“I saw that my witticism was unperceived and quietly replaced it in the treasury of my mind.” -- Flann O'Brien
EDITED BY JEREMY TENENBAUM AND KEVIN TRAVERS
The old man had been so inspiring, Lorna thought, as she got into the elevator. Despite his age -- seventy? Eighty? At thirty-eight, to her, he just seemed old -- he had such energy and positivity. He'd ignited his corner of the party, where people had gathered around him.
"If you want to do something, do it," he'd said. "It's later than you think -- go for it!"
Sometimes Lorna felt so frozen, but this old man was self-confident, wise, or merely indifferent to what others thought. Blanchard, was that his name?
"Sorry," Lorna said, holding the door for a woman now rushing in. Lorna had just pushed "close," which was kind of embarrassing.
"It's okay," said the woman, about seventy herself and striking, with closed-cropped jet-white hair and good (Italian?) shoes. Lorna recognized her as someone in the Blanchard gaggle -- Rita, was that her name?
"Quite a guy," Lorna said, after a second, because the silence discomforted her. She'd read you could tell a person's character by how she responded to silence: in her case, it was with insecurity.
"Who?" the woman said.
"Blanchard. Was that his…"
"Oh. Yes. Right." There was more silence as the car continued to fall. This time, the woman ended it. "Don't fool yourself."
"What do you mean?" Lorna said.
"He's full of it. Not dynamic at all. Just delusional."
Lorna waited for her to go on. She couldn't just keep saying, "Really?" or whatever.
"He's broke, dependent, helpless. Did you see the younger man and woman he was with?"
Lorna hadn't but said she had.
"They're his stepson and daughter-in-law. They've had him declared incompetent. They're exploiting him, sponging off him, holding him captive. They don't let him out of their sights. 'Quite a guy'!"
The car seemed to sink into and bob up from the lobby floor, like a space capsule splashing into an ocean, and then Rita was gone.
Waiting for the subway, Lorna thought about the encounter, made sobered and uneasy by it. As the train arrived, she recognized a man getting in with her. He'd been at the party, too, was about her own age, lean, with attractively unruly blonde hair and good (Italian?) glasses. He acknowledged her with a smile, then asked if she'd mind him sitting beside her; he was polite, as well. Lorna said no, not at all. His name was Lee Bellows, and he was a cinematographer, which was ideal: Lorna was an unemployed documentary screenwriter. She told him about Blanchard and what Rita had said.
"She seemed really sharp," Lorna said. "Smart, you know? A smart cookie."
Lee nodded and didn't respond. Before Lorna could be disturbed by the silence, he said…
"Well, I don't know how smart she could be when she voted for…" and he named the far-left fringe candidate in the last election who'd siphoned off enough votes from the moderate candidate to elect the far-right fringe candidate.
"Really?" Lorna said.
"I'm afraid so."
"But that's such a crank thing to do."
Now it was Lorna's time not to speak, feeling confused and dismayed. Lee filled in the gap.
"It's like a camera move in a film," he said. "One that includes a detail that adds to and changes what you see. The Germans call it 'Einzelheit.' "
"Huh," Lorna said. "I've never heard that word, but you're right."
Lee said it was his stop, and they exchanged numbers before he left.
When Lorna got home, she looked at Lee's number, saved in her phone's address book. She hadn't had a date in months nor a real relationship in more than two years. Then she took off her mask and called her friend, Maya.
"He seemed really nice," she said. "And nice-looking, too. Good hair and shoes."
"What was his name again?"
"Oh. You didn't hear about him?"
"He once kidnapped a friend's child to get back film equipment he said they'd borrowed and never gave back. No one got hurt, the lenses or whatever were returned, and the friend didn't press charges."
Lorna made little "mm-mm" sounds until, rattled, she excused herself and hung up. Before she could fully process her friend's information, she heard a lapping noise.
Lorna turned and saw her tabby cat, Margarine (a rescue, once stand-offish, now loving). The animal was near her super, Primo, who lay on the floor, with a steak knife in his chest. If Lorna had told him once, she'd told him a million times, there was too little heat. She had hypothyroidism and was always cold.
The cat was licking his blood, which was sticky on the floor. Lorna had forgotten to feed her before leaving. Making a kissing sound, she got Margarine to follow her into the kitchen.
"Einzelheit," Lorna heard the cat say.
“steel jowls clanging”
“somnolent wanderings through the fungal labyrinth”
Stone bridges are the favorite food
of a few species of nonexistent fish.
Children listen to their singing
and bring the toys to the ocean.
There is no need to commit suicide:
Islands grow like lopsided fruits,
broken dolls scare dogs off the beaches,
trees are always late for a date,
and the air itself desecrates the sunrays.
How many stories can
a blade of grass
remember? The space
between two rains
might be huge like a shoe
of a star.
Evenings are too human to be cherished.
Flames are too dark to swallow
a soul on a fool's errand.
Night suns protect the animals
whose skin is bruise and blemish,
whose appearance is void of meaning.
Claws and toenails scratch the glassy
flesh of the gods, mythical mornings
and fabulous sunsets.
Songs are made in profusion
to spoil the air.
“Neither Under A Bushel”
Birds and angels dream about the space
under sofas and coffee tables.
The sky is blue, of course,
and too vast to be true.
Dust is beautiful on the wings,
expensive like the worlds where they don't exist.
When Jordan was a baby, I couldn't put her down. She looked so much like myself. My nose, my bushy eyebrows, the curve of my lip. She felt like a mirror I pulled from my body. There was no one else around I could measure her features against, so when I held her it was just all my sharp edges. I obsessed over my own image and licked my thumb to smooth down her stray brows.
I raised her the way I would have liked to have been raised -- a slicked down life. Thumbed numb and dull. Every morning we got up at six and tapped on the same loafers, had the same breakfast (one egg, two sausages, and toast) and she came back from school to play cards and let me brush down her unruly hair with coconut oil.
She's twelve when she tells me the world is going to end. She's twelve but she still comes to my door first thing in the morning. She crawls from the end of the bed, lays on her back, and presses her shoulder into mine. I assume it's a joke, or something to do with schoolwork, so I ask, "How is the world going to end?"
"In two months," she says, "the sky will turn pink, and the earth will split like an egg. One half will explode and the other will continue into an ice age."
"I don't understand."
"I saw it in a dream."
And I'm further confused. We usually share the same dreams. She would tell me that she dreamt about being locked in a room surrounded by the sound of echoing footsteps that grew closer and closer but never came, and I tell her that it must have been me trying to get to her because I had dreamt of running down a hall towards a door I could never reach. Or she would tell me that she dreamt of falling slowly, and I would tell her that I dreamt of looking up and seeing her, but instead of falling she was floating up.
I haven't thought about the world ending since Jordan. All my catastrophes are pre-Jordan, and I suddenly fear they've been transferred to her somehow. No one had told me about all the things a baby inherits from you.
I try to tell her what no one ever told me. I say that the first time I felt like the world was ending, I was eight and my dad left. His body left but so many of his things were still there. Coats, pointy brown shoes, a watch, a ring, cologne, soap, a half pack of Newports. I gathered some of his things when no one was watching and put them on in the garage -- the only place I could be alone. My legs stuck to the cold cement floor while I sat in the light of a foggy hanging bulb, swallowed by my dad's coat, his watch slung against my wrist, unlit cigarette in my mouth. I'd curl against myself and breathe these in, cupping my own face with his sleeves to imagine he was there.
When my mother caught me, she gathered all his things, piled them high on the front lawn, and had me and all my older sisters watch as it burned. I only managed to save the cigarettes.
The fire left a dead circle in our grass that never grew back, and the taste of it smoldered in my mouth for so long after, I thought it was my father as a ghost trying to wrap his hands around my throat for not doing more to keep him there.
But the world didn't crack and collapse, I tell Jordan. I try to smile and be encouraging. Jordan shakes her head and leaves the room.
I try to keep things as normal as possible. She's getting to be that age -- the doom circling her head will pass. Except, for the next few weeks, she begins to drift away, her shadow unhinging itself from mine.
She stays out later than I'm used to, first by minutes then by hours -- the yawning expanse of time like a held breath. When she is home, she won't play cards with me. She sits on the ground in silence while I fix her hair, combing out the knots at the nape of her neck. She stops coming to my room in the morning and if I don't get up before her she leaves without eating.
The days flip like tossed coins, one day clear, the next gray, until they begin to shift in and out of each other, one arriving before the other can end. The sun beams from a clear sky while the rain sizzles against a softening black street. The ocean licks closer to the shore, and each day the television lists out the names of those who can't keep from walking in. The bodies are dragged back out, and they line the sand in rows -- as if they're being used to count out the days.
I do my best to keep things normal. I wake up early to make breakfast, I buy cute rain boots, a pair for each of us. I place sandbags along my door to keep the water from seeping inside. I make Jordan take an umbrella to school and insist on driving her -- after I catch her on the roof one night, eyes waterlogged with the ocean.
Her face is thinner, I can't remember the last time I looked at my own face, so I don't know how much of myself I'm looking at.
I tell her the second time I thought the world was ending it was during 9/11. I never lived in New York, but I watched the towers smoke and buckle on the television -- the first like a bad knee, the second as if the ground had called for it to come back. I sat on my knees, breath fogging the television for hours, while my mother made frantic calls to my father. I didn't know she still had his number. Suddenly the ghost was back. Fire swarmed in my lungs, and I watched the smoke on television race through the streets and assumed that someone was angry at me, that I had done something wrong and this was the cost.
But you don't have to feel that way, I tell her. You don't have to carry the world on your shoulders. It's not your responsibility. You're doing great, I say.
She looks at me, her face sharp. I know. Then she leaves.
Then the girls come, following her into her room. I recognize the first few from conversation -- Sydney, Coco, Lindsay -- but the rest file in faster than I can learn their names. Jordan says they're just friends from school and nothing more, so I know them only as girl with red hair, girl with freckles, pale girl, short girl, girl with a black birthmark on her cheek.
Jordan and her girls travel in packs, moving in rotations, orbiting around her. They send Jordan walls of texts with hearts and sparkles and rainbows. When they're in my house they speak almost exclusively in whispers. Their voices slip into one the same way the water from the rain and the water from a neighbor's running hose and the water from the tears I wipe from my face all rush to converge at the bottom of the slope of the neighborhood. Until they break into laughter and they're just girls again.
At the beginning of the second month, Jordan doesn't come home, and after four hours of calling and no answer I drive out to find her.
She is on a cliff that peaks above the ocean, even more so lately, with how tightly the water clings to land. A line of girls around her age, some that I've seen and some who are complete strangers, crowd at the base of the cliff and make a single file to the top, where Jordan sits. They drop off gifts and trinkets around her: cans of apple soda, packs of playing cards, matchboxes, pliers, hammers, icepicks, press on nails, frayed denim skirts, matted fur coats, house plants in pots, sparkly lip gloss, soup cans, socks, butterfly knives, sandbags, and a pink sparkling dress draped across her lap. The items sprawl around her and stack behind her, with only one thin path leading to her feet.
