Heliotrope Issue 3 Contributors

Brendan Connell was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1970. He has had fiction published in numerous magazines, literary journals and anthologies, including McSweeney’s, Adbusters, Nemonymous, Leviathan 3 (The Ministry of Whimsy 2002), Album Zutique (The Ministry of Whimsy 2003) and Strange Tales (Tartarus Press 2003). His first novel, The Translation of Father Torturo, was published by Prime Books in 2005; his novella Dr. Black and the Guerrillia was published by Grafitisk Press the same year.

 

Tina Connolly works as a face painter in Portland, OR.  She has a cat who is often a pigeon and a husband who is rarely a bear.  Her stories and poems have appeared in Strange Horizons, Son and Foe, and Ideomancer.  She wrote the first draft of Moon at Clarion West 2006 and then had a long conversation with Nalo Hopkinson about putting squids on mantelpieces.

 

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Physiognomy, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Cosmology of the Wider World and The Girl in the Glass. His two short story collection from Golden Gryphon Press are: The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and The Empire of Ice Cream. He has a new novel, The Shadow Year, and a new story collection, The Night Whiskey, coming out in 08 from Morrow/Harper Collins. Ford teaches Writing and Literature at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey.

 

Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. She lives in Boston, where she is completing a PhD in English literature. Her short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting, which includes World Fantasy Award nominee “The Wings of Meister Wilhelm” and Nebula Award nominee “Pip and the Fairies,” was published in 2006. Interfictions, a short story anthology she co-edited with Delia Sherman, was published in 2007. Her short stories and poems have been reprinted in a number of Year’s Best anthologies, including Year’s Best Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens. Visit her website at www.theodoragoss.com.
Michael Moorcock is a highly respected author who has won many awards over his prolific career. The author of many literary novels and stories in practically every genre, he has won and been short-listed for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Hugo, August Derleth, Booker, Whitbread, Guardian Fiction Prize, and others. His novella Behold the Man won the Nebula Award. Currently he resides in Texas with his wife, Linda.

Visit Michael Moorcock online at www.multiverse.org.

 

Rob Vagle lives in Eugene, Oregon.  He’s been published previously in Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony 5, and Strange New Worlds 10.

Jeff VanderMeer is a columnist for the Amazon book blog and has his own blog at http://www.jeffvandermeer.com. His latest novel is Shriek: An Afterword, and he is currently a guest editor for Best American Fantasy.

 

Artist Bio

Noah Barrett

Born and raised in the post industrial brown fields of Connecticut. The only son of a nurse and an auto mechanic.

Schooled in illustration Noah has worked in commercial art and graphics for over a decade providing illustrations and design to newspapers, comic books and Magazines world wide.

As well as illustrating “If I Were Just a Little Taller.” by E. Anderson and contributing to C. Harts “How to Draw Comic Book Superheros and Villians” He has recently resumed freelancing and producing fine art .

He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife and three children.

http://www.boundlessgallery.com/artist/3815.art

http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/yourgallery/artist_profile/Noah+Barrett/41066.html

http://www.portfoliocity.com/LNBarrett/

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Dreaming Metropolis Editorial by Jay Tomio

The third issue of Heliotrope brings the first editorial and in our opinion the best issue yet.  It wasn’t easy as we were publishing as we were struggling with our identity; foolhardy to some, but me and Damon both agree this is how we both work best. In an industry – a world – full of talkers we are comfortable with active stakes. Everybody dreams, but we wake up and attempt to make additions to our reality.

Heliotrope isn’t just about dreams. It’s about memories.  A discussion at the Fantasybookspot.com forums was the origin of the first non-fiction feature I added to the issue. We were talking about what columns we could add to FBS and a pitch was thrown out to do something like the Shadow Cabinet.  We loved the concept, we all thought it important, and had what was not a small amount of reverence for the original, but we were never able to work that out but when considering Heliotrope I knew of someone who certainly could – the author of the original piece, Jeff VanderMeer.  Jeff has been on the frontline in the war of finding quality fiction, his shelf full of gems that are both unique in content, and unique in that they aren’t on more shelves. The latter is a crime The Shadow Cabinet will see it righted.

I’m not an original thinker. I thought one Jeff was good – two Jeff’s must be better.  Heliotrope is a short fiction market and I wanted a feature that highlighted “the writer’s writers”. What stories are ingrained in the conscious of other writers?  Jeffrey Ford once had the same thought I think, as he had his own Virtual Anthology feature that shared his thoughts on such stories.  I wanted to tweak this a bit though, and thus made it into a regular feature that will have a new writer adding chapters with each issue.  A solid premise I thought, but it would not have happened unless I could obtain the blessing of Mr. Ford and I was delighted that not only did he offer it – he also would kick off the feature for us.  I’m not sure if we could have done much better, or more apt I’m not sure anybody could have done much better.

I mentioned that both of the above features mentioned existed in some form prior to Heliotrope.  In a chat I had with author/poet Anna Tambour I mentioned to her what I missed.  We have lost many sites and columns in our little corner of the net from Emerald City to Dislocated Fictions, and they have been replaced by what are at best poor shadows or outright charlatans, be it fans, or rather loud authors whose claim to authority is one – even if well received – book or story in many cases nobody read years ago.  The Atlantis of these sites was Fantastic Metropolis. The site is almost two years past its last update and is still relevant. From Rossi’s madness, to top notch recommendations, hell even reading a Christmas editorial from six years ago is more informative than the bulk of today’s breaking opinion. Going through the archives you see a who’s who of today’s talent and I am simply delighted to be lucky enough to be the old man fishing, the first to see three survivors of the fallen continent and the first to hear their stories.  I want to send a profound thanks to the creative participants and the creators of Fantastic Metropolis, your city exists in fragments of recommended reads inhabiting numerous book cases.  The Shadow Cabinet and the Virtual Anthology were not born in Heliotrope, but hopefully they will continue in the spirit and the tradition of Fantastic Metropolis.

I did say three survivors. 

The third piece is from Michael Moorcock. The man needs no introduction, so I won’t offer one.  I had prior contact with the first two writers, but my query to Moorcock for Heliotrope would be the first time I communicated with him.  Before I did this I asked Gabe Chouinard about approachability factor. I have interviewed several authors, but for some reason approaching Moorcock was different and I must admit being intimidated, fearing a reply entitled Helio-pooh (which I would have framed). What Gabe told me was spot on.  Not only did I get a reply, but before I knew it I had a piece, soon after a revised piece – the man is a writer.  Out of all the authors I ever dealt with this was the one who really handled business.  It surprised me a little when pondering his statures, but it was juvenile thinking on part – that’s why he has stature.

One of my growing guilty pleasures with Heliotrope is my collection of poetry. I am not a natural fan of poetry, but as Helio grows my fondness for it does as well.  Because I’m not somebody who collects poetry books, those poetry I am exposed to is that which inhabits various anthologies or books I also read. For this reason this may be the toughest spot in the magazine to obtain.  These are my all-stars my dream team, and the lovely Theodora Goss is the next in the line-up. 

Excluding the mountain of rejections, the fiction was the easiest part to fill in this issue. The Connell piece reminded me of an eccentric and discredited story that didn’t have the time to join its mates in a prior anthology.  I had Brian Lindenmuth on this issue as a co-editor and the other two choices were very early entries during the submission process, both came back with Brian with a thumbs up and a third was one we both enjoyed as well. We basically had the same three stories in mind and these were what were the two we favored out of the group. Robe Vagle, Tina Connolly, and Brendan Connell are the heart of the issue and ultimately it is their talents we will be judged upon. I remain unworried.

Heliotrope, much like FBS is not anchored to one genre or mode of storytelling. We have some exclusive previews for you.  For the comic book fan we have a preview of Ape Entertainment’s Fablewood and by the time you read this a review should be available at Fantasybookspot.com, We need to thank Brian, as due to his efforts we  are proud to present an excerpt from a Ken Bruen novel and Damon puts the final touches on the issue by getting us a look at TIm Eldred’s Grease Monkey II.

It is our goal to make Heliotrope a quarterly patron of storytelling and opinion. We will crash and burn before we settle for stagnate comfort. Dreams not acted upon are dreams wasted.   Proust once said, “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.”.

In this issue we have some of the most dangerous.

– Jay Tomio

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The Anatomy of “Sleep” by Jeffrey Ford

      I remember the first time I came across The Melancholy of Anatomy on the shelf in a local bookstore. The cover showed twin severed child heads, cheeks and necks webbed in meandering red veins. One head had fallen, and one was falling through the dark. On the spine were a couple of eyeballs staring out at me. Then I opened it and read some of the titles of the stories – “Blood,” “Phlegm,” “Cancer,” “Sperm.” Right off the bat, it all seemed a little too messy for me. I put the book back on the shelf. Later that day I realized that the title was a switch on Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I had a copy of that old tome – a big fat paperback. I’d read quite a bit of it here and there. It wasn’t the kind of book I could read straight through, but it was excellent can reading. Burton’s book is a wild collage of the medical and social history of Melancholy. There are stories, long passages from the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and historians, and an array of remedies for the affliction. It’s a treatise of sorts, a collection of short stories, a medical text, a gallery of quotations out of history, witty and teeming with a kind of tamped down Medieval Bestiary metaphor. Burton spent a thousand pages presenting the evidence and the journey is entertaining in all kinds of ways. After reading extensively from it, I’m convinced that Metaphor, itself, is at the heart of Melancholy.

I looked at the Jackson book on a few more trips to the store but didn’t buy it. Then it happened that I did a reading in New York at a Barnes and Noble for The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. It was a good time. There were a lot of writers there and we each read a little. One of the readers was Shelley Jackson, but I never put her name together with the collection I’d looked at in the store at home. Somebody at that reading told me that Jackson had this project going where she wrote a story but kept it secret. The only people who would get to read it are those who might agree to have one word of the story tattooed on their body somewhere. Only when every word of the story had been tattooed would the story be revealed and only to those who participated. There were so many wonderful implications to this enterprise – the word made flesh, the secret story, how story can make a community — the thought of it enchanted me. When Jackson was introduced and her brief bio was read, I learned that she was the author of The Melancholy of Anatomy. Before the reading broke up, I found a copy in the store, bought it, and asked her to sign it.

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On the train back to Jersey, I opened the book and looked at the inscription printed in black ink – To Jeff, with slow secret emissions. That cracked me up. It was a good indication of what was to come. The book is neither messy nor dreary. There’s a strong, understated, sense of humor and Humor running through it. Sometimes it comes to the fore like in the story “Dildo,” where the dildo is written up like an entry in a Medieval Bestiary complete with quotes from the ancients – both a physical creature and the embodiment of metaphor. Other stories, each with a title indicating some process, fluid, or organ of the human body, are dream-like in their beauty, horror, weirdness, and joy. Like fairy tales or Science Fantasies set on planets with rivers of blood. The writing is smooth, readily accessible, and highly imaginative. The book has a profound sense of life to it, literally and figuratively. I could go on at length about the book as a whole, but I have to pick a story from it and move on. In my most humble opinion, I believe this book will be highly regarded far into the future. It’s thoroughly modern, but has many of the same techniques and concerns as Dante’s Divine Comedy or Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

The individual story I choose from it is “Sleep.” It begins…

Sleep is falling. The crumbs run in drifts down the street, collecting in the gutters.

Sleep falls every day at noon here, with soothing regularity. Sometimes it melts on the way down, and falls as golden rain, or in cold weather, golden sleet, but mostly our siesta is warm and dry. The occasional sleep storm is cozy and harmless: a war waged with croutons and dinner rolls. Once, years ago, when the children were young, we woke to find we were slept in: I opened the front door and the living room filled with gold. We had a sleepball fight around the sofa, which my wife won – she was always fierce in defense of her own. The drifts blew away by evening, but our house was gilded until the next rain, and the shrubs were like torches.

The narrator goes on to give a surreal disquisition about Sleep and focuses primarily on the phenomenon of the sleep substitute. Every sleeper makes a sleep substitute, crafts one out of the stuff of sleep, and this substitute will stand in for an individual at times when they’re not up to waking life – taking tests, showing up for appointments they’d rather miss. The reader is warned that one must be careful with the substitute for if it’s used to fake a suicide or stand against a bully and something dreadful happens to it, one must persevere through life all on one’s own. Substitutes can go on to have lives of their own and a substitute can marry another substitute with a 50% chance of them having a real child.

At the same time the reader learns the finer points of these sleep crafted seconds, woven into the beautiful prose is another story of this airline that travels to different countries of sleep and attains high places where only certain individuals get to go. At times planes will return with no passengers on board, and the pilot will attest that all his charges got out way up above in an exotic fantasy land of cloud castles – a seemingly better place.

All of this transpires in the most verbally and imagistically (is this a word?) enchanting language, and the reader might wonder, “What am I reading here?” “Is this a prose poem or just some haphazard compilation of juxtapositions of idea and imagery?” But late in the piece the reader learns that the narrator had once been a pilot for the airline and that his wife, sleeping in bed beside him, is really a sleep substitute. His real wife has left him long ago, and this fact throws the reader back to the opening paragraphs and the line that when first read seems to darken momentarily the dream like scene of the sleepball fight – “she was always fierce in defense of her own.” When these revelations come, the reader realizes that yes, “Sleep” is not just a grab bag of beautiful writing, or a prose poem, it’s a bona-fide short story in the classic sense. Aristotle’s main ingredient for drama was catharsis or change, and the ingenious construction of “Sleep” bears this out. There is another change as well, for Jackson’s writing infects the imagination and brands an indelible change in the reader’s perception as to what Story can be.

I’ve seen fictional constructions like this before — for instance in the work of Stephen Millhauser – essay-like stories, but they never achieve the palpable sense of life that “Sleep” attains. I attribute this to the writing in Jackson’s work, both incredibly controlled and totally fluid. With each surreal image there’s a choice to be made, and the choosing here seems authentic, a product of the subconscious, carrying an inherent validity. The choices don’t feel labored or intellectualized, but they are always startling and yet make perfect sense like the believable reality of a dream that causes one to cry out in the night. Whether this is a result of artifice, born of an intense practice of revision, or if it’s the product of an intuitive and blind reliance on the subconscious, or somehow both, I can’t tell. It doesn’t matter really as it makes for a wonderful reading experience.

In any event, don’t let my awkward machinations about this piece put you off. The Melancholy of Anatomy and all its stories are one of the great contemporary reading experiences for lovers of the fantastic. You might want to also check out Jackson’s new novel, Half-Life. In addition she is an accomplished artist, having done book covers and illustrated children’s books. Here’s a link to her website: www.ineradicablestain.com

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The Witch by Theodora Goss

Sometimes in the morning, the mist curled into the corners
Of the house like a cat, and Grimalkin, she would cry,
come to me, my Grimalkin. She would gather
the mist to her, and stroke it, and it would settle
in her lap, and lick itself.

Sometimes, she wove
cobwebs and out of the cloth, thin, gray, luminescent,
she would cut the pattern for a dress.  But for what purpose?
Where could she wear it?  Where could she go, except
to the pond, where she would kneel and dip her fingers
into the water, and stir, and out would jump
a trout, thick, silver, luminescent, and splashing
water onto her dress, whose hem was already
soaked and covered with mud.

