“I don't practice what I preach because I'm not the kind of person I'm preaching to..” -- J.R. "Bob" Dobbs
EDITED BY JEREMY TENENBAUM AND KEVIN TRAVERS
The narrative which follows was discovered with the corpse of Dr. Reginald Bellamy, formerly a researcher in the field of Natural Sciences.
I write this Wednesday night, in my bedroom, waiting for I know not what. Only this morning, perhaps nine or ten o'clock, I went across the hall to check on my elderly neighbor, Professor Leslie Crittenden, as I do every second or third day, to see if there's anything he might need and to make sure he's still alive. That may be an exaggeration, though I have been possessed of a fear or recurring anxiety he has a heart attack or, God forbid, a stroke, and lays there in his apartment undiscovered for days.My attention to the old man grows out of the respect I had for a venerable member of the faculty of the university at which I myself was once a venerable professor. You will forgive my sarcastic tone if you understand that while our university deserves no accolades, Dr. Crittenden certainly did. He was the reason I came here to do my research twenty years ago; once he left, I retired at the ripe young age of sixty -- twenty years the junior of my mentor.I remember the old man at the height of his power, feared as something of a wizard when it came to mixing the elements of the natural world. He would always say that there was nothing natural about the world we had come to inhabit. I never asked what he meant since he made this comment so frequently, I barely noticed, not until this last tragic episode which I hope to explain in these hasty notes for those who come to investigate. Until such time, I have no plans to leave this room, not until the door comes down, and I am forced out into the open.As I was saying, I rapped on his door and waited with an ear pressed to the wood, as he often spoke as softly as a summer breeze, if at all. After my somewhat derogatory comment on our university, I feel compelled to add that, to the remarkable credit of the former administration, when they sold off the very building in which we resided, they provided a lifetime of security for Crittenden, though not myself. I had to purchase my apartment when it became a condominium, though, I must admit, at a somewhat reduced rate.Believing I heard Leslie mutter admittance, I tried the knob, found it unlocked, and entered in as stealthy a manner as I could manage in case the professor had been either asleep or engaged in some of his own dark researches. The front rooms had a not unpleasant aroma of mild pipe tobacco, rotting apples, and unwashed socks, as nearly as I could deconstruct it.Overstuffed chairs and couch of the living room sat empty, faint haze of smoke hovering over them. Previous inspections had convinced me the worn but intricately designed carpeting, strewn now with loose tobacco, wadded and discarded papers, held his odor in its ancient fibers. The dining room, graced by a table littered with dishes and scraps of a previous evening's meal, and, unless I miss my guess, this morning's as well, proved similarly vacant but for a small yet active representative of mus musculum domesticus-- the common house mouse.I noticed one of four chairs normally situated about the table now lay overturned, on its back, as if vacated in great haste or sudden violence had been enacted in this room, alarming to say the very least. My imagination leaped to wild conclusions. I stepped into the kitchen taking a long look for clues to what might have occasioned such an upset. Finding none, I determined to continue my explorations of the aged professor's lodging into the hallway, where I followed the drift of pipe smoke to its source in his study.To my great relief, Professor Leslie Crittenden hunched behind his desk, leafing through a sheaf of papers without acknowledging my presence. With a long-stemmed pipe clenched in his teeth and his glasses low on his nose, he appeared so lost in his studies he had forgotten to dress completely, bare chest overspread with curling white hair the exact shade of the uncombed mass on his head and in his eyebrows. I registered that time had come once more to provide the trim and shave before the tangle progressed to unmanageable lengths. Standing in the doorway, I searched the room as completely as I could. All was as it had been on last perusal, save for the large, rectangular box beside the desk, where he might glance at it now and again.No more than four feet in height, three feet in width on the side I could see, it had been ventilated with holes the size of walnuts at regular intervals, no doubt intended to allow air into the interior of the packaging. While there could be any number of reasons for such a necessity, an occasional vibration of the box encouraged me to imagine some creature resided inside. At this point, Leslie looked over his glasses and squinted at me for an extended moment."Reginald," he said, as if identifying an object in his doorway. He stood slowly, setting the papers on the desk. "Please," he said, "look in the crate and tell me what you see."I moved swiftly to the box, went to my knees, and peered through one of the walnut-sized holes gingerly, afraid to press my eye close enough to penetrate the darkness inside."What do you see?"I moved my eye closer, ready to jerk my head back if the need arose."Well?" he prodded me."I see only darkness."He stood frowning at the box as I leaned back on my haunches. "What am I supposed to see?""Found this contraption outside my door yesterday, approximately eight in the evening. When I dragged it back here to my study, Winkle screamed bloody murder. I've had to cover the poor fellow so he won't become too terribly agitated."I glanced at a covered cage in the corner behind Crittenden, at the level of his head."Don't know what got into him, but when I began to uncover him this morning, he started up again. An awful racket. I'm sure you heard him screaming from across the hall."Allow me to pause a moment to inform you that Winkle is a black mynah with a yellow slash at the neck and a bright white at the tips of his wings, as if dipped in paint. I admire him for an ability to repeat complex musical phrases or strings of words in his piercing whistle or shriek. Even had I not been listening to the Ode to Joy repeatedly last evening, I would not have heard the bird, as I have my bedroom soundproofed so I can listen to my music at full volume when the migraines pound my brain like an infernal devil's tattoo."So, you have no idea what's inside?" I asked at last.He gestured to the papers on his desk. "Received an epistle from Dr. Faraday two days previous," he told me, still glaring at the box, which now shuddered under his gaze.At the mention of Faraday, I stood up, which must have unnerved Crittenden, as he drew back and pulled his mouth into a frown. I am quite a bit taller than Leslie, wider at the shoulder, thicker as well. I have a perfectly bald head and from birth the defect of somewhat bulging eyes that can sometimes alarm the unprepared stranger. I often felt that Crittenden had never become completely at ease with my appearance. There is also the matter of a somewhat prominent nose, having been broken repeatedly in undergraduate days when I wrestled in heavyweight division. I only mention this to account for Professor Crittenden's sudden lurch backwards, toward his desk chair once more, sinking into it morosely.I say morosely on purpose, for he seemed to fall into the brooding mood in which I found him when I entered. I had forgotten that Crittenden did not like me to move suddenly, as he was fairly nervous in my presence, though he had few if any visitors besides myself. It was for this reason that I dropped in on him occasionally, to see to his welfare. But the mention of Faraday set me on edge, for it had been well established the two had no affection for each other.The grievances of Professor Julian Faraday against Crittenden had, for me, a mysterious origin; from the moment I met the man, he cast aspersions on his colleague's work, teachings, and his personal comportment. At first, I chalked this up to a professional competition between the two, but as the years progressed it seemed deeper than that. I knew well that Crittenden did not care for the man, but for Faraday it went deeper, almost as if he sensed something in Leslie to which he could never aspire and for that reason despised him -- as if angered that whatever it was that gave Crittenden his distinction had been stolen directly from him, or from a potential that he himself, and here I mean Faraday, had never realized.Crittenden's withdrawal from the university into his studies had not cooled Faraday's ardor. I remained for several years and Faraday passed on a small portion of his antipathy for Crittenden to my less significant self, undermining me at every opportunity, belittling me to the students I oversaw in the lab and to the faculty among whom I had to labor. My retirement had eased my discomfort, and though I soon left him far behind, the mention of his name brought back his sharpness like the thrust of a blade not so much to the heart, but directly to the brain."Faraday," I whispered."It was him had this crate delivered to my door, preceding it with this rambling letter that made me wonder if the man had lost his senses completely.""What did the letter say?""You might not believe it, even if I tell you.""Give me the opportunity to believe or disbelieve.""Well," he said with a shrug, "he says what's inside is a sort of…a kind of a…""What is it?""A bird," he finally admitted, glancing behind him at Winkle's covered cage."What sort of bird," I pursued."A very odd sort of bird.""How odd?""I hesitate to say, it seems mad, yet I can't make out anything in the crate though it jumps and shivers now and again as if something moves within a darkness that seems impenetrable.""How did Faraday describe it? Nothing could be worse than not knowing.""I'm not certain of that," Crittenden muttered. "He said it was a transparent thing. Not without form, but invisible.""An invisible bird? How can that be?""The incomparable Dr. Faraday reports it was born from an egg held inside a glass case, intended as a museum exhibit. It took several days before anyone suspected what had emerged from the broken shell.""How did he get it out?""He mentions some difficulties regarding escape and recapture, but no specifics. I tried to contact Faraday, but he is evidently incommunicado, off in Patagonia searching for fossils in the ice sheets.""Patagonia," I repeated."He referred to this as his Patagonian bird, an egg torn from Cordillera Darwin, deep in the receding ice pack. He includes the extent of his research, which I have yet to review in full, and asks me to have a look myself, as if he wanted my advice."Crittenden shuffled through the pages on his desk, lifted out one and turned it toward me. "He includes this drawing as an estimation or expectation of the creature's appearance, could we actually see it.""Good Lord," I whispered. After a moment, I said, barely louder, "This is some sort of trick.""The thought had not escaped me.""I would not trust the man.""Neither do I.""Do you intend to open the crate?""I can't quite overcome my distrust, to be sure, yet curiosity devours me since I brought it inside. All night, the few hours I slept, I dreamed of this damned thing, this invisible bird. I don't know what Faraday's game is, and I don't trust him, but I am afraid he has made a somewhat remarkable discovery that eats at me every moment. Since I dragged it here, to the spot it now stands, I have thought of nothing else.""May I make a suggestion?""Please, do.""Have it hauled away, to his lab at the university, to a garbage dump. Faraday can mean you no good."I could see he had settled back into his dark study. He picked up the pages of Faraday's letter and began reading again."If only I could," he said, but he did not finish the thought. I stood minutes longer, but the fear that tingled along my skin into my prickling scalp made me want to be anywhere but in the presence of this crate.I retreated to the front rooms, noticing the mouse feasting on the dining room table had been joined by a friend. I shooed them by righting the overturned chair, clearing the table, taking the dishes to the kitchen, where I washed and put them away, knowing Crittenden could ignore them forever if need be. I wiped down cupboards and counters and mopped the floor, and then I began on the living room, until I had the place looking a bit more presentable.I thought I would ask the professor if he would like me to fix him something to eat, but while engaged in clearing his apartment, the banging had been creeping into my head once more, and I hurried back across the hall, eager to get to my bedroom and the only things that seemed to offset the pressure in my skull, my pain pills, a goblet of bourbon and, on this occasion, the musical rantings of Herr Ludwig Van Beethoven.
I did not wake until much later that evening, perhaps eleven at night. I did not check the time because I realized I had left Professor Crittenden to his own devices for far too many hours to have any comfort that he had removed from his study or proximity the crate about which I had such forebodings. I washed my face to wake myself, and yet the aching in my head had not completely subsided. I took several of my pain pills, changed my sweated white shirt for a clean one, and ventured across the hall once more.I tried the door, found it unlocked once again, and entered, as I say, stealthily, fearing to wake a sleeping professor. It was dark inside his apartment, and I flipped the switch beside the door, only to discover that several more of the mus musculum domesticus family had returned, nibbling something whitish pink on the floor. They did not budge when I stomped my foot, and I wondered at the cheek they displayed. One of them looked up at me and went back to the meal.At this point, I noticed what should have been obvious the moment I turned on the lights: dark red tridactyl prints weaving around the cord, three long toes forward, one back. The size of the feet terrified me. Some of the prints progressed toward me and the door while others went the other way, to the back of the apartment, where I left Professor Crittenden. I followed prints and cord down the hall, where the red trail turned into the bathroom. When I looked inside I saw the toilet lid raised, as usual, and a slurping or splashing, which I took to be something drinking from the toilet, something invisible. As quietly as possible, I pulled the bathroom door toward me, though I could not mask the final click of the latch.The sounds that emanated from the bathroom, I cannot not replicate. Screaming or even shrieking will stand for the unreproducible madness, accompanied by a horrific beating against the door which made it bulge toward me. I moved away carefully, once more following the cord and the talon prints into Dr. Crittenden's study, where the red splattering spread into an abstract painting whose meaning was unmistakable. Further, the crate had been opened, the top removed, bits and pieces of packaging scattered about. The blood red tide became complete, total, around the professor's desk. I called his name in hoarse tones I did not recognize as my own.Hearing no response after several attempts, I continued back behind the desk, where I saw my old mentor on his back, his face opened wide in a frozen grimace, glasses and pipe on the floor beside him, his chest and stomach ripped open, intestines coiled on top of and beside him, and trailing back out the study door -- the trail I followed to his body. There could be no doubt Crittenden lived no more, but I saw yet another indignity, for Winkle's crushed cage lay directly behind him, cover removed, the poor bird disemboweled in the same manner as his master, his little head twisted to one side, talons stretched above him as if he still attempted to fight off his attacker.It was shock that prevented me from realizing what was starkly obvious, that whatever had done this, whatever demon Faraday had unleashed upon his former colleague now thrashed about in the closed bathroom. How long this would continue before it escaped, I could not guess. The shock or fear gripped my head, then my neck, moved down my back, and turned my legs to jelly. I barely managed to maintain my erect posture as it entered my imagination that whatever rituals it had performed on Crittenden and Winkle would soon be turned on my own person.I did not react rationally, I admit that now, but what would have been rational? I fled the room, raced down the hall, scattering mice as I approached the front door, at which time I heard the powerful thrashing of an angry body against the bathroom door. How long it would hold only God knew. I threw open the door, as swiftly shut it again, hearing a deafening crash from behind me, fleeing to my own apartment, and thence to my kitchen, where I poured another tumbler of bourbon, downed several pain pills, and before going back to my bedroom called the police to report a murder across the hall, at the home of the famous Professor Leslie Crittenden.Immediately after the call, I locked my own front door, affixed several chains to secure it, and locked myself in my own bedroom, where I cranked up the Carmina Burana this time, loud as possible, and sat on the edge of my bed polishing off the bourbon before lying back with my arms over my eyes to block the pain, fighting a headache that bore through the top of my skull in its attempt to come through my eyes like escaping pit vipers. I begged God or any devil for the sleep that never came.When at last I surrendered, I took my dream journal from the drawer of my bedside stand, my black pen, and wrote this testament to the final day in the life of Professor Leslie Crittenden, and further prayed I would not hear the screams of the hapless policemen as they arrived. How this would end, I knew not. I only knew that I would come from my apartment only when I could remain no longer at the mercy of my own mind.
