magic lantern a collection of phantasmagoria & color slides
issue 1 â€˘ spring 2014
magic lantern issue 1â€˘spring 2014 copyright ÂŠ 2014 by magic lantern artists all rights reserved editor: Clara Ng cover design + photography: Clara Ng this issue of magic lantern is typeset in: Sail Away, Mongolian Baiti, Book Antiqua, Coneria Script magiclanternmag.wordpress.com
table of contents phantasmagoria
The Hippo R Hoyte Raney.........................................................................................................1
[excerpt] Lake Spirits: The Summons Deena Viviani.........................................................................................................38
[excerpt] Star Collector Shannon Houck......................................................................................................43
[excerpt] Dream of the Bull Lucy Graham..........................................................................................................45 color slides Mark J. Sutherland.................................................................................................48 Corinne Vicari........................................................................................................53 Isaac Sweeney........................................................................................................55 Tamer Lorika..........................................................................................................57
The Hippo R. Hoyte Raney 1
Charlie Anderson never got over the fact that even with a twelve hundred pound hippopotamus poised above his head in such a manner so that the sun never reached him and, as a result, he was as white as those underbelly wrinkles juxtaposed against four stumpety shaped legs, that he was an exceedingly average man. He, like those aforementioned hippo legs, was rather stumpety as well. Short appendages connected him to small feet. Unimpressive arms attached his spindly hands to less-than-spectacular shoulders. His was a bland face—beady brown eyes, thick glasses, pendulous nose, whiskbroom mustache, skinny lips and uninspired chin—with few characteristics to make him either noticeable or memorable. Creative thoughts barely ever escaped his limited imagination. If asked to describe himself, Charlie would say that he was an average man employed by an average firm within an average city located next to an unusually average lake on an average continent poised between two average oceans situated on an unremarkable planet third away from a class C star somewhere on the outer fringes of a universe that continued to expand in complete defiance of Charlie’s average personality and limited descriptive skills. Not that Charlie actually felt any form of exceptional emotion to contrast his average life. On the contrary, he was quite content with those characteristics that made him the average Joe that he was. In fact, there were times when he found himself walking down the street with his floating hippo that he wondered why he hadn’t been named Joe. But as it was he was a Charlie and not some other form of average male. Consequently, he went out of his way to act in accordance with those rules that governed individuals such as he. In a world of political apathy, conspiracy theories and unusual messages from outer space, Charlie found comfort within his average life. He realized that regardless 3
of whatever might befall him within the course of an average day, it would most likely be of a boring nature and not require more energy than that which he was capable of maintaining. No, Charlie could have been content to be the man he was if it hadn’t been for the hippo. It caused him to realize that something was askew. There was some mission in life that he was destined to complete that set him apart from not only your average Joe’s, but from everyone else as well. He assumed that nobody else walked around with a larger than life semi-aquatic mammal almost within reach without some purpose being attached to their lives. And therein lay Charlie’s dilemma: his life was so spectacularly average that he was at a complete loss as to what that mission might be. So at the age of thirty-nine years, Charlie decided to find out not only what his purpose in life was, but why he walked through it with a symbiotic hippo. 2 The first course Charlie chose was one of self-evaluation. In order for him to understand the grander scheme that remained somewhere ahead, he decided that he needed to isolate and categorize those qualities that separated him from the rest of the denizens who resided on the planet with him. Realizing that he lacked a reference point from which to make his evaluation, he rushed to the windows of his bachelor apartment and gazed out upon the world. The world stopped and gazed back before continuing about its business. After a moment on scrutiny, Charlie felt several shades of embarrassment creep over himself. He had forgotten to dress that morning and stood naked in front of the window. Apparently, the world had been unimpressed. Charlie closed the window and looked around his apartment: living room, separate bedroom, bath and kitchenette. A boxy, plaid and leather sofa was the only article of furniture other than the television and its stand. Charlie watched the commercials as they finished and the screen faded gray. A moment later, three extremely old men in business suits appeared and looked out from the television world at him. Charlie recognized them from newspaper accounts as being business tycoons. They were perched above a sign that read: We Are Your Best Friends! He began to gather his half-folded clothes from beside the hamper. The three old men continued to look out from the television as he trod toward the bathroom, changed his mind, came back and rummaged through the hamper a second time. After a moment of thought, he turned toward the closet in his bedroom. The three old men’s 4
eyes moved up and down Charlie’s bare legs. He abruptly turned off the television set and thought about the people he had seen from his window. By the time he had decided on a properly fashionable outfit and negotiated his way through breakfast, he had deduced that everyone he had seen to be as average as himself. With that realization firmly tucked into his consciousness, Charlie left home with his hippo and walked those several unexciting blocks to the firm where he was employed. En route, he nodded to those with whom he associated on his short trek to work. He picked up his newspaper at the second corner as he did every morning and proceeded across the street. When he had made it to the other side, he jumped to his left to avoid colliding with a thin, middle-aged man in a white tunic who wore a sandwich sign advertisement across his torso. The sign read: They are not your friends! The man stared silently into Charlie’s eyes before looking above his head. His hair was disarrayed brown and he wore sandals in spite of the autumn chill. For just a moment, he felt his embarrassment return as he imagined the man moving his eyes across the vast underside of the hippo. The man smiled and winked at Charlie. “Nice day,” he said before crossing the street. Charlie looked after him as he hurried away. If he hadn’t been wearing a hat, he might have even scratched his head. One of the reasons Charlie felt so comfortable in his station in life was because he had learned over the course of his thirty-nine years that no one else could see the hippo. There were those who commented on the circular shadow that Charlie always resided in and the fact that he rarely got wet regardless of how badly it rained, but, for the most part, those curious individuals were in the minority. Any day of the week, Charlie was ignored by those he passed, and, as such, seldom had to offer any explanations as to the peculiar nature that surrounded him. He continued past the flower vendor with a shake of his head. For just a moment, he contemplated purchasing a bouquet of flowers to present to Ellen, the slight woman he admired at work. Instead, he stopped at the donut shop situated on the ground floor of the building he worked in for a cup of coffee and a glazed donut that he would present to her in passing before removing his hat and placing it on the coat rack situated twelve paces from his desk—which he did. Work was work, as it was every day for Charlie. It was neither too difficult nor remarkably easy. At the end of the business day, Charlie rescued his hat from the coat
rack, bade Ellen good-bye, and left the office. He was already at the halfway point of his downward descent when he remembered what his newfound goal in life was. Charlie worked on the twenty-first floor yet always climbed the stairs. This resulted from an unusual form of claustrophobia. It wasn’t a noticeable condition when he came to work—mainly because those he worked with were in no hurry to arrive— but leaving work and descending to the ground floor was cause for great consternation. All of his co-workers would frantically pile into the elevator in their haste to leave and Charlie would be crowded into the corner. The door would close, the people press, the elevator descend, and Charlie would begin to hyperventilate. When he took the stairs, however, it enabled him to forget about the hippo while it bounced off the ceiling above his head. Evening would normally consist of Charlie either walking to the store just down the street from his apartment for those groceries and condiments necessary for the meal he would prepare in his kitchenette, or a slightly longer walk to a diner where he felt comfortable eating. Charlie didn’t drink alcohol, because the majority of local taverns failed to have the necessary ceiling area required to comfortably house the hippo. There was also the fear that alcohol might bring about the invention of a similarly displaced companion. The thought of a second, uninvited airborne guest joining him distracted him to the point that he effectively swore off whatever possible benefits there might have been gained from its consumption. Charlie arrived home and prepared himself dinner. Once he was finished eating, he sat in front of the television and watched commercials for a half-hour that implored him to sue somebody. He was just beginning to contemplate his purpose when the television screen went gray and the three old men appeared again. They stared at Charlie from the television world, their sign stating: We Are MORE Than Just Your Best Friends, We LOVE You! Charlie studied their faces while they, seemingly, studied his. Their eyes darted back and forth as their mouths tightened into thin lines. He quickly stood up, turned the television off, walked to the coat stand by his door, put his hat on and left. Perhaps a late evening stroll would reveal his life’s purpose. Hours later, as the remainder of the world took on a hue similar to that beneath the floating hippo, he found himself at the lakefront. After running out of space and finding himself on a pier that stretched out over the darker depths of that average lake, Charlie realized that he had never been to the lakefront during the evening hours. His 6
greatest fear was of drowning and, as such, he naturally avoided large bodies of water. Usually, the only reason he visited the lakefront was to witness the rising of the sun. By the time Charlie had walked to the end of the pier, the sun was just beginning to set. His shadow, and that provided by the hippo, stretched out on to the waves that lapped gently against the pier. When Charlie had stood on the pier for several hours without anyone or thing proclaiming itself as his mentor, he opened his eyes, turned and began to walk away. It would be late at night before Charlie made his way home and prepared for bed. 3 That night found Charlie in bed. He lay on his back in his flannel pajamas in deep contemplation. He had followed the path of least resistance and his destiny hadn’t been revealed. Perplexed, Charlie turned his head and looked out his bedroom window and stared into the heavens. His bed was placed in such a manner so that if he simply turned his head, he could gaze out and study the moon during those hours when it was rising. The night was still and with few distractions to disturb him. His room was sufficiently dark so that the moon was as bright as a spotlight. He quietly studied it through the reflection of himself in the bedroom window. After several minutes of quiet speculation, he returned his attention to the hippo. As always, it was big and bloated and several feet further than he could reach with his outstretched hand. That portion of the hippo’s discoloration that descended from its sides framed the underside—encased in shadows that blended in with the ceiling’s paint—. The soles of its feet were bright and contrasted the darker areas that were its toes. He quietly studied the underside of its chest as it ascended upwards. He traced the hippo’s jaw and wondered about the slanting of its mouth. Was it raised into a smile that indicated benevolence? Or did it curve downward in such a manner so as to intimidate anyone who faced it? Were its protruding eyes perpetually open, or did it close them at night and fall asleep? Charlie hoped that it was a happy hippo, and that it enjoyed its life because he had a good heart. He wondered if it ever longed for other hippos with which it might converse. Was it angry with Charlie? Did it perceive that its fate resulted from some omission in its own life, or in Charlie’s? Would he one day awaken as he always did— face upward, asleep on his back—with the hippo at an unusual degree that would allow it to expose the side of its face and one of those two protruding eyes that might be
