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F A L L
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EDITOR Colin Meldrum FICTION EDITORS Charlene Logan Burnett Amanda DiSanto POETRY EDITOR Lisa McCool-Grime ASSISTANT EDITORS Michael Bagwell Mary Stone Dockery
READERS McKenzie Allen Zach Buscher Ryan Fowler Emily J. Lawrence Laura Miller Hayes Moore Micah Unice Michael James Wilson
A cappella Zoo (ISSN: 1945-7480): a magazine of magic realism and slipstream. Founded 2008. Published semiannually in spring and fall. A cappella Zoo is an independent, labor-of-love publication. Issues are available online for free and in print at cost. Readers support A cappella Zoo and its contributors by sharing their favorite works with friends and colleagues. Submission guidelines available online. Copyright 漏 2012 All rights retained by authors/artists of respective works. Cover art by DEVIN MELDRUM: Dew and Fervor, oil on canvas, 2012.
APOSPECIMEN AWARD WINNERS Selected as especially noteworthy contributions to this issue: Fiction: Of Love and Waste, KATHERINE MARZINSKY Poetry: Reintroduction & Coyote, JEFF PEARSON
The body was actually half a body, slender legs leading up to a perfectly curved waist, and then nothing. —Dreaming of the Manananggal General Brant was in his grounded helicopter playing at the stick when he received news of the sea monster. —Briny Tide The studio audience laughs. She almost backs the car into a muumuu-clad octogenarian, who glares at her fiercely. —The Sacrosancts Our fathers say men are men no longer, so when the Valkyrie came for us, we were uncomfortable to say the least. —Old Myths Peter’s hand moves slowly, hovering above Delia’s bare forearm, as little as an eighth of an inch between her flesh and his fingers. The ghosts feel safest that way. —Finding Your Way to the Coast The World was terribly ill; that much was clear.
—Of Love and Waste
Let me tell you something, He-Man, you can’t be a badass with bangs. —Spyre Pyroclastic debris—tephra was what the hot winds blew against the window nearest to my table. —Into Magma Town Like an inflated sock Hung on a slanting coat hanger
—Crows, My Crows
The small woman arrived inside one of the nesting eggs with a certificate of authenticity, and the small man came in a cigar box because he was worn and somewhat exotic. —Inside Shadow Boxes There is no law but the law of transaction. All interaction is transaction. —Transaction Dear Sir, Whilst I have not received any official notification from the village, it has come to my attention that someone has moved into the cottage that abuts my estate. —Mrs. Coltsfoot’s Neighbour I climbed on top of my bedroom settee to fix one of the curtains, and when I couldn’t quite reach the rod, I walked a little way up the wall. —Grounded
The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain. —Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.
Inside Shadowboxes M. W. FOWLER
Of Love and Waste KATHERINE MARZINSKY
POETRY excerpts from Spyre JEANINE DEIBEL
Into Magma Town
The Woman with No Face FAITH GARDNER
Transaction REDFERN BARRETT
the gun game
COLIN WINNETTE & BENJAMIN CLARK
Old Myths COLLIN BLAIR GRABAREK
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technology of health
Dreams of the Greenland Coast
The Dog Within
Dreaming of the Manananggal
Crows, My Crows
Grounded FAITH SCHANTZ
Mrs. Coltsfoot’s Neighbour SAM GRIEVE
Yesterday My Dog Talked SHELLIE ZACHARIA
Finding Your Way to the Coast JULIE DAY
Notes on Contributors
Inside Shadowboxes M. W. FOWLER
he small woman arrived inside one of the nesting eggs with a certificate of authenticity, and the small man came in a cigar box because he was worn and somewhat exotic. The woman smelled of pressed flowers, and the small man smelled sweet, rich, and full-bodied. The woman wore a leotard and had fine legs, which she delightfully exercised upon her reveal. The man was groggy, as he had slept in a tobacco leaf, and he had a bushy black mustache and small woven hat with a rim that looked as if it had been gnawed by a rat. “Hello,” the voice of their purchaser said as he unpacked them. The woman said Hello, and she twirled and tumbled across the tablecloth towards the small man. The man waved at the even bigger man and watched the small woman twirling. She is all smile, thought the little man, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He and the large man laughed at her as she tumbled and twirled and the saucers of food, stacked with morsels of this and that, rattled. “I’ll leave you alone a while,” the large man said, and little earthquakes followed in his path out the door. The quakes caused the small woman to lose her balance, and she fell into the small man’s arms. She fluttered her eyes as she released herself, and the small man became flushed. They exchanged their names: Cindy and Max. I’m here while my family is on vacation, she said. She posed to begin a new dance routine. Max couldn’t take his eyes off of Cindy as she danced and asked a thousand questions: Who is our new master, have you ever tried this food or that one, how long were you being delivered, is this the first time you’ve ever moved, where are you from, and do you like the way I dance? He did. He very much did. They made their way to the far side of the table, where two shot glasses awaited them, one to the brim with milk and the other whiskey. As they continued their dinner, the woman’s questions were only slowed by the politeness of chewing with her mouth closed. The man tried to answer her questions, but she was so quick in thinking new ones up that he had little time to mentally put his answers down. After dinner, she excused herself and went back to her nesting dolls. Each one had been carefully opened and spread around the tabletop, creating a semicircle of painted faces and ever-decreasing bodies. From
afar, the man noticed that in each of the dolls were items that had been neatly packed away. He caught a glimpse of her undressing, to which he quickly turned away, flushed even more now because of his slight intoxication. It had been a long time since he had seen a woman in this way. The woman returned some time later, dressed in her nightgown, and she found the man watching the wax gently roll down the sides of a candle. He took out his pocket knife, fashioned from a green glass shard, and carved a tree on a hill into the wax. A noose dangled from one of its solemn branches. Where’s that? she asked. Oh, nowhere, he said. Just somewhere I went once. Was it beautiful? He looked at her. He could smell her perfume, and it reminded him of the time he had snuck inside the opera house in Mexico City. Once through all of the giants’ jostling legs and small ponds of red and white wine, he had found a place to overlook the stage. He had been mesmerized by the performance, losing himself in his thoughts as the voice erupted from the singer and filled him with each act—love, tragedy, revenge, and redemption. He had stared up and down at her every inch, wondering where inside her voluptuous body and outfit, complete with peacock feather, he was being devoured. This new place was even more splendid than the opera house. This is the best place I’ve ever been, he said. The small woman nodded her head politely. She came from a gated community in southern California, where there were plenty of mowed lawns, pristine pools, pantries full of food, and million dollar rooms, and where posh parties were often thrown. She danced at them in full view of all those large faces, whose large hands swatted at her in applause. The man took to drinking more of the whiskey as he listened to her recount her life. He told stories of his own, how his sister had been ground up into dust and used in an ancient remedy to cure warts. His mother had been raped by a giant, a teenager who had become bored of torturing stray cats. His father had been forced to work for a giant who cut off his father’s penis to keep him from getting ideas about the giant’s wife and daughter. The man’s father committed suicide. Seventeen people in his village drowned when his village was flooded by a group of giant girls and boys using a green water hose to put out the fires they had started moments before. All of this before he was fifteen. All of this, and then the man worked in the fields, climbing stalks of this plant and that, using needles and briars to kill the bugs eating the leaves. Where did you live? she asked him. Before the cigar box, he lived in a white bucket that had been turned upside down. Other small men and women and several children lived with him. But all of this, he said, drinking as fast as he could, doesn’t matter now.
M. W. Fowler · 5
Why? He didn’t answer her, not fully with words, at first. Then, his whiskey voice took over, and he told her he was going to die—tomorrow. He had already tried to die, but he got it wrong, somehow. He showed her the thin line underneath the red handkerchief tied around his neck. This time, though, he was sure he would die. He had to die. Why? We all die, he said, calming her with a jovial laugh, so it’s not a big deal if I die. And I have no choice. I deserve it because of what I’ve done. He wept whiskey tears. Then, seeing her looking at her tiny pearl pink ballet shoes, he told her a joke, the one about the man who enters the bar full of bulls and finds himself without his horns. This man didn’t wait for her to laugh, and he scrunched up on the little lounge chair, falling asleep shortly after. The woman dried the drink from his mustache, then covered him with a cloth napkin. He woke in the middle of the night. He saw the woman had climbed up onto the windowsill and was slow dancing. The man gazed at her a moment before turning over and sleeping again. In the morning, the woman stood over him with eggs, toast, and coffee. He didn’t feel much like eating, but seeing her, he couldn’t say no. I was thinking, she said, about what you said last night. What did I say last night? You don’t remember? He nibbled at the toast and chewed it slowly, unsure if his whiskeyfilled stomach would let him swallow it. He shook his head. Well, you said some awful things. And you said you wanted to kill yourself. He corrected her: I plan to. You’re still planning to do it, then? She couldn’t believe it. She had never known anyone who wanted to kill himself. He sipped the coffee and waited for it to hit his stomach before answering. The thing is, she said, I saw something last night in the window. At least, I think I did, and I was just wondering if you would at least wait until you’ve seen it, too. That way I know I actually saw it. And then if I know that you’ve actually seen it, which means that I’ve actually seen it, then I will know I am not crazy and you can do that awful thing you went on and on about in your stupor. The man was thankful she had stopped talking. The breakfast was quite difficult to manage without having to listen to her. He took a long look around the giant room. Now that it was daytime, he noticed the details of the things he had seen the night before. Hand-carved bookshelves lined one wall, and every other wall had a painting or photographs with people who looked important, though he didn’t recognize any of them. Bric-a-brac was everywhere, making the giant room seem as if a shrunken city full of
6 · Inside Shadowboxes
antiquated bicycles, trains, and doll houses had been placed inside. No one else was here, though, except them. Eventually, he came upon the small woman again. She perked up when he looked at her. Well? What was it that you saw? Hmm, I am not sure I should tell you. I might influence you to see it, if it’s not really there, or worse, my telling you would spoil the first time you see it. You understand my predicament. I mean, it’s like my mother, my giant mother used to say— All right, said the man, cutting her off. I’ll not kill myself today, if it means that much to you. It does, said the woman. You’ll see. Let me finish breakfast, he said, and then we’ll begin the journey to the window. That’s just it, she said. You can only see it at night. I tried this morning, which is why I thought I might not have seen it at all. And then the thought occurred to me that I should ask— The man waved for her to stop. Tonight, then. He pushed the plate away. I will sleep until then. The man woke many hours later, near dusk. He felt his head throbbing and vowed to never drink again. He vomited shortly after that, which wasn’t much, just a spot to a giant, but for him it was a horrible feeling, retching like that. He warmed a small bowl of water over a candle and sighed every time he put the warm, damp cloth over his face and neck. He remembered what the woman had asked of him, and so he made his way towards her nesting eggs. She wasn’t there, though. He waited for a half hour, staring the whole time at her delicate undergarments draped over the smallest nesting doll’s face, before seeing the woman on the opposite side of the room. She was reading in an open space at the top of the bookcase. Even from such a distance, he could see her fairy-like hair shining in the candlelight. He called to her, but she did not answer. The man cursed her under his breath for being so inconsiderate. And seeing that she was not going to even bother to look in his direction, he made his way across the room and up the miniature elevator. At the top of the bookcase, he wandered across the shelf towards the woman. The smell of the books was strong, and he stared at their gilded titles, as large as marquees. He huffed when he reached her. You’ve come a long way for a dead man, the woman said, not looking up from the book. You said you had something you wanted to show me, remember? Forget that for now, she said, sit here and listen to this. The man did not sit, and the woman seemed to not notice as she began to read to him. She read to him the tale of a young man who went on a
M. W. Fowler · 7
journey to find the old man who could tell him what he needed to know. The journey took him far away from home, across countrysides he had never dreamed of and some he had. He met many people along the way, some heroes, some villains, but all of them fighting a battle among battles, small and large. The tale was wondrous, and the small man soon found himself taken in by it. He saw the young man cutting his way through thick jungles of green, where rain fell as loud as rocks among the trees. He was there when the young man tottered on the verge of death through the Cave of Hope, and felt his pain when he bested the jewel thief, who jumped off the top of the tower into the busy city streets below. And it was only at the end that the young man found the old man. The man was trapped in a goblet, and he held the man up in his hands. He no longer had a question for that man, though, because the man was himself, reflected in water, and knew all that he knew. When the woman had finished reading, it was too late to travel to the window so she could show the man the thing she had seen. Instead, they made camp on the bookshelf, sleeping in rolled pages of a thick book. The morning brought the large man back into their midst. He approached as quietly as a large man can, but woke them nonetheless. He lifted them into the palm of his hand and set them on the kitchen table. He asked if they were comfortable, if they had enough food, and so on to the point that the little man was completely and utterly upset. He had never been treated so well without something horrible following. Just one damn minute, the small man said. What are you up to, treating us like this? Is this an experiment? “All in good time,” the large man said, and he left. The small man stormed futilely across the tabletop after the large man. Angry, he kicked a few grains of salt around, and the small woman watched, brushing her hair the whole time and saying, It’s no use, doing that, is it? I deserve to die, he said. Why won’t he just kill me? What did you do that was so bad that you should be murdered? she asked. Besides, I haven’t hurt anyone, and I am here. I don’t think you did something so bad either. The little man wanted her to shut up. She had no idea what he had done. He looked to the window. It would be dark by the time they reached it. Take me, he said, pointing, so we can get this silly business over with. No, she said. Not until you tell me what you did. The little man refused. He kicked at the salt grains a few more times before stuffing his mouth with chocolate cake as an excuse to not talk to the woman. Some of the man’s anger dwindled as the hours came and went so that he let the woman near him again. She danced on her tippy-toes along the edge of the table, the window her backdrop. Her head tilted precariously to
8 · Inside Shadowboxes
the depths below, and she stopped, bending into the demi-plié. Holding her arms above her head, she pretended to hold the sun. It was both beautiful and depressing to the man. He decided that he really did have to kill himself. It was unfair for him to be here in this home of quiet splendor. He had to settle this window business with the woman first. He had to keep his word this time. He decided, too, that the best way to get the woman to take him was to act just like her. She was somewhat childish, he thought, and remembering how the children on the farm had annoyed one another, he took it upon himself to treat her as she had treated him. Take me to the window, he said. Tell me what you did, she replied. He repeated himself, and she repeated herself. And they continued on this way for many hours. She twirled, leapt into the air at intervals, and stretched. In turn, he emptied the dust from his shoes, redid his handkerchief, and played with his mustache. At last, she broke the routine, though it was not to the man’s liking. You are not ready to see what I saw, she said. You’re not even sure you saw what you saw, he said. That’s why you need me, you loon. See that painting there, she said. He did. Well, she continued, let me tell you the story behind that painting. She told him the most brilliant tale, and although he tried to pester her into taking him to the window at first, he soon became enthralled by the story behind the painting, of the painter who had risen from poverty to paint wonderful paintings laden with golden sunsets and silver city walls. Each brick of the streets, he had said, is a mile of someone’s journey. When the tale was complete, the small woman approached the man, who was still staring at the golden strokes in the painting, wondering if this painting was an original and what he could do with so much gold. The woman said, See me, and he turned to see her face draw close to his. They kissed for a few minutes before the woman broke off, rubbing her cheek and giggling that his mustache had tickled her. You’ll be ready soon, she said, to see what I saw. And if I don’t? Then, I will know I am crazy. In which case, you will be sane. They continued in this manner for many nights. She would tell him a tale, and he would listen. They became increasingly closer with each story, and in time, they had sex in a bowl of sugar. The granules stuck to their sweaty bodies, and they laughed as they scraped them afterwards using a teaspoon. Yet, throughout all of the nights, the man would not tell the woman what he had done, and she would not take him to the window. One morning, the large man appeared. He stood over their nakedness, sighing deeply as he looked upon them, troubled by a mass of thoughts within him that loomed large over the small lovers. It made the small woman cry. The large man said something then that caused the small man
M. W. Fowler · 9
to feel even smaller: “I’ve brought you here to give you your retirement. It’s not much, I know, and I wish I could bring more like you to this place, as I had planned to do. I’ve not much money myself now, and the two of you cost the last of what I had left. But look at you now, so full of life.” To this, the small woman cried even more. She knew she had not been cheap, for her former masters had lived lavishly. She cried, too, because she knew the whispers she had heard were true: she was too old to be their dancer now, too old to train their daughter in ballet. They had not gone on vacation. They would never be back. She flung her arms and bared breasts upon the hairy chest of the little man, who stumbled, for he had not expected such a performance and because he wasn’t sure what to do with the large man’s confession. So full of life? After everything he had done? He had left all of those people there that night. They had fled together, across the fields, to the fences and roads beyond. At the last minute, they were trapped in the many cages meant to keep the little men and women from escaping. Except him. He had led them to their doom with all of his dreams of a land where there were no giants and all little people were free. It would have been easier if they had cursed him, pleaded with him to help them, but instead, they yelled for him to Run, don’t stop! He left them behind to be “disciplined,” “tortured,” “made lessons of,” and ground into fine powders for exotic cures or skewered and served on perfect dishes with blue paintings of farm scenes . . . Only days later, he was caught by another giant while combing through a dumpster. He was displayed in the shop’s window. For Sale. The small man did not speak as the large man left them alone with their lunch and each other. Taking the woman up into his arms, he carried her inside the doll’s house—for they had moved in together—and laid her down to sleep softer than anyone else ever had. He went on a long walk amongst the legs of furniture. None of it made any sense, he thought and thought, until finally he sat down and watched the goldfish swim aimlessly inside its bowl. When evening came, the small woman found the small man at the fishbowl. She held her breath as she came nearer him. Seeing the fish, she was inspired to dance as it swam. The fish won out. She stopped, unable to hold her breath any longer, and breathlessly said, I’m ready to show you. Together, they walked and climbed to the window. There, she led him to the panes of glass, and the small man immediately searched for the thing the woman wanted him to see. I don’t see anything, he said. Sit, have dinner, she said. It’ll be a while. She made the small man sit facing her, and they ate their bit of dinner—some steak that the large man had left for them, along with a drop of wine, breadcrumbs, and one pea each. Overfilled by the food, they
10 · Inside Shadowboxes
entered into their nightly small talk. The man said his share of his day, and the woman spoke of the first time she had come to realize how small she was. You must’ve known, said the man. How could you not? My family never let me know. Not until I was twelve. They never said the word “small” when referring to me. Or “little.” I was simply “Cindy.” They sat in each other’s arms, their backs against the window frame, and watched the last of daylight fade. When the lights of the far off city begin to flicker on, the woman stood and took the man’s hand. It is time. Giggling, she held her hands over the man’s eyes as she stood him in front of the window, readjusting him several times. Now, she said. He opened his eyes. At first, he saw nothing. The small woman continued giggling, which irritated him, and he started to turn away. Oh here, she said, look here! He followed her finger, and then, he saw it. His reflection. He had seen his reflection plenty of times, but it was where his reflection was that made him understand what the woman had seen. We all are small, sometimes, said the woman. And sometimes, we all are big. The small man studied his reflection: his feet stood atop the roofs of the skyscrapers in the distance. He felt giant, larger than any giant ever, and as he stood there, he saw the faces of all those he had left behind. He had escaped. He cried and cried his last cry until he was forced to lean against the glass into their faces and his. The small woman wiped away his tears before they washed away the city and its people inside their homes, buildings, and streets. They were all just as small and trapped inside their shadowboxes.
M. W. Fowler · 11
from Spyre JEANINE DEIBEL
The sniper said he would shoot if I didn’t climb down. I said, Can we talk? Do you want a drink? He was counting to three. His black flak jacket and BDUs were fitted perfectly. He was Cobra Commander from my pubescent dreams. Revealing himself to me with a crew cut instead of that S&M hood. It’s a case of mistaken identity, I pleaded. His one big eye through the scope didn’t blink. This is me, I cried. This is me. This is
Jeanine Deibel 路 13
Let me tell you something, He-Man, you can’t be a badass with bangs. Or wear red bikini cut Fruit of the Looms and an Iron Cross chastity vest that fails to contain your raging manboobs and expect people not to stare. Pectorals, whatever. I’m not jealous of you. She-Ra, on the other hand, has a non-ass-centric outfit with gold accents, matching headdress and frill-less boots. Who dressed you? I see you lollygagging around my Sword of Power with one solo ride on Swift Wind’s alicorn under your belt. And you wanna hang with the big boys? You’re not ready for this much man.
14 · from Spyre
Of Love and Waste KATHERINE MARZINSKY
he World was terribly ill; that much was clear. Each morning the World woke in an icy sweat, sloughing away the skin of its fever dreams. The World had spent its daughter’s wedding sobbing into the mouth of a public restroom toilet. The doctors, with their antiseptic perfume and their white coats, told the World that it was infested with parasites. They suggested tests to see what was wriggling through its innards. The World refused multiple times, saying that its water was clean. It had installed a filter. It never ate undercooked meat, and it washed its hands constantly. There was no way it had parasites. In the World’s outer reaches, where a new wave of pilgrims was arriving, starving zealots called out with words very similar to those of the doctors. “We are parasites!” they screamed. “We are all but bastard children of greed! We are defiling every fruit of creation! Turn away while there is yet hope!” Puer, exhausted from the toil of subcutaneous immigration, paid the fanatics no mind as he passed. Puer’s goal was ultimate, after all. He had known since childhood where he wanted to be by now; theological, self-righteous nonsense would not set him any further behind. The World was what it had to be. Nothing more. Nothing less. Puer was what he had to be. Know one’s priorities. That was what Puer had heard all the days of his youth. Though unable to attribute the philosophy to any one mentor in particular, Puer had known it for as long as he could remember. It had sustained him through each milestone of his life. Puer had broken free of the dying snail chanting his mantra; he had whispered it as he navigated the darkness of the muck, and now, within the veins of the World, the statement still encouraged him. Puer’s singular desire was to reach the place of which his numerous brethren had spoken as they grew in the snail. He wanted to rest in the moist, pink clouds where the World drew its breath. He wanted to find love in the World’s heart, where life was distributed in an even rhythm. That was the priority, after all.
APOSPECIMEN AWARD FOR FICTION
Puer sighed and gulped down a mouthful of the tarmac around him. It was tasteless as the steps of a journey should be. If complacency were delicious, nothing would ever get done. Know one’s priorities. For what seemed like three lifetimes, Puer traveled. Already narrow passages became pin holes within the tunnel vision of Puer’s purpose; pin holes became the constriction of waning time. So intense was Puer’s focus that when he reached the heart of the World, the pinnacle of his existence, he barely realized he had done so. Once there, however, all went cold. Puer looked around to find so many others like himself. Pilgrims who bore not just his name, but his face. Males and females. Large and small. Brothers, sisters, and beautiful strangers from foreign mollusks. All of them were crammed into Puer’s utopia, spoiling the paradise upon which he had squandered so many fantasies. They massed among each other, writhing with the motions of copulation. They licked at walls and foundations, drinking away the milk and honey. The hedonists even blocked the valves of the great pump of life, making the World shiver and clutch its chest. Adrift on a paralytic melancholy from which nothing could lift him, Puer sank to the depths of the heart. Even when he touched the floor of the deepest chasm, he could see his peers reeling above. “Why?” Puer cried into the tortured sea. “Why should the snail-bound infants dream of a day such as this? Why should this whorehouse be painted as the most splendid of edens?” Puer slept then, for the first time without dreaming. When consciousness returned, he did not know or care about the dawn. The following day, in slinking along the floors of his trenches, Puer came across a female struggling to drink from the toxicity. “Be gone, ma’am,” Puer said. “There is nothing to drink here. It has gone to the gluttons.” The woman turned, revealing a twisted body covered in burns and scars. “To be among them . . . ” she gasped. “I would be among them if only to eat! I cannot move, sir.” “There is nothing to eat.” Puer turned away. “Please, sir. Misfortune has taken me. White hornets fell upon me, sir. On my journey, white hornets fell upon me. Swarming me, biting me! They unleashed upon my body a brine of chemical warbeasts without eyes and without souls who proclaimed in time with the hornets, ‘Glory to the genocide! Glory to a world without blight!’ All the while, sir, their tongues pierced everything: my flesh the same as the World’s.” Puer met the crippled female’s gaze. “My condolences. But why do you not join the others, ma’am? Tell them of your troubles.”
16 · Of Love and Waste
“They will not have me, sir. With my wounds, I am unable to meet the requirements of their ecstasy. I have traveled just the same as they. I have dreamed the very same dreams . . . and yet they will not have me.” She paused and wrapped her disfigured body around itself. “It turns out the heart is naught but a lonely place.” Puer studied the woman: the empty, bleeding pores where her ovaries should have been, the chipped remains of porcelain skin. “Your epiphany is nothing extraordinary,” he spat. “My goal has revealed itself as a house of cards . . . and here there can be no shelter.” “You may dwell with me, sir. If only you help me to eat. We can share this trench, sir, if only you help me to eat.” Puer reflected upon the futile hospitality of the fractured maiden. She had nothing to offer. The trench was wide enough to house dozens. “I will help to feed you this once, ma’am, but I will not stay here.” “Why, sir? Where will you go?” Puer grunted and ascended from the trench without another word. In those upper reaches, Puer searched for some morsel not coated in his brothers’ saliva. There was nothing. The horde had already begun to eat the interior of the World’s heart, as well as each other. Puer returned to the trench empty-handed. “Ma’am, there is nothing. It is as I told you before: this place has been stripped to a barren garden, dead and empty.” “We should leave then, sir. Retreat to somewhere new.” “There is nowhere.” “There is the wasteland. As a girl, I heard of the wasteland.” “The plane of banishment?” Puer scoffed. “Asylum of abominations? Home to the rejects of society and nature alike?” The female faltered. “Y-yes, sir.” “No.” Puer turned. “I am leaving.” The woman followed Puer’s retreat with shocked and wounded eyes. “Sir!” she exclaimed finally. “There is nowhere else to go! These highways, they flow in one direction. You will surely die!” “So be it,” the male snapped. “Death is better than this. And it is certainly better than what you propose.” “What I propose is life.” “Yes. But what piteous fool would want a life like that? Scrounging in barrens of shit?” For a moment, the pilgrims’ eyes locked in something that could not quite be called confrontation. “Please, sir,” the female said, wilting away from Puer’s glare. Her voice found itself suffocating in repressed tears. “I want a life. Any life. Please . . .” Feeling like a victim of extortion, Puer heaved a sigh. “Fine,” he said. “We will flee to the wasteland.”
Katherine Marzinsky · 17
The pair of outcasts shared a short nap on opposite walls of the trench before setting out. Puer kept his eyes squeezed shut long after he had awoken. How was it that not two days ago he had been full of great prospects, intoxicated with the hope of a tangible dream, and now he sat disgraced, preparing to descend to the most repulsive of hellholes? He was to find a lovely wife! They were to sing with pleasure and produce many children. Now what did he have? A soulless, fatal orgy or the unwanted guardianship of a cripple? It was injustice of the worst kind. A choice between burning and drowning. “Ma’am,” he called to his lame suitcase of a ward, “by what name do you go?” “Puella,” she replied, “just as so many others.” “I see.” “And you, sir?” “Puer, just as so many others.” “I see.” Puella stared into the distant light of the heavens and felt the humidity of shame. She imagined thunderheads forming from the echoes of her desperation. She heard the drone of a thousand hornets as they rode the lightning and whispered of her demise. Puella had expected to be as a precious diamond upon her arrival to the heart. She had expected to inspire jealousy, respect, and desire, for she was swift of movement and luxurious of hue. But none of that had come to be. Puella wept then and realized that her remaining days would be marked in neat jailhouse tallies upon bars built from Puer’s charity. She was naught but a hardship, a burden easily cast off should she become too heavy. The female’s sniveling went unacknowledged by Puer, who turned over and cursed the playing cards to whom he had paid his mortgage. When the two pilgrims departed, they had become so sorrowful that neither could handle a farewell to their dead aspirations. The pair merely fixed their eyes straight ahead and slogged forward, though very little could be seen in the darkness. “Can you not move faster?” Puer grumbled one day when he had become exasperated with aiding Puella’s movement. “We will never reach our destination at this pace.” “Can you not move slower?” Puella gasped, pallid with sweat. “We will kill ourselves struggling so. I cannot carry on like this.” “We are running at a walk.” “Please, Puer. I cannot breathe.” “This is absurd,” the male huffed. “Why even bother dragging us down here? Why bother setting a goal if you will not work toward it?” “I am working, Puer. Harder than you know.” Puella coughed up a dollop of sputum. “Please be patient.” The male grunted spitefully and slowed his pace. “This is absurd,” he repeated. “Pathetic.”
18 · Of Love and Waste
Patience was torture to Puer. He felt that for each step he and Puella took they were being buffeted backward by three. It would have been insufferable, but in the terrible restraint of kindness Puer began to observe his surroundings. When Puella could not move, Puer paused and studied the walls. The world became bus station art, images of mediocre beauty meant to ease the slow pain of travel. He took in the colors, muted as they were by dim light. “Why did I not see this before?” Puer muttered one afternoon. “These things have been here the entire time, have they not?” Puella looked up from her panting to see the spidery lace of the World’s circulation. “It is quite beautiful.” She managed a weak smile. “I have never noticed it myself.” Puer continued to observe the landscape when Puella found herself in moments of weakness, and at some point the bus station became a riverside gallery. Something hard within Puer shattered; he found himself staring slack-jawed at masterpieces that he once would have counted as mere obstacles. By the midpoint of their journey, something else had changed in Puer’s demeanor. His touch had become gentler; his eyes had become wider. Eventually, he stopped tugging at Puella with his war-camp urgency. “I need to rest a moment,” Puella said one day. “Then we will rest,” Puer replied. He left Puella’s side and wandered to the edge of a steep natural wall. “Many thanks, Puer.” “Do not thank me, Puella,” the male called back. He craned his neck and searched for the top of the ledge. “This cliff over here is quite a wonder. You must see it when you catch your breath.” “I . . . do not wish to burden you, Puer. That is a formidable climb.” “Well, then it is quite fortunate that you are not a burden.” Puella’s breath froze in her lungs. She felt her head become gaseous with the incongruity of Puer’s statement. “Burdens do not teach men how to see,” Puer continued. “I would still be a sightless maggot if not for you.” The female stared, dumbstruck. “All my life,” Puer said, “I have been taking and taking and taking. From the snail, from the World, even from you, with my venomous words. Sometimes I think I was born knowing only how to take.” Puer turned away from the cliff and met Puella’s eyes. “You have given me reason to change that. So please, Puella, join me. I promise I will not let you fall.” “We will lose time,” Puella replied hesitantly. “Our destination is the priority.” “I know my priorities.” Puer pulled Puella gently forward. “For the first time in my life, I know my priorities. There is no reason to fear. Come.”