I cut past all the girls and kneel in front of Jordan. The ocean air makes her hair curl like broken violin strings.
"You have to come home," I say.
Jordan says she can't. "I have to be here when the world ends." Then she looks up at me, her dark eyes bright. "Stay with me."
And I want to. My daughter hasn't smiled at me like this in so long. I want to sit crosslegged next to her, ask her how to play this game, but she looks so different. I've looked into the mirror and found something etched into the glass. My only instinct is to bash the reflection with my fist in hopes I can rearrange the shards into something else.
I yell at her. "Because I don't know where this is coming from, you're being overdramatic, and if you don't get in the car right now -- "
I pause, my hands fisted at my sides. I've never had to punish her outside of time outs when she was little, littler, and she is already mimicking that: eyes closed, face screwed tight, tucked quiet into a corner.
I leave and some of the girls call me names as I pass. Mostly about being old or a bitch. I feel heavy and slow and not nearly as much of the bitch I used to be.
She stays there until the end of the month, even while people walk into the ocean around her, even after all the girls have gone. I bring her food and water. Bowls of stew, turkey sandwiches. When I boil beans I can usually turn down the fire under the pot before it overflows, but now I forget about them until they catch up to me -- hissing and frothing over, stubbing the fire and staining the stove black.
I come up to her at night with her dinner. I never see her eat, but the bowls I leave her are empty and the spoons are dirty. I pack those up and leave the new meal at her feet. Her eyes stay shut, as if sleeping, even as I clink utensils and brush against her knee. The dress is still in her lap, shimmering in the moonlight like a big pale fish.
I sit next to her, and tuck my head into my drawn up knees. I tell her, the third time I thought the world was ending I was at my senior prom.
I used to be a girl who was most easily tracked down by asking who I had spent the night with before. Maybe it was a phase or maybe it wasn't, I wouldn't know because since then my greatest obsession has been molding my own reflection into something I can bear looking at. But I used to be a girl too sharp and bright to hold for long: a peak boys reached to say they did, and a star girls kissed only to tongue the burn in shame later.
I liked the secrecy of girls, how none of them could muster the courage to talk about me, even though their whispers still swam in my ears. Kissing girls felt like catching a ghost I could see, could touch. A ghost I haunted, not the other way around.
Boys were different. They didn't keep anything secret. They called out my name in the street and in the school hall like they were trying to summon something within me -- some dirty vision for themselves. I liked to pretend with them. It gave me a break from being myself, when I could split my body open and do my best impression of their desire.
I went to my senior prom wrapped in a pink dress. I didn't have a date but I made a game of seeing how long I could pull girls away from theirs. I spent the dance tucked behind corners, or crouched in the bathroom stalls with my head up someone's dress, counting the seconds by heartbeat.
I left before most of the kids could spill out of the dancehall. It was getting to be that time, when the king and queen had already been given their shiny plastic crowns, and the DJ steadily inserted more slow songs into his playlist, and all that was left of the dessert table was an anemic collection of plastic cutlery, a sputtering chocolate fountain, and a handful of soggy strawberries. Only the kids who lavished in the idea that their prom was their last chance for youthful happiness slumped against each other and shuffled their feet in the confetti until a parent chaperone had to tell them it was time to go. I wanted to end my good time before someone else ended it for me.
I kept my father's cigarettes in the glove box of my car. They were stale by now, and I was down to my last few. I only smoked one once a year. Since I got my car, I started doing it as I drove down the street with the windows down, so the smell wouldn't stick to me as much. The stench of it stayed out of my car and off my body for the most part, but the evidence of it would stay on my fingers until the next day.
There were hardly any streetlights in this place I used to call home, just long crumbling roads surrounded by grass and fences. For a while it looked like I was the only one on the road, until I saw the body of a dust colored pickup flash underneath a streetlight behind me, before slipping back into the dark. They didn't have their headlights on, and I kept watch behind me as we passed another streetlight, and the glaring faces of some boys from my school stared back at me. I only knew them by their girlfriends.
I didn't want to drive home and bring a car of angry boys to my mom and sisters, so I turned down long roads that didn't lead to my house and tried to keep myself from shaking. The cars multiplied and stretched out behind me like a parade, glittering in the streetlights that only came every few minutes. The boys hung out the windows, hollering and throwing things at the back of my car -- bottles, cans, corsages. They kept a steady menacing pace. I flinched when they lurched forward, stomping on the gas and veering onto roads I had never gone down. The cigarette stuck to my dry mouth, ash dusting my lap as I huffed in the smoke.
I don't know if they lost track of me or if they just decided to leave me alone, but by the time I let myself stop driving, the sun was up and I was in a different state. I hung my head between my legs and threw up on the floor of my car. I wiped it up with tissues from a gas station and I never went back home.
When I open my eyes, Jordan is staring. We are both crying. The water laps at the edge of the cliff and the dress crinkles in her lap as she leans over to kiss me on the cheek. I leave for the night.
In the morning, the world starts to end, and I am late to the chaos. The tel-evision beeps, like someone laying on a dial tone, and then static. My win-dows are broken -- the glass shimmers across the ground, crunches be-neath my heels. Outside, the sun shines so brightly, edges and form seep into one glowing expanse of white. For a moment, I'm left squinting at the sound of rushing water and the crunch of metal as cars slip and crush to-gether. When my eyes adjust, the trees are all bare and the grass is dead, thin and yellow beneath a bubbling pool of rushing water. The sun swells in a pink sky but the air is biting cold.
The street is too crowded for my car so I stumble barefoot uphill, against the water. My robe and slippers sop behind me, heavy and tugging, so I let them go and they dissolve in the street like tissue paper.
I'm sweating and shivering when I reach the cliff. It sticks out of the churn-ing water like a hand grasping upwards. The girls crowd towards the top, their faces flushed pink and I can't tell if it's a reflection from the sky, or if they're cold, or if it's because they're smiling -- staring up at Jordan on the peak. She's in the shimmering dress and her hair curls wildly around her head.
I try to call out to her, but I sputter and choke on saltwater, slipping as the ground begins to rumble, and a crack churns the waves and echoes in the air. I can't tell just yet which side of the egg I'm on, and panic grips at my chest. I don't know which side is better to be on -- the one frozen in suffer-ing or the one with a definite end.
The clouds in the sky warp, spinning in a haze, and the cliff seems to grow farther and farther away. I beat the water with my fist, less so trying to swim and more so trying to get Jordan's attention. A numb roaring sound hums in the air. Jordan turns. She's too far for me to see what her face looks like as she spots me, but I do see her dress gleam as it catches the sun, and I see her raise her hand and wave back to me.
I wave to her until her figure is swallowed by light, as she and the other girls turn into shimmering scales on the body of the hill. My arm is raw and red where it beat the water and my legs are heavy. I let myself stay still, and as the shining cliff warms my face, I cannot tell who is falling and who is rising.
We night-purrs, sinuses and bladders
explore the ship the necks of the cherub
expand. We need to bring the beauty inside,
for it is 1918 and we are tired -- the tornado's
supremest village of want does not arrive
with its old war letters uniformly poured
neat over pictures untaken nor do sons
of an age watch their mothers' breasts
from afar but graze their feet upon
the planks of insolence and tar. Rats
in the galley moan. Turtles and coinage
guard the books, straighten the hooves
in the penny jar as we seek our ancestors
piquant -- masters of the lilt stone smiling
greedily after man's hand has tilled inward,
beyond, through horripilation's smothered
orbs -- the flat side of the corpse sadder,
face blander, skin shrouded in vain
and showing its tail.
The birds are delicate this morning
but (c)rush(ed) in their Irish lisp
to feast in wounded gratitude
enlivened on this limb -- the tomb
within the worm, the radium womb
so drunk one welcomes the floor
and all contained therein, our touch
a healing touch to use the word "manure" --
the earliest hymn -- somewhere
Nippling the retirement of snow's
ghost radio, the question of the cello
must lack the laugh or muffle it
just long enough for us to ponder
rain thoughts of the withered
stapling exhumation vanes
within the thumb vagina's
careful handling of the mute
and thankful broken ceiling for
scooping holy ashes with the corner
of a postcard sold to only wayward signs.
“I Wrote a Puddle Word”
It's not just river clay that plies between my fingers,
...........dimes between my dirt-tables turned and turned
...........within the fossil-light, but the lone and sickly-green
...........photo of my ugly brother's winsome form splayed
...........across the yard. Upon his birth the nurse arose immediately,
...........proclaimed him unsturdy, that a backwards life would be
...........best for him. Never to be electrocuted or forced to wear
...........a rubber suit a milestone north of here was the best
...........they could hope in their struggling beds. Extremely
...........educated teachers, poets of the blackened soul's
...........one scalding bath howled a life cursed with
...........perfect recall never to escape the burden of infancy
...........or the cost involved in that. I would come in when
...........so ordered, pour the piss-pot off the porch and slather
...........back their doubts. The white-washed walls of the dead
...........do not represent what happened, before or after the killed
...........cats and dogs, though of all of us he's done the best keeping
...........the old ghosts off his bed. Don't...open that book!
...........he'd cry as I settled by his side to read aloud.
...........Open the window!...Look!
Ian Seth Levine
i wasn’t allowed in the top drawer of Father’s bureau
so i thought that’s what would make me masculine
when i looked inside, i became the Tenzin Gyatso
as long as i had the discipline
i imagined touching His things in a certain order
would open a door locked by an ancient order.
that if i were a good safecracker, exploiting all of the lock’s faults
at last, i would feel the rugged beat of My Papa’s Waltz
i had to choose five of my previous self’s things
buried amongst one hundred other objects:
yahrzeit candle melted like gold fillings
picking up the broadcast of Chanson d’automne
let The Life that [They] Have pass for a schilling
don’t trust the green grass on the lawn
pocketknife sharp as Jocasta’s brooch
a patina of Apple peels
Caesar’s wife must be above reproach
before the sweetened juice congeals
boar’s hairbrush weathered like Ulysses’ breaches
cerulean Barbicide® waves crashing
against Pinaud-Clubman fine talc beaches
walnut hilt splintered but lasting
wristwatch counting time like Scheherazade’s tales
until the ticking becomes adagio
betting against C(h)ronos with a martingale
as Billy said, “so it goes.”
yarmulke as silken and strong as the Nemean lion
between the fingers of a haggler in a Moroccan market
yet buried under gym socks like boulders on Zion
the drawer that I opened was his patriarchate
“The Heretic's Fork”
Lavished charcuterie spreads, saffron threads, and caviar pearls
Now I regale in a different part of the world
Where villagers bake stones out of biscuits and roux
And then pass them until you're black and indigo blue
Endowed Alici sardines, Kopi Luwak beans, and royal honey
Now I banquet in a different part of the country
Where townsfolk prepare their racks the traditional way
And then stretch your meal out to last days upon days
Afforded pure cacao bars, Wagyu tartare, and Chanterelle vegetate
Now I partake in a different part of the state
Where sisters and wives know how to serve their men
Because cotillion taught them how to stab and julienne
Granted Fugu, Casu Marzu, and mostarda smoked with tea
Now I dine in a different part of the city
Where brothers and husbands prize their thinly sliced ham
Because 1,000 cuts lasts to the bitter end
Supplied bon-bons and cornichons and crisp Blini rounds
Now I eat in a different part of the town
Where families pick choke pears right off the vine
And then serve them to you still dripping with brine
Given maggoty cheese, civet-shit coffee beans, cattle massaged to death
Now I pig out aching with hiraeth
Where I sit in my La-Z-Boy with a Hungry-Man meal
Warming my lap as the gravy congeals
“Victor Hugo Sees The World”
The cab plummeted from airy Montmartre -- summoned from the Parnassian Mount! he declared; the Mount of Martyrs, said his wife -- into the Right Bank's maze of dark streets. Hugo grabbed a strap, mopping his neck with a handkerchief as the tired horse galloped in its heavy shoes. "Faster, friend," he shouted out the window. He was glad he'd brought his pistol. Some of the worst slums in the city were here, by the half-built Gare St. Lazare, a plain of noise and smoke and iron, with grimy buildings and gutters so foul, you could stumble off the curb into a stinking, steaming lake of shit. But when the call came, he had to go, he thought, watching out the window as pedestrians lifted their suitcases in the gloom, trailed by pickpockets, muggers and the more energetic prostitutes.