studying or squinting toward him, perhaps the entire night? Furthermore, would it decide that it was unhappy and that it was Charlie’s fault that it was forever doomed to inhabit that space directly above his head? Charlie fell asleep and dreamt of avenging hippos. 4 Charlie awoke the following morning from a nightmare. He was so upset, that he couldn’t even watch the television. He dreamt that the hippo had fallen on him during the night. He realized upon awakening that the frightening part hadn’t been the prospect of death. At least it wasn’t a crushing death that frightened him. The thought of a suffocating death absolutely terrified him. In the dream, the hippo had simply reconnected with the forces of gravity and had slowly descended onto Charlie. It had wiggled like the gelatinous trimmings from a steak the entire time it had lowered onto poor Charlie. He had fought, hollered, and tried to free himself from the bed he lay upon, but, somehow, unknown forces had frozen him in place. Finally, when it had covered his face and chest, his hands and legs were freed from their invisible restraints and he was able to furtively strike against its belly. He had awakened during that moment when his ears were covered and he could no longer hear the hippo’s heavy laugh as he was suffocated and pounded by the hippo’s underlying heartbeat. 5 Charlie went to work as always. He picked up his paper, dodged pedestrians, read the sandwich sign advertisement (They DON’T Love You!) and contemplated buying a bouquet of flowers for Ellen, the slight woman he admired at his firm. Instead, he bought her a cup of coffee and a glazed donut to present her before he removed his hat and placed it on the coat rack. Which he did. When the workday was over, he left the same as every day with one variation. Instead of walking home, he went to another building right down the street from the building he worked in. In lieu of the elevator, Charlie climbed the stairs to the designated floor. He started to run the few remaining flights as he recalled the previous night’s dream. When he had reached the top landing, he opened the door and stepped through. In no time flat he had found the office he had called during his lunch break. The sign on the smoked glass door read: 8
Institute for the Psychologically Impaired He knocked once on the door. When there wasn’t an immediate answer, he walked in and closed the door behind himself before taking the only seat in the waiting area. As he relaxed, he thought about the prospect of separating himself from the hippo. There were a variety of means he might employ if he so chose. If he were to board a plane without warning, he might be able to confuse the hippo and take off without it in pursuit. The hippo was fast, but it wasn’t nearly quick enough to follow a commercial jet. Perhaps, if Charlie were able to overcome his fear of drowning, he might be able to don a diving suit and slip away. Hippos were renowned swimmers, but their diving abilities were highly suspect. Eventually, it would have to come up for oxygen; while Charlie would only be limited by how much compressed air he carried. Making a quick escape by car wasn’t an option. Neither Charlie nor his parents had owned a car, but he’d been inside of them with enough frequency to realize that regardless of how fast he traveled, the hippo would remain as always, albeit separated by the roof of the car. The fact that he had been able to enter the first car he had ridden in without the hippo following and, quite possibly, crushing him onto the floor was reason enough for him to believe that a door wouldn’t be sufficient to cut his bond. In deference to that belief, whenever Charlie rode in a car, he went to great lengths to make sure that it was a convertible. There were a variety of reasons why he hesitated to sever his bond. He knew enough about modern medicine to realize what role the placenta played in the nourishment and survival of the fetus. Perhaps his destiny was to be the catalyst for change in the evolutionary make up of all mankind. Or, perhaps, he was nothing more than a naturally occurring genetic experiment. Perhaps, once he had passed whatever test life had in store for him, it would signal a new reign of symbiotic life forms: men with hippos or elephants, women with gazelles and storks, children playing in parks and living in harmony with each other while their floating animal counterparts enjoyed the same pleasures, yards above their heads. What if the hippo were some form of evolutionary or Spiritual placenta? If he cut his ties, it might alter him in some manner from which he might never recover and, possibly, endanger himself or the very fabric of Nature’s design. Another reason that Charlie hesitated in severing his bond was that he was afraid that if he did, the hippo might be hurtled off into space. What if Charlie were the only reason the hippo was able to maintain its hold on the planet? Could Charlie’s 9
destiny be to provide an anchor for the hippo? Charlie had an average amount of arrogance, so he didn’t place too much stock in that belief. He was convinced that it was his destiny in question, not the hippo’s. That didn’t deter him from being aware of the consequences of his actions. He certainly wanted to know its purpose in relation to his destiny, but not so badly as to possibly threaten it with physical harm. After all, Charlie’s heart was as compassionate as it was troubled. Regardless of its purpose and meaning. Charlie realized that there had been a change in his psychological outlook. From that moment when he remembered there having been a hippopotamus floating above his head when he was nine, he had always accepted it as being what it was, never once thinking that he was in peril. He was what he was and it was what he was as well as what it was, but there had definitely been a change. As his desire for purpose and reason grew, so did the realization that even if he was no more than an average man, at the very least he was different. He was well aware that no one was capable of seeing the hippo except for himself, yet he thought about and fretted over it more with his reasoning than he had when it had simply been a curiosity. Once its purpose had been discovered, would the hippo cease to exist? Or, would that discovery require that the hippo return from whence it had come? There was also the possibility, however remote, that the hippo was a rogue and had been banished from its hippo tribe because of psychotic behavior. Maybe, it waited for that moment when Charlie was at his weakest before it attacked! For the first time in a long time, Charlie laughed out loud. There had been plenty of opportunity for the hippo to attack previously if it had so desired. With his laughter, the door to the waiting room opened. Charlie and the hippo entered the office and took a seat in the doctor’s office. Beside the chair, the only other furniture was a desk covered by numerous awards and folders, the chair Charlie sat in, and a large, comfortable looking sofa. While he waited Charlie filled out all manner of insurance forms. A half hour later, the doctor walked into the office and sat behind the desk. He was tall, slightly overweight, bald, wore an eye patch over his right eye and had a salt and pepper beard. Charlie was instructed to lie on the couch, which he did. The hippo remained as always, comfortably poised with a presumed smile upon its face. The doctor asked him who his health care provider was. Once informed, he instructed Charlie to tell him why he was there, what he wanted to accomplish, and that he should speak as slowly as possible. 10
Charlie began to tell the doctor everything he could remember about his life from his earliest recollection when he was nine, until the day he had started to question his and the hippo’s existence. The entire time that Charlie spoke, the doctor nodded his head slowly while he tugged on the edges of his beard. On occasion, he murmured to himself in a thoughtful manner or asked him to repeat an earlier remark. Charlie, feeling that complete honesty was essential for an immediate cure, complied to the best of his ability. When he had finally finished detailing his past, the doctor looked above Charlie’s head until, Charlie presumed, he had made eye contact with the hippo. “Charlie,” he said carefully and thoughtfully while he tugged on his beard. “I think you are a perfect candidate for regressive, repressive hippo-therapy.” And with his deduction, the doctor pulled his chair onto the outer fringes of the circular shadow created by the hippo, removed a watch from his sport jacket, and started to slowly swing it through the air by its chain. Charlie was so intrigued by the gold watch, that before he knew it, he had become immersed in the most unusual sleep he had ever experienced. Charlie lay on his back, as he had in the dream, completely unable to move. He studied the underside of the hippo as it faded into the shadows contained on the room’s ceiling. After several minutes, while the doctor’s voice ranged through varying degrees of ennui, Charlie began to watch his life rewind from that very day he was living. He saw himself walking back toward his office and resume working. After a while, Ellen smiled at him as he moved backwards with her coffee and glazed donut to the donut shop where he returned them to the store’s owner and was paid for his efforts. He then continued home and unchewed his breakfast before climbing back into bed. This continued for a very long time. The days turned to weeks, to months and years, and, finally, to decades. He saw himself gazing upwards at the hippo while he clumsily completed his first and only act of intercourse. Walking from the theater to her car, they drove backwards toward his house where he exited, walked in reverse to his apartment, and unprepared for his date. Before he knew it, Charlie saw himself as a nine-year-old stumbling through hindsight to a playground behind his grammar school with a much smaller hippo casually floating above his head. Boys similar to him also walked backwards before removing their tightly rolled hands from his stomach and face. Blood trickled up his 11
shirt to his chin and to his nose, before the first fist pulled away and turned into the previous moments when all of his friends looked upward at the baby-sized hippo. Their faces returned to Charlie’s and he understood that he was watching the first and only time he tried to expose the hippo’s existence. After several minutes of them talking in reverse, they all stepped away from Charlie and skipped back to their individual homes. Charlie then retraced those steps through the beginning years that marked his childhood. He watched himself in a baby carriage as his father and mother pulled him through the park. He accepted the complete indifference his parents afforded the baby hippo, and he watched them as they returned toward the house. After several more minutes, he watched himself being driven in reverse to the hospital with his mother and pulled back into the nursery. This was followed by several days’ worth of breast-feeding and visitors who made all manner of cute faces before backing away to the elevator. This was followed by newborn Charlie being wheeled into a large room with bright lights. The newly formed hippo floated above Charlie’s head and glistened with water that dripped from its tiny, stumpety legs onto the swaddling cloths that had been wrapped about Charlie. Two hands reached into the incubator he lay in, removed the cloth and held him above his mother’s face. Charlie’s mouth was open and empty for only a moment before she pulled him in front of her face and lowered him to her breast. His mouth was immediately filled with warmth and comfort and the sense that nothing in the world could harm him before he was just as quickly pulled away from her breast and brought to the level of her face again. His mouth was again open, but this time it was open with a smile as he looked into her eyes and snorted through his nose and smelled his mother for the first time. She suddenly took back the kiss she had greeted him with, and he rose above her head and began to scream. He was catapulted back to the foot of the cart whereupon his mother’s legs were spread. His trajectory ended with an incredible pain upon his buttocks as the obstetrician took back his slap, reattached Charlie’s umbilical cord and pushed him, feet first, back into his mother’s birth canal. The screaming sucked back into Charlie’s first breath. Charlie watched the bright lights that radiated from the delivery room as his hips and shoulders were re-engulfed by his mother. The last sight Charlie saw was the blackened rear end of the recently delivered hippo returning to his mother’s birth canal just prior to his birth. 12
Charlie jumped completely off the couch and landed in the doctor’s lap. The doctor looked at Charlie with his one eye as he continued to tug on his beard. After a few moments, he spoke. “What are your thoughts on what you’ve seen?” Charlie looked back at the doctor in silence before opening his mouth. “!woW” was all he was able to squeak out. “I see,” the doctor said, unaware that Charlie had actually said Mom! He just hadn’t quite stopped moving backwards at that point. He quickly stood from the doctor’s lap and started to look for his hat while the doctor examined his notes. When Charlie was about to leave, the doctor spoke. “It doesn’t take two eyes to see that you were sexually abused as a child by one, if not both of your parents, and that the shock of this assault has manifested itself in the image of this transferred aggression that you refer to as the hippo. I prescribe immediate, intensive therapy as a means for you to find a way to express the outrage and pain that you have kept buried within.” With those words, he presented Charlie with a bill for $1,200.00 as well as the necessary forms for his insurance carrier. Charlie replaced his hat and left with the hippo. Charlie was almost at his doorstep when he understood the complexity of what the doctor had said. He recalled his parents as having been firm yet affectionate to him as a child and young adult. Unfortunately, if the doctor said it was so, than it must have been so. Fortunately, both of his parents were deceased, thus disallowing the opportunity for confrontation. He thought very hard before deciding that if he couldn’t actually remember the alleged assaults, he would be hard-pressed to hate his parents no matter what the doctor said. With those thoughts, Charlie immediately forgave his parents and decided that he would visit the doctor no more. He had several deceased uncles, and the thought that their memories might be tarnished by his repressed past made him decide to leave well enough alone. One byproduct of his visit was the decision that he needed a means with which to convey those buried thoughts that troubled him. It was at that point that Charlie decided that if he were to take a creative writing class he might be able to bring out his inner angst. Luckily, the local college offered just such a course. Charlie decided that he would enroll as quickly as possible. Which he did.
