8

December 2021

We have a lifetime to contemplate death. It ruins some of the surprise.

EDITED BY JEREMY TENENBAUM AND KEVIN TRAVERS


Ava Sophia Brown
“Space Fish”


“I dated this model back in my twenties. Her whole shtick was wearing braces.” Fred was leaning back against nothing. It was the most comfortable way to sit in a zero-gravity setting, and we got used to propping our bodies up in an obtuse angle rather than standing straight and hitting each other like bowling pins. Some people really enjoyed floating around, but I hated the loss of control. More often than not I’d switch between clipping onto the work desk to clipping onto the bed to clipping onto the navigation unit -- no downtime in the ether. Which was a good thing -- the rest of the crew (Fred) spent most of their time just shooting the shit. But not me, I knew I had to work hard to earn my keep. I sat hunched over my desk, trying to finish up some last-minute calculations before I moved onto a wordsearch or crossword puzzle. Fred grabbed one of the wall-handles and pushed himself towards me. I carried the ‘one’ and acknowledged him.

“Huh, braces. Was it like a jailbait thing? ‘Oh, I’m twenty-three, but I pass as fourteen, put me on your magazine cover!’ How smarmy. She must have been a catch.”

“So, the agency wanted her to look underage, but she was innocent in the matter, she just needed adult braces. Overbite. When her teeth finally got fully straightened and she took them off, her agency dropped her.” Fred took out a bag of almonds, opened them, and let the nuts float in the air in front of his mouth. He ate them like a trout. “That’s a major infringement on feminism, if you ask me.”

I pulled out a new sheet of graph paper, squinted -- did I forget to add a decimal? “I wish you wouldn’t do that.” I checked my calculator again. “Every time you get a passing thought about the worldwide oppression of women, I don’t need to hear it.”

I gave Fred shit a lot, so coldness didn’t annoy him. He shrugged, pushed an almond through the air -- I opened my mouth and swallowed it.

#

Fred and I were having sex. Which is awful in space. Penetration feels like the spinning teacups at Disneyworld. I think the average person not in the industry would be scandalized by our affair, but astronauts know better. All astronauts do in space is maintain the ship, keep course, and fuck. I read a story in the paper about an astronaut who killed her astronaut husband for having an affair. She was on leave, taking care of the kids, living somewhere in New Jersey. He was stationed in Florida for training. I actually met him a few times, he was nice, but not really. Spent a lot of time in Sports Bars after work. He managed to snag some eighteen-year-old Hooters waitress. Of course his wife found out. She drove to Florida faster than humanely possible by avoiding rest stops and peeing in a bottle. Which is very difficult to do as a woman. She didn’t get away with the murder, but we all laughed about the story at the watercooler. We felt bad that he died, though.

But I digress -- Fred and I were having sex, and it was mid-tier to awful. After he finished, and I didn’t, I grabbed onto one of the handles, pulled myself over to the desk, and finished my course charting for the day naked. A red light flashed on the console.

“Fred.” I called him over. Little beads of post-cum floated in the air with him. “We’re about to see the Space Fish.”

#

“This isn’t something the general public can know about.” How cliché. Two years ago, the NASA head director had the two of us seated in a huge lecture hall. I felt like I was in college again. His voice left an echo. So it sounded more like -- ”This isn’t something the general public can know about…bout… bout…”

I rose my hand. “What if there’s more of them? As in, what if there is a larger ecosystem? If every planet is a krill, and this… ‘Space Fish’…. is a whale… doesn’t that imply that there’s other fish in the ocean? Or possibly even a world beyond that?”

Mr. Director switched the slide on his PowerPoint. “As of now, we can only find evidence of one. We’ll get to this later in the presentation.”

#

A wave through gravity -- the spaceship rocked like a boat at sea as it approached. Fred was locked down, now, and I was too. We had prepped for this moment for months now, and neither of us were scared. This was going to be very clinical. We harpoon the fish and then it dies. It’s hard to see through the blackness of space, but we could see the fish in the horizon. It was massive. It was a koi -- all red and orange and fiery. It opened its mouth and swallowed distant planets.

“Do you really think we can kill it?” Said Fred.

“We’re humans, we can kill anything.” I replied.

“But it’s so big.” Fred pushed.

“I bet the Inuit’s thought the same things about whales.” I reassured.

“All the Eskimos are dead.”

The space fish turned its fiery head towards us. It had a thousand eyes. It opened its mouth and had no teeth. A gentle giant.

“How can we go back and live a normal life knowing that we’re so little?”

“You don’t feel like that just from being in space?”

“We should have sex again, before we kill it.”

I thought over the proposition for a moment. I thought about it from the perspective of a woman on earth -- a quick fuck would take the edge off. Then I remembered that I was in space, and sex is different in a void.

“No, we shouldn’t. We should focus.” I locked the nukes on the fish. We were carrying more nuclear energy than the entire sun. “Weapons locked on target.” Fred shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Are you ready, Fred?”

Fred closed his eyes. Smiled: “I think if a woman kills the Space Fish, it’ll have extremely positive ramifications on the future of female empowerment. The millions of women living on Earth now may not know that it was a woman who killed the biggest threat to life-on-earth since Global Warming, but in the future, when these documents are unclassified, that’ll be in history books. They’ll probably talk about you during Women’s History Month before they even mention Susan B Anthony.”

I fired the nukes. They shot through space, too small for me to even watch their trail until suddenly, the fish closed its mouth, and the thousand eyes grew wide, and its scales shimmered, and its tail swished, and it exploded into a hundred-trillion servings of sashimi. Fred turned to me. He was beaming with pride because he loved me.

“Was that empowering?”

I tapped my nails against the console for a moment. Took a deep breath. My eyes felt heavy. I suddenly remembered we were both still naked from the previous lay. I looked down at my aging body. I looked at Fred’s sagging balls. I thought about all the aging bodies and sagging balls that were saved today. I remembered we were all just fish food. Smaller than plankton. And that even if that was the only planet-hungry fish in the galaxy, one day, the sun was going to explode, and all those history books were going to explode too -- and that I was a woman, and I am oppressed, and Fred’s ex-girlfriend was exploited, and Earth is a horrible planet that deserved to be gobbled up, but that being said, even in space I’m still treated like a woman, and I can’t escape it, no matter what, so long as I’m near a man, for the my entire life, until I die, and I didn’t love Fred, and I did have meaningless sex, but there’s nothing wrong with that, because it’s all just meaningless human drama and--

“No, not really.” I answered.

“Well, next time, let me do it.”



Fitz Fitzgerald
“13 Birds”


I. Hearing the Birds

who will save me but myself
and Olivetti, the cat, scratching me
awake early morning to open window
spring music with gradual illumination
dark purples turn into airy blue
listen as birds flirt the sun awake
faithful not to the same beat
is how they sang


II. Freeing the Bird

who comes to the feeder?
clicking jays hawk-shrieking
song sparrows throat-opened
red-breasted house finch
iridescent in the sun
seed-cracking cardinal mates
one bird doesn’t omen spring
hundreds cover the hills
chica di di di
once it had to be abstract
now I hear so clear
a bird language
co co rico co co rico


III. Seeing the Harmony

the birds of night dream
slumber silently nuzzled
in moss yet twitchy as
snakeskin trimming, rangy
as the owl’s hoot at night
until the curtain rises
all of sudden starlings
chattering in this great
upward cloud murmuration
washing the sky
in clearest blue


IV. Kitty Hawk

the greatest
delight
is
airborne
real da
Vinci
classic
whatnot
taking off
of
passage


V. Birds from a Blue Planet

a flicker hunts the ground
where a deerkill plays hurt
wings oddly-held as a decoy
more camouflage for a clutch
a method actor’s longest gig
say the eggs hatch cupped
in a hand you never had
freed in flight, a set list
become the exaltation of larks
ride the thermals too high
Challenger’s defective shields
still you swim for the ship
we see you even as
the rest turn away


VI. On the Great Hummingbird

inflate the birds in proportion
to selfhoods cast off
hatching lines hatch fletchings
fledgling marks in the sand
you belong here, too, among
all order of flyers, gliders
capable of leaving the ground
hover in backward flight
withdrawn from a flower


VII. Birdsong from the Cave

see your face in the mirror
a helpful friend and warbler
dripstone licker on a ledge
receding into the cold rush
of an underground current
in darkness for days, weeks
perplexed in suffering until
released from the mountain
the womb of the monsoons
subterranean birth canals
in bat crazy echolocation
you emerge in feathery
panache, as perched
as Bill Murray on
a late night couch


VIII. Bird in Hand

two bluebirds in the meadow
hunt cicadas in tall grass
ecstatic at a feast held
every 17 years; we watch
goldfinches fed on thistle
at least we have this
our life as birds


IX. Phoenix

let’s measure time by
the hole-pierced beak
flute piped from ash
migratory in soul
once a blind falcon
talons now blunted


X. Birds of Forever

play as you may a bird organ
coalmine canaries needn’t education
sussed in symbiotic relationship
most expressive of lavish affinities
so lifted, a cadence closer to breath
O bestowing voices
you must abandon
the sanctuary
for song


XI. Persistence of Birds

to be more ruby-throated
sugared at the lavender
darting in emerald flash
dear splinter-eye
of this stake you
struggle to remove
can any worry add to life?
don’t take my word alone
the good book says
take a cue from birds
sing today and be calmed
let tomorrow come
and care for itself


XII. Field Guide to Birds

first valley: of birding

to be more
unto, gone

second valley: of lovebirds

it takes a sec
to clear space
for a paradise
shimmy

third valley: of Orphic traffic

direct a flock with a hum
in bursts and flurries
of beaten wings
now you sleep awake
amid the tropics

fourth valley: of trees

Shakespeare’s accidentals
sparrow from Central Park
all over North America
ah, Will, could you see
birds fly from your ink?

fifth valley: of flight

this anger and rage
fly away turned
bird on the back
of auspicious dragons

sixth valley: of astonishment

do you swim or wade?
grouse or snipe?
your presence
an invitation
to flight

seventh valley: of cages

flay your hands and lighten
your feet, cocoon cutter
you escape through a tune
of all the spirits rise


XIII. Who Flies for You?

doubts left in the valley
when you raised your arms
the air gripping you
as inflatable as lungs
we’re alive, we’re alive
in sonic cascades
in watery synths
we’re alive, we’re alive
imagination startled
as vital to the mind
as blood to the heart


ENVOY: Mockingbird Remix, or the Consolation of Poetry

Consult this oracle daily to drag your best selves from bed by the ear past the spot where once you stumbled and stubbed a toe and kicked the ground, saying, “Who calls me?” Pah! Why strangle the present with yesterday’s news? This pain is real, not simply head scratch of a struggling actor turned god.