Katherine Marzinsky · 19
The female finally accepted, and the two pilgrims labored up the cliff. At the peak of the outcropping, they could see a bright pond and, beyond that, seemingly endless caverns. “This truly is wonderful,” Puella gasped. “And to think I would have forsaken it all for a prideful death.” The male closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Thank God for hope and those strong enough to seek it.” From that point on, time warped into something timid and small of stature. Days ran together among picnics in the caverns, when the couple sat enraptured by the quiet in which they could hear only each others’ sighs. Tasteless scraps of nutrition became as holiday feasts. Puella began to welcome Puer’s touch rather than recoil from the scars of her helplessness. Her humbling need had facilitated a gift, she realized, which a well and lovely shadow of her past could never have given. Puer, in turn, became comfortable under the weight of Puella’s trust. It was not a heavy thing. In fact, it made him feel lighter. It was a day of clement air when the couple reached the wasteland. All was still. All was quiet, though the plane oozed with the stench of excess and infection. Puer and Puella looked upon the junkyard of the world, the things no one wanted; they fell into a joyful embrace. “We have made it to the barrens of shit, Puer.” “Yes.” The male’s expression stretched into a happiness greater than the width of the heart. “You only smile,” Puella laughed, “because you do not believe me when I say our life is shit.” “Of course not, dear. This is a home of finest gold. For in the muck, there was isolation. In the heart, there was isolation. But here, there is you.” And then, feeling the radiance of sincerity, they held each other. They laughed and cried as if from one mouth, separated though they were by Puella’s infirmity. And they remained like that, Puer and Puella. They remained in that embrace for two long years, nesting together among the refuse. They remained in that embrace until the day the World died in a hospital bed, tethered to its anguish by plastic tubes and machines that groaned with the dullness of mercy. They remained in that embrace until the World drew its final, parting breath, choking on tears it shed for its daughter’s divorce. The doctors shrugged once the World had expired. They stripped the sheets from its bed and made notes in their files. Cause of death: complications arising from an infestation of parasitic worms. “The patient had an organ donor card,” one doctor said as they wheeled away the World’s cold remains. “It’s useless,” the other replied. “The attending doctor said the worms chewed everything to pieces. Heart, lungs, muscles. Apparently, the only part that wasn’t completely destroyed was a small portion of the bowel.”
20 · Of Love and Waste
Into Magma Town PAUL CUNNINGHAM
An audience of red eyes gathered in the town square. This growing’s going to eat you. Pyroclastic debris—tephra was what the hot winds blew against the window nearest to my table. I hadn’t touched my drink. I was distracted by the eruptions outside. I wondered about the causes of the recent volcanic activity— —the recent significant local impacts. All this volcanism had cloaked the town they loved so much. ^ Dark Blanket, Colorless Poetry, basaltic. Poetry, silica-rich. Poetry, where rising magma prints its towns in a oncepeopled image. ^ Memory, Colorless Origin, soft-trapped in cornfield where rising magma broils, quivering. It was cornfield outside of town near your clean bone house and barn. Bucked and rolled, clothed but naked—you had never seen magma rub itself in like that. You could only run from the stupefying roar of the oncemountain. Run away from your clean bone house. Run away, toward a flatland stream.
Torturous magma will find that flatland stream and smoke it down— —a dry gulch of exposed limbs. ^ This growing’s going to eat you. The audience of red eyes pulled down their town flag quickly. The town flag was most important. It symbolized the pride of the townspeople and there was no greater thing for the townspeople than a method of proclaiming pride. ^ Town Flag, Colorless I had found it odd that the townspeople were so desperate to save the town flag. I had felt its symbol—a mountain—no longer conveyed the things it used to: Oncemountain once symbolized the mountain that bordered the town. Oncemountain has become more of a no touching. Oncemountain has become more of a well, touch, but only because they say we can. Oncemountain has become more of a craving for monopoly. Oncemountain has become more of a swollen child with no aspirations. Oncemountain has become more of a chemical agriculture. Oncemountain has become more of a corpse, basaltic. Oncemountain has become more of a boiling wound. Heat rising. Still rising. I could smell my own sweat. I watched the audience of red eyes roll up the town flag and carry it away— like a harpoon—carried away from the walls of magma closing in. I watched tephra pattern along their shoulders—pattern against the window nearest to my table. Pattern against the foreheads of infants. Pattern against teachings of augur and scenes of shielded existence. Patterned against the cornstalks of the banged-up cornfield. Patterned, unclean.
22 · Into Magma Town
^ Into Magma Town, we go. ^ The roof of the tavern collapsed around me. This growing’s going to eat you. Flames drove me out of the tavern and into a nearby wagon shed. I sat beside a gentleman. We sat together for a long time watching trails of lava ooze across the town square. We’ve always been a questing people. We settle. We move. We settle. We move, he said. People get bored, I said. And this here is just another one of those familiar setbacks, he said. I grew up here though. Spent all my life here. I might as well be here to see it burn. Not moving. Not going to. No? I asked. The lava trails snaked past us slowly. ^ Dark Blanket, Colorless Poetry, acidic. Poetry, sucking hard the lips of calm Magma Town. Poetry, a town now clogged with silence. ^ Return to Memory, Colorless The dry gulch has been muted like the town. I can’t hear the dried out limbs make sad instrument sounds. I don’t even hear animals. Not birds even. I’m just drifting now. Nature’s peristalsis has caused me to hang on this
Paul Cunningham · 23
particular fire. Hang here and resist the surrounding ashes—my once banged-up cornfield. Resist the obvious destruction of my unclean bone house and barn. The ground is now basalt and the underground—hot gunk. Somewhere in Magma Town I’m sure there’s a choir surrounding the old man I met in the wagon shed. When I left him, he seemed so tortured. My mouth is bitter. It reminds me I have a body. My body walks back into Magma Town, oncepeopled. ^ Into Magma Town I re-enter. The smoke-stained, inwarding flesh from outside—me— collecting flames around my ears. Deafened now and gliding—I glide along hardening trails of magma. I’ve transferred my human stalk from town entrance to town square. Everything has become burning rubble. All of it down. All of it down but the high silver flag pole. I think of mountain sewn to flag. It’s a junk that muffles. A symbol muffled. I saw them all sitting there. Basaltic corpse after basaltic corpse. Overweight and seemingly affixed to lawn chairs. Each one clutching their own oncemountain. Oncemountains embroidered on their melted clothing. Bleeding weight and crust-leaking, I collapsed at the base of the silver flag pole. ^ I closed my eyes and felt the press of a calm river. This growing’s going to eat you.
24 · Into Magma Town
The Woman with No Face FAITH GARDNER
am very pretty for a woman with no face. I owe it all to my hair, a lake the color of fall leaves without a frizz or flake that surrounds the blankness with wonder. My hands are famous—their oval-tipped nails top freckleless fingers, sunny skin, palms with long lifelines. My hands appear in ladies’ magazines. I owe my high-rise flat and walk-in and hoards of stilettos to my hands. A palm reader once told me my love line was broken in the middle in a way she’d never seen. So deep and then a rift and then nothing but a trickle. She looked concerned, consulted a book and magnifying glass. But people often look concerned around me because I am a woman with no face. There are three types of people with three ways of dealing with me having no face. There are the ones who pretend, perfectly, not to notice it, no pauses, no glitches in blinking patterns. They speak to me with a breezy nonchalance when of course they are standing there thinking, this lady’s got no face. Photographers and agents are mostly this way. In the working world, my facelessness seems invisible. My hands command the attention there. There are the ones who pretend—and fail—to project an image of themselves that assures me they’re not noticing I have no face. The desperate, dancing need for eye contact, the absurd rises and falls of their voices, the laughing at the not-funny jokes, the twisting of fingers and playing with hairdos all betray the truth. I see this a lot in cashiers, hairdressers, short-lived acquaintances, people I pass on the street, and Mother. And then there are the best ones, the one who, for example, at a party downstairs in my the high-rise building where people have spilled into the hall, comes right up to me with violet curiosity in her eyes and offers me a swig of her whiskey bottle. Her hair is an untamed explosion of curls. I wave hi. She says, “I’m Jada. Apartment 14A.” Her smile takes up half her head. “May I ask about your face?” I was born this way, I write in my mini legal pad. She looks at the legal pad. “Wow. You carry this around all the time? No voice, no nothing?” I shake my head. Her breath is stinging and sweet. “How do you breathe?”
I pull my scarf to show her the tiny nostrils right above my clavicle, the hole below where I put my food. “How do you see, how do you hear?” I push my face close to hers so she can see my eyes moving beneath a thin layer of skin, point at my earholes hidden by my hair. She gasps. “Holy shit, girl.” Elvis croons “Don’t Be Cruel” in my mind’s jukebox. “You are the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” She passes the whiskey and pulls me to the balcony so we can see the fat hole of a moon. Her laugh is alarming, human thunder. These are my favorite kinds of people, the fearless ones who will just admit that they’re mesmerized at my not having a face. Who won’t laugh or ridicule, won’t be embarrassed to go into public with me. Who never suggest makeup or surgery. Who will reach out a finger and touch my face and say it’s soft. Jada has been my best friend since I moved into the building, which was last October, I think. I’ve never had a friend in my life like Jada. Sometimes I nightmare she hates me, that she does sharp, deadly acts to my face, that this was all a trick. But when I wake up to the sunshine and I know she’s there downstairs, or maybe in the next room, I experience a lightness and hope that rinses me clean of doubt, and I never love life more than those brief moments where it hits me which world I’m in. My parents worry about me because I was picked on a lot growing up. I’m in my twenties now, but their worry is a grudge that will never die. I think the child therapist’s couch probably still has grooves in it that fit the contour of my bony little ass. Yes, I was bullied. Badly. By kids who didn’t even know they were bullies, the straight As, class secretaries, even a couple of teachers. It was an alarming constant cruelty that I don’t think any of the administration even knew how to deal with. I was locked in closets and forgotten about for entire afternoons. A gang of Catholic brothers, the McKenzies, truly believed I was the devil, hence the rock-throwing and bear traps in the park and constant water balloons filled with Holy Water. The physical repercussions were nothing compared to the darkness that was my social life, my inability to ever have any lasting friends. A couple kids tried—there was Shu, a Chinese foreign exchange student. We were ten. We used to play tennis together, swim at the pool. She mostly treated me like she didn’t notice anything awry but then a couple times a day she used to laugh and point and say, “You have funny face.” Then she went away when the summer ended. In college, people were more understanding. Sometimes I even felt sought out, fawned over for my “cosmetic disability.” Certain boys turned on by my blankness. One professor. A boss. But they fizzle. They float away. Drift in and soon out, end it with an excuse. “Just so swamped from
26 · The Woman with No Face
work or whatever.” “Phone hasn’t been working.” “I might get back together with my ex.” Whatever. I moved to the city last year where being a stranger is anything but strange. I focus on my career, ride taxis to photo studios, get manicured and put my hands beneath the black umbrellas and the lukewarm lights. I don diamond bracelets or watches, punch buttons on shiny smartphones. The noise of cameras snapping are kindle to my fire. If I had lips, my grin would explode. These are the best moments, I think, riding a glass elevator eleven stories down, the city twitching with lights as if it too might spill over with its own electricity. The taxicabs are temperate and the drivers don’t care or look backward to notice my condition. Being faceless and hence voiceless has contributed to my reliance on words and writing. It’s not that I like writing, it’s that it’s the only way I can ever hope to explain myself. Even American Sign Language relies heavily on the face—eyes and eyebrows, twists of lips. I don’t have those tools. I don’t have a voice either. I have my brain and my hand and they make words. If I don’t email my parents every night they worry. My emails are brief, sometimes just I’m ok. This prevents them from inventing gruesome deaths for me. They’ve always been protective, but since I moved to the city they’ve become downright paranoid. They think someone is going to hurt me. That the subway is diseased and filled with perverts. They have never been to a city and they watch too much TV. When I say they, I mostly mean my mother, since my father has been catatonic for 10 years, ever since the incident happened that I would rather not say. I email them every night just so I know they can sleep, so I can sleep. And then I write an email to myself in the future. I put it in a folder called “FUTURE SELF.” Sometimes these emails take hours to write. Sometimes it’s just a line or two. Dear Future Self, I know that your life must be wonderful. You’ve probably met someone and had a baby of your own by now. I’m sure your baby is beautiful and has a face and if not I’m sure you’re okay with that too. I know that you’ve figured out how to be content in this world. The only person who knows about the FUTURE SELF folder is Jada, and she thinks it’s funny. “I wish you’d let me read them,” she says. She brought me hot cocoa at 10PM, as soon as her shift at the hospital got out. She is still wearing her scrubs. We sit on my couch, red leather squeaking. Embarrassing, I scrawl on my yellow pad. “Yeah right. I read you those ‘rhymes’ from my days when I thought I could rap.” Her thunderous laugh fills the apartment. I sip the cocoa through the straw. I can’t taste it, of course, but the warmth falling is bliss.
Faith Gardner · 27
It would ruin the magic, I write. I don’t look at them after I write them. They’re for Future Me only. “You and your crazy ideas,” she says. She looks me in the eyes. She can tell where my eyes are without even really seeing my eyes. “How long are you going to wait?” She smiles. “When are you officially Future You?” 10 years. “10 years? Damn. I thought it was going to be, like, 50 years.” Who knows if I’ll be alive in 50 years? Jada shakes her head, curls jiggling. She turns on the TV. She doesn’t like people talking about dying. But she doesn’t know what I know. All it takes is one bad day. I say I’m tired and she turns off the TV but doesn’t go. “Can I stay in the extra room?” she asks in a small voice. Of course! I even underline. Jada complains of mice in her apartment, but I think it’s more the overwhelming boxes of her mother’s belongings. They are brown towers stacked in her foyer and Jada “doesn’t have time to deal with them.” Her mother died about the time I moved into my apartment, last October I think it was. Ever since, Jada seems to avoid her place as much as she can. I let her sleep over. Even though she snores so loud I hear it through the wall, I like her here, I like waking up to someone making coffee and saying, “I had the weirdest dreams last night! First I was flying in a cardboard airplane to Europe. You were with me . . .” There is one photographer who has taken a special interest in me in the last few weeks. His name is Taj. He wears his shirts unbuttoned and has a fake tan and a goatee. At first I didn’t find him attractive, but now I don’t know. He wants to take my picture for free off the clock to help our portfolios. It’s a fluff excuse. We’ve both got more work than we need and have moved far beyond portfolios. But I do it. I go to his studio and splay my hands before his backdrops. “Stunning,” he whispers to my elbow. He photographs my arm, from chiffon sleeve to fingertip. He compliments my skin. He frames my shoulder. Snaps a picture, then backs up to get a peek of my neck, but then I make him stop and he asks why and it pisses me off that I actually have to get up, grab my legal pad and write it out for him. Because of my face. “It’s majestic,” he says emphatically. “I’m an artist.” I’m not art. “But you are,” he says. I don’t know whether to be flattered by this, if art is what I ever wanted to be. What have I ever wanted to be? A hand model. I look at my hands there, painted detached stars. What is so different? I don’t know, I finally write.
28 · The Woman with No Face
He sits next to me on the floor in front of the backdrop and the blowing fan. “You’re, like, the most unique thing,” he says. “Since we met, I look at other women and—this sounds mental probably—but I wish I had an eraser, that I could erase their features, make them blank. Like you.” I roll my eyes but he doesn’t see them. “I want to make you famous,” he says. “You could be a model that breaks everything apart, the whole industry, the idea of beauty: the woman with no face.” I shake my head. I show him my palm. “You’re more than a pair of pretty hands,” he says. His eyes move along me. Next it’s his fingers, slithering. I am utterly still. I let him unbutton my dress and all the rest. My only regret is I have no lips to return his kisses. I stay after, drink wine and listen to Spanish guitars on his subwoofers. He watches the wine go down the straw and into the hole on my neck with the bright eyes of a TV-smitten child. He shows me his paintings and photographs and they are jagged life pieces, four-cornered feelings. There must be more to this man than his goatee, fake tan and unbuttoned shirt. The color of the sunrise matches me inside. I am so tired, but I let him take some pictures of me, including my faceless face. He tells me he loves me when I open the door to leave after pancakes, and I write, you don’t have to say that and give the yellow paper to him before I shut the door. Still. I am so pumped I duck into the subway entrance, something I never do. I have to ask someone to help me figure out the ticket machine. The grandma with hair on her chin ogles and stutters but helps me. People awaiting the train watch me out of their eye-corners but their minds seem occupied. This station is a colorful miniature universe. Graffiti grins, paper bags scuttle, rats flicker along silver tracks. The train comes, rushing like a flood, stealing my breath away until it stops—and when I board, it’s yet another universe. For the first time I enjoy their staring, they way they try not to stare, the reflection of me in the dark rushing windows they stare into instead. I imagine it is because I am majestic. I go home feeling like a new drug. I write my parents—Mother—a delirious email: Rode the subway. Home safe now. I think my career might have room to grow. Had a date with a photographer that ended in consummation. Write more tomorrow. I deflate on my bed and dream the most daring dreams. I am driving flashy, speedy cars. I am going through tunnels to brighter worlds. After Taj and I elope, I have to convince Jada that it has nothing to do with the exhibit. Taj recently had an opening at an uppity gallery where welldressed people clink champagne glasses and use four-syllable words to describe blobs on the wall. I happen to be the model in Taj’s photography exhibit called Woman with No Face. But our getting married has nothing to do with that—we are in love, simply. It’s insane, we know, we only consummated our love three weeks ago and only twice since, but it’s ours
Faith Gardner · 29
and without insane I never wanted any love anyway. My hand cramps up and my apartment floor is littered with crumpled yellow balls. “But I still sleep in your apartment,” Jada says. She’s sprawled on the couch. “And you sleep here with me while he sleeps in his place. What kind of a marriage is that?” A postmodern marriage. “I hope you’re joking. May I be frank? You’re my best friend, okay? It’s really surprising that you two are married because, well, he doesn’t . . . when he’s stopped by here, he doesn’t seem that into you.” I say nothing. I poise my pen, then drop it. “He seems like he’s into himself. He’s into you as, like, his art. The exhibit, the spread he’s trying to get into yada yada magazine, I mean, all he talks about are the pictures.” It’s not just pictures, I write. “Right. Of course, you’re fucking and that’s great. But do you guys ever hang out, ever, without him taking pictures of you?” You sound bitter, I write. Then I ball it up and throw it on the floor, watch it tumble into a corner. I write, The pictures are our common interest. “I can tell you’re upset,” Jada says after a second. It’s true. I’m so warm I could have a fever from the neck up, sharp twisted echoes beyond location. “I’m sorry.” She looks at her hands. “I don’t mean to sound like this. I really want you to be happy. I just want him to treat you well.” I get up and go on the computer. I draft an email to my own email address. Dear Future Self, I’ll bet everything is wonderful over there. Your house is decorous and clean. Taj and you have recently celebrated 10 amazing years together. Congratulations! The countries you two must have visited! The wonderful times you must have shared, the secrets you must have exchanged. You look back and laugh at the unbelievable beginning you two had, the casual “Wanna get married?” and your nod. It was a whim. You didn’t believe it at the time, you followed through with it like a dare. You looked at him with the paper in your hand and thought, he doesn’t resemble my husband at all. The men you’d imagined marrying someday. He could have been a stranger you passed without a twinge. But now you realize how deep your love is, how fated it was. You believe in fate still, right? I stare at the screen. Anyway I’m sure the two of you (and the little ones, and the dog and cat and chickens, maybe chickens?) have settled down somewhere safe and green, somewhere the leaves turn fiery colors in the fall. You’re still friends with Jada I look up at Jada, who brushes her hair and ties it back up again. ?, I write. “Dear Future Self, Jada is a bitch,” Jada says to the air.
30 · The Woman with No Face
I send my email to myself and file it in the correct folder. “Dear Future Self, why do I let this fat chick sleep in my apartment all the time and drink my sparkling water?” I sit next to Jada and rest my head on her shoulder. She is still, then reaches up with her hand and touches my face. My skin sings. Taj has never touched my face. Only Jada does that. It goosebumps me. Then she takes my hand in her hand and looks at it. “A fine hand indeed,” she says. She traces my left finger. “No ring?” I could get up and get my pen and paper, explain how Taj thought a ring is just a teensy shackle and anyway it doesn’t mean anything; but I like it here, in the quiet, in the space between her cheek and shoulder, where I can hear her breath as it comes and goes, and if I’m still enough, her pulse from her palm to mine. Mother read about the exhibit in a paper somewhere and now she insists on visiting. Not because she’s proud; just worried. Having such a high profile is an advertisement for trouble, she emails. There are freaks and crazies out there who would love a piece of you. You’re no longer safe living in that city. Last night I had the most horrible dream, I won’t frighten you with specifics but let’s just say ‘decapitation’ is the word of the day. It would be best if I assessed the situation for myself so I will be planning my visit shortly. I write a two-word reply. Too busy. But it’s true. Since the exhibit, life exploded. Taj takes me from event to event: magazine interviews, banquethall dinners, thumping VIP lounges of clubs. I still do a few hand-modeling gigs, but mostly photographers try to get my face in shots, foundation and skin product companies have even contacted me and I don’t like it. Taj has exclusive rights to my face anyway. He hired a lawyer. I signed the papers with relief because Taj is the only person I trust with it. The pictures he takes of me are so artful they exceed me. People buy them, printed on canvasses. Somewhere, I hang on walls. It’s a new feeling, a naked, ballooning funhouse feeling. I started ordering groceries for delivery last week, ride taxicabs and wear thick scarves. On the street, in an elevator maybe, someone will say, hey, I know you! You’re the woman with no face. And it doesn’t matter the person, the attention is a monster rising. I get scared like prey. My mother comes alone, gloved hands and a fur hat and a hard-shelled suitcase half her size, her smile jagged slashes of lipstick. She is skeletal and her nerves are visible. She smokes more than she doesn’t smoke. Jada leaves the apartment, coughing, saying it’s nice to meet you. “How can you live here?” Mother asks, never removing her sunglasses. “How can you stand this filthy neighborhood? A man outside was pooping in a trash can.” I’m fine, I write.
Faith Gardner · 31
“You know who’s not fine? Your father. He’s depressed. He’s lost another two pounds.” He’s catatonic. “The doctor said he could snap out of it any day.” She ashes on my floor and looks out the window. “If you’re so famous, why live here?” I like this building. “What’s to like? Where’s your husband?” Working, I scribble, though I don’t know where Taj is. I saw him at another art opening last night, held onto his arm and waved at people I didn’t know while they marveled at me. He and I would see each other again in a couple days for a morning show interview. “How do you both fit in that bed?” she asks. She’s in my bedroom. Now she’s in my closet. “Where are his clothes?” She closes the closet and leaves a jet stream of cigarette smoke trailing behind her as she comes back into the living room. My mother never looks at me. But since she never takes off her sunglasses it’s hard to tell. “Are you in a sham marriage?” I shake my head. “You are. You’re in a sham marriage. He’s exploiting you.” Her crimson lip trembles. She covers it. “How could you do this to yourself? How could you be taken advantage of and put yourself in such danger?” I’M NOT IN DANGER MOTHER I’M A GROWN WOMAN— But she looks away from me, out the window, and dabs at her eyes with a tissue from her alligator skin purse. “First it was college, all those boys and girls you said ‘liked you for who you are.’ You were a goddamn revolving door. Where are they now, kiddo? Where are they now?” I stare at the floor, the dirt that falls into impossible holes in the hardwood. “Then you moved here, to this dangerous city, and became a hand model. I mean, congratulations, but—but since then, my blood pressure has been through the roof and your father’s been despondent. I always hoped you’d settle somewhere low profile, maybe even wear a burka, work at a library, I don’t know.” My mother’s mascara is in rivers on her face. “Marry a nice blind man.” I imagine my mother stabbing me in the heart with a fork. I have to remind myself she loves me. She loves me. Sometimes this is love. “But they’re going to hurt you, kiddo!” Spastic fist in the air. “Don’t you know someone’s going to hurt you again?” There’s a knock on my door. I am thankful for the sound, the way it breaks the tension. I go to the door and open it a sliver. It’s Jada. “Are you okay?” she whispers. She’s in her scrubs, her hair is pulled back, keys and purse in hand. “I came to say bye but then I heard the weepy yelling from the hall.” I don’t have my pen and paper. I want to tell her, nothing is okay. Mother is here. Save me. All I can do is shake my head.
32 · The Woman with No Face
“Come with me for a little while,” she says. “Come on. Grab your stuff.” I stare for a second, then turn around, fetch my purse, pad and paper. “Where are you going?” my mother asks. She’s opening cabinet after cabinet in the kitchen. I shut the door behind me and follow Jada down the hall. “Give her some time, she’ll cool off a little,” Jada says. Jada had a rocky relationship with her mother. Her mother drank too much and liked to throw flea market trinkets against walls. We get into the clunky elevator with the blinky light. Do you miss her? I write. “Mostly I don’t,” she says. Her chest rises. “But then I do.” We head toward the subway. I just do everything Jada does, and it hits me how well you can know someone within one set of walls, then how transformed they are when placed outside them. She buys our tickets and we stand waiting for the train in the dank station. Pose like Jada: Queenly posture, head held high, purse close. A bearded guy with a red backpack stands a few feet away, staring at me, straight into me. Jada stares back at him. Her eyes are slanted, hard. Finally the guy ahems and looks at the train tracks. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Jada demands. He nods without looking up, pulls on his red backpack strings. The train barrels into the station and slows to a stop and we board. At the hospital, I wave goodbye to Jada as she goes through the double doors that say intensive care. I watch her through the window as she takes off her jacket and studies the chart and computer screen outside the hospital rooms. She seems endlessly capable. I take a taxi back home. Mother has left a cigarette-burnt note on my pillow that says, If it’s like that I’ll just return home then. And poof, I am free. But her smoke still hangs in the air. Dear Future Self, Your mother visited today and it was wonderful. You made sure to cherish all the good times with her knowing one day, one far away day (perhaps it’s come for you already?) she wouldn’t be around anymore. Today marks my first and last television appearance. As Taj peels out of the studio parking lot with his sister Leticia in the back seat (who wears clashing animal print several sizes too small and recently quit smoking and so sucks constantly and loudly on this electric cigarette), he’s talking on and on about how well it went. How this is it, we’ve made it. Now thousands of people are going to see my faceless face. Letitia laughs a howling laugh and I roll down my window, hoping the consequent wind will blow her away. I don’t like being laughed at, but Taj is laughing too. Maybe they snorted cocaine in the bathroom together. All I know is when I look in the side mirror, at the storm of amber hair blowing in all directions around a featureless oval, I can’t believe I’m me. I’m the
Faith Gardner · 33
woman in the photographs, the woman on TV. I am Taj’s wife but I don’t feel like any of those women. They’re just a parade of words standing for nothing. “You ever think about plastic surgery?” Letitia asks me. “Like, you know, you could be anybody.” “You could get parts donated from beautiful corpses,” Taj says with a smile. Letitia howls again. “You nasty.” Fuck you, I write on my pad of paper and show it to Taj. He glances down at it at a stoplight and squeezes my arm. “You having fun, pretty?” No. “We’ll talk about this later, okay?” I watch the scenery, silver buildings and blinking billboards and people-rivers rush by like a long strip of film, too fast to make sense. I don’t want to model for you anymore, I write. That finally gets his attention. We’re back at his studio a few hours later, after we dropped Letitia off at the airport. He had some idea for a new photo series. There is a slab of gray clay glistening on a table. He points to the yellow paper. “Seriously?” I’m over it. “It’s your career.” I’m a hand model. “Not anymore, you’re better than that, you’re beyond that.” I point my pen at the words I don’t want to model for you anymore. He’s desperate, pulling his goatee hairs. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s talk about this rationally.” I shake my head. “Baby.” He draws me to him and rubs himself on me. I pull away. I was nothing today. He stares at the words like they’re another language. At that TV studio. People moved me around, pushed me here and there, put on makeup without asking first. The host touched my face without permission, all the questions were directed at you, and you say it ‘went well.’ I had no pen and paper. I was nothing. “I am so sorry.” He shakes his head. “I agree that TV is not our medium.” I don’t want to do it anymore. “But I bought all this clay,” he says. “Just—this idea of mine is going to blow your mind.” He goes to the table and takes a bit from the glistening slab of clay and rubs it on my face. Its coolness tickles, excites me. But when he shows me the mirror, the weird pudgy woman he’s created, I pull the clay off.