6 Charlie’s days from that point became very organized. He retained the same routines as always: he woke, made himself breakfast and showered. Then he would get dressed and walk to work. Charlie had tired of the three old men and their messages, so, consequently, he didn’t watch television anymore. It was unlikely that he would actually miss them however, because two days after his visit to the doctor, all the money was replaced by currency that had their likeness on it. En route to work, his routine remained the same: paper, sandwich advertisement, contemplative flowers, and the glazed donut he presented to Ellen. Only now, as a result of his therapy, he was also aware of the smile she always held for him when he walked down the hallway toward her desk. He did all that as well as climb down the twenty-one flights of stairs after work to get himself dinner. The only variation was that after he had eaten, he would travel an additional two blocks to the local college and take his writing class. Most of the time, he sat in class while the teacher listened to the work of the other students and Charlie contemplated the hippo. And, after he had nearly finished the course, he began to wonder if it was ever going to actually aid him in his quest. But he did hope—as he opened his ears, released his soul, and searched for words that he could place on paper as strokes of ink with the ease of melted wax, sliding and slipping from the stoking of his desire before he attempted to understand the minute differences separating multiple sentence structure from those archaic run-on sentences that (seemingly) added purpose and pleasure to the prose, thoughts and inspired remembrances (that he) transposed into words that were but darkened granite held beneath a sculpture’s blade before the accumulated fires of time, timidity and repressed artistic yearning could flourish and consume that pain withheld for all those years (which caused his tears to flow) like glittering, spiritual diamonds that augmented his suffering to a further degree—that he would occasionally invent a phrase or two which might be used to impress Ellen, the slight woman he admired, and make her talk to him. That certainly was a dilemma for Charlie. On the one hand, he was obsessed with the idea that he had some mission in life. On the other, he was never so busy that he didn’t lie awake at night with that ever present shadow mere yards above his head and not desire someone who would be able to listen to him and help him capture that fleeting angst trapped within his psyche. Fortunately for Charlie and Ellen, the law of 14
averages—like the meddlesome hand of an intrusive hack writer—would eventually come into play. Several days following the completion of his writing class, Charlie woke on the first day of the workweek. As always, he ate breakfast, showered, got dressed and left home with the hippo. En route, he did those things he always did, except that after he had climbed the twenty-one flights to his office and had started down the hallway, Ellen didn’t follow his approach with her raised, anxiously blue eyes and brilliant smile. Instead, she continued to look down at the cup of hot tea that lay beside the two glazed donuts that had arrived prior to Charlie. Charlie was stunned. He stood silently in front of her desk with his head lowered as the minutes ticked briskly past. When she wouldn’t raise her eyes to look at him, he turned away from her lowered expression, tea and TWO glazed donuts, and walked to the coat rack. Removing his hat, he froze. There was already another hat on the arm that normally held his. Charlie walked to his desk and sat down. After placing his hat beside the many folders that awaited his attention, he opened the container and drank the hot coffee in one magnificent swallow. He then proceeded to slowly nibble on the glazed donut. It was the first one that Charlie had ever eaten, and the blisters that formed on his scalded tongue from the coffee allowed for him to savor every individual flavor it contained. It was, incidentally, the same tongue that had failed to speak those words he kept inside. The more his tongue blistered and swelled, the more he realized that what had occurred was inevitable. It was only a matter of time before someone else noticed Ellen. After all, she was a slight and shyly attractive woman who possessed all manner of qualities that men might find desirable. But it made him think: What sense are words, if there is no one to hear? Why search for truth, meaning and purpose, if but only one can interpret that truth and appreciate the sacrifices? Why lay awake at night with thoughts, despair, hopes and secretive pleasures, if the only result is to awaken as lonely the following day as all those days which have preceded it? Why indeed. At the end of the business day, Charlie left the office with his blistered tongue and hippo and headed home. He bypassed that walk and those sights that normally provided relief, and, once home, climbed the stairs to his lonely apartment, undressed, and slipped beneath the covers. Bringing the sheets up to his chin, he clasped onto them like a man who dangled above an ocean. He lay with his forever-present hippo, looked out the window, and watched the day die and the night rise until that moment when the moon hovered above the horizon and he could study its full face through the glass 15
of his bedroom window. He remembered a story—Once upon a time—a simple superstition that forecast ruin upon those who looked at the full moon through their own reflections in the glass. Eventually, he fell asleep amidst nocturnal sounds and dreamt terrible dreams of loss and demonic hippo vengeance. After a listless night, he awoke before dawn with rage, regret, and an unusually eerie sensation in his belly that pulled on him to arise as well with a singular taste that could only be his bitterness. Which it was, and which he did. He looked out from his bed without thought of hippos, dreams, rewinding births, or forgotten, repressed tragedies and studied the loneliness of his bedroom. All at once, he decided that he could stand it no longer. He rushed to the desk beside his bed, and searched through all the drawers until he found his pen and paper. As he contemplated his bleak life, he moved his pen and opened his heart until that moment when the ink boiled away from the futility of capturing words, prose and poetic stances never meant to be captured. The feelings he envisioned could only be expressed, thought, hoped, dreamt and conveyed with a touch or a look. He wrote until his tears were the only embodiment that could be contained by those papers and transposed into the longing he desired to express. As the sun slowly drifted above the eastern horizon and turned the underbelly of the hippo from gray and red to rose and white, he looked down at his writing and wiped his face. Only then did Charlie get dressed and go to work. When he arrived at his office, he stood in front of Ellen’s desk. He looked down at the empty cup of tea that sat beside the TWO glazed donuts. He placed his coffee and donut in front of the first, lowered the bouquet of flowers that he had finally purchased, and placed his small envelope on top of her folded hands. Her fingers opened like a delicately blossoming flower. They turned from tightened petals, clasped and forlorn, to reach into the envelope, extract his note and unfold it the several times required. When she had, she held it close to her slight face and silently read those words that had tortured poor Charlie: I Love you, He then waited until she had brought her eyes up from his writing to his face. When he realized that he had not only her undivided attention, but also that of every employee who worked within the office, he spoke those words that had taken from him every ounce of creativity he had gained from his writing class. “Phill tuu barryknee?” he asked in spite of the blisters that remained on his tongue. 16
When she failed to respond, he asked again. “Phill tuu barryknee?” Once again, she quietly studied him before she placed the letter on the desk, carefully reached beyond Charlie’s flowers, and slowly swept the other’s finished tea container into the garbage can beside her desk. She then opened her mouth and spoke the first words she had ever spoken to him. “Yeth diephill.” And she did. 7 They chose a simple wedding to become man and wife. Charlie might have even used the word average to describe it if he alone had been present. But he hadn’t, Ellen had also been there: slight, fair and radiant. Life returned to normal following their wedding. Most days, Charlie and Ellen ate breakfast together in front of the television (Charlie had finally bought a remote control so that they didn’t have to watch the old men during the commercial’s commercial breaks), before they showered and walked to work. They nodded to those with whom they associated with on their short trek, picked up their newspapers at the second corner, read the sandwich advertisement together and, occasionally, Charlie would purchase a small bouquet of flowers for Ellen. They then would stroll, hand in hand, past the donut shop situated on the ground floor of the building they worked in. It took a month for the blisters on their tongues to heal, but once they had, Charlie bought a cup of coffee and a glazed donut for Ellen. He would then kiss her good-bye while she rode in the elevator. Some days, he felt happy enough to race her to the top with the hippo bouncing along against the stairwell’s ceiling. He always lost. Mostly, Charlie talked about the hippo while Ellen listened. She never offered an opinion and only occasionally sneaked a peak above his head. On most days, work was work, and after they had finished, they would either walk to the diner for dinner, or to the store for groceries. After dinner, they would invariably go out for a stroll, just the two of them and the hippo. Sometimes, the night became so quiet that they could almost hear the stars burning in the sky and each other’s heart going bumpity-bump. Charlie began to wonder if the hippo resented the fact that he had married. He couldn’t believe that it did, for it never changed. It just floated. What he did discover, as the months turned to years, was that his quest had lost a small measure of immediacy. He
still believed that he was average. In fact, now that he was married, he believed himself to be even more average than before, and he still desired to know what it all meant, especially juxtaposed against the grand scheme of things that were expected to be found someday, but the urgency had diminished. Other times, Charlie would lie on his back in bed. He would stare beyond Ellen’s curls as she nestled against him and he would study the underside of the hippo. For only a moment, he would feel guilty because he had found a companion and, yet, the hippo remained as always. He often speculated: Is the hippo lonely? Does it desire someone with whom it might nestle against after a long day of floating? There was never any indication that the hippo was anything other than there, for which Charlie was grateful. Mainly, though, Charlie thought about Ellen. She was his, he was hers, and he couldn’t even imagine what life was like before their days and nights together. Oftentimes, he was grateful that he was no longer interested in creative writing. He had a feeling that he could use up all the words he had ever learned and invent a thousand more and never adequately describe what she meant to him. On the weekend, Ellen often rose before Charlie. He would lie in bed, thinking of her, while she drank coffee in the kitchenette outside their bedroom, or quietly nibbled on a glazed donut in front of the television. Sometimes, while she dusted the apartment, he would study the changes dawn wrought to the colors on the underside of the hippo and imagine her hand upon the knob as she stole into the room to complete her dusting without waking him. At certain times, he would peek from beneath the sheets and realize that her love made her accept it even though she, like everyone else, was incapable of seeing it. He knew it as fact because she would often pause in her dusting and quietly study the space above his head. When she had ascertained that he was sleeping, she would then step in closer and dust the underside of the hippo. He knew she couldn’t see it, because when she raised her feather duster above his head to swish and swash the hippo’s vast undercarriage, she always missed and never managed to clean more than its odd, floating tail. After time, their lives blended into each other until that point when they were happier than they could ever have imagined. They were so happily in love: at home, en route, at work, coming home, and while they slept, that they didn’t realize the changes that occurred in the world around them.