Imagine a living under this earth one day to emerge and behold the sky and clouds, to feel the wind and sun, then watch the night sky fill with stars and see the waxing and waning of the moon: a little spilt wine add to the tranquility.

Now how to tip? Say “poetry” and poetry comes from your mouth, eyes from your chest, tongue from your heart, the cosmos, finally, a rhythm jointed.

Up the hambone, juba pot, buzzard lope, effing, mouthbow, jaw harp, bottle yodeling and limber puppetry: the world’s asleep so let’s dance still light on our feet to a skip beat, trade stories of trade winds and tapenade in the style of the forester’s wife, singsong piano words, ah, blower blown, body become instrument.

VANQUISH! The spell passes yet should you ever experience doubt and weird hysteria in the vacuum don’t forget to drag that angry young nihilist out into the fields among opulent ports: we are under magical orders.

Buoyed in breath our work begins with voices to interview. The rest comes courtesy of a flesh suit dissolved in salt water. Revel in this, the biggest fishing story ever, about how you and I escaped once and saw the mermaid before resurfacing for air.



Irina Novikova
Six Illustrations


Two Hearts Sheet 1

Ink, gel pen, gouache paper


White Ghost (Sirin)

Ink, gel pen, paper


Sirin: When I See My Reflection

Monotype and painting; ink, gel pen, paper


Young Sirin

Ink, gel pen, paper


White Cat

Ink, gel pen, paper


Sirin and Masks: Memories

Monotype and painting; ink , gel pen, gouache, paper


Now I come to a certain mythological component in my work, since the beginning of this year I have been constantly writing sirins, birds from Russian mythology. Half-humans, half-birds, for me it’s like a dream. Poets and many creators describe that they would like to have wings and fly; the Belarusian poet Maksim Bagdanovich has a poem, “My soul is like a wild hawk.” At the age of 13, I illustrated it for the first time. It was then close to my worldview and attitude. Later my thoughts and feelings changed, and I began to paint white sirins, calm and peaceful. Sometimes it even seems to me that these creatures look like the Swan Princess from the painting by Mikhail Vrubel. Birds overcome vast spaces flying over different countries. They are a symbol of freedom and the destruction of borders. The image of sirin came to me even during the beginning of the pandemic; I thought to portray the scarlet burning birds flying over the mountain ridges without meat, and a human face-mask is a different person-person. The scarlet sirin is a kind of pandemic symbol, white with a light face: freedom. These are my personal symbols, or rather my personal mythology.


Gerard Sarnat
Three Poems


“Dulling Edges?”

“All of humanity’s problems
stem from man’s inability to
sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal, 1654
...............
i.

Younger hired hand gardener / amigo,
long as my fam of five’s been here,
both of us planted, weeded, cut

plus hauled stuff in his truck together
these 36 years living in our cabin
on virginal forest’s edge.

Evidently unknown to me, he has been
watching Gerardo age plus become
a bit more fragile, because today

is first time God-fearing Juan Carlos
silently put garage’s packed garbage
cans out -- not even nodding or asking.
...............
ii.

Picking up at pre-school, wrangling
him as usual into back’s car seat,
driving home; I inquire whether

grandson # four prefers to “1. sing
songs, 2. listen to music, 3. talk
4. be quiet” -- just as I have left it

to all three older progeny, who to
a boychick, almost always sayLet’s Talk
(cull where clouds or rain come from?)

-- but now Liav uniquely answers, Quiet
that suggests how unshaved Coachie’s
losing yet another kind of edge.


“COVIDynamics”

Oy I was
so so sad
to put back
living room’s
lovely lamps,
vases, pottery,
& potted plants;
‘cause that meant
we have depodded
from our daughter’s
brace of toddler boys.


“These are days it would good to be in with God”

Sure, I’ve learned how to deal with what appeared
...........................to this medical doctor
...............like lottsa drops
..........................................of dark blood
................................pooling on floor’s Spanish brown tiles
....................................under our kitchen sink
where neither wife nor I recall perusing for decades maybe never.

....................................................................Next you removed astonishing amounts stuff
.................................................................................including two blue tubs
.................plus tons of variously tall junk
.............................................................molded in over forty years here
.....................................................to infiltrate inversely-matched-length spaces
.......around circular curvy dry (yay!) stalactite pipes
....................didn’t seem to be culprits
..........................after which went downstairs, found a flashlight
........................................then turned sequentially
.......................................................hold and cold spigots
...............................on or off
.....that didn’t lead to witnessing new wetness showing up.

...................................Now on closer inspection cabinet’s bottom, sticky muck
..resembles congealed over-broiled chicken drippings
.............................although bet still 50-50 never-done-in-past chance
....................well as really don’t want to have a plumber
...........................................come in hell or high water
.since Governor Gavin Newsome has or will soon announce latest stay-at-home order.

......Morning when reevaluate status overnight fresh white plastic garbage bag (no moisture!)
............................swab with steel wool well as place butcher board paper
....to be able to decide if gotta let masked distanced anthropol / archaeologist / hazmat team
..in with windows / doors ajar
.........who’ll get dubious honor of being first person inside beyond episodically podded grand / kids.

..............................However, damn fool’ll perform detailed inventory
.....................attempting to identify bottle of liquid plant food etcetera tipped open,
................................................................................but if above doesn’t pan out
..............I’ll breathe deep before reviewing relevant DIY fix-it YouTubes
..................thusly can to do what can do
............................ahead of asking friends for references about “COVID-clean” handy-wo/men.

So, necessity become catalyst of attention, Gerard’s gradually evolved fix-it-wise
..from boring mundane tasks something I’d ignore somehow someone else took care of
....[usually one way or another eventually meet with Ger’s tacit disapproval]
toward dental pain to tolerable to almost passably competent nearly to strangely pleasurable.

...My partner for her part started out equipped / suited, more interested / intuitive / visual / practical /
..so became part shared division of labor for mid-septuagenarian couple joined at hip:
.............................figure run surprisingly pretty tip-top ship
......................................................................................ten months into sequester,
...........we’re ready to take on the competition on reality tv, or better yet, hopefully pass inspection
when 12 younger family members descend tomorrow for winter solstice holidays.

Pray for me?


Alec Calder Johnsson
“Mother of Adult Children”


That’s the only explanation. The doppelgängers across. I swear I’m not talking about a reflection in the glass. They’re real flesh-and-blood doppelgängers tormenting me from the flat across. I first noticed them a month ago when Peter and Cheryl were home for fall break. I can’t see them in the day the way the sun glares over the courtyard, I can only see them at night, through the kitchen window, my only window, between sink and cabinets, wearing our clothes, doing their hair and makeup and kitchen décor the exact same, eating the same meal, catching each of our movements down to the nuance with perfect simultaneity. There’s no denying it. I’ve kept my cool but I haven’t been the same since I first saw them. I’m the only one who’s seen them, at least I think. Peter and Cheryl have their backs turned to the window when we eat. Yet their impostors imitate them to a T without even looking at them. They have down pat Peter’s way of flicking his hair back when he laughs and Cheryl’s of rolling her shoulders when deep in thought. It’s not just how they know so much about us (there’s so much online these days) or how they can know what we’re doing without looking (probably hidden mirrors or tiny surveillance cameras I can’t yet locate). What irks me the most by far is how flawlessly they predict everything we do. How can they do that? Is there no free will? No one can be that psychic. They’re not men, they’re gods, and they moved in across last month to punish me for all the sins I’ve forgotten. No, Peter and Cheryl have to be in on it, of course we haven’t talked about this but there’s no chance they haven’t noticed them the way they get up and move around the kitchen for more salt or a clean napkin, they’re all in on this sick joke, this cruel prank on their mother. And here’s how I’m sure.

Last week I drove down to the city for Cheryl’s birthday, to surprise her on campus with a gift: a terrarium she could keep spiders in. (I’d already mailed Peter a tungsten paperweight.) I pulled up behind the dorm to find what looked like Peter waiting at the backdoor, hands on his hips, in his cardinal cardigan and fern khakis. His college isn’t so far away but this was still curious. I don’t think he noticed my car. I parked and watched. After a minute Cheryl appeared, her hair uncommonly loose, in her close-fitting turquoise dress with the twined gladioli pattern, and instantly they beamed at each other, and then they embraced and kissed like lovers. Lip-locked, tender, pressing, prolonged. No, they weren’t like lovers, they were lovers, that was what it was. I felt like a violin string, no, a drum skin, tautened and snapped. Ten seconds, not even, then they vanished into the doorway. No, it wasn’t the worst possibility, it had to have been Not-Peter, disgusting as it still is. I can imagine that, I can even imagine Peter and Not-Cheryl, I can certainly imagine Not-Peter and Not-Cheryl. But not my kids, who I’ve known their whole lives. They’d never. I had half a mind to wait there, just wait for Not-Peter to emerge so I could stalk him all through the city to find out exactly who he is and where he’s coming from and why, and maybe he’d lead me to Not-Cheryl and Not-Me too. But I was on my lunch break and had to return. The terrarium’s on her bed in her old room and I have no clue what to do with it. I want, need to investigate, ought to plot out the rest of my vacation days and the ones for next year to do it. I can’t get into that part of the building with my keys, though. Yeah, they’re all in on it, there’s no way they’re not. Somehow my kids met these actors, these fallen deities, and talked them into performing our lives on a stage across so they could live out a grotesque fantasy. What the hell have I done to deserve this, after all these years? This is not how you treat your doting mother. I’ll have to confront them about this at some point, perhaps Thanksgiving, but I’m afraid to, I’ve always struggled with confrontation even with them. And I’ve yet to form the words.

