Church Burning

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It got to the point where the town decided they’d just have to burn it down.  There didn’t seem to be any other way to it, though this realization came after many hours of discussion and sometimes heated argument.  The church-elder meeting that Wednesday evening ended with the menfolk agreeing with the Methodist preacher at last; the Baptist church down by the eastern outskirts (which had up until recently been a gathering place for sings and barbecues and kickball games) had become tainted with the Wormwood, and no amount of prayer or inaction would cleanse it.  To the Methodists this was no great loss; they bore no ill will towards the Baptists, naturally, but by this sign it became clear to all concerned which establishment was blessed by God, and which was not.  The Baptists refuted this, and their pastor had indeed given a powerful sermon on how the Wormwood was a test, not a punishment, but the Methodists and their fair-weather allies the Pentecostals were rightly afraid, and whatever the cause or reason for the tainting, all agreed that something must be done lest it spread and perhaps breed more hideous things to crawl under and about other houses and barns.  The Baptists had argued for clemency, continued prayers and blessings, and there were whispers in the back of the room about sending for an Exterminator, but this was struck down as soon as it was offered.  The people of Malone were proud if they were anything, and even the Baptists agreed that this was an internal affair, and of no concern to Dothan city-folk or any of their ilk. With options failing superstition and rumor ruled the meeting, for there were only two certainties: one, the Baptist church had Wormwood growing, and two, the taint came from the east, from whence all unnatural things come.  By raised hands and solemn nods even the Baptists agreed, some with tears streaming down their faces, to gather together and burn their former house of worship to the ground.

Counting only willing and able-bodied men, the town of Malone contained fifty-eight firebugs that evening.  With the rest stowed safely away in the sanctum sanctorum of the Methodist Church, the Methodist men as well as the Baptists and the Pentecostals joined together at the Volunteer Fire Department to plan the method of attack.  They ranged in age from sixteen to seventy-one.  A precious few had shotguns or pistols, the rest were armed with farming implements such as pitchforks and machetes.  Some had torches made of “fat-lightern,” but these remained unlit, and appeared as huge, knotted clubs in the dark.  One boy had a slingshot which he fingered nervously, sliding a stone into its leather cradle, taking aim, and then bringing it down again only to repeat the process.  There were dogs too, mutts mostly, and there were some that could be recognized by a nearsighted judge as some large working breed or other.  The clamor of dogs and men would have been deafening had the occasion been to fire steaks and shuck oysters, and there would have been wives and babies crawling all over, playing games and laughing and such, but the womenfolk were crowded in Methodist pews, clutching their babies and praying hard. Even the dogs seemed to know the severity of the situation, so they laid their ears back and were silent. Just as their masters were silent.

The preachers talked together briefly, in whispers, and it was decided that they would wait for dawn to start the burning.  Rumor told that only a fool would hunt the creatures of the Wormwood at night, and for once the messenger had spoken true.  The men huddled together and didn’t sleep, nor did they talk to each other; instead spending the five hours between midnight and dawn in prayer, clutching to the iron of their guns, and moving their lips to the Apostle’s Creed or to the Lord’s Prayer, those staples of poor and frightened men called upon to do bloody but necessary work.  The dogs were turned out of doors to range as they would.  Dogs could be counted on to smell evil and report it. And the men were confident enough in their dogs to know that each of them would die before allowing the Wormwood into the town proper, and none would be quiet about it. Thus Malone kept watch, waiting and listening, and only the smallest of the children slept at all.

Dawn broke with pink and orange and no sign of Jesus, just as it had for countless days before.  Gabriel had held off blowing his trumpet for another day, and so the men rose of one accord and prepared themselves.  The firehouse, situated in the center of town between the general store and the Pentecostal church, was a good quarter of a mile away from the Baptist Church, and was the last building passed if a traveler was moving east towards Mount Olive, but the first encountered if coming from the other way out of the Wormwood.  Mount Olive, as far as any of them knew, was still a grouping of a dozen or so houses and farms exclusively for colored and Freewill Baptist, whom had lived in quiet harmony with the people of Malone for time immemorial.  However, that information was almost two weeks old, having been conveyed by a peddler of some repute for whom Mount Olive was the last stop on a route that extended back far to the west.  He had come through town speaking only of having done decent business with the coloreds and told no other news.  It was thought that with the way things had progressed the peddler would be turning around in Malone the next time, for no wagons had come from Mount Olive since, and it was on the following Sabbath that the taint was discovered at the Baptist Church.  The fate of Mount Olive was clucked about, but only briefly, for the taint was a more pressing concern now that it had spread even into Malone itself.

The preachers led the way each with an open Bible in one hand held out in front, like a salute or a warding, and a jug of precious kerosene in the other.  The Methodist minister began quoting the Twenty-Third Psalm and his two companions picked up the cadence, each in the powerful, sonorous voices that had made them so impressive in the pulpit.  The men clustered behind them not in military formation, but in a sort of ordered disarray. They walked in scattered groups of two or three, fathers with sons, neighbors with neighbors, and yet all remained in step, either consciously or unconsciously, mimicking exactly the determined strides of their leaders.  The dogs formed a sort of half-circle around the men and faced straight ahead forsaking the horseplay and barking of any other less important day.  When the Psalm ended it started again among the preachers, and then someone in the back started singing an old hymn with a strange-sounding but appropriate name.  The Psalm mingled with the strains of “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” and those men who had torches lit them.

The main street of Malone was dirt mostly, though it had been paved at one time in its history, and time had reduced the asphalt to large rocky patches irregularly spaced and forever pushed together by grass and clay.  West of Malone the road still carried some of the dignity of its former life. It was still called Highway 2, an ancient name less important-sounding than perhaps it should have been.  But Malone was almost as far east as anyone dared to go and Dothan felt further upkeep to be wasteful of precious funds so the Malonians had made do with what they had and spread clay everywhere to even things out.  On this day, however, even the road itself had a sort of prideful bearing because an army was marching down it.  With red dust swirling in their wake and hymn and Psalm projecting in front the villagers did seem more like an avenging army than a mob. They had a purpose, a cause, and their cause was righteous.  They could see the First Baptist Church of Malone not long after they began, a yellow-brick, squat building with a wooden roof and a decently tall steeple, white, topped by a cross.  There used to be two pecan trees between the army and its destination–tall ancient trees that had once spread out over the roof of the church and, when green, almost completely obscured it from view.  They were gone, or at least transformed, for one had lost all its leaves and was black and oozing from the highest branch to the lowest root.  The other was much worse for the wear. Somehow it had been sheared off at a point about as high as a man and its great forty-foot bulk had crashed into the road, leafless and ashen.  The men said nothing about these portents. They did not whisper about what could have killed two huge trees, broken off one, and blighted the grass in a great circle with the church at its center.  They all knew what had done it, and it wasn’t anything natural or cleansing like fire.  It was the taint of Wormwood which no green thing could survive for long.

The men did not break stride, did not falter, until the preachers themselves stopped at the edge of the blighted grass.  Psalm and hymn ceased. The Methodist preacher, as the leader, turned his back to the church and faced his men.  The other two preachers kept their eyes and Bibles focused on the church from which a phosphorescent glow emanated and a sound like a hundred rattlesnakes struck up.

“Let us pray,” intoned the Methodist preacher, his voice carrying over the rattlesnake-sound.  For the first time ever, no one bowed their heads or closed their eyes, instead staring straight ahead at the church, casting their prayers against it.

“Lord God in heaven, we are gathered here in Your name, to raise our hands–”

One of the blue stained-glass windows blew out with a crash, the rattling increased, and something that looked a lot like a gigantic octopus tentacle shot out and wrapped itself around the trunk of the still-upright pecan tree.  The Methodist men and Baptists prayed silently, eyes open, while the Pentecostals prayed aloud, joining their voices with that of the preacher, as is their custom.

“–against Satan and his evil seed, the Wormwood.  Dear Lord, we ask for Your protection, and if it be Your will for us to prevail today, we ask for Your strength, in this our hour of need–”

The main church doors were facing the street, and they exploded outward, clattering across the road.  Another huge tentacle, mottled gray with suction cups spaced irregularly around it, followed one of the doors and picked it up.  It then reared high in the air like the neck of a dinosaur and flung the door towards the preachers.  No one so much as flinched as it fell harmlessly short, the prayers continued even over the rattling.

“For it is written that You will never leave us, or forsake us.  Lord Jesus, march before us today, give us Your holy blessing, so that we might be victorious!  In Jesus’ holy name we pray–”

Amen!” yelled the throng together, so that it sounded more like a battle cry than the ending of a prayer.  Then, with undaunted purpose, the preachers stepped into the blighted grass-circle, and the men spread out around it.  Those with shotguns and rifles took aim and at a shouted command shot at the tentacle of their choice.  The standing tree collapsed as the tentacle retreated while the rattling intensified until it was a hissing whine.

“Prepare, foul demons, for the wrath of God!” shouted the Pentecostal minister, striding towards the church, lighting the rag stuffed in the mouth of his jug. A third tentacle shot out through the shingles, and then a fourth, but the Pentecostal’s aim was true, his jug shattered on the roof.  As the kerosene blazed up the middle window collapsed in on itself and a flood of jet-black things scurried out.  Whether they were mostly beetle, spider, or hyena is up to dispute. They were huge, awful conglomerations of legs and teeth and hair, the size of dogs with hard carapaces and clicking, slathering mouthparts.  They moved like cockroaches, streaming away from the fire and towards the circle of men.

The dogs intercepted as best they could spurred on by that fierce loyalty to master and home that only dogs know, but the resulting battle was like a naked man fighting a lawnmower.  Half of a large brown retriever-mix hit the Baptist minister in the knee as he was in the process of lighting his kerosene.  He fell sprawling and in a trice the beetle-things were on him, half a dozen of them clicking and slashing.  The feast would have lasted longer, but the jug of kerosene ignited and flamed the lot.  The beetle-things did not burn like normal creatures; something in their foul nature caused them to be more flammable then perhaps the kerosene itself.  As the men with torches charged in the remains of the Baptist minister burned brightly with six or seven hollowed out and crispy exoskeletons burning with him.

This event proved, in less than a second, yet another storybook rumor about the vile things of Wormwood–that fire is the cleanser of God among them.  The torches were as useful as the shotguns against the beetle-things, merely a touch and a dodge was enough to dispatch them.  Some of the men were too slow to dodge and they paid dearly for it. For the rest it was a turkey-shoot since a sharp-eyed farmer with buckshot is more than a match for anything under the sun.  Some of the things were blown into unrecognizable bits of shell and ichor, others burned as quickly as a gasoline-soaked cotton ball.  Soon the dogs and men presided over a burning field of thing-corpses, and, though the men and dogs who lost their lives lost them in gruesome ways, thankfully there were not many dead.  The men advanced on the church with renewed vigor like soldiers who had breached a barricade.  The Methodist preacher lit his jug and threw it, with the blessing of God it seemed, for the jug disappeared into the window from whence came the black things.  It exploded soon after, shaking the foundations.  The rattling became a squeal, and the tentacles spasmed briefly and stopped.

The men with axes and shovels attacked the dying tentacles, chopping and hacking; it wasn’t long before the tentacles caught fire as well and were consumed.  Then there was nothing left to do but watch the church burn.

Mr. Big Stuff

The crackling fire filled the silence among the group of strangers. Shadows danced around the surrounding forest, smoky embers rising into the cloudy night sky.

“This should do for now,” said a tall, strong-jawed man. He dropped a few twigs onto the fire and then settled down, pulling his long coat tighter. He cast a glance at a couple beside him, who smiled back. They had seemed to be the most useful so far, knowing how to start the fire and keep it from burning through the forest.

The rest of the group remained silent. Little had been said for some time.

It had been a few hours since their bus had crashed on the highway, swerving to avoid a deer. Although no one had seen the deer except for the driver, who had died sometime later. The only casualty. Now all that remained were the nine strangers. The bus was a turned-over wreck, and no cars appeared on the dark highway, so all that remained was finding shelter and keeping warm. They just had to survive the night, then find a way back to civilisation.

“Does anyone have any stories?” said a young girl huddled beside her boyfriend. Her wide eyes sparkled in the fire light.

A rotund man with a goatee shook his head, smiling. “What a good idea. It’ll help pass the time.” He looked around the fire-lit group. “Anyone have anything?”

Another man shook his head. “You don’t wanna hear my stories, man.”

The strangers looked between each other; some looked away.

“I have a story.” This came from an old, white-haired man who had yet to speak since the crash. “One of magic, immortality, and eternal tragedy.”

“What, like a fairy tale?” someone said.

The old man shook his head, his frown creasing his wrinkled features. “Not a fairy tale. This is the story of a man named Mr. Big Stuff.”

***

Snow fell over the small mountain town. White roofs were highlighted by the wavering lights coming from hundreds of little windows. The wind howled upon the cliff top, but I was numb to the bitter chill that night.

I stood there now, like I had stood many times before, overlooking the snowy town, my boots on the edge of the cliff. A moment that had once brought a serene bliss had now become a hollow, bitter resentment.

I have gone by many names in my hundreds of years, chained to this world as an immortal being. While my birth name has long been forgotten – if I was even born – the name that has stuck with me the longest is Mr. Big Stuff. A strange moniker, for sure, but one that came from a special person, so long ago.

The origins of immortals like me, of which there are few, have become lost throughout time. Some stories have been told of us, however, from the few that have seen more than our quiet human costumes. Those who have witnessed a bloodied battle, magical spells, or our heightened agility, have re-written us as fantastical beings. Some call us Vampires, although I have never sucked blood or turned into a bat.

My sigh blew a puff of smoke into the wintery air. I brought out a vial, its luminous blue liquid a beacon of light in the darkness. The light illuminated the specks of blood on my hands.

This is what I have struggled for, I tell myself. Everything has led to this potion. Drinking this will make me mortal. Make me killable. I cast another look down over the cliff, at the darkness below.

I could finally end it all, so easily. Return to the darkness that had likely spawned me.

What good is this life I have been given, if I can never truly live it? Despite the love I’ve known, the love I’ve given, it all ends the same way – me alone. But this vial can change that.

I look over my blood-stained hands, and the specks sprayed over my dark coat. So much death, so much hatred.

The horrified faces of my foes still flash through my mind. Ripping through their flesh, tearing limbs, I was a whirlwind of blood and death. Seven beings, once-immortal, were now a pile of mutilated flesh.

At least I know that this potion actually works.

The liquid was synthesised from a fabled crystal, known as a God Killer. A crystal that, when eaten, could turn an immortal into a mortal who would age and die. It had been a decades-long task of mine to find and bring the crystal to those men.

They had been so happy when I finally brought the crystal to them, not knowing that I’d synthesised a part of it into a liquid – which I had dropped into their wine.

I admit to taking pleasure in their shocked faces when they realised something was wrong. There was also pleasure when I attacked them, and they discovered they were mortal. Sprayed blood was highlighted by the flashes of sorcery thrown about. Decades of resentment and hatred unleashed on them.

I had to do it, I tell myself. Their hold on me was too strong, and I had caused so much destruction for them. But now I was free.

Not that it mattered anymore. My love had passed away, just a month ago.

“No more pain,” she had said to me. Her frail form was nestled in bed, her light slowly fading. “No more pain for me. And, promise me, my love, no more pain for you.”

I gripped her hand, feeling the loose skin of her wrinkled fingers. Six decades together had not been enough.

“Peace, Lucas,” she said quietly. “Let my death bring us both peace.”

Melina was the strongest, most special person I had ever known. Far greater than this world deserved. I had told her everything about me, and she accepted it all. When we vowed to spend our lives together, it meant turning our backs on civilisation. We moved to an old castle of mine in the Carpathian Mountains, only visiting the nearby towns and cities on occasion. No one could really know us, and see that I was not aging.

“Please, do not return to those men,” she said, pausing to cough and grimace.

“I promise,” I whispered. “Once you pass, there is nothing more for me.”

Melina smiled weakly. “Never use it, for any purpose. Please. It can do no good.”

We both knew that she spoke of the crystal, the God Killer, and of those evil men I was bound to.

“It will remain with me, I promise. There is no more vengeance left in me.” Even back when I said those words, I knew I was lying.

Melina turned away slightly, her eyes slowly closing. “I will tell the angels of Mr. Big Stuff. And they will tell me they have heard of you.”

I held her hand tighter, sorrow tightening my throat. Despite her aging, her mortal shell withering over the years, she remained the same person I loved. It was a remarkable thing.

“I will see you some day, my love,” I said, fighting back the tears.

Her expression softened, a small smile remaining. Then she became still.

The tears finally fell, and I remember strangely regretting not crying earlier, so that she could see my tears. But she would remember me being strong, and that was a good thing.

We had both come a long way since we first met, which had been strange circumstances indeed.

It was during a battle with a great enemy of mine. My foe and I were bounding through the city streets in an uncommon public display of our powers. Our darting forms must have been dark blurs in the night, although no one could miss our magical bursts.

A car was thrown into the air, hurtling towards a woman in the street below. I dove off a building, streaming down to catch the car just before it crushed her. Despite the moment – my physical exhaustion and the on-going battle – my breath was taken by Melina’s bright green eyes. Oddly, I remember smiling at her.

The heat from an oncoming blast of sorcery brought my urgency back, and I spun and caught the energy with the car, which melted in my hands.

My enemy landed in front of me, her hands blazing with the purple fire of Fie magic. She extinguished the flames and stepped forwards. Behind me, the shocked woman ran for cover.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I told the sorceress, Alryan.

A heavy cloak flowed behind her, revealing the tight combat clothing beneath. A streetlight showed her long face, firmly set, her dark eyes shining. Her shoulder-length hair fluttered in the wind – much shorter than the long, sleek look she had when I last saw her. She raised her gauntleted hands and shook her head.

“Look around us, Mister,” she said, her voice breathy from the fight. “It’s too late for it to be any other way. It was always going to come down to this.”

I sighed and shook my head. “I never wanted it to, Alryan,” I said, frowning. “Not like this.”

My shirt was ripped and mostly hanging off me, smudges of dirt over my arms and trousers. Her left shoulder was bloodied. How did it all come to this?

I darted into the air, pushing off a window sill and landing onto a rooftop. At this time of night the streets were mostly empty, although I knew that several people were watching us and I wanted to take the fight away from them.

While Alryan wasn’t an immortal, she possessed superior magical abilities to me. But she was still mortal. While she was planning on overpowering me, likely intending to chain me up or keep me somewhere far away for eternity, I knew what I had to do.