34 · The Woman with No Face
“No?” He rubs my arm. He speaks quickly. “Okay. Okay. I’ve had another idea. There’s this storefront my friend Alexie has open right now and I was thinking we could put you there as an installment—as performance art. We could put you there, and you could live there and people would—it wouldn’t be for money or photographs, it would be for exposure alone, for you, for art, I mean, we’re not going to be charging admission and—and you don’t have to interact. No more shoulder rubbing. Just you, being your beautiful self.” His voice cracks at the end and now he’s trembling. I feel like a stopped clock. For how long? I write. “A few days, a week. A week.” His shirt is open as usual. I try to make sense of the erratic pattern of his chest hair but can’t. I know, being this close to him, able to smell his breath, that I made a mistake marrying him. The joke’s been told but the punchline’s only hitting me now. I wouldn’t even want him if he wanted me. I have no interest in what’s inside him. His eyes tell problems without words. I am sorry I married him and sorrier he seems so desperate to keep me. I want to make him happy one last time. So I tell him okay, I’ll go live in a store window. He takes me home. Dear Future Self, Are you laughing now? Are you looking back on your first marriage and chuckling to yourself? What about the week you spent living in a store window as living art, does that make you laugh? I sure hope so. I pack my bags and he drives me to a shopping strip where all the shops are closed. He fumbles with the keys and finally gets the door open. He goes to the back and drags some furniture to the front of the store, arranges it in a pleasing way. I’m tired, so I crawl into the bed he dragged right next to the floor-toceiling window facing the street. He says goodnight. The door shuts, clicks. I close my eyes and then I see lightning through my eyelids so I sit up. Taj is taking pictures of me from the outside of the shop. I crawl beneath the covers. Tomorrow I will leave. But it’s scary in here. Even under the covers. The store is cavernous and I hear rats scuttling around, maybe footsteps outside. I can’t stay, I get up to leave. I put on my shoes, but the doors—both front and back—are locked with no latch to unlock. There’s a closet with a toilet that doesn’t flush in the back, there’s a storage room that stinks of mold where Taj dragged the furniture from. There’s no way out. I crawl back in bed. I hope my mother can sleep without my nightly email. Since she came and visited, mine have been limited to one word: Hi. Hello. Goodnight. The next day there are crowds outside. Not huge crowds, but a few cliques of three of four. They have cameras, sketchpads, one with a microphone speaks to a cameraman. When I get up and stretch, a woman announces
Faith Gardner · 35
shhh and points at the window. Her little boy shouts, “She looks like an alien!” A college-aged kid in all black tells the woman this is art and her son is ruining it for everyone. I turn around and go through my suitcase. “ . . . going through her suitcase,” the man with the microphone tells the camera. I’m looking for my yellow pad and pen to tell them I’m locked inside, no joke. That I need to get out. But I unearth my clothes, toiletries, books and shoes and find nothing to write with or on. I must have left them in Taj’s car. I collapse on the floor, my head in my hands. “ . . . appears to have collapsed, head in hands . . .” I get up and go to the back, open the door to the moldy room, and slump on an unraveling stuffed chair. They can’t see me here. There are no windows. Soon the stink disappears. I sit there for hours. I wonder if I will die here, how long it will take someone to open one of the doors. The future’s there to distract me, thoughts about how I’m going to maybe look for a better apartment, decorate it mostly in green. I’m going to divorce Taj and call myself a divorcee. I’m going to do more hand modeling. I fall asleep and hear some thumping and clicking. I’m too scared to move until it hits me the sound might be the door. So I get up to check and see Taj leaving some steaming food and a jug of water for me near the front window. His figure retreats as I run towards him, but I hear the door close and deadlock so fast I don’t have time to reach him. I go to the window and wait for him to appear but I am shocked he doesn’t. The sun’s setting out there. Only three people watch me through the window—a gray-haired woman, the college kid all in black and the cameraman. They stir a little at the sight of me. I’m still in my pajamas. I crawl back in my bed, under the covers, and put my fingers in my earholes. One day. It’s been one day. I try to lie there and sleep, let my mind wander anywhere but backward. I have no clock or telephone so I can’t tell you when it is the glass shatters. I just know it’s dark and nobody is here anymore but me and the intruder. The sound jangles and rains and I sit up to see a figure with a ski mask kicking in the shards of the glass window that remain like teeth. Kicking a hole in the glass open, wide enough to be a door. At first I’m almost glad, a savior! I even imagine it’s Taj. But he’s bigger than Taj. As his boots hit the ground and his gloved hand clutches my arm so hard I struggle, I know he’s not a friend. He pulls me up and after him, toward the hole in the glass window, and my left hand thrashes and snags on the glass. I bleed suddenly and alarmingly as he pulls me, my hand dripping red in the crystal snow of glass behind us, pulls me toward the van with the open door that awaits. He shoves me in the back and I shake my head. Hell opens up inside me at this moment. This is my nightmare come alive. He pulls my scarf off and my blouse open and I close my eyes, hope he will kill me first, please kill me,
36 · The Woman with No Face
please kill me quick, but he puts a wet rag over my holes and then everything is quiet and black and calm. This time is not like the other time, this one is not like the other one. No touching or pain. He leaves me alone in a room with a twin bed and some energy bars and bottled water. My left hand is bandaged up with cheesecloth and medical tape. There’s even an adjoining bathroom with a toilet. I haven’t glimpsed him since the van. Maybe he forgot about me. This isn’t much different than being locked in the storefront. My fingers explore my body everywhere and nothing is tender, and I sigh, relieved. After the fogginess and headache go away, I hear his voice in the next room negotiating on the phone. He is asking for twenty thousand dollars, ten to be delivered tonight when he gives me back, ten tomorrow night. Funny stuff equals dead lady. He comes in to check on me later. He’s wearing the ski mask but he ogles the carpet. I can tell he can’t stand the sight of me and that makes me feel better. He says I’m going to be okay and not to worry because my husband is loaded. At midnight, he blindfolds me and shoves me in the back of his van. Smells like gas and potato chips. At some point he stops driving. He takes me out by the arm. Now I feel a different hand on my arm and hear some shuffling, and then I’m in a different car with low techno music. The doors slam. I can smell Taj beside me, the sourness of him, the thin mask of cologne. “Omigod omigod omigod,” he whimpers. I’m not sure if I can take my mask off or not, so I point to it. “Your head? Something wrong with your head? Omigod, I thought you were dead . . . the blood at the storefront . . .” he sobs. “I thought it was all my fault.” I sit still. His words, his tears mean nothing to me. I want them to. I know they should, but, zip. I think a fire could blaze over me at this moment and it would all mean nothing. He cries for a while, then starts driving. I finally take the blindfold off and stare out the window at the pitch blackness whipping my eyes. I can’t believe it’s midnight. “You’re worth twenty thousand dollars to me, doesn’t that mean something?” He rubs my knee. “Please don’t hate me. Don’t blame me.” There is no pen and paper, so there’s nothing to say. He drops me off at my apartment. “Get some sleep,” he says. “Don’t worry. My beautiful wife.” Meaningless. I go upstairs and take the clunky elevator to the second floor. Knock on 14A. After a long pause, I hear the chain, and Jada opens the door.
Faith Gardner · 37
“Holy shit,” she says. “I know. Taj called me.” She hugs me, tight and long. Then she pulls me inside and sits me on a couch. She makes tea, grabs a pen and binder and hands them to me. Hi. “Hi?” she says. She’s taken down the tower of her mother’s boxes and arranged them into a coffeetable and loveseat type setup in the corner of her living room. Her apartment is exactly the same layout as mine, which is why it’s so easy for her to linger there, maybe. Her eyes are brimming. “I don’t know what to say. What do you say to someone after something like that? I’m here, what can I do? You can tell me anything.” He didn’t touch me. “Good,” she whispers, closing her eyes for a moment. “But still. When I heard, I just, I—I thought you were going to die. It’s horrible. It’s the worst thing. What can I say?” I hate Taj, I write. I’m divorcing him. “Okay, don’t worry about that right now.” She reaches for my hands and gasps when she sees the bandage. “What happened?” Accident. She unwraps the bandage and brings me to the bathroom, washes the crooked cut from my index finger to my wrist, wraps it in a fresh bandage. She kisses it. She turns off the light and I follow her. I’ve never stayed in her apartment, the boxes were always right there in the entryway, but now I notice the crayon blue walls and the rainbow of book spines lining her shelves. I think about staying on her couch. She picks up the room, a sock here, a magazine there, her curls catching the lamplight and glowing orange. But there are the windows behind her, the dark outside. I feel like something ready to break. The fear hunts me. Its jaws are so wide. The world is an uninhabitable place sometimes. There is so little that makes it all worth it, but it is. It so is. It has to be. It must.
38 · The Woman with No Face
Transaction REDFERN BARRETT
he was born nine years ago. That means nothing. She has a nine year old torso with nine year old arms and nine year old legs. That also means nothing. Different agents are attracted now than will be attracted when she ages. That is all. Different penises, different fumbling fingers, different bursts of rank breath over her face. She hopes she will earn more as she gets older. She longs to age. Crusty chipped nails scratch from her collarbone, sending a scream of pain over her shoulder. +4.52 So she grins. She was born nine years ago to the day. She doesn’t know it: where was the profit in tracking days? Profit is made moment to moment; transaction to transaction. The world works in never-ending seconds. Things fluctuate but nothing will change. No day differs to any other. He shoves the stub of his cock between her knees, wiggling like a trapped animal. +5.29 That tickles +1.37 she giggles. It doesn’t tickle, not at all—there’s nothing to laugh at. He likes it though: the numbers increase. In this transaction she is innocent, unknowing, unreal. Anyone really like that would have plunged into debt long ago. She pulls away, a mock protest they both know is fake but which excites him, excites him enough to push her down onto the cold blue bench, pull at her hair, bite her shoulder, hard, push his penis into her, pounding, over and over and over.
+2.33 +3.53 +4.19 +6.58 +9.32 +7.74 +7.75 +7.57
He gives a heaving grunt, +8.22 one last burst, +9.81 then pulls himself free. She is irritated: she knows she could have gained more from him. She’s worked too quickly, the innocence too strong, the allure too thick. Are you all right, mister? –0.54 He sneers at her: he is bored with her. No further transactions will be in her favor. She pulls the thin pink dress up over her head, wipes herself, winces at the cold, opens her bag and rolls the dress in. She pulls out her walking clothes. He walks away. This is everything; there is nothing else. There is no law but the law of transaction. All interaction is transaction. It is night in Nowkown. No one has watched them: there has been no extra profit from adventurous eyes. Agents pass by the blue metal bench, none of them seeing or stopping. Nowkown is busy: a bright rush of advertisements, food stenches, voices and bodies stumbling over cracked paving. Wispy trees burst with new leaves, though just five streets away the leaves are brown and elsewhere there are blossoms. The buildings above climb high with rickety extensions, extensions that so often creak and crumble and collapse onto the street below—a shower of wood and chipboard and broken bricks. A man is shouting jokes at the flow of bodies, earning small amounts from unwary ears. She smells hot dogs and feels her stomach rumble. The real-time price of a smell. She hears piped music she likes. She walks along the street, keeping her eyes on the advertisements. She could weave her body in and out of the others without even looking. The advertisements offset inadvertent expenditures. She doesn’t understand that one; it has too many letters. Who needs letters? Numbers are important. Numbers follow you. It starts to rain globs of sandy water. Her hair is getting wet so she rips an umbrella from the fingers of an agent with graying hair. It will be worth the cost: if she is soaking she will be of little value. Her second problem: her mouth is dry: a dry mouth will lower her market potential. A drink
40 · Transaction
–1.13 –0.38 –0.54 +0.12 +0.11 +0.23 +0.01
will be fiscally beneficial, so long as she has a budget one. They aren’t as safe, but it will be the most cost-effective. The can rolls out the vending machine as she approaches. –12.95 She winces. The woman with the lop-sided grin is standing by the vending machine. A lopsided grin is a consistent net loss: smiles are important, they carry the face. She might be unattractive, but the woman with the lopsided grin has a faster mind and is better informed: she is always the one to gain from any transaction between them. She is to be avoided. The woman with the lopsided grin is waiting for her, so the agent with nine years leaves. Wait
the lopsided woman calls. She wants something. What do you want? –0.31 I just want to talk to you. Are you aware the city is getting smaller? –2.86 It is. The population is decreasing. I know how to turn you a profit. –2.11 The girl with nine years runs—runs away from the woman with the lopsided grin—over a street littered with the skeletons of unclaimed cars and bikes—through a patch of scrubland where bushes glisten through brickwork. Conversations with her are expensive. Perhaps that is why she always starts them. But why? There are other agents in the city, agents with less intellectual marketability than her. Unsavvy agents barely taller than the knee can sometimes be taken in, led around, fed expensive lectures until their debt burden becomes too great. The woman with the lopsided grin is gone. A pair of sparrows flutters overhead. There is a bar eight blocks away, a bar with the potential for profit. By the time she reaches the shattered double doors her foot is cramping, but she hides it beneath a neutral smile. She takes a deep breath in through her
Redfern Barrett · 41
nostrils and pushes her way inside. The bar is thick with an acrid brown smoke which curls under fluorescent lighting. It is cold. Stained satin sheets in gray-reds and gray-greens hang from the walls, stretches of crusty cream tiling visible between them. The tables are made from old doors, decked in green and blue lights advertising this or that alcohol, solvents, chemicals, spices, herbs. In the corner squats a machine boasting a variety of needles. Aside from some mechanical clucking, the bar is silent. Twelve agents sitting at twelve tables. Seven of the agents are not in a state of sexual pre-arousal. Two are, but they wouldn’t have the stamina to make any transaction worthwhile. Of the remaining three, one is not aroused by agents as young as she. She makes her way over to the first of the final two, who glances up at her from his table. His tatty sweater is +0.29 sewn with fraying flowers, his lank hair awkwardly limp over his forehead. She knows she is worth more than him, but she also knows he won’t enjoy himself, and so there will be little profit. She walks on. The last agent uncurls a piece of foil and presses his nostrils into it. He leans back in his chair. She walks to the far edge of the bar, pushes aside a satin curtain and steps into a dark little room which reeks of shit. She opens her small lycra-lined bag and examines her three tightly-rolled dresses: lurid pink, sultry red, and glossy gold. When she has spotted the right agent she has to choose the right dress. Red. Red is self-explanatory. Red as rushing blood, as blushed faces, as grunting profit. She wears red when they want her to take control, when they want her to seduce them, her to lower her eyelids at them and give them her predatory stare. Digits guided her, numerical training for her seduction. Pink. Pink is simply light red. The same coursing blood, the same hot lumbering fingers, but with a little white added. Innocence. Purity. High marketability. Wide eyes are right this time, wide innocent eyes, scanning the scene for wealth potential. They are roughest with her body when she wears pink. When she wears pink she earns the
42 · Transaction
most. She will have to change these tactics as she ages. She wants to age. Gold. She never wears gold to look rich, she wears gold to look desperate. This is her third act, her third form of exchange: poor, clueless, desperate, cheap. Many agents want that. She also knows that at one point gold had symbolized value, that gold equaled wealth, but the past is unprofitable. The world fluctuates. Secure one minute, fragile the next; agent one minute, commodity the next. She pulls off her trousers and shirt, then rolls them inside. She takes out her red dress and pulls it on over her head. There is no mirror and no light to see by, so she models her hair by touch, smoothing and curling and splaying using her fingers and her small pot of gel. She paces her breathing because breathing is important—shallow breaths are only suitable for gold-dress conversations. She closes her bag and steps back among the tables. Twelve agents sit at twelve tables. She has her agent. She sits down opposite him. His head is rocked back, –0.11 his eyes are closed, his hands are trembling. For a few seconds she is aware of the price of the chair she is perched –0.11 upon. She examines him. –0.12 He is young, not as young as she, average weight, average height, hairline receded slightly, eyes a little sunken, lips cracked, a scratch of beard etched onto the jawline, the jawline strong, neck long, clothes not-too-new, not-too-old, wrists hairy, hands rough, nails bitten. She is wearing her red dress, so simply issues a short firm cough: I am here, pay attention. Ah-hem. +0.38 His neck snaps forward, his eyes red-tired, his pupils +0.49 large and dark; he’s on the verge of desire, but he wants to be seduced; he wants the red dress. She is right, as always; she is fiscally astute. She has his attention but she will have to work to keep it. She leans forward, exposing the gap between dress and +0.87 flesh, a gap where her bust would be. The man peers down +0.86 into the darkening skin. She lowers her voice to a whisper. Do you like what you see? Because I do. +0.59
Redfern Barrett · 43
He nods, a long slow nod, his head rising and falling, his eyes meeting hers. He blinks several times. She laughs and says I like your company. +0.67 She grasps the tips of his fingers and brings them to her neck. She shudders, her skin pimpling. The enjoyment is all his. She lowers his hand, bringing it down inside the line of her dress, he leans in toward her, his breath on her face, his lips on her cheek, her mouth.
+1.28 +1.98 +1.29 +1.81 +2.32
Someone is watching. +0.55 His fingers prod unknowing at the bruise where the blue bench man has bitten her, a jolt of pain +3.91 and she angles her arching shoulder, pressing the bruise to +4.28 his fingers. That feels good baby +0.93 she growls. He grips her hand and leads her to the back room. She would rather do it on the tables where other agents can see, where she might earn more, but he leads her away. Whilst walking he gropes her buttocks. Clumsy. +1.66 Once inside she pulls down her dress. The agent scrapes at her face with his beard, his movements slow, heavy, she realizes she’s miscalculated, as he mumbles, he’s too drugged for this transaction, as he slumps to his knees, his side, his head on the floor with a long groan. Desperately she pokes her head through the curtain, but the lank-haired agent with the fraying flowers is gone. She bends to shake the sleeping agent. Nothing. She pulls off the dress and takes antiseptic solution from her bag, sloshes it over herself, the sting bringing tears, a torrent of them, fierce tears as it burns over her, tears without profit, without purpose. She will grow out of them, when she ages. She sees something. Blurry. Someone? There is someone in the corner of the
44 · Transaction
room. Her heart-rate quickens. He isn’t moving. Why? He is a huge soft toy frog, propped against the wall. Her heart-rate slows. Her heart would be worth a great deal. Despite herself she walks over to the frog. She brushes her face and runs her hand along the soft lining of the toy. He looks at her through plastic eyes. There is no cost. Whichever agent had owned it is no longer an agent. She will hold on to it. Just for now. Just until its value has risen sufficiently. She wraps her arms around it. Just to check the fur. The fur is soft. She names it. It is hers. Everything is calculated in real-time. What is worth something in one moment will be worth something else in another, depending on trillions of transactions amongst billions of agents. Competent agents will be able to predict certain trends in the value of a given commodity. There is wealth potential. Above Prenzee the sun beams. There is a tall man with a long blond mustache who angles his face upwards, catching the light on his eyelids. His golden eyelashes shine. It is pleasant. The breeze brushes his cheeks. He hears the rush of the street below. He is standing on a ledge, the ledge outside his apartment. If he pulls the window open wide enough—if he squeezes his body through, right arm first—he can get out onto the ledge. The ledge is a little wider than his shoes. He waits. Now and then an agent will stop. They will stop to take something or fuck or shit. None of them stop near his ledge. The sun is gone behind a mass of clouds. The clouds grow greyer. The man with the blond mustache needs to piss. He contemplates pissing from the ledge, but then the street below the ledge will be splashed with urine, and no one will stop there. He laughs. He hauls himself back in through the window and pisses in the toilet. He will empty the toilet later, out back. He takes care not to spill urine on the carpet, real carpet, then squeezes himself back through the window. Back onto the ledge.
Redfern Barrett · 45
There are now more agents on the street below. One of them looks up and sees him as she passes. He gains. He is entertainment, up there on the ledge. A man in an unlikely place. He contemplates dancing and making more: a dancing man in an unlikely place. He could take his clothes off: the dancing naked man up there on the ledge. But then he would be too visible. His plan would be ruined. He knows better means of profit. The tall man with the long blond mustache who contemplated dancing naked on the ledge is in very little debt. His debt is marginal, in fact. He likely has the lowest debt in all the city. He trades things. He always had a good eye for profit, ever since being born. To him it was so simple: take an item, take it somewhere else where it was worth more, then hand it over to someone. When his body was small he would trade toothbrushes and soft drinks. When his body got larger he traded good chairs, or curtains. By the time he reached his current height he had mastered this skill, the most useful skill in all the world. He could trade a stone for a handsome profit if he wanted. There: there below. An agent has stopped. Early twenties, dark hair. She has stopped and is saying something to another agent, who also stops. It is time. He has piled bricks up on the ledge in neat stacks. Three even columns. The agent is standing directly underneath them. He shouts. She looks upwards. He pushes the first stack of bricks from the ledge. She throws up her arms. The bricks—large bricks— snap her arm, cut her cheek, crush her shoulder. She screams. He loses. A number of agents glance at her as they walk by. She gains. She is entertainment. He giggles: she has probably never earned so much in her life. She still screams. He pushes the second stack of bricks off the ledge. Her head crumples. Her body collapses beneath it. He loses. The man with the blond mustache groans. She was barely worth anything; he thought he would be charged more. This particular form of entertainment was more
46 · Transaction
–1`85.98 +26.33 +24.81
rewarding if the agent was worth more: gaining the money back would be a challenge. Across the city a number of agents are credited. One was a woman she had regular sex with. A few are individuals she provided with her own special chemicals: they were said to bring you out of your body for three whole days—a rumor worth . . . +2.54 Her numbers vanish. Below agents swarm around the pulpy remains; the first take blood-soaked clothes, the later load pieces into cool-boxes. He glances at the last stack of bricks and squeezes himself back through the window. He has things to trade. He will trade stones. This is everything. There are only two things in all of existence. There are agents and there are commodities. What is not one is the other. There’s a stub at Alexplace: a stub that was once a tower. There’s a huge shattered ball at Alexplace: the ball used to be on top of the tower. Inside the ball it smells. It smells like things crawl inside the ball to die. The girl with nine years has never looked inside. Curiosity is a luxury. There are tents around the stub, anchored to patches of bare earth where the concrete has worn away. The stub is colorful, it looks interesting. There are letters all over it in reds and purples and greens, letters and words that make no sense: gods and government. There is nothing really like it, not in the whole city—defacing someone’s property is expensive. The crowd flows in all directions. A single beat and the movement shifts. The bodies all flow together, the same destination. This crowd of agents surges towards the girl with nine years, stomping over the street— she’s used to this stampede. She grips her frog, she darts in and out of legs and torsos, a man kicks her, someone treads on her hand, her fingers tear a stocking, a bag of tools catches her head. When she’s free of the crowd she walks without looking back.
+2.92 +4.29 –5.50 +3.67
Redfern Barrett · 47
She knows there is little point in following. She is too small: she wouldn’t be able to claim anything for herself. The debt ceiling. She worries about hitting her ceiling. In her nine economically active years she has accrued a debt of and though the figure might be fluid, it is a solid part of her. It keeps her alive. Without the number she would be stricken from the record, insolvent. No economic agency. A commodity. Commodities and agents, commodities and agents. Agents rely on commodities. A crowd would flow towards her. Then perhaps she’d be put to work making other items, shirts or sandwiches or cigarettes, a commodity manufacturing commodities, an item making items, day by day, until all function ceased. Or perhaps she would be useful for the commodities within: the heart, the lungs, or the kidneys. Or without: there were all sorts of profitable uses for skin. And meat. Eyes and fingerprints and hair. Incentive. Once more the crowd flows in all directions. She carries the giant frog on her back. A man has wrinkly apples. She takes one. Five blocks away the streets are quiet. Her feet are sore. She must find a cheap place to sleep. On the stoop steps to an old townhouse a woman breastfeeds a newborn. Her milk flows from her to it, whilst every second wealth flows from it to her. Breastfeeding is profitable. Of course it would be to the newborn’s benefit to feed on cheap take-a-chance vending machine milk: it is less expensive, but then there would be less profit for the older agent. Giving birth could be profitable. The girl with nine years walks on. She is too young to give birth. If she lasts then she will do it when she gets older. Perhaps she could birth dozens, giving them warm cuddles and hot food until her debt is marginal, until she is comfortable, until they are the burdened ones. But birth itself carries considerable risk. The cold sun starts to rise. The streets grow even quieter. She can hear the debt of her own footsteps.
–17.76 –0.98 –0.97 –0.98 –0.96 –0.97
–0.01 –0.01 –0.01
48 · Transaction
One building has a large broken shop window lined with brown stains. Glass covers the street outside. She chooses that one. She walks in through the entranceway—the door is long gone—and climbs the stairs. The stairwell is dark. There is no handrail and she tries not to look down. A door on the fourth floor is open. The room is bare but for two mattresses side-by-side. One is a little gray, the other is darker with a large yellowbrown stain spread over the middle. She selects the latter and lies down. –0.20 She will sleep quickly. Sunlight falls through the –0.20 fogged glass window, dull and heavy as smoke. She uses –0.20 the frog as a pillow. She sleeps. Through the cracked window the sky dims once more, the fluorescent light of the sun slowly winding down, the coming darkness an opportunity. Where is the frog? +0.67 +0.67 +0.67 The woman with the lopsided grin is in the corner. She +0.67 has the frog on her knee. She is stroking it. +0.67 +0.67 Will you talk to me?
She isn’t losing from the transaction with the lopsided +0.67 woman. The lopsided woman is stroking her frog and +0.67 balancing out the cost of the exchange. +0.67 She doesn’t run. Instead the girl with nine years answers Yes. +0.27 The woman smiles a lop-sided smile. It is not pleasing +1.82 to look at. I like your frog. Don’t run away. I know how you can make –1.53 a profit. I can already make a profit. –0.20 The lopsided woman speaks quickly.
Redfern Barrett · 49
You’re failing. You’ll hit the ceiling sooner or later. Think about it. Think about it. This transaction will benefit us both. I know how we can make a profit. I know where we can get organs. Organs for the hospital. There’s profit there.
–0.13 –1.15 –1.23
Where are there organs for the hospital? –0.43 –0.87
In an agent. He has good organs.
You know someone about to hit the ceiling? –0.28 –0.22
No. This was not a profitable avenue. To harm the +0.67 body of an active agent involved paying them. To end an +0.67 active agent involved paying everyone they would have +0.67 provided a service toward. This could be expensive. The woman speaks. I need your help. I need someone physically alluring. I’ll bring you to the agent, show you what to do. I know what you’re thinking, that it would be expensive, that we would lose from the exchange. It isn’t true. He is worth very little. He has no services. He sees very few people. Eventually he will hit the debt ceiling but that will take too long. His organs will have aged. We need him now.
–16.98 –0.77 –5.56 –4.31 –3.25
The risk is too great. There are too many factors. No –2.44 she replies. The woman with the lopsided grin does not +0.67 look surprised. She simply strokes the frog. After one +0.67 minute she responds. +0.67 I shall wait for you. By the stub. Just before dark. Every –3.38 day. I will not find you again. And she leaves. The girl with nine years picks up her frog. She decides to leave some things there in the building. It is cheap and would remain so for the next few nights. The frog is too much to carry around everywhere. She
50 · Transaction
wraps her arms around it again—just to check the stitching—then covers it with a dusty curtain and leaves. She’ll come back later. On the street outside is a lady with red hair. She’s shouting something. It isn’t important. It will cost. The nine year-old agent hurries by, closing her ears to the potential expense. The red-haired lady wants to change things, she wants to make a difference and change the world. She has aboveaverage wits, she is eloquent—if anyone can do it then she can. She can see a way out: she knows it; she knows there’s a way for everything to be different. She wasn’t sure how but they all had to try. She stands on a wall. She shouts at passing strangers. She shouts that there is a way out. One or two pairs of ears catch her words as they pass. She shouts that it is simple: all they have to do is leave the commodities alone. A woman cradling a young agent hears her, pauses for a moment to drop a bottle to the ground, then carries on. She shouts again: Just leave the former agents alone. Just leave them be. When an agent hits the debt ceiling, don’t claim them, don’t collar them, just treat them as you would have before. A dozen agents walk by; only one hears. If we leave them alone, we have nothing to fear ourselves. We’ll be free. We won’t have to worry. She shouts for four hours. She implores and pleads, she makes her most eloquent arguments. No one stops. No one pays attention for longer than a moment, and at one point, as she reaches a fervor, she gains The lady’s throat tightens until the words melt away. She’s made no difference. She’s made a profit. For a moment the lady with red hair is pleased.
Gaining wealth: the quick-witted may gain from conversation or some other skill; those with physical beauty from being photographed or fucked. The dull will lose, the unattractive will lose. It is far better to be the less interested, less attracted party. The girl with nine years crosses the bridge to the Exberg. The water is gray. There are dark splotches beneath the surface.
Redfern Barrett · 51
She descends into Kotbust station. She descends down the subway entrance which bellows the smell of wet concrete into the streets. The steps are crumbling away beneath the swarms of shoes, the edges rounded, pieces broken free, a hazard for a careless foot. Underground the ceiling leaks into the floor, a surge of puddles and small streams cascading onto the tracks. Scattered shards of tiles coat the ground. The subway is getting slower, less efficient, and so it is becoming more cost-effective to utilize. The girl with nine years thinks of the offer the woman with the lopsided grin has made. There is too much risk. It is a bad idea. There is no more value in thinking of it. She clutches her bag close to her as the rattle of the train approaches. The subway car lurches from side to side before screeching to a halt. She looks out of the window and sees the distant flicker of flames. They will be there for some hours. She re-evaluates her situation: is there any potential for wealth on the carriage? The carriage is almost empty. One woman is mumbling to herself. For a moment she stares at the crazy woman, before cursing herself. On the other side there is an objectively attractive man—very old, he has something like thirty-five years, but he is handsome. Too handsome. He would be the one to gain from any transaction between them. It is not worth the risk. She looks around for someone less attractive but there are only the three of them in the subway car. He moves to sit opposite her. The seat he is on now is more expensive: it is a little further from the doors and the upholstery is still intact. She’s determined to avoid his gaze: this won’t be a transaction to her benefit. He says some words to her but she does not hear them—it is a necessary skill to avoid potential expense. From the corner of her eye she sees him stand and kneel beside her. He strokes her hair. She cringes. She does not want to do this—a factor that puts the exchange to her monetary advantage. He puts his hand on her shoulder and she pulls away. He pulls her back toward him and presses his lips to the skin of her neck. He takes hold of her arm, drags her up and then pushes her hard, down onto the floor of the carriage. She is confused. She reaches up to push him
52 · Transaction
+2.94 +3.25 +8.29 +20.31 +15.92
away but he stumbles on top of her, bites her shirt at the neckline and tears it down the middle. He keeps one hand at her throat as he pulls down his trousers, then hers, and enters her. Rough and dry. His sticky mouth is all over her. It is uncomfortable—her head and body ache. She is pleased. This will pay for her room tonight. This may even pay for two nights. He bites her. Good, she thinks. She smiles. Finally the train moves. He moves off her. They sit at opposite ends of the carriage. Her body hurts.
+20.67 +32.28 +33.27 +34.54
+47.29 And she knows the frog is gone. He is gone. She has made more profit. She tries to smile. The train reaches a station. She can’t stop shaking. She climbs the stairs into the evening. She can’t see things clearly. Her head spins. She can’t focus. There is a pinprick of light at the center of her vision. Why can’t she see? Her head throbs. The dot of light grows larger, only it isn’t light, it is static, chaos, a buzz over her view, a streak over her eyes, and she can only see in her periphery. She takes a deep breath: steady breathing is important. The throb in her head shifts into a stab. A stabbing: at her temples, at her spine. The blur of colors clouds over the rest of her vision. She sits down. Deep breathing. Deep breathing. She opens her eyes a crack. She is by a tree. Grass tickles her fingers. Leaves are scattered around her: orange and brown. She leans against the bark, which scatters in clumps and crumbles over her back. –0.09 She shivers. She shuts out the city. She takes a deep, rattled breath and closes her eyes, shuts down her ears, the prickle of her skin, her mind. She sinks ever-inwards, beyond waking, beyond everything. She is being buried, sinking through a deep and peaceful mud. She wakes. There is a chirp. A chirp. The sparrow looks up at her. He squats by her hand. He cocks his head to one side and chirps. She laughs. There are no numbers. He chirps. His feathers are beautiful; brown and brown and brown. He opens his tiny face and chirps again. She laughs. She laughs and laughs until her sides hurt.
