11 stories poetry interviews essays & such
structo ÂŁ5 / â&#x201A;Ź6.5 / $8
issue eleven for spring & summer 2014
An old man carries a kettle into woods— an elderly woman struggles to follow, grandchildren near at hand. She complains to strangers of her landless family’s pain— six years since father and son left for war. yi tal, A Wandering Family’s Bitterness translated by ian haight and t ’a e-yŏng hŏ
Structo is a uk-based independent literary magazine. It is published twice a year, operates on a not-for-profit basis and receives no external funding. Subscription information and details of our stockists can be found at our website: structomagazine.co.uk editor / designer: Euan Monaghan fiction editor: Keir Pratt poetry editor: Matthew Landrum copy editor: Elaine Monaghan proofreader: Heather Stallard staff: Tim Leng, Will Burns, Dave Schofield, Stephen Beechinor & Claire Hunter issn: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (digital)
All text and the Structo logo are protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 uk: England & Wales licence. Nothing in this licence impairs or restricts the individual authorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s moral rights. The photo on page 18 is courtesy of First Story. All other photos used in this issue have entered the public domain. Structo is largely set in MrsEaves, an update to the classic typeface Baskerville, and is printed by Cambrian Printers of Aberystwyth Each spring/summer issue is fuelled by Christmas cake, but Russian Circles and The Death Set also played their part in this one
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rowing up, my favourite radio dj was John Peel. He had a late-night show on bbc Radio 1, and would play all sorts of stuff, from brass band music on crackly shellac 78s, via teenage indie pop bands, through to 30-second walls of industrial noise. The people who listened to his shows down the years knew that they would likely hear a complete mishmash of musical styles, but they also knew that the whole lot was chosen with care. He loved the music he played. With Structo we’re trying to create a venue for the stories and poems and essays that resonate with us. These voices are speaking in English, although some began life in another tongue. Every piece in this magazine has something to say—whether profound or profoundly silly—and each issue, we can’t wait to share them with everyone. We love the writing we publish. This issue features an interview with Katie Waldegrave, founder of the literacy charity First Story. First Story’s work is not just National Curriculum literacy, it’s about providing the kind of help that can make young people realise the value of their own voices in the world. The charity does amazing work and it was a fascinating conversation. We also have two essays this time around. The first is our regular Incidental column from fiction editor Keir Pratt, which this time is on the frustrations of trying to rediscover a literary voice. The second, from Erin Gilbert, is a profile of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington. Although known mainly for her surrealist paintings, Carrington used fiction as another way to try and find an understanding of the transformations in her own, extraordinary life. We’re no John Peel, but we completely understand the all-encompassing passion that he had for his music, because we feel the same about the writing in these pages. There’s a fascinating discussion to be had about the role of the curator in the internet-enabled world, but until the discovery algorithm significantly improves, we plan to continue championing the voices we love. I hope you enjoy this issue. — Euan Monaghan
or all its practical difficulties, the diversity of world languages has beauties and blessings for us. Tongues and dialects offer new ways of seeing, different textures of music, and fresh utterances. This issue features poetry in translation from four languages—Irish, Jèrriais, Scottish Gaelic, and Korean—as well as original verse in English from Australia, America, Ireland, and Great Britain, different linguistic worlds for all their commonalities and mutual comprehensions. Even in their own languages, speakers all have their own ways of selecting and employing words, and are islands in the linguistic archipelago. Literary writing is the crown of this eccentricity. And so this issue has lines of startling personality, such as our tongues are a terrain / through which lions and rhinos / in their stubbornness / protest and you’re fox kill within sight / of new estates... Personality speaks, making itself more relevant for its uniqueness of utterance. With the amber / glow of berth and pier a soft drowse over / nightfall water, the shipyard is more familiar for newness of description. In the preface to his masterpiece on literary translation, After Babel, George Steiner writes on the storied splitting of the one world language into multiple tongues, saying that “the affair at Babel was both a disaster and—this being the etymology of the word ‘disaster’—a rain of stars upon man.” Today, the day after the American holiday Thanksgiving, as I sit in a coffee shop in my hometown rereading this issue’s poetry, I take that second meaning of the ‘disaster’ and am thankful to be part of a magazine committed to bringing the perplexing beauties of language and literature to a wider audience. I am grateful most of all for our Structo writers and translators and their labor and pursuit of artistry. From disparate places, languages, and even times, their pieces have come together to make this issue—a rain of stars indeed! — Matthew Landrum
With Us the Wonders tara isabella burton
leanor had been everywhere. She, with her boots that laced and her skirts that dragged through mud and snows and the gaping desert at Davit Gareja â&#x20AC;&#x201C; she with her hair braided and never-to-be untangled; she with her menâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s shirts, her anachronistic compasses and archaic halfsmirks, and she with the maps she had drawn in ink on the backs of her hands to forestall wandering. She had filled reams and notebooks; she had read so often about the Palazzo Farnese and the Djemaa el Fnaa, and of the sunlight on the one and the spices in the other, that when she saw them at last she lowered her eyes, and sighed, and felt that she had been right all along. Nowhere surprised her. Before she arrived in a city she knew she had been there already, in another life or at least in the many wanderings of her imaginations. She had read about it already, in a story from Herodotus, or Josephus, or Richard Francis Burton, and so not even the stray cats, the sweet-sellers, the spires of castles, surprised her. They were dust, and they were shadows, and they reminded her of stories from Herodotus, and so they could not surprise her, and so they could not make her love them. She laced up her boots. She took night trains. She braided her hair and pushed her way through marketplaces and did not stay in one place for long. Eleanor often had her fortune told. She believed, with a kind of despairing zealotry, in the power of witch-women and potion-sellers and men who look at the entrails of goats. She believed that behind the ruined fortress in Tbilisi, or among the rose-gardens of Vienna, or in the extravagant tangles of the Black Forest, there would be a woman with silver eyes who would trace padded fingertips over the lines of her palm, and tell her where, at last, she could learn to love. In Dubrovnik Eleanor found her. It was April and it rained; the water was slick on the stone and it snaked and pooled in crevices all along the old town. In the thunderstorming of morning everything appeared wild and fecundly green â&#x20AC;&#x201C; the shutters of houses, the painted doorframes, the roofs and even the clock-tower that made the waves crash against the town walls every time the bell rang. Eleanor was writing an article on the cruises of the Dalmatian Coast. She had come seeking storm-gods and struck clocks that split the sky apart like lightning; she had come and found pre-
cisely that, and so she did not love it. She crept into a hollow that forked apart the old wall and then found herself tripping on the rocks, jutting out over the sea, and it was everything she wanted out of a city and still her heart beat softly, swiftly, within its own centre. The woman was waiting there, with her fortune-cards and her stringtwisted hair and the different potions knotted like jewels around her neck. She asked Eleanor if she would like a love potion. “Yes,” said Eleanor, and she wished she could bring herself to cry. “But not in the way that you think.” She didn’t want a man – she didn’t want sex. She wanted a place, a city, a wide undiscovered country which was hers and which belonged to her utterly, which Herodotus had never seen, which she could not conquer, and whose map she could not draw with ink on the backs of her hands. She wanted a city she did not already know, and yet which when she first set foot on its cobblestones would feel like home. “Yes,” said the woman, “I have just the thing.” She gave Eleanor one of her glass vials and told her to drink it when she got to the bus station. It would make Eleanor fall asleep, she said – she could sleep on one of the night-buses – but not before it unchoked her soul, and allowed it to choose which one, and which destination. “When you wake up,” she said, “you will be there.” It couldn’t be true – because nothing Eleanor had seen was true – and yet she ached with all her misspent muscles for it to be true, because if it were true, and Herodotus had never written about it, then it would be a discovery at last. She paid for the vial and drank it in the bus station; she half-remembered stumbling towards one of the buses, haggling a fare, but then she fell asleep, and when Eleanor woke the bus was empty, and she was in a city she did not know. The alphabet was strange to her – at first glance it looked almost like Armenian, but she had been to Yerevan before, and had not liked it, and she knew enough to know it was not. She tried to ask the bus-driver where she was, but he did not understand English, nor French, nor demotic Croatian, and when she pressed him further he drove away, and left her coughing up dust. Eleanor began to walk. She walked along the boulevards, with their creamy and imperial facades and their white-marble angels, and their fruit trees just coming into blossom, and as she walked faster she remembered a line Robert Musil had once written about Vienna, and knew at once that he must have been wrong, because this – this – was what he wrote about when he wrote about cities so still that the air hung close about like death. There were cafes with wood-panelled walls and spiderweb chandeliers, with Art Deco mirrors
that caught and jaundiced her as she passed. She knew, instinctively, that east was the way to the sea, and she followed the smell of salt that dangled from the breeze. From the boulevards Eleanor turned into the alleyways, and from the vines she plucked strange fruits. She did not recognize the smell or the taste but she knew that Richard Burton had eaten them, without knowing it, on his voyage to the Orient. The buildings crumbled into the cobblestones and flaked paint into her hair and the stone faces on the doorframes were missing eyes and noses, but Eleanor loved them, wildly, all the same. She came at last to the sea, and then joy burst out of her. This is the place. She whispered the homecoming into her palms. This is my place. Yes! – she rounded another corner and then the labyrinth split open and she was standing alone among the ruins of an old Roman theatre, with thudded columns massy and inviting across the grass. She climbed on them – climbed as she would never have dared do in Rome or Athens – and felt sure that nobody would stop her, because beneath her feet this was her city. This was the city Herodotus would have written about, if he had only known how to write it. But Herodotus had never been there, and Josephus had never been there, and its history was hers! This is the place. Here there was a river in the centre which moistened the banks and seeded them with flowers, and which flowed out towards a sea – she did not know which sea! – and there the waves gurgled and foamed and called out to her on the breeze. Here there were ruined temples and stray cats; there were labyrinths and sweet-shops. Here there were rose-gardens where the roses did not fade – and there Gothic spires on the old castle in the distance – a castle as crumbling and as impenetrable as she had first conceived of it, when she was six and had read the legends of King Arthur for the first time! The mountains reared up to the west and blotted out the fading of the sun. It took until dusk for her to realize that she was alone. She stood on the steps of the cathedral, waist-high in moonlight, and her shadow was the only shadow cast for miles. She stood before the fountain in the main square, and saw at last that her face was the only face reflected in it. She had not been alone before – no – she thought back, pursed her lips. There had been others, surely – just at the periphery of her vision! There were fruit-sellers, or army doctors, or fortune tellers – she had passed them without seeing them; she must have passed them! But she could not remember them, nor any of their faces! She stopped; she started; she stopped again. She ran roughshod over
cobblestones, searching for a face, searching for somebody in whose eyes she might see any reflection but her own. Her breath caught in her throat; her joy stopped in her heart – she was here, at last, in the at-last-discovered city of herself, and she was alone in it! Eleanor ran. She saw faces – blue eyes and pale cheeks and long braided hair – and as she drew closer with her heart struggling to escape her ribcage she saw that they were only reflections – in the river, in the shop-windows, in fountains, in the stained-glass windows in the church. Her face was placid in the lakes and impressionistic in the sea, and when she turned over her hands, and looked at the lines that stretched and latticed across her palms, she saw the map of the city there. Here the slightly crescent northern boulevard, with the Romanesque colonnades, and there the delta of the main two thoroughfares, linked by a tangle of alleyways at the eastern border, and there, where her veins found her wrist, the river’s pulsing towards the sea. And nowhere any face but her own! She, with her boots that laced, and she, with her braid, she with her skirts, and her shirts, and she with the map of the city on her hands – She! She! She! The lines on her palms slashed into one another and the streets of the city sloped back onto one another, and the pillars of her conscious thought propped up temples, arcades, colonnades, which she knew, and which she never could stop knowing, and she was everywhere, and in every pane of glass, and between every cobblestone. She shook and prayed for another face. She came to a stop at the western gate, at the edge of the city walls. It was midnight, and the moon stared her down, and beyond the gate there was a path, and beyond the path there was a forest, thick with fruits, with leaves, with shadows, and it led towards the mountains and perhaps, further on, the dawn. There, she would – but she could not think how it would be, because as she stared and the birds hummed and the twigs snapped there was no room in her to think. She did not know it, but the forest knew her; it called her name in rustles and in the howling of wolves. It knew where it would lead her, by the hand through brambles, through bush, through brier, and it knew that here there were no more paths, and beyond, no words.
An Daras Dubh aonghas macneacail
dlùthadh air an daras dubh dlùthadh air an daras dubh nach bu chòir a bhi cho dubh nach bu chòir saoilidh mi gu faighear cuan troimhe de cheist is teagamh, smuaint is bruadar, farsaing ri fàire mar bu mhinig dhan chuan, dhan cheist theid an fhreagairt na cuairteag shiùbhlach eadar sgeirean bhrùchdach nan aigne is air do shaoilsinn gun do ghlac d’aire a brìgh, siud i ag èaladh amach far nach ruigear a ciall fuirich thus air tìr, bi gu leòr romhad mus faigh thu air ais thar na starsaich gun shoills’ ud, gus do cothrom a ruigheachd ach air an t-slighe, gach taobh dhe’n cheum preas a smèideadh, meòir gun mhaoidheadh am bratach eòlach aithriseach fo na buinn miann dùsgaidh tromh uinneagan cuimhne ged nach tuig thu lide dhe’m monmhar cùm thus’ air thoiseach air na tuinn cùm air thoiseach air na tuinn na leig suas do shireadh ciall tha sàsadh anns an rùrach
The Black Door aonghas macneacail translated from the gaelic by the author drawing nearer the black door drawing nearer the black door that ought not be quite so black that ought not I think an ocean flows through it of doubt and question, thought and vision, wide as horizons and as usual the ocean, the question finds an answer spinning swiftly between the tidal reefs of minds and when you imagine your attention caught its sense, there it slides out beyond reach of reason you stay on shore, there’s plenty ahead before you return across the threshold without that light, that you attain your chance but on the journey, each side of your path bushes beckon, fingers without threat familiar narrative banner underfoot wish to waken through the windows of memory though you understand not a jot of their murmur keep yourself ahead of the tides keep ahead of the tides don’t give up your search for sense there’s relish in rummaging
Songbird jake dennis
ş Young Bird (1928) On Constantin Brâncusi’s
I – Information Card Songbird, the essence the centre of you, is your elemental stance for song, your nape an arrow, shaft clean and straight, aimed at God. Songbird, the spirit the core of your bronze body is your shone breast, the base of you, milk smooth, curved towards your golden throat. Songbird, your throat is your heart the soul of you, the bed of sound from which rises daily a garden of song.
II â&#x20AC;&#x201C; On Speech Songbird, our tongues are a terrain through which lions and rhinos in their stubbornness protest. Their ancient artillery heard by waterbirds at the edge of opposing territories. And when we open the dark caverns of our mouths in anger the lateral borders of our tongues are cataracts beautifully dangerous, tempting as handguns. Rage, that salivary cacophony, is a flood in which buffalos slip through loose sediment like children necks strained for breath, blood vessels and kneecaps tearing. And in this water, storks like white doves, flee where crocodiles snap.
Long Distance ethan chapman
ome nights I can still hear her, in the hours between dusk and dawn when dreams take over reality and become everything. She calls me, calls to me. It feels like I’m awake and sometimes I will be and the telephone will ring; I’ll go to answer it but I never get there in time. I always misplace the phone; it’s always somewhere else, just out of reach. In dreams, I see her face: her long blonde hair that rests gently on her shoulders; her green eyes that are so bright, sparkling, reflecting light; and her mind, my favourite part if there could be one, her wit and intelligence that most men would take for granted but I don’t. I can’t. I see her face, or my mind moulds a face that memory has possibly altered, and I wake up with her name on my lips. She’s gone. I try to accept it, and one of these days I am going to accept it, but every time the phone rings that spark of hope ignites and courses through me. My heart beats through my body. I get tunnel vision. I’m out of breath as I reach for the phone, but it’s never on the cradle, and why isn’t it ever on the cradle? And when I don’t get to it she leaves an answerphone message that breaks my heart. I keep them all and replay them every day. I can’t help myself. I know I shouldn’t, and it’s bad for me – I know it’s bad for me – but I have to. I have to keep her voice inside my head, even as the picture of her fades. Just after she was gone I got rid of all of the photos, assumed she had left me for a stronger, more intelligent, more confident man. Until she phoned me. Now I have nothing to remember her by, nothing except her voice. I’m sitting in bed now, in darkness. The sky looks black, but it’s never really black when you look close, is it? – it’s a dark-blue quilt and the stars are sputtering grains of light, dimming and brightening like they’re alive. I’m finding it hard to get to sleep nowadays. I don’t want to sleep unless she phones. I have to be awake for her. And outside the window dark clouds fill the sky like waves, like looking at the sea upside down, and I feel dizzy. My eyes burn and my brain is itchy. I need to get some sleep. I try to imagine myself relaxing into the bed, into somewhere calm. I sink through the bed and feel my eyes closing slowly, my lids magnetized with tiredness; the sounds of cars, and people talking as they walk past, get further and further away. I’m entering that realm of sleep, the place I have visited so erratically of late. Finally, I think, but slower, I’m thinking slower now as I forget and fall and…
And then it happens. The phone is ringing. My heart races and I feel my body shake with each beat. I’m about to get up and continue the routine but I stop myself. I have to stop this. I can’t keep doing it, can’t keep answering the phone. It’s too much. I need to forget it. Why hasn’t it crossed my mind to unplug the phone? I don’t know. But I can’t – won’t – answer it. I pull the covers up to my face and hide like a child. I close my eyes and hope it goes away so I don’t have to face it. The phone keeps ringing. I grit my teeth. I need to answer it. No! Then it stops. At first I don’t hear that it’s stopped because the sound reverberates around the house and in my mind, bouncing off both of their walls, the afterglow of sound, the after-image. And then it hits me. What have I done? She needs me and I’ve abandoned her. What am I doing? I try to relax and I feel something I haven’t felt before: relief. I’m relieved. I need to stop scrambling after a phone that is always out of reach, chasing after a girl who doesn’t exist any more. But I’m wired and although I try to get back to sleep, I don’t. The enormity of what I’ve just done comes crashing down on me. I’ll be up all night with this now, I know it. Not answering the phone didn’t make a difference. I realise there was no answer message either. Christ. I think I’m going to be sick. I stay still. The feeling passes. The phone rings. I can’t disregard it a second time. I’m up and about, running into the darkness. I turn on the hallway lights and look for the phone. Not there, again. How does this happen? What is going on? I search for the phone as I rush about the house. I move plates, nudge paperwork, toss cats aside as I search for it. It’s ringing, where is it? “Please leave a message after the tone.” Beep. Breathing. She’s finding it a struggle to get a hold on her emotions. “Dave?” she says. “Yeah,” I say. I always say this. She never hears me. “Can you find me? Please. Where are you? I’m at the house but you’re not here. Where have you gone? Why won’t you come and get me? I keep phoning and phoning but you don’t answer. Why don’t you answer?” She stops and tries to control herself. She doesn’t. She begins to cry and so do I. “I love you. Please come and get me. I need you. Please come –” The line goes dead and I break down. I always find the phone later; under a cushion in the living room this time. And my heart breaks. Again.
I fall to my knees and hold myself as the cars go by and the people talk in the street. The nightmare goes on. I was on the phone to her when she went missing. She had gone out to buy our shopping and phoned up to ask if I’d come to meet her at the entrance to the lane. I wasn’t ready. I think I remember having my dressing-gown on. This was in the evening and the nights had begun to draw in again. “I’ll come up and meet you,” I said. “Just let me get some clothes on.” I scrambled around. Why did I have my dressing-gown on? I can’t remember. Had I got ready for bed early? Had I just showered? I can remember most of the day exactly but these little details have become detached from the others. If I had been dressed she might still be here with me. After I’d put on my jeans and a shirt I exited the house and entered the evening. There was a lane across the road and behind the next set of houses. There were no lights up this alley so the only illumination was from the bathroom and bedroom windows of the houses. They left little beams of faint light that didn’t stop you tripping on a rock or lunging into a puddle. I navigated my way through the stony jungle and came to the end of the lane where it joined another estate. “Jenny?” I said. She wasn’t there. I looked around to see if she hadn’t reached the lane yet, to see if she was just coming now. I couldn’t see her. I felt myself start to panic. I got out my phone and called her. She answered. “Jenny, where are you?” “I’m at home,” she said. “You okay?” “I just panicked a little. I couldn’t see you.” “I’m fine,” she said. “I’m at home now anyway. You can come on back. I waited for a while but you didn’t come, so I headed on home anyway.” How had I missed her? And what did she mean, she’d been waiting? It hadn’t taken me two minutes to get dressed. I walked back down the lane, tripping over rocks and stepping into puddles. The adrenaline was still travelling through me, making my hands tremble and my mouth dry. I breathed a sigh of relief as I entered the house but then became confused. “Jenny?” I said. All the lights were still off. I had stepped into darkness. I turned on the lights but she wasn’t anywhere. There were no shopping bags, no trace that she’d returned home at all. I brought out my phone again. “Jenny,” I said, when I got through. “Where are you?” “I’m here,” she said. She sounded confused. “I’m at the house.”
“No, you’re not. What are you doing?” “What do you mean? I’m at the house.” She had become irritated now. “I’m here now, I’ve just put the shopping –” “You’re not here,” I said. “I’m here, I’m standing in our house and you’re not here. I don’t understand what you’re doing.” “I don’t understand what you’re doing,” she shouted. “Stop it, this isn’t even funny, it’s not amusing at all.” “I’m not trying to be amusing. You’re not here!” We stayed on the phone, not speaking, listening to each other breathing. We didn’t know what else to say. What could we say? We were both at the house, both occupying the same space, but neither of us could see the other. We’d disappeared from each other’s world. The line went dead after my battery died. I’d tried ringing her mobile many times after that, but the message said it had been disconnected. The traces of her ever existing were disappearing. In my times of midnight insanity I questioned whether she had existed at all. Perhaps she was some figment of my imagination that I’d created to ward off some great trauma. Now that she was gone, did that mean I was better? What was the trauma? Why did I feel worse? But I had only to look at the bare mantelpiece, where our photos used to stand, to know she had existed and to know she still existed, but somewhere else, somewhere just out of reach. It was a month after that, after I’d thought I’d lost her forever, that the phone calls started. She asked where I was, what I was doing, why I had left her. I could never find the phone. No matter if I kept it by my bedside, it was gone when I woke up. All I could do was scream at the phone, scream at her that I was here, that I still loved her. She was able to phone me but I had no idea how to phone her. I had tried phoning our home phone but all it did was make my phone ring, and I’d had enough of talking to myself to last a lifetime. I felt trapped and isolated in a world that didn’t make sense any more, if it had at any time. But it had made sense, because I had had her and she had made it make sense just a little, enough for the imperfections not to matter, enough for the imperfections to be fine. Now she was gone and the world felt like it was hurtling toward something extreme, like this was the first item in a long list of future shocks. But was it the world, or my mind? I could feel myself detaching from the harness of life. The laces with which I had wrapped my mind around the world were coming loose. I was floating out to sea with an anchor that couldn’t touch the bottom, and without the faintest idea how to bring myself back to shore. The answer was Jenny, obviously, but she was a mystery to me now. I almost laughed
at my questions. Had we broken up? Were we still together? What about when birthdays came? So, with my sleepless nights, my days became dreamlike. I floated through the day as the lacings of my mind loosened, looking forward to and yet dreading the phone calls which would inevitably come. This was living! It was absurd, a joke played on me, but I was deaf to the laughter. So this is where I am now, my mind in constant agony and perpetual confusion. And that phone is ringing again. I get up. “Hello Jenny,” I say as I walk down the stairs. “How are you today? I miss you, as always. Oh look, you’re not here.” I reach the phone cradle as the phone is ringing. I pick it up. My eyes widen. I look at it, feel the weight of it in my hand. It’s there, right when I need it. I stare at it. It keeps ringing. I answer it. “Jenny?” I say. “Hey,” she whispers. The tears stream down my face and I sink to the floor. “I miss you so much,” she says. “I miss you.” “I love you, Jenny.” “I love you too.” There’s silence then, and we digest it. “You finally got to the phone,” she says, and laughs. “Yeah,” I say. “Didn’t misplace it this time.” She laughs again, and I smile. “Do you have time to talk?” she asks, and we laugh for what seems like days. “I’ve got nothing but time,” I say, and we begin again.