I’m alone. I’ve eaten with my back to the window since fall break ended, I’ve been avoiding the staring contest with Not-Me. But tonight I think I’m going to test her, challenge her, call her bluff. I can’t cry out or hesitate, I have to endure, be stoic, but only more stoic than her. Everyone has their limits. One falter, one unsynchronous move from her and I win, the charade ends. It’s ten o’clock. I reenter the kitchen in my rose kimono and look straight through the window. She meets my gaze level. I grab the largest knife with my right hand and slice deep down my left arm, feeling the steel, stone-faced. She does likewise. Our blood strikes the sinks in spurts timed to our pulse. She quivers as I do but doesn’t react otherwise. Harder then. I stab my breast, choking back the urge to scream. Our kimonos liquefy, seep into our obis. I haven’t stopped her. She’s committed. How much longer can this act last? I cut into my face crosswise, past the eye, under the nose, through the lips. So does she. I taste iron blade and blood. What am I doing? I’m disfiguring myself, I’m ripping myself apart, that’s what. But so is she, and that’s on her. I fight the instinct to stop. I have to break her, have to keep going. I cut again. It’s not working. I cut deeper.



Shine Ballard
Two Poems


“a sprawled cause”

today, walking, i saw
a feuillemorte fallen leaf,
which, at first glance, appeared
as a rolled-up pork rind,
rolling tumbleweed of
nature’s own chicharrón,
windswept across the asphalt

i suppose i’m meant to invent accept
a weltschmerz wundermann
sprawled, shirking in the dry,
hewn low tall fescue, flicking,
filliping the leaf, filling
its time, bored and aimless,
fingering the abdomen
of an ant, shoving it
toward, toward, to…

how could a world keep curled,
coursing without source to?


“Our-Lady”


Robert Wexelblatt
“Hsi-wei and the Worn-Out Brush”


By the time Chen Hsi-wei retired from his life of wandering through the Empire leaving straw sandals and verses in his wake, the Sui Dynasty had come to an end. To the relief of everyone, Emperor Yangdi had been assassinated and a promising new dynasty had just begun, its glories still in the future. The new Governor of Chiangling had given the poet a modest cottage three li from the city with a small plot for growing vegetables. Here Hsi-wei settled down and occasionally received visitors such as Fang Xuan-ling, the Tang minister whose record of their conversations is still read with interest.

Sending and receiving letters had been haphazard while he was on the road; but now that he had a fixed abode, Hsi-wei was able to carry on a proper correspondence with old friends. One of his first letters was to the landscape painter Ko Qing-zhao, a friend from their student days under the stern Master Shen Kuo. Years earlier, Ko, who held a government post in Hsuan, hosted Hsi-wei for a lengthy and memorable visit. That was in the days when Ko was mastering the art of Shan Shui painting. Ko’s reply to Hsi-wei’s letter included the news that Ko had been promoted to first deputy magistrate and had gotten married. “Yes, I’ve given up my bachelor’s room and my studio in the old shed and moved into a proper villa with my wife. The room I don’t miss but I do regret the shed; however, it collapsed long ago. There’s more money now but also much more work and hardly any time for pictures. Apart from that sadness, I can report that I am a happy man. Mai-ling is gentle, capable, and wise. I love her even more now than I did on our wedding day. It seems a paradoxical request, but now that you’ve finally settled, could you consider visiting us? I would come to you in Chiangling but I cannot get leave from my work at the magistracy. No need to tell you what a joy it would be to see you, old friend, how welcome we would make you. Mai-ling has heard a lot about you, and she loves your poems.”

Hsi-wei replied that he would be pleased to visit though the journey to Hsuan would be long. Now that he was a proper peasant with crops to tend, he would need to see to his planting but, once the vegetables were established and the weeds torn up, he would undertake the trip. So, if it was acceptable to Ko and Mai-ling, he would try to come in early summer.

#

After more than a year off the road, Hsi-wei found the going physically taxing at first but emotionally a pleasure. He took his old sign and his tools with him and, as he had done for so long, made straw sandals along the way. He stayed in taverns and stables, barns and on riverbanks, taking note of the crops and meeting all kinds of people. He was sometimes recognized in the larger towns and offered hospitality in the villas of officials. He was twice asked to dine by rich widows who claimed enthusiasm for his poems but may have only wanted to show off a celebrity to their friends. Hsi-wei’s legs strengthened and he enjoyed himself. The weather was fine that year; even the rain was gentle. In the towns, the granaries were full. In the countryside he saw prosperity, not famine; peace, not war. The poet was pleased that the Mandate of Heaven was sitting so well on Emperor Gaozu.

Hsi-wei arrived in Hsuan in the middle of the afternoon and stopped by the public well for a drink of water and to ask directions. Women selling vegetables and fruit, men selling fish and meat were spread around the square. He went up to an old woman offering dumplings, ordered two, and asked if she knew the way to the villa of deputy magistrate Ko.

She smiled. “He is a good man, that Ko. He married Mai-ling,” she said, and told him the way. Hsi-wei pondered her remark about the marriage.

He considered going first to the magistracy then thought he might find his friend at home.

Ko’s villa was modest but neat, trim, and very well kept. There was a small portico with red-painted pillars and flowering plants in front as well as two plum trees, one on either side.

Hsi-wei knocked. The woman who appeared was too well dressed and too self-possessed to be a servant. Mai-ling was younger than Hsi-wei expected, perhaps thirty, one of those women whose good looks fade slowly because their beauty comes from the inside. Her face was smooth and pleasing. She struck Hsi-wei as humble and modest but also contented; her face expressed kindness rather than complacency. She regarded the dusty traveler with an uncertain smile.

Hsi-wei bowed. “Mrs. Ko?” he said.

“Yes?”

“Chen Hsi-wei.”

The woman clapped her hands and gave a little cry. “Oh, you’ve come! We weren’t sure you would. My husband is going to be so happy.”

“I’m glad to be here, Mrs. Ko.”

“You must call me, Mai-ling, Master Chen.”

“And you must call me Hsi-wei.”

Mai-ling beamed. “Ah, I’m forgetting myself!” She pulled the door open wide. “Please, please come in. Set down your bag. Would you like some tea, something to eat?”

The door gave onto a small vestibule and a broad parlor with corridors off it to right and left. Everything was clean, tidy. Through a wide window at the back Hsi-wei saw peonies, geraniums, and irises, a magnolia tree and a substantial vegetable plot. He knew this was Mai-ling’s work. While Ko loved looking at landscapes, he didn’t care for putting his hands in the dirt.

Mai-ling fussed over him. “Would you like to wash, to change clothes while I make tea?” asked Mai-ling. “I can give you one of Ko’s spare robes.”

“Thank you. If it’s convenient, it would be good to get the dust off me, and the sweat.”

“We have our own well. I’ll fill a bucket for you.”

“Let me do that.”

“No, no. I’ll see to it.”

She looked at Hsi-wei and smiled.

“You’re wondering if Qing-zhao has left me without any help, aren’t you? Not so. I do have a helper, but Ming-mei’s mother fell ill last week and I sent her home to care for her.”

Hsi-wei took note that Mai-ling said helper rather than servant.

She pointed to the corridor on the left. “Your room has been waiting for you as eagerly as we have. It’s just down there. Would you like to see it while I fetch the water?”

The room was cozy, spotless, and decorated with some of Ko’s drawings, studies, Hsi-wei guessed, for his landscapes. There was a fine brush drawing of a waterfall crashing down on huge boulders, another of a stand of bamboo trees, each leaf painted lovingly, a third showed a wide view of a river winding through a forest. There were three small boats on the river, each heading in a different direction. Hsi-wei smiled. It was typical of Ko to conceal a bit of political commentary in one of his landscapes.

Mai-ling returned.

“The bucket is ready. I’ll warm the water first then you can wash in the garden. I’ve laid a robe out for you on the bench. Just leave your shirt by the bucket and I’ll launder it for you.” Then she gave a slight bow, said she would begin preparing the vegetables for the evening meal, and discreetly withdrew.

In the garden, Hsi-wei washed his head, neck, torso, feet. The warm water felt wonderful. When he was clean, he poured the water out where he thought it would do the plants the most good.

He was still in the garden when Ko arrived. He heard Mai-ling’s excitement in telling her husband, “He’s here!”

Ko rushed to the garden, threw his arms around Hsi-wei, and set right in chattering.

“Wonderful! Retirement obviously agrees with you. You look so healthy. Can you forgive me for not being here when you arrived? Are you all worn out? Are you famished? Oh, it’s so good to see you. Really, you haven’t changed a bit.”

Hsi-wei smiled at this lie, knowing he had changed considerably. So had Ko. He had put on weight and lost a lot of his hair. In his formal robe, he looked like a proper deputy magistrate, not at bit like a painter. But he was still the same man, still a fountain of questions.

“How long did the journey take?”

Hsi-wei told him.

“Did you have adventures on the way?”

“Nothing worth a mention. My thoughts were on my destination.”

“Ah. And how do you like being a man of property, all settled down? Have you given up weaving straw sandals?”

“I made many on the way here. At home, I sometimes make presents of them to my neighbors, especially the children.”

“Well, I hope you’re still making poems, too.”

Hsi-wei fingered the fold in his robe. “I hope you don’t mind that Mai-ling loaned me your clothing. I noticed there are no paint spots on it. Are you still making paintings?”

Ko made a sour face. “You know just how to strike the sore spot.”

“Pardon me. Your letter said that your duties have increased but hoped you still had time for work.”

“Work? I have plenty of work. Too much of it. Painting is play and for play there’s been no time. But never mind that. Tell me what you think of Mai-ling. Did she receive you properly?”