The pressure on him was building; his reputation had been assaulted, opportunities restricted, success undermined: Louis-Napoléon, tightening the noose. Should he put on a disguise and sneak aboard a train for Belgium? Abandon his ancestral home to the jackals? He'd faced revolution at the barricades, torn down the powerful with one hand while giving republican speeches at the Assemblée -- no to the death penalty, yes to divorce. Now, was he to run? He felt in his pocket for the pistol.
The cab raced past a brightly lit café, with people eating and talking and drinking, spilling outside into the void. He tried to see anyone he knew, but faces blurred in the darkness that flowed on and on, channeled by the big stone buildings. Paris was a necropolis. Each doorway, a portal to the Underworld.
He got out on Rue Fortunée. The little street was deserted except for the night-wagon rumbling on its rounds, leaking shit. Hugo covered his nose with a handkerchief. "You've come to say farewell to Monsieur, God bless him," said the driver. He jerked his head toward the long, dark, silent building.
"You know the house, then?"
"Everybody knows the house."
Hugo nodded and strode across the courtyard, gasping for air. It's a wonder they didn't have the cholera back, with this fecal mess everywhere. That, alone, was a reason to leave town. He stepped into the shadows, then back out into moonlight that almost blinded him: dark to light, step by step, like life and death. Life and immortality. Our passing could come all at once, in a sudden break, or merely complete a long transition from the cradle. Focusing his mind, he formed one wish: he hoped the Other World was better than this.
The moon rose above the roofline of the house and the dome of Saint Nicholas Church, veiled and enigmatic. A star broke through the clouds, blazed defiantly, winked and went out. It gripped his heart. Sadly, he knocked at the door.
A servant answered, peering past her candle, eyes swollen with tears. "Who's there?" A maid he knew, Élise, a dark-haired Parisienne. She dropped a tired curtsy, wiping her eyes with a corner of her apron. "Monsieur?"
Sobbing, she led him to the parlor with the big marble bust of his friend. A taper burned on the table, its wavering light displaying red Turkey carpets, tabletops crowded with bowls, platters, candlesticks made of silver, glass, gold and ormolu. It was all a little dusty. Mirrors glinted dimly on the walls like an Aladdin's cave. And clocks everywhere, ticking.
Here in the big house, objects, heaped, glittered with satanic zeal, a cacophony of riches that gave off an odor of luxury, spiced with sandalwood, with myrrh. It overwhelmed the senses, its dizzying effect casting him into a somnambulistic haze. But more than anything, the house stank of cadaver. His friend was rotting alive. Balzac, that great perceptive intelligence, was poised to cross the definitive divide!
"Normally, I wouldn't trouble the family at such a time," he began.
"The family! Hoh," she broke in, her bosom moving up and down in time to her anxious sighs. "Don't worry about them. They don't really care."
"Take me to him, little one."
The concept was simple. Mediums said the trip to the Other World was like walking down a corridor. At this moment, Balzac was making that trip, his earthly feet haltingly approaching the Infinite, eyes open, as the veil was drawn aside to show what was out there. Couldn't a man both walk and talk? Especially Balzac, who wore out his listeners at dinner parties as he waved his hands and spilled soup down his shirt, face smeared with pigeon grease. Death loved His little mysteries. Well, so did Balzac. He went everywhere, talking to people, noticing, probing into every corner of the city. And then, he set himself a quota and wrote it all down. He would be the perfect tour guide to Hell.
Pulse pounding in his ears, Hugo followed the girl upstairs, wishing she'd walk faster. Telepathy and séances, somnambulists, numerologists and an admittedly shady cartomancer had failed to break through to the Other World -- to speak to his sweet brother, wasted to death in an asylum so many years ago. Or the great writers of the past. Or his poor daughter, God help her, drowned while he was on holiday with his mistress, and which he read about in the papers, spreading his hands flat on the newssheet as if to smother it. And he put no stock in churches.
Tonight, however, he'd take matters into his own hands. He sensed a vibrating reality around him, a thick, pulsating atmosphere of fatality shrouding the house. It was here that the battle would be won. Tonight, he would confront the greatest Enemy. In the supreme artistic collaboration, through the medium of the dying Balzac, the very body of his friend, he, Victor Hugo, would defeat Death.
"The doctors are all idiots." Élise, stopped to blow her nose. "Monsieur understands."
Hugo edged past the little tables and knickknacks cluttering the staircase. "Europe is losing one of its great minds."
"Madame sends us for the doctors, but they say they're busy. One even hid behind his door, pretending he wasn't home."
She stopped again, patting her bosom as she explained. "M. de Balzac swelled so much, he couldn't walk or stand. And then, his leg burst open! It flooded the bed." Hugo's gaze looked through her, and beyond, as if he were dreaming.
"The doctors said, 'Look! We follow where nature leads,' and they kept lancing him with their filthy knives. Then the water stopped. They operated, and the wound grew dry and red and hot. It stank." Hugo clucked his tongue. "Gangrene. They said, 'He's lost!' and went away. He suffers terribly. But he always has a smile for someone, a kind word. Not like some."
"Madame has a lot on her mind."
"Well," Élise corrected herself, "he always used to smile. He can't move now. His eyes are open, but blind. When people talk, he doesn't answer. The nurse says he won't last the night. But she always says things like that. It's probably not true."
As they crossed the hall, Madame rang. Let the old toad wait, Élise thought. She made life miserable for a younger, prettier girl. She treated a girl, in fact, like dirt. With her horrible accent and wrong words, they must be really stupid where she was from. They still had slaves out there. Well, she thought, you won't find too many of those in Paris.
At the door, she leaned closer, inhaling Hugo's cologne, her breasts brushing against him. Writers came here all the time -- Madame Sand, Monsieurs Sue and Dumas. But Hugo was different. He valued the humble citizen. He was tall and powerful. Her legs went weak, she trembled. Yes, Monsieur, she breathed, as he reached for her, tilting up her face. Yes!
"Take me to him," he demanded. "Now."
"Élise! My stays!" Eveline-Constance-Victoire Hanska, née Rzewuska, clanged the bell. She had to get out of the hideous dress. Recline. Sip an iced drink. And for that, she needed the maid, a malicious minx who generally deserved to be horsewhipped.
Élise strolled in and stood behind her, lazily unbuttoning. "It's M. Hu-go," she said, enunciating each syllable, her politeness bordering on insult. Eveline's hand itched for the horsewhip again.
"He's back? At this hour?"
"He -- is -- with -- Monsieur."
The girl shrugged. "He is making notes."
"For God's sake," Eveline snapped, and Élise suppressed a smile. What have I said wrong now? Eveline wondered, running over the phrase in her mind. The stays loosened, and her breasts dropped onto her bulging stomach. How embarrassing! And she used to be so skinny. Her mother beat her to get her to wear a corset. Things of this world; she crossed herself, hearing a whistling shriek from her husband's bedroom.
What are you thinking, my poor dear, she wondered, what's going through your mind? When she went in that morning, Balzac had clearly declined. His face was bluish as old cheese. His stench was foul. His jaw hung slack, his mouth a dark "O." He didn't respond to her caress. No more doctors, she thought, and sent for the priest.
For eighteen years she had been his Muse, fueling a passion that had almost burned them alive -- the letters -- their first intimacy, while her old husband napped in a hotel across town. Her beautiful, secret life. Eros and intellect. Searching the Spirit World together, and she, more experienced in this, guided Honoré, opening doors in his mind to what could have been his greatest work.
Now, she was one heartbeat away from being just a fat, middle-aged woman with piles and arthritis.
She'd give the order to stop the clocks and send for the undertaker. Men would lay wet plaster over Honoré's hands and sculpt a death mask of his face, with holes for the eyes and mouth. She couldn't watch them do that. And she didn't want to receive visitors, especially Parisian writers. She'd ruined her own health -- always weak, after the miscarriage -- and needed all her strength to confront this sad fact: she was losing the love of her life.
"Who'll love you enough when I'm gone?" Balzac had asked.
That was when he could still take a few painful steps. Then, he couldn't. She sat by his chair for their usual discussions, pretending everything was normal. Until, one day, he asked to her to take down a letter. "I'm such a lazy man!" he joked, smiling at the servants who worked with increasingly worried expressions. To her, he whispered, "I can no longer read or write."
Now, he lay with his head on the red damask pillows, the Other World pressing in on him. It was noisy, as if the rank air they sucked into their lungs, the thick, stinking vapors of a sickroom were a membrane, prodded by spirits crowding on the other side. His late family was there, of course, departed friends, the great writers of yesteryear -- even, if Honoré were to be believed, his own characters, alive in the ether! Sometimes, he spoke to them. Once, he even asked if they could heal him.
Mother of God, another one who thought he was a doctor. "No, sir," she insisted, "not improved."
"I asked, has he moved?" he said.
"No. It won't be long now."
People had been in and out all day, you'd think it was a train station. Mme. de Balzac, mère, Mme. de Balzac, wife, and a daughter and son-in-law took up positions along the bed, obstructing her work. The priest performed last rites. Servants trooped by, crying or, like that slut, Élise, pretending to bawl into her apron but looking at you over the hem. A painter sketched what would soon be the corpse. He sat next to the bed with a pad and some charcoal. "I have dinner plans," he said. "He won't move, will he?"
The nurse answered, "You can do the picture."