Jessica Lee McMillan
“How to Scale A Fish”
“Post-mortem on Heart Idioms”
I stopped eating octopus after watching a documentary
on cephalopod intelligence and their three hearts.Animal hearts adapt to their needs.We use hearts like chalk outlines, logos
of flaming hearts, things you put in the right place.I've never been comfortable with the phrase
eat your heart out, as though it is an oozing
pomegranate with edible seeds.The scene where Mola Ram rips out a heart
in The Temple of Doom still gives nightmares
with the still-beating heart in his hand
and his heartless victim still alive.How can he still be living?The Buddhists call the heart a jewel
so falling in love must be a jewel and its thief.I imagine heartbreak to be the chest-burst scene
in Alien.No really, wearing your heart on your sleeve
these days is a danger to life. We speak in the safety
of idioms and spill our hearts in black and white ink.There are volumes of evidence in blood
from the anguish of listening to the heart.Based on all the hemorrhaging, I would say
we are dealing with a dual organ that harmonizes
sorrow and joy in twin directions only weighed
by the scale of its reach.
“Cosmic Microwave Background”
spiked fences at the station
glisten under sunshower
dancing her addled a star
ornament roped round
her........meatless thighI see into her high,
when I defocus my eyes
and catch the dew of chi
in grey gold between
passengers drifting out
coffee grind background
noise............sweeps lightBig Bang afterglow surges
down piss alleys of endless
residue from the beginningthe street of visible ghosts
hunch silently with padlock
“Press The Cluster Gently Or The Wine Will Be Bitter”
Press the cluster gently, or the wine will be bitter.
Show me a pastry chef who ends well, and I'll take her for my teacher.If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy -- declares a magnet on the fridge.
Protect us from all anxiety: it turns us into fuckers.The word of the LORD is like water. You have to keep it without.
Who lets it enter their insides will find a seraphic way to drown.Listen: all the financiers are going to get away with it.
Versailles disperses into mirrors up and down Manhattan.In crisis, I try to make myself still as a sleeping child.
Look, there's little Dzhokar, bleeding out in a covered boat…The farmer turns on his harvester; it shakes the vines like maracas.
You wonder why the two-buck Chuck brings you to the brink of death.Me and these Berkeley soccer players are foot-stomping this vintage.
Pure carbon dioxide! I have to hang on to their manly arms.
“Hyun Bin's Clear And Searching Face”
You with the glinting nose piercing -- don't brag you'll get me naked.
The guy you're trying to tell's already in my bed.You see the imagination working -- a crinkle around the eyes --
Hotness is what radiates from a person with ideas.Well, put 'em in the suggestion box! My policy is open-door.
Earth brims with princes. Who needs an eternal reward?Hyun Bin's clear and searching face is death to all monogamy.
He's as good with pour-over coffee as he is with a pistol and silencer.And Adam Driver's chest is as wide as a conference room whiteboard.
I resolve to work out formulas there -- on that radiant marble…Jason Momoa! Zeus' eyebrows, shiny pink suit, and scrunchie --
A student of his slanted beard, I submit to his crushing my ribcage.Easy, Smeltz. Tienes que relajarte, Pikachu.
We have to mop up after your tongue rolling out on the floor.
“The Painter Of Light”
Raging fires in the West -- we're worried that they'll never stop.
I'm going to be angry until I'm not. I'll suck out the poison later.No more cross-stitched angels and cottages, haphazard in the foyer.
I curse the man who tries to sing Amazing Grace at my funeral.Thomas Kinkade, "the painter of light." La-ti-friggin'-da.
Francis Bacon taught me how to hang these sides of meat.Swollen feet and achey organs. Lo, these bad decisions.
Poetry is the tether that keeps me from floating off this moon.I don't want your Hobby Lobby; no more anything all-you-can-eat.
Just I and my Chimney, that Grand Signor, who dominates the house.And what are we beneath the ax? The freed, the powerful slaughtered.
I want to enter this butchered ox, glowing in the dark.
“The Middle School Game Of Torture-These-Girls”
The middle school game of torture-these-girls: I'm angry I stood by.
Sweet mantises in baggy jeans, eyebrows plucked to pieces.A winsome boy cajoling for a blowjob in the basement --
A twelve year-old girl: she just gives up: for the first, but not the last, time.No one needs to torture me; I do just fine myself.
Each hour I worry at a mirror is one more crank of the vise.Oh, who's this texting me now? Some idiot talking about chemical attraction.
Men only joy in love if you're under lock and key.You gotta relax, young fella -- light as a feather, stiff as a board.
Lock your elbows, grip the wheel -- you'll spin out on black ice.Que lástima, when the dimpled thighs of a wife no longer console.
Many will burn down house and home for a middle-aged spike in testosterone.A pulverized white chicken, her feathers shredded off:
She's the timid one in the yard, the one the rooster got to…No more songs about Nature. These birds smash their own eggs.
Don't let your mother do your laundry: you're too old for that shit.There's no moral in the henhouse, nor in the going from four to two legs.
No more social Darwinism. Put these clothespins in your mouth.
“Mr. Empty Pockets”
I were only nine years old in 1935, born and raised in Harlen, Oklahoma. I ain't changed much since then. As the sayin' goes, old age is a second childhood. Some things I don't remember at all, and other things I remember like it were somethin' that happened yesterday.That stuff blowin' across Main Street weren't no dust and we didn't live in no bowl, not a bowl you could see by lookin' 'bout Harlen, Oklahoma anyways. It were dry earth that was driftin' 'cross the street, top soil from the farms and fields carried by the wind, often in what were dirt-storms that swept across the plains killin' practically anything that had been growin' there. Harlen County were as flat as a pancake to begin with, and the storms skimmed the top layer off it like a razor shavin' off whiskers. We had a farm about ten miles from town. Pa had grown wheat and corn and raised a small herd of cattle on our place until first the depression came along in 1929, and then the dust storms started sweepin' away farms and towns all across the plains in about 1930. But I weren't nothin' but a baby when it all began. Pa and Ma held onto the farm -- if by 1935 it could be called that -- by doin' anything that put a few dollars in the jar to keep food in our bellies and hold off the bank from takin' the land. Pa was a mechanic and fixed anything with an engine that needed fixin'. Ma raised chickens and sold the eggs, which is how I got the nickle it took to get me in the Spectacle, the movie house on Main Street in Harlen. It had seats 'nough for about thirty, but you could sit on the floor if you had a mind to if all the seats were taken. It made no nevermind to Yates Every who owned the theater as long as you gave him the nickle. It were while I was in line watchin' the dirt blowin' 'cross the street the first time I remember seein' Mr. Empty Pockets. He were standin' at the end of the street doin' nothin' but starin' at me as if I had grown two heads. He were there for only a few minutes and I didn't say nothin' 'bout it to my two older brothers who were in line with me, but I saw him sure-enough. It were The Bride of Frankenstein we seen that day and by the time we come out of the theater I was thinkin' 'bout the Frankenstein monster and feelin' sorry for him, scary as he were, and didn't give another thought to Mr. Empty Pockets.Pa picked us up after the movie, lettin' me ride in the back of the truck with my brothers, somethin' Ma wouldn't have approved of, me bein' kinda small and scrawny for my age, so I promised Pa I wouldn't tell her. There weren't much to do in the back of the truck 'cept see how ruined the landscape were and how many properties had been left empty, the houses collapsin' in on themselves from neglect or being stripped of anythin' resemblin' a house by the strong winds and dirt, as a lot of folks who lived in Harlen moved to California or Oregon, leavin' most everything they once owned behind. My brothers spent the time punchin' one 'nother in the arm tryin' to make the other one of them say "ow" first, but they left me alone, my bare feet buried in the hay that Pa had spread out and hangin' on to the edge of the truck bed. My shoes were tied 'round my neck by the shoe laces, dangling on my chest like dead gophers. I didn't wear them that often anyways and only did so when Ma said I had to, like when I went into town."We're poor folk, but civilized," she'd always say.When we pulled into the driveway leadin' to the house, chickens that strayed from Ma's coops barely missed bein' run over. Pa called them the stupidest birds on the planet. He slowed down as Ma came out of the house, waving her hands, pointing east. Far off, but easy to discern, was the wall of a dust storm barreling over the land, headin' straight for Harlen County. My brothers and I jumped from the truck before it came to stop and ran about scoopin' up chickens in our arms. When Pa got out of the truck he covered it with a tarp just as he always did just before a storm struck."If we ever have to leave Harlen, we can't do it on foot if the engine is ruined," he'd say.It weren't until the chickens were tucked away in the coops, the well was covered, and I was the last one about to enter the house that I saw Mr. Empty Pockets again. He was standin' in the bare earth not far from the house where corn had once grown. I couldn't clearly make out his face, but something told me he was smilin' at me. I raised my hand and slowly waved. He took his hands out of his coat pockets and waved back.Then dirt began blow across our farm. Just a little at first.Pa and Ma pulled the shutters and covered the windows with the satin sheets Grandma and Grandpa had given them on their wedding day. Ma had kept the sheets in her cedar chest until the first dust storm hit. She cut them into squares to fit the size of the windows. They were never returned to her chest after that. Pa boarded up the chimney and jammed rags under the door. We turned on the radio knowin' there wouldn't be a peep about the storm, but listenin' to Amos and Andy made us all feel a bit better as we awaited the storm. When the wind picked up, which seemed to always happen just before the full force of the storm shook the house, my brothers and I sat on the sofa as Ma sat on a kitchen chair across from us. With her back stiffened, and her long hair hastily tied into a bun on the top of her head, she turned off the radio and opened the Bible."And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting," she read.Pa stood at the door, his shoulder braced against it, as if expectin' it to fly open at any second. And then the soil and debris that had been picked up from the farms and fields smashed against the house.There ain't been nothin' in my long life like those storms.
The mornin' after, Ma fixed scrambled eggs and baking soda biscuits. Although the radio was playin' in the living room, there was a quietness in the house as if the storm had muffled all sound. Even my usually noisy brothers were quiet. Pa had left the house earlier to see if any additional damage had been done to the house, particularly the chimney that was already leaning, or to the silos that stood battered and empty in the fields. Pa was certain they would be used again one day. Rats inhabited them by the thousands, livin' off the remaining grain and corn after the rest of it was hauled away. He took with him his rifle, always on the lookout for a rabbit, though they had become scarce and always nearing starvation, but Ma was able to make good rabbit stew from them anyways. It was Sunday, which didn't matter to Pa. Unlike Ma, he wasn't one much for reading the Bible or attendin' church. Ma had on the one goin'-to-church dress she had left and my brothers and I wore pretty much what we always wore, but Ma slicked our hair down with spit and pomade and combed it before we sat down to breakfast. Once we finished eatin' all that was left was to wait on Earlean and Roy Cummins to pick us up in their old Ford and drive us all to the Baptist Church in Curlyville, the next town over, about twenty miles away.We were standing on the front porch, waiting to be picked up, when the sound of a rifle shot echoed from the fields. My brothers stopped punchin' each other and Ma stood up from the rocking chair she had been sittin' in.I turned the direction that the shot came from. There were Mr. Empty Pockets standin' at the end of the porch, his finger to his lips as if tellin' me to say nothin' about him bein' there, as if I needed to be told that. It was the first chance I had to really look at him. He wore a long trench coat, like a character in a James Cagney movie gangster, and a gray Fedora. His face weren't nothin' special. A face like any other. But he was smilin', a smile as big and wide as the sky. He weren't there long, disappearin' the moment we heard Pa's voice. He were howlin' like a hound.
It took all of us to carry Pa back to the house and lay him in the bed, leaving his rifle in the field where it had been found lying next to him. The gunshot wound in his side was bleedin' somethin' fierce. Ma boiled water and then rushed about the house findin' cloth that she tore into strips and applied to the injury. She shut the bedroom door after tellin' my oldest brother to run and bring back Doc Hudson, who lived three miles away. Doc was old and no longer had his shingle out, but he was the only one we knew who might know how to save Pa's life. A few minutes after my brother took off running across the fields as my other brother and I stood on the porch, Mr. and Mrs. Cummins drove up. My brother told them what had happened. Mrs. Cummins rushed into the house to help Ma. Mr. Cummins got back into his car, turned it 'round, and sped off, also to get Doc Hudson. My brother sat down on the porch steps and began to whittle a pine stick he had traded a bag of dead grasshoppers for with Jim Kyler a few days before.It was then that Mr. Empty Pockets appeared again and stood a few feet away from the side of the porch. I jumped down and walked right up to him, as pretty as you please, and held out my hand to shake his. He took it in his and that's when he taught me how to fly.There weren't nothin' like lookin' down from the sky and seein' the earth stripped of anything that would grow in the ground. It was that first time when flyin' above Harlen County that I asked him his name and he said back, "What would you like to call me?"I thought about it for only a second before saying. "Mr. Empty Pockets.""Are you sure?" he said."Pa always says never trust a man these days whose pockets are full," I said.
Bein' able to fly whenever I had the mind to came in handy. That night, after Doc Hudson had sewn up Pa's side but warned Pa might not make it 'cause of the amount of blood he lost, without puttin' a foot on the floor, I flew to my bed that I shared with my brothers. I lay there all night, tryin' to sleep, but my thoughts kept wanderin' to why no one but me seemed to see Mr. Empty Pockets, or could fly, but maybe no one else mentioned him on purpose or that they could fly, just like me. Seein' a man who suddenly appeared and disappeared and bein' able to fly over the ruined fields were difficult things to imagine bringin' up in any conversation. When rays of hazy morning sunlight shone through the window, I leapt out of bed and ran to Ma and Pa's bedroom. Earlean Cummins was slumped in a chair, sound asleep. In her lap were one of Ma's large tin pans filled with bloody rags. Ma was sittin' on the edge of the bed. She smiled at me, and as if she could read my mind, silently mouthed, "Your Pa is goin' to be okay."