Some of those changes were scientific. Those men who used their knowledge devising “things” invented many astounding inventions. All of them were used to either make a few men rich, or win wars. Other changes were on the political front and in the business world. Those three old men (who were supposed to die and leave the world for younger men and women) used some of those inventions to devise ways in which to remain alive for years longer than they had promised. And since they were old men—set in their ways and with little hope that they would get everything they wanted in their lifetimes—they invented laws so that even after they died they would be in charge. Once those laws were given to the government and passed, they then outlawed religion and faith so that there would no longer be anyone who might pass laws that carried more authority than them. Charlie, Ellen and the hippo didn’t care. They just did those things they always did and continued to love each other more as the years wore on. They stayed in Charlie’s apartment and went to work as they always did because they enjoyed their jobs. They still went on their long walks whereupon Charlie would talk and Ellen would listen, and only occasionally would Charlie wish that Ellen would overcome her peculiar shyness. He never mentioned it because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Instead, he talked about the hippo that continued to float above their heads, blanketing them both with its shadow. One day, while picking up their papers at the second corner, Charlie and Ellen glanced down and read the same headlines on their different papers at the exact same time. The headlines read: Angels outlawed! New scientific discovery illuminates them for inspection by mortals! Reward offered! Neither Charlie nor Ellen were particularly religious, but they both felt that it was terribly unfair to outlaw angels. They had always associated them with good and charitable acts and felt that so long as they minded their own business, that they should be allowed to prosper in harmony with those living inhabitants of the average city they resided in. Unfortunately, the old men in charge didn’t agree and before the end of the day had passed, the news accounts were filled with images of regular people being accused of being angels by their neighbors. Those same news accounts would show one concerned face after another exclaiming that they had always suspected something 19
because, well, mainly because they were just too darn nice. They didn’t fit in. Charlie was especially disturbed when he saw a picture of the sandwich advertisement man being led away to the back of a police van. He glowed like he had swallowed a fluorescent light pie. Within days, the army showed up and began helping the police as they rounded up all of the exposed angels for proper disposal. The thought even crossed Charlie’s mind that perhaps Ellen was an angel. He hoped not, because Charlie was an average, law-abiding citizen. It would have caused him considerable duress to break the law by not turning Ellen in. Regardless of the law, however, Charlie wouldn’t have turned her in because she was his wife and they were happy together. Apparently, that wasn’t true of others. The newspapers and televisions were full of accounts of all sorts of people who suspected that their spouses, brothers, coworkers, children, parents, aunts and uncles were angels. One night while watching the news, Charlie saw the doctor from the: Institute for the Psychologically Impaired He was shown sitting on his chair in the clinic, thoughtfully tugging on his beard as he looked off with his one eye. After several minutes of observation, he said: “It doesn’t take two eyes to see that they were all sexually abused as children by one, if not both of their parents and that the shock of this assault has manifested itself in this transferred aggression that is being symbolized in the creation of these angels. If you rid the world of these angels, then those ills resulting from those assaults will also be removed.” Neither Charlie nor Ellen understood science to an extraordinary degree, but they had to admit that the new scientific discovery certainly was effective in illuminating angels. For weeks, it was nearly impossible to sleep at night without having it interrupted by clanging bells and shrieking whistles as another angel was illuminated and promptly burned. This was cause for considerable duress, but because there was nothing that either Charlie or Ellen were capable of doing to assist the angels, they tried to put it out of their minds. At least Charlie did. A few days later, after having picked up their newspapers, they both glanced down and read the same headlines at the exact same time: Government declares war on Angels! Bombing begins tonight!
After reading the headlines, they stopped prior to buying Ellen’s coffee and donut and read their papers: It has been determined that the current angel problem has grown to the point where local and state governments are no longer capable of managing their control. As a result, by special directive of the President, war has been declared against all angels. A special anti-angel bomb will be dropped over every major city at exactly midnight tonight. This bomb poses no threat to mortals, but will effectively eliminate all angels, thus bringing an end to this sordid historical chapter. After reading the news reports, Charlie looked up at the hippo and wondered out loud if the effects of the bomb would prove harmful. Ellen, as always, remained quiet. They walked into the building whereupon Charlie purchased a coffee and a glazed donut. As he turned to give Ellen her gift, however, he was astounded to see that she had vanished. He then raced upstairs to meet her at the elevator. He secretly suspected that she harbored pro-angel views and assumed that the news accounts had upset her. When he arrived at the twenty-first floor, he held her bag in his hand and watched the door slide open and the same people who always walked out, walk out. When they had departed, Charlie stuck his head in the elevator. Ellen wasn’t there. Charlie began to hyperventilate. He turned and walked down the long hall with her bag clutched in his hand until he got to her desk. She was nowhere in sight; her desk was empty. Charlie stood beside her desk, hyperventilating, until their boss finally sent him home. Charlie said good-bye as best he could, and then raced downstairs with the hippo and began to retrace their steps back to their apartment. His first stop was at the donut shop. The owner, a boisterous man with a loud laugh, admitted that he hadn’t seen a thing, but—lowering his voice and looking in both directions—he suggested that Charlie look into the possibility that she had been kidnapped by angels. Charlie thanked him and continued to hyperventilate back toward the apartment. His second stop was at the newspaper vendor. No, he hadn’t seen her either, and he then suggested that Charlie buy several of his conspiracy magazines in the hope that they might offer a suggestion into her whereabouts’. In an attempt at anonymity, he cupped his hands around his mouth so that the words couldn’t sneak away into someone else’s confidence, and whispered that he felt that perhaps aliens were responsible for her disappearance. Charlie thanked the man before he began to walk down the street. He had his own theory as to where Ellen had gone, and it had nothing 21
to do with her having been abducted by either angels, or aliens. Finally, he made it back to the apartment and peeked inside. It was quiet, dark, and without even a speck of dust different from when they had left that morning. Charlie then spent the next several hours scouring every park they had ever walked in. He went to the lakefront and walked out onto the pier he had ventured upon when he had questioned his purpose and, like before, the sun was nearly tucked away beneath the western horizon. He gazed out over the water he feared so greatly, and pondered quiet, troublesome thoughts. Sometime after eleven o’clock, he and the hippo hurried back to the apartment. He didn’t believe that the government’s anti-angel bomb would have any effect on the hippo, but he didn’t wish to take a chance. Along the way, he pondered what he would do if Ellen had left. Had she finally tired of him and the hippo? Had he talked so frequently about his unknown purpose that she had finally decided that it must not include her? Or worse yet, had she discovered what that purpose was and decided that it made him so average, that even she couldn’t be around him? Charlie arrived at the apartment moments before the bomb was to be detonated. He inserted his key into the front door of the apartment, turned the knob and stepped through with the hippo. Ellen stood in the middle of the apartment and watched him with her brilliant smile and a glow upon her cheeks. She stood in the same dress she had worn to work and quietly proclaimed her love for him with her eyes. Hers, and from the angels who filled their apartment. They were crammed together in every corner of the room; pushed and layered from one end of the apartment to the other. Every nook and cranny that didn’t contain either Charlie, Ellen or the hippo, was crammed with an inadvertent angel. They quietly studied Charlie (as angels are prone to do) and shimmered brightly from the light of the new scientific discovery. Raising their hands in unison, they simultaneously spoke: “Hello Charlie, how was work?” Charlie answered softly as his breathing finally began to quiet. “I don’t know, but thank you for asking.” He then spoke to Ellen. Holding his hat in his hand, he studied his feet nervously. “I was worried about you.”