Redfern Barrett · 53
She laughs at and with and for the sparrow, the sparrow with no numbers, no cost, no profit, the sparrow that hops nearer her hand, looking for food inside, the sparrow that hops onto her finger as she laughs and feeds it a crumb, that flies away as she laughs, the free sparrow, the sparrow that costs nothing. Some things might cost nothing. Help might cost nothing. The lady with the lopsided grin wants to help her. She does. Every transaction is instantaneous. Every agent enters the world at 0: no debt, no wealth. Equal opportunity. That’s what they said it was about, once, before. But what use is once, or before? The tall man with the blond mustache hands over a sack of purple pebbles. He knew he could trade stones. That was what he would do for the foreseeable—he would trade stones. The more he traded them the more agents saw them. The more agents saw them the more they would want them. The more they wanted them the more they were worth. It was his first nature. The other man takes the sack. There is no facial expression. He says nothing. The tall man with the blond mustache thinks about ending him. He must be worth something: he can afford a big sack of do-nothing pebbles. He won’t end him. If he ends the man with the sack of pebbles then no one will see the pebbles and his stonetrading will be less profitable. He lets the man walk away, staggering beneath the weight of his sack. It is going dark. Three blocks east the tall man with the blond mustache finds a sandwich in someone’s hands; it tastes terrible so he spits it to the street, where one of the many passing feet treads in it. In front of him there is a woman with a strange smile: he is quite attracted. Her smile is uneven, that is all: it is asymmetrical, sensual. He is aware it would be worth very little; he doesn’t want to end her. He wants to enter her. There is a small agent to her side. The small agent is not smiling. The small agent is staring at him. He gains small amounts from this constant odd stare. He doesn’t
54 · Transaction
–15.23 –3.32 –0.82 –0.60
recognize this look—there is no lust for the body, no lust for profit. It isn’t nothing, but it isn’t something either. The small agent too rouses his curiosity. He walks over to the woman with the strange smile and presses his lips to hers. He bites her ear. then pulls down her shirt. Nipples bob in the blue glow of a sign for fried fries. There is blood on her breasts. Where is the money coming from? He hasn’t traded anything. It would be worth a lot. He loses, for the stains on the woman’s dress, on her breasts: the blood is his, his blood, spilling spurting, sticky in his hands. The small agent has the same expression. He stares in wonder. He can’t breathe. She has some glass in her hand. It is sticky. He starts to sleep.
–7.91 –9.25 –12.09 –1.66 +1`01.52 +1`12.91 +1`32.23 +1`85.07 –14.65 +2`96.95 +4`54.08
+7`33.17 +8`32.84 +6`61.91 +4`24.21
Survival has no time for luxuries, no time for anything outside of now. Guilt and regret are for the past, malice and hope for the future. They cannot be afforded. -88`05`86.12 Across and beyond the city agents are credited. They are credited for lost cloth and undelivered furniture, for screens and speakers that will never arrive, for salt and spoon collections, for coats and shoes and hats, wheels, men and women with firm bodies, vending machines, advert lights, needles full of chemicals, for hair and kidneys, for parts of subway cars, for bricks and crates of apples, for skin, for absent stones. The girl with nine years believes there should be more blood over her arms. Instead it courses through her limbs, her trunk, her heart. She has a good heart; its beat is strong and regular: it will be worth something when the time comes. The time is coming. That man with the blond mustache was worth a lot. More than a lot. He was worth more than she ever could have believed. She can’t even see any more
Redfern Barrett · 55
numbers, not after one that big, not now that she is so near the ceiling. The lady with the lopsided grin speaks. Thank you. I’ll be following you now. I shall own your body. I shall claim you, when the time comes. She says it all with her unsmiling asymmetrical mouth. There is no pleasure in this: this is a transfer of wealth, the flow of the world, it is neither pleasurable nor painful; it is, that is all. The agent with nine years had failed to see the transaction taking place: this had worked to her fiscal disadvantage. How long before she hit the ceiling now? A day. Three. Little more. But she will not remain around the woman with the lopsided grin, for the simple reason that if she does she shall hit her debt ceiling all the faster. She wanted to age. So she runs, she runs from the woman with the lopsided grin, she runs as fast as she can, past all the agents who look at her, who see how close she is, she clambers and climbs away from them, up and over and under walls and boxes and rooftops, she runs until she stops running, she can’t run any more, joints and tendons and bones scream, her head pulses. She sits. On the rooftop there is a sparrow. She takes a deep breath: breathing is important. She looks at the sparrow. The sparrow with no numbers. The free sparrow. It is beautiful: brown and brown and brown. The sparrow opens its face and chirps at her. She laughs and feeds it a crumb. The sparrow cocks its head and chirps at her. She laughs. She laughs. She is savvy. She is competent. She is in charge of her own economic destiny. She names the sparrow. She owns the sparrow. The sparrow flies away. Entertainment. +1.28 She will never see the sparrow again, but it shall be seen, +2.37 entertainment with brown and brown and brown feathers, +1.83
56 · Transaction
and she will gain. She has more crumbs. She will find +2.72 others. They will be seen, and she will gain. The agent with +2.28 nine years—the agent with the birds leaves the rooftop. +1.99 Little by little her debt shrinks.
+1.51 +3.01 +2.75 +1.93 +1.15
+2.46 +3.84 +2.94 There is nothing else. Transaction governs everything. The one law maintains itself. In the park there is a lady with thick eyebrows. The lady with thick eyebrows sees a sparrow. –2.94 The ceiling. That’s it. –1`00`00`00.00. The lady with thick eyebrows has reached the ceiling. So long—it was for so long that she worried about what would happen to her—what would happen when she ceased to be agent, when she became commodity. It all depended on who would find her first. Would she be put to endless, unceasing, death-inducing work? Would she be carved up? Perhaps there was something else, something worse that could happen. Who knew? The agents who have been following her begin to sprint. But at this moment her worrying stops. There is no need, no purpose. Her heartbeat slows. Her lungs fill with air. Her skin prickles. She has this moment. For the first time she feels calm. It is luxury, real luxury. For the first time she has no goal. This moment she is free.
Redfern Barrett · 57
the gun game from Kate Jury Denton Texas COLIN WINNETTE & BENJAMIN CLARK
We decide to play the gun game, so you load the guns. We head out back where the grass is taller and we slip out of our shoes. We aim the guns at the highest point we think we can see. Bang you say, and I’m bleeding. The neighbors eventually gather in a circle. They look like a route we may have taken through the woods. They want to know the rules of the gun game. This is one of those times I should have changed the subject. You have a pet frog. I should have said something about the pet frog. On the other hand, I admire how confidently you speak in large groups. It’s a serious game you tell them. There are consequences. The rules are always changing I add. So they’re hard to keep track of. And while I lost, I still think the fun might be in trying to keep track. Then you break my wrist. And when the neighbors gasp, you confidently explain it should go without saying: there’s no equivocating in the gun game.
Old Myths COLLIN BLAIR GRABAREK
ur fathers say men are men no longer, so when the Valkyrie came for us, we were uncomfortable to say the least. A great hole blossomed in the clouds, a circle of blue morning sky through the gloom, and on wings of white feather she descended towards our oilrig. She wore a winged helmet and nothing more, her hair the color of white gold. Her silver spear glittered in the sunlight until the clouds closed above her. We formed a wide circle around her as she landed so softly that three men fell to tears. She surveyed us—our overalls streaked with grime, our hardhats nicked and dingy—with searching eyes a washed and unnatural blue. Sven leaned close to me. “Why today?” he said. This was the final day of our crew’s three-week shift at sea. A month of rest in Stavanger awaited us. The helicopter would arrive in mere hours to ferry us back to our families. “Olaf, what could she want?” Sven said. “Heroes,” she sighed. She spoke in a chorus of voices, all in perfect harmony. “Ma’am, ma’am,” said Mister Bjornson as he jogged out of his office. He wore a tie clip the color of the Valkyrie’s spear. His suit could have fit him better. “What is the meaning of this? Where did you come from?” “Asgard,” she sighed. She shifted her weight, though the poise she commanded, the ease with which she carried herself, made it hard for me to believe she bore any weight at all. The color drained from Mister Bjornson’s face. He buttoned his jacket. “I see,” he said. “Well, we’re happy to have you. What was it you needed?” “Heroes,” she sighed, a hint of annoyance audible in her baritone section. Mister Bjornson licked his lips. He was balding and short—certainly shorter than the Valkyrie would have liked. “Of course,” he said. “Just one moment. Let me converse with my foreman.” He shuffled over to me, and I stifled a groan. “Olaf, she is armed,” he murmured. “I noticed that, Sir.” “Amongst other things, of course.” “Of course.” And is it awful to say I noticed the curve of her breasts, the pale hair tapering between her legs like sand in the top of an hourglass?
Would that make me more of a man, or less of one? In the Valkyrie’s eyes, I mean. She did not watch us, but stared up and into the distance. The muscles in her flat stomach flexed like living porcelain, so unlike the stomach of my wife, Elena—loose and doughy, slightly yellow like fresh butter, the stomach I loved to kiss. Elena would soon rise for work. She would prepare Nils’ lunch and drop him off at school on her way to the clothing store where she operated a cash register, taking the money of customers convinced they needed expensive things to wear. “Olaf, please,” Mister Bjornson said. “Please what?” “Please make her happy. Or at the very least, make her go away.” The Valkyrie stared on. I swallowed hard, wiped my face clean with a handkerchief, and handed the soiled rag to Mister Bjornson. Not a man amongst us failed to gasp as I approached the Valkyrie, and these were hard men (for this day and age, our fathers would say). I inhaled the smell of the oilrig—ocean water gone stale. I hoped I didn’t smell that way. “Miss,” I said. “We have only oilmen here. I’m afraid there are no heroes.” “I am afraid,” she sighed, and only now did she turn to me. First her neck craned—not straining, but graceful—and then her eyes glided to meet mine. “We will lose,” she sighed. “Lose what?” Sven called. The Valkyrie did not turn, but the muscles in her face tensed in rage. She assumed we all knew the old myths. The coming battle. The twilight of god and man alike. The cold rise of the wicked. The end of the world. Ragnarok. “Do you hear that?” I said. “What more need you see?” I wanted to add: Besides, I do know the myth, and our loss is fated, yes? But of course, that wasn’t the point. The Valkyrie blinked. She tightened her grip on the spear and stretched her wings. Then she flew off in an instant, the sky opening to receive her. We stared at the sky for some time. We stared until Mister Bjornson shuffled back to his office, his head lowered, and muttered thank god we could get on with our lives. He was right. The world had returned to normal, so we must return to work. This was the twenty-first century, and more than ever before the world would not stand for dawdling oilmen. At lunch, Sven said, “I don’t care for lettuce. It bothers me.” He removed the lettuce from the cheese sandwich he had built for himself. Of late, this was a daily ritual for Sven. His wife pleaded with him to adopt a healthier diet, more than bread and meat and cheese, and I can attest that he tried. He built his sandwiches with lettuce everyday, but his resolve always faltered at the moment of truth.
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“Have I asked you about lettuce?” Sven said. “What is your stance on lettuce?” “I’m not sure I have one.” I poured hot pea soup from my thermos into the clay bowl Nils had fashioned for me at school. He had presented it to me three weeks prior, on the morning I was to leave for the oilrig. I mistook the lopsided, yellow thing for a mug and told him I would take my coffee in it. To staunch the disappointment tightening his face, I laughed and lied that I had been joking, that I loved this bowl and would take it to work with me. But I had not used the bowl until today. Now I grew disturbed as my soup took on a yellowish tint. Cheap paint, no doubt. With nothing decidedly non-toxic to eat, I thought of the future instead. Tonight we oilmen would meet in our favorite tavern in Stavanger to celebrate the end of our shift. We would drink and talk of our day. Perhaps we would mention the Valkyrie. If we did, our fathers, the ones still alive and hearty enough to spend their evenings in a tavern, would drink on in silence. They would drink to impending battle and inevitable destruction. They would drink to Ragnarok—that foretold cause, already lost. Then I would go home. When I put Nils to bed, I would tell him how terrifically my soup had tasted in his bowl, and he would smile. And when I kissed Elena’s stomach and then kissed lower, lower, and she sighed—a sigh so different from the Valkyrie’s—I would know that I was far from expert at this trade, that her sigh was for my pleasure. So I would know she loved me as much as I loved her. I turned to Sven as he crammed the whole lettuce leaf into his mouth. He swallowed it with a grimace. “I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve eaten my lettuce.” And with a laugh, he added, “I’ve become brave.”
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Briny Tide MATTHEW BLASI
eneral Brant was in his grounded helicopter playing at the stick when he received news of the sea monster. A subordinate patched through on the General’s cellular telephone. It ate a ship, a whole ship! Calm down, son, said Brant. Tell it plain. It’s a goddamn sea monster, General! Put your superior on, said the General. And when the Lieutenant got on the phone he said, I don’t take to swearing in my ear. What’s this monster business? General, sir, considering the situation, said the Lieutenant. He explained in brief and Brant cut him off: Clean your knickers. I’m on my way. Brant stepped from his helicopter and became surly en route to the house. He was suddenly at war and the niceties of life had to be cast aside. His wife Brenda was entertaining members of the congregation and to all he announced the news: It has come. What, love? The day I was made for, said Brant. He shook hands cordially with the men and women of the Seventh Day Adventists and declined an offer to sit that no one made. The church folk had not heard the news and thought the General even more eccentric, cordials sweating in their hands. Brant radiated command, as all great generals must, and the room was suffused with it. Not one of them would have resisted the command to hop to and serve his or her country then and there if ordered by that inordinate specimen of man, but the General retreated to his chambers to shower, shave, and make ready. Ready for what? he asked himself as he ascended the stairs, loosening his collar. For history, he replied. The sea monster made for England and got bored in the current. It swerved and knocked into an American Navy warship in the northern Atlantic, the very one it ate. What it did was sort of slink upon the ship and drown it. Crew members panicked first at the revelation of a sea monster’s existence, then at the impending doom that lay before them. Water was crashing into the halls and rooms, spraying around the edges of hatches and seams. A lone radioman, Dolson, kept his head, and with the ship listing violently to starboard, he sent an uncoded communication to any other English-speaking
vessels in the area. The message boiled down to, Sweet fuck a meatball from the sea! Dolson climbed toward the captain’s chamber and found the man in the act of delivering a pistol shot through the roof of his mouth. But Captain, sir! I regret that incident with the cat, said the Captain. He fired and painted a goodly portion of himself across the wall and ceiling. An incoming gush of water threw Dolson against the perforated Captain. Doomed, the radioman braced himself against the Captain’s bunk and promised himself he would gulp seawater as soon as it cleared his head. It would be a quick death, neat and mostly painless, if you didn’t count the panic when the fluid entered the lungs. It never did. The sea monster upset some artillery a few decks up and blasted a hole in the hull through which the Captain’s quarter was ripped free and sucked toward the surface. Thus Dolson came to float on the surface in mute terror while before him the sea monster set about slowly consuming the war ship. Hapless crew splashed in the ocean. What the sharks didn’t pick off went under in bubbling shouts. There was something spiteful about the sea monster’s consumption of the ship, almost playful. It took small nibbles with its enormous mouth, as if teasing hull and deck into its mouth, petulant at some slight Dolson could only imagine. What did sea monsters get petulant about? Dolson drifted for two days, untouched by marine beast. He slurped sea water and raved in his delirium and was picked up by a Coast Guard helicopter investigating the origin of the mysterious message. They brought the radioman aboard their ship where by then other reports of the creature had begun to filter in. Captain Wells of the Coast Guard greeted Dolson and the radioman knew at once the Captain had gone mad. For one, he was polishing a harpoon. And he made no secret of the fact that he wanted to run the beast down, Ahab-style, and lance it from the deck of his ship. I’ll drag it to shore, he snarled. I’ll pierce it and ram it and bring it home. My boys will stuff the bastard. Sir, you didn’t see it eat the boat, said Dolson. My boat is much bigger, said Wells. And I have this harpoon. I don’t understand, said Dolson. Wells’ crew assembled about him. In their eyes Dolson saw the zealotry of medieval inquisitors, madmen who had latched onto their charismatic Captain’s fetish. It’s a point of pride, said Wells. My family, my name is known. You ask any serious fisherman. Now it will be known to the people of the land. I’m sure they get it, said Dolson. Not yet, said Wells. But they will. He grinned and stroked the harpoon, a gleaming old thing with one barbed end. His eyes shone, too. His hands were glossy with oil. Sir, said a crewman. He brought in the newest batch of satellite photos of the sea monster. Out in the dark ocean, the creature was burping up
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chunks of Navy surplus, uniforms, bulkheads, rivets. Long ribbons of metallic offal trailed behind it. General Brant stood on the deck of the Aircraft Carrier Rigamarole and gave the go-ahead for the airstrike. A-10 Thunderbolts and Harriers scrambled in the early morning redness and delivered to the sea monster copious Maverick and AGM-86 missiles, ludicrous sums of Vulcan rounds. Between barrages, nearby warships fired their cannons. Brant was entranced. In the flash of the plane wings and the streaking contrails of missiles was a message of religious significance. The Grand Meister Himself was talking through the boom of artillery and missile detonations. He wanted Brant to pay close attention. The Moment of Truth was at hand. All of Brant’s life had led to this, for Brant loved not war but strife with forces superior in size and strength. But something was wrong. The sea monster wasn’t fighting back. What’s it doing? Brant asked his Lieutenant. Taking it, General, said the Lieutenant. Then by God, feed it. They gave it more. The planes returned to the carrier and refueled and reloaded and strafed it again. The warships fired volley after volley. The ocean became a turbulent swell. Tell me it’s decided otherwise, said Brant. Negative, General. Lieutenant, I am this close to having a seizure. And what’s that Coast Guard ship doing? Their attention was drawn to Wells’ ship, which had broken the demarcated engagement line and was barreling toward the creature at full speed. Just visible on the bow with a harpoon raised above his head was Captain Wells. He was in fine crazy form, his beard glistening with salt spray. Tied to his waist by a rope and restrained by several zealous crew members was the terrified Dolson. Looming ahead of them was the sea monster. It had raised its eye stalks, large, lobster-like appendages, and was gazing with interest at the approaching vessel. You sea whore! Captain Wells roared. I am the destroyer! He leapt from the bow of his ship and plunged his harpoon into the barnacled hide of the creature. The screaming Dolson went with him. At that instant the Coast Guard ship rammed the creature to no visible effect. The sea monster shrugged the men off and set a colossal tentacle onto the Coast Guard ship. It hugged it close and placed what could only be described as its lips to the hull. A series of lewd sucking noises rang out over the battle. Lieutenant, said Brant. I will ask this but once and require you consider carefully your response. What is that creature doing to that ship? Um.
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Go ahead. I believe it’s amorous, sir. As I thought, said Brant. He stood intrigued, watching a perverse spectacle. Above, the fighter craft broke from the attack, afraid of firing on their entangled ally. The crew of the Coast Guard ship fought valiantly with rifles, hand grenades, anchors, and flares, whatever was on hand. When they had discharged the bulk of their ammunition into the creature without effect, the sea monster ceased its smooching and promptly dunked the ship. It simply went under and a moment later resurfaced at the creature’s urging tentacle, gushing water and crew. Stunned, Brant lowered his binoculars and reconsidered his plan of attack. Any creature with the power to coddle and arbitrarily dunk massive sea-going vessels would not be undone with bullets and missiles. It would require tact, precision, strategies never before dared. Out on the water, the smooching had resumed. The sea monster cradled the ship close, eye stalks lidded in unmasked ecstasy. Brant’s new tactic was diplomacy. The General ordered various delicacies to be dropped via helicopter into the sea monster’s vicinity to tempt it toward abandoning its massive love boat. They tried cakes and pies, sweets of many varieties, pork roasts and schools of fish both cooked and raw, fine wines. To all such offerings, the sea monster remained indifferent, hugging its Coast Guard ship and dozing or making smooches. The helicopter’s pilots began to notice movement on the creature’s surface and landed to find Dolson salvaging the goods, his hands and face stained with the blueberry pies they’d dropped the day before. Water, he cried. I need fresh water! Stay back! shouted the helicopter pilot. Where’s Captain Wells? Dolson dragged a crate of muffins from the surf and said, He’s at war. With the sea monster? With the crabs. This was entirely too much for any one helicopter pilot to process. He lifted up and reported back to General Brant. Crabs? said Brant. It’s what he said, Sir. Dismissed, said Brant. He sat there in his quarters, fuming. What did Wells think he was doing, the fool? Here Brant had unloaded several thousand tons of explosive and ballistic ordnance to zero effect, was at that very moment battling enormous feelings of powerlessness. To Brant's mind, the sea monster possessed vast powers of the intellect to drive a hardened Coast Guard captain insane. Simple ploys of sweets and seafood wouldn’t cut it. And what of these crabs Captain Wells warred against? What manner of sub-creatures inhabited an accursed sea monster? God had set this challenge before him like he’d set Sicily and then Berlin before Patton.
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Brant would persevere as had Patton, use his noodle as had Old Blood and Guts, Wells be damned. They brought in artists and scientists. The former painted the sea monster’s portrait and plied it with flattery while the latter climbed about its islands of hide and tried to take samples. The scientists’ instruments failed to pierce the hide of the sea monster. So did the Captain’s harpoon, shouted Dolson. Everyone had to shout over the monster’s noises. Dolson had been provided fresh water and clothes but was quarantined to remain on the creature, along with Wells, until the scientists worked out a method of decontamination. But decontamination was low on the list, they let Doslon know. It could be some time. Meanwhile, to pierce the creature’s hide, the scientists tried drills, scalpels, chainsaws, and swords of various shapes and lineages, all to no avail. It’s rubbery, said Dolson. Like a tire. We could try burning it, one scientist suggested. Tried it, said Dolson. Such a vision, said one of the artists. He was capturing the sea monster in profile, its eye stalks tender and longing toward a gibbous moon. Another was scurrying about, snapping photos and complaining of the light. Captain Wells appeared atop a hump of hide and came scrambling down. He was heavily bearded and crazed in the eyes, his clothes in tatters but for places where the shells of large crabs adorned him like armor. He rammed the harpoon through one of the canvases and put a shoe-less up the behind of the photographer before he ran amok, howling and scattering the artists. I’ll not let it be pampered while I draw breath, he shouted. My ship is being known by a thing! Is that what it’s doing? said a scientist. Why the hell are you covered in crabs? said another. I fight every night, said Wells. The crabs come. I no longer fear. Sir, don’t touch the helicopter, said a scientist. Get the hell off me, said Wells. Who’s in charge over there? General Brant, Captain. He’s planning on destroying the creature. Like hell. It’s mine. You tell him. Sir? I’ll carve it in his face! Wells fell to jamming whole muffins in his mouth, the small pile of banana nut that Dolson had set aside. He wept as he ate, crumbs and tears trailing down his face, watching the sea monster’s lips move about the hull of his ship, and when he’d had his fill he leapt to his feet and howled and shook the harpoon before disappearing across the lagoons indented in the creature’s flesh.
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Dolson showed the scientists and artists the places where Wells camped at night, little caves created by folds in the sea monster’s hide. Within were the shells of crabs, rotting and pungent in the salt air, damp blankets and half-chewed fish carcasses. General Brant digested the scientists’ reports with an air of serious calm. The impertinent traitor Wells wasn’t going to carve anything. This was Brant’s war, Brant’s glory. The creature’s hide seemed impervious, impregnable, but Brant would find a way past that. Fame would follow, ignominy, awards if only he, Brant, could conquer the leviathan. He would be nothing less than savior of the world. To his surprise, this gave him a throbbing erection. He retreated to his cabin and stripped. Under his clothes he wore his new armor, a skin-tight body stocking. It was bright red and into its fabric he had sown sequins in black and gold, tented about his aching groin. He looked, standing undressed before his mirror, like an aroused and regal piñata, hot with the thought of conquest immortal. New times demanded new ways, new living. General, we’re ready, came the radio crackle. The time, the hour. Is it light? It’s two AM, Sir. Sleep, beauties, said the General. And bring in that radioman. The contaminate, Sir? He’s no such thing. Merely lost and misunderstood. And Captain Wells? If feasible. Out on the sea monster, Wells hunted by stark moonlight. Earlier in the evening, he had again defended his shelter. The crabs were foolish but untiring, unrelenting, finding in their assaults some joy knowable only to crustacean minds. He crawled across the creature’s hide and found the crabs regrouping near the tide line and there fell upon them stabbing and thrusting. In moments he had killed many and scattered the remnants. Of raw crab flesh he ate, his harpoon a giant’s utensil, his belly bloated from the mixture of muffins and raw shellfish. Great runny currents trailed out of him. His body was adjusting, changing. He was thinning, perhaps, but stronger, faster. Adorned in the fresh carcasses of his enemies, he climbed the flesh dunes, clicking like one of the fallen. Now I too am of the sea, he said aloud. He spoke the crab language, a gibber of clicks and ticks and throaty clucks, and used it to insult his enemies. Keep it coming, he chided them. I don’t sleep, don’t dream. You think you got me, Brant. But it’s me that’s got you. He would soon breathe water, he was sure, and then what? Sleep in the womb of the ocean. The crab noises, the sea love. He imagined himself as a sleek and finned entity, harpoon in hand, gliding between the ranks of a dolphin school, bulbous eyes adjusted to the depths of sea darkness. He could taste the salt, ever present on his lips, and feel the generous plankton
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filtered through his gills. Then his enemies would no longer be his enemies. They would be his enemies, the scientists with their radiation suits and electronic detectors, the artists with their flattery and cheap cigarettes. Brant would be his enemy. It would be Brant’s skin, Brant’s bony fragments making up his costume of war. From his perch he spied the weasel Dolson among the pilfered goods. There was a Coleman stove and lantern, an aluminum deck chair, life vests, and crates of food and fresh water—all new gifts from the Army scientists, the whores. Soon Wells wouldn’t even need that. He’d draw his sustenance from the sea, from the meat of the wild tuna, from air sucked through his blowhole. Why don’t you come down and have some water? Dolson called. He had spotted Wells hunkered on the crest of sea monster hide. Wells responded in his new tongue. Har-rooph-tick-took! Easy, Captain. A clicking sounded. Wells was gone, scuttling back to his shelter, a crude lean-to of flesh the sea monster had generously donated. Even his hatred of the sea monster had softened, finally, broken by his metamorphosis. It was no longer a scourge to be hunted and penetrated and dissected and mounted. It was a great teacher, patiently showing him the error of his land-born ways. Its relations with a ship were perhaps also tutelage. Wells would communicate to it, tell it to steer toward the coast. He wanted to take it to New York, show it the city. Grand times to be had. Wells crouched in his sea monster cave, his harpoon in easy reach. He pressed his lips to the creature’s hide and smooched and felt the new love in runny currents between his legs. They carried out Operation Briny Tide at first light, the sun a ball of rising fire over the back of the sea monster. The creature had wound itself around the Coast Guard ship and was, to observant eyes, making slow but sure thrusting upon it, enough to generate tall chopping waves. Several tons of plastic explosives were loaded into the creature's love vessel via helicopter and a team of brave but airsick Seals. They would detonate and pray for the best, was the plan. Word was sent to Doslon: make ready for evac. General Brant took his time dressing for the event and when he arrived on the bridge he was not in his uniform per se but the other uniform, the spangly tights and sequin and boots polished to a mirror shine. On his face were lines of black marker, war paint of old in fearsome tiger stripe. To the men on the bridge, Brant had the aura of grave buffoonery. They were prepared to openly sneer, treasonous or otherwise. But there was a sea monster, damn it, and the General in his ridiculous attire was there at the bridge, commanding, and staring the damn thing down even if he looked ridiculous. Brant stood so bravely, so proudly there that some of the men began to doubt if they were wrongly attired. And the square and set of Brant’s back, the utter fearlessness on the man’s face when he called them
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to attention and bade them look upon the beast, each man in turn, and then upon himself. You see me, said Brant. Fear is gone from me like a fever. In its place is something better. The men felt immediately sorry they had ever questioned their leader, chided him privately, doubly so when he went among them passing out black magic markers, telling them to make ready. Your spirit animal, boys. Our what? they asked. Sacred beasts caged within. Only you know it. The Lieutenant who had suffered much soul sickness at his General’s abnormalities adorned his face with the mask of a baboon. The others chose according to their secret animal natures: parakeets, lynxes, a blowfish. It has been dark, said the General, taking up the binoculars. This night and all nights past. But dawn now breaks. Around Brant his crew were rapt and swollen on pride and animal power and the General’s bad poetry. Out there in the sea, making time on a goddamn ship, that thing! They howled for its blood, beating their chests with their fists. They were prepared to enter the sea and rend the beast with tooth and nail if their beloved General so asked. On the sea monster, very motion sick, Dolson was gathering some spare supplies as the rescue chopper approached. He heard behind him a howl and spun to see Wells, harpoon poised to strike, on an undulating mound above him. Captain, it’s time to go. Mik-a-klik-a-noo! Dolson reached into his gathered supplies and chose the flare pistol. He shot a red fireball at Wells that stuck in the crevices of the man’s armor and sent him tumbling down the flesh hill, hissing and spewing red smoke. In a grump, Dolson helped pull the stinking crab shells off the Captain. My harpoon, said Wells. Gone. You going to behave? I've come to know this beast. Brant can't have it. You’ve been drinking sea water. Anyways, they’re going to detonate it. This news sent Wells into spasms of choking. He thrashed like a fish in the surf before going strangely still. I will die among my kind, he said. But Dolson had already lifted Wells on his shoulder and started toward the chopper’s dangling rope ladder. The chopper pilot’s painted face didn’t reassure him. The man had drawn an otter’s whiskered visage over his own in wobbly black lines. He all right? said the pilot. Are you? Is anyone? At least we’ll have a view, said the chopper pilot.
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The gunner in the back, too, Dolson noticed—his face beneath the mask was covered by the grimace of a lemur. Lunatics everywhere he looked. Release me, husks! Wells cried. Dolson, at the end of his patience, pummeled Wells about the head. The Captain went silent, his face strangely child-like in slumber but for the blood trickling from his nose. On the bridge of the aircraft carrier, General Brant listened tensely to the countdown. Fire, he said. The explosion was more than even the Army engineers had reckoned. Smaller ships were sent tumbling like toys in a bath. The carrier bucked and waves reached over to slap the deck. When the shrapnel and debris and geysers of water finally cleared Brant beheld the sundered remains of the Coast Guard ship. Atop it, blown apart, was the sea monster, its pitiful eye stalks slumped into the churning sea, its limp tentacles spreading like hair across the surface. Success! said the Lieutenant. Quiet, son, said Brant. Don’t you see, General sir? You did it with explosives! Brant said nothing. What he saw was truly a sorry sight, a creature in the thrusts of passion exploded and scattered about in giant leather pieces, its blood frothing ink black into the churning wake. Within Brant was the ring of hollow defeat. And what of the Captain? Did Wells, too, float out there, bits and pieces leaking into the jet stream? A Coast Guard Captain deserved better. They all did. Even the sea monster. The heat of Brant’s crusade had blinded him, made him monstrous. He looked about at the sweating faces of his crew, grimaces smeared with misshapen forms of nightmare animals, and felt the luster of battle, of victory, bleed out. Tow it in, said Brant. Before it goes under. But General! Tow it. Brant retreated to his quarters. There, in his sequined costume and smeared tiger stripes, he understood at last that no worthier adversary would ever present itself. The sea monster had been cut down perhaps approaching a titanic climax. What would it have been to allow the creature to finish? Ten minutes, ten hours. He imagined his own wife spread and moist on the bed, calling his name, before a ferocious explosion tore the roof off the house and blasted the bedroom and all within. He was meat and his lovely wife Brenda even less, hunks of sodden goo. Brant wept for the sea monster. He wept for the fool Wells and the radioman Dolson, and when they were brought to his cabin reeking and deranged, he hugged them to himself. My lost boys, Brant moaned.
