Your first great mistake is not realising that you’re always fighting for your life. For example: we are taught as children to fear slime in all its forms. TV teaches us this; scary books do, and campfire stories about ghouls. But when it comes down to it the human body produces nothing but slime one way or another, and so we are being taught to fear ourselves.Read More
Beth was cross-legged on one of the big red balls. Claudia was fishing Hawaiian BBQ out of a styrofoam clamshell someone had left in one of the parking lanes.
“Mom is dead,” said Beth, counting on her fingers.
Claudia held out some macaroni in her palm, offering it to Beth. Beth shook her head.
“And Mary is dead,” said Beth.
She was getting skinny. She looked a little sick.
“You need to eat,” said Claudia.
“I know,” said Beth. “Did you know we’re going to war?”
“Who with?” said Claudia.
“With ourselves,” said Beth. “I saw it in a movie.”
“I’d like to see that movie,” said Claudia.
“It was good,” said Beth.
The Target was closed. It had been for three days. It was wrapped in police tape. Claudia kept putting her face against the glass and trying to see in.
“I think I can see something,” said Claudia.
They were wearing new tops from the dumpsters out back. The shirts were tanks for plus-sized children, but they also fit the girls.
“And Dad is dying,” said Beth.
“Dead,” said Claudia. “More or less.”
“No. Brain dead,” said Beth, “and there’s a difference.”
Claudia dug a cigarette butt from the cracks between two sidewalk tiles. She lit it and coughed a handful of times before dropping it.
“You don’t smoke,” said Beth.
“No one smokes anymore,” said Beth.<! data-preserve-html-node="true"-- more -->
She slid off the red ball and greased her hair back with her palms.
“We’ve got to find a way to live a little better,” said Beth.
“We live fine,” said Claudia.
“No we don’t,” said Beth.
Claudia picked up a handful of wood chips from a ground-level gutter running the length of the building. She threw them up in the air and they fell back down to the ground. She scooped another handful and threw them at Beth. Most of them arced away from her in the wind but a few flakes stuck to her lap.
“I’m having a baby,” said Beth.
“You’ve never fucked,” said Claudia.
“It is the child of God,” said Beth.
“We don’t believe in God,” said Claudia.
“But we believe in ghosts,” said Beth.
“Because someone is putting on that light in the middle of the night,” said Claudia, “and it isn’t me and it isn’t you.”
“So it is the child of a ghost then,” said Beth.
“Spooky,” said Claudia.
“Anyway, we can’t afford a baby,” said Claudia. “Not even a ghost baby.”
“Everything will work out in the end,” said Beth.
“No,” said Claudia. “Everything is already over. And this is how it worked out.”
She was squatting against the stucco, pissing into a ground-level gutter.
“Have you ever fucked?” said Beth.
“All the time,” said Claudia.
“Anyone I know?” said Beth.
“Lots of people you know,” said Claudia.
“Any ghosts?” said Beth.
“Lots of ghosts,” said Claudia.
She rose and righted herself.
A seagull approached the styrofoam clamshell smeared with teriyaki sauce. It pecked it and lifted it and shook it.
“There’s nothing for him there,” said Claudia. “Idiot bird.”
“We’re miles from any ocean,” said Beth.
“He’s lost and stupid,” said Claudia.
The seagull broke off a piece of styrofoam and choked it down.
“Uh oh,” said Claudia.
It broke off another piece and took that in too.
A van stopped in front of them and the backdoor slid open to reveal Michael.
“Can I help you?” said Beth.
“Is this place still closed?” said Michael.
“Still covered in tape, isn’t it?” said Beth.
“You can get in there if you have a shimmy,” said Claudia.
“I’m all shimmy,” said Michael.
He stepped out of the van, which stayed running. He approached the sliding doors with a green canvas bag in his right hand. He withdrew a long, thin piece of shining metal and set to work at the space between the doors.
“There’ll be an alarm or something,” said Beth.
The doors slid open about half a foot or so and Michael was able to step in sideways.
There was no alarm.
The van kept running.
There was someone else in the front seat. Beth couldn’t make him out from where she was standing. She tried to move past Claudia, toward the front of the van to get a better look, but then Michael came out, panting and carrying three plastic barrels of cheese-puffs.
“There’s no one in there,” said Michael, dropping the loot. “It’s a free-for-all.”
“It’s a crime scene,” said Claudia.
“I know what it is,” said Michael, and he vanished again.
Claudia and Beth set to work on the first plastic barrel of cheese-puffs. Beth kept checking over her shoulder to see if the person in the front seat was going to get out and either join them or get onto them for taking advantage while the other was inside.
The corner of a slim, white cardboard box broke the space between the sliding doors. It wobbled and nearly fell. It was an ultra thin TV, followed by Michael. He set the TV down, propping it against one of the big red balls, and went back in.
Beth and Claudia were eating cheese puffs by the handful and starting to feel sick.
Beth watched the van. She thought she saw a shadow, but it might have been something on the other side. A bird or a tree or whatever.
Michael kept on bringing stuff out from between the crack in the doors: appliances, electronics, baby clothes. He piled it all on the concrete in front of Target.
He went in and Beth pocketed one of the shirts from the pile.
He came out with two bundles of firewood, which he brought straight to the car.
“Help me load all of this stuff,” he said.
“No way,” said Claudia.
“You owe me,” he said, “for the cheese puffs.”
“What about your partner?” said Beth.
“I’ll give you these,” he said, “if you help me.”
He pulled a green bag of sour Skittles from his jacket pocket.
“All of them?” said Claudia.
Claudia picked up a handful of iPhone cables and animal print socks. She threw them into the van. There were no seats in it. There was a wall between the empty back and where the driver sat.
“You guys do this a lot?” said Claudia.
“Not really,” said Michael.
They loaded the van until it was nearly full. The loot was piled high. Bundles of clothes for men, women, and children. One large television. Some workout mats and synthetic cables. A car battery booster. Three HP printers. Plastic barrels of pretzel bites and cheese puffs and party mix. A bag of apples. Forty-eight rolls of toilet paper bound together.
“What’ll you two do with all this stuff?” said Beth.
“Give it to charity, probably,” said Michael. “Want to ride with us?”
“Hell no,” said Claudia.
“It’ll be fun,” said Michael.
“To where?” said Beth.
“The ocean,” said Michael.
“To do what?” said Beth.
“I don’t know,” said Michael. He looked to the road. No one was coming. A black letter was dangling from a roadside movie marquee. “Sit around and eat?”
“Okay,” said Beth.
“What?” said Claudia.
“I’m hungry,” said Beth.
“We’ve got the BBQ,” said Claudia.
Beth shook her head. “It’s all gone.”
“I’m staying put,” said Claudia.
“What’s your name?” said Beth.
“Michael,” said Michael.
“Like the angel,” said Beth.
“Not at all like that,” said Michael.
He helped her into the van. An empty cup approached, rolling on its side in the wind, and Claudia kicked it into the street.
“God damn it wait,” she said. “I’ll go.”
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #33. Get your copy here.
Colin Winnette is the author of several books. His latest, The Job of the Wasp, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He lives in San Francisco.
Stranger in the Dark is a serial erotic fiction from renowned Australian author and longtime Brow friend Krissy Kneen. The story will land in its subscribers’ inboxes over the course of this year in the form of one email per month, and subscribers can write back to Krissy – who knows where this tryst will take you?
The second instalment was dispatched early this week, but if the following excerpt from this week’s instalment makes you want to know more, fear not – new subscribers will receive all of the previous instalments when they subscribe, to bring them up to speed. You can subscribe to Stranger in the Dark and read the rest by clicking here.
I’ll bet your heart leapt at the sight of me in your inbox. I am in your inbox. How is it to live with me inside you?
I mean this figuratively. I mean this literally.
A smile leaps onto your lips in a quick twitch and your heart races.
You blush and the colour flushes your chest.
I don’t fuck like your lover fucks—tired from a day of work, pausing to ask if you turned the heater off in the loungeroom, stopping to switch their phone to silent or to kick the cat off the bed.
You know how I fuck now. You know it in the split of your hips. Deep in the bone of you. I don’t need to tell you, but I will.
My hands are slick on the keyboard. I have been reaching down and slipping my fingers in there, rubbing myself. Keeping the memory of last week alive.
Maybe by now you have found a way to numb the immediacy of what happened. Your body has knitted up over the wound of our sex. You have made peace with the lies. Maybe you are even beginning to believe them.
Let me correct you. Let me remind you what happened between us.
You stepped out onto the footpath. You looked hurried. Work had trampled over you and left you unbuttoned. You turned right, as expected, and I followed, five bodies between us. I caught you in glimpses between limbs and hands and breasts. I saw the thick black cotton of your pants. I watched the rhythm of your thighs, the cleft between them.
You had a coat swung over your shoulder. It was cold enough to wear that coat but you still carried it. I noticed a bruise just visible on your wrist. I saw the flash of purple as you settled the coat more comfortably and my mouth filled with saliva. It was a little reminder that I was inside you. I watched your buttocks lifting, falling. I will be inside you again. I will always be inside you. I picked up the pace and suddenly there were only two people between us. One of them peeled away. I moved closer to you. The man between us shifted towards the edge of the building as if he knew he had to make way for me. I could feel the heat of you as I fell into step, pressed my body close, but not quite touching.
I reached out suddenly, wrapped my fingers around yours. You flinched, leapt away. But I held fast. I had you in hand.
I could see the moment of panic as it all rushed back at you, our first night, the way it worked out. And then a whole month of forgetting.
I could see a remembering so fierce that you swayed, faint with the belly-punch of it.
You were unbalanced. You were leaning away. Only my fingers held you upright. If I had let you go you would have stumbled out into the traffic. Pedestrians moved around us. I stepped closer to you and waited for you to find your feet. My breath in your ear. My voice. The sound of my voice like a dog whistle pitched at the perfect note for your ears. You leaned towards me. Uncurling towards my voice, Pavlovian. Your tongue loosened, your mouth shot suddenly with saliva. My breath touching the little hairs in the secret whorls of flesh.
“Fuck and be fucked,” I whispered.
Unfurling in a rush, your body tipped towards mine.
I am a Wildlife Warrior. I love all animals, especially crocs and snakes. I live with many crocs and snakes at the Zoo where I also live with my Mom and my younger brother. I’ve lived at the Zoo my whole life. My parents met here back when my Dad owned it with his Dad. Back then, they had just two staff and four acres. Today our Zoo is seventy acres and has over five hundred staff, crikey! Here’s a photo of my family at the Zoo in 1999—that’s my Mom and Dad, and that’s me in the khaki onesie. I no longer exclusively wear khakis like I did back then, although they will always have a place in my heart.
I wear khakis because I am a Wildlife Warrior. I care about the planet. I believe over-population is the biggest problem facing the world today. Mother Earth invited 1.5 billion people to this party, but seven billion have arrived, and we don’t have enough food or party bags for everyone. But because we do have some food and party bags, some people are having an awesome time and they’re jumping on the dance floor and calling their friends saying what a great party it is, and all the while other people are being trampled. And although some people are thinking that it probably needs to stop, it’s all happening so fast! There’s no way of stopping the momentum that is growing and turning this party into something unrecognisable to anybody, even the people enjoying it.
My Dad was a Wildlife Warrior too. My brother and I were both born on his TV show. He wrestled crocs and said “Crikey!” He was a big star, my Dad, but deep down he was just a croc-wrestler like any other Aussie bloke. After he’d been to visit his fans in America, he’d get off the plane and head straight to the bush. Once he’d rolled his swag out and slept under the Southern Cross he felt all Aussie again. It’s hard sometimes, being a star, that’s what Dad told Rove McManus.
Australia was devastated in 2006 when my Dad died at sea. My family felt destroyed after Dad died. All of Australia did too. You can watch his funeral on YouTube! My Mom says it’s important to honour our grief, that’s why we talk about Dad on TV. Mom told Ray Martin how fun Dad was. I told Ellen DeGeneres how all I want is to make him proud. We always make sure to tell the cameras how grateful we are too. We hold each other tight and smile. Mom and I are especially happy we have my younger brother because, although he doesn’t remember Dad, he is exactly like him. My Mom tells the cameras, “He is his Dad.” I told Tracy Grimshaw that he’s like a “Mini-Daddy.”
Before Dad died I appeared on his TV show several times. There’s footage of me in the bush in Queensland and of me being pushed in my pram around the Zoo (open 9–5 weekdays!). My birthday parties were featured on Dad’s TV show too. For the first few years of my life these parties were just like other kid’s parties with supermarket cake, friends, and fairy costumes. Eventually they grew to be huge annual events at the Zoo and all the kids in Queensland were invited.
When my Dad died we’d already started filming my own TV series, Jungle Girl, which was lucky because there were gaps in programming that needed to be filled. That’s why I also made a fitness video for kids and my favourite program, My Daddy the Crocodile Hunter, where I took the audience on a special journey through the years with my Dad. They show mostly featured footage of me on my Dad’s TV show. Sometimes Mom was in an episode. The show had a theme song:
Catching snakes, jumping on crocs, swinging with the monkeys in the high treetops. Chasing lizards across the rocks, what a time we had, me and Dad! Sometimes shooting for the silver screen, sometimes jumping on the trampoline. A worldwide hero, but don’t you see, he was just plain Dad to me!