Three weeks later, Pa was mostly healed, but he moved about a bit slow and said that occasionally a twang of pain shot through his stitched wound like the jolt you get from ice touchin' a cavity in a tooth. It were early Saturday and Ma gave me and my brothers each a nickle to go to the movies, but said we'd have to hitch a ride or walk there and back. My brothers tore out of the house as if they had been set on fire, ran to the road, and began to walk with their thumbs stuck out, waitin' for any vehicle headin' for town to happen by. I kept at a distance, not wantin' them to see me rise up from the ground to fly over their heads and straight to the front doors of the Spectacle. Mr. Empty Pockets was walkin' beside me, but he weren't sayin' much. He never did. The sky had that yellow jaundiced look it always got when it was fillin' up with dirt blown from far away. There weren't a storm in sight, though. When a truck stopped to pick up my brothers, I waved them on, preferring to fly the rest of the way. Two hours later I landed on my feet right in front of the movie house.Yates Every was standing at the doors, collecting the nickles. "You got here just in time for the cartoons," he said as he held out his hand.I turned to say goodbye to Mr. Empty Pockets, but he were gone already.The cartoon were a Mickey Mouse and the movie playin' were Captain Blood. I couldn't get inside fast enough. I quickly pressed my nickle into his sweaty palm and dashed into the theater. For the next two hours I forgot all about Mr. Empty Pockets or flyin'. I don't know where my brothers were sittin' but I was glad I weren't near 'em. How they jabbed and poked one 'nother pretendin' they were duelin' durin' sword fightin' scenes in movies bothered the bejesus outta me. Half way through the movie, Yates shut it off, turned up the lights, and told us all to go home. "A storm is comin'."I couldn't find my brothers in the crush of people, mostly kids, leaving the movie house. Standin' on the sidewalk alone and lookin' for 'em I figured they had already found someone to hitch a ride home with, which was okay by me. I'd fly home with Mr. Empty Pockets.That storm raced toward Harlen like a freight train. As happened in some of them storms, lightning flashed across the sky, caught in the curls of dirt that Pa said was like waves in the ocean that he once saw when he were in the war and went to some place called France. I was spittin' dirt and sneezin' it from my nose even before I got out of the town limits. I told Mr. Empty Pockets that we should begin flyin' home, but he said', "Not yet. You have to face some storms head on."I weren't no more than a half mile out of town, when the storm winds caught me, and like I were just another bit of dirt, it picked me up and carried me over miles of fields. I didn't even have the chance to think about flyin' out of that storm. Mr. Empty Pockets had abandoned me.
It were Pa who found me a day later lying unconscious on a piece of tin that had been blown off the top of a silo as if I had been laid there as gently as a newborn baby. He carried me home and for the next four days sat at my bedside while Ma nursed me back to health. I gave up flyin', preferrin' to stay as close to the ground as possible. Those storms continued for about the next year or so, and it took years for everything to return to normal, or as close to it as things could get, but by then another war was brewin'. I didn't see Mr. Empty Pockets again after I was carried off by that storm until about a year ago. He weren't changed much, but as I said, neither have I.
“The Lexicon of Frankness”
D'you know what we do when it rains?
We let it rain.That cousin of yours is as in-dee-pendent
as a hog on ice.What time is it? Half-past kissin' time,
time to kiss again.Gene ladled that gravy on his sandwich
'til who laid the chunk!Watch out! Those icy roads are slicker
than a greazed gut.Sitting between Susie and Margarite, I felt like
a rose between two thorns -- wait, don't hit me now!You think you're hungry? I could eat
the asshole out of a skunk.Hells bells! That sapsucker! That
son of a sea cook!You can't trust that Ed. He
thinks he's a rich-bitch.Deep down, Gibby's as common as
an old shoe, he's a good egg.Don't call me Mister. I'm Frank. Call me Frank,
I'll be frank with ya'.If you get there first, draw a blue line.
If I get there first, I'll rub it out.
the ge e-
lectric fan chop-
ing up yourwords
what are you
four or fiveyour hum
kicked upa notch or
down a note to
the love-lorn a doone
in your milk be agood boy drink it
get fat look big-boned watch
on the first TVin town the
arriving to watchEd Sullivan
“Firsts” and “Seconds”
Kyla was surprised that I hadn't had sex before. But you play sports, she said. I know, I said. We did it at my grandmother's house, in the guest bedroom strewn with photos of relatives I didn't, and would never, recognize -- of weddings, birthday celebrations at indiscriminate restaurants, yearbook photos. Nana was on a trip to Gulf Shores with her work friends, and I had a key in order to feed her dachshund named Duke, whom I put outside. We took off our clothes, made-out, and for a few minutes, understood everything. Afterwards, she borrowed my Celtics snapback. The breakup happened at the end of that summer, after I'd decided not to play basketball that fall, and she couldn't take me anymore.
"No French," Joe said, before he let me in. His parents were an hour away in Knoxville for the Southeastern Baptist Pastoral Dinner. His dad preached at Wildwood off highway 39. But I don't like to be alone, he texted earlier. He lived a couple miles from the church, on a winding backroad, and I'd missed the house twice before summoning enough courage to chance one of the long, skinny driveways into the darkness."Okay, Joe," I said.As I stepped into their kitchen, he stretched past me and pressed a button that loudly closed the garage door. "You can call me Joey," he said. "If you want."The house was one-story and connected via one long hallway. No lights on anywhere except for the tiny glow above the stove and the flickering TV in the living room, playing music videos on CMT."No party?" I said, snarkier than intended. He wore basketball shorts and a loose white tank-top, looked as if he'd just showered, his tanned collarbones smooth and prominent like the roots of wings."Sometimes a guy needs quiet," he said. But a shared quiet? I guess I didn't blame him exactly. My girlfriend had dumped me almost three months ago, and I'd discovered I didn't like to be alone either.Halo, paused in single-player mode, was on the TV in his bedroom. For a preacher's son, his room looked pretty normal -- some books and CDs on shelves built into the walls, his desk piled with our textbooks, his laptop, and backpack. Even the leather-bound bible on his nightstand was typical, his phone on top and plugged into the wall. He patted the end of his bed for me to sit while he went cross-legged on the carpet in front. For an hour, we shot at aliens and avatars, other armored men who looked just like us but in different colors. He had acne on his back, between the wings, and when he leaned forward, I could see the tip of his butt. No underwear.I didn't really know Joe that well, but we were kinda friends. In part because we sat next to each other in French. He could translate the paragraphs Mrs. French daily wrote on the board quicker than anyone else. But the other part had to do with how often we awkwardly bumped into one another in the restroom. Before lunch or 2nd period, or immediately after the final bell rang, I darted into whichever boys' restroom was closest and inevitably ran into Joe, either coming out of a stall (he never once used the urinals) or washing his hands.There were a couple of dis-awkwarding maneuvers: grin, breathe, say, "Hey man" or "What's up." You could sniffle or run a hand through your hair, pretend you had a very important text. But running into the same person at the same times so many times kinda rendered these moves ineffective.Weeks before, I'd gone to pee, and lo and behold, Joe flushed the commode and walked from a stall. His eyes were chestnut, I noticed then, the same color as his hair, and his mouth he held half open, tonguing an incisor as if he couldn't decide what to say. I knew he knew about Kyla, how she'd started with one of his football buddies. They all sat together at lunch. This time, either from hurt or petulance, I stared back and said, "Clearly, we need to coordinate our schedules better. People are going to talk."I picked a urinal, unzipped my pants."Or we could just make-out," he said. "That'd show 'em."Them who? I wanted to ask, but by the time I finished, he'd already washed his hands and left. Ever since, it had become a joke for us to go to the bathroom together. "Like girls," Krush, one of my real friends, teased me.Joey sniped me from behind and won another game."Want something to drink?"I said sure, thinking he would bring back a coke. What he offered me instead was a plastic red cup of whiskey stirred with a cinnamon stick. "That burns," I said.Joey gulped down half of his at once, and with his eyes squinted shut said, "at first, and for a few seconds."I mimicked him, but the burn lasted longer for me, all the way down my torso. My eyes watered. "I'm sorry," I said, "but je dois faire pipi.""Omg, stop." The way he said that, well, it was unlike he usually talked. Thinner, like a breeze.He showed me to the bathroom, where light blue paint covered the walls, and above the sink hung a cross-stitched Bible verse from Romans 10: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?"I leaned one arm on the wall behind the toilet and pissed all over the commode. After wiping everything down, I washed my hands and opened the door. Joey waited, his head bent to his phone, texts flashing on his face. I felt the impulse to but did not check mine. I'd spent the entire fall doing so, receiving none, and that disgusted me. As he lifted his face, I was going to apologize -- for taking so long or pissing all over the toilet, I don't know -- but he pushed his bangs from his eyes and in one motion, touching my neck and waist, he kissed me, hard, and on the mouth. I didn't pull away, either. Not as he got aggressive, squeezing me against the threshold, nor when from what seemed very far away, I heard the sound of garage doors opening. Because his hands were everywhere, his cinnamon-whiskey tongue indistinguishable from mine, so much satiating an empty, broken space somewhere I believed could not be unbroken.
“Stories from the Picture Box”
“Still Cheap! Still Street!”
Tom parked his bike, with the picture box facing a small park with two empty benches and a bare tree. He pulled a drawing from the back of the box, put it in the slot, heard it drop and opened the doors. He said to a crowd that wasn't there, "Gaito Kamishibai, -- 'Outdoor Picture-Story Show'!"Across the street a guy yelled, "Right on!"Tom called back, " Common on the streets of Japan, 1920's to late 1950's! During WWII, war propaganda! 1945-1952, U.S. occupation propaganda! But at heart still cheap! Still street!""Tell 'em, brother!""It was demobbed soldiers turned kiddie storytellers! Everyone hard scrabbling to make rubble and chaos yen! Here a monster mystery story! There a Magic trick box! Then a Lesson on hygiene, V.D., burns, ruins -- stories from anything!" The guy waved and left. Tom went on:"Our inheritance the shadows! Seared into Hiroshima brick! What to do with those black bricks?! Mortar and lay?! Throw and bash?! Drop down a well of dreams to wait, breathless, for the plunk?!"A woman walked past and said, "You need context."Tom said, "You're right! But how?!" She held up her arms in a "you're asking me?" shrug and kept walking till she was out of sight. There was no one else on the street. He called out, "Gaito Kamishibai! Outdoor Picture-Story Show!" and waited.
Still alone, Tom put a picture in the story box and opened the doors. "I was a kid, standing together for a movie autumn. Poster face words. 'Caltiki, The Immortal Monster.' Mexican horror. Italian director. Nina Simone look-alike ahead. Did black women like monster movies? Time Square garbage smell. 'Excuse me, Miss Simone?'""No, my name's Iuri." It was the woman who had told him he needed context. Her mouth was moving, and a car alarm blasted from a parked puce SUV. She shouted, "…AND WHEN I WAS LITTLE, I HAD NO IDEA WE WERE HOMELESS. I JUST THOUGHT I CAME FROM A FAMILY THAT LIKED TO HANG OUT AT THE LIBRARY A LOT…"The beeping stopped. Tom closed the doors.
Tom put a drawing in the box. Iuri couldn't see it from where she was standing. "Like I said, you need context. It's not enough just to open a picture box on the street and start talking about bricks and inheritance. Like, I was in line at the check cashing. A lady ahead of me was trying to get a money order from Honduras. The dude kept yelling at her, you need the password! Special clave! She was all dressed up but drunk or stoned. She turned to look at me and said, 'No tengo ilave especial. No clave.' She kept flipping through her keychain. She could have been sinking through the earth."She turned and saw the drawing in the box. "That is too weird." The car alarm went off again. In a rage she charged at the car. "I'll put a brick through your fucking windshield if you don't…!" The alarm stopped. He closed the doors.
Tom put a drawing in the story box and opened the doors. Two young women with a high-end baby stroller had stopped to listen. He said, "This is the Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman to win the highest honor in Theoretical Mathematics, The Fields Medal. She died of breast cancer in 2017 at 40. Her work was in something called Hyperbolic Geometry, Teichmüller Theory. Mysterious surfaces. She often visualized problems using doodles, sketching the topography of doughnuts. Tubes. Cups." My attention was drawn to the white milk bottle bobbing into view over the stroller's edge, in a tiny fierce grip of infant legerdemain. One woman said, "Was she gay?""She was married and had a daughter."They laughed and traded looks. The other pointed down to the baby. "She's a girl.""I mean, she was married to a man."The second woman said, "I was too."He said, "OK. I know less about that part of her than about Hyperbolic Geometry. And I don't know anything about Hyperbolic Geometry at all."The baby hiccupped. The first woman said, "But you're interested.""Yeah." She took the bottle. They watched him and waited.He said, "Sometimes I just keep drawing bottles and tubes. I wish it was for math. Maybe it's to avoid drawing people almost. I love that Italian painter Morandi. He only painted bottles. Containers. Purity. But there was a kind of fear there, too." The baby cooed. They put away the bottle and said thanks and left. He closed the doors.
“Billie's Story, Iuri's Story”
Tom put drawing in the story box and opened the doors. He said, "I worked with a teacher named Billie who told me stories about her jobs. She worked at a Dairy Queen with a kid from Guatemala. He thought the white rubber gloves he wore looked like a mummy's hands."Iuri was sitting on the grass and raised her hand again."What happened to the kid?""I don't know.""What happened to your co-worker, Billie?""She was young. She moved away. Everybody moved away.""What do you mean, everybody moved away?"" I don't know what else to do than take a box of drawings around and tell stories on the street."She moved her hand through the grass. "'You get on as a person, get off as a mummy.'""I just can't help trying to unwrap the bandages."A long woman in black leaned out from behind the tree. "Like kids watching YouTubes of hands opening toy eggs."
“Head for the Interstate”
Tom put a drawing in the story box and opened the doors. Iuri stared at it and said, " No way.""What?""Like you dreamed me.""What's it about?" Iuri looked ready to bolt, but when he stepped aside she went to the box and pulled down her mask. Her uncovered face was younger than her eyes. Her voice was barely audible at first, then stilled the air around her like an oncoming storm. "Ok. I'm Iuri. The power strip could take nine plugs. Only four were being used. The floor lamp, table lamp, TV/DVD player and CD player were all off. I pressed the off switch on the strip. The little light went out. I pulled out the plugs. I went to the kitchen and got a roll of tinfoil. I tore off small pieces and tucked them into the outlets, deep enough to be hidden. I wiggled the plugs back into the outlets. I used a butter knife to wedge tinfoil behind the power switch. Maybe when he turned the strip back on it would just trip the breakers and blow out the power. Piss him off real bad and give me a little head start. If it killed him I'd be in the clear for good, but he'd never know I did it. I pulled out the driveway and headed for the interstate, weighing either outcome with a smile."Tom shrank from the applause. On one bench was a boy with soda, and a woman with the dog. A girl with thick glasses was on the grass. The girl asked Iuri, "What happened next?""He never bothered me again. Now it's Hip Hop. Krumping. Finger tutting." Her fingers formed L's that joined and rotated into a box. They slid together, and the box closed.