Ellen continued to smile and as she did, Charlie understood. Ellen was an angel; more specifically, she was the best kind of angel, the kind who lives, breathes, works, and never, ever proclaims her angelic qualities. She was sweet, even-tempered, and always caring of Charlie and the hippo. She was brighter than any illuminated angel and able to understand that what was occurring was wrong. She had decided in an instant to do something that might be dangerous and, perhaps, even detrimental to their continuation as a couple in order to do what was right, proper and charitable. Charlie had a heart that was good, kind and bigger than the hippo, but Ellen’s heart was bigger than the world. Charlie knew and understood why Ellen had left him at work and gone to gather all the angels. Being angels, they were able to figure out how to hide inside the hippo (with Charlie’s consent, of course). And while he didn’t think that hiding and protecting them was his purpose in life, he did feel that it might be Ellen’s. When they had all safely tucked themselves inside the hippo, Ellen and Charlie walked, hand in hand, to the windows that overlooked the world from their apartment. At precisely that moment anticipated, a plane flew over the city and dropped its bomb. It fell and exploded with a tremendous flash, like innumerable fluorescent lanterns. The bright light cascaded across everything and illuminated everything for what it was: average. That average reality made its way into every corner of the city. Reality and angels never mix, but luckily, as far as Charlie was concerned, they were in a place where reality couldn’t reach. When the ugly, barren light had finally faded, Charlie looked above his head to see how the hippo had fared. It continued to float above their heads oblivious, as always, to the events of the world. It was swollen and filled the entire ceiling of the apartment, just like the moon that Charlie watched from his bedroom window. Charlie and Ellen stood beneath it until they were tanned, radiant, and warmed like peaches. The angels evacuated the hippo slowly (because it’s much easier to enter a hippo than it is to exit). With time, they all extricated themselves and, after thanking their hosts, departed for wherever they had lived prior to the war. Charlie, Ellen and the hippo then prepared for bed. As they lay upon their backs, they thought their quiet thoughts while the hippo lazily floated above their heads. Charlie smiled contentedly to himself as he studied its underside. Just prior to that moment when Charlie fell asleep, Ellen whispered into his ear, as quietly as a mouse. 23
“You may be average in your eyes, Charlie Anderson, but in mine, you are the most decent man I have ever met. If I could give you one present, I would give you an answer to that which troubles you. But I’m afraid I can’t. I’m afraid that you may have to wait until you stand before God in the afterlife to find out what it is you need to know. What I can give you, however, is my gratitude. You have shown me what love is and have made me happier than any angel. Always remember that average is good, but decent is much better. I know, without a doubt, that I am happy with you, and, that if I were to die tonight, I would die the happiest wife there ever was.” She was, and she did. 8 Ellen was buried on a fair, spring Saturday with flowers blooming and birds flying through the air. The night before, everyone that Charlie and Ellen knew had come and paid their respects. This allowed for everyone to sleep in on Sunday. Charlie and Ellen had spent all their time together and, as such, didn’t have many close friends. And while they were both likable people, Ellen’s peculiar shyness had prevented them from going out and making any new friends. Charlie, on the other hand, had always had the hippo and hadn’t needed any friends. But regardless, those with whom they worked and those with whom they associated on their way to work came to pay their respects. Befitting Ellen, it was a sweet affair. Coffee and glazed donuts were served for all those who made the effort to come. Each person walked through a small procession that ended with Ellen, closed his or her eyes, then walked up to Charlie and shook his hand. They told him how sad they felt and how, if he needed anything, all he had to do was call and they would rush right over and do whatever it was that Charlie needed to be done. He thought it was nice of them but realized even before they had stopped shaking his hand that he most likely wouldn’t need anything. After all, he still had his job, his apartment, and the hippo. When they had finished comforting Charlie, they went to the table that held the coffee and glazed donuts and looked at a picture of Charlie and Ellen taken on their wedding day. In the picture, Ellen wore the same dress she had worn when she had gathered all the angels. It was also the dress she was being buried in. Charlie thought the picture was nice. The photographer had used a special lens that allowed the sun to be photographed just over their shoulders. Charlie liked the picture because it was the
only one he had of Ellen. Also, something about the lens and the clouds on that day made it look, at least to Charlie, as if the picture had also captured the hippo. It was a family photo in an odd, floating hippo kind of way. In it, Charlie stood beside Ellen and held her hand. The sunlight bathed them in such a way that the blisters on their lips weren’t discernible at all, and the stumpety, cloud-shaped legs of the hippo were clearly visible—at least to Charlie. Befitting the moment, Charlie had a dignified smile on his face. It was his favorite picture. After they had passed through the procession, given their condolences to Charlie and partaken of the coffee and glazed donuts, they all sat in chairs and allowed for those who felt the need to talk. First, was Charlie and Ellen’s boss. He said that Ellen had been a quiet, hardworking employee and that everyone at the office would miss her. He wished Charlie luck and related a story that Charlie immediately forgot but which caused everyone to laugh nervously while they peeked at Charlie. Their boss then told how it was most likely his abilities as a boss that had caused them to get married. After all, it was he who had placed Ellen’s desk at the entrance to the firm and located Charlies’ a mere twelve paces away. He stepped down and everyone politely clapped. Next, was the flower vendor who had sold Charlie the bouquet of flowers he had presented to Ellen the day he had asked her to marry him. He told how he had sensed that his flowers would be required for some special act and how he had selected, individually, each and every flower he had available at his stand. It was obvious to him that his flowers were the reason they had gotten married. He then related a story that Charlie didn’t understand, but which caused everyone to titter self-consciously before he stepped down and the small group again, politely applauded. After him the man who owned the donut shop told how, every day, Charlie would come in and purchase a coffee and a glazed donut. He described the care he put into each and every glazed donut and how, after observing Charlie’s rival purchase his tea and TWO glazed donuts, he had decided to make the finest batch of glazed donuts he had ever made to thwart the encroachment on Charlie’s beloved. He then told everyone present that he planned to market an entire line of glazed donuts that he would call “Ellen’s Own.” He then shared a story that caused everyone to laugh uproariously and decide (in an instant) to go out and purchase glazed donuts after the funeral. He stepped down to thunderous applause.
Following him, a tiny man with a small mustache, big ears and a thin, angry mouth, stood behind the podium and told how he had admired Ellen from afar for years before he got up the courage to give her the tea (etc.), and that he resented the fact that Charlie had thwarted his plans by buying her a bouquet of flowers. He also told how, if it hadn’t been for him, Charlie never would have gotten the nerve to tell Ellen that he loved her. He then told a story that caused every person present, including Charlie, to scratch their heads before he suddenly lunged at Charlie and had to be escorted from the funeral parlor. Finally, it was time for Charlie to speak. He stood up and walked behind the podium. It occurred to him that if it weren’t for the fact that he was burying his wife, he most likely wouldn’t feel particularly bad. Perhaps that was because he alone realized that Ellen had passed away because she was so happy with Charlie. And he was glad that she was happy, even if it meant that he would now be alone. He thought of all the people who had worked so hard to bring them together. He didn’t quite remember it as having happened the way they said it had, but if they said it had happened the way they said it had, then it must have happened the way it had. Charlie thought about all the angels that Ellen had saved. For only a moment, he thought that the government’s anti-angel bomb might have played a role in her passing, but he quickly discarded that thought. From what he had read, if that had been the case, she wouldn’t have been very happy that night. But she was, and Charlie recognized that as being the cause of her demise. He thought quietly to himself, and even sneaked a peek at the hippo. In his memory, the hippo was the underlying cause of their having been drawn to one another. But, he realized that it wouldn’t serve any purpose to point that out to them; after all, none of them could see it. So he said what he felt: “Ellen was a good and faithful wife. I will miss her.” He then walked away from the podium and sat down. After a few minutes, everyone looked quizzically at each other before quietly leaving. When they were gone, Charlie brought his chair up to where Ellen lay and held her hand for the remainder of the night. 9 The day of Ellen’s burial, Charlie went home and bathed. When he had finished, he dried himself, decided on a properly depressive garment and negotiated his way through breakfast. He then walked the short distance to the funeral parlor.
He arrived in time to see Ellen as her casket was carried out to the hearse. A man he had never met before directed him into a limousine that was to follow behind. After fifteen minutes of traveling, they arrived at the cemetery. Once there, Ellen was removed from the hearse and carried to the gravesite. Since religion and faith were still outlawed, a man who had once been religious got up and said a few words that meant absolutely nothing unless one had the imagination to insert certain words that he couldn’t say because of the legalities involved. Fortunately, Charlie filled in the blanks and Ellen was lowered into her grave under what might have been religious overtones. After that, everyone, with the exception of Charlie and the hippo, prepared to leave. Charlie continued to stand above her grave as another man filled it in with dirt and used the shovel to smooth the top. In the distance, several illuminated angels peeked from behind the bushes and bade her farewell. It was at that precise time that Charlie realized two things: that he was saying good-bye to her forever, and, as a result of her having died from happiness, he would never be happy again. He looked from her grave to the underside of the hippo as earlier thoughts floated through his head: Why lie awake at night with thoughts, hopes, secretive pleasures and a floating hippo, if the only result is to awaken as lonely the following day as all those days which have preceded it? Why indeed. While Charlie began to ponder his loneliness and now empty heart, it began to softly rain. Everything that surrounded him resulted from his desire to find answers and to make something out of his average life. What had Ellen done? he wondered. She had thanked him for being decent and making her happy. She had been the happiest wife she could be because of him. Those people who had prepared to leave looked back and watched Charlie as the hippo filled in with gray and black and with Charlie’s missing grief as the wind picked up and lightning flashed from its bottom to strike the ground. Rain fell from its underside and onto that little patch that Charlie inhabited as it darkened along its edges like a hippo-shaped thundercloud. The people who were leaving stopped. They didn’t see Charlie, they didn’t see those angels who peeked from behind the bushes, they didn’t see Ellen’s grave, they saw a large, gray and black hippopotamus floating mere yards above Charlie’s head. They said: “This is astounding, this is stupendous, this is colossal...” They ran out of adjectives to describe that particular moment, so they said: 27
“This is really astounding, this is really stupendous, this is really, really colossal!” And it was. They immediately ran back to where Charlie stood and pointed above his head. They shouted to each other and tried to make meaning of it. They called their friends on their cellular phones and before they could say Holy Hippo! the graveyard was inundated with curiosity-seekers and people from the media. Charlie remained by her grave, ignorant of their discovery. After a while, unfortunately, even the angels who peeked from behind the bushes had to seek refuge to avoid the throng of people who came to see the hippo. They circled Charlie and shouted at each other. They took surveys, conducted polls and asked each other what it all meant. When no one was able to arrive at an agreeable explanation, the media grabbed Charlie and placed him behind a podium. They asked him: “Charlie, why is there a hippo floating above your head?” To which Charlie replied: “I don’t know.” They then shouted: “Charlie, why is it raining on you?” To which Charlie responded: “Thank you for asking, but I don’t know the answer to that either.” A man shouted from the back: “Charlie, is the hippo symbolic of the guilt you feel for having abused everyone who isn’t like everybody else who has been abused by you and everyone like you?” Charlie thought it over for a moment. “Thanks for asking, but I can’t remember having abused anyone—but if you say I have, then I guess I have. I came here to bury my wife.” Another man from the front shouted: “Charlie, is the hippo indicative of the anger you feel at being accused of every social ill that befalls everyone who isn’t like everybody else?” Charlie had an answer for that question as well: “I don’t feel particularly angry at this time, just sad.” Several of the spectators continued to shout at him. One man asked Charlie if he would like to be a symbol for all the men who were oppressed and angry at being blamed for every social ill that occurred. Charlie declined because he didn’t feel that the purpose of the hippo was to make people feel guilty. 28