She would make it speak,
recite Shakespearean sonnets, sing old songs,
before she put it into the pot.  Witches
are lonely, but also hungry, and practical
in their impracticality.  She had learned
how from her mother, the old witch, now dead
if witches are ever entirely dead, which is doubtful.

She never wondered who her father had been,
a peasant gathering wood, perhaps a hunter,
perhaps even a prince, on his way to the country
where a princess had been promised for dispatching
a dragon or something similar, and had seen
a light through the trees, and found her mother waiting,
and perhaps gone on the next morning, and perhaps not.

Her mother had built the house by the edge of the pond,
out of gray stone and branches of white birch,
birds’ nests and moss, and spit to hold it together.
That is how witches build what they call houses.
What they are not: sturdy, comfortable.
What they are: cold.

There was still a row of bottles
in the cupboard, holding martens’ eyes, dried frogs,
robins’ eggs, random feathers, balls of string,
oak galls.  She had forgotten what they were for.
From the rafters hung a fox’s skeleton.

Once, village girls had come to visit her mother
for charms to attract the schoolmaster’s attention,
make their rivals’ hair fall out, abortions.

Afterward, they would say, Did you see her? Standing
by the door?  In her ragged dress, with her tangled hair,
I tell you, she creeps me out.  But they stopped coming
after the old witch disappeared and her daughter
was left alone.  Sometimes she would remember
the smell of the bread in their pockets, the clink of coins,
their dresses covered with embroidery,
their whispering, and look at her reflection
in the pond, floating on the water like a ghost.                                                  

Sometimes she made the frogs at the edge of the pond,
calling to one another, speak to her.
“Pretty one,” they would say, “in your spider silk,
in your birchbark shoes, like a princess lost in the woods,
kiss us.”  But she knew that was not her story.

Sometimes she would make the birds perch on her fingers
and sing to her: warblers, thrushes, chickadees,
and sing to them out of tune, then break their necks
and roast them.

Sometimes she would gather the stones
that had fallen from her house, and think of making
a dog, a stone dog.  Then, she would forget.
It was the forgetting that made her what she was,
her mother’s daughter.  Witches never remember
important things: that fire burns, and that bottles
labeled poison are not to be drunk. Witches
are always doing what they should not, dancing
at midnight with the Gentleman, kicking their skirts
over the tops of their stockings, kissing frogs
they know perfectly well won’t turn into princes.

She makes no magic.  Although the stories won’t tell you,
witches are magic.  They do not need the props
of a magician, the costumes or the cards,
the scarves, the rabbits.  They came down from the moon
originally, and it still calls to them,
so they go out at night, when the moon is shining,
and make no magic, but magic happens around them.

Sometimes at night she would look up at the moon
and call Mother? Mother? but never got an answer.

I want you to imagine: her ragged dress,
her hair like cobwebs, her luminescent eyes,
mad as all witches are, stirring the pond
like a cauldron (witches need no cauldrons, whatever
the stories tell you) while above her the clouds
are roiling and a storm is about to gather.

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He Angles, She Refracts by Rob Vagle

 

     In the mirror above her bed, Evy had no reflection.

     She sat up and the silk sheet slipped away from her breasts, exposing her skin to the cool, air-conditioned apartment.  A mirror along each wall left no room for windows, and in each mirror a reflection moved.  One Evy smiled at her, one winked, and another one waved.  The golden tan, sinuous curves, and locks of blond hair–all bedroom reflections accounted for.  Except for the mirror above where rose petals dotted an empty bed with wrinkled sheets and strewn pillows.  It looked like the aftermath of lovemaking and then it dawned on her.  While she slept someone had been up there with her reflection making love.  

     She kicked away the sheet, swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sat staring at her reflection in the wall.  The reflection blew her a kiss.

     When her mother had taught her to love herself she told Evy reflections could fall out of love.  “Beware of the seducers,” she had said.  “They don’t adore themselves, but adore the images of others.  Lose your images and you’ll lose yourself.”

     She never believed such people existed.  At least not until now.  

     Her reflection frowned, waiting for Evy to blow her a kiss back.  Evy only smiled.  She stood and walked across the plush purple carpet and out of the bedroom, fearing other reflections would be gone.

     Down the hallway from her bedroom a mirror ran the length of each wall.  This was her favorite spot.  One mirror reflected off the other so when she walked down this hallway a whole line of her stretched out from each side.  She was the center of this chain, a line-up without end.  A line-up without a missing reflection.

     In the kitchen the mirror table, counter top, and all electric appliances held her reflection.  In the living room all the walls held her image. 

     When she looked down at the end table next to the leather couch, no face looked back at her from the mirrored surface.

     She turned away. 

     She didn’t want to believe it.  Two reflections missing.  She felt as though two of her limbs had been cut off.  She wondered how many more might be gone.

     The doorbell buzzed and she walked to the door, staring at the mirror there.  Her reflection ran a hand over bare skin from hip to thigh.

     She punched the intercom button.  “Yes.”

     “Service,” replied a woman.

     Evy opened the door.  A short woman with a round face stood in the hallway.  She wore the baby-blue colored uniform all servers wore.  In her arms she carried a stack of food boxes.  Without looking at her the server walked across the living room, and the walls didn’t hold her reflection.  Evy felt ignored by the server and that she noticed this surprised her.  Usually she was too occupied with staring at her reflections to notice the server and it never occurred to her the server ignored her too.

     She wondered if she might become a server if she lost all her reflections.  She had heard most servers were born without them.

     She peeked in the kitchen doorway and watched the server work.  The woman was smiling.  Evy wondered how anyone could be happy without reflections, even if they were born that way.  How did she keep her face so clean and put that apple-red lipstick on so neatly?

     The server deposited the empty boxes in the trash compactor and turned and caught Evy staring at her.  “What are you looking at?” she asked.

     Evy turned away and pretended nothing was wrong, staring at her reflection as she should have been doing.

     The server walked to the door and left the apartment.

     Evy realized she had so many other reflections to fawn over and she was ignoring them.  She walked towards the bedroom and midway down the hallway something caught her eye.  She moved closer to the mirror and looked along the line of reflected Evys.  Far down the line she saw a vacant space between two reflections.  Further down there was another space, a spot perfect for an image of her.  Further still, another.  The chain was broken, segmented, and falling apart.

     She ran to her bedroom.  The mirrors along every wall and on the ceiling held nothing except for a vacant room.  Her skin prickled with goose bumps.  Cold wind seemed to be blowing from every mirror and Evy found the blazing red rose petals in the mirror above her bed repulsive and a reminder of things spinning quickly out of control.

     There had to be someplace to go for this problem, but mother had only given the warning and didn’t get into the details because that would have been time away from her reflections.

     Evy grabbed a silk robe and rushed out of the bedroom.  She stopped again to look at her reflections in the hallway, the robe draped over her forearm.  A moment ago only a handful of her reflections were gone and now every other one was gone.  Beginning with an empty space to her left and to her right, the spaces alternated down the length of the chain.  Too many empty spaces left nothing for the remaining reflections to hang onto.  The nearest reflection looked scared.  Evy felt the same way.

     She ran to the kitchen and then to the living room and when she noticed no mirror held her reflection she covered her mouth with her hand. 

     Evy ran back to the hallway and found the two mirrors empty of her.  Those mirrors held a vast empty space.  Her reflections had to be in there somewhere.  She wanted to break through the glass surface and run searching for an image to love.  

     The doorbell buzzed, a constant irritating noise from someone on the outside who didn’t know when to let up on the buzzer.

     She went to the intercom, punched a button, and shouted, “Stop that!”

     The buzzing stopped and a male voice said, “My dear Evy, I have the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.”

     She put on the robe and opened the door.  A short, bald man wore a brown corduroy jacket over a white jump suit.  The man smiled and pointed at his sunglasses.  The mirror lenses reflected an empty doorway.  “Look here,” he said, “isn’t this the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen?”

     Evy, feeling threatened, backed into the apartment.

     The man frowned and looked at the door next to her.  His reflection was there but not hers.  Then he looked back at her and cocked his head.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  Where’s your reflection?”

     She swung the door to shut out this freak with glasses that reflected nothing of her.  The man stopped the door with an extended hand.

     “I know where you can find your reflections, Evy,” he said.

     “What have you done with me?  What have you done with every single one of me?” she asked.

     He offered his bone-white hand.  She backed away.  He was one of the seducers.

     The man smiled.  “My name is Jimmy,” he said.  “You don’t need your reflections to show how beautiful you are.  I’m the one who can shower you with praise, touch you where you want to be touched, love you the way you should be loved.”

     She threw her hands to her face and covered her eyes.  “This can’t be happening to me,” she said.  “I don’t want anyone else.  I just want me.  Me, me, me!”

     His breath smelled of peppermint and she knew he stood very close.  He pried her hands way from her face and said, “Look into my eyes.”

     She squeezed her eyes shut like a petulant child.  This man held nothing for her.  She wanted to look into her own eyes.

     He spoke again, “Evy, you really are a goddess and if you open your eyes you will see.”

     She opened them.  And she had to look down at him.  From the glossy pupils of his onyx eyes two reflections looked back at her.  She pressed her hands against her mouth and squealed.

     “There you are, Evy,” Jimmy said, each word sending a whiff of peppermint at her.  “Isn’t that who you’re looking for?”

     “Oh, good me,” she said and rested her hands on his chest.  “Oh, good me.”

     Jimmy looked down at her hands, taking away her reflections.  One corner of his mouth curled up in a smile.

     “Oh!”  She lifted his chin to look at herself again.

     Her heart raced, she felt giddy, and she grasped at his corduroy jacket.  All she wanted now was more–she wanted to see the full length of her reflection and she wanted to see it now.

     “Oh, beautiful,” she said, her breath quickening.

     Jimmy stepped back and replaced the glasses over his eyes.  “You want more?”

     “Oh, yes,” she said.  “Take those off.”

     She reached for the glasses and Jimmy stepped back into the corridor.  He gestured for her to follow.

     “I can’t go out there,” she said, thinking of all the mirrors out there.  “I’m not–decent!” 

     “I will give you more of you, all the multiplicities, all in full length.  Come with me, Evy, let me take you to the garden of you.”

     As Jimmy drove, she noticed the world. 

     Every building was a cube shaped mirror, three to each block.  She wondered how she ever found her way around with one building indistinguishable from the next.  She hoped to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror-walls of these buildings, but each one held disappointment.

     People on the sidewalk gazed at their images as they walked.  They barely acknowledged each other and they never noticed the servers walking among them.

     She saw a man without a reflection, but he wasn’t dressed like a server.  He had blond hair to his shoulders and his expanse of chest bulged out of his black satin robe.  She made eye contact with him and she stared at him, turning around in her seat to watch him watching her as the distance between them increased.

     “We’re here,” Jimmy said as he stopped the car.

     They stepped out and Jimmy led her to the entrance.  Tall double doors, each with a warped mirror stretched Jimmy’s reflection into a long and narrow line.  She stopped, her feet incapable of another step.

     “All of them are in there?” she asked.

     Jimmy pulled a ring of keys out of his pocket.  He looked at her over the rim of his glasses.  “Every single one.  I know you’re jealous that they all came to me, but that doesn’t mean we all can’t live together.”

     As he inserted the key into the lock she wondered if her images could ever love her again and she wondered if she could really take them back.  Then the words of her mother came back to her: Lose your images to him and he’ll have you too.

     “Ready?  Let’s go in.”

     “No,” she said.  “Can you just bring me some of my reflections?  I’m sure some of them want to stare back at me.  I mean, really, look at yourself.  Who would want you?”

     “All right, Evy, one moment.”  Jimmy opened one door wide enough for him to slip through.  He returned in a moment with a plastic bucket filled with marbles and shoved the bucket at her. 

     “There,” he said.  “If you don’t want to come in, you can take these reflections with you.”

     She moaned.  Those weren’t just marbles.  They were mirrors.  Dozens of tiny faces stared back at her.  At first she didn’t think those faces were hers.  The balls made the faces grotesque like Jimmy’s reflection in the door.  She recognized her hair, her eyes, but her nose was squashed like a pig’s and her face was bent back and narrow.

     “Evy, now you can take those and get on with your life or you can come in here and see the beautiful images of you.  Take something less or come in for something more.  Are you willing to settle for skewed images–oh, so ugly–in little mirror balls?”

     “They look so frightened,” she said.  Their mouths were big black holes as their lips moved, trying to tell her something.

     “Go on, Evy.  Leave.  I’ll be in here surrounded by beauty.”  Jimmy tucked his glasses away in his jacket and stepped inside.

     “Wait!  You can’t leave them like this.  You can’t leave me like this.”

     “This is your last chance,” Jimmy said.  “Leave here or come inside and head for the light.”

     She ran past him, her bare feet thumping against concrete.  A spot of light shone on the floor in the middle of the room.  She jumped inside the light and twirled around to look for Jimmy.  The piece of floor she stood on began to rise and she bent her knees slightly to keep her balance.  She set the pail down at her feet and looked up as she moved closer to the light.

     When the platform stopped rising she saw movements in the shadows.  Before she could figure out what she was seeing, light flooded the room.  Mirrors came at her from the walls, up from the floor, down from the ceiling.  The ones above her and below her tilted to capture her image within phosphorescent frames.  She plastered her hands to her chest and twirled around gazing at each reflection. 

     The room had changed as if she were inside a ball lined with mirrors.

     “There they are, Evy,” Jimmy said, his voice coming from somewhere.  “Aren’t they beautiful?”

     She loved the way the light stuck to her skin and got tangled in her hair.  Each reflection smiled at her and winked back when she winked.

     “Oh, Jimmy,” she said, “when can I take them home?”

     The lowest ring of mirrors below her pedestal dropped down and swung away, exposing Jimmy standing on the floor.  “I’m not getting through to you, am I?  This is their home now.  They want to stay.”

     Stay?  All of her reflections nodded their heads.

     Jimmy stepped onto a platform.  He pulled out a hand-sized black box from a side pocket of his coat and pressed a button that raised him to her level. 

     He stepped from his platform to hers and draped an arm around her shoulders.  His touch made her shiver and she would have moved away but she was afraid of falling off the platform.  Her reflections weren’t alone anymore.  In every mirror a Jimmy had an arm around an Evy.  Although she shrank from his touch, every one of her reflections pressed their bodies against him.  Their hands moved across his chest and belly.  Some kissed Jimmy on the head.

     “You’re home, Evy,” he whispered in her ear.  “There’s enough room for all of you.”

     She turned to him and said, “How could they love anyone but me?”

     “I’ll love you, Evy,” he said.

     “No,” she said.

     “Look!  They love me.”

     “I don’t want you.  I want them.  Only them.”

     He gripped her tighter.  “Evy . . .”

     “No!” she cried and pushed him away.

     Jimmy stumbled back, his heels slipping over the edge of the platform.  He waved his arms in circles, teetering for balance. 

     “Evy!”  And he fell.

     He cursed when he landed with a thud.  She peered down.  Jimmy rolled on the floor, writhing in pain.