Allee Richards is a playwright and short fiction writer from Melbourne. Her fiction has been published in Voiceworks and Scum Mag. Her plays have been performed in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. She is currently a playwright in residence with Lonely Company.
This is yet another piece from our archive of digital good things.
It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being of good omen; such is declared in all the odes, annals, biographies of illustrious men and other texts whose authority is unquestionable. Even children and village women know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal does not figure among the domestic beasts, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. In such conditions, we would be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was. We know that such and such an animal with horns is a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like.
— Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
The black unicorn will be here, I said to myself, as the deeper shadows of what must be the Underwood reared up ahead. If the black unicorn can be found, here is where I will find it, I said. And I couldn’t come back without the unicorn, this went without saying. The black unicorn, with its glorious gold trim. I’d told them I would return one day, perhaps soon, perhaps not – but when I returned, it would be with the black unicorn. Or on it. On the black unicorn, with its gold trim. An obsidian streak across the sunset’s candied sky. Why had I promised? Only a fool makes such a promise, I said to myself, as I paused to wipe more sweat from my brow, leaning against the broad trunk of some deciduous tree, as the light waned.
The hills that fringe Underwood Forest are populous with wild goats. Most are harmless. But I was raised among goats, know their fickle affections all too well. As a rule it’s best to proceed with supreme caution and never to assume that a goat is docile or would care to be your friend, even if your first impression is of a docile creature inclined to be your friend. The goats are for only the goats, and harbor no illusions as to others’ allegiances. Wise policy, I said to myself, as I pressed on through these final outlying hills, casting frequent glances to all sides, searching the gentle slopes for signs of inimical goats. I bore before me my father’s staff, gently thwacking my palm as I walked.
She’d never understood about the goats, I thought, as I approached one last modest rise. And beyond, what could only be the true Underwood’s black vastness, the far foliage crested by a bloody fingernail of sun.
“Gold trim?” she had asked.
“Gold hooves, tail a tuft of sparkling fluffy gold. Horn, too, of course. A sleek golden horn inscribed with a helix rather than the traditional rings,” I had said.
Few people in these remote parts have seen a unicorn. Much less a black one, with gold trim – which of course no one will ever have seen, until they see the one I cannot come back from my journey without, I thought to myself, as I once again shifted the heavy load on my back.
“I can’t picture it,” she had said, I recalled now, as I shrugged my pack higher and entered the forest, the surrounding verdure immediately beginning to grow thick.
“You won’t need to,” I had told her. Arrogance!
In Underwood Forest, what paths there are seem to fold up under themselves, so that upon glancing down at the narrow dirt track beneath your feet you will often catch what would appear to be glimpses of lustrous pearl sky, far below. And above you? Through slits in the intricate branchwork? More sky! Of course it is insane, some skewed perspectival trick – and yet men have gone mad, I thought. Better men than I. Best not to look too hard. Keep your eyes ahead, I said to myself, peering into the darkness before me, seeing very little. No one could guide me to the black unicorn; the black unicorn would not exist until I found it.
The solar bear subsists primarily on sunlight, drawing supplementary nutrition from the lightsap found in gem-pines—“cocaine trees,” in the traditional folk parlance—clustered principally in the Underwood’s outer circles, I recalled, as the shadows seemed to deepen around me, silently reciting verbatim the brief account my father had found for me in his files – notes left by the last explorer to venture into the Underwood (a close friend of my father’s; they’d sailed together in his youth), some several decades before. Now deceased. And what had he wanted with the Underwood? Difficult to say, exactly, his otherwise-elaborate field notes being muted, even cryptic on the subject of ultimate aims. Naturally there was no mention of a black unicorn; but in the man’s crazed obsession with Ursula Solaris did I not detect a whiff of my own ambition?
As would be expected, the solar bear therefore prefers to roam during daylight hours, and between late morning and early afternoon may often be observed atop sturdier gem-pines, luxuriating in the nutritive warmth, paws sticky with plundered lightsap, growling his pleasure, I quoted to myself, surprised at the precision with which I could recall this ludicrous, possibly-fabricated text. I began to hum a tune I had not heard since the days when my mother, God bless the dead, wandered the house singing softly, poor woman, while my father chased his goatherds over the mountain range.
It was unclear what I intended to do with the black unicorn with the gold trim I had sworn to find and possess. Would I keep it for myself? Would I really want the black unicorn? If I ever found it? (Which I was bound by my promise to do.) Would the black unicorn be enough? Would I give it away? To whom?
As sated solars, during said hours, will frequently roam the pathless forest seeking challenge or prey, the wise wanderer crosses outer Underwood in the dark. The solar bear is unlikely to attack after sundown, unless roused from its slumber, which is deep indeed, I recalled.
My father had rummaged through several storage trunks to find an old volume of bear-repugnant limericks. “As a safeguard.”
I told him I was not afraid of bears – or anything, for that matter. I would face whatever I encountered on the road, as a man. “Take it anyway,” he’d said, “just in case. Better to be safe.”
“Safety is for cowards,” I’d said, I remembered now with a wince. The volume’s saffron vellum cover coated with dust, I recalled noting, as I’d slipped the book into my pack under his insistent gaze, waiting like a coward until I’d left the ranch’s sprawl around the road’s first full curve to throw the useless tome into a ditch. I shouldn’t have done that, I conceded to myself, as I scanned the darkness to either side of the disappearing path, hoping to reach the interior before dawn. Even a limerick is better than nothing.
“With golden wings,” I had added just before setting off, as I stuffed the last bit of goat jerky into the pack, my father standing a bit behind my wife. “A black unicorn with golden wings.”
“So a Pegasus, then,” she had said.
I didn’t know what to call the creature I sought other than a black unicorn with gold mane, tail, hooves, and wings (and, in truth, I had only just decided to incorporate the wings—now it was too late to take them back—though I didn’t necessarily regret their addition). No one had ever seen it except for me—and I, only in my dubious visions or dreams—so perhaps it had no name. Beyond “the black unicorn,” which designation I’d stubbornly repeated – with unnecessary sullenness, I now saw all too clearly.
“Well, but what you’re describing sounds just like a Pegasus.”
Not uncommonly, however, the solar bear—particularly males of the species—will at once meet both dietary needs by quaffing sunhoney mead, brewed by stirring paw-kneaded lightsap ferment into vats of raw sunlight. Resulting crapulent sprees may stretch on through sunshine and darkness – traveler beware!
“The eyes will be emeralds,” I’d declared – madly, I thought to myself, as an unearthly howl clove the indeterminate dark. She’d never tried to convince me to stay; I had steeled myself for theatrical weeping, desperate cries of “God, don’t leave me!” – not this placid nitpicking of my vision. “Don’t you know I’ll probably die? or at least go mad?” I could have shouted. I wished now that I had – though of course it was far too late for wishes. Instead I’d only described in greater detail the sparkling silver striations of the beast’s emerald eyes while she fixed the collar of my cloak, the cloak that even now was affording me laughably little protection from the Underwood’s unholy gusts.
Of course I would have preferred to don the forest shroud, I thought to myself, startling at what was probably only the snap of a twig. But she’d sold the forest shroud. Along with a garden hose, some wicker chairs, beer steins, binoculars and lepidopteristic texts, as well as several of my moths I’d collected at university – all pawned away during that bleak late-autumn, as we scrambled for means, my vision of our shared life disintegrating. And was it strictly my fault that while her beauty virtually guaranteed her an easy succession of office-clerk appointments in that middling university town, I couldn’t find work after Claudstein abandoned me? That for a season, yes, I took solace in the cup, before we’d at last conceded failure, returned to my father’s ranch: in shame, certainly, I thought to myself, as another chill blast penetrated my feeble cloak. My father had urged me to learn a trade, at the very least, if I refused to have anything to do with his goats, if I was hellbent on handing over my inheritance to the university in exchange for a useless, indulgent degree. Will your moths put a roof over your head, Son? Will they buy you your bread? Why not mail them your next request for an interest-free loan?
“You’ve never tasted beauty, Dad, and you never will,” I should have shouted, I realized now – instead of choking this rebuttal back until I’d reached the sanctuary of my garret, where I spent the remainder of that winter interregnum muttering bitter variations on the sentiment, rereading favorite works of lepidopteristic theory, including, naturally, Claudstein’s epic, The World as Wings and Representation (which I’d already scoured several times). And before our return, she’d never even seen a goat, had she, I thought. Hadn’t she laughed at the stories I’d told of my father and his ridiculous retirement, his faux-idyll, his belated embrace of pacific tendencies? She’d said the very least I owed the man—by whose alleged goodwill, whose extravagant grace in taking us in, welcoming me back (in shame) I’d been made violently sick—was to tend and keep his flock as he advanced through his middle age. Middle age? I’d scoffed. Middle age implies a decline, a downward arc, an end: that man will never die, I’d said.
I watched her learn the work, watched her apparently learn to enjoy it, laughing and whooping as she chased the mindless creatures down the mountain, riding Sheryl, our pony, flanked by the exuberant dogs, the goats’ flight an ensemble of hideous bleat. I still see her smiling up at my father, her skin a luminous bronze in the fading light. Of course the labor fulfills her, I’d thought many times, I recalled now, tugging at the loose flesh beneath my chin (a near-unconscious tic accompanying serious thought): she hadn’t learned over a lifetime to loathe it and fear its inevitability. She’d never known desperation, had she? Never wanted more. What did she want? Nothing! Nothing but what joy or contentment could be found in each insipid day: the rush of a crisp westerly wind, the satisfaction of a newly mastered task, freshly-churned goat-butter on her tongue. Why can’t you just be happy, she’d often ask, offering me a languid smile, while the goats grazed vapidly out over the receding pastures. Perhaps she would understand what I had always been waiting for when she saw my return – like a late-annointed king, high overhead, astride the black unicorn, I’d stupidly hoped, I reflected now, smiling bitterly. Owls or some other nocturnal birds hooted nearby. She wouldn’t be watching the skies for me.
Three days ago, under that late-morning sun, I strode down the walk from my father’s estate, my carriage erect and assured – but even then, I remembered now (peering up at what stars could be seen through the Underwood’s reticulate canopy of branches and leaves), I’d been plagued by certain questions and doubts.
For instance: how would I find a black unicorn with golden hooves, a tail like sprayed fire, horn a glinting spear, eyes like emeralds, seraphic wings, when I couldn’t be sure such an animal existed? Did such an animal exist? Why should it? Where had I first got the idea? From a picturebook? A nursery rhyme? A dream? Evenings I would sit on the rounded wooden beam of the ranch’s vast pennery, staring up at my father, his staff raised high above his head, arm an unwavering rod, as if to scorn the winds shrieking down the slopes of Mount Boom, whipping up his great musky cloaks, a cavalcade of goats rushing past to fill the lush feeding fields – the entire tableau filling me with nausea and despair. Imbued me with a bottomless dread so absolute that I would leave behind my only golden one (will I see her again?), the only woman to ever love me, the only woman I will ever love… here in the Underwood, utterly lost, chasing a conjured beast, a dumb salmagundi of some slow child’s dreams… I was a fool! Should I have heeded my father? Learned to minister to the goats? Settled down on his capacious ranch? Would she have been happy? Was this all she had wanted?
I will never find the black unicorn, I thought. There is no black unicorn. If there is a black unicorn, it isn’t for me to find – but most likely there is no black unicorn. I will die in the Underwood, alone and without hope. Exhaust my supply of goat jerky, fall from the treacherous path, plummet into the heart of whatever strange phenomenon casts its mirage of nacreous sky underfoot, I thought. I’ll be eaten by a solar bear.
Why carry on through this lugubrious gloom? For a vision? But what a vision! I see her on the slatted porch – her long blond hair aflutter in goat-scented breeze, she gazes skyward, wistful, forlorn, searching a cloud-obscured horizon… and then: an iridescent speck, glinting high against a cobalt sky, slowly swelling, at last assuming half-familiar form: yes,me – atop the fabulous steed, borne back on heaven’s roads, the beast’s wings refulgent, a glorious blaze of gold, we swoop down from above, skim the vast pastures that feed and fence in all the goats of my father… and I return, in triumph… But supposing I were to turn around. Would she take me back without the black unicorn? (Certainly my father would, with a vindicated grin.) If I found the black unicorn, would I let her have it? What if I wanted to keep the black unicorn. What if I wanted to fly right past my father’s ranch – Westward a young man must always go—
“Why won’t you just lie down and die?” I shouted, wildly addressing the walls of dark foliage, looking for I wasn’t sure what. (A witness?)
As a boy I would lay my head in my mother’s lap, and she’d sing to me in a doleful minor key a lullaby about the end of all things—
Nothing is coming, she’d quietly sing, Nothing is coming to bear us away… Nothing is coming to carry us home…
Goodnight, sweet little prince, she’d whisper as I drifted to sleep—
Mindlessly, as if acting out another fool’s vision of lonely valor I withdrew my father’s sword, and with it began to carve clumsy arcs through the fluttering night. My antagonists’ eyes glowed like droplets of blood, casting their rustling forms in faint, unreliable light. Their screeches were the wailing of the dead. They came in twos and threes, flapping like wet cloaks given unholy life, swirling round me like a clotted wind, avoiding my axlike heaves of the paternal blade – because I was never any good with the sword.