Another man asked Charlie to be the symbol for all the guilt he should feel because of all the bad things that happened to everyone because they weren’t everybody else. Once again, Charlie declined. The man became angry and shouted that Charlie was a racist. Fortunately, Charlie forgave himself before he made it back to his apartment. Upon his arrival, he locked his door, closed his windows and ignored those people who continued to shout from the street below his apartment. He then sat at his desk to compose the words he wanted engraved on Ellen’s tombstone. It took him the remainder of the day and most of the following to do so, but he did. He wrote: My Ellen, She was a good and faithful wife. I miss her. He then undressed himself, went to bed and studied the cloudy underside of the hippo until he fell asleep. That night he dreamt of Ellen, himself and the hippo. 10 The following morning, Charlie awoke to an average day. He did those usual things necessary in preparation of work but, afraid that the crowd of curiosity seekers and reporters might be camped beneath his dining room windows, he left through the back entrance. While walking to work, he passed the flower vendor (who had sold out to a major conglomerate sometime after Ellen’s funeral). In front of the new stand erected beneath the conglomerate’s huge sign, he saw dozens upon dozens of floral arrangements with the exact same colors, shapes and sentimentality. He thought they were pretty in an average way. He then walked to the building in which his firm was located. A line of people, two blocks long, snaked around the building and ended at the donut shop. They waited beneath a sign that had been erected. It read: “Ellen’s Own” Donuts Sold Out New batch at 11:00. The people in line were too enthralled at the prospect of buying donuts to notice Charlie or the hippo that continued to rain upon him. He sloshed up the twenty-one flights of stairs to the office. As he walked down the long hallway, he passed Ellen’s old desk. Behind it, a very large woman with a pronounced mustache sat. In front of her, was a cup of tea and 29
TWO of “Ellen’s Own” glazed donuts. She motioned for Charlie to give her a wide berth so that her donuts wouldn’t get rained on. When he arrived at his desk, Charlie saw a sign on top of it. It read: Charlie: see the boss! Which Charlie did. He walked in, shook hands with his boss, and was promptly fired. He had been spotted on television being interviewed at Ellen’s graveside. Unfortunately, the firm couldn’t continue to employ him since he had admitted on television that he had abused everyone who wasn’t like everybody else who had been abused by him and everyone like him; to which his boss added that if he had been a man who was oppressed and angry for being blamed for every social ill that befell everyone who wasn’t like everyone else like him or felt guilty because of all the bad things that happened to everyone because they weren’t like everybody else, then he might have been able to squeeze him through a loophole. That had suited Charlie just fine, because he couldn’t imagine the loophole big enough to accommodate him and the hippo. Charlie left with his and Ellen’s last check and started to return home. He passed the line at the donut shop, which now snaked six blocks around the building. Unfortunately, he was spotted by a throng of reporters and was chased the last half mile. When he arrived at his apartment, he saw a sign that had been taped to his front door. It read: Charlie: see the manager! Charlie did. He walked into the manager’s apartment beneath his own, and was promptly evicted. It seemed that with his newly revealed hippo, Charlie was in violation of the apartment building’s policy of No Pets Allowed!! and that the constant rain had flooded the manager’s apartment during the course of the night. Charlie and Ellen’s last checks and his original security deposit would barely cover the cost of the repairs. But as fortune would see fit, the manager had found someone who was willing to buy Charlie’s belongings. The only exception had been the wedding picture Charlie had brought back from the funeral parlor. Charlie thanked the manager for saving his picture, shook his hand, and left with the picture under his arm. Charlie again left out the back entrance in order to avoid the media, whereupon he nearly tripped over a dozen protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of hippoS who had camped out. Once he was able to outrun them, he slowed down to a sloshing stroll. 30
Charlie wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do. He no longer had a wife, an apartment, a job, or money. Fortunately, Charlie only had to worry about himself; after all, the hippo was quite self-sufficient. He assumed that eventually, he would find another job, but he hadn’t given too much thought as to what it would be. There were few jobs that would allow for him to work all day while a hippo rained on him. It was apparent to him that this was a sign. Whatever destiny awaited him and the hippo awaited for him unemployed. That didn’t really bother Charlie too much. In the meantime, while he waited for his destiny to be revealed, he figured that all those people who had told him that all he need do was call and they would come right over and do whatever it was that Charlie needed for them to do, would probably be grateful for the opportunity. And if not, then he and the hippo would manage. Charlie didn’t need much in order to be happy. Actually, Charlie didn’t need anything to be happy, because without Ellen, he had no expectation of ever being happy again. And so he wasn’t. Charlie turned a corner and walked straight into the crowd of media and curiosity seekers who had camped out in front of his apartment. As he turned to flee, however, the crowd of People for the Ethical Treatment of hippoS came up from behind and sealed him in. They then placed Charlie behind a podium and began to question him. A man from the front asked: “Charlie, now that you’ve lost your job, what do you and the hippo plan on doing?” To which Charlie replied: “Thank you for asking, but I really don’t know.” A man from the rear asked: “Charlie, you have no home. Where will you go?” Charlie: “I don’t know.” Charlie appraised the hippo as it continued to thunder and rain on him. Perhaps, he thought, it was upset. The only person closer to Ellen than Charlie (and it technically wasn’t even a person) was the hippo. Could it just be mourning their loss? Or, maybe, it was just upset with all the people who, normally, wouldn’t have given him the time of day before. Perhaps, the hippo had somehow instigated it all: his firing, eviction, everything, in the hopes of assembling them as it had, before striking everyone down with lightning. Charlie hoped not. He believed that his and the hippo’s destiny revolved around a higher moral calling than petty violence. 31
Luckily, before Charlie could give it more than a cursory thought, a buzz rippled through the crowd as word of an even bigger story broke. The crowd of media, curiosity seekers and protesters immediately abandoned Charlie in search of the bigger story. When they had all disappeared, he walked away by himself. He had traveled no further than several blocks when he came upon a store that sold television sets. As evidence of their product, the entire storefront was filled with televisions of varying sizes and shapes. Charlie saw that the bigger story was taking place not far from where he watched. In fact, every television in the store was tuned in to the story which detailed how: “In every major city of the world, Aliens have landed. No one understands what it is they want, or what they are doing, but the eyes of the media and the world are tuned in to this really BIG, breaking story. Stand by for further breaking details!” Charlie was about to walk away from the televisions when the news media came back on. A sign was flashed across the televisions with the appropriate authority to lend it verisimilitude. In fact, that exact word came to Charlie as the sign faded into the news anchor’s face. He said: “As stated earlier, Aliens have landed in every major city in the world. They have just contacted every local, state and federal government and set forth their demands. As of yet, there is no information that identifies where they come from, except their ships, which can be seen, their weapons, which are mounted on top of their ships, and their demands, which are to be played across all major media outlets. It is apparent, however, that from wherever they hail, they are quite alien.” A picture of the Alien ship that had landed in Charlie’s city flashed across the screen as the Alien creatures voiced their demands. “Bring Us Your One True Leader So That We Can Ascertain What Type Of Character Your Species Has. If This Is Not Done Within The Hour, Or We Are Not Properly Impressed, Then We Will Destroy Your Planet.” Charlie continued to watch as the media switched from city to city to show those leaders as they came forward to meet with the Aliens. The three old men (who had passed laws that allowed for them to be in charge even after they had died) were wheeled out in front of one of the Alien ships on hand held dollies from the freezer where they resided. Before their representatives could issue a single proclamation that might have impressed the Aliens, a bright light from the top of the ship evaporated them.
The media then switched to the site of the Alien landing in Charlie’s city just after they had finished vaporizing the Mayor. The camera panned down to a podium in front of the ship. Behind the podium, was the Doctor from the: Institute for the Psychologically Impaired He looked thoughtfully at the Alien ship while he murmured slightly and tugged gently on his beard before he said: “Even though they are quite alien, it doesn’t take two eyes to see—” before he, too, disappeared in a blinding flash of white light. All of the onlookers shrieked loudly before they murmured thoughtfully and tugged on their beards. It was at that point that Charlie’s destiny came from behind and slapped him across his brow. That was it! Charlie wasn’t there to incite guilt amongst those who had done bad things, nor to be a symbol for the oppressed and angry; Charlie’s destiny was to save mankind from itself. It was apparent that the Aliens hadn’t met anyone with the type of character needed to prevent them from destroying the world. Perhaps Charlie was the only one who could accomplish that. And so he did. The Alien ship had landed mere yards from the pier Charlie had walked upon the first night he had questioned his purpose. He stepped past the crowd of curiosity seekers and around the media that tried to follow him in an attempt at obtaining an interview with the Aliens. They disappeared in a blinding flash. Charlie stood by the lakefront, looked at the Alien ship with its unusual weapons mounted on top and said: “At one time my people had character and curiosity that could inspire writers to reach for sights never before dreamt. They no longer have that. At one time, they cared about the lesser men and women who resided amongst them. They no longer do that either. At one time, we sent ships like yours, made of wax, string and metal into space so that average men like me could walk upon that moon we call ‘The Moon.’ We have lost the ability to accomplish even that one, simple magical act...” A voice from the Alien ship boomed across the city. It boomed across the water that Charlie feared and made its way into every city where Alien ships poised with their weapons ready to burn. It said: “You Have Yet To Give Us One Example Of Character That Would Cause Us To Decide That You Do Not Deserve To Be Destroyed. Don’t You Have Even One?” Charlie smiled (he actually did and there is a picture that proves it). He walked closer still to the Alien ship. He had no fear because he knew that it was his destiny to 33
do what he did, and, furthermore, what he held in his hand was proof enough to convince any Alien of the character of his species (even if it was only the character that he possessed). He said: “This is a picture of me, my wife Ellen, and my hippo. My wife once saved all the angels in the city, and died because she was the happiest wife there ever was. I miss her very much. You may have it.” He held it out for their inspection. A long, unusual camera with three arms extended from the bottom of the ship, took an X-ray of the picture, and sucked back inside the ship with the picture in its grasp. After a few minutes of silence, a narrow ramp extended from the bottom of the Alien ship. When it had connected with the ground, the Chief Alien descended. He was amazingly average looking and glowed like an illuminated angel. Once he had strode down the ramp, he stopped in front of Charlie and studied him in silence before looking above his head as the hippo continued to rain. Charlie then looked above the Alien’s head. Not quite within reach, a duck floated. It too, glowed. The Alien shook hands with Charlie, nodded his head toward the hippo, turned and walked back into the Alien ship with his duck. Before anyone could rush forward from the crowd to take credit for what Charlie had done, all the Alien ships lifted off and vanished into space. The crowd cheered. It was at that point that an unusual thing occurred: it stopped raining and Charlie was illuminated from above. As he raised his eyes, he saw that the hippo had returned to normal, and glowed as if it had been captured by divine inspiration. It shone on Charlie until he was dry, tanned, and warmed like a peach. It was at that moment that Charlie realized that only half of his purpose had been revealed. His destiny was twofold. The first fold was to understand what his purpose was. That had finally been revealed to him. It had only been his opinion that he was average that had prevented him from realizing what his purpose was. What he had accomplished could have been done by anyone, average or above. What set him apart was that he didn’t revel in his difference, nor did he expect anything as a result of his differences. And therein lay the second fold: his was also to ascertain why he, of all the people on the planet, had a hippo floating above his head. In a moment of inspiration, it occurred to him that if he
