill again so the next couple in line could have a turn. The roller coaster at Chippewa was unsafe, ineffective—and extremely popular. Andrews Pleasure Grounds was sold for a profit, and the new owner
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
added more roller coasters: the wooden Big Dipper, known as simply “The Coaster;” the miniature, steel Little Dipper; and the wood-framed Wild Mouse. An amusement park was born. The Chippewa Lake amusement park had its heyday during the Roaring Twenties. There was a carousel then, a Ferris wheel, a fun house, a ride called the Flying Cages where passengers were locked into brightly-painted steel contraptions about the size of elevators which then rose into the air and whirled around vertically. There was swimming on the beach, dancing in a dome-roofed ballroom where live music played. There was a midway with games and food sold from stands like the Hamburger Factory. Candy cane-shaped streetlights hung over the walk. There was the Miss Chippewa, a canopied pleasure boat which trawled the lake offering passengers a sedate view of the beach and waters. Chippewa Lake was family-operated, all this time, by the Beach family, responsible for the expansion of the park and its popularity. The park had filed for bankruptcy back in 1934—even pleasure grounds were not immune to a depression—but Parker Beach, who, according to his obituary, first came to his family’s amusement park as a one-month-old infant and began working there when he was only twelve-years-old, was in the crowd when Chippewa Lake came up for sale at a bank auction. Beach had “$18 in his pocket that day in 1937, when he bought the park for $3,500… and agreed to pay the delinquent taxes and mortgages.”1 Beach was true to his word. He paid the back taxes. He fixed up the park. He lured crowds to return with music, christening the dance hall the Starlight Ballroom, its motto: “Dancing Every Night.” Beach meant it. Reportedly, in 1937, the year Beach bought Chippewa back from the bank, Lawrence Welk performed his first major radio broadcast from the ballroom. Beach held dance-offs, battles of the bands. He brought car shows onto the grounds. On Sunday mornings, church services were held in the Starlight Ballroom, food and lemonade afterward for sale. The church crowds didn’t linger too long in the dance hall those Sunday afternoons; there was dancing 1
Teibel, Beverly Sprowl. “Parker Beach (1905-1992).” Find a Grave Memorial. 31 July 2007. Web. 10 September
that night, after all. Parker Beach had grown up at Chippewa, he would grow old at Chippewa. He continued to run the park for thirty more years, until age sixty-four. It was 1969 when he retired, putting Chippewa Lake up for sale. My abandoned place was a house, I thought, some hunter’s cabin or writer’s refuge. I had a few such places: my room, which had two windows in a corner and a rusted TV trellis beneath them, lacy with dried ivy. (I always swore I would climb down it, escape through the windows, but I’m not certain I ever did.) I had a Lane cedar chest of treasures; I used to kneel in front of it and look at them: dried rose petals, ticket stubs, a carousel music box my dad had given me. And I had a bend in the creek behind our house where a tree jutted over the water. Half-felled, the tree continued to grow, the trunk indented just like a bus seat. I would sit, throw things in the water, hide things beneath the roots, like little things to throw: twigs and rocks and acorn caps. But the abandoned place was better than a room or a chest or even a tree. It was an entire building, a house with walls and windows. There may have been a sink, a little kitchen, the remains of chairs and a table. It was all in miniature, just my size. Also it had an attic, the cupola accessible only by a trapdoor in the ceiling. I did not go up there, not at first. I was saving it. Surely it held something good. Continental Business Enterprises, the company that bought Chippewa Lake in 1969, intended to expand and update the park, bringing it into the twentieth century—more roller coasters and modern thrill rides, less dance hall and Miss Chippewa. In nearby Sandusky was Cedar Point, after all, a massive three hundred acres of rides, mostly roller coasters, among them the Blue Streak (named after the mascot of Sandusky High School), and the Cedar Creek Mine Ride, as well as the popular Jungle Larry’s Safari. Cedar Point was so huge, it had its own railroad, ferrying passengers from one
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
end of the park to the other. And then there was Geauga Lake in Aurora with swimming and a midway and rides including its own version of the Big Dipper. The year Chippewa Falls was sold, Geauga Lake was building an aquarium attraction. Called SeaWorld. But people were leaving Medina, Ohio, home of Chippewa. The factories were leaving. Steel, rubber, and tire production were on the decline in Akron and Cleveland, where many residents of Medina had worked. Chippewa was unable to compete with Cedar Point and Geauga, unable to generate interest again, unable to convince people who had lost or were losing their jobs to celebrate in the summer, to ride rides, to dance and scream. The remodel of Chippewa, planned by the new owners, never broke ground. The park was never updated. What was to be the centennial anniversary season of the amusement park never even started. In 1978, one hundred years after its opening as Andrews Pleasure Grounds, the amusement park at Chippewa was abandoned. I let my sister in. I had to. For a while, I could leave her behind at a certain point in the woods. There was a place you had to cross over the creek by inching across a thick, old tree. The trunk had fallen conveniently over the banks of the stream, making a bridge, slick with moss. The ravine below was close, and the stream was thin, barely a trickle, sometimes just a dry bowl of leaves, but my sister was convinced—maybe I’d convinced her—you had to use the tree bridge to make it across. There was no other way. She wouldn’t do it, and I often left her fretting on the opposite side of the bank. Then one day, in the way of children suddenly learning, suddenly deciding, suddenly brave, she would do it. She was beside me then, in my private, abandoned house, scrambling up the counters, pushing at the attic door. Before selling to developers, the Beach family had auctioned off what they could: the cars of the Little Dipper and Wild Mouse, for example, which
could be re-used in other roller coasters. But most of the park was just left standing as Parker Beach was under the impression that the park would re-open in time for its anniversary. All the other roller coasters were left intact, as were the Rocket Rods and the Flying Cages, the Tumblebug and ticket booths, the bumper cars and fun house, the bathhouse, the ballroom, the waffle stand and the peanut stand and the Hamburger Factory, Pee-Wee golf, the stage, the carousel, the restrooms, the Ferris wheel. One year turned into five, ten, thirty. Thirty years of silence. Thirty years of tall, steel structures standing alone in the grass. The grass began to grow. Trees began to grow. The wheel turned only in the breeze.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
How the land takes over, how a place becomes wild: The iron rails oxidize, the wooden frames rot. Mice move into the dance hall. The roof of the Hamburger Factory, weakened by years of snow and mold and downed limbs, collapses onto a pile of dead leaves. Perhaps wildness is always there, waiting in the shadows, just out of the spell cast by carnival bulbs, just beyond the parquet floor and the click of the dancers’ heels. Just off the pavement, wildness waits. And then it strikes: first one green shoot, then another, taller. The tip of a branch brushes at a window for years—and then one day grows inward, cracking through the window, shattering the glass. Mold needs only the invitation of rain. Beyond the highway, off any main road, Chippewa Lake was always a bit remote, nestled in the woods beside the water. The woods simply took over, stretching out. A shrub sprouted up then over the cracked cement sign to the park, obscuring the letters like a neglected grave. Yet probably the most arresting sight at Chippewa Lake was the Ferris wheel, forever stilled by the tree growing up right through the middle, perfect and straight, as if it had been planted. The tree stood as high as the Ferris wheel, then higher, enveloping the ride as though in a hug—or a choke hold. The seats of the Ferris wheel were gone, the story being that townspeople from Medina had snuck onto the park grounds at night and manually pushed the Ferris wheel, the ride creaking and turning, to reach and remove every seat. More likely, the seats were sold off by the Beach family before they left. Without its seats, without its riders or any hope of riders, the Ferris wheel took on many shapes, many lives in sun and shadows, many imaginative and monstrous forms. It resembled a rib cage, the chest cavity of some extinct creature with a dark spread of bones. Or sometimes, it looked like a wagon wheel, spokes and gears oscillated with rust. Or sometimes: a giant spinning wheel, stilled; instead of wool, poison ivy and sumac and sow thistle wound around the drive band. In summer, green leaves hid the Ferris wheel, as they did most of the amusement park’s structures. In summer, the curve or two of red-brown
iron that poked through the green could have been mistaken for limbs, for a twisted tree. But seven months out of the year, the trees of northern Ohio are bare—and it could be seen, the rusted wheel, two stories tall. It could all be seen. I picture adventurers cutting through the woods, down the path that was no longer a path, weaving through maples and bur oaks and plane trees, pushing aside saplings and whip-sharp brambles, stepping around the control boxes and electrical panels still planted in the soil like mines, and there: the Ferris wheel before them, standing silent and tall, a temple whose gods have gone away. I’ve seen an abandoned Ferris wheel, though not the one at Chippewa. At the Richland County Fairgrounds, in my hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, there is a small one, kiddie-sized, left to flake. The white paint has mostly chipped off. The cars swing in a breeze, eerily, possibly dangerously, though the wheel is only fifteen or so feet high. Ivy spirals over the wheel like carnival lights on a string. It almost looks festive. It almost looks decorative, intentional. I’m not sure why the Ferris wheel was left on the fairgrounds, parked next to the rabbit barn, left to rot, fenced in with chain-link to keep people away. It’s a quiet spot, shadowy. You can almost forget it’s there. The Ferris wheel is too short to be seen above the black-roofed barn. You can’t hear the creaks of the wind through its spokes, not when the fair is in full swing. If the weeds creeping up and over the wheel do their jobs, you will forget it’s there eventually. But I do know why the Ferris wheel was abandoned. The fair uses traveling carnival rides, and has for years now; a company called Bates Amusements comes into town the morning before the fair starts and brings their own Ferris wheel. They bring their own Tilt-a-Whirl and fun house and fun slides and child-sized roller coasters. On Sundays, their travel day, driving around the Midwest, you might
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
see them on the highway, a fleet of semis moving in a caravan. On flat beds, the trucks carry behind them rails and cars and slides and a Ferris wheel— bigger, shinier, studded with flashing LEDS—folded up until the rides don’t resemble anything, just big pieces of dreams. There are other places like Chippewa, dozens of abandoned amusement parks throughout the country, primarily in the Midwest and South (Ohio alone has twelve), though, like many wild things, most are disappearing. In Indiana, there was Riverside Amusement Park, shuttered in 1970 after years of losing money—at least in part because of pickets and protests related to the park’s “whites only” rule, which was not lifted until 1963. Like Chippewa, Riverside remained undisturbed, a cemetery of its own making, for decades until the River’s Edge subdivision was constructed on the site in 2005. In 2009, Splash Down Dunes, an Indiana water park that began in 1957 as a kiddie amusement park called Enchanted Forest, was closed due to legal issues, possibly a lack of insurance. The closing was abrupt, unexpected. One summer, opening day simply did not come, though the park was ready for it, was—and always will be now, unless it too is razed—waiting: hundreds of inflated inner tubes filling the boathouse, life jackets moldering on the floor. There are bandages still in the first aid building; a wheelchair, lichen blooming on its pedals. People have spray-painted fuck you people on the side of the concession stand, ass hole (two words) on a fiberglass dolphin. Frogs live in the wave pool now. Someone has shattered the gumball machines, and stolen all the candy inside. Called “Standing But Not Operating” (or SBNO), abandoned amusement parks have fan sites devoted to them with histories, pictures of then and now, tips on how to best break in. Because people do break in, tear down fences, smash through padlocks, cut chains with wire cutters, push back brambles and saplings and thorns. People scale up Ferris wheels, and balance on roller coaster tracks, and break their legs falling through rotted floors.
Did I ever go to Splash Down Dunes? It looks familiar, but perhaps only in the way many places of childhood do: There’s the kiddie pool, there’s a concession stand, there’s the curly slide. I grew up in Indiana, wasted flat cornfields for miles. In winter, the snow made the ground indistinguishable from the white sky. In summer, humidity peeled the shingles from my tree house, heat blurring my eyes. I do remember visiting a water park with my little sister when I was nine or ten. It was a gray day, unseasonably wet and cold. My swimsuit tore on a water slide; boys made fun of me in line. I had a miserable time. I’m not sure if my sister brought them down from the cupola, or simply returned to tell the tale—I was afraid to go up there myself, afraid the floors wouldn’t hold me—her blue eyes bright, her skin so pale her freckles glowed. She described them to me: the boxes, the long flat boxes with faded letters, mold marks and mouse bites; the little bombs; the paper wrapped cylinders, each with a whip-like fuse. Fireworks. The attic of the abandoned place was packed with fireworks. We continued our business as usual, hopping the creek and cutting the hair off our dolls and hitting acorns with rocks until summer rolled around and we got bored, or a boy—because I do believe it was a boy, the judge’s son before he climbed the radio tower and was sent away, the twins’ little brother—somebody talked my sister into it, egged her on. My sister brought down the fireworks. We began setting them off in the driveway, the smoke bombs, the ring rockets, the black snakes—the long, black ashy tails of which left burns on the asphalt, a singed smell in the air. My parents came to the window. We were confronted, my sister and I, interrogated alone and together. Someone confessed. The neighbors were called. My abandoned place had an owner—the neighbors—and an identity, pedestrian and plain: It was their children’s old playhouse, a shack in the woods. They had built it years ago, forgotten about it as it grew covered with weeds then trees, forgotten
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
the whole thing, the entire cupola, was full with fireworks, decades old. It’s a wonder that building hasn’t exploded, my mom said. We were banned from it. Too dangerous. The shack may have been torn down. No one just cleaned the fireworks from the building and gave it back to us. No one thought we wanted the playhouse for anything other than pyromania—but I had been alone there. It was a space to think. It was private. I was fixing it up. It had been mine. Was it that summer, or soon after, we were banned from the creek after my grandfather discovered sewage pipes ran cracked and orange into the water? Then we learned the woods surrounding our house had once been a big lake, a lake at the center of the allotment—but then a little girl drowned and the lake was filled in, the water drained, trees planted as if earth and trunks and a red brown haze and a burning smell in the fall could make people forget. It made us not want to go in there. It made us not want to play. Was it that summer, or soon after, we had a curfew? A man a few streets down, a man relatively young but with shocking white hair—I had once made eye contact with him on Halloween, tramping about the neighborhood in my costume; his porch light wasn’t on; he was outside but not distributing candy; he was chopping wood, out with an ax while children in masks and long hems tripped and blundered and dashed in and out of houses all around him—this man began wearing skirts and pantyhose and wigs and heels and riding his motorcycle around the neighborhood at night. So what? I would say. But he wasn’t simply dressing as a woman. His house was for sale, and the realtor told my mom he showed it by pointing out the bedroom he shared with his wife, the closet full of her fancy clothes, and the bedrooms of his daughters: their dresses, their toys, their bikes and jacks and jump ropes. He had no wife, no daughters. He was not married, had no children. I had to be home before dark.