The fight took us across the rooftops to a nearby riverside. I managed to barge into her, gripping her tight as we fell through the air and crashed into the water.

She struggled to throw surge after surge of sorcery, but we plunged further into the dark depths. Although breathing under water was not a problem for me, she only had minutes left. Her expression grew pained, her eyes widening, but I held on to her and dragged us down further.

I would never forget her face at that moment. Somewhat pleading, shocked, and something sorrowful. I’d like to think it was regret, a plea to start over. But it was too late. Alryan was taken from me. I had taken her from this world.

I know there was no other way.

But it wasn’t always like that, between her and me. We were lovers for many years, drawn together under the strain of tragedy. We were the best of friends before she changed. No, that wasn’t true. Maybe I changed. Maybe we just grew apart, because it wasn’t the same for a long while.

When she found out a dark truth of mine she erupted with fury. Sorcery entered our arguing and she attacked me then. Her anger brought the building down around us, and while I escaped, she was crushed under the rubble. Or so I had presumed for many years, until she returned, far more powerful, and tried to kill me.

I have never known anyone to possess as much passion and perseverance as Alryan Aldobrasse. She was a descendant of an ancient race of witches, and one of my greatest loves.

Before we became enemies – before we became lovers – we were students under the same mentor.

We trained and studied in a monastery in the mountains, under the mentorship of Yenophis Creel. As a young woman, she witnessed the murder of Yenophis. That face she made when I drowned her was similar to her horrified expression as Yen was killed, torn apart by a figure wreathed in shadow. I could never forget either of those expressions.

It was clear why Yen had been killed, for he possessed the only remaining God Killer crystal in the world. The only one that was known of, anyway. The dark creature took the crystal as it departed, never to be seen again.

Yen was the closest to a father figure I had ever known. I trained under him for many years, discovering the ancient art of Fie sorcery and gaining mental and spiritual strength. He was the wisest, most sincere man I have ever known. While Yen was an immortal like me, he was of a kind that could be killed by conventional means. That he had lived for over four hundred years was a testament to his abilities and strength, and it took a very dark creature to take him down.

Alryan became a student of Yen’s at nine years old; an orphan who had somehow stumbled upon the monastery in her wanderings. Yen saw this as fate, and agreed to bring her under his tutelage.

It was strange at first, me a grown man, learning alongside a young girl, but Alryan and I eventually became friends. I watched her blossom into a young woman, strong willed and fierce. We shared many great times together, visiting the mountain villages, sailing off the coast. Yen and I both marvelled at her feats in conjuring magic. It would be later that we’d learn of Alryan’s magical heritage.

One night, she and I stumbled upon a hidden room within the monastery. We were in awe of a small chest hidden in the ground. It was there we found the God Killer crystal. Yen appeared, full of bluster and anger, but he explained the crystal’s power to us. When swallowed, it could turn an immortal into a mortal, who would grow old and be killable. The crystals once belonged to his people, he told us, and this was the last that remained. I later wondered if his people’s prolonged exposure to the crystal was what had caused them to become killable immortals. Perhaps they were like me, once. But no one had those kinds of answers, as far as I knew.

I was a far different man when I first entered that monastery. Homeless, aimless – a wreck. I had heard of Yen and his teachings and was greatly relieved when he agreed to help me.

My time in that monastery contained some of the most pleasant and enlightening experiences of my life.

That all ended the night Yen was killed. Alryan ran away, and I was left all alone.

Alone, like I should be. Like I deserve to be.

I never wanted my life to go in the direction it did. I have owned many lands and properties, seen the world shift and communities grow and dissolve. I have possessed a great wealth, as well as lived without a penny to my name.

It seemed that those evil men knew just the moment to find me. How they knew of me, I couldn’t say. But there I was, a bum in the streets, having given up on life. I was ashamed at how weak I was, but could see no other way to go. A depression had taken hold of me. Several lifetimes of experiences and memories weighed me down.

They came to me as businessmen in suits, but I knew immediately they were more than that. When they took me in, they revealed they were immortals also. They had existed for almost as long as time, or so they claimed.

They offered me a deal. Do one thing for them, and eternal wealth and happiness would be mine. I was a fool to believe them, but I had no other choice as far as I could see. All I had to do was kill a man, and return a crystal to them.

Before I made the vow, I had to promise my soul to them. Until I returned the crystal, I would be bound to them. Once they found me, they could take away all that I loved, and all that I have ever loved before. They would burn my entire history if I went back on my word. I believed they could do everything they said.

Kill a man. Give them a crystal. It seemed simple.

I could never imagine that this man would become a father figure to me; a mentor I would love and respect above all others. While I tried to go back on the deal, once I had inserted myself into Yen’s life and seen what a great man he was, I found that there was no going back. Those men would take Alryan away from me, and take all that I have ever known and cared for. I had to do what I did. I was just glad that she didn’t know that dark figure was me.

Well, she didn’t know until many years later. But even our love couldn’t stop us from becoming enemies.

This was all so long ago, however. As I stood there now, on that cliff top, I had a choice to make. It seemed simpler now that I’d had time to reflect.

True happiness came from being with loved ones. To truly love and be loved. That meant sharing your life with someone. Someone who you can trust without question.

I removed the stopper from the vial and swallowed the blue liquid. The remainder of the crystal I kept with me, just in case I’d need later.

My body warmed and tingled almost immediately. The synthesised God Killer worked its way through me, turning me into a mortal. I was overwhelmingly tired, as if a great weight had come over me, and at the same time I felt lighter. Cleaner.

I looked over the snowy mountain town, knowing that somewhere out there was the monastery I once trained in. I had come to this cliff edge with Alryan many times, and had even brought Melina here a couple of times.

I studied the darkness below me. That was the last time I would look into that darkness, I told myself.

I turned from the cliff edge and began the rest of my life. Perhaps to love again.

***

“Whoa, that’s some story,” said the young girl who had requested a story.

“It’s nice alright,” said a man around the campfire. “But I call bullshit. Ain’t no one like this Mr. Big Stuff ever been around.”

The old man smiled, though his eyes were sorrowful.

“Hold on,” said the large man with the goatee. “Just how do you know all that?”

A gasp came from the group. They all stared in awe at the old man.

“You’re him,” the young girl said quietly.

The old man just smiled.

Successive approximations to the ideal force prescription

“Cop cams are inextricably tied to Taser, by far the dominant supplier, and the company will likely shape whatever the devices evolve into… Founded at one national moment of police angst, the company is using another such moment to transform from a manufacturer into a technology company. From a business perspective, body cameras are low-margin hunks of plastic designed to get police departments using the real moneymaker: Evidence.com, which provides the software and cloud services for managing all the footage the devices generate…”

 

—Karen Weise, “Will a Camera on Every Cop Make Everyone Safer? Taser Thinks So,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, July 12, 2016

 

Variation I: The endocrine safety

The widespread adoption of body cameras was followed by a wave of high-profile indictments for police misconduct, generally considered a mark of their success—a success qualified, of course, by the only somewhat smaller wave of high-profile exonerations following the indictments. From that success and that qualification came the endocrine safety. This was a trigger lock yoked to an optical sensor monitoring the pituitary gland, which would allow the gun to fire only when the officer’s brain released adrenaline and cortisol in volumes indicating a genuine sense of danger to the self or others.

Venture capital drove the technology to the public eye; opinion-makers and legislators of the technocratic Left kept it there; and initial skepticism crumbled as lab and field evidence showed conclusively that the endocrine safety was, in fact, exquisitely sensitive to an officer’s perception of threat. Body cameras could be used to create like-for-like control simulations: After an officer had successfully fired a “pit-locked” weapon, she could be taken back through the same experience, from the body-camera footage, and directed to shoot in the simulation where she had shot in life. With the same sensory stimulus, but the absence of danger, the safety engaged every time.

There followed a string of satisfying prosecutions, a spate of drops in police violence correlated with regional adoption of the technology. “Neuroscience,” wrote the editors of Nature Neuroscience, “now promises to inform something like an ideal force prescription: If not a clear, then at least a less blurred delineation of the circumstances that justify violence.”

The endocrine safety could exculpate as well as implicate, of course. An officer able to fire a pit-locked weapon was, almost definitionally, acting in self-defense—even when hindsight would reveal that there was nothing to defend against. The issue came to a head as a Trenton grand jury declined to indict Troopers Michael Leblanc and Francisco Barraja, who together sent five dozen bullets from pit-locked sidearms through the flesh of Zora Farrow. Ms. Farrow had been stopped on the street, searched for drugs, and handcuffed, kneeling, to a bike rack while the officers called the stop in from their cruiser; an epileptic, she had begun seizing, and the officers had opened fire. Restrained and known to be unarmed, a dozen feet away, she had apparently kindled a terror in those two men that the endocrine safety and an army of expert witnesses pronounced utter and mortal.

Device error was investigated—prayed for—and ruled out. All evidence indicated that Leblanc and Barraja’s fear had been real.

 

Variation II: The aperture safety

The promise of what was then called “big data” enchanted weaponsmiths as much as it had everyone else. Local wealth and crime rates, the time of day and year, the trails of text and tissue and found light that everybody in a surveillance state left in its wake like footprints in new snow: How could such things fail to pertain to the decision to kill?

And they did not fail. The studies were clear on that: In situations where officers could be agreed, in hindsight, to have erred, statistical models trained on real-time situational information consistently recommended a better course of action. The open question concerned the interface. An algorithm could simply apply weights to the data, compare to a threshold, and decide; for a human officer, no such integration of computed factors and her own judgments could be done in the moment.

Or not consciously. But the machinery of perception, by this point, was in play; law enforcement worldwide was experimenting with improvements to sight, hearing, smell, with new senses for electromagnetism and radiation. Estimates of danger could be fed directly into the inferior temporal lobe, subtly shaping the officer’s visual experience to differentiate high- from low-threat targets. This was called the integration or, more stylishly, the aperture safety.

To support split-second decision-making, the safety tapped into the most entrenched visual archetypes of menace. Dangerous places became darker, closer, more jagged-edged; dangerous people became larger, more graceful, more brutish. Darker-skinned.

Machines are not the only things that learn. Officers from “bad” neighborhoods complained that they were unable to go back, even off duty, the safety disabled; the sense of lurking danger was too great. More saliently: By tightening the association between true threat and swift grace, large size, dark skin, the aperture safety made life more dangerous for non-threatening persons in possession of those features.

This danger was studied, quantified. Biological anthropologists projected that, within two generations, the average size of men in several distressed urban neighborhoods would decrease by several percentage points, their skin lighten by several shades. The ideal force prescription, it seemed, was a Darwinian influence.

 

Interlude: The peppered moth

From a contemporary vantage, looking back, such a claim is absurd on its face. No matter their bias, no matter their intentions—how could officers of the law kill enough people to exert a visible selection pressure in a population of any size?

The peppered moth, Biston betularia, comes in two colorations—typica, white peppered with black spots, andcarbonaria, all black. In 1811, carbonaria was unknown in England. As the nineteenth century progressed, the frequency of carbonariaincreased, until by 1895 its prevalence in the species was 98%. This is due to the interaction of two factors: The “differential bird predation hypothesis,” a compression of the intuitive idea that birds find it easier to find and eat black moths on white backgrounds and white moths on black backgrounds than the reverse; and the increasing frequency, as industrialization took hold in England, of finding light-colored trees whose bark had been darkened by soot.

From those data, J. B. S. Haldane estimated that carbonariahad a 50% fitness advantage relative to typica. What advantage would it take to enact a smaller shift, in fewer generations?

Do the math. That is how it was. That is how it had come to be.

 

Variation III. The empathy safety

The Dallas police department, lauded for its strong relationship with the community it served, collaborated with neuroscientists at the Max Planck to prototype what they termed an empathy safety: A tool that would scour and digest the target’s digital history, injecting relationships, hopes, accomplishments, and a life’s high and low moments directly into an officer’s brain in a split-millisecond dream before he or she could pull the trigger. Proponents reasoned that such a thunderbolt of familiarity would restrict the use of lethal force to the absolute height of necessity; opponents countered that it would cripple enforcement, clouding officers’ judgment with the emotions and contradictions of a relationship that was not even real. The fifteen officers who agreed to a live test of the device revealed a more complicated truth.

Although the empathy safety drastically reduced the test cohort’s use of violence, three of the fifteen did indeed freeze up on their first violent encounter, twice fatally. From the rest, one had to be dropped from the program after taking an intense interest in the family of one man he had spared—slipping extra cash to the almost-victim’s wife at her workplace, fund-raising for a motorized wheelchair for his disabled son, intervening with near-cataclysmic results in the admittedly disastrous love life of his daughter.

Two more were terminated from the force after it emerged that they were threatening innocent people expressly to gather their biographies. In one case, the officer used the information to convince the suspects’ associates that she was psychic, a conviction she used to sell tips on stock prices and the outcomes of sporting events. The other officer was discovered recombining and altering the lives he extracted into short stories, none of which he succeeded in selling.

The death blow to the empathy safety was struck by Nina Abousalem, an officer in the test program whose metrics had shown no change. She worked a dangerous beat in West Dallas, on the other side of the river from where the money was. Internal and external evaluators, both then and after her death, found that she drew her sidearm frequently but judiciously, and that her use of force on the job was essentially without flaw.

One spring morning, months after she had joined the test group, Abousalem’s three-year-old son, Ibrahim, refused to go to daycare. A neighbor of theirs, Hunter Strickland, described what followed:

 

I was on my way out to get the mail and I heard Ibrahim shouting, and Nina talking back at him. Nothing I hadn’t heard before—I think the whole street knew by then that Ibi didn’t always like to leave the house in the morning. But then I heard a different kind of scream. I looked to see what was going on, and I see Nina standing over Ibi in the driveway, talking at him while he holds his shoulder and screams his head off. He’s clearly in pain, and she’s just calmly flaying him—I only caught what she said when he stopped for breath, but stuff like, “If you hate school so much, why don’t you just drive to the station and do my job instead?” And then Yusuf comes out and asks what’s going on and Nina fires on him. She keeps her eyes on Ibi, doesn’t even look at Yusuf, just sort of points the gun in his general direction and pulls the trigger. He jumps, covers his head with his arms, then looks at her and starts to say something. And she says “Fuck off,” and points the gun at Ibi. At that point Yusuf ducks inside, to call the cops, I guess. But she don’t shoot Ibi, just motions him to the car with the gun and says “Get in the car.” And he does. But she don’t, she just pushes the buttons on the key fob that close the door. It don’t take long for the cops to get there, and as soon as she gets a clear line on a cop car, she opens right up —

 

Sgt. Felicia Garza, also outfitted with an empathy safety, fired the killing shot. On the stand, she claimed the safety had revealed to her, in an instant, what Yusef Abousalem had seen only in hindsight: That Nina Abousalem had withdrawn from her relationships, had grown cold and distant from even her closest friends and family. Photos and video with loved ones waned, then ceased; in disputes where Abousalem would normally have been a peacemaker, she was the first to the knives. “The safety didn’t teach her not to shoot people because she knew and loved them,” Garza testified. “It taught her to look past that knowledge, and that love, and shoot anyway.”

No experts confirmed the plausibility of Garza’s diagnosis. It didn’t matter much. Empathy was officially excluded from the ideal force prescription.

 

Coda: The failure of alternatives

At no point during this technological evolution, it should be said, did citizens cease to suggest the usual methods for reducing police-involved violence. There remained heartfelt calls to train police in de-escalation and nonlethal subdual, to draw new officers from the communities they would protect, to abandon broken-windows policing and the “warrior mindset” and using citations as an income stream. Some of these were tried, sometimes with seriousness; results or no, none were widely implemented.

A plausible guess at the reason nearly writes itself. As wealth concentrated around a smaller and smaller cadre of the fortunate, an increasing share of law enforcement budgets came from a decreasing population of constituents. That population was technically gifted and optimistic about technology; they had strong networks and platforms for influencing voters and decision-makers.

Very few of them had spoken to a police officer about anything other than a moving violation. Technology was something they trusted and understood. Police were not. But, as their fortunes mounted and the rest of the country stagnated, they needed the police to protect them from a majority with less and less to lose.

In these circumstances, a mandate to protect the golden goose was natural, if not inescapable. The increasingly violent tactics this mandate entailed were both a response to and an accelerant of a mounting conflagration of class rage, like using a fan to blow flames away.

 

Postlude

In the decades and centuries that followed, a young man from the green country might venture among the black streets and their gutted palaces. If he returned, he might do so having been bestowed, by the native tribes, a weapon more and more likely, as time went on, to be called “blackwand” or “fire-thrower” or “killer-that-shouts.” And, rarely, such a weapon might be endowed with a special property that nearly demanded to be spoken of just before sleep, seated in a circle, around a fire—for example, the “just” weapon of Demetrius the Square-Dealer, which would fire only in defense of his person; or the “discerning” wand of Martin Sky-Eyes, which allowed him to see who was his friend and who his foe.

The wielders of such weapons often rose to prominence among their people as warlords or rangers, mercenaries or homesteaders. Yet their stories—or, in any case, those that were remembered and repeated—partook of a certain sameness. Martin Sky-Eyes was neither the first hero nor the last to kill a well-loved foe and die at his minions’ hands, when parlay (the storytellers assure us) would have saved them both; Demetrius the Square-Dealer was just one of a long line of heroes who had, drunk or new-awakened, mowed down loved ones in a moment’s mistaken terror. And as that long dark age trudged on, a story grew around the stories, to account for their sameness. The men who walk the black streets understand the treachery of magic, it went. There is a reason that they let their treasures go.

 

END

Harry’s Last Trick

Harry’s Last Trick PDF icon

1.

 

The most innocuous way to begin this story is to tell you that I hit a dog.  This happens to hundreds of people every day with not much recourse.  Yet, I had somehow avoided this sad fate for forty-three years.  The requisite guilt was intensified by all of my years as a non-dog killer.  The morally upright person that walks around during the day doesn’t hit animals.  The only marginally aware, emotionally consumed, and half blind idiot apparently does.  I don’t know if this story has any clear “moral,” but that might be a good one.

 

2.

 

I started this story off in a manner that I referred to as “innocuous.”  Now I would like to fill in that skeletal portrait with a few (possibly) hard to believe details.  I will begin by describing the car that I was driving on the particular night of the accident.  This would be a standard issue 1975 Volkswagen Beetle.  (These, obviously, are better known in popular language as “Bugs.”  The cars that were shamefully clunky and unloved until Walt Disney gave one of them a human consciousness and mediocre cast mates).  My “bug” was originally the conventional color of yellow.