“Book in the Sky”
Iuri put a drawing in the story box and opened the doors. The same people were back, and the couple with the baby stroller were coming up the sidewalk. Iuri waited until they were settled and then said, "When my family was homeless and hanging out in the library, I used to wander through the shelves and hear all the books talking to me, in these soft, low voices, like the kind teacher at school, like my dad, like Mr. Rogers or La Var, and my mom's voice was mixed in there, but I could never quite hear it clear. I'd go to certain sections, turn a corner, go up and down the shelves and she'd get a little closer, closer, then I'd lose her again. For a long time I thought I heard which book was her voice: Virginia Woolf, then Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Hardwick, Octavia Butler. Then I couldn't hear her anymore, and I just stopped reading, anything."The woman with the dog said, "I'm Donna." She picked up the dog and put it on her lap. "This is Cosmo. What is that in the picture?"A big guy at the chess table said, "I'm Adolfo." His smaller companion setting up the board said, "I'm Oscar. We've seen a book like that in the sky over the Sonoran Desert. That's the kind of shit you see out there. Burning bushes. Hidden water jugs." Adolfo added, "Floating tomes."Oscar nodded. "Floating tomes, secret machines, giant operating manuals and such. Or, excuse me, that's maybe your mother's book?"Iuri said, "Well, yeah. Both." There were more nods, and shadows moving over the ground. The girl on the grass waved and yelled to a FedEx delivery truck that pulled up to the corner. The driver was her mother. She yelled Special delivery everyone!" Boxes were opened, and everyone got a black sketchbook, a yellow pencil and a red sharpener.
The Fed Ex driver put a drawing in the story box and opened the doors. She said, "I'm Lisa. FedEx. Duh. Anyway, This is me driving. I drive for my daughter. She's got strabismus. I'm going to get it fixed. I tell her I drive the Strabismus Express. I can see front ways and sideways at once. Like defensive delivery. Usually an angry customer is tired waiting for me to get their package from our hubs to deliver. They order a duplicate shipment only to receive both the same day and not home to receive either when I get to the stop, so I get an oncall pup in my device by the time I've delivered three towns over hours later and impossible for me to make it back fifty miles in twenty minutes before the window closes and I'm at fault for not prioritizing my pickups over deliveries. All I can ever do is deliver unless I get express request to do otherwise. My life is a series of impatient inconvenience and missed opportunities like this train looking sideways, I just watch out and keep driving and don't give a shit."Lisa shrugged and said, "Anyway…" and then closed the doors. There was applause, and cheers. She blushed and sat down. Iuri went to the box and called out, "Gaito Kamishibai! Out door picture show! Still cheap! Still street! Monster mystery stories! Our inheritance the shadows! Seared into brick! What to do with those black bricks, black books? Throw and bash? Write and draw? Drop down a well of dreams to listen, breathless, for the plunk?"Across the street Tom yelled, "Right on! You tell 'em, sister!"Iuri waved back, but he was already gone.
Ava Sophia Brown
“Ugly 40,000 BCE”
In 2010, a 40,000 year old pinky bone was found in a little cave known as Denisova, high in the Siberian Altai Mountains. Mitochondrial DNA and the work of many talented archeologists revealed the surprising identity of this individual -- a new species of archaic human -- dubbed "Denisovan" in lieu of an official scientific title. An artistic rendering further imagined the young woman -- short, stubby, abnormally large teeth, a wide jaw, a weak chin, muddy skin, stringy hair, wide blubbering eyes, and a bulbus nose.This is what I look like. I've tried small little cosmetic corrections: dry shampoo for some volume and foundation to even out my complexion. Braces for half a decade, followed by a retainer for a year, and an upcoming consolation for veneers. Sometimes I even sleep with a clothespin on my nose. When I stand in front of the mirror in the hotel bathroom, I can't help but wonder if I'm a time traveler from the Altai Mountains. I suck in the sides of my mouth in an attempt to train my face to be thinner -- a tip I had read on Tumblr a few months ago and pinned to my Pinterest board dubbed "pretty girl."It is 2014 and I am 18 years old. I'm on a family vacation to Paris, France. A graduation gift that I'm (of course) thankful for but not entirely pleased with. My parents are asleep in the master bed, across from a window with an obscured view of the Eiffel Tower. I am banished to a cot in the same room. That gets to the root of the issue with this vacation. If I were left to my own devices, if I had travelled alone, I'm sure I could have managed to find a French boyfriend on this trip. Or at least some little fading romantic fling. I have friends that travelled to Italy on summer vacation, Canada for a school trip, Israel on Birthright, and Cape Town to visit cousins -- all of them seem to have managed foreign boyfriends. Some of them (I'm told but I cannot prove) even keep up correspondence, messaging late into the night, despite the time differences, on Kik and WhatsApp. I've even seen photographs of some. A handsome IDF soldier with cropped brown hair. A Caribbean Rastafarian with a toothy smile. A posh brit that looks like Matt Smith.How the hell did they all manage to shake their parents?Tonight I attempt it myself. I slip back into the hotel bathroom and get dressed. Something very 'French', I think as I stretch a tight spandex American Apparel turtleneck over my head. Super French, I congratulate myself as I adjust the beret I bought at the airport. It's easy to sneak out of the hotel room, even easier to sneak out of the hotel itself -- and as I take a long breath of the night air, I feel suddenly very adult. I buy a pack of cigarettes and feel even more adult. I stand on the corner for a moment, pack in hand, looking down the dewy and surprisingly quiet streets. A few college students walk in a huddle, laughing and joking en français. I consider approaching them -- Bonjour, Je m'appelle Katie! -- but they've wrapped across the corner before I work up the nerve.I end up teleported to a small bar. It's a little chicer than the dive bars I've fake ID'd my way into at home. There's neon lights and American pop music playing. Thin French women sit with cocktails and smoke. Men prowl the scene. I order a glass of red wine at the bar and try to mimic them -- crossing my legs, tapping my pack of cigarettes on my palm, bringing it to my lips -- I realize that I neglected to buy a lighter. I awkwardly put the loose cigarette back in the pack. I feel like I might start to sob.A man sits down next to me. Red hair, freckles, oblong nose. You look Irish, I want to say, but I decide against it. It might be insensitive to question his French-ness. He orders a beer. I use the opportunity to look at him a bit closer. College aged, rough skin, bad teeth, small piercing eyes. Not cute by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly an individual with a penis in my age group. He smiles at me. I smile back. I imagine showing him off to my friends. My French fling. A short but passionate romance. I imagine losing my virginity in the city of love. The optics are great. I'm in."Bonjour…" I say. He raises his brow a bit."Salute… American?" He answers. I nod. He smiles again. "American girl, very nice. Super cool. Where in the states?" His accent is thick. I respond, slow and loud."CON-NECT-I-CUT." Now we really get to talking. He gives me a light for my cigarette. I blow smoke in his face, taking inspiration from a fanfiction I won't admit to reading, feeling very sexy. He invites me to his place. I oblige.It's a small five story walk up, minimally decorated, bedroom and living room combined. I realize that I don't know his name, but I figure it's too late to ask."Let's… watch a movie, no?" He plops down on the bed and takes out his laptop. Now it's up to me to think of the perfect suggestion. I rack my brain for the perfect Parisian film that will simultaneously showcase my sense of taste and set the mood for the act to come. I ultimately settle on:"DO YOU WANT TO WATCH BREATHLESS.""Breathless?" He furrows his brow. "Par Godard? That is… a very old movie. Let's watch…" he flicks through his downloaded film catalogue, "… Rise of the Planet of the Apes."I'm a little disappointed but I don't let it show. He clicks on the film and I sit down next to him in bed. It's a torrented copy -- the frame is cut off from multiple crops, then digitally re-stretched to fit the screen. The result is a rubber faced James Franco and a fat Caesar. I imagine Caesar, the tragically intelligent ape, stuffing his face with bananas, belly slowly growing until rendered immobile. I laugh to myself. My date however is focused intently on the diegesis of the film."YOU REALLY LIKE THIS?" I ask."Fiction is… good! Monkeys… they are not smart like this."We're about 30 minutes in when I decide to make a move. As Caesar is tormented by Harry Potter's Tom Felton, I reach my hand over to the Frenchman's lap. I give him a knowing look. I slide my palm under his waistband and feel soft, limp flesh. He is still focused on the film.Another ten minutes past. I've escalated to a hand-job. Caesar shouts his first English words, prompting a fight to the death with Tom Felton. My date is still soft. He tries to help me, touching himself, looking at me, grunting. No change."I'm sorry… I am… you are…" He searches for something. He really looks at me. My abnormally large teeth, my wide jaw, my weak chin, my muddy skin, my stringy hair, my wide blubbering eyes, my bulbus nose. Finally he finds his explanation:"Not very pretty…""Oh."James Franco embraces Caesar. His eyes are watery, James's eyes are watery as well.
That night, as I lay in my cot, I have a strange dream. I am the Denisovan girl. The Serbian summer is pleasant, warm even, and I sit on the banks of a glassy clear pond, surrounded by a forest that will one day be ancient. In my reflection I am much the same, but my face is somehow warmer, sweeter, less rough but still disproportioned. I like my reflection; it is the only person I've ever known. Across the pond, a man emerges from the leaves. He is taller than me. Fiery red hair. Sharp strong features. A protruding brow. He is a Neanderthal. He wades across the water to me. I don't speak to him -- my soft palette has not evolved yet to express verbal language -- but I grunt and he grunts and we exchange a meaningful, gentle gaze. We forge for berries and play in the water. We climb up to our cave and outline our handprints on the wall. We sit by the fire as the temperature begins to drop, and we wrap each other in soft pelts. I think to myself, he is handsome but he is different. He thinks to himself, she is ugly but she is different.He fucks me into the genetic code and I fuck him into extinction.
“At the Edge of the Lake”
Translated from the Spanish by
All is calm in the bakery of Mr. Benjamin Goldstein. This time of year the settlers leave to visit their families, which means that small businesses find themselves mired in long, uninteresting workdays. The only sound that filters through the bakery windows is the murmur of the lake that separates this village from the neighboring settlement.Benjamin Goldstein leans back against the stone oven and concentrates on reading the same newspaper he has read all week. Suddenly, the creaking of the front door causes him to return to reality, surprised by the presence of a client. Not noticing anyone at first, Goldstein walks up to the counter. Looking down, he becomes aware of a boy with no arms. He is dressed in denim overalls and his bare feet stand out against the dark wood floor.Goldstein asks in an attempt at professionalism:"How can I help you?""Shoes," replies the new arrival, his chin held high."This is a shop for bread, my child.""Make me some bread shoes," the child says, confident in the eloquence of his request.Benjamin knows that the eager child will likely be his only client of the day. What's more, the strangeness of the situation encourages him to partake in the child's endeavor. The baker soon realizes that the easiest solution is to cut two old sandwich rolls and scoop out the softer crumbs inside of them. In less than five minutes, Benjamin Goldstein sets the pair of shoes on the ground, right in front of the interested party.The little boy slips in his feet immediately, resisting the urge to leap about with joy. The satisfied customer thanks him and disappears behind the door with his newly acquired goods. Though the boy in the overalls is no longer in sight, Benjamin remains behind the counter. He begins to doubt whether what just occurred actually happened, or if it was a hallucination, the result of summertime boredom. These thoughts find themselves interrupted by resounding laughter and a chorus of quacking.The baker looks out the window and sees his young visitor a few steps from the body of water, surrounded by reeds and wild vegetation. A family of ducks come out from the waterlilies and, taking delicate care, begin to eat up the shoes one crumb at a time. During the entire feast, the child's toothless grin is so big that his cheeks practically cover his eyes. This expression remains until he is left barefoot, just as he had presented himself in the bakery of Benjamin Goldstein.