Banshee david mohan No longer woman you’re what’s left of breath after its swept scrubland— scarecrow remnant, coat turned inside out, flicking over until it’s caught in thickets. You’re fox kill within sight of new estates, the fields of weeds beside fresh-mown gardens. On nights when you come close we see an owl’s white face flash near against windows, breaking The Heights into a toll of shrieking.
Young Stories an interview with katie waldegrave
I came across First Story a couple of years ago. Someone mentioned that they were looking for help designing covers for their story anthologies, and so I did some investigating. What I found was a remarkable charity, helping young people not only to write, but, more importantly, to find their voice. Four anthology covers later, I sat down with First Story’s co-founder and executive director, Katie Waldegrave. — Euan Monaghan structo: How do you encapsulate First Story? waldegrave: The thing that I was sad about when I was teaching was how much I—as a teacher at the time—and therefore my students, were thinking about grades. It was all the stuff you hear about endlessly: focussing on the c–d borderline, and so on. The richer experience of being a young person, alive and excited about the world, lost out to that, despite the best will in the world from schools and teachers. First Story is partly about literacy—that’s the key, obvious benefit—but it’s about much more than that too. It’s about helping people to realise their value in the world. To see and notice the world around them, and to see that their voice has value in their world. We started this year at the Young Writers’ Festival; we had Malorie Blackman and 800 kids in a tent—it was crazy and wonderful. There were lots of writing workshops and 30 other writers. And then the weekly workshops started in September as well the various trips and events throughout the year. Finally in the summer every school then produces an anthology. Then there’s a book launch at the school, and a summer residential trip. It’s always interesting, the journey the kids go on. From that first piece of writing where, very often, there will be a lot of death and vampires and boarding schools involved. Everyone will be called Jane or Peter or something—which is telling because, at my school at least, I taught no white students. And in some sense it doesn’t belong to the young person, hence the thing about their names being Jane and Peter. By the end of the process the stories are apparently much smaller. They might be a memory of a walk to school with their grandmother in Pakistan or a meal with their father. After that they might go back to writing about intergalactic space wars with pandas or something, but those pandas– structo: Will have more believable relationships? waldegrave: [Laughs] They will have more believable relationships. And they will have more concrete detail in their descriptions. There’s a stronger sense of voice and overall quality, but most of it is recognising that, actually, it’s the details of our lives that are interesting. What all this adds up
to is, yes, improved literacy, but in a wider sense, real confidence and real creativity and thoughtfulness. Also the act of revising and producing a book not only is confidence-boosting in itself, but finishing something, revising and redrafting, engaging with writerlyness… this is not the elevator pitch! [Laughs] The short answer would be that it’s about broadening horizons. structo: What was the first idea, when you were a teacher? You wanted to invite an author into your class? waldegrave: William [Fiennes, co-founder of First Story] and I were introduced by mutual friends. One of the first inspirations had been Dave Eggers’ 826 National project. I’d read about it and thought that it was wonderful, but always with the reservation that, while I think it works absolutely amazingly in America, I was sitting out in Hounslow. To reach the kind of kids I wanted to reach, we had to be there, in the schools, at three-thirty. But then I was introduced to William Fiennes, who was also a fan of 826, who was being paid to be writer-in-residence at The American School in London. He was talking about what that was doing for the students’ confidence and the rest of it, and I was being a bit chippy and said, ‘but it would never happen in a school like mine’. To his eternal credit he volunteered to come in to the school. We weren’t sure anyone would turn up, but they did and they came back and they came back and voted with their feet. There wasn’t an enormous amount of strategic planning… well, we probably should have done much more thinking about it. It was quite organic. I wanted to work with the tougher end of secondary schools. As a teacher, I was conscious that I most failed kids when they hit gcse or Key Stage 4 and A-Levels, when they are falling in love and school is going to end and they have hormones, and life is complicated, and all I was telling them was that it was really, really important that they get a c not a d and all that kind of stuff. But working with that age group creates its own challenges because you’re competing directly with all the revision classes, so I wasn’t sure they would come. But they did and they loved it, and I grew as a teacher. I’d become a little institutionalised I suppose. I used to lose sight of what excited me about teaching. In that first year we saw such a magical transformation in the students, and I felt it in me as a teacher. structo: How long had you been a teacher? waldegrave: I’d been teaching for four years. It was long enough to… you teach so many children every week, you work so hard as a teacher,
particularly in a more challenging school and in your first years when you’re still figuring it all out. To have this hour and a half each week, with a writer and with these 16 people, to think of them as people, and people who are funny, and it not being about them getting a particular grade. I carried that with me for the rest of the week. It remained. If the funding was all to go belly-up, and we weren’t to continue, that’s where the legacy lies—the work we’ve done with the kids is fantastic—the legacy lies with the teachers. They are an integral part of the group, and we work really closely together.
In that first year we saw such a magical transformation in the students, and I felt it in me as a teacher structo: How do the groups work—does the school approach you? waldegrave: We’re in the nice position now that, yes, the schools tend to approach us. We now have quite a long waiting list of schools, which is hard in some ways, but kind of wonderful too. So typically they will approach us. What it needs is to have an absolute buy-in from every level, from the wonderful teacher who’s going to lead it—and usually there are two sharing through the weeks—and it needs the head’s buy-in, and it needs the line-manager to understand what’s going on. They’re complex places, schools, and each of those levels needs to work. The schools pay towards the project, 20 or 30%, that’s one of the reasons we need to make sure [the understanding] filters up through the levels. A big part of the philosophy is the teacher-writer collaboration. We have termly teacher-writer meetings. The first of these is in the July before the December start, where we introduce the teacher and talk about how the year is going to shape up and discuss questions about the particular school and the rest of it. The Festival is probably the students’ first engagement with First Story, which is really exciting and wonderful. Then it will be a group of maybe 21 kids and whatever wild and wacky things the writers want to do. We’ve developed what you could loosely call a syllabus, not a restrictive one, more like a cookbook of ideas. It might begin with the students being asked to close their eyes and remember being 10. What are the sounds, the smells, the tastes? Quite often it begins with talk, and with them recognising there’s a story in that: the memory of the smell of a particular food, say. And so it
goes on. The teacher always writes alongside, is part of it all, and is often published in the anthology. It’s a nice leveller and quite important for the teacher to remember how terrifying it is to be asked to read something out loud that you’ve only just written. [Laughs] structo: How do you get authors involved? waldegrave: The authors get involved in a similar way to the schools. Partly because we pay the writers, and partly because the writers tend to believe in what we’re doing, we have a large list of writers who’d like to be involved. And most of our writers have now done it for multiple years. Now we’re expanding, so we have just recruited a whole bunch of wonderful new writers— structo: Are they local to the schools? waldegrave: As far as possible, yes. It’s nice if they’re local, but also we’re playing a matching game. We might be working in a school with quite challenging students who have had all sorts of hurdles thrown at them, so if you have a writer who is also a psychotherapist, or has lots of experience, you’ll make them travel across London to be in the right place. It’s about fitting those pieces together. structo: First Story has 40 groups this year. Where are they based? waldegrave: London, Oxford, East Midlands, and Bradford, which is our newest one. structo: And all this takes place out of school time? waldegrave: Yes. Typically three-thirty until five. structo: For all three terms? waldegrave: Just the autumn and the spring term. It works very well because the summer term is so heavily exam-oriented. During that period we turn the manuscript into books, and recruit an army of wonderful, generous volunteers to help publish the anthologies. Then, after half-term when the exams are winding down, that’s when we have the book launches in each school.
structo: Do they select pieces from throughout the year to use in the anthology? waldegrave: Exactly. Writers often say they find themselves in the revising and the redrafting, so the rhythm of the year might be that the first term is fast, lots of writing and generating of new pieces, and in the second they begin to think about which pieces they want to polish and work on. structo: How do the students react to the scheme? waldegrave: There’s something about engaging with a real, Googlable writer and having a relationship with them. Not just seeing them at a talk, but engaging with them and having access to what is in some ways a sort of mentor figure, that opens up the world, not just the world of writing—we would be hopeless if we were tell all these kids to go off and be writers, and we’re absolutely not. Then there is the fact of valuing the stories themselves and their taking value in them. It’s fun. But we do an awful lot of evaluation. One of the things we’ve been using is the New Philanthropy Capital’s Well-being Measure. It’s tricky to evaluate arts-based projects because really the only tools we have are things like exam grades. Clearly we would hope that there was a link, and we can see a correlation between improved grades and what we do, but if we were setting out to improve exam grades in a straightforward way, we probably wouldn’t do it like this. And that’s not what we try and do; it’s almost trying to be a counter-balance to that. The Well-being Measure is one way of trying to get a more holistic sense of student resilience and confidence and all of those words that we need in order to be employable, I suppose, and in order to live a fuller life. The research shows that First Story has a significant positive impact on students’ emotional well-being, resilience, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. This year we’re doing a piece of research which is more tailored to us, specifically looking at things like creativity and what we call literate communication, rather than the word ‘literacy’. And we’re also using mindfulness, and looking at students’ engagement with the world; their curiosity, their excitement. structo: Mindfulness in the meditation sense? waldegrave: Yeah, exactly, but it’s rigorously evaluated, which is the advantage from our perspective. We didn’t come at it deliberately, but we were talking about all the things we wanted to measure like engagement and curiosity, and the language is exactly the same for mindfulness. We were
excited about that because it gives us a different way of measuring… I mean, to a large extent all of these things are unmeasurable. We all know; you can see it in the students, you can see it in what teachers say about them, you can see it in the writers. It’s just there. structo: So it’s trying to quantify that? waldegrave: Right. One instinct is to say that it’s a kind of ridiculous exercise: ‘I’m human; I can see it’. But you have to be able to articulate it and communicate that to funders. There’s an imperative there.
The thing they always talk about is about is the confidence to think, ‘I am good enough’ structo: Has mindfulness been used elsewhere for this kind of thing? waldegrave: I don’t think so. The nice thing about mindfulness is that there’s a great body of work out there so that the surveys that we use have been benchmarked. There are standards. It’s as abstract as looking at grades, but it’s actually closer to what we know we’re doing [on a human level]. I would, as a teacher, be very frustrated if we came in and said, ‘oh these grades have all gone up as we predicted and that’s all down to First Story’. structo: So authors spend a year in the schools, create this anthology and then it’s launched? waldegrave: The launches are really exciting! We love them. Because we were so tiny in the beginning we would all go to all the launches, but then we realised that we would have to divide them up; there was no way we could all go to them all. What I love is the diversity. I remember last year at Loxford they had tap dancers and a steel drum performance. Their writer was Laura Dockrill, who’s the most wonderful, colourful, flamboyant poet, and the kids performed their work to maybe 300 people: parents and other teachers and students and staff, and it was loud and wonderful. Then we’d go to Nottingham Academy, and we would find it all set up cabaret-style, with jazz. There it was a much more intimate feeling, and there were some very
moving pieces of writing read out. I think the mayor came. There is always a sense of occasion. There was burlesque dancing at one, and a chocolate fountain at another, but the point is that it’s up there with the school play or musical. And there is the sense that writing ought to be celebrated and is integral. What is nice then is when they have the younger students coming along. What we hope to do more and more is have a younger group with some level of mentoring from students who are alumni of the programme, so you have the years engaging with one another. So you have the younger kids coming to the launch and thinking, ‘that’s something I want to do’, and it hopefully just becomes part of what happens. And is celebrated. structo: Do you keep in touch with any of the pupils? waldegrave: Today has been a good First Story day. I’ve just come from the Foyle’s Poetry Prize, where we had a winner—Esme Partridge—we’ve had students nominated in the John Betjeman [Poetry Competition], and Azfa Ali won the Tower Poetry Prize. There’s a real excitement when you see a tangible result. Of course the aim is not to get them all into writing, but we have an alumni group of students, and we try to set up work experience for them and put them in touch with people in all walks of life. The idea being that we remain a place they can come to. We have an online writerin-residence so they can continue to post things. I want to get better at doing that, and recruit more of them back, because it’s always exciting seeing them. We’ll see them talk at events and the thing they always talk about is about is the confidence to think, ‘I am good enough’. structo: And it’s not just a charitable exercise. I’ve read four of the collections, and there’s some great work in there. waldegrave: I think so. Each school is a huge range. In some of the most challenging, if you were coming at it blind you would want a bit of context, but there is enormous progress and courage in what they are willing to share. That’s the moving thing about the book launches, particularly when you get a six-foot boy reading something that’s really quite intimate. He’s dropped the front, the sixth-form boy thing, and I love that. In each anthology there are always a couple of students where you think ‘wow’, and all of them identify themselves as people who enjoy language and will write successfully even if they go and work for a bank and need to write to their clients. Because they will write well.
On Skar, And Matters Pertaining crista ermiya
he islands of Skar lie off the northern coast of Caledonia, more remote in social if not geographic terms than the Orcadian and Shetland islands to the northeast, and the Hebridean and Kildan groups in the west. Skar consists of twin islands – Skar and Karrion – connected by a natural causeway that floods with the tide, which can sometimes last for weeks. The language of the Skarlanders is a curious mix of Gaelic and Norse, reflecting the hybrid origins of this island race. A few words of Spanish and Arabic derivation are also found, particularly in their names for women. A plausible hypothesis for this has never been put forward, although it continues to be a fond subject for those on the more frivolous fringes of the academy. There is a third island, or more properly a stac, to the west of the twins, that rises sheer for over a thousand feet and is inhabited only by birds. It is known simply as ‘the Amazon’. None of the islanders of Skar ever visit the Amazon except to mourn their dead and, in those cases where there is a body, to bring it for the birds. Skarlandic corpses are usually female – the men almost always die violent deaths, either by drowning or falling from a cliff face, and generally the body is never recovered, washed out into the Atlantic by the strange currents that surround the island. It is a rare thing to see a Skarlandic man over the age of 40. The ageing population is almost entirely made up of widows, who can, however, live well into their nineties and more. This high proportion of aged women is likely the original cause of those old Celtic and Scandinavian legends that proclaimed Skar to be the abode of witches. Skarlanders are great climbers and vertigo is unknown, to the extent that they have no word for it. In strange contrast, they seem never to have fully come to terms with the sea, unique in an island race, and although they do build boats out of necessity, seamanship has never progressed as a skill amongst them, nor fishing, despite the rich catch of which they would always be assured. This lack of seafaring knowledge is a continuing enigma for the academy; for we must ask, how did the Skarlanders reach the twin islands in the first place? Their mongrel Skarlandic language suggests that they are not so old a race as to have inhabited the island from an age before Skar and Karrion were sundered from either the northern tip of Caledonia or the southwest part of the
Nordic continent. Even if such had been the case, clearly there must have been some not inconsiderable traffic with Caledonia or Scandinavia â&#x20AC;&#x201C; presumably both â&#x20AC;&#x201C; in the not too distant past. Furthermore, the dark, swarthy physiognomy of some of the populace hints at commerce with more southerly peoples well beyond our United Fair Isle of Caledonia, Cymru and Albion. Another oddity of the Skarlandic people is that they have no visual arts to speak of, not even in their modes of dress: plain woollen garments, whose styles and mode of production have remained unchanged for centuries. This is not to say that they are entirely bereft of all artistic impulse that marks out human civilisation, for the Skarlanders are a race rich in poetry and song. Music is a particular love of Skarlanders of all generations, and great feasts of song are held several times a year, high on the cliffs of Karrion, where the plangent strains and echoes of their untamed melodies carry over the waters to be heard by the lonely crews of North Sea fishing boats, or the pleasure-boat tourists on their way to the islands of Kilda or Orkney. All Skarlanders participate in these feasts, which take place according to some ancient changing calendar or impulse of which only the islanders are aware or able to calculate. It is said that even those Skarlandic babes not yet weaned are brought by their mothers to peer over the vertiginous precipices of Karrion, where they gurgle wordlessly over the rhythm of the great churning sea below. Only the extremely aged women do not sing, but retreat into a strange, tangible silence. Those who have heard the Skarlandic songs of the cliff festivals find it difficult to convey the beauty of the voices to those who have not experienced it; for some unfortunate individuals, it would have been better never to have heard those voices at all. Although nowhere near as common as some irresponsible, indeed we could say scaremongering, commentators have suggested, regrettable incidents have admittedly taken place. It has not been unknown for holidaymakers on island tours, unfortunate enough to be on deck when their ships have strayed into earshot of one of these irregularly timed festivals, to fall into a kind of mania upon hearing Skarlandic voices raised in song, to the extent that they have fallen overboard in an attempt to get closer to the cliffs. The victim of such a mania has no chance of survival, for it is impossible to swim in the currents around the islands. This is, it must be stressed, a rare occurrence, the risk of which does not seem to have impacted negatively on the Caledonian islands tourist trade. Quite the contrary: for some travellers, the idea that they might chance upon Karrion festival voices imparts a pleasurable frisson to their journey.
It is of course forbidden to land on the Skar archipelago without the explicit consent of the academy. This injunction was created to preserve the primitive society of Skar from the contaminating influence of our modern world that would no doubt have to led to its demise; a harsh lesson learned from the destruction of isolated Balearic communities in the early twentieth century which has meant that the islands of Ibiza, Majorca and Minorca remain to this day desolate, uninhabited rocks. Despite this attempt to safeguard Skarlandic society, it is becoming increasingly clear that the island is in decline. The women of Skar are getting older, and there are fewer babies being born. Only one in every seven newborns is male; last year there were six births on the island. At the last census, the twin islands had a combined population of 203. It is estimated that the forthcoming census will reveal a drop in numbers to below 80. That is the most conservative estimate: there are others in the academy who forecast an even more catastrophic drop to below 40. In either case, given the low male birth-rate, and the relatively short lifespan of such males as there are, it is certain that the continued existence of Skarlanders in their native domicile will become untenable. The question that is now raised in the academy is whether the falling birth-rate in Skar â&#x20AC;&#x201C; of both sexes â&#x20AC;&#x201C; has any connection, however oblique, with the strange debris that began washing up on its shores some years ago, and that has now accumulated to such a fearful extent. This odd flotsam and jetsam accumulates on the western shore of Skar, with further material skeined around the Amazon. When the first pieces began to appear, they were greeted as treasure by the islanders. Such odd bric-a-brac: a twelve-inch articulated figure of a soldier; several more soldier-figures no more than an inch in height, in a variety of uniforms and poses; a timepiece with rusted workings; a broken bowl, faded to sea-grey with barnacles and salt stains; several rectangular transparent receptacles in a number of colours, each with a small wheeled lid that may have been designed to act in the manner of striking a flint, collecting a now-gone fuel from the narrow tube that leads from the lid into the receptacle. In the beginning, these pieces washed up at wide intervals. The timepiece came first, and was mistaken for something that might have been dropped overboard by a tourist. As is now widely known, it is a small ingenious piece, integrated into a bracelet-like strap clearly designed for a wrist. Indeed, since its discovery over twenty years ago, such a design has become so fashionable that even women now wear them, and pocket watches are seen as quite the old thing. The original is now on display at the National Technology Museum in Edinburghâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s royal furlong. The
pithy explanatory note accompanying the exhibited object lists its provenance, beyond its discovered location on Skar, as ‘unknown’ – as are some of the materials from which it has been fashioned, the materials of the small fuel receptacles and the soldier-figures. This latter category of objects comprises by far the most numerous of the debris landing on Skar’s western shore. One could – almost – give credence to the view that they are the vanguard of an invading army. Most poignant is the belief amongst some Skarlandic mothers and widows that the figures are an embodiment of their drowned menfolk, that disappearing population, whose bodies have been swept away to an unknown shore or pulled into secret crevasses in the depths of the ocean floor. The whereabouts of the missing bodies of fallen Skarlandic men has long troubled the academy. Skarlanders themselves do not consider it as out of the ordinary, but rather accept it as the pattern of their society. The males of that race take pride in a certain recklessness when climbing their formidable cliff-faces in search of eggs from the nests of gulls and kittiwakes, which form the main part of the Skarlandic diet alongside a green salty root vegetable that the women cultivate on the grassy south of Skar. As mentioned previously, vertigo is unknown amongst them. We can add here that there is a pervasive, virtually monolithic, culture of bravado amongst Skarlandic males, in which fear of physical danger is not permissible. In some cases, extreme situations are actively sought out, particularly during courtship, involving daredevil acts of leaping and scrambling on precipitous edges. This is barely comprehensible: the overwhelming ratio of female to male in the Skarlandic population should, in any rational society, lead to a competition of females for the male. It is unsettling, to say the least, that the very reverse of such logic has become the firm tradition, despite the often calamitous consequences for the men. It is well established that the currents around the bird-nesting cliffs of Skar and Karrion are pulled into that strange vortex of the North Atlantic known as the Northern Gyre. Until recently, most commentators in the academy have assumed this fearsome Gyre is the ultimate destination of those drowned Skarlandic men, for no-one knows how deep into the ocean it whorls. It has always seemed most likely that the bodies of the unfortunate Skarlanders have been pulled down to the seabed, whether to rest in peace or tribulation is unknown: the deeps are as mysterious to us as the great heights of the celestial sphere. However, the accumulation of the strange debris on Skar has raised serious questions regarding this hypothesis, for it appears that the source of these odd
figures and receptacles is none other than the Gyre itself. This raises several questions, all of which are subject to much heated debate within the academy. If objects can demonstrably arrive at Skar from the Gyre, then why have none of the bodies pulled into its current ever returned? Where does the Gyre lead? What has caused the influx of objects from the Gyre to Skar over the past two decades? Where do they come from? Why is this influx now increasing at such a rate? Will the rate of influx continue to increase? And crucially, will it come to an end? The academy has now declared the western shore of Skar a zone of environmental catastrophe and it is feared that the relentless tide of objects now winding around the Amazon will erode the stac, causing it to collapse into the sea. The scale and speed of this unfathomable disaster shoring up on Skar has allowed the promulgation of openly wild ideas to drift into the sober mainstream of the academy. We would hesitate to rehearse them here if they had not already escaped into wider public discourse. The hypothesis that is most oft repeated concerns the projected existence of another Earth, linked to our own through the Gyre. It should be unnecessary to rebut such an outlandish proposal, if it were not for the hold the idea has taken in the imagination of the general populace. Rumours abound as to what this alternate Earth might be like. Extrapolating from our only evidence, its effluence, were such an entity to exist, it would be a pugilistic, profligate society indeed, given to creating figures of war with an excess of enthusiasm that not even our priests demand. What would this aggressive other place make of the number of dead men bleeding through to their world? This is the fear that has gripped the populace: once aware of our existence, such a warlike society cannot fail to desire an incursion into our own demesne. For once, the priests and the academy are at one in their response to these rumours: they are the ill-founded, ill-imagined scare stories of subversive elements, designed to frighten and unsettle the general public and overthrow the academy. We are facing the likely extinction of society on Skar, this much is certain, and it is true that the Northern Gyre offers us more mystery than explanation; but it is much too big a leap for rational minds to then postulate the existence of another world, linked to ours through the most unlikely of portals; and as the priests reiterate, there is no provision made for an unknown twin planet to Earth in the sacred writings. Both religion and science, then, refute the hypothesis. Whispers reach the academy of an even stranger story: that the other
world does exist and is in fact the original model; that we are nothing but a shadow of that planet, with little more reality than a dream. We mention it here to demonstrate how unorthodoxy to academy doctrine inevitably leads to the ridiculous. It needs no sophistry to rebut the mutterings of subversives and madmen; patently we exist.