Now, they were all gone. The patient was turning blue. Breath harsh and shallow, necrosis rampant, humors all out of whack. For weeks, she'd watched the doctors' ineptitude; they had no grasp of the vital humors at all. There were no boiled rooster's feet. No camphor. No cupping. She knew, she, who had bandaged wounds at the barricades; she'd nursed patients through the cholera last year and never got the sniffles.
Hugo reached under the covers and squeezed Balzac's hand. Then he pulled the covers back up and wiped his palm on a handkerchief, slowly, meditatively. Mother of God, would he give a diagnosis now? She wished she were back on the farm with her sister, sitting on the porch together, shelling flageolets. August was beautiful in the country.
"Mice?" she asked, startled. "I don't think so, the house was just renovated."
"I said, get some ice. It's hot as hell," he insisted, loosening his neckcloth. "A cool drink might revive him."
"He can't swallow," she said bluntly. "If you give him liquids, he'll drown."
Hugo stared, appalled.
"He was a sweet, kind man," she said, fixing the sheet. "He always smiled when we had to use the ropes and pulleys to lift him. That couldn't have been comfortable, for someone his size."
"He's not dead yet."
No, she thought, but he's close. This was the artistic part, when they stopped moving. All that thrashing messed up the bed. She plumped the pillows, shifted the two candles, the sickroom's only light, and turned Balzac's head to relieve the sores.
"He looks like Napoleon," Hugo exclaimed. "My friend." He spoke into the patient's ear. "It is I, Hugo. Don't go yet. Tell me. Tell me what you see!"
"We tried that," she broke in, craning her head over his shoulder. "No blood comes out." Hugo cursed, backing into her to drive her off. Did I hear wrong? she wondered. He might have said "see," not "bleed." But that made no sense.
"He's trying to speak," Hugo gasped, bending very close. "What's out there," he demanded, voice rising to a roar as he put his hands on Balzac's shoulders and shook the body of his friend. "By God, man. What do you see?"
She pushed between them. "Stop that!" And, more quietly, "Madame will hear you."
Hugo hesitated. His hands let go and dropped to his sides. His mouth curved down at the corners, his eyes filled with tears. He took a last, lingering look at the patient and then, finally, left them alone. The nurse quickly patted the sheets back into place.
The room was an oven, the air hazy with sweat and candle smoke, blood, rotting flesh, pus and pee. And now, something else. From the patient's mouth came a sickly sweet smell she recognized: his dying breath.
He was falling into the abyss. He could no longer grab onto a peak or lift his face. He dove in fog and shadow, bewildered, alone, and behind him, in the eternal night, his wing feathers drifted. He fell thunderstruck, gloomy, mute, sad, mouth gaping, headfirst, the horror of the chasm stamped on his livid face, and screamed, "Death!" Brandishing fists at the void.
Horrified, he saw himself sprout horrible wings. The rebel in him was becoming a monster, the angel in him dying, and he felt world-weary. Gloom spread throughout the void that surrounded him. An opaque darkness shut the gaping sky. Nothing any longer had form. Darkness seemed to swell in a huge wave. It was something submerged; it was the ending, the departure, the hush.
The ghost -- Nothing -- raised its head from the abyss.
"Have you figured out what you're going to say?" asked Alexandre Dumas, another pallbearer, interrupting his thoughts. Dumas' dark skin was red from exertion, hair crinkly under the brim of his top hat, coat flapping around his behind.
Père Lachaise was jammed, it was getting out of control, street after street of crypts in the shape of Egyptian obelisks, Grecian temples, Roman sarcophagi: ornate portals to the Underworld. Marble statues wept, reclined, beckoned, pensive. Death reverberated. A vulture flapped over to a mausoleum and hunched, watching the cortège. It stared down at Hugo. Hugo stared back.
He was out in front, as a pallbearer. Behind him, thousands of mourners filed all the way down the hill, slow as an ancient reptile. People crouched as they climbed the steep slope, their shoes slipping on the wet gravel, and spoke in the undertones reserved for funerals. The priest pressed his hands together, exuding his usual pious disapproval, while around him bored young acolytes swung arcs of smoke from their censors.
Hugo shrugged. His boots scraped against the paving stones as he ran over the eulogy in his mind. Some people in that crowd were his bitter enemies, he knew what they were capable of. He was careful going home at night. Death hid in the shadows from Rue St. Honoré to Montmartre, around streetcorners, in an alley. "When we were at the shore," he told his friend, "I saw a dog lying on the beach, waiting for its master to come back. A group of people gathered around. Suddenly, a little boat returned to harbor, a dingy, lopsided vessel, the fisherman's head stuck out a window. People waved and shouted, and he picked up speed, ringing his bell. At the sound, the dog raised its head from the sand. The fisherman docked, jumped out and ran over, calling the poor beast's name. The dog looked up at him, eyes finally resting on its beloved master, and in that instant, it died."
"Mother of God. Not this mood again."
"It kept itself alive to see him," Hugo insisted. "Such a strong will couldn't end when the body died. Where did it go?"
Dumas shook his head. "I don't know, my friend. Cheer up. Things will turn around."
Hugo stared at the back of the hearse in front of him, swaying as the horses struggled up the hill, barely making headway, sweat foaming on their flanks. Was God laughing at him? He'd opened his mouth for a sip of immortal nectar, only to have the cup knocked out of his hand. God sent him racing to the bedside -- He put out the call! -- but robbed Balzac of speech, in the most horrible way. He drowned the writer in himself.
Our Maker designs our endings, Hugo thought. But if He knew He'd face them himself, chances are we'd see an outburst of mercy.
Inching upward, the hearse staggered, and in that instant, the heavy, ornate coffin shook itself loose and slammed against the back door. After an early rain, the day was hot and humid. The hearse had rolled for an eternity from the church along the broad Faubourg, now an ugly, bald avenue, lined with tree stumps where Louis-Philippe was busily clearing and paving, ready to make war on his citizens. The air was still and quiet, the sky blank, the leaves motionless, as if the graveyard -- a yawning mouth -- had sucked in its breath.
"The whole city's here," said Dumas, "come to say goodbye." He choked on phlegm. "What?" he demanded, gasping, as Hugo raised an eyebrow. "That's enough out of you."
Hugo saw Balzac's family, and Sue, next to Sand, who wore a dress. Baudelaire was climbing over a little knob of rock, with his friends, Delacroix and Champfleury, huddled in their baggy black suits like crows. Baudelaire squinted at the clouds and shook his head. Bohemians from the Latin Quarter were laughing and smacking each other, making faces when people threw them scandalized looks, then giggling again. The neurasthenic Minister of the Interior looked as if he couldn't digest his lunch. An old general walked decorously next to his lover, Mr. X, who wore an eye-mask that deceived no one. Meanwhile, hordes of common people had turned out very early and climbed up on top of tombs. They stood there quietly, craning their necks.
Balzac, who soared, serene and smiling, above the crowd on the visible wings of genius, had suddenly sprouted invisible wings and veered into the Unknown. For him, it was no longer unknown, but known; not night, but light. Not the end, but a beginning! Not nothing: Eternity.
Down the hill behind them, Paris was raw. It bled. The buildings were crumbling, the taxes were rapacious, the Law itself was a criminal enterprise, and it was all run by a maniac. On a recent visit to a friend in prison -- under this régime, that's where the best people lived -- Hugo had seen that, though the place was densely crowded, the inmates were totally isolated, looking out through the bars as jailers strolled by and ignored them liked petty deities, in clumsy boots and worn hats. Is that what God does all day? he wondered angrily. Watch us grab the bars and shout? Did he invent Time just to calibrate human pain?
He leaned forward, climbing the slope. Perhaps we're all fragments of the Divine intelligence. Put on earth to suffer until we purify ourselves. Evaporating in the heat of agony, we become a haze of shadows.
I challenge you to reveal your secrets, Hugo thought, raising his face to the sky. I dare. I dare to know! Sapere aude. The physical world was just a veil. Behind it, lay the Truth.
Pull back the veil. Show me what we're living for. Dying for. My sweet, innocent daughter. My poor brother. Why make life for man to stumble through blindly? There is no grace. Instead of omnipotence and wisdom, you give us impotence and sloth. I, a man half-formed of clay and godly spit, shake my fist at you! That is my eulogy. Those are my words.
"Victor, look out! Save yourself!" Dumas shouted.
The hearse had come to a halt, the wheels slipping in gravel. The team took one step forward and two back. The driver stood and whipped them, cursing. Exhausted, the horses stumbled and stomped, unable to progress, and then, the cortege reversed itself, and the vehicle started going backward, rolling down the crowded path, faster and faster.
"My God!" cried a woman, and fainted.
People shoved each other to get away. The horses shrieked, dragged by the neck in a hurtling mass of wood and iron. Hugo leaned back against a marble tomb as the big rear wheel of the hearse spun toward him. Time slowed, as he watched. Hooves hammered gravel, springs screeched, shouts rose. Pinned against the tomb, he flung his arms over his face. It was the end.
And then, he was lifted up. Just before he was crushed, thick, muscular hands reached down. A group of workers had climbed on top of the tomb to watch the funeral, and one of them, an enormously strong man, gripped Hugo under the arms and hoisted him. He was flying! The iron wheel slammed into the tomb -- but he was saved. The people gave him wings!
"Easy does it, sir," the man said soothingly.
"This way," said another. "We got you, sir."
"There you go now. Fit as a fiddle," said a woman. They steadied him, brushing dust from his suit with their hands. "We don't want two corpses today, do we, sir?"
Hugo stood, cautiously at first. Then a cheer went up from the crowd. Amazed, he almost couldn't breathe. His heart soared within him as he looked around.
From on top of the tomb, he could see the whole slope, where volunteers were putting their shoulders to the hearse to get it back onto the path, and down the hill, and in the distance, the rooftops and rivers and smokestacks, bridges, gardens and gates, stone churches, medieval squares and back alleys, where stray dogs chased scrofulous rats, the only dinner they'd get. One hand on his rescuer's shoulder, he breathed deeply and took it all in, the men putting their shoulders to the hearse, the crowd, staring, and beyond them, the rooftops of Paris. His rising soul.
Somewhere down there, a man getting ready for a duel uncorked a rare bottle of wine. A child wrapped rags tenderly around a homemade doll, her mother hovering, worried about the girl's hacking cough. A thief stalked a tourist, drawing closer, knife in hand, and at that moment, a ballerina leapt from the wings to center stage at the Opéra. Pigeons strutted past secretive gargoyles on top of Notre Dame. Politicians schemed, and poor flower sellers packed up their wilted bundles, they'd made no money again that day, and prisoners sat brooding in their cells, listening to a ferryman pole his barge along the Seine, singing lonely songs.
A chef piped roses on a wedding cake and stood back to judge. At the corner, a girl propped her elbows on a windowsill and looked out, dreaming over the heads of passersby, while somewhere, a man reached out to stroke his lover's face, as a breeze swept through the trees, and sunset painted everything red.
On 11 December 1851, Victor Hugo disguised himself in a floppy hat and a cape and sneaked aboard a train to Belgium.