was able to grasp the hippo, perhaps he might be able to understand what its purpose was as well. And so he did. Charlie began to jump. The people who remained from the original crowd of curiosity seekers began to circle around and watch him as he stood, jumped as high as he could, and, at the apex of his jump, reached and clutched at the air. After a few minutes, they all scratched their heads and asked: “Charlie, what are you trying to do?” Charlie Anderson continued to bounce, up and down, on the sand. Every time he landed, he immediately bent his knees and continued in his endeavors. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had an image of himself climbing on to the back of the hippo and straddling its shoulders. Then, perhaps, if he held on to its ears as an anchor, maybe, just maybe, he might see the answer to the remaining question he had. He finally responded to the crowd. “Why, I’m trying to grasp the hippo, of course.” The crowd looked between one another as they attempted to understand the simplicity of Charlie’s statement. When they did, they asked the question that troubled them all. “Hippo, Charlie? What hippo?” Charlie stopped jumping and stared at the sand in silence. It didn’t matter. Regardless of what they did or didn’t see, they reacted the same. They didn’t understand what was there, so they simply chose to ignore it, just like they hadn’t understood their character and had allowed it to slip away. And just as they hadn’t understood the importance of those inventions discarded that hadn’t made a few men rich or won wars and had forgotten how to make them. There were only a few things they did understand: that which made them rich, less inclined to work, or safer. And with that thought, Charlie and the hippo started walking into the water. The crowd looked after him and shouted their question: “Where are you going Charlie? Why are you walking into the water when everyone knows that it’s your greatest fear? Tell us, Charlie...” He silently walked into the water until it came to his neck. He then stopped, looked above his head to make sure that the hippo was as always, and then turned to study the crowd. They stood on the edge of the lake and watched him as he bobbed on the waves. He said: 35
“I used to think that I needed to know what the hippo meant, why it was there, and what its purpose was. What I found as a result of my searching was Ellen, whom I miss very much. I gave her the gift of decency, which made her the happiest wife there ever was. She, in turn, gave me a reason to continue and a picture that I liked very much. That picture saved humanity from its own lack of character. God gave me the hippo, and I have done much to satisfy my needs, but I have done little to satisfy its needs. I wish to take my hippo for a swim.” He quietly studied the crowd before shaking his head to himself. “I was wrong. The water isn’t my biggest fear. My biggest fear is that I’ll grow discouraged if I don’t find the answers right away and give up, just like all of you.” With his words, he turned and walked beneath the water. The hippo followed until it, too, was submerged. He walked until he stood on the bottom of the lake. As Charlie ran out of oxygen, he thought to himself: What sense are words, if there is no one who remembers how to listen. Why search for truth, meaning and purpose, if but only I can interpret the truth and appreciate those sacrifices necessary in order to preserve it? Why lie awake at night with thoughts, despair, hopes and secretive pleasures if the only result is to awaken as lonely the following day, as all those days which have preceded it? If but to touch, to feel, and to always hope that a connection will be made with another, be it a hippo or a wife, then I too can be happy enough to die. In another realm of consciousness, Charlie would awaken. He would stand before a gate with a robe that glowed as brightly as the angel’s. He would walk toward the gate and ring its bell before looking above his head at the hippo and imagining that it floated above him with a tiny hippo halo. Whereupon the Chief Angel would lead him to stand before God who would look at Charlie, smile, wave his hand benevolently, and say in a thunderous, awe inspiring voice: CHARLIE, I WILL GRANT YOU, AS I HAVE GRANTED ALL WHO HAVE PRECEDED YOU, ONE QUESTION TO ASK FOR WHICH ONLY I HAVE THE ANSWER. ASK YOUR QUESTION, CHARLIE. Charlie would think of all the questions he had pondered from infancy to adulthood before he would look at God and ask that one question that no one had been able to answer. He would ask: “Can You Tell Me Why I Have A Hippo Floating Above My Head?” That particular God would pause and look above Charlie’s head and smile. The smile would stretch for years and decades before it would quiver around the edges just a little. He would then hold up his hand and say to Charlie. 36
“HOLD ON FOR JUST A MINUTE, OKAY?” He would vanish into infinity, but from that infinity, Charlie would hear him yelling and ranting because HE didn’t like surprises and heads were certainly going to roll. The Chief Angel would eventually return and tell Charlie that there had been a slight glitch and that he’d have to wait around in purgatory while they found out what had happened. And Charlie would. Purgatory would be an awful lot like the lake Charlie walked into, except that he would never run out of oxygen, and he could lie on his back and study the underside of the hippo forever. With his thoughts, Charlie raised his hands above his head and kicked off from the bottom of the lake. He pushed against the weight that pressed him and the hippo in their places. As his oxygen finally expired, he dreamt those thoughts of Ellen and her angels and the hope that one mere touch could make him feel, understand and have that elusive happiness he had pondered about, dreamt, hoped, and desired for. If only he could reach it. And he could, so he did.
[excerpt] Lake Spirits: The Summons Deena Viviani 8
Sabrina woke up on the deck outside her bedroom, wearing nothing but her tank top and underwear. She stood at the railing, gazing at the rippling black lake, while the breeze blew in cold against her skin. Holy crap, she had been sleepwalking. If she hadn’t been so cold, she knew she’d flush with embarrassment. Her mind said she should go back inside and hope Derek didn’t witness her midnight excursion. “The lake will warm you.” Sabrina froze. The voice was soothing and innocent. Child-like. Juliet? She absorbed it from the wind as it tossed her hair, relishing the peace it brought her. She tried to call to Juliet and say hello, but the words stuck just below her throat. Her feet remained planted to the deck, ice blocks. That was OK, though. She didn’t want to go anywhere. Except maybe into the lake. “The lake will warm you.” No, that wasn’t right. She shivered, shaking her head and releasing her paralysis. Juliet was a vessel, that was what Derek had said. She gripped the deck’s handrail, felt the weathered grey wood press into her skin, and tried to clear her mind of the echoing voice. She didn’t want to go into the water. She was sure of it. Wasn’t she? Shit, she was so confused.
Something between the blackness of the water and the blackness of the sky drew her attention. Shadowy tendrils curled up through the light reflections from the clear moon, almost close enough to touch. Sabrina lifted her arm and reached, content once again to stay and listen to the wind. “I’m lonely.” The child was sad and needed her help. Sabrina could tell, could feel it in the breath of words. She reached farther out over the lake, leaning her hips on the railing. “You’ve been lonely, too.” She had. When she was a little girl, she’d been lonely. Sad, lonely, hopeless. She didn’t want this girl to feel like that too. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. She might be scared. “Help me.” The curling shadows remained too far away no matter how far she stretched, but she wanted to be with them. Maybe if she jumped and swam she would find them. Wait, Sabrina couldn’t swim. She knew that. She knew that. “Help me.” Sabrina tried to ask, “How?” but again her voice failed her. “Help me.” She couldn’t swim, but she could walk. She would move closer. Her legs carried her down the wooden planks to the edge of the dock. “Help me.” And then the voice lowered an octave. Its sweetness, its childishness, was gone. “You belong with me.” Sabrina’s brain said, “No!” but her body didn’t obey. Her toes curled over the end of the dock and her will to resist the voice’s commands became lighter. “I need you back. You are mine.” The voice shook, fully enveloped in an old darkness. Sabrina stared into the lapping water until it transformed into gentle waves of black velvet and wisps of smoke. It was no longer water. It was soft, warm, and safe.
“You are mine.” She was hers. A man’s voice cut through the quiet night. “Sabrina! What are you doing?” He sounded far away, maybe miles. “You are mine. Come back to me!” The man yelled again, “Sabrina, no!” She swung her arms and jumped, splashing into the velvet. The water. Fully immersed, she didn’t question why she was there. She held her breath and thought about the lonely girl who needed her the same way Sabrina had needed a rescue of her own five years ago, four years, three. Something told her it was all meant to be. A spiral shadow twisted through the dark, curling its way to her. She reached one, a shadow, and let it circle her body. No, not a shadow – an arm, an appendage, a long tentacle connected to a body that was too far off for Sabrina to see. It shimmered with an internal blue light like the glow from the moon hidden behind the clouds. It touched Sabrina’s cheek with the bite of an icicle. “You are mine,” the creature. The voice was laced with poison. Pain shot through Sabrina’s face. Panic shot through her core. No, this wasn’t right. She was underwater and she didn’t know how to swim! There was no little girl to save, no one at all to save but herself. Shit, shit, shit! Sabrina flailed her arms to get away. A second tentacle and then a third spiraled out of the deeper water and curled tightly around Sabrina’s upper arms. The first continued to caress her face like a mother petting her child, trying to calm her and regain her compliance. “You were mine once, and then stolen away. You shall be mine again.” “No!” Sabrina’s brain tried to communicate with this being. It was her father who had done this, drowned her and tied her to this underworld creature. She did not belong here. “I lived. I survived!” “You drowned. Your soul belongs to me, the keeper of the water realm souls.”
“No, I’m alive. Alive.” Sabrina’s energy and will to fight drained as her lungs deflated and her body sank. She hadn’t been strong enough to fight Juliet’s power over her, or the soul keeper’s. She hadn’t been strong enough to fight her father. Now she wasn’t strong enough to fight for her life. Sabrina was going to die just like her father had wanted all those years ago to prove his power over her. He would win. “You are mine.” Sabrina was too tired to argue. This was her destiny after all, to comply with her father’s wishes, to die the way he’d intended. She felt bad about how it was happening, though. Christy would blame herself for inviting Sabrina to the cottage, for not knowing the details of her past, for not reporting them years ago. And Derek, she’d leave him all alone after six months of fun, of tenderness, of love. It wasn’t fair to him, but she had no choice. She just hoped he could forget her and move on. He deserved to be happy and have a normal girl as his partner, not one with ties to a horrible father and unforgiving afterlife. Her last vow, though, was that she would never bow down to the soul keeper who had tricked her mind to this place. She would surrender her body but not her devotion. Never again would she give into those who begged for control, not even in the afterlife. Water rushed against her body as the icy tentacles drew her deeper and deeper into the lake. Until something else grabbed her tight, jerking her downward movement to a stop. The tentacles tightened. “She’s mine!” Sabrina saw it just before her eyes closed: the glint of metal, the point of a knife crossing over her shoulder, wielded by another human hand. “No!” A slippery, cold, inkiness spread across her face as the pressure released on her arms. She zoomed upwards, aware of the pull of water against her skin. 41
Finally air touched her face instead of water. “Sabrina!” It was Derek, she knew it was, but she couldn’t respond. She gulped oxygen and coughed up water. “Oh my god, is she OK?” someone else asked. Christy. “Shit,” yelled another man. It was Phil. “What the hell is this?” Something was yanked from her left armpit, tearing her skin like it had been stuck on with barbs. That was when she passed out.