Few in this far-flung region now recall, but my father did not always herd goats. In the days before Elsinore Ranch no man but a fool would dare challenge him to a duel. My father, now a quaint provincial authority on the raising of goats, distributor of the district’s best milk, renowned healer of farm animals, a presence quietly venerated for his patience and hard work. Once a master of death. A man not to be trifled with. A legendary consumer of rum. The quondam Pirate King. With eyes like hellfires and a rage without likeness. Lord of the Night. Scourge of the Eastern Provinces. The Power and the Glory. The Thunder and the Rain. Hamnlet the Blade. In the end, retired to dismal distant mountains, to raise his herds (and me) in peace.
He was too kind to me, I thought, as the borrowed sword seemed to swing me, instead of the other way around. Too easy. He thought he was sparing me something. Saving me from something he’d taken on, so that I would never have to suffer – but all he did was leave me unprepared: Unprepared for battle. Unprepared to fight for myself. Unprepared for unexpected combat, with bats, in the deep darkness of a mysterious forest, on a vapid quest now for the moment all but forgotten as I struggled for my life, frantically fought off the rodential scourge as well as I could, which was not very well at all. (Aware all the while that these were only bats; what would happen when the solar bears came? Let alone the thunder wraiths?) He left me unprepared, the old bastard, for anything but goats, I thought, crouching low as the bats left suddenly of their own accord, for now, a sob welling in my throat.
At the university I was a man of science, a thinker, an unassailable intellect, lepidopteristic savant, the land’s leading moth scholar, collector of incomparable samples, intuitor of hidden migratory trends, the discipline’s rising scholarly star – I was respected—revered—for my considerable (but theretofore unacknowledged) cognitive gifts. And Professor Claudstein was like a father to me, dispensed unto me alone all the wisdom acquired over decades of tireless labor in the service of our shared passion: At sixty-seven he could still be found, afternoons, careering down emerald hillsides, slicing his custom net through perfected patterns of ensnarement, a hale physical specimen in spite of his advancing years, and in spite of the decades of nightly lucubration well into the lightening pre-dawn. I trusted Professor Claudstein. I was his chosen favorite, his only true pupil, he was meant to mentor only me – Claudstein, why have you forsaken me, I thought to myself, the whole of Underwood Forest seeming to deflate and collapse around me, quivering like a pinned specimen at its hub.
Of course, I might not have been the student he’d said I was. He might have been deceived, gradually disillusioned with my ability. I might have shown more promise than I could keep. Or perhaps he’d never harbored such illusions: was it I who had been deceived – duped into grandiose notions of my own worth, deluded by my beloved Professor C, who had never really reciprocated my veneration—or love—but had merely allowed me to believe what I would? Because he was too kind to give me the truth? Had he, too, meant to “spare” me – only to leave me ten times as vulnerable to the inevitable apprehension of my limits, the folly, the sorrow of weakness, under which I would eventually be crushed? No! Claudstein never would have hurt me! I would have died for that man. Given over my choicest specimens, all (excluding, perhaps, my cherished Crimson Luna). Ceded almost all glory to him. Served him to the end, asking in return only that on the day I finally deserved it, he might put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Well done, my boy: well done indeed.”
In those halcyon days I foresaw a scholarly dynasty: I would follow in the master’s footsteps, as he made his inexorable ascent, attained heights of unimaginable achievement. I foresaw brilliant new species, with wings like spun gold or shattered gems, sparkling as they fluttered through the weak light in recessed pockets of the earth. Our names ornately embossed on the pages of all the best periodicals. Fanfare. Symposia. Fortune. Fame… Claudstein!
Of course I ought to be grateful for the time I’d been given; Claudstein was only a man; to expect more of him was to invite pain. Pure misery to indulge those foolish visions of Professor Claudstein and me carousing from tavern to tavern, deferred to wherever we went. On the porch of his on-campus-manse—endowed by a wealthy baronness—where we’d smoke tobacco-wheat pipes, seated on stools he’d hand-carved (and that I’d helped to varnish in mahogany and inscribe with letters of bronze, silver and gold)… later, with lyres on our laps, improvising melodic loops for hours on end, caught in an endlessly metamorphosing scheme, twin intrepid sensibilities loosed to gallop off on harmonic expeditions into the unknown – where all true endeavor must lead, as he’d so often (rightly) insisted. We might have visited his favorite brothels together. Breathed the fumes of boiled gem-pine sap. Watched the prismatic sunsets of his private butterfly collection’s wall morph in hallucinogenic light. He would have proudly witnessed my own nocturnal collection multiply in lunar grandeur…
On the Underwood path I sat with my legs folded, knees to my chin. As a boy, I reflected, I was useless with the bow and arrow.
“Pop,” I would say, “why can’t I hit the bull’s-eye? No matter how hard I try?”
“Son,” he would answer, a twinkle in his own graying eye as he looked fondly out over my shoulder at his massed goatherd, all that marshaled fleece casting a faint silvery sheen up into the dusk, “you come close enough.”
But he never emphasized that I might develop my technique; never suggested that I might strengthen my feeble arms; never pointed out that I failed to sand or polish the shafts of my arrows, as all the other boys my age did, that I heedlessly left them lying around the cottage while I, too, lay around, like a vegetable staring stupidly into the radiant flames as they danced on the hearth. Even during daylight, while there was work yet to be done. I had always been a slothful, fat, pathetic child, I could admit now. The village boys had been right to call me “Goat’s milk,” I’d deserved that, and the beatings, and each of the schoolmaster’s lovely daughters’ scorn, and everything else (he never told me I should be better), I understood now, and would continue to deserve it, I’d never made a promise I could keep, I saw now, feeling weak with self-knowledge, as the fatigue began to settle into my bones, into my heart, I could never go back without the black unicorn. My father would expect me back soon – without the black unicorn, with nothing but further failure and shame, which he would unquestionably forgive. I could never go back.
The forest seemed to shudder or heave, and I lay down on the rutted path and sobbed for some time. My father’s sword lay beside me, blade unblemished with bat (I hadn’t actually so much as grazed a single one). I could take it, thrust it through my heart, could I not? The bats would eventually be back. Perhaps this time with a clearer sense of purpose. And if not the bats, then the solar bears, assuming there were solar bears. And if the solars, too, were mere fantasy, then I would starve to death. Or die of thirst (my goat-hide canteen already having grown disconcertingly light). I couldn’t leave the forest without the black unicorn, and the black unicorn (it was time to face it, someone,/i> ought to) did not exist. I was going to die in the forest. Sooner or later, I was going to die, I thought to myself, pausing for a moment, to let the truth settle, before continuing to sob. I could lie here and wait for the bears or whichever other forest element would eventually be my doom… wait for death to take me, as death surely would… Or I could take up my father’s sword, raise it high – and with a shout thrust it home, through my ribcage, into my idiot heart. Or I could chop open my throat. Detach my own head, if I was strong enough to do so (which I probably was not). Slice open my wrists, if I wanted it to be easy… or plunge the saber deep into my stomach, carve through the bowels, twisting the blade within the viscera for as long as I could stand it, as I’d heard was the fashion among despondents in the East.
“Death will take care of me soon enough; why should I wait for it,” I wondered aloud, staggering to my feet now, though still hiccupping and sniffling, my eyes not at all dry. What an amusing malapropism “can’t hack it” (as the village children were wont to say of a weak boy who could not keep pace with what was daily expected of him), might prove to be if I were to retrieve my father’s sword from the dust where it lay, glinting a bit in what was presumably moonlight, though I certainly couldn’t see the moon, and hack myself to death, I thought, laughing aloud. “Who decided,” I soliloquized, “that it is more noble to go on fighting—to go on struggling against an ocean of woes—to take ridiculous arms against them all, when you might with your father’s bare saber or bodkin” (I’d brought with me both) “reject the fate you’ve been given?… I could do it right now,” I affirmed, nipping in the bud my loquacious propensities (no doubt a lingering academic affectation, I supposed, pausing once more to curse my beloved Professor C.).
I could end it—
Only what if the sword were not the end? What if I were to wake from one nightmare to find something worse? Did I dare really believe this folly was a nightmare? (Hadn’t I heard a tale of real terror? Hadn’t my own father looked into the red depths of real nightmare, pausing for a triumphant moment to peer down into ocular wells he’d uncapped with a flourish of that legendary blade, the bodies that were not yet corpses of countless enemies left screaming, writhing, blind in his booted wake – his, as it were, signature he’d once sickeningly revealed to me late one evening toward the close of the only prolonged discussion of his infamous past we’d ever had.) Perhaps it only seemed such to me now, at the height of my weakness, or the nadir of my “strength.” Did I dare? Would I ever dare?
I lay back and considered: Perhaps I simply hadn’t penetrated into the forest far enough. Perhaps I ought to rest a while. Perhaps a solar would come to kill me in the morning, I thought, my spirits now beginning to lift a little, as I sheathed my father’s sword in its leather scabbard and laid it down by my side (noting the twenty-three tabulatory skulls notched into the grain). No need to act, but merely carry on. Whatever would be, would be.
For some time I lay, quiet, on the forest floor, perhaps even briefly nodding off. When at last I stood up and resumed my clumsy progress further into the shadowed Wood, I felt entranced by a clarity that was almost hypnotic in its focus. Deeper into the darkness: where death or the black unicorn lay in wait.
Near dawn I came across a silver piano with keys of emerald and polished ebony. On a small throne or dais sat a knight whose armour was like wax, a corrugation of rippled gold, burnished and gleaming with hints of rose in the day’s first light, fit to the contours of his body as if it had been poured molten over him and allowed to cool, hardening as a gleaming cascade. Beside him, upright, was a great flaxen bear.
The piano stood beneath a stately cocaine tree, from the trunk of which corkscrewed a segment of tubing with its terminus in a hole punched through the rear of the knight’s helmet. This cannula must have been of some clear, rubberlike material, as it seemed to pulse or throb with the flow of the gem-pine’s viscous white sap.
I stood still, until the knight, as if keyed into motion, with his gauntleted fingers decrypted from those emerald keys a circling melody, simple, pure and sweet, and yet intricately glazed with such spectral flourishes that the enchantment, I imagined, standing rapt, transfixed, must entrance, not only me, but eternity – bearing hearer and creator aloft, away from witness or memory… and I saw myself in my own suit of gold, my fingers lifting the emerald keys’ hoarded tones, braiding the sweetness in an everlasting round, endlessly augmented, twisted, fluted, finessed, a kaleidoscope of fragile harmony bursting, relentless, like a lattice of sparks in the night.
And I thought I could see, poured through the motion of my fingers over the glittering keys, my own soul made bright, given chiming form, in the music permeating the depths of those haunted woods… And it seemed that the knight played for neither me nor himself (nor the pale sentinel bear), nor for anyone, I understood, but he continued to play, and meanwhile I was under his spell so that I came to suspect he had been there forever, or a very long time, and likewise would remain… and here was a place I, too, could stay, I felt, for a moment undiluted by words – my breath caught, I disappeared for an instant, vanished like the silence in this sudden startling gap in the forest, I was swallowed by the interlude, and dissolved into the knight’s honey-fuelled song that was itself like a kind of honey, suffused with some pale amber glow, pulsing like the white sap that seemed to be its furious source… Could it be that the rush pumping into that knight of gold was passing through him unabated – but transfigured, entering the dusky bower’s air as radiance, as a shimmering, mystic transubstantiation of sound? A miracle song on which the hungry might feed, from which the thirsty might sip, under the canopy of which the beleaguered chaser of a black unicorn might lie down to rest… an aural vision passing through this strange figure, so that he was not the light, but an echo of the light, as it shone through the endlessly uncoiling variations that were his and were not. He was a conduit of the forest’s light… and the thought stirred in me: Could I be a conduit too? Deeper into the forest: might I find my own piano? A different instrument? An enchanted lyre? Would the song take a different form, just as this knight’s liquid light seemed transposed to song? Would my own light or song take its own, separate shape – for instance, that of a black unicorn? But what about the black unicorn? Would the black unicorn even be a black unicorn? Might it come as something else? As a lightpost? As a moth? As an echo (of an echo)? As a cloak? As layered whispers on a chill breeze at dawn? Had I already found the black unicorn? Who could tell me? Whom could I ask? Claudstein! Father! (I saw her standing on the porch at dusk, waiting, arms across her chest – but with shining emerald eyes upcast, as a mountain breeze wisped golden hair.) I walked on.
Jonathan Callahan’s first book, The Consummation of Dirk, winner of Starcherone Books’ eighth Prize for Innovative Fiction, was published by Starcherone/Dzanc in the spring of 2013.
This is yet another piece from our archive of digital good things.
You’re rigged, the Converses, the Levis, the fresh Polo. None of them own Polo like you. A little gold on the wrist. A little gold on the neck. A little gold hoop earring she gave you. The SF Giants hat. SF being exotic to the local know nothings.
“Sup,” you say. You are on your game and those no pony boys do not have it.
Two of them circle Diggity Douglas as if D2 is something. As usual, they’re on The Corner in front of the Royal Farms store.
“Keith, where my fries?” Diggity Douglas says. He named himself Diggity. He thinks it sounds ghetto. Those two anteater looking boys snort, them with pants pulled low, white mommy washed undies. That’s all right. McD’s is keeping you in Polos.