“The Candles Burn in the Shape of My Hands Dipped in Wax”
Upon arriving at
the museum of
poorly timed fogs
brightly right at
my eyes hem
It's only been trapped
in the water like this
since the water,
since this painting
I made of you lost
its footing and the
spot on the wall
Nothing says broken exactly
like erring on the cliff's side
to see what
its logical end
has in store
millions of parts
of your body
We think parking illegal only when leaving the car long enough. Speaking of tired, your pupils as centers of gravity whittle the trees into pith for the cord of a body to doze in. Consider the accident's liveliness -- reminiscent of blinking. She skulls a whole galaxy atom by atom a minute and rests.
“Hello Best Wishes,”
I'm reminded of the lakeside
surgery audience feeding
their pockets our needles and pins.
Which of your oars
has folded the water,
the one in your hands
or the one that you spoon
through the oven glass
hoping for sun here?
Once, to prove a point
I pedaled a bouquet of lotus flowers
More focused then, the sort of love
I practiced; fewer friends involved,
Autumn days again,
Scenes of contemplation.
Leaving the house to be alone.
It's good to walk
Up and down the street
Below the branches of elms.
The school is heating up
As first-years look for sex.
Gathered away together, fagots for a fire.
Dull, painful souvenir.
Was I not wiser once? Purer?
What were my names for things?
You have a house
You wake up, and go
To the window
It is bright, you think
Like a theater
You see cars
You see sparrows
In the tree, and say
Outside, they are poor
In your house, there is a corner
That you like, next to the mirror
Where you sleep
You're not heavy enough
To play the piano
That's just how it is, you say
Sometimes, you go
To the bookshelf
And chew the spines
I am an admirer
Of good books, you say
At night, you say
The moon is for sleep
And you retire
Each day is the same
You go to the window
This is the world, you say
Adjusting your perch
Bright, like a theater,
The library is full of leaves
Blown in whenever anyone
Comes through the doors
Blast of dry air,
Smoke -- spruce branches
Piled in a flame
Like the face of that reader
Resting on a sentence of --
What is it, Leibniz?
One and one and one
The burning branches going by
Put copper in his hair
Discernment in his eye
“Invitation to Vermont”
The blue mountains
and the white river,
and the too-cold taps
god drinks of there
We'll go up the trail to the drum
of spruces, and the hissing of ships burning,
and later tell about pages of change,
leaves, branches, bark, the cold,
the skeleton of nature --
By car, that dreamy instrument,
the fuse and sparrow,
up from Providence with
fresh arguments: on Virgil,
the acorn, the old edicts of
Mahicans, or Melville in Nuku Hiva
of the Marquesas…
The ship hovers between stars
and the reflection of stars --
the car of the moon
and its charge
Bodily moon, cedar drifting: sheet
drawn out by the wind
Somnus, god of sleep, comes down
to Palinurus, helmsman
and flings him from the deck
into the sea --
as into sleep: swallowed ambiguously
between a void and a light --
and leaves his name to a promontory.
“Presentiment of Disappointment”
You are in the total force of your flower.
You are a lot of things. Parcels
Upon doorsteps, sparrows
In a boxwood, documents
Issued down from offices,
Officious songs in the mouths
Of loudspeakers; and an audience
Too, the most terrifying.
These geese that fly in October
Strict as axioms doing what they do --
They said nothing
Put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them
And gave him one.
There was a sound of distant thunder
The storm doors in the other room were being closed
Though it was daytime
A light was burning by the bed
Undid a breast button
Lay down on the quilts
Propped on one elbow
Kissed for four or five minutes
Slipped his hand inside
The other boy's tunic, under the button
That was loose.
The sound of the trolley
The sound of the crow of roosters
The sound inappropriate at this time
As if it were the middle of the night
Pine boards, spots
Of coagulated resin in the center
Of the knots were turned by the sun's rays
To the color of blood. A thin beam of light
Glinted off the muddy water that filled the vase in the alcove.
The sprinklers came on in the dark courtyard.
The growth of a man takes him after all
Towards not more ability, but less,
A retirement, in which
Ideas come, instinct bringing them.
Which bands are at the bar this October?
Turning right on our street
Straightforward happiness is over.
Oh, you were so right.
You were approaching me,
Pressing against my breast. And then
There was a flowering of something,
A resting and attaching of something
In a sweet rash of generosity and unconcern
Like the Japanese pagoda tree spreading its petals on the stoop
The nectar of which drives the bees out of their minds.
“If the Sheep”
MADNESS REALLY IS CONTAGIOUS
-- ROBERTO BOLAÑO
An Editor's Note by Way of Apology
Reader, let me first apologize because I left you at the end of Part I with a bit of a cliffhanger: T. and her newish friend and coworker, Dani, were just about to enter and follow T.'s fiancé, Benjamin, and T.'s nemesis and student, Meredith, through the tree-line at the edge of campus and into the woods. You can read all about the beginning of the presumed impropriety in greater detail here (and if you haven't read it yet, why are you looking at Part II?), so there is no need to retread old ground. I too wanted to know what happened next and, to be frank, I was having trouble finding what happened next in the multitude of files when my deadline for Part I had come around and my editors were demanding a final draft and a cliffhanger seemed just the way to end the first segment of a serial publication. But then life happened and I procrastinated on looking through all the files on T.'s hard drive; now my deadline for Part II has neared, and the editors are asking yet again and I have found none of T.'s journal entries that reveal what she thought, felt, saw, heard, smelled, or tasted in that moment in the woods -- not even a definite description of what exactly happened. At best, I have found a bit of an unfinished video project and a dream diary entry. The video, at least, includes some cellphone footage from that day (as far as I can tell). I begin Part II with that:
1 Woods -- Day
Slow motion: the horizon line is a bit off kilter, the camera shaky as if the cameraperson were walking or running. We see the understory of young woods, the tree trunks are thin and adolescent. Everything is in the vibrant green of early autumn. The slow motion causes the various leaves to blur and meld into each other, forming a curtain of green: knotweed, ivy, garlic mustard, dock, clematis vines, honeysuckles, wild rose, brambling blackberry canes, saplings of maple and tree of heaven.
Title fades in:
IF THE SHEEP, PART II
SOUND of footsteps on leaves, twigs as the camera pushes through the leaves to reveal in the distance two figures. Their clothes are a startling contrast against the greens and browns of the plant-life: blue denim, white shirt, a red backpack, a black sports jacket. We cannot see their faces.
2 Office -- Day
BENJAMIN at his desk. He wears a tie, a white shirt, a black sports jacket drapes over the chair behind him. On the desk sit a clay model of a liver, a stack of books. Behind him, on the wall is a framed poster of a cuneiform tablet. He examines the model before looking up at the camera. From time to time he picks up the model and fidgets with it as he speaks.
Sacrifices and priesthoods have their secrets as well. Hidden knowledge that they shared with their initiates and no one else. Secrets are a source of power and privilege in every society.
3 Woods -- Day
The same man and woman. There can be no doubt that this is BENJAMIN -- we've seen the same sports coat in the interview. The woman has red hair, BENJAMIN dark brown. Facial expressions are unclear. The woman is pointing towards something unseen further in the background, deeper in the woods.
We know little of how initiates were recruited into the priesthood, though our knowledge is still preliminary. It has been only a century and half since we were even able to read cuneiform, there is still much to learn. But we can imagine these scholars practicing their rituals and their techniques in a private intimacy away from the public sacrifices open to the public.
VOICE (whispering, off camera)
What are they doing?
And the camera turns to reveal DANI, crouched and half hidden by a tree trunk.
I can't hear what they're saying. Let's get closer.
The camera turns back to BENJAMIN and the woman.
BENJAMIN and the woman bend at look at a bit of earth. The ground it seems has been cleared. They discuss some more. She reaches a hand seemingly out for Benjamin's hand and he pulls his away and looks around and quickly says something to her. He looks directly at the camera, but it seems he has not spied the camera/voyeurs.
The one thing we have not been able to find are the altars. We wonder if they look like those of the Etruscans or the Aztecs -- were they large stone structures, a stage for the performance? Or were they giant corrals like the animal sacrifices that still occur in parts of the Himalayas?
4 Woods -- Day
The camera pans over an array of stones, black volcanic stones, far from local minerals. There is the beginning of some structure on the ground, like a small altar.
Even in the dream it was impossible to say whether Meredith is whispering into his ear or has leaned up to give him a kiss on the cheek. In the dream, I see a kiss. In reality, Dani and I disagreed, she thought a kiss, I thought a whisper. For me a kiss is purely unthinkable and would ruin me. Dani meanwhile thinks sharing secrets reveals a far greater intimacy.
Unlike reality, instead of hiding with my camera I rush out to stop them, but by the time I reach the spot they have disappeared. Instead of looking for them, I dig with my fingers through roots and past stones until my fingers bleed. And deep there beneath the earth I find whatever it is that I'm looking for. Something soft and purple; it pulses in my hand and my dream-self thinks it is a heart. It is only as I write this that I realize it was not a heart but a liver.
My mother warned me, after the engagement, when I called excitedly to share the news. She had been less than enthusiastic at first, paranoid even. It was strange because she liked Benjamin. That's the problem, she said, Benjamin is very likable, charismatic in that way some intelligent, men are. Students respond to that. Beautiful young women students respond to that. Benjamin would never do that, I said, and besides I'm a beautiful young woman too. Oh sweety, she said, you're already thirty-one.
I spy on Benjamin's class through the small window in the door. It looks like a movie version of a college classroom with its seminar table and students with their coffee cups and snacks and notebooks and pens racing. Benjamin asks a question and the students raise their hands, kindly laugh when other students make a joke, try genuinely to answer whatever he's posed to them. Benjamin rubs his chin in contemplation at answers and gives his responses to which the students nod along. My own classroom is never like this. My students are loud, they ignore me and each other. They play games on their laptops. The only times they pay attention is when I put something on the projector, and even then only sometimes.
The students have complain that I haven't shown them anything with a plot. We demand a plot! We want to make movies, TV, documentaries -- not this weird stuff, they say. I acquiesce and bring in something more approachable, a DVD of Wong Kar-Wei's In the Mood for Love. The camera, like some hidden voyeur watches the love emerge through hidden glances between the two neighbors in the same boarding house. I point out to my students that the camera was the first medium that could truly capture this aspect of human experience, secret messages encoded in the eye. A glance is lost to most of the audience of a play, and a novel can mention glances, but how repetitive would it be to keep reading: He looked at her, she looked at him, they looked, they glanced, they stared. The close-up reveals something fundamental.
When I spy on Benjamin's class, I pay special attention to Meredith, who seems no different from any other student. There are no winks, no hidden caresses, no lingering looks. At home, I pause when I hear Benjamin on the phone, eavesdropping for whispers of secret rendezvous. I peek at his phone while he is in the shower, I log into his social media accounts from his home computer. Nothing, nothing -- I complain to Dani -- it's driving me crazy and I feel as if I've fallen into what an ex-boyfriend called the Zone. Dani suggests that perhaps Benjamin isn't cheating after all. Which, I point out, is what I said a week ago.