     She looked at the mirrors.  Jimmy still remained next to each of her reflections.  None of them rejected Jimmy.  Her reflections shook their heads and scowled at her.  She never knew how ugly she looked with a scowl on her face.  She picked up the pail and with her free hand she grabbed a handful of balls and flung them out at the mirrors.

     Cracks stretched across the glass of several mirrors and shards of mirror slipped off the walls within the frames and fell away, shattering against the mirrors below.  She grabbed another handful of balls and turned, glancing at all her reflections holding up their hands and shaking their heads.  She grunted and threw some balls above her and continued to turn, throwing more balls in every direction.  Below her, Jimmy cried out as glass crashed around him.  She continued to spin around, growing dizzy, intoxicated by the violence and the rage she felt beating in her chest.

     She flung the last of the balls and threw the empty pail after them.  She dropped to her knees and gripped the edge of the platform so hard that her knuckles turned white.  The pail clunked against empty frames on its way down.  Shattered glass falling to the floor faded like the letup of rain.  The dizziness continued and she closed her eyes wishing it to stop.

     Jimmy’s sobs faded away as if he had left the room.

     Silence.

     She still wouldn’t open her eyes.

     Not until she felt and heard the hum of the machinery.  Over the edge of the platform, the floor came at her.  She let go of the edge and sat there with her legs under her.

     “Now we’ll never get them back,” someone said.

     She turned and rose to her feet.  A man stood inside the entryway beside a control panel, but it wasn’t Jimmy.  This was the man she had made eye contact with on the street, the man with the long blond hair.

     She touched her forehead and staggered to the door, barely aware of how the glass melted under her feet.  She had never seen a broken mirror before.  The man moved directly into her path.  She walked right into him and her hands slapped against his chest.

     “He took my reflections too,” he said.  “What are we going to do without them?”

     She walked around him toward the daylight slanting in from the doorway.

     “Help me,” he called to her.

     She stared at the sidewalk as she walked, seeing the feet of strangers passing by.  She never looked at the walls.  They made her feel invisible.

     The man behind her shouted again.  “Stop!”

     Two pairs of feet, both clad in black leather boots, stopped in front of her and a hand reached out and grabbed hers.  She looked up, startled, and held her breath.  Two women holding hands stood before her and she recognized the one who held her hand as her server.

     She looked away and attempted to walk around the women, but she gripped her hand hard and pulled Evy down close to her face.

     Evy stared at the sky as the server whispered, “I know you recognize me.  It’s really not all bad, you know, not having a reflection.  When someone takes away your reflection they can only take away what you see.  They can’t take away what others see.”

     She looked at the server.  This woman probably never had a reflection in her life and what did she know about it?  The woman turned and walked away with her friend before Evy could say anything.

     Someone touched her shoulder and she turned around and looked at the man who was following her.  A smudge of dirt streaked his right cheek.

     “Please.  You’re alone now.  I’m alone and . . .”  He tilted his head and said, “Your hair is a mess.”  For some reason under his gaze she didn’t feel invisible. 

     She crossed her arms.  “Well, your face is streaked with dirt.”

     “Where?”  He touched his left cheek.

     “Here,” she said and reached out and wiped the dirt away from his right cheek.  She licked her fingers and applied moisture to get rid of the last of it.  Stubble on his face moved under her fingertips.

     “There,” she said and stood back to look at him.  His skin was as golden as hers and with a shave the man would be perfect, but to look at someone else in this way seemed so wrong.

     She turned and walked away.

     “Wait!” he shouted.  “Can I brush your hair?”

     She looked back.  The man pulled a brush out the side pocket of his robe and she realized she was smiling.

     The man did another head tilt.  “You’re so much more beautiful when you smile.”

     She thought the head tilt was adorable, but she didn’t say anything.  Not yet.  First, she would allow him to brush her hair and tell her how beautiful she was.

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Moon at the Starry Diner by Tina Connolly

      

Air like a mushroom.  Dense.  Pocketed with holes, moments where Jem could breathe normally.  She filled her lungs, drinking in the new atmosphere, dazzled by the blue-black sky.  Starlight like diamonds, winking around her feet. 

   The clouds were spongy.  Jem’s calf muscles already stung from the exertion.  Her toes were pinched in her sleek calfskin boots – they were made for walking from the subway to the office along firm level sidewalk.  Not cloud-hopping.

   “It’s freaking gorgeous,” she said.  Jem was not a complainer. 

   She turned to look back at her companion, to see how he’d changed.  It was almost a game, to guess if Moon would fit into the new surroundings.  Perhaps he would be a comet, or a constellation.

   He was a bear. 

   Moon made a handsome bear – symmetrical and golden-brown, not terribly large.  He had beady black eyes that looked startlingly like Moon’s human ones – or at least, the human ones he’d worn when she’d met him.  He scratched at his side with claws so dark she could only pick them out by their glints.  “Ursa Minor, what?” he said in a grumble.  “No, go on.” 

   Jem waded through cloud back to Moon and tucked her bare arm under his furry one.  It was tickly and warm.  She wanted to snuggle all the way under his paw, but she didn’t quite dare.  Moon in his last incarnation as a skyhook had been quite prickly.  “You have fish breath,” she informed him.  “Did that come with the change?”

   “Oughta ask someone who knows, right?” said Moon.  “The last thing I had to eat was two changes ago, when I was a Volvo, and that was diesel.  Should diesel smell like fish?”

   Jem shrugged.

   Moon’s furry belly rumbled.  He shook Jem’s arm loose to rub it with both paws.  “Now you’ve done it,” he said.  He tilted his muzzle sideways, listening to his new body.  “Fish, I think.  Honeybees.  Small to medium-size vertebrates.  Twigs.”

   “There’s a diner up ahead,” said Jem.  She took Moon’s shoulder and pointed him at it.  It was silver and rounded, an optimistic trailer with windows of moonlight and blinding stars for wheels.  A red neon sign sprung from the roof, glowed:  The Starry Diner.

   “Suspiciously convenient,” said Moon.  “Shall we?”

   He tucked her arm back under his own and for a moment they were two lovers playing tourists, ready to crash a locals bar and laugh.

   But only for a moment.

   Jem opened the door for Moon and his claws clicked on metal as he entered.  The diner was half full, noisy with echoing voices and the clatter of fork on plate.  She threaded her way past a three-headed dog drinking coffee to the first empty booth.

   Moon was lagging behind, peering into the back corner of the diner, his body alert.  “Be right back.”

   “You have to use the little bears’ room?” said Jem. 

   Moon ignored all jibes about his nature.  His golden brown body lurched between the checkerboard of tables.  His hips knocked against the tentacles of a giant pink squid, against the elbows of a man in a white cowboy hat.  His shoulders tensed with the effort of controlling his new form. 

   Moon disappeared into the back and Jem sighed and leaned back against the gold vinyl booth.  She spread her fingers along the shiny table.  Maybe this clash would be restful.  Maybe Horace would pick a more subtle battle.  She could use some calm time with Moon, even in this form.

   There was a tabletop jukebox on the inner wall of the booth.  “I love a bear,” Jem told it, and she put a quarter in for The Teddy Bears’ Picnic

   “What’s that, honey?”  The robot waitress rolled to a halt at the booth.  A keyboard extended from her midsection.

   “I love a bear,” repeated Jem.  She toyed with her paper napkin.  “Except sometimes he’s a Volvo, or a Venus Flytrap, or a shed.  How can anyone love a shed?  He wasn’t even waterproof.”

   “I loved a programmer once,” the waitress said.  Her metal fingers clinked softly on her lips.  “Love is funny.  Seizes you in the grey space between off and on; sets your circuits to misfiring.  You want coffee?”

   “Two, please,” said Jem.  “And toast, and two sunny-side up eggs.  Plus a packet of honey and something fishy for the bear.”

   “Ding ding,” said the waitress, cocking her finger at Jem.  She rolled off. 

   Moon lurched back.  He was studying the other patrons as he returned, and it made him bang smack into an older man with plastic glasses and knock him from his shiny gold stool.  There was a rumble of apology as he lifted the man back up onto the seat, ripping his brown button-down in the process. 

   She wondered what he would be like without his work; if an unchanging Moon could ever be a domesticated Moon.  “I’m not a complainer, you know,” she informed him as he returned.

   The bear squeezed into the booth.  “I think there’s trouble over in the corner.”  He peered down at the dented silverware.  He tried to pick up his fork with one paw.  Then two.

   “Already?  Can’t we even eat first?”

   Moon jerked his furry head towards his left shoulder.  “The guy in the white cowboy hat?  I think that’s Horace.  I think this time he’s planned a shoot-out.”

   Jem looked at the cowboy.  He was tall and rangy and his hair curled in a blond mullet down the back of his neck.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “It doesn’t look like Horace to me.”

   “He changes, you know he changes.”  Moon finally managed to scoop the fork onto one paw.  He cupped his paw around it and carefully turned his forelimb over, but the metal slipped on his pads, and the fork spun out and clattered on the table.  “Dolgonnit,” said Moon.  “Why don’t I get to pick what I am?  Horace does.” 

   “Maybe because you’re the fighter,” said Jem.  “The reactionary.  Maybe if you chose the battles….”  Behind Moon, the cowboy was already standing, gesturing with his coffee mug.

   The fork clattered again.  “No, it doesn’t work like that.  That’s just not how things are.  I can’t explain it.  Oh, good, fish.”

   The robot waitress set down a plate of trout and a pot of honey in front of Moon.  Then Jem’s plate, and in the center of the shiny table she set an industrial-size mixing bowl of warm water.  A finger bowl for the bear.  “I’ll just clear this away,” she said, and scooped the fork and knife from underneath Moon’s paws.  She winked at Jem.  “Anything else?”

   “We’re good, thanks,” said Jem.  She tried not to look at the cowboy, or at the squid, who was now waving the man’s hat in one pink tentacle.

   Moon fell on his fish, spearing it with one claw and tearing chunks off with his teeth.  Foam formed around his muzzle.  Bits of trout flecked the scalloped placemats.

   Jem swirled her toast through her egg.  “I’m not getting any younger.”

   “You’re not getting any older, either.  Are you going to eat that?”

   “No, I know that.  But my world is – they’re slipping further away from me as I stay still.  Soon I won’t be able to fit back in with anyone I once knew.”  Egg yolk covered her plate.  “Do you think you’ll ever get to stop fighting, Moon?  Defeat Horace for good?”

   The black eyes shone wild.  “I feel as though I’m closer to getting the bastard.  That could be an illusion.  Do you want to go home?”

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   Jem searched for hurt in the furry face.  It wasn’t so much the strange features that were the problem, as it was Moon himself.  Even as a Volvo, she’d been able to tell when he was cranky, or not quite so cranky.  But hurt – never.

   “Why is there always one who moves and one who follows?  Why do I have to be the girl?”

   “What?”  He was onto the honey now – scooping the honey with one paw from the pot to his mouth.  Behind him, the giant pink squid and cowboy were facing off; the cowboy braced and tugging on his hat, the squid sprawled on top of his shiny table, waving a butter knife.

   “God, not again,” said Jem.

   “Where?” said Moon.  He turned, honey pooling from his paws. 

   “Can’t we even eat one meal in peace?”

   The squid had one tentacle wrapped around the cowboy’s neck now.  The diner was clearing out around them; the three-headed dog scampered out the door, followed by a ballerina and a giant spider.  The cowboy was turning purple.  The robot waitress rolled up behind him and poured coffee on the squid’s tentacle.  Even across the diner, Jem heard it sizzle.  The blistered tentacle fell free of the cowboy’s neck and the squid’s other tentacles started writhing in response.  One grabbed the waitress before she could roll free.

   “How do you know which side you’re on?”

   “Eh,” said Moon.  “Good question.” 

   Another giant spider sidled out the front door.  The cowboy backed up, reaching for his gun, and the squid reached for chairs.

   Moon rose from the booth to examine the fight and Jem half stood, ready for retreat.

   “Just an old-style brawl, this time.  Must be why I’m a bear.”  Moon furrowed his brow and his black eyes disappeared in fur.  “Seems too simple for Horace….”

   A chrome-and-gold barstool sailed over Jem’s head and crashed through the starlit window.  Her hand skidded in eggs as she ducked, and her plate flipped onto her pants. 

   Behind Moon, the giant squid loomed.  The captured waitress was banging on it with her keyboard.  The squid raised bloated tentacles and one snaked around Moon’s belly.

   “Fight it is,” agreed Moon.  “Anti-Squid.”  He ripped the tentacle’s suckers from his stomach, and turning, slashed streaks of gore from the squid’s pink body.  Ammonia cut through the air.  A shot cracked glasses.  Jem backed away.

   There had been other fights that were nicer, subtler.  When she’d met Moon, he’d been a defense attorney; Horace his opponent, and that fight had lasted for eight months.  Plenty of time to fall in love with an illusion.

   Moon’s claws carved through the tentacle that held the waitress, dropping her to the ground with a crash.  But in the distraction, the cowboy’s attention had turned to the cash register.  He was scooping out bills into his hat.  The waitress hollered and rolled after him.  The squid squeezed Moon.

   It was a tedious fight; like the gladiator sequence, or the car crash as a Volvo.  Jem always had to patch him up in the end.  And it wasn’t really that she was tired of that as much as it was all very different than she’d thought when she fell in love with a stoop-shouldered idealist with weary hands and eyes that shone fire.

   The waitress yelled, her keyboard walloping the cowboy, and then yelled again; a funny scream, cut off at its height.  Jem looked at the waitress and the cowboy, and it took her a full ten seconds to realize that neither of them were moving.  The robot waitress had her keyboard extended for another good smack; the cowboy was cowering behind his white hat.  Bills were falling, or had fallen from his hat – they hung in the air.  They were frozen. 

   Moon and the squid were frozen, too.  The squid had Moon off the ground and a coffee cup with a flying splash of coffee hung motionless above Jem and Moon’s booth.

   There was total silence in the little diner.

   Total stillness, too.  Jem was the only moving body.  There was one stabbing moment of panic as she wondered if everything in the world had frozen but her; part of the rules that she still didn’t understand.  Perhaps some balance had been tipped and she would now spend eternity in a diner, eating lemon meringue pie and crying in her coffee cup and dusting the frozen Moon.

   But then a voice behind her spoke.  A voice with a mouthful of food.  “You dislike our fighting, don’t you?”  Horace.

   “What did you do to them?”  Moon’s jaws were open in a growl, or cry.

   “Ah, now that’s, that’s a fallacy.”  A swallowing sound and the words cleared.  “I did nothing to them; I merely sped us up.”

   Jem turned away from Moon to stare at the man on the barstool.  He was utterly unlike any previous incarnation she’d seen him in.  He looked like the slovenly regular of a small-town cafeteria; his shoulders were hunched and his plastic glasses were smudged.  One hand held greasy toast.  And yet she was used to men changing on her.  She just saw him as Horace.  Moon’s antithesis.  “I told Moon you weren’t the cowboy,” she said.   

   “You’re sharp,” he said.  “But ya know, you don’t need me to tell you that.”