So many things were taken from us. Surely this was the summer I turned thirteen. At school that year they were taking away our backpacks. Around the country, guns were showing up in schools. Our school couldn’t afford a metal detector, so we had two options: Leave the bags and purses at home and carry all our school things in our arms, or use clear plastic backpacks, so that all the contents—all our books and notebooks and pens and makeup and brushes and secrets—were visible to everyone walking behind us, everybody in the school. At least I still had my shortcut. My best friend since fifth grade lived in Royal Oak Estates, the large new neighborhood that backed up against our own. Our two allotments were only a tree width apart, but houses in Royal Oak cost thousands more. The streets were wide and smooth. There were sidewalks. The houses were modern and manicured and close together; they all looked alike, unlike my neighborhood’s hodgepodge of styles. Royal Oak houses had small trim yards. The trees were young and thin and usually eaten by deer before they could make it past saplings. Inside the houses, there were cathedral ceilings and chandeliers and kitchen islands. The walls were beige. The carpets were beige. Everything smelled like a car. I think I loved being in that neighborhood with its newness and its blandness as much I enjoyed seeing my friend. I was thirteen. I wanted everything to be the same. I wanted to be the same. Royal Oak had no woods, no filled-in pond, no avocado-colored kitchens, no sewage creek, no cross-dressing motorcyclist with an ax, no mystery. I found a way to cut through a yard in my own neighborhood, squeeze past some prickly hedges and then I was there in the manicured land. I could even bring my bike, walking it quickly past a neighbor’s staked beagle, the playing card removed from my spokes so the tick tick tick wouldn’t make him bark. I shoved my bike through the shrubs, ducked through myself and… Narnia, with leaves on my shoulders. Our neighborhood was complete, for better or worse, a mile, a finished circle. The developers had long left, running out of woods and cash. But
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
they were building in Royal Oak Estates. People were buying new houses, always bigger. McMansions: bloated, brown or gray houses with odd peaks and small windows and large garages facing the street. Royal Oak was building a kingdom of McMansions. Always there was a stretch at the end of some street or other with straw instead of grass, dirt instead of roads and a big blonde skeleton for a house: framing for walls, wood planks for floors, maybe an open staircase or two, maybe light bulbs in bald sockets. We all did it. We all broke into them—hardly breaking as there were no walls. It was ghost burglary, what we did. We stepped in around air. Who started it? How many times did I go along, and what did we do inside those houses? I don’t remember. Talked, played cards, walked around, daring each other to do things, like step over there or jump over that. They weren’t abandoned spaces, those unfinished houses in Royal Oak, but they were ours. Then somebody starting setting fires. I was too late for Chippewa. I would pass the sign on the highway, Chippewa Lake, intended to steer people to the waterway (but also, conveniently directing trespassers), and think, one of these days… But I never did it. I’ve never been much of a lawbreaker. I fear trouble too much. The worry of discovery, of being seen by cops or caretakers or the absentee owners—or perhaps, worst of all, other explorers—was too great. Chippewa was too known. I didn’t want to run into anyone when I was there, wading in the grass among the rusted coasters, seeing the great overgrown Ferris wheel for the first time, the tree shooting right up through the middle like a stick in a bicycle’s struts. I wanted it to be my own, my private adventure, as if I had discovered it, like an archaeologist, like a child— and it would never be. In June 2002, a girl was playing in the dance hall of Chippewa Lake, the huge structure with its ballroom three stories tall. She had matches.
By the time firefighters cut through the chains gating off the property, cut through the brush, fought through the woods and made their way to the flames, most of the structure had burned. Only a low brick wall was left of the ballroom, some twisted steel support beams. And a dance floor of ash. The girl survived, escaped, confessed. The hotel on the property had already burned, years ago. Boys had burnt down most of it. After being caught and scolded by caretakers in the abandoned park, they had returned to light the intentional blaze. Still, Continental Business Enterprises held onto the park for years, doing nothing, not restoring, not building, not even tearing down. For decades, the park sat still, frozen. Only the woods moved, ever over. Then in 2008, Continental Business Enterprises either renamed themselves or sold the property to an operation called Chippewa Partners LLC who then sent a press release to the Akron Beacon Journal. Finally, after more than thirty years, something would happen—but not to the park, not to the rusted SBNO structures, to the land. It was only the land they wanted. Chippewa Partners LLC announced ground would soon break on Chippewa Landing, a destination with a fitness center, restaurants, conference center, hotel, and spa. The destruction of Chippewa played out on the internet, with SBNO fans calling it the “final tour” and Wikipedia updating with a play-by-play. By June 2010, the roller coasters and Hamburger Factory were gone. By January of the following year, only the ticket booth, Tumble Bug, the debris of the former ballroom and the mighty Ferris wheel remained. And then the inevitable happened. It didn’t work. The developers ran out of money, couldn’t find backers, couldn’t generate interest. The restaurants, the conference and fitness centers, the spa—they were not to be. By April 2012, Chippewa Partners LLC had abandoned their plans, and the land—razed of its rides, the woods emptied of everything that had made it distinct: the ballroom, the midway, the Ferris
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
wheel, even the trees— the leveled, bald land was foreclosed, scheduled for auction by the bank. I am not certain it sold. There are no ghost stories associated with Chippewa, though a tale persists about a roller coaster accident that never happened. But maybe the failure of Chippewa Landing, the foreclosure of the developers, is Parker Beach’s revenge. He was devastated when the park never reopened. He had so many memories of the place. He had spent his life there, grown up there. According to rumor, Beach asked his family to bury him at Chippewa Lake, sneak back onto their old property and bury him there beneath the Ferris Wheel or the Wild Mouse after he died—and they agreed. Not true, says his obituary, listing his resting place as the Mound Hill Cemetery in Medina, Ohio. He died in 1992, of heart failure at age eightysix. He was buried in the cemetery next to his wife. But it makes a good story. I wasn’t there when the fire started, the fire in the Royal Oak house, but I heard about it at school, or from my parents. Somebody whose name I do not remember was caught. Somebody got off with a warning. The unfinished houses were closed down to us, the construction sites fenced and locked, forbidden as the abandoned playhouse had been forbidden. The hedge grew wild and tall without me always breaking through it; I drove to my friend’s house in Royal Oak instead. I was too old to concern myself with ruined things, anyway. There was high school to think about, college. So many new things, shiny and plastic. I graduated, went through a slew of jobs, always a new place. Every few years, a new apartment. And then. And then. What was an early sign of the 2008 recession for me? Abandonment. Another house indistinguishable from a row of houses, except one day it
looked darker. No lights would come on at night. Then the front lawn started its march toward wild. With no one to mow, the sedge shot up, bold and thick, brushing the bottom of windowsills, a sea of burdock and chicory and ironweed studded with wild carrot, nodding and white. Weeds would sprout from the gutters, patches of moss green the roof. Shingles would fall off. Shutters would fall off. Cracks would appear in the driveway, ever widening. It didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t take long for ruin to happen, even in the suburbs, even where I lived, even in Royal Oak Estates. It was like it had been waiting. During the final tour of Chippewa, adventurers scrambled to take pictures, to see the abandoned park one last time, to preserve what they could in memory and in photographs. Many flocked to the site even as it was being destroyed, jockeying for place amid the diggers and skid steers and chain saws and cranes, holding their cameras up above their heads for one last shot. A funny, sad thing happened. Destroying the park, bulldozing the trees, tearing up the decades of weeds and foliage and debris, exposed the rides clearly for the first time since the 1970s. In the pictures of the final tour, finally, you can see Chippewa, the ghost of what it was, the skeletons of the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, the Wild Mouse. They all look smaller without their cloak of leaves. They look weak, rusted and old. Once the tree was ripped out of its middle, the Ferris wheel seemed small somehow, child-size, its naked frame as delicate as a spiderâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s web, and like a web, ruined by a strong enough breeze. Sometimes when I drive by an abandoned house, I think about what I could do with it. I think about what it would take to bring it back: tearing up the mousy carpets, re-shingling the rotted roof. I think about painting, adding shutters. I think about bringing light to the windows. The land will reclaim some of these abandoned houses, has already
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
done so, trees pushing up from the foundations, weeds busting in through the windows, animals like mice and rats and raccoons moving in. “Feral houses,” I’ve heard them called. And there is beauty in that. But these houses are each also evidence of failure, of individual heartbreak, of hurt. One month, one year—and they were lost. Someone was moved from here, perhaps forced from here. Someone had to look back. Someone didn’t want to go. In this sense, I am glad I never saw Chippewa. I could never bring it back; after a few years of abandonment, probably no one could. The price was too high, the rust too thick, the roller coasters too unsteady and outdated. Chippewa Lake could never compete, could never bring them back. And where did the crowds go who lost their jobs in steel and rubber and copper and iron? Where did the children go who rode the Wild Mouse until they spun? Where did the couples go who met at the Starlight Ballroom, who danced all night, then left the hall breathless, to walk barefoot on the beach of the lake and gaze up—not at the stars, but at the Ferris wheel, that wonder, that helm which would turn all night when the summer was new, when everything was beautiful, when the lights could be seen for miles.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
they call this the dismantling Abigail loar Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
I have been trying for years to tell my story - the story of a girl stripped of a possibility. The story of a body. But as I have tried to craft it over the years, I have walked the fine line between maddening and madness. I have come to carry another story with me. It is one I have no narrative for. It is, literally, a story of digression, of disinvestment. I spent the summer of 2011 lost in my head, clamoring through my days. And as I sat one afternoon contemplating why a woman in a backless dress made me crave children, my friend noted the dampness of my eyes and asked how I felt. I showed her a painting, so she told me to write about it: It Feels Like Jackson Pollock’s Number 8 I know two selves vivacity and dissatisfaction. I forge my way. Lose it again. It’s like watching the freight trains at dawn. Some days you just have to ease into the destruction. Write a soliloquy for the right side, the left side, the suicide, and smatter it all in paint. He wasn’t afraid to destroy the image because the painting had a life of its own. Something about maintaining contact, no mention of control. Know thyself. Touch feet to earth. I still forget the difference. I can feel Number 8 on my eyes. The torment of chaos uninvited, like igniting water. I rub my memories along the canvas and feel the rockiness. That September gray when I first lost the magic. But as I look
a little closer, feel a little deeper. The blind man in love with the dancer. The seven footprints circling a center. Spider lilies and the holy cross. A summer without a child — the fragility of both. The romance in the lower right. The forgiveness. I would swallow the raging fires if I could. I weave feathers into my hair in case I ever need to let go. Jackson Pollock began psychiatric treatment in the late 1930s. And Paulo Coelho, the man who made me want to put pen to paper, was committed to a mental institution at age 17. He escaped three times before being released at age 20. I’m afraid this all means something. For years I carried a sort of anger through my days. I know that there is a difference between being angry and being mad, and I know I am not the latter. But the prospect of it, of having a predisposition for highs and lows – well it is enough to render me fragile again. From a distance, I can safely flirt with the idea of boundaries being ledges. They call to me. Retreat from the world. Retreat from yourself. They are my demons and my scars. I dreamed of a girl who left a note that read, “Sorry. Had to get back to sea.” She drove down to the coast and let little pieces of herself go at the waters edge. They turned the tides and carried the waves far from the sand, all the way to be burned on the horizon’s edge. Satisfaction is realizing what we can let go of. (Deep breath) (Finally)
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
What I Imagine It Feels Like To Let Go – Attempt 1: The high is like being broken – a fracture you know you should want to mend, but also the most intoxicating of states. As if you want to walk around in the dark for just a moment longer (and then another, and another) with your outstretched hands searching. Waiting to encounter something unique, to feel it graze over your fingertips. And maybe you emerge and prosper, but you begin again to wonder what you might have foregone, what secret place you missed, and you remember how much easier it is to stumble upon greatness in the dark. So with some semblance of consciousness you descend, or rather let it pull you under like the deep blue rapids, and you wait again to stumble. Adversity is sobering like this. But you eventually realize that you aren’t waiting for the key to happiness anymore, but that you are intoxicated by the place, content to simply wait alone in the dark. And you close your eyes and rest and never know for certain again if you’ve opened them back up because all you ever see is the darkness. And reality becomes a dream, a million little worlds at once, and you lose your mind trying to remember what color was at all. And suddenly you are Vincent van Gogh, painting starry nights and writing letters1 from your home in the Provencal town of Arles to your protégé Emile Bernard about the fury with which you record all the hues on the canvas. Arles, June 27, 1888 I have sometimes worked excessively fast; is that a fault? I can’t help it... Isn’t it rather intensity of thought than calmness of touch that we’re looking for – and in the given circumstances of impulsive work on the spot and from life, is a calm and controlled touch always possible? Vincent And in your final correspondence with Bernard, the 22nd letter, you write the following: Saint-Remy, c. November26,1889 Here’s a description of a canvas that I have in front of me at the trunks 1