Trí Thré philip cummings translated from the irish by the author Trí bhriseadh a thugann neart: briseadh uibhe; briseadh toinne; briseadh croí. Trí chéim chun tosaigh: droichid; innill níocháin; trí chéim ar gcúl Éilís II sa Ghairdín Cuimhneacháin. Trí rud a imeoidh: an ghealach is an ghrian; a dtáinig ariamh; an chiotaí seo eadrainn.
Three Triads Three breakings that bring strength: the breaking of an egg; the breaking of a wave; the breaking of a heart. Three steps forward: bridges; washing machines; Elizabeth II’s three steps backwards in the Garden of Remembrance. Three things that will pass: the sun and the moon; all that ever was; this awkwardness between us.
Scáthán Briste Searbhónta philip cummings translated from the irish by the author Aithreacha is mic faoi charranna, an domhan bunoscionn, eolas á thabhairt ar aghaidh ó ghlúin go glúin, boladh rubair dhóite, dlúthfháscadh nach mbíonn – go hiomlán – míchompordach. Mac is athair faoi charr, eolas á thabhairt ar aghaidh, ach seo Béal Feirste na seachtóidí, tá mise ag screadaíl, agus, suas an tsráid uainn, tá urchair á malartú mar thuairimí: domhan bunoscionn.
Cracked Looking-Glass Of A Servant Fathers and sons under cars, the world upside down, experience being passed on from generation to generation, a smell of burnt rubber, a close crampedness that isn’t – completely – uncomfortable. A son and a father under a car, experience being passed on, but this is Belfast in the seventies, I am screaming and, down the road from us, bullets are being exchanged as freely as opinions: an upside-down world.
The Spurned Taxidermist stuart snelson
he was at her desk when she received the first package. Given the date, she presumed it was a Valentineâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s gift from her boyfriend. Around the office, bouquets were arranged in makeshift vases, jewellery flashed at the slightest provocation. With its disproportionately elaborate bow, its fairytale paper, her package looked more like a parody of a gift than a gift itself, one of those mock boxes that fortified department store windows come Christmas time. Excitedly she untied the bow and slid off the paper. A shiver ran through her as her expression slipped from eager anticipation to horrified recoil. Inside she discovered not an exotic orchid, no ornate confabulation of confection, no enmeshment of lace for her to parade in. Instead her gaze was returned by the eyes of two dead mice. It had not been an ill-advised attempt to post pets, a telltale rattle signalling their unfortunate demise. In a Perspex vitrine, the mice were stuffed, propped and positioned into a re-enactment of the previous yearâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Valentineâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Day. She had anticipated that her ex-boyfriend would reinsert himself into her life at some point, had no doubt that he would eventually emerge from brooding moodily, but the manner of his reappearance had surprised her nonetheless. She knew now what to expect from a taxidermist spurned. He had gone to some trouble, had constructed a miniature replica of his flat, where they had spent the night together. Prompted by his macabre aide memoire, her thoughts turned to that evening. Cryptically he had asked her to bring a bikini but refused to be drawn into elaboration. Blindfolding her at the door, her shoes removed, he led her by the hand into his living room. Her eyes unveiled to the scene, she had gasped. He had transformed the room into their own private beach. Having emptied it of furniture, he had deposited vast quantities of sand upon the floor. On the far wall, he had painted a mural, a vision of the tranquil sea, the dipping sun. They settled beneath the shade of a plastic palm tree. Beneath the stars they reclined, a glow-in-the-dark constellation stuck to his ceiling. Through hidden speakers, he had pumped a soundtrack of coastal ambience: the gentle lapping of the waves, the conversation of seagulls. He made jokes about breathing in the sea air, and she had laughed appreciatively. They picnicked, drank and eventually had sex on the beach, all in the comfort of his own home. For months after that evening, upon visiting his flat, she would find
herself picking sand from between her toes. Unsurprisingly it had drifted into every nook. As far as he was concerned, it had been worth it. He had wanted to surprise her and the look on her face, her astonishment upon seeing the transformation, had justified his efforts. This had been the acceptable side of his eccentricities. With the arrival of her special delivery, he had amazed her again, in a slightly more unsettling manner. It seemed less of a romantic gesture when reconfigured with mice. His scaled-down diorama was painstakingly recreated. Her effigy was even wearing a similar outfit to the one she had worn. It was in such details – the effort involved in fashioning a bikini for a mouse – that she detected madness. To an outsider, she appreciated, it was a morbid gesture, and certainly no way for a man to convey his undying love. Yet she found herself strangely moved by his efforts. Her colleagues were less understanding, their dropped jaws attesting to his gift’s unsuitability. As they tore open cards of kissing kittens and besotted bears, they had looked at her with disgust; he had opted for a less socially acceptable form of anthropomorphism. Contrary to the florists’ mantra, he had chosen to say it with corpses. To those of her colleagues who had believed he was a little odd, this seemed apt confirmation. Through his chosen medium, he had legitimised their tacit accusations of creepiness. The idle gossip of friends, their speculative barbs, had given her the impression that her ex wasn’t coping well with the break-up; before her lay the twisted confirmation. It wasn’t until the second parcel arrived that she notified the police. Whilst they registered her concerns, they pointed out that they could do little to prevent the arrival of anonymous packages. And these were far from anonymous; who else would respond in this way? Angered by their lack of interest she awaited further communications. She sensed, knowing him as she did, that these offerings marked the beginning of a campaign. He was nothing if not a creature of habit. She prepared herself for a weekly tableau, was sure that each Monday morning would witness the arrival of another grisly gift. She envisaged key scenes from their relationship re-imagined in this manner, a perverse stations of the cross mapping the slow death of their relationship, a freeze-framed romance in Perspex enclosures. In the second tableau, the happy, mousy couple returned, but this time they sat beside a sterner looking couple. In the guise of mice, she recognised her parents. This scene represented the first time he had met them, his first brush with the theoretical in-laws. The evening had not
gone well. Whilst her parents made great efforts to temper their disgust, they were secretly appalled by his vocation. His work summoned, instantly, bloodied hands, in a manner that her father’s favoured professions – law, finance – did not. With unshiftable images in mind, her father denied this intruder the decency of a handshake. The thought that he touched his daughter with those selfsame hands made him shudder. Her ex had passed the evening as pallid candidate. Dutifully, wearing a fixed rictus grin he was all too familiar with from his work, he set about answering their questions. Her father had led the interrogation. In equivocal terms he had voiced his concerns, asked him if he had interfered with animals as a child. Her ex could only look on askance. Her parents hoped he would be discarded, that he would join the heap of unsuitable suitors who had preceded him, the accumulative pyre of those cast aside. Did she attach herself to these types just to test them? They hoped her habitual fickleness would prevail. Over the years, he had become brutally accustomed to people’s reactions to his work. Often he would enter light-hearted conversation in anticipation of eventual revulsion. On blind dates, he won hearts by stating that he worked with animals; second dates would find prospective partners disheartened when they discovered just how closely. For her it had been different. Early on, she had been intrigued by what he did. Introducing her partner, the taxidermist, had fitted well with the contrived kookiness of which her personality consisted. Living with the idea was another story. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly when fascination had turned to repulsion. His experience of taxidermy had worked the other way; he had gone from disgust to delight. He was first exposed to the craft during a visit to his grandmother’s house, her living room haunted by a distressed approximation of her faithful dog. He had never known Patch when he was alive but refused to believe that this threadbare monster was in anyway representative. Whilst staying at her house, it terrified him: the chill instilled by its stitched grin, its glass-eyed stare. Scabrid and twisted it looked in the grip of madness, possessed of an arrested rabidity. Knowing his horror of it, she bequeathed it to him in her will, a final, malevolent gesture from beyond the grave. When he eventually built up the courage to unpack it, he became more sympathetic. Slowly acclimatising to its presence, terror turned to intrigue. As he grew older, suitably enchanted, he began to make enquiries about taxidermy courses. To his craft, he became devoted. In a sense, the ghastly reconstruction of his grandmother’s dog inspired his work, the lack of craftsmanship propelling him into a more diligent professionalism. He strove towards verisimilitude. Working from photographs, he laboured to restore like-
nesses. Beloved pets were returned to loved ones eternally grateful for his efforts. Her father’s opinions slowly poisoned her own. Thus contaminated, she became uneasy about what he might have traipsed into her life, became concerned that, upon their split, she would be marked by the taint of what he did, that she would exit the relationship still bearing his traces. In anger, she accused him of trailing entrails into her home. About his person she imagined scooped viscera, detected an aura of rotten limbs. Upon his arrival, her nose led enquiries. She sniffed indiscriminately, sensed curious scents about him, experienced an increasing unease at the thought of what he might bring in with him. His shoes she requested he remove upon entry. This soon extended to other items of clothing until eventually he was required to perform a perfunctory striptease upon arrival, was ushered into the shower before she would contemplate anything congressional. During sex with her ex, she would find her mind roaming, unable to separate the man from the job. At his touch, she summoned a bestiary of patchwork animals, a warped Disney vision of flayed, eviscerated creatures looming behind him. As he grunted on, oblivious, it became clear which of them would end the relationship. The appearance of a dead hamster in her freezer, lodged frostily between more commonplace corpses, was perhaps the point of no return. He had failed to honour her not unreasonable request: don’t bring death into my house. At the unveiling of the third box, her colleagues had gathered in an administrative huddle. His deliveries were becoming quite an event, his tableaux becoming increasingly elaborate. She peered once more into his warped universe. Inside the vitrine, she saw herself having sex with her new partner. Agog, her workmates stifled laughter. Her current partner had been fashioned, somewhat predictably, from a rat. Appearances suggested it had not been a particularly distinguished example of its type. From this unpleasant creature, her besotted had still somehow angled quite a likeness. She had hoped he wouldn’t find out that she was seeing someone else; the explicit evidence suggested he was all too aware of the manner of her life’s continuation. Beneath the rat, his sleazy intrusion, her timid mouse looked vulnerable. Such a species-straddling depiction leant something transgressive to their union. Unaware of their sexual preferences, he had used his imagination. Their counterparts were locked lewdly in an act that they had never actually engaged in, an im-
agined debasement at the claws of his usurper. He had clearly relished manipulating his piebald rival. Where was her ex? His absence from the tableau worried her, not that a rigor-mortised threesome would have served any better. She tried to get in touch with him, but both his personal and business numbers were dead. His family, his friends, had not heard from him. At his place of work, post mounted behind the door. In the window, in a severe gothic typeface, a sign declared Closed Due to Heartbreak. His melancholia would not be well served by comic sans. Dusty displays, past examples of his art, looked more forlorn than usual. If he was doing this to win her back, to rekindle the flame, how could she submit to his peculiar charms, his cadaverous offerings, if she couldn’t even contact him? In the next box their creator reappeared, or rather his diminished avatar did. He was depicted diligently at work on a smaller diorama, which upon close inspection revealed itself to be a miniature version of the one which contained it. Within that, a smaller mouse also worked on the same scene, suggesting an infinite reduction of dioramas. Where would this end? She baulked at the bleak possibilities, in contemplation of horrific scenarios. Perhaps he would have himself stuffed, and inserted into a life-size diorama. This notion she dispelled through matters of practically; after all, how would one deliver a box the size of a room? Perhaps he would opt for an economy option, have himself embalmed and parcel-wrapped. But who would do that for him? He was not overburdened with friends in the trade, and she imagined that the suggestion of such an enterprise would overstep the boundaries of the ones he had. Perhaps he intended to stuff her. Now that was a more terrifying prospect. Was he sharpening a knife with her name on it? Was there a display case somewhere awaiting her insertion? No, it was a ludicrous thought. Whilst clearly a little deranged she was sure he wasn’t an adherent of the sour boyfriend’s creed: if I can’t have her, no one will. He would never harm another human being. He wouldn’t even harm animals, although some misguided people took that as a prerequisite for the job. The thought of animals in distress troubled him. For this reason, he preferred domestic commissions to trophy seekers. When presented with heads sawn off for decorative purposes, he restored what dignity he could to such creatures. He did so knowing the fate to which he consigned them: overlooking drawing rooms and absorbing the braying conversations of those who had exerted their mastery over the animal kingdom by aid of a shotgun. All of his other subjects died of natural causes, save for the family pets woozily euthanized at the hand of a vet.
Caution motivated a move. Feeling unsafe alone at home, she arranged to stay with a friend. She would have stayed with her new partner but for the fact that she could not bear, for the minute, his rodentine features, the itch of his touch. On Monday, when no parcel arrived, she experienced a mixture of relief and confusion. She had become accustomed to receipt of his handiworks, the attentions of her diorama charmer. Their unveiling had become a Monday morning ritual. Colleagues gathered, each secretly relieved that they didn’t harbour psychopaths in their respective closets. They had become transfixed by these scaled-down oddities, and struggled to conceal their disappointment upon the non-arrival of the next instalment. She didn’t know whether to be buoyed or concerned by his failure to deliver. Not quite feeling up to moving back into her house, she returned, with her friend, to pick up a change of clothes. When she saw a now familiar-looking box sitting outside her front door, it came as no great surprise. Entering her house, she placed it on the table and, before she settled to anything else, removed the wrapping paper. She let out a scream. On a miniature bed sat a mouse with a shotgun in its mouth. Or rather, what was left of it. The back of its head had been blown off, and the wallpaper and bed were covered with blood. Had he really committed such an act, or was this a sick joke to terrify her back into his arms? Weeping, she didn’t know what to do for the best. She looked at his valedictory vitrine, the darkness in the detail with which he had depicted his final act. Once again the level of effort was astonishing, the intricate realisation of the mouse’s head wound, an aesthetically accomplished if disturbing conclusion. At no point, whittling intricate furniture, whilst stitching tiny outfits for dead mice, had he considered the lunacy of his enterprise? Engrossed as she was by the blood splatter patterns, their action painting spray across the wall, she didn’t immediately notice what they splattered. Leaning in, regaining perspective, she surveyed the scene. And then it struck her: that was her bed, her wallpaper, he was in her house. As she looked at her friend, the blood drained from her face. She ran upstairs to her bedroom. Turning the handle she entered, saw the gun lodged in his mouth. With a squeeze of the trigger, the shot rang out.
÷e Incidental: That Difficult Second Column keir john pratt
In each issue, with tongue firmly in cheek, Structo’s fiction editor examines the absurdities of a literary life. It’s like an editorial, but with a more generous word count.
or issue 10 I wrote a column entitled ‘The Loft of Hidden Dreams’. It was probably the best thing I have written. It was certainly the best column I have written. The editor agreed and I read it at the launch. People said very nice things about it. I don’t mind admitting that I was quite proud of myself. The idea of writing a column about my father’s book collection in the eponymous ‘loft’ came to me about three years ago. The first draft was written by October 2011. During its conception, I struggled with it. The pacing was all wrong and I couldn’t get the structure right. But I knew it had something and I wanted to take the time to find it.
So, for the time being, I wrote columns about lying in bed, breaking the bindings of books and visiting coffee shops. They were amusing in their own way, but I always had this nagging whisper at the back of my mind: I had to solve the problem of ‘the loft’. Then, one day, I was walking along Great Portland Street when the idea of how to solve it occurred to me. It was missing the personal. So I included my father’s cancer, which he was suffering with at the time I interviewed him. The essay still took another 12 months to finish, and a huge number of edits, but it got there, and in the end I was happy that I had done it justice. There are times in the lives of
writers, as we continue to learn, when steps forward are so tangible that they inspire hope. So much of improvement is gradual: it comes after a hundred-thousand words, two hundred-thousand, three, four, five. When a leap finally occurs, you look backwards at what came before and the distinction is so clear that you cling to that new piece of writing as if your life depended upon it. And it is only worse when others seem to agree. “You have set the bar high for your next one,” my editor
approaching and, editor’s expectations or not, another column must be written. I knew this was going to be a problem before ‘The Loft’ had even gone to print. Luckily, I had been developing another piece, something that was whispering to me with an equally eager tone, something which had been developing in the back of my mind for a couple of years. So I got cracking. Soon enough the page had a title and a couple of malformed paragraphs. Far from finished, but slowly tak-
I stopped, read it back, and smiled. It was a step forward. One of those leaps. And I read it again. And again tells me. With ‘The Loft’, I had no timeframe, no deadline, and no one to let down but myself. I remember that I have been in this position before. I was writing a novel. My third. I felt like I was improving. At that point I had written one hundred-thousand words, two hundred-thousand, three, four, five, and I had finally got to something with that third novel, which felt… mature. Then, four chapters in, I wrote a paragraph. And I stopped, read it back, and smiled. It was a step forward. One of those leaps. And I read it again. And again. The issue 11 deadline is fast
ing shape. The piece was growing, just like ‘The Loft’ had. But it was taking a long time and I didn’t have the luxury of a three-year schedule. At that point, that early stage, the nagging whisper was just too quiet to hear. And it is only worse when others seem to agree. “Save it for the next one,” my editor tells me. I go back to the drawing board. I remember that while writing that third novel, after that fourth chapter, I had struggled. I realised, as I continued, that with those fourhundred words or so, I had found the true voice of my novel. I kept writing and re-writing. But the whisper was muted.
I have a list of maybe 20 or 30 column ideas in my notebook. Some of them are good. Some of them will be written eventually. But if you don’t have passion for the idea, it’s difficult to sit in front of a computer and bash it out. And you can’t create that passion by force. You have to find your own excitement for it. I go back and read ‘The Loft’ column yet again. Perhaps if I keep reading it I will find the spark, through association. But no. Try something, just writing something. Awful, drivel, reader’s poison. Highlight. Delete. Weeks pass, I do nothing. I try to find a spark. A passion. The deadline approaches. I manage to get the third novel all the way through to chapter 13. I know it’s only 15 in total. But I am writing with a memory of that whisper, that voice. Some days, although I can’t hear the whisper, I can remember it clearly. Clear enough that I almost get there; not quite right but a pretty good approximation. On other days, I can’t remember it at all. But I force my way through it. I get to chapter 13. I know it’s only 15 in total. The deadline for issue 11 gets closer. Every day I don’t write something, it gets closer. I search for that spark, passion, whisper. I search everywhere I can think. I read the work of others, I read my own. Something will catch eventually, I tell myself. Then, finally, something. Something I had previously
considered and then dropped. Like ‘The Loft’, it’s about a book collection, but this time about my own. It’s about a photo on Twitter and a stack of books a metre and a half high towering over my toilet. It has an interesting enough thread, but I know it isn’t my best. And it is only worse when others seem to agree. “Too similar to your last one,” the editor says, “keep it in the bag”. I’m dejected. I’m despondent. I’m angry. The worst thing about remembering the last time this happened, that third novel, is that I know I never got over it. I got to chapter 13, but no matter how hard I pushed I knew the spark was lost. And so I gave up, the manuscript unfinished. Still unfinished, three years later. Old news. Issue 11 might have to go to print without an Incidental column. I feel like I have let the editor down, myself down. I feel like maybe it would be easier to give up. Who cares about this writing business anyway? What is it good for? But then I remember that day on Great Portland Street. I remember thinking about that interview in the cold hospital waiting room. I remember wondering why it had taken me so long to see the connection. The spark doesn’t come from the tension or the comedy or the thrills of a piece. It comes from the personal. It comes from truth. It comes from honesty. I sit down and I type: ‘That Difficult Second Column’.
After Ever After melanie whipman
hey draw you in. Before you know it, you hear the click, click of talons on stone and the whisper of shifting feathers as they stretch and fluff, layering up the air between the millefeuilles of down. They’re masters of the air. It keeps them cool, warms them and transports them. They launch themselves off my tower, rise up in the thermals, scud and tuck and leap. I feed them every day. Tradition dictates a scattering of crumbs for the birds. The seagulls pluck them, mid-air. Their yellow lizard eyes unblinking as they snatch and gulp. The sparrows take them from my hand. The eagles are still too shy, or perhaps meat is more their thing, but what would people say if I started hurling out boar chops, venison haunches, rabbit legs? They warn me when he comes. Before the watch-keeper rings the bells, before the gates are drawn open, before I hear his hoof beats across the courtyard, and his yelled commands and his boots hasting upon the stairs. They click and caw and peep and whine and buzz and chirp. ‘Up here again?’ And he takes me in his arms, leaning forward, angling me slightly, so my plait kisses the floor. ‘Missed me?’ my Prince asks, and I nod and smile, ignoring the discomfort of my bent spine, and trying to concentrate on his handsome face, his tanned, weather-worn skin, his slate-grey eyes. I used to liquefy at his touch, my bones melting like sugar under heat. I’d wait for him every day, my body inside out with longing. Now, when he sticks his tongue in my mouth I’m reminded of the damp and writhing muscularity of the eels dropped on my tower by the seahawks. ‘I’m thinking of cutting my hair,’ I say, and he laughs and tugs it gently. ‘As if. Come on, let’s go down. Still can’t understand why you spend so much time up here.’ ‘Oh, you know... habit, I guess...’ Over dinner he tells me about his day, stories of disgruntled dukes, cunning counts, plotting priests. ‘Maybe tomorrow I could...?’ ‘Not yet my darling Rapunzel, it’s not safe out there. You’d be a target. My Achilles heel. They know I’d throw away the kingdom for you. But look...’ He claps his hands, gestures to Malik, the butler, who brings across a jewelled chest and hands it to my Prince, who passes it to me.
They are couched in a nest of purple silk, a pair of golden hand-mirrors, rimmed with rubies that glint and wink as I pick them up and twist them in my hands. ‘Magic mirrors. Got them from a white witch on the docks. Marvellous things. They’re made from Muranian glass. We can still be together when we’re apart.’ I have heard of such things in fables and legends. ‘You can see the world without ever leaving the castle, and I can watch you every minute of every day.’ ‘You were at the docks? I’d like to see the sea. I can smell the brine on the gulls’ feathers sometimes.’ ‘Didn’t know they came this far inland.’ I nod. ‘When it’s stormy.’ As they wheel and dive and yowl I breathe in the salt-spiked air they carry on their feathers. ‘We’ll be side by side, day and night.’ He cups my face with his hands and kisses me lightly on my forehead, my nose, my lips. ‘I’ve got to go away for a few days tomorrow at first light. Off to see the Red Queen.’ ‘I could come with you. I could go in disguise.’ I smile at him, the same smile he claims unlocked his heart. ‘I could be your page-boy. Look –’ I lift my hair from my face, scrape it back. ‘Oh darling...’ ‘Wait.’ I’m dipping my finger in the remains of my chocolate mousse, painting it on my upper lip. ‘See. A boy. Not mousse, obviously. But a fake moustache of some sort. Malik – you’ll think of something, won’t you?’ My Prince shakes his head and laughs, and pulls me to him, kisses and licks and sucks away the chocolate. ‘Now don’t be silly darling.’ I find myself wanting to pout, to stamp my foot, to scream. I’m not that kind of girl. I lived in the witch’s tower for five years and kept my sanity; I sang every day until the Prince came; it was me who fought and killed her when she tricked us, it was me who found my thorn-blinded Prince; it was me who bathed his damaged eyes back to life. Now I see no one but the staff. He fears for my life. Dogs and soldiers patrol the gardens. There are huge signs on the gates. Private. No hawkers, no salesmen or women. He scours the papers for tales to justify his fears. He comes home with stories of witches disguised as travelling saleswomen. Hair combs spiked with poison, apples that kill, belts that tighten and suffocate. ‘How about a song?’ he says. ‘Not tonight.’ ‘A game of snap?’ ‘I was thinking of buying a loom.’