The Zone is what Robbie called his schizophrenic episodes, the influence of Tarkovsky's Stalker. Stalker was his favorite movie when we dated back in high school and we watched the old VHS copy that had belonged to his father until the magnetic tape could only show fuzz with vaguest outlines of the action. I hadn't thought of Robbie in years; he had become one of those people that you used to know, but know nothing of their current lives. The last time I saw him was during a break in college. At the time, I had just heard the rumors that he was sick and felt I should say hello to him.
Robbie's mother answered the door wearing a fuzzy robe and thick gym socks. She looked exhausted, as if my knocking had woken her up even though it had been a Saturday afternoon, but she smiled when she saw me and told Robbie to see who had come to see him; said how long it had been since she had seen me. She dragged me into a deep hug and her robe had the distinct smell of hard liquor. She pointed to the living room where Robbie's head was just visible over the back of the sofa, and told me to make myself comfortable. She was just going to get a little sleep before her next shift.
Walking past the kitchen, I noticed the kitchen trash filled to the brim with takeout containers; they lived off pre-cooked foods like TV dinners, canned soups, and delivery. When I knew them, and came over, they always cooked. Both Robbie and his mother had loved to cook, but it seemed that was one of the changes with Robbie's illness. Robbie slept on the sofa: there was a nest of pillows, blankets, sheets. The room had the same smell his adolescent room had had: b.o., Old Spice body spray, cigarette smoke, and that faint squid-y smell of unaired masturbation.
Robbie made a little space on the sofa and said hey in the way he had years before, as if it wasn't years but days since I had last come over. The TV was on, but muted; the actors pantomimed their way through a police procedural. Robbie paid it only the mildest attention, his focus was on the magazine he was reading.
There were stacks and stacks of magazines, and it seemed that Robbie spent his days and nights reading through them. Many were the sort that may have been on his mothers coffee table when we were teenagers (and may in fact have been the same ones): Time, Harper's, Atlantic, New Yorker, Newsweek; but also there were yellowed tabloids like The National Enquirer and World Weekly News. All of them were old: five, ten, fifteen years out of date. Across their covers was a parade of all the events, rumors, and celebrities of our childhoods: Dolly the cloned sheep, Leonardo's latest love interest, Osama bin Laden, the Bat Boy, Enron, the dot com collapse, Siberian portals to hell, UN weapons inspectors, human sacrificial cults, hanging chads in Florida. Every magazine was studded with post it notes and highlighting as if they were college textbooks. The collection began soon after Robbie's doctor suggested he avoid the internet, so full of its own connections and unhealthy conspiracies, and in response Robbie combed garage sales and used book stores for old magazines to make his own. He said he was trying to remember. Remember what? His life, he said. There are too many connections, too many threads in a life to understand it the first time around. So he researched. He had no interest in magazines that were older than his diagnosis. The diagnosis, he said, was the climax of my life, now there is only the denouement; I want to understand before the end.
On the TV, even without sound it was clear that the detective found a clue that was missed earlier. She called her partner to come take a look at it too and then Everything moved quickly: guns holstered, the detective spoke grimly into a radio, the car sped off with the siren blaring… a commercial for a chain restaurant started.
Conversation was slow. Sometimes Robbie seemed not to understand me, or to begin a thought very slowly. By way of explanation he said it was the zombie pills. The drugs made everything slow. Like his thoughts had to march their way through a bog a swamp. I said don't worry about it, I didn't mind slower conversation. I asked him what he did all day when he wasn't reading the magazines. He said that he was working. This -- he spread his arms wide in a gesture that encompassed the sofa, the coffee table and its magazines, the TV, maybe the entire apartment -- this is my work. He said he used more than magazines; in the other room, his old bedroom, were stacks of texts on history, biology, sociology so that he could understand himself fully. And what would be the end result? A film, he said, he was writing the first draft of the screenplay. He says he can only work on the screenplay when he is in the Zone, that's when his life made sense.
What is the Zone? The doctors called it his episodes. Fitting, he thought. Join next week for the following episode! he shouted. Just like one of these stories, and he pointed at the screen.
A cockroach climbed overhead while we both looked at the TV The detective pointed her gun at the suspect, a relative or boyfriend of the victim, that the audience now knows is guilty. I pretended not to notice the cockroach so as to not embarrass Robbie.
Please don't do that, he said. When I looked at him quizzically he said not to pretend that something wasn't there as if he were hallucinating it.
What's the Zone like, I asked him to go back to the previous topic, truly curious and wishing I had my camera with me. I made the effort to commit everything to memory.
The Zone actually was like one of those stories, he said. In the Zone, the world finally made sense: there was foreshadowing, symbolism, secret messages, clues to be found. There was no irrelevant information, and if it seemed irrelevant it was there to throw you off he just needed to work to understand it. In the Zone, Robbie was the protagonist of his life and he knew it. When he wasn't in the Zone, life didn't have a plot, just a shambles of moments, almost everything irrelevant. The Zone was preferable to that. He liked his life to have meaning.
On the TV, the suspect was arrested, handcuffed, and presumably given an abbreviated reading of his Miranda rights. The cockroach had disappeared into some crevice or another.
What if, when you're in the Zone, you find out all signs point to your life being tragic or it turns out you are living a horror story? Robbie looked at me as if I were the one that was sick, and said simply that everything was preferable to the alternative of a senseless life.
Benjamin is excited to be part of my project, or that I've made a project that intersects with his interests. He is difficult in some ways: when the lens focuses on him he becomes taciturn, camera-shy; he mumbles, trips over words, turns aphasic. I find solutions, I shoot him with a telephoto lens while he is ignorant of the camera from great distances as he walks across campus or works in the library; or I shoot not him but the work: his piles of books, his index cards of notes. I combine all this with audio recordings of interviews, he has no shyness before the microphone and sometimes even forgets he holds notes in his hands because he doesn't need them at all when he gets on a roll.
Despite his camera anxiety, he is incredibly helpful behind the scenes in my research: he brings me xeroxes of specialized books from the library, throughout the day he emails pdfs and links to YouTube recordings of conferences, he tries to teach me the basics of reading cuneiform. He leaves a stack of books for me on his desk at home along with an annotated bibliography. For the first time I understand something of what it would be like to be his student, the confidence and passion with which he talks about these things, his helpfulness and eagerness to share his knowledge.
I set up to interview Benjamin in his office, but before hand he gives me something of a confession: one of his students seems to have a crush on him. I think this is what I have been waiting for, and thank goodness I didn't have to bring it up. He says that this student is a good student, but perhaps has trouble with boundaries. She asked for his help with a project for another class (I don't ask: My class? A video project?), and she comes to his office hours frequently. He wants me to know that he'll do a better job of maintaining professional boundaries, and that he would never want me to think that he would do something with a student. For a moment, I wonder if he has been reading what I've written on my computer in the same way that I've gone through his phone, but I thank him for telling me, and want him to be careful of this student. I share my own anxieties without revealing that I had followed them from the campus into the woods. Benjamin puts his arm around me and tells me not to worry. He absolutely has no interest in any students and never would, that I'm the only love in his life. Benjamin thinks maybe he hasn't been home enough, that he's been so focused on work that he didn't notice how I was feeling and promises to make a better effort of balancing work and our life together. He just needs to finish this current paper and he'll have plenty of time; maybe we could go on a long weekend during the fall break.
My first interview question: why livers? Why not epics, legal documents, accounting records, royal genealogies. Why these lists and lists of slaughter? Why not erotic poetry? I've thumbed through his library, I have seen translations of sex poetry that make you blush even five thousand years after their composition. Because those other texts don't interest me, Benjamin says. There is no other reason for a scholar, obsessions develop early and they cannot be quit.
We pour over the calendar, looking toward next summer. Wedding planning must begin somewhere, with a date, with a guest list. Every day I suggest, Benjamin shoots down. He has a conference, or he's teaching a summer class, a research trip he forgot to tell me about, or the fall semester is beginning. For each date there is something. Maybe next summer is too soon, he says. But 2020 is a nice round year, I say, a year to get married in.
The thing about a diary, I realize, is that it is often difficult to remember the good and positive things about my day. I type out my complaints, file them away so that I don't have to take them out on anyone else. After Benjamin told me about the student who seems to be too close to him, I've felt a sense of security. Even if wedding planning is delayed, things are on track. I should write the positive things too. Reading through these notes, I find that I haven't captured the positive things about Benjamin, the things that made me fall in love with him.
While researching sacrifices, I find a video ethnography in the library by an anthropologist who did fieldwork in an island in Indonesia, where neither Islam nor Christianity had spread. The people there participate in elaborate, communal sacrifices of chickens, pigs, and cattle and read their organs to find out what messages their ancestors have left for them. One of her interviewees compared it to her video camera and the footage he had seen once on a television: there are messages in the body, he says, in the lines and grooves, the smooth and wrinkled surfaces; they are like your videos that show you a smaller world that you must read with your eyes.
THE FLESH IS PUT IN MY HANDS & IN THE BODY OF THE SHEEP I FIND THE MESSAGES FOR THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE.
-- ROYAL HYMN OF SHULGI, KING OF UR AND THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE COSMOS
Why do you make this distinction, my students ask, between film and video. I think about it for a moment. The old distinctions that I learned in school between small and big screens makes no sense for them who have grown up watching everything on their laptops and phones.
The next class I bring in two objects: a short film shot on 16 mm and an old VHS tape. They examine the film with a loupe, the entire film legible and laid out plainly for anyone to see, one cell after another like a very boring comic strip. The VHS we take apart, I break its plastic casing with a hammer, the black tape is completely illegible without a tape deck as an interpreter. This is the distinction I tell them when you get into the guts of video, only a machine can translate its messages.
IT SPROUTS, IT SPROUTS! THE LETTUCE HE WATERED SPROUTS IN THE GARDEN OF DEEP SHADE.
-- BABYLONIAN BRIDAL SONG
Despite drowning most of my brassicas and starving the beans, I am able to harvest my first crop from the garden. Lettuce grows so quickly, and is somewhat forgiving. The leaves are pockmarked with insect bites, yellowing at the edges, maybe there's a hint of powdery mildew; but it is mine. I grew it through my own effort and there is a satisfaction in that. I make a salad for dinner using this ugly lettuce and Benjamin eats all of it, he didn't complain about their sad shape, and said he was proud to have eaten from our garden. I pour another glass of wine for each us and we chat late into the night. For the first time since we moved, we had sex. Is that all it takes? Sometimes.