1 Lubow, Arthur. “Letters from Vincent.” Smithsonian Magazine. January 2008.
and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black....A ray of sun—the last glimmer—exalts the dark to ocher to orange—small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks.You’ll understand that this combination of red ocher, of green saddened with gray, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer....And what’s more, the motif of the great tree struck by lightning, the sickly green and pink smile of the last flower of autumn, confirms this idea.... that in order to give an impression of anxiety, you can try to do it without heading straight for the historical garden of Gethsemane...ah— it is—no doubt—wise, right, to be moved by th Bible, but modern reality has such a hold over us that even when trying abstractly to recontruct ancient times in our thoughts—just as that very moment the petty events of our lives tear us away from there meditations and our own adventures throw us forcibly into personal sensations: joy, boredom, suffering, anger or smiling. Less than a year later, you shoot yourself in the chest and die in an inn. You return to the dream in the dark place and never look back, grazing your fingers always on the walls, waiting. I made a promise to myself almost ten years ago that I would never take such an action.This, for once, will never be my story. My story is that of a girl left trying always a little too hard to reclaim control over what she believes she lost. She knows two selves – vivacity and dissatisfaction – and day after day, she attempts to articulate herself somewhere in the in between. I believe they call that balance. There are days that I am too exhausted to assemble myself. There are days that I let go, just a little, to feel the rush.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
What I Imagine It Feels Like To Let Go – Attempt 2: It is a battle for sanity, a fight to achieve the upper echelons of thought while feeling your feet firmly planted on the ground. You feel like three people, some days four. You feel like you are falling, and after a while you forget. You begin to believe that maybe you are flying, bursting into the sky with the passion of a dream. You feel yourself accelerate, thrusting onward and onward until you feel the ceiling come close and remember that it is actually the cold tile floor. You remember that you’ve been falling all the while. You crash and huddle on the kitchen linoleum of an Ann Arbor apartment listening to the fireworks explode outside and remind yourself to breathe. “Breathe,” you think to yourself, “Breathe.” You write it down 27 times. But slowly the breath creeps from your lungs into that dark crevice in your brain and awakens the debris. Slowly you forget again, and start to think that you’ve been dwelling in the up there too long. So you descend back to the world again, to plant your feet firmly, and convince yourself that you’re rising again, always moving upwards. Loneliness is the most disorienting sort of madness; you can never remember if you are rising or falling. You can only feel the thrusts of air rush swiftly beneath your arms, tossing your hair into such frenzy that you grab hold of your head for fear of losing it all. You reach a point where you no longer believe in the quality of your own dreams, only the thick walls that you crash into from time to time to reorient yourself. Adversity is sobering. You begin to wonder if you are creative because you are brilliant or if you are creative because you are mad. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe, like Edgar Allen Poe, you recognize brilliance does not come without the expense of some general intellect. Maybe, like Poe, you realize that “they who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret.”
The road to self-discovery is a narrow one, a ledge really, and there are days when I feel more like jumping. It is maddening, but let’s just say that I am a dreamer always coveting the great secret. It’s believable. After all, I do have a bad habit of coveting. I’m just not sure of what.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
John Vanderslice Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
The first time I ran 13.1 miles—a half-marathon—was in Lake Charles, Louisiana: 1996, a sun-filled December day, with more than a tang of cold in the air. A hard breeze rattled off the lake and raised the hackles on my arms, made me cover my ears with my hands while I loitered at the starting line. I was a father of a new baby, juggling that reality with part-time teaching duties, a doctoral dissertation, and a search for a college job that would hold my family together after we were ejected from our virtually free married student housing. The longest prep run I could squeeze in was 9 miles. But 9 miles is a good distance, right? Only four less than the race itself. Right? Partly because of the start-of-race chill, but mostly from over-abundant enthusiasm, I made the classic mistake of charging out too fast, way faster than I trained. But I felt good. My body felt good. It wanted to run! I soared by people as we circled the lake then diverted out of the wind into comfy two-story neighborhoods nearby. By the time I’d completed ten miles, I was trudging at half-speed and getting passed by dozens of runners I had left behind early in the race. My legs felt like they’d been assaulted by hammer swinging gnomes. I was counting every step and pleading for mile marker number 11. But, cruelly, mile marker 11 never showed. Perhaps I was so delirious with muscle fatigue that I simply missed it, but the result was that at the worst point possible in the race, I endured two whole miles of solitary, existential torture, expecting but not seeing that sign with its exquisite, if implicit, message of relief. Another mile down. Only two more to go. The world was transformed to nothing but me and my pain. Lake Charles—renowned for being among the most picturesque communities in Louisiana—should have been a distraction. But I didn’t even see it. My nipples, which I’d done nothing to protect against the winter chill and lake-lifted wind, were cut and bleeding. My shirt, stiffened from dried sweat, streaked with rivulets of blood, and barnacled with snot, looked like something you might see on a victim of a drive-by shooting. My feet were hot and sore and bloated. When I saw mile marker 12, I realized I would finish, which helped, although I also knew it wouldn’t be pretty. I
crossed the finish line a mile later, the crimson-stained front of my white t-shirt obvious as an emergency flare. People looked at it, looked at me, and then looked away. For at least twelve months, I’d been idling over the idea of running a marathon. After all, so many other people had done it in recent years. William Baldwin had done it. David Lee Roth had done it. Most famously, Oprah had done it. So why not me? “I think I’d like to try that someday,” I gabbed to my wife several different times. “I mean, I think it would suit me.” “Congratulations,” she cheered, warily eyeing my bloodied shirt but soldiering up a smile. “How did it feel?” The first thing out of my mouth: “There’s no way I could have run another thirteen miles.” The very first marathon was completed in 490 BC by a Greek named Pheidippides. A soldier in the Athenian army, he was ordered by his commanders to take word home that his countrymen had prevailed against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. According to legend, Pheidippides ran the entire distance between Marathon and Athens, just over twenty-six miles, without stopping once. He charged into the Athenian Assembly and breathlessly declared “Rejoice! We have triumphed!” Then he died. A year later, out of graduate school and unexpectedly settled in central Arkansas, I drove back to Louisiana for the same half-marathon race. My toddler son was closing in on 18 months; my longest training run was 12 miles, following multiple 11s and 10s negotiated on dark, lovely Saturday mornings through the silent streets of Conway, the small, chummy college
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
town where we lived and worked. We stayed overnight with old friends in Lafayette, and in the morning drove the eighty miles of highway to Lake Charles. It was sunny again and, again, on the cold side. It couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t help but be breezy on the lake. This time, however, my nipples were impastoed with Vaseline and I wore gloves on my hands. This time I started slow. And I forced myself to stay slow. I watched, unbothered, as so many others ran past me in the early going. At a train track, a whole group of us stopped and waited for a line of cars to pass, shuffling our feet or futilely running in place. The runners who arrived only 30 or 40 seconds sooner and made it across ahead of the train were galloping away, eating up the course, leaving us further and further behind. But when the train was gone, I didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t run harder to make up the time or my place. I obeyed my mantra of patience. By mile marker six, I felt almost as strong as I had at the start. By mile marker seven, I was picking off stragglers. By mile marker nine, I was passing handfuls. At mile marker 11, I still had gas in the tank and started, in strategic bursts, to let it out, pushing past more runners, some of them stranded and wincing, every 30 or 40 seconds. At the finish I was sprinting, not a bit of blood anywhere. On November 3, 2007, only 30 minutes into the trials for the 2008 U.S. Menâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Olympic Marathon team, Ryan Shay collapsed. Years before, Shay had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Yet he was determined to pursue competitive running and did so, enjoying, for a few years at least, a storied career. A former National Collegiate Athletic Association champion in the 10,000 meters, he was the 2003 USA Marathon champion, the 2003 and 2004 USA Half-Marathon champion, the 2004 USA 20K champion, and the 2005 USA 15K champion. He ran his personal best, 2:14:09, in the 2004 New York City Marathon and qualified for the Olympic trials by running 2:14:58 in the 2006 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. He was considered to be among the top contenders to make the 2008 Olympic squad.
The winner that day, Ryan Hall, ran a glorious race, pointing exuberantly to the sky, praising God, screaming and pumping his fists as he charged to the finish. He demolished the field, finishing nearly two minutes ahead of his nearest competitor and setting a U.S. Olympic trials record time. By the summer of 2003, we were ensconced in a home built for us in the Arkansas countryside, five miles east of Conway. My job status had been upgraded from part-time and temporary to full-time and salaried. My wife, who’d been granted a one year, non-tenure track appointment in 1997 would soon be going up for tenure. We owned a new car. We also owned a second son—a circumstance, combined with full-time employment, that, for all its joy, also complicated my ambition to run far distances. During the first year or more of his life, my running fell off from 30 miles a week to less than 15. And with so many other things to pay attention to, I didn’t pay attention to what I ate. An injury to my back early in 2002 forced me to the doctor, who forced me to recognize that both my weight and my blood pressure had ballooned. I recommitted myself to running and decommitted myself from cream sauces. I lost 35 pounds over a spring and summer and began trolling for races to enter. Then, lounging in bed one June evening, I turned a page in Runner’s World magazine and saw a write-up about the newly revived Memphis Marathon. An institution for decades, it began to peter away in the late80s and finally flat-lined in the mid-90s. After a lull of seven years, it had been resuscitated in December 2002 as a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Almost 1,000 people entered the inaugural race, a number that had made the hospital proud. In 2003, they hoped for double that number. As I read the article, an overwhelming idea came over me, one I actually had no control over. After all, it had literally been laid right in my lap.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
Shay was only 28 and a newlywed when he died, having married fellow running star Alicia Craig the previous July. USA Track and Field director Craig Masback said, “We all are devastated over Ryan’s death. He was a tremendous champion who was here today to pursue his dreams. The Olympic Trials is traditionally a day of celebration, but we are heartbroken. Our thoughts and prayers are with Alicia and all of his family. His death is a tremendous loss for the sport and the long-distance running community.” Ryan Hall was close friends, and even trained, with Shay. In the press room, after his victory, after hearing about his friend’s death, Hall could barely talk. I began my weekly long training runs in August, running on Sunday mornings in the country, along silent rural blacktops graced with only the occasional, indifferent streetlamp. I ran past trailer homes and chicken pens and barbed wire, past short driveways inhabited by burnt out jalopies and long, twisting driveways that led nowhere my eyes could follow. I ran past farms and duck ponds, past ranch houses and long, white, wooden fences. I ran past isolated tin-building businesses; past cow pastures; past pointless, weedy, overgrown fields. An hour or more into my run, I would see the first sunlight of the day spread in purple and pale silver across the eastern horizon. Then, not much later, the orb itself would rise, furry and yellow and brimming. I started with seven miles, and added one mile each weekend. I retraced whole stretches of roads in order to increase my distance, but finally I had to set off for uncharted territory. I came to and crossed a wide highway, dodging 70 mph automobiles in the fibrous, pre-dawn light. I reached the
other side and kept going. I progressed all the way to 13 and then repeated it the next week, just to coalesce my growing strength. Around this time, as the length of my runs became truly considerable, my wife asked that I leave behind estimations as to when I would return. “I want to know when I should start panicking,” she said. On March 2, 2008, Adam Nickel, 27, died only minutes after crossing the finish line at the Little Rock Marathon. It was an unusually warm day for early March. At the start of race, temperatures were in the 60s, but they topped out in the mid-80s. Nickel, a serious long distance runner bordering on elite status, ran the marathon in 3 hours and thus qualified for the Boston Marathon. Spectators noticed no signs of stress in Nickel during the race. Upon finishing, however, he smiled, then frowned, then raised an arm, a signal that he needed help. His eyes rolled back and he collapsed into the arms of paramedics stationed at the finish line. Attempts to revive Nickel failed. He died in the emergency room of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Said Doctor Kent Davidson, “We never had a whole heart rhythm the whole time we tried to resuscitate him.” Little Rock was the sixth marathon Nickel completed. He had no known complications in his medical history. An autopsy showed that Nickel’s crisis was brought on by a rare heart condition: multifocal small coronary artery fibromuscular dysplasia, or microscopically small heart arteries that restrict the flow of blood. “This condition cannot be detected by a routine medical examination. But that is not the whole story, according to Dr. Stephen J. Erickson, a pathologist with the state Crime Laboratory. Erickson explained to reporters that the narrow arteries were located near nodes that regulate electrical pulses in the heart and that circumstance, combined with electrolyte abnormalities seen in long-distance runners upon
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