“You the man of men,” you say. He doesn’t understand you’re corkscrewing it. You read D2’s mind: he thinks, Everybody knows I’m a pony. But he’s a no pony. No ponies need two chuckleheads saying all the time, You the man, D2.
“What you up to now, Keith?” he says to you.
“Up to the market, D2. You know, chillin.”
“Naw, man, we got a thing. You in?” D2’s always trying to act black.
Grinning no ponies look at me.
“What’s that?” you ask.
“I got that part,” you say. Last time they had a thing, you nearly got busted for a B&E.
One of the no ponies says to you, “Naw, man, you just got to come along with it.” His black is worse than D2’s. He pounds five with his knucklehead sidekick no pony. Grinning like they think they’re Scarface twins.
But you’re thinking, the world is your no pony, you two saltshaker no counts.
“I got to go,” you say.
D2 starts talking behind his hand at the two slurping ninny no’s, but you gallop away with the clippity-clop stride you got going, right leg in front, holding onto the reins. You hear them behind you while you cross in front of the fire station.
D2 and the twin zeros are laughing, grabbing their package, yelling out, “Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump.” You don’t do no running, though. You gallop.
Thick neck sitting on a lawn chair in the fire station says, “Wrong with you, boy?”
“Nothing officer, I got a distress call, which I’m tending to right now.”
Thick neck turns to fellow fireman laughing, mashing up a Subway sandwich with bonus mayonnaise in his big open mouth.
That clippidy-clop starts to pressure up your legs, so right at the market you walk like a cowboy pony, open the doors, and step in.
Always happens that the Korean guy at the first counter puts an eyeball bullet through you. You didn’t mean nothing stealing, borrowing, an orange from him last winter. You give him a wave. He reaches down and picks up a sawed off baseball bat and taps the end into his cupped hand. He’s got some gold in them teeth. Wife doesn’t like you either, always bundled up in a puffy coat, looking at you like she got her foot caught in a bear trap. You give her a wave, too. You don’t carry hard feelings.
You cowboy walk up and down. You saw Tina in here last week. She got all jealous of Marnette and the SF hat. You want to pony on that, see what comes up.
For show, you stop and do a feet planted white man’s boogaloo dance right in the middle of the aisle. Shimmy up and down, poke butt out doggy like, reach for the stars, throw out some peace signs, do some standing swim moves. For all the customers. You can’t help it. If you’re white, you’re white. Some son takes a picture. Two brothers off to the side laugh, hold onto each other. “Yo, let’s bring him to the club, yo.”
You go up to the meat guy, big angry volcano head. Apron splashed with meat drips. “Um, I want one of those. I like my pork chops thick.”
He doesn’t like you either. You heard him call you a little shit last week to the flower lady next stall over. He doesn’t recognize you. You’re just a little shit to him. He wraps up the chop. Writes on the white paper. He flops it on the counter. “A half-pound cut of baloney,” you say. Repeat of the same wrapping up business. He flops it harder. “A pound of that salami there. Don’t bother to cut.” He starts talking to himself. Then your last order you say, “Quarter pound masserella cheese thin sliced.” You say masserella. By this time he’s sniffing and cursing at you in Greek. Finished, he rings it up. You say, “Put it on my tab.” He starts to step around the counter and you bolt up the aisle, coursing through the Dawn of the Deads who’re eyeballing foods and flowers, knowing he can’t leave his station because a buzzard might step back there and steal his prime beef.
You chill at the right angle of the market, see his bald head retreat back to Meats, and over near Candies you hunt for Marnette who gave you the SF hat which you make sure to cock off center just right, not lip it all the way to the side like no ponies, but right smart teetering it just enough.
You see her with Dragon. The one with the eye make-up, hiding behind a veil of straight black hair, wearing black fingernail polish and tie up boot shoes. That little vampire, she hates everyone, especially ponies.
You do your clippity-clop over to them where they’re sitting at a table. The owner guy offers a deal called the Grand Finale: fill up a cross-sectioned dish with ten kinds of candy. She chose all the number ones: peanut clusters, M&Ms, Goobers, turtles, corn candy, Reese’s. Bunch of others.
You slide down in a seat. You take a turtle. You try for an angle.
“You got my favorite kinds right here. How’d you know I was coming over?”
There’s some wrong air pressure. Dragon cocks her head. Marnette cocks her head. You see that Dragon took lead spot. Last week Marnette had it.
Dragon says, “What’s up with you?”
I touch my SF cap. “What’s up with you?”
“Marnette, what’s up with you?”
“Nothing, Keith. Why do you keep asking me that?”
Well for one damn thing you’re my hook. If you and her didn’t have this Dragon thing between you.
“Saw D2,” you say. Why girls think anything of him escapes me.
“What’s he up to?” says Marnette.
Dragon rolls her eyes left.
“Not much. What are you two up to today?”
“Not much,” says Marnette.
Dragon rolls eyes right.
You realize this is a science project that stopped working. You decide to blow it up.
“So I was wondering Marnette, if you wanted to go to the senior prom with me.”
Both of them bug eyes at you.
“Keith. Senior prom? What grade are you in now?”
Dragon says knife cool: “I don’t see you getting your high school diploma.”
“I don’t see Marnette and me inviting you over to our house when I’m barbecuing chicken leg and thigh pieces,” you say. “When we’re both finding her noodle salad extra delicious because she made her own vinegar sauce.” You’re an Indian seeing trails invisible to the white man. You’re remembering a noodle salad from the family reunion four years ago.
Marnette’s eyes lock into yours for a mad second and leave Dragon drifting in the clouds, but girl power pulls hard.
“Wanker,” says Dragon.
“And for a minute,” you say, grabbing up another turtle, “I was going to name our first baby after you, but I don’t think it would do well in the world with the name Hater. And Marnette, now that you and Dragon are a couple…”
“It’s not like that Keith.”
“Now that you two are a thing together, every time I look into the eyes of another woman I’ll see you. ‘Cause you were my first, Marnette, and you were the best.”
Dragon slides her eyes to Marnette, wondering if in fact you broke the cherry together because Dragon, she still has hers. She wants to be Big Chief Medicine Woman bringing news to everybody. You still have yours, too, but she doesn’t need to know that.
“First what, Keith?” says Marnette breaking the spell.
You bow your head then bring up some sad eyes and look at the Dragon then Marnette. “First person who tore this right here up from the root,” you say pounding your chest twice with your fist. “You broke my heart, baby,” you say.
“I did?” she says.
Marnette loves you, man. It’s deep.
“It’s never going to be the same for me.” You drop your head. You manage to say, “I’m giving up on girls till I can heal.” You wait maybe five seconds then you turn to Dragon and say, “Can I get your number? I’ve always had a thing for you.”
Dragon is alpine cool. She lives above the tree line. She turns to Marnette real slow like she’s memorized her lines. Like she knows the scene already. She says, “I told you he was a Johnson.”
Up you go, snatch one last turtle, and clippity-clop away. Pony boy, pony boy. You’re thinking that was supposed to be fun, riding the goof wave, saluting to the no ponies. But it doesn’t have any traction.
You clippity-clop south on Falls Road. You got that weird no pony feeling. What’s your new grip going to be? You’ve been searching for a grip. Skateboarding? No. Guitar? No. Chess master? No.
On the way down Falls Road, you think about all them feet around you. Your father grew toenail fungus all his life. Followed him into the coffin. You wonder about the corns, the ingrown nails, the plantar’s warts. You wonder about cracked heels and flat feet. You wonder about foot bruises and bone breaks and picture in your mind people walking with pain spiking up their legs, people wheezing into cloth couches at night crying because their feet hurt so bad, but they can’t quit because they’re taking care of Alzheimer parents or little kids. You’re thinking, every one of these old ponies was once upon a time your age. It hits you like a bird in the face. Every single one of these fat, ugly, sour-ass, sagging flesh, mumbling-to-themselves humpty-dumpties rolled at your age.
You never thought of it before. You can’t stop seeing all those feet in your mind hiding their ugly monkey faces inside of shoes and sandals. You shift over, look left and right, and toss it into the curb.
You get away quick as possible. Last week D2 got snagged by some cops for puking his nasty because of vodka. He got all smart-ass up on them, and they made him sit right down in it till he stopped yapping.
Where did your pony go?
You get to 3rd and Falls Road and look all the way down to The Corner, and of course D2 is there with his satellites and all the other members of the beehive. You think about clippity-clopping over there to laugh and watch the world with them, but you aren’t feeling it. You circle down the road one more block, go up the alley off of Falls, turn at the T, go down one block, then slip in through the back door where your cousin Mike told you you could crash whenever and forever.
In the basement, go to the left, and there’s your rollaway cot in the little slot off the furnace, near the washer and dryer. You got a mobile rack where you hang your Polos; you got your child’s dresser where you store your Levis; you got your boxes turned open end sideways where you line up your shoes.
You lie down. You realize that the turtles didn’t actually make you full. You know you got burgers galore when you show up for work tonight at McD’s but right now you need to forage. Up the stairs and there she is, Auntie. Smoking at the table staring into the back yard.
“You got any money?” she asks you. You work it with Mike. You give her thirty a week and she’s cool, Mike says.
“I paid you already,” you say.
“You got any money?” she asks again. “Food don’t grow on trees.”
You want to remind her that some food actually does grow on trees, but, you know, you got a cot downstairs. You’re not on the street anymore.
You lay a fiver by her milk filled teacup on a saucer, and retaliate by making a bigger than usual double decker sandwich. Turkey, mayo, yellow cheese, bologna, tomatoes, salami. You pour yourself some orange soda. You pile potato chips in a bowl. You retreat to the basement, sit on your cot, and stare to your right where their cat lies on the washer looking at you.
You done get done and then take a power nap. You grab your McD’s uniform shirt, tuck in into your backpack, and hit the streets.
Up near the Royal Farms is the center of the hurricane. The Corner.
You start clippity-clopping. You can see Diggity D still hanging, must have been up there for eight, nine hours. Where else is he going to go? You walk the line, glance in a couple of stores.
Before you go too far you step into 7-Eleven. You’re trying to work coffee into your schedule. Mike tells you to drink it black, that way you keep it simple. It’s part of staying on point. It’s walking the tightrope.
You look at all the pots on all the burners. All the people over there snap-shaking little colored packets of sweeteners, staring into space. All of them pouring milk or cream or dairy flavored something into their coffees. Meantime, you get yourself a small cup, pour from a topped off pot, walk over to the counter, pay. You’re out the door. You’re a pony. You walk with the wind. You try to tell Mike about being a pony. He tells you, you say one more word about ponies, your cot is gone.
You walk up to the corner Royal Farms. Cars gliding by on the Strip, what 3rd Street is called. Crosswise from north, too.
You don’t feel like talking to D2, but of course he feels like talking to you. You keep nodding at him. He finally drifts off, turns his attention to a couple of zero ponies come up to him like he’s the Man, so now he’s got something to do with himself.
You lean against the corner of the building, watching. You hear background back of the background. You’re sipping coffee. Two girls go by and puncture your world with their eyes. But you’re inside the zone, watching.
Birdbrain with a homemade tattoo on his neck comes up and smacks you on your back.
“Keith,” he says.
The zone goes away. You land back outside the Royal Farms store looking at Birdbrain with his hand out, wearing that filthy sailor hat he’s had on his head for a year.
You give him a oner.
“That all you got?”
“Birdbrain,” you say. You look at him from a place he can read so he walks off. You been giving him oners almost every day. They know you have a job. They come up to you.
You think to yourself, what’s the new grip? What’s it going to be?
You hang for a while, take the #27 up to McD’s. Work your shift. You’re back at the cot about 11:30 p.m., and you’re still thinking about the next grip, but you’re not in synch.
It’s Saturday and you pop awake about 4:30 in the a.m. You can’t wrestle it to the ground. It’s eating you. It’s a termite boring through a tree stump. You have nothing. She threw you out and you hear D2 and his no ponies laughing in your head because for a month you had to sleep down near Falls River underneath the overpass. Then you had to shift it up into the woods because two simpletons come up on you middle of the night to kick the shit out of you, no doubt tipped by D2, for laughs. You remember when D2 thought it was the funniest when you couldn’t find a place to wash your clothes.
Mike came back from a construction job in Pennsylvania, found out you were in orbit, told you you got a cot long as whenever. One condition: pay Auntie $30 a week and stay out of her way best you can. No telling about her.
You got it farking bad this morning. You get up, but it’s eating your chest, right behind the bone. You go into the bathroom, wash your face, fold a towel, and cry into it like a no pony. You get your key and slip out the back door and wander around till there’s nothing left in your legs. You come back and manage to crash on the cot after checking to make sure Mike got back. He told you you and him would hang today.
“You still sleeping,” he says from across the basement.
You must have dozed hard. You check your watch. It’s 9:30.
“No,” you say, but you were. “No, just laying out here, you know, up since dawn, waiting for you to get up so we can start the day.”
“Hah,” he says.
You hear him settling in.
“Get out here,” he says. He’s in the finished part of the basement, watching TV, no doubt eating a bowl of cornflakes. He stacked a refrigerator with breakfast food for him and you downstairs so you can avoid Auntie in the morning. His room is down here too, across the floor from your cubbyhole near the washer and dryer.