“Properly? She took my shirt to wash; she gave me your robe. She made tea for me. She prepared a comfortable room for me, too. She filled a bucket with warm water so I could wash. What could be a more gracious reception for a dirty, sweaty stranger who shows up unannounced? Your wife is a gem, Ko. You chose well.”

Ko raised an eyebrow. “But?”

“But?”

“I saw something in your look. Is it a reservation?”

“Just that I was surprised to learn that you’d married. I’d thought you were as unlikely to do that as myself.”

“Well, it surprised me, too. There’s a story in it. I’ll tell you later.”

Mai-ling joined them in the garden.

“The meal’s nearly ready. Shall I put out a jug of wine?”

“Two!” cried Ko and gave her a hug. “It’s a grand occasion. We’re entertaining the author of ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan,’ your favorite poem. Also, the author of ‘My Skull’! Together, this man and I outwitted those two wicked landlords over the forged wills. I’m sure I told you the story.”

Mai-ling brushed Ko’s elbow and smiled at Hsi-wei as if to say, “Oh, yes. I’ve heard it dozens of times!”

Dinner was simple, abundant, and delicious, with pork pancakes and chicken with fresh snap beans in an exceptional sauce. Mai-ling sat with the men only briefly and said little while they ate. When Ko and Hsi-wei began to reminisce about their student days in Daxing, she fetched the second jug of yellow wine and excused herself.

After she was gone, Hsi-wei congratulated Ko on his wife once again and asked for the story of how they married.

Ko put his finger to his lips, got up, disappeared for a few seconds, then returned.

“I wanted to make sure she’d closed the door and couldn’t hear us. Now tell me honestly, do you think I’m too old for her?”

“Not if you married for love.”

“And if it were for something else?”

Hsi-wei looked at his friend quizzically.

“I didn’t say it was,” Ko muttered. “Maybe you don’t approve of old men marrying young women? It’s common enough.”

“No, I don’t care for the custom,” said Hsi-wei slowly. “As you say, the marrying off of young girls to old men as second or third wives isn’t in the least uncommon. In my opinion, it isn’t uncommon enough.”

Ko pretended to be offended. “Then you do think I’m too old to have married Mai-ling?”

“Not at all! Anyway, you’re not too old and she’s not too young. What’s the age difference, ten years? Twelve at most?”

Ko persisted with the argument, though he was only teasing Hsi-wei, igniting his friend’s peasant resentment. “For a girl to become a wife is to have a home, a family, some security for the future. There are many more poor girls than rich men. People say it’s a sensible arrangement.”

Hsi-wei replied tartly. “There should be even fewer rich men and more well-off young women.”

Ko patted the table and laughed. “Always for the underdogs, aren’t you? Well, in this case I agree with you; and, speaking as a deputy magistrate, more equality would mean more justice. But then poets are dreamers.”

“Perhaps so. But sometimes I think every reality was once a poet’s dream.”

“Or a painter’s. Only the dreams get distorted, don’t they?”

“Nightmares are also dreams,” said Hsi-wei bitterly. Then, in a brighter tone, he reassured Ko. “In any case, you certainly aren’t too old for Mai-ling. Besides, I’m sure you didn’t buy her.”

“No, I don’t believe I did.”

“You aren’t sure?”

Ko sighed. “Here’s the story I promised to tell you earlier, a story of how solitude turned to loneliness and pity to love.”

“The story has a happy ending, I think,” said Hsi-wei with a grin.

“For me, very happy. Three years ago, the magistrate and I were investigating the murder of a lumber-merchant. The man had been attacked by robbers on the road, his money taken, his wagonload of rosewood stolen. Two years before that, this merchant had taken a second wife.”

“How old was the murdered man?”

“About sixty. The girl, the second wife, wasn’t yet twenty. She was the youngest child of a peasant, a widower who had owed money to the merchant. You understand?”

“All too clearly.”

“Well, it was the usual thing. The first wife was jealous, furious over the marriage. She hated the girl, lorded it over her, treated her harshly and complained of her to her husband. The merchant neglected to change his will when he married for the second time; and, as he was childless and had no living brothers, the whole estate went to the first wife. She didn’t even wait for the funeral before throwing the girl out. People weren’t pleased, but, when she was criticized, the woman justified herself on the ground that the second wife hadn’t borne a son.”

“I see.”

“The girl was now a widow, destitute and with nowhere to turn.”

“What of her father?”

“Another too-familiar story, I’m afraid. The summer before, we suffered two floods. The first was bad, the second much worse. Her father’s land was near the river and his crops were drowned. He was in debt and ruined. The poor man hanged himself.”

“That’s terrible -- but yes, it does happen all too often.”

“I knew a local landlord, a good man with a kind wife, both up in years. The couple had just sent away their servant for stealing from them. They thought that punishment enough and declined to file a charge. I persuaded this couple to take on the young widow to cook and clean for them. I visited from time to time just to see how the arrangement was working out. I took note of how humble she was, how modest and grateful, how honorably she served the old couple. They quickly grew fond of her. Their villa had a large garden that had been badly neglected. On her own initiative, the girl made beautifying it her special project. During my visits, I’d sit on a bench while she worked in the garden. I found myself looking out for plants to offer her--ferns, rose bushes, myrtle. I visited more and more, even after my promotion. She was always glad to see me, and so grateful it made me blush. . . . I don’t know. Hsi-wei, do you think seeing her was taking the place of all the painting I wasn’t doing? Does that seem possible to you?”

Hsi-wei smiled. “Not impossible. One kind of love can be replaced by another.”

Ko grunted then poured out more yellow wine. “So, maybe that was it, then. A new love.”

“And the young widow -- the humble servant, the grateful gardener -- of course that was Mai-ling.”

Ko grinned. “So, you really don’t think it’s just another case of an old man with a little money offering a refuge to an attractive young woman with none?”

Hsi-wei shook his head. “I’ve seen how you are with her and, more to the point, how she is with you. Mai-ling was no longer a child and she had a choice.”

“That’s true. She was content with the old couple and might have refused me. But, as you say, she’s not a child. She’s suffered much. That’s what makes me wonder.”

#

The following morning, Ko left for work at the Magistracy and Hsi-wei for the marketplace to find customers. Mai-ling gave him the name of a peasant from whom he could get fresh straw and said she was going to make bing cakes for him to take along. She would fill a basket with fresh vegetables for Ming-mei and her mother.

Ko and Hsi-wei walked toward the center of Hsuan. “It’s a good woman who helps the help,” the poet said to the painter as they separated.

In the marketplace, Hsi-wei took several orders then found his way to the peasant who sold him good straw and along four of his wife’s chicken dumplings, plus a cup of tea for free.

When he returned to the villa, Mai-ling was in the garden pulling weeds. Hsi-wei watched her for a while, thinking how his friend had visited her in another garden and fallen in love. He pondered whether life really had replaced art for Ko and if his own case had been the opposite. As he so often did, Hsi-wei recalled the pain of leaving Tian Miao in Daxing all those years ago, the choice that had sent him on his wandering life and made the composing of verses his consolation.

Mai-ling looked up and saw Hsi-wei holding his bundle of straw. She got to her feet at once.

“Welcome back. I see you’ve had some orders. Good. I hope there are hundreds!”

Hsi-wei laughed. “Hundreds?”

“That way we can keep you here until you’ve fulfilled them.”

Hsi-wei laughed. “More likely you’ll ask me to go. As the proverb says, fish heads and houseguests both stink after two days. But I’m in no hurry to leave, Mai-ling. Your food’s delicious, my bed’s soft, and the company’s excellent. Besides, it’s a long walk back to Chiangling.”

Mai-ling sat down on the bench and motioned for Hsi-wei to sit beside her.

“How are Ming-mei and her mother?”

“Ming-mei’s worried and so am I. Her mother is very ill. Fever.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.”

They sat silently for a moment.

“Your poems,” Mai-ling began hesitantly.

“Yes?”

She faltered then said, “It’s an honor to meet you.”

Hsi-wei inclined his head. “Do my poems measure up to your husband’s paintings?”

Mai-ling looked shocked but then put her hand to her mouth and laughed.

“You’re teasing me. Well, I love those paintings as much as I do the painter, or almost as much. Tell me, is it really true, that story of how the two of you outsmarted the greedy landlords with their forged wills and forced the court to turn that land over to the peasants and the villa to the faithful old servant and his family?”

“Yes, it’s all true. You’ve mastered every detail. We had a fine time doing it, too.”

“Then you really dressed up and impersonated a high official?”

“Not a very high one.”

Mai-ling giggled.

#

Ko returned home early and looked glum. He hugged his wife and embraced his friend.

“You look as wrung-out as my shirt did yesterday,” said Hsi-wei.

“Was it so bad a day?” asked Mai-ling.

Ko sighed. “Two days ago, Mrs. Shin came with her husband to file an accusation against a young man -- a boy, really, the Chows’ youngest son Gulan. She said he had assaulted her. The magistrate ordered him brought in. The boy denied everything but the magistrate locked him in the cell for the night. This morning his feet were beaten with the bamboo until he confessed. The Shins were there, of course. So was the boy’s mother.”

“It’s a bad practice, the bamboo,” said Hsi-wei.

“They made the mother watch?” said Mai-ling.

“Coerced confessions should have been abolished years ago,” said Hsi-wei. “Emperor Wen’s Kaihuang Code was a vast improvement but it didn’t go far enough.”

“The Kaihuang Code?” asked Mai-ling.

“The penal code,” said Ko. “The law for dealing with crimes.”

Hsi-wei explained. “Wendi was revolted by the harsh punishments he saw growing up in Zhou. Beheading, tearing limbs apart with chariots, even the execution of the children of convicts.”

“But that’s barbaric!” cried Mai-ling.

“It was. Wendi eliminated those excesses, but he kept the death penalty and also permitted beating,” said Hsi-wei. “And both have been abused.”

Ko felt he had to defend the law. “What we did today was only what was required,” he said gravely. “The minimum.”

Hsi-wei was silent.