completing a race, caused Nickel’s sudden death. ‘This,’ said Erickson, ‘was like a lightning bolt out of the blue.’ Dr. Charles Kokes, chief medical examiner, said if Nickel hadn’t been a runner, the small arteries in his heart might not have caused problems for him for some time. Instead, Nickel went from an irregular heartbeat to death without experiencing symptoms that would have caused him to faint, slow down or stop. ‘He just went from running a marathon to essentially dead within a matter of seconds.’”—The Appleton Post Crescent, 4/9/08. I ran a great fifteen-miler on a hearty October morning and congratulated myself with a beer at an Octoberfest celebration that afternoon. The next week, I jumped to 17 miles. I planned to run 18 miles two weeks in a row before jumping to 20, and then longer. I had worked the whole schedule out—carefully manufactured and meticulously scribbled down on notebook paper—back in July, weeks before I actually began the regimen. I would build all the way to 23 miles on the weekend before Thanksgiving, before dropping these long runs and giving myself a couple of weeks to rest. St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, opened in 1962, is the brain child of entertainer Danny Thomas, who wanted to help found a hospital that not only treated sick children, but also acted as a leader in discovering new therapies to cure their conditions. Today, the hospital treats 5,400 children yearly and is considered one of the world’s premier pediatric cancer research centers. Some childhood cancers that, in 1962, came with a survival rate of 10% or less, now have a survival rate of over 90%. I attracted angry, unfriendly dogs, both in packs and in singles. One
dog came at me about every other week, always early in my run, out from a barely hinged trailer: a large, black, big-headed beast who rushed me close and barked wickedly at my heels, his bared teeth less than an inch from my body, an angry shadow in the early morning. I couldn’t even see him, not really, because at that hour of the morning the world was as black as he was. I didn’t dare look in his eyes. I ran on. He went away. Operating costs at St. Jude’s run to $1.4 million per day. Among the scores of fundraising events associated with the hospital is the Memphis marathon. A runner can simply pay the entry fee and race, or go the extra mile to become a “St. Jude’s Hero.” This means a runner pays the entry fee and also agrees to solicit pledges from friends and neighbors for his marathon run, drastically enhancing his or her financial impact. In 2012, St. Jude’s Marathon Weekend—which now includes a marathon, a half-marathon, a 5K, a Family Race, and a Kids’ Marathon—raised $3.9 million. When he ran the Little Rock marathon, Adam Nickel, a third year pharmacy student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was training for the San Diego Marathon where he planned to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in honor of his grandmother. A year later, the same black dog attacked two goats owned by our neighbors. It took each by the throat and mauled them until they were bloodied, lifeless heaps. I learned about bringing along water and Gatorade and distributing them strategically en route; I learned to bring “energy gels”—carbohydrate
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
boosters—because they digested easier than bananas or power bars. I came back literally burdened by my own stink. My t-shirts and sweatshirts and, finally—as the weather got colder—my woolly hats, became weighted with collected perspiration. I learned to bring a tiny plastic tub of Vaseline in order to reswathe my nipples at ten miles or so. Either that or risk cuts and bleeding, which didn’t hurt as I ran but stung wickedly in the shower afterwards. John Stephen Awhari represented Tanzania in the marathon at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. The race went badly for Awhari, who was never considered a contender in the first place. At one point, he fell, cutting his knee and dislocating the joint. Rather than stopping, he hobbled on in evident pain—his leg bloodied and bandaged—even though he was already well at the back of the pack and had no chance at placing. He ended the race dead last out of 76 entrants, an hour and a half behind the winner. When asked by a film director why he didn’t just stop running, Awhari said, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. It sent me to finish.” My knees held up; my lungs held up; my heart held up. I did not feel any strange pains, nor did I ever injure myself while running. No. It happened walking in my driveway one afternoon, after bringing my older son home from elementary school. I stepped on a middling stone. My right foot turned a quarter turn over. I immediately caught myself and recovered. I straightened the foot and landed square on the bottom pad. I did not stumble. I might have winced and felt an instantaneous shot of pain, but I kept walking through my garage and into my house. I didn’t give it a second’s thought. The next day my ankle felt a little tender, a little bigger. I ran anyway, one of my mundane daily excursions. Five or six miles. I felt fine. The day after, however, the foot was swollen and hurting. I had a problem. I had
been training for 10 weeks. During that time, I’d seen the high summer gloom into mid-autumn; I’d seen my weekly mileage rise from 30 to near 50. I’d seen my legs become tautly muscled, my body become an endurance machine. The race was only seven weeks away. This was no time to back off from training; indeed, according to my schedule, now was the time for my training to get even tougher. The marathon’s history as a competitive road race begins with the inaugural modern Olympics, held in 1896 in Athens. The race was the idea of Frenchman Michel Bréal who, inspired by the legend of Pheidippides, thought that having a marathon contest would lend ancient glamour to the newly formulated games. The Olympic Organizing Committee eagerly seized upon the idea, apparently not much concerned with the amount of stress such a long race could inflict on the competitors. Determined to triumph in such a homegrown competition, the Greeks held a trial race to determine who would make up their Olympic team. According to some sources, as many as three Greek men died training for this trial race. The winner of the trial finished in 3 hours and 18 minutes. Not completely satisfied, Greek officials held a second trial race only a few days before the Olympics began. The winner of the second race finished in 3 hours and 11 minutes. I took a couple of days off, but then, on a cold Sunday morning, I ran 18 miles on my bum ankle. It didn’t exactly hurt—except in occasional, sudden lightning strikes when I landed on it unexpectedly hard—but then again I was grossly, and dangerously, favoring the other leg the entire time. I essentially ran eighteen miles on one leg. Even so, by the time I was done, my right ankle was so numb and swollen I barely had any sensation in the foot at all.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
In the actual 1896 Olympic race, a Frenchman named Albin Lermusiaux took the early lead, reaching the village of Pikermi, the halfway point, in only 55 minutes. After Pikermi, the road turned uphill. Lermusiaux began to suffer and slow. He still led when he reached Karavati, but he had weakened even more when a fellow Frenchman hit him with a bicycle and he fell. Lermusiaux got up and tried to run further, but at the 20 mile mark, he collapsed and had to be carried away. Lermusiaux was passed by Edwin Flack, an Australian, who subsequently told a bicyclist to ride to the stadium in Athens to announce his inevitable victory. The bicyclist carried the news to a stunned Greek crowd waiting inside the stadium. Meanwhile on the course, Flack began to weaken and slow. Only a mile later, he was passed by a Greek, Spiridon Louis. For the next two and a half miles, Flack tried to run with Louis, but when Louis pulled away, Flack stumbled and fell. He too had to be removed from the course. Louis ending up winning, to the raucous approval of the hometown crowd. Two Greek princes— Constantine and George—ran out to meet him and accompanied him on his final lap. Louis finished with a time of 2:58:50. The King was so overjoyed by Louis’s accomplishment that he offered to give Louis anything he asked. All Louis could think of was a donkey-carriage to help him in his watercarrying business. In the middle of the week, I might skip a day, but I never stopped training. I took constant warm foot baths and, whenever possible, kept my injured appendage propped on a chair or table. I even broke out a cane. The swelling went down, but not away; it stabilized around a certain, sore, low-level puffiness. But on a weekend morning I would be up early and stretching (delicately, so as not to yank my ankle) and then out on the road. I ran 18 again. Twenty the next week. Then twenty-one. I got used to the
awkward, halting gait of favoring one leg, used to the numbness down there on my right foot. My leg felt constantly strange, but it didn’t kill me. I endured. I kept running against all common sense. The suffering got worse during the marathon race of the 1904 Olympics, held in St. Louis, “the worst marathon in Olympic history,” according to one historian. By race time, 3 pm, the temperatures were in the 90s. The initial part of the race was five laps around a hot cinder track at Washington University, and then it was on to the dry St. Louis roads as cars sped by, kicking up dust into the faces of the competitors. There was only one water stop: at a well, 12 miles into the race. One runner starting vomiting at the 10 mile mark and had to quit. Another runner, says David Wallechinsky, author of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics, “was discovered lying in the road, near death, the membranous wall of his stomach almost destroyed by the dust.” The man who crossed the finish line first actually stopped running after nine miles and caught a ride in his manager’s car to about the 19 mile mark. There, he got out and decided he might as well keep running. Meanwhile, the legitimate winner, an American named Thomas Hicks, struggled so badly he had to walk up the final hill of the course. At the top, a cheering crowd inspired him to complete the final two miles. His winning time was 3:28:53. On the weekend before Thanksgiving, I set out to run 23 miles, leaving behind the usual note estimating my return time. Almost from the start, I felt drastically and inexplicably low on energy. When I tried to push myself to maintain pace, my legs simply couldn’t respond. They were sore and weak and complaining. With each mile, I fell further and further away from my ETA. Somewhere between mile 18 and mile 20, I gave up any thoughts of pace.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
As I neared the end of the run, a half-mile or so from my house, I looked at my watch. It was 45 minutes past the time I said I would be back, and what I had said was a conspicuously conservative estimate. I reached the intersection of one rural blacktop with another, turned left and began the last leg of my last long training run. My right foot was still attached but only barely. When I closed to about 50 yards from the long dirt road we lived on, I saw my wife’s blackberry Saturn coming out on a tear, kicking up a squall of dust. She reached the end of our road and stopped. I saw her squint through her window. I saw my two sons in the back: the youngest, sedate in his bulky car seat, the oldest a flame of blonde hair pointing at me. I expected her to take a left on to the blacktop and drive by, slowing only to shout out an explanation as to where she was going. We’re out of milk. Mary called with an emergency. Jackson just remembered he has a soccer game. Instead, she maneuvered through a K-turn, brought the car around, and drove just as fast back to the house. “We went out to find you,” she said when I entered. “I was worried. It was so much later than you said.” Most modern historians consider the story of Pheidippides to be a charming fabrication. I’ve actually failed to finish a run only one time. And I’ve run with and in everything: in drought and in downpours and along snow crusted roads, in roiling Louisiana summers and upstate New York winters, with a sprained ankle and with a broken elbow and with a pulled back, and once, along the hard Madaket bike path in Nantucket, Massachusetts, wearing only socks because I’d lost my shoes the day before. The one time I didn’t really finish was a mere hotter than usual September afternoon in Arkansas. A mere 10 mile jaunt as I trained for my second marathon. Normally a morning
runner, I had to wait until the heat of the afternoon to run because my wife would not be back until then, and I was watching the kids. I had downed three giant mugs of coffee earlier, and so I figured I should drink a glass of water before I left. I did so, calling myself reasonable. I even brought along a bottle of Dasani. It was just a 10 mile run. I did not feel good even from the start. I felt slow. I felt old. I felt vaguely and disturbingly achey. But I chugged along on my now familiar route, tracking out the miles and sweating up a storm. When I reached my turnaround point, I knew something was wrong. My body hadn’t found any of the everyday rhythms that always come over me after I shrug off the first two or three miles. I didn’t just feel tired. I felt sluggish. I felt drained. I felt ill. Coming back, I crossed the highway—only three more miles to go— desperate to reach the water bottle I’d dropped just ahead, not even sure I could stand to run that far. This was completely confounding. I’d run 12, 13 miles with no hydration before; in fact, several times. I used to run in Louisiana, damn it—in the middle of the summer. I should have had plenty of get-go left, and yet I felt worse than I had on some much longer runs. I reached the water bottle and guzzled it down in long, hard swallows. I expected that would help, maybe even cure it. I looked at my watch, saw that I was well under my desired pace. It was a training run, after all, not some leisurely midweek stroll. I tried to pick up my step. If I pushed it hard to the end I might just get in at a 10 minute per mile clip. But even with the water, and even with my pushing, my body didn’t respond. After the next mile, I checked my watch to see that I’d run no faster at all, and I felt far worse. Okay, maybe you just need to worry about finishing I thought, a low panic hovering just under my skin. I let my head drop; I let my form die; I let my mind dismiss anything except stepfollow-step. A quarter mile from my house, I had nothing left whatsoever. My face was on fire and my entire body was melting. I stopped running, convinced that if I didn’t I would pass out. I would fall to the gravelly middle of the road and never get up again.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
My wife was on the sofa staring into a magazine; the boys were there too, staring at Cartoon Network. She looked up and apparently didn’t notice anything usual. “Hey,” she said. “How did it go?” I shrugged, actually unable to speak. I made for the refrigerator, for the largest bottle of anything I could find. One of the largest and most successful marathons is Chicago. Its flat, smooth course is attractive to runners wanting to qualify for Boston, and each year hundreds do. But the 2007 Chicago Marathon proved to be anything but a success. In October in Chicago, race day temperatures soared into the 80s. Hundreds of runners wilted during the 26 mile trek. One runner, Chad Shieber of Midland, Michigan, died; 30 more runners were hospitalized; and over 400 sought medical attention. According to anecdotal reports (that is, from suffering runners) there was a shortage of available fluids on the course; some water and Gatorade stops were simply out. Race officials and the event sponsor, Bank of America, denied that liquids were in any shorter supply than at other Chicago marathons, but with one man dead and widespread catastrophe afoot, race directors officially stopped the event and closed the course after three and a half hours. Some runners kept running anyway. In 2008, for the first time, St. Jude’s had to cap the number of entrants to 3,000 for the marathon, 8,000 for the half-marathon, and 3,000 for the 5K. The city, the race, and the traffic cops simply couldn’t handle any more people than that. According to Wayne Tabor, general manager of the Holiday Inn Select downtown, this once modest race now has a major financial impact on the city. “It’s huge, absolutely huge. Every hotel Downtown now is absolutely booked for this thing. They come in the day before, stay the night, eat in the restaurants, go to Beale Street and see the sights, and then most of them stay over the Saturday after the race. It’s grown into a fantastic event.”