Many years ago, I had repainted the hood and body to look like a person wearing a tuxedo.  The hood was the bowtie, shirt, and jacket while the rest of it was the body of the suit wearer.  A black “top hat” I had fashioned out of Plaster of Paris completed the “suit”; this was secured to the roof of the vehicle.  I had wanted to finish this transformation by attaching a mannequin arm holding a magic wand to the passenger door.  This had been done, and resulted in a rather costly ticket because the city court was convinced it was a “hazard.”  (I even spent an hour arguing with a judge about that arm.  My defense entailed me stating that it “brought joy” to the thousands of city dwellers I passed ever day.  This was clearly not successful, and the arm came off the next day.  I would add that my suggestion to perform a few card tricks in the court room was also very poorly received.)

The arm with the magic wand should be a tip off to my profession.  For the last twenty years, I have been a professional magician.  The kind you see struggling to entertain children at various birthday parties, or laboring at “gigs” in the back of bookstores and libraries.  If I am unduly lucky, I might get a slot at the depilated theater that holds events for “charity.”  (I have never figured out who is benefiting from these said “events.”  I just know that I can go home with a cut from the store.  I can lay in bed and stare at the door money stuffed in my hot little hand and ruminate about having finally “made it.”)

The car had lived for much longer than I ever thought it would.  Unfortunately, it was currently serving as my home when I ran mercilessly into my four-legged friend.  The evening before I had returned to the place where I was staying and found the lock had been changed.  I had been bunking in a friend’s magic shop (sleeping on a couch in the storage room).  I have come to believe that this unhappy outcome was far beyond my control.  I looked in the window after struggling with the door with several minutes.  Everything was gone and the room was covered in a sickly white color from a nearby streetlamp.

You now have a solid picture of what the car looked like.  Now I need to tell you about the beast itself.  The mongrel in question was well over a hundred pounds.  The pitch-black night obscured many other details (the most obvious one being the actual breed).  The one detail that can’t be overlooked; the dog completely demolished the front of my car.  There was an inescapable dent and a very large plume of smoke that followed the metallic crunch.

The damage is not the remarkable thing about this story.  The fact that the dog looked directly in my eyes and then walked off very much alive is.  I didn’t see where he went, but I got out of my totaled magic mobile with a purpose.  I was off to find what was left of the dog.

 

3.

 

Here are a few details to consider as “setting the scene.”  This was one of the coldest nights documented in a very long time.  I got out of my car and realized that I was in a part of the city that I didn’t even recognize.  Typical “urban” elements like telephone polls and brick buildings were contrasted by dirt alleys and unpopulated roads that led out of town.  I was to discover that very few of the citizens of this area believed in leaving their lights on.  (My imagination conjured up every explanation from devil worship to shameful nudity to explain why all the windows were dark).  I was dressed in my “uniform” for shows.  I had invested in a highly tailored suit that I had horizontally outgrown (my gut burst over the pant line).  A back length red cape made out of velvet that collected asphalt as I walked had always complimented the suit.  The red from the cape was most likely the only detail that the occasional driver could see with their headlights.

I always have painfully clear insights after a car accident.   They don’t always have a logical succession, but they do have a sick sort of staying power.  The first major one; my “career” in magic was probably over.  My trademark (the bug) was permanently damaged and my income was not going to provide for a replacement.  The very thing that got from one gig to another had committed suicide by dog.  I might be able to salvage the material from the back of the car (old props, costumes, and the same “how to” books I had studied since childhood).  All of that stuff was now horribly dated.  When I was still living in the magic shop, I had caught a ritzy cable special of a much younger and hipper magician.  The idiot had toys I couldn’t even imagine, not to mention a fully articulated light show behind him at all times.  This was the sort of example I had been seeing lately of talent being only “optional.”  The crowd was sedated by memorization and distracted by charm and showmanship.  I just had the same old jokes followed by the plethora of tricks for eons now.

That is what led to another realization; there was nothing extraordinary about me.  Magicians all over the country were doing various versions of my act right now.  They were far from plagiarists, because every good magic show should have an element of the familiar.  I just began to wonder if I had ever done anything completely unique.  I wasn’t just talking about my show…I was turning over every unexamined aspect of my meek little existence.

My eyes kept scanning for the dog as I walked into the darkness.  As I continued walking, the question: “Why?” popped into my head.  I thought I could ignore it and move on.  To make matters worse, I started imagining the word: “Why?” appearing like a neon sign in front of me.  The sign in my head would point to a formerly unspecified destination that would contain all the mythical answers I could possibly desire.  What was the “why” really asking?

I didn’t even have to ask because I inherently knew.  “Why magic?”  I was about to discover when I turned another corner that I had become lost on a back road.  Nothing looked even remotely familiar to me at this point.  I started to turn around and walk back in the direction I came from.  I found myself thinking: “Fine.  I clearly have a walk in front of me.  Why magic?”

 

4.

 

My very first memory has to do with a soup can that was on my mother’s kitchen counter.  I was all of about two and a half years old; I can remember thinking that if I concentrated hard enough the can would move.  The next image that comes into my mind is of the can being in a completely different spot.  This wasn’t like watching a ghost drag a inanimate object across the counter.  The can had very much been transported by what I saw as my own willpower.  I know that any rational person can shoot this full of holes and I don’t need a believer.  This was simply my own experience of what I thought I saw.   This led to other incidents; causing the TV to turn off and on, causing the school bus tire to blow out, and even willing a black out during one of my bored school days.

I might not have thought I was directly responsible for any of it, but I couldn’t help but forge a connection in my mind.  I was dreadfully bored during that school black out and just as my frustration reached its zenith: “Pop!”  The bus incident was also similar; this was after I had grown to hate going to school.  My younger psyche had been filled with various escape plans and a nagging, eventually all-consuming dread.  What could be done to ensure that the bus didn’t arrive at school when we hit the end of the line?  After all of the grotesque children had been collected, and the bus door shut for the final time…there had to be an escape.  The moment I brought that thought into my consciousness the tire exploded and the bus was barely maneuvered to the side of the road.

What about the TV switching off?  That mostly had to do with a leak my family had in the roof.   I walked by one night feeling flushed with power and a giant torrent of rain came storming through the leak.  The TV had been displaying a particular program I didn’t approve of and I took this as more circumstantial evidence.

These brief examples are all just previews for the main attraction.  I have large chunks in my memory leading up to making this decision.  However, when I was sixteen, I decided that I desperately wanted to end my own life.  There was a crumby bridge by my house that overlooked a marginally crowded intersection.  I had written some self-indulgent poetry (in lieu of a suicide note) and stuffed it in a pocket.  I figured that whoever found my mangled corpse might be able to read whatever was left decipherable.  (There clearly wasn’t strong logic operating inside me at this time).  That particular night I arrived at the bridge around one a.m. and teetered on the edge.  I read my bad poetry to the world and then got up the gumption to make the descent.

The miracle happened when I decided half way through the jump that I wanted to live.  This is what I swear to you happened; a breeze came and redirected my ninety pound frame into a row of bushes.  Don’t get me wrong; I still attained several serious injuries (broken bones and a long gash across my forehead).  That wasn’t the point to me.  I had once again willed myself to circumvent fate and ended up alive.   That meant that I had some particular destiny here on the planet.  I was supposed to do a ‘GREAT THING” that I perhaps had yet to discover.  (The phrase “GREAT THING” might as well be another one of my directionless, neon flashing signs.)

Then, after the bridge incident, I had to go away for a while…

 

5.

 

I was jolted out of my pleasant recollections by my first sighting of what I would refer to as: “The Mongrel.”  I suddenly spotted the dog hobbling towards a giant empty space in front of me.  The space was populated by what looked like dark and misshapen structures.  (I had a distant memory of a TV program I had seen once about elephant graveyards.)  I stuck my hand up (almost as if I assumed the animal could see me) and started to run after it.  As I approached the empty space, my eyes spontaneously adapted to the darkness surrounding me.  I realized I was in the middle of a large dirt lot.  The “dead elephants” turned out to be circus tents.  I was in the middle of a traveling show that had obviously closed up for the night.

The Mongrel was nowhere to be found as I walked around the perimeter.  I saw a couple of the carnies wandering around the corner and decided it was best to hide.  I didn’t want to go into a long explanation of what I was doing or why.  I found a particular (and perfectly sized) spot to hide at the exit of one of the tents.  That is when I noticed a smaller tent directly in front of me.  The word MAGIC was displayed proudly on the roof and the tent was illustrated with pictures.  There were magic wands, cards, dices, and a rather pitiful looking rabbit popping out of a hat.

I couldn’t believe it; my “GREAT THING” was staring me right in the face.  I knew the tent probably housed another performer.  (One I assumed was infinitely more talented than I was).  That didn’t prevent me from walking into the unprotected entrance.  I found myself in a relatively cozy environment with only about thirty seats and a small stage.  The stage displayed a coffin and a saw (without the lovely assistant).  There was an oversized deck of cards on top of an ancient picnic table.  There was also a velvet backdrop that hardly covered the canvas wall.  I was home, and I decided to perform a few tricks.

I leapt up onto the stage and bellowed: “For my first trick…”

 

6.

 

“For my first trick…”

That was a very old line in my life from when I first started doing tricks.  That was after I went away for a while to The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  I found myself surrounded by human beings in various stages of emotional turmoil.  We were all constantly on watch by a man I liked to call “The Specialist.”  The Specialist was a dry humored, bald, and overly diplomatic man that we all had to spend at least an hour a week with.  The other half of the time was spent with the Specialist and the rest of us seated in an awkward badly formed semi-circle staring at each other.  I was never quite sure of how any of this was supposed to translate into anything productive.  I wonder if we all were led to believe that a cure would present itself at just the right time.  The good news was that we had the evening (mostly) free and there was a wide selection of books.

I was having one of my bouts of sleeplessness when I decided to go wandering the halls.  There were various bookshelves tucked away and completely ignored in just about every corner.  The books and shelves collected more and more dust as they were spread further out.  I eventually got all the way to the end of one of the hallways and found a case with a single book.   By this point, I was in almost complete darkness with nothing but a bit of moonlight shining through the venetian blinds.  I attribute that fact to my motivation for picking up this oddly orphaned volume.  In any other circumstance, I would have turned a blind eye and kept on walking.

The moonlight fell on what I perceived to be a diagram that held little appeal.  That was before a bit more study illuminated the fact that it was instructions for a card trick.  That was enough for me to tuck the book under my arm and walk away with it.  I was fortunate enough to have a room to myself.  (That had to do with my last roommate having an unfortunate encounter with the ceiling and his shoelaces.)   I could flip on the light at random and read for many hours on end.  I found entire nights vanishing under the influence of obscure “magical spells” and slights of hand.  This allowed me to sleepwalk through just about everything else.

The final culmination in becoming a magician was to give my first real show.  I was pleasantly surprised that the Specialist was all for this “opportunity.”  He even donated me an hour or so on the cafeteria stage after our “medicine” break.  I found myself performing magic tricks in front of a bunch of zonked out patients.  There were two sizable takeaways from this particular experience.  The completely unreceptive members of the audience were hazing me for the future.  I also did a full out stumble when I first took the stage that brought down the house.  This was the unintentional creation of a personae; the bumbling idiot that was at least marginally competent.  I would go about pretending that I didn’t know what I was doing.  That would make the pay off of each magic trick a surprise.  All of these events seemed accidental until I thought about it later.

My mysterious streak of self-appointed “luck” was continuing.  I was “approved” to leave The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  I was never to lay eyes on the Specialist again.  He might not have been visibly present, but he was forever in my thoughts in a nightmarish way.   The voice of unintentional deterrent is a pleasant way to refer to him.  I always have his voice in the back of my head saying: “Is that really such a great idea?”

 

7.

 

The small stage I stood on was now consumed with a wash of magic supplies.  I had found a stack of boxes stuffed in a corner.  Each one of them had been badly taped together and was clearly overflowing with the tricks of the trade.  I had started to perform almost on autopilot.  I was only dimly aware of stage lights slowly rising on me as I did my usual “competent idiot” act.  I didn’t even notice a dark figure seated at the end of one of the aisles.  That might have continued if I hadn’t heard oddly incongruous applause after one more card trick.  I looked out into the darkness.

That is when I saw a familiar face; the Specialist was watching me intently.  I couldn’t mistake the face or the antique pair of spectacles.  The only thing that had changed was that he was wearing a clown suit.  There was even remnants of white make-up around his eyes (he didn’t finish cleaning himself up).  I looked directly at him and he exaggeratedly clapped again.  I was so dumbfounded that I had to wait for him to speak.

“You’ve gotten better,” the Specialist said.

“Was I bad before?” I said as I walked towards the edge of the stage.

“You were…unformed,” the Specialist told me.

He got up and walked towards the edge of the stage and I helped him up.

“Why the clown suit?” I asked.

“Sort of a childhood ambition,” he said.

I had never noticed a beach ball that was rolling around on stage.  (I fully acknowledge the fact that it might have always been there I just hadn’t noticed it.  That is a completely unimportant detail to me).  We started to pass the ball back and forth in a standard game of catch.   That was until the game mutated and the Specialist must have grown a new set of limbs.  The man was infinitely more agile than I ever could have imagined.  He would dart from one point to another and I could never quite locate him.  I would toss the ball into the darkness and watch the clown suit materialize out of nowhere.   The ball would plummet back into my arms and simultaneously release itself.  I found that I could dash away just in time to catch the ball at another location.

The ball finally landed and my feet and I didn’t have the inclination to toss it again.  The Specialist appeared out of the darkness and started to cradle the ball like a baby.

“When did you ever want to be a clown?” I asked, out of breath.

“More of a direct route to happiness,” the Clown informed me.

“How so?” I found myself sitting down.

The Specialist sat down next to me, still holding the ball for dear life.

“What I did,” he started to explain, “There’s theories and techniques.  There’s charts to follow.  But clowns make people laugh.”

The Specialist smiled, which was also something I didn’t know he could do.  He eased the ball into my lap and pushed it down with his hand.

“I thought of a final trick for our act,” the Specialist said.

“What act?”

“The one we were doing just now.”

I wanted to push the ball away from, but found the same kind of paralysis.

“Okay,” I said, “What is the grand finale?”

The Specialist looked me dead in the eye: “I want you to make this ball disappear.”

I placed my hand on the ball and concentrated.  Wasn’t the ball just like my childhood soup can?  I closed my eyes for a fleeting moment and felt the strangeness of the rubber.  The ball wouldn’t recognize my willpower.  I didn’t feel the cold air that my imagination desired.  The emptiness that would signify that I was just as powerful as I had always assumed.  When I opened my eyes, I found the dead looking beach ball staring back at me.  The Specialist, however, was completely gone from the stage.

 

8.

 

I had vague ambitions when I got out of The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  The title “magician” was wonderfully evocative but aimless.  This trade, if you can call it that, doesn’t have a clear path.  There aren’t clubs that people join or signs that sprout up on the side of the road that say: “Magicians Welcome.”  I didn’t go to school; I just read many books and slept out in parks at night.  That same crazy faith was with me at all times.   The faith was made worse by the various wild and almost tangible daydreams.  In my head, I had reached the absolute zenith of success.

Here is a sketch of that particular doubled headed monster.  I had somehow found an abandoned house in my wanderings.  The door was open when I found it and everything was relatively clean.  This, in my crazed state, was now a wonderful place to “rehearse.”  This was directly after I had decided on my new nome de plume: “Harry the Magnificent.”  Have you ever created an alter ego?  They give you a wonderful excuse to blame everything on a ghost.  The skeletal, hungry version of me could say that “Harry” stole the candy bar out of the convenience store.  “Harry” could have a total disregard for sleep when I spent all night pouring over magic books.

“Harry” was the person who transformed this house.  “Harry” found various bright colors of paint in the garage and mercilessly splashed them on the white walls.  “Harry” decided that he needed a bonfire in the living room to stay warm.  “Harry” painted crude pictures on the walls of what should have been the children’s rooms.  Little by little, I imagined that the entire home was my stage.  The original home started to fade away as “Harry” entertained his millions of adoring fans.

I would also tell you that “Harry” was the person who chased off the people who showed up to reclaim the house.  I believe that “Harry” rushed at them and yelled at the top of his lungs: “Now I will make you all vanish.”

 

9.

 

“Harry” was with me tonight.  “Harry” was the one who started to decorate the stage.  He pushed the coffin and saw in the center of the stage.  He was the one who made a vain attempt to clean the debris off his stage with his foot.  “Harry” was setting the stage for a certain person to show up.  I had rather ambivalent feelings about her, but “Harry” needed her to come.  The question was how long both of us were willing to wait.

 

10.

 

I found myself wandering again after having to leave my house/auditorium.  “Harry” would appear to me from time to time as the laziest travel guide who ever lived.  He would be my guiding instinct when it was time to eat, sleep, or move on.  I only have dim memories; there is a traveling circus, a few children’s birthday parties, and a disastrous appearance in the back of a bookstore.  The wisest thing would have been to stay in one area and try to truly establish myself as a “name.”  This just didn’t suit my dual personality.  The best way to deceive myself (and “Harry”) of my mysteriousness was to show up as a foreign object in each new environment.  I would perform (many times illegally) on various street corners.  There was even a few times when my fear of the law got so great that I gave “late night shows.”  The various non-human and human vermin would gather around me as I used streetlights as stage lighting.  On some nights, there might only be five or six audience members.  That mattered very little to “Harry” or myself because the applause always sounded deafening to both of us.

This was around the same time that I discovered that joy was an oddly tradable currency.  People would take me in with no questions asked.  There would be the opportunity to shower and stay two or three nights.  My trademark suit appeared because I met a tailor with a few extra pieces of clothing.  (The cape was his idea and it fit me just right with the exception of a few inches that trailed behind me.  He even offered to correct it but I absolutely refused.  This was, in my mind, part of the “Harry” gag.  How does this idiot even walk around without tripping on his cape?)

My sense of time completely eroded while I was traveling.  I can’t tell you precisely how long I was out roving.  There was only the exact moment when it stopped cold.  I had found some other anonymous city to wander through.  I was right in the middle of scouting my spot for tonight’s late night show.  I was crossing a bridge when I saw a pale skinned, black haired girl standing a tad too close to the ledge.   She was wearing what looked to be a ball gown.  This was not the most important detail; she had an elaborate pair of angel wings strapped to her back.  The logical part of my mind knew this was just a costume.  “Harry” was the one who saw her, as she would like to be seen.  The fact that it looked like she was about to jump off the bridge had not escaped either one of us.