Ko gave a deep sigh. “Unofficially, I agree with you. What does beating to obtain confessions do but show the stupidity of some magistrates and the laziness of others? What’s worse, the evidence is unreliable. If Shin weren’t so rich. . .”

Ko had grown heated but stopped himself and, without a pause, said, “Excuse me, please. I need to bathe and lie down before dinner.”

#

After the distressed Ko retreated to the bedroom, Hsi-wei went to the garden to work on his sandals. Mai-ling looked after the baked carp, brought in more wood for the hearth, chopped scallions and bok choy, mixed up a sesame sauce, measured out rice and set the water to boil. She put out their next-to-last jug of yellow wine on the table.

Ko woke from his nap at sunset. His spirits had improved and he had a keen appetite. “Everything smells wonderful,” he yawned.

The carp turned out perfectly. As they ate, the mood grew convivial. Mai-ling, relieved by her husband’s improved mood, surprised both men by saying that she might take just a taste of the wine. When she got up to get a cup, Ko whispered merrily to Hsi-wei, “This is an event. Mai-ling never drinks.”

Perhaps what happened next was because the wine went to Mai-ling’s head.

“Hsi-wei, if you’ve written any love poems, I haven’t seen them,” she said in a challenging tone.

“That’s true!” seconded Ko. He turned to his friend. “Why is that, Hsi-wei? Are you shy or prudish or do you keep such things to yourself?”

Hsi-wei remained silent but this discouraged neither man nor wife.

“Women, especially young ones, are often attracted to poets,” mused Mai-ling.

“And not painters?” teased Ko.

Mai-ling giggled. “Of course, painters. Landscape painters in particular. But poets too. Hsi-wei, surely you’ve had some experiences of that sort, especially once your name became known. A famous poet who isn’t bald or fat. A celebrated, not bad-looking poet!”

Hsi-wei corrected her. “A vagabond peasant who makes sandals.”

“Yes, but also the author of ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’ and ‘We Love the Good’ and. . . and your famous ‘Letter to Yang Jian’. Unmarried and solitary, too? I refuse to believe you never had a young woman pursuing you.”

This unwonted forwardness of his wife and his friend’s embarrassment amused Ko. He chuckled and poured more wine into Mai-ling’s cup. “Out with it,” he said to Hsi-wei. “Let’s have a story.”

Hsi-wei shook his head, but Ko laughed and said, “Come now. A poet has to sing for his baked carp.”

“Very well. A few years ago, I was making my way through Yuzhou. When I came to Dongdu, I was invited to stay at the home of the magistrate, Rong Guangli. Rong, an excellent scholar, had three daughters. The two older ones were married but the youngest, Lihua, was still at home. She was seventeen at the time, perhaps eighteen. I was twice her age. Lihua was excited by my arrival and bubbled over with questions about my poems, which it seemed she collected. Over dinner, she threw me glances that made me uncomfortable and the next day took every opportunity to be alone with me and to ask more questions,. This time the interrogation about me more than my verses. Lihua was emotional, effusive, and perhaps she felt some of what you described, Mai-ling. And she was, if I can put it this way, very direct in her indirection.”

“Direct in her indirection? You’ll have to explain that,” said Ko.

“Like you, Mai-ling, Lihua offered to wash the dirt of the road off my shirt. Her father offered me an old robe of his to wear during the following day. When I went to my room just before dinner on the second night, I found my shirt cleaned and folded neatly on my bed. When I picked it up, a small piece of paper fluttered to the floor. There were four verses on it written out in delicate calligraphy.

..............................When the hills are all flat,
..............................When the rivers are all dry,
..............................When it thunders in winter
..............................When it snows in summer . . .”

“Were the verses yours?” asked Mai-ling?

Hsi-wei smiled. “No. The lines are from one of the Yuefu folk poems. They’re very old, from the Han Dynasty. Lihua assumed I’d recognize them and that I’d know the first line.”

“What was the first line?” asked Ko.

Hsi-wei blushed. “I want to be your love for ever and ever.”

“Ahh,” said Mai-ling and clapped her hands.

“So, Hsi-wei. The girl was infatuated. Were you tempted?” asked Ko.

Hsi-wei didn’t reply at once. He took a sip of wine, as if turning the question over.

“Lihua was lovely, educated, and passionate. But I was twice her age and a guest in her father’s house. Good manners, self-knowledge, and age were all against it. I left early the next morning.”

Mai-ling seemed shocked. “And you never said anything to her?”

“I made her a pair of sandals with bronze fittings -- small, like her feet -- and also a poem.”

“What did the poem say?”

“It was years ago.”

“Try to remember. Give us a recitation.”

“I might have a copy rolled up with the others in my bag.”

“Oh,” said Mai-ling. “Please go look!”

Hsi-wei came back after a few minutes with a small scroll which, with a courtly bow, he handed to Mai-ling who read it to herself then passed it to her husband.

The next morning, Mai-ling asked to see the poem again. She made three copies and shared two. And that is how the poem escaped into the world.

Hsi-wei gave it no title but i has become known as “The Worn-Out Brush.”

..............................The dirt on the floor laughs at a ten-year-old broom.
..............................A young stallion is of more use than a knackered gelding.

..............................A cracked wedding wok may be cherished but
..............................it’s no longer good for making pork with spring onions.

..............................It’s more fitting for the young to revere than love the old.
..............................And the old should beware temptations to forget their age.

..............................Cao Cao wrote Walking from Xiamen with his favorite brush,
..............................But for The Tortoise Lives Long he had to buy a new one.

..............................Before long, the brush I’m holding now will also be discarded.
..............................The closer to the drain the faster the water spins.


K.R. Vega
Seven Photographs










Chris McCreary
“Stimulus”


“Stimulus // Leer Reel”

An accidental
mingling of atoms. A reason

or resonance. Circle or spiral.
I couldn’t pick just one

& so I lingered. Still it was
an embarrassment

sitting still, purging everything
not already bolted

down.


“Stimulus // Stole”

The turn of suns around us, nurture
sure to make the fattened calf

scant. Amber I am but
besotted also

w/ bergamot
& leopard prints, my triglycerides

escalating unhemmed.


“Stimulus // Liminal”

O to be a votive
in a waxen paper bag. O to be

a snake swung in a burlap sack. O to be free,
finally, from the foghorn

of constant contact.


Royce Drake
“If the Sheep”

A Novella


A Prologue of Sorts

altar.mp4

1. EXT. -- A Backyard. Somewhat neglected: crab-grassed and patchy. Woods along the back behind a wooden fence. Night.

OPEN ON: Hard, gray, permanent stone. Stacked into something like a rough table. An altar. Something primordial, a body, a corpse, a sheep's rests on the topmost stone. It has been split open like ripe fruit. Flies enter the open cavity of its torso and their buzzing is lightly audible. Off-screen the sound of chanting -- distorted, alien -- and drumming.

2. ZOOM: A slow, treacle-thick trickle of blood, marooning already to a dark purple in the moonlight, oozing down the stone. PAN UP to the source of the blood, the sheep's mouth, its lips sputtered with blood. Teeth and tongue visible. The almost reptilian pupils of the sheep grow opaque in its death, but the terror still visible in their openness. Sound of buzzing grows louder.

3. PAN to group of masked people. Their masks are in the shapes roughly of horned and antlered animals. They wear robes over their clothes, but from below one can see sneakers, flip-flops, modern footwear. One of them holds a serrated hunting knife, bloody. The chanting continues, but now in English:

In the ritual I perform, in the extispicy I perform, place the truth!

4. The night sky. The sound of buzzing grows until it swallows the chanting, it grows dense and loud and deafening as the camera fades to black. An epigraph in white appears on the black screen:

AFTER THE RITUAL SLAUGHTER AND THE QUESTION PUT BEFORE THE GODS, ONCE EXPOSED TO THE EYE, THE LIVER REVEALED ITS DARK SECRET: (1)

wtf

What did I just watch? I search through the files and click on one that is labelled, appropriately, ReadMe:

ReadMe.rtf

Royce,

I figured you would be the most accepting of this hard drive -- assuming it makes its way to you. You always loved those stories and romances that open with secret letters; hidden chests full of archival discoveries and gothic tales; pale ushers and sub-sub librarians and the like. I want you to hold on to it, and keep it safe -- there are a lot of originals on here. And things Benjamin wouldn't want others to see. I couldn't send it to my family, because I don't think they would understand and might assume the worst. Meanwhile, I'm assuming the worst won't happen: nothing is as horrible as it seems!

If you don't hear from me in a year, feel free to use the contents in whatever way you see fit -- I know how hungry you are for material and inspiration -- with a single exception. Don't share the images and video: I'm still hopeful I can make some art from this mess once Benjamin and I figure everything out. Everything on the drive is true -- you know how I hate special effects, deceptions, lies, and fiction (no offense).

This is everything I've been collecting and working on since the move.

I hope everything is well and you are safe and healthy.

-- T.

Hard Drive Contents

Disorganized is right! Besides the readme file, everything else was a mess. I don't know what was wrong with T.'s computer, but every file had a creation date of December 31, 1999. Nothing was in folders. The file names were haphazard, incomprehensible. I clicked randomly for a while: journal entries, songs, video, notes for future projects and scripts, photographs, screenshots, pdfs from scholarly databases, emails to her rabbi, pirated video games and emulators, poetry, pornography, archived webpages, syllabi, audio transcripts, museum catalogs, curriculum vitae, cookbooks, dictionaries, receipts… that is all of the viscera and detritus of a digital life.

It was going to take forever to sift through everything, separate the meaningful from the noise. But! I had time: it was summer and I wasn't teaching. The lockdowns still had me sequestered in my house and my roommate had fled to stay with his parents months before. All that, plus T. was right in her note: I had intense writer's block.

What else did I have to do: I'd organize this mess, compile it in some semblance of order, make something of it.

I swore I wouldn't fictionalize anything (T. would hate that), but if I didn't hear back within the year, I would publish my notes as my own -- change some names, some insignificant details, tell T's story. (I assumed at the beginning that there was a worthwhile story in here -- why else would she send it.) So here we are. I swear everything that matters is true, and the insignificant details have been changed only to protect, well, pretty much everyone (including me).