Over Thanksgiving weekend 2003, a week before I would run my very first marathon, I visited my brother in The Woodlands, Texas. There, at the advice of his wife, I took excessive amounts of Aleve, hoping to finish off the last of the swelling in my ankle. Or at least anesthetize my body to the condition. I kept constantly, but I hoped surreptitiously, propping up my leg—on nearby chairs, on coffee tables, on stools, as if I’d broken something. Mostly, I just prayed for miracle relief from the stiffness and soreness. On Thanksgiving morning, per my plan formulated months before, I ran a five mile race called The Run Thru the Woods. I’d competed in the event at least three times before, finding it a creative way to kick off a weekend devoted to gastronomic excess. With my nephew and his high school friends lining the course, passing out Gatorade, and cheering at full volume, I’d always run good times and finished feeling thoroughly invigorated. That year, however, I never loosened up. I ran a miserable time, and all I could think about was how weird my foot felt. In its early incarnations, the actual distance for a marathon race varied from Olympics to Olympics. The organizers thought that as long as all competitors on a given day were running the same distance, it didn’t much matter if the distance varied from one Games to the next. In the first seven modern Olympics, six different marathon distances were used. The quirky distance that is now considered standard—26 miles, 385 yards—was first employed at the 1908 Games in London. Although the initial goal was to keep the race to exactly 26 miles, shortly before the Games opened, the decision was made to reverse the direction in which the runners traveled once they entered Great White City Stadium, this so that the spectators in the royal box, including Queen Alexandra, consort to Edward VII, would have the best view of the finish line. With this change, the actual distance
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
run came to 26 miles, 385 yards. Before the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, officials decided to set an international standard for the event. They chose the distance used in the 1908 games. No one knows why. You may have seen film from the conclusion of the 1908 Olympic Marathon. It’s a pretty famous clip. The first competitor into Great White City Stadium, Dorando Pietri, a pint-sized Italian with knobby knees and an enormous moustache is wobbling around, dazed, disoriented, barely able to walk, much less charge to the finish. He falls down. Officials dressed in proper Edwardian suits, leather shoes, and straw hats scramble to help him up. They point him in the right direction. He falls again. More help. This is repeated three more times before Pietri manages to wander over the finish line. It was thought at the time, and long after, that Pietri’s distress was caused by the race day temperature: 78 degrees; high for London. But other factors have since come to light; namely, in the words of one writer, “the little Italian’s habit of gargling with wine during the race, which did not go well with the heat.” And, of course, running 26 miles, 385 yards had something to do with it too. After a protest by the American team, Pietri was quickly stripped of his gold medal. You can’t help someone across the finish line of a marathon. Or any running race. If he falls down, you have to leave him where he is. On December 5, 2009, the St. Judes’ Memphis Marathon Weekend experienced its first fatality. Molly Trauernicht, 32, of Wentzville, Missouri, competing in the half-marathon, foundered as soon as she crossed the finish line. A battery of emergency medical technicians rushed to assist Trauernicht but could not revive her. She was taken by ambulance to Methodist University Hospital where, a short while later, she was pronounced dead. It was Trauernicht’s first ever half-marathon; she ran a time of 3 hours 18 minutes. She finished 6,242nd of 6,815 half-marathon runners. She
was accompanied to Memphis by her mother who, from the bleachers of Autozone Park, witnessed her daughter’s collapse. Rick Shadyac, who leads ALSAC, the fundraising arm of St. Jude’s hospital, said, “It was tragic. She was running for hope and for life.” From her obituary, published in the Kansas City Star on December 10, 2009: “Molly possessed all the qualities that made her the best daughter, sister, aunt, cousin and friend that anyone could hope for. She loved her family and friends with her whole heart, rarely missing a family event. She had a smile that was contagious and warmth she shared with anyone lucky enough to have known her.” Recreational running experienced its first boom in the early to mid1970s. The heroics of Jim Ryun, who in the late 60s set world records in the mile, half-mile, and 1500 meters, and the success of U.S. Track and Field at the 1972 Munich Olympics, including a victory in the marathon by Frank Shorter, are credited for helping fuel the craze. Even more influential, however, was the 1977 bestseller The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx, a journalist who through vigilant exercising went from 240 pounds down to 180, and from being a two-pack-a-day smoker to smoke-free. The number of local road races, especially 5 mile and 10K runs, increased dramatically as thousands of Americans purchased running shoes for the first time (or just ran in street shoes) and pushed themselves through newly faddish jogging regimens. The science of the running shoe was still relatively new in the 1970s, however, and the public’s knowledge of matters such as training schedules and fluid intake were all but primitive. Too many people pushed themselves too hard, too early, with excruciating results. A well-circulated, even infamous, photograph from that time showed a running President Jimmy Carter, his maw awry as he gasped for a breath, his face rutted with agony, the bangs on his forehead bathed in sweat. It seemed to many the archetypal image of an overly earnest man who tried too hard and came
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
up looking like a fool. For those same people it represented the foolhardy zealousness of the running craze. In 1982, at 52 years old, Jim Fixx died of a massive heart attack immediately following his usual run in Hardwick, Vermont. The running boom was over. In the 1990s, recreational running enjoyed a quieter but broader second boom in popularity. This boom—assisted by new products such as the PowerBar and PowerGel, by new lines of flavorful sports drinks, and by more commonsensical approaches to training—seemed focused specifically on long-distance running. Half-marathon and marathon races began sprouting up everywhere, even in cities and among populaces with heretofore little enthusiasm for running-as-exercise. (Example: The state of Arkansas, which by my count now hosts at least five different marathons and eight halfmarathons every year.) The signal event of the second boom may have been Oprah Winfrey’s extensively publicized tackling of the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon. In a 2007 Salon.com article, writer Edward McClelland credits— and blames—Oprah for single-handedly making marathon running a new fashion among the hoi poloi. “This was not a spindly 24-year-old Yalie gliding through Old World Munich,” McClelland notes, referencing Shorter’s triumph at the ‘72 Games. “This was a middle-aged woman hauling her flab around the District of Columbia. If Oprah could run a marathon, shame on anyone who couldn’t.” In 1997, Al Gore also ran the Marine Corps. He finished, even though it poured rain on him for the whole 26 miles. As the new century turned, dozens of famous and semi-famous Americans—more each year, it seemed—took on the marathon challenge. Mario Lopez and Anthony Edwards ran; Will Ferrell and Kyle Petty and Roger Craig; P. Diddy ran and Lance Armstrong
and Katie Holmes; Kerri Strug and Governors Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Their countrymen, meanwhile, inspired by the success of such celebrities, flocked with unprecedented eagerness to these endurance contests, used them as incentives to start running or continue running or get back to running. The number who could claim to have survived running’s greatest test grew into the hundreds of thousands. Today, nearly every American city of any repute holds a marathon. The number of people who have run the distance is well into the millions. Multiple “50 State” clubs exist, organizations devoted to helping their members accomplish the unique feat of finishing a marathon in every state in the union. Some runners have completed this feat multiple times. In 2006, ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes realized the supreme expression of the 50 state goal: 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days in 50 states. International marathon running is a new boom industry, as ordinary, nonelite Americans jet to distant locations in order to compete. A marathon is held in the Tibetan Plateau and aboard an Alaskan cruise ship. Marathons are held in the wine country of France, on the Great Wall of China, on the coast of Peru, and in the United Arab Emirates. There is even — I kid you not — a marathon run at the South Pole. Jim Fixx’s father, who did not run, died of a massive heart attack at the age of 35. After I dressed and stretched for my first ever marathon, Memphis 2003, I left behind my wife and sons in our room and went to the lobby of the Hampton Inn, Beale Street. There, I watched slickly dressed, fresh-faced runners slip out the front door, calling cheerfully to each other. I sat on a
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
couch and slid on a heavy duty ankle wrap. I had purposefully waited until I was out of the room to do this. I didn’t want my wife to see me put the thing on, didn’t want to give her any reason for pause. After all, I’d assured her for the past three weeks that the foot felt fine. I’d recovered from my weird ankle injury, whatever it was. The swelling, I said, had just about gone away. Just in time. Well, mostly it had, but not entirely. Even as I was packing for the Memphis trip, and popping multiple Aleves each day, my foot did not feel the way I knew it should, the way it always used to, and I had begun to worry that it never would. Still, on race morning, the wrap was mostly a preventive measure—and a mental prop. I’d not run for two days. I had tried to stay off my feet as much as humanly possible. An hour before, as soon as I woke, I’d slipped two more blue anti-inflammatories. Except for some lingering stiffness—which, as it turned out, would take eight months and a complete cessation of running to make go away—the foot felt surprisingly all right that morning in the Hampton Inn lobby. Good enough, I hoped, to last 26 miles. That last long training run in the country still spooked me, as did the uncomfortable five mile race in Texas. And I knew that my training paces had dropped to 11 or even 12 minutes per mile. It was possible, especially if the ankle acted up, that I would be on this course for more than five hours. The morning was overcast and blustery, so I decked out in sweatshirt, wind shirt, running pants, hat, and gloves. The first few miles remained cold, but as the run went on and we passed by one Memphis landmark after another—Beale Street, the Rock and Roll Museum, the Mississippi River— my body slowly warmed. More important than that, I felt good. I noticed that I didn’t notice the foot at all, and I found myself running 10 minute miles almost effortlessly. In fact, I had to hold myself back so that I wouldn’t run too fast. We passed Elvis impersonators and blues bands and cheering young people with homemade signs. We passed by the Pyramid and St.