 

11.

 

The inside of the tent felt like it had expanded.  There were new rows of chairs that I hadn’t noticed before.  The stage grew in size; the interior of the tent (which had originally felt cramped) was now oddly cacophonous.  The canvas on the back wall was slipping down and starting to reveal some kind of poster.  I walked away from the coffin and saw towards whatever the piece of the art was.  I was about to find a piece of artwork that I had fashioned years before.  The woman I just told you about stood on the bridge with her wings.  She faced the onlooker with a radiant, death-defying smile.  I had illustrated her standing under a streetlamp just in the way I used to.  The younger version of me stood next to the woman.  That’s when I was reminded of the unfortunate truth that I was once considered handsome.  The obscene handsomeness canceled out the over all ludicrousness of the magician’s costume.

Bold lettering at the bottom of the picture read: “Amelia Flies!”  I checked to see if I could find a date for this performance.  (The date of the original performance had long escaped from my memory).  I finally found the date hidden at the very bottom of the picture.  That is when I found tonight’s date staring at me in the face.  There was no other way than to see that as the final sign; Amelia was going to be here soon.  I had started to feel my anticipatory nervousness when the picture shifted.  The reflection surface of a mirror replaced the two figures and the magic proposition of flight.

I can’t remember when I had made the habit of intentionally not looking at myself.  Perhaps I had begun to assume that a youthful profession would keep me from the ravages of age.  That was not going to be the case; I could only see remnants of my formerly handsome visage.  Everything had unfortunately dropped or receded to an uncorrectable degree.  My suit was severely distorted by weight gained over the long course of a life filled with health related neglect.  The most disturbing thing to look for me was my own set of eyes.  They have oddly changed to a darker, battle weary color of green.  I looked like a person who physically couldn’t stand waiting for another second.

How much longer would I have to wait?

 

12.

 

As you have no doubt gathered, Amelia was the woman on the bridge.  The heroic piece of me felt the need to somehow intervene.  I approached her and magically made a bouquet of flowers appear in my hand.  I handed it to her and she accepted without giving me eye contact.

The very first thing Amelia ever said to me was this indicative statement:

“My dear, I’m not sure your magical flowers will ever quite be enough.”

“What would, then?” I asked.

Amelia turned her face to me and said: “Make me fly.”

Amelia was a classically beautiful woman with one minor exception.  She had a long scar that ran from the top of forehead to the bottom of her nose.  As I was going to find out, her explanation would change constantly for why she had this.

“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked.

“With your magical powers,” she retorted, “You do have powers, don’t you?”

“I would like to believe so,” I said.

“Use them now!” she exclaimed.

That is when Amelia hoisted herself off the bridge into the shallow body of water below.  There was at least a brief moment I could have sworn that her wings organically flapped.  I did everything I could to concentrate (much in the same way that I had on the soup can from my youth).  I can’t really attest to how much help I was.  The worries over my true abilities were canceled out as I rushed down to help the woman I had just met.  I even went as far as to jump into the water without any concern for my suit or cape.  Amelia surfaced from the water with any superficial injuries and an eerie smile.  This was a regular practice for her (as I was about to find out).

I dragged Amelia out and set her on the ground.

“Magic doesn’t exist!” she proclaimed, before passing out cold.

That one line might have been enough to cement our history together.  Disproving it became more than a hobby; it slid into the world of a deeply sick obsession.

 

13.

 

I realized the surface of the mirror at the back of the tent had faded.  I was watching my first encounter with Amelia in front of me like some dreadful movie.  I’m still not sure where the mirror shifted back and I could see the inside of the tent.  The night was still very much in tact outside.  The arena was cast in dull shadows that just seemed senseless to me at this point.  That is when I saw the mongrel I had hit wander into the space and to the edge of the stage.  I bolted around to confront it and just saw a sad dog smile.  The animal was still mobile and almost didn’t look damaged.  The only hint of the accident came in the form of blood dripping out of the mouth.  I wanted to utter an apology and found myself unable to do it.

Then the dog was gone from the space.  I walked slowly around the room looking for any sign of it.  I walked back up on the stage and found the mirror flickering again.

 

14.

 

Amelia and I had found each other during another one of my bouts of homelessness.  She offered to let me sleep on a dilapidated couch in her living room for an indefinite amount of time.  I assumed that she wanted intimacy; instead, I was going to be subjected to months of not being touched by her.  The constant denial of any kind of physical bond just made me more desirous of her.  Whenever I made overtures, she would push me away and say: “No, I care about you too much.”

Over the next few months I was going to discover that Amelia had “gentleman callers.”  They would show up at her home; each one looking more hopeless than the last.  They were the absolute dregs of society; men with unsightly skin conditions, amputees, and those with an almost unfathomable sadness. She would pull them into her tiny closet-sized bedroom.  If I didn’t want to hear the sounds of their encounters, I would have to retreat to the hole in the wall diner below her apartment.  There was a pretty waitress there who would take pity on me and give me free coffee.  I would let it seep into my very being as I seethed about what I was denied.  The fact that the waitress was paying me attention was completely lost on me at the time.  (Sometimes when I can’t get to sleep, I find myself thinking about the waitress and what become of her.  I have invented numerous scenarios in which she has nothing but infinite security and happiness.  The thought that someone is at peace helps me rest a bit).

What kept me there?  That would be the nonsense of what was to be deemed our “project.”   Perhaps I should explain how Amelia’s mind worked.  She was haunted by a singular childhood dream about flying over a range of mountains.  This was done completely without any kind of assistance (the way many of us fly in our dreams).  She had a similar GREAT THING in mind to me.  This led to a childhood full of near accidents; higher and higher surfaces from which to plummet off of.  Somewhere in her lost years she started wearing the angels’ wings as a trademark.  The fundamental difference between Amelia and myself was relatively simple.  She had stopped believing, and I didn’t understand how that could happen.

On the second night at her place, I found myself vowing to give her a functional set of wings.  That led to months of scouring libraries for every kind of book on aviation.  I discovered that I was capable of doing very complex mathematical problems.  I even was to discover that I had somewhat of a gift for elaborate construction.  I had to find a way to conceal all of the mechanical inner workings of the wings in the right amount of feathers.  The wings, in turn, had to look naturally attached to Amelia’s tiny body.  The last pair I was ever to produce was almost credible as a real set of angelic limbs.

I was to discover that this was mostly “baptism by fire” work.  Each new pair of wings had to be subjected to a number of rigorous tests.  Amelia would hurl herself from a high surface with frantically flapping arms.  I would use this an excuse to “catch” her.  By the time we developed the last set of wings, a strange and miraculous thing occurred.  Amelia stopped flapping and flew for a magnificent thirty seconds.  She glided to a safe landing on a nearby piece of dirt.  I had closed my eyes and concentrated as hard as I possibly could; this time I let my desperation bleed out into the atmosphere.  When Amelia and I looked at each other, there was a silent understanding that magic had been achieved.

The next few weeks were spent plastering the town with our “Amelia Flies” posters.  This mystical event was going to take place on the same bridge where I met Amelia for the first time.  I have forgotten most of the details of the actual day.  I wish I could tell you how many people showed up.  I even wish I could repeat word for word my introduction.  My distorted memory would have me believe that it was one of the great oratory performances of all time.  Truth be told, I can’t even the sensation of giving it.  The words left my mouth and then Amelia took her position on the ledge.

The next few minutes always expand in my mind to be longer than they were.  Amelia flapped her wings, glided, and then crashed into the ground next to the water.  I heard gasps from the audience as she became motionless.  Her eyes closed, and I found my first impulse was to run.  That’s right; I didn’t stick around to see what happened or how I could help.  No one chased after me because there was a dying woman on the ground.  The armchair psychologist could tell you that I didn’t want my naïveté shattered.  My steadfast dedication to belief in magic would have taken a severe blow.  Was that really it?  The fundamental truth is that I have no earthly clue why I bolted.

 

15.

 

I stopped looking in the mirror after the last image of Amelia on the ground faded.  The theater remained empty, and the stage remained silent.  I could feel the sensation of disappointment as a knot in my stomach.  I started to head towards the exit.  That is when the tent was swamped with light.  The seats were instantaneously filled with a crowd of well-dressed spectators.  The sounds of wild applause deafened me.  Through no action of my own, I found myself back on stage with a confidence I hadn’t known before.  The marginally competent “Harry” was nowhere in my body.

My voice boomed as I said: “We’ve all had impossible dreams!  Dreams that haunt us with their impossibility.  What would you do if nothing stopped you?  Maybe you would fly!”  As the last line bellowed from me, I saw an elderly woman with a pair of wings begin to flutter down from the ceiling.  I would have recognized her anywhere at any age.  This was Amelia; but her black hair had turned grey and her distinctive scar had gotten longer.  Amelia’s style of dress had gone from revealing dresses to what respectively looked like a hospital gown.  The crowd loudly voiced its approval as Amelia whirled around the top of the tent.  There were moments when she would just vanish into darkness only to emerge triumphantly in light.  The vanishing act was supplemented with elaborate summersaults and mind numbingly excellent flips.  The final trick consisted of Amelia coming to a dead stand still in mid-air.  I could physically feel the audience holds its breath until she descended down to the stage.  She bowed to wild applause that I thought would never end.

The entire time I watched Amelia’s flying out with a professional distance.  Her wings were even more realistic than anything I could fashion.  They moved with organic grace and precise birdlike timing that I couldn’t help but marvel at.  I even found myself wanting wholeheartedly to believe they were real.  They even folded up as Amelia went into a second bow for her delighted audience.

The lights shut off we were covered in complete blackness.

 

16.

 

I found Amelia and I engulfed in a floodlight that made very little else visible.  I realized in the moment that a person’s smile never changes.  Amelia’s was just as paradoxically distant and warm as it had always been.  I felt my smile plaster onto my face as tears welled up in my eyes.  She stole the exact thought from my mind as she began to speak.

“I was finally able to fly,” she said.

“You fly beautifully,” I answered, “No thanks to me.”

“That’s unimportant now,” she said, reaching for my arm.

We walked together in the darkness for a while.

“Was it everything you expected to be?” I finally asked.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say so,” she stopped walking.

“Why?”

“The most satisfying feeling came after I landed for the first time.  The knowledge that I could finally look back and know that some kind of miracle was achieved.  You can’t spot a miracle when you are right in the middle of it.”

“I’ve been trying to my entire life.”

She laughed gently and touched my face.

“Have you still not done it yet?” she said, laughing.

“I keep thinking that I’ll be able to spot it.  Be able to look around at the world transforming around me while smiling.  I’ve spent so much time imagining it…shouldn’t I just be able to freeze time and know it when it comes?”

“No,” she said, “you should feel it in your gut.  Here…”

She grabbed my hand and set it on the wings.  This was just as I imagined it to be.  There was no separation from her flesh; the wings moved underneath my nervous fingers.  That was when she started to vanish from my sight.

“Wait,” I said, “how is this possible?”

“I stopped wishing,” she called back, “and then it happened.”

After that, Amelia was completely gone.  I could just hear her laughing from somewhere in the pitch black.  I suddenly realized how long it had been since I heard her distinct brand of chuckle.  The one that accompanied every single part of our flying “work.”  She would laugh at every single fitting of a new pair of wings.  She would even chortle after thousands of rough landings.  There was nothing that would ever stop her from a certain pleasing ironic distance.  Was that why I did it all?  Just to hear a beautiful woman laugh?  The women that I just let vanish again from my sight.

The Specialist appeared out of the darkness dressed in his clown suit.

“Should I have just been a comedian?” I asked.

The Specialist just raised his eyebrow and snapped his fingers.

 

17.

 

I was back on stage again with the Specialist with the house lights up.  I could see every one of the joy filled faces as they applauded.  The Specialist stood at a microphone stand off to my left and gestured at me wildly.

“Please applaud Harry,” he proclaimed, “Please applaud Harry the Magnificent in his final performance.”

Two words were clearly etched in my memory; and they were final performance I wanted to ask The Specialist: “Is this really it?”  I knew from personal experience that I wouldn’t get anything back but a non-answer.  I turned to another direction, and that is when I saw the dog again.  The dog was laid on its side and breathed in a terminal sounding shallow manner.  I turned around to see the Specialist nod at me to approach the dog.  I turned my back towards the Specialist as I heard his authoritative voice boom through the microphone.

“For his last trick ever,” the Specialist said, “Harry will save the life of a dying dog.”

I found myself crouching down by the dog and putting my hand on its midsection.  Hadn’t my entire life trained me to do the impossible?  The journey that began with an innocuous can of soup was about to end.  The crowd was relying on me to save this animal that my Beetle had such an unfortunate run-in with.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the animal well.  I attempted to imagine its entire life as the most blessed existence a dog could ever have.  I extrapolated that this was a life the dog wanted to return to desperately.  The only way to do that was to rediscover his vitality that was right at my fingertips.

Nothing happened.

I opened my eyes to discover that the dog was even more distant.  The dog’s eyes were now closed and the body was even stiffer.  My magical touch was not being summoned; I suppose that would lead more logical people to realize that it was never real.  I was so much concerned with the discovery of my own delusions at the moment.  If I couldn’t save the dog, what could I do in this moment?  I took off my cape and covered the dog.   I gave it one final pat on the head and then stood up to face the crowd.

“I couldn’t save it,” I cried out, “But I could make it disappear.”

I heard the crowd laugh approvingly and then begin a loud applause.  The Specialist walked up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“That was exactly the right answer,” the Specialist told me.

The crowd rose to its feet and I waved one last time and began to exit the stage.  The lights snapped off again and I found myself in an empty tent.  The space was back to its tragically original size.  I could detect a few early morning sunrays streaming through the cracks in the canvas.  My cape was still on exact same spot that I had left it when I covered the dog. At any other time in my life, I would have hurried to pick it back up and reattach the thing to my suit.  I knew that I wouldn’t do that again as I continued to study it.  That is when I realized that I wasn’t alone.

A burly, tattooed carny was staring straight at me with a combination of confusion and menace.

“Old timer,” he said, “I’m afraid I am going to ask you to leave.”

“Just one moment longer?” I asked.

The carny shook his head and pointed to an exit.  The frown was the most prominent thing I noticed as I took off my top hat.

“Maybe what you need most,” I said, “is a top hat.”

I jumped off the stage and placed on the hat on his head before he could protest.  Then I rushed out the exit into the burgeoning sunrise.

Swiftly

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Ten seconds. Teresa could imagine the kernels, each golden pearl sitting amidst the wax-covered interior of the paper bag, each awaiting the seconds before they would burst with the fullness of their regal white clouds, emerging from the rigid casings into which they had been trapped for the entirety of their existence. She thought about the heat, about how the gradually growing sensation tickled their skins like they did her own.

Buzz! Teresa quickly opened the microwave and reached her hand up to grab at the handle, gingerly removed the scalding hot bag. Carefully tearing the corner, she spilled the golden morsels into a colorful plastic bowl. The kernels steamed and shook with the heat and the sudden intensity of their release, and as Teresa caught a whiff of the buttery scent that emanated from their presence, she felt a sudden longing sensation.

Grabbing the bowl, she walked out of the kitchen, fully knowing where she wanted to go, and yet still unable to bring herself to consciously make the decision to travel to the room. As she took brisk steps down the hall, she marveled at her body’s ability to simply obey her command. It took almost no thought to move her legs forward, to compel them to action from rest, and to note their final placing in perfect linear motion, sweeping against gravity and back towards the ground. It was a fascinating study to consider, how she was simply able to dance with her feet even as she didn’t think about the actions themselves.

She had once been a dancer. It seemed like a while ago, but she recalled the colorful dresses, the flowing fans, the props, and the lights always shining too bright on her face, too hot for her skin. She could recall the long hours of practice, bruises across her limbs, and the constant voices, always angry, reminding her of why she wasn’t good enough or why she couldn’t look like the other girls in her troupe. It wasn’t always the best environment growing up, but she could certainly appreciate the beauty of fluid motion so much more given her past experience working within the art form. It seemed a natural extension of what she already knew simply applied to a more domestic setting.

Along the way, she picked up her phone and noticed a notification appear on the screen. Before she could even read what it said, she swiped it away. No need for that sort of nonsense at this time. Instead, she continued along to the living room. Her television was off, so she figured it was as good a time as any to watch some old tapes her parents had kept around the house. She set the bowl of popcorn down on the side of the couch and riffled through the DVDs along the stack – all of them labeled in the same messy script her father had. She wondered what they meant – most of them were written in a language she could not recognize, but she figured they had to be listed by age if not chronologically.

Selecting one that seemed appropriate for the moment, she sat herself down on the velvet green couch in the middle of her living room and placed her popcorn on top of her lap, pressing on the remote to start the tape. It flashed with the blurred screen of the production company before switching to the colorful scenery of the first movement of the performance. The corner of Teresa’s mouth turned up in a small smile, and she brought her legs up onto the couch as the dancers began to stream out to the melody of the violas.

The sudden nostalgia was almost surprising, but Teresa admittedly had not reflected on this notion for quite some time. It was thoroughly against her intentions to conjure back the memories of her childhood. Despite how much she had loved the art, the beauty, and the simple majesty of the movement she could perform, dance eroded from a passion into her parent’s desires and dreams. She loathed herself for thinking this way, but each time she thought about her father’s demands, how he constantly forced her to practice for hours simply because she couldn’t pass her adjudication, how she hated how they had to pay for lessons when dance would never become a conscious part of her future anyway, how they seemed so intent on manipulating her success, she could only remember the dreadful day when she finally pushed them out of her life.

The notification popped up on her phone once again. She thought about it for a second, about the last time she had called home. She first moved away in high school, choosing to live with her grandparents in the city near home just to stay away from the pain. Then in college, once again, she moved hundreds of miles away. Even when her dormmate would welcome back her mother or father during the holidays, Teresa could only remember the long hours spent in the library, or with her friends, never the smiles of her parents.

She reached her hand into the bowl that she now had nestled between her legs and was pleased to find that it had cooled to a more comfortable temperature. The feeling of the popcorn gently chaffing her hand reminded her of the first time she had helped to string popcorn with her father. There was simply so much going on nowadays that it didn’t make sense to celebrate as much as she once had, but the holidays were always a grand time to let go of worries.