   “Please.  Tell me what I could possibly need you for.”  She pulled a chair between them and clasped the back of it with her hands.  If she looked at Horace, she couldn’t see Moon’s rigid face.  Her grip hid the tremble in her fingers.

   “To be the one who smoothes things over, ya know?  End our fighting.  Get Moon all to yourself.”

   “And how would that work?”

   Horace spread one hand.  “Walk away with him.  Tell him to never finish this fight.” 

   Jem’s knuckles whitened on the chair.

   “Logically, ya know, if he stops fighting me, he’ll stop changing,” said Horace.  “Now look, I’ll show you how it could be.  Picture an island, the shape of a crescent moon.” 

   He pointed at the tabletop jukebox back in Jem’s booth and snapped his fingers at it, a dry, whispery snap.  Kokomo began to play.  “The sand is whiter than stardust.  No, it is stardust, burnished by the thousand tails of a thousand blinding comets.  On one tip of the crescent a thousand palm trees sway, and from their branches fall round green coconuts.  Okay.  Do you like coconuts?”

   “No.”

   “Then when you crack the coconuts, out flows not coconut milk, no, not coconut milk, but rum.  And the coconut meat is….”

   “Pineapple.”  It came out in a whisper.

   “Ah, but I haven’t described the pineapple plantation.  There’s a hundred acres of pineapple, ya know, and a hundred burnished men in short shorts to pick it.  We’ll make the coconut meat be hash or,” and he waved his toast, “something like that.  And at the top of the highest mountain – ”

   “It sounds lovely,” said Jem.  She lifted one hand, put it right back on the chair.  “But wouldn’t Moon still be a bear?”

   Horace scratched his thin hair.  “There exists that possibility.  I can’t change Moon, ya know.  I can’t make him do anything.”

   “I feel that,” Jem admitted.

   “And you must admit being a bear is a better life than being a shed or a proper noun,” he said, waving the last bite of toast at her.  “I could always make you a bear, and those pineapples into salmon.”  He licked margarine from his fingers.  “There’s been a couple times I’ve wanted to acquaint you with this opportunity, ya know, only Moon was something impossible.  You wouldn’t really enjoy spending eternity with a leaky shed.”

   “But if Moon goes into hibernation, you win, don’t you?  Not a truce, not a smoothing over.  You win.”

   Horace pulled his plastic glasses from his nose and wiped them with his stained napkin.  “Well, what’s ‘win’, really?” he said.  “These little skirmishes we have – they’re kind of, they’re kind of futile, ya know?  Moon wins, I win…neither of us really gets anything done.  Think of spending your life never accomplishing anything.”  He put his glasses back on and smiled a wrinkled smile at her.  “There are days I’d like to have a companion too, ya know.  I’d like to have that island with, with the rum coconuts, and the short-skirted harem.”  He crumpled the dirty napkin in his hand and tucked it under the empty plate.  “Maybe I’m offering you what I can’t have.”

   Jem curled and uncurled her fingers on the chair, staring at Horace’s plate, seeing Horace’s island.  Seeing Moon’s torn face.  A salmon hatchery, an island paradise – but no, what Horace was really offering her – giving her – was knowledge. 

   Horace thought she had the power to convince Moon. 

   She could take Moon away from the flat tires and the squid marks, the scimitar wounds, the endless fighting.  And oh, Horace would give her an island if she did.

   But could her Moon really fit into that vision of island bliss?  By the end of the first day he’d be banging around, trying to find something to fix. 

   And Jem?  What vision did she fit into?

   The moons of Horace’s glasses reflected starlight at her.  He half-smiled, grey eyebrows raised, a puppy expecting to be told no.  The Girl from Ipanema started on the jukebox.

   “No,” said Jem.

   For a moment, Horace looked so disappointed that she felt sorry for him.  Then he looked down at his watch.  “Well, then,” he said.  “I guess that’s all the time you’ve got.”

   She was watching Horace, and then he was gone, and only his plastic glasses remained.  They hung in the air after he was gone.  She reached out to touch them – but as she did, they fell, and then a bottle came whizzing by her, and then a shot, and then a packet of creamer.

   The island music was subsumed by the thumps and crashes of the struggle.  Moon was growling and the robot waitress was yelling, “Don’t touch the till!” again and again.  The cowboy was down now, crawling on hands and knees for the door. 

   But Moon, her Moon, was still entangled in the air, and so Jem grabbed the first two things to hand and headed into their fight.

   A tentacle swiped at her ankle.  She jumped and pitched into the giant squid’s body, instinctively throwing the first thing she’d grabbed at its eyes.  It turned out to be the honey pot, and the sticky smear of honey did seem to confuse it, because there was a sharp intake of air behind her as Moon wrested free.

   Moon growled and tore, separating the tentacle from the body.  The squid keened.  Jem found that the other thing she’d grabbed was a fork, and she jabbed at its body, releasing puncture wounds of gore and ammonia.  At its center seemed the safest place to be; it couldn’t curl its tentacles back to get her.  Or maybe that was because Moon had torn off another one, and then another, and then the squid spasmed, its last tentacle flailing.  It crashed through a table and lay there, shuddering.

   All Jem’s muscles felt hot and tight and her hand painfully gripped her slimy fork.  She shivered, and then she was coughing, gasping for clean air and a new environment, and Moon gently pushed her away from the dying squid.

   It seemed to take a long time for her breathing to slow.  There was a water pitcher on the counter near where Horace had sat, and she drank from it with shaking fingers.  It was mostly ice hitting her nose and then a packet of creamer.  She fished that out and looked at it with astonishment.

   The robot waitress rolled toward her, the cowboy’s hat clutched in one hand and her eyes whirling.  “More coffee?” she said.  “More coffee?  More coffee?”  She banged at her head with a metal fist.  “Must reboot,” she said, rolling away and banging.  “Must reboot.  More coffee?  More coffee.”

   There was a final squeal from the squid.  Moon shuffled back to her, a tentacle falling from one paw.  One shoulder dragged.  He looked as though he’d been digging through garbage; he had crumbled bacon in his fur.  Coffee aroma steamed from him, then a sharper reek – he was slimy with squid juice.  Jem’s pants were covered in more squid and egg and her boots were soaked with creamer.  Miraculously, the bowl at their booth still had an inch of warm water in it, and Jem attempted to wipe the squid from Moon.

   It was mostly a lost cause.  Moon let her try, though, and was perfectly still while she wiped his belly with a paper napkin.  On the other end of the booth, The Girl from Ipanema finally finished and Bing Crosby began in on Sing Me a Song of the Islands.

   She looked up at Moon and found him looking at her.  He was really very handsome for a bear.  Jem threw the slimy napkin to the floor.

   “Please?” said Jem.  “One dance?”

   In the trashed diner, Moon pulled her out onto the floor and into a waltz.

   One paw stepped hard on her boot, a claw tugged at the ruined leather.  There was a rumble of embarrassment from his furry chest.  “Remember, it’s not how well the bear dances,” said Moon.

   Jem leaned into him then, and he lifted her till her feet rested on his hind paws.  He whirled her around tables, through streams of coffee and squid, the cold starlight pouring through the windows and Bing singing to them alone.

   The last bars of the orchestra faded and Jem opened her eyes.  They were back outside in the spongy clouds, but the diner was gone.  The air was chill and the light was blue. 

   In Jem’s arms was a fish.

   It looked down at its silver body, rolling one round eye.  Moon’s deep voice came out of cold fishy lips.  “At least we’ll likely get to go swimming, right?” he said.  “A bear in a diner is one thing, but a fish in a diner – that would just be silly.”

   A laugh trembled on Jem’s lips.  Moon’s tail flopped salt spray in her face and she cradled the fish close, pulling her shirt hem around it.  Everything stank of egg and brine.  “We’ll go to an island where a thousand palm trees sway.” 

   “Something wrong?” said the fish.  “You look funny.”

   “No,” said Jem.  She brushed at the wet in her eyes.  “I love the moon, that’s all.  I love the clever, frustrating, vigilant moon.”

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Red-Haired Man in a Sweater by Brendan Connell

From the Private Papers of Dr. Black

(The following case was related by Professor Kaltenbach, of Bonn, Germany)

Mr. X. Eyes neuropathic. Skin creamy, grey, marked with purple blotches. Patient highly intellectual, of refined manners, though clearly afflicted with moral degeneracy. He believes himself to have been painted by Lucian Freud. When questioned about the logical ramifications of this absurd theory he becomes surly, stubbornly obstinate, revealing a lack of proper breeding in the process. He claims to be worth 1.2 million pounds sterling. Though Dr. Heuzé (Archives de l’Anthropologie bizarre, 1894, vol viii) mentions the case of a man who believed himself to be made of porcelain, I do not believe another case quite like that which I am presenting you with has yet been recorded. The following interesting document is a statement from the patient himself:

I have never been a fool and that might very well be the reason why I have always suffered so much. A fool accepts his position with a shrug of the shoulders and manages to enjoy his life all the same. A philosopher—I am not ashamed to call myself one—has no choice but to plumb the depths of his being, to dissect it like some ambitious anatomist would a corpse. How frightening then to find that the great ocean before you is nothing more than a teacup, and realize that your own personality is canvas-thin.

But is not personality something developed in childhood? A man without uncle or aunt, father or mother, brother or sister—whose past is nothing more than a palette;—where could such a man have gained a personality? A painted man, unlike one issued from a womb, is born completely matured—a maturity both stunted and pure, narrow and as disappointingly profound as some cosmic syllable muttered between yawns. The odd thing about being a painting is this: one has only one unalterable mood. A normal man is sometimes happy, sometimes sad. One day he opens his mouth like a horse and neighs in delight at some silly joke; the next his lips droop and copious liquid flows from his eyes. I on the other hand am always the same. The blasé expression you see today was there yesterday and, no matter what might happen, will be there tomorrow. I have a single emotion: melancholy boredom. Yes, this weariness you see is a constant and to calculate its numerical value would be as complicated and fruitless as calculating the atomic depth of a glass of schnapps.

I have had women fall in love with me. I don’t know why, as I am certainly not handsome. But I have never fallen in love with a woman. You can love a painting, but do not expect it to return the emotion. Whether others are in possession of a soul, I cannot say. But I am certain that I myself do not have one. A sickly ego: yes. Masterpieces after all are nothing more than an ego dressed in paints or plaster or sometimes paper—the meagre glorification of the artist’s will. Women have loved me, I suppose, in the mad hope of gaining some self-esteem. Nothing doing. I am symbolic of hopelessness and there is nothing jolly about me.

When Freud painted me, he used his brush like a weapon. The impasto was not terribly thick, but I believe if one looks closely the brush strokes can still be seen.

He gave me a distinctive physiognomy. My nose is small, somewhat snub, not altogether unlike that of a suckling pig. I have a thick neck. My chin is clefted. My lower lip is thin, my upper fat, making me appear almost beaked. And yet I am not ugly, almost handsome, in a way that only sentimentalists and libertines could understand. I am clothed drably in a grey sweater and a pair of loose, dark green corduroy trousers; but am thankful for these garments, for they protect me from being the lemon-fleshed nude I would otherwise have been.

I am not a portrait, but rather a conglomeration of many people—a sort of patched together puzzle—a real product of the studio. My eyes are those of Erasmus, my hands Pope Paul III. My body parts are lifted from great paintings of the past, and studies of obtuse modern day models—a baker, a financier, then a youth paid to strip naked and show his skin to my maker.

I don’t like to refer to myself as a work of modern art, for the only thing abstract about me is my mentality, the only thing conceptual my grim absurdity.

The incidents in my life are numerous, and probably not uninteresting from a scientific or sadistic point of view.

My first owner was an English gentleman whose name I can no longer remember. His flat stank horribly of cats, of which he had two—lounging balls of fur which for him I imagine took the place of wife, children, prostitute and lover.

I told the fellow that I found the animals vile, but he did not listen. He repulsed me, treated me like an insensible object and I sacrificed the warm comfort of his filth for the sidewalk, which my feet sought out instinctively as two orphans would a tureen of motherly love.

This trillion-faceted world will always provide a corner for a man willing to play the part of a machine. I worked as a factory hand, living in obscurity, earning just enough to pay for shelter, a few crusts of bread and an occasional piece of meat. The truth is that such occupations are the last refuge of genius—a quality which has long since fled the haunts of the rich who, in their sleek luxury, have become too lazy to form an original thought or emotion. Was not a Van Gough once found in a chicken coop?

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That manufactory in North London, that landmark of the city’s industrial heritage whose high brick walls were decorated with broken glass, had colouring as sombre as a piece by Millet. A huge chimney poured out black smoke. Workmen, mostly foreigners, Asians and Eastern Europeans, moved about with sluggish fortitude, their brows contracted, twisted in resignation—these men impaling themselves on their meaningless fates like ancient Roman soldiers on the cold spears of the Alamanni. Occasionally one of these nameless men, one of these heroes of the age of petroleum, would get sucked in by a machine, turned into a great lump of ground flesh—spat out in bloody gobs that a bow-legged janitor would collect while grumbling.

I lived according to the clock. Lunch break at twelve on the dot. Visit to the pub at exactly a quarter to seven. A jacket potato beneath a coagulation of melted cheese. The squeak of female voices. Stagger back to my little flat.

One Saturday, after letting my lips extract a pint of Old Familiar from the depths of a chilly pub, I wandered, from Regent’s Park to St. James’s, kicking a can and then a pebble and then a stick that lay in my path. I crossed over Westminister Bridge and let my feet make their way along the embankment. I gazed about me with suitable abstraction, soon however finding myself called back from reverie by the unpleasant yelping of a quite young water spaniel which my feet had decided to kick along in the same way they had the objects previously mentioned.

I scrutinized my feet and the dog, finding in their mutual revolutions a vague sense of oneness with the universe around me. The wind did not stir. The world only quivered. I knelt down, examined the animal more closely and found that it was something like a piece by George Stubbs. I put out my hand and it treated it with affection, massaging my fingertips with a tiny little pink tongue, wet and soft as the tail of a goldfish.

It was without a collar; undoubtedly without an owner. I put it in the crook of arm and took it home with me.

Though I do not dislike dogs, I cannot stand their barking—an unpleasant form of assertiveness, an inappropriate reaction to the frustration of their primary needs—and I much prefer the singing of birds. I considered having the animal de-barked, having its laryngeal tissue extracted from its throat. But what a lot of trouble, that cruel surgery of convenience! And then I recalled the words of Kant when he stated that birds do not instinctively know how to sing but learn to do so. I went to the British Library and took out the works of Conradi and Portmann as well as Witchell’s The Evolution of Bird Song, with Observations on the Influence of Heredity and Imitation.

I saw clearly the path that lay before me. I purchased recordings and visited aviaries.

First I taught Tikvah (so I named the spaniel) the one-note songs, those of the laughing gull, red-breasted nuthatch and ruffled grouse. The creature adapted himself to these so well that it was but a short time before we had advanced to the two-note calls of the prothonotary warbler, soft as the stroke of a sable brush, and then the delightful call of the whiskered tern. Finally we arrived at the three note songs: the eastern wood pee-wee, the ruby-crowned kinglet and the post-copulatory call of the winter wren, all of which Tikvah gained a remarkable proficiency in imitating.