‘A loom?’ I watch his thoughts chase themselves across his face; he runs his finger and thumb along his jawline, and pinches them together at the base of his handsome cleft chin. He’s not hard to read. I asked for a spinning wheel first, and he shook his head and reminded me of that dreadful case in the next kingdom. A princess coma-d and cut off from life after one prick from a dusty needle. I wanted to take up gardening, but he showed me a newspaper article about roses that grew up to engulf a castle, and a rose bush that lured a father to betray his daughter to a beast. He showed me pages of poisonous plants, deadly nightshades and foxgloves and beans that twine themselves up into lands of giants... I took him into the kitchens and asked for cooking lessons and he looked in horror at the knives bristling from their block, and at the huge iron oven, and he spun some nonsense about a Gingerbread Man that came to life. I even asked for dancing lessons. Surely there could be no hidden dangers there – that’s what princesses do? And he held up his palms, don’t even go there... and regaled me with tales of disobedient dancing sisters and magic shoes that tango-d a girl to death. He sighs and looks at Malik, then lets his eyes fall, just for a moment, on my stomach. He’ll find no excuses there. Still flat and lifeless as a shield. ‘Malik?’ ‘I’m sure I could procure one, your highness.’ ‘Have you heard any cases of any, er, loom trouble?’ ‘Not that I know of, your highness.’ ‘Well then, my love, of course you can.’ He shines with pleasure and the affection in his eyes twists my heart and makes me long for the past. He leaves me when it is still dark, and I run up to the tower to watch them all ride out. I stay leaning on the balustrade until the stars dissolve into the dawn and the birds start to sing – music to take the breath from your lungs. Already I miss him a little. The sky turns to pewter. It was a morning like this that I first saw him, riding out of a dawn mist. I heard the hoof beats first, and the jingle of the bit, and the snorting of his horse as he pulled it up. It was the broadness of his shoulders that struck me first, and then the kindness of his smile. Malik brings me skeins of goat wool and a great clonking loom cut from green oak. Five men try to carry it up the staircase, up a bit, down a bit, to the left, to the right. They give up after an hour and throw a rope from the balcony and haul it up from the outside, their biceps ballooning and the ropes twisting and sighing against the wall. It takes me back to those early visits from the Prince; the weight of him on my dangling plait, my
eyes puddling with the pain, my head visored between my hands, elbows braced against the stone balustrade. He was much heavier than the witch, but it was worth it for that first heart-jolting glimpse of his tanned hands gripping the wall. Then the pressure would lessen on my head and he’d swing himself over, blocking out the sun, and I’d wait for the warmth and hardness of his body as he took me in his arms. I used to think I was lightheaded from his touch, but now I wonder. A woman comes with the loom. Twenty-four hours to teach me how to weave. Short and saggy, with arms and shoulders that look like she’s borrowed them from someone else. There’s something about her – her height and the line of her cheeks – that reminds me a little of my witch. Her fingers are quick and calloused, they twitch and fidget at her sides as she drops me a clumsy curtsy. I glimpse, for a wing-beat, the scorn in her face, and then it’s gone. I’m determined to earn her respect. I ask her to call me Rapunzel, and insist she eats and drinks with me. She makes the warp first, bending into the machine, her hands falling into a rhythm, smooth as a dance, over, under, across. When she’s done she takes it from its frame and lifts and chains and loops it onto the loom. Tight enough to keep it safe, but not too tight to break it. She points out the beater and harness and roller and raddles and spacers and sticks. She threads the heddles and sleys the reeds and ties knots and winds the bobbins. We haven’t even started weaving. She constantly checks tension. ‘Never too tight,’ she mutters, ‘it’ll twist and snap and fly off.’ When she says it’s ready to start I watch her carefully and listen to her advice, but while her fingers dance and fly and twist, mine are slow and clumsy. At lunch time she fists meat and bread into her open mouth and chews like a dog. She swipes her face onto her shoulders – right, then left – while her hands are busy tearing at the wheat cakes and drumsticks. My witch had hands like that, greedy and grasping and strong. She used to brush my hair and massage my head. It was my only human contact – her fingertips squeezing and pecking at my scalp and the steady sweep of the bristles through my hair. At dusk the loom-lady asks me if I’m tired. I shake my head and ring for Malik to bring more candles. The tips of my fingers are blistered and my neck and shoulders and back are burning. She doesn’t return my smile, but the scorn has gone. She leans over to adjust the tension in one of the threads and for one minuscule wing-beat I think she’s going to massage my shoulders. Witch would have done. I had to kill her to escape; everyone tells me I did the right thing. ‘What’s that?’ It’s the first time she’s spoken other than to deliver an instruction.
‘A mirror.’ ‘You don’t say.’ ‘It’s a magic mirror. For the Prince and me to see each other.’ Malik has positioned it on the mantlepiece, angled so the Prince can see the whole room. It doesn’t reach the balcony though. ‘How – sweet.’ We work through the night and at dawn she points to the paling sky and says she’s done her time. ‘Wait.’ I lead her out to the balcony and show her what’s in the chest in the corner under the corbel. ‘Can I use this?’ She lifts her shoulders and stares out at the bloody fingers of cloud creeping up behind the forest. ‘Unlikely.’ ‘But is it possible?’ ‘I’ve never used them. You can try. When you’re more experienced.’ ‘Rapunzel!’ We both start. ‘Rapunzel! Where are you? Who are you talking to? Rapunzel!’ The loom-lady cackles, wheezing and folding into herself like an emptied water skin. She shakes her head, sucks in air, and grabs my arm for balance. The dry whisper of her skin is the same as my witch’s. ‘Don’t keep him waiting, Princess.’ The Prince watches as I bid her goodbye. ‘Will you come again if I need you?’ She dips her chin. ‘Rapunzel darling. You look worn out. Let me see you. Come over here. Nearer.’ I pick up the mirror. ‘Where are you? At the port? Is that sea mist?’ ‘No my love, it’s sunny.’ I realise it’s just his breath fogging the glass. ‘You’re too close. I can hardly recognise you.’ ‘Undo your hair for me, Rapunzel.’ I take off the golden clip, tease out my plait and run my fingers through it. ‘Now kiss me.’ The cold glass flattens and squashes my lips. When I draw my face away the mirror is so steamed up I have lost him. ‘When are you coming home?’ ‘Might be a while. There’s a few boundary issues. Nothing to worry about, my love, just the usual rebels. Stay inside and you’ll be safe. Don’t worry, I’ll be watching you.’
At night I sleep with the mirror on my pillow. The Prince likes me naked, my hair spread like a cloak across my skin. In the day he watches me from the mantlepiece while I sit and weave. I practise with goat’s wool, then move on to the fluffsome slipperiness of llama. The Prince buys bales of it direct from the ships and sends it across to the castle. The cases smell of salt and foreign spices and have strange writing on the sides. Malik says they come from the Americas, where the rivers run with gold and the birds are all the colours of the rainbow and can talk. ‘I’d like to go there one day,’ I say. Malik laughs and tells me the courier brings news that war has been declared between us and the Red Queen’s kingdom. The Prince appears briefly in the mirror, says to stay in the tower where his men can guard me better. When the llama wool comes back from the spinners I struggle with it at first. It is softer, smoother, lighter. Trickier to use, but it will be perfect for what I want. A month goes by and I weave each day, sitting by the open door, so I can lift my eyes from the threads and look out at the tree-tops and the birds freckling the sky. The loom-lady comes three times to redo my warp. She watches me weaving. I have found my rhythm, the ball of my foot pushing the treadle, my hands sliding from side to side to throw and catch the shuttle, slow and steady. She says nothing. ‘Am I ready yet?’ I gesture to the balcony. I have asked her the same thing twice before and she has shaken her head. Now she lifts her shoulders, and I am off my stool and skipping to the balcony and opening the chest. I bend down and grab handfuls of the stuff. Feathers. Thousands of them, collected over months and months. She shows me how to twist them into the llama wool. When I try they slip out, and when I force them in, the quills prick my fingers and they drift and float away, up and out of the door and over the balcony to dance and quiver in the briny air. Loomlady barks a laugh and leaves me to it. It is finished the day the Prince is due home. I don’t know how to take it from the loom. It needs to be released slowly, carefully, so it doesn’t unravel and disintegrate. I send for the loom-lady. She comes nodding and wheezing, reminding me more and more of my old witch. She hemstitches the end with a bone needle, then twists and ties and unties and releases the ratchets and finally reaches into her pig-skin bag and takes out a huge pair of scissors. They trap the light and dazzle me for a moment, then the blades are scissoring the fabric and with one, two, three snips she cuts it free. I wrap it around me; light and soft as air. ‘It’s a surprise for the Prince.’ She scratches at the wart on her chin, ‘I bet.’
She helps me sew on woven straps. Close up, her hands looks as dry as the skin on the eagles’ feet. ‘Rapunzel! Rapunzel!’ His face looms at me through the mist of his breath. I drop the cloak to the floor and pick up the mirror. ‘I’ll be home tonight.’ His head cranes and his eyes search behind me. ‘Who’s that? Who’ve you got there?’ ‘Just the loom-lady.’ ‘Let me see her.’ She curtsies and leaves. ‘Rapunzel. Let down your hair!’ I do as he bids. ‘Leave it loose tonight. I’ll be back at midnight.’ I feed the birds at dusk. They wheel and swoop and call to me in the fading light. I stand on tip-toe, flap my arms, and the cloak shifts and sighs against the air. I’m drawn to the mirror. Beside it, on the mantlepiece, are the scissors. They crouch there, empty of light now, dark as crows’ wings. I lay the mirror on my pillow, take up the scissors, and with one fat snip slice off my plait. I fan it out, lay it like a curtain across the glass. It’s tricky climbing onto the balustrade. The Prince used to make it look easy. I try to imagine his face, but instead I see the witch, the shock and betrayal in her eyes as she died. I stand up, one leg, then the other, hold out my arms, let the cloak kiss the wind. I take a breath and let go.
Lé Jeungl’ye ès Meubl’yes geraint jennings translated from the jèrriais by the author
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Les tchaîthes à tchilieuvres pâssent par les us ès nièrs bouais tch’êcrèdent les êcales tch’en ont êgrînflié les trous; les sétheûthes ès sèrpents ont bârré lus maûfaits, ches machacres dé vièrs meubl’yes en iviéthe et v’lous. Les pids d’méta ès zèbres pilvâquent d’s os êvâtchis; eune plyie d’blianc parchémîn arrouôse les léopards allouongnis sus l’sofa fieillu en fraid acyi dé tchi les grîns en or clyînn’tent en êtchus et liards. Les longues tchaîses font des vars, entouortilyant les lions, enhèrmélant des dgaîngues d’êléphants-êcritouaithes; lus tithettes et lus trompes lus lèvent en rêvillon pouor l’or, l’acyi, les pieaux, lé parchémîn, l’iviéthe.
The Furniture Jungle
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
Snake chairs pass through the doorways of black trees which scrape off the scales that have grazed their trunks; the serpent locks have locked up their misdeeds, those slaughters of old ivory and velvet. The metal feet of zebras tramp soaked bones; a white parchment rain waters the leopards laid out on the sofa leafed in cold steel – gold talons winking half-crowns and farthings. The chaises longues veer, entwining the lions, entangling gangs of elephantine desks; their drawers and trunks raised in celebration of gold, steel, skins, parchment and ivory. 51
Limestoned paul weidknecht
hree days after her husband’s accident, Betty Tiddle sat in front of Dr. Flusslauf, the Director of Neurology, sensing a strangeness about him she couldn’t place. His title and gray-flecked Captain Ahab beard suggested he was the most experienced of the hospital’s physicians, yet a word came to mind she wasn’t sure fit a man of his position: quack. Still, the hospital staff had patched Leo’s bump and cleared him for release that afternoon, so she couldn’t complain too much. “We’ve run all the appropriate diagnostic tests—ct scan, mri, eeg—and are pleased,” Dr. Flusslauf began. “We found no bleeding on the brain. He was lucky with that fall. Physically, all seems well.” “But mentally—” Betty offered. Dr. Flusslauf frowned at the manila folder on his desk. “There are concerns regarding his memory.” “I know he’s a little confused,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s more than that. He is impaired. We believe he has developed a form of retrograde amnesia. He cannot recall his past.” “But Leo knows who I am,” Betty said. “We’ve been married thirty-eight years.” “He knows you and perhaps some other information that is sufficiently imprinted on his mind. However, the only memories he has retained with complete clarity are those associated with fly-fishing.” Betty stared at Dr. Flusslauf for a moment. “Excuse me?” “Fly-fishing,” repeated Dr. Flusslauf. “It’s quite fascinating, the selectiveness of the brain. He has total recollection of only those things related to fly-fishing: trips taken, rods purchased, flies tied, fish caught, and so on.” “Why on earth fly-fishing?” “We don’t know, but he was fly-fishing when he tripped and struck his head on a rock, correct?” Betty nodded. “For amnesia to manifest itself this way is rare, but not unprecedented. In 1928 while shoveling out stalls, sixteen-year-old Iowa farm boy Archibald Wiznats was kicked in the head by the family mule. The boy survived the blow, but it was soon discovered that he had lost all memories with the exception of anything relating to manure. This may have seemed like a tragedy at the time, but I might add, Wiznats went on to found one
of the largest fertilizer companies in the Midwest.” Quack, she thought. Yes, that was the right word. “But you’re wrong,” Betty insisted. “The other day Leonard mentioned scheduling a meeting with two men, a Mr. Hendrickson and a Mr. Cahill. They must have been former clients, people he knew before he retired.” Dr. Flusslauf shook his head solemnly. “I’m sorry. Most likely this was his personal slang for going fishing. Those are the names of two famous fly patterns.” Betty tried to refocus her thoughts. “Wait, he brought up this guy named Adams. Now I know for a fact he used to have a supervisor named Art Adams. He complained about him all the time.” “A cruel coincidence, I’m afraid,” Dr. Flusslauf said. “The Adams is a dry fly classic, and a pretty good blue-winged olive imitation in a pinch.” Betty glared at Flusslauf; his ready answers annoyed her. She figured there were a number of doctors out there who thought they knew everything, but at least they felt that way about medicine. “How do you know so much about fly-fishing?” she asked. “Isn’t your field of expertise the brain?” “I’ve been an avid fly-fisher for the past forty years. My name—Flusslauf—means ‘course of the river’ in German, so you could say I was born to it. I’ve been studying the machinations of the brain and the appetites of salmonids for many years, and have chosen to personally supervise Leonard’s recovery. Your husband is in good hands, Mrs. Tiddle.” As she drove home, Betty looked over at Leonard slumped in the passenger seat. The puffy gauze patch taped to his forehead made him appear innocent, like a boy who’d fallen and bumped his head while at play—which was pretty much what had happened. “We could go some place, get a late lunch if you feel up to it,” she said. “Actually, Bet, I think I just want to go home. I’m beat.” “Of course. Discharge day always feels a little fuzzy.” Leonard nodded, but didn’t continue the conversation. The first day in the hospital he’d told her about the fall, and recalling the details with a near reverence, his face glowed. She blamed it on the meds. To her, the whole story sounded fantastical, even nutty, but she hadn’t cared to dedicate any effort into unraveling it, at least not while he was hooked up to an IV. Leonard was in one piece, more or less, and that’s what mattered. She couldn’t help but feel mildly insulted. Could thirty-eight years of memories together just up and disappear? Didn’t love count for something? She’d heard of men experiencing ‘retiree’s remorse.’ Friends told her
about their own husbands, men who had yearned for that golden day, only to take part-time jobs or plunge into hobbies weeks later because they couldn’t stand the boredom that accompanied their new freedom. But fly-fishing was not new; Leonard had always done it. Nearly every vacation had a fly-fishing moment built into it. His four-piece travel rod—she learned long ago never to call it a pole—remained stowed in the trunk in case they passed a stream cold and clear enough to hold trout. At home, Betty would slip down to the basement and see him on his stool hunched over the tying vise, his lips parted in silent concentration, his glasses ovals of reflected light, like a scientist on the brink of discovery. But although Betty’s years of observing Leonard had left her with a base of knowledge more solid than even a panting first-year convert’s, she had no feelings for it one way or the other. The occupation was as numbing to her as perhaps wedding planning might be to a groom. Now she exited the highway and cruised the main street of their little town. Leonard groggily watched the facades of the local businesses pass. Betty glanced at him. Recognize something, she thought. Baker’s Hardware. First National. Remember something that has absolutely nothing to do with fly-fishing. “Ah, yes,” Leonard said. “Ah, yes?” Betty prompted. “There it is.” “What’s that?” “The theater. I remember that place,” he said. “We had lots of memories there, Leonard.” Betty smiled at her private recollections, made even more satisfying by Leo’s wonderful acknowledgment. “October of ’92,” he said. “It was a brisk day, the leaves had turned color, but hadn’t peaked. We sat in the very back of the theater like teenagers. The popcorn was much too buttery—we’d asked the attendant for extra butter and he’d overdone it. You wore a navy dress.” “How did you recall all of this?” “Easy. That’s when we saw ‘A River Runs Through It.’ Minutes later, she turned down their street and into the driveway, letting out a breath as she put the car into park. Stone silence charged the air around them, an awkwardness she had never before experienced with Leonard. After dinner that evening they sat in the living room, Leonard reading a collection of fly-fishing short stories, Betty browsing a flyer from the local supermarket. He seemed content with his book, a studious expression on his face page after page, interrupted by a smile here and there as
he crossed an amusing line. She, of course, was distracted. “Leo, could we talk a little?” Leonard pulled his glasses off and closed his book. “Why sure, honey.” “I know I asked before, but I wanted to get some more details, maybe understand this better.” “OK.” “I know about the man with the dog finding you near a big rock and calling 9-1-1. But I was wondering about just before that, while you were fishing. Were you feeling dizzy? Sick? I mean, you talk about the place like it’s magical and I don’t even know its name.” “Encanto Creek,” he said. “A beautiful little gem of a limestone creek. Go there in May and you’ll see a parade of hatches come off. Visit on a ninety-degree day in August and the water will still be fifty-five. Purely wild fish, all with amazing color. But, no, I wasn’t feeling dizzy or sick.” “What about this big rock?” “I was walking down a trail along the bank, looking for risers in a long flat pool, when I spotted this block of limestone back from the creek. It was roughly squarish, about four feet high and wide. I was drawn to it, almost pulled toward it. Like it had some kind of power, Bet.” “Oh, Leo. Please don’t tell me there was a sword sticking out of it.” “Do you want to hear the story or make fun of me?” “I’m sorry. Go on.” “So I get over there, lose my footing, and take a header right into it. I was lucky; I could’ve snapped my rod.” “Could’ve ended your life.” “I suppose,” he said quietly. Leonard leaned forward with a short grunt and placed the book on the coffee table, then folded his hands on his lap. Betty saw something in him, beyond the worried looks she had seen over the years, past the normal fretting over bills or work. He appeared sad. “Leo, are you depressed?” “I suppose.” Betty and Leonard sat in Dr. Flusslauf’s office, waiting for him, with Betty feeling a jitteriness she hadn’t experienced since her first meeting with Flusslauf three months earlier. Not many wives would have put up with what had taken place over the past quarter year, she thought. Only a truly devoted wife or a crazy one would have signed off on fishing as science, trout as medicine. But that is exactly what had happened, and each time—seven in total—Leo waved from the passenger seat as he and Flusslauf drove off to another stream,
she hoped Leo’s brain cells were somehow swelling with memories of their thirty-eight years together. “I have great news,” Dr. Flusslauf began, sweeping through the door. “After conducting some additional research—” “Research. You mean your fishing trips,” Betty said, not caring how it sounded to her husband or the good doctor. “Actually, the fishing trips fall under therapy; research is book time. Anyway, I have discovered there are cases of reversal involving this form of amnesia. Apparently, a great emotional trauma or excitement has been known to bring back complete memory to the patient.” “Trauma? Excitement?” Betty asked. “There is some component about a jarring event that can return the memory to full recollection. In your case, Leonard, it would almost certainly have to be fly-fishing related.” “Well, what would be an example of this?” Betty asked. “What’s a great trauma in fly-fishing?” “Let me think. All right. Perhaps enduring a twelve-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, later ending up along Diamond Creek on the South Island, watching ten-pound hook-jawed browns with spots the size of dimes cut through the weeds to chase your Woolly Bugger the entire afternoon, only to have them snub this offering and all subsequent fly changes, then ultimately flying the sixty-five hundred miles back to lax without bringing a single fish to hand. This might be one random example.” “I see,” Betty said, slowly. Leonard nodded. “Trauma.” Betty felt a headache coming on. “How about an excitement? Any examples of that?” “In fly-fishing, this could be anything,” Dr. Flusslauf said, chuckling. Betty stared past the doctor through the green-tinted windows behind him, lost for a moment. Five floors below, the parking lot baked and the cars shimmered in the August sun. She remembered Leo telling her that aside from February, August was the worst month to fish for trout on most rivers. One month was too cold, the other too hot. She also recalled him saying something about limestone creeks being cold year-round. “Dr. Flusslauf,” she said. “We appreciate all you have done. I believe you have my husband’s best interest at heart, and he obviously enjoyed the fishing trips you’ve taken, but I think we’ll be pursuing a new direction concerning his recovery.” “Oh,” Dr. Flusslauf said, stunned. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. May I ask who the physician is?”
“Her name is Dr. Bet.” Leonard snapped a look in her direction. “Is she local?” Dr. Flusslauf asked. “I don’t believe I know her.” “Her practice focuses on alternate therapies.” The way to Encanto was a lone country road with crumbling shoulders that passed red barns and grazing black and white Holsteins. Summer wind blew warmly through both windows and insects buzzed in the amber grass. Betty watched Leo as he drove and thought she saw a faint smile. Getting Leo back to Encanto had been easy; all she did was ask. She’d wanted to see the creek, and even the rock—from a distance. He hadn’t been there since the accident in May. A half-hour later, the asphalt gave way to gravel, and in minutes they eased into a dirt pullout beside the creek. After assembling the rod and seating the reel, he pored over his fly box. “What are you putting on?” Betty asked. “A Henry’s Fork Hopper. We’re downstream from those fields we passed. These trout see lots of grasshoppers.” They walked down the narrow path, tall grass brushing their thighs. The creek flowed over and around the rocks, then smoothed out in a pool, flashing like a silver plate under the afternoon sun. Betty had seen a lot of rivers over the years with Leo, but this one really did seem special. “There it is,” he said, pointing. A moment passed before she understood. Shaded by an old oak, the grayish-white limestone block stood fifty yards away. “Here,” he said, quickly handing her the rod. “Hold this a second? I’m going over.” Her panic was sudden; he was already ten yards from her before she found she could speak. “Leo!” “It’s ok,” he said. “I just want to check it out again.” “Absolutely not. Come back here.” “Everything’s fine, Bet.” “Leonard!” He kept walking. She held the rod above her head. “I’m going fishing.” He stopped and faced her. “What was that?” “I said I’m going fishing.” “You can’t fish. You’ll be breaking the law.” “You’re breaking my law,” she shouted. “Nonsense.”