The phone rang again, this time chiming the song of the Sugar Plum Fairies as it buzzed about on the size of the couch. Teresa sighed and looked at the caller’s name, recognizing her father’s face in the icon that popped up. She swiftly swiped to the left, ignoring the call and finally placing her phone on silent. As she tossed it aside, hearing it land with a thud on the carpeted ground of her living room, she faced her eyes towards the screen of the television. The children were now lining up in a circular fashion, curtsying on both sides as they followed one another into the next formation of the movement.

As she peered at her clock, drowsiness overcame her senses. The music from the television faded away, replaced with the sensations of movement – her limbs dancing in the stillness of the stage, the bright lights overhead. As Teresa danced, she heard her parent’s voices surround her. They praised her, and she saw herself growing, larger and larger, but as she did the voices grew harsher and harsher, until she tumbled away and the stage disappeared. The moments started to blur together, and Teresa saw only herself, lost in time, a bodiless mind floating above the world.

She envied and loathed this version of herself, and wondered whether she would ever be able to return to the world she knew. Even so, as she continued along, floating throughout the vast expanse, she felt alone and vulnerable. She saw the faces of the people she knew float along and yet there was nothing she could do but watch as they disappeared behind her. Finally, the faces of her parents appeared, but as she started forward to greet them, they too dissolved into the darkness. A buzzing filled her ears, and as she covered them to block away the noise, the vast darkness disappeared.

Teresa opened her eyes, her mind still hazy from the dream. The buzzing continued, and she momentarily realized that her doorbell had been rung. Without a second thought, she jumped up from the couch and strode towards the door, opening it to see the face of her father staring back at her. Her voice caught in her throat.

“Merry Christmas, Tree!” her father said, almost hesitantly, as he burst through the door with an armful of bags, her mother trailing closely behind. “We didn’t hear from you – we thought you weren’t home for a while.”

“Merry Christmas, Daddy,” she said softly before stepping aside to embrace him.

Steak and Wine

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Kate moved as quickly as she could, lifting food from the cart, placing items onto the belt. Several boxes of macaroni and cheese, because she could fill the bellies of the whole family for less than a dollar and fifty cents. Margarine: poison to a healthy body and she knew it, but butter cost ten times as much. Chips because the kids begged for snacks, and chips were cheaper than fruit. Four frozen pizzas, $2 each on sale. Two loaves of white bread, a quarter the price of whole grain. Expensive soy formula—the stuff made Matty constipated, but breast milk or dairy milk would kill him. Two gorgeous steaks. A bag of russet potatoes. Asparagus. Sour cream. Cheddar cheese. A bottle of wine.

The baby was in his carrier, screaming, as usual. His tummy hurt. His tummy always hurt. Three year old David had yellow crust under his nose. Kate would never have taken him out like this, but there was no food in the house and monthly benefits had been loaded to their EBT card that morning. Their older sister stood at the end of the checkout lane, arms crossed, staring straight ahead.

Kate’s stomach seized as she placed the food where the cashier could scan it. Her husband’s birthday was the next day, and she’d wanted to surprise him with a special dinner. She’d eaten nothing but pasta and margarine for days, saving up. She couldn’t wait to see the look on his face. He hadn’t had a high-end steak in longer than she could remember. She prayed the $12.62 in her wallet would be enough to pay for the wine after tax. If not, she’d have to put it back. The checking account had been overdrawn so long the bank closed the account and every credit card they had was over the limit and behind in the payments.

The cashier gave her the total and she handed him the bright orange benefits card and cash for the wine, giving thanks that it was only $12.44. Hopefully the gas in the tank would be enough to last until payday.

Behind her, a woman snorted loud enough for her to hear: “Oh, nice. She’s buying steak and alcohol with her food stamps, and I’m scraping together enough to pay for ground beef.”

“Maybe she should have another baby so she can get more money from the state,” the woman continued. “Then she’d have enough to buy some tissues to wipe her kid’s nose.”

§§

Freddie’s hand slid up her thigh so slowly she’d barely noticed until his fingertips slipped under the hem of her short denim skirt.

“Stop,” Kate said.

His kisses trailed down her neck and back up to her ear. “I want you so bad.”

Her heart fluttered against the cage of her ribs. Her belly was fire. She wanted him, too, but she’d never been one to let her feelings run away with her. She pushed his hand away and scooted away from him so that her back was pressed against the passenger door of his Ford truck. “We agreed,” she said. “Not yet. Babies and college don’t go together so well.”

He sighed, leaned back, and pulled her leg up into his lap.

“Did you tell your parents?”

“That you got accepted too? Yeah. I think they’re worried you’ll distract me.”

He grinned, all white teeth and dimples. “That’s my plan.”

“Beast.”

“You won’t even need your degree,” he said. “Why would anyone want to be a teacher when they’re married to a successful architect? I’ll be making a quarter of a million dollars a year. You’ll be ordering the nanny around and getting pedicures.”

She laughed. “A nanny, eh? How many heirs do you think I’m going to produce for you, great one?”

“Three,” he said.

“You’ve given this some thought,” she said.

“Two boys who will work with me in the family firm, and a little girl who I’m going to spoil into a rotten brat.”

“Hey! Girls can work in the family firm.”

“Not my girl. She’s going to be a horrible little princess who loves her daddy more than anyone else in the world forever and ever.”

She rolled her eyes. “Sounds great.”

“It will be. You’ll see. I’m going to give you the world.”

She believed him.

§§

The suit had just about maxed out their credit card, but they agreed it was crucial he make a great first impression. Suit or not, whatever he’d said in that interview worked. He was the youngest architect on staff at the city’s largest firm. He’d told her how nervous he’d been at the interview. None of those nerves were present just then as he moved from the bedroom to what they described as “the other room” – the kitchen/living area/dining nook – in their 600-square-foot apartment.

Kate set a plate of bacon and eggs with toast on the table. “Breakfast for the conquering hero,” she said.

He kissed her and sat down. “This looks amazing,” he said.

She looked up at him. “I’m so proud of you,” she said.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet. I have a surprise for you,” he said.

“Don’t keep me in suspense.”

“I’m evil that way,” he said handing her a piece of paper. “Meet me here at 5:30.”

There was an address written on the piece of paper that she did not recognize. “What is this?”

He talked around the bite of eggs he’d stuffed into his mouth. “If I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?”

She thought about that address all day, as she took attendance, explained cell respiration to her students, marked assignments.

After school, she attended a mandatory meeting about watching kids for signs of substance abuse. Time seemed to move slowly. The speaker droned on eternally.

Finally, at 5:05 p.m., she drove her rattling red convertible (ignoring the smell of burning oil coming from the engine) to the address he’d given her. She used directions she’d looked up in an atlas in the school library during the lunch hour.

With five minutes to spare, she pulled up to a two-story house with a two-car garage. There was a red ribbon on the front door, and Freddie sat on the front steps, grinning.

She stepped out of the car and stood on the smooth blacktop of the quiet residential street with her mouth hanging open.

“Come and see,” he beckoned.

He held the oak door with the two beveled glass windows open. She stepped inside. A great room melded into the kitchen. It was light and open, spacious and breathtaking. She ran a finger over the smooth, round river rock that outlined the fireplace and chimney. Her heels clicked softly on the hardwood floors.

Standing behind her, Freddie put his hands on her shoulders. “There are four bedrooms upstairs. You know, one for us, and one for each of the kids-to-be.” He kissed the top of her head. “Do you like it?”

She turned and sobbed against his chest.

“What’s wrong? We can probably still back out.”

“No!” She managed. “It’s all just so perfect.”

He squeezed her tightly against him. “Well, there is one thing I should tell you.”

He led her through the kitchen to the garage door, and pushed it open. Inside the wide space was a brand new navy blue SUV. “You can’t drive your old beater in a nice neighborhood like this. People will think you’re casing the joint.”

She squealed and raced to sit behind the wheel. “I can’t believe you did this,” she said. “Are you sure we can afford all this?”

“Not only can we afford this,” he said, “but by the time Freddie Jr. arrives, you’ll be able to quit your job and stay home with him.”

§§

The nursery was awash in soft blue light. The baby snored softly in the round white crib.

“God, she’s so beautiful,” Freddie whispered.

“Our perfect little Brooke,” Kate agreed. She smiled at her husband. “I really love you.”

“Good thing, ‘cause you’re stuck with me.”

“I can’t believe I get to spend my days rocking this little angel.”

“Yeah, and wiping her poopy butt, and washing my dirty underwear. It’s a sweet life,” he teased.

“It really is. Thank you for giving me this life.”

He kissed her then, and led her out of the baby’s room.

§§

Kate sat on the edge of the bathtub, grinning like a fool. She could hear Brooke jumping on the bed ad singing the ABC song on the other side of the door. After more than a year of trying, she’d almost given up hope that a second baby would come, but the three little sticks on the counter all showed the same pink plus sign. She couldn’t wait to think of an extra special way to tell Freddie. He’d be over-the-moon.

She counted in her head. The baby should come before Christmas. Two little ones with gifts under the tree that year.

§§

Their third child, Matthew, was born with Phenylketonuria, a metabolic issue. “We’ll have to be very careful about his diet,” the doctor said.

Freddie stroked his infant son’s head. It seemed the poor baby hadn’t had a moment’s peace in his two and a half weeks on this earth. The tests and procedures were endless. The baby never seemed to stop crying. “Our other children never had any issues,” he said.

“How old are they?” the doctor asked.

“Two and Five,” Kate said.

“Genetic issues can skip all over a family. I suspect they’ll be fine. Little Matthew, here, is going to be fine, too. We’re just going to have to tread carefully with him.”

Kate cradled her newborn son against her chest and prayed for him to be well.

§§

“How could they cut your hours? I thought you were supposed to be a partner by now,” Kate said.

Freddie set the pan down hard on the counter. “What do you want me to do, Kate? The market crashed. No one can get a loan, so no one can buy a house. If no one is buying, no one is building. If no one is building, architects have no work. I’m the low man on the totem pole over there.”

She stood, bouncing Matty on her hip, trying to keep him calm. Trying to keep herself calm. “Are you going to lose your job?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“We could sell the house,” she said. “We don’t need such a big place, really.”

He looked at her with frustration clear in his features. “No one is buying. This house isn’t worth half of what we owe. We’re upside down on both cars. We make the payments on all of it, or we go bankrupt.”

“If anything happens I could go back to teaching.”

“And who would take care of him?” he gestured to the baby. “You can’t put him in daycare. He wouldn’t last a week.”

Kate sank down into her chair. “What are we going to do?”

He turned away and said nothing.

§§

“I got a job,” Freddie announced, closing the door behind him and kicking his shoes off before he stepped off the mat.

“Really?” Maybe everything would be OK.

“Yeah. I can stay at the firm four days a week, and bartend at Finnegan’s at night.”

He brushed past her on the way up the steps. “It’s a job, Kate. If I can make enough in a month of pouring drinks to cover the mortgage, maybe my check from the firm will pay for everything else.”

“Mama!” Brooke called down. “David’s got booger face again!”

At the sound of his sister’s shout, baby Matt began to cry. Kate cried, too.

§§

Kate stood with her back ram-rod straight. The cashmere sweater she’d received for Christmas two years ago suddenly felt much too warm. Her feet, on the other hand, turned to ice inside the leather loafers she’d purchased to celebrate her feet returning to their normal size after David was born.

As she walked away from the register, the woman behind her said, “I bet that coat cost more than my whole wardrobe. Nice to know our tax dollars are going to the needy.”

How had it come to this? she thought. They’d done everything right. This was the land of opportunity, right?

On her way out she noticed the “now hiring” sign.

The store was open twenty-four hours. Maybe she could get a job working third shift. It would only be minimum wage, and she’d never see her husband, but that’s what Americans did, right? They worked.

She climbed into the car she could no longer afford, and drove home, wishing she had never bought any of the nice things they owned. Wishing she’d never quit teaching. Wishing the economy hadn’t crashed and cost them everything. Wishing she’d never have to use that horrible bright orange card again.

The Day Trip

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The air outside the car windows already has an early spring tone here: sun-warmed yet not fully soft, still vaguely fragile. If this were home, there would be late forsythia, early daffodils. Instead, trees bright with lemons flash by. In the fields beyond, then suddenly quite close, white blimps float overhead, filming the sky. Heading south, they become more frequent, and Tobi’s father eventually stops pointing them out.

“When the peace comes,” his father says, five, six times. “When the peace comes…” He coughs. His father is narrating our trip. He has just seen a doctor. Something is wrong with his lungs. “When the peace comes, this field will be, this land will be –” he says again. Then he coughs.

We pass through towns where every bus stop boasts its own concrete bomb shelter. “And there,” his father points, “is a kibbutz that took lots and lots of rockets these last eight years, during the –” and he coughs.

We drive and drive and look and look. Stopping at a persimmon tree, he jumps out to the road’s edge and gathers fallen fruit. I join him. They’re tiny, dry, mottled orange globes. He’s faster at collecting than I am. Soon he has two handfuls, and presses them into my palms, cupping his own hands around mine, as if I were a child.

§§

We’re stopped at a gas station, and he comes out with cups of espresso. “Just here,” he says, pointing beyond the parking lot, “Forty-thousand people were crossing this road every day, in both directions, before –” and he coughs.

“This was the border crossing,” says Tobi. “The check-point.”

Now, on a Saturday afternoon, there are tourists. Droves of them, parked below a mound of earth, the highest point on the plain, from which you can look beyond into Gaza.

“There, on that hill,” his father points, “were twelve, fifteen rockets falling every day, during the –” and again the cough. The events? The disturbance? The unrest? The incursion? The invasion? The war? Is he waiting for Tobi to finish his phrase? “Have you two had lunch yet?” he asks.

Tobi and I look at each other – somewhat guiltily, as his mother fed us before we left – and I let Tobi answer no.

The smack of a meat tenderizer on chicken flesh sounds at the counter behind us. “My own father ate lunch in this restaurant every day for fifteen years,” says his father. “Because his office was just across the street.”

Tobi’s mother had walked us along this same block of the city that morning, strolling back and forth on our way past the traveler’s insurance office and the money-changer’s, the Russian quarter, the town’s first shopping center and a dried foods store, past the same restaurant she must have known his father would take us to later today. Each of them has taken us on their own tour of the old town’s same five blocks, each claiming their own stake, in our minds, of spaces central to the other’s life, tracing nebulous trails that overlap in ways they must when two people live in the same space over the course of decades without sharing its parts.

Tobi’s father drops us off at his mother’s building after lunch, then sits in the car across the parking lot until we’ve reached the door.

In the entry hall, Tobi presses the button for the elevator with an angry sudden jerk, his lip curled. “He said his girlfriend was coming with us today. That’s why my mother wasn’t coming,” he says.

Through the doors, we watch his father’s car pull off finally, slowly tracing its route to his apartment a few blocks away, as if moored like one of the white surveillance blimps to the earth. When the peace comes, I think.

Five floors up, his mother’s living room is papered with yellow roses. In a corner behind the dining table sits a collection of silk and plastic flowers in vases, sun-bleached, as is everything else near the louvered windows on the apartment’s south side, the side one avoids when a siren sounds.

After showing us how to use the coffee maker and the oven, she’d explained that, “When you hear the siren, you have five seconds, counting like this,” she’d slowly counted off the five numbers on her fingers, “to get to the stairwell.”

These days, apartments are less expensive on this side of the building. Outside, a sandy park stretches to the next building, then the next, low and crowding the horizon so you wouldn’t guess the city has any real end.

§§

In accordance with the spirit of modern convenience, the city’s archeological center is designed for drivers. You pay through your car window at an entrance booth flanked by flowerpots, then, pressing the gas pedal, continue up the drive past freshly planted flowerbeds. In theory, it is possible to see the center’s entire collection of unearthed exhibits without leaving your car seat. A Roman forum’s bleached ruins lie spread across a freshly mowed lawn as if pushed up through the green turf like teeth from gums, or dropped from the sky. On nice days like today, Tobi’s mother muses, one would normally have difficulty finding a vacant parking space, let alone a table in the picnic area. Today, though, every table is deserted. Further on, the way is blocked by a security van.

After speaking with a ranger, Tobi’s mother says, “The other side of the park is closed. Two rockets just fell over there. Only one went off. The police are coming to explode the other one.”

In due course, an ambulance pulls slowly up beside our car, followed by a military jeep. She parks, slides her seat back, lights a cigarette, and opens a magazine.

“We’ll go for a walk,” Tobi says, “Over to the Canaanite gate.”

“Come with us?” I ask his mother.

“She’s already seen it,” says Tobi.

“I’ll be in the car,” she says.

We walk along the coast taking photos of freshly planted flowers, pausing on the cliff’s edge to gaze south at the power plant supplying electricity to Gaza. Tobi’s arms are already brown from two days of sun. As we kiss, the short pop of an exploded rocket sounds from the parking lot, and birds rise from the trees in concentric rings, like a stone dropping in the water.

By the time we arrive at the marina for lunch, the air has cooled. His mother rests facing the huge modern row of buildings behind us. A dozen tiny sparrows balance on the railings above the water, watching our table with quick, anxious sideways glances.

“That’s where Tobi’s father lived after he moved out,” she says, distracting my attention from the sparrows when Tobi leaves for the bathroom. As his father’s father left behind a ruined country, his own father left a marriage. “In one of those apartments,” she says, gesturing with a back-handed wave, at once proud, vague and dismissive. This is her job, I think: to show us her apartment, the street where his father grew up, the shops, the place where his father went after he left her apartment. The before, during and after of an absence. And this is his father’s job, I think: to show up at random times in her narrative just to prove his presence, that he still exists as more than an imaginary geography.

The power plant is still visible down the coast at the beach’s far edge, supplying electricity to make our coffee and the complimentary biscuit now feeding sparrows.. Soon, as we drive home, Gaza’s lights, like those all along the coast, will flick on, the sea-blue twilight folding over the shore like a luxurious bed quilt.

§§

In the city, people lounge on white sofas in white living rooms with enormous black coffee tables and enormous black televisions, talking into telephones, playing video games and watching scenes of incredible fictional violence filmed in Los Angeles. Between calls or during commercials, they pause to say, “I’m doing an MBA. I don’t know why I’m doing an MBA, but I’m doing it.” Laughs ensue.

His father has followed us to Tel Aviv after another appointment with his doctor. “It’s not asthma,” his father says, before hanging up. “I’ll tell you about it if you’ll meet me for dinner.”

“He’s such a drama queen,” says Tobi. There’s a warm breeze between the wings of the mall, and Tobi’s sister comes out in gold jewelry to meet us, flushed from an argument with the cell phone company over her bills.