[excerpt] Star Collector Shannon Houck X00
The girl grips her mason jar and waits for nightfall. Her boxcar's roof is blistering in the summer and glacial in the winter, but on cool fall days, when it's warm to the touch from the midday heat, she likes to brush the fire-colored leaves from the sloping metal surface and watch the sun set in the western sky. She takes a journal out for herself, for once, and takes a brief break to collect her own thoughts instead of the wishes of others. She writes until her hand aches. When she cannot write, she tucks her legs to her chest and feels the heat of the metal through the soles of her feet, allowing herself to linger by the silver light of her star-collecting jar until the last sliver of sunlight is gone and the sky begins to call her. Then she rises. The hem of her white dress flutters blithely in the wind. She ties the mason jar to her hip, double and triple checking to ensure that it and its precious cargo are secure before her long journey. She can feel herself growing lighter, the force of gravity loosening its grip ever so slightly, and that's when she tucks in her knees and dives into the air, upwards like the yellow moon rolling lazily along the horizon, upwards towards the stars that sparkle like wishes. She kicks her legs behind her, dress tangling and freeing, strands of hair pulling themselves loose from her dark braid. She swims toward the sky until, reaching the top of the dome, the star collector moves her arms in circles to bring her movement to a stop. 43
The air is thin, this high. Clouds are a strange but familiar dry-wetness on her skin, and she breathes the water-vapor into her lungs. It smells like ozone and moonlight and darkness. It smells like an old friend. She smiles. Treading air, she unhinges her star-collecting jar and begins.
[excerpt] Dream of the Bull Lucy Graham
The earliest thing I remembered from the second dream was that Ivan made a noise: it began deep within his insides and then echoed off the surrounding peaks, which were taller than before. Then he gave a short grunt and stamped his hoof. I felt it in the ground, through my feet, up my legs, against my eardrums, within my skull. Almost immediately, about half a mile away, there was an explosion of dirt as if a landmine had been set off, erupting in a splash and then raining back down. I looked at Ivan then, and he looked back at me, black eyes sparkling. I didn’t know much about bovine body language, so I just waited for him to do something. He turned away from me a little, in the direction of the explosion, keeping his gaze on me. He wanted me to follow. I watched as his enormous chest and ribcage filled out, and then receded when he exhaled a heavy, hot wind. There was no use resisting. “Okay.” He led me over the jagged rocks of the mountain, under strange trees that weren’t decisively dead or alive. Some of them had curled trunks; some were smooth, others gnarled; and some had silver bark like birches, with wilting leaves and bumps that looked like eyes. There was the odd patch of wildflowers, too, miracles in the arid sun and dry soil, tough stems that bent only under Ivan’s cloven hoof. We moved down, down, down towards an endless ocean before us—navy blue, foaming and glittering. Ivan was surprisingly nimble for the giant thing he was, 45
hopping from rock to rock like a mountain goat. After an hour or two we arrived at the shore, and traipsed through the high tide that nearly reached the cliffs. After hours of walking, Ivan led me inland where the cliffs had turned into a jungle. There he collapsed onto a cotton hammock and I perched on a round, gray rock next to it, with tingling feet and swollen fingers. Absently I glanced out to sea. The sun was low now, and flushed. When I looked back I found Ivan pouring a cup of tea from an elegant china pot, clutched in the two sections of his hoof. He handed me the little cup with its saucer—white, with pale pink roses and gold-plated outlines—then he poured one for himself. As we began sipping, Ivan said to me, “I know you’ll want to run away.” “What makes you think that?” “I just know. But the attempt would be useless, dear. Don’t stray. Without me you’d be eaten alive out here.” I only shrugged. And then I noticed something, a distant sound that, I knew, had been there in the background a long while before I’d noticed it. Perhaps it had never really started. Or maybe it had begun a very, very long time ago, before even ants walked the earth. It was jazz—a saxophone, a trumpet, and a piano, winding through the vines and fat leaves, from some distant location. There was a warm mist, too, floating between the leaves and branches, turned pink by the sun. “Besides,” he continued, “I would know exactly where to find you.” I inhaled the steam from my tea. “I’m feeling pretty mellow. I don’t think I could care right now, even if I tried.” I smirked up at him. “Any attempt would be useless.” Ivan laughed then, a low rumble that was more of a feeling than a noise. At that moment everything began to fade, when my eyes blinked open—to the sunrise glowing through my window, to the dust drifting through the rectangular light, to my uncle’s jazz record coming in, muffled, from the other side of the wall.
Mark J. Sutherland
A Pair of Lonely Fruit My friend and I take turns praising each other. Appreciating like failing housing markets. Reflecting sunny frustrations but you wear make-up to cover up the pain. Bruising, I write wrongs on my dimple pressed skin saying “pick me!” Raising each other like berry blossoms frosted, bearing no fruit for harvest but we still pretended to be sweet and still fell when the wind shook our branch. Dropping us together we fell apart. Mirrored loneliness— we went through the seasons changing without the other’s company. Now in the presence of strangers warming your face red, sweat, wet, stacked pillows, and pulling your hair pleasures— Sworn in to be loyal friends for a moment. We made well that past pact once or twice. Two minus you is one left— a self for each of us. I miss you less today and even more less tomorrow. Thanks for growing away darling for germinating that wax smile. You’re a peach— pit hardened I’m an apple— soft core. 49
Goodbye, Peter Pan You were nearly fourteen but refused to turn from the thin ice. Beneath the frozen water an eternal winter meets forever youth and we departed coldly dearest brother. Instead of countless circles on ice, saw you slipping— scared for your life and when they pulled you I remember your angelic blue face. No more falling, you’re flying high, Peter. Never landing and Mom says you’ll never grow up now, in her eyes, and I, see it too. I think she’s right or was it the second star? Never mind older brother, I’ve grown up for both of us and married your Wendy. She still loves you, more than me, likely for your ever-innocence, and lonely me, likely for my likeness of you. I guess that’s part of growing old— Settling down means settling for less and being grown up. You’re not missing a damn thing, though I am lost boy, without you. I’ve been tinkering with bells for a living— brushing off dust and rust, stuck in claustrophobic bell towers high above the city streets where men beneath me walk, work, grow and die slow. You went twice as fast, half the time— racing ahead even when we were boys hiding and seeking. Any games played you always found first place. It’s all you 50
knew, Peter. And even now you’re daring me to jump, see who can fly further— it isn’t me, man. You’d never land. But I, no boy, shall splat flat for my lonely finale. Goodbye, Peter Pan.
La Cicatriz Oppression never shows her teeth before she gnaws your last decade away. See how your trust drips from clever fangs finding your aorta of youth. Her shovels are the Earth’s pencil scratching me tal on m i n e r a l, rewriting crust you can’t see from space but still, she has man by the throat. If you drew me, draw me as close as I to you— I would dimple press into the flesh of ground. Make me a crater, I’m your depression. A low shadow from a rainless cloud overhead, constant— friend. Dry eyes wash everything We but wind ruminates and you find new ways to blow kisses of kicks and scratch out my ears with the manipulation of innocence. These dust floods are my dear Pegasus losing his footing. We’re hoofing it, these souls of mine. Dig in, dig in, dig in— Move some earth around and all that inward diggin’ leaves scars no one sees. Found my worth in writing la cicatriz.
Corelli All our apologies sound like violins screeching. Forgive me, femme–little remorse in the voice, little guilt in the psyche. I beg your pardon but pardon me. One C leads to another; Crescendo. The excruciating music. Once upon a time there was a frolicking friendship. Once upon a time there was success & an un-rosined bow, a jealousy, a conflict, a CCacophony, cacophony, cacophony, cacophony, cacophony, cacophony, cacophony– Keep talking after the orchestra takes a break. Cl– ash: a decade of memories reduced to one dirge.
Delivering Newspapers with Elvis The light is different early, before sunrise – shadowy mix of blue and purple, the sun announcing its arrival. Few cars stir in this light. Few people move. Chimney smoke barely rises gray. Mothers wake. Fathers leave. Elvis is perfectly pressed when he picks me up: sparkling jacket, slacks, motionless jet hair, fingers of red and green jewels that flash bright (in the night) as they let go. His body twitches with each toss, brow raised, lip curled, as if each paper is absolutely crucial, as if it’s the last paper to be delivered ever. It’s all about instances of greatness, I think. With men like this, who needs fathers? When the sun rises we finish and talk over steaming coffee. He looks at me with blue eyes that sparkle like his jacket, his jewels, his hair. “I’m afraid,” he says, “of the dark.” It’s amazing, I think, how you really get to know some people. With a man like this, who needs a father?
Rusalka You are the black alluvial mud that rises from the riverbed to drag sailors to your bosom with cold and silky fingers. You are the stone in her throat. You, the grinning slime-green fiend with the serrated teeth, smiling back into her kind and lovely eyes, bite her, and she bleeds out. On the lonely bank you lick the blood from her neck in sad confusion, not understanding why she is no longer warm. (Your kind are only warm when they are burned)
Authorâ€™s Note: According to most traditions, the rusalki were fish-women who lived at the bottom of rivers. In the middle of the night, they would walk out to the bank and dance in meadows. If they saw handsome men, they would fascinate them with songs and dancing, mesmerize them, then lead them away to the river floor to their death. Though in some versions of the myth, their eyes shine like green fire, others describe them with extremely pale and translucent skin, and without visible pupils. The rusalka's hair is sometimes depicted as green or golden, and often perpetually wet. According to some legends, should the rusalka's hair dry out, she will die.
magic lantern ÂŠ spring 2014 60