“And I wouldn’t be breaking the law, either. I have a license. And a trout stamp.” “You do not.” “Yes, I do. I bought them yesterday.” Leonard started walking toward the limestone block again. She couldn’t stop him and she wouldn’t watch him bust his head all over again, so she unhooked the hopper and shakily stripped out the fluorescent green fly line. Leo was twenty yards from the block. She whipped the rod back and forth. The fly line didn’t move. She did it again. Nothing. The third time the line lifted behind her then flopped onto the water in a heap. Inch by inch it began to separate, the current spreading hopper from tippet, tippet from leader, and leader from fly line, until it all snaked downstream in a train. “I’m fishing,” she shouted over her shoulder. “See? I’m fly-fishing. I’m fishing with a fly.” The splash and tug were simultaneous. The line went tight, the rod bent, and the reel began to slowly unspool before her, as if wheeled by an invisible hand. “Leo, I have a fish!” When Betty looked back again, Leo was already moving toward her in an arthritic jog. The fish raced downstream, then upstream, then stopped. Leo now stood beside her, winded. “Let him run. I’ve only got 6X on there.” “What’s a 6X?” “Never mind. Just let him run. Oh, that’s a good fish, Bet.” The fish awoke, bolting the length of the pool toward the tailout. “Don’t let him go there,” Leo said. “Palm the reel underneath. Gently.” “What?” “Your palm. Place it underneath the reel and press.” She palmed it. When the fish stopped she could feel its strength ripple through the tension on the line. She buckled backward, squeezed the reel, and the pressure vanished. Leo gasped. “You did it too hard. Why didn’t you listen to me? I said gently.” “Don’t start, Leo. I’m new to this.” “Yeah, but I can’t believe you did that.” “We all mess up.” “That was about a 25-inch mess up.” “Was it as big as the time when we ran out of gas in the middle of the desert on that Grand Canyon trip back in ’97?” “I’m not sure,” he answered. “Are you talking about the same trip when
you hadn’t made hotel reservations and we ended up sleeping in the parking lot of the Tuba City Quality Inn?” Betty felt like crying. The afternoon had turned into a disaster. Her plan had failed. She hated fish. She hated Harry’s Fork Hoppers. She hated that 6X stuff. She hated Encanto Creek. She— She looked at Leo. “What did you just say?” she asked. “You heard me. It’s all true.” “No, the part about sleeping in that parking lot in Arizona.” “So?” “You never went fly-fishing on that trip, Leo. Remember? We never made it down to the Colorado River. You just remembered something totally unrelated to fly-fishing.” “You’re right.” Staring at each other, they didn’t speak, but simply smiled at first, then laughed. Leo had been right, she thought; the place was magical. “Flusslauf said either a trauma or an excitement,” Leo said. Betty grinned. “So, which was it?” “An excitement, for sure, Bet. Definitely, an excitement.” Leo reached out and pulled Betty toward him. They looked downstream. “Think we can still take another shot at him?” Betty asked. “Nah, it doesn’t work that way. Maybe some other day. He’ll need time to forget.”
Two Korean Poets ian haight
he two Korean poets who appear on the following pages— Nansŏrhŏn Hŏ and Yi Tal—wrote in classical Chinese, which for the periods in which they lived was the accepted language used to write literature. Tal and Nansŏrhŏn were both outsiders to the literary circles of Korea during the late 16th–early 17th centuries. They had some shared interests expressed through their writing—compassion for the plight of others being most obvious—and their styles were both derived from China’s T’ang Dynasty poets. Tal was Nansŏrhŏn’s tutor, so these similarities in style are not surprising, but their backgrounds were starkly different. Tal was the son of a concubine. Despite what was by all accounts a remarkable intelligence, Tal was denied opportunities to fully utilize his talents because of “lowly” bloodlines. Tal spent his days wandering the Korean peninsula, living in poverty. Nansŏrhŏn, a noblewoman, was sequestered from the world when she had an arranged marriage at the age of 12, as was customary. Her poetry is more tonally engaged than Tal’s; it is refined and understated, but with more at stake emotionally. Nansŏrhŏn is considered by many Korean scholars to be Korea’s greatest female poet.
Tal wrote poems mostly in ‘short form’—four line poems with five characters per line. His poems use direct, straightforward language in the T’ang style, as opposed to the style of Song, typified in Korea by obfuscated and abstract language. The Song style was the prevailing style utilized by most of the Korean nobles in Tal’s lifetime. Choosing to write in the T’ang style was as much a political act as an aesthetic choice for Tal. Rejected by the noble class because of bloodlines, it was easier for him to reject the literary conventions of the noble class. Tal’s poems draw attention to the daily lives and plights of common people, but with a flat objectivism that, when read cumulatively, creates a sense of reverence for the humans portrayed in plaintive circumstances. Tal lived through a tumultuous period in Korean history. Japan’s invasion of Korea in 1592 had a devastating impact on the country. Tal’s short, simple poems provide a glimpse of war’s impact on common people, as well as a point of view that values the place human beings have in the world. Noblewomen in the time of Nansŏrhŏn were generally not given a classical education on a
par with noblemen. It was socially unacceptable for noblewomen to paint, sing, learn music, or write poetry, because learning such arts would have equated the noblewoman with a courtesan. Courtesans learned to sing, paint, and write poetry so that they could entertain noblemen. A noblewoman who did write poetry had to do so privately and share her writing with only a select few. If a Korean noblewoman of this period wrote about progressive themes that challenged social norms, she had to express the ideas by using personas. Nansŏrhŏn wrote poetry in this manner using personas and troping, but ‘Regretting a Certain Emotion’ deals with these matters in a direct, personal voice. ‘Regretting a Certain Emotion’ introduces a many-nuanced poem with respect to themes found in Nansŏrhŏn: men who spend time with courtesans and abandon their wives; the isolation sequestered noblewomen were supposed
to endure without complaint; and a desire for freedom to enjoy life in ways that were not afforded noblewomen. ‘To a Childhood Girlfriend,’ written with the T’ang style’s emotiveness Nansŏrhŏn so highly valued, explores the resignation in ‘Regretting a Certain Emotion,’ but ends with a question Nansŏrhŏn would attempt to answer in other poems.
Five Poems yi tal translated from the classical ŏ chinese by ian haight and t ’ae-yong hoŏ 移 家 怨 A Wandering Family’s Bitterness 老翁負鼎林間去 老婦携兒不得隨 逢人却說移家苦 六載從軍父子離 An old man carries a kettle into woods— an elderly woman struggles to follow, grandchildren near at hand. She complains to strangers of her landless family’s pain— six years since father and son left for war.
拾 穗 謠 A Poem for Gathering Rice Grains 田間拾穗村童語 盡日東西不滿筐 今歲刈禾人亦巧 盡收遺穗上官倉 Gathering scant left-over grains from a field, poor children complain: “We’ve spent the day searching, but haven’t filled our baskets.” This year of taxes, skilled men reaped rice, kept all the grains.
江 陵 書 事 A Story of My Hometown 三月江陵花滿枝 折花還有去年悲 傷心莫問東流水 日夜悠悠無歇時 March in Gangneung: branches of blossoms— plucking flowers, I remember last year’s ache. My wounded heart does not ask the water how it can flow peacefully east into the ocean, ceaselessly without rest, through day and night.
刈 麥 謠 Cutting Barley 田家少婦無夜食 雨中刈麥草間歸 生薪帶濕烟不起 入門兒女啼牽衣 Deep in mountains, a young wife has no food— through rain, she cuts unripe barley, returns to her glen. She enters her gate. Boys and girls, crying, pull at her skirt— green wood will not stoke a fire’s flames.
次 僧 軸 韻 Inspired by a Monk’s Poem 童子持甁汲井華 石山泉味向人誇 須臾手撥爐中火 坐對香燈獨煮茶 A servant boy brings a bottle of morning well water— he boasts of its stone-mountain spring taste. In earnest, he stokes a stove’s fire, sits with a scented candle, and boils tea, alone.
恨 情一疊 ŏ ho ŏ translated from the classical ŏ nansorhon ŏ chinese by ian haight and t ’ae-yong hoŏ 春 節 處 懷 夜 聽 羅 玉 殘 錦 鳴 文 人 任
風 物 深 伊 耿 晨 帷 階 燈 衾 機 不 生 他
和 繁 閨 人 耿 鷄 兮 兮 翳 悄 兮 成 賦 歡
兮 兮 兮 兮 而 之 垂 生 而 而 織 兮 命 娛
百花 萬感 思欲 心腸 不寐 喈喈 堂 苔 背壁 寒浸 回文 亂愁 兮有 兮身
開 來 絶 裂 兮
兮 下 心 厚薄 寂寞
Regretting a Certain Emotion A budding breeze in the lush sun unfolds a hundred hues of petals. It is a season of prosperity—countless passions rise. Deep in the women’s quarters, I want my thoughts to stop. Longing for a lover, my heart torn— night advances, but still I do not sleep; I hear the cock’s tireless crowing at dawn. Silk curtains, unstirred at my room’s floor— moss grows on my windswept steps. A candle’s remaining light expires. I lean on a wall— my silk blanket, loose, allows the bitter air. I weave a poetic pattern on my sliding loom— the incompleteness confounds my weary mind. Life is governed by fate, and fate is both generous and greedy— others enjoy life’s pleasures, but I choose to live alone.
寄女伴 ŏ translated from the classical ŏ ŏ ho nansorhon ŏ ŏ chinese by ian haight and t ’ae-yong ho 結 日 鏡 花 寒 暮 一 那
廬 見 匣 園 沙 雨 夕 堪
臨 大 鸞 蝶 初 獨 紗 憶
古 江 將 己 下 歸 窓 舊
道 流 老 秋 鴈 舟 閉 遊
To a Childhood Girlfriend We built a thatched house near an old road, we watched the wide river rush everyday. Now, my carved mirror has lost its luster— in the flower garden, it is autumn for the butterflies. On frosty sand, wild geese alight together— in evening rain, a lone boat returns. At night, I close a silk window— how can we endure old memories of pleasure?
The Taste of Regular toni halleen
he sun is hot, and the sand burns our feet. I say “our” feet, meaning all the people on the beach. I am alone, but I always bring an extra beach towel with me and lay it out next to me, so people will think I’m here with a friend. My boyfriend, they might think. Maybe he went up to the concession stand to get us a couple of Cokes. I hope he gets me a diet, because I don’t like the taste of regular. I smooth our towels out. Mine is red and pink striped; his is purple and blue squares. They look good together. I don’t let any sand get on them. I have a tote bag with some lotion and goodies. Licorice is good for a day at the beach because it doesn’t melt. I have a gossip magazine to read for my guilty pleasure. I put on my wide straw hat and my sunglasses and adjust all the corners of our towels, ready for relaxation. I really look the part. It’s crowded, but that’s okay with me. I like to watch people. I imagine I know them. I give them names and backstories. I can usually figure out whether they are tourists or retired, married or unfaithful, happy or unhappy. Sometimes I imagine they look at me and my extra towel, and they wonder what my boyfriend looks like. Is he handsome and strong? Is he tanned? How did he get such a glamorous gal like me? Sometimes they catch me watching them, and they might smile or say hello. Usually they just look away and keep walking down the shoreline. I wave at some of them. People are walking around everywhere. Most of them walk back and forth on the cool, wet sand of the shoreline. Some walk on the dry sand, but it looks like it’s hot, and it hurts. They probably get used to it. I see a group of fun-loving frisbee players who seem determined to stay in the hot sand. Some kids are digging deep holes in the sand to bury their friends. When the hole gets deep enough, the sand cools, and that must be a relief for them. Some people leave their towels and walk across the hot part, through the wet sand and right into the ocean. I try to watch every single person who goes in the water. Most of them stop before they get knee deep. They linger there. I imagine they are feeling the waves encircling their ankles and the sand swallowing their feet. They step up out of the sunken sand and back into it; they walk around in the shallow water and talk to each other. They smile. It must feel good. If they see me, they probably wonder why my boyfriend is not back yet.
They might worry about him. Is he okay? What’s taking him so long? I smile to reassure them. I take off my cover-up and gauzy linen shorts and put them in my tote bag, which I then place at the head of my towel as a pillow. I lean back on the pillow and recline with my shades on and pick up my magazine to read. I position my head so I can still peer over my magazine and past my knees to look out into the ocean. From my towel, I can still see the people in the water. I like to keep an eye on them. I know there’s no lifeguard on duty. Some of them go out deeper, and I can see one head and torso bobbing around in the deep part. I wonder if he can swim. The waves are tall, and they block my view of him each time they roll by. He is still there in between rolls of water, bobbing. Sometimes he goes under, and I watch for him to come back up. I think he is doing that on purpose. He must get a kick out of it, but I worry. I’m reading an article about Jennifer Aniston’s love life. Did you know she is a heavy smoker? It’s hard for me to feel sorry for her—not finding love, being dumped, putting her career above having kids and all—since she is such a heavy smoker. I think she must only smoke in private. I bet she tries to avoid having the photographers catch her smoking. The guy is still out there, and there are a few more brave souls venturing deeper in the water. There’s a point in the breaking waves where you have to push hard to get through to the deep rolling part. The water takes its toll on you from both the top and the bottom. On the top, the waves are strong and push you away, thrusting you back to shore. At the same time, underneath there is a heavy undertow. The undertow is probably the strongest right at that same point as the breaking waves, based on what I remember from my visit to Pompano Beach as a girl. So I know what those people are going through as they push through to the deep. There are still plenty of people walking up and down the wet, sandy shoreline, holding hands or stopping to pick up shells. They seem so happy and carefree. This is probably the best day of their week. They are probably thinking they should come here more often because it is so refreshing and beautiful. I imagine they wonder why they don’t. The breeze flips the page on my magazine. I decide to put Jennifer Aniston aside for a moment and think about what I will do next. I place the magazine on my extra towel. If my boyfriend sees it there, he won’t mind. He won’t have a tantrum and say, “Get that gossip rag off of my towel.” Everyone can see that he is a modern man who is secure with himself. They see that magazine sitting there, and they know that. I wonder if I should I keep watching, or perhaps I will take a turn in the water. I could just walk to the cool, damp sand and touch my toes to the foamy edge. Yes,
I’d like to feel the swirl of the tide on my calves, the pulling away of wet sand under my feet. I decide it’s my turn. I will go down to the sea. My boyfriend is still away, but I get up and leave our towels and things where they are. I go to the water. On the way, I feel the hot, dry sand burning under my feet and I think, Yes, I was right. Then I reach the cool sand and it is like mud. My feet touch the edge of the bubbling tidewaters rolling over the muddy sand. I do like other people do: I run away from it and laugh. Then I walk back for more. Next time, I run away and let out a little squeal like, Oh, no, I’m getting wet! It’s okay. I’m just being playful. I look around at the other people on the beach. They can see me having such a good time. I am running around with the waves, and everyone can see that I am getting wetter and wetter, and it’s only a matter of time. So I step into the ocean, and I go just past my ankles. The sand is already swirling away, out from underneath me, but I can still stay upright. It feels cool and smooth, and I love it. I imagine that if I keep going, it will feel perfect. I walk out to my knees, and the waves are breaking just a bit farther from where I stand. The sand is hard, and I have a good grip on the sea floor. I wait and watch a few more breaks until I decide I want to go out through the next part. I check the shore to make sure everyone can see how happy I am. And how brave. They do. As I launch out to the breaking waves, I expect there to be sand under my feet. But it is not sand. There are rocks under the water. The water is suddenly deeper, deep enough to hide large slippery boulders and round rocks. They are not easy to stand on or step over. And the water is much colder. I slip on a rock and I’m wet up to my neck. It’s a shock to my system, and I hope no one saw. I wonder how all those other people did it when they pushed through to the deeper part. I guess they just kept walking, swimming, kept moving to the deep. I realize I may have looked frightened at that part, so I gain composure and keep smiling. I squint back to the shore to see my towels; they are still there. They are farther down the beach than I thought they were, but I must have drifted with the waves. That’s okay. I’m still close enough. I can’t feel the bottom, and I look down. I can’t see it. There’s nothing beneath me, and I lose my balance. I decide it’s not good for me to look down. So I look up, straight ahead and out to the horizon. It’s cold. Keep going. To the deep part, where the people bob between swells. Probably someone else is reading their magazine and keeping an eye on me. I can’t be the only one, I think. But I start to wonder. Maybe there isn’t anyone like me up there. May-
be we are all swimming at this same moment. My legs are treading water beneath me, and my arms are pulling the cold toward my chest and pushing it away again. I believe that if I keep going, I will hit the hard sand again. I can decide what to do once I get there. It’s better to keep going. Someone from the shallow calls to me, “Hey, are you all right?” “Yeah, I’m fine,” I say, waving. There’s a couple standing knee deep, watching me. They must have been the ones who yelled. That was nice of them. I’m treading water. I hope they don’t worry about me too much. I hope they know I’m fine. I can handle myself out here. It’s kind of embarrassing to be noticed like that. I wish they hadn’t said anything. I’m treading in circles, and it’s very cold. I look back to the beach to see my towels, and they are much smaller and farther down the beach. How does that happen so quickly? I think. My thoughts are starting to frighten me. I am usually so confident. I can feel my heart beating faster, and I try to take a deep breath. I’m not sure those are my towels. Maybe someone else has the same color combination, I think, and I remember the time I saw another woman with my towel once at the gym. My treading water now has me dog paddling, but I’m moving up and down instead of forward. I wonder how I look. I hope I don’t look desperate or weak. I hope no one sees me now. It would be very bad. I swallowed some water on my last bob under, and it makes me cough and gag. I’m coughing and treading and I can’t get the water out. I start to feel a panic. What if I get tired and can’t make it to the hard sand? Should I head in? Which way is in? I start to feel dizzy. It’s darker now; is it dusk? I’m flapping at the water, and I think, What if I can’t swim? Or I can’t breathe? I open my mouth to get a breath, but water comes in and I choke. I’m so cold. I’m treading and I can feel that I’m under the water. And I struggle to get up to the surface, and I do, but I can’t seem to stay. There’s water in my eyes and my nose. I’m flailing, and my heart is pounding. I’m panicking, I’m panicking, I’m panicking. It’s all I can think. And for a flash I realize I may die, but then it hits me: my boyfriend. My boyfriend! I am immediately calm, and I let go because I know my boyfriend will save me. When he gets back from the concession stand, he will save me.
Comfort Food susmita bhattacharya
i Xian cracked an egg and dropped it into the boiling soup. She stirred and it spread like a cobweb, clinging to the sides of the stew pot. The chicken was getting tender, and the Pandan leaves left a sweet fragrance in the air. Li checked the rice on the other hob. Almost done. She smiled and looked at the time. Seven o’clock. The food would be ready in fifteen minutes. On Friday nights, her husband usually entertained business associates. It was the night she liked to spend by herself, reading, or just sitting by the window and watching the traffic and the city lights. She ate by herself, and always made her favourite dish, chicken rice. The telephone rang in the living room and she clucked her tongue with irritation. Li did not want interference of any kind. The answering machine came on: it was her husband urging her to pick up the phone. He wanted her to meet him for dinner at the Crystal Jade. He had a crucial business dinner meeting with Mr Boon, the ship-owner. If he could convince the man to buy his company’s ship, a promotion would surely be on the way. Mr Boon’s wife would be there as well; Li was to give her company. And, if she wore that black chiffon dress, it would look very elegant. Li took a deep breath and then exhaled. She couldn’t say no to him. He had worked hard for this promotion, and it was close at hand. Her chicken rice would have to wait. She dressed with care. Her alabaster skin complemented the black chiffon perfectly. The jade bracelet added colour to her tone. She brushed her thick, black hair and added a hint of gloss to her lips. Simple yet stylish. She wondered what the ship-owner’s wife would be like. The Crystal Jade had pearly, ethereal lighting. Water reflections from the fish tanks rippled on the ceiling and walls. Paper lanterns and bamboo screens divided the restaurant into distinctive seating arrangements. The ashtrays on the tables were made of crystal; the napkin rings of bamboo and mother-of-pearl. A Feng-shui fountain bubbled in the centre of the room. Teo Xian escorted his wife into the restaurant. His smile showed he approved of her dress and bearing. Mr Boon’s wife had a gold tooth. They were seated in a secluded area, beside the bay windows, and Li could see Singapore laid out in front of her. Beneath her feet, Orchard Road throbbed with Friday night intensity. She touched the cold windowpane, and she felt the vibration. The gold tooth glimmered as Mrs Boon
made polite conversation. Li sipped her oolong tea and skimmed through the menu card. Her eyes looked over the page and at her husband. She saw perspiration gleam above his collar. He was talking a great deal more than normal. Mr Boon rubbed his hands together and looked at her with oily eyes. “Shall we order?” he boomed, and his wife’s gold tooth flashed at him. A waiter stood poised with his handheld electronic pad. “Shall we start with dim sum?” Plates of colourful starters lightened up the mood. Li smiled as she nibbled on her scallop dumplings. Teo helped Mrs Boon choose a dim sum to her liking. Fried Taro cake. Mr Boon stuffed bits of steamed spare ribs into his mouth between jokes and loud guffaws. Li asked Mrs Boon if she enjoyed cooking. Barbecued pork pies. Steamed chicken buns. Steamed octopus balls. They sampled and nibbled and washed it down with rice wine. The second course was seafood tempura. Shrimp, calamari and octopus fritters fried in golden egg yolk. They dipped the fritters in tentsuyu sauce and remarked how delicious they were. How the delicateness of the seafood burst into exuberant flavour when dipped in the sharp sauce. Mrs Boon declared she made a better sauce because she knew exactly how much dashi to put into it. Li smiled politely. As if Li did not know how much dashi went into that. It was soup stock, after all. Whatever Mrs Boon claimed, she would never come close to cooking chicken rice like her. The waiter hovered around, pan flute strains wafting above his head. The aquarium ripples reflected off his gelled hair. He cleared the table, and the hostess in a tight Chinese dress recommended they try the doubleboiled shark’s fin. Mr Boon’s eyes bumped over her contours and said he’d eat whatever she offered. Teo settled for a crispy roast chicken and pickled turnips. Mrs Boon chose a lobster from the aquarium and wanted it steamed and accompanied with a black bean sauce. Mr Boon chose for Li. Sautéed Prawns with Eight Treasures in a Golden Nest. He said it was made to be eaten by a beautiful woman. Each vegetable represented a precious gem, like ruby, emerald … Mrs Boon changed her mind and ordered one for herself as well. The conversation got round to business over dessert. Sampling the steamed lotus dumplings and durian ice-cream, they discussed if the ship was worth the 6.5 million dollars asking price. Mrs Boon declared her icecream was delicious. Li smiled and ate her dumpling. The crowd on Orchard Road had lessened and the moon came up from behind the Mandarin Plaza. Li looked at her watch. It was close to midnight. Time to go home.
Mr Boon winked and said he’d be seeing them more often. Teo took it as a good sign. They opened their fortune cookies but didn’t bother to read them. The two men stood up and shook hands. Mrs Boon’s dress caught on the rosewood chair and snagged. Li turned on the kitchen light and looked into the stew pot. The soup had congealed, and the chicken looked pallid under the fluorescent light. She told Teo not to wait up for her. She waited till he finished his nightly ablutions and retired to bed. She went to the bathroom and locked herself inside. She slipped out of her black chiffon and into her housecoat. There was a dried egg stain on it. She put her jade bracelet by the sink and washed her face. Then she stuck her finger into her throat. She retched into the toilet. Her face contorted with pain and rage, the sound of Mr Boon’s voice ringing in her ears. His leering eyes stripping down to her soul. The dim sum and the tempura mixed with the eight treasures and lotus dumplings – all an incongruous gruel – spurted out of her throat and sprayed the toilet bowl. As soon as she was cleansed of the night’s intrusions, she rinsed her mouth and walked out of the bathroom. Back in the kitchen, she put the gas on simmer and stirred the stew pot. She brought out her bowl and chopsticks and laid them on the table. The soup bubbled and the chicken took on a glazed look. She ladled the rice into her bowl and poured the steaming soup over it. A dash of soy sauce. She sat on the window sill with her legs up, the city sleeping beneath her feet. She sighed as she tucked into her meal.
A Boy, a Horse, a Writer erin gilbert
Leonora Carrington is recognized as an important Surrealist painter of the 20th century, a rare woman among the Surrealist ranks who refused to play muse or passive femme enfant. Her influential work as a writer, when acknowledged, is often mentioned only in passing, as a curiosity and nothing more. This essay, from the writer and teacher Erin Gilbert, is an attempt to remedy this oversight and point out Carrington’s place in literary history.
photograph of Leonora Carrington taken sometime around 1920, when she was about three years old, shows her wearing a white lace dress and standing near a table that holds a tea set and a doll. Her unruly hair stands up from her head in dark tufts, but her posture, even as a toddler, betrays a confidence and poise that renders the childishness of her dress ridiculous. Carrington’s demeanor suggests that whoever dressed her for the photo understood childhood only superficially. She doesn’t look adorable; she looks serious as she fits the rim of a teacup to the indentation between the doll’s porcelain lips. Her chubby hand grips the doll’s shoulder with the
authority of a doctor supporting the shoulder of an invalid. Not only does her imagined world envelop her, it seeps beyond the borders of the photograph—looking at the photo, one searches for traces of steam rising from the empty cup in her hand. Eventually, the force of Carrington’s imagination would free her from the customs and costumes of 20th century Europe represented in the photo. In Mexico she would become famous for Surrealist paintings crawling with creatures and symbols, but her writing is an equally effective— albeit often overlooked—invitation to readers to see what she sees. And what she sees, what she always saw, was transformation.