“A Batavia Street”
In honor of the Archbishop Desmund Tutu and The Holiness Dalai Lama
The cock crowed three times,"Kukuruyuuuk, kukuruyuuuk, kukuruyuuukk...," as the caterwaul of morning that awakened me from slumber. The scent of jasmine and mint emanated in the air from Bhiksu Shiao's incense at the temple, to the east of my shelter. Petojo Street, Number 13, in Batavia, Indonesia, where I lived, in between the rugged walls of Captain Lowenstein's house, a government worker, and the home of a Javanese man named Joko. Our shelter had no number nor postal code, only a metal sheet over our heads to keep us out of rainy days.The year was 1930 but I didn't know the date or time. I knew only of the morning, noon and evening from the signs about me, and the weather hot or wet on my tawny skin. "I am a friend of the temple," I murmured to Bhiksu Shiao under my breath. The soursop tree in front of the temple drooped with fruits begging to be picked, and I knew Bhiksu Shiao wouldn't mind.In my brown tattered shorts and dirty white shirt, I slipped my feet onto my slippers -- wet from last night's rain -- and paced swiftly to the temple. Slowly, I approached the fat Buddha shrine in the middle of the entrance, with its golden paint and incense surrounding its feet. A pear and a few oranges arrayed in a pyramid were plenty, surely Bhiksu Shiao wouldn't miss one. I grabbed the pear and bit into it -- "CRUNCH!" -- and the sound awoke Bhiksu Shiao from her meditation behind the shrine."Ayub! Don't take that one, it is holy offering!" Bhiksu Shiao yelled as she rushed towards me. Her bald head had three grey dots on the top and, with her red cheeks, she looked as if a toy came to life.I ran outside, picked the lowest hanging soursop, and yelled, "Buddha is winking at me, Bhiksu Shiao! Thank you!"I didn't look back as I returned back to my shelter but heard Bhiksu Shiao yell back, "He is squinting, Ayub! He is watching you every moment, you scoundrel!"I turned around to her and giggled, as she shook her head and walked back into the temple. My breakfast was served fresh each morning -- given by the holy Buddha -- but lunch had not yet come. I returned to my shelter with a belly full of fruit mush and the satisfaction of a deity.I saw Joko leave for work in his black Yamaha motorcycle, as he slapped my shoulder on the way down the street. He was a teacher at the nearby public school. He often wooed the ladies at the markets and once gave me a bottle of sweet tea during a hot day.My father, the rickshaw driver, had gone to work earlier than Joko to earn a day's wage and perhaps escape from my whining about hunger. He purchased the metal sheet over our heads from a Dutch mechanic at the edge of Batavia. The Dutch lived amongst the people -- even people like me, who lived in between the edges of Captain Lowenstein's house and Joko's house. Parts of Batavia were troublesome with quarrels between neighbors because the Dutch and Muslims were against each other, but our street had somehow forgotten the causes of war and maintained our peace. I was born in 1920 and every day has felt like the day I was born because my mother said, 'each day is a fresh new beginning.'"Allah hu akbar! Allah hu akbar!" chanted the Imam at the mosque to the south end corner of my street."It is six in the morning," I said to myself. "I must awaken mother, to beg for lunch."My mother's name was Yanti and she cleaned the steps of the houses around us for a few hundred rupiah and blessed each home with an earnest heart. Her soul was made of steel. There were many mornings when we woke up sick from the rains like abandoned puppies, yet she still desired life."Mother, where will we find lunch later? We have asked everyone around us," I whispered to her.Mother was laying half asleep on the green sofa that was her bed and my father's love nest. They covered themselves with batik sarongs at night and told me they would make love quietly, as not to disturb the neighbors. I was their first born and the only heir to the metal sheet over us. If they were gone, I would be lost, even with the metal sheet over me."I clean everyday, Ayub. God provides," mumbled my mother. Her faith had carried me through dark times. When I was seven, malaria struck me and mother was the only comfort with leftover soups from the Lowensteins and Bhiksu Shiao, who came to give us fresh hot water. My parents and I lived on compassion. It was our only source of hope."Ayub, are you in there?" asked Astrid, Captain Lowenstein's seven year old half-breed daughter. Her hair was curly brunette with cheeks as soft as those white cotton pillows I wished I was born with. She must need our help cleaning her front steps."Astrid, could you help with lunch today?" I asked.Mother took my arm and scolded me, "We must not be too desperate or they will leave," she said."There will be a Kuda Lumping today. That is what the other kids told me," Astrid said. Astrid was not allowed outside but today must be different. She had on a brown batik leisure shirt with a square ruffled neckline and matching shorts. They were most likely her pajamas."How come you're here, Astrid?" I asked."Father is at work and Nora is asleep," said Astrid. "I woke up wanting to play."Nora, Astrid's nurse and guardian, was a Dutch-Indonesian beauty with black hair and green eyes. Her embroidery and quilts were her gifts to the homes around us. She'd given me a blanket and a mattress to sleep on at five years old. I slept on it every night of my life since."Say hello to Nora, Astrid," said mother. Astrid nodded and returned inside her home next door.Father Sven, a slim and tall priest with a neck that leads when he walked, lived in the Catholic church to the west corner behind our street. This morning he passed by our shelter in a hurry. He wore jeans and a black shirt with his white collar, his pace swift as if a monkey was chasing him."Why rush, Father? Is not the church in the other direction?" I asked, poking my head out to the street."Ayub, you are awake. This morning I must speak to the officiate at the capital," Father Sven replied. "We had a bad drainage pipe that burst into our prayer room. The city must help us pay for the damages.""Perhaps I can help clean and make some money?" I asked, hoping for a favor leading to a stable future."It is an adult matter, my son," he said. "I must go."Wishing for his approval, I kept pace with him farther down the street and asked, "But, if I can help you? It would be a kind gesture, Father Sven." Inside my heart, I wanted to hear an affirmation and I won't leave until he said yes."Do you have the cross I gave you?" Father Sven asked, still walking fast. "Perhaps we can speak later about money.""Yes, Father Sven. We have the cross. It is beautiful," I answered. Father Sven gave us a ceramic cross with an ornate design and the body of a man crucified in the middle. I thought it was a decoration but Father Sven told me and my mother to speak to God and the cross was a holy protection. Mother said I would cuddle with it when I was ill with malaria. It must be nonsense because it was the soups that healed, not a ceramic cross toy. My father told me he was planning to sell it for several thousand rupiah or trade it for a new mattress for me."Ayub, be patient. God's provision needs time and patience to wait for," said Father Sven. "I will come with lunch."I gasped. God provided, as mother said."Thank you, Father Sven," I said, my heart jumping in excitement. "We will be here with empty stomachs."At the end of our street, Father Sven asked a rickshaw driver to take him to the capital in Central Batavia.Unknown to me, Astrid had followed us. "Astrid, Nora will be angry! Go home!" She ran to her house and I ran to my shelter, waiting for the rest of the morning to unfold.The walls of my shelter were rugged but I found it wasn't the walls that kept us strong through monsoon and malaria, it was our will to live that drove us on. Those who lived in Petojo 13 were Muslim, Buddhist, Christians, and Hindu but families barely spoke to each other about heritage and children knew neither religion nor culture. When we scabbed our knees or bloody shins, we did it without blaming God. We knew life, families and play were joyful and something good, while fights were scornful and something bad. Our street was one Batavia street amongst many and each neighbor aimed for peace and calm."Ayub, I have a plastic bag," said Anton in his navy shorts and white button-down shirt in front of my shelter. Anton and I were both a decade old and his three story house was directly across from us with white metal railings on his balconies. He was from a Muslim Ambonese family with dark curly hair and tall stature. His father was taller than my father and wider, with a much larger belly. "I have some strings we can use to tie this soldier figurine to it. Then we can let it drop from the roof and pretend it's a combat mission."Anton always made his own toys and he was adventurous because he had a red medicine that healed cuts and scratches. I had nothing. "Just from the top floor, not the roof, because if I fall I'd die," I told him, but my chest was beating with anticipation of play and good times."Okay, let's get on with it," said Anton. We ran up the stairs at the side of his house and tied the plastic bag handles with the strings to the soldier figurine."Parachute!" said Anton with his eyes wide, looking at me. He dropped it down from the balcony as I looked down and saw the plastic bag inflate with air then sway to the left and right before dropping onto the street. "Batavia Mission Drop Soldier," said Anton."Should we get another plastic bag? I would like to have a soldier," I asked."I only have one soldier but we can tie another toy for you," said Anton, looking around the room.We rummaged through his house for plastic bags and took four more along with some strings."We can tie my sister's doll heads, because to tie the whole doll would be too heavy," said Anton.All the toys were his so I went along and enjoyed his company. He ran inside the house and must have popped off the heads of his sister's toys because he came out with the decapitated heads of dolls."I can tie them." I took the doll heads and tied strings about their faces, then tied the strings to the bag handles."This is enough," said Anton, holding three plastic bags with doll heads and a soldier."Ready, let's drop mission, now," I said. We ran to the edge of the third story balcony and dropped each plastic bag. The plastic bags inflated and they slowly drifted down onto the street unscathed."They paid their dues and they've accomplished their mission," said Anton. He picked up his missile gun toy -- glued newspapers on cardboard boxes-- slung it around his shoulders, and ran down the stairs. I ran after him, half afraid I would get caught by his father or mother. "Don't worry, my parents said it was okay to invite you to play once or twice a month. Let's mission drop and secure our posts in the alley. Before Kuda Lumping arrive and we must see the show.""They are coming?! Astrid told me. How did you know?" I asked, surprised."They perform for money, so they announce it to my parents because they want as many people around to watch as possible," said Anton."I should learn how to dance Kuda Lumping with their troupe," I said, thinking out loud. "Then I won't need to beg for lunch or dinner.""No, they are all adults and they believe in ghosts of dead horses," said Anton. "You know they are possessed?"I looked at him quizzically and replied, "I do not want to meet a dead horse.""You said you need lunch? I have lemper. We can eat together," said Anton. "How do you think my father got so fat? We have plenty sticky rice in my house."God provided for me and my parents often, and it was so, for all the children and neighbors of our shelter. I wondered when I could be of help for their provision. My eyes moistened as I uttered, "Anton, I am grateful for you.""So are my parents. My sister, not so much," replied Anton. His sister had turned three years old last year and often cried for attention. Anton would come to my shelter to escape her needy behavior. "My sister can barely speak but she screams like the devil."After several hours dropping soldiers, we sat on the chair in front of his house where his father would drink his afternoon coffee and eat fried bananas."Why do people war against each other?" I asked Anton, because I noticed he and his sister often fought even though they were from the same family, whereas the whole neighborhood was so different yet compatible."My sister wants too much," said Anton. "Perhaps when she is bigger she will become a monster. Most adults are monsters."Bhiksu Shiao and her student monks were walking in two straight lines, chanting prayers with incense up and down the street past Anton's house. Anton and I watched them till they turned to the next street corner, praying, blessing and chanting their Buddhist prayers. Anton and I breathed in the scent of the jasmine and mint then slowly exhaled the crisp scent of incense and closed our eyes in silence."Your sister is a toddler," I whispered, wishing I also had a sister because often I felt alone."I suppose that makes a difference," Anton replied, his voice soft and his breath slow.As we fluttered our eyes open, we realized the magic of Bhiksu Shiao. "She is so nice," I said.Anton nodded and gently said, "Buddha bless you.""Father Sven said he will bring me lunch," I said to Anton.At that moment, the sounds of gongs and cymbals reverberated in our ears, beating drums jolting me out of the chair. The Kuda Lumping troupe had arrived though it was not yet noon."I thought they were going to come later in the afternoon?" I said, surprised."We must be one of the first streets they're visiting," said Anton."They will earn plenty of money," I said.From the corner of my eyes, I saw Astrid run out of her house and onto the street."Are they here?!" she asked, with her eyes wide."Astrid, where is Nora?" asked Anton."She is awake now but she knows I want to see them dance!" replied Astrid, smiling.The horse dancers were accompanied by gong and cymbal players, as well as drummers who were all men with white cotton shirts and colorful batik pants. They banged the drums, awakening the whole neighborhood, and began to dance and jump about the whole width of our street.It was almost late morning by this time, and all of the adults who were home came outside. Astrid began to clap and Anton looked up to check for his sister. "I don't want my little sister to come out. She will cry from the loud sounds," he said. "She will bother me."The troupe approached us and the whole neighborhood watched, fixated on the horsemen dancers and the sound of music. The dancers pranced with horse-heads made of bamboo sticks, decorated with yarn, jewels, and glittering beads, with some horseman riding weaved rattan horses covered with batik fabrics and shiny sequins. The flamboyant display entranced us and the gongs and drums made our hearts beat in anticipation.One man had a long sword and he took it out of its sheath and began to swing it to the left and right. The swordsman appeared to stab another man, who clenched his chest. The swordsman kept dancing and swaying his sword, his other palm shaking up and down.The other dancers pranced like horses and yowled with the drums and beat of the gongs. The cymbals harmonized with the gongs and fascinated the whole neighborhood. I stepped to the side and noticed that the man who appeared to be stabbed with the sword had cuts from the sharp weapon but did not bleed."Is that man possessed?" I asked Anton."Perhaps they are all possessed?" said Anton, staring at them.The bewitching performance elevated the yowls and leaps into art. The flashing decorations of the rattan and bamboo horse heads piqued my eyes, with the sunshine above us creating a warm festive gathering. Kuda Lumping was notorious for being entertaining in a most peculiar way as I felt out of the realm of reality when the men kept jumping, prancing, and yowling as if they were wild horses in a pasture."I love the horses they rode on!" yelled Astrid to me and Anton.
"Astrid, don't touch the men or the jewels," said Anton."Why? They are so pretty!" Astrid said, clapping her hands together and jumping out of sheer adrenaline.The men began to raise their hands up and down and tap their legs. One approached Astrid on his rattan horse, showing his jewels to her. The sun made the sequins and jewels sparkled brighter as Astrid caressed a jewel and laughed out loud. Anton and I, suspicious of the horseman, pulled Astrid aside."Don't touch them, Astrid," I said."Ayub, they are just dancing!" Astrid said, laughing and enjoying the performance. She stepped forward, wanting to ride the horses, and the music made her jump up and down and she shook her head and began to yowl.Anton was scared and the adults surrounding the gathering began to murmur."The half-breed knows nothing about Kuda Lumping," said one woman."She is naughty," said another.I ran to her house and banged on the door. "Nora! Wake up, Astrid will be possessed!" I screamed. It was a known Indonesian myth about Kuda Lumping. Spirits of wild horses and other demons would possess the horse dancers as they performed their magic tricks. Every Indonesian knew the powers and magic of the Kuda Lumping. Anton came running towards me and screamed, "She passed out!"I ran back to the gathering as the horse-dancers ceased and gathered around Astrid. She was lying on the street in her pajamas, eyes closed."Is she delirious?" asked a woman."We have not received our monies," said a horse dancer. A musician with a gong in his hands knelt down to listen to Astrid's heart, "She is alive but perhaps she was too excited?""Excitement does not cause this," said Anton. "A demon has entered her!"The horse dancers laid down their rattan and bamboo horses and carried Astrid above their heads towards her home, as Nora was seen in her robe walking outside of her house. "What happened? It is too early for Kuda Lumping," she said."Nora, she was yowling," said Anton. "She was hypnotized by the jewels and sequins.""Bring her to our front steps," said Nora."We still need our earnings," said the pecuniary horse dancer.Everyone murmured and a woman replied to him, "We will give you one hundred rupiah. This is a tragedy. A girl almost died.""We need more than a hundred rupiah," the horse dancer said."Ten thousand rupiah and some lemper," said Anton. "Hold on, I will get it. Then you all have to leave this street."The horse dancers were silenced as Anton had made his statement. Anton went into his house and his mother stood in the doorway. He whispered to her as she squinted at the horse dancers and growled at them. Anton came out with a dozen lemper and the promised ten thousand rupiah. Anton handed the monies to one of the horse dancers and they left the street without the grandiosity they entered with.Several hours passed and it was afternoon by the time Captain Lowenstein came home and Anton's father returned. My father was not yet home and my stomach was growling because Father Sven never came back with lunch and mother had received only little money for cleaning the front steps of each house."We must not be fearful of hunger, Ayub," said mother. "It is only temporary but life is forever."My thought was not about the hunger that churned my belly. I was worried about Astrid. Astrid was kind to me, and to lose her from a demonic attack would ruin my childhood.Anton came running into my shelter exasperated and said, "My father will ask the imam at the mosque for the fat pig for Astrid to touch. It is said that a demon would enter the pig and she will be cured."Behind Anton, his father with his bouncing belly hurried to the mosque to the south of our street. Its imam would chant every morning to signal a time of prayer. Anton's father came back with a little black pig, string tied around its neck, and the Imam running beside him. "Where is the young lady?" asked the imam."She is inside," Anton said. He took them into Captain Lowenstein's house. Inside, the Captain and Nora were in sorrow as Astrid was still unconscious."What happened to my daughter?" asked Captain Lowenstein, a tall man with blond hair and brown eyes. "What struck her?""Captain Lowenstein, wake her up and ask her to touch the black pig," said Anton. "It is our imam's suggestion and my father's idea."Captain Lowenstein looked as if he were struck by lightning. "A BLACK PIG?! What if it has a disease?" he yelled out. My eyes felt like they were popping out of their sockets and the confusion made my head swirl. "Religion is a drug. This is why I do not believe in religion!" screamed Captain Lowenstein."Wake her up, Nora," said Anton. "It is worth a try."Nora shook Astrid and there was movement in Astrid's body. Her eyes opened and she yowled. She jumped and clapped her hands, then pranced and kicked her legs in the air and ran about the room and howled. Her eyes were wild as if a dog infected her with rabies. As Anton tried to come closer, Astrid pushed him and tried to bite him."Give her the black pig," said the imam. They put the fat black pig closer to her as Nora tried to hold Astrid down and place her hand on the pig. Astrid screamed and, to everyone's surprise, began acting like a wild horse, biting Nora and kicked Captain Lowenstein on his shin.I ran outside as fear shook me out of my soul. Just then, Father Sven walked past my shelter."Please, Father, I plead your mercy," I cried to him."I am sorry, my son. I forgot the lunch," said Father Sven."It is not about that; it is about Astrid," I begged him."What happened?" asked Father Sven."Come heal her," I asked. "Please? It is my only wish for this year. It is my tenth year on this Earth."The imam ran outside and the little black pig ran wild towards the mosque. Sweat dripped down Anton's father's head as he came out and said, "It is no use. The black pig is no cure." Anton cried and I came to him and held his shoulder.Father Sven and I walked inside Astrid's house where Nora and Captain Lowenstein forced her down on the ground to calm her. Astrid hit back with her hands and legs, sobbing and squirming. I crept in to witness the exorcism. After malaria, I knew demons were diseases and that thinking of them as spirits was nonsense.Father Sven, with a small cross on a chain tied to his belt, uttered, "Holy Father, cast out the demons in this young girl and let her soul rest with peace and refresh her with vitality and joy. With this holy water, I sanctify her body and rebuke the demons possessing her innocence this moment.""Ga weg satan!" (get out satan!) screamed Captain Lowenstein.Astrid kept howling and sobbing, her wild eyes red from crying. I knelt to the ground and sobbed with Astrid as I considered her as sister and a playmate. Father Sven couldn't cast out the demons inside my friend, Astrid. Anton was next to me, holding my shoulder as we both wept and our stomachs growled.I looked outside and saw beauty while Anton, Astrid, and I were inside betrayed by demons and asking for miracles. It took all of my courage to stand up and run out of Captain Lowenstein's home into my shelter next door and grab the ceramic cross that hung on the wall above our only sofa. I took it in hope it would shatter the demons out of sync and destroy the possession inside Astrid.With all my earnest heart and anger, I threw the ceramic cross against the wall of the Captain's living room and it shattered into pieces. The pieces of the ceramic cross on the ground emitted a bright light and I covered my face to deflect it. Astrid levitated a few feet off the floor as Nora and Captain Lowenstein gasped and jolted back. As she levitated, Astrid struggled to breathe. With her eyes wide, she coughed mucous and began to cry."Let me go," Astrid cried, and she dropped to the floor.An apparition of a black stallion flashed out of Astrid, dashing out of her home to gallop down the street.Captain Lowenstein, Nora, Anton and his father cried with relief. I was relieved because the demons lost. Father Sven came to me and asked me, "Was that the cross I gave you, my son?""It was the only valuable thing we had, Father Sven," I said."You will never go hungry again," said Father Sven. "Come to my home with your family each night."My eyes moistened and asked him, "My family is welcome to your home?"Father Sven nodded and I hugged him around his stomach."For your compassion, my son," said Father Sven.We did not realize the time and day of that moment, but I knew we all survived demons, rain, heat, greed, hunger, and nearly lost all of our tears together. With each struggle, we weren't afraid to live together, and in harmony we may survive the world together.Our street was one Batavia street amongst many and each neighbor aimed for peace and calm.