My concern with the animal’s education however distracted me from my work and it was not long before I found myself terminated. After lavishing my supervisor with epithets in fleshy ochre and azo yellow, as offensive as they were colourful, I returned to my humble flat, my spirits, naturally low, untainted by the occurrence. But fate, like a skilled boxer, often strikes with double fists. My flat had been broken into and I had been robbed of my few meaningless possessions. The dog, Tikvah, was also missing. I celebrated the disaster with three too many aperitifs, slept poorly that night and was roused from my bed late the next morning by the pale disk of the sun groaning at my window.

Days succeeded each other, marked by threats of eviction, meals of potatoes and peas and general unpleasantness.

On one of these day I was at the Bow Road tube station, waiting for a train.

There were very few people there, not more than half a dozen, and one of these was a chubby little man, immaculately dressed and fondling the handle of a black umbrella. It was clear that I interested him, for he passed me and repassed me several times, casting on me a look at once embarrassed and keen, like certain dogs who wish for attention, but are afraid of being beaten.

The man continued to eye me with curiosity, and then, flourishing his umbrella like some agitated, out of practice D’Artagnan, finally approached. “Excuse me, but do you mind if I—”

“Yes?”

“Are you by any chance an, um, Lucian Freud?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “And if I were?”

“Oh, don’t think this is the curiosity of a nosey-parker. I am a professional.”

He handed me his card.

Leo Krayl

Dealer in fine Pictures

consultations and evaluations

 

“So are you evaluating me then?” I asked, lacing my words with the appropriate hint of bitterness.

“Why my friend,” he murmured, “I only wished to ascertain . . .”

“Oh yes,” I broke in. “I am a Freud. Does the fact amuse you? Do I inspire you? Do you wish to look for meaning for your undoubtedly insipid life in the dreary shades of my face?”

The man seemed to enjoy this insult, for his face brightened. He obviously considered it as a sign of intimacy and it became instantly clear to me that he was one of those types who become deeply attached to their tormentors.

“It seems rather astounding to find you here in this filthy place,” he continued. “Surely I might be able to help you.”

“Maybe I don’t want help.”

“But it is not merely about what you want,” he said eagerly. “You are a masterpiece, and as such have certain obligations. It is an injustice to have your presence hidden away, without anyone being able to appreciate you. Is it a buyer you lack? Well, I could find a hundred. —Your facial expression is delightfully underplayed!” he suddenly broke out. “Delightfully underplayed—yet mysteriously suggestive.”

“You professionals,” I sneered, “always manage to sugar-coat misery.”

He looked distraught. “I certainly have no desire to misrepresent you—but after all, you must see for yourself that art is subject to various interpretations. Sometimes the viewer has a deeper insight into the work than the artist himself, how much more so the picture. And——”

I let him distribute his words in the air as a magnolia tree might its flower petals in the month of June, indirectly aware that the former were cosmically purposeless. If I had been created a man of vigour, I might have struck him; if a man of ignorance I might have lapped up his words like a starving cat at a dish of milk. As it was I hung in the void, like an icicle, fragily cold, hangs from the eave of a lonely house in Siberia.

I had already missed my train twice. I decided not to miss it a third time.

“I must go,” I said.

“I feel nervous about leaving you here like this. I feel that I might not ever see you again.”

“I don’t guarantee that you will.”

“I have a mind to drag you home with me.”

“Don’t do that. One of us might get damaged.”

He pursed his lips together. “Yes. There is always a risk of damage. But I will not say goodbye, but simply see you again!”

A few days passed during which I drank a good deal more than usual, letting myself drift from disreputable pub to pub like a ghost from room to room in some great crumbling mansion on a hill. I swallowed little absinthes the colour of pond scum, strong glossy ales, and martinis as clear as the water of a Norwegian brook. I let myself be lashed by the laughter of young harlots. I made merry. And soon my wallet was empty of everything but that thin rectangle of card-stock paper.

I decided to call on him. After all, from a strictly physical point of view, my situation was miserable. Happiness was never an option. But the possibility of having physical comfort appealed to me.

The little man was quite delighted to see me, and rubbed his hands together with such avidity that it would not have surprised me if flames had burst forth from them. He guided me through an incongruous forest of antiques, poured me the stiffest of drinks and stuffed an enormous V-shaped cigar between my teeth, murmuring the platitudes of his profession.

His place was full of quadros, for the most part inferior stuff, though there were a few pieces of slight interest: an Emil Nolde which kept making the most awful faces; a Nitsch, a great emasculating splash of blood; an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a woman whose face was the most repulsive shade of green and whose whispered innuendoes could not fail but to entice.

Krayl grabbed me by the sleeve and placed me in a Henry IV chair.

“Ah, you will not regret having come to see me,” he murmured. “I have clients—clients—clients who would be delighted to have an opportunity of doing you a good turn. Yes, it will be easy to find a buyer for a painting like you, one that can be smelt, touched, tasted—for people like that sort of thing you know.”

I nodded my head and told him to do as he pleased, my only stipulation being that I wanted a private situation. I did not want to be in some museum, on public exhibition, having to watch day in and day out children picking their noses in front of me and men dressed in visors and shorts shoving their near-sighted eyes against my chest.

“Ah, of course,” he said. “I would not dream of doing you such a disservice. . . . But wait;—I know just the people for you! Only last month they were asking about a Freud. . . . A very prestigious—a very comfortable collection.”

Krayl found a place for me in the collection of one Hanspeter Liniger, of Berlin, at what advantage to himself I never learned.

The Linigers lived in a house designed by Richard Neutra, a blend of art, landscape and practical comfort decorated with a small collection of paintings of only slightly less importance than myself. There were a few pieces by Motherwell and a rather interesting, though diminutive, piece by Mr. Richard Tuttle. He had a nice assortment of lunette shaped pen and inks by Francesco Salviati, all done with a brown wash and heightened with white. In the library there was a Monet—a pond on which a few water lilies rested rather sadly.

I was treated with the utmost respect—more respect than I desired, and was allowed to dine en famille. When they had guests over, I was shown off, and became the subject of a thousand opaque remarks;—such remarks as are designed to make the speaker sound intelligent without actually having to make use of that latter resource: the theoretical frill which they haul out by the yard and throw around like confetti.

“A real comment on the fate of man in an age of social disintegration,” said one man.

“Absolutely chthonic.”

“The eerie lack of depth in the volumetrical treatment leaves one . . .”

“Dazzled.”

“Almost sea-sick.”

“But there are several independent themes at work at once here . . .”

I believe they found my acrid solemnity charming—just as certain geographical locations, Death Valley, the Sahara and such, are, for their very bareness and lack of vegetation, considered beautiful. And the rich love nothing better than to contemplate life’s ugliness from the comfortable depths of their cushions, just as ancient Egyptian pharaohs would, while eating pickled pearls and listening to the strains of the harp, watch their slaves flogged and their impertinent toadies beheaded.

But this sort of bigoted laziness appealed to me.

I lounged around the place, yawned a great deal, slithered about the liquor cabinet, emptying bottles of old Scotch and sampling odd liquors. I was a sort of mascot—a slab of dreary colour to be dragged out in front of dinner guests and pondered over in one’s leisure moments. Unfortunately the rich have many of those—leisure moments.

Mr. Liniger would often fling himself down on the couch and gaze at me from behind the huge knot of his necktie with the weary eyes of a pampered imbecile. It is amazing how many unhappy millionaires there are in the world and, if it were not for the fact that the rich deserved to be despised, I might very well feel some slight measure of pity for them. As it was, I supplied the man with an abundance of poisonous council, sought to show him the nakedness of his soul, which was like a soft, white-skinned gobbet of flesh cast in a whirlwind of glistening black thorns, twice as sharp as hypodermic needles.

He gurgled under my care, like a baby being fed pabulum.

“I always used to consider myself a happy man,” he said.

“It is always better to know the truth.”

“I suppose so . . .”

“You first have to realise how wretched you are in order to be able to weigh life’s options intelligently.”

“Life’s options? But—And—will I ever find . . . true happiness?”

“It is doubtful. You are far too dishonest with yourself. And happiness, truly speaking, is one of those things which neither exist nor does not exist, nor both exists and does not exist.”

And off he would go, to get lost in crowds of suited men, like a drop of water cast in the sea.

The wife, Sigrid was her name, would often come milling around me, with thermodynamic inference, her robust hips grazing me, her lips, like great wads of raw beef, twisting themselves into an obscene mockery of a smile. She was a dog-eared maiden addicted to Veronal, one of those women who, though they are as carnal as veal, make a pretence of being mystical. She dressed herself in loose, light materialed pastel dresses, such as are worn at séances and intimate outdoor August grills and glanced through books on theosophy, murmuring corrupted phrases of ancient wisdom with the same complacency that politicians speak of freedom and democracy while flagellating cities with million-dollar bombs and drowning third-world nations beneath the thick brown gel of poverty.

Sigrid would parade herself naked before me and, when her husband was not at home, you can be sure her advances were anything but subtle. On occasion, from shear boredom, I complied with her wishes, making myself ill with the over-ripe, let us say rotten, fruit of her passion which combined, farcically, the pungent aroma of the sewer with the music of a thick-tongued heathen being flayed alive.

Somewhere in that tangle of limbs which resembled the capering of some eight-legged insect crushed by a boot heel, a flower was born. Its stem curved dizzyingly upward, its petals, the colour of lamp black, gave out a stench like rotting flesh. Its pistils, uncompromisingly sharp, were as ready to strike as the fangs of an agitated viper.

“I want to have your child,” she murmured in the depths of the night.

“But you have had one . . . with your legitimate spouse.”

“Oh . . . oh . . . !”

Indeed, some nineteen years previous, a worm had already crawled out of the Pandora’s box of her womb.

Their son was an anaemic-looking individual with shoulder-length black hair which he kept parted in the middle and an outstretched, extremely thin nose which barely seemed to suffice to supply his meagre brain with oxygen. One could have eaten soup from the hollows of his cheeks and, when he opened his mouth, his long front teeth, attached to purplish gums, reminded one unpleasantly of the bits of fat around a piece of raw sirloin. That he had no friends was not surprising, for he was a thoroughly repulsive creature who did nothing all day but warm the couch with his meagre bottom, occasionally float to the piano to let his wiredrawn fingers slither over the keys like so many blind earth-worms.

He would often come and moon around me, the lonely disks of his eyes suffused with petrified amberish tears.

“While other lads are off sniffing glue, gambling away their father’s money, and visiting hookers, what are you doing? You seem, like a clam, to be incapable of both good and evil. I would call you a vegetable, but even carrots grow.”

“I play the piano.”

“My dear boy, you do it with such utter passivity that it would be more apt to say the piano plays you. Your music manages to be both radically annoying and infinitely boring,—a rare accomplishment indeed!”

“But what should I do?”

“Get drunk,” I said, stirring the whisky in my glass with my little finger.

“But alcohol usually makes me vomit.”

“Another irony.”

“If I could fall in love,” he said shyly.

“As you are clearly incapable of feeling lust, the ability to love is as far away from you as the planet Neptune.”

“Oh!”

I lighted a cigarette.

“Yes, you might tour the entire solar system and still not find a woman unambitious enough to fall in love with you—the most misshaped of human satellites—a mere lump of coal floating in space. Essentially you are the equivalent of a mould. As far as human-beings go, you are a nullity. If there was a war in progress, I would suggest you go and become cannon-fodder. As it is . . .” I paused significantly.

“As it is?” the young man gurgled.

“As it is, you might as well just go and kill yourself,” I said, picking a bit of tobacco from my tongue. “You can be quite sure the world will go on just the same without you. After all, you have no friends, your parents are certainly not fond of you. For my part, I can honestly say it would cause me no other emotion than the slightest tinge of relief;—for truly these little philosophical conversations of ours are on the tedious side!”

“But what if I want to live?” he murmured. I saw an amberish globule lodged on the tip of his lower left eyelid.

“Want to live? Why you know very well that you don’t want to live! If you wanted to live, you would be living right now instead of clinging to the rug like a mollusc. If you want to come bumbling in here begging for advice, the least you could do is be courteous enough to take it!”

His bottom lip quivered pitifully, like a half crushed caterpillar, and then he began to gnaw on it as if he wanted to put it out of its misery.

With spasmodic movements, idiot inspiration, he bounced towards the liquor cabinet, a few words dripping from his mouth like slobber:

“Drink . . . man . . . hopefully . . .”

His fingers, wilted weeds, wrapped themselves around a bottle of Château Lascombes—vintage of ’34 I believe. He discovered the cork-screw and tried to open it, but managed in doing so to drive the majority of the cork inside the bottle.

“We . . . drink . . .”

“No thank you. That wine soaked cork is all yours.”

I went to the liquor cabinet and refreshed my whisky. When I turned around he was gone, as was the wine bottle.

Later that evening he was discovered floating in the Monet, as green as the water-lilies around him. We fished him out and he threw up on a 16th century Armenian Kazak rug.

“I tried to . . . drown myself. . . . But . . . wouldn’t sink.”

“The cork,” I murmured, gazing meditatively at his pale face in its pool of vomit, the latter studded with a few undigested Veronal tablets.

This incident naturally livened things up a bit, and I believe that young man did well to follow my advice—though the results, due to the weakness of his mental facilities, were nothing more than a rather absurd fiasco. His inept attempt at suicide impressed his parents far more than it did myself; and their offspring, their coward, threw all the blame for his action on myself.

Liniger stormed through the house, howling out invectives to his concubine.

“This painting is cruel! We must get rid of it!”

“But you can’t Hans!”

“Can’t be damned! It has made a cuckold of me, almost killed my son. Under the auction hammer it goes!”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Come now my dear lady, do you think I am so blind as not to see the paint chips between the sheets? Do you think that I am not aware of the aroma you take on—like that of a dirty sheep—whenever you are in its presence?”

The man’s fire was impressive. I was on the verge of admiring his spirit; and if it were not for the fact that he was an utter fool, I might have applauded.

Singrid of course saw where her interest lay. Whatever prohibited sympathies she might have entertained for me, she was not about to stick her neck out for a lost cause, to sacrifice the security of her matrimony for the grudging caresses of a scrap of paint-clotted canvas.

And so, with rather remarkable haste, I was removed, sent back to England. I lounged about a warehouse for a while and then, at precisely eleven o’clock in the morning of a particularly hot day in July, was put to auction by Messrs. Sotheby & Co. at their large galleries, 34 & 35, New Bond Street, W.1.

I felt like something of a celebrity on the auctioneer’s platform as I gazed over the lake of silent craniums before me. The bidding, at first slow, picked up its pace. The sobriety of the conductor of this public sale’s Oxford accent began to show hints of agitation, which soon enough he crushed with his mallet. I was purchased by a consortium of Japanese businessmen for a large sum and crated off to Tokyo, where I was managed with the most delicate attention. Small, subtle hands sheathed in white cotton gloves escorted me, placed me in the board room of an office building—the apex of a mountain of glass amongst a bizarre menagerie of similar constructions.