When she was a girl growing up in England, her mother read her Irish folktales and her nanny told her ghost stories. She grew up surrounded by creatures from these tales: ghosts, fairies, and humans who could turn into deer, dogs, stags, hawks, salmon, and wild boars. Later, these creatures would creep into her paintings, her writing, and even her dreams.
She was a reluctant debutante, who went to court carrying Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza. Of course, Carrington’s parents had a different transformation in mind. After amassing a fortune in the textile industry, her father, a factory worker’s son, sought acceptance in the upper echelons of British society. He invested in Imperial Chemical Industries, rented Crookhey Hall, an impressive sandstone mansion in Lancashire, and sent Carrington and her brothers away to elite schools, where they were educated with other wealthy children. At school Carrington was an outcast who practiced writing backwards and tried to learn to levitate. She was expelled from a series of
boarding schools until, in her teens, her parents agreed to let her study art in Italy. In the early 1930s she made her debut at court in a formal gown and heavy tiara. Her presentation to King George V was a crowning achievement for her parents, but she was a reluctant debutante, who went to court carrying Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, a critique of high society in novel form. In it, she would have read, “Hell is the incapacity to be other than the creature one finds oneself ordinarily behaving as.” This, then, is how she escaped hell: by being other than the creature she found herself ordinarily behaving as. She behaved like an artist, and wrote a story that replaced the reluctant debutante with a hyena. ‘The Debutante,’ one of Carrington’s earliest and most successful stories, begins: When I was a debutante, I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than girls of my own age. Indeed it was in order to get away from people that I found myself at the zoo every day. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was very intelligent. I taught her French, and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours. The narrator complains about the ball her mother is planning in her honor, and her sophisticated hyena friend, envious of the prospect of small talk and delicacies, offers to
go in her place. They take a taxi home, where the hyena dons a ball gown and practices walking upright in high heels all night long. Gloves disguise her hairy paws, but “the greatest difficulty was to find a way to hide the hyena’s face.” Finally, the hyena suggests murdering the maid, and devouring every part of her except for her face, which can then be worn to the ball. The reluctant debutante argues that such a plan isn’t practical, but the hyena prevails. At the ball, in spite of the gown, high heels, gloves, and maid’s face, the hyena’s strong smell gives her away when everyone sits down to eat. The hyena leaps up, shouting, “So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes!” then tears off the maid’s face, eats it, leaps out the window, and vanishes. In the end, the hyena realizes that life as a debutante is similar to, and not much better than, life as a caged beast in the zoo. Like Carrington, the hyena craves freedom. Carrington’s subsequent departure for Paris with the married and much older Surrealist Max Ernst, was probably only slightly less horrifying for her parents than for the mother in her story who watches the hyena bound out the window, “pale with rage.” A common transformation narrative in Western literature could be classified as revelatory, in that a person or thing reverts to or reveals its true nature—its essence—by changing. After Odysseus’s crew gulps down Circe’s feast, she turns them
into swine; in the Christian resurrection narrative, a mortal man is restored to his true divine nature; and most of the gold that fairies give humans in fairytales is revealed to be worthless moss and mud by dawn. This kind of change satisfies the desire for truth and justice. As a young woman, Carrington was concerned with shedding her ordinary behavior to reveal her true nature; in so doing she charmed Ernst’s Surrealist friends. Their nonconformity and love of freedom, however, had failed to inoculate them against conventional views of women as impulsive and irrational creatures. The author of the Surrealist Manifesto and the novel Nadja, André Breton, admired Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, noting that “the mind, placed before any kind of difficulty, can find an ideal outlet in the absurd. Accommodation to the absurd readmits adults to the mysterious realm inhabited by children.” The ideal woman, for the Surrealists, was a femme enfant, a half-mad child-woman like the eponymous character in Nadja who can comfortably accommodate the absurd. Carrington may have meant to shed her ordinary behavior when she arrived naked at a Surrealist party, but as the author and critic Angela Carter, who would include ‘The Debutante’ in the anthology Wayward Girls and Wicked Women noted, “The female nude’s nakedness is in itself a form of dress, since the lengthy tradition of European art
Carrington’s first novella, Little Francis, deftly blends Surreal scenes with a semiautobiographical account of her and Ernst’s journey south from Paris to St. Martin d’Ardèche. In 1930, before he met Carrington, Ernst had composed a collage novel, Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel, loosely inspired by the themes in Alice in Wonderland and the increasingly devout Catholicism of his then wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche. In Little Francis, Carrington held the pen, casting Ernst as pensive Uncle Ubriaco, and herself as Francis, “a poor little boy all alone in the big big world,” while Aurenche, whose emotional outbursts drove the pair from Paris, becomes the tantrum-prone Amelia, Ubriaco’s daughter. In the two-dimensional Amelia, Carrington’s characterization of Aurenche (rumored to have been Breton’s model for Nadja as well) can be read as a sly critique of the femme enfant mystique. Such satire reveals Carrington’s keen eye and wry humor, as when Ubriaco’s friend says of Amelia, “The first time I saw her she was a delightful, gay little girl. Then later, after she’d been to that convent, she seemed to degenerate into a hysterical old woman. She must be about fourteen now?” On the other hand, by assigning herself the role of Ubriaco’s nephew, she is able to convey Ernst’s role as her mentor and their camaraderie as fellow artists with more heartfelt sweetness and greater nuance than if the story
Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington and Paul Éluard in 1937
clothes even the vulgarest pin-up with a heavy invisible cloak of associations. She knows how to wear nothing; further, she is perfectly secure in that, so garbed, she can always expect approval.” If the Surrealists were inclined to mistake her for a muse, Carrington was quick to correct them. Looking back on that time several decades later she said, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” Carrington persisted in shedding the cumbersome cloak of associations that her parents and then the Surrealists draped her in, and she used her fiction to do so. Encouraged by Breton, Ernst, and the poet Paul Éluard, Carrington wrote stories in English and French, and became one of the few women writers whose work was published alongside that of men in the Surrealist movement. Perhaps for this reason, Carrington told Heidi Sopinka, in a 2009 interview for The Believer, that after a lonely childhood and her alienation from peers at school, she felt that she belonged among the Surrealists. Nonetheless, in another interview with Ruth Maclean around the same time, she said, “I didn’t think of myself as a Surrealist. I try not to think of myself as anything. We all have these egos, you know.” She found a sympathetic community among the Surrealists, but she refused to let her associations define her.
were a straightforward love story. Little Francis also marks Carrington’s maturation as a writer. She begins to experiment with transformations that are more arbitrary. These changes are less satisfying than the revelatory kind, because the true nature of the changed person or thing remains ambiguous. Arbitrary changes lack the coherence of symbolism and orderly adherence to truth. Transformations that result from obscure causes, or without any cause at all, challenge the reader’s faith in truth and justice. After Amelia fetches Ubriaco back to Paris, little Francis wanders about alone and dejected until his head turns into that of a horse. While Francis’s new role as the town freak certainly attests to Carrington’s experience when Ernst left her briefly to visit Aurenche in Paris, Francis’s transformation balances symbolism with absurdity. Like Carrington, Francis becomes other than the creature he ordinarily was, but the change doesn’t herald his salvation—instead he witnesses the ritualized beheading of his double, and then Amelia murders him with a hammer. Like a child, Carrington could accommodate the absurd, but she retained the adult author’s rational power. Such equilibrium was rare among Surrealist writers, many of whose novels favor innovation over narrative. Carrington was able to create a hybrid creature: the nephew with the horse’s head, the innovative narrative.
Unsettling and arbitrary changes in form were no longer safely consigned to the realm of fiction Her literary experiments with arbitrary transformation coincided with France’s occupation by Nazi forces, when many people’s faith in truth and justice was shaken. Ernst, who had already been interned as an “undesirable foreigner” and then released, was again arrested. Carrington, unable to free Ernst, felt her rational power as an adult author fail her and she began to lose her equilibrium—the thread of her own narrative was broken. She would pick up that thread by writing Down Below a few years later, a work of unflinching autobiography and remarkable for its objective treatment of her breakdown after Ernst’s arrest. Friends fleeing Paris begged her to come with them to Spain, and she said, “I accepted because I expected to get a visa put in Max’s passport in Madrid. I still felt bound to Max. This document, which bore his image, became an entity, as if I was taking Max with me.” When her friends’ Fiat stalled, she imagined the cause was her emotional state, which she described as
“jammed” by her immense anguish. Much like the patient diagnosed with “referential mania” in Vladimir Nabokov’s short story, ‘Signs and Symbols’, who “imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence,” Leonora Carrington began to regard government officials and physicians as sinister variations of her father and brothers. Unsettling and arbitrary changes in form were no longer safely consigned to the realm of fiction. “In the political confusion and torrid heat,” she writes in Down Below, “I convinced myself that Madrid was the world’s stomach and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health. I believed that all anguish had accumulated in me and would dissolve in the end, and this explained to me the force of my emotions. I believed that I was capable of bearing this weight and of drawing from it a solution for the world.” Like the boy in Nabokov’s story, Carrington was committed, but her psychiatric care took place under the brutal conditions of Fascist Spain. In her foreword to a collection of Carrington’s writings that includes Little Francis and Down Below, the novelist Marina Warner writes that “as a testament to the horrors of psychosis, as evidence of medical treatment and convulsive drug therapy, Down Below ranks beside autobiographical fiction like Antonia White’s The Sugar House, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar,
and Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water.” She laments that it contains “only moments of distinctive Carrington drollness,” but drollness would have been out of place, and what readers get instead is Carrington’s gimleteyed recollection of her struggle to regain sanity and secure her freedom—to become anything other than a madwoman, to be anywhere other than Europe. Down Below is much more than a testament to horrors, and not only does it rank alongside The Sugar House, The Bell Jar, and Faces in the Water: it precedes them. Finally, when arrangements were made to have her transferred to a sanatorium in South Africa, Carrington made a daring escape. In Lisbon she feigned sickness, ran inside a café to use the bathroom, hurried out the back door, and hopped into a taxi that carried her to the Mexican embassy. There she found her old acquaintance, the poet Renato Leduc. He offered her a hasty marriage and a visa to New York. The marriage didn’t last, although Carrington regained her artistic identity in New York, where she wrote stories again, this time set in bleak urban landscapes. She would be in Mexico before she completed Down Below. Two more novels followed, The Stone Door and The Hearing Trumpet. Both are labyrinths of arcane symbolism: the former full of references to the Kabbalah and the latter to Arthurian legend. Far from her
family’s influence, and the trauma she had experienced in Europe, Carrington herself was changed; she had married the Hungarian photographer Csizi Weisz, became a mother, renewed her relationship with her own mother, and forged a lifelong friendship with the fellow painter Remedios Varo. The Stone Door is her densest novel. Its nonlinear structure, crammed with symbolism that spans millennia, can make for a difficult read, but it also marks her turn away from her own intense inner scrutiny toward a contemplation of the inner lives of others. The narrator may be some version of Carrington, perhaps when she was living in Mexico City and still married to Leduc, but the hero of the story bears at least a superficial resemblance to a child version of her second husband, Weisz. The Stone Door begins as the diary of an unhappy wife in Mexico City, haunted by the smell of cinnamon and dust, who begins having strange dreams about a desert journey across Mesopotamia to Hungary, countries that in her dreams share a border. Soon her only pleasure lies in dreaming, where she begins telling stories in a series of nesting narratives. In one dream, a boy in the desert declares that “all stories are true.” Soon she meets the stunningly handsome King of All Jews, Solomon, who is also referred to as the Monarch of All Ravens. Then the story shifts to a lonely boy in Hungary, who dreams of a
rebellious little girl who claims to be dreaming as well, in England. They recognize each other without knowing why—and suddenly the narrative achieves clarity again, and a love story emerges, albeit one that does not obey the rules of time. The pair alternate between speaking like children, and speaking in code-like spells, running down to “Big Pond” together, because, as the little girl says, “They don’t allow us to go when we’re awake, but in dreams you do what you want unless they’re nightmares.” There a black ram rises from the water, and they kill it with a sharp stone. They each then take a strand of wool from the ram and the girl says, “black wool rope into the center of Earth, where our roots were entwined at the beginning of life.” When he wakes up, the boy is back in an orphanage or boarding school in Hungary, where he faces the daily humiliations of institutional life while snow falls outside. Just as The Stone Door seems to celebrate her marriage to Weisz, so The Hearing Trumpet celebrates her friendship with Remedios Varo. Where The Stone Door is solemn, The Hearing Trumpet is feisty and overflowing with humor, making it Carrington’s best known, and most well-regarded novel. The ninety-two-year-old narrator, Marian Leatherby, describes herself as having “a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive. Personally I find it rather gallant.” At the beginning of the novel Marian lives with her son’s
family but she is soon shipped off, equipped with a hearing trumpet, to an institution for old people. The trumpet, which sets the tale in motion, is a gift from her dear friend Carmella who is bald, smokes cigars, “reads books through a lorgnette, and hardly ever mumbles to herself as I do,” Marian confides. The plot concerns Carmella’s attempts to rescue Marian, the hijinks of the other old ladies who live in birthday cake- and igloo-shaped houses at the institution, and Marian’s investigation of the sinister winking nun. But the novel’s real joy comes from Marian and Carmella’s banter, and from Carrington’s cheerful frenzy of destruction as the gates of hell open and the world freezes over. Some readers find Carrington’s esoteric system of symbolism overpowering, yet the author Helen Byatt observes that “moments of alchemical revelation are also vaguely absurd and smack of the improbabilities of fairy tale, rather than the earnestness of alternative religion.” Carrington’s writing had always included a cast of wild animals and soon Mexican animals and characters grew into her fiction comfortably, and flourished there, alongside their European counterparts. In one story a goddess named Sin meets one of the sailors from the Odyssey, now an accountant who “remembered how my aunt had turned him into a pig for a joke.” In another, two children go underground and discover a continuously transforming Great
Bird. “Bird, Snake, Goddess, there She sat, all the colours of the rainbow and full of little windows with faces looking out singing the sounds of every thing alive and dead, all this like a swarming of bees, a million movements in one still body.” Such stories garnered the praise of Octavio Paz, who noted her revitalization of “romantic heroines, beautiful and terrible.” Indeed, the tension between two opposing ideas often fuels Carrington’s fiction, producing unexpected results. ‘The Invention of Mole, a Play’ lists a cast of characters that includes Montezuma, A Friend, The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Great Witch Tlaxcluhuichiloquitle, The Imperial Cook, Ocelots, quetzals, and servants. The very short play opens with a dignified Montezuma— the last of great Aztec emperors—addressing the Archbishop of Canterbury “naturally in Nahuatl”, the language of the Aztecs, as she dryly notes: And so my esteemed sir, you were telling us that in the course of your rites the people play a relatively passive role. The role, let us say, of mere observers watching the general activities of the Priest with his artefacts. We would like to hazard a guess without wishing to be critical, that the faithful must get mortally bored. Here is Montezuma stripped of stereotype and sentimentality, his royal station indicated by the courteous manners and use of the royal
first person plural often associated with British monarchs. During Montezuma’s theological debate with the Archbishop, A Friend is “busy knitting an incredibly long and tubular sweater destined for Quetzalcoatl,” an important feathered serpent god in the Aztec pantheon. Finally, after the Archbishop proclaims the public unfit to participate in religious ceremonies, he is carried away in a large casserole by the Imperial Cook and one presumes that the sauce mole is thus invented. Her tone is more slyly wicked than defiant in these later stories, although obviously still irreverent.
During a picnic in a cemetery, Carrington receives a child-sized casket as a lottery prize Her delight in parody and mockery of self-important historical and religious figures grew more nuanced and sophisticated over the years, as in ‘How to Start a Pharmaceuticals Business’ which features a rare appearance by the author, undisguised—at least, the narrator is addressed as Señora Carrington. Carrington the narrator may
resemble the author, but her Mexico City has been changed beyond recognition. Laws prohibit the use of “radios, telephones, televisions, walkie-talkies,” and all other “instruments of speech transmission of a nonanimal nature.” People have picnics or play board games and express horror at the thought that firearms were once used in the “dark and barbarous past.” Part of the change is explained by an “edict issued by the Black King of the North, New York the First, an edict titled the Law of De-Electrification of the Americas.” During a picnic in a cemetery, Carrington receives a child-sized casket as a lottery prize. She doesn’t want to open it, but after her friends depart, she does, and discovers the corpse of Joseph Stalin, whose body has been shrunken and desiccated by time. An inscription explains that Queen Elizabeth received the corpse as birthday present and then sent it along as a Christmas present to the American President Dwight Eisenhower, who in turn sent it to the National Museum in Mexico. Perhaps, when she was a girl, she stood over the doll in the childhood photograph, wondering who it was, just as she does with the “doll” in the story, musing “Who knows but that he might have been a dwarf who served as court fool?” When Carrington touches on elements from her personal history, as she does occasionally in these stories, she does so with an off-hand
tenderness missing in the earlier stories. Her father might have read a pamphlet titled ‘How to Start a Pharmaceuticals Business,’ and at the end of that story, she once again blends the terrible with the beautiful, but almost tenderly. The man who gave her the coffin explains how to put Stalin’s tiny corpse to good use: Nowadays all initiates are aware of the dark ages when the world was empty and could not count on the gods. Divine spirits manifested themselves on earth only after the unmentionable catastrophe filled the entire planet with horror. This relic from those ill-fated times possesses medicinal value too. Ground into a powder with a few drops of marigold oil, and some royal Poinciana seeds, it yields a valuable salve for the treatment of Depression No. 20. It is also useful in certain exercises of light levitation.
magic is imbued with personal significance, and her monsters come to life because she has given them her own living heart. Carrington grew old surrounded by gods and humans who changed into monkeys, constellations, suns, moons, snakes, deer, jaguars, and bees. Lauded by the poet Homero Aridjis and the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, her literary legacy can be traced through the stories of writers such as Rikki Ducornet, Kate Bernheimer, and Aimee Bender. Near the end of her life, when the Letras Libres writer Octavio Avendaño Trujillo asked her how she defined herself she told him that it had never occurred to her to define herself, only to live with herself. But she also told him that if she could be any animal, she would be an elephant, a wild one.
Carrington may be making peace with her own dark ages and putting behind her the historical catastrophes that she witnessed as a young woman in Europe. There were times in her life when a salve for treating depression was just what she needed, and as a girl those “exercises of light levitation” had resulted in her expulsion from school. Her fiction is powerful precisely because she grapples with darkness and light in the way that only fiction can—by accessing the logic of dreams and transformation. But these are no mere exercises: for Carrington, the
Paper Cuts soren a. gauger I
whisper in the horse’s ear: Not far now, and mind your step as we go. On either side there are jeering mouths, wagging tongues, guts heaving up and down; the air rings with the laughter of the low-minded and vulgar. I didn’t expect much commotion. I have come to the fair to buy a horse, but without much money in my pockets. Everyone told me: You won’t be able to buy a horse for that handful of coins, it will take some kind of miracle. And they would have been right, had it not been for the clay-faced salesman and the old blind horse he rummaged out from somewhere behind his stall. Raindrops fall with intermittent hollow plops, like ball bearings. The horse tries to trot out as the salesman pulls on its reins, but it stumbles faceward in the mud, blinking its milky white eyes in fear. I rattle the coins in my pocket. A group of children is playing “bones” in the empty stall to my right – one shakes the playing pieces in his hands, blows on them, then throws. The winner lets out a shriek and gathers them all up. I take my hand from my pocket and outstretch it to close the deal with a shake – the salesman’s grip is cold as death. We stand paralyzed in our gesture, the children clattering their bones to start a new game, the salesman’s breath a stench of alcohol and poverty. A little blue star is tattooed on the web between his thumb and forefinger. This continues for an unnaturally long time; he has the drunkard’s habit of overdoing a handshake. I start to wriggle my hand free, but this just makes him clamp down all the harder; his nostrils flare. Without for a minute loosening his grip, he begins a slurred speech: If I were a gentleman I’d give you a cut of the money, I’ve just won a wager with the butcher (with a jerk of the head he indicates a massive, snarling man at work with a cleaver five or six stalls down). He was sure I would sell him the blind horse for meat before anyone came to buy it. He bet me his head. It is not the first time the butcher has bet his head, however, and not the first time he’s lost. Losing makes him furious. His temper is infamous. With his free hand the horse-trader slips one of my coins back into my pocket, winking all the while. Make a wish on it for me, he says, my time is running short.