“If the Sheep”
MADNESS REALLY IS CONTAGIOUS
-- ROBERTO BOLAÑO
An Editor's Note by Way of Apology
Reader, let me first apologize because I left you at the end of Part I with a bit of a cliffhanger: T. and her newish friend and coworker, Dani, were just about to enter and follow T.'s fiancé, Benjamin, and T.'s nemesis and student, Meredith, through the tree-line at the edge of campus and into the woods. You can read all about the beginning of the presumed impropriety in greater detail here (and if you haven't read it yet, why are you looking at Part II?), so there is no need to retread old ground. I too wanted to know what happened next and, to be frank, I was having trouble finding what happened next in the multitude of files when my deadline for Part I had come around and my editors were demanding a final draft and a cliffhanger seemed just the way to end the first segment of a serial publication. But then life happened and I procrastinated on looking through all the files on T.'s hard drive; now my deadline for Part II has neared, and the editors are asking yet again and I have found none of T.'s journal entries that reveal what she thought, felt, saw, heard, smelled, or tasted in that moment in the woods -- not even a definite description of what exactly happened. At best, I have found a bit of an unfinished video project and a dream diary entry. The video, at least, includes some cellphone footage from that day (as far as I can tell). I begin Part II with that:
1 Woods -- Day
Slow motion: the horizon line is a bit off kilter, the camera shaky as if the cameraperson were walking or running. We see the understory of young woods, the tree trunks are thin and adolescent. Everything is in the vibrant green of early autumn. The slow motion causes the various leaves to blur and meld into each other, forming a curtain of green: knotweed, ivy, garlic mustard, dock, clematis vines, honeysuckles, wild rose, brambling blackberry canes, saplings of maple and tree of heaven.Title fades in:
IF THE SHEEP, PART II
SOUND of footsteps on leaves, twigs as the camera pushes through the leaves to reveal in the distance two figures. Their clothes are a startling contrast against the greens and browns of the plant-life: blue denim, white shirt, a red backpack, a black sports jacket. We cannot see their faces.
2 Office -- Day
BENJAMIN at his desk. He wears a tie, a white shirt, a black sports jacket drapes over the chair behind him. On the desk sit a clay model of a liver, a stack of books. Behind him, on the wall is a framed poster of a cuneiform tablet. He examines the model before looking up at the camera. From time to time he picks up the model and fidgets with it as he speaks.
Sacrifices and priesthoods have their secrets as well. Hidden knowledge that they shared with their initiates and no one else. Secrets are a source of power and privilege in every society.
3 Woods -- Day
The same man and woman. There can be no doubt that this is BENJAMIN -- we've seen the same sports coat in the interview. The woman has red hair, BENJAMIN dark brown. Facial expressions are unclear. The woman is pointing towards something unseen further in the background, deeper in the woods.
We know little of how initiates were recruited into the priesthood, though our knowledge is still preliminary. It has been only a century and half since we were even able to read cuneiform, there is still much to learn. But we can imagine these scholars practicing their rituals and their techniques in a private intimacy away from the public sacrifices open to the public.
VOICE (whispering, off camera)
What are they doing?
And the camera turns to reveal DANI, crouched and half hidden by a tree trunk.
I can't hear what they're saying. Let's get closer.
The camera turns back to BENJAMIN and the woman.
BENJAMIN and the woman bend at look at a bit of earth. The ground it seems has been cleared. They discuss some more. She reaches a hand seemingly out for Benjamin's hand and he pulls his away and looks around and quickly says something to her. He looks directly at the camera, but it seems he has not spied the camera/voyeurs.
The one thing we have not been able to find are the altars. We wonder if they look like those of the Etruscans or the Aztecs -- were they large stone structures, a stage for the performance? Or were they giant corrals like the animal sacrifices that still occur in parts of the Himalayas?
4 Woods -- Day
The camera pans over an array of stones, black volcanic stones, far from local minerals. There is the beginning of some structure on the ground, like a small altar.
Even in the dream it was impossible to say whether Meredith is whispering into his ear or has leaned up to give him a kiss on the cheek. In the dream, I see a kiss. In reality, Dani and I disagreed, she thought a kiss, I thought a whisper. For me a kiss is purely unthinkable and would ruin me. Dani meanwhile thinks sharing secrets reveals a far greater intimacy.Unlike reality, instead of hiding with my camera I rush out to stop them, but by the time I reach the spot they have disappeared. Instead of looking for them, I dig with my fingers through roots and past stones until my fingers bleed. And deep there beneath the earth I find whatever it is that I'm looking for. Something soft and purple; it pulses in my hand and my dream-self thinks it is a heart. It is only as I write this that I realize it was not a heart but a liver.
My mother warned me, after the engagement, when I called excitedly to share the news. She had been less than enthusiastic at first, paranoid even. It was strange because she liked Benjamin. That's the problem, she said, Benjamin is very likable, charismatic in that way some intelligent, men are. Students respond to that. Beautiful young women students respond to that. Benjamin would never do that, I said, and besides I'm a beautiful young woman too. Oh sweety, she said, you're already thirty-one.
I spy on Benjamin's class through the small window in the door. It looks like a movie version of a college classroom with its seminar table and students with their coffee cups and snacks and notebooks and pens racing. Benjamin asks a question and the students raise their hands, kindly laugh when other students make a joke, try genuinely to answer whatever he's posed to them. Benjamin rubs his chin in contemplation at answers and gives his responses to which the students nod along. My own classroom is never like this. My students are loud, they ignore me and each other. They play games on their laptops. The only times they pay attention is when I put something on the projector, and even then only sometimes.The students have complain that I haven't shown them anything with a plot. We demand a plot! We want to make movies, TV, documentaries -- not this weird stuff, they say. I acquiesce and bring in something more approachable, a DVD of Wong Kar-Wei's In the Mood for Love. The camera, like some hidden voyeur watches the love emerge through hidden glances between the two neighbors in the same boarding house. I point out to my students that the camera was the first medium that could truly capture this aspect of human experience, secret messages encoded in the eye. A glance is lost to most of the audience of a play, and a novel can mention glances, but how repetitive would it be to keep reading: He looked at her, she looked at him, they looked, they glanced, they stared. The close-up reveals something fundamental.When I spy on Benjamin's class, I pay special attention to Meredith, who seems no different from any other student. There are no winks, no hidden caresses, no lingering looks. At home, I pause when I hear Benjamin on the phone, eavesdropping for whispers of secret rendezvous. I peek at his phone while he is in the shower, I log into his social media accounts from his home computer. Nothing, nothing -- I complain to Dani -- it's driving me crazy and I feel as if I've fallen into what an ex-boyfriend called the Zone. Dani suggests that perhaps Benjamin isn't cheating after all. Which, I point out, is what I said a week ago.
The Zone is what Robbie called his schizophrenic episodes, the influence of Tarkovsky's Stalker. Stalker was his favorite movie when we dated back in high school and we watched the old VHS copy that had belonged to his father until the magnetic tape could only show fuzz with vaguest outlines of the action. I hadn't thought of Robbie in years; he had become one of those people that you used to know, but know nothing of their current lives. The last time I saw him was during a break in college. At the time, I had just heard the rumors that he was sick and felt I should say hello to him.Robbie's mother answered the door wearing a fuzzy robe and thick gym socks. She looked exhausted, as if my knocking had woken her up even though it had been a Saturday afternoon, but she smiled when she saw me and told Robbie to see who had come to see him; said how long it had been since she had seen me. She dragged me into a deep hug and her robe had the distinct smell of hard liquor. She pointed to the living room where Robbie's head was just visible over the back of the sofa, and told me to make myself comfortable. She was just going to get a little sleep before her next shift.Walking past the kitchen, I noticed the kitchen trash filled to the brim with takeout containers; they lived off pre-cooked foods like TV dinners, canned soups, and delivery. When I knew them, and came over, they always cooked. Both Robbie and his mother had loved to cook, but it seemed that was one of the changes with Robbie's illness. Robbie slept on the sofa: there was a nest of pillows, blankets, sheets. The room had the same smell his adolescent room had had: b.o., Old Spice body spray, cigarette smoke, and that faint squid-y smell of unaired masturbation.Robbie made a little space on the sofa and said hey in the way he had years before, as if it wasn't years but days since I had last come over. The TV was on, but muted; the actors pantomimed their way through a police procedural. Robbie paid it only the mildest attention, his focus was on the magazine he was reading.There were stacks and stacks of magazines, and it seemed that Robbie spent his days and nights reading through them. Many were the sort that may have been on his mothers coffee table when we were teenagers (and may in fact have been the same ones): Time, Harper's, Atlantic, New Yorker, Newsweek; but also there were yellowed tabloids like The National Enquirer and World Weekly News. All of them were old: five, ten, fifteen years out of date. Across their covers was a parade of all the events, rumors, and celebrities of our childhoods: Dolly the cloned sheep, Leonardo's latest love interest, Osama bin Laden, the Bat Boy, Enron, the dot com collapse, Siberian portals to hell, UN weapons inspectors, human sacrificial cults, hanging chads in Florida. Every magazine was studded with post it notes and highlighting as if they were college textbooks. The collection began soon after Robbie's doctor suggested he avoid the internet, so full of its own connections and unhealthy conspiracies, and in response Robbie combed garage sales and used book stores for old magazines to make his own. He said he was trying to remember. Remember what? His life, he said. There are too many connections, too many threads in a life to understand it the first time around. So he researched. He had no interest in magazines that were older than his diagnosis. The diagnosis, he said, was the climax of my life, now there is only the denouement; I want to understand before the end.On the TV, even without sound it was clear that the detective found a clue that was missed earlier. She called her partner to come take a look at it too and then Everything moved quickly: guns holstered, the detective spoke grimly into a radio, the car sped off with the siren blaring… a commercial for a chain restaurant started.Conversation was slow. Sometimes Robbie seemed not to understand me, or to begin a thought very slowly. By way of explanation he said it was the zombie pills. The drugs made everything slow. Like his thoughts had to march their way through a bog a swamp. I said don't worry about it, I didn't mind slower conversation. I asked him what he did all day when he wasn't reading the magazines. He said that he was working. This -- he spread his arms wide in a gesture that encompassed the sofa, the coffee table and its magazines, the TV, maybe the entire apartment -- this is my work. He said he used more than magazines; in the other room, his old bedroom, were stacks of texts on history, biology, sociology so that he could understand himself fully. And what would be the end result? A film, he said, he was writing the first draft of the screenplay. He says he can only work on the screenplay when he is in the Zone, that's when his life made sense.What is the Zone? The doctors called it his episodes. Fitting, he thought. Join next week for the following episode! he shouted. Just like one of these stories, and he pointed at the screen.A cockroach climbed overhead while we both looked at the TV The detective pointed her gun at the suspect, a relative or boyfriend of the victim, that the audience now knows is guilty. I pretended not to notice the cockroach so as to not embarrass Robbie.Please don't do that, he said. When I looked at him quizzically he said not to pretend that something wasn't there as if he were hallucinating it.What's the Zone like, I asked him to go back to the previous topic, truly curious and wishing I had my camera with me. I made the effort to commit everything to memory.The Zone actually was like one of those stories, he said. In the Zone, the world finally made sense: there was foreshadowing, symbolism, secret messages, clues to be found. There was no irrelevant information, and if it seemed irrelevant it was there to throw you off he just needed to work to understand it. In the Zone, Robbie was the protagonist of his life and he knew it. When he wasn't in the Zone, life didn't have a plot, just a shambles of moments, almost everything irrelevant. The Zone was preferable to that. He liked his life to have meaning.On the TV, the suspect was arrested, handcuffed, and presumably given an abbreviated reading of his Miranda rights. The cockroach had disappeared into some crevice or another.What if, when you're in the Zone, you find out all signs point to your life being tragic or it turns out you are living a horror story? Robbie looked at me as if I were the one that was sick, and said simply that everything was preferable to the alternative of a senseless life.