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Wells, suddenly alert, produced from his charred and shattered armor a shard of crab shell and stabbed Brant in the arm. By the time Dolson had wrestled Wells to the ground and disarmed him, Brant was again on his feet. Forgive me, said Brant. I didn’t understand. You son of a bitch! I confess, said Brant. The very thing made flesh. At this Wells fell to weeping. He heard the suffering in Brant’s voice, beheld the tiger stripes painted in smeared black. So that man, too, had known what it was to transcend. They clawed into each others arms and rocked in their weeping. Dolson did not weep. He was sick and tired and just a little hungry. Brant’s blood was on his hands and so too was the reek of Wells’ crab suit. What he wanted was a chicken dinner and a cold beer. A little R&R. He wanted to lie in a hotel bed, one of the cheap ones, and pull the covers back and lie on the grainy sheets and spread his arms wide, still wet from a lukewarm shower, and to balance a bottle of cold beer on his stomach bloated with chicken. He wanted to lie in buzzing air conditioning and close his eyes and wake up with the bottle still upright, wobbling to the beat of his heart.
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technology of health VANESSA LESSEL
I mount the blender instead of the coffee machine. Such are the selections when I’m a quarter asleep. Patients, stop drinking that tea: the doctor on the sitcom has a dishwasher rinsing with sewage. Plumber facepalm. What if the waiting room chairs were toilet seats? Would we sit with our pants down, use magazines, press alphabets against ourselves? My temperature is Q: literate mercury? Even the blood accepts letters. A, B—O—AB. The child playing patient licks the threepage ad for a capsule. Should you chew thirty-two times before swallowing a mouthful of sideeffect? Pharmacists repeat geometry and hand the cloned pellets with theorems of conditionals. If taken without food, the tablets will draw hieroglyphs dictating an epic pursuit of mitochondria upon your liver. Must be taken with liquid. If blender operated, the fruit inside will never heal. If an apple smiles, it has a mouth and vowels and bowels. Be a good diplomat and give it a kiss. Go as far as you want: no viruses
transmit a sound you can hear. Doppler on the tongue. Your homunculi are unemployed, agoraphobic, and make papier-mâché in your nose. Sneeze if you don’t trust me: your fertility is the last symptom you need glasses. Now read the smallest row of letters you wrote to your first lust. I diagnose your nostalgia to be chrysopoeia. The best place for your brain is the goldsmith.
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The Sacrosancts RACHEL ADAMS
THE SACROSANCTS SEASON 5 EPISODE 7 “Fatal Attractions” DEDICATED SKETCHES AND RECOUNTINGS1 OF BETTE, ESTHER, AND GEORGE2
ette is in the car, and a man in a brown suede hat runs up to the window. “I have mace,” she tells him. “PKM, PKM,” he says. “I’ve been living in Australia.” “I’m not afraid to use it,” she says. He has a mouth that is small like a bow. “It’s me, O’rion. Remember that time in the bathhouse—” “No,” she says, “No I don’t.” The studio audience laughs. She almost backs the car into a muumuu-clad octogenarian, who glares at her fiercely.4 “I know it’s you!” O’rion shouts. Warm audience laughter burbles up. Bette mutters to herself on her way home. She is often stopped on the street by old friends and clients, and she is becoming a somewhat bitter woman in these later years of the series.5 She doesn’t remember, just doesn’t remember. It is really hard for her to conceive of a Bette who called 1
See also: Episode 55: Summary and Analysis Dedicated Sketches and Recountings do not exist for other Sacrosancts cast members at this time (to submit a Dedicated Sketch and Recounting for a different cast member, please email firstname.lastname@example.org) 3 Bette (Alice Sand) is the sitcom mother; she has paler skin than the rest of the family, and she can’t remember the seventies, but the seventies remember her 4 This same octogenarian is almost hit by a Sacrosanct-driven car once per season (see Ep. 7, 15, 27, 34, and 41) 5 In Ep. 46, The Shrew, this increasing bitterness was identified by the family as problematic but not alleviated or solved in any way 2
herself Princess Kittymittens and sold LSD. People tell terrific stories, and she drinks warm milk every night to help her sleep. 6 Mr. Sacrosanct7 has a lady coworker who drinks a two-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper twice daily. When he is very tired he can see it oozing out of her pores. He has his own pore problem: he’s allergic to fluorescent lights. They give him bumpy skin, which never goes away anymore, even on vacation. Bette calls it gator skin, though really it looks more like plucked chicken. Bette has a text message from her husband. She still doesn’t know how to check text messages.8 She thinks maybe some wine might help her figure it out. She rubs rosemary between her fingers. Sprigs and needles litter the chops. The pan goes into the broiler. Bette swigs the Rioja straight from the bottle, pours some into the marinade for the hamburgers, and squints at her phone. Lily9 is almost sideswiped by a pink Corolla, and this scares her up onto the sidewalk where she collides with a barbed wire–topped fence. The blue reflective vest gets torn a little but the barbs don’t break through her wife beater. A pair of basset hounds weep at her through the chain link. She stares after the Corolla with a strange look, remounts her bike, and continues on her way. Bette is lying on the couch with a cool, wet washcloth over her eyes. The empty bottle of wine is hidden in the kitchen trash (cue laugher). Her phone keeps buzzing. She doesn’t know why. “Esther!” she yells. “Esther, come exorcise my phone!” And, “The pork chops—” And, “Oh shit.” Esther has already left. Lily tosses her bike on the lawn and walks in through the front door. “Mrs. Sacrosanct,” she says. “Bette,” she says. She sits down at Bette’s feet. “What can I do?” Bette stirs. “Lily?” This is one of the new plotlines this season, this sexual tension between Bette and her daughter’s friend. 10 She removes the washcloth. “Darling, what do you think of that mustache of Esther’s?” Lily
This has been going on since the pilot itself, when she had an acid flashback and then began to be accosted by assorted eclectic personalities (see Pilot: Summary and Analysis) 7 Mr. Sacrosanct is played by Denny Rich; some say he is the most underrated character on the show 8 Despite the fact that she’s had the phone for ten episodes now (see Ep. 45, Enfant Oblige) 9 Lily (Greta Gould) was played by Marissa Lynch for the first two seasons and replaced by Gould in subsequent seasons; the reason for this replacement remains unclear (see The Sacrosancts: Gossip and Speculation) 10 (see Ep. 50, 54)
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looks at her red Mary Janes. “I think it’s wonderful.” Bette sits up and looks deep into Lily’s eyes. “So do I,” she says.
ESTHER SACROSANCT11 t twenty, she is growing a pencil moustache. Esther’s recent arc: embracing her thin, androgynous body, cultivating not resisting. The hair creeps over her top lip with defiant residence like a drifter on a park bench.12 When it first showed up, Bette said it looked sexy with her black, hip-length hair and blunt bangs. Bette is not one for compliments. Like the others, the writers are embalming her, painting her face, preparing her to be remembered fondly.13 Esther wears her trademark John Lennon sunglasses all the time now. 14 She calls to tell Lily about the barbeque tonight, unaware of Lily’s altered feelings towards her. In the background, George plays Jimmi Hendrix. Lily hears it and feels more things. “Yes, I’ll come,” she says. Lily wears a reflective blue vest when she rides her bicycle. Her manager calls her Safety Girl. “It’s not even dark outside,” he says. “I gotta go,” says Lily to Esther. Esther is at the Rocketship. She is demonstrating her mastery of “Freefalling.” As usual, she has beer for George in exchange for the lessons. Esther talks to George and Genevieve about the prognosis from her recent hospital trip.15 She has cancer in her right breast and not her left, and she tells them that this doubles her odds—more than doubles them—because she is right handed. (The audience guffaws.) This is not the case; she is left handed. We know this because she is playing guitar.16
Esther (Margot Meeks) is the middle child, younger than Genevieve (played by Letta Howie); Genevieve is the least popular Sacrosanct and the only one not to appear in every episode 12 There is a lively debate over whether the mustache is makeup or Margot Meeks’ actual facial hair; Meeks makes few public appearances, and even then wears a veil just to fuel the rumors (see The Sacrosancts: Gossip and Speculation) 13 There is a rumor that Season Five will be cancelled before completion of the traditional twelve episodes, but the official word from the network only confirms that this is the last season (reference: Associated Press) 14 Since Ep. 50, in which she became hysterical over losing them temporarily—George borrowed them; fans triumphed, claiming they knew Esther’s cool exterior would someday crumble 15 This hospital trip occurred since the last episode; Esther’s illness has been foreshadowed but never before directly mentioned 16 (see also: Ep. 32, in which George calls Esther a “southpaw”)
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Genevieve says, “We should start a family band,” and her siblings look at her. “Bette can sing lead. You two are on bass and guitar and backup vocals.” “We’ve always wanted to,” they tell her. “So you don’t mind?” “Mind hell,” says Genevieve. “I will learn drums, and we will call ourselves the Beetles. Three e’s.” Esther stares at her and plunks away. 17 George searches for his gerbil. Esther has a ferocious need to pee when she gets home. George is driving because she doesn’t trust herself to work the pedals. “Why didn’t you just pee in The Hole?” George says. (The audience cracks up.) The Hole is a dark cavity in the bathroom floor where the toilet used to be. “Snakes,” says Esther.18 George puts a hand over his shirt pocket where the gerbil lives. “Shh,” he says. Esther runs through the kitchen to the bathroom, noting the ovenspawned smoke clouds on her way. As the water in the toilet froths and fizzes with her stream, the camera zooms in on a tiny wet spot on her underwear, a slightly darker blue, a drop of pee that escaped. (A chuckle ripples through the audience.) Esther strokes her mustache with both fingers and looks at the blackened pork chops in the pan. “Don’t worry, Bette,” she says. “George and I will make things right.” They look at each other, nod, and stride back to the pink Corolla. Bette straightens the washcloth on her eyes and moans softly. Trademark crescendo and fade to commercial.
t seventeen, he lives in the kind of squalor you only see in the lives of teenagers who are renting a trailer across town on the dime of their rich parents. He calls it the Rocketship. He calls himself the Rocketman; he pretends he has never heard of Elton John. 20 George is growing an afro in which to lose things. The thing he loses most often is his gerbil. 21 The father is at work. He is thinking about the barbeque tonight. His job is a horrible job. This does not bother him because he has never had a
She is actually playing rather good offhand bluegrass This is the first mention of Esther’s fear of snakes in the series to date 19 George (Stew Radner) is the youngest Sacrosanct 20 This trick didn’t work for the producers, who are currently in a balls-tothe-wall legal battle (see The Sacrosancts: Behind the Scenes) 21 The gerbil has its own official fan page, in spite of remaining unnamed through four seasons (see The Sacrosancts Character Bios: George’s Gerbil) 18
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good job. George taught him to text message, but he is still very bad at it.22 On break he texts Bette: “pork chops.” This takes him ten minutes. Mr. Sacrosanct has never been named. He is the series scapegoat. He never complains about the way he is treated or the bad things that always happen to him. It is a running joke that the family does not laugh at the jokes he makes, no matter how good.23 George’s head fills the screen as the camera zooms in on the gerbil, which is perched in his afro. (The audience laughs, pleased to come back from commercial to such an excellent shot.) He crosses his eyes looking at it. “Burrow,” he tells it. “Go ahead.” He does not plan to go to college but has nevertheless applied to twenty different schools, all of which have 100% admission rates.24 The gerbil does not burrow but it does poop a little poop. “Aw, gerbil,” says George and puts the pet lovingly into his pocket. The father has been leaving work one minute earlier for the last month, at 4:59. It is 4:57, and he thinks it is time to shave off one more minute. He is ten months away from retirement, and he just doesn’t have those extra sixty seconds in him. Those extra hundred twenty seconds. At 4:58 he stands up thinking, oh hey boss, just, you know, just a little stretch before I leave, but his boss is not there.25 George puts a handkerchief over his mouth and nose though there is actually very little smoke in the kitchen and ducks his way through imaginary clouds of fumes to the broiler. He extracts the charred pork chops. The gerbil peeks out, and George plucks some rosemary for it. The father is almost out of the office when the female coworker stops him: “I’ve broken the copier again.” He follows her to the mailroom and examines the machine. “That isn’t mine,” she says coyly of a Xerox in the tray, on which two apparently estranged breasts occupy distant corners of the page.26
This is the same episode in which George gave up trying to teach Bette (see Ep. 48) 23 In fact, there are only four episodes in which a family member laughs at one of his jokes; each time it’s a different character, and the reasons are always satisfyingly personal and situational; this silence is enforced for the studio audience as well, and the lack of laughter or hints of stifled laughter offsets the hilarity of his jokes in an uncomfortable way 24 George is far and away the favorite Sacrosanct, regardless of who you ask (see The Sacrosancts: Surveys and Polls) 25 Whenever Mr. Sacrosanct is ashamed of himself, he thinks of George (see Ep. 22, Say A Mother) 26 Another running joke is that women always hit on Mr. Sacrosanct despite his less-than-impressive looks; some fans think there are feminist underpinnings here but this has not been confirmed (see The Sacrosancts: Gossip and Speculation)
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Genevieve comes in, drumming the air with her forefingers. She goes into the kitchen and fiddles with the stove knobs. The pilot light is not lit, and a steady stream of gas releases into the air. 27 “Do I look like a Princess Kittymittens to you?” Bette says. Lily has no idea what she’s talking about. “Yes,” she says. “Maybe.” And because Bette looks sad, she kisses her. The father looks at the clock. 5:04. The coworker is leaning against the door frame, playing with a lock of hair. “I have no time for this,” he says. “I retire in ten months.” He leaves her in the copy room, taking care to step over the pool of Dr. Pepper at her feet. George waits for Esther in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. He pulls the gerbil out of his pocket so it can burrow in his afro. It is limp. “Oh man,” he says. “I’m sorry about the rosemary, little buddy.” He hums Simon and Garfunkel and cries a little. The audience sniffles or says ‘aw.’ The series will end soon. The writers, in their sorrow, will be sentimental 28. We will watch to the end, and when it is over we will change the channel.
The Sacrosancts is famous for loaded guns that appear but never go off, though sometimes they “fire” between episodes and we hear about the aftermath, and sometimes they are never mentioned again; because of the severity of the situation, fans speculate that this gun will never be fired 28 Some fans predict that in the final episode, Mr. Sacrosanct will make a joke and everyone will laugh and say we love you, ________ and the blank will be filled with something other than an insult, diminutive, or title; some say this is wishful thinking
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Dreams of the Greenland Coast Whale Island DYLAN PLATZ
We sacrificed bread to a peregrine on the seaside stone you’re standing on, the wall of a church— it flew home and we made a boat out of feathers and yarn. * In a blue boxcar house across from a red one, we slept until the moon knocked over the trashcan— the hoot of pygmy owls who stole our boat. I watched a fox chase a leaf into the nostril of the cliffs. * It was spring when you shot the arrow off the U-turn sign with a stone from your sprettert— it floated against my papier-mâché oar and I loved you then as we walked barefoot in the snow.
Atomic Summer ANTON BAER
e have no idea where this atomic fellow came from. Everywhere there were shrinking islands of snow under the pines, stubbornly hard and bluish in the shade, stitched by even bluer tracks of grouse and crisscrossing rabbits that had left tufts of fur on the bark. The big icicles hanging from the cabin eaves were clear as glass, smooth-ribbed, and they were dripping fast into the gravel. The water spread in a sheen round the mouldering sawdust by the chopping stump, gathered into a rivulet that trickled in its mossy narrow bed down through the black spruce to the creek, and the creek ran out into the river and out across last summer’s sandbar. The morning sun can send a shiver up your back after six months of cold so bitter that the smoke from the chimney stood straight up on the air, and for weeks the sun only came up over the mountains at eleven o’clock, and by noon the line of light had already begun to climb back up the hoar-frosted trees, tipping them gold by two o’clock and leaving us in grey, smoky shadow. Now crocus peep out of the snow under the aspen up the hillsides, the wind lifts the bushy branches of the pines, and the ice floes left stranded high on the riverbank lie sagging, brokenbacked, sloughing off chandeliers of green candle-ice that slither, wind chimes, onto the stones. A warm wind blows up the river. If Kathe’s not in the bush, she’s at her table inside, bent over her microscope, leafing through her lexicons. In the cool of the morning she opens her trunk, lugs out her texts and taxonomic guides, and works, works, works. Her hair is beautiful. It gives me a flush in the chest, a steady heat, makes me alert and wide-awake. The mountains across the river are old mountains, cirques and shale and caribou lichen, as still as stone can be. An alpine valley opens out into even higher mountains whose sedimentary layers are given away by the tracing of snow. Wispy clouds blow up and down that little high valley. The cold mountains are like the company of chessmen: silent players, in and out of shadow, but players that never move. Kathe likes to work where she can see them. Unaware of her own mystery, maybe, unconscious of her own consciousness: a shadow that stops and thinks. A shadow that stops time. A sandbar in the river that’s there in the same place, summer after summer, a sandbar you can go back to. Maybe that’s what drew him out. It was just after lunch when he stumbled into the clearing. Pigshaven and pink-skulled, round rubber-rimmed glasses thick with more frost than a
thumb could melt, he staggered out of the trees clutching his laboratory coat to his throat, tripped over his flopping gumboots, and collapsed in a sprawling, groaning heap. I dropped the hoe in the furrows in the greenhouse, picked it up and leaned it against the fire barrel, and stepped out. Up at the cabin, Kathe was standing in the doorway. I made a gesture as if to say: it’s all right, go back to your books. But it wasn’t all right. On second thought, I went back into the greenhouse for the hoe. Around the corner of the cabin came the huskies, snarling, tails curled tight, and went for him without a sound. But before they had even reached the grass they seemed to come to the ends of invisible chains and jerked somersaulting onto their backs with furry whumps. Whimpering, bristling but breathless, they turned about and belly-crawled back the way they had come, their fur rippling the wrong way over their ears as though they were being pushed by running water. As soon as they reached the pines, they got off their bellies and bolted from shadow to shadow, from snow patch to snow patch. Their howls floated back to us for long, eerie minutes . . . That’s the last we’ve seen of them. The man merely cocked his head and smiled. He sat staring back into the trees as though he were clearing a hurdle, and clearing it badly. While one bony hand reached back to scratch the awkwardly trailing ankle, the other drifted up like a nervous pink spider to wipe up a thread of spit drooling down off his chunky, twisted chin. His pants were black woollens, tucked into his gumboots, and looked stiff as cardboard; snow crystals were still caught in the coarse weave. He wiped the drool of spit on them and, knuckling the gold bridge of his glasses, shoved them higher up his chunky, pugnacious nose. The lenses were still frosted over, and the too-short temple arms tugged his ears out from his shaven temples. His ears were tiny and pink and whorled as honeysuckle. His teeth were blue as permafrost. His lips were lilac from the cold. “This being so,” he croaked, “mind telling me where I am?” His voice was even more of a shock: it hissed, crackled, and sparked, as if it came out of an old radio glowing with vacuum tubes. Partly he gave off the cold freshness of melting snow, and partly the stale odour of birds’ nests. But mostly he smelled like a horse blanket and gave off the chill that wafts out of abandoned mine shafts even on hot summer days. A flight of geese following the river towards the arctic deltas took the short-cut over the cabin, honking brassily, and were gone in a rush of wings. Then it was so quiet I could hear the steady, random, wind-chime tinkling of the sagging floes of candle-ice by the river, from all up and down the bank. From the cabin roof, the icicles were dripping so steadily that I had to fight down the urge to go look for a tap to close. “Greenland, eh?” he nodded and started plucking needles out of the sap on his lab coat.
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Our felt insoles were airing out on the porch and our long johns flapped on the washline. The door was propped open to let the warm wind in—and in it went, flapping and puffing out the pillow cases. The sun shone in after it, drew a trembling line down the log wall of the doorway, neatly bisected Kathe’s brown felt hat with its tightly curled brim hung on a nail. It drew a jagged line across the rough wooden planks and the throw rugs, slanted up over the foot of the bed of burlap sacks stuffed with spruce boughs. It lit up the stove ash and tracked-in winter grit. It lit up the bathtub in the other corner. It lit up a reddish tin of soap flakes on the edge. The brass horn of the gramophone, the kerosene lanterns, the decks of cards on the table, the tea and coffee tins on the counters, the wind-up bush radio, my steel Dobro guitar and pedal drum and harmonicas in their felt-lined cases leaned here and there—all these intimate things suddenly took on a strange, silent, eerie, spot-lit museum quality. “What a paradise!” he snorted. “Hellish woods you’ve got around here, I’ll tell you that much. Nothing but rivers, creeks, boggy spruce blacking out the sun and swampy meadows stinking with flowers—or often as not submerged under busted chunks of ice—Forestus horribilus! You call that stimulating? Not exactly the august halls of learning I’m used to!” Kathe had meanwhile pulled on her duffel coat and come down from the porch: arms folded, chin up, her jaws starting to flare out from under the lobes of her reddening ears, her reddish-gold hair pulled back tight under a knotted green silk paisley shawl and coming out in a bushy ponytail that was just about standing on end. “You wouldn’t have a cigarette, would you?” the man snapped his fingers. “Some machorka? A fag, a smoke? A cigar maybe? Leaf-wrapped? Dipped in port, I don’t mind. Stogies, cigarillos? Hey, give the man a cigar!” He raised his arm and snapped his fingers in our faces. “Baccy— comprendo? Speaka da English?” “We speak English,” I said. “Good.” Stretching out on his back, he folded his hands across his chest, shut his eyes, and drummed his heels on the grass. Snow crumbled out the gumboots in lumps. “So, which one’s the man of the house? The bearded lady on garden patrol, or the munchy dyke in the lumberjack shirt with the big carrot hair sticking out of Santa Claus’s underpants?” “What do you want?” Kathe asked. “You there, partner dude sort of old-timer whose shifty eyes I can barely see under that battered old dirty old brown old oily old fedora that announces you are some plenty small-time artiste on the banjo—you going to play a few jigs for me? Go on, roll out that one-man-band. What else you do with that beard except wag it on the end of your chin when you howl your old rhythm-and-blues snooze tunes? ‘Jes gimme a sign, and press your lips up close to mine’—not with me, buddy. You pound that drum, not my
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bum. Where’d you get that beard, anyway—ye old Costume Shop? You ever going to wash those blue jeans, or you planning to make dirt soup out of them? Hey, dude—make it magnificent!” His screech whooped and sputtered, faded and grew stronger in eerie pulses. “Who are you?” I asked. “Bet you’ve been hoarding your tabaccy for a moment like this, eh? It’s been ages since I had a smoke. There were days I could have stuffed my mouth with moss for want of one. But I didn’t. Because if there’s one thing I can say for myself, it’s character: I’ve got it. That’s right. I’m a stubborn guy.” “Who are you?” “So, living out here on your own, are you? All on your pretty lonesomes?” “What do you want?” “A treehouse you built yourself—I can tell.” The frost had melted by now off his little round granny glasses with the gold bridge and the black rubber rims. The left lens was cracked in a zigzag from top to bottom. The right lens was spiderwebbed with shatter lines. They looked like gas-mask lenses. “It’s a cabin,” I said. “Fifty square metres, permafrost storage cellar, ninety gallons of water on tap, hot-water boiler run from the stove, a standup piano, and a telescope on the roof. I’d hardly call it—” “And this amazing lawn!” He let one hand fall patronisingly to the grass. “Real bluegrass! Resourceful. I like that. Maybe we’ll pot a few holes later, huh guy?” “It’s ordinary meadow grass,” I said. “There’s no golf course.” “Your goddamn right there isn’t,” he sneered. Drawing in his heels, he brought up his knees, crossed his legs, and dangled a sloshing gumboot. “Cigarette,” he murmured, puckering up. He pressed two quavering fingers across his blood-blister of a mouth: “Got one?” “I don’t smoke. And neither does my . . . wife.” “Aaa-hah!” He opened one eye and regarded me coolly. Suddenly he laughed—a high-pitched whine, like a rat being swung by the tail. “Yes, I’ve been to university too,” he said. “One of the best, can’t complain. Anyway—and this is one of the things you should know about me—I don’t complain. Strictly on principle. Even if I did, I wouldn’t. Because that’s the kind of guy I am. Now, I don’t have to guess what you studied: Marxism. Yes, you probably think you’re pretty funky kids. But what I say is this: funky—skunky. Pew-yoo! Sk-u-u-u-unk!” “There are no skunks this far north,” Kathe pointed out. “Don’t kid me, ok sweetie?” he said, rolling over and jabbing his finger at her. “Your politics are about as obvious as the colour of Mars.”
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“I have no politics.” “University and no politics? Hah!” “She played soccer and she liked to dance,” I said. She made a tongue-clicking tsk with a shake of her head, as if to say: hold back on the private stuff. “And as for science,” he said, “I bet you figure the moon’s made of cheese. I’ll bet you figure a cow could jump over it. Ha ha! I’m the man of science—got it? That’s the difference between us. I get the facts straight before I make my move. Comprendo, Señorita? I’m not sucked in by muddled logic—don’t even talk about fashion, or taste! Yep, you should have been trooping along with me—if you could have kept up, that is. You would have appreciated some of the gems I expressed in a wondrous form. Who were those declaiming-type guys—Milksop and Dandy? You know, the descent into Hell and all that. Buggered around in big poem-type situations. Went blind. Deserved to—I mean, give me a break!” “Milton and Dante?” Kathe suggested. “Yes, them faggots. They should have been trooping along with me too. They would have thanked me on their wobbling knees for my poetical items. But that’s just what happens when you’re a Renaissance guy. I am, however, a man of science at bottom, and a man of science doesn’t trouble himself with flower-picking. That can be left to the feeble-minded. Or am I wrong?” He looked up, his eyes blue and arrogant and darting behind the cracked spectacles. “What, me wrong? What an extraordinary thought! Only I could be capable of it. No, don’t bother wondering how—you’ve had plenty of time to waste prattling with each other I’m sure, so now you can listen to me for a change—” The rest of the afternoon he chattered on. Boolean algebra, synchronicity, yttrium, plasma physics—they all took a pasting. Meanwhile, we trundled out cups of herb tea and plates of hot flour biscuits fresh from the oven. After sampling a biscuit, which ended up in crumbs all over his chest, he touched only the camomile, which he gulped down without even blowing on it. Eventually he wanted to come inside the cabin. Craning his pink neck, bulging in unusual places, he scratched furiously at the insect bites on his wrists and ears until, his head thrust deep between his knees, he degenerated into a contorted blur. “Must be a relief to sleep indoors!” he croaked, with just a hint of hysterical sobbing. I coughed, as if I hadn’t noticed a thing, and offered more biscuits. Cross-legged on the grass as evening came, the pages of Kathe’s books left to flap in the breeze on the plywood table up on the porch, we listened politely to everything the man said. He had such an intellect, we had to respect his frightening intellect. Even when, during his attempt to describe a fusion torus in a babbling gush of baby-talk, comparing it to a doughnut and
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a soother and I don’t know what else, Kathe volunteered: “Oh, like a TOKAMAK,” and he cut her off with “Never mind, I’m sure a lot of this atomic stuff’s beyond you”—even then we had to respect his special intellect, which had done so much for humanity, and for him. “I can do anything I put my mind to,” he insisted. “Soap, for example. You ever use soap? If the fantastic notion ever occurs to you, I can make you tons. Nice green cakes. See it in the dark. Make you glow with health.” “No, but thanks.” “Come on!” he hissed, and rubbed his thumb against his forefinger: “Cheap!” At supper time he was still going strong. Kathe brought the supper out and laid it carefully on a tablecloth laid on the grass: three roast grouse with red currant jelly, baked beans and rice, soda bread, and a can of peaches. The man looked it all over fastidiously, but touched only the currant jelly, which he licked up with his fingers. Until dessert. When he saw Kathe bringing a hot mossberry pie across the grass, steaming through the cracks in the crust, he greedily lolled his tongue from side to side. The moment she set it down, he plunged his hand right through the crust, gouged out a fiery triangle, and stuffed it into his gaping mouth. “I was the numero uno on campus,” he babbled, spitting out mangled purple berries. “Seven-day poker, fast cars and virgins—I’ve had it all. Nowadays it’s different, it’s Daddy’s money to burn and some peasant’s blood to shed for noble causes. Don’t tell me, don’t tell me, been there, know all about it—” he waved us off, choking. Afterwards, he lay propped on his elbow, his head on his shoulder, and scavenged through the bones of the grouse. We piled the dishes in the cloth and carried the bundle back into the cabin. Crossing the porch, Kathe took the precaution of gathering up her books and pulling the trunk inside. “The man is a fruitcake,” she whispered. “He’s a complete, raving lunatic. He’ll come charging in here at night swinging an axe and singing a nursery rhyme.” “Don’t worry, I’m not going to sleep.” “Do you think I am?” Back outside, cross-legged on the grass, we shivered a little and waited for him to go. He just kept talking about how awful Greenland was. “Greenland is under a sheet of ice a mile thick,” Kathe finally broke in. “And has been for the last ten thousand years. It’s still in the last Ice Age.” “Is that so, sweetie?” She flushed. White spots broke out over her cheeks, bloodless and hard. “Yes, that’s so. I didn’t catch your name, by the way.” “Oh, call me anything.” “What do you call yourself?” “What do I call myself?”