II I bought the horse to get to Tarum before twelve days were up. On foot it takes perhaps twenty. With a good horse you can do it in seven. For the time being, I am walking the horse, coaxing it along. It is hobbling, its feet caked in mud, it must have a stone lodged somewhere. I can see that every step is sending a shudder of pain up its legs, making it grind its teeth. The constant grinding is getting on my nerves. Fat black insects circle our heads in haloes, colliding with one another, nattering furiously. Eventually we come to a river, and I pull the horse to the bank. When he smells the water he begins to struggle, thinking I will drown him. In fact I am considering drowning him. I am imagining how he would thrash and kick, but ultimately lack the will to resist. How his crippled body would vanish bit by bit until he was no more than ripples. How a creature so miserable perhaps secretly desires to be led to the bottom of a river. How he has revolted and embarrassed me on every step of our brief journey together. But I finally get him down to the river and with the waters flowing there do I wash his feet. I rinse clean the mud and the impediments, the water heals his wounds. And when I look up from my labors, the horse is standing taller above me than it was before. III For two days we ride well. The road is straight as an arrow, and even if we lose our balance from time to time, progress is steady. Then on the third day, the weather unnaturally cold, I stop to let the horse graze while I stretch my legs. When I return I find it feeding itself on some off-yellow plants growing in mud. They smell like rotting mushrooms. I bend down to touch one and something the texture of chalk-dust rubs off on my hands. A chill comes over me, and I put a specimen in my pocket. It prickles slightly against my thigh. Half an hour more on the road and the horse’s knees are buckling. Ten minutes more and the vomiting spells begin. There is only one solution – I hop off and set up camp. Wrapping both the horse and myself in blankets – the chill has become more severe – I begin massaging its stomach with both hands. Its bones are frail; I rub gently. I sleep very little with the horse’s noises during the night. It swallows constantly, as though producing too much saliva, and tosses about in nightmares or delirium. In the morning the animal is pale and wan, and I have a passerby
point me to a veterinary hospital. This is a squat, whitewashed building standing alone by the roadside. I open the door and walk down a long, telescoping corridor that positively shimmers with scrubbed white tiles. I approach the secretary’s desk. The hooves make echoey clatters as we go, like a cavalry coming at a methodical pace. The secretary is a sizeable figure seated behind a desk, her smile emphatically “in spite of it all,” and she jogs a faint memory at the back my mind. Opening the register sprawled out on the desk, she flips through a few pages and with flourishing strokes of her fountain pen writes: “horse” in the next empty space. Then she turns it around for me to sign. In the lists above I see swans with broken beaks, amputated armadillos, a limping chimpanzee, an unconscious unicorn – surely every animal that ever existed, and twice over. Turning the register back to face her, she receives a paper cut, a few drops of blood fall on the desk with terrible slowness. This triggers a memory; I recall her from behind the butcher’s stall I saw when I bought the horse, twisting a chicken’s neck; she is undoubtedly his wife. She puts her finger in her mouth and sucks, eyeing me suspiciously. I take the horse to see the veterinarian. He takes one look at the horse, produces a firm smile and recites in a tired voice: Another one! Your horse is blind. I am a veterinarian, not a magician. He is about to send me away, when the horse vomits on the floor. Ah-ha, says the veterinarian, brightening up, this I can fix. The veterinarian has very soft, very slender hands; he glides them along the horse’s massive belly as though polishing a cello. As he probes with his fingers he begins speaking to me, half-distractedly, in a trance. There is a great dignity in a blind animal, he says, most of the blind ones are slaughtered straight away; they tend to frighten the other animals. I have also seen the most dreadful arrogance in blind animals. They can even have haughty airs. Having completed his examination, he rummages through a drawer filled with clamps, sutures, syringes, scalpels, and pulls out a small flashlight. I had one client, he continued, who collected blind hens – the Devil knows why – and raised them together on his farm. He claimed a blind hen was capable of imitating a human voice, like a parrot. I visited him once – the sound of dozens of hens jabbering nonsense in voices more or less resembling my client’s own was uncanny to say the least. He told me that when they gave birth to a sighted chick, they would peck their young’s eyes out. In the name of community, I said, nodding my head. I would rather call it a lack of imagination, he told me with a shrug of the shoulders, his trance suddenly broken. Your horse is perfectly sound – it’s more a case of spiritual nausea, I’m afraid. Don’t depress him. Avoid riding him in circles. Stay away from cem-
eteries and vast, treeless areas. But doctor, he ate this unusual… I begin to say, but reaching into my pocket for the plant I take out only small bits of torn paper. IV …Only small bits of torn paper, according to the legend as it was passed down and inscribed as many as one hundred years later by an anonymous writer–historian whose grandfather couldn’t have been alive to witness the event. The tone is nevertheless one of authority, and the manuscript gives the approved version generally cited today. Whether the bits of paper are meant to “put us in mind of snow” and therefore “the chill of the grave” and “amnesia” (according to one Turkish commentator) or the “fragmentation of the natural world as represented by the unidentifiable plant, or even – lest we forget – the text itself,” (a French critic), the thesis of the current paper is that the contemporary scholar can – indeed, must – do better. Especially considering we have at our fingertips the original records of the veterinarian himself, who was able to identify the (unidentifiable!) plant pulled from the narrator’s pocket as a Costum scinditur – and not a handful of shredded paper. As we can see from the above example, there may be an idle pleasure in undoing metaphors and dabbling in the fantastic, but all of this diverts us from what ought to be our task: a pure and transparent understanding of the events that make up our shared history. Only insofar as we are capable of seeing these events for what they truly are – often unspectacular, hohum narratives of lives as tiresome as yours or mine that have somehow left their mark on the public imagination – will we start to be heirs to a history that does justice to our modern outlook, will we be able to turn to a past as dignified as the present day. Our aim, in short, is to turn all the scraps of paper back into crushed leaves and stems. V The next day my horse is able to stagger on, and I on top of it. But a change has taken place; it will only be made to walk backwards. I find it too inconvenient sitting with my face to the horse’s rump, and therefore facing the direction in which we are traveling, so I too ride backwards, firing glances over my shoulder to confirm where we are headed. Happily, the road is a very straight one with few obstacles. But another problem arises – the people we pass have started to jeer openly, and even become belligerent and abusive in their mockery. They throw rocks and dirt. I give the horse
words of support, though my own spirits are failing me. When a gang of street urchins begins trailing behind us, improvising songs and pulling faces, I wonder if my patience has reached its limits. I have developed a very strong stomach for mockery and abuse over the years, through my failures and humiliations, through my apprenticeships in trades I could not perform, my tendency to catch the eye of men with vicious streaks; my life, in short, has been an ongoing penance – but even all this notwithstanding, the present abuse is too much for my nerves. For the second time I envisage killing the horse; in my mind’s eye I remove a long cord from the saddle-bag, wind it about the horse’s great neck and cinch it tight, all in full view of the merry-makers. Perceiving the madness in my eyes they fall still. The horse sinks to its knees. I am on top of it. It makes terrible sounds as I tighten the cord, its hooves scratch jerkily at the dirt, its eyes roll back in its head. In the faces of the people following, real fear is visible. My ears tell me, meanwhile, that things have become uncannily silent in reality. I bat my eyes three times and see that the crowd is changed – they are still following in the horse’s wake, but their treads are a lifeless shuffle, their gazes despondent, they are no longer hollering, just staring at the horse. I can hardly reckon with this transformation, and so I simply spur the horse on a bit faster. The crowd shuffles more quickly to keep up. VI Improbably, we journey this way for two days. Some of the younger followers collapse along the way, disappearing along with the horizon at the point where they fall. After two days, the snow begins. It comes down so thickly and suddenly that soon the ground is completely obscured, and only the perfect straightness of the road tells me that I have kept to the right direction, that I am not steering the horse into the endless snowy oblivion of the plains. It piles higher and higher, until the horse is up to its knees, and the followers drift off course. Like planets cut from their orbits, they deviate slightly from our footsteps and are soon lost in the depths of the plains. The snow falls on, regular, monotonous, like the tick of a clock. We could be in a silent film but for the weary scrape of hooves. I am dimly aware of slipping in and out of consciousness. The clouds, previously a static layer of down, reveal themselves to be surging, frothing, folding in on one another. I see new shades of color in the landscape: blues, pinks, greens. Trumpets flourish in the wind raging past my ears. A clarity ensues – I know why the horse needs to be blind, why it is imperative that we ride backwards, why the snow has to fall.
VII …those people who recorded weather patterns with a fidelity almost unheard of till our modern era failed to note a single flake of snow during the whole month when the event allegedly took place. Even remembering to take into account the different calendars does us no good – there simply was no snow. Our argument is all the more compelling in that it uses contemporaneous witnesses, not modern data and methods, to undermine the narrative. There are no doubt those who will argue that we are being too literal-minded, that we needn’t understand the snow as snow (as such). To this we counter that every myth need possess a layer of truth – thus producing the intoxicating sensation that the reality we know is soaring into marvelous heights. If the snow did not exist de facto – and it most certainly did not – then the story’s significance evaporates like so much steam. VIII By night the earth glows with a frosty luminescence; by day the clouds blot out the sun, the landscape swims in a bleary half-light. In this way I lose track of the cycle of days and nights, but then, the distinction is somewhat academic – the road is straight and the horse is blind. Then, after some span of time, a mirage looms on the horizon. Grey specters the size and shape of tombstones, a field of them scattered – as if by the hand of some enormous child – across the road and willy-nilly over the white landscape. We have no choice but to ride through it; I feel the horse shudder in anticipation. The snow has risen high enough to obliterate all but the tops of the tombstones, exposing only the names and dates of birth. On top of one grave, an angel sobs into her cupped hands; on a second, a young girl has dropped her handkerchief, her mouth hangs open in surprise; on a third, a man is sweeping up a little pile of rubble. As we make progress, the forest of gravestones now stretching endlessly to the front and behind, the horse trips over its own legs, its lungs fight to draw air. It is dying, I reflect. Kicking my heels into its flanks only makes a sound like a bellows compressing. I jump down from the horse, prop its head on my shoulder and nuzzle my face into the throbbing warmth of its neck. I shut my eyes, I tell it: We have traveled so very far, the two of us. Miles upon miles. Death is horrible to imagine, but is it any match for the embrace of two old accomplices? Won’t we escape this phantom, too, by pressing our eyes shut and burying our heads in each other’s necks? Are there limits, after all, that cannot be stepped beyond, or does this line of hoof-prints stretch from here to eternity? We walk for a great distance this way, my
feet going numb in the snow, then gradually my calves, then the backs of my knees. And when I lift my head to look once more, I am standing in front of the butcherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s stall, a blizzard of feathers flying in circles around me from the dead, plucked hens the butcherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s wife has laid out before her. The horse falls, a crumpled heap in my arms. Before I can respond, the butcher seizes it from inside the jaw and drags it off back behind his stall where the knives are kept. I glance over my shoulder â&#x20AC;&#x201C; the horse salesman is standing there, he is paralyzed with fear at what might come next. From behind the stall a cleaver falls three times, with swift and decisive strokes.
Our Return to Sierra Vista jeffrey c. alfier After his birthday dinner at The Horseshoe Café, my grandson and I head home, a straight shot south from Benson that takes us into lumbering desert silence, the moon leaning against the deepened pitch of night, its thin silver sinking into cutbanks that flank the highway. The horizon beyond is a laboring caravan of spent storms. Through an air vent, wind carries the musk of vanishing rivers. A starscape floods our windshield. I tune the radio, catch the violin solo from The Last Cheater’s Waltz, notes that fade into the half-light of yesteryear’s second thoughts. A phantom streetlight gilds the boy’s eyes awake enough to see the same coyote I do, toppled on the roadside. In an undervoice he says it looks asleep, even though we both see the crushed snarl of its death mask. An hour on, our town’s lights speckle the near distance, the boy in deep slumber, stars cluster above us – all those gods and beasts, hunters and heroes, spinning outward from themselves in the dark.
Shipyard Sonata jeffrey c. alfier He surveys the barges moving out in early dark from harbors that bring the sea to the shore-bound world. They glide out past docklands, the breakwater lighthouse; the amber glow of berth and pier a soft drowse over the nightfall waters, the Pacific surf undulant with the swing of constellations as women stare seaward from high windows. In the doorway of the sheetmetal shop, he hears the faint pulse of outbound commerce and is pained with a longing heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll quickly dismiss. He bolts the door behind him, turns toward home, leaving alone for this one night the men of sea and harbor who quench thirst under a warm array of strung neon, spending all the mercy that wonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t save itself for tomorrow.
Plastic Tower patrick griffiths
hen our ambitious ancestors came down from the trees, their apathetic cousins just stayed in the branches and watched. At that moment the tree of life divided. One branch was destined to triumph and one was destined to decay. We bent nature to our will and took control of the land. We built communities, societies, empires. Settlements became villages. Villages became towns. Towns became cities. Huts made of mud gave rise to cloud-high towers made of concrete, steel, glass. And plastic. The Seventeenth Apex Tower is more commonly known as Plastic Tower. The story goes that after the shallow foundations were laid and construction began, it became clear that the planned height of the building wasn’t feasible. Even with sprawling webs of guy wires. Instead of altering the height, they altered the materials. And the top third is almost exclusively made from a hard, lightweight plastic. So the story goes. Harold Bent is Plastic Tower’s newest resident. And he will be Plastic Tower’s newest resident for the next seven minutes. He was released from a secure hospital and moved into his brother’s place seven years ago. He found a good job. He worked overtime seven days a week. He repaid almost all of his debts. He saved hard for a deposit. He arranged a mortgage worth seven times his salary. He won a place on the government’s Affordable Housing Scheme waiting list seven months ago. And then, seven days ago, Dorothy Mulligan, of Apartment 240, Plastic Tower, took her own life. Her next of kin was obliged to sell the apartment to Harold Bent. Dorothy Mulligan was the same age as Harold Bent. 47. Harold Bent hasn’t even crossed the road yet. He’s standing on the far side of the roundabout. He’s wearing a long trench coat with short sleeves. Corduroys poke out below. Suspended above sandals. A fashionista he is not. He’s clasping a duffel bag. The duffel bag contains almost everything he owns. Looking up at his new home, Harold Bent is anxious. Harold Bent’s heart is beating more rapidly than usual. But that is, in part, down to the clogged low-grade gas mask Harold Bent is wearing. The rubber straps are perishing with age, you see. The gas mask isn’t a good fit. It’s probably a good idea to wear it nonetheless. The black filth belched out from
the angry engines of the light motorcycles isn’t super-friendly to lungs. And there is an unbroken, constantly moving stream of the screeching two-wheeled underbone machines. Hundreds of them, bombing into, around, and away from the roundabout. Harold Bent walks out into the traffic, maintaining his upwards gawk. The bikes swerve around him like formation sprat around an aloof sea turtle. The top of Plastic Tower is out of view. The tightly squeezed neighbouring buildings could be taller. They could be shorter. It isn’t possible to see their peaks, either. Guy wires fill the sky, binding the buildings to the ground. And to each other. It is quite dark, largely because of these cables. Some of them have strings of lights twisted around them, however. And some of the lights work. They look a bit like fairy lights. Classy. This is a classy area of the metropolis. Harold Bent steps onto the cracked ground of the roundabout’s circular island. It’s maybe four metres in diameter. A tiny bit less. Slightly offset from the centre, Plastic Tower, perhaps two metres wide by two metres deep, rises and rises. And rises. A short man with an ungainly posture shuffles around by the walls. A dirty translucent plastic container is attached to his back. Liquid swirls around inside. He pushes up and down on a pump lever attached to the container with one hand. Liquid spurts out of a nozzle on the end of a tube that he swings from side to side with his other hand. The perfect shrubs, uniformly manicured, uniformly sized, uniformly shaped, are covered in soapy water. The uniform teal of the plastic leaves shines through. The dirt on the wall surrounding an inverse finger-penned “welcome home” is washed away. Harold Bent stupidly directs a friendly smile towards the man. They’re both wearing gas masks. Face-covering gas masks. Harold Bent walks into the building. Plastic Tower has a concierge. That’s how fancy Plastic Tower is. She is even shorter than the soap man. A faux purple rinse bouffant wig makes her look taller. Although oddly proportioned. Not to mention ridiculous. She’s old. Weathered. Face like a prune. Chain-smokes through a stoma in her throat. “Good afternoon, Mr Bent. Welcome to the Seventeenth Apex Tower,” she croaks. Slow. Monotone. “We have been expecting you.” Harold Bent turns his expressionless gas mask-enveloped head towards the smoke-filled booth in which the concierge sits. “You are 240. Please take the paternoster to 240.” The concierge raises a cigarette to her neck. The “paternoster” stands prominently in the precise middle of the foyer. Split into two narrow iron columns, one side is up, one side is
down. Rungs roll down the right column and twist around just above the floor. The rungs then move up the left column. Like a motorised looping rope ladder. Harold Bent walks to the edge of the paternoster shaft. He looks up. Rungs on the right appear from nowhere running towards him. Rungs on the left disappear into darkness running away from him. Harold Bent notices a circle, two dots, and a curve, drawn onto one of the upwardly mobile rungs with a fat black marker pen. Smiley face. Then he hears bangs. And clangs. And screams. “Please stand back from the paternoster momentarily,” the concierge calmly suggests. Harold Bent complies. Crashes. Thuds. Louder. Nearer. No screams any more though. A broken bloody mess of a body crashes to the floor at Harold Bent’s feet. Harold Bent turns to the concierge. “Please be careful when taking the paternoster to 240.” Unbeknown to the new resident, an automatic notification is sent. Records are changed. A Mr and Mrs Sobolewski are the newest residents of Plastic Tower now. Harold Bent throws his bag over his shoulder. He steps over the mess. Stands in front of the left column of the paternoster. Hesitates, briefly. Then he grabs a rung. He steps onto a lower rung. Holds on tightly. And he disappears up past the ceiling of the foyer. Trundling steadily upwards, Harold Bent is focussed on his grip. Standing rigid. Tight. Arms in. Legs in. The foyer disappears beneath him. He doesn’t pay any attention to the floors at first. Mild vertigo. Acrophobia. Although it isn’t an especially irrational fear, given the recent incident. Harold Bent decides not to look down. Or up. Passing floors 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 now. Each floor contains a single apartment. Each apartment is precisely 102 cm high from floor to ceiling. Building regulations demand at least 100 cm. And most apartments in most buildings in the metropolis are precisely 100 cm high. Another example of the quality of Plastic Tower. 41, 42, 43, 44, 45. All of the apartments are numbered. Metal plates screwed to the thin surface between floors. Some printed in a standard white fixed-pitch font. Some customised, personal. Some colourful. Some hand-painted. Some bold. Some clever. Some attractive. Some not. 97, 98, 99, 100, 101. Some of the apartments have no lights on. Most that do are shielded from the paternoster shaft by a curtain. Some more successfully obscure the residents and their lives than others. Silhou-
ettes of men reading. Silhouettes of women eating. Silhouettes of children playing. Silhouettes of lovers kissing. 181, 182, 183, 184, 185. Some apartments have no curtain. Elderly loners sit in corners sobbing. Wired teeners tighten tourniquets. Drunken mothers scream at shaking toddlers. Angry skeletal dogs snarl through foaming mouths. Spooning writhing exhibitionists loudly copulate. 239, 240, 241, 242. How can dogs ride the paternoster? Harold Bent’s idiot mind is elsewhere. 243, 244, 245. Panic. Harold Bent looks down. What he assumes is his apartment is already almost out of sight. He looks up. There is no end in sight. Only the darkness of the shaft punctuated by lights from apartments. 246, 247, 248. It could be possible to straddle the divider between the columns and move from the upwards-travelling rungs to the downwards-travelling rungs. Maybe that’s what the previous resident of the Sobolewskis’ apartment did. So maybe it’s not such a marvellous plan of action. 249, 250, 251. He knocks on the side of a passing wall. A head pops out into the shaft and watches Harold Bent continue upwards. Too slow. Too polite. 252, 253, 254, 255. Harold Bent awkwardly jumps off the paternoster onto the floor of apartment 256. He squats, a curtain with a pattern of vertical orange, cream and brown stripes drapes over him. A shrill scream. The curtain whooshes open. A young man in a frilly pastel blue dress repeatedly smacks Harold Bent with a wooden spatula. Harold Bent waves his arms around attempting to deflect the implement. He shuffles around the edge of the paternoster shaft to face the right-hand column. Stepping on and grabbing tight Harold Bent travels downwards. The interestingly attired man continues to swat at the head of his departing guest. 244, 243, 242, 241. Harold Bent pays attention. He steps onto the floor of apartment 240. Ducks. Rolls inside. Lies on the bare floor. Home at last. Of course, the apartment is not tall enough to stand up in. Neither is the square apartment wide enough or long enough to lie outstretched in. The paternoster shaft cutting through the middle of the apartment prevents lying diagonally. So Harold Bent lies with his knees bent. He takes off his gas mask. He probably hasn’t needed it for a while but his hands have been busy clinging to rungs until now. His face is wet. Sweat. Fringe glued to his forehead. Lousy gas mask, you see. I told you so. There are no windows. Plastic Tower may be upmarket but let’s not get carried away with expectations. Harold Bent had noticed that some residents had made their own windows. With a hammer and cling film. Maybe he can do the same once he is settled in. Harold Bent feels along
the damp walls. Finds a switch. Flicks it. A circular dim yellow light attached to the northern wall slowly illuminates. A small fan starts to whir next to it. Harold Bent wasn’t expecting that. What extravagant high-tech features. He inspects his shiny new palatial abode. Those impressive high ceilings. The generous floor space. Why, it’s almost as big as his brother’s place. A tap over a sink in the middle of the eastern wall. An opening to the waste disposal chute on the wall next to the light. Blood stains and a bullet hole on the southern wall. Easy to clean up. Harold Bent unzips his bag. Takes out a tin bucket. Puts it on the floor underneath the waste portal. He kneels in front of it. Holds apart the sides of the lower portion of his trench coat. Unbuttons his corduroys. Harold Bent urinates into the bucket. He re-buttons his corduroys. Closes his trench coat. Tips the contents of the bucket down the chute. Then he pulls a roll mat from his bag. Lays it on the floor. He lies back down. He reaches back into his bag. Takes out a crumpled photograph. A woman. Four children. Harold Bent stares at it. Boohoos. He leans forwards. Props it up against the wall. Leans back. Turns on his side. Harold Bent continues to cry. Pathetic little man. Harold Bent wakes up. He isn’t sure how long he has been asleep for. But it is quieter now. The soft monotonous mechanical whir of the paternoster. A bawling baby in the far distance. Not a lot else. Harold Bent turns over and faces the emerging and disappearing rungs. Left-side up, right-side down. Up, up, up, down, down, down. He needs a curtain. One, two, three, four. How many rungs can there possibly be, cycling around and around? Harold Bent counts. But most of the rungs look the same. After reaching 100 he realises that he can’t count them when he won’t be able to tell when the same rungs come around again. Imbecile. But some of the rungs have marks on them. Scratches. Dents. Harold Bent waits for an especially distinctive mark. Many scratches look the same. Many dents look the same. A smiley face. The smiley face he saw in the foyer. A circle, two dots, and a curve scrawled with a fat black marker pen. It moves upwards. Harold Bent restarts his count. Harold Bent reaches ten when another marked rung emerges from below his apartment. “hello harold”. Scrawled with a fat black marker pen. Harold Bent sits up. He pokes his head into the shaft and looks down. Another resident? He sees nothing but darkness and a few spots of light from other apartments. On another rising rung: “don’t be sad”. Harold Bent scratches his head. He actually scratches his head. As if this will cajole his feeble brain into being less feeble. “want to go for a ride?” Harold Bent lies back down. He faces away from the paternoster. Harold Bent can’t get back to sleep. He peeps back in the direction
of the paternoster. A message on a rung appears immediately: “sorry harold”. And a few rungs later: “don’t be afraid”. Harold Bent sits up again and shuffles closer to the paternoster. “let’s go for a ride”. Harold Bent hesitates. “please”. Is someone playing a trick? Harold Bent looks around him. He looks around his bare 150 cm by 150 cm by 102 cm apartment. There is no one there. I could make a sarcastic comment about this. But in the context of also believing a perpetually moving ladder is communicating with you, well, it hardly seems worthwhile. “hold me”. Harold Bent reaches out. He grabs a rung. Steps onto the upwards column of the paternoster. Another message appears. This time on a rung passing by on the downwards side. “don’t let go”. 241, 242, 243, 244. The paternoster takes Harold Bent past the familiar apartments of his nearest higher neighbours. The lights are out in the spatula-wielding cross-dresser’s apartment. The lights are out in most of the apartments. 316, 317, 318, 319. Harold Bent passes an apartment with its light on. Shining through a curtain embroidered with a face that looks like that of the woman in the photograph. A message on a downwards rung is barely perceptible in the fading light: “don’t be sad”. Harold Bent faces forwards. A sudden sharp shard of light exposes “hold tight” on the rung in front of him. And that’s what he does. The apartments pass by him. Harold Bent stops reading their numbers. He stops looking inside. Stops peering at silhouettes. Closes his eyes. The paternoster travels up. And up. And up. And up. Harold Bent daydreams. He thinks of his wife. His children. The pressures. The problems. The hospital. The job. The work. The long hours. The saving. The independence. Plastic Tower. Harold Bent isn’t sure how much time passes. Harold Bent doesn’t care how much time passes. Although his arms are aching. When he reopens his eyes he doesn’t see any apartments travelling past him any more. He looks down. There isn’t the slightest hint of light. He looks up. There is a faint dot of green. There is also a damp smell. The air is moist. The paternoster shaft is gradually illuminating. The walls appear to be uneven. Soft. And they said they were supposed to be plastic. Ha. When Harold Bent reaches out, when he lets his hand gently caress the wall, it is soft. And wet. The green dot continues to grow. More of a circle than a dot now. The rung in front of Harold Bent’s face now reads “nearly there”. There is something not-quite-right about the rungs on the adjoining column. It takes a moment to register. They are travelling upwards, too. Harold Bent looks up and down. And up and down again. His eyes have acclimatised now. And there are no downward-
moving rungs. He starts to carefully move down the upward moving ladder. “don’t be afraid”. Harold stops. The deep brown moist wall becomes hard. Coarse. Yellow-brown. It winds upwards, into, through, the approaching green circle. An imprecise circle. An organic circle. Harold Bent travels through the circle. Thin green branches. Leaves. Thick, luscious, fresh leaves. Brushing against his arms. Tickling his feet. Through squinting eyes, Harold Bent looks upwards through the barrage of foliage. He sees the rungs falling away. The impossible end of the paternoster. The rungs just travelling up and falling off. Falling back down the paternoster shaft. Harold Bent tries to descend once more. “don’t be afraid”. The rungs come loose in Harold Bent’s hands. He falls backwards. But he is safely cradled by the leaves and branches. The rungs continue to fall away in front of him as the paternoster disintegrates. The last rung Harold Bent sees has a circle, two dots, and a curve scrawled on it in fat black marker pen. Smiley face. The man stands. He feels quite safe. He looks for the paternoster. There is no sign of Plastic Tower. He pushes the multitude of leaves aside and walks along a hefty, steady branch of the tree. The warm sun massages his cheeks. Scarlet birds swing dance in the blue sky. Copious bunches of plump fruit hang in front of him. The valley below is lush. A gentle wind whispers through palms, shrubs, flowers, grass. Ruminants gather and drink from a pool. Something rustles in a nearby branch. The human looks into the bright eyes of a gibbon-like simian. He considers his options.