My patrons would come in, bowing stiffly to each other, wearing identical dark-grey suits and commence fencing with words whose meaning I did not understand, but whose deadly sharpness was obvious. They treated me with rigorous cordiality, but more with that which befitted a large investment than a great work of art. Though on occasion these gentlemen went out, enjoyed nights on the town compounded of steak-house suppers, karaoke bars and upper-class brothels, never once did they invite me to join them. They were obviously afraid that I would be damaged.

I spent my time looking out over the Tokyo landscape, the cliff-like buildings rising up on all sides, in the distance the harbour with ferries slowly gliding over its glassy surface. The melancholy and stiff luxury of my surroundings made me feel like a grey cloud hanging over an orchard in heavy bloom.

The office secretary, a Miss Kiyonaga, would sometimes come in and dust me. Her neck was the brilliant white of freshly fallen snow and her hair fell against its nape like the wing of a raven. In a soft voice reminiscent of an October wind stripping the last leaves off a cherry tree she would speak of her sorrows. She was the mistress of one of the chairmen who was married with five children. She loved him desperately, but the fragrant blossom of her emotion was always kept in check by his vigorous loyalty to social mores and his spite for the very looseness in her which he enjoyed.

“You should break with him,” I said.

“I can’t, no more than you can change the colour of your face.”

“So our situations are similar.”

“Yes. We could run away together.”

“And what would we do?”

“I would work for you—try very hard to make you happy.”

“That is impossible.”

“Yes, in this floating world . . .”

One day I was taken and put, with a few other paintings in the company’s collection, in a small museum in Sekino. Though, as I have previously stated, I despise that sort of thing, it was better that it was done in Japan than elsewhere, for in that country the people stood humbly before me, whispering to one another in the most reverential undertones as if they stood before the image of some dragon god, bringer of wind and rain.

I fed off their whispers, their muffled speech, as an overly pampered dog might goose liver.

Human beings have a tendency to offer up their admiration to the most unfitting subjects. That I inspired these people with sadness, disgust and fear, I have no doubt—but they cherished these emotions, inhaling the misery that pervaded my person as if it were some exquisite perfume, scenting their sleeves with it like apricot blossoms. And yet their admiration was not folly, for I fully comprehend it, and consider myself one of the finest paintings ever painted in England—which is understandably a bit of an odd statement, something akin to saying ‘the largest lake in the Sahara’ or something of the sort, considering that the entire history of England has only produced two great painters: Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud—and the latter, my creator, was after all born in Germany.

In any case, the inhabitants of the city, as well as others who travelled from distances, admired the chill of my incongruity for several weeks. And then, during the night, I was stolen, rolled into a sheaf and tucked under the arm of an able thief. When I awoke the next morning, I found myself surrounded by a group of shirtless men, their arms and chests heavily tattooed. Later I found out they were, the Black Flowers, a sub-gang of the notorious Kabuki-mono.

“You will stay under our protection until you are told otherwise,” a man with a great u-shaped mouth told me. “If you disobey this injunction, I will be obliged to cut you to bits.”

There was a certain charm in being abducted by the yakuza and, as I afterwards found out, the whole scheme had been instigated by the very businessmen who bought me in the first place. For, realising that they could never resell me for the exorbitant sum which they had paid, and finding themselves in financial difficulties, they decided to have me stolen and thereby collect on the insurance.

For a number of weeks I was kept locked up in a room decorated with nothing but tatami mats, my chief amusement being to play cho ka han ka with my jailors while drinking a steady stream of saké. The life however was not unpleasant. I ate ayu, caught in the traditional manner by trained cormorants, and composed allusive verses with a ball-point pen on the walls of my chamber. This is called adapting oneself to circumstances. One steps slowly when there is no place to arrive. One needs leisure to properly appreciate the tedium of being.

The hours passed like a mountain stream in springtime.

Days disappeared like dust before the wind.

And it was with some regret that, after several weeks of this existence, I received the news that I was to be set at liberty. I was slapped on the back, joked with, blindfolded, and taken for a ride in a comfortable vehicle.

After driving around for several hours, the car stopped. I was gently pushed out the door. I felt my hand grasped. The blindfold was removed. A large black car sped away into the night, leaving me standing, a solitary figure against a backdrop of deserted docklands. I pushed my hands in my pockets and felt a wad of yen—money I had won at dice. I looked over the water, which expanded before me like the endless pulsating skin of some universal deity. Somewhere out there, over oceans, on the other side of Asia, was Europe, the land of spiritless vice and jagged etiquette where a population sedated by faux democracy and cheap manufactured goods, babbling about history while they treat that watchword as a toilet, chain themselves together in that self-imposed slavery called capitalism. That was where I belonged; just as a maggot belongs in a dog’s corpse.

I was in no way tempted to throw myself at the feet of the authorities. I had had enough of living off the crumbs of the rich. I purchased an airline ticket and went back—to England. The small stock of money I had was soon dissipated in dissolute behaviour and I was once again forced to live by my wits—a commodity which the going rate is far less than that of any precious metal and can, in truth, often be bought for less than petrol.

I rented a room from an elderly French woman with an unpleasant relish for sentimental conversation and a large orange cat. The room was extraordinarily narrow; the cat monstrously fat. I seem to have come full circle, for the aroma of earlier times found me again and the creature clawed at my trousers with as little respect for art as an aborigine for the flavour of a white truffle.

At night Miss Baisieux (such was the woman’s name) would cook over-sauced meats and open inexpensive bottles of Beaujolais, treating me with a motherly care that bordered on the incestuous. She told me about her numerous love affairs—with Sardinian fishermen, disconsolate priests, fetishists and Middle-Eastern royalty. In the over-heated atmosphere of her confessions the heavy French cooking churned in my stomach; the cat rubbed against my leg; I felt like vomiting—but washed down the sensation with another glass of wine. Then I would make my way to my room, lay down on the child-sized mattress provided for me and let my thoughts stumble over the vanity of human existence, nations sinking, festal bacchanal blazes red like quinacridone rose, as my mind soon became invaded by dreams of black paintings, like those of Francisco Goya y Lucientes. From the depths of my subconscious poured visions of strange Sabbaths, in Vandyke brown, done in broad, surreal strokes; cackling music flowed over me like a cold, rippling stream, as I merged with the void.

It was late one morning at Primrose Hill. I stood and looked over the city, which lay smoking before me like some infernal battleground—a place where the conquered outnumber the conquerors by more than a thousand to one. A child came up and began to play in front of me with his mum. I turned and walked down. . . . There was a bench. I sat and lighted a cigarette.

I could hear a ruby-crowned kinglet call nearby—a series of whistles, short clear notes, and a rapid warbling of agitated mixed notes. At first I thought nothing of it, but then it occurred to me that London was hardly the habitat of that little bird whose range is confined almost exclusively to the pine forests of the Americas.

I looked up, expecting to catch sight of a fugitive from some nearby aviary, but was amazed to see a dog perched in the branch of a tree. It was Tikvah. I called his name. He leaped down and licked my hand and I, a being without mother, father or family, welcomed him with what tepid warmth was at my disposal.

I took him home with me. Miss Baisieux was hardly pleased with the new housemate.

“The room is for a single man,” she said.

“I am a single man.”

“No pets my friend.”

“But you have a cat.”

“Precisely. This dog of yours puts him in jeopardy. . . . Come, dinner is served.”

I walked into the dining room and was met by a plate of pâté de lapin with cornichons. Morbidly I went about my task as a soldier shoulders his rifle and advances into the hail of enemy fire. She prattled away, her foot occasionally, in all innocence, drifting over to mine. My eyes examined, beneath the thick layer of iridescent make-up spread over her face, trembling folds of skin reminiscent of the rugged untamed scenery of Australia or North America—vast canyons and desolate wastes.

A faint but pleasant piping came from the other room where Tikvah rested.

“Un oiseau!”

“A dog madame, a dog.”

By the time the cheese was served I felt thoroughly nauseous. . . . Miss Baisieux chattered away. Tikvah no longer whistled. . . . The cat came in and rubbed against my leg. I pushed it away; looked down. It had a bloody bit of fur in its mouth.

I rose from table . . . stalked solemnly into the living room.

The dog’s bones, to which red flesh still clung, lay scattered on the floor. My lips pressed tightly together, I pondered the scene, then, with a shrug of my shoulders went to bed. Undoubtedly the cat had had a better supper than I.

In this bizarre serial of past, present and future I have haunted all the most depressing corners of Europe: small German towns where people’s lips hang down to their knees, the industrial quarters of Northern Italian cities where the sky is blotted out by atrocious architecture and spirals of grey smoke. I am attracted by dark alleys where the smell of urine is so strong that it can be seen and neighbourhoods where the women’s voices sound like the shrieks of the damned.

A few crumpled up bills, filthy as used hygienic paper, suffice for my maintenance—and such documents can be earned easily, in a hundred different clandestine or perceptible ways. How many odd jobs I have had! A taxidermists assistant, a part-time procurer, a waiter at a Hungarian restaurant, a vendor of smut! Currently I am employed part-time by the post office. It is a night job. From 11 pm until 3 in the morning I sort mail.

I am what you would call a forgotten masterpiece. People pass me by without realising my true worth—and if I allude to it myself they think me bombastic, crazy. I am perfectly aware that I drink far too much and a cigarette, like a smoking icicle, eternally hangs from my mouth. I am a man with a canvas heart—a man painted with a certain amount of impatience, cast on the world by the brutal hand of genius and now doomed to wander its dirty boulevards like a rather blasé ghost.

But so be it. It is depressing, but the world after all is nothing more than a voluminous void, smeared on with a palette knife—a strange, grey, voluminous void. Others, as they grow old, find their skin gradually begin to web with wrinkles. I on the other hand find some of my paint cracking. I am gradually becoming endowed with a slight patina—a slight changing of hue—a patina of nausea and profound ennui.

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The Shadow Cabinet by Jeff Vandermeer

 

Installment #1: John Calvin Batchelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and Brian McNaughton’s The Throne of Bones

 

Shadow Cabinets are the great equalizers, the great communicators. It is only within the dark confines of a Shadow Cabinet, like certain Cabinets of Curiosities, that books and authors with little in common find themselves shoved up against one another, under glass. Like the eccentric elements in photographs by Rosalind Purcell, juxtapositions create their own classifications.

            Thus, the subjects of this first column: two books, two authors, who traveled in completely different circles, and yet wound up in the same place: John Calvin Batchelor and his The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica (1983) and Brian McNaughton and his The Throne of Bones (1997). The former is a devastating but ultimately compassionate examination of the savage brutality of human nature. The latter is a dark fantasy story cycle set in Seelura, a place that while uniquely its own also evokes Robert E. Howard and classic-era Weird Tales. Both constitute exceptional accomplishment, and both are now largely forgotten. Already.

 I am Grim Fiddle. My mother, Lamba, first spied me in her magic hand-mirror late in the evening of the spring equinox of 1973. She was dancing by herself at the time, in the rear of a shabby beer hall called The Mickey Mouse Club, located in the foreign quarter of Stockholm, the capital of the Kingdom of Sweden. She was midway between the music box and the bank of telephone booths. She was not under the influence of any drug, though my maternal grandfather was a Lutheran preacher. There is no further explanation of Lamba’s vision forthcoming. Mother was Norse sibyl. – The opening paragraph of The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica

 A product of the 1960s and 1970s, John Calvin Batchelor had what many writers would consider a very good career. Between 1981 and 1994, he had eight novels published from prestige publishers like Henry Holt. Almost all of these books received some kind of critical acclaim and coverage. However, around the mid-1990s, Batchelor fell off the map, only to reappear as a radio host in New York City after 2000.

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“Some days, I just want the dragon to win.”

 

            The truth is, Batchelor could be uneven. I always preferred his more exotic work to the American stuff like Gordon Liddy Is My Muse. He could be too derivative of Thomas Pynchon. He could be difficult in a frivolous way. But at his best, he deserved better than he got. Batchelor’s work has a fierce intelligence, a deep and abiding interest in the issues of the contemporary world, and an incisive view of the individual’s place in that world. He took chances, sometimes leaping off the edge of the world. He could tell a cracking good story, too, supported by a quirky and rich and brave imagination. (For all I know, he still possesses these qualities, but his books are out of print and he hasn’t published anything new for over a decade. According to Wikipedia, however, he is working on a new set of novels.)

            The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica is, in my opinion, his best novel. I remember the first time I read it, picked up randomly because I liked the title. As I began to read, I realized I had something unique in my hands, something that was about to blow the top of my head off. Beleaguered freighters full of plague victims set adrift by governments unwilling to deal with sick refugees, fated to roam the seas? A future of religious war and conflict over limited resources? A man named Skallagrim Strider, larger than life and outside of the law, who leads these refugees to a new life in a free republic in Antarctica? And all of this recounted by an observer both uncanny in his observations and a fool.

            The very act of writing The Birth was, to my mind, audacity of the first order, showing the kind of nerve you wish you’d see more often. Further, in retooling parts of the myth of Beowulf, Batchelor had created a mythic resonance that made the whole thing seem timeless–even as it didn’t need that, was as timely then as it now in its warnings and its revelations.

            Parts of this novel, merciless in its execution and intent, made me cry. Parts of it reminded me of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Parts of it were literally like nothing I’d ever read before. Batchelor’s observations on the frailty, cruelty, futility, and bravery of human life horrified me and moved me. Somehow, he managed to use summary more often than scene and get away with it (something that influenced me in writing Shriek: An Afterword), juxtaposed scenes both terrifying and funny, and never let the reader or his characters off the hook.

            But, honestly, I don’t think I can put it any better than whoever wrote the description on the back cover of the trade paperback edition: “Batchelor has written a stunning lament about the beastliness in man and the violence in nature, about the darkness of hope abandoned and the blood-price of hope regained. It is a bewitching work of profound and prophetic vision.”

            And now forgotten, at a time when it is most relevant, when many other fictions I read seem childlike in comparison.

 

 

Even if they were not immediately eaten by their mothers, the offspring of ghouls would be short-lived, for they are typically formless things that seem less the product of parturition than pathology. It therefore roused great envy among the mining community when one of their number gave birth to a perfectly formed baby boy; who would have looked rosy, had anyone been so perverse as to light a lamp in the dank niche where he was born. – the opening of “The Ghoul’s Child” from The Throne of Bones

 Brian McNaughton achieved his greatness after a lifetime of anonymity and toiling in the trenches of the horror field. McNaughton first started publishing horror in the 1960s, at a time when there was no recognizable horror field as such. The only big authors working in horror were people like Robert Bloch. McNaughton got by with a newspaper day job and writing pulpy mass market paperbacks. Then, when things got worse, in the 1970s, he wrote, as he put it, “a lot of books with the word ‘Satan’ in the title.” He also wrote for men’s magazines.

            When he reappeared in the early 1990s, McNaughton was only about a decade away from his own death. At this point, he was working full-time jobs in factories, unable to find a publisher for his work. He had stopped writing.