Jude’s Hospital, and then we made our way uptown to Overton Park. In the park we ran through lovely, rolling green hills and then headed again toward downtown. By the time I was back on Beale Street, the halfway point for the full marathon, the morning had turned openly sunny, and I still felt strong. I saw my two sons standing on the sidewalk, not far from the hotel, uncomprehending looks on their faces as they held a hand drawn sign, scrawled in my wife’s handwriting across a long stretch of butcher paper: Go, Daddy, Go! “Hey guys,” I said, sending them a grin. They smiled reluctantly, but didn’t answer, as if afraid that this man within the sweat-soaked clothes and running hat, intentionally dragging himself through the chilly morning was some simulacrum inserted in place of their father. “You cold?” I asked, just to pry some reaction. “Yes!” my oldest son screamed, not without a little accusation in his voice. “You look great!” my wife called. I nodded and waved and kept running. Truth was, I felt great. During the second half of the race, the vast majority of runners disappeared, having turned off for the half-marathon finish. The blues bands became fewer and quieter, the spectators and volunteers more rare. For long stretches, we ran by ourselves in silence. We headed uptown again, stretching out the distance through new neighborhoods and unfamiliar streets. I meticulously kept up my hydration plan—water or Gatorade at every mile, an energy gel every four miles. I felt myself getting sorer and more tired, but I never hit the infamous “wall.” Eventually, the day became so temperate I felt almost too warm in my gloves and jacket. Even so, I kept them on a while longer, not ready to sacrifice the security of those layers. At around 20 miles, the course took us through the University of Memphis football stadium. We ran down the sideline, serenaded by an oompahing college band sitting in the bleachers. That felt, I have to admit, childishly exhilarating. I picked up my flagging pace and tried to seem worthy of such athletic fanfare. Coming out of the stadium, I realized that the day was
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
actually hot. Time for another gel. Time for water. Time to lose the gloves and the jacket: a thin, ugly, start-of-race-protection-against-the-wind thing that I picked up for a couple bucks at the race expo the night before. A jacket made to be discarded. Instead, I crushed it up into a ball, squeezed it tight, and held on. It would be my souvenir. Six more miles to go. A 10K race. I’d run 10Ks countless times, I reminded myself. Yes, I answered, but never after running twenty miles first. I trudged on, my pace dissipating but my form still good. I passed more runners than passed me, some of whom—stopped to stretch out a muscle or just walk for a while—seemed, without exaggeration, in dire pain. At mile 21 or 22, having just taken a new curve in the road, I asked one obviously slowing woman which side of the pylons we were supposed to run on. She reared her head and shouted at me: “Oh, I don’t know!” I smiled at her and surged past. By mile 24, with the course pointing us back toward downtown, I was certainly flagging but not in any real danger. My form was breaking down—I was dog tired—but I wasn’t on empty. Not yet. I ran alone, not feeling particularly inspired by the wide, ordinary city street I trudged along—a series of gas stations, liquor stores, and the occasional office building— but at least I had the comfort of knowing I would soon be done. I knew I would complete the course. I would finish a marathon. A chipper, balding guy dressed in a white hat, yellow t-shirt, red “St. Jude’s Hero” bib, appeared beside me. “Almost there,” he said and smiled, before his pace took him past me. Easy for you to say, I thought. When I reached mile 25, my body suddenly changed. With Autozone Park in sight, I felt a surge of unexpected enthusiasm that went all the way down to my calves. The tiredness was gone. It just went. Gone. I started running faster. I heard approaching me from behind an older man whom I’d traded places with a few times already. This time I left him. We took a
series of turns and by the time we entered Autozone Park I was sprinting. The stadium looked full; the crowd was buzzing. I heard strangers cheer my last minute effort. I crossed the finish line thirty minutes faster than my fear time, and in that moment, I felt barely winded at all. I accepted my medal and started up the steps of the stadium, looking for my family. There they were, in a row near the top, waving at me. When I reached them, my wife said, â&#x20AC;&#x153;Show them your shirts, guys.â&#x20AC;? Both boys opened their jackets to reveal the custom-made t-shirts. My Daddy Ran the Memphis Marathon, the shirts said in loud blue letters, a computerized picture of a running man beneath. I took a second to study him. He looked just fine.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
I The trees in winter look like ink blown across paper, the way their branches intersect and overlap, cross-hatching that creates a beauty both quotidian and rare. The imagery isn’t static, of course, even on the calmest days the branches display a range of motion. Although most are maple and cherry, intermixed are willow and locust and hawthorn, aspen and birch, spruce and pine. The latter don’t lose their needles in winter and their movements differ, therefore, from those whose bearings change dramatically once their leaves are gone. Leaves are, among other things, weight. The branches don’t become more graceful, necessarily, without that weight – lie on your back and watch maple branches mid-summer or fall, and you’ll see they can hold their own in the beauty department – but their interplay is more visible. The crowns wave and tease and the smaller trunks bend and sway and creak. Without leaves, all that can be seen out here, on a rural road in a wooded area, is a vast scaffolding of trees. Trees in motion and at rest. It is like waking up every day to a simplified earth, a landscape pared down to its essential elements – trees, sky, snow. I can’t help but anthropomorphize the trees; they become stand-ins for human beings, who are all but missing from the scene. I’m not a religious person, but the trees seem sacerdotal, as though they strive to link earth and sky, and this feels like sacred space to me. There’s a starkness here, but an abundance, too. What I see on these winter days reminds me of the Sonoran desert, often described as a “lush” desert. When I first visited there, it appeared anything but lush. It looked, in fact, ugly and bleak. But I suppose that anyone driving down my road mid-winter might feel similarly, especially someone unacquainted with the area and the season. What do you do out here, they might wonder. Well, if you’re me, you look at the trees. I have two favorite times of day in winter: sunrise and sunset. Toward the height of winter – or what actually feels like its depths – the two times
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
don’t seem to have many in-between hours; it can seem, then, that local life consists mostly of a half-light, a light filtered, almost always, by some degree of cloud cover. To put it another way, it’s dark. But often, with such regularity it almost becomes the norm, the sun will briefly break through the cloud cover early in the morning, and then again at dusk. We begin and end the day with this reminder: sunlight exists. Those twice-a-day visits offer a light I love, a slant light, and it feels bestowed, like a gift. Ignore that gift and you might come to regret your negligence. This might be pushing it, as far as the religious metaphors go, but ignoring the light, I think, deflates the soul. In lay terms, it can bum you out. Perhaps a few numbers can illuminate our conditions. On June 30th, the official length of the day was 15 hours and 21 minutes, although “visible light” was discernible for 16 hours and 32 minutes. For a good part of the 24-hour cycle we call a day, in other words, you could, theoretically, live in the light. December 30th, in contrast, was 8 hours and 59 minutes, visible light 10 hours and 5 minutes. That’s a difference of roughly six and a half hours. Six and a half hours of lost light. Factor into that that our winter light differs not only in quantity, but also in quality from our summer light, and maybe my devotion to the fleeting blast of sun twice a day doesn’t seem so obsessive. Ironically, or at least unfortunately, this degree of light deprivation makes some people want to hide, to burrow, to seek out more darkness. Seasonal Affective Disorder, although still medically controversial, doesn’t seem like much of a stretch around here. We crave sunlight, but instead of seeking out the little light available, we hole up. We hibernate. Nobody really talks about it, but the “winter blues,” a misleadingly poetic euphemism, plays a significant role in how we adjectivize each other. We’re cranky, irascible, moody, edgy, tense, introspective, testy, sullen, pensive, melancholy, miserable, saturnine, solemn, woeful, grave, crabby, cross, cheerless, low, ornery, blue, glum, irritable, morose, bitchy, cantankerous, cross, snappish or, like the acronym says, just plain sad.
Call it what you like. I think we just miss the light. It is slightly past sunset, and the inked silhouettes of the trees are very black, opaque against the lesser black of the sky, which retains the last wash of blue light. The trees look like seaweed, the acres around the house more like an undersea kelp forest than a terrestrial landscape. If a deer were to dart across the yard, as one occasionally does, I might mistake it for a dolphin, or if a rafter of wild turkeys rose from behind the ridge, I might mistake them for a shoal of fish. The rock walls might well be coral reefs, and where the rain glistens on stones, abalone. II I have not seen another human being in 72 hours. I heard, but didn’t see, a snow plow rumble by at about six this morning. Presumably someone was driving it, although the way those giant machines roar down the road, regardless of weather, sometimes makes me think they’re on autopilot. It snowed overnight, and a few inches line the front stairs, as well as every other visible surface. It stopped for a few hours but has resumed, and the new snow has a slightly different texture than what fell earlier. The steps look like they’re covered with a 3-inch layer of cotton batting – round one – and that batting is sprinkled with powdered sugar – round two. Even as I write, the precipitation is changing again. The flakes are getting bigger, and the blue spruce in the front yard is beginning to sag under the weight of snow. Although I am safe and warm indoors, the combination of gray skies, snow, and year-end blues has me feeling a little weighted down myself. I vow to stack some wood, a task that, despite its rigor, I enjoy. Instead, I end up watching the trees. The maple closest to the house has three trunks and didn’t lose all of its leaves this past autumn. After today’s storm, not only its branches, but also those last two hundred leaves or so, are covered with snow. The branches look like they are lined with soggy tea bags or languid, snow-covered brown
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
bats. Some cling in clusters, like big, collapsed grapes. There are so many leaves on the lower branches that it appears old paper bags got caught in the limbs, and higher up, where there are few leaves, they look like figs. Figs dipped in sugar – I wonder what a maple leaf covered with snow might taste like. Probably not a sugar-coated fig. It has been one of those days where I haven’t seen the sun at all, but now, at 3:30, not too long before dark, it makes a valiant effort to cut through the clouds. It doesn’t quite make it, but it’s heartening to notice the attempt. A few miles to the north, where Lake Ontario’s shores have not yet frozen over, the sky appears to be the faintest blue. Maybe tomorrow we’ll see sunshine. For now, the day ends on a quiet, bluish, beautiful note. III Shorebirds and waterfowl are common in this area. Plovers, gulls, ducks, geese, curlews, loons, terns, cormorants, and herons are found along the rocky beaches of Lake Ontario or along the Oswego River, which runs right through town. Swallows, martins, and swifts can be spotted along the waterways, as can pigeons. During spring and summer, birds arrive in force, and it’s a breeze to spot robins, crows, blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, grackles, sparrows, Baltimore orioles, woodpeckers, vireos, flycatchers, even hummingbirds right in the yard. Hawks and crows stake out their territories; at night I hear the spooky hoots of owls. Once in a while, if I’m really lucky, I’ll spot a scarlet tanager or a cedar waxwing. Migratory birds settle in for a day or two or three, and drive us mad with their unfamiliar songs and uncanny camouflage. The trees act like sponges for birds, soaking up dozens more than seems possible, harboring their small bodies with no outward change in the tree’s appearance. It’s not until I make a noise myself that the birds uprush and the trees sigh with relief. Those same trees are nest repositories, as are the garage eaves and various other locales on the premises. Every summer baby birds learn to fly in the yard; I’ve watched diligent blue jays tutor their young by flying from
ground to fence post, fence post to tree branch. Many of the birds leave during autumn, preferring a warmer climate, but every morning I’m awakened by a few dozen Canada geese who overwinter. Late afternoon, they cross the ridge behind the house again. They are the avian equivalents of the sun, twice-a-day visitors, although they announce their presence vocally rather than visually. Late last night, as though they’d been out celebrating, a giant flock of geese flew over the house. I opened the door and stared at the sky, but they were just black wings against black sky, and all I could see were branches and stars. For a solid minute, like background music, the loud call of the geese, hundreds of them, announcing the paradox of time passing – a phenomenon we celebrate and we rue. Morning, it’s snowing, and today looks much like yesterday. A line of tracks, where the neighbor dog bisected the yard yesterday, is slowly filling in. The suture looks like a seam in a white vestment, a ragged seam, and soon it will be imperceptible. The world is a sepia photograph, all browns and whites, and my days seem composed of little more than snow and trees, trees and snow. When I head outside to fetch some wood for the stove, a single tree sways slowly to the left, slowly to the right. Where its thicker branches touch, the wood creaks, giving the sense that the tree is arthritic, stiff… human. It’s the only sound I hear, and it makes me feel an affinity with the tree. I feel a bit sore myself, a little lonely. The effort of contending with the elements, with the season, is making my bones hurt. They don’t audibly creak, but they ache in a way that many locals, navigating middle age in the northeast, would recognize. I’ve never hugged a tree in my life, but if I were a little less self-conscious, I would, just for the camaraderie. Instead, I stack wood. Crystals fall from the white sky and add themselves to the heap. If they made a noise, I’d be deaf. The maple shifts and moans; I close the door, stoke the fire. When my siblings and I were kids, my father would buy a small, live
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
pine tree each year for Christmas. After the holiday he’d dig a hole in the front yard and plant the tree. By the time I was seven or eight, pine trees were spaced around the perimeter of the yard, and one stood in the center. My father told my brother and me that if we jumped over those trees every day, we would always be able to clear them no matter how high they grew. This seemed reasonable to us. We knew that trees grew, and that kids grew, and we knew that normally trees grew to be much taller than human beings. It stood to reason, though, that if jumping over trees was a sport, a feat, an athletic endeavor, then as such one could practice it and become masterful. We didn’t know of any professional tree jumpers, but it appeared that conditions were perfect to become, perhaps, the first. We embarked on a training regimen that consisted of running around the yard, leaping over the trees. We’d practice diligently for, oh, maybe five minutes a day. It wasn’t hard to clear the trees, at first, but I remember when the tops of those pines began to brush, with a kind of carnal precision, precisely up the middle of my crotch as I leapt. It was the first time I considered that maybe my father was wrong or, sadly, maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be a tree jumper. Although it seemed to curtail the ambition of my tree-jumping practice, I liked the feel of the soft tip of the pine branch stroking me there, through my jeans, for just a split second – it was the most subtle, most private flash of pleasure, an arboreal-human secret kiss. I can’t be sure – it’s difficult to pinpoint with any degree of accuracy just why or how, when or where – but maybe that was when I fell in love with trees. I recall the scent of the pine, the prickly needles and the sticky feel of the branches whose softer tips – new growth – found me. Now – it seemed suddenly – the trees had the edge. We slowed down, they did not. Trees inch toward the heavens. This is how it’s done, they say. I study their progression. This is how I endure. I observe, I record – out here, this is what I do.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