The town is surprisingly diverse, a type of missionary cosmopolitanism. And strangely, it makes me more comfortable than I thought I would be before we moved here that I don't stick out phenotypically. One of the results for the town is that there is a wonderful store that is simply named "Ethnic Market" that has ingredients from around the world. A backyard garden it turns out, especially a first one, cannot feed me, let alone both of us. My homesteading dreams temporarily crushed, I find solace in Ethnic Market's selection. I go through all of my cookbooks and find that the store carries even the ingredients I had trouble finding in the largest cities. Between Ethnic Market and the farmer's marker on the weekends, I stock the fridge and the pantry with unfamiliar herbs and roots and canned goods with labels in languages I can't read. I have plans to try out all of these recipes, but then nothing comes of it. I can't bring myself to cook for one, and Benjamin so often texts to stay he'll be staying late at the library, or he absent-mindedly ate lunch at four and spends the evening in his office. The produce rots, the canned goods aren't as tasty as I thought they would be (some of them expired before I even bought them), a mouse (or some other pest) gets into the noodles and baked goods.
Peculiar, I think as I eye the new object in the kitchen. Benjamin purchased a knife. He rarely buys home goods -- he doesn't think about it usually. He would be happy to eat gruel for every meal as long as it sustained him and he owned exactly two bowls, two spoons, two forks, and one pot before we moved in together and I suspect he bought the second ones only because I began staying over. But the size of the knife is also peculiar: small only compared to a machete (which it resembles in shape). It is perched, like some great bird of prey, dwarfing the other knives, on the magnetic knife rack over the kitchen sink. I ask him what it is for, this knife. Oh that, he says as if he had forgotten about it. He wanted to try cooking more, that he had read some good reviews of this model. But when will he have time to cook?
I pass out to my students the description of their third assignment:
For this week you are to produce a short video that is the most boring thing you can produce. There is no rubric, but know that I will deduct points if any parts are exciting. It should be so dull that everyone wants to turn it off. The video should be 1-2 minutes.
The students are strangely excited for it and none of them are worried that they can't be boring. This will be easy, they say. I tell them they will find being boring on purpose more difficult than accidental boringness.
In the end the students submit a wide range of projects:
1. A ten minute video of action sequences form Fast and the furious movies interspersed with screen captions of the driver's side of Grubhub.
2. The slow, slow, slow, movement of a dust mote in a sunbeam.
3. A slideshow of baking a cake.
4. Interviews with my husband about his research (Meredith, of course, seems to have taken on similar interests to my own).
5. A camera on a tripod focuses on a photograph as the flow of sunlight changes almost imperceptibly through a window.
6. And the most boring videos of all, only because of how cliche they are: ten different submission of watching paint dry.
After the first few weeks of the semester, I realize time is flying and the High Holidays are fast approaching and I am not prepared. I look through ticket prices online and throw out the idea of going home, but Benjamin says he's too busy, and besides money is a little tight. Is it, I ask? We have long since combined our bank accounts, but I never actually pay attention to the bank statements until the account is almost empty. But he tells me that I should go if it is important to me. And what, spend it with his parents? I love them, but a week and a half with them might be a bit much without Benjamin. My own family doesn't even have the slightest clue what Rosh Hashanah is, so it would make no sense to go stay with my mother. No, I say, if money is tight, I can stay here.
I complain to Dani about not being able to go home for the holidays and she interrupts: Wait! You're Jewish? Danis asks with some embarrassment. She knew Benjamin was but me... Yes, I converted years before I met him, I say by way of explanation. I'm well practiced and I don't want anyone to think I converted because of him. I give a CliffsNote version of my reasons for converting. I know I don't look Jewish. I expect her to be full of questions, stories of converts she's known, but instead she asks what I'm doing for Kol Nidre. I tell her that I have nothing planned so far, but I did learned that my old synagogue back east has streaming services every year. Nonsense -- I'd be coming with her to a synagogue a couple of hours away. Dani isn't particularly religious, but for Kol Nidre she makes the trip every year.
I make the mistake of looking something up online when I am in the middle of research and when stand up, stretch, and check the time I realize almost the whole day is gone. The internet is like a dream world, very easy to enter, just as fleeting and immune to recovery and recollection, at least for some of us (others are adamant bookmarkers of webpages, Benjamin is one and always knows how to retrace his virtual steps, while I rely on Google to find my way back to webpages I've visited hundreds of times). Always it is the source of my procrastination; what else do you do when you're at home alone? The internet has eaten everything, television, radio, newspapers, comic books... so why not our dreams too. I don't even know how to daydream any longer, without the assistance of the internet. I get lost in its paths of desire: seeds for the garden, a new winter jacket, fancy imported foods (preserved cherry blossoms, haskap berries, and whole frames of honey comb), breeds of dogs that I could care for... I get stuck on the dog for a while: looking up training videos, the best dog foods, the cutest bowls, local groomers, and on and on. Dani says I'm sublimating a desire for a child. Benjamin points out that I have trouble keeping my garden alive.
It is not an archaic means of thinking, Benjamin says in response to a question I posed about if these liver readers with their ancient ways of thinking would be alien to us. Not at all, Benjamin continues, they believed that the world was scrutable, held to laws that could be observed and understood. That's not too different from us moderns is it? We think we can read the weather, read genes, comprehend illnesses and distant stars. We too trust out scholar-experts to tell us about ourselves and our futures. In the records of these organ-readers are the foundations of science.
I make a new friend, a woman only a few years older than me, Eileen. She runs a stand at the farmer's market that pops up every Saturday in a park near the campus. I've been buying salad greens and beets and yogurt from her for weeks. She's tall and strong, lifts the crates of the melons and pumpkins from her pickup and sets them on the table. I'm intrigued by her and after a few Saturdays of buying from her, I think to ask her for advice for my own garden. I tell her about my work, the teaching and the art, and about my new project. She isn't shocked to hear about liver reading or sacrifice she finds the people at the college to all be eccentric in their own ways. She asks if I've ever seen one of these sacrifices in person. I admit I haven't even seen an animal killed in person and that I'm depending on archival footage, texts from books, and interviews with experts.
She mulls over a thought and then invites me out to her farm. They're going to slaughter one of the male goats. She says I should bring my camera. We won't be sacrificing to any gods, she says, but slaughter is slaughter.
I go to Eileen's farm, and one of her children, a peach-fuzzed adolescent meets me at the gate. I'm surprised, because I didn't think of her as old enough to have an adolescent with the beginnings of a mustache on her face; I thought of her as the age I would like to be when I first have a child. He tells me his mama is back behind the barn and starts walking in that direction.
We pass a garden that puts my bit of weeds and mud to shame, but she is a market gardener she tells me, its her living. It would be the same as her feeling shame at the footage she shoots of her son's birthday party just because I make a living from it. I point out that I don't make a living from my art any more than I do my garden. I stand, my back to the garden, camera in hand. Eileen says they like to do the slaughter away from the barn, too traumatic for the other sheep. She has other children, and they lean against the fence post to watch. Eileen doesn't shoo them away, she thinks it is important that they know where their food comes from. They have seen it plenty of times, she says. Her husband and eldest son slaughter the goat.
Two figures approach a goat, a man and a teenage boy. The boy carries a large knife. The man holds the goat in a firm hug. The goat, sensing a familiar hand relaxes, lets out a calm bleat. The man jerks his head in a gesture that tells the boy to come around to the goat's head. When the boy approaches the goat begins to struggle, and its bleats grow more loudly.
THE BOY (flatly)
It won't stay still.
It won't invite you.
The boy strokes the goat on the head until it calms. He bends to the goat until they are almost cheek to cheek and whispers into the goats ear. He then holds the goat's head firmly but gently in one hand so that its neck is slightly stretched. The boy slides the knife like a violin's bow across the goat's neck. The goat bleats a last cry but it is muted and broken like a deflating balloon. The goat kicks out its legs, twitches. Blood flows to the dust. Camera zooms in on the goat's still eye.
What did you say to it?
I said, "Thank you."
I reminded the students that class would be cancelled while I'm out for the holidays, and that before that they would have to give presentations on their final video projects. Footage, scripts, story boards--whatever it is I just need evidence that they are working. I received the usual emails the day before: sick and dying grandparents, failed hard drives, broken cameras; but most of the students arrive with something to show. Meredith had made the most progress, but I was shocked to see that she had filmed that afternoon in the woods with Benjamin.
Her work and mine are eerily similar .We were both interested in these Mesopotamian texts and with Benjamin, But whereas I've been dedicating time to interviews as my subject matter, Meredith focuses on strange chants, often first in Akkadian or Sumerian or whatever, and then translated into English. Only one phrase remains untranslated with cuneiform subtitles overlaid on the footage. It repeats again and again like some sort of incantation as she and Benjamin walking through the woods. Interspersed with the footage of the woods is a collage of images: a dog urinating a face as it is slapped, an eyeball twitching in its socket, a close up of lips moving. The camera zooms and she whispers into his ear but we can't hear what she says, the dubbed chanting is too loud. After the shot of her and Benjamin (did she also record me and Dani spying on the scene?), the camera focuses on the spot where they had stood, then it reveals the roots in the ground, and then the moist soil, and then a hand digging. The hand pries an object from the soil: a small wooden carved figure of a liver and for a moment I am convinced that she has seen my dreams.
When she finishes presenting, her classmates are silent. They are stunned and have no critiques to share until I prod them and then they discuss liking or disliking its vibe. She says that she is still working on it, has more footage to shoot and edit, and that she isn't sure how the whole thing will turn out in the end. As she returns to her seat, our eyes lock and she smiles a knowingly.
I try to prepare for virtual holiday services: I connect my computer to the big television screen downstairs, rearrange the furniture in a futile attempt to make it more like being in a synagogue. Benjamin promises to jump onto Rosh Hashanah services when he gets back from campus -- unlike me he didn't take a day off from teaching. But even after I make my way to the livestream, I find my attention wanes easily: I grab snacks, I swipe through my phone, read the news, check email, read tweets in which it seems plenty of others are also having trouble focusing on the holiday. It seems old rituals aren't compatible with our new ones, and even religion has been consumed by the internet. By the time Benjamin returns from teaching, I am napping on the couch while Netflix checks in to see if I'm still watching.
I WILL REMEMBER FOR YOU THE BINDING OF ISAAC SON OF ABRAHAM, IN WHOSE STEAD A SHEEP WAS SACRIFICED...