An Algorithmic Friendship

After receiving the package and checking who it was from, I realized I hadn't spoken to her in a while. That happens, especially with the pandemic. You know you try: a few virtual happy hours, a like on a post, a few retweets. But soon you haven't reached out to that friend in months, years even if you weren't that close pre-covid. It wasn't until the package arrived that I realized I had lost contact. I checked the social media sites, but all of her profiles were gone. I pulled out my phone: our last text exchange was from four years earlier. Four years! I had asked if she was coming to the bar after class and she sent a thumbs up.

I knew her from grad school. She was in the art school, I was studying creative writing. We took a writing for film seminar together, drank after class, and gossiped about the other students. She was already dating Benjamin at that point, and he would show up at the bar and shake hands with me before sitting beside her and draping his arm over her shoulder.

She had taken some Mesopotamian poetry course with him the year before (a fluke of time, I'd say to others when I'd had one too many). As she writes in BabylonianLettuce.txt (which is included in a later installment of If the Sheep), she had taken the course, Mesopotamian Verse, on "a lark, a reprise from the time intensive video work I was doing for the MFA" and it was there that she met Benjamin who was the only one in the class who could with a straight face discuss the lettuce for pubic hair metaphors that continued to pop up in every romantic and erotic poem. "His seriousness won me over," T. wrote.

By the time I met them they were already talking marriage.

Even after grad school T. and I still ran into each other at parties and readings and the gallery openings with open bars. It was at one of those when she told me she was moving with Benjamin to a job he got in the Midwest. We were all adjuncting then and it seemed that Benjamin had aced some interviews and was looking at a tenure-track position.

At that point, I was mostly an algorithm friend with T. I liked her photos of her garden, her classroom, her home studio -- all that. Retweeted some of her stuff. Whatever the various algorithms were designed to show me. But I hadn't noticed when the posts stopped after the move. And now I go to look and now it's almost like she didn't exist. Why would someone go that far to scrub themselves from the internet?

And then to take the trouble to send that hard drive in a beat-up box that had been delayed for months by the logistical debacle of the pandemic. What happened to her?

Part I

"IN THE GUTS OF THE SHEEP YOU WRITE…"
-- AN AKKADIAN PRAYER TO THE SUN GOD, SHAMASH

RestArea.txt

On our way out here, we stopped at one of those rest areas along the highway. This must have been fairly earlier in the drive, because we still had the sandwiches we had packed that morning and planned to eat lunch there.

There was another U-Haul that pulled up while were eating and a man hopped out with his dog and walked it into the grass. We smiled as the pup and his owner approached. He asked if that U-Haul trailer was ours, and we nodded. The dog came up to sniff at our sandwiches, and I scratched it behind the ears. The man asked where we were headed and we told him. It turns out he was from a few towns over and was on his way eastward for a new job. All he could say after was why? Why would you do that? Why would we uproot our lives to live in the very place he was escaping from?

ChristianCollege.txt

We were at lunch with friends back home when I mentioned that Benjamin got a tenure track position at a Christian bible college, before taking the first bite of my sandwich. It is not a bible college, he said.

(I paused and opened my sandwich which I had discovered had a tomato in it. I do not like tomatoes.)

It is a liberal arts college that was founded by a Christian denomination, he continued explaining to our friends who smiled bemusedly if anything.

(I was focused on my sandwich. I lifted the tomato out and held it pinched between my fingers like a dirty handkerchief. Normally, I give my tomatoes to Benjamin, who loves tomatoes, but he kept moving his hands over his plate as he spoke:)

Brown was founded by Baptists, he said, Harvard by Puritans. We don't call Harvard a Christian college.

Tomato, I interjected softly and pointed towards the vegetable in my hand to see if he wanted it.

Or Brown a bible college he finished. Gesturing again and speaking a bit louder, I smiled wide and said: to-mah-to.

RainyArrival.txt

We arrive cranky, hungry, tired, and wet. It has been raining the entire day and Benjamin drove the last four hours hunched over the steering wheel and trying desperately to see through the torrent. And despite the temptation to leave the U-Haul and unpack tomorrow we have to get started moving things in. The weather app says there is no point holding off as it is set to rain straight through the next couple of days.

We try to be quick, but even then all of the boxes, stacked haphazardly, smell that wet paper smell. And our sofa, our chairs, our mattress which we had wrapped poorly in plastic are too wet to sit on. I lie down on a dry patch of the floor and look at my phone. I realize that I still have the weather location set to where we came from, not where we are. The rain is set to stop in an hour.

Attic.txt

The attic is to be my studio, as we both agree that the guest bedroom could double as Benjamin's home study -- because when we have guests he could work from elsewhere. I need a space all the time. I really like to spread out while I work: notes, photos, sketches, open and dog-eared books on every surface.

Before the move, the landlord assured us that the attic was finished and warm enough in winter and cool enough in the summer to serve as a home office, but after moving just the first few boxes, I'm sweating in all my pits, crevices, and folds. The landlord has obviously never worked from here. After fiddling with the speakers which I cannot get working right, I give up and lay on the floor in frustration. Maybe I'll take a shower. I add fans to the list of things to pick up later.

I also need a desk, I think as I head downstairs, but for now there was an old door that I found in the closet that I put over two sawhorses. On that rests my work computer, my hard drives, my cameras. My books are laid out across the floor to dry as some had gotten wet when we moved in.

The water is running and my fingers just entering the spray to check the temperature when the doorbell rings. Benjamin is on campus with department meetings, so I quickly throw on my sweat-stained clothes and dash downstairs to the door when the doorbell rings a second time.

Evangelists.txt

Three older women hand me a pie when I open the screen door. They have come to welcome me to the neighborhood, and they eye my outfit, my wet hair, the unpacked house, the lack of furniture for them to sit on beside our too-small Ikea loveseat (add armchairs to the list of things we need). The three of them squeeze into the loveseat(that normally would have room for one and a half, and not three full-grown adults) while I go to turn the shower off. They want to welcome me and my husband (they look at my ring finger and over correct themselves: my friend) to the block -- they didn't come before because they wanted to give us time to settle in (they eye the towers of boxes still to unpack). The women, who I couldn't decide if they were the fates or the furies yet, share that I could come to them (they all lived down the block next door to each other and had for decades) if I have any questions or if there was anything I needed. I'm holding the pie in my hands and stand in front of the loveseat as we talk. The visit could not have been more than five minutes, but feels as if it had been most of my life.

Finally, they stand as a unit. At the door, the middle woman says that oh yes, they nearly forgot (I like how they refer to themselves in the plural as we or they, even in forgetfulness) that they wanted to invite us to their church.

Oh, I'm sorry, I say, but we're Jewish.

To which they respond: well, there's no need to be sorry dear.

Fertilizer.txt

The campus is lush in that way so many liberal arts colleges are. How much money must be spent on water, fertilizer, labor so that the students can have the experience of doing their homework in the grass. But before the students come it is just this -- verdant is the word -- this verdant space. Even the brick of the buildings is robed in ivy -- encouraged by gardeners I will learn later, to give the space an older, more New Englandish, appearance for the brochures. And though the campus is green and beautiful it currently smells of the fish meal that is spread everywhere before the students arrive next week. There are only a handful of the school-spirited students that arrive early who walk briskly with their hands over their noses.

Cleaning.txt

I have a few hours before my "interview." Though, Benjamin has assured me repeatedly it is in the bag. The dean that had been on Benjamin's hiring committee assured him that "we'll be able to find something for your partner." Which seems like exactly the type of nepotism you expect in academia, but that tends to make others not like you.

I take it upon myself to clean with those pre-interview hours: dusting, sweeping, mopping. I even wipe out the fridge. On the off-chance the Furies return they won't be able to look down their collective nose at me. But, I think of something Kathy Acker wrote about how she cleaned despite her hatred of how it made her feel gendered. Acker tried to get chores over with quickly, to minimize the feeling. I'm the opposite, I'll keep putting things off day after day, because there are a million things I'd rather do. I have a high tolerance for mess and disorder so it takes a real effort to force myself to do a few things.

I feel a bit like a housewife, and I resent the feeling. How can you be a housewife before you're even married?

So, I text Benjamin, asking if he can do a bit of unpacking and pick up some groceries on his way home. No problem. Anything specific I should pick up? Just the usual, I tell him, we have had takeout every night since we arrived, and I needed some vegetables. Asparagus, if they have it, I add.

Program Director.txt

There is no one in the office when I arrive, and I wait ten or fifteen minutes before the man who I assume is the program director arrives. He is carrying what is obviously his loot from the vending machines: a chocolate bar, a bag of chips, a diet coke, a pack of gum. I realize it is around lunch time, and this is what this man has chosen to do with it. He asks if I am his 12 o'clock. I nod. He juggles his lunch awkwardly to unlock the door and turn on the light. He places his hoard on his desk and invites me in.

He eats through the entire interview. Talks with his mouth open. He's not an artist himself, he explains, but a political scientist by training, though he has not taught (or published) in many years. The usual department head was on sabbatical, and as it turned out, every other instructor in the art department was an adjunct, so the task fell to him.

He asks if I've worked on any movies that he might have seen. And I say that I don't really do that kind of work. He swears he has diverse taste, buys Criterion Blu-rays; he wants me to know that he's not a philistine. He says to name a few things and see if he's heard of them. I explain that I don't make those sorts of films; I am a video artist, or close enough. My work is usually part of an installation. Mostly student shows, and then after graduation small galleries run by friends out of their apartments, I don't add. My CV is not impressive, though I have taught a lot. And I was written up once, in an alternative weekly. All that to say, there was little chance that he could have seen my work. He didn't even know my name when I walked in.

Curriculum.txt

The course I'm given is an introduction to filmmaking, he asks if I know how to use a video camera. I explain again that I do use video in my art. Then I have the job, he says.
I'm not sure what to teach them. They did not sign up for a video art class. But the director seems unconcerned.