You go out. The light bothers your eyes.
“Fill up,” he says. You pour yourself some cereal with milk. He’s got an old coffee percolator plugged in. Must be from last century.
You and him watch ESPN.
“What you got going today? You working?”
“No,” you say. You don’t tell him, but you switched shifts with a girl making eyes at you so you could have the day. Promised her you’d take her out. It’s a one-timer for you. “I’m free. We’re hanging out. Unless you know, you’re so PW’d you got to get going somewhere.”
“Hah,” he says. His girlfriend’s a nightmare. You hope he sheds her. Soon. “She don’t know I’m back.” He cuts his eyes over to you. You just been asked to promise. That woman, she’s got radar all over. She’ll find out he’s home. Give him hell about it. You know he’s cogitating on it, but he’s giving you the day.
“Naw,” he says, “I feel like hanging out. How old are you anyway?”
“Hah,” you say, imitating him. “Old enough.”
He scratches his head. “You finishing high school, right?”
“Maybe,” you say.
“Don’t bullshit me,” he says.
“Of course,” you say. You try to keep it in your pocket, but you get A’s and B’s. You got a teacher told you he could help you get into UMBC. You got dreams. You don’t let anybody know that, though. Imagine D2 finding out you got UMBC in your headlights?
“That G.E.D.,” he says. “I’m glad I picked it up, but it don’t have the same git of a high school diploma. Just not the same.”
“So I heard,” you say, wanting him to keep talking. He looks all tired and beat up. Old.
“I’m going to be thirty-one next month,” he shakes his head. “I stand around with a bunch of other morons on highways with cars gunning past us at 75 miles an hour. Grit spraying my face all day. Clothes stink. Listening to fat ass bosses tell me how to flatten gravel.” He pulls his hat off and scratches his head. “I need another gig, Keith. This one’ll kill me.”
“You’re going to start those electrician classes, I thought,” you say.
“She’s been giving me hell. Telling me we need a house.”
“You’ll get a house for her,” you say. “You need your electrician’s license. Then the house.”
He sniffs, crosses his legs at the ankles. “You know, that’s right. That’s right.”
You helped him line up the classes at a good trade school last semester. He didn’t pull the trigger.
“How long’s it going to take you?” you ask. “You got it in your pocket in a year.”
“That’s right,” he says.
You can hear that dehumidifier humming. You go over, switch it off, pull the pan out, take it over to the laundry sink and dump the water. You put it back and fire the machine up again.
“I’m not complaining,” he says.
“Yes you are,” you say.
He laughs. “I’ll tell you, I’m going to be an electrician this time next year. I’ll tell you what. That’s in the books.”
“That’s right,” you say. You’re feeling hollow inside. It makes no sense. You think, Mike can’t give up the tiger. That can’t happen.
You watch ESPN a while. Auntie is upstairs walking back and forth from the front window to the back door. Once in a while you can hear her talking to herself. She used to have a dog follow her around, Mike tells you. Died four or five years ago. She still talks to him.
“Seriously,” he says. He looks over at you. He’s sitting in a La-Z-Boy he got third-hand from a Salvation Army store. Buddy of his works there. They hauled it out the back door an hour after somebody brought it in. “Electrician in a year. That will happen.” He sniffs. “Damn right it will.”
You’re getting the willies. Your heart is pounding. You’re looking for a day of hanging out, slicing the wind. You’re hoping for some laughs.
You watch TV. Drink coffee like he likes to. You’re riding the cloth couch, slunk down, wondering if you and Mike ever going to make it out the door. You want a day outside. You were hoping to get Mike to take you down to Annapolis. Never been there before. It’s thirty or forty miles away, which sounds like a winning ticket to you. Get the hell down the road somewhere. Or maybe you could talk him into going to D.C. Maybe you could see some different girls for a change. You wouldn’t mind going up into the Washington Monument. Last time you went to D.C. was in elementary school.
He sees you squirming around, itching to get going. He’s giving you eye slides. Finally, when you’re ready to call it a day and get on out of here yourself, he says, “Damned, Keith, I nearly forgot. Stay here a minute.”
He goes into a back storage room right off the TV den and wheels out a blue stunt bike. Goes in and gets another, this one green. Both brand new.
You sit there. The room spins in a carnival ride upside down then back right again. You grip the armrest.
“I figured you and me, we need to do some riding.”
Your mother told you she threw your bike in a green dumpster – nothing but spite – then told you to get the hell gone. Mike knew that bike of yours was the thing got you up in the morning.
“Which one you like?” he asks.
You can’t talk. You stand up. You swallow and you try, but it’s a zero moment.
“I think the blue one’s yours,” he says.
They’re both leaning against the beam down there. You go over to him and hug him hard as you can. You wipe your eyes with your wrist.
“Come on,” he says. “Help me haul them up to the pickup. Let’s go on over to that park in Catonsville we went to last fall.”
All the structures in that park are made out of old tires and wood. Crazy slides and towers. Little forts kids run in and out of. Heaven for stunt riding.
We go outside and he makes a few adjustments on the seats, and you never touched such a perfect bike. He says, “Let’s get going.”
But you take off for a minute, pop a wheelie down near Nelson’s where the alley ends and gets wide so people can swing around in their cars. You jump up on a tree stump, bounce on the back wheel, jump down, and do front wheelie. He’s up there near the pickup truck laughing his ass off. You never felt the wind up in your hair like you do this minute. You never heard the world hum in your ears like a tuning fork.
You and Mike go over to the park. There’s even an off-road path that heads down a half mile into the woods, loops back and puts you in the park again. You get a few kids stop their bikes and watch you take picnic tables in one bounce. You turn over a wire trashcan and go from table to can to tire slide to fort roof without touching the ground. You ride up the side of a tree trunk, turn one-eighty, and head down. Mike, he puts on a show himself. You stop and watch him a while. When he rides down the path that heads into the woods, comes barreling back out of it with a smile on his face, laying back in a wheelie, you wish you could thank him.
That’s your new grip. The Share. That’s what you can do. It comes into your head like over a loudspeaker. The Share. Just like he did.
You ride until late, near dark. After you haul the bikes back into the house and order a pizza, sit and watch TV a while, you stretch out on the couch. You watch him look at his phone when it rings, but he turns it off before answering her. He gives you a wink, stretches his legs out on the coffee table and closes his eyes. It breaks your heart. You know his green bike’s still going to look new a year from now. But not yours.
Kevin Lavey teaches at an alternative school in Baltimore Country, Maryland. His stories have been published in various literary magazines including Free State Review, Witness, Stickman Review, Zygote in My Coffee,and Unlikely Stories. This story won the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Fiction. His novel, Rat, was published in 2007.
The Lifted Brow have an enviable archive of pieces from incredible writers, some of whom have gone on to publish books. One such book is Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane by Brow alumna Elspeth Muir. Here we revisit a short story of Elspeth’s originally published in the Brow and later anthologised in The Best of the Lifted Brow: Volume One.
The chimpanzee shrieks and the sound is extraordinary. Red, green and blue birds chirp, shit then resettle. They ruffle their feathers.
Thomas, shipwrecked on the island, curses. He brings an imaginary cigarette to his lips and adjusts his panama. “Don’t worry old girl,” he blusters “It’s that accursed ape. Nothing to fret your pretty head over. Daddy’s king of the jungle. I’ll find you your treasure, won’t I darling?”
He wonders if Edith hears him. It is unlikely – she rarely listens. He has seen her only twice, after sitting still for more than three days and eating very little. He thinks she might come from the sea, although he has not yet inquired. In her absence Thomas concocts extravagant promises, hoping that next time she’ll stay.
Night falls and the lagoon is phosphorescent. The water slaps and moans. Big fish feed where the reef drops off.
The chimpanzee looks for food all day. It eats eggs and shellfish and berries and coconuts and dead birds. One time a whale washed ashore. The chimpanzee scooped out the eye and put it in its mouth. It spat it out.
The whale was alive when it ran aground. It burned to death in the sun. The gorgeous, oily, blubbery insulation cooked its primeval heart until, fat with heat, the concave walls began to fray and leach tendrils of unctuous red slick.
Its bones are on the north side of the island. The chimpanzee sometimes swings on its ribs.
Thomas eats the same food as the chimpanzee. He forages in the small forest on the island. Food is scarce and Thomas is neither agile nor strong. He finds it hard to reach all but the closest birds nests. He cannot climb for coconuts. He cannot fish. He is wary of the navy blue berries that grow on the small thorny bush.
He is scared of the chimpanzee. It throws sticks at him from the trees. He throws small pebbles back.
Thomas snacks on sweet ants with molasses-filled abdomens. Sometimes he pries shellfish from the rocks, gently tearing the tops of his fingernails from their beds. During the day he sucks pebbles to stave off thirst.
There is a single fresh water spring on the island. It is in the forest. He goes there after dark when the chimpanzee is asleep.
Thomas sleeps on the north side of the island, under a pandanus palm, in a shallow hollow. The hollow is carved into soft volcanic rock and is lined with sand. On clear nights Thomas counts satellites and chews a smooth, grey stick. He groans with the loneliness of it all.
The chimpanzee is wary of the waves that smash into the rocks at high tide and doesn’t come close.
In the cooler months the birds leave the island, and there are no more eggs. There are fewer coconuts and the chimpanzee is twice as vicious. Sometimes Thomas stays in his hollow all day leaving only for water.
Edith comes then. Her purple dress is spattered with light and shadow – and is made and she flits through the forest singing.
She flirts and pouts and spins fast on the spot so that Thomas can see she is wearing nothing under her skirt. They play canasta until dusk. She cheats.
Edith eats the navy blue berries from the spiky bush. When she laughs her teeth are stained with juice. She has cruel teeth, small and pointed. She sits in a pandanus palm above Thomas’s hollow and teases him, proffering her slim, brown calf, then pulling it out of reach when he stretches up to touch it.
Sometimes Thomas lies in his hollow and pretends to smoke cigarettes. Edith likes cigarettes. He thinks that maybe she will come over to investigate and then he will grab her ankle.
Only once she comes to watch, wrapped in a salt-stiff feather boa, dangling a broken accordion by its fraying strap. He smokes. She stares. She crouches on the sand at the end of the hollow shuffling cards. He asks her if she’d like to play and she giggles, teeth cutting the air.
On nights when Edith is around the wind is chill and Thomas shivers under a thin layer of pandanus leaves. From the forest he hears the broken box accordion, moaning an off tune, long and low. Satellites spin through stars and the chimpanzee shrieks in its sleep.
Beyond the island with its fledgling pubescent smattering of trees and barely there eco-system Thomas cannot recall. He has the vaguest notion that he has been here forever.
(And that pinprick before, the waves tip tapping on the metal hull, the smell of singed chimpanzee and the sea and the sea and the sea – gulping like Thor from the drinking horn.)
The chimpanzee remembers the wreck when it is asleep. It hoots with fear.
Thomas grows impatient with Edith’s coquettishness. When she comes to stare he lunges for her – growling. She giggles and skips back. He tries to get up from the hollow to chase her but falls back and hits his head. She laughs and runs off.
Thomas calls for Edith and hears the broken box accordion gasp once or twice for breath beyond the forest and the sand. He calls again, but Edith is all foam and wicked laugh. She won’t come back.
He rages and the rage makes his heart flutter and his lungs impotent. He stops moving. His lips blister and seep. Flies settle on the broken skin.
The chimpanzee, accustomed to Thomas’s shrill monologues, wonders at the sound of wind. It drops the handful of sticks it is carrying and climbs down from a tree. For a time it forages in the small forest alone. It moves in concentric circles, tight at first, then looser and larger.
Full of food the chimpanzee swells with a different hunger. It sits under a pandanus palm, and sighs, thinking about other chimpanzees.
It tears leaves off the cabbage palm. It throws rocks at the big fish slapping on the outer reef and grunts. It wanders past the whalebones and over the large white grains of sand rimming the lagoon. It rubs the back of its neck over and over.
On one foraging trip it finds itself closer than it has ever been to the rocks that face the open ocean. It hears Thomas’s wheezing and is curious. It moves slowly towards the sound.
Thomas is curled up in the hollow. His gums are the colour of coagulating ketchup and he sings songs he hasn’t made up but can’t remember learning. “Prah maree keep on burning, rollin, rollin, rollin bah the river.”
The chimpanzee crouches near the hollow watching. The tide is getting higher but the chimpanzee doesn’t notice. It watches Thomas breathe in and out. His eyes are fixed and unseeing with a dull sheen.
The chimpanzee is fascinated by Thomas’s body. It is familiar yet entirely strange. It touches the broiled flesh on Thomas’s face. It snags a hand in his salt-stiff hair. It lifts his arm and examines his fingers. It peels his lips open and smells damp, rotting breath.
It sits and crosses its legs. It pulls Thomas’s body towards it and cradles his head in its lap. It has been carrying a coconut which it breaks open. It pours sweet, cloudy milk into Thomas’s hot, cracked mouth.
Thomas splutters and moans. The primate jams a jagged finger of white coconut meat between his teeth. He spits it out and the primate jams it in again. He chews and retches and swallows small bites and retches. The primate crams more in, and Thomas chews it slowly. Listlessly. Then, he dozes fitfully, knotting the chimpanzee’s leg hair with unconscious contortions.