86 · Atomic Summer
Hands behind his head, he gazed up at the purple crocus swaying softly on the crests of the brown hillsides, the wild roses in bloom at the higher edges of the meadow; he glanced up at the mountains across the river, dappled like sleeping appaloosas with the shadows of the sunset clouds. The snowfields under the peaks were pink with the sunset. With the riverbank in shadow, the random tinkling of the ice floes had subsided to pure, expectant silence. Something very odd happened: his eyes turned as dark as the sky, and the blue was streaked with a fiery pink that wasn’t just from the cracks in the lenses. “‘His Master’s Voice,’” he announced. “You can call me that.” And he smiled his blue smile. Suddenly he let out a belch so violent that we sat back covering our glasses with our hands, as bubbles big as grapes foamed out of his mouth and down over his lab coat in a purplish froth. Clutching his swollen belly, he fell back and lay staring goggle-eyed up at the brightest planets. “Ah!” he began, taking it all in with a grand flourish, “The Last Frontier!” As if nothing could be more normal, we got to our feet and bolted inside. We undressed in the twilight, leaving the lanterns unlit; through the mosquito screens floated the smell of the melting snow, and as we listened to the wind sough in the pines, watched them sway against the darkening blue, it was like being whispered to sleep. Except the lunatic out on the grass was still talking. All night I sat up in the armchair by the window, cradling the 30.06 in my lap, chewing coffee beans to stay alert, and listening to his lectures splutter across the grass. Kathe sat propped up against the pillows, listening quietly to the solar wind of stellar facts: the seven-year summers of Titan, the electrical storms of Jupiter that went of for centuries, washing away the surfaces of its moons atom by atom. Hydrogen fogs, sulphur-dioxide frosts whitening the shores of methane lakes, blizzards covering cinder seas in drifts a mile deep. Eternal darkness and lunar cliffs thirty miles high. Once in a thousand years, asteroids raising tiny plumes of titanium dust. Now and then she whispered: “Did you know that?” “We don’t know if it’s true,” I whispered back. “It’s all true,” she said. About the Earth’s moon alone he spoke for hours. His hands clasped behind his back, he nodded it on with a stiff-chinned salute as it went hurtling overhead leaving behind a sparkling wake, high above this useless earth, so flat, wretched, and cold—as if it were nothing to the man outside but a slab of blue ice lost in space, scratched with meaningless hieroglyphs, love-hearts and stick men.
Anton Baer · 87
Reintroduction JEFF PEARSON
Coyote returns to the highland desert amid the cedars, slipping under barbed wire. The man watches cartoons of sheep-snatching coyotes; the man questions his ability to take pills, counting out all of the Tylenol PM, ashamed of the anti-psychotics, not sure who would be following him in cars. Through the window he sees a tree shake when he tries to be revelated by a gold tinged book. He begins routines. He follows along for the holiday. Coyote, somewhere in a sandstone hideout, near the lady playing the organ, long awaiting the missing connection, wondering what happens to dead cotton tails eaten and chewed in dosages, the fur left behind like a forgotten coat. Lost and found, the two beings transfixed by sunlight, deep down in the southern Utah desert where his father lies underground, a plot of grass is watered by the Sevier River where coyote slurps unconditionally. He drinks the muddy water with a false grin. Easter, the man trapped in a car, his legs stark rubber cooled by air conditioning. He motels and tries very hard to look out the window at free, but menacing grips of eggs rolling down clay hills, all colored by Easter vinegar. Some creature must eat the hard boiled remains, and must sit in so much heat to require air sped up by pants through swath glands. Mistakenly, prayer comes alone. Pleas to a spirit that returns listless and failed attempts to garner peace. He stops at a family doctor who tests his body motions; the way one would follow prey
APOSPECIMEN AWARD FOR POETRY
trying to see a sign of frailty. He finds it near impossible to blend in with the celebratory hunt of eggs. The seizure of painted baby animals, aborted. A giant rabbit savior come back from death, from the de-bodied fur, the bones somehow retrieved from burial. His father altogether underground; an owl payphone was his only contact with others, priesthood blessings often and in the dark prison almost forgotten (hands pressed so hard on his head). An illusory hint of self-help. Now, he wishes for the reckless wandering through underpass, veins intoxicated, automatically fleeing to his habitat, but all he can remember is pleading in the cave for the rest of his pack he so placidly loved. Most of the time, he now waits impatiently for words to devour the morsels of his apartment, to shake his bed, to still the night time howl of his record player, the unregulated heat out his windows, inside his radio, the view of the threatening trains forceful and unrepentant. Forgive the missing spirituality.
Jeff Pearson 路 89
Already the man caught a peek. Coyote made after godâ€™s image mourns for likeness, the moon transparent. Cyclical phases of solitude amass so quickly singing malice. The little beast yelps, tumbleweed thorns stick to the fur like horseshoe nails, the sacred hills worthy for roaming pups. He breaks his window and tosses out a chord organ. Afraid then of bookends, the draft of fear down onto the onlookers. Total ruin of a habitat, lying curled and sewn in outer darkness. Sins, he in the fetal position, absolve into marble stretch marks on his legs His family praying for him. From the faucet the water trough overflows. Coyote leads him from room to room looking at him out the window frames. He spurts connecting lip voices loud enough to cover harmony. He stares at coyote hoping for a glitch in the way it behaves, a misconduct with its outward appearance, a grasp of a breast or a brush of hair while the blue radiator whistles,
APOSPECIMEN AWARD FOR POETRY
holes punched, an outlaw den setup pushes against the wall. Coyote glares back with the remotest interest in the demeanor. They inhabit the same space to block the force of the policemen breaking the wooden door from its hinges.
Jeff Pearson 路 91
The Dog Within BRENDA ANDERSON
nside the desert inn, Lin sat slumped against the table. The tinkle of bottles tied to the dead tree outside drifted through the window. The dog within her woke, stretched, and sniffed the air. She heard distant footsteps and looked up. Nothing had changed: the bodies on the floor lay undisturbed. Inches from her fingers, the glass of water tempted her, but no. She couldn’t, wouldn’t. The water was her only friend. She’d die before drinking it. The footsteps seemed much closer now. Normally she would hide. In the past, she’d taken refuge in the dry well, but today, she could barely stand up. Again the bottles chinked. Lin remembered the years she’d spent picking them up, tying string round their necks, and hanging them on the branches: hundreds of stinking bottles, discarded by drunks. Brown, blue, discolored, green, sometimes black glass made such sweet music. Lin closed her eyes and must have dozed for a minute until the dog inside her head snarled. The door slammed open. Lin looked up and saw a tall policeman, his broad native face impassive, his eyes watchful. His boots and clothes looked worn out. Above the sweat, the dog in her smelled something that made its hackles rise. The man glanced at the bodies. “We’ll talk about them in a few minutes,” he said, in a matter-of-fact way. “First, I need water.” He reached for the glass. Lin sat bolt upright. “No,” she said. “It’s special.” The man studied her. “So were the lives of those men. Yet you killed them, didn’t you?” Lin looked down. “Self defense, of course?” he added. Lin said nothing. The men had jumped her, and the dog hadn’t liked that. She had endured so many brutalities here, their deaths seemed unimportant. “The bodies can wait,” he said. “That water, now, that’s different, isn’t it? And that dog I see, that’s different too, isn’t it?” She drew in a breath. So this policeman saw the dog: this, she hadn’t expected. Lin steeled herself for a knock-down, drag-out fight. Though she had no strength, perhaps the dog would defend her. “Let me guess,” said the man, “over time, those bottles collect that water. It never evaporates. Also, it’s alive, meaning it has a mind and will
of its own and shares its thoughts with you, right? Probably the only friend you’ve ever had, out here. Desert as far as the horizon. A two-day hike to the nearest road. Yet somehow this place has kept supplying the needs of its customers. Alcohol, among other things. That tree outside tells me the rest.” Lin stared at him. A policeman, and a mind-reader? Yet he could see the dog. No one else had. “That water,” said the man. “Give it to me, now.” His voice was commanding, full of the authority she’d always feared and hated. “Fight me,” she said, baring her teeth. “I won’t give it up.” Something in his stance changed: a bracing of his legs, or tightening of his muscles. The dog inside her had a fit. “Ah yes,” he murmured, “it knows. Don’t watch, little girl . . .” “Little? I’m sixteen!” she cried. “Close your eyes.” He stepped forward. “I’ll extract that dog from you and reduce it to dust and beyond.” She shuddered. The dog inside growled as somehow the man shot upward. His head touched the ceiling, and his arms reached for her. The dog flew at him. The man muttered something as his fingers touched her hair. The dog snapped at them, and he pulled back, fingertips red with blood. His face, she noticed, had not changed in any way. At most, she thought, he seemed more intent. Again he reached forward and cupped both hands round her ears. The dog howled. She gagged, the dizziness in her head so bad she nearly pitched forward, but the man seemed to be holding her upright, his hands applying pressure to her head. She smelled blood (her own? his? the dead men’s?). The dog began a high-pitched howl that went straight to her central nervous system. “N-no,” she stammered, “please!” The man grunted, as if in surprise. Lin opened her eyes and saw her friend the water surge up over the rim of the glass and launch itself at the man. The watery missile sprouted long, tapered ends as it spun forward in sluggish slow motion. The man glanced at it. “Good,” he said, and tightened his grip on her head. Good? Lin’s legs went from under her. A knife-edge of pain split open her head. Her eyes rolled upward, and she saw the dog leap out. Instantly, the man seized it by the throat. Lin gasped and slipped to the floor, holding her head. The man reached out to catch the watery missile with his other hand, then, returning to normal size, knelt in front of Lin. The dog’s eyes bulged. The missile writhed. The man looked at Lin. “That tree outside is bad,” he said. “The water it collects is bad. It will consume you, and the dog is worse. Watch.” Still holding the dog firmly, the man forced its jaws apart, clamped them open, and dropped the watery missile onto its tongue. The dog gulped, swallowed, and almost immediately whimpered, lost definition and vanished.
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“Good,” said the man. “All gone.” He stood up and stretched. The tips of his fingers, Lin noticed, had stopped bleeding but looked raw. He sucked them meditatively. “Lin Yahgi,” said the man, “I arrest you for the murder of these men.” He counted them off on his fingers. “Four men, dead, we both know, at the hands of that dog. I’ll get you legal representation. A formality. I’ll testify; you’ll get off.” Lin stared at him. “Little girl,” he said, “I can carry you.” “But, how did you know?” she said, wide-eyed. “About the dog?” “I’ll tell you, but you’ll know to keep it to yourself,” he said, unsmiling. “This country reaches into humans and sometimes finds a home, or at least, a place to grow. You’re not the only one with a dog, but mine’s a tracker, understand? He led me here. I do pretty well as a cop, but my dog gives me that edge in certain situations. You need help. I know someone who can take you in, until you get on your feet again.” She nodded and felt no need to hide. Like dawn breaking on a rain swept mountaintop, the darkness seemed to peel away from her.
94 · The Dog Within
Dreaming of the Manananggal VICTORYA CHASE
he body was actually half a body, slender legs leading up to a perfectly curved waist, and then nothing. Clothed in dark blue jeans and red pumps, it leaned against the bark of a barren tree in Central Park—not the one in New York City, the one in Schenectady, although neither is particularly safe to walk through at night. Where the jeans’ waistband stopped, soft skin curled up into the night, fine threads of flesh caught in some invisible breeze reaching, stretching, and somehow sighing. I tried loving a cancer patient once. We walked through the park. We ate ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s. We even made love despite the doctors still debating if one should while on chemo. Together we’d check her T-cell counts and pray and pray and pray while we caressed each other, while our tongues lingered on lips and hips, on shoulder blades, on pert nipples reaching forward while our breath caught in gasps. Our bodies fit, and I loved the feel of her hair against my face, of the fuzz on her head after it began to grow back. I loved her chemo curl, thick voluptuous hair that wound its way around my fingers when I pulled them over her scalp. Our breasts were the right size for each other’s mouths; hers were butterscotch and cotton candy. Then, later, I’d drink the tea she couldn’t have while she sipped water, while she added in lemon and sugar, while I wondered if I had just killed her. While in love, I gave up smoking. I gave up lazing on the couch after work. I gave up bitching about every little indignity life brought my way. I started to read so I’d have things to say other than, “Are you okay today?” I thought of rescuing a dog from the pound. I didn’t because she couldn’t be around animals while her immune system was suppressed, but the point is I thought about it. Some days she was too tired to feign happiness and her idea of normalcy, and I was thankful for those times. She’d ask to lie on the couch, her head in my lap, eyes closed. Her eyelids were so thin, like rice paper over the ocean. I counted the veins. I saw her eyes moving under her eyelids even as her breathing slowed. She asked me to tell her stories about my life, my family. I told her fairy tales instead. I told her about the Manananggal, a beast that could split itself in two. I spoke of the Aswang instead of my mother. When she asked if I had brothers or sisters I told her about the Tigbalan. She enjoyed hearing about the Tigbalan’s long limbs, that smooth equine face. I told her how they liked to trick travelers, how
they had spikes hidden in their manes, but if you had a spike you could use it to subdue the Tigbalan. Sometimes she’d have me lean against her, and she’d braid my hair. It was a thick black to her curling vibrant red. When I neared the legs, they moved a few steps away, heels crunching down into the snow. I was smoking; it was after midnight. I had walked to the store to buy a case of cigarettes but only had enough money for three packs. I decided to go back through the park despite the night. My lungs were groaning at the return of nicotine and tar but my brain was screaming in neural pulses of pleasure. I was on my fourth cigarette when I saw the legs. I tossed my cigarette stub near them, and the toe of the pump ground it into the snow. I lunged at the waist and tossed it over my shoulder. The legs kicked out at me, bruising my back, but there was no mouth to scream, so I carried it home and locked the door. The living room was a wreck of fast food wrappers and clothes. For the first time, I noticed the smell— processed food product, factory cow and grease and sweat, my sweat, on every piece of clothing that trailed from door to couch to bedroom. I had recently begun unbuttoning my clothes before I reached my door, in the car even, so anxious was I to release myself from the trappings of the hospital where I worked. After she passed—no, after she died, the cancer spreading, the chemo only polluting her blood, poisoning her, leukemia added to the uterine cancer, her insides a mass of replicating cells (“I always wanted a baby,” she joked, “but not like this, not asexually. I like sex.”), her blood killing her with each beat of her heart—I went to the pound. There I met Nuttley, AKA Nutt the Mutt. His eyes were clouds (“Cataracts,” the volunteer said with a laugh, “or, as we call them, dogaracts.”), his fur wiry, one ear stood at attention while the other flopped against the side of his graying muzzle. “He just needs some love,” the volunteer said, kneeling next to him, patting him on the head, scratching his ear. He closed his eyes, useless as they were, in appreciation. “A little love is all he needs,” she repeated. Then, “He never does this,” referring to the puddle of yellow that was slowly spreading, that had wet the knee of the jeans she was wearing. My mother always called me a bad girl, and in that I was like her. I was a tomboy, playing sports and winning. I was also violent. It took a long time for me to realize that the difference between kickball and baseball was that you couldn’t hurl a baseball at people to get them out. It took me bruising a lot of people before I conceded that the rules might be different. I fought. I bled and made others bleed. I didn’t mind being covered with dirt yet loved brushing the hair of my friends, braiding in pink ribbons, smelling their floral perfumes and kissing the chemical of freshly painted nails. I loved them for the very girliness I didn’t have. For that, and so much more, my
96 · Dreaming of the Manananggal
mother warned me to always carry a red sack with ginger and coins—to ward off the bad spirits. It was the only protection she thought to offer me from the world. That’s what she had for me, fairy tales. The legs and waist laid itself down on the couch and pushed off its heels. I could feel the satisfaction in that act. The toes proved themselves to be quite dexterous. They immediately found the remote control and were flipping through channels, the volume turned up to its max. I left to return to the park; surely the top half of the Manananggal would be returning soon—the sun was due to rise in a little over an hour. I met Jennie over the phone. She was scheduling an appointment with the doctor I worked for. I was labeled a ‘Physician’s Office Assistant,’ which really meant ‘Babysitter who Schedules Patients.’ When I wasn’t telling my doctor how wonderful he was for doing his job, I was telling him he was a really good dad even if he did miss his daughter’s recital, and after all, I sent her a card and flowers. I also sent out cards for birthdays and anniversaries and kept his wife and boyfriend separated and ordered his lunch and ushered him from meeting to meeting and prepped him for the patients on clinic days. Jennie’s voice was sad beauty queen. It was Disney princess in reality land. She sent in her scans and chart, and I had gleaned enough medical knowledge to know her prognosis, to know my doctor would take the case, to know I shouldn’t fantasize over a patient, and I never had before, so why now? But damn, she had some hot scans. I made an excuse to catch a glimpse of her in the clinic room and ran into her at the cafeteria during lunch, and when I said, “Hi,” she recognized my voice. She sighed, and I told her that coffee probably wasn’t good for her in her condition. “If you sit here, you have to talk about something else,” she said. “Fine, then reinvent the rainbow,” I said. “I’m sick of those same damn colors.” I don’t know why that came to my mind, but she laughed and I was hooked. Nutt the Mutt with clouds for eyes peed in the car on the way home and barked at every stoplight. I told myself he was barking them green, not that he missed the sensation of movement. He loved riding in the car. He loved walking on the leash, his one pert ear turning in every direction, picking up noises only a blind dog could hear. He loved eating, and he loved sniffing. He sniffed everything, big snotty snorts led him around the house that first night, from living room to bathroom to kitchen and bedroom. He didn’t try to get up on the furniture, but when I sat on the couch, he curled on my feet, his nose sniffsniffsniffing my toes. The Manananggal was not happy I had taken her legs. Her hair was wild and her wings as fragile as my lover’s eyelids—taut, cappuccino skin with
Victorya Chase · 97
veins highlighted by the rays of the moon. She hopped on my shoulders, strong arms holding on to my chest—the touch exciting me—and I carried her home. Her heart beat against my spine, and I wondered if it was always this fast or if she was nervous. The TV was playing a QVC special on sneaker pumps. She slid off my back and walked fist over fist to where her lower half lay on the couch. Tendrils from her top met those from her bottom half, and they slowly merged together. She opened her mouth as if to scream, but only squeaks came out. She signed furiously, but I only knew three things in sign language—the words ‘fuck,’ ‘horny,’ and the chorus of ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ None of those seemed fitting. I went into the kitchen and made tea. She followed, and it was then I realized she was topless. Her hair, black like mine, was tangled from a night of flying. I set a cup of tea in front of her, sitting down with my own cup. She took a sip and winced. I went to the cupboard and fetched sugar. Jennie wanted her rainbow to have patterns in it, not solid colors. She wanted a paisley stripe, a checkered stripe, a polka dot stripe. “But the colors,” I asked. “What colors would be in your rainbow?” Then she changed her mind and wanted her rainbow to be made of cheesecake. Of bacon and pizza and French fries drenched in fake cheese sauce. Of whiskey ice cream and salted caramel. Schenectady, NY was burned down in 1690. I found this out in a musical my mother took me to. It was commissioned to celebrate the tri-centennial. Through song I learned that the French came from Montreal, along with Algonquin Indians. They stormed across the Mohawk River under orders from King Louis XIV and slaughtered the residents who had, it seemed, left the door to the stockades open. Over sixty people were killed, their blood freezing on the streets. It was February, the coldest month in upstate New York. Since then the population grew and shrunk, grew and shrunk. The whole time our history was danced by more performers than had initially died, my mother smiled and looked over at me, her knee bopping to the rhythms. Now I lived across from a field that buzzed, supposedly from chemicals left over or spilled when the old Alcoa plant was around. The city was dying once again. Recession, progression, evolution—pick your enemy, it was storming the city, abandoning factories, taking jobs away. I asked the Manananggal why she picked this city, why she left the Philippines for here. She signed frantically, and I sighed. “Don’t you eat fetuses?” I asked. This time she sighed. Her eyes were big and the irises as dark as her pupils. Her skin looked so smooth, so soft. She smelled of winter and woods, of earth and snow. Her fingers, slender, curled around the mug. She held it in both hands. “You can borrow a shirt,” I said. “I’ll lay a few out.” I put three on the couch and went to my room and fell asleep.
98 · Dreaming of the Manananggal
· · · Nutt the Mutt never wet the house. He’d sniff his way to the door for his walks. He’d whine for car rides, and I’d take him to Central Park, to the Lochs, to the Mohawk River where he’d gently, oh so gently, put in one paw and then shake off the wet, then put in the other paw and shake, then cry and walk into the water, waiting for me to follow. He’d never go in far, but I could hear his contented snotty sniffs, see his cloudy eyes looking up at their brothers in the sky. Could he see the rainbows through his clouds? Even before he was blind, could he see the colors, or was it true that dog vision is shades of gray? Did he only see streaks of gray curving across the sky, a promise unfilled? My love is a death knell. I loved Jennie with everything I thought I had, and that wasn’t enough. I left the door of my heart open for Nutt the Mutt, but he only lasted a little over a month. “Kidneys,” the vet said. “But kudos to you for making his last days good ones.” I mouthed the word “kudos.” My mother had to rescue me from school often. In kindergarten I kissed Susie Patterson during story time. In third grade I skipped class with friends to sit under the slide and giggle at the fact that we could sit under the slide instead of taking another math test. In fifth grade I went into the restroom during recess and wadded up paper towels with soap and water, throwing them on the ceiling and at boys that passed by, pushing their noses in, hoping for a peek at the mysteries of girlhood. I beat up a boy for asking my best friend out in junior high, for not asking me, for trying to take her from me. I swore in chemistry class when I dropped the glass rods we were bending into perfect ninety-degree angles. Each time my mother would come to school to pick me up, her hair in an impossibly neat bun at the nape of her neck, her skin leathery brown, her accent thick still despite living longer in America than her homeland. I’d be embarrassed when she spoke, when she betrayed our heritage, but not enough to not get angry. Not enough to reign myself in and sit still and pretty, to be anything other than the child, teenager, and then adult that I was. And each time on the way home, she wouldn’t ask why, she wouldn’t look for an answer. She’d pat my leg and tell me to be careful. She’d beg me to remember her stories, that the folklore of her childhood not devour me in mine. It wasn’t Jennie’s death that led me back to cigarettes, to drive-thru meals and midnight walks through parks. It was Nutt’s, and that made me hate myself even more. Did I not love Jennie enough to want to kill myself over her death, was she not as important as a mutt I had for a month? · · ·
Victorya Chase · 99
I woke to a clean house. Manananggals didn’t clean, did they? I woke to being pushed out of bed. To a woman, fresh from the shower, long black hair draped down her back, damp, smelling of my shampoo, of pomegranate Suave, wrapped in my good towel trying to scream but only letting out hollow squeaks, memories of words, nudging me awake. “Just leave your lower half here at night,” I said. “It will be safer.” When I meant to say was, “God you’re beautiful, can I just touch you?” She pushed again, and I sat up. She sat next to me. Where were her wings during the day? I couldn’t imagine the towel hiding them, yet I didn’t see anything. Maybe they were wrapped around her waist somehow. I closed my eyes. Jennie had a mother and a father who divorced when she was little. She had a brother who went to Iraq and got hit with a mortar shell. He was in a special home now. He could walk and talk but saw the world differently. I loved her more for saying it that way, “He saw the world differently after that.” For not saying what her mother did, that “He suddenly thought he was Gandalf. He kept searching for that damn Frodo to give him the ring and ended up being picked up by police for harassing children and little people alike, handing them curled pieces of wire, hair tied in knots, bottle caps.” Jennie never condemned him for those fantasies. We never condemned each other for our scars. “I always wanted a child,” she confessed. “But now I have no choice.” I fingered the scar across her abdomen. My doctor thought a hysterectomy would remove all cancer cells. He was wrong. “The Cyclops smiley face,” I told her, tracing the curve with my finger, kissing her belly button softly, kissing my way down. “The Manananggal eats fetuses,” my mother said. “It sticks a proboscis up a woman’s pookie and sucks out the unborn child. The Manananggal can be born a Manananggal, or can be made one by eating a piece of another Manananggal, or ingesting its sputum. You can become a Manananggal by swallowing a black chick and it lodging in your throat. The Manananggal separates from its lower half and leaves it hidden, and then flies around at night. You can ward one off with a red pouch filled with coins and ginger. You can kill one by rubbing the top of the torso with garlic and salt so the halves can’t connect. The sun will kill an unattached Manananggal.” All of this she told me in place of hugs or hellos or questions about school. She spoke often of the Manananggal with real emotion in her voice, with fear and awe and unbridled belief. But Manananggals are fairy tales. Then, so are Snow White and Cinderella and all those tales of rescued princesses. A kiss is not enough to save a princess. Sometimes the princess can’t be saved. · · ·
100 · Dreaming of the Manananggal
The Manananggal did not leave my house. She kept it clean. She left me notes, sometimes forcing them in front of my eyes. “I’m lost,” she wrote. “Aren’t we all,” I said. “I hurt,” she wrote. “You’re never alone in pain,” I said. “You’re pretty fucked up, aren’t you?” she wrote. “I’m not the one who splits in two to dine on the unborn,” I screamed at her, storming out. Then I returned after slamming the door and threw a key at her. “It’s my spare,” I said. “For when I’m gone, like now,” and I slammed the door again. I fought with Jennie once. Not knockdown drag out. I was being protective; I knew the routine for a cancer patient. I knew the diet, the allowed activities. I made up the packets to give to patients and their families. I knew it all. She set the packets on fire and told me to just love her. She kicked me and told me to ignore the information and kiss her. She hit me and hit me and told me to listen to her, goddammit. To let her live and to live was to kiss and to screw and to cry and to eat bacon and, fuck the doctors, she knew her body, and I stayed away and stayed away and then fell into her and she died. She didn’t follow the packet and I followed my heart and she died. With Nutt, he got into the chocolate. I left some on the counter; I was going to make cookies from scratch. I was going to try and bake and live through that act, small as it was, but I left it on the counter and he ate all the chocolate and I couldn’t blame him but by morning he was curled in his own mess and by evening the vet said, “Kudos.” “Please,” I asked the Manananggal. She unbuttoned my shirt. She kissed my neck. Her fingers were more dexterous than her toes. She unzipped my pants, and I took off her t-shirt (actually, one of mine). I wrapped my arms around her, feeling for wings but finding none. I took off her skirt (also mine), tugging it down her hips and felt a smooth rise of scar where her two halves met. She kissed me and then picked up a sharpie. “I don’t eat paslit,” she wrote across my stomach. The smell was thick, acrid. The ink cool. I kissed the nape of her neck, tasted the salt of fiction, of sweat and homelands. Also, I tasted soap. “You suck fetuses out of women,” I said. She moved her mouth over my breasts, hovered there breathing desire. Then she wrote on my thigh. “No, I don’t.” She separated, her top half pulling silently from the bottom, wings sprouting from her back while my fingers fumbled to meet them, to understand their mystery.
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“My mother said you go up the pek-pek, the pookie. You suck out the child.” My breathing was heavier; it took a while for me to get all those words out. I was whispering in her ear, her wild hair wrapping silken history around my neck. She pulled away and with the marker made arrows next to her ‘No’ before lowering herself down on me. When medicine failed, I prayed to God. I prayed to St. Peregrine and learned his prayer by heart. For so many years you bore in your own flesh this cancerous disease that destroys the very fiber of our being, and who had the recourse to the source of all grace when the power of man could do no more. Ask of God and our Lady the cure of the sick whom we entrust with you. Every day at lunch I went to the hospital’s chapel and prayed. Every night in my sleep I prayed. And when those prayers failed I prayed for the Manananggal. I prayed it would come and mistake Jennie’s tumors for a fetus and suck them all out. I prayed Jennie could swallow its spit and then split herself in two and leave the sick half hidden in the bushes. Then I cursed the beast. I decided it had poisoned her, had reached up and in the act of removing her womb filled it with a black chick, with the disease. Every morning Jennie and I were together I woke up to her arms around me. I lay in the fetal position, tears streaming down my face, and her arms were there, loving me, protecting me. I always thought myself the prince, but I was wrong. “What do you dream of?” the Manananggal writes on my arm. The sun is streaming through the window. She’s together now, her legs wrapped around mine. I feel the tears on my face, her fingers wiping them down my cheek, away from my skin. “History,” I tell her. “A rainbow of history—of lovers and mothers and dogs and those slain at the stockades.” “What do you dream about?” Jennie asked, her breath warm awakening in my ear. “The Manananggal,” I’d say. And she’d hold me even tighter. Kiss me behind the ear. I could feel her smile even as she tightened her grip, even as I reached for her once more.
102 · Dreaming of the Manananggal
Crows, My Crows CHANGMING YUAN
1/ The Crow Cornered Still, still hidden Behind old shirts and pants Like an inflated sock Hung on a slanting coat hanger With a prophecy stuck in its throat Probably too dark or ominous To yaw, even to breathe No one knows when or how It will fly out of the closet and call 2/ The Crow Gone Astray The crow you have just seen Has a quasi white soul That used to dwell in the body Of one of your closest ancestors He comes down all the way just to tell you His little secret, the way he has flown out Of darkness, the fact both his body and heart Are filled with shadows, the truth about Being a dissident, that unwanted color Hidden in your own heart is there also a crow Much blacker than his spirits But less so than his feathers
Grounded FAITH SCHANTZ
his true account of what happened to me, I offer to You. I climbed on top of my bedroom settee to fix one of the curtains, and when I couldn’t quite reach the rod, I walked a little way up the wall. I didn’t think about it until I’d fitted the hooks and climbed down to the floor. Somehow I’d found toeholds that weren’t there. I told myself that I couldn’t have done, but my feet remembered the wallpaper, its chalky feel. I had walked on the wall. Just then my stepfather Anthony shouted from behind the corridor door. “Emma, I’ve left your tea. Your bedroom door’s unlocked for two minutes, so you’d better dash.” As if he was warning me I’d be late for school. They were his walls, his doors. When Mum and I moved in, she told me not to hang my posters or walk on my bedroom carpet wearing shoes. Like I should hover for three years until I left for university. That would suit Anthony down to the ground, I knew. He seemed to think his Cotswold stone would crack if I set a ketchup bottle on the table or tucked my feet up on a chair. Mum wouldn’t intervene. We’d had a little chat after she told me they were engaged. I ticked off Anthony’s faults and she said she didn’t expect me to understand. The life of a single woman was dire. I asked what century she thought we were living in. She didn’t care if she sounded old-fashioned, she said, while she smoothed her cardigan and patted her hair. Women still needed security. Security was laid on with my stepfather—he owned a home protection firm. “Safe as Houses Home Security” had clients in the Royal Crescent, which was posh even for Bath. He’d fitted up his own house with “special features,” so the day we moved in I asked for a demonstration. Showing interest in his hobby, you’d think he’d be pleased. But he brushed me off. Another time, he said. A few days later I was listening to my iPod through the built-in speakers in my bedroom when Lily Allen cut out and one of Anthony’s folk ballads started in. He was in the sitting room, reading The Guardian. “Hey Anthony, some wires must have crossed . . .” I began. The newspaper shook on his fat belly. “Dickhead,” I said under my breath, but he heard. The paper flapped to his lap and he froze me with a gorgon stare. Until then I hadn’t realized how things were sorted between us. Some people aren’t meant to be parents.