At dinner, I’m afraid to ask. I want to say the restaurant is elegant but ugly, but it’s not. It is like a beautiful country where everything is wrong. That everything is wrong seems proven by a reversed axiology flawed by only two points: nothing here is ever quite right, except coffee and a cigarette. It’s a quiet meal.

“Smoking is nice, but you pay a heavy price,” his father says as we return to the table for a second time.

§§

In night-time Jerusalem, Klimt-like faces glow fleetingly in the streets. His father drives in for dinner, and gives us a tour by car in the dark: here, a lookout point, here Tobi’s old flat, further south, down a road one shouldn’t travel at night, a checkpoint dimly displayed in the distance. A small taste of adventure. All roads lead to checkpoints, either simply because all roads do lead to checkpoints, or because his father likes to push at the boundaries of this world, to feel and share its sides, its edges. Through the darkened car windows, the distance between the Old City and the West Bank is measured only by the streetlights flashing by between them, yellow pools marking space in the black road.

In the morning over breakfast, a glimpse of a low-green valley grazed by a herd of goats on the far side of the city wall tempts me with a sudden urge to climb the hill from its far side, and I wander off alone. The city wall sits atop a mound of yellow rubble glittering with smashed bottles. Walking up is like climbing a sand dune – it shifts under the feet, and slowly accumulates bits of plastic, discarded car parts, torn bits of cloth as it rises. Up along the wall, raw spring branches are speckled with lone sparrows, and the musty odor of scraggly horses and ponies seeps out in the still, cool shadowed air between the wooden lathes of sheds. Near a low, broken, taped window indicating a house, the bark of an angry dog tied to a stake sounds, and a group of boys coagulates on a rocky mound.

“Hello, hello,” they cry in surprise, “Money-money!”

I walk on, thinking of Jesus as a stone pelts the back of my coat, then another. Entranced by a jolt of adrenaline, I see safety ahead in recognizable objects: a paved street, a garage with a car pulling out, a woman standing in a driveway, a crowd of Russians on a terrace. Tobi and I meet in the bazaar, striding on wordlessly together to the Dome of the Rock’s barbed wire (closed save for prayers; neither of us prays), down to the Gethsemane garden, up to a Muslim cemetery with dried palms stretched over graves behind the city wall. Sunset.

We were originally supposed to spend a few days at the Dead Sea with his father and the girlfriend, at a hotel where his father’s own mother, suffering from a skin disease, spent summers floating in curative water, but Tobi decides to make it a day trip. Perhaps simply to have more time alone for the two of us, perhaps to spare his mother jealousy. Early in the morning they’re downstairs loitering in the hostel driveway. Half an hour later, the sun has warmed the asphalt as his father, seeking coffee, weaves us around a herd of goats blocking the entrance to a gas station.

Then, suspended above the asphalt in our bubble of steel, glass and rubber, the four of us descend together to the lowest place on earth. Signs along the roadside mark our depth.

“The sea is shrinking every year,” the girlfriend says quietly, aligning our gaze with hers through the car window as it appears. You can see where it’s receded, the shore lined with concentric rings of salt. Jordan, a soft blue haze across the water is, in a sense, slowly growing closer.

At a seaside hotel we’ll buy swimsuits. But we won’t stay in the hotel. This is a day trip, after all. We won’t swim in the sea, but instead float in a heated pool of filtered water drawn by a spa on its shore.

“You have to be very careful to keep the water out of your eyes,” the girlfriend warns as we follow them into the pool.

“The water is full of –” his father coughs.

“It’s best just to keep your eyes closed,” says the girlfriend.

So the four of us float weightlessly, surrounded by the spa’s other visitors in our own private circle, eyes closed, legs curled embryonically beneath us in the salted water, the glancing of our limbs guiding us together.

Aether

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DAY 3

The last thing I’d heard from them was they would come for me, that they would be here in three days. Today was day three. Then a pop and crackle on the radio.

Then a voice.

“Gauthier? Gauthier, come in.”

I rush to the radio and respond, “Yes?”

“Do you have any idea what happened to the station?”

“No. No, I have no idea. All I heard was the metal groan and snap apart. I sealed myself in this section. The hatch is locked tight.” I suddenly became worried. They asked me the same thing two days ago.

“We’re at the station. It appears that your crew is gone. Everything is destroyed. We’re not entirely sure what happened there, but we’ll continue investigating. Keep your radio sending a signal. We’ll try to use that to locate you.”

I find a damaged wire and yank it off the wall, tying it around the radio button to keep the signal maintained. “I’ve got it broadcasting,” I said. “I’ll see you when you get here.”

Then nothing.

All I can hear is my heartbeat, the blood throbbing through my temples, and the sloshing of food in my stomach.

I worry about decompression primarily, but also about how long it is taking to find me. My new home is three rooms, protected from the outside by a large metal door.

I push myself off the wall and move toward one of the several pantries that were once part of the station. Upon inspection I determine I have enough food, water, and oxygen to last even if they can’t find me for a few more days.

There is very little to do but wait, so I grab a prepackaged meal with the words “Shrimp Scampi” in big, plain black letters on a foil colored pack. I crave potato chips, but food with crumbs or seasonings that can potentially find their way into the instruments aren’t allowed. I place utensils, snacks and juice on a ceil blue tray with Velcro and magnets affixed.

I stare down at the food for a long time. Any onlookers would probably think I am praying before my meal. I am not praying and I am too nervous to be hungry. Frankly, my rescue is out of God’s hands and in the hands of those searching for my radio signal.

Is some news program down there broadcasting my plight? I wonder exactly how much of an effect it has on people. I look out the hatch window and see Earth; it appears frozen and staring back at me.

No one acts as if the world is turning. Maybe that means everything is the same.

 

DAY 4

There’s not a sleep module in my section of the station. Floating, I wake whenever my head collides with something. I wake at 0237, again at 0458, and again at 0820. Eventually I stabilize myself by tying my ankles, body, and wrists to a table. My wrists need to be loose enough to tie and untie my body, so they float freely while everything else is tied securely.

I rustle around and become more worried that I have not been found yet.

After some time I untie myself and make my way to the radio console. I ask if anyone is still looking for me. I release the push-to-talk button and listen for a response.

I wait.

And I wait.

And I –

“Gauthier?” A surprised but relaxed voice crackles in. I can tell he doesn’t take thoughts of me home with him. Regardless, his voice still calms me.

“Yes. Where are you?”

“We have been trying to find you, but your radio signals seem to be bouncing off of something before they reach us,” he said. “We didn’t find you where we believed you were transmitting from. It’s delaying the process a bit, but we will be there for you.”

I wonder if he is being honest, over-anxiously optimistic, or simply trying to comfort me against the inevitable.

“Thank you. Is there anything I should be doing to help? Anything at all?” I ask.

He pauses as if trying to think up a lie. “Just keep transmitting,” he says. “Keep talking, singing, rhythmic noises. Anything we can detect with a quick sweep.”

“Okay. Will do. I’ll see you when you get here.”

Once again, silence.

It becomes more and more difficult to busy myself. I begin the dangerous activity of relaxing and thinking. Because of the low gravity, my body bends itself inward, as if in a swimming pool, approaches a fetal position, and rotates forward, always forward.

With each rotation, the prepared tray of shrimp scampi moves in and out of my vision. The ever-distant Earth does the same.

Earth.

Shrimp scampi.

Earth.

Shrimp scampi.

I realize the irony of food from the depths of the sea drifting into the heights of outer space.

I wonder if the Earth feels as I do: spinning, lost, and distant. A lone sapient planet drifting in the sun’s grasp. I wonder if I am drifting to the whims of the sun’s flame tendrils as well or if I am drifting elsewhere. A satellite or a rogue planet.

I propel myself toward the window to investigate Earth more closely. It appears to have gotten smaller. To ensure it is not a delusion caused by worry, I grab a marker and trace its circumference on the glass. I’ll know tomorrow where I am going.

 

DAY 5

After several days, I finally eat the shrimp scampi. On my tongue it feels like overdone oatmeal. I hold it against my palate until the sodium slowly works its way around my mouth. My gums and the roof of my mouth numb. I swallow.

Pushing my finger between my lips and crooking it upward, I run my finger across the weathered crags, peaks, and valleys of the roof of my mouth. As I approach my teeth, I feel the roots ever so slightly under the gums. I move forward, pressing harder. My tooth feels as if it gives slightly, but that may be the flesh of my finger. So I use the marker to get a more objective indication of whether my teeth are moving or not. I press the marker against the tip of my teeth. They’re steady. I go back to using my finger, press against the front of my teeth, feel a grainy texture, and realize I do not have a toothbrush.

My fingernails scrape up yellowed plaque like an earthmover across a vacant lot. I scrape up plaque until I can run my tongue across smooth teeth.

“Hello?” I say into the radio.

A voice crackles over the radio. “How are you doing up there?”

“I need to brush my teeth.”

A long pause. “That right?”

“Yeah. I might be able to smell my breath.”

Another pause, patronizing this time. “How do you mean?”

“My breath fucking stinks. I’ll see you when you get here,” I secure the radio again.

I wonder if my family is waiting for me to return or are they more interested in the millions they would get from the government if I drifted away forever?

I think, Maybe I’m more fascinating dead. Maybe more fascinating as conspiracy nut fodder. Maybe my son’s more interesting as the kid with the dead astronaut dad.

 

DAY 6

After being inconveniently woken up by my own rumination, I decide to busy myself with the matter of being found. I whistle scales up and down. Up and down. Major scales, minor scales. Up and down. Just trying to send a pattern out into the void.

I’ve been using the bathroom in specially sealed vomit bags. They are stuffed in small compartments throughout my station. I decide to find out whether I can get more use out of one bag. I lock two of them together and push one end toward the other. One edge buckles and a blob of urine floats off toward a wall. Trying to contain it causes more urine and feces to float out across the station. I shove as much of one bag as I can into the other, seal it, and chase the rest down with the second bag.

The old station had a purification system to reconstitute waste for drinkable water. I never understood the mechanics of it.

I look over to the hatch window. I can’t tell if my circle is any larger than Earth, but it appears to be slightly to the right. As I move toward the radio to relay my findings, the circle moves slightly to the left and encircles Earth again.

I grunt to no one in particular.

I float toward the window to get a better view of the circle. Up close the black marker does not show well against the blackness of space. An oversight. I turn the lights off and flick on my LED flashlight. The circle is still sitting perfectly around Earth. I think about using the flashlight to send a Morse code message to humanity.

Instead, I whistle scales. My jaw muscles pinch my cheeks. Like faking a smile at a party, I’m faking niceties for my rescuers and whistling while I work. Whistling is my work.

 

DAY 7

My jaw is still clenched so I begin to hum songs. Any songs. “The Alphabet Song.” “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.” Mozart’s “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman.” Anything I can think of. I try to avoid humming “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I try to figure out how far away from Earth I am. I measure and calculate and eventually give up.

“I think I see Africa,” I say to maybe somebody. I don’t want to open the channel. I don’t know if I am more worried that they’d sweep over my little section of space while the channel wasn’t broadcasting of if I am more worried no one would answer.

 

DAY 8

I spend a large amount of my day tapping a marker against the radio and eating more shrimp scampi.

 

DAY 9

I hear banging on the outside of my station. I’m sure I’m rescued, so I push myself toward the hatch. I place my hands on the latch but control myself. I don’t want to open the hatch too soon.

I look out the hatch window and find that the noise isn’t coming from a rescue team. I see my crew by the station, their bodies rolling across metal and drifting into the deep. One of them smacks face-first into the window. His open eyes are glassy from the ice and his lips are parted slightly, as if he is struggling to take one more breath. Lieutenant Bailey.

Suddenly, he snaps his eyes open and pounds on the window. It’s impossible to tell if his expression is frightened or enraged or anguished. I imagine the hands under his gloves pulverize to shards, then splinters, then icy dust. He stops pounding as suddenly as he began and drifts away from the window.

I awaken to find the ties had loosened and I’d been kicking clipboards and computers into the sides of my station. I hear the clock buzzing. When the numbers on the display change, the noise stops briefly.

This continues throughout my meals. The buzzing sends vibrations through my skin and my teeth and my forehead. I place my ear close to the clock to listen for patterns. I try to match a humming tone with the buzz. I can’t. I wonder if something is wrong with the circuitry. Maybe something is wrong with my circuitry. Maybe something’s loose in the clock. Wait, no. There are no moving parts.

I disassemble the clock anyway. The noise stops.

“I think something was wrong with my clock,” I say into the radio. “It was emitting a small buzz. Maybe that was causing interference. I don’t know.” I release the microphone. Only static over the airwaves. The throbbing breath of an infinitely large monster.

I leave it on.

 

DAY 10

I dream of Adam wandering around Eden and sitting near rivers The animals graze around him, feeding on the grass, on the trees, on everything but each other. I’m sure the self-manicuring grass feels like a down blanket for his toes. A light breeze makes its way through the garden. It doesn’t blow so much as flow around the garden.

Adam sighs and sits next to a tree. He falls asleep and his stomach opens like a robe. The skin above his ribs folds back. Blood pours to the ground, the thickness of the liquid makes it pool above the dirt. His exposed muscles twitch. They move further in and out until there is a crack. A bone tears through his flesh. The rib falls to the ground.

Earth swells up into two small hills with the rib in the valley between them. They pour into each other. Rain softens the ground and washes the blood into a throbbing mass. A hand ascends, fingers like a hydra.

A lightning strike. Four people wandering the desert. A bloody rock. A flood. Bloodstained doors and wailing parents. Crucifixions. A moon made of blood. A lamb with howling trumpets. Scrolls opened. A scorched earth. War. A dead world. Stars. Stars. Stars.

My eyes snap open. The walls look more distant than usual. I untie myself and push toward the hatch that leads to the outside. Through the window I see Earth, stars, and distant galaxies. The stars and galaxies may have died and torn everything around them asunder millions of years ago. They may have ruined countless lives.

I caught my hand moving to the latch and jerk away with a start

I move my attention toward the distant Earth. I wish I could watch it turn into an ember. I close my eyes and can almost hear the distant bombs turning continents into oceans of flame. Eventually the planet fades from a glowing red to black. I can’t feel where my body ends and everything else begins. Things no longer feel as if they’re moving into extremities, but through them. I hear low rumbles and crackles caressing me, giving me contentment I haven’t felt in days. My eyes slowly open but the noise continues. The monster in the radio, still breathing.

Faint discussions cut through the din, syllables blending with breathing static. The voices blend so well with the breathing I may have been missing them all along. Maybe it’s the monster talking.

I hear a woman speaking deliberately: “5-4-0 5-4-0 6-1 6-1 0-9-0-1-4 0-9-0-1-4 5-3-9-9-3 5-3-9-9-3”

I frantically paddle through the air to the radio. The message repeats. I write what I hear on a clipboard.

As the voice fades away I grab the microphone and scream, “It’s Gauthier! Where are you? What are you trying to tell me? Are you coming?”

The monster doesn’t breathe anymore when I release the button.

 

DAY 11

I can’t make sense of the code, even after I run the numbers through every cypher I had ever heard of.

Out of frustration, I crumple the papers I had been working on but am careful not to destroy them in case I need them later. In case the numbers mean something. In case someone is coming.

In my periphery I see a red bug scurry behind monitors mounted on a wall panel. We’d used those monitors for tests we’d been running. No use to me now. With tools from another compartment, I remove the panel. I see a scuttling red figure shoot toward the pantry. I push my way through the station like a rower pushing off rocks. I chase the bug around the pantry for what feels like hours. The idea of touching another life again invigorates me.

The bug and I finally meet on my makeshift bed. He is a fairly large beetle with a glossy red shell, long legs, black underbelly, and a horn on his head. Reaching out to touch him, I find that my fingertips brush against nothing. The beetle hisses at me. Then squeals. Then screams. The penetrating noise follows me as I try to escape. It stays all around me, relentlessly chasing me around the station.

My throat gradually feels increasingly raspy. I cough violently. The screaming stops.

 

DAY 12

Waking up, I untie my ankles, body, and one wrist, but can’t muster the energy to untie the other. I’m surprised I hadn’t broken a sweat from the exertion because I somehow felt heavier.

I let my body relax and move around like a windsock in a weak tornado. Nausea sets in and I weep.

 

DAY 13

A thrilling excitement interrupts my sleep. I swim toward the radio, press the button and ramble off every thought that comes into my head, a memoir for the aliens, whether they be on Earth or in the furthest ends of the galaxy. As I reach the present day in my audio autobiography, I feel a sense of accomplishment. That, I think, may have been the best radio show ever broadcast.

I release the radio.

I tear the wires away and sat contented. The joys of surrender begin immediately.

 

DAY 14

I untie my legs, body, and wrists from the table and make my way to the pantry. I walk myself forward with my hands pressed over my head and my feet below me. The feeling of pressure against my feet brings back memories.

In the pantry, I rummage through the food packets. The “Spicy Green Beans” were retooled by a celebrity chef on Earth and quickly became one of my favorite foods on the station. Another, “Appetizing Appetizer,” is a mystery overall, but the spices leave a lasting impression on the tongue. Other foods are too bland to taste in zero gravity. Finally, I find what I’ve been searching for, “Freeze-Dried Vanilla Ice Cream”. I eat excitedly, yet methodically, savoring every morsel.

For some time, I stare out at Earth and wonder less about civilization and more about the Earth itself. I see the planet reverse its spin, turning faster and faster. The continents begin to shift together, the seas dry, the world glows red, then fades to black. Explosions send chunks of rock shooting into the solar system. I watch the moon heat up, rip apart. The remnants encircle the Earth. Debris bombards the planet. A new planet forms out of the scorched Earth like Athena from the head of Zeus. This new orb drifts away and what remains of the Earth crumbles into dust around the sun.

I blink and the Earth is green and blue again.

Once again, I fiddle with the locks and mechanisms sealing me in. I prepare, closing my eyes. I see the sun expand and shed the cocoon of its outer layers. I grip the handle. Planets drift out of their orbits. I twist the lever. The sun grows brighter. The suction pulls at me. The sun throbs rhythmically and violently, shooting layers of its atmosphere in all directions and fracturing the escaping planets. I fight to pull the door open against the violent vacuum of space and the shrunken sun fades from red to black.

I rip the door open and lean out of my station, open my eyes, and see Earth as it is. Everything in my line of sight reddens. Space rips the air from my lungs. The saliva on my tongue boils.

I push off toward Earth. I have rescued myself.