-- BABYLONIAN TALMUD, ROSH HASHANAH 16A
Dani is to pick me up for Kol Nidre, so when the doorbell rings right after I got a text from her saying she is almost here, I fling the door with my jacket half on without checking through the peephole. It is not Dani, but a man wearing a jumpsuit and carrying a clipboard who asks for Benjamin. I say that Benjamin isn't home yet, can I help him with something. He's here to make a delivery; would I be able to sign for it. I nod and check my phone for the time. Benjamin is still in class, so I can't call him. I sign quickly on the clipboard without reading it and only then think to ask what is being delivered. He points out at his truck, a pickup with a large trailer attached; which I have just noticed on the street, so flustered am I by this unexpected visitor. Looking at my confused expression he clarifies: like it says there on the paper, sheep: two ewes and a ram. At first I think he must be mistaken. Who orders sheep? Answer: Farmers and ranchers, not scholars and adjunct professors -- not me and not Benjamin. Obviously this delivery is for someone else, I question the delivery man. He confirms the address. He just make deliveries, if there is a mistake I can call the number on this receipt. He rips off the yellow carbon copy, hands it to me, and I stuff it in my jacket pocket for later. It is then that Dani pulls up into the driveway. The man says that the sheep will need a fence and asks where I want them? I direct him to the backyard which has a chainlink fence that will have to do until we sort this mess. Dani finds the whole thing very humorous, as we watch this delivery man force the stubborn sheep into the backyard. One of the ewes refuses to walk and he has to carry it, practically tossing it over the fence. I know exactly how it feels: I don't want to be here either. I snap a quick photo of the ewe and text Benjamin a picture along with a question mark.
It is only after an hour into the drive, that I remember the receipt in my pocket. I pull out the balled up paper, and try to smooth it somewhat. I look it over, and find that the cost of the sheep is roughly equivalent to two last-minute flights back home.
To Be Continued
DEMREE MCGHEE is a literature and writing student at UC San Diego. Her poetry and prose is either featured or forthcoming in Lucky Jefferson, Lunch Ticket, Wax Nine Journal, Burn All Books, and more. Her poetry has recently been selected for Sundress Publications' 2022 Best of the Net Anthology. You can read more of her work at demreemcghee.com.
IAN SETH LEVINE holds a B.S. in English and an M.S. in Professional Writing from Towson University. He has taught English composition for Miami-Dade College, York Technical College, and Piedmont Technical College. His poetry has been featured by The Free Library of the Internet Void and Wayne Literary Review. His prose has been featured by the American Red Cross. Learn more at iansethlevine.com.
IVAN PELEDOV lives in Colorado. His poems have been published in Artifact Nouveau, Illuminations, Sonic Boom, Eunoia Review, and other magazines. He is the author of the book Habits of Totems (Impspired, 2021). He can be found online on Twitter @habitsoftotems and on Facebook.
JOE RUPPRECHT is a poet living in Philadelphia. His work is published or forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, Prolit, Spoon River Poetry Review, New Delta Review, The Cackling Kettle, Full Stop, Dream Pop Press, Petrichor, and elsewhere. He tweets @heterofobe.
LAURENCE KLAVAN’s short work has been published in Alaska Quarterly, Conjunctions, The Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Pank, Failbetter, Stickman Review, and Anomaly, among many others. A collection, “The Family Unit" and Other Fantasies, was published by Chizine. His novels, The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script were published by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, City of Spies and Brain Camp, co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan, and their Young Adult fiction series, Wasteland, was published by Harper Collins. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York, the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, and the Finborough Theater in London. His one-act "The Summer Sublet" is included in Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act "The Show Must Go On" was the most produced short play in American high schools in 2015-2016.
MATT DENNISON is the author of Kind Surgery from Urtica Press (France) and Waiting for Better from Main Street Rag Press. His work has appeared in Verse Daily, Rattle, Bayou Magazine, Redivider, Natural Bridge, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and Cider Press Review, among others. He has also made short films with Michael Dickes, Swoon, Marie Craven, and Jutta Pryor.
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.
URI ROSENSHINE is a 26 year old poet based in New Haven, CT, where he works at a wine store. His poetry has appeared in the Missouri Review, Right Hand Pointing, and a chapbook self-published in collaboration with Directangle Press.
WENDY NARDI is a writer and editor living in the New York City area. Her work has appeared in Communion, RHINO, Eclectica, Crack the Spine, 360 Degrees: Art and Literary Review, Skyline, Dance, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She was a staff writer for the Kerouac Romnibus (Penguin USA) and received a Connecticut Artist Fellowship in fiction writing
WILLIAM ERIKSON took degrees in English and digital arts from Washington State University after many years in the trades. His poetry can be found in BlazeVOX Journal, GASHER, The Adirondack Review, 34th Parallel Mag, and numerous others. He lives in the Portland area with his wife and two rescue dogs.
Support United States Association for UNHCR
SORTES supports local, charitable, and community-based groups.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine demands whatever support we can give. In the US and throughout the world, many feel trapped by passive observation of this horror -- but we can make real change through organizations that provide medical supplies, housing, and refugee services. Here's one organization that SORTES supports:
The United States Association for UNHCR:
Millions of people -- mostly women and children -- have been forced to flee Ukraine. They are sheltering in underground train stations, walking hundreds of miles and leaving behind everything they’ve ever known. UNHCR is on the ground scaling its response to provide assistance and ensure those displaced find safety in welcoming arms in this moment of crisis.
Resources are stretched thin, and your kindness is needed to help restore lives in Ukraine and wherever families have been displaced. Your compassionate support can help ensure that the moment an emergency hits -- whether in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Ethiopia or beyond -- UNHCR is on the ground providing emergency supplies, lifesaving care and hope. You can help ensure that families fleeing violence around the world know they are not alone at the most devastating moment of their lives.
In addition, many other powerful organizations are bringing aid to Ukraine and those affected by this crisis. CNBC and Charity Navigator offer lists of organizations they recommend.
The people who have worked on this publication support this cause and we urge you to as well.
Submission & Contact
To submit or send comments, questions, or suggestions, please email the editors at
The SORTES List
Join our debonair mailing list for news about upcoming issues, in-person events, Radio SORTES performances, and whatever else we dream up to make all our lives more complicated and exquisite.
SORTES is a spinning collection of stories, poems, songs, and illustrations to help while away the wintery June nights. It’s an oddball grabbag wunderkammer mixtape offering distraction and refreshment.
We have neither theme nor scene. Each issue is its own creature. We publish both the sufficiently strange and insufficiently boring: swart stories, hoity poetry, magical surrealism, beatnik travelogues, hard modern haiku, pulp, fantasia, antibiography, crooning balladeering, experimental sentimentalism, and grainy sideways photography.
We also host online readings, old time radio performances, and other beloved gimmicks as they occur to us. Previous issues are available via the site’s Archive link.
SORTES considers unsolicited submissions of poetry, prose, illustration, music, videos, and anything else you think may fit our format. Feel free to poke us; we’d love to find a way to publish dance, sculpture, puzzles, and other un-literary modalities.
SORTES is published quarterly. Each issue includes approximately ten works of lit, visual, or performance art. We like a small number of works per issue: artists and readers should have a chance to get to know each other.
SORTES, you’ll notice, is primarily a black-and-white publication, and we like to play with that (by featuring monochrome videos and photography, for example), but we’ll happily consider your polychrome submission.
Submissions are ongoing throughout the year. We consider artists with both extensive and limited publishing experience. We accept simultaneous submissions but please inform us if your work has been accepted elsewhere.
There’s no need for an extensive cover letter or publication history but please tell us who you are, what kind of writing or art you do, and a bit about what you’re sending us. There are no formatting requirements for text submissions. There is no fee to submit. Please send submissions as email attachments whenever possible; multimedia submissions may be sent as links.
You asked and we provide: what's up with publication rights and ownership?
Simple: When you publish with us, you give SORTES one-time publication right for your work. You retain all right to your work after publication. Work published with SORTES will remain available via our online Archive.
While SORTES retains the right to link to or excerpt your published work, we do not have the right to publish your work in new formats (including print). If we would like to pursue publication of your work in new formats, we'll ask you and hopefully agree to terms.
SORTES is edited by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum and Kevin Travers. We live in Philadelphia but we invite writers and artists everywhere to live the SORTES life.
SORTES regularly offers readings and performances.
For upcoming events, please check here and our Facebook page.
The SORTES #9 #9 #9 #9 Reading!
Friday, April 1, 2022 @ 7pm EST
Number nine...! Number nine...! Number nine...! Number nine...!
JOIN TOGETHER for ten (maybe nine) revolutionary readings by our Issue 9 stars:
Ian Seth Levine
Your host will be SORTES co-editor Kevin Travers. He is the walrus; I am the (oh no) yoyo. All SORTES events are free, public, and compulsory.
ID: 881 7039 1566
Call in: https://us02web.zoom.us/u/kd3n7KKdbV
A 1950s Western / Sci-Fi Double-Feature, February 25, 2022
The talented Radio SORTES Players performed two old time radio episodes broadcast live via ethereal wireless right to our audience's home receivers.
We galloped into the unknown with a 1950s western / sci-fi double-feature: The Six Shooter episode “Battle at Tower Rock” and the Dimension X episode “A Logic Named Joe” -- each with music and convincing sound effects.
The all-star Radio SORTES players were: Abbey Minor • Betsy Herbert • Brenna Dinon • Brian Maloney • Britny Brooks • Daniel DiFranco • Dwight Evan Young • Emily Zido • Evan Myers • Iris Johnston • Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum • Kailey Tedesco • Kelly Ralabate • Kevin Travers • Luke Condzal • Nicholas Perilli • Rachel Specht • Rosanna Byrnes • and Victoria Mier.
Radio SORTES -- an unnatural extracurricular extension of SORTES magazine -- was produced and directed by Kevin Travers and Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum. Radio SORTES is always free, open to all, and less than two hours. See SORTES.co for upcoming events.
The 39 Steps, February 19, 2021
The Radio SORTES Players performed this classic adventure story, written by John Buchan and adapted by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum from Hitchcock's 1935 film and the 1937 Lux Radio production. It starred Brenna Dinon • Heather Bowlan • Rosanna Byrnes • Betsy Herbert • Iris Johnston • Warren Longmire • Brian Maloney • Britny Brooks • Nicholas Perilli • Kelly Ralabate • Dwight Evan Young • Emily Zido • Victoria Mier • Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum • and Kevin Travers.
Halloween Eve Special, October 30, 2020
Suspense, "The House in Cypress Canyon"
Inner Sanctum Mysteries, "Voice on the Wire"
The Radio SORTES players presented a live Halloween Eve special: two programs of classic old time radio horrors. The shows -- including dialogues, music, and sound effects -- were performed for a live Zoom audience.
The Suspense episode “The House in Cypress Canyon” was originally broadcast December 5, 1946 and the Inner Sanctum Mysteries episode “Voice on the Wire” was originally broadcast November 29, 1944. Both programs were performed by Kevin Travers • Sean Finn • Britny Perilli • Don Deeley • Brian Maloney • Betsy Herbert • Kyle Brown Watson • Nicholas Perilli • Emma Pike • Kyle Brown Watson • Susan Clarke • Kyle Brown Watson • and Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum. Between episodes, we presented an original commercial in period style written and performed by Kevin Travers.
Mailbag & Correspondence
Like any worthwhile literary journal, SORTES would love contributors and audience to fight amongst themselves.
Our kinder readers are invited to email us to complement our stellar authors and artists, while itchier fans will want to scrap and nip and issue their manifestoes. Between the two groups, we know our favorite.
Be a part of the problem! Comment on our stories and poems, other letters, and the SORTES demimonde in general by emailing