The zipper-pull thermometer on my day pack registered 114º Fahrenheit. We had maybe two liters of water left. It wasn’t the first time I thought I might die in Africa, but I was really scared. The sweat from my scalp ran into my eyes and burned with salt. I could feel my skin scorching, my body evaporating, my head aching, my tongue thickening. My patience and humor were gone. Everything slowed. After what felt like hours but what could have been no more than fifteen minutes, jokes about last rites ceased. I wondered if I should write a letter to my family, should anyone find us before a gust of wind buried us forever in the Sahara. I was trying both to push at the bumper with all my weight, and, mentally, with all my might, will the truck out of the sand. I was on the edge of panic and the only thing that kept me from hysterics was the quiet integrity of the others. We were all caked in soft sand. I tried to pull the inside of my shirt up across my face, but it simply smeared the whole mess further. I closed my eyes, saw bright light through my lids, and waited for tears, if moisture enough was left, to clear the burn. When I blinked and squinted my eyes open, I saw two faces hovering at the top of the taller sand bank that Moussa hadn’t climbed. Two boys waved, and then they were gone. I thought I was hallucinating. I didn’t holler at first, but then croaked out a sound. I don’t remember the words, but the absurdity of a white woman trying to scream at a Saharan dune in English caused the men to stop and stare. Not at the dune, but at me. I’d scared the boys away. I was sure, for good. And nobody was going to believe I saw them. Of that I was certain. “Ils étaient là! Deux fils!” They were there, I said. Two boys! None of the others saw them, yet Chieck tried to chase down what he must have thought was a mirage. He was more awkward than Moussa in the sand, slipping and falling, cursing, and giving up. Yaya volunteered for the pursuit. Moussa yelled, “Abana!” Enough! Chieck cursed at Moussa and went to sit in the driver’s seat of the Toyota. Moussa and Yaya spoke together in Bamanankan, leaving me lost to
any plan and even more frightened that there might not be one. And then, my mirage reappeared. “Regardez!” I shrieked. Look! The two boys were back. They appeared at the crest of the dune, then slid toward us. Five men followed, and all came hopping down in ragged cotton shirts and trousers, grinning as if this were Club Med and they were late with the Mai Tais. The five of us stared, our mouths open. Yaya snapped-to and stood straight and tried to dust himself off before greeting them, all smiles and graciousness as was his manner, even when half dead. How are you? And your family? Your parents? Your children? Your wife’s family? Your garden? Your camels? Even now, in this precarious state, Yaya summoned the proper manners. They didn’t get many visitors. It’s possible that two ridges in another direction we would either have found another village or we would have become bones in sand, but I’ll never know. The wind was blowing toward the tiny village of Mbuna. They were a half mile away, two dunes to the West. They had smelled the diesel. And later, when reliving the event, I marveled at how we’d been in serious trouble with no seeming way out, and two sixyear-old boys knew the dunes well enough to venture out, return home, and then come back to us with help. One man climbed into the driver’s seat and started the ignition. I may have dreamt it, but the other four men actually did what I had imagined. They seemed to levitate the truck out of its sink hole and onto harder sand. This driver tried to explain to our driver how to drive in sand, but Barou wasn’t in the mood for a lesson and stalked off. The man from Mbuna village drove the truck, still emptied of its crates of textiles and of our personal belongings. I didn’t care. Let the desert take it all. Moussa, Yaya, Chieck, and I followed the two boys and four men on foot over the dunes. I don’t know exactly how long we were on foot, but the half mile distance
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
felt more like a marathon. The sun had changed position in the sky, listing from the top of our heads to our foreheads and in our eyes, even with my hat. The village men’s pace repeatedly slowed to match ours. I whimpered, feeling sorry for myself. I could have fallen to my stomach, face in the sand at each step, and did in fact stumble several times, but I wasn’t going to complain. If I felt worse than Moussa or Yaya or Chieck, it could have been only incrementally, and, even while I was seeing and hearing things that weren’t there – insects flying and crawling under my clothes, auras around people and at the ridges of dunes, a buzz filling my ears that meant I was near to fainting – I was determined not to ask for preferential treatment. I had disagreed with Chieck, earlier, over his insistence on what he had termed, intended with kindness and generosity, “La priorité des femmes”: the priority of women. Chieck’s and my rough edges were rubbing one another the wrong way. I had said, “Priority is something granted by another. It can be withdrawn at will.” Chieck had said no. “It was Malian men’s respect for women that granted them priority.” But our difference in perspective ran deep. I didn’t want priority. Priority was accorded in the 19th century to a woman who had an attack of the vapors. I wanted equality. Although maybe not so much at that moment. I desperately could have taken advantage of some comfortable priority. But I wanted even more to demonstrate that equality was warranted. Always and unequivocally. Chieck watched me, glanced my way at every other step. It wasn’t my wellbeing that held his interest, of that I was sure. He was waiting for me to beg for priority – maybe a ride, maybe to stop – and special consideration. Q
A half hour later, the mercury still measuring 110 degrees, we had crossed the two ridges and entered Mbuna. A crowd of two dozen children met us on the way down into the village. The buzzing that surrounded my head
had become a roar. I tried to smile, and I didn’t faint, but I remember my eyes feeling rolled back under blinking lids, running a dry tongue over my blistering lips, no longer being able to articulate words properly, and not much more. I tried to ask Moussa to find shade. We were all light-headed and sick, but our first obligation was to visit the Chef du Village. We entered his compound, leaving children jostling one another at the wooden gate. In his courtyard, the chief had one of the three trees in the village, so we sat. I stumbled and fell to my knees, and we waited for the chief on fraying mats spread in the shade. Two girls brought us a gourd of milky-looking water. I was gun shy from dysentery. I stared at the water and would have sworn I could see giardia protozoa dog-paddling toward my mouth, waiting to slither past my teeth and settle in my intestines even as my lips connected to the gourd’s edge – the edge itself spongy and seething with microbes from the hundred pairs of lips that had drunk from that very spot before. What always surprised me after these trials of the body-versusenvironment, was the rapidity with which I could recover. I’d feel disoriented, on the edge of The End, shucked of language comprehension, and miserably out of sorts, but eventually my body would rehydrate, my ability to think would return, and my sense of humor would be salvaged. I’d be buoyed back to the appearance of normal. Internally, though, I’d have changed. To anyone looking for changes in me, I suspect I appeared stronger, but I’ve always been good at hiding feelings. Inside, I was starting to crumble. Imperceptibly, perhaps, at each successive trauma, but cumulatively: the faux pas, the jokes at my expense, regular exclusion from inner circles, physical challenges. I was becoming a little claustrophobic, less sure of myself, feeling less balanced overall. I could tell something was happening because I was angry a lot of the time. It was an anger that, at home in a controllable environment, showed itself as depression. Here, I had little control over anything, and the signs I’d have noticed at home I brushed aside. In Mbuna, a couple of the bolder boys, maybe the boys who first saw
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
us, had come through the gate and into the compound to sit with us. It happened the same way in every town we visited. Boys approached us and waited to be shooed and scattered with the arrival of the village chief. But, for these two, in the mean time, their brazenness gave them a kind of status not acquired by those who stayed at the gate, and certainly not permitted to girls. The boys’ peers were witness to this boldness, and that was surely evidence enough for years’ worth of stories about this day. Their contact with us made them and their foray into our sphere something special and the envy of the other children. I’d carry home memories – photos or objects that I’d identify with my adventure, an adventure with which I myself identified, which accorded me an exoticism similar to the place I visited. American adults or African children, people were similar in this way. I’d have my loom parts and textiles and stories. The boys would have peer witnesses. Their moment seated with us in the chief ’s compound would remain a souvenir of our visit that none of the others possessed. Normally, I welcomed children. They, like I, didn’t get to sit at the adults’ table very often and we found an affinity in that. But I was still breathing hard with cracks in my tongue and burns on my lips and sand in my sinuses and could barely summon the strength to smile. One of the women who had brought us water came running out of the house, baby bouncing on her right hip, broom raised in her left hand, yelling at the boys who had just sat down. She wore a wrap skirt of faded machinemade cloth with nothing on top. The baby clung to her right breast and the left one flew in all directions, flattened and spent from child-bearing. She waved the broom and hollered – no translation needed – “Get out!” The broom, an item in every village household, made of millet husks tied together at one end and fanned at the other, could injure no one. But as she came toward them, voice booming and broom waving, the boys – now first among their equals – leapt up and retreated to the doorway. We watched the boys and didn’t notice the old man who had appeared
under the tree. He spoke, and Yaya scrambled to his feet, hands grabbing at the dust, then being wiped on his trousers before offering the right one to the chief. Moussa and Chieck stood. I stood. “Chief!” said Yaya, with a bow of his head. “Chief, thank you for greeting us.” Yaya recited again the local version of How’s your father? How’s your mother? How’s your wife? How are your sons? And then a greeting from all of us, and gratitude for the chief ’s generosity in having saved our lives. The old man was small, slight, and his light blue long cotton robe had been hemmed up in the front but in back, dragged on the ground. His head was shaved, his brown eyes bright but rimmed in red, and his mouth, when he smiled, looked like he was wearing someone else’s false upper set of teeth. He had four wives and one of the three trees in town, which he mentioned more often with pride than his twenty living children. Apparently Mbuna sat on a natural spring of some sort and could support modest vegetation and three trees. The pleasure he took in our visit showed in his wagging head and the crinkles around his eyes. He shook hands with Yaya, Moussa, and Chieck. Not with me. Not with the woman. I understood the customs, even if I did not always like the rationales behind them, and tried to respect the social norms. For a very long time it never felt my place to question this or any other convention. The chief sat first, then we plopped down again. A woman brought out a bowl of millet and green sauce, placed the bowl before the chief, and disappeared. I’d eaten a similar sauce before. It had the aroma of wet hay and it tasted like old brussel sprouts. Made with crushed leaves of the Baobab tree and boiled okra, it had a thick and slimy consistency. In my journal, I called it “Snot Sauce.” A girl carried a bowl of water. She brought it first to me. I dipped my right hand and rubbed my fingers against my thumb. Yaya was next, then around the circle. I was grateful to those little boys who saw us, and to the men who
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
saved our lives, our truck, and our belongings. I was thankful for the gourd of milky water and the woman who swept away the children. I was indebted for the shade of the tree and the ground I would sleep on that night. I knew I should be excited about something to eat. But when the chief pushed the bowl toward us, and we formed a circle, and everyone dug the fingers of their right hands into the center well with the sauce, I strayed toward the edge, picking up a small wad of the sticky doughy millet, complete with sandy grit, and pretended to have a very full and happy mouth. “Your wife is a fine cook,” said Moussa. “Yes,” we all agreed. The chief said, “One of them is.” Yaya translated. We laughed. The chief smiled a bit too widely and his false uppers shot forward half an inch, held back from full liberation by his top lip. I clenched my jaw and did not laugh this time, instead looking down at the bowl and taking another fake fistful of millet and chewing a long time to calm an overwhelming impulse to bust out with a bad case of the giggles. My head felt light and my stomach couldn’t take any more. I asked if I might leave the rest of my portion for the children. Not eating what is offered can offend a host. But no one protested. There is a collective quality to living in a place so different from one’s own. The larger sum of what accumulates, hopefully, is deeper selfknowledge, perpetual wonder, learned wisdom and more. The rest, usually the lesser sum, thank goodness, is the aggravation of working in a second or third or fourth language, difficult tastes and smells, music and traditions, social encounters, bathing, eating, sleeping, even shitting – everything so different from what I have, or do, or like, or hate at home. I had – for weeks at a time – no opportunity, either literally or figuratively, to touch home. I was the foreigner, the stupid one. Everything was alien and would always be so. With fatigue, after a day like the one reaching Mbuna, it all crashed down. I had to withdraw, more into myself than would be visible
outwardly, and rebuild. After a month in the field, I had forgotten that I didn’t know as much about getting by in this different world as I’d thought, and I’d be brought up short every single time I forgot. I sat in that circle. I smiled and watched the conversation, but didn’t try to understand the content. Priority as a woman, and its opposite – lack thereof where men’s matters are concerned – suited me fine at the moment. After our meal, the chief led us through his small village of no more than 500 people. I dragged along, children at my rear. The compounds were of mud brick, high sand content, with a crumbly, poor resilience to wind or, though unlikely, moisture in the air. The thatched roofs looked worn, dry, brittle; nothing like the fresh millet stalks grown locally to replace them, but some of the other structures bore corrugated aluminum on top. The chief, just ahead of Moussa, walked through passageways. Yaya and Chieck were next. We were shown a vacant compound we could use during our stay. I always slept in the same courtyard or compound with the team, sometimes on a mat in the open. I don’t think there was anywhere we were split up. If anyone – Moussa, Yaya, Chieck, chiefs, children, women – thought it strange or somehow inappropriate, they must have rationalized the behavior as foreign. We had carried our smaller bags from the truck, and when shown the quarters for our stay, we dropped them in the courtyard. We thanked the chief and spoke about the following day. A half-dozen adolescent boys carried in, on their backs, the trunks and equipment we’d abandoned to the dunes. Girls appeared from out of nowhere with millet stalk brooms to sweep our three small rooms. We were given a clay pot of water for drinking and a bucket of water for washing, and, later, dinner. But I lapsed into exhaustion and a half-conscious stupor, and I remember little after our arrival in the compound until waking in the middle of the night, alone in the room. I lay in the dark, breathing audibly and blinking to focus, unable to shake a sense of panic. “I’m dreaming.” Dehydration and nightmares of femurs in sand, no doubt, behind this. I sat upright on the reed mat and
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
looked around, toward the door, but outside was as dark as inside, and I could see nothing. I flipped on my flashlight, if for no reason other than to make sure I’d not gone blind. I did not want to resume the scenario playing in my head. The following morning, as one-by-one we wandered into the courtyard, washed our faces, and peered at the bowl of last night’s gruel, women with babies peeked at us as they passed by on their way to fetch millet from the granaries. It would have made a striking photo essay to snap a shot of each for the moment she was in front of the opening in the mud wall: one with a bucket on her head and her eyes, if not her face, trained toward us; the next limping along with a toddler clinging to her leg; another pregnant with a young child slung on her back; others passing more quickly, then returning to stand and stare. The air felt cooler than it had all night, with a slight breeze. Yaya and Moussa talked about the evening before. Yaya mentioned how the chief sure liked his tea, a rare moment of mildly cynical observation from Yaya about how the chief wouldn’t leave. As I slept, he’d come by to make sure we were comfortable. Yaya brewed the thick, sweet gunpowder green tea of nomads. Yaya and Moussa had sat by the small stove, under a clear sky, and spoke again with the chief, explaining further who we were – a research team from Mali’s National Museum – and what we were doing: purchasing traditional textiles. The notion of city people, one of them American, seeing value in, and wanting something from his village, both confused and delighted the chief. We had traveled farther than anyone in his village had ever traveled away. We’d come to visit him, Chief Elder of Mbuna, honor him by wanting to take art back with us to show the rest of the world, and leave a large payment in small bills. For the chief, this was incomprehensible, yet a point of pride. With the heat rising, mosquitoes thick in the air for the first hour of light, another bowl of last night’s millet delivered as breakfast, and dozens of children assembling and jockeying for position outside our walls, Mbuna