The Old Yellow Dog

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Nathan was frozen. He carried a cold shotgun with mittened hands. He followed the procession out of the woodland of his childhood like a performer in a parade. It was a sad parade, like a funeral parade. The weary men tramped through the brushwood on and on across treacherous uneven ground leaving their tracks in the fallen snow. Nathan was by far the youngest of them. He was only a boy, and he watched the medical techs up ahead through a boy’s eyes. Those uniformed men were breathless and resting of their burdensome load. Nathan circled around them with the other frozen fellows. All of them were armed with rifles. He could see the labored wisps of breath coming from the mouths of the responders as they leaned heavily upon the stretcher. And upon that stretcher was strapped the covered body of his friend and neighbor, Butch Lester.

At last the troop was rested. The men moved once again through the snowy thicket. Nathan caught a glimpse as they trudged along, or perhaps the shadow of a glimpse of yellow fur through the brush. Get away! He tried to project the words in silence. He glanced around wondering if anyone else had seen the dog. It seemed that no one had. No one was talking. Everyone seemed lost in their thoughts. Heads were cast downward. Steps were being minded on the slippery forest floor. Nathan risked another look but didn’t see any other sign of the dog. Maybe he hadn’t seen anything at all.

Finally, the crowd of hunters made it out of the woods. Nathan noticed that shards of ice clung to the beards of the men. Their camouflage clothing clashed with the he police-like uniforms that the medical techs wore. This time, the medical techs sat their load on the frozen ground beside Nathan’s grandfather’s hog lot. They stood catching their breaths. Jay Lester patted his brother Rolland on the back and then draped an arm across his shoulders and held him close for a moment. Then he broke that embrace and walked on, passed the hog lot. He did not slow down as he passed by the smoke house and the peach trees. The bee hives standing between the trees were quiescent and covered in six inches of new snow.

One by one, the others left too—a dozen in all—thirteen in, twelve out. They all left silently. There was no talk. There wasn’t anything to say. Soon they’d all made their way across the barnyard to the driveway. They got into their trucks and started them up, and then vanished down the snow covered road toward Jay’s farm. The Overbays were the closest neighbors. Nathan watched them pulled into their driveway a hundred feet down the road.

The two medical techs once again heaved up the heavy stretcher and sallied on across the snowfall to where their ambulance was parked in the pull-off just across the road. Nathan’s grandmother strode out of her kitchen onto the back porch of the farmhouse alert to the uneasy quietness. Across the bare garden space, that same uneasy quietude brought Hazel Lester out of her house. The wind blew through Hazel as she stood like a wraith staring across the way at Rolland. Then her eyes followed the trail of the medical techs to the ambulance, into which they were loading Butch’s body.

Hazel’s cry pierced the crisp snowy afternoon. Nothing had been said, nothing needed to be said. The silence said it all. Nathan soldiered across the barnyard bearing his shotgun in tired arms and climbed the concrete steps to the back porch where his grandmother stood like a statue in her long-sleeve cotton print dress. She put an arm around the boy and hugged him to her side. “You’re just about froze,” she said. “You come on in and get warm by the stove.”

Nathan and his grandmother went inside to a warm kitchen while his grandfather and cousin Rolland talked in the cold of the morning. His grandmother busied herself making hot coffee. Nathan propped his 410 shotgun gingerly in the corner by the tall stool upon which he usually sat at mealtimes. “I don’t want that shotgun no more,” he said. He pulled off his hunting mittens and laid them on the painted stool. He unzipped his camouflage hunting jacket. He pulled it off his shoulders and laid it atop his mittens.

“What happened out there?” his grandmother asked.

“Butch fell on his shotgun and killed himself.” Nathan said.

“I knew you were too young to go on that hunt,” said his grandmother. “Why did Basil take you along? You’re only ten years old.”

Then the screen door screeched open and Nathan’s grandfather pushed inside and closed the cold wind out behind him. Nathan took up his shotgun from the corner and held it out to his grandfather. “I don’t want this shotgun no more,” he said.

Basil eyed the boy thoughtfully. “You clean that weapon and put it on the rack,” he said. “And I don’t want to hear no sass.”

Nathan nodded and carried the shotgun down the hallway. His footfalls clunked upon the parquet floor. He took off his snow boots and sat them in their place. He gathered his cleaning kit and sat at the mirrored desk in the corner of his bedroom. He carefully unloaded the weapon just as his grandfather had taught him. And then he took up the brush from his kit and dabbed it in a little gun oil. At last, he began scrubbing the carbon off the weapon’s bolt.

At last, Nathan ran an oiled patch through the bore of that shotgun. He remembered the day that his grandfather first taught him to shoot. It was back in the summer when Nathan’s days began early. He and his grandfather were up long before breakfast. They milked the old Jersey cow. Nathan squirted warm fresh milk at the barn cats and laughed. Grandfather scolded him a little for being wasteful. Then he grinned. They took grain to the steers in the pasture. They fed the chickens. Fed the hogs. All before his grandmother called them in to breakfast.

For her part, Mary prepared fried eggs with salt and pepper and gravy. She baked fresh biscuits. She fried ham and sausage. There were sliced tomatoes on the side. There was fresh blackberry jam. And honey. Nathan was starved and ate a heaping plateful. His grandfather enjoyed a plateful, as well, and, afterward, sipped a cup of hot coffee while his grandmother washed up the dishes. Nathan had fresh milk to drink. After breakfast they all went out to work in the garden, Grandmother too.

In the garden there were long straight rows of sweet peas. There were half-runners attached to stakes and cucumbers growing in mounds. There was a lettuce patch and hills of yellow squash There were rows of pinto beans. Rows of zucchini. There were tall tomato plants and potato hills. There were turnips, corn, and beets. The three weeded with hoes. Nathan took a break about midmorning and peeled a fresh turnip, and he ate it with a little salt from his grandmother’s kitchen. His grandmother brought ice water and fresh lemonade to the shade of the big weeping willow in the yard beside the garden. Nathan had played under that old tree since he could remember among the ants and spiders and all sorts of bugs that loved that tree too.

After supper, his grandfather got Nathan and took him out past the smokehouse. “We need to have a talk,” he said.

Nathan looked up at his grandfather solemn-like.

“Roland tells me that you’ve been feeding that old yellow bitch from the woods out back of the hog lot. Is this so?”

Nathan shook his head no.

“Don’t lie to me, boy. Now, have you?”

“I like that dog,” Nathan said. “She got between me and a sick fox once and saved me from getting bit. So I friended her. I fed her just like you said. But I bet it was Butch that told on me.”

“That’s a wild dog, boy. And it runs with a pack. Roland’s afraid they’ll start stealing chickens.”

“That old yellow girl ain’t stole no chickens. Maybe a weasel will steal a chicken. Maybe a chicken hawk will. Maybe a fox will. ”

Basil sighed; he ran a hand through his shock of gray hair. “You wait here, boy,” he said. “It’s time you learned to shoot.”

Nathan thought he was about to get his hide tanned, but no, his grandfather was really going to teach him to shoot. Nathan had waited for that moment all his life. He remembered all the times when Jay and Rolland and the neighbors had come to his grandfather’s after work. Or sometimes they came on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes they brought guns to show or to trade. Nathan’s grandfather had one of the finest gun collections in the county. Sometimes they came without guns to talk and look at his grandfather’s guns. Nathan had always been there. But nobody had paid him any attention much. But now he bet they would. Now, he’d know how to shoot.

At last, his grandfather showed up with a .22 lever action rifle. “Look here,” he said. He showed Nathan how to load cartridges into the ammo tube. Then he put the weapon in the boy’s hands.

“What do I do with it?” Nathan asked.

His grandfather showed him how to hold the weapon firmly in the crook of his shoulder. “Now, focus on the front sight, and line it up in the center of the rear sight. Now hold the front sight in front of your target. Now stop breathing and squeeze the trigger.”

Nathan took aim at a bean can on a post and fired. He hit the target dead center. His grandfather smiled. Nathan cocked the weapon and fired again. A miss. “You lost your form,” his grandfather said. “Get back in your stance.” By evening, Nathan was shooting fairly well. His grandfather’s coaching had paid off. The busy summer days passed quickly. Some shooting was a part of Nathan’s daily routine most every day.

Fall of the year came around and, before Nathan knew it, the garden was picked clean. His grandfather had killed a hog, and the hams and shoulders were hanging in the smokehouse. The tang of thick camp smoke was in the air. His grandmother had stocked the shelves in the basement with canned tomatoes. There were canned green beans and potatoes. Canned beets. Canned pintos and corn. There were canned carrots and squash. The freezer was filled with Turnips. There was corn on the cob. There was bacon. Sausage. Side meat and tenderloin. There was wild game that Nathan and his grandfather had brought home from the forest. Turkey, Venison, and Rabbit.

Outside, the summer greenery had turned to ruby red, sparkling gold, and lavender. Nathan spent his days in school, which he liked almost as much as he liked shooting. He spent his evenings communing with those brilliant fall colors. Then a chilly wind sent Nathan indoors. It blew all those russet leaves to the cold ground.

A snow took pity come November and covered all the auburn undergrowth. One Saturday morning his grandfather woke Nathan up early. “Dress warm,” he said. “And load your shotgun with some buckshot.”

Nathan was surprised to see Jay Lester and his brother Rolland when he made it to the kitchen. Earl and Jerry and Carter were sitting at the table sipping coffee. Butch was sitting on Nathan’s favorite stool. Nathan was uneasy. He’d never been around Butch much except when he was about to get into trouble. Graham Overbay and his son Michael and three men Nathan didn’t know were in the dining room at the big table that was used only for company. His grandmother was busy keeping all their coffee cups filled. She gave Nathan a jelly biscuit, and then she gave him another one wrapped in a napkin to go in the pocket of his hunting jacket.

At last, all the men drained their cups. There was much nervous talk. Nathan could feel an excitement he’d never before felt. Everyone had their hunting rifles with them. Carried like weapons of war. He noticed that his grandfather carried his Benelli semi-automatic 12 gauge. It was the first time Nathan had ever seen him carry that prized possession. Out the door the men filed into the bite of the frigid winter morning.

Across the barnyard, they trudged through the stinging wind toward the woodland. Nathan’s retreat and refuge. That enchanted forest where he’d roamed and played since he was old enough to walk. He had hunted there with his grandfather many times. But now he strode silently with the others. Each man was an experienced hunter and knew the value of a noiseless approach. Past the chicken house they marched in a single-file line. Past the smokehouse. Past the peach trees and the beehives. Past the hog lot and into the snowy wood, they walked.

Nathan’s grandfather was known to be a skilled tracker. It was said that Basil Ratliff could track a snake across the surface of a pond. So Basil led the way. On and on the troop traveled through the dense snowy forest. At last, Basil stopped short and pointed to his right. Jay Lester headed that way, Rolland and Graham Overbay followed close behind. The others followed suit moving in single file. At last the men encircled a thick patch of wild blackberry.

The brush was thick, so Nathan couldn’t see his grandfather over to his left. But Butch was crouched about forty feet to his right by a Hawthorne tree. Then the dogs caught wind of the men and the howling began. Nathan didn’t know exactly how many dogs there were. He guessed about a dozen or fourteen. About the same number as the number of men who were there to kill them.

Then the first shots rang out, some of them finding their marks. High pitched wails of pain reverberated through the wood. Then the thick brushwood in front of Nathan began to rustle. A large brown and white dog ran in a panic straight toward him. A big male. The dog saw him and turned and scrambled the other way, toward Butch.  Nathan waited for the animal to turn again, but it growled a fierce growl instead and continued straight for Butch. Butch raised his weapon, but Nathan heard no report. The terrified look on Butch’s face told Nathan that his weapon had misfired. Still the dog dashed onward.

Nathan raised his shotgun and trained his sights just below the dog’s right ear and squeezed the trigger. The dog jerked his head once before falling over and lying still on the frozen forest floor. Butch stood staring at the dead animal as it lay just a few feet from him. A crimson patch formed on the snow around it. Then the thicket in front of Nathan began to rustle once again.

This time it was the old yellow dog that Nathan had befriended. It was breaking toward the area between Nathan and Butch. Nathan decided quickly to let it pass. All it wanted was to get away. To his horror, however, Butch had his sights on the dog. “Don’t shoot,” Nathan yelled. He headed over toward Butch.

Butch eyed Nathan coolly. “You shot one,” he said. “I get to shoot one too.” He fired and barely missed the animal.

Nathan closed the distance between them. “I said don’t shoot.” He stepped up and put a hand on Butch’s weapon knocking his aim askew.

Butch pushed Nathan back and set his sights once again on the dog, but it was too late. The old yellow dog had disappeared into the thicket. Butch ran furiously over to where the dog had vanished. “Let it go,” Nathan yelled.

That’s when Butch stepped in a hole obscured by the snow and tumbled headlong down an embankment. Nathan ran toward where Butch was floundering in the snow drift. But something was horribly wrong. Butch’s shotgun cart wheeled under him and the barrel wound up pointed under his chin. His finger was still on the trigger. Nathan saw the blast like it was a gory figment of war. He didn’t remember hearing it.

Nathan saw that muffled, exploding blast again as he sat at his desk. He steadied himself by focusing on cleaning his shotgun. At last, he considered how the men had reacted to what had happened. They’d been sorely aware of the gravity of the nature of the accident. There was no doubting this. But the thing that surprised Nathan was that no one examined the role the gun played. No one seemed to have given this a single thought. The gun was an accepted fixture in the household. He gave his own shotgun one last polishing, just as his grandfather had taught him to do, before hanging the weapon on the gun rack.

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

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I was.

There you were and I was looking at a newspaper with my body in the body of your imagination. The hope of your return kept my blood running through windy plains. I paced up and down a nervous room of frail voices. What if you do not arrive! I assert that you are a cloud that collides with the red mountain. My death is your presence. I wait for the singular moment that will throw me out of gear. In body passing out of its senses I catch the fever of life. All that I lived, the love I felt in the eye, the pursuits of the soul – they happened in a moment when I was away to meet a friend without a name. I rose and fell as happens to waves under the spell of the moon. I rolled in the sand of phantasms. I leaned across railings of a bridge feeling the sensation of going into sunlit waters far below the edges of perception. I do not fall because I reconcile with you. The differences of a lifetime came to view. I could not go down without expressing ineptitude when it came to words. I held you the way a soldier needs to feel the hilt of a sword. I brandished the sword in the wind but the cold would not die. I fought you in the desire that ran through my skin. Your quietness had a deadly effect on me. You had a way of keeping rage within the shape of silences. My worlds that were a collection of images collapsed faster than day in the lap of night. All my losses put together came to one moment. I gave up the one moment to be freed of mortality. I gave up nothing. I was looking for the sound of happiness.

I moved into the heart of forms. I came out of a mirror glued to time. My suffering is illogical or it would never be mine. I squeezed the flesh out of music. I was sad as a person who misses a lottery by a single digit. The cursing of fate became a pastime for the heart’s tongue. I kept pummeling invisible walls with bare hands. My hands turned into a semblance of skeletal images covered with flesh. It seemed unreal until I saw blood flow into the hollowness that became the life of my hands. The child I abandoned to the universe became a singer. The child that was mine suffered. I took the suffering child in my arms. I cried through my prayers. I asked for help. I screamed in the direction of the stars. No one heard me. The world was a lonely place. I asked the abandoned child to pray for her sisters. I regret the illusions that kept my youth occupied.

I was desperate to be normal. I wanted normal joys. I write my end as if I were on stage declaring my innocence to an audience that has already left. I called upon emptiness to vindicate the life I wrought in a moment. The hard part was giving up sadness that smiled through lips as if that is where it was born. Sadness slipped from the face and the dreamless sleeper came out of my death. In my illusion I escaped the clutches of death. In freedom I looked for death to release the face of the moment. The moment would not outlive me. Neither would I be able to come out of absence. The slender paradox of time and infinity was the dominating paradigm of my life. I let infinity replace time because I knew what it meant to be a person in the bliss of love. I took the illusions of living seriously. I go through the loneliness of infinity before I get past time.

 

Neighborhood.

We live among other selves. The person I feel for the most is my neighbor. I knew she was not one person. The friend together with the enemy became one body. When I say you must believe in yourself it means you are certain of the monsoons to come. In certainty of water running down the face we were young in the afternoon of our first days. The air absorbed our dreams. We walked down the road facing the sea. Backgrounds floated through our bodies. It did not matter where we stood. We could be anywhere in the cosmos locked in one thought that brought me into you. I felt the oneness of a life given to fire in water. I dream of living in the times of your body. Our friendship locks us in an unforgettable tune. One cloud and the wetness of dark feelings. We came out of time and passed out on a bed of straw. Tired we barely noticed the sun warming the room. Out of isolated happiness came the need of a friend. I encase my ecstasy in stories of the miraculous arrival of the guest whose lips I tasted in a dream. I wasn’t dreaming. It could be an act of consciousness. I was attributing the quality of dreaminess to the lips of the guest. Love infects the air in the neighborhood. Stories upon stories and lips drunk with the sweetness of the guest who arrived at dawn. In clouds gently breaking apart to let in the light I took the guest into the formless body of the dark escaping into the belly of the sky. Were we ever separate at any point in time? I’ve little to offer as an individual. I owe the power of dreams to dissect reality to a parachute falling through the heavens. Nothing is faster than light and neither is the parachute. I speculated on the possibility of moving beyond time. In a parallel lightless universe I had the tenacity of the blind. The neighbor is a body with my eyes. Through her is my knowledge of the sources of water in a traveler’s deserts.

 

True to thyme.

Beauty is the background to cruelty. I reject the cruelty of the beautiful. What happens to man when power enters his bones? The man who seeks to preserve the beautiful is the cruelest of men. He preserves it in the violence of body against body. I prefer being true to thyme rather than beauty. In beauty I’m a man. In thyme I’m a possibility. Beauty is the dogma of truth. In thyme compassion is truth. Why do I need beauty if I can live without malice! The smell of thyme is all there is to meaning. The wars of the beautiful stain the earth with petals drenched in the blood of men. I give up the beautiful for the hills and the lakes. I drop down on the banks of the river and beg forgiveness from death that nature has spared me of. Cruelty I’ve given the earth that reciprocates with the calm of the mist. I’ve a long way to go before night catches up with memories of my beating heart. I pass towns where my open eyes barely see anything beside the long spell of the dark. My body is awake. I feel the soft breath of a child in my arms. I feel alive in thyme. I must’ve been dead for a long time. My passion for beauty died in the dream that overshadowed sleep.