Sun sets. The air is hot and thick with the smell of tamarind. On the horizon is a storm cell. Coconuts thud. There is a breeze from the lagoon. At the water’s edge sand sizzles, pulled in and pushed out by small, uncrested waves.
The chimpanzee sleeps with one black hand in Thomas’s matted hair.
In the morning it leaves only to gather coconuts, ants and birds eggs. It returns to the hollow and resumes its position, moving only to force coconut milk or egg yolk into his mouth, and to peel pieces of flaking skin from his face.
Thomas wakes to the white glare of the morning sun. He wakes choking on coconut milk. He retches from the smell of hot chimpanzee. He sees that the sun is setting. He also sees a full moon.
He wakes burning. He wakes freezing. He wakes crying. He wakes laughing. He wakes screaming. And he sleeps.
The chimpanzee watches Thomas. When his eyes are open it feeds him. When his eyes are shut it holds him. It feels his fever ebb and his skin turn cool. It feels his contortions still. It touches its waxy hands to his flaking face. It arches its back and sees the red, green and blue birds flying in fast circles above the forest. It walks into the trees.
The chimpanzee returns at dusk. Thomas is sitting up, his back propped against the pandanus palm. He is weak and hungry. Pinpricks of light skid across his pupils. His memory is black. When he sees the primate at the edge of the forest he moans with fear.
The chimpanzee lopes toward Thomas on all fours. Thomas scrabbles for small rocks. When it is close Thomas pelts it with pebbles. It does not stop.
Thomas yells. The sound is sickly and fades quickly. “Piss off. Piss off you brute. Leave me alone.”
Fear makes Thomas’s eyes tear and his bladder tingle. He shifts from cheek to cheek and curses his still impotent legs.
The chimpanzee is close. Thomas can feel the heat from its body and smell its hair and hear it breathing. He looks into its eyes and throws one more rock. The primate flinches. It raises a curled fist. Thomas groans and turns his head to the side. He shuts his eyes and waits for the blow.
There is no blow. Thomas waits. He turns. He opens his eyes.
The chimpanzee’s fist is uncurled. On its palm are two small blue eggs. Thomas looks as it moves its hand towards him.
Thomas takes an egg. He cracks a small hole in the shell with a rock and sucks out the slightly bloody yolk. He looks at the primate. It holds up the other egg. Thomas picks it off his palm. “Thank you,” he says.
The chimpanzee sits back and watches Thomas eat. It scratches its leg. It purses its lips and grunts. Thomas starts. It walks towards him. Thomas tries to stand. His legs give way. He pulls them into his torso and puts his head on his knees.
The chimpanzee takes Thomas’s head in its hands and runs its fingers through his hair. It is not an unpleasant sensation. His body becomes less rigid. His scalp is gently tugged as the primate forages for lice. The chimpanzee puts the lice in its mouth.
At night the wind is strong. Thomas sleeps against the rock. He is restless. The ground is hard and small pieces of gravel stick to his skin. It is achingly cold. The chimpanzee lies near him. He leans over and puts his hand in its hair. The hair is coarse and thick and warm.
Thomas rolls closer. He sniffs deeply. The animal smell is sharp and he huffs. He can feel the chimpanzee’s heat. He touches his stomach to its back. He puts his arm over its side so that his hand is on its chest. He feels its thumb touch his. His eyes close.
The chimpanzee and Thomas sleep together the next night. Thomas moves his hand from its chest to its stomach. The night after he runs both his palms up its endless arms. Each night he is less inhibited. He grasps and squeezes a hairy buttock. He rubs his cheek in its neck. He presses the wrinkled skin on its forehead. He cups its foot in his hand. He runs his toes the length of its body.
Its smell becomes familiar and addictive. Its misshapen body repulses and excites him. He looks forward to sunset when the constant foraging and eating ends and he can once again indulge his ravenous fascination with the primate. He kneads its fur and pinches its skin. He grinds his crotch into its back. He licks its nipples and tickles it under the arms.
The chimpanzee is excited and confused by the nightly attentions. It struggles and screeches in pain. It kisses its tormentor. It wraps its arms around his back and thrusts against him with its pelvis. It tries futilely to escape, then slackens. It whoops it and murmurs. It stares into the dark trees with one hand on Thomas’s side.
During the day it forages close to Thomas. It picks the lice from his hair. It brings him eggs and fruit and ants to eat. It purses its lips and hugs him. It grows agitated when he is out of sight.
Thomas starts to rely on the chimpanzee. He looks forward to being groomed. He receives the food with pleasure. His lust for his companion is augmented by a fondness that leaves him hollow on the rare occasions when the chimpanzee is not there.
Thomas forgets Edith. He forgets the shipwreck. He does not wonder about the frayed material that cuffs the chimpanzee’s wrists. He does not wonder about the thick scar on his cheek. He think only about searching for food, about swinging on whalebones and the lovely nocturnal fumblings. He is happy.
He and the chimpanzee go for long foraging trips around the island. Thomas pries shellfish from the rocks and the chimpanzee collects bird eggs that Thomas cannot reach. On one trip Thomas finds a stick. He gives it to the primate who uses it to fish for ants.
Thomas grooms the chimpanzee. He learns which parts of its body grow tender after climbing and rubs them to ease the tension. He tickles it and it screams with delight. He is intrigued by the way it walks. He wants to know what it thinks.
Thomas begins to teach it a basic sign language. The chimpanzee is a bright but distracted pupil. It learns to sign ‘Love’, ‘Thomas’, ‘Food’, ‘Go’, ‘Me’ and ‘Now’. Thomas is proud of his student.
After dark he usually makes a fire. This impresses the chimpanzee who hoots with delight as Thomas rubs sticks together with frenzy, blowing in short sharp puffs until the grass catches fire.
He and the chimpanzee sit beside the fire and watch the small flames lick the night. The chimpanzee won’t go too close, but it adores steaming shellfish and hard boiled eggs and jumps on the spot while Thomas cooks.
Thomas is proud of the chimpanzee’s reaction to his skills. He feels slightly superior to his lovely, hairy companion. Though he likes their night-time contortions, he sometimes thinks he deserves a more erudite companion.
By the fire Thomas begins to talk about the origin of the island. He gestures with open arms at the lagoon, the small forest and the whale bones. “All this,” he tells the chimpanzee “including you – belongs to me,” he says. The chimpanzee signs “Love Thomas” and looks up at him with adoration. Thomas tickles its armpits and it squeals.
Thomas describes to the chimpanzee how Edith came from the ocean and made him king. He talks about the fire making skills, bestowed upon him by a heavenly entity. He asks the chimpanzee what it thinks about bowing to him. He waits for a hoot of assent – none comes. He looks over to see the chimpanzee asleep by the fire. This annoys him slightly.
Thomas starts to forage halfheartedly. He feels the work is tedious and beneath him. One morning he stops. He sits in his hollow weaving a regal hat from pandanus palms. The chimpanzee now forages for two. In the evening it is tired. It does not jump by the fire or hoot with joy like it used to.
Thomas asks the chimpanzee about the future. He tells the chimpanzee he would like to build a hut. He is uncomfortable in the hollow and does not find it kingly. He asks the chimpanzee if it could collect cabbage leaves and pandanus palms when it forages next. “Love Thomas,” it replies. “Food Now.”
Thomas is angered by the chimpanzee’s response. He thinks it does not take him seriously. He tells it that he wishes it wouldn’t say such stupid things sometimes. He tells it that it has hurt his feelings. The chimpanzee sees that he is anxious and hoots. It begins to pick lice from his hair and slowly Thomas calms down.
The next evening the chimpanzee returns with only blue berries. The weather is growing cool again and the birds have stopped breeding or have left the island. A storm has destroyed the coconut trees. There is nothing else to eat. Thomas is enraged and kicks the chimpanzee. It shrieks and runs off into the forest. Many hours later it returns and Thomas says sorry.
One night Thomas asks the chimpanzee if it loves him. “Love Thomas,” it replies. “Food Now Thomas.” The chimpanzee is tired. Its head droops. It signs “Food Go Thomas – Me Go Now.” It curls up next to the rock to sleep.
Thomas is infuriated by the chimpanzee’s callousness. On purpose he sleeps with his back to it. He wonders if it even notices.
Thomas is angry. He wonders why the chimpanzee is afraid to reveal the true depths of its feelings. He tells it that he’s sick of the meaningless conversations they have about trivial matters.
The primate has humiliated him. He has laid his emotions bare and the chimpanzee won’t give him anything. “You don’t love me,” he yells. “You don’t love anything.”
The chimpanzee is agitated by the anguished display. It begins to sign quickly. “Love Food Now Thomas Love Food Now Thomas Love Food Now Thomas Love Food Now Thomas.”
Thomas is furious. He rushes at the primate and grabs it by the shoulders. He pushes it back toward the fire. It is close. It fur smokes and crackles. The smell of singed flesh makes him flinch. The chimpanzee screams and struggles to break away. Thomas slackens his grip. It runs into the trees.
For the first night since his illness Thomas sleeps alone.
Days pass and the chimpanzee does not return. Thomas works on his hat and draws up plans for an enormous castle in the sand. The hat is destroyed in a storm and the plans are washed away in a king tide.
He wanders the island with a stick beating small bushes and throwing rocks at the birds. He tears at his tattered clothes and gives orders to the sand crabs. He chews his thumbs until they bleed. He shoots into the trees with an imaginary pistol and cusses at the chimpanzee until his voice breaks and he is left with no sound.
His gaze grows blank. He spends hours sitting in the shade of the pandanus palm staring into the distance.
It rains and rains. Thomas’s clothes grow mildew. The skin around his genitals peels off.
Once he thinks he sees the chimpanzee loping through the forest. He chases after it swearing and beating his chest, but it is gone before he reaches the trees.
The rain stops and Thomas’s raw genitals begin to smell and attract small flies. The pain makes him sob with fury. His only relief comes from bathing in the forest spring. He goes daily, sometimes calling for the chimpanzee, but it never comes.
The absence of the chimpanzee compounds his pain. He is tormented by the cheek of his invisible subject and resolves to lay in wait for it. He spends every day at the spring, leaving only to relieve himself, to search for coconuts and to sleep.
The chimpanzee is a canny opponent, but Thomas knows it can’t live forever without water. On the seventh day he smells it. Hair and lust and death. He waits in excited pain for its arrival.
It crawls slowly, moaning. The smell is insidious and it makes Thomas gag. When he sees it, it is crawling. Its back is a festering crater of crusted hair and glistening black and red flesh. In places its skin is held firm by a mattress of writhing maggots.
Thomas edges back quickly, gagging. Startled, the chimpanzee looks up. Its face is haggard and its eyes are cloudy. It flinches and rocks back onto its haunches staring at Thomas.
Thomas scuttles back on his elbows, retching at the stink. The chimpanzee begins to whimper. “Love Thomas,” it signs. “Love Thomas,” again and again, its dying fingers tripping over the words.
Thomas stands up and walks through the trees. He shakes his clothes with one hand and clutches his nose with the other. The primate shrieks and the sound is extraordinary. Red, green and blue birds chirp, shit and resettle. They ruffle their feathers.
Elspeth Muir is a Brisbane author whose writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Best of the Lifted Brow: Volume One, Griffith Review, Voiceworks and Bumf. She is a postgraduate student at the University of Queensland.
The new Managing Editor of The Missouri Review, Kate McIntyre, recently gave us a big shout-out in a podcast conversation (embedded below). We’re mentioned around the fourteen-minute mark, but you should definitely listen to the whole thing – such an intelligent and wide-ranging conversation. Thanks, Kate!
And this is one not a tonne of people know about, though I think more and more people will – it’s a magazine that’s published out of Australia actually, called The Lifted Brow. Something I like about them very much is: for a long time it seemed as if it was a one-man operation, one editor with seemingly endless energy, who was putting this magazine out and getting these contributors which were just so impressive – people like Rick Moody, Brian Evenson, all sorts of folks, really, really cool stuff. And it’s a magazine that hasn’t been around very long but has evolved through several iterations – it was your more standard perfect-bound magazine for a while, and then they switched to a newspaper-ish format, and now they do really cool things with graphic design. And I think they’ve buddied up with McSweeney’s somehow, and just did a very successful redesign. And they also do a lot of work with graphic novels, short comics, that sort of thing. So I’m always really intrigued to see what they’re doing.
In addition to having kept her eye on us for many years, Kate has also been published in TLB – way back in 2010, in our seventh issue. As a gesture of thanks for her kind words and even kinder engagement with us for so long, we’ve republished her story ‘Elegy for Organ in Ten Parts’ below.
Lately, Elizabeth drank a lot, so she worried about her liver. Cirrhosis. Scarring. Nodules. Lesions. Swelling. All invisible. How could she know what happened inside her while she ate (little) and slept (less), while she swilled vodka tonics and took home strange men? She did not usually worry about her health. Instead she compared three- and two-button blazers and skin-clarifying moisturisers. She wondered if the new cruise line campaign she spearheaded had the right balance of hip South End newness and staid Beacon Hill sameness, so the Beacon Hill folks (the target market) were seduced but not scared. Her masterstroke: buying the rights to ‘London Calling’ for the European Adventure theme song. Now that the project was winding down, she could relax after work, let her brain get flabby and happy for a couple weeks. But her mind revved up and refused to downshift, she would say, if she were trying to sell her brain to eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old men.