He bided his time. This morning, with Mum away on a weekend training course, he confiscated my phone and laptop and locked me in my room. When I asked what was going on, he listed my offenses. “Dickhead” was one of many, as it turned out. From the corridor floor I collected a tray with a mug of milky tea and a plate of biscuits. Earlier, I’d yelled, thrown things, and tried to pull down the curtains—let him think I’d given up now. Later he had a folk song society meeting, and I didn’t want him to give it a miss on account of me. I drank my tea and studied the faint toe-prints on the wall. I remembered You. On a school trip a few weeks ago, I’d visited the Roman Baths with my class. The others had all been there before, so they trudged round in utter boredom, listening to their iPods instead of the audio guides. But the place was brilliant, if you ask me. The only hot spring in all of Britain comes out of the ground in Bath—and You’ve lived there for thousands of years. The Celts called You “Sulis,” the Romans “Sulis Minerva.” Sulis Minerva, goddess of the Sacred Spring. How did they know You were a girl god? How did You make them believe? I stared into cases of objects archaeologists had found in the spring: prayer offerings, thank-you gifts, and curse requests written on thin pieces of lead. Like Whoever stole my cloak, you must make him pay with his blood. The lead had to have been as flexible as paper because some people had rolled or folded their curses before they’d thrown them in. I wondered if You favored requests from females. In the loo, I pulled a chewing gum wrapper out of my pocket and smoothed the foil with my thumb. I tried to sort out what I wanted. Not Anthony’s actual blood. I just needed a leg up, a way to tip the scales in my direction, though I couldn’t think what it might be. With a fingernail, I wrote on the silver paper, “Grant me power over him.” I folded it up small and hid it in my hand. They didn’t let visitors get close enough to the Sacred Spring, so I waited my chance next to a large pool of furry green water topped with steam. A sign said not to touch the water, but when the teacher turned her back I squatted and dipped my hand in. It wasn’t as warm as I expected, but it stuck to my fingers and seemed to vibrate against them. I opened my hand and the curse floated out. “Go to the goddess,” I said. I asked You to bless Dad’s spirit also, but if You could only manage the one . . . I was clinging to the side of the house when Anthony returned from his meeting. While he was gone I’d practiced walking vertically and horizontally all over my room. Regardless of position, my bare feet gripped the wall like a really good set of trainers. Still, when I lowered myself from the window I kept one arm hooked over the sill. What if my bedroom had some weird
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force field, and out here I’d drop to the ground? But the air cushioned my back, and the stone seemed magnetically attracted to my feet. I scrabbled around the house until I was within sight of the driveway. It was peaceful up there before Anthony arrived. From over my shoulder I watched him get out of his car, and I saw him see me. For a long moment he didn’t move. Then he ran for the garage. He came out with a ladder, lugged it over, and set it up below me. It was a super whizzo “Safe as Houses” extension ladder, which I hadn’t expected. “Not to worry,” he called. Everything was under control, Anthony was here. His world was still secure. In a few seconds he’d reach me. You know I never touched him or the ladder, though after he fell and broke both legs they told me I must have done. Anthony claimed not to remember, but he remembered well enough, if you ask me. Just before he came within range I stuck out my foot and prodded the air. It had a bouncy give, like a trampoline or a rope bridge. I wondered if You could breathe underwater. “Cheers, Anthony,” I said, and I stepped away from the wall.
106 · Grounded
Isis MEAGHAN HOPE
Dear Sir, in response to your inquiries on a red granite lion. Sentimentality speaks through me, too, Sir. The day the lion arrived, my husband was spry as a child; a joy to see. Our world is without tangible past that does not sit alone on a synthetic pedestal. There are no longer places where we may inter our dead, even in the ashes we must consign them to. If we were allowed we would still decompose, become a little bit of Earth again. But decomposition in the confined space of a ship is a health hazard, and there is no sea to cast our dead into that does not carry with it the fear of a meteoric return. My husband died two months ago. From his ashes we made the diamond tip that carved his name in our only stone. Amenhotep; Tutankhamun; Amanislo;
Dear Sir. Cease your correspondence, please. It is not for sale.
Mrs. Coltsfootâ€™s Neighbour SAM GRIEVE
ISSING: Mrs. Elspeth Coltsfoot, 45, of Hedrington Hall, North Hants, discovered missing on the 22nd of June by her maid, Miss Elizabeth Smith. Mrs. Coltsfoot has not been seen publically for a number of years, following the death of her husband Major Felix (Roarer) Coltsfoot, deceased in the Second Boer War. Detectives are following a number of leads, but are keen to receive any information that can be provided on the whereabouts of a neighbour, a Mr. Goodfellow, with whom Mrs. Coltsfoot had a correspondence. A reward of 100 pounds for her safe return has been offered by Mrs. Coltsfootâ€™s nephew, the Rev. Archibald Hume, of Chelsea, London. Please contact the North Hants Constabulary, Aldershot. (Extract from the Times Newspaper, 24th June, 1920)
Hedrington Hall North Hants Thursday 6th May 1920 Dear Sir, Whilst I have not received any official notification from the village, it has come to my attention that someone has moved into the cottage that abuts my estate. Eglantine has been empty for many years so I was surprised to see, as I took my coffee in the morning room, a plume of blue smoke arising from the chimbley pot. I look forward to receiving your introduction by way of a letter as I am disinclined to attend to visitors. Yours cordially, Mrs. Elspeth Coltsfoot Widow
Hedrington Hall North Hants Saturday 8th May 1920 Dear Sir, or is it Madam? I wrote to you two mornings ago introducing myself but as yet have received nothing from you. I look forward to reading your letter as soon as possible, as I feel most uncomfortable living in direct view of your parlour window without having had a proper introduction. May I also point out, that now that you have possession of Eglantine, the roof tiles on the south side are in bad repair and are in need of replacement? Sincerely, Mrs. Elspeth Coltsfoot
Hedrington Hall North Hants Tuesday 11th May 1920 Dear Sir, or is it Mr. Goodfellow? I recently received a notice from my solicitor informing me that Eglantine Cottage has been rented by a Mr. Goodfellow, Esq., whom, excuse my presumption, I take to be you? I am very surprised that you have not responded to either of my former letters. Betsy, my maid who delivered them, has assured me that she put them directly in your letterbox, although she has begged me not to send her again as she believes there is a beesâ€™ nest beneath your eves on account of the loud buzzing sound she heard emanating from your home. I wait in earnest for your correspondence. Yours sincerely, Elspeth Coltsfoot, Mrs.
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Thursday 13th May 1920 Mr. Goodfellow, For I now know truly that this is your name, having got it from the vicar. Please send me a letter immediately detailing who you are and whence you have come. I have petitioned all the village—no one knows anything of your character, nor have you placed an order at the baker, the butcher or the costermonger. A character reference from a person of Quality would be most appreciated at this point. I myself am descended from the Beedles of Running March; in fact there is some genealogical evidence that suggests sang-royal may run though our veins but I have no wish to boast, of course. Your neighbour, Elspeth Flora Peregrine Coltsfoot P.S. I enclose herewith a seedcake from my kitchen as a little token of my welcome. You may judge this a little forward but I was brought up to show kindness to strangers. I trust you will enjoy it. My cook is most proficient.
Hedrington Hall North Hants Friday 14th May 1920 Mr. Goodfellow, I have still not received a letter but am presuming that the bucket of bluebells, left on the gravel beside the front door might be from you? Is this a peace offering? From what I remember, the woods around the cottage simply flourish with said flowers at this time of the year. There is a dell to the west of your kitchen, beyond the antique oaks, in which they proliferate. Is that where they came from? I have put them in the drawing room where they pick up the indigo of the chinoiserie sofa. I am still awaiting a WRITTEN correspondence but thank you nonetheless for the bouquet. Your neighbour, E. Coltsfoot
110 · Mrs. Coltsfoot’s Neighbour
Hedrington Hall North Hants Sunday 16th May 1920 Mr. Goodfellow—Sir! I am sorry to bother you again but really this has gone on long enough! No letter as yet but such noise in the night! I could barely sleep for the caterwauling coming from your home. Two or three times I was forced from my bed by the racket—with my spyglass I could just make out shapes dancing on your lawn, and strings of lanterns hanging from your apple trees. Was that fiddling I heard? Whilst I am not impartial to a good tune, I do not think it seemly that you wake the whole neighbourhood at three o’clock in the morning with your parties, even a housewarming. Perhaps next time you can give me some prior notice so I may sleep on the far side of the Hall. I will be taking tea on the west lawn at four this afternoon as it is supposed to be a mild day. I expect you to join me there with a full apology, and your belated notes of introduction. Mrs. Coltsfoot
Hedrington Hall North Hants Monday 17th May 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, So once again I find myself disappointed. I sat on the lawn for at least one whole hour waiting for you, and the spring sun was very hot. You were most assuredly at home for again I saw a trail of smoke wafting from your chimbley. Being so situated I was also able to note that your hedge is in need of shaping and your cottage can barely be seen for the ivy. Indeed, if one did not know of its existence, one might not notice it at all, it looks so like a pile of leaves! I am also informing you that this letter will be placed beneath the white stone that marks the boundary between your land and mine. My serving girls are proving most superstitious and will no longer venture on to your side; why, Louisa assures me she was chased by wrens which nipped her fiercely on the head when she put the last letter in your box and Susan was quite overcome with sneezes, which she blames on the profusion of toadstools that grow along your path. They are obviously simple country girls but I cannot dissuade them of their notions. Tomorrow, therefore, I plan to call on you myself, as you have still failed to do me the common courtesy of answering my invitations. Mrs. Coltsfoot
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Tuesday 18th May 1920 Mr. Goodfellow, Well really! You are too tiresome. Each time I determine to reprimand you, you seek to mollycoddle me. As if I could be pacified with a brace of pheasant, plump as they are. Why, this morning after breakfast, I was quite determined to put on my walking boots and walk the ha-mile between our homes but unfortunately the weather came in all of a sudden and I was forced back to the drawing room. I did take the opportunity to fix my spyglass on you, and was most surprised to see that sunlight appeared to be glinting off your new weathervane, while at Hedrington ducks were afloat in the garden due to the tempest. With regards to your weathervane, it is causing some contention in this house. Susan assures me it is a stork, although Betsy has determined it is a lion. I cannot quite make it out myself despite my long sight but from a certain angle I almost thought it could be… could be… But, what am I writing? I apologise most profusely, I must have lost myself in thought. I am most occupied with estate business this week but please feel free to make yourself known to me at any time between five and six for a glass of cordial. Thank you for the pheasant. They are to be made into a pie, on which I shall dine this evening with a salad of field greens. Yours sincerely, Elspeth Coltsfoot
112 · Mrs. Coltsfoot’s Neighbour
Hedrington Hall North Hants Wednesday 19th May 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, So this morning after breakfast, I dressed in my stoutest boots, hitched up my skirts and walked across the field to your house. My soles were caked in mud before I reached halfway. Thick, sticky wheels of it stuck to my feet like boiled pudding, and I was quite puffed as it has been many years since I ventured so far. I was forced to rest several times, once on an old log, mottled with lichen, once against a willow, and once on the top of the stile, where I ate the slight nourishment Betsy had prepared for me, some dried apricots and a piece of gingerbread. From the stile I could make out the end of my property, the edges so neatly mown, and the beginning of yours, where Nature has taken hold in her wild way. The path to your house was almost overgrown with grasses, and bumblebees glinted gold amongst the meadow flowers. I must confess I do not know how long I sat upon that stile, the whole afternoon it would seem, just enjoying England but when I came to my senses the shadows were long across the grass and from the house I could hear Betsy calling my name in alarm. I hastened home to assure her I was quite unharmed but still cannot account for those lost hours. Yours truly, E. Coltsfoot
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Friday 21st of May 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, Still no introduction (very vexing) but again I find I must write to thank you for your little generosities; this time a string of fat perch, wrapped in leaves and left on the doorstep before sun-up. Betsy brought them in to show me as I read the morning paper, and we surmised they must be from you due to the eglantine rose tucked in with the foliage. They are most assuredly fine fish, with their gold striped scales and red tipped fins—better even than the Major might have caught in Coddleston brook. Speaking of Betsy, I feel the girl is assuredly going soft in the head for she came tearing up the stairs again after I had dismissed her to tell me that the perch had wriggled out of her hands on the landing, and swam through the air and right down to the kitchen! I told her to go and lie down for an hour with a cold rag upon her forehead, after which I was relieved to see she seemed her normal self. I would call for the doctor, of course, but he charges a crown for house calls, which is half her week’s pay. As to why you did not bring your fish later, and ring the doorbell, I am wondering if perhaps, like me, you are not a social sort of individual? There is, however, the mystery of your party? Or perhaps you do not enjoy the company of ladies? Your neighbour, Elspeth
114 · Mrs. Coltsfoot’s Neighbour
Hedrington Hall North Hants Monday 24th of May 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, Well, I took it upon myself to call on you this afternoon. This time I waited until after lunch before I stepped out. I must confess I found the walk easier this time. Perhaps the day was less warm, or perhaps my body is accustoming itself to this unusual exercise but I marched directly to the entrance of your land. It was only there that I paused, for whilst it is hard to believe, it appears that your verges are even more hideously overgrown than before. The path had shrunk down to a narrow lane barely fit for goat, and high on each side rose up such a rampant hedgerow of stinging bramble, nettle and borage I could only pass through it by turning myself sideways. And the insects! Why, I have never seen wasps so large, or such enormous Cabbage Whitesâ€”almost the size of my cheek and fluttering everywhere. Despite my fear however, I caught up my skirt and ventured in. Within a few steps I was deep inside your jungle, indeed, looking back I could no longer see the entrance, nor Hedrington. I must admit, my heart began to hammer at this point for how long has it been since Hedrington was out of my view? But then I recalled my cousin Lionel, who once crossed the Himalaya in his bare feet, in the winter, and I resolved that the courage of woman surely equals that of a man, and I should journey on. Of course, I believed that your house, with its grey stone and mullioned windows lay not far ahead down the path, for I have spied it a thousand times, but in that mazy thicket I must have taken a wrong turn. For as I ventured down the narrow track, walking with great difficulty sideways the whole time, a crab in French silk, the path just twisted and turned and no house came into view. The air grew warmer, and the sound of the insects, the strumming crickets and the buzzing bees increased in tempo until my ears were ringing from the tumult. I became light-headed and my breast grew damp. But Sir, I was most determined to find you. Each step was a grievance but I kept going. And then finally, the path seemed to widen. I hastened forward, eager to see your green door and the spotted mushrooms that grew beneath your windowpane. But what did I encounter instead? The white stone that marks the division between our properties! Mr. Goodfellow, I had gone in a complete circle and there ahead of me stood lovely Hedrington with its yellow Bath stone amber in the evening light. It was already quite late and the dining room chandelier was lit and shining through the long windows. Betsy would have laid out my evening clothes and run my bath, and in the kitchen, my dinner would be almost ready. I was so panicked; I almost ran home across the lawn and slipped in the conservatory door so the servants would not see the tattered state of my clothes, my unkempt hair, and the bramble scratches that covered my arms and face. Have no fear, thoâ€™, dear Mr. Goodfellow! I am determined to find
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you and demonstrate upon that happy occasion the correct way to make the acquaintance of one’s neighbour. Yours, Elspeth Coltsfoot
Hedrington Hall North Hants Tuesday 25th of May 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, I am writing to you from bed. Betsy has just come in and laid a silver tray upon my legs with my breakfast, (toast and butter, a yellow kipper and a pot of tea) and as it is such a frosty morning outside I thought I would enjoy the comfort of my eiderdown for an hour or so longer. I am also, I must admit a bit tired after my long walk yesterday, although I am still puzzled as to how I could get so lost just walking from my house to yours! There is but one conclusion—since the Major died I have been most retiring; perhaps one loses one’s sense of direction if one rarely goes outside? My, what strange weather for May! I have just got up and peered out the casement. Are you having this snow too? I can see nothing but a world of white; we must have had a foot at least. I do not have the boots for snow so you can rest assured I will not be attempting any further ambushes on your retreat until it is quite gone! Reading this over I realize how familiar I am getting with you. Please do excuse me, but as you never answer back and I have no other correspondences I wish to engage in, I find it such temptation to set down here what truly lies in my heart. Yours sincerely, Elspeth
116 · Mrs. Coltsfoot’s Neighbour
Hedrington Hall North Hants Saturday 29th May 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, We have been snowed in for three days! Luckily the pantries were well stocked with a whole ham, jars of pickled beans, jams and jellies, a basket of eggs, a wheel of cheddar, bags of flour and a box of chocolates from Fortnum’s, still wrapped in its peppermint green paper. Unfortunately several members of my domestic staff have not come to work, on account of the roads being impassable, we presume. The rest of us have had to make do with our pioneer spirit. I handed out extra coal for the servants’ hearths, and Betsy ensured that the morning room, which is the smallest receiving room in the house, had a constant fire so I had somewhere cozy to spend my days. I thought of you much in your little home, but even through my spyglass I can see nothing of it. I trust you are quite well? I have just sent Sydney (my First Footman) into the blizzard with a basket of provisions for you—some cheese, a loaf and pickled onions, a little fruit pie. I am watching him make his way across the field as I write; in fact it is bringing quite a smile to my face for he does look remarkably queer, picking his long legs up and down like a spider, a great woolen hat stuck upon his head. Elspeth
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Saturday 29th May 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, It is now six o’clock and Sydney has not returned. Susan, who is quite sweet on him (but thinks I do not know), is quite beside herself with worry. She was so pre-occupied staring out of the window when she served my tea, that she dropped a Meissen teacup and the handle broke off. Now she cannot stop from weeping; each time I look at her, fat tears roll down her plump cheeks. I am quite vexed on account of her carelessness but have not the heart to show it. The dark is now coming in but still this snow falls. What if Sydney fell into a ditch and is frozen with cold? I am thinking that if he does not come back soon I will have to put out a search party for him. 7:30pm No sign of Sydney. 8:30pm I have taken my supper on my lap beside the fire. A slice of ham and mustard, a little roll and a cup of beer. I have no appetite to eat. No Sydney. 9:30pm Still no Sydney. I went down to the kitchen to enquire and found Susan face down on the table, her sleeves wet from crying. The other servants are pale with fright; I must do something so I instruct Mr. Lowell (my Butler) to borrow the Major’s greatcoat and go out into the storm with his dachshund, Mitsy. 9:45pm We all watch Mr. Lowell tread through the snow from the drawing room window. He is very stout, Mr. Lowell, much like his dog, and the Major’s coat drags on the snow behind him. He disappears into the storm but still we see his kerosene lantern burning like a star. 10:30pm Mr. Lowell has returned quite frozen, his fingers almost blue with cold. He is wearing just his shirtsleeves—even his tailcoat is gone. Normally I would reprimand him for such indecency but I have never seen a man so shocked—his face is quite green, and his hair plastered to his skull. I instructed Betsy to open the drinks cabinet in the drawing room and to bring me a bottle of brandy. The seal was sugary under my fingers for the bottle has not been opened since the Major died. I poured Mr. Lowell a full glass for medicinal purposes, which he drank in a single mouthful. Mr. Lowell is full of strange stories. He says he walked directly to your cottage through the blizzard but when he reached the boundary stone he noticed to his amazement that the snow had disappeared completely—why, on my side of the boundary it was almost two feet deep and still falling steadily, whilst your wood was completely untouched. Indeed, Mr. Lowell claimed that as he stepped past the white stone onto your overgrown path, he was overcome immediately with the scents of a warm summer night. Fireflies darted amongst the grasses, and from the direction of your house he could hear music, a sort of discordant fiddling he described it, like something Scottish. He began to sweat under the greatcoat so he took it off
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and left it near the white stone, along with his scarf and gloves, stopping to marvel at how the snow fell, like a curtain along the perimeter. He began to make his way down the path with Mitsy in front, sniffing each inch of the ground with her brown nose. As he walked towards the cottage, Mr. Lowell said he felt he was in a dream; everything made perfect sense to him; the warm night air, almost Italian in its softness, the hum of insects in the hedgerows, the floating lights that drifted like little moons above your cottage, the winding path with its glowing pebbles, the joyous leap of the fiddle song. He could even make out your cottage, each window ablaze, and inside it were revelers, all wearing headdresses, he surmised, for all he could see were feathers. And on top of your roof swung your weathervane, which Mr. Lowell remarked looked exactly like a nymph out of Roman myth. And then suddenly the music shifted, another song started and Mr. Lowell saw that Mitsy was picking up her feet as though they hurt her. Then he too was picking up his feet, not just picking up his feet but also dancing, Mr. Goodfellow! He claimed he could not stop; kick kick went his legs like those of a marionette, into the air he leapt and soared, and beside him Mitsy danced too, whining in dismay the whole time. Mr. Lowell said he jigged right back down the path, right past the greatcoat and his gloves, and into the curtain of snow that continued to fall on Hedrington. Meanwhile the heat was rising in him for he had not done so much exercise in years, and his heart was pounding, and before he knew it he had removed his tailcoat and his tie and undone his collar and pulled his shirttails from his trousers. The basket, he believes he left on your path? Mr. Goodfellow? It is so absurd and yet I must ask you, is there magic afoot? I can think of no other explanation. Your neighbour, Elspeth Coltsfoot
Hedrington Hall North Hants Sunday 30th of May 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, Sydney has returned! He was discovered this morning in his bed quite fast asleep, wearing nothing, Betsy divulged to me, but his wig. He says he does not recall coming home but has a vague recollection of dancing all night at your party. His uniform cannot be found. This is all too muddling. Elspeth Coltsfoot
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Friday 4th June 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, It has been nearly a whole week since I last wrote to you, and what a most trying five days it has been! I do believe the servants have succumbed to Spring Fever. Indeed I have been pulled quite left and right sorting out their problems and have barely had any time for my embroidery, my crossword, or my bird watching—pastime I gain great solace from. Let me give you a little colour of what I have been dealing with. On Tuesday, Sydney, the same Sydney who claims he spent Saturday night dancing at your house, requested a private conference with Mr. Lowell. Mr. Lowell and I thought it might concern Sydney’s uniform, which has been missing since Saturday, and it has been most exacerbating for me to see him squeezed into the Second Footman’s trousers, which were cut for a far shorter man. Anyway, we were both wrong. It turned out that Sydney has always had a desire to appear on the stage, particularly in Musical Theatre, and after spending such a rambunctious evening at your home has quite convinced himself that this is what he must do! He gave his notice to Mr. Lowell, and then went upstairs and packed his bag. When Mr. Lowell came to see me I was very firm. Sydney must work out his notice period, for how else was I to get a footman in such a short space of time? But Sydney refused! He told me quite candidly that he had no wish to spend another night in this “mausoleum” and that he had saved up a bit of money with which he could pay off the week’s due. As if I would take money from a servant! I was beside myself with rage but before I could even express myself, Sydney pranced out of the front door and headed up the lane towards the station. I have now promoted John to First Footman but as nature has not been kind to him with regards to his face or physique, I pray no unexpected visitors drop in, who might spy him. Of course, Sydney’s leaving has left me with another issue: Susan. She is quite beside herself again, as she had set her sights on marrying him. Of course, one look at Sydney would convince you that he is not the marrying kind, if you get my meaning, but Susan is inconsolable. And when I went in to tell her to buck up, she informed me that she was also thinking of leaving, as how was she to survive in this decrepit awful place without Sydney to brighten her life? I wanted to smack her across the face for belittling Hedrington like that but just at that point I did happen to notice that the paint on the wall behind her was peeling rather badly, and on the way up the stairs I tripped and banged my knee on the parquet, for several of the floorboards were completely loose. And then, horror of horrors, this morning Mr. Lowell came into the drawing room and asked whether he could make a proposal. For a moment I
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thought he meant marriage, and I stared at his great bullfrog face and whiskery ears in shock, but it turned out he had another idea: He wanted to buy the Major’s car! “The Rolls Royce?” I spluttered! “The Silver Ghost?” “Yes,” declared Mr. Lowell. In fact the car was in a sense his anyway, he claimed, as he was the only one in the household who knew how to drive it. And as to the hours he had spent repairing it—they far exceeded the value of the motor. I was utterly dumbstruck. And what do you plan to do with this motor, I asked him. And here Mr. Lowell’s ugly face took on a sickly, meditative expression and he said, “I wish to go to Tuscany. I wish to feel that warm air and hear the cicadas humming in the trees. I want to meet an Italian girl and drink wine with her beside a brook.” Mr. Lowell has now made himself scarce. I have no idea where he is. He will not answer the bell. So, with all the chaos going on, I have put Betsy in charge. She has always been a bossy girl but I fear I may have made a mistake. She has written out a strict schedule detailing exactly HOW my house will be run, and when I tried to object she told me not to bother myself in a very strong tone. I have locked myself in the lavatory, to write to You, Mr. Goodfellow, for I fear the whole world is going quite mad around me. Your Elspeth P.S. Perhaps my home has not been kept up the way it should. Did grief make me blind? Just noticed the curtains are full of moth-holes and violent yellow mushrooms are growing out of the skirting board.
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Tuesday 8th June 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, Well, we are now down to a skeleton staff, for they are leaving in droves. I have spent all morning signing letters of recommendation that Betsy has written in her round hand. I am in a state of shock, my dear neighbour, not just about this desertion but by how each minute I spend in beloved Hedrington another horror jumps out at me. The drawing room is full of mice, there are beetles in the Oriental rugs, woodworm in the furniture, and when I went into the library and opened a book I could barely breathe for the dust that hurled out. I have tried to embroider to keep my mind at rest, but all my needles are rusty and my silk keeps snapping in my hand due to rot. At one point I felt so distressed I retired to my bed, but there is an odd smell in my room. I think a squirrel may have died beneath my bed. In despair, Elspeth
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Friday 11th June 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, I was feeling most dejected today. With Hedrington decaying around me I decided to walk out to the churchyard to inspect the family crypt. It was raining slightly and as I meandered along I found my mind sliding back to the days when I first me the Major. I relived everything on that walk, his smile, the way he held my back when we danced, that lovely brown speckle amidst the green in his left eye, my first view of Hedrington shining amongst the hills, our wedding, the morning Leticia was born, and those two blissful days I got to be a mother. I must admit that by the time I reached the crypt I was crying, Mr. Goodfellow, hot running tears that would not cease. The crypt was a disgrace, all covered in weeds, and I set to work like a madwoman, pulling them out with my bare hands, nettles and all. By the time I had finished, everything looked orderly again, and I laid down some roses that I had clipped from the garden on my baby’s resting place. I stood there for a long time and then do you know, I began to think of you, Mr. Goodfellow, and all your kindnesses. And I so wished to see you then and have you, have you . . . But what am I writing? I trust you are well, Mr. Goodfellow? Your friend, Elspeth
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Sunday 13th June 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, Last night I had the most peculiar dreams; indeed when I awoke I felt I was still dreaming, but when dreaming felt utterly awake. I dreamt I came to your house for one of your parties, that I walked across the silvery lawn in the dead of night. How silly, for I haven’t danced for at least twenty years, not since the Major and I attended the White Ball, and my sleeve brushed that of the King. This morning I woke up in milky serenity to find my bed full of leaves, and in my water glass was a bouquet of daffodils, which had obviously been torn from the ground for they still had the bulbs on them. Drops of dew, like diamond cabochons clung to the stems and cast out tiny rainbows. More peculiar still where my feet—my soles where ingrained with dirt and my skin red with scratches. This is your doing, Mr. Goodfellow, and I know it. Since you took possession of that little cottage, all has changed. I feel that someone has wiped the dew from my eyes and for the first time in years, I see. Elspeth
Hedrington Hall North Hants Monday 14th June 1920 Dear Mr. Goodfellow, Betsy has called the doctor because she is concerned about me—she says she has not seen my eyes so sparking nor my cheek so pink since before the Major died. There is Scarlet Fever in the village but I have assured her I am quite well, never better in fact. My hair is tickling my neck. Three times Betsy has pinned it up today but it keeps springing out in black coils. She has accused me of putting something on without telling her, to cover the gray. I cannot stop thinking about you. Did we really dance like that, pressed so close? E.C. P.S. I cannot find my best silk handkerchief. Did I leave it at your house when I visited in my dream?
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Thursday, 17th June 1920 Dear Darling Mr. Goodfellow, What a kind, sweet sort of spirit you are! This morning I opened my eyes and saw straightway my handkerchief and wrapped within it were all my letters to you, every single one, and between each one a pressed flower, a nasturtium, a hellebore, a buttercup, a violet, a bluebell, an aconite, and some others I do not know the names of. You are quite right, it would be most incriminating for my correspondence—and particularly one with such a peculiar theme—to fall into the wrong hands. I have hidden your parcel in my walnut box, along with my other most precious thing—a silver locket that holds a tiny pale curl of my baby’s hair. Perhaps you could add any others to the pile should the opportunity arise? Elspeth
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Hedrington Hall North Hants Early in the morning, Midsummer’s Day, 1920 My Darling, This will be the last letter I write to you for I am now determined to deliver it myself. I am writing this at my desk under candlelight having just woken from another dream. I cannot tell you what was in that dream, dear Sir, for that would be indelicate, but let me say that whilst I lived it, all sorrow fled from me, and even my ache for Hedrington and its golden memories seemed to fall from me like a weight. The moon is full, and looking over, I can see your cottage clearly; indeed by moonlight it is no longer a cottage but a house, a proper house with ten chimblies and a ha-ha, a far grander house than my dilapidated one. All the lights are off, bar one, in the bay of the first floor. Your room, perhaps? And are those peacocks I see fanning their tails on the steps? Such a lovely house, with that fickle weathervane swinging to and fro . . . The night is chill and I have just slipped on my peignoir and my Chinese slippers and put another log on the fire. But hark, now I see that your front door is open and a figure is walking out. You are striding right out across the pewter lawn and I see you are a wearing a frock coat and breeches, like something from a fairy tale. Is that you, Mr. Goodfellow, making your way towards my bedroom with such determination? My window is ajar, I have unpinned my hair, and in my hand my pen is suddenly as heavy as a lead bar. How the moon glows tonight, so wintery in its complexion, and the breeze that shudders in the window is not warm. And yet how flushed with joy I feel, Mr. Goodfellow, as I watch your resolute step, and how my heart hammers in anticipation, waiting, waiting for you . . .