was exactly the place we needed to be. By any standard, Mbuna would have qualified as a backwater commune with few links to anywhere else in the entire world. Maybe in spite of this, or maybe because of this, its women possessed several large textiles we hadn’t seen elsewhere. I’ll never know if locating the arkilla munnga was so relatively straightforward because they were common to the region, or if luck played a part and stranded us two dunes from the only examples remaining this side of the big textile repository in the sky. But here they were. The chief and two of his older sons arrived carrying two bundles rolled in heavy paper retained from fifty pound bags of powdered milk. I could see, in large print, NESTLÉ. They untied the ropes around one of the bundles, pulled off the paper, and unrolled the Songhai people’s equivalent of the Fulani dowry kerka textiles we had found earlier, and the Tuareg jenngo blankets Moussa and Yaya had purchased while I lay in dysentery stupor. This was the third of three marriage blankets we’d hoped to find. Bright reds and burnt oranges, indigos and ochres, the cloth was less ornate in woven pattern, but more colorful than either the kerka with its deep-hued blacks and umbers or the checkerboard jenngo. This one, the arkilla munnga, had large areas of uninterrupted color which continued across the woven strips, and it was huge and heavy, the weft almost entirely of thickly spun wool. I took one look around and made myself invisible. Aside from my presence – the rich white person, my not too subtle eyes-wide reaction would have given away my textile lust. So I bowed my head toward the chief and his sons, and wandered into my room – though I sat in a dark corner, able to hear the conversation and see the transaction in the courtyard. We, as a team, had decided at the start, before we ever ventured into the field, to pay a fair price and, for this, I trusted Moussa. We’d “discuter,” bargain, if necessary, but never bargain as one would in the public market. We had the reputation of Mali’s National Museum in our hands, and we wanted not only to be fair with the village weavers and artisans, but to leave friends in our wake.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
The discussion I heard and saw from the darkness of my room in Mbuna didn’t even mention cost. That would come later. And no one made that “eh!?!?” sound. With Yaya translating from Songhai into a combination of Bamanankan and French – the French, I was certain, for my benefit – the chief spoke of sheep and their wool, cotton and its disappearance, and itinerant Fulani weavers who came to town, sometimes selling their services and sometimes trying to sell blankets ready-made. No one in Mbuna kept sheep. There was nothing for them to eat, and the few skinny goats that remained had to compete for meager refuse thrown to the ground and whatever fur they produced was unusable and coarse. They did give milk, though. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen a cotton plant. The chief wasn’t sad about any of this, according to Yaya’s interpretation, but he did say that everything had changed so much during his lifetime. “There are plenty of chickens roaming around,” the chief said. “Too bad we can’t get more meat from chickens, or weave feathers.” All the men laughed. The chief ’s sons unrolled the second arkilla munnga, and the chief removed his teeth so that his words came more easily, and put the dentures in a pocket. Moussa lit charcoal still in the stove from the previous night, then pulled tea from his bag and half-filled the ever-present blue enameled teapot with China green gunpowder pearls. He poured in an equal amount of white granulated sugar, then walked to the clay pot against our inner courtyard wall, lifted the aluminum lid, and ladled cloudy water from it into the teapot. One of the chief ’s children was in charge of keeping the clay pot full. Every household had a clay water pot. The clay was fired to a temperature just hot enough to change the chemical makeup of the clay so the pot wouldn’t melt back into mud, but the surface was left unglazed; water evaporated slowly through the walls, and, as a result of the evaporation, the water inside stayed relatively cool. There was no wood to be found locally
to stoke flames hot enough for firing clay, so these water pots (like charcoal or canned goods or fresh onions) must have come from a market rotating among closeby villages. I hadn’t seen any gardens, but I would guess that as in most villages, there were areas at the perimeter of Mbuna where women kept small patches, raising whatever would grow. Probably, too, the village had claim to arable land within a day or two’s walking distance which was tended by teenage boys during growing season and harvesting. We were too far north for corn, but millet – a grain as resilient as the desert is harsh – might still grow. Moussa took the three shot glasses used for tea and upended them to warm at the perimeter of the charcoal. He dusted off the aluminum plate on which the glasses sat for serving and waited for the tea and sugar to boil into caffeinated syrup. The chief had no knowledge of any stories or proverbs to accompany the munnga blanket. None of his wives had owned one, so the textile had, for the most part, escaped his consciousness. He was, however, happy to be the arbiter for this thing of value to his visitors, and assured Yaya that he had the authority to sell it. Moussa righted the hot glasses from the charcoal onto the aluminum plate and poured tea – Firsts – and offered the glasses to the chief, then Yaya, then Chieck who had been circling the men, three cameras hanging from his neck, focusing and snapping photos from all angles. Each took a glass with his fingertips, quickly and loudly slurped up the ounce of dark khaki liquid – cooling and aerating it as it went down – and placed the glass back on the tray. Moussa rose to refill the teapot from the clay water container. He added more sugar, and again set the pot into the charcoal. We were close to the end of our weeks of travel in the Niger River Inland Delta. We had visited dozens of villages, bought close to 600 pieces of cloth, skeins of cotton and wool, loom parts, and more. Chieck had shot hundreds of feet of video tape, Moussa had recorded interviews with weavers, dyers, and old men of every ethnicity who had stories to tell, Yaya’s
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
fluency in his many languages took a leap, I’d snapped more than a thousand photographs – using film, digital cameras were not yet available – and filled a journal, and we were all still friends, for the most part – which was a wonder, given Chieck’s stiffness, Yaya’s solicitousness, Moussa’s moodiness, and my insecurities. The work was far from over, but I started to feel as if, with the find of the arkilla munnga, that we were on the cusp, ready to head toward home. Home? Bamako. Moussa pulled the teapot from the coals and swirled it before pouring Seconds. He offered the chief, who took a glass, Yaya, who passed to Chieck, then he himself slurped down a shot of tea. The chief, bless his heart, motioned toward my door with his glass before putting it back on the tray, but Yaya shook his head and clicked his tongue, a familiar way of saying, “No. Don’t be concerned.” It had become the standard joke that “Rachelle, elle prend le quatrième”: Rachel takes the fourth. The leaves are boiled three times only. There is no fourth, except for the goats. Hmmm. Was this one of those sly comments, so many of which I missed? Q
That afternoon the air turned hot, and portended a warm night. I don’t think the temperature dropped below 85º F during the time we were in Mbuna. To some extent I became used to it, but I never relaxed into comfort. The amazing thing to me was how, in the evenings, the chief and whomever we spent time with bundled up. I never wore more than a calf-length cotton shift and a sun hat. I lay on my back on a mat in the courtyard. Moussa was on a mat next to me, reading with a candle. As the sky darkened, it turned the most tropical turquoise, with cirrus streaks of pink and orange. Stars emerged one-by-one, brightening against the moonless darkening blue. My eyes were closing when the two older sons of the chief appeared at our compound entryway. It’s impossible to knock on mud brick as on a
door, so, everywhere, people announce themselves with a clap-clap of the hands. Moussa and I both stood. Chieck and Yaya came out of their room. And we repeated a shortened version of the lengthy formal greeting I’d come to know so well, even if I could remember only the first two or three lines. They declined tea, but offered to take us up on a dune where a breeze could be found. I looked at Moussa, my eyes and brow screwed up from recalling near disaster only three days earlier. A dune was the last thing I wanted to climb. But Moussa laughed. Moussa looked to Yaya. Yaya looked at me. “Allons y,” Let’s go, he said. The heat, of course – even if the temperature hadn’t changed much – never enclosed me nearly so intensely after the sun was down. And my mood would always pick up. We walked single file through narrow pathways toward the edge of the village. The chief ’s sons, in the lead, stopped and clap-clapped at each of four doorways to greet in a few words the men whose voices and laughter emanated from the direction of glowing coals. The transition between village and dunes was imperceptible underfoot. It was all sand. But we left the exterior walls of the village behind and walked into the night. This was not the kind of desert that sprouted wildflowers in spring. It was dunes, the southern reach of Tuareg horsemen, warriors, still nomadic, competing for meager resources, whose toughness had to dominate Saharan biology: stinging scorpions, venomous snakes, poisonspitting beetles – or face extinction themselves. I trudged behind Yaya, figuring any crawlies would have been dispersed by the pairs of feet in front of us. Yaya glanced back every few steps to make sure I’d not stalled out. The incline wasn’t steep, and we couldn’t have been – at the crest – more than thirty feet above the low-glowing courtyards of Mbuna. We spread out a bit and sat without mats in the sand. Yaya and Moussa stripped off their shoes and shirts, leaving on the
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
long pants. The brothers said something to Yaya and he something to them, and the three of them chuckled. Yaya crept over and crouched next to me, a little too close, and translated. Seemed there was a creature who lived in the dunes who stalked single women who ventured out at night beyond the village walls to rendezvous with their boyfriends. “Uh huh,” I said. “This creature, he resembles one of you?” I smiled at the men and used the occasion to scoot a few inches away from Yaya, who translated my words. All of them, now, all of the men were laughing. Every society has myths, and every set of myths has such a creature, generally created to maintain social order, often more specifically women’s chastity, and it always lives just beyond the boundaries of the civilized known world, in forest, sea, or – in this case – sand. “And I should be afraid? With all these big, strong men to protect me?” Yaya leaned close again, eyes mocking and wide. He said, “This creature is crusty and smelly, it eats sand and has foul, foul breath.” “Comme Rachelle,” said Moussa, “chaque matin.”: Like Rachel, every morning. Chieck howled. “The creature,” Yaya whispered, “has a meter long penis,” trying not to laugh, “with sores and scabs and long thorns.” “Hmmm.” I, too, tried not to laugh. “In my country,” I said, straightfaced, “we have a similar creature, but he’s not interested in women. He goes after men who cheat on their wives.” Yaya gave me one of those incredulous, and this time horrified, “Eh!!!?” sounds, then he, Moussa, and Chieck laughed and couldn’t stop. Between breaths, Yaya translated my response for the brothers, and everyone fell over. This, it appeared, was exactly the thing to say. The night quieted and we all lay in the dark looking upward. This was a different world.
Maybe it was the silence, though as the wind rose and ebbed, the dunes whistled and sang. Strangely vocal sounds rolled up and over distant ridges, descended then died with a moan. Maybe it was the sand, a veil of pale chiffon drawn and draped over a shoulder of dune, the finest top millimeter of crystals drifting one way then another with the low breeze only just perceptibly cooler than the still air above it. Maybe it was the indigo sky and the million galaxies and the feeling of greatness and smallness crushing me all at once inside and outside. This different world, in that instant of embrace, was gentle and intimate and I almost loved the desert.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
The Minetta Stream Millie Falcaro
It’s hard to believe something you haven’t seen or heard. Ask Thomas, the patron saint of uncertainty. He’ll tell you how many people pray to disprove their perception. Native Americans called it Mannette for “Devil’s Water.” Seventeenth century colonists called it Mintje Kill--small stream. Freed Africans called it the Minetta Brook. It flowed under the Minetta Tavern, the watering hole of the Beats, in the nineteen-fifties. How did the canoes float and what were watered by the stream grown in free soil grown under the sun of poets, the sun of painters, the sun of writers? It ran north under the asphalt, under the granite and mica schist, under damp sand, ran against rocks, swelled with algae, swirled with microbes.
So you have to listen. Listen past the traffic, beyond the path of bicycles, below Sixth Avenue bus fumes, an ear to the ground to hear the water howl. The water subdivided, lurks under the west, west of the Village. Now, just a trickle, obscured by the pull of the Hudson.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
Elephant Bird Egg Millie Falcaro
Sometime in the seventeenth century they disappeared. Half-ton birds, too big to hide, too slow to escape early Spaniardsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; fowl cravings. The last titan egg rolled, tilted off its nest, onto soft ground where sea mixed with sand. Buoyed by warm salt water, carried by the oceanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s undertow, the last mammoth egg floated down the African coast until it found marsh. The original Big Bird escaped the surge of tides, the appetite of whales, now rests behind museum glass.
Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013
Our Contributors Alicia Catt is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Citron Review, MARY, Birdfeast, and decomP, among others. She prays nightly that her English 101 students never, ever Google her.
The director of Marymount Manhattan College’s Photography Program, Millie Falcaro is a multi-disciplined artist whose interests include psychology, visual media, and poetry. Her poems have appeared in Chronogram, Avocet, Tapestries, Flesh, Leveler, and Darkling. Her images have also been featured in film and television productions including The Devil Wears Prada and It’s Complicated. She resides in New York City with her husband.
Rachel Hoffman After writing a doctoral dissertation concerning
the effects of tourism on Dogon village sculptors, she exited academia to pursue less lucrative passions. Her short stories have appeared in Left Bank, Yellow Silk, and Literary Bohemian. Her first novel, Packer and Jack, was published this past June. “Mbuna” is a chapter from her African memoir-inprogress, Toubab: Travels in Mali Before Al Qaeda.
Abigail Loar was a finalist in Black Warror Review’s Eighth Annual
contest. A believer that stories are just data with a soul, she spends the time that she isn’t writing working at Google in San Francisco.
Donna Steiner’s writing has appeared in literary journals including
Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She currently teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego, is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine, and was a 2011 Fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation of the Arts. Look for her chapbook, Elements, forthcoming from Sweet Publications.
Alison Stine is the author of two books of poems, Wait, winner of the
Brittingham Prize, and Ohio Violence, winner of the Vassar Miller Prize. Her essays and poems have also been published in The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Tin House, New England Review, Black Warrior Review, The Huffington Post, and many others. Her awards also include the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation.
John Vanderslice is the Associate Editor of Toad Suck Review. His
fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in the Seattle Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and dozens of other publications. He currently lives with his family in Conway, Arkansas. Volume 1, Issue 2. Fall 2013