As long as her mind had to gnaw something, a bodily organ was good to chew. It showed Elizabeth’s burgeoning depth. Or at least her concern for deeper things from a literal, subcutaneous standpoint. Was this what maturity meant? She’d waited twenty-five years to feel the tug of womanly responsibility, ever since her little girl days, shuffling in her mother’s pink houndstooth pumps, tripping over long strands of pearls she’d twined around her neck, holding an imaginary cigarette to her mouth and puckering.
One Thursday evening, Elizabeth prepared a whole chicken for roasting in her postage stamp-sized oven in her business envelope-sized apartment. Her guests—friends from work—would arrive in an hour and a half. The chicken was necessary. She’d promised them a taste of Midwestern home cooking. Earlier, she had popped some wine to get warmed up, only to find herself drunk with an empty bottle, ready to perform hostess duties as long as her equilibrium held out. She felt as light and free as a paper ribbon whipping about on a county fair parade float.
The chicken’s pinky white epidermis, only mostly defrosted, matched her own. Elizabeth pondered what lurked beneath her smooth skin, which had the colour sucked out due to 15 years under SPF 15. As she dug into the bird’s frosty insides, she extricated crunchy kidneys, purplish residue and a mystery chunk. A giblet, perhaps? What was a giblet? Did she, herself, have a giblet? Chickens, if her arts education did not deceive her, were close relatives of man. Not so close as the pig, but still closer than, say, moss or lizards. Therefore, the lumps inside the chicken likely matched those within herself. A revelation. When she thought of her bodily composition before, if she ever thought of it, she imagined a loaf of French bread, albeit a toned, lithe, loaf. A smooth crust with a spongy centre. And some blood in there somewhere. The thought of such grim masses rising up beneath her rib cage terrified her.
She deposited the chicken into her garbage can and served shrimp instead. When she opened the door to her guests, her first words were: “I hope you’ve brought wine.” They had. That night she drank a whole bottle of champagne. She awoke on the couch, a shrimp tail caught in her hair and the knees of her fishnets ripped. She remembered laughing and laughing, gravity falling away.
Elizabeth set aside the day after her drinking binge for virtue. She did all the household tasks she’d been putting off. She drank gallons of water and ate pounds of fruits and vegetables, so many that they filled her stomach and piled up into her throat. And she vacuumed. The swoosh of the machine over the rugs, its uneven grumble, the flex of her skinny arm as she pushed, the even stripes left in the carpet, all pleased her.
She wished she could take a peek at her liver and see how it was doing. Scarred black and brittle like the lungs of a sixty-five-year-old who had smoked three packs of Marlboro Reds a day since age twelve, or healthy, gooey purple? She’d never know. A coroner performing a post-mortem might, removing the organ from the T-shaped incision in her belly and dropping it on a counterbalance, recording its weight in grams on a spreadsheet. The question then, of course, would be cause of death. Had she expired in a car crash, or caught a heel in a crack and pitched into a manhole? Had her heart failed at the age of eighty-seven, or had she lost her way on a tarmac and stumbled into a jet engine? Maybe the way she had died destroyed her liver, making it impossible to determine its relative health. Evisceration. Crushing. Conflagration. Only time would tell, and she, very sadly, could never.
Elizabeth did not have a doctor in the city. So she called her old doctor in Temperance, Michigan, her hometown. A paediatrician, he had been there since she was born, through chicken pox, stitches in her ankle, hypoglycaemia, and her first birth control prescription. She visualised the old man at home in his favourite chair by a snapping fire, puffing an imaginary pipe. He’d given up the real one years ago, but the muscle memory, the crooked fingers raised hopefully up to his drooping mouth then falling back to the edge of his overstuffed armchair, remained. He spoke deliberately, as always, and he did not sound surprised to hear from her. “Short of going in for a biopsy, which I couldn’t see my way clear to authorise in this case, there is no way to be absolutely certain. Of course, blood tests could be given to determine how well your cat’s liver is processing the material that enters it. But when there are no overt indications of liver sickness, such as jaundice visible at the ears, there really is no sense in worrying, or, worse, undergoing an invasive procedure. So you stop it now, Lizzy. Your kitty’s fine. Promise that you’ll find her a vet there in Boston, though. We sure are proud of you here.”
Home was a place of wheat fields and quicksand that stymied her volition. Visiting meant danger, the first step toward meeting a nice man named Timothy who worked the land, whom she’d have to stand beside with gritty teeth in times of drought and locust clouds, who’d impregnate her over and over and over again, til she’d wear formless shift dresses and shout out to the front yard where her babies played on a dirt pile, tossing clods, that dinner was ready. It would always be beef.
She’d never come home. She would visit once a year, at Christmas, packing oddities to Midwestern eyes: yerba mate, pear brandy, smoked fish, and, yes, the most expensive-looking clothing she owned. Between black ballerina flats and magenta croco-embossed pumps, of course the pumps would win out. Obviously. They were like Ferraris for her feet. They said, “Hello there, I’ve been successful in a big city back east. And you?”
What was she doing calling this medical professional, disturbing his evening? She was just trying to take care of herself. Same thing as the self-breast exams and mole inspections. She’d heard that high-powered executives with lots of money to redistribute got yearly ultra-physicals, which tested for every possible bodily complaint, from colitis to ketosis to cancer, and took two full days to complete. Lucky.
She washed her windows and did all the dishes by hand because they got cleaner that way, waiting for telltale twinges and aches in her midsection.
Friday again, and Elizabeth, drunk, itched for a shower. She’d been at a party in a loft downtown hosted by a band, and they all smoked, and her hair stunk. Someone called Sly who drove a big-ass SUV with custom leather seating had dropped her off back at her place, and she immediately shook up a martini in a highball glass and topped it with five fat green olives.“Baby, one more, just one more. I don’t want the night to end,” she murmured as she fished them one at a time from the jar, her lips heavy and lush on her mouth. Sly had said something similar when he’d tried to invite himself up. She shucked off her dress, turned some knobs and stepped into the warm mist of the shower, her drink in one hand, loofah in another.
The glass tumbled and shattered on the bathroom tile. Gin ran down her shaved legs. It stung. She cussed and teetered out, sitting on the floor while she picked up the chunks of glass. She nicked her left pointer finger – a flesh wound. At least the gin had sterilised the glass. The blood welled up, and she staunched it with toilet paper. Very sharp glass.
What was to prevent her from making a little slice in her side so that she could take a gander at that liver of hers? Just to knock-knock and say hello neighbour. In ancient times… When, exactly? The past. She didn’t know. The online encyclopaedia didn’t say. Folks who were long dead now thought the liver was the seat of greed and desire, the part in her, for example, that yearned for a well-cut silk tunic, a queen-size leather handbag with heavy brass hardware.
More importantly, though, the liver told your fortune. Bloated with blood, its meanings were opaque. But maybe if she shed some light on the organ she could read the toxins’ etching, the smudged messages in the lobes.
From her recent studies of anatomical maps, done during downtimes at work, she knew right where her liver should be. It was hard to miss, the largest organ in the body, aside from the skin, which most people never would suspect. Any cut in the neighbourhood of her right thoracic cavity should hit paydirt. The protective shroud of peritoneum would need to be shrugged aside, but her body felt numb, pre-anaesthetised.
Well? She raised the shard to her belly and pressed the point into her flesh. Lifted away, it left a small red indentation, a pressure mark rather than a perforation. She would have to push much harder.
She passed out with her left leg twisted under her. It took ten minutes to get the blood flowing back to that foot in the morning.
At a New Year’s party at a club called Privilege, which was done up like an English manor house and filled with staff dressed like Jeeves or naughty French maids, while picking up her Brandy Alexander at the bar, Elizabeth had met this man, Chef Dave. He owned, he told her, a fusion bistro on Newbury St and seemed poised to be the next Boston chef celebrity. The chef rocked back and forth and tapped his foot, as though to his own personal hip hop soundtrack. Elizabeth stood stock-still to make a point. Encircling his wrist were a yellow cancer awareness bracelet and a magnetic one that, she supposed, he wore for its healing powers. A man-jewel of the silver and turquoise variety ate up his right index finger. Higher up on his arm, he had a tattoo: a worried ham hopping down the street, pursued by a carving knife and fork. He had a bit of a belly, and Elizabeth imagined the flames from the gas stoves at his restaurant tickling it as he stretched to stir a roux on a back burner. She wondered what his flesh might smell like as it burned. When he found out she was a fellow Midwesterner, he invited her to dinner at his place. Elizabeth accepted his offer. He reminded her of a boy she’d dated in high school, who had sweaty palms and a six-pack, who stared at her naked body and told her, guile-free, that it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. There seemed to be a goodness there, a realness to him. And she did value a home-cooked meal.
Lately, Elizabeth wore men’s cologne. Maybe she was lonely. She’d spent an afternoon at the fragrance counter frustrating a sharply-dressed saleswoman with her indecisiveness. Her brother, the ostensible recipient of this ostensible gift of scent, was picky about his personal fragrances. He needed something really masculine, with no sweet or citrusy notes. She decided on a blocky bottle of Gucci, which contained notes of pepper, ginger, amber, and woods, and the relieved clerk rang up her sale in record time, lest Elizabeth change her mind again. The scent surprised Elizabeth. She had thought that amber was a gemstone from which one could also extract recombinant DNA. Also: “woods”? What sort of woods? Conifer? Parquet flooring? Golf club? Number two pencil?
She enjoyed being wrapped up in a veil of the woods, though. She would breathe in and out, and as she exhaled, the air caught in her throat like suede drawn over a hacksaw. She was so rough and delicious, so pure in her sureness.
The problem was that she was so far away from anything real. Sometimes, especially when the sun reflected sharply off the pavement and the city sky was awash in pure, white light, Elizabeth yearned for something else, coarse and homelike. This was the same impulse that lured investment bankers to shovelling horseshit on dude ranches. She knew that there was a uniquely American experience somewhere that she was missing. She had grown up in a small town in the middle of the country and moved to a large American city on the east coast, and she could only guess at the geography that lay between the two. She’d never been interested before.
She pictured how things would be in this nowhere place, this American treasure. She would drive an old car, a convertible, one with a big, skinny steering wheel with finger grips. It was twilight, and the sinking sun tinged everything—the scrubby trees she whizzed past, the road, her hands on the wheel—violet. She wore a clean plaid shirt, a bit frayed at the sleeves. Her destination: a roadside honky-tonk, tin-sided and encrusted with thousands of Christmas lights, where she had never been before, where men and women with sleek muscles arm-wrestled for drinks and she was welcomed as an old friend. She was always young, always single – not shiftless, but free, and always one shot away from stumbling across the point of things, sharp as a dart tip, familiar as the scent of old bedding. She felt this place deep down.
Still in the black dress and purple tights she’d worn to work, Elizabeth blacked out in her leather armchair. Her head hung forward heavily, bobbing up and down with each breath, her earrings brushing her bare shoulders. She perked up periodically and slid back into smooth, drunken slumber. But the twitches wouldn’t pass, so she unfolded her legs and got some orange juice. It washed away the taste of mouldering gin and left instead a tang that crinkled her nose. She smoothed the skin with her thumb. She tried to avoid unnecessary facial expressions because she’d read that it took only a thousand creasings of the skin, a thousand smiles or inquisitive eyebrow twitches, before the dark lines of age marked her.
She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep unless she determined the source of her uneasiness. The trick was to pluck the worry out and slop it on a page, her pen a trowel, her insides a barrow of wet cement. The angst had to be spread before it dried and hardened. She found a pen and notebook in her purse, crawled back under the table and, sprawling between sleek wooden legs, wrote.
When Elizabeth tried to raise her face from her wood floor the next morning, it stuck. Her cheek had landed in a puddle of orange juice, and she had to peel it free like the price tag from the sole of a new shoe. The scene that greeted her was not one of simple abundance, which was a shame, because that was what she hoped her dining room would evoke. The orange juice carton lay overturned on a side table, dripping sticky sweetness onto her favourite rug. She had a bad bruise on her calf.
She picked up her notebook and read:
- New Campaign: Giovanni’s table wine
- Sweeter than others = more calories
- Spin this: bottle in print ad looks like big lollipop or peppermint candy? Bottle carried by girl in candy striper outfit? Giovanni’s in the IV bags? Alcohol as medicine? Is this offensive?
- Tag line: How Sweet!
- Commercial, use tag line to mean a thoughtful gift: hot good samaritan (shirtless?) helps old lady cross street. When they get to other side, he hands her a mini-bottle, like airline size. Close-up on her wrinkled face. She says: “How sweet!” Bottle or Samaritan? Both. Works both ways.
Chef Dave sliced up foie gras for the two of them. Fancy little crackers stood at the ready, and a bottle of white wine perspired on his granite countertop. Elizabeth wanted that wine. Chef Dave told her a funny story about custard as he whisked the knife over the lobed grey hunks, which fell in perfect tablets before her. As he set the knife down, she changed her mind. She wanted the knife.
Chef Dave glided like a sleek waiter, the wine bottle clutched proudly in his hands. For a moment, he was dashing, but then he tripped. He grabbed for the counter with the hand that held the wine bottle. Thick drops ran down the granite.