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Yesterday My Dog Talked SHELLIE ZACHARIA
real yarn spinner, my old hound. He’s got a deep voice, which I expected, but I didn’t think he’d have so much to say. He told me stories about the old days. I wondered about these old days. I’ve had him since he was a pup. He told me about the time he enjoyed a picnic of cakes and Russian tea under a star magnolia tree. He told me about camping at Stone Mountain—how he found the perfect site with good shade and a chaise lounge. He told me about sailing on Biscayne Bay and running the bases at Fenway Park. This morning he’s silent. I’m drinking my coffee. “What’s wrong? Why so quiet?” I ask. He’s lying on his bed not far from me. He opens one eye. “How about a walk,” he says. “A walk? That’s so ordinary.” He sighs a long sigh, his head between his paws. He’s silent. I’m silent. Outside the window a bird sings. I listen.
Finding Your Way to the Coast JULIE DAY
eter’s hand moves slowly, hovering above Delia’s bare forearm, as little as an eighth of an inch between her flesh and his fingers. The ghosts feel safest that way. That’s what Peter had told her as he swallowed the last of his beer and set the glass aside, his eyes intent, lingering first on her lips, and then falling from her breasts to her right arm. Peter doesn’t look away despite the sideways glances of their companions and the clatter of dishes. The lone waiter is watching from across the terrace. Delia bends her head, ignoring them all. Both Peter and Delia are focused on his open palm as it creeps above her bare arm. What do the ghosts feel? Delia wonders but does not ask. Instead, she closes her eyes. For a moment nothing has changed. The night air still feels dark and cool against her shoulders. She can hear the cars on the nearby Boulevard Saint-Michel. The taxis are bringing their loads of tourists to the Left Bank. A group of women erupt from a cab parked just beyond the terrace’s back stairs. They speak in English, discussing how best to split the fare. “Do these guys even get tips?” one of the women wonders. Delia shifts in her seat, waiting. Anxious. It’s dark behind her closed eyes. And Peter’s ghosts have such sharp edges. She can already feel her skin loosening as they tug at her flesh, ghost barbs finding their way to the viscera underneath: the heart, the lungs, the looping passages of her intestine. This is what I came for, Delia tells herself as Peter’s hand combusts against her flesh. This is why I stopped the mail and packed all those cases. This is why I traveled through the night on that high speed rail. Let everyone else wander the Seine, or the Louvre, or join all those bodies crushing their way up the Eiffel Tower. For Delia, Paris in summer means something entirely different. The ghosts don’t seem to even notice the city: not the moped speeding along the cobblestones, not the women now running south toward the Boulevard Saint-Germaine, not the darkened sky. Delia can feel Peter’s ghosts burrowing, finding their rhythm. Meanwhile, Peter’s hand continues to travel above her arm. Slowly. So slowly. And, finally, the moment arrives. She is floating, freed, her flesh, temporarily, left behind. Delia keeps her eyes closed. The sun is beating against her skin. A shiver runs through her as the wind follows. She can hear the soft “Shh” of
something flying overhead. The creature hovers for a moment before it moves on. An arm presses against her side. Is it Mark? This is better than any memory, better than any stories told to a therapist for ninety dollars an hour. Peter and his ghosts have carried Delia entirely away. She hesitates, eyes still closed, the arm still pressed against her. Surely, it will be Mark…. And yet Paris still exists. Even now Delia can feel Peter’s hand as it hovers above her flesh. She can feel his ghosts settled somewhere below her skin, entwined in her connective tissue, piercing her. But their barbs are like distant pricks, not even worthy of her attention. Delia opens her eyes. She turns her head. She looks. Of course, it’s Mark, resting next to her on a towel. The sky is a uniform gray; Delia sees no sign of any flying creatures. Before her is an ocean, slick and still and glassy. It shimmers in places, oily smudges like thumbprints scattered across its surface. The towel is all that separates Mark and Delia from the sand. Or the non-sand, gray-white and ashy. Strewn across the beach Delia sees odd, twisted rocks and charred lumps of wood that remind her of campfire remnants, though she doubts any campfires ever spark along this stretch of beach. This place, Peter’s place, is where people come after the fires. Scattered as far as Delia can see are people. Bodies lying on the sand, hands entwined. Her eyes are drawn back to Mark. Despite the thready-white of his skin, she can see his chest rise and fall. He knows I’m here even if he can’t speak, Delia thinks. He must. The air smells of salt and half-rotten seaweed. Fire. Cinders and ash. It smells of that, too. Mark and Delia may be resting against the sand. But Peter and his ghosts—Peter with his electric hands and pale gray eyes–— and Paris and the terrace are no more than an eyelash away. “A cultural attaché,” Wendy had explained earlier as she’d dragged Delia from the hostel and through the labyrinth of cobbled streets. Dinner, it seemed, was a requirement, dinner with Delia’s three new friends and Peter. “Peter,” Wendy had said as she eyed Delia’s pale pink tank top, “remembers you from the Metro this morning.” As though this was a special honor Delia was duty bound to accept. Certainly, ribbons and a small brass band weren’t far behind. Delia, however, remembered nothing but the gray tiles of the underground and Wendy talking, at last, to someone else. And now he wanted to meet her again? In the end, it was so much easier just to agree. Peter was taller than Delia expected, tall enough to catch sight of her yards before she finally reached him. His arms and legs seemed to bend at unexpected angles as he hovered near an iron lamppost set just beyond the Luxembourg stop. Delia could imagine him crouched forward, looking down at the city from some ledge or high-up window. She could imagine him motionless for hours at a time. His light brown hair frizzed out from his
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head like an untidy halo, but there was no softness in his body. His skin looked rough, like sandstone, thick pores connecting the sallow membrane that rested atop his muscles. When he caught Delia’s gaze, he smiled. Even feet away, Delia noticed his tidy, little teeth. “Peter,” he said as his dry hand gripped her softened skin. Delia couldn’t quite place it, but his accent was definitely not French. Like her, he was a visitor to this city. The Metro entrance kept pouring people onto the street, bodies streaming in and out of the restaurants and cafes, everyone so hungry. Peter had eyes only for Delia. Delia’s other two friends, Kurtis and Alex, arrived soon after. Both were breathless. A flush was rising along Kurtis’s pale cheeks. And then Peter was leading the group north. All the while, he was talking, talking, talking, giving his tour of the Left Bank. It seemed he was an expert. Kurtis, Wendy, and Alex couldn’t believe their good luck. Peter pointed out the palm trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the red neon of the tobacconist, La Favorite, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and farther along, in the center of the Latin Quarter, the Church of Saint-Severin with its own collection of ancient gargoyles. Gargoyles covered the rooftops of the city. The city was filled with crumbling and broken stone. Did no one else notice how hard Peter’s back and shoulders looked as he guided them through the city? Did no one else notice the way his legs and arms bent as he walked? Did no one else notice that their guide, their cultural attaché, was a living gargoyle? An ash and stone grotesquery? Finally it was time to eat. Peter, to everyone else’s delight, chose the restaurant, and when the waiter dropped the menus on the table, Peter chose the chair next to Delia’s. It was only minutes before Peter had turned his chair, his hard knees now pressed against the side of Delia’s right thigh. His flesh felt so cold, his skin flaking, revealing more ashy layers underneath. It was the first time someone had touched Delia in days or weeks or months. That hand Mark’s mother placed on her shoulder, surely, didn’t count? “I can do it,” Peter said without the hint of a smile. “I can show you the coast.” “Oh, come on,” Alex replied. “Without moving from this table? She’s not that drunk.” At that moment, Delia almost liked Alex. All the same, she agreed to everything, agreed to Peter’s hand creeping its way across her skin. “It’s alright,” Delia said. “I’ll try it.” “Only the ghosts will touch you,” Peter said, looking straight at her. “The ghosts,” he explained as he leaned even closer. “The ghosts generate the heat.” And then Peter’s hand was hovering above Delia’s arm. The little hairs on her bare flesh rose up, connecting with his palm. Despite the thin blue veins that lined his skin, his hand didn’t feel cold anymore. That was
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Delia’s first thought. And then there was the beach. And Mark. And the vast and shiny ocean, brittle, hiding an infinite number of eyes. It felt like all those eyes were waiting and Delia wanted nothing more than to slide her hand up along Mark’s inner thigh, his body so still as she leaned over, finally. Her breasts felt soft against his stone chest as her mouth searched for some warmth. “Delia,” a voice murmurs. It isn’t Mark’s voice. His lips haven’t moved even once. It isn’t any of the other couples lying on the beach. Delia can feel ash swirling around her, stinging as it slips up her nose, finds its way into her eyes. Something is stepping across the sand. Someone’s shadow is covering both Delia and Mark. Delia glances away from Mark, just for a moment. There’s a glimpse of stone talons rising up from the ashen sand, each arched claw almost as thick as Delia’s own fragile wrists. And then there is no more time. Her skin has tightened around her once again. The blood is pounding in Delia’s cheeks as she opens her eyes. The tables on the terrace are almost empty, the space lit by dim, orange bulbs. Alex has pulled a small pocket calculator from his fanny pack. “How many should I divide by?” Alex asks. Alex, Kurtis, and Wendy are all careful to avoid Delia’s eyes. “We can go to my place,” Peter murmurs. His hard knees are still pressed against Delia. His lips are too close for anyone else to hear. Delia knows she should pull her arm away, push her chair back, but the warmth of his hand reminds her of a time before torn, white undershirts and unwashed bedding, before sleepless nights spent on molded plastic chairs. His hand reminds her of a time before she even considered this trip to Paris. Delia doesn’t reply, looking away toward the city instead. Notre Dame sits to the west, just beyond the Seine. She can see the cathedral’s towers rising above the surrounding buildings. Underneath the night sounds of the city, the lapping water of the river reaches out. The old stone walls that press up against the distant bank are not that far away. The top of the wall, as she follows the curve of the river west, seems covered in fairy lights. “In the magic stories,” Peter says, noticing the direction of her gaze, “It’s always a mistake to follow the lights.” His breath smells faintly of cigarette smoke and smoldering ash. “I’m not afraid,” Delia replies. And she means it. Wendy is frowning, two lines appearing along the bridge of her nose, more cracks across her forehead. Paris is for lovers? Who says? Delia came here alone. And despite Alex and Wendy and Kurtis sharing her train compartment from Amsterdam, she’s remained alone. Earlier in the day she visited the city of the dead, the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, alone, leaving Wendy and the others to find their own way through the city. Later she stared at the gargoyles and marmosets carved into Notre Dame Cathedral. One in particular, with his folded wings and a rough scar that seemed to cut across his forehead, held her attention.
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His mouth half-parted and stone-still. Was he angry or afraid? He should be able to tell her, right? It doesn’t seem fair to spend an eternity trying and failing to speak. Now Delia is sitting with people who speak but who don’t seem to understand what questions should be asked. Alex was Kurtis’s teacher. That’s what they are telling her as they explain their mathematical formula for dividing the check, but the words make less and less sense. “Let’s go” is all Delia hears as Peter murmurs in her ear yet again. A curl of his hair actually touches Delia’s cheek. Her arm is electric with ghosts. All of them waiting. Does no one else notice? She is caught at the wrought iron table with Peter, the thirty-five-year-old cultural attaché, and her three traveling companions. But only Peter, Peter and his ghosts, matter. Peter’s left hand has, somehow, found its way under the table. His fingers have settled on her thigh. When did that happen? If only she could find her way back. The beer is buzzing in Delia’s brain, and after two months, her body still craves sleep, white-sheeted sleep. Peter’s hard knees press insistently, too insistently, but Peter knows what she wants, he’s the only one at the table who does. More than that, Peter is the only one who can show Delia the way back to the coast. “Leave them,” Peter whispers, nodding his head toward the darkness. Kurtis waves his fingers toward the waiter. “Another Coke, please.” Ignorance shields happiness. Mark always knew that. He was the one who told Delia not to climb into the ambulance. He was the one who told her to go back to bed. And later, as he lay in that hospital bed, he was the one who told Delia to go home. As though that would have changed anything. Almost two months. Has it really been almost two months? Peter’s hand still hovers insistently above Delia’s goose-bumped flesh, though his lips have tightened in frustration. He’s the cultural attaché, not me, Delia thinks. Isn’t he supposed to convince me of something? Isn’t he supposed to have a plan? And then she lets it all go. “Okay,” she replies. They rise together from the table, Peter’s fingers locking with Delia’s as they run across the terrace and out toward the river of fairy lights. His hand is dry and cool and Delia pretends she doesn’t notice anything unusual, though the heat in her arm is spreading. The ghosts have already started, burrowing even faster than before. They’ve reached the boulevard. It’s like a parade of bright and shiny memories. Behind the plate-glass windows, Delia can see the mannequins in their belted, houndstooth dresses and capped sleeves, and suddenly, she is shopping with Mark for her first work suit. A perfumier’s window is filled with burgundy flowers and small green leaves, each shimmering inside its own translucent bubble. And Mark is walking through the door with one of those funny little gifts Delia is always misplacing. A gourmet food store has a spotlight shining on the contents of its window. Red
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peppers and darker olives float in oil and brine. And there is Mark, explaining his theory of the proper oil-to-salt ratio as he stirs the tomato sauce. Delia can feel cracks rising along storefront windows. More memories are en route. Peter’s grip tightens, driving Delia’s fingernails against the palm of her hand, and then he is pulling her in so that they face each other, tilting Delia’s head up, kissing her. The pressure of his hands and arms are not at all comforting. Meanwhile, the ghosts continue to burrow, cutting their way through all those connections. Delia’s lips are wet when Peter finally pulls away. He leaves his arm draped across her shoulders as though they’ve crossed some threshold together. Delia can see her reflection in the clothing store window, Peter’s tall, lanky frame hovering over her. The top of Delia’s head barely reaches his chest. Her face seems to waver, a pale and uncertain reflection. And now she can’t stop remembering, Peter’s arm heavy, pressing down against Delia’s flesh while his ghosts wind ever tighter. Delia hears the siren first, an ambulance. The red and white flashing lights follow soon after. She watches the lights as they dive down the street from window to window, reflecting back from the plate-glass storefronts. Help. Someone is failing. Someone is dying. Someone is dead, they say. They are ghost lights, grounded stars, lost amid all those shattered memories. Shuddering breaths. Delia remembers those. She remembers pulse rates and sweat-soaked sheets as well. Despite the price tags on the window displays, the flashing ambulance lights are setting their own price. They are offerings from an entirely different store: wounds of all types for sale on this summer night. Delia stands with Peter on the sidewalk, his arm on her shoulder. Both of them are still. Their eyes follow the ambulance as it moves farther and farther away. Funerals are all the same: tears and music you never want to hear again. Prayers. Delia wore tights even though it was ninety degrees outside. She listened to Mark’s mother as she cried. Mark’s mother leaned into Delia’s shoulder as they carried Mark’s casket inside the old stone church. His mother’s smell was all wrong: floral and powdery. Delia wanted sour. She wanted sweaty. She wanted three days of forgotten showers and a night on the river with the mud sliding between both of their feet. She wanted Mark. No one asked Delia if she wanted to cry. Why should they? She wasn’t even there, too busy floating, ashes against the sky. The door of Peter’s house is only inches from the river. The wall and the fairy lights are all that separates them from the water. Delia can smell the boat fuel and a sweetish rot, like flesh, floating along the river. Peter’s door sits in the middle of an alley: dark, old wood, and peeling paint, a stone
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lintel hanging above. The brass doorknob is like an open hand waiting to be taken. She wants to reach forward. There is darkness waiting. There is cold and heat. There is the coast and Mark and the hard and staring water. But Peter’s grip hurts. His arm is like a crushing stone. Delia can feel bruises on her shoulders, rising up, and she wonders what will be required of her this time. She hears a cough from a nearby window and the slow putter of a boat moving on the other side of the wall. In the end, it is someone, someone on the other side, who finally turns the handle. Not Mark. “Welcome,” Peter says, following Delia through the doorway, just a step behind. His hands have settled on both of her hips. Delia can feel his breath against her neck. His body feels like molten rock: hot, hard, and blazing. Delia shudders, her body wracked by a sudden fit of coughing: ghosts everywhere, sharp jabs in her lungs, a twisting in her gut. What does it matter if Peter scorches her skin? They are near the river, the veins of the city bleeding through the cracks in Peter’s walls. Delia expected the crouching gargoyles and damp stone walls. She expected the dimness and the smell of charred remains: wood ash, the acrid stench of scorched hair, and, hanging over it all, the oily, cloying sweetness of burning meat. Even the cot, set in a far corner of the room, seems familiar, the sheets hospital-thin and hospital-white. It is the girl who takes Delia by surprise, the girl who opened the door. She is watching Delia with those silver eyes: ash-coast eyes that shimmer but do not blink. Peter is still behind Delia, his hands tightening. The cloth of Delia’s cotton skirt presses into her hips. And all the while, the girl is reaching out, the girl’s face as untroubled as a Christmas ornament, something red and fleshy in her outstretched hand. Each of the girl’s thin, little fingers ends in a black nail, sharp and pointed. Each nail is at least half the length of the finger itself. The girl’s fingers curl slightly, cradling the red contents of her palm. There is red on her cheeks as well, blonde curls under her velvet cap, hot ashes escaping her nostrils and perfect lips. The girl opens her mouth wide, and a cloud engulfs Delia. Delia can feel Peter behind, inhaling deeply. The cinders make Delia cry. Nothing makes me cry anymore, Delia thinks as ashes and water stream down her cheeks. The ash is swirling around all three of them, the girl, Peter, and Delia, passing over the stone creatures who watch the trio from the corners of the room. Peter’s hands slide upward, cupping Delia’s breasts. He runs his hard tongue from her collarbone upward against the base of her skull. Cold and then hot. Burning. Delia can feel her skin pulling back in protest. A whimper escapes her lips. And still Peter’s tongue keeps tracing lines along Delia’s flesh, his hands like crushing stones as they grab at breast and hip and thigh.
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The gargoyles that line the edges of the room are not the ones to worry about, Delia realizes. The stone statues with their long ears and sharp teeth have such gentle eyes. It is only Peter, Peter with his halo of brown hair and electric hands, who wants to touch her. The rest just want to return home, to fly to the coast once Peter opens the door. The closest gargoyle, the one to Delia’s left, stretches her legs, her back a concave length of stone that curves toward the ground, then she settles once more against her back legs, content, it seems, to wait. The lights on the boulevard were nothing. The memories are tumbling now, pressing hard. Delia is gasping for breath as the cinders fill her lungs. Peter’s dry fingers like an abrasion against her thighs, the small of her back, and Delia is falling back against the bed, hospital-white sheets covering the backs of her legs, her waist, her bruised and shaking arms. Inside, she is untethered. The ghosts are rising up, carrying everything with them as they rush back through Delia’s skin. It is almost time to open the final door. It must be. Delia can hear the girl breathing somewhere nearby. She can feel the heat of the girl’s cinders. She can see the girl’s flashing eyes, silver light that doesn’t look away. Mark lay in that hospital bed for ten days while Delia sat on the molded plastic chair, willing him to stay asleep. “Just sleep,” she murmured as she stroked his sweat-stained hair, but it did no good. The vomiting would start: his legs curling up against his chest, his skin covered in a pattern of splotches and welts Delia couldn’t begin to translate. “He needs to rest,” the attendant said as she added another ingredient to the bag of fluids that hung near Mark’s head. Delia noticed the woman’s kind brown eyes. Then Mark’s own eyes closed, and Delia started to breathe again. She timed her inhalations with the movement of his chest: the rising and lowering of the hospital sheets telling her Mark was still alive, the air in Delia’s lungs telling her there was enough for both of them. Toward the end, Mark mostly slept. “Just go and get some rest,” Mark said that last time. But Delia didn’t go home. She couldn’t. Home was where the bed was empty and the cat expected Mark to feed her at 6 A.M. Home was the pile of clean laundry heaped and unfolded in a corner of the room, the trash rank after too many days left untended. Home wasn’t a place that existed anymore. Delia wanted to climb onto that narrow hospital bed. She wanted to wrap her arms around Mark’s chest and smell that sour, male scent. She really did. But his skin looked so drained, and the smell when Delia hovered over him was closer to chemical antiseptics and veterinary visits than the salt of living flesh. The scent closer to death. Instead of leaving, Delia pulled that molded plastic chair close, held Mark’s hand.
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He is sleeping, Delia thought as she watched the sheets rise and then fall again, breathing. When Delia opened her eyes, it was dark. Women were hovering around the bed, two or three of them, and someone was pushing Delia back with hard, stone hands. Mark’s fingers were no longer in hers. The heat in the room, was Delia the only one who felt it? And now they were pulling in a cart. It was like a T.V. episode, a movie-of-the-week special. Wasn’t Delia supposed to start weeping? But she didn’t. And she didn’t. And even when they left Delia with Mark, or Mark’s body, for “a few moments” still she didn’t. Mark and the Hospital. This wasn’t a story. This was pretending to float while you crashed and broke across the rockstrewn ground. This was the Great Blackout of 2010 and Delia locked inside the elevator listening to the cable unravel. Devastation doesn’t have a script. Shattering and then smaller still. Pulverized. A cloud of floating debris. It was easy to get on that plane. Easy to float across the ocean, landing with Wendy and Alex and Kurtis, the Metro and the tourists maps. Finally, though, night fell, Peter’s hand holding hers as they headed across the city. Of course Delia went with Peter. She was like a box of ashes, carefully contained, just waiting to be released. “To ghosts,” Peter had said, tossing back that last beer while they sat on the terrace. But the ghosts all seemed so small under his hands, more like a child’s toy or dangling charms rather than people. Nothing but a palmful of energy. Delia wanted more than that. They are almost done. Delia is lying on the bed, face up. The sweat drips from Peter’s neck and chest hairs onto her body. Peter’s hands are cradling Delia’s breasts, heavy, pressing inward. Delia can feel the bones of his hips grinding, his thighs leaning into hers for a moment before she is forced to bend her knees. Peter’s face flushes as he finally slips inside, eyes now closed. Delia’s body rocks with Peter’s while her hands reach outward, finally wrapping themselves in those hospital-white sheets. She can smell the sweat of their bodies and the candy-sweet scent of her crackling flesh. Underneath it all is the scent of linoleum hallways and that white-tiled hospital room. The creatures lining Peter’s room do not roar, they bellow. A wave of rage and grief that crashes through the open door. Delia’s hands have stopped moving. Her arms and legs no longer shudder as her mouth gasps for breath. Meanwhile, Peter is sliding off, stretching his legs before he stands. He stoops down to the floor and then sits, his hands now holding a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. Delia remains still, wrapped in the sheets. The bed feels worn, threadbare, overused. The room is empty of stone creatures, empty of girls who watch her with ocean-silver eyes.
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Peter looks down at Delia from his seat by the bed. The cigarette smoke lingers above his nascent horns. His hips and clavicle press outward, their outline clear beneath the skin. He’s far more skeletal now. It’s only that thin layer of gray skin that keeps Delia from seeing his organs: his kidneys, his heart, his ash-filled lungs. The bed feels so warm. Why didn’t Delia notice Peter’s chair when she first stepped through the door? It’s made of the same molded plastic as the chair in Mark’s hospital room. The metal legs are attached with those too-small screws that make it tip slightly whenever you sit down. Delia doesn’t want to look at it. It is not a chair anyone should trust. But Peter slouches all the same, the Cultural Attaché. His face, despite the slouch and the curling lines of smoke, is more petulant than tired. His part is done. The warmth of the bed is drawing Delia inward. Her body curves against the other body now resting next to hers. She can feel an arm against her naked shoulder, feel a chest under her hand. Delia’s feet wrap themselves around his calves. Mark. The sheet covers them both. I am sure we will arrive at the coast soon, Delia thinks. Her eyes have closed, but she knows the pallor of Mark’s skin matches the thready-white of her uncovered breasts, the two of them now white as sheets. Finally, Peter and his gray smoke are lost on the other side of the broken windows.
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CONTRIBUTORS Rachel Adams (“The Sacrosancts”) lives in San Jose where she teaches sixth graders. She has seen all five seasons of The Sacrosancts repeatedly while asleep at night; sometimes she TiVo’s them but this is all she gets out of it. Her favorite character is all of them, but Esther was the first. Brenda Anderson (“The Dog Within”) lives with her husband and two children in Adelaide, South Australia. Her fiction has appeared in 10Flash Quarterly, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Apocrypha & Abstractions, and Dinosaur Bees. She loves the offbeat. Anton Baer’s (“Atomic Summer”) website is jaegersk.wordpress.com. Redfern Barrett (“Transaction”) was born in 1984, gaining a Literature PhD in 2010 on 18th century queers. His works have been featured in the Danish National Museum, Paris’ Maison Populaire, and soon in the journal Gender Forum. He is a columnist for the online magazine Scifi Methods, and his sci-fi novel Forget Yourself is now available on Amazon. Matthew Blasi (“Briny Tide”) received his MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University, Camden. His work has been published in Superstition Review, Arroyo Literary Review, Dogzplot, Slush, and UpScene Magazine. He lives in Philadelphia where he is working on his debut novel. Victorya Chase (“Dreaming of the Manananggal”) lives and works in the mountains of New Mexico. She’s currently trying to teach doctors to write in hopes of improving patient care. Benjamin Clark (“the gun game”) grew up in rural Nebraska and now lives in Chicago, Illinois. He has worked as an English teacher, librarian, tile maker, track coach, and in a microwaveable popcorn factory. He is an assistant editor for Muzzle Magazine and recently graduated with an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His first full-length collection of poetry, Reasons To Leave The Slaughter, was released by Write Bloody Publishing in 2011. At the moment he is collaborating with Colin Winnette on a book entitled Kate Jury Denton Texas. Paul Cunningham (“Into Magma Town”) is the author of two e-chapbooks of poetry: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Pangur Ban Party, 2010) and Foamghast (NAP, 2012). He is the managing editor of Radioactive Moat Press and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness, DIAGRAM, The Destroyer, Aesthetix, H_NGM_N, and Dark Sky Magazine. More of his writing can be found at http://pecunningham.tumblr.com. Julie Day (“Finding Your Way to the Coast”) lives in western Massachusetts with her family, a ten-year-old, a mail-order banana tree, and a lurking pile of books. She is a recent graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program. Prior to that, she attended the Viable Paradise writers’ workshop. Life is strange. Despite her background in microbiology and molecular genetics, she currently works part-time in IT and hosts the Small Beer Press podcasting series. You can find her online at stillwingingit.com.
Jeanine Deibel (Spyre) is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at NMSU, where she teaches creative writing and works as a managing editor for Puerto del Sol. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Word Riot, > Kill Author, BLOOM, burntdistrict, and Short, Fast, and Deadly, among others. For more information, visit jeaninedeibel.weebly.com. M. W. Fowler (“Inside Shadowboxes”) received an MA in Writing from Coastal Carolina University. His works have appeared in or are forthcoming from numerous journals, including Jelly Bucket, Little Fiction, Used Furniture Review, and The Rusty Nail. He is also the author of the young adult fantasy novel, Ezra Sound: How I Became a Giant, and the teen collection, Wayward: scifi stories & poems. He is from Myrtle Beach, SC. Faith Gardner (“The Woman with No Face”) is a tightrope ballerina. Every story she has ever written has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. She is also a pathological liar. Maybe she has a website and maybe it is faithgardner.com. Collin Blair Grabarek (“Old Myths”) writes in Virginia. He received his MFA from George Mason University, where he was the fiction editor of Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art. Sam Grieve (“Mrs. Coltsfoot’s Neighbour”) was born in South Africa and has lived in London, Paris, and the US. She has a BA from Brown University and an MA in English from King’s College London. In addition to writing, she has worked as an antiquarian book dealer. She currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and two sons and is working on a novel. She has work forthcoming in Grey Sparrow Journal. Meaghan Hope (“Isis”) currently lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her two great enjoyments in life besides writing are dogs and tea. Vanessa Lessel (“technology of health”) is an MFA candidate at Texas State University. Her work (as “Vanessa Johnson”) has appeared in Willows Wept Review, amphibi.us, Liebamour, blossombones, and other places, and she has a poem forthcoming in Dinosaur Bees. She has a BA in both English and philosophy from Rice University. Katherine Marzinsky (“Of Love and Waste”) is a medical billing clerk and a student at Raritan Valley Community College, where she is majoring in English. She lives in a small town in rural New Jersey with her cat, Midas. Her previous work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Devin Meldrum (“Dew and Fervor,” cover art) is studying social science and holistic teaching while working as a cook at Pocatello, Idaho’s only Thai restaurant. For more of his work, visit his artist page: facebook.com/devin.george.meldrum. Voices of Jeff Pearson’s (“Reintroduction” & “Coyote”) big family (6 older sisters, 1 older brother, 21 nieces & nephews) creep around like earwigs whose whispers
CONTRIBUTORS sound like personal prophets’ genetic memory. Accreted rites and vernacular have become doctrine in his writing from so much Latter-Day Saint exposure in his raising, although he no longer practices. Dylan Platz (“Dreams of the Greenland Coast”), originally from Smyrna, TN, is a junior at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Though he enjoys long walks on the beach, you’re more likely to find him cycling, playing sports, or doing something that somehow relates to Harry Potter. “Dreams of the Greenland Coast” is his first publication. Faith Schantz (“Grounded”) lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she is a freelance writer, a candidate for an MFA at Chatham University, and a member of the Madwomen in the Attic fiction workshop. Her fiction has been published in Weave and Voices from the Attic, Vol. XVI. Colin Winnette (“the gun game”) is the author of the novel Revelation (Mutable Sound, 2011) and a collection of short stories, Animal Collection (Spork Press, 2012). He was recently the recipient of the Sonora Review’s 2012 Fiction Award. His newest book, a collection of novellas entitled A Long Line of Diggers, is forthcoming from Atticus Books in March 2013. He lives in San Francisco. Changming Yuan (“Crows, My Crows”), 4-time Pushcart nominee and author of Allen Qing Yuan, grew up in rural China and published several monographs before moving to Canada. With a PhD in English, Yuan works as a private tutor in Vancouver and has had poetry appear in nearly 550 literary publications across 22 countries, which include Asia Literary Review, Best Canadian Poetry, BestNewPoemsOnline, Exquisite Corpse, London Magazine, Paris/Atlantic, Poetry Kanto, SAND, and Taj Mahal Review. Shellie Zacharia (“Yesterday My Dog Talked”) lives in Gainesville, Florida. Her work has appeared in Washington Square, The Pinch, Sou’wester, The MacGuffin, Canteen, Weave, Trnsfr, and elsewhere. She is the author of the story collection Now Playing (Keyhole Press, 2009).
(ISSN: 1945-7480) a web & print magazine of magic realism & slipstream.