Benjamin is excited to be part of my project, or that I've made a project that intersects with his interests. He is difficult in some ways: when the lens focuses on him he becomes taciturn, camera-shy; he mumbles, trips over words, turns aphasic. I find solutions, I shoot him with a telephoto lens while he is ignorant of the camera from great distances as he walks across campus or works in the library; or I shoot not him but the work: his piles of books, his index cards of notes. I combine all this with audio recordings of interviews, he has no shyness before the microphone and sometimes even forgets he holds notes in his hands because he doesn't need them at all when he gets on a roll.Despite his camera anxiety, he is incredibly helpful behind the scenes in my research: he brings me xeroxes of specialized books from the library, throughout the day he emails pdfs and links to YouTube recordings of conferences, he tries to teach me the basics of reading cuneiform. He leaves a stack of books for me on his desk at home along with an annotated bibliography. For the first time I understand something of what it would be like to be his student, the confidence and passion with which he talks about these things, his helpfulness and eagerness to share his knowledge.
I set up to interview Benjamin in his office, but before hand he gives me something of a confession: one of his students seems to have a crush on him. I think this is what I have been waiting for, and thank goodness I didn't have to bring it up. He says that this student is a good student, but perhaps has trouble with boundaries. She asked for his help with a project for another class (I don't ask: My class? A video project?), and she comes to his office hours frequently. He wants me to know that he'll do a better job of maintaining professional boundaries, and that he would never want me to think that he would do something with a student. For a moment, I wonder if he has been reading what I've written on my computer in the same way that I've gone through his phone, but I thank him for telling me, and want him to be careful of this student. I share my own anxieties without revealing that I had followed them from the campus into the woods. Benjamin puts his arm around me and tells me not to worry. He absolutely has no interest in any students and never would, that I'm the only love in his life. Benjamin thinks maybe he hasn't been home enough, that he's been so focused on work that he didn't notice how I was feeling and promises to make a better effort of balancing work and our life together. He just needs to finish this current paper and he'll have plenty of time; maybe we could go on a long weekend during the fall break.
My first interview question: why livers? Why not epics, legal documents, accounting records, royal genealogies. Why these lists and lists of slaughter? Why not erotic poetry? I've thumbed through his library, I have seen translations of sex poetry that make you blush even five thousand years after their composition. Because those other texts don't interest me, Benjamin says. There is no other reason for a scholar, obsessions develop early and they cannot be quit.
We pour over the calendar, looking toward next summer. Wedding planning must begin somewhere, with a date, with a guest list. Every day I suggest, Benjamin shoots down. He has a conference, or he's teaching a summer class, a research trip he forgot to tell me about, or the fall semester is beginning. For each date there is something. Maybe next summer is too soon, he says. But 2020 is a nice round year, I say, a year to get married in.
The thing about a diary, I realize, is that it is often difficult to remember the good and positive things about my day. I type out my complaints, file them away so that I don't have to take them out on anyone else. After Benjamin told me about the student who seems to be too close to him, I've felt a sense of security. Even if wedding planning is delayed, things are on track. I should write the positive things too. Reading through these notes, I find that I haven't captured the positive things about Benjamin, the things that made me fall in love with him.
While researching sacrifices, I find a video ethnography in the library by an anthropologist who did fieldwork in an island in Indonesia, where neither Islam nor Christianity had spread. The people there participate in elaborate, communal sacrifices of chickens, pigs, and cattle and read their organs to find out what messages their ancestors have left for them. One of her interviewees compared it to her video camera and the footage he had seen once on a television: there are messages in the body, he says, in the lines and grooves, the smooth and wrinkled surfaces; they are like your videos that show you a smaller world that you must read with your eyes.
THE FLESH IS PUT IN MY HANDS & IN THE BODY OF THE SHEEP I FIND THE MESSAGES FOR THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE.
-- ROYAL HYMN OF SHULGI, KING OF UR AND THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE COSMOS
Why do you make this distinction, my students ask, between film and video. I think about it for a moment. The old distinctions that I learned in school between small and big screens makes no sense for them who have grown up watching everything on their laptops and phones.The next class I bring in two objects: a short film shot on 16 mm and an old VHS tape. They examine the film with a loupe, the entire film legible and laid out plainly for anyone to see, one cell after another like a very boring comic strip. The VHS we take apart, I break its plastic casing with a hammer, the black tape is completely illegible without a tape deck as an interpreter. This is the distinction I tell them when you get into the guts of video, only a machine can translate its messages.
IT SPROUTS, IT SPROUTS! THE LETTUCE HE WATERED SPROUTS IN THE GARDEN OF DEEP SHADE.
-- BABYLONIAN BRIDAL SONG
Despite drowning most of my brassicas and starving the beans, I am able to harvest my first crop from the garden. Lettuce grows so quickly, and is somewhat forgiving. The leaves are pockmarked with insect bites, yellowing at the edges, maybe there's a hint of powdery mildew; but it is mine. I grew it through my own effort and there is a satisfaction in that. I make a salad for dinner using this ugly lettuce and Benjamin eats all of it, he didn't complain about their sad shape, and said he was proud to have eaten from our garden. I pour another glass of wine for each us and we chat late into the night. For the first time since we moved, we had sex. Is that all it takes? Sometimes.
The town is surprisingly diverse, a type of missionary cosmopolitanism. And strangely, it makes me more comfortable than I thought I would be before we moved here that I don't stick out phenotypically. One of the results for the town is that there is a wonderful store that is simply named "Ethnic Market" that has ingredients from around the world. A backyard garden it turns out, especially a first one, cannot feed me, let alone both of us. My homesteading dreams temporarily crushed, I find solace in Ethnic Market's selection. I go through all of my cookbooks and find that the store carries even the ingredients I had trouble finding in the largest cities. Between Ethnic Market and the farmer's marker on the weekends, I stock the fridge and the pantry with unfamiliar herbs and roots and canned goods with labels in languages I can't read. I have plans to try out all of these recipes, but then nothing comes of it. I can't bring myself to cook for one, and Benjamin so often texts to stay he'll be staying late at the library, or he absent-mindedly ate lunch at four and spends the evening in his office. The produce rots, the canned goods aren't as tasty as I thought they would be (some of them expired before I even bought them), a mouse (or some other pest) gets into the noodles and baked goods.
Peculiar, I think as I eye the new object in the kitchen. Benjamin purchased a knife. He rarely buys home goods -- he doesn't think about it usually. He would be happy to eat gruel for every meal as long as it sustained him and he owned exactly two bowls, two spoons, two forks, and one pot before we moved in together and I suspect he bought the second ones only because I began staying over. But the size of the knife is also peculiar: small only compared to a machete (which it resembles in shape). It is perched, like some great bird of prey, dwarfing the other knives, on the magnetic knife rack over the kitchen sink. I ask him what it is for, this knife. Oh that, he says as if he had forgotten about it. He wanted to try cooking more, that he had read some good reviews of this model. But when will he have time to cook?
I pass out to my students the description of their third assignment:For this week you are to produce a short video that is the most boring thing you can produce. There is no rubric, but know that I will deduct points if any parts are exciting. It should be so dull that everyone wants to turn it off. The video should be 1-2 minutes.The students are strangely excited for it and none of them are worried that they can't be boring. This will be easy, they say. I tell them they will find being boring on purpose more difficult than accidental boringness.In the end the students submit a wide range of projects:1. A ten minute video of action sequences form Fast and the furious movies interspersed with screen captions of the driver's side of Grubhub.2. The slow, slow, slow, movement of a dust mote in a sunbeam.3. A slideshow of baking a cake.4. Interviews with my husband about his research (Meredith, of course, seems to have taken on similar interests to my own).5. A camera on a tripod focuses on a photograph as the flow of sunlight changes almost imperceptibly through a window.6. And the most boring videos of all, only because of how cliche they are: ten different submission of watching paint dry.
After the first few weeks of the semester, I realize time is flying and the High Holidays are fast approaching and I am not prepared. I look through ticket prices online and throw out the idea of going home, but Benjamin says he's too busy, and besides money is a little tight. Is it, I ask? We have long since combined our bank accounts, but I never actually pay attention to the bank statements until the account is almost empty. But he tells me that I should go if it is important to me. And what, spend it with his parents? I love them, but a week and a half with them might be a bit much without Benjamin. My own family doesn't even have the slightest clue what Rosh Hashanah is, so it would make no sense to go stay with my mother. No, I say, if money is tight, I can stay here.
I complain to Dani about not being able to go home for the holidays and she interrupts: Wait! You're Jewish? Danis asks with some embarrassment. She knew Benjamin was but me... Yes, I converted years before I met him, I say by way of explanation. I'm well practiced and I don't want anyone to think I converted because of him. I give a CliffsNote version of my reasons for converting. I know I don't look Jewish. I expect her to be full of questions, stories of converts she's known, but instead she asks what I'm doing for Kol Nidre. I tell her that I have nothing planned so far, but I did learned that my old synagogue back east has streaming services every year. Nonsense -- I'd be coming with her to a synagogue a couple of hours away. Dani isn't particularly religious, but for Kol Nidre she makes the trip every year.
I make the mistake of looking something up online when I am in the middle of research and when stand up, stretch, and check the time I realize almost the whole day is gone. The internet is like a dream world, very easy to enter, just as fleeting and immune to recovery and recollection, at least for some of us (others are adamant bookmarkers of webpages, Benjamin is one and always knows how to retrace his virtual steps, while I rely on Google to find my way back to webpages I've visited hundreds of times). Always it is the source of my procrastination; what else do you do when you're at home alone? The internet has eaten everything, television, radio, newspapers, comic books... so why not our dreams too. I don't even know how to daydream any longer, without the assistance of the internet. I get lost in its paths of desire: seeds for the garden, a new winter jacket, fancy imported foods (preserved cherry blossoms, haskap berries, and whole frames of honey comb), breeds of dogs that I could care for... I get stuck on the dog for a while: looking up training videos, the best dog foods, the cutest bowls, local groomers, and on and on. Dani says I'm sublimating a desire for a child. Benjamin points out that I have trouble keeping my garden alive.
It is not an archaic means of thinking, Benjamin says in response to a question I posed about if these liver readers with their ancient ways of thinking would be alien to us. Not at all, Benjamin continues, they believed that the world was scrutable, held to laws that could be observed and understood. That's not too different from us moderns is it? We think we can read the weather, read genes, comprehend illnesses and distant stars. We too trust out scholar-experts to tell us about ourselves and our futures. In the records of these organ-readers are the foundations of science.
I make a new friend, a woman only a few years older than me, Eileen. She runs a stand at the farmer's market that pops up every Saturday in a park near the campus. I've been buying salad greens and beets and yogurt from her for weeks. She's tall and strong, lifts the crates of the melons and pumpkins from her pickup and sets them on the table. I'm intrigued by her and after a few Saturdays of buying from her, I think to ask her for advice for my own garden. I tell her about my work, the teaching and the art, and about my new project. She isn't shocked to hear about liver reading or sacrifice she finds the people at the college to all be eccentric in their own ways. She asks if I've ever seen one of these sacrifices in person. I admit I haven't even seen an animal killed in person and that I'm depending on archival footage, texts from books, and interviews with experts.She mulls over a thought and then invites me out to her farm. They're going to slaughter one of the male goats. She says I should bring my camera. We won't be sacrificing to any gods, she says, but slaughter is slaughter.
I go to Eileen's farm, and one of her children, a peach-fuzzed adolescent meets me at the gate. I'm surprised, because I didn't think of her as old enough to have an adolescent with the beginnings of a mustache on her face; I thought of her as the age I would like to be when I first have a child. He tells me his mama is back behind the barn and starts walking in that direction.We pass a garden that puts my bit of weeds and mud to shame, but she is a market gardener she tells me, its her living. It would be the same as her feeling shame at the footage she shoots of her son's birthday party just because I make a living from it. I point out that I don't make a living from my art any more than I do my garden. I stand, my back to the garden, camera in hand. Eileen says they like to do the slaughter away from the barn, too traumatic for the other sheep. She has other children, and they lean against the fence post to watch. Eileen doesn't shoo them away, she thinks it is important that they know where their food comes from. They have seen it plenty of times, she says. Her husband and eldest son slaughter the goat.
Two figures approach a goat, a man and a teenage boy. The boy carries a large knife. The man holds the goat in a firm hug. The goat, sensing a familiar hand relaxes, lets out a calm bleat. The man jerks his head in a gesture that tells the boy to come around to the goat's head. When the boy approaches the goat begins to struggle, and its bleats grow more loudly.
THE BOY (flatly)
It won't stay still.
It won't invite you.
The boy strokes the goat on the head until it calms. He bends to the goat until they are almost cheek to cheek and whispers into the goats ear. He then holds the goat's head firmly but gently in one hand so that its neck is slightly stretched. The boy slides the knife like a violin's bow across the goat's neck. The goat bleats a last cry but it is muted and broken like a deflating balloon. The goat kicks out its legs, twitches. Blood flows to the dust. Camera zooms in on the goat's still eye.
What did you say to it?
I said, "Thank you."
I reminded the students that class would be cancelled while I'm out for the holidays, and that before that they would have to give presentations on their final video projects. Footage, scripts, story boards--whatever it is I just need evidence that they are working. I received the usual emails the day before: sick and dying grandparents, failed hard drives, broken cameras; but most of the students arrive with something to show. Meredith had made the most progress, but I was shocked to see that she had filmed that afternoon in the woods with Benjamin.Her work and mine are eerily similar .We were both interested in these Mesopotamian texts and with Benjamin, But whereas I've been dedicating time to interviews as my subject matter, Meredith focuses on strange chants, often first in Akkadian or Sumerian or whatever, and then translated into English. Only one phrase remains untranslated with cuneiform subtitles overlaid on the footage. It repeats again and again like some sort of incantation as she and Benjamin walking through the woods. Interspersed with the footage of the woods is a collage of images: a dog urinating a face as it is slapped, an eyeball twitching in its socket, a close up of lips moving. The camera zooms and she whispers into his ear but we can't hear what she says, the dubbed chanting is too loud. After the shot of her and Benjamin (did she also record me and Dani spying on the scene?), the camera focuses on the spot where they had stood, then it reveals the roots in the ground, and then the moist soil, and then a hand digging. The hand pries an object from the soil: a small wooden carved figure of a liver and for a moment I am convinced that she has seen my dreams.When she finishes presenting, her classmates are silent. They are stunned and have no critiques to share until I prod them and then they discuss liking or disliking its vibe. She says that she is still working on it, has more footage to shoot and edit, and that she isn't sure how the whole thing will turn out in the end. As she returns to her seat, our eyes lock and she smiles a knowingly.