The students want to know how to edit and work a camera. It isn't like they're really making something, he says, not like they'll become real filmmakers -- no offense. (No offense? To me?). For him the whole art department was make-believe like children in their plastic kitchens, they pretended to be film makers, painters, sculptors (or video artists). But isn't everything we do pretend and play until someone forces us to take it seriously.

Groceries.txt

When I return home, I can't find Benjamin. I look in the kitchen (for at least the sign of groceries) and it looks like he picked up some things, but nothing you could make a meal out of: there are five bananas, deli-sliced cheddar, corn tortillas, and yogurt. No asparagus. No vegetables of any kind. There is some pink butcher's styrofoam and a bit of cling wrap in the trashcan. Benjamin can be absent-minded sometimes, I know this, but still couldn't he have gotten actual groceries.

It also seems clear that he hasn't unpacked anything -- everything is just as I left it that morning. I pop my head in the bedroom, in the bathroom, in the study. Nothing. I check my studio just in case, the basement in case he was doing laundry. I check the kitchen again. Nothing. I send a text, maybe he went back to the store to get real groceries (but then, the car is in the driveway). Then I hear the phone buzz form the other side of the kitchen door.

I was wrong, he did unpack some of his books. He sits on the step to the backyard. A particularly thick tome is open in front of him in the grass. In his hand, he holds some maroon piece of flesh. A liver. He's so engrossed, that he doesn't notice as the liver drips on the grass.

At least, I think, he doesn't do this inside the house where I had just cleaned this morning. When he sees me at the door, he smiles, and asks what we should order for dinner.

A Liver?

{Your compiler, Royce, interjecting here to say yes, T. meant that Benjamin literally had a calf's liver in his lap, probing its secrets, etc. Benjamin's research focus is on Near Eastern extispicy, that is reading organs for signs from the gods. Practically a science in the various Near Eastern empires of the past -- people went to school for it, conquerors hired divination experts to tell them whether or not a battle was a good idea, whether a harvest would succeed. If there was a motto of that ancient world it was "Trust Livers." The liver was the "Tablet of the Gods" and was more important than astrology back then. It is a mostly extinct practice these days, except! Benjamin enjoys showing his students how to read the liver. His teaching style is experiential and experimental, brings the text to life, he says in interviews. His course evaluations are always stellar. Even in grad school he was well known for his hands-on approach to antiquities, and this was not the first time he had practiced at home. So yes, a liver.}

Fiancée.txt

There are fifteen students, and we begin the class in a circle of chairs. I have them go around and introduce themselves, standard stuff. I immediately forget most of their names, and I curse myself for not writing notes in the moment. I do this every semester and it will be almost December by the time I remember everyone.

One student stands out: Meredith, a third-year student, with fiery red hair. After she gives her name, her year, her major, and why she is taking the class she looks me in the eye and asks if I am Dr. Blakey's wife.

Well, fiancée, I say, to which she smirks.
I think of asking how she made the connection, even if she is in one of his classes, he and I don't have the same last name or any visible ties.

Streaming.txt

I planned to show my students Maya Deren's Meshes for the first day and ask after what they think of it. She was the only woman on the syllabus in my undergrad intro course and her films were a revelation. At 18, I had never seen surreal montage like that, so I like to teach her first thing to get students thinking about what the camera can do.

But after trying to load Youtube for ten minutes, I discover that the internet does not work well in this classroom. Frustrated, I let them go early.

The department admin assistant says that the internet has never worked down there in that room. He can try and have someone look at it, if I like, but nothing has ever come of it. I figure I'll just have to find a way around it.

I rework my syllabus in my campus office, going through the library's catalog for DVDs. I make note of things I'll have to torrent and bring in on a hard drive.

OfficeView.txt

I share an office with a poet named Dani. It over looks what Dani, in her crude and succinct way, calls the ass-end of the dining hall.

All morning, during my office hours, I watch the delivery trucks, the removal of the food waste to the dumpsters, and the clandestine smoke breaks from the kitchen staff and students who couldn't be bothered to walk to the smoking gazebo on the edge of campus. Dani also likes to smoke there, and she invites me to join her during her third smoke break.

Etymologies.txt

Dani falls back on etymology as the ultimate science. I am struck by how much she seems to know about the origins of words. And she keeps the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelves of the shared office, and reads it in the way people read a novel or a history. More like a long poem, she says when I mention that to her. It kills her to have students who want to write but don't take words seriously, who are imprecise both in the meaning and valence of their vocabulary. I fear that she judges me as well.

I tell her about my plans for my backyard, I've never had the space before and I think a garden is more appealing than a yard. But I don't know the first thing about starting one. She has experience with gardening, she has a plot at the community garden, and she's happy to come over and give it a look. Proper planning is the first step to a successful bed, she says. Gardening's roots are to grasp, to enclose, to control.

Solitude.txt

In that first week, I rarely see Benjamin. He often is at the library, in his office, at faculty meetings, teaching, or working in his study. He points out that I am always applying to residencies for just this chance to have time for my work, he mentions Rilke's marriage as two solitudes (though we aren't married yet, so...). And maybe I feel it more because I haven't been working. I just can't get myself jump-started. Even on the days when I don't teach, I spend too much time preparing for class, or watching videos on Youtube, or sometimes I don't even know what I do: I sit down to work, and then look at the clock and see that it is almost five, which still feels like quitting time when I'm not inspired. And maybe by five I've edited a video that I have already edited a million times and I don't really change anything. Or I wrote a couple of lines of a script, but not enough for the six or seven hours I sat there. At least I write these notes and thoughts.

Cameras.txt

There are not nearly enough cameras for every student and so I have them double and treble up, bowed heads investigating the innards of the cameras. I want them to play with them, but it is clear curiosity or interest is not evenly distributed. And so, I walk them through the process of turning them on, checking the lighting, etc. I pull up a pdf of the camera's manual on the classroom's projector. Every time I look over at her group, Meredith looks back and smiles. Half the students are staring blankly into space, or at their phones.

I make a quick decision: You know what, I say, this is silly. You have cameras in your pockets all the time anyway. I show them, using my own phone, how to move video files to the computer so that they can edit them, I describe the lenses one can get, the stabilizing grips, the apps that even allow you to edit on your phone. I change their homework assignment. Their new task is just to acquire as much footage as they can before the next class when we will start learning how to edit. They are of course free to use the school cameras if they like, but none of them will. I challenge myself to use my phone more too, because its true the best camera you have is the one that's on you.

Museum.txt

The college has a small museum of antiquities that is hosted in the classics building, which is separate from the arts and humanities which get grouped together. Every student has a classics requirement here -- not every student has to take video, poetry, or anthropology courses. And they have an expansive sense of the classics that includes the Semitic languages (not a Christian college, eh?).

Benjamin's office is actually in the back of the museum, so that he can do hands-on research with the materials. This is part of why he wanted to work here. There are a number of tablets and artifacts that have been donated by some alumnus who owns a hobby supply store. Benjamin does not talk about how the donor acquired these materials, many of which seemed to have appeared, judging from the placards, after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. I write that down in my phone, because the connections prick my creativity. This same alumnus is the one that funds the Near Eastern faculty, including Benjamin.

I wait for him after I finish teaching so that we can go home together. He has another thirty minutes of office hours (a recurring event in my calendar app). This is one of the few times that our schedules slightly overlap.

I look at a clay object for a while near the back. I consider going to see if Benjamin is done early, but I can hear two voices coming from his office. It sounds like goodbyes are being said, but slowly. The door opens and Meredith leaves his office, saying I'll see you in class, Ben. When she sees me she smiles, and greets me by first name too. Benjamin comes to the door, and says he'll be ready to go in just a minute and I hear him click around on his mouse.

Nicknames.txt

I feel the need to create even when I feel blocked, especially when Benjamin pops his head into the attic to see how's it going when he gets home. I'm creatively constipated, I say. Maybe you should improve your creative diet. Which is true, perhaps. I've wasted most of the day on Instagram and Twitter -- if I wasn't going to work I should have at least read a good book. Benjamin is full of that sort of unsolicited advice that turns out to be correct. The problem is I don't know even know what to read -- since our arrival I have been uninspired. Is it possible to have a generic creative impulse, untied to any project or plan?

Lucky.txt

My mother says I'm so lucky to have found Benjamin. I know for my mother my luck is financial. Ben's got a tenure track position. My mother doesn't even quite know what it is I do, she knows there's teaching involved. But the idea someone could make money from making "weird, little videos" is beyond her. Not that I'm currently making a living doing it though.

InternetArtist.txt

Sometimes, Benjamin jokes that I'm less a video artist than I am an internet artist, since so much of my work is found online, and so much of it is about the internet. But, isn't that what the internet, or at least the web, is, the dream of the video artist. Imagine the first users of video, you can see their work, their fascination with freezing, pausing, rewinding, with the portability of video sure, but also the ability to so easily edit and control the images. And isn't that all the internet is: sitting at the editors table. Each time we sit before the screen, a private performance that none will ever see. The editing is always where the magic actually happens for me. I often show my students Santiago Alvarez and his archival collage films that used everything in the Cuban archives. His work is the documentation of archival exploration.

Lawn.txt

I never thought I would have a lawn. In the city, if you have a backyard it is more a cement cell with a few potted plants. But here, there is more space than I know what to do with. I've already checked with the landlord about a garden. As long as it doesn't look bad, he's fine with it.

Dani comes over to help me plan out the garden. She has a green thumb and a beautiful plot in the nearby community garden. I have never gardened and very much seek her advice. But with a guest, I see the backyard in a new light, as a stranger would see it with its bald spots and crabgrasses.

Sorry that the backyard is in such shambles, I say to Dani. I've invited her over for drinks. She corrects me, pointing to the weeds. First of all, she says, there is no need for me to be embarrassed. Secondly, shambles were open-air butchers covered in blood, viscera. A few bloodless weeds do not a shamble make.