Driftless Zone jimmie cumbie I leave the frontage road and cross the line Into Wisconsin. There’s a row of woods Dividing sky from field, and in the weave Of limb and stem, a rib of pink recedes. It’s warm inside the car. The wind is there Against the doors. The maple leaves are loose. I move beneath another line of geese, Impelled, they bank and rise above the trees. I think of Bix. His sound is here with me. I drive, he strikes his notes the way these late Leaves fall, cutoff, wind caught, a flash of gold. The trees press close. The narrow road unfolds As loamy prairie flats of corn give way To teardrops of hill-slope. It was the ice That shaped this zone with glaciers like slow trains Leveling rigid stone into moraines And graded boundaries of drift. I coast down A blind curve onto a bald, rugged plain Left untouched by the ice. A yellow light Goes on and off above the junction, night One hour away. Streetlamps are lit along The strip of town; a service station shut, A mean, curbside barroom—which way to go? A moon-eyed dairy truck behind me grows. I pull beside the curb and let him pass, His taillights, mottled, disembodied, coat The road in red. I turn the music down, And look at that photo of Bix—thumbed, brown— That I keep on the dashboard. His face rides The last of dusk inside the windshield’s glare.
Absent of breath, he points a paper horn To paper lips—my guide among the corn. Across the street a set of weedy tracks Run past the last corner of town. A white Grain elevator sits shut. Mounds of spilled Corn dot the rutted lot, no silo left to fill. A man, unsteady, heaves out of the bar. Here’s a place, good as any, to renege. Bix grins, whispers, “You go on in and have one.” Ticking, pinging, the car cools like a gun. A small notebook waits in my back pocket For words for things, but there’re none forthcoming. I pull it out and drop it on the seat. Its leaves are wire-bound, tracked with fretful feet, Each foot broken by slashes of blue ink. I pick it up and find the page that says In “Clarinet Marmalade” Bix sings gin; First shot, throat hot, I think I must be him, Or just like him; cut away, loosed from home And those shame-hazy rooms—I’d change my hair, Lacquer it back, with new brown eyes ablaze, While gift wrapped laurels, filigreed with praise, Fell from the sky—like Phaeton’s wish come true. The delight he must have felt when, at last, Just as night was lifting, the sun’s pink reins Rose to his hands and trembled, uncontained. I put it down. I’ve been this way before. Same road. Same time of year. Same exact route. But this time there’s no one around to shout ‘Look out below,’ or scrape me from the floor. Bix shrugs. He knows exactly what to say: “You weren’t going to write anyway.” I slam the door and cross the line, turning Toward barrels of fire where the leaves are burned. 101
Ascension adam ley-lange Dear neighbour/s, I have never been up on our roof. Could I come up with (one of) you one day? Kindly, Mrs Winchester (From flat 2)
everal months ago, I found this message on a piece of yellow card that was put through my letter box. I try keep myself to myself, but there’re only six flats in my block and I thought I’d exchanged polite words with all my neighbours. There are the Donaldsons, who I think are responsible for that corned beef smell in the hall. There’s Katherine, who looks good in both trouser suits and skirts; and there’s Mr McCann, with his five-times-a-week takeaway and three chins. I couldn’t remember speaking to – or even seeing – anyone called Mrs Winchester. I wouldn’t have forgotten such a great name. You could imagine the introduction: ‘Sam Winchester at your service. Winchester as in the rifle. Private detective.’ I knocked on her door because you need to know who belongs to a name like that. It was an exchange of mutual surprise and disappointment. ‘But you’re so thin,’ she said, when she saw her yellow card message in my hand. ‘And you’re so old,’ I said. I managed to stop myself from also pointing out that she was using a Zimmer frame. On reflection, this was probably a good thing. I’m sure she was aware that she used a Zimmer frame. She didn’t need me reminding her. Mrs Winchester had a head of thick white hair that reminded me of scooped mashed potato slapped onto your plate back in the school canteen days. It was a liberal portion, topping a lived-in face. She wasn’t much taller than the Zimmer, but she used it as if it were just something convenient to lean on whilst having a conversation at her front door, not as if she relied on it to get around. She was formidable. If she got angry because I wasn’t the ideal candidate for an impossible roof expedition,
she might snap me in half. ‘You’ll have to do, I suppose,’ Mrs Winchester said. ‘Better come inside.’ Her flat was the same layout as mine; a private stairwell from the front door led up to the living rooms. The only difference was the stairlift. Mrs Winchester rode it with dignity. I walked respectfully and silently a few steps behind. At the top of the stair she transferred to another walking aid – one with wheels and a tray table – which she pushed around like a trolley. I followed her to the lounge and she motioned me to sit on the pink sofa before rolling away to the kitchen. There was furniture, but little else. The smell of the room was almost a kind of furniture in itself, it was so thick and heavy. It leaked out from one of those plug-ins that are meant to make you think of summer. It smelled like a dying rose had doused itself in cheap perfume. Still, it was better than the Donaldsons’ corned beef. An L.S. Lowry print hung on a wall, but I somehow suspected it had come with the flat. No glass ornaments. No photographs. The sofa was lumpy and I wondered if all her possessions were stuffed inside the cushions. Mrs Winchester wheeled herself back through with a plate of biscuits. ‘You can start with those,’ she said, lowering herself into the armchair opposite and putting the biscuits on the coffee table. She raised a pair of spectacles that had been hanging from a string around her neck. ‘Now then, let’s have a look at you.’ She sounded worryingly like a doctor. Maybe I would have to take my shirt off. I looked at the biscuits and wondered if the bathroom scales would be making an appearance. Behind her spectacles the green eyes stood proud of her wrinkles like a crop coming up in a trammelled field. Years passed between each blink and the blinks themselves were slow, like someone drawing a blind. She took her time and took me in. I wasn’t touching the biscuits. She clapped her hands together. ‘The doctors have given me three months,’ she said. ‘Three months is enough, if we work hard.’ She had the decisiveness and the resolution of the dying; the same as my mother when the cancer was in its advanced stages. ‘We’ll start tomorrow,’ Mrs Winchester said. ‘But first, we’ll do a preliminary lift. Maybe those twigs of yours are stronger than they look.’ From her chair, she held her arms out to me like a child. There was nothing child-like in her face, though. Her lips weren’t trembling. She
wouldn’t cry if I didn’t go to her. Everything about her was expectant but patient. Her patience soon dissolved when I had my arms around her. ‘Put your back into it!’ After the sixth time of managing to raise her a few inches before dropping her back in the chair, she began hitting my spine like a jockey goading a horse to victory. If anyone came into the room, it would look like I was trying to suffocate her. ‘Enough, let go!’ she said. In five minutes I had moved her less than five inches. I released her and sank to the floor, massaged my shoulder blades, trying to crack my spine back into position. ‘We’ve got a long way to go,’ she said. ‘Is there anything you don’t eat?’ ‘Meat,’ I said. The following day as I was leaving for work, I met Mrs Winchester at her door, resting on her Zimmer. She handed me a foil package. ‘Breakfast,’ she said. ‘Scrambled egg. Plenty of protein for building muscle.’ I started trying to tell her I didn’t eat eggs; I felt sorry for hens, the confined conditions they lived in, how they never got to go outside. Then I stopped. ‘Thank you,’ I said. I even paused for a few seconds before dumping the package in the first bin I walked past. When I returned from work, I had dinner in Mrs Winchester’s flat. A five-egg omelette. ‘I can’t eat all this,’ I said. It was the only time I said it. I quickly realised that I couldn’t face the dumbbell reps that she made me do on half portions. I’d also have to start thinking about not skipping lunch. ‘They belonged to my husband,’ she said, nodding at the weights as I strained to lift them. That was the only time she mentioned her husband. Apart from that he once owned a set of weights, I found out nothing else about him. I didn’t ask. My mouth was too busy chewing eggs. In the following weeks I had eggs every way it’s possible to have eggs. Anyone who says ‘eggs is eggs’ hadn’t met Mrs Winchester. Whenever I came home and saw the Tesco delivery van outside, I hid behind the post-box.
I didn’t want any awkward conversations with the poor delivery guy lugging in box after box of fresh eggs. I was a month and a half into my training. Mrs Winchester and I were heading in opposite directions. She began leaning more heavily on the Zimmer frame, which her legs – once thick – were starting to resemble. With each trial lift I was not only holding her for longer, but finding new bones which I didn’t think I should be able to feel. Bones I couldn’t feel on myself any more. ‘You’re getting thin, Mrs Winchester,’ I said. ‘The doctor said it would happen. I have an excuse,’ she said, in a tone that made it clear that I didn’t. ‘Lift with your knees.’ The only break in this routine came when I had to check the skylight to her roof. I had to climb a six-foot ladder to reach it. The catch slid back easily. ‘Wait!’ shouted Mrs Winchester, from the foot of the ladder. ‘When we go through, we go through together.’ After two months I was as efficient as Mrs Winchester’s chair lift. It wasn’t easy, but I could carry her on my back up and down all fifteen of her stairs. The ladder to the roof had only twelve rungs, but it required the use of different muscles which were less developed than the ones used for ordinary stair-climbing. But there were muscles. My body was smooth and hard. It bulged when I flexed. I looked and felt as if I was full of hardboiled eggs. Two and a half months after I had first knocked on her door, Mrs Winchester and I were ready for the ascension. She was strapped to my back with bed sheets that I had wound around myself and knotted at the chest. Sharp bits of her cut into my flesh. It felt like I was carrying a bag of bones, except that I could feel her shallow breath on my neck. She smelled of vegetable oil. The sputter and crackle of hundreds of fried eggs was like white noise in my ears. I felt like a seven-minute hardboiled was stuck in my throat. ‘Gee up,’ she said. There is only one way to climb a ladder: hand over hand, foot over foot. That’s how I started. The forearms didn’t look like mine. They were thicker than the rungs of the ladder. I was strong, but with each movement, Mrs Winchester got heavier. Things started burning, and I got slower and slower. The world was blue through the skylight; torturous blue, and so far away. Blue like the sea. Salt water pooled on my back and was warmed by Mrs Winchester’s iron skeleton. Above, a gull cried. ‘You’re gaining,’ Mrs Winchester said. ‘You’ll be out soon.’
Her voice seemed lower down, as if she were slipping. Maybe she was still at the bottom of the ladder and this whole torture was just a trial run. Hand over hand. Foot over foot. Hand over foot. Foot over hand. I counted the rungs the way I used to count my ribs. I saw a sausagefingered hand drunkenly pawing at the skylight catch. You get such blue skies over deserts. There is blue paint under your fingernails. I don’t know what I expected her to say as we emerged onto the roof. Maybe ‘that’s one small step for man.’ Or that memorable thing Hillary said when he beat Everest. Or simply, ‘we made it.’ But she didn’t say any of those things. Like so much of the time we’d spent preparing for it, we reached our goal in silence. I squatted down and carefully unwrapped us from the sweat-drenched blanket. I propped her against the chimney and collapsed beside her. We were both half dead. Added together, that makes one dead person and one living person. It wouldn’t have been a bad place to die, slowly cooking in the sun, the stone warm against my stomach. There was sweat on Mrs Winchester’s brow. Her eyes were half closed as she looked out over the city. It seemed greener than it did when walking through it. There were buildings I didn’t know the names of, hills in the distance I’d never walked. Everything was pointing upwards. If it was stone, it was golden. If it was glass, it shone. Trees and spires, office blocks and high-rise car parks. The sound of traffic was a background hum. There were chimney pots on the new line of the horizon. Some had numbers chalked on them, others looked like lighthouses. One in particular looked like it was wearing a Stetson, the rim low over its eyes to shade it from the high sun. The whole city was alien – but not in a hostile way. It was just different, seeing it from up here. I shaded my eyes and swept the sky a few times. The hairs on my arm looked blonde. I turned to Mrs Winchester. I was about to say that ‘it’s hot enough to fry an egg up here,’ but she was looking out through those half-closed lids in a way that told me it wasn’t a time for jokes. I knew that too. It was almost too real, sitting there. I had to struggle to truly be in it and experience it, instead of breaking it with a quip. I half expected Mrs Winchester to tell me to leave her there. That it had never been her plan to come back down again. She wanted to die on the roof. I would have to call the fire brigade and explain how she got up here. But when the sun began to drop, she gently tugged at my t-shirt.
She held her arms out to me like she had on that first day. Patient but expectant. ‘It’s time to go back down now.’ A week later I came home from a long walk to find an ambulance pulling away from the front of my flat. I watched it go slowly up the main road. The siren was off. Mrs Winchester’s door was open and a man and woman were at the bottom of her stairwell. I felt like asking them where they’d been this whole time. But she couldn’t have meant more to me than she did to them. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said to them. ‘I lost my Mum to cancer too.’ They looked at me as if I’d just asked if I could have her dentures as a keepsake. The woman started crying. The man told her to go upstairs. As she went, he came into the hall, closing the door behind him. He was less angry now. I guessed he must be the son-in-law. He had the look of someone who was barely involved; here only for support and to take care of the practical, business side of things. He was wearing a black suit and had black hair and a black moustache, all of which seemed too neat to have been touched by grief. He put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Not cancer,’ he said. ‘Malnutrition. She was starving herself. Wasted right away.’ He shook his head. Then he went back into her stairwell and closed the door behind him, leaving me and my new body in the hall. I still have her yellow card. I never learned her first name. I like to think that it was something alliterative, like Wilma or Winifred.
Contributors a–z Jeffrey C. Alfier is author of The Wolf Yearling (Silver Birch Press, 2013) and Idyll for a Vanishing River (Glass Lyre Press, forthcoming). In 2013, he was a finalist in the Press 53 Poetry Contest, and shortlisted for the Fermoy International Poetry Festival, Ireland. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in New York Quarterly, Louisville Review and Arkansas Review Susmita Bhattacharya, from Mumbai, India, received an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University in 2006 and has had several short stories and poems published in Wasafiri, Litro, Planet–The Welsh Internationalist, The View from Here, Commuterlit.com, and other anthologies, and by the bbc. Her debut novel, Crossing Borders, will be published by Parthian Books in 2014. She lives in Plymouth with her husband, two daughters, and the neighbour’s cat. She facilitates creative writing in the community, blogs at susmitabhattacharya.blogspot.co.uk, and tweets at @susmitatweets Tara Isabella Burton’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Arc, Shimmer, and more. Her essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, Salon.com, and in other places. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. Ethan Chapman lives in Glastonbury, Somerset. He enjoys writing, reading, acting, playing guitar, training and helping out at the Trainstation Gym with what he considers his extended family. He aims to write about the gym one day. He also has a blog (ethan-chapman.tumblr.com). He’s got to grips with it now Jimmie Cumbie makes his home in Chicago, Illinois, with the writer and photographer Sandra Ramirez, his son Leo, and Mamas the gray cat. Cumbie’s poetry has appeared recently in The Spoon River Poetry Review, The CavanKerry Press, Map Literary, Swink, and the anthology, The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare Philip Cummings was born in Belfast in 1964, but has recently escaped. He was the Arts Editor of Lá Nua, an Irish language daily newspaper, and Dar Liom (Coiscéim, 2008) is a selection of his humorous columns from that time. His first poetry collection Néalta (Coiscéim, 2005) won the
Irish Language Prize in the Glen Dimplex New Writers Awards 2006 and was shortlisted for the Strong Award 2006. His latest publications are An Fear sa Ghealach (Coiscéim, 2010), a book-length poem, and ad delectationem stultorum (Coiscéim, 2012), a collection of poems written in various voices from Irish mythology and history Poet and jazz singer Jake Dennis (poetofjazz.wordpress.com) has performed at Ellington Jazz Club, Hyde Park Fair, Naked Fig, Perth Town Hall, Subiaco Arts Centre, Universal Bar, Wild Fig, and Wolf Lane as well as on Aurora tv, Channel 31, rtr fm, Telethon, and Twin Cities Radio. Art Australia Monthly, Australian Literary Review, Cordite, The Disappearing App, Landscapes, Lost Coast Review USA, Page Seventeen, Poetry New Zealand, Sitelines, Tamba, Voiceworks, Wet Ink, and Windmills have published his poetry. Jake has produced feature articles, interviews, posters, and reviews for Drum Perth, Grok, MeDeFacts, RSAWA, Science Network WA, The West Australian, and UWA Crista Ermiya writes fiction and poetry. Her stories have been published in various anthologies, including New Voices from a Diverse Culture (Penguin, 2007) and Root edited by Kitty Fitzgerald (Iron Press, 2013). She was Writer in Residence for Crossing Border Festival in The Hague, The Netherlands. Her first collection of short stories, The Weather in Kansas, is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. Originally from London, Crista lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, where she is married with one son. She can be contacted on Twitter at @cristaermiya Soren A. Gauger is a Canadian who has lived for over a decade in Krakow, Poland. He has published two books of short fiction (Hymns to Millionaires via Twisted Spoon Press, and Quatre Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus with Ravenna Press) and translations of Polish writers (including Jerzy Ficowski, Bruno Jasienski, and Wojciech Jagielski); as well as several dozen essays, stories, poems, and translations in journals in Europe and North America (including the Chicago Review, Capilano Review, Contrary, Red Bridge Anthology, Asymptote, Cossack, American Book Review, Zymbol, and Words Without Borders) Erin Gilbert holds an mfa from Bennington College, teaches at Green River Community College and is currently at work on her first novel. Her essays on literature have recently appeared in a variety of publications such as AGNI, Bitch Magazine, Publishers Weekly and The Rumpus Patrick Griffiths lives in a minuscule rented flat in London where he dreams of one day buying somewhere even smaller. Or moving to
Bulgaria. His first stories were published in Popshot Magazine and The Alarmist in 2013 and he hopes that bigger, bolder, better tales will materialise in 2014 and beyond. He can be found wittering with @ptg and webbing with talkinganimal.co.uk Ian Haight has been awarded translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literary Translation Institute, and the Baroboin Buddhist Foundation. He is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ, Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim, and editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea, all from White Pine Press. Poems, essays, and translations appear in Barrow Street, Writer’s Chronicle, and Prairie Schooner. For more information please visit ianhaight.com Toni Halleen is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She writes fiction, non-fiction, songs, and plays. In 2013, Toni was awarded a spot in the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series. Her essay, ‘I Saw My Precious Child’ was recently published in the Minneapolis StarTribune. Her full-length play, Soulless Bloodsucking Lawyers: A Musical was the best-selling show and was voted Best Musical at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Toni is currently writing a novel, as well as a collection of short stories. She has also worked as a lawyer and as a stand-up comedian Geraint Jennings (born 1966, Jersey) is an artist, illustrator and teacher. As one of the team at L’Office du Jèrriais, the Jèrriais language promotion agency, he has designed Jèrriais teaching materials for schools in Jersey, including writing stories for children. Twice winner of the Grand Prix for a short story in Norman, and recognised in other writing competitions, he has written for commissions and some of his poems have been chosen as set texts for competition in the annual Jersey Eisteddfod. He co-edited an anthology of the Norman language literature of the Channel Islands, The Toad and the Donkey (2011) Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh. He has only recently started submitting short stories to magazines and is very pleased to be included in this issue. Along with his partner, Adam maintains the website The Rookery in the Bookery (therookeryinthebookery.org); this focuses on reviewing works of prose and poetry that have been translated into English Aonghas MacNeacail was born in Uig on Skye in 1942. He is a poet, journalist, researcher, broadcaster, scriptwriter and filmmaker. He has
published collections of poems in both Scottish Gaelic and English, and his writing has appeared in literary journals in Scotland and internationally. He has had poetry broadcast on radio and television, has given readings throughout Scotland and has toured extensively abroad David Mohan is based in Dublin, Ireland, and received a PhD in English literature from Trinity College. He has been published in or has work forthcoming in Stand, Envoi, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Poetry Salzburg Review, New World Writing, Southword, KaffeeKlatsch and elimae. In 2012 he won the Café Writers’ International Poetry Competition. His poetry has been shortlisted for The Bridport Prize and nominated for The Pushcart Prize Nansŏrhŏn Hŏ (1563–1589) was a sequestered noblewoman who lived in Korea during the 16th century. Considered by many Korean scholars to be Korea’s greatest female poet, Nansŏrhŏn died at the age of 27 Stuart Snelson is a novelist and short story writer. His stories have appeared in Ambit, Litro, 3:AM, Paraxis, The Londonist and Popshot among others. He is currently working on his second novel whilst seeking a publisher for his first. He lives in London and can be found on Twitter at @stuartsnelson T’ae-yŏng Hŏ has been awarded translation grants from the Daesan Foundation and Korea Literature Translation Institute. With Ian Haight, he is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim. Working from the original classical Chinese, T’ae-yong’s translations of Korean poetry have appeared in Runes, New Orleans Review, and the Atlanta Review Yi Tal (1561–1618) was one of three chief promulgators of the T’ang style in Korean poetry. The simplicity and straightforwardness of his poetry proved a powerful influence on his students, two of whom (Nansŏrhŏn and Kyun Hŏ) would later be remembered as among the most important classical writers in Korean literature. Despite his intelligence, Yi was denied any meaningful position or service because he was the son of a concubine. He mostly lived in poverty, and spent his days wandering the Korean peninsula and visiting friends Paul Weidknecht’s stories can be read in Once Around the Sun: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales for All Seasons, the newest anthology by the Bethlehem Writers Group, llc. Previous publications include work in Rosebud, Shenandoah,
The Los Angeles Review, Clackamas Literary Review, and Yale Anglersâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; Journal, among others. He has been awarded a scholarship to The Norman Mailer Writers Colony and is winner of the Peter Barry Short Story Competition. He lives in New Jersey where he is seeking publication for his collection of short fiction, Fly in a Cube of Amber: Stories. For more, please visit paulweidknecht. com Melanie Whipman grew up in Brighton, and has lived in Germany, France and Israel. She has an ma in Creative Writing and her short stories have been broadcast on Radio 4 and published in various magazines and anthologies. She is a PhD student and an associate lecturer at the University of Chichester
Contents Editorial 2 Poetry preface 3 tara isabella burton With Us The Wonders 4 aonghas macneacail The Black Door 8 jake dennis Songbird 10 ethan chapman Long Distance 12 david mohan Banshee 17 Young Stories: An interview with Katie Waldegrave 18 crista ermiya On Skar, And Matters Pertaining 26 philip cummings Three Triads 32 Cracked Looking-Glass Of A Servant 33 stuart snelson The Spurned Taxidermist 34 The Incidental: That Difficult Second Column by Keir John Pratt 40 melanie whipman After Ever After 44 geraint jennings The Furniture Jungle 51 paul weidknecht Limestoned 52 Two Korean Poets: An Introduction by Ian Haight 60 yi tal Five Poems 62 trans. by ian haight and t’ae-yŏng hŏ Regretting a Certain Emotion 64 nansŏrhŏn hŏ To a Childhood Girlfriend 65 trans. by ian haight and t ’a e-yŏng hŏ toni halleen The Taste of Regular 66 susmita bhattacharya Comfort Food 70 A Boy, a Horse, a Writer: An essay by Erin Gilbert 73 soren a. gauger Paper Cuts 84 jeffrey c. alfier Our Return to Sierra Vista 91 Shipyard Sonata 92 patrick griffiths Plastic Tower 93 jimmie cumbie Driftless Zone 100 adam ley-lange Ascension 102 Contributors 108