            Then, for some reason, he started writing again. This time, though, something was different, or at least seems different from my perspective. He had a vision, and he appeared to be writing solely for himself. He sold his first new stories of Seemura to magazines in the now-resurgent horror field, places like Terminal Fright, TEKELI-LI, and Weird Book. The Seemura stories had the look and feel of odd adult swords-and-sorcery tales. They had an originality and seriousness to them that bypassed the easy wit of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhred & The Grey Mouser series. McNaughton was Old School, in some cases seemingly Old Testament. He was Clark Ashton Smith without the pretty. He was Lovecraft exiled to a foreign, murderous land. The pulp roots from whence McNaughton came provided the grit and grime for these stories, enhancing their versimilitude. Visceral and extreme, they could be moody, atmospheric, and touching. Necromancers and sorcerer kings, shamen and lovely princesses–all of these elements should have seemed familiar, and yet in McNaughton’s hands  they became exotic, fundamentally strange, and original again.

            When McNaughton’s collection of the Seemura stories, The Throne of Bones, appeared in 1997, it received acclaim in the horror field, even won the World Fantasy Award. And then came a trade paperback edition. And then that went out of print. And then a second collection, not as good as Throne. And then McNaughton died, and now, except among some hardcore horror fans, no one remembers McNaughton, or his one remarkable book.

 Two writers. One child of the literary mainstream, with pedigree, the other a pulp author for much of his life, touched by sudden vision, sudden clarity. Both now silent. Both now part of the Shadow Cabinet.

            There was a time in the mid-1980s when Batchelor was golden. There was a time in the mid-1990s when McNaughton had a modicum of fame and attention. At both times, for both men, to readers and reviewers, it must have seemed as if they were fated to advance from strength to strength. This did not happen. Instead, one died and the other stopped writing.

            Who now writing will join the Shadow Cabinet of the future? Who will write something so powerful that it so colonizes the minds of certain readers that they will care enough to remember it in print?

            Some answers next time, from within…the Shadow Cabinet.

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Fasti by Sonya Taaffe

Shadefast: The Feast of Saint Libitine
Beyond the city wall, a black dog
is running in the frost and stubble,
nine times under the cradling moon
like the sickles that sheared the last
of the harvest down. Who hears her
howl from the hearth-side will lose
a loved one before the longest night,
sooner if she whines from the sun-
swallowing west, the sky of strangers
and the guest who never sleeps: tonight
the casters throw bones, not cards,
to read the coming year. By gaslight,
their shadows tumble like loaded dice
toward the grave, gambling—whose ships
will creak with spices and spermaceti,
whose fortunes climb like the roses
of Sophia? who huddle on canal-corners
in a beggar’s coat, flayed of rings
and pennies, broken on her wheel?
Who will sain first grandchildren
with bull’s blood and white barley?
Who take the leaf-road into the dark?

The sortes libitinae, the dead fates
speaking from the Tree’s unleaving
fire, and in the ikons no one prays to
she is hooded with rags of summer
ripped down like sacking, leaf-must,
grape-mast; the winter-whetted Thorns
are robed no more gauntly than she,
who between her pale and dark hands
holds her own death mask, ghosts
curling from its lips like a candle
blown out. Past her, the Sun slants
only downward, each shortening day
another lintel deeper into the earth,
the granite-roofed sky. She will lay
the Moon’s dead petals at its feet.
Gather up milk-teeth and astragals,
lighter of the shades that sleighted
the future in their drystone gleanings;
the naphtha flares are hissing out
in the basilica, the cornhusks on
their doorposts rotted grey as rats.
In the rime-light before dawn, only
autumn leaves haunt the cobblestones,
whispering their own way into the day.

 

Solmas: The Sun and the Thorns
The oldest of the frescoes have flaked with time
like lichen from the travertine, butterfly-scales,
pollen-grains, so many suppliants knelt here—
warm bodies in the dark—in wait for holiness,
the bright returning or the inalienable cold.
The same midwinter grips up from the tiles
that ferns the quartered window like grisaille,
flashed with the moon, each station of the year
star-shot across the benches: the goat-fish,
the water-drawer, the blue-mantled maid
distant in the vaulting, a pauper’s pack of fates;
old blood in the mouth tangs of rain and rust,
the sweetness of beeswax is summer drowned
like a mirage in a single candle, blackening out.
Tu verus mundi Lucifer. O Fortuna velut Luna.

Nest - Liz Clarke

Gold thread caught in tatters on a dust-barked
branch, dry needles and deadwood, a kindling
heap. The altar streaked darkly over marble
flourishing with prickle-holly and acanthus,
pomegranates paler than frost that round
into the chill-struck palm: hold onto death.
Brighter than such broken flesh and seeds
bleeds the dying Sun transfixed on the Thorns
in lime plaster and orpiment, breath-corroded,
shrike-pierced, a berry of flame among unturning
stars; the saints of winter with vine-black eyes,
wind-tousled Hazinthe, Tiennot whose wrists
are chained with laurel, shadowy Veive’s
arrow-lightnings, arching away into the dark.
The heron-headed torch-bearer, upending
a cup of light. All spills beneath the threshold
for the serpent-starved roots. Touch,
and mystery sifts down like leaves, like snow,
the flint-strike of prayer and the heart’s blood
flares like a hekatomb offering up the night—
Round and round, Sophia rings her wheel.

 

 

 

 

Thorntide: Ribbons for Mari
They wake early, hammering before dawn
on any door that opens to their clamor
with sword-hilts, drumsticks, fistsful
Songbirds - Liz Clarke of violets and red-dyed wool, as ragged
with greenery as the paving-stones
their boots pound over, splashing up
the last sallies of old winter’s rain.
Hoarse from studying until sunrise
or drinking, half-leaned out windows
with broadsheets and bottles of wine,
medical treatises and nib-spattered
auguries pitched like flowering may
into the wind that warms off the river,
the willows yellowing by the bridge—
assignments discarded in their branches
like handwritten wishes, like the ribbons
tossing out behind spring’s hounds
as they harry away whatever chill clings
in the air, nipping at the heels of death
sleepless and steadfast, hungover
and hallowed, all the same hieratic
camouflage beneath their masks of bark.
Saint Silvian with a garland of green
onions snaps a gilt-stitched pennant
into the pale mid-morning, proudly
striding though the Serpent slinks up
behind, its bleached horse’s skull
scissor-scraping its slaty jaws, champing
for the greenstick splinter of bones.
Crown, scepter, and wickerwork orb
are in the Emperor’s hands, last year’s
rushes so brittle a father’s grief
will shiver them like a stricken lance;
parchments and powders up the Magician’s
black sleeves, nothing the Fool brings
but palms turned to the sky, brimless cap
tilted back on his head, wheat-chaff
in his pockets, glinting on the breeze.
Whether a woman carries the spinning-top
or a slender man, white roses plait
over Sophia’s shoulders and she alone
will not speak, closed within the hum
of time, the sure axis of the fickle
world. The rainers and the walkers
throng them, the patterns they trace
from back streets to the tyche’s court
as sudden and certain as catkins
bursting, bantering rhymes to shake
the Sun from its winding-sheet of leaves.
Their faces flash up to its new-sprung
height, freed from the Thorns as the Tree
gentles toward summer: the days ascending,
stretching into heat. The soldier-saint
sprawled where the painted eyes of fortune
gaze out forever from the sea, the Magician
is rummaging through crib-notes, name-seals,
a hip flask, exasperatedly fishing for
a miracle—only one would stop them now.

 

Meridian: The Sun and the Tree
There is no rain on this day.
The sun is everywhere—
in the heat glazing on the water,
rippling from brick curbs
onto marmorino facades,
in the bridges scaled under
with the reflections the city
polishes in, soaking up sky,
the drench of honey-light
over the tyche balancing
the Sun spiked with Thorns
and the rose-rayed Moon
on her palms, the marble
weight of a man for each.
The sun makes incense
of the loosened hair of girls
who last night left basins
of water on unshuttered sills
for the dawn to draw on,
one lightstruck glimpse of love,
the boys who insinuated
oak-leaf sprays between the panes,
silver-backed invitations
of olive onto the doorstep,
already sweating beneath linen
and leather as though they leapt
across bonfires before noon,
spark-sanctified into the season.

 

 

The banners that glitter back,
silken, the city’s pride, the sun
sews up against white slates
and the bells sing gratias,
kyrie, anikete,
humming
like a hive in summer pasture,
one gold-combed note rounding
all the curve of the sky.
Past the fitful shoots and spurts
of burgeoning spring,
not yet the locust-days
when even the stars stick
in the parching swelter,
the Sun in all its splendor
beams above the flaunting Tree
in hymns and lovemaking,
the lazy midday of the year.
In the furrows, after dark,
the night will be no less praised.

And the moon sheds its petals again.

 

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Galatea by Vylar Kaftan

      Since I moved to the city, I’ve been dying piece by piece.  It’s not really the smog, or the crowds, or my tiny apartment above the Arabic bookstore, or any of the things that bother most people.  It’s the way people hurry around, their faces to the sidewalk, darting through the streets like ants swarming over a dead lizard.  City life is fractured into thousands of pieces–faceted like the view from insect eyes.  Maybe it makes sense to ants.  To a small-town girl like me, it’s overwhelming. 
      The problem is that I’ve been here long enough to start dying.  I lost two fingers last week.  They fell off while I was sleeping.  I found them next to my pillow in the morning, and put them in a shoebox with my big toe.  

      Riding home on the bus each night, I see other people who are dying.  Not all of them are losing body parts like I am.  There’s one guy, an old man who shaves badly–looks like a war vet or maybe an ex-cop.  He smells like mothballs.  He’s got a patch of dead gray skin on his cheek.  It looks like frostbite.  It’s spreading; yesterday it stretched across his broad nose.  There’s a girl about my age with blood dripping from her ears.  I try not to sit by her because she bleeds on the bus seats.  There’s a black drag queen who’s fading.  Last time I saw her, she was nearly transparent.  The streetlights flickered behind her as we rode together.  She caught my gaze and winked with a diamond-edged eyelid, then got off at the next stop.  I haven’t seen her since.  I think she’s gone.
      One Friday night, after I’d been working late typing up a deposition, I took a later bus than usual.  When I got on, the driver stared at me with empty sockets.  His eyes had rotted away.  But his hands and feet remembered the route, and they controlled the steering wheel and gas pedal.  I sat in the handicapped seats so I could watch him.  The bus crept through city traffic, so slowly it couldn’t hurt anyone.  Traffic signals turned green for us, and stayed that way for three minutes as we crossed the intersection.  It was on this bus–watching this driver–that I realized if I stayed in the city I’d lose myself completely.
      When I got home, I raced up the outside steps.  I caught my boot on the metal stairs as I fumbled my keys out.  Kicking the stairs, I pushed the key at the door.  The sound of a power drill caught my attention.  I glanced across the landing at the other apartment above the bookstore.  I hadn’t met my neighbor, but I’d seen the guy–tall, shaggy-haired, usually covered in paint.  An artist, for sure.  This city was full of them.
      As I set my purse on the kitchen counter, I heard a knock on the door.  I remembered my big-city training:  don’t open the door, not in the city.  You’re not in a small town now.  Through the peephole I saw the artist from next door.  He was standing on the porch we shared, his hand raised to knock again.  I opened the door. 
      He was taller than I’d realized–well over six feet.  His hair was curly and wild, sort of ginger-colored.  He wore a Free Tibet tie-dye shirt with a green streak across the front, like he’d wiped a hand there once.  He was picking at something on his hands.  “Hi,” he said.  “I’m your neighbor.” 
      “I know,” I said.  I extended my right hand.
      “I’m Trent.  I’d shake your hand, but I’ve got glue on mine.” 
      He was whole, with nothing dead that I could see on him.  I wondered how long he’d been here.  “Julie,” I said, tucking my left hand behind my back.  I didn’t want him to see the missing fingers.
      “Listen, I was wondering… could I borrow a cup of something?  One cup.”
      “Of…?” I figured I’d misheard him.  “Of what?  Sunshine?  Roaches?”
      “Oh, brown sugar, I guess.”
      I noticed his eyes were pale green and large, like a frog’s.  “Sure,” I said, turning toward the kitchen.  It was the kind of request that neighbors made all the time, where I was from.  Too late I realized I shouldn’t leave the door open behind me, in case he meant some sort of harm.  Too many years in a small town; all the ways of being in the city were foreign to me.  They were things I’d learned from brochures, travel guides, the Internet.  All the ways to keep the city off me, to stop it from hurting me.
      “Thanks.  You’re awesome,” he said.
      I pulled a plastic measuring cup off its ring and packed it with brown sugar.  He watched me carefully.  I saw his eyes shift toward my bad hand.  “Here you go,” I said, offering him the sugar.

      “Can I keep the cup?”
      I paused.  “My measuring cup?”
      “Yeah.  Can I have it?”
      “You gonna buy me a new one?”
      “No,” he said, “but I’ll tell you why your fingers fell off, and why half this city is dying.”
      I looked at him, outlined by my doorframe and the cement wall behind him.  “Okay,” I said.  “Keep it.”
      “Thanks,” he said, walking across the porch.
      I stepped outside.  “Wait, you said you were going to explain it.”
      “I will,” he said as he opened his door and stepped inside.  “Come over tomorrow morning and I’ll show you.”
      That night, I lost my hair.  It lay on my pillow in the morning, long and straight and pale, like dead grass.  I picked it up and tied a black ribbon around one end, then put it in the box with the other things I’d lost.  I looked at myself in the mirror, thinking I looked like a cancer patient.  I had to get out of the city.  I’d start packing tomorrow afternoon.

      First thing in the morning, I knocked on Trent’s door.  The cold night-time winds were still blowing, and it was only day because the sun was up.  An orange leaf fluttered past my face.  I pulled my jacket closer to me, feeling the wind on my bare head.
      Trent opened the door.  He was still wearing the same shirt, and I wondered if he’d slept in it or just stayed up all night.  His apartment smelled like patchouli.  His eyes flickered over my head, but he just said, “Julie.  Come on in.”
      I stepped through the doorway into a chaotic front room.  The walls were covered with peculiar painted items–large-nosed dolphins, giant paper carrots, portraits of impossibly-built people.  In the corner stood a plush green couch with fish-shaped pillows.  A nearby end table had five legs, each bent at a similar angle, skewing the table sideways.  There were no books, no TV, no stereo.  Nothing to show that time was spent here; only the result of time, which was artwork.
      He saw me looking around.  “Sorry,” he said, “This room doesn’t get cleaned much.  I stay in the bedroom mostly.  I wanted you to meet her.”
      “Who?”
      “I don’t think I can explain.  Just come see.”
      I followed him past the kitchen nook and the small half-bathroom into the bedroom.  The room was dark.  In the light from the hallway, I saw stacks of paint cans, power tools, tubes, and various junk items I couldn’t identify.  They were piled in the corners, making the place look like one of the crazy-old-cat-lady rooms–the places where they hoard Social Security stubs and empty Tupperwares until someone calls about the smell.  But this room smelled more like paint thinner than anything else, and I suspected Trent could find anything he needed without a moment’s thought.
      Trent pushed through the dark room.  “Hang on, I’ll get the light.  It’s on the wrong side of the room.  Cheaply built, you know.  Haven’t had a chance to rewire it.”
      My eyes were adjusting to the dark when the light came on, fluorescent and awkward.  I blinked a few times before I saw her.  She was shining in the light before me, a body built of metal and plastic and paint and wood, and assembled with love.  She was shaped like a woman, but composed of thousands of different pieces:  bus tokens, pencils, paper bags, everything I could think of.  For a moment I thought it was trash, but then I realized that every part of her was in good condition, and some things weren’t what people would have thrown away–like the hundred-dollar bill papier-mâchéd to her neck.  She had a remote control in one of her feet, and a well-polished antique table leg for a spine.  Part of her left breast was my measuring cup, the one I’d given him last night.  Her eyes were sparkling gemstones, one brown and one blue.  She was pieces of everything, and yet whole unto herself.
      She reclined on the bed, on a red quilt like an empress.  She was beautiful, and I found myself feeling more alive than I had since I came to the city.