I try to prepare for virtual holiday services: I connect my computer to the big television screen downstairs, rearrange the furniture in a futile attempt to make it more like being in a synagogue. Benjamin promises to jump onto Rosh Hashanah services when he gets back from campus -- unlike me he didn't take a day off from teaching. But even after I make my way to the livestream, I find my attention wanes easily: I grab snacks, I swipe through my phone, read the news, check email, read tweets in which it seems plenty of others are also having trouble focusing on the holiday. It seems old rituals aren't compatible with our new ones, and even religion has been consumed by the internet. By the time Benjamin returns from teaching, I am napping on the couch while Netflix checks in to see if I'm still watching.
I WILL REMEMBER FOR YOU THE BINDING OF ISAAC SON OF ABRAHAM, IN WHOSE STEAD A SHEEP WAS SACRIFICED...
-- BABYLONIAN TALMUD, ROSH HASHANAH 16A
Dani is to pick me up for Kol Nidre, so when the doorbell rings right after I got a text from her saying she is almost here, I fling the door with my jacket half on without checking through the peephole. It is not Dani, but a man wearing a jumpsuit and carrying a clipboard who asks for Benjamin. I say that Benjamin isn't home yet, can I help him with something. He's here to make a delivery; would I be able to sign for it. I nod and check my phone for the time. Benjamin is still in class, so I can't call him. I sign quickly on the clipboard without reading it and only then think to ask what is being delivered. He points out at his truck, a pickup with a large trailer attached; which I have just noticed on the street, so flustered am I by this unexpected visitor. Looking at my confused expression he clarifies: like it says there on the paper, sheep: two ewes and a ram. At first I think he must be mistaken. Who orders sheep? Answer: Farmers and ranchers, not scholars and adjunct professors -- not me and not Benjamin. Obviously this delivery is for someone else, I question the delivery man. He confirms the address. He just make deliveries, if there is a mistake I can call the number on this receipt. He rips off the yellow carbon copy, hands it to me, and I stuff it in my jacket pocket for later. It is then that Dani pulls up into the driveway. The man says that the sheep will need a fence and asks where I want them? I direct him to the backyard which has a chainlink fence that will have to do until we sort this mess. Dani finds the whole thing very humorous, as we watch this delivery man force the stubborn sheep into the backyard. One of the ewes refuses to walk and he has to carry it, practically tossing it over the fence. I know exactly how it feels: I don't want to be here either. I snap a quick photo of the ewe and text Benjamin a picture along with a question mark.It is only after an hour into the drive, that I remember the receipt in my pocket. I pull out the balled up paper, and try to smooth it somewhat. I look it over, and find that the cost of the sheep is roughly equivalent to two last-minute flights back home.
To Be Continued
AMANDA SMELTZ is a poet based in Brooklyn whose work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Prelude, [PANK]; Esquire, and SevenFifty Daily. Her debut poetry collection, Imperial Bender, received favorable mention fromThe Chicago Tribune, The Poetry Foundation, and Publisher’s Weekly. She was a 2021 fellow at The Mastheads artists’ residency in the Berkshires. She’s a sommelier and works for a wine import company in New York. Both exceptionally tasteful and charming, Amanda calls Philadelphia one of her favorite cities on the planet.AVA SOPHIA BROWN is a writer, filmmaker, and Daffy Duck enthusiast born and bred in Philadelphia. Her interests include: laughing, screaming, and having a ball. Currently in post-production is her most recent short film, Mercy For The Meek, a heart-warming dark comedy about euthanasia. Photographs of Ava can be found on her Instagram.DIANA KURNIAWAN was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. She graduated from Loma Linda School of Public Health with a Master in Public Health, and from the University of Colorado, Denver with a Master in Public Administration. She was community journalist for the Denver Voice, a newspaper for the homeless. Diana’s writing has been published with Twenty Bellows, Denver Life Magazine, Longmont Times Call Newspaper, and newspapers in the Denver area. Diana is a Colorado-based writer whose work leans towards public health issues, homelessness, and humanitarian efforts.GREGG WILLIARD’s work has been published most recently in Sein und Werden, Agony Opera, Vine Leaf Press, Revolution John, and Phoebe.JESSICA LEE MCMILLAN is an educator, civil servant and creative with an MA in English. Read her presently / forthcoming work in Blank Spaces, The South Shore Review, Antilang, Tiny Spoon, Pinhole Poetry, Dream Pop Journal, Willows Wept Review, Lover's Eye Press, and others. Jessica lives in New Westminster, British Columbia, with her little family, large dog, and shelves of books and records. Follow her at her website and Twitter.LUKAS TALLENT writes fiction and lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.NATALIA BASSOCO of Mexico City is a writer and student of communication sciences at The National Autonomous University of Mexico. Her work has appeared in Escritoras Universitarias, Claro y Directo MX, AUNAM, and Punto de Partida. This story won first prize in the 51st national short story contest for the magazine Punto de Partida.ROBERT POPE has published the novel, Jack's Universe, and two collections of stories, Private Acts and Killers & Others (2020), as well as a chapbook of flash fiction, Shutterbug. He has published stories and essays in The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, Pushcart Prize, and Dark Lane Anthology. His newest collection of stories, Not a Jot or a Tittle, will soon be available from Dark Lane Press.STEVE CARR of Richmond, VA has had over 600 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, was published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January 2022. His paranormal / horror novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.STEVE FAY started out in a village of fewer than 150 people. His collection of poems, what nature, (Northwestern UP 1998) was a finalist for the annual poetry book prize awarded by the Society of Midland Authors. His poetry has appeared in Ascent, Field, Beloit Poetry Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Hamilton Stone Review, TriQuarterly, and The Comstock Review, as well as other journals and anthologies. He lives in Fulton County, IL.TYLER GEBAUER is a freelance literary translator who has worked for organizations and writers based out of Chicago, Mexico City, Bolivia, and El Salvador. His literary translation has been published in Modern Literature and Packingtown Review (forthcoming). Find him online at www.linkedin.com/in/tyler-gebauer-1992n.
Support The Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia
SORTES supports local, charitable, and community-based groups. Here's one important organization that SORTES supports:Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia:The mission of the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia (AVP) is to reduce the entire cycle of violence by providing a wide range of services from support and counseling for victims and their families to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of violence. We provide comprehensive and collaborative programs throughout Philadelphia in schools, social service agencies, the courts, and at community sites.Charity NavigatorThe people who have worked on this publication support this cause and we urge you to as well.
Submission & Contact
To submit or send comments, questions, or suggestions, please email the editors at
The SORTES List
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SORTES is a spinning collection of stories, poems, songs, and illustrations to help while away the wintery June nights. It’s an oddball grabbag wunderkammer mixtape offering distraction and refreshment.We have neither theme nor scene. Each issue is its own creature. We publish both the sufficiently strange and insufficiently boring: swart stories, hoity poetry, magical surrealism, beatnik travelogues, hard modern haiku, pulp, fantasia, antibiography, crooning balladeering, experimental sentimentalism, and grainy sideways photography.We also host online readings, old time radio performances, and other beloved gimmicks as they occur to us. Previous issues are available via the site’s Archive link.
SORTES considers unsolicited submissions of poetry, prose, illustration, music, videos, and anything else you think may fit our format. Feel free to poke us; we’d love to find a way to publish dance, sculpture, puzzles, and other un-literary modalities.SORTES is published quarterly. Each issue includes approximately ten works of lit, visual, or performance art. We like a small number of works per issue: artists and readers should have a chance to get to know each other.SORTES, you’ll notice, is primarily a black-and-white publication, and we like to play with that (by featuring monochrome videos and photography, for example), but we’ll happily consider your polychrome submission.Submissions are ongoing throughout the year. We consider artists with both extensive and limited publishing experience. We accept simultaneous submissions but please inform us if your work has been accepted elsewhere.There’s no need for an extensive cover letter or publication history but please tell us who you are, what kind of writing or art you do, and a bit about what you’re sending us. There are no formatting requirements for text submissions. There is no fee to submit. Please send submissions as email attachments whenever possible; multimedia submissions may be sent as links.
You asked and we provide: what's up with publication rights and ownership?Simple: When you publish with us, you give SORTES one-time publication right for your work. You retain all right to your work after publication. Work published with SORTES will remain available via our online Archive.While SORTES retains the right to link to or excerpt your published work, we do not have the right to publish your work in new formats (including print). If we would like to pursue publication of your work in new formats, we'll ask you and hopefully agree to terms.
SORTES is edited by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum and Kevin Travers. We live in Philadelphia but we invite writers and artists everywhere to live the SORTES life.
SORTES regularly offers readings and performances.
For upcoming events, please check here and our Facebook page.
A Reading for SORTES 10,
“It Seems Like A Sort Of Trap That’s Been Laid Especially For Me?”
Friday, June 24, 2022 @ 7pm EST
SORTES 10's centenary (?) jubilee arrives in impeccable style. JOIN US for readings from UP TO TEN of our Issue 10 regals:Amanda Smeltz
Ava Sophia Brown
Jessica Lee McMillan
Tyler Gebauer, translator for Natalia Bassoco
Steve FayYour host will be SORTES co-editor and chancellor of vice Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum. All SORTES events are free, public, and compulsory.
ID: 841 4127 4265
Call in: https://us02web.zoom.us/u/kebHQ6I9ER
A 1950s Western / Sci-Fi Double-Feature, February 25, 2022
The talented Radio SORTES Players performed two old time radio episodes broadcast live via ethereal wireless right to our audience's home receivers.We galloped into the unknown with a 1950s western / sci-fi double-feature: The Six Shooter episode “Battle at Tower Rock” and the Dimension X episode “A Logic Named Joe” -- each with music and convincing sound effects.The all-star Radio SORTES players were: Abbey Minor • Betsy Herbert • Brenna Dinon • Brian Maloney • Britny Brooks • Daniel DiFranco • Dwight Evan Young • Emily Zido • Evan Myers • Iris Johnston • Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum • Kailey Tedesco • Kelly Ralabate • Kevin Travers • Luke Condzal • Nicholas Perilli • Rachel Specht • Rosanna Byrnes • and Victoria Mier.Radio SORTES -- an unnatural extracurricular extension of SORTES magazine -- was produced and directed by Kevin Travers and Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum. Radio SORTES is always free, open to all, and less than two hours. See SORTES.co for upcoming events.
The 39 Steps, February 19, 2021
The Radio SORTES Players performed this classic adventure story, written by John Buchan and adapted by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum from Hitchcock's 1935 film and the 1937 Lux Radio production. It starred Brenna Dinon • Heather Bowlan • Rosanna Byrnes • Betsy Herbert • Iris Johnston • Warren Longmire • Brian Maloney • Britny Brooks • Nicholas Perilli • Kelly Ralabate • Dwight Evan Young • Emily Zido • Victoria Mier • Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum • and Kevin Travers.
Halloween Eve Special, October 30, 2020
Suspense, "The House in Cypress Canyon"
Inner Sanctum Mysteries, "Voice on the Wire"
The Radio SORTES players presented a live Halloween Eve special: two programs of classic old time radio horrors. The shows -- including dialogues, music, and sound effects -- were performed for a live Zoom audience.The Suspense episode “The House in Cypress Canyon” was originally broadcast December 5, 1946 and the Inner Sanctum Mysteries episode “Voice on the Wire” was originally broadcast November 29, 1944. Both programs were performed by Kevin Travers • Sean Finn • Britny Perilli • Don Deeley • Brian Maloney • Betsy Herbert • Kyle Brown Watson • Nicholas Perilli • Emma Pike • Kyle Brown Watson • Susan Clarke • Kyle Brown Watson • and Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum. Between episodes, we presented an original commercial in period style written and performed by Kevin Travers.
Announcements & Correspondence
Like any worthwhile literary journal, SORTES would love contributors and audience to fight amongst themselves. Our sweeter readers should email us to compliment our stellar authors and artists, while spicier fans may want to howl and snip and issue manifestoes. Between the two groups, we know our favorite.Or perhaps you have an announcement about an art project, band formation, upcoming travel, impending marriage, &c? Why look beyond quarterly SORTES and your local society pages?Be a part of the problem! Comment on our stories and poems, other letters, and the SORTES demimonde in general by emailing
"If The Sheep," Royce Drake's conspiratorial serial, will return with Part 3 in SORTES Issue 11.
Eclipse Lit, a Philly-based literary magazine centering on mental health and healing, is hosting an upcoming launch event, Healing Fest 2022, to celebrate the launch of their second issue. The event will feature an open mic (sign up here). Proceeds support Laurel House, a Montgomery County-based organization that seeks to support the very same domestic abuse survivors.
“I must ask you, if you don't mind, about SORTES, the name.It sounds vaguely European (I mean I like the name!) but when I googled it I discovered it means divination or the seeking of guidance by a chance selection of a passage, and now I'm like, woah, genius, didn't even know a word existed for this practice, which, by the way, I've practiced over the years at different times. So I'm wondering given the project how this meaning of the word plays into what you do. I'm simultaneously attracted and repelled by chance, it being so damn uncertain, anyway, but at times people like Cage and even myself have seen chance as a way at tapping into some deeper meaning beyond ourselves, both as a form of relief and belief.”
Fitz Fitzgerald, March 31, 2022
Our only work is to fight chance nature. But we're creatures woven from chance! We draw fences in the ocean and that's a beautiful idiocy. SORTES is our homage to this beautiful horror. In fact, we create hunks of each issue through SORTESean games. Titles, particularly, are generated by flipping pages and jabbing. Plus a bit of grooming; can’t leave chance to chance.
By Far The Best
“I wanted to let you know I attended your 9th reading last night. It was by far the best reading I have ever attended, pretty sure the hosts had something to do with that. I look forward to the next. Take care and thank you.”
Susan Erickson, April 2, 2022
Susan, your message is probably the kindest we've ever received, and I write a lot of our fan mail. Thank you so much for coming! It means so much much to us and our authors. And there's plenty more SORTESy issues and events coming in the weeks and decades ahead!