She warns me it is quite late to plant anything for this year. Maybe some fast sprouting radishes or lettuces. Benjamin comes out for a little while and watches Dani's surveying. I imagine he has his own thoughts for the backyard, but he says nothing. She measures for the best place to put the bed, how much soil I'll need, the best hose, the best trowel, the best fertilizer: despite her earlier comment about the shambles of the yard, her preference is for organic blood meal.

WorkingArtist.txt

I find that students are often surprised to learn I am a working artist. I don't know if it is just me, or if they have not yet met artists before. Of course, I am not famous. My work does not often get written about. It is always one part of a shared show in a small gallery which is sometimes just an empty apartment or garage in a gentrifying part of the city. My name is just one amongst dozens in the catalogs -- if there even is a catalog. So maybe their surprise is in learning that there are artists who are not famous.

And so, I am surprised when Meredith points out that the video we have just watched in class, a pirated copy of Camille Henrot's Grosse Fatigue that combines creation myths with videos and images being opened on a computer, was similar to my work. We can't always hide our influences and sometimes the roots reveal themselves. But how did she know my work? It did not feel like fame. It gave me the same feeling as when she referred to Benjamin as Benjamin in class -- though I also give them permission to call me by my first name which no one, not even Meredith, does.

SecretLanguages.txt

Benjamin can speak a number of languages, far more than I'll ever know; and when he teaches he switches sometimes, he explains a Latin a phrase, writes a bit of Greek on the board, quotes from the Bible in Hebrew. He is teaching the students Akkadian or Sumerian or whatever; but he also teaches them little bits of and Arabic and Etruscan and French and German. They are learning some private creole unique to his classroom.

How he holds it all in that head of his is beyond me, but he does. And some of the students, he says, have a similar talent. Meredith, I hazarded. And he looked surprised for a moment, before nodding, yes, she too has a talent. She already knew Biblical Hebrew and was picking up the related languages in the cuneiform class quite easily. I know from experience that by midway through the semester he and his best students will be able to speak in a language that few others could eavesdrop on.

clayliver.png

A clay object that looks a bit like an ocarina or a multi-lobed sweet potato sits behind glass in a display. On its surface are inscriptions and some sort of grid. The placard, that is only half in the frame, explains that this is a model of a sheep's liver, molded in clay sometime in the 19th century BCE. The outlines of the fingers that molded it are just visible in the clay's slopes.

LiverModel.txt

I look up these clay devices, like the one I took a picture of in the museum. This model was acquired surreptitiously and recently, during the war, but would it have been worth anything if someone didn't know what it was? I learned that it was only by chance that the first of these seen by a European was recognized for what it was. Otherwise all of these things would have just been curiosity or paperweights in some colonial office! I get lost in the research, and I realize this is what I should be working on.

There were connections between us (America? "Members of the college community?" Me and Benjamin?) and these livers. This would be my subject. I never know what the finished product would look like, but I now have my inspiration. And no, it does not elude me that I've chosen my future-husband's research interest. If we have more to talk about, then all the better.

"UNLIKE WRITING, IT IS DIFFICULT TO MAKE A VIDEO IN THE FIRST PERSON, BUT IT CAN BE DONE." -- T.

KevinBacon.mp4

A screen capture of a full screen web browser opens to the home page of Wikipedia. The mouse moves frantically, highlighting words, phrases, scrolling up and down the page. The cursor rests on the search bar and slowly types: b-a-b-y-l-o-n. The cursor follows the links, moving back and forth between pages: Sumer, Mesopotamia, Sargon of Akkad, cuneiform, Rastifarianism, Third Dynasty of Ur, Euphrates, Fertile Crescent, Baghdad, George W. Bush, sheep. The video follows the trails of an unseen thinker until it finally lands on Kevin Bacon after six minutes and six seconds. Silent.

Nemesis.txt

We're having one of those smoke breaks during our office hours, Dani and I, when she looks over my shoulder and says isn't that Benjamin. I quickly stub out the cigarette, not that my smoking is a secret, but…

And it is Benjamin along with our mutual student Meredith. They have walked out of the dining hall and are following the sidewalk out of our line of sight. Dani asks who the student is, my nemesis, I say. Which is the term Dani and I have taken to using for our least favorite students. Our poor luck and allotment, Dani says, I assume drawing from the etymology. (Her nemesis spends the entire class trading cryptocurrency and doesn't care for the lessons in the least.) It feels good to name it, even if we have to keep it between the two of us. Meredith is my nemesis who gets under my skin and walks with my fiancé who she calls by a nickname into the tree-line past the quad, just at the edge of our vision.

Will we follow? Yes, of course we will.


Citations
(1) Cohen, Yoram. The Babylonian Summa Immeru Omens: Transmission, Reception and Text Production. Zaphon, 2020.


To be continued


Contributors


ALEC CALDER JOHNSSON is an alumnus of Haverford College and a native of White Plains, NY, where he currently work as a paralegal. His screenplay “Westphalia” was a semifinalist in the inaugural Stage 32 Feature Drama Screenwriting Contest. His short story “Peach Melba” appeared in Palaver and his poetry has appeared in The Blue Route, Zaum XS, Polaris, and the Haverford Review.

AVA SOPHIA BROWN is a writer, filmmaker, and Daffy Duck enthusiast born and bred in Philadelphia PA. Her other 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.

CHRIS MCCREARY is the author of four books of poems as well as the chapbooks AmoUng (Shirt Pocket Press 2019) and, along with Mark Lamoureux, Maris McLamoureary’s Dictionnaire Infernal (Empty Set Press 2017; @marismclamoureary). He lives in South Philadelphia with Frida the cat. Find him on Instagram.

FITZ FITZGERALD once played Duchamp in Geoffrey Gatza's play Duchamp Draws Rrose Selavy and a pirate in Joyelle McSweeney's Dead Youth, or The Leaks. His work has appeared in Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, Wu-Wei Fashion Magazine, Fanzine, Real Pants, and in the book Roots and Routes: Poetics at New College of California. He is a poetry editor at JMWW.

GERARD SARNAT won San Francisco Poetry’s 2020 Contest, the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award plus the Dorfman Prize, and has been nominated for Pushcarts plus Best of the Net Awards. Gerry has been published in Tokyo Poetry Journal, Buddhist Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, Arkansas Review, Hamilton-Stone Review, Northampton Review, The Los Angeles Review, The New York Times, and many other journals, as well as by Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Penn, Chicago, and Columbia presses. He’s authored the collections Homeless Chronicles, Disputes, 17s, and Melting the Ice King. Gerry is a physician who’s built and staffed clinics for the marginalized as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. He serves on Climate Action Now’s board. Gerry’s been married since 1969 with three kids plus six grandsons and is looking forward to future granddaughters.

IRINA NOVIKOVA has been interested in drawing from an early age: her first subjects were fantastic birds and animals. Irinia is an art critic (State Academy of Slavic Cultures) and graphic designer (MGTA). Her main techniques are watercolor, ink, gouache, and acrylic. She draws on environmental and natural themes, inventing creatures and stories for them, but she also crafts portraits. Recently, she has leaned towards symbolism. Her “Red Book” series is dedicated to rare and endangered species of animals and birds. Irina is inspired by baroque music and black and white films. Irinia lives in Russia, but you can find her on Instagram and Instagram.

K.R. VEGA is a suspense / thriller novelist and photographer who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. She holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University and a BFA in art with a concentration in photography from Truman State University. K.R. recently finished her first young adult novel, Unburdened, and is working diligently on an adult thriller called Young’s Modulus. She’s a member of Sigma Tau Delta English honor society and the National Writers Association. She enjoys making up ridiculous stories and seeing if anyone calls her out on the lies.

ROBERT WEXELBLATT is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published eight collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; two books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. Robert previously published “Hsi-wei at the Moon Festival” in SORTES 6.

ROYCE DRAKE has an MFA from Temple University and teaches creative writing. He is currently splitting his time between Colorado and Philadelphia with his wife, Lily. He is at work on his first novel.

SHINE BALLARD, the fainéantmanqué, currently creates and resides on this plane(t).


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At Mighty Writers, we teach more than 3,500 kids to write with clarity annually. We serve children and families in and around Philadelphia, PA and in Camden, Atlantic City and Newark, NJ. We also run writing workshops in the Washington Heights community in NYC. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. All programs are free to the kids we serve.

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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.

Each issue is its own creature. We have neither theme nor scene. We like whatever makes us shiver, plotz, turn on, and/or freak out. We've published what might be called magic realism, dirty surrealism, fantastical biography, experimental poetry, tender balladeering, elusive allusive elliptical poetry, and sweet ol grainy photography.

We will periodically host contests, readings, calls for entries, and other spry gimmicks to keep things interesting. Previous issues are available via the site’s Archive link.

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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.

SORTES is edited by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum and Kevin Travers. We live in Philadelphia but we invite writers and artists everywhere to read, contribute, and adore us.


Events


SORTES regularly offers readings and performances.
For upcoming events, please check here and our Facebook page.


Coming Up:

The SORTES ISSUE 8 Reading!

Friday, December 10, 2021 @ 7pm EST

In the depths of winter I found within myself an invincible SORTES ISSUE 8, “That Famous Mosaic Table”! And following near behind like a guardian angel puppy aww comes the SORTES 8 Wayward Winter Reading! -- a major seasonal ALL STAR event glittering with prose, poetry, so much art, and bells bells bells.

PLEASE JOIN US for a reading that may very well feature some or all of the following Issue 8 stars:

Alec Calder Johnsson
Ava Sophia Brown
Chris McCreary
Fitz Fitzgerald
Gerard Sarnat
Irina Novikova
K.R. Vega
Robert Wexelblatt
Royce Drake
Shine Ballard

Your springing eternal host will be SORTES co-editor Kevin Travers. The event is free, public, and compulsory.

ID: 898 1347 3497
Passcode: 155969
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Radio SORTES


See Events for upcoming Radio SORTES performances.


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

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.

Introduction

Suspense, "The House in Cypress Canyon"

Commercial

Inner Sanctum Mysteries, "Voice on the Wire"


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