      “Her name is Galatea,” he said, moving towards me.  “After Pygmalion’s sculpture.”
      “She’s incredible,” I whispered, reaching a hand forward.  I paused. “May I?”
      “Please,” he said.  “She’s meant for touching.”
      I touched her, only noticing after I’d done it that I’d used my damaged left hand.  I withdrew it carefully.  “Did you build her all by yourself?”  I envisioned her coming to life with a kiss, embracing her creator.  I glanced at Trent, imagining Galatea’s body wrapped around his, in a tangle of metal with tie-dye.
 Theory Into Practice - Liz Clarke     “That’s the thing,” he said, sitting down heavily on the bed.  “I didn’t build her.”
      I felt myself cooling off, like someone had dumped water on my head.  “Oh,” I said.  “So you bought her like this.  At an art show?”
      “No,” he said sharply, “I built her in that sense.  I added every nail, every drop of glue, every touch of paint–all by myself.  She’s all my artwork, every piece of her.”
      “Sorry,” I said, and meant it.  “I just thought–”
      “No, I assure you she’s my project.  I wanted to build a sculpture made of objects I had to persuade someone to give me.  All things from this city.”  Trent sighed and rubbed his temples.  “I mean I didn’t build her.  I think she built me.”
      I looked at him, his wild hair sticking up like a scrub-brush, and thought for a moment he’d gone insane.  A crazy artist, talking to his projects.  “How could she build you?”
      “Originally, I added everything I got from people.  I tried to be as outrageous as I could, seeing what people would give me.  There’s actually an expired security badge from the Pentagon buried inside her.  And a placenta–dried out, of course–and a 1900 penny that’s worth a lot of money, or it was until I glued it to a doll’s head and stuck it in her stomach.  But sometime after I’d built her torso and head… that was probably six months ago or so.  Sometime around then, she started rejecting parts.”
      “What?”
      “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” he said apologetically, and with those words and the way he said them, I felt embarrassed for having thought it.  “But yeah.  She rejected them.  I’d glue something down at night, and then in the morning when I came back, the piece wouldn’t be attached.  It was like I’d never stuck it down.  Sometimes I’d even find a piece on the floor, like it had been cast off or something.  It creeped me out.  I hooked up a webcam to try and watch it, but there was nothing.  The picture was blank no matter what I did with it.”
      I ran my hand over my bare scalp, marveling at the way I could feel the texture of my fingers.  “And she built you?”
      “She’s certainly trained me to bring her what she needs,” he said. 
      “What does this have to do with my lost fingers?”
      Trent stood up and walked to the window.  He looked out at the grayness and tapped his fingers on the glass.  A few leaves fluttered across the sky.  “It’s just a theory, now.  I don’t know more than you do.”
      I wove my fingers together and stared at the gap they created.  “Okay.  A theory’s more than I’ve got.”
      He turned and looked at me.  “I think this city is like that too.”
      “Like what?”
      “Building itself.  Making itself into what it wants to be.”
      I looked at him.  “The way Galatea builds herself?”
      “Yeah.  The city chooses what it wants to be here, and what it doesn’t.  If it accepts something, it cements it in so deeply that sometimes it gets lost there, like the 1900 penny.  If it rejects something–I had this girlfriend once–”  He didn’t finish the thought.
      I sat down on the bed next to Galatea.  “You think the city rejected me?”
      “Are you happy here?”
      I shook my head.  The pit of my stomach ached.  “Maybe you’re right.  It doesn’t matter–I’m leaving.  I decided that last night.  I’m leaving before I lose anything else.”
      He sighed.  “I’m not sure it’ll help.  I don’t know, but…”
      I stared at him.  I wanted to scream, but no one but Trent would hear.  The sun moved from behind a cloud and lit the room, incongruous with the despair I felt.  “So what can I do?”
      “I don’t know,” he said.  “I don’t know why it happens or what to do.  I just see it.”
      “I don’t want to leave.  I want to belong.  But I don’t know how.”
      “It’s not something to know,” he said.  “It’s just something you do.  Something you are.”
      “Maybe I can become someone else,” I said.  “That’s what I wanted to do when I got here.  I didn’t really want to come, but I’m a first-gen college grad.  My mom said I should come here.  She said I was too smart for the town I was in–I needed to be somewhere where I could help people, and do something with myself.”  I shook my head.  “It’s a lot of pressure.  Everyone’s counting on me to become someone.”
      “Maybe that’s why you’re dying,” he said gently.  “Because you wanted to be someone else.”
      I didn’t answer.  I was thinking of my hometown, where I wasn’t afraid.  Trent sat down next to me.  “Sometimes when I try to put something on Galatea, I just need to find the right spot.  Sometimes she rejects something just because I placed it wrong.  Maybe you need to find where you fit.”
      “Maybe,” I echoed.  I imagined myself as a piece of this city, a small bit of scrap to something so massive.  “I’m scared, Trent.”
      “Me too.  I’m frightened all the time by the things I see around me.”
      “What do you do?”
      “The same things I’d do if I weren’t.”

      That afternoon, I went for a walk to the tiny park I’d never visited before.  It was just one city block–with a low fence, a dozen trees, and a picnic bench.  There was a wire garbage can, where someone had tossed a stack of old magazines and a broken broom.  I threw my granola bar wrapper away, sat on the picnic bench, and tried to remember who I’d been before I came to this city.
      I was generous, I remembered–I always made time for friends and family.  I threw a surprise birthday party for my mom, just before I came here.  I spent hours making paper decorations, to save some money.  It had all been worth it, to hear my mom’s laughter when she saw all her friends together in the same place.  When was the last time I’d called my mom?  I couldn’t remember.  I’d done it regularly when I’d gotten here, but I’d fallen out of the habit.  I was trusting; I never locked a door, not until I moved here.  At home I liked to talk to the mail carrier and ask about what she’d seen lately.  But in the city I had to build these walls, to keep danger out.

Missiles - Liz Clarke      I glanced down at my feet, where the maples had dropped their helicopter seeds into a brown carpet.  I picked one up and threw it in the air.  It spun around and fluttered slowly to the ground.  I scooped up a handful and threw them, watching the wind take them into a pile of maple leaves someone had raked nearby.
      If the city was rejecting me, then either I had to find where I fit or just give up.  And I didn’t want to just give up.
      I stood up from the park bench and my right leg remained behind.  I glanced down at it curiously.  The leg remained bent at the knee, as if my body were still attached.  It could have been a sculpture there, a stray leg piece someone had left as design.  There was no blood, just a cauterized stump at my hip.  I looked at the stump, feeling a phantom sensation of having a leg there.  I shivered and felt my armpits sweating.  Fear rushed through me, like blood in my veins, pushing toward the limb that it could no longer reach.  I saw myself scattered across this city, with no core left to me at all.  I had to make the city accept me–to believe that I belonged here.
      I fished the broken broom out of the garbage to use as a crutch.  My granola bar wrapper fluttered to the ground and into the pile of maple leaves.  I called a cab to take me home, and then I knocked on Trent’s door.

      I didn’t see him at first.  I looked over the balcony’s edge and saw him standing in front of the bookstore, talking to the owner.  I’d never spoken to the man–he was very tall, and always felt threatening to me.  The man handed Trent a brown headscarf and said something in Arabic.  Trent smiled and repeated the words back to him, slowly and poorly accented.  The owner laughed.  I watched them clasp hands, then embrace briefly, their left hands on each other’s shoulders.  The owner went back inside.  Trent glanced toward his door and saw me, leaning on my crutch, and his face went sober. 
      He came upstairs, helped me inside, and poured me a glass of Coke.  I sat on the green couch and studied the fish pillow.  He’d painted it to look like a rainbow trout.
      “How much time do I have, Trent?  How long do I have to stop this?”
      He held the glass out to me.  The ice crackled in the carbonation.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “You’re being rejected so quickly.”
      I took the Coke, drank some, and set the glass on the end table.  A thought occurred to me.  “When will I lose consciousness?  Can my head fall off?  Or is it when my torso falls off?  I don’t know which one falls off from the other.” 
      “I don’t know either.”
      I laughed, because it was less painful than thinking about what was happening.  “Maybe I can do something to appease the city, like a sacrifice to an angry god or something.  I saw people kill pigs when I was growing up.  I could manage, if someone held the pig down.”
      “My girlfriend tried planting flowers along Main Street,” Trent said as he sat down next to me.  “To make the city look nicer.  Before she–well.”
      The thought was like an ice cube pressing on my heart.  “I guess that’s not enough, then.”
      “I don’t know.  I don’t know at all, Julie.  I’m so sorry.”
      I reached for the Coke and grasped the glass in my hand.  “There’s got to be something I can do.  I’m not going to give up.  I have too many people counting on me, even if none of them are here right now.”  I took a deep breath.  “I wish I’d gotten to know you more in the last few months.  I was kind of hiding in my apartment.”
      “A lot of people do that when they’re new in a city,” said Trent.  “They’re scared.  Afraid to make connections and set down roots, when they’re not sure they’re staying.”  He paused and looked at me.  “Do you feel scared now?”
      “Not really,” I said.  “Well, yeah.  A bit.  I’m scared of dying.  Who isn’t?”
      “Galatea,” he said.
      Neither of us said anything for a minute.  I tried to bring the Coke to my lips again, but I realized my arm wasn’t responding.  I glanced to my left.  My hand held the glass.  My arm rested on the side of the couch, separated from my shoulder.
      My toes curled up inside my boot, and I gritted my teeth.  I looked at Trent.  His eyes were wet as he took my hand.  The pressure of his grip was comforting.  “Julie,” he said, his voice wavering.
      “I want to fight this thing.  I want to make the city understand that I belong here.  I may be from a small town, but that doesn’t mean the city gets to kill me.  I’m not going to let it, Trent.  I won’t.”

      Even if I wanted to fight, I couldn’t move on my own anymore–not very easily.  It’s hard to fight something you can’t see, especially when it strips away your body.  All that’s left is your mind, and you have to hope that’s enough.
      Trent carried me back to the bedroom and lay me down next to Galatea.  “I’m sorry, Julie,” he said as he wrapped the brown scarf on Galatea’s head.  “I wish I could do more.”
      “You’re doing a lot,” I said.  “Just being here.”  It was true; this was the most human contact I’d had in months.
      He paused at the door.  “Do you need anything more?”
      “Got any glue strong enough to fix me?”
      He smiled a bit.  “I wish.  Anything I can do to help you?”
      “I don’t think so.”
      “Do you want me to stay?”
      I thought about it, but said, “No.  I’d rather have some space, but thanks.  This is my fight.  I’ve got to do it on my own.  But… it helps, knowing you’re nearby.  It helps a lot.”
      I felt like Trent understood what I meant, even if I couldn’t say it.  I would have known him in my hometown–would have known everything about him, and all his secrets.  I was surprised to realize that here I hadn’t even tried.  Trent nodded.  “I haven’t slept all night.  I was napping on the couch when you knocked earlier.  I think I’ll nap again.”
      “Okay.”
      “I’m a light sleeper.  Call if you need something?”
      “Yeah.”
      He stepped into the living room.  After a moment, I heard him snoring.  Restlessly, I looked at Galatea.  She was tilted slightly towards me, her eyes glinting in the gray light from the window.  I watched her for what seemed like hours, although it was probably only minutes.
      I tried imagination; I visualized the city accepting me as part of itself.  I tried reason, by listing all of my best qualities I could give the city if it’d let me.
      How do you fight something you can’t touch?
      I felt my body changing; my ears fell off, which stopped the sound of snoring.  My right arm separated at some point, and lay solemnly next to me on the bed, like a spray of flowers at a funeral.  I was afraid, but I fought it down. 
      “Galatea,” I whispered, “Where do I go when this is done?”
      She didn’t answer.  Or if she did, I couldn’t hear her.  She lay silently next me, a collection of pieces that had become her own.  The light through the window shifted from afternoon to evening, then into twilight.  Trent hadn’t returned.  I felt cold, but couldn’t shiver.  I was falling into pieces, into isolated fragments, just like the city itself.
      Just like the city.  I wondered if I could convince the city I loved it.  I tried to view my childhood in fragments, like an outsider would see it.  A certain crack in the sidewalk, a silent layer of snow on the trees, the way the town’s only traffic light became colored stripes when you squinted at it.  These were all things I could find in the city too.  Why were they connected at home, but fragmented here?
      Maybe my job was the problem.  I could find a different job, something where I felt like I was helping people.  Something where I could talk to people.  I went to school to be a paralegal; maybe I could volunteer somewhere in the evenings.  Maybe I could do something for the war vets who were suffering, or the drag queens, or someone else.  Can you hear me? I asked the city.  Do you see that I’m trying?
      I couldn’t tell if the city understood me.  Galatea watched me with a steady gaze.  She was eclectic and strange, yet familiar.  I wondered who’d given Trent the yo-yo for her shoulder, the eraser for her nipple.  The last light passed through the room, shining across Galatea’s figure.  I blinked, and my eyes fell out.
      “I can’t see,” I whispered in the darkness, and then shouted.  “I can’t see!”
      In a moment I felt Trent’s hands stroking my cheeks.  His fingers were calloused, and rough with dried glue.  Without my eyes and ears, all I could do was feel; the heat of Trent’s fingers warmed my skin.  He smelled like oil paints and iron tools.  I wanted to touch him, to hold onto the only connection I had, but my hands were gone.  I extended my tongue, letting it slide against the knots of his knuckles, tasting the chemicals of creation on his skin.
      The taste changes me.  I can only feel each finger where it touches me, but I know those fingers connect to a hand, which is part of Trent.  The fragments of my life touch those of the people around me–if I let them, if I open up to them.  Trent was right.  There’s nothing to fight.
      I open my faceted eyes–one brown, one blue.  I feel the 1900 penny inside me, pressed against a doll’s head.  I am the drag queen, the war vet, the girl who bleeds from her ears.  I embrace them as I embrace myself, my creator, my creation.  I stretch from the bed, reaching for Trent as I reach for anyone who dreams, anyone who has hopes in this city.  I press my whole body against him, feeling him for the first time.  He welcomes me with warmth against the measuring cup of my breast.  I have never been alone.
      “Do you see now?” asks Galatea, the city, my companion in this body.
      Yes.  I do. 

 

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