I came to terms with images to which I brought pain. The reconciliation was a revulsion I felt for the manhood I stood upon in the glare of morning light. Such was the beauty of the morning that my feet stuck to the ground. Injured in the foot I was seized with fear. I did not want to die no matter what. Habit brought the beautiful together with the cruel. I was lost to thyme. I was vindictive for the same reason that I brushed my teeth and took a shower. It was a sign of cleanliness. I cannot bear a polluted body. The body had to be rid of the pollutant. I took the moral burden of making a clean world. I was destined to torment the ugly until nothing of it was left on earth. I keep the beautiful the within bounds of the self. In murder I found the answer to the question of the beautiful. I lost nights to uncertainty. I regain them in the murders of the beautiful. I burnt and plundered villages and towns until the truth of thyme occurred in passing. I saw my reflection in the greater cruelty of another man. I saw who I am in the twinkling of eyes that spoke little even as they acted out the worst forms of sadism. The smile hurt me because it resembled mine and could’ve been me. The music of evil roused in me one last cry of loss. It is neither the beautiful I seek nor the cruel. I call upon the kindness of water to forgive men the unforgivable need to possess the scent of thyme.

 

Hide-and-seek.

I made it look like I was born to hide. Hiding is language as seeking is nature. I hide in what I say. I seek what I never find – the person that I’m not. The conviction of your existence is in doubt. I feel you with the senses. I know the breath of your mouth coming out of my tongue. The need to believe is hunger and thirst with equal force pulling the body apart. In the need looking for succor I reject you though you are all that I seek. Your suffering deludes me into closing my eyes. I’m far from letting you tear the blinds covering my sense of self. I reconcile the personae of my body with the logic of superstition. I find that more acceptable than you being the person that I am. I cannot bear to believe that you are me. I cannot be normal. I fear the loss of sanity. I fear suffering in your place. My body is used to delusions of itself as a dreamer of elephants. The poor thing does not know better. I dare not disappoint the body by bringing you into my life. I seek you as death seeks life. I’m not willing to die so that you live.

 

Beneath.

I was standing beneath a streetlight watching rain fall with the smallness of rice. I’m willing to live in the pessimism of a body with no truth. I hide from you. I hide from love that escapes the prison of a word. I hide from all that is less than obvious. I know the world I’m intoxicated with. I am the dolphin in both air and water. I command fantasies to become stages for audiences to gaze at my childishness. What flows beneath the knowledge I acquired through replication of patterns of roses is an undercurrent of silence upon silence. I shirk away from what does not turn into sound. I was born with a cry and there was no need for silence. I was silent in the few moments when I did not hear my breathing. I jumped with fear in the bones. I cannot bear not being real and yet in wild undercurrents I could not recognize anything that closely resembled me. Silence was another world from a dark period. I’m used to accumulating feelings that burst into words when I no longer contain them.

 

Truimphalism.

Trite is the sun of yesteryears. Memory is the invention of culture. It is musical for someone like me who takes pleasure in tunes dancing in the head. The little devils that are sounds make the day go faster. I’m simplistic when it takes so much to be simple. I turn on my feet spinning through untimely orbits. I’m zigzagged for short of reasons to go in a straight line. I’m true to voices that are not mine. Alone I’m sinister. In company I’m as sinister as you are. Stranger to strangers I’m stranger to the one in the mirror that cannot hold itself from breaking down each time I look at it. I walk with a raised head to watch birds. I fall into ditches dug for nobody. I’m suspicious of my deviousness. I’m amazed by the ease with which I walk into stories of betrayals. My life is one long moment of complicity in a series of murders I did not commit. I do the most unforgivable act with innocence that makes you cry. The child in me cultivated a taste for truimphalism. I cannot help being the sweetness of all I see. For a hurt I eliminate villages born out of centuries of imagination. I cannot bear the isolation of beauty. I preferred the ugliness of cities where I disappear into a lane with barely livable houses. I walk into the house with a cinema poster in it. The union of opposites happens behind closed doors. The boy who took me to the house straight from the bus stop pulled a cigarette out of my pocket. I wanted instant gratification in the body of the prostitute. The demands never come to an end. The prostitute knew what it took to be one. She referred to herself as the ‘family type.’ I smiled at the appropriateness of the term. The family created the prostitute. I never knew how wooden a body could be until I felt the one on the floor. I took her with vehemence of the dying. The rules were laid out and she was in no mood to compromise. A job had to be done as far as she was concerned. I finished my part and went out waiting for the friend in the other room. An old woman was threshing rice. I watched listlessly.

 

Compos mentis.

A good part of life goes with you out of your mind. Rarely do you go by the plan made in the clarity of twilight. You’re posing for a photograph. The senses are deviants by nature. The critical thing in my body is a line of sensuality coming on the page with irony and transcendence. You never write for a person. You write for an abstraction into which a person is made to fit as one puts a photograph in an empty frame. Artists are makers of frames. I saw myself in lines of writers who never dreamt of my existence. No one is fully compos mentis. I weathered situations that left me crawling for my humanity. No one has seen a calm river and fail to repent for the excesses of life. The detachment of water is the mind absorbed in the dark. In waters far from thoughts we spilt blood that did not belong to our clan. We extended brutality to women that failed to keep the integrity of body and soul. Manhood is a process combining history and environment. No one is born a man.

 

Inflections.

In wine I felt the voice beckon me to dusk. The voice changed as night progressed in the intensity of subtle variations. I was counting the frequencies in a love maker’s voice. At the point I felt silence I knew the answer to the night. It was a brightly lit room with a carpet in the middle. I promised myself never to experience the infinite without wine in the background to bring me back to the real world. I was afraid to transcend without the strength of wine. The wine in the voice took my heart. I rejected irony as I approached the body without limits. Through the voice I figured out the length of the night. Wine, myself and the night of the voice – three factors and the number of rooms kept increasing proportionately to accommodate the music from the window. I was bewilderingly close to the forgetting that kicks the bucket of time back into the dark well of the cosmos. Go any way you like but you come to the point that is outside the town. The outsider is an artist when it comes to memorizing ways. You never forget the ways of the body that become one with yours in the wine of forgetting. You return to the body as one remains an outsider for no reason. I knew I was talking to the dust in a voice without inflections and light from the hills staring at me as I contemplated beauty that passion resurrected in the corpse of time.

 

Sketchy.

I collected rare instances of silence to make a sketch of a perfect life. I left it incomplete because I had dreams to dab the sketch. I was wistful during late afternoons and sensual as the night fell into my ears with the cricket in the background. The dance was the stroke of many feet in rhythm. At midnight there was nothing left but wait for the dawn. I asked for color to make the eye lively. I strove for memories of hands moving upon the skin of a lying body. In the marshes light takes the color of strangers looking for a time outside time. We were young and rivers ran inconclusively. The faith in creation was a moment. Something had to be created for such faith to be possible. The recreation was a face in a white moment of sunlight. The spirit of art came into hands that suffered. I held the raging heat of the times to my bosom. How could the mother let go the child in the surging tide to come! I preserved what I could of moments of madness in the soul. The waters took me past the rock. Consciousness had no meaning to me other than the spirit. The light I perceived was the abyss that rose from the cave of the spirit to worlds at hand. The spirit embraced bleak thorns with love of music from a sensitive hand. The knowledge of spirit is greater than the attempt at recreation. The joy of recreation is in imitation of the face envisioned in fire as it breaks out at the center of a forest in a valley. Light rose from the ashes to the stars. A prison without windows is a tomb. I’m entombed in the sweetness of spirit. I rejoice in stars shining through the ashes of the senses. In bodies across time I make homes. My aloneness is spirit that cannot be identified. In death I’m connected to life. The sketchy portraits I make are spirit in waiting for the gloom of shadows to pass away. It would not matter if I never existed to sing the song of infinite praise. My life is a frail occasion in a sea of occurrences. The sea and my life serve the blankness of imagination before death becomes sleep.

 

Time capsule.

I don’t have a language of my own. I keep telling myself that such a language does not exist. Death has taken the irony out of words. Pain simplifies the truth. The mad person wants to go further than time. Madness was my life on roads where people are tokens of laughing faces. I’m touched by the seriousness of made-up rooms. I could die or kill for them. My self is invested in walls I bequeath children. My dreams are edgeless spaces. The negotiation I imagined taking place in the blood is false. Civilization is another name given to failures of the spirit. Contaminated legacies are unnatural. My humanity is my will to renunciation. I negate the illusion that comes in the way of the spirit. I create for the joy that connects my body to the dead and the unborn. I associate the security of comfort with the distance it creates between past and future with me lost in an isolated present. I don’t reject technology. I reject inequality. I don’t reject the senses. I reject sensuality. I don’t reject the body. I reject whatever forgets the spirit. I don’t reject happiness. I reject the happiness that comes without sharing. I don’t reject pain. I reject that which drugs pain to sleep in the guise of ideology. I reject desire but not passion. I reject attachment but not love. I reject institutions but not people. I could never reject individual persons. I embrace the communes of strangers even if they are made of two persons who believe that a single act of sacrifice is meaningful to the universe. Interestingly I’m the novelist who likes to parade her likes and dislikes. Either I reduce the scope of the novel or poke fun at the simplicity of the genre. I did both, which is what Solomon the wise or the Buddha would’ve done.

 

Decanter.

The instant I forget wine I’ve given up thinking of decanters. Liberation is a comic instant of merriment. You catch me dancing without a glass in hand. What flows in my body is wine not blood. I respect intoxication. I cannot be a poet but for that. I make a stone sing but I cannot think in an orderly fashion. I blame the drunkenness of the body for that. I die in an odd corner of the night. I wouldn’t know what took me away while I was praising you with lips of the spirit. You’re my drunkenness and without you I’m a useless decanter meant to be recycled in a factory.

 

The Door and the Staircase.

I was elusive when it came to descriptions. I narrowed the degree of visualization to monkish levels. I was an ascetic in the sparseness with which I took objects seriously. It is never easy to be voluble about what you face each day – brutalized landscapes that are masculine in bitterness. My description is facile. It is easier to betray than be factitious. Betrayal is performance that goes against self-preservation. There is no heroism in being untruthful to an audience of liars. I got the idea of a door and a staircase from a movie.  The misreading of the colonized is unwittingly profound. The door I enter does not lead to the staircase. The staircase is nowhere near the door. In the imagination I see both of them standing parallel to each other. I feel as though I must go through one magically only to realistically come out of the other. That is how I see words. Each sentence is parallel to the other one. A sentence is either a door or a staircase. The disconnection is maintained. I make a frame of disconnections. I keep alive the paradox that makes me an alternate writer. I see the thing so obvious that it blurs the eyes like the poverty of the poor or the domination of men. Passion makes me say things in spurts. I cannot imagine doing things any other way without being pretentious.

 

Prime Mover.

Everything boils down to the eyes. Cool water on a summer afternoon and the eyes bursting with life. My fainting fits begin with the eyes. I’m exhausted because I haven’t eaten all day. Bread and salt dilemmas are real as far as the eyes are concerned. Who knows the hunger of the heart better than the creature sleeping beyond my eyes! At some point I ignored my eyes. I refused to look in any direction except inward and then I wasn’t looking at all. I moved the world that I saw in the blindness I was born with. I often thought about the real world – if it really existed at all. How different was that world from the one I saw with the eyes used to making stories. Was childhood real? Were pain and anger real? Was the ‘I’ who imagined death in the bones real? My hatred of God – was it real? Were the eyes of friends that hurt my sensitive skin real? Was the music or the love real? The millions of times I felt mocked and forgotten for no reason – were they real? They are real in the compassion I feel toward strangers. I’m no stranger to myself. I inhabited this body all my life. If death is a process of quitting I make peace with the stranger I feared without reason. I gave my blessings to the eyes that barely uttered a word. I saw beauty in the ugliness of life at the bottom where men and women managed to keep their humanity from drowning in a bile-green sea. From a scholar on the gaze I became a poet of the eyes. The inhumanity of others is the possibility of what I’m capable of doing given the situation of the other person. This does not justify inhumanity. It is one reason why I must love you unconditionally or not love at all. I’m moved by all that I do not see with the faith that I’m at the center of the troubled heart of the world. Eyes in the dark float upon silence.

 

Captivity.

Admonish me as much as you like and I stick to surfaces. The insecurity is obvious. I say things and leave them incomplete like a broken track in the middle of a forest. I think it is strategic. You laugh at my impunity. Time is not a factor. I don’t condemn the pleasure of dreaming. I invested my being in dreams. The love I believed in came from streets that did not make a fetish of the past as I do. The oppressed squeezed through life as through prison gates. I’m struck by the dream that makes them human in their quirkiness. In the demeaning dirt of the world there is a timeless moment for one who shares the plight of those pushed into drudgery. I broke the power of drudgery with love I felt for the poor whose work gave reality a basis in truth. There’s a point beyond which a person embraces death rather than accept to live without reasons. That is an intensely human moment for any person. You’re encountering death that is musical as life itself. Bred in captivity the bird chose to fly into the dark. I drew the contours of my kingdom from the moon to the horizon. I was centered in the moon. I changed with progression of cycles. In the horizon I saw the circumference of dreams. I grew old looking at faces as I traveled while being looked at in the curious way that we identify with strangers.

 

Years.

Rain spread into the makeup giving a distorted look to the face. I don’t sleep easily for lack of music in the eye. I look straight to impose thoughts on you that avert my gaze. I was trying to learn what you felt about me. My breast aches for a clean face. I never saw how my face looked without makeup. I touch it with a slight gesture before I look in the mirror. Years melt the faces of my face. No music comes out of distorted lines. An unbridgeable gap is formed between thoughts of others and who I am. I dig a hole in the earth of my soul that I may find you in the gray sea. I saw the road to you within myself. The web of past tense lost its charm. It kept me too much in closeness to the color of sensation. Green leaves turn gray with spring bequeathing her child to autumn. Things go by and the return does not assure that the letters you posted bring answers to questions as you drink music of swaying cornfields with lips of wine. Hands made histories that isolated language and the mind from working hands. I restored morality to the hands of history. The future belongs to children that I did not bring into this world. There might be other worlds, but going to one without children is a pointless one. Timelessness is a dream of the body. Nature refuses persistence. The mind bends toward death. The longing to cross the sea is a feeling that I could find the horizon. Islands along the way and countries where the sad eyes of men are momentarily awake to the sight of a rose from a distant past. I lived your past. I dreamt your future. Your look made me cry. It wasn’t your look. The way you placed your hands close to your breast and looked at the sea. It was a scene from a movie I imagined. I stopped fighting my changing body. The romantic turmoil of my hungry body showed me the excesses of stressing through sleep. I counted midnight hours to make the years of my life. The instants before sleep were particularly poignant full with expectations. I talked to you before the dark took me into the eye. I’m vulnerable to the dagger in your hand. The dagger is vulnerable to my sleeping body. I leave stains that change the color of the dagger forever. Out of grayness of age I made red kites that flew in the breeze of infinity.

 

Flotsam.

My heart accommodated spaces in the suffering of the spirit. Though I never went past the shore I was nowhere within visibility of passersby that had homes to reach before night. Without looking forward to home I fall asleep at odd places out of exhaustion of keeping the eyes open to dust, smoke and litter. Home has a bed and a body in bed. I took bodies as they passed my sight. I gave bodies names and made stories out of lives. No on reaches home just like that. There was something missing before I left for the outside. I bring that missing sensation to the house I step in. I rest on a full belly. I sleep and wake to fears of what might happen to the body. The fact that nothing ever happens kills me. This nightmare of a walker past midnights, a friend of dogs and beggars, one who sleeps to die, the body denied of being, the silent philosopher, one that is no one, discarded by idiocies of histories, not useful to prisons or madhouses, out of the spectacle, essentially a non-performer, one that haunts mirrors, an existence without language, the zero of vacuum, I embrace the death before life set in.

 

Gossamer.

In joy I was light as an unsaid word. I imagined the word waiting behind the lips of my friend. My friend teases by never opening the lips lest the word should escape and come to me. Teased to the point when I’m about to cry I felt the word dancing with light steps behind lips that smile. In a smile that conceals a word I felt the greenness of hillsides and blue wind across plains coming from the sea. These are scenes that one locked in the frenzy of cities imagines to keep moods alive. The friend is real. So is the sea, the green and the blue. I build scenarios as acts of meaningful resistance. I argue against cities as I do with the patriarchies of villages. I speak of communes. I understand communes as a society free of the evil of money and markets built on money. A society that rejects power as a basis to seeking love is the alternative. In suffering is a dream-like sweetness. Among friends I work out the basis of a life that retains the lightness of gossamer.

 

Nil.

When the spring of death arrives lovers turn betrayers. I’m on the verge of celebrating the coming of roses and poses appropriate for red, pink and blue. I forsook joys of arrival for the pain of departure. I was playing one game with different names. Water and light are preliminary intuitions. I fell for the wisdom of dark with a tinge of dryness. The cry of birth echoes in the silence of death. The mediocre think while the sensitive imagine. I’m the persecuted one tempted to hold my breath and save the thought of persecution from moving out of my body. Without an audience I’m in a desert of white moonlight. I build a stage where I breathlessly watch myself perform the last tango. What I was doing was a parody of a parody. I made jokes on masks. I made jokes on jokes that were not funny. I cared for the audience I loved. I laughed at how I could care for such a bunch of losers. I laughed louder than ever at my passivity that I took seriously for a profound gesture.

 

Choreographer.

The masks of the dying are fabulous in comparison to the colors of living. I don’t meet my friend in death. I meet the friend in life. In death for a moment we’re actors with the smile of oneness. The two dancers are the function of diverse intensities. There are moments of union that never complement one another. Call it one dance with two dancers or one face with two eyes. If I look in two directions they would be two dancers on two stages. In the mind I feel diversions. My friendship is closer to death than flowers on street corners for lovers on the way home. The signs of affection do not disturb the twoness of things. I choose dying as much as living for you. Either way I’m drenched in rain of love. The dance of disunities comes alive as a spot in the eye. I dissolve and come out as two different beings. Either I’m male or I’m female. You fall in love with one body. In case I’m female you love the dance of resistance. In case I’m male you love the power of motion in the body leaning to the feminine. Oneness is how my body swells in making love to images. The disunity of forms is in the nature of things. The written word is not the same as silence. They are two snakes wound together on the dancing floor. I wait for music to stop because disunity kills me. My body is hurt. My neck is broken and dying is not easy. I stay awake until one sleep moves into another.