Elizabeth inhaled a little sharply at his approach. She thought that perhaps he’d spill again, this time on her favourite pumps, and she worried that perhaps he had seen her lift the foie gras knife from the cutting board and hide it in her lap. “Good thing you didn’t spill it all. That wine’s the only reason I’m sticking around,” she said. Her voice sounded shrill, bleating. She held the knife against the bottom of the counter so Chef Dave couldn’t see. She bounced her pinky finger against the blade in a rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat rhythm. The top of her hand pressed the granite. Which was cooler, smoother? It was hard to say. She knew which was sharper.
“I’ve got to show you my artefacts!” Chef Dave told her as he approached from behind. He wore only a pair of boxer shorts with lobsters on them. “Better than crabs,” he’d joked earlier, as they’d undressed each other.
He pulled her up and led her out the door of the bedroom, across the mellow wood floors, past the kitchen and the low living room furniture to a door she had not noticed before.
“I don’t show this room very often,” Chef Dave said. “Most people would never understand something like this.”
She expected a sex dungeon, but instead, he threw open the door to an ideal Midwestern den. The walls were covered in dark panelling, and the floor with shaggy green carpeting. Dead, preserved animals eyed her. Flat surfaces were encrusted with puzzling ancient objects like barnacles on sea rocks. The fireplace screen was handcrafted out of barbed wire. “My dad had a room just like this. It reminds me of him. I got a lot of this stuff from him when he died. He worked up in Alaska, as a fisherman, for a lot of years before I was born.”
Eye to eye with a duck decoy on a shelf, Elizabeth told him, “It’s lovely.” She was not merely polite. The rawness of the room awakened something deep in her gut, some rumbling she could not hush.
Back in the grey bedroom, Chef Dave had already fallen asleep. Elizabeth set her feet down delicately and followed the path back to the den.
She put her hand to the doorknob and pushed. Once inside, she reached for the light switch, but her hand grazed bare wall. Panic gripped her, in this strange room in the dark, so unlike the rest of the apartment, and she turned to the tables, searching for a lamp. Her fingers closed around a remote control. She mashed some buttons, and the fireplace illuminated the room.
She gasped. Before, there had been too much to take in, so that all that registered was metal and fur. But now, the fire threw bobbing shadows on the walls and made the room cave-like, cozily primitive. A bear stood fully erect in a corner, his black glass eyes glinting in the moonlight. Trophies with leaping fish on golden lines rose from the coffee table. The air smelled of tanned leather. A glassed-in gun rack was filled to capacity, and ammo belts flanked it. And there were other weapons everywhere. She took the foie gras knife from her purse and laid it beside the objects on a velvet display table: the hatchet, the bow and arrow, the hammer, the flint knife points. Hackers, scrapers, piercers, saws, they were not made for the delicate work her knife was – a trim modern marvel.
She thought in a loopy, warm, way now. Wine saturated her system. That knife, this room, were part of her, as was her new male friend, whose face she’d caressed and patted as if it had been her own. She could imagine this room thousands of years ago; she just one in a chain of its dwellers. Drumbeats would have mingled with the crackling fire, and men would sit around that fire, coaxing flames to blister the flesh of their kills. The meat would sear their tongues. They would wipe their hands on their loins, then go out and hunt some more. If they had been worried about their livers, they would not have been chickenshits about it. They’d have gotten down to business and investigated for themselves. Her liver pulsed. Elizabeth inhaled deeply, grabbed up the stolen knife, and held the blade in the fire to sanitise it. With her other hand, she raised up her dress and tucked it into her bra so that she could see where she needed to cut. She lifted the knife an inch away from the flames and stared at it. It dazzled her like it had absorbed all the light of the fire.
Her right hand was no longer hers so much as an extension of the knife. The knife guided her hand to her side. Her left hand stroked the skin over the organ. It didn’t feel like her hand. It felt like many hairy-knuckled hands that smelled of trail dust and animal blood.
The palm passed over the flesh, and then the knife followed behind, easing through the membrane, severing capillaries and digging into the thin layer of adipose tissue, the heat cauterising as it cut. Blood dripped down to the line of her lacy panties, where it joined a seam’s path to her hip. The hot fluid slid from the point of her hipbone to the carpet, where it burrowed into the fibres. Her fingers closed over her side and blood rose through the cracks between them. She moved her hand to take a look.
This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #7 — there are still a handful of copies left, so grab yourself a slice of Brow history!
Kate McIntyre is Managing Editor of The Missouri Review. Her fiction has appeared recently in Copper Nickel, the Cimarron Review, Denver Quarterly and elsewhere.
We here at The Lifted Brow have an enviable archive of great stuff that disappeared into the ether when we changed how our website works; this is one such piece. Over the coming weeks and months, on a strictly occasional basis, we will feature more of them.
My mother, a down-in-the-dirt Catholic, made a deal with me. If I kept my virginity until I got married, she’d give me two thousand dollars. We came to this agreement when I was seven, before my hormones went crazy, and when two grand was serious money. Still, an agreement is an agreement and I’m not the most popular person walking the face. Physically, I’m best described as “plain,” and when friends try to fix me up on blind dates my biggest attribute is “she’ll listen to every word you have to say.”
So fast forward to last week when my mom leaves town with Floriano, a guy who came to the house to wallpaper the kitchen. He was there less than half the day and never even completed the job. Mom left a note which read: I have found my soul mate. There’s chili in the freezer. We were left with a permanent reminder of her departure: a kitchen half papered with pineapples and palm trees, half with strutting roosters. The point is this. As far as my personal purity goes, all bets are off.
I thought I had the perfect guy. Colin. He works the midnight-to-eight shift as a watchman over at the wire factory, but he claims his true calling is optometry. He isn’t actively perusing the profession because according to Colin laser surgery will soon make glasses as useless as the keypunch machine. I never told him about the agreement I had with my mother because frankly, I didn’t think it was anybody else’s business. I just said I didn’t want to rush things.
“Marcie, you’re twenty years old,” he’d tell me. “People get brain cancer younger than that. It’s like you put things off and the next thing you know…”
This is where Colin would drag his thumb across his neck as if he was being beheaded by some terrorist.
By then I’d been seeing the guy for like eleven weeks. It wasn’t as if he was going home frustrated. We did stuff. We just didn’t do… you know… the thing.
Last night marked the seventh day of my mother’s departure. Me and Colin were in the playroom downstairs. We’d just got done watching Survivor, and the sight of emaciated, bikini-clad girls trying to make fire had gotten to him. He’d been all over me since the “Immunity Challenge,” unbuttoning buttons, unclasping clasps.
Looks like this is your lucky night, I remember thinking, but I’m not sure which one of us the comment was meant for.
“Can I tell you something, Marcie?” he wetly whispered in my ear. “At this point in our relationship I consider us married.”
His hand started creeping up the inside of my leg which is exactly where I stopped it. I hadn’t been guy-talked by Colin up until this point, but here it was. The little head saying what the big head knew wasn’t true. I sat up on the couch and started putting myself back together.
“What?” he said, as if he didn’t have a clue.
“Don’t bullshit me, Colin,” I told him.
“I’m not,” he protested.
“I don’t need Mother Goose.”
“Fuck it, then,” he said, all pissed off. He stood, drained his bottle of Molson. “In case you’re not aware, a male has needs that go directly to the bone.”
“Nice choice of words.”
“I’m serious, Marcie. I can’t do this no more.”
We stared at each other. Silence. Finally he blew air out his nose, shook his head, unsnapped the top of his jeans.
“Okay,” he said, returning to the couch. “You win.”
As he put his hand on the back of my head and started pulling me toward him, I realized I wouldn’t see him again after that night.
It’s only me and my Dad since my brother joined the Air Force last month. Since then, my father insists I call him “Phil.” Marcie and Phil. Truth be told, Phil is to parenting what Hitler was to hay rides. He lost his job as stock manager at Tile ‘n’ Such right after Christmas, and has been collecting unemployment since. When I suggest he get off his ass and look for work, Phil has a stock answer.
“I’m in specialty floor coverings,” he goes, “and specialty floor coverings is the hill I’ll die on.”
Give Phil credit. A few years ago he was a stoned alcoholic, but he went into recovery and turned all that drinking energy toward physical fitness. For the four months he’s been out of work, he hasn’t missed a day on his elliptical machine. Lost fifteen pounds along with a wife. Open his bedroom door, day or night, and chances are there he’ll be. Doing his non-impact cardiovascular routine, writhing like a snake in hot butter, one of his Classic Hits of the 80s CDs playing on the Bose. I estimate he could have walked to San Francisco and back by now, but with the exception of his Friday evening Pilates class I can’t even get him out of the house to buy groceries.
Phil knows nothing about the deal. The morning after I broke up with Colin, he asked me how it was going.
“We broke up,” I tell him.
Phil is spooning steaming oatmeal into a bowl and sprinkling wheat germ on top. He’s wearing his standard uniform—sneakers, bicycle shorts, and a glistening coat of sweat. He seldom wears a shirt these days, even on cold mornings.
“His loss,” Phil says, eating his glop over the sink. “Plus I think you’d be better off with somebody with a lower body mass index.”
I don’t even want to know what he’s talking about, so I take a package of white powdered mini-doughnuts from the bread drawer and pour myself some coffee.
“Chemicals and caffeine,” Phil informs me. “Not exactly what you need to kick the day’s butt.”
I sit at the table and decide to change the subject.
“Any word from Mom?” I ask.
“She’ll be back,” Phil says without as much confidence as he had when he told me the same thing yesterday.
“You really think?”
“I know the woman,” he tells me. “This is an experiment for her. Like dying her hair red. She’ll come to her senses and be back here tomorrow, the next day tops.”
“And everything will be like it was?”
“One thing at a time,” he says, spinning a riff on the A.A. motto.
I lose half a mini-doughnut into my coffee, but drink it anyway. Eventually Phil finishes his oatmeal, rinses the bowl and spoon, drops them in the drain board. He walks past the table, stops just in front of me, smiles, pats his tight stomach.
“Not bad for a guy almost fifty,” he says. He walks toward his room and in a moment I hear him on the elliptical, going nowhere, but getting there fast.
At work I talk to my girl Rita during break. We’re both waitresses at this place called The Beef Locker, a huge restaurant so filthy that the roaches eat next door. The “break room,” as it’s generously called, is nothing more than a large janitor’s closet with some folding chairs, an empty cable spool tipped on its side, and a People magazine from 2008. After two-and-a-half hours the lunch crush is finally over, and I’ve been dying for a cigarette since before it started.
Other than me and my mom, Rita is the only one who knows about the deal. She thinks it’s the stupidest thing she’s ever heard. “Man does not live by hand jobs alone,” she’s often said.
I tell her about Colin and she expresses condolences and informs me on what I should do next. She’s Italian, so I listen.
“Rid yourself of the burden,” she goes.
“How do I do that?”
Rita blows what appears to be an unbelievable volume of smoke out her nostrils. “My brother Frank.”
Her brother Frank is a thirty-eight year old ex-priest who was defrocked after he got caught selling marijuana to a bunch of eighth graders during a field trip to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Since that time, he’s moved back home and taken a job hanging drywall.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Come on, Mars,” she says. “He could use the experience.” When I continue to hesitate, she points out the fact that as a former priest without much—if any—sexual experience, he’s probably cleaner than the average thirteen-year old.
“Hey, trust me,” she says. “It’s just like getting a shot of Novocain. A little pinch and then your whole body goes numb.”
I light a second cigarette off my first.
“Give him my number,” I say.
I do some food shopping and get home after six. Phil’s car is still in the driveway, which surprises me, because it’s Friday. Pilates class. For a second I picture him dead, heart exploded, lying next to that damn elliptical like a hamster after running the wheel too long.
But he’s fine. Well, relatively. He’s sitting at the kitchen table, his wardrobe unchanged since this morning, a bottle of gin, a melting tray with ice cubes, and an almost empty glass by his elbow. There’s an open letter in front of him and he’s been crying.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
“Your mother’s gone,” he sobs.
“Yeah, I know.”
“For good,” he blubbers as he pushes the letter across the table.
I put the grocery bags on the counter, open the letter, read. She and Floriano are in Brazil and she wants her stuff sent down. All her clothes, everything. She also wants to borrow five thousand dollars.
“Well this doesn’t look good,” I say.
“Neither does this,” Phil whimpers, and he holds up my mother’s gold wedding band. “She shoved it in with the letter.”
Phil slops some more booze into his glass.
“Now what?” he goes.
I sit down across from him, grab his hands.
“Now this,” I tell him. “You get up Monday, you look for a job, Monday afternoon you come home with one.”
He ignores this. “I don’t know what happened to us,” he says. “Wait. I do know. We lost our speciality.”
“Specialness. Whatever the word is.”
It hits me then. Like a bag of manure dropped out a second story window. My parents were not always this pair of self-centered, compulsive, auto wrecks I’ve grown up with. At one time they actually liked one another. Loved maybe.
“I can’t do anything without her,” he says.
“Believe me,” I tell him. “If you can work out on that elliptical all day without going batshit, you can do anything.”
“I don’t feel so good,” he goes.
I pull my hands free, stand up, grab the gin bottle and Phil’s glass.
“I’m going to be pouring these down the sink,” I tell him. “You should get up, take a shower, get ready for dinner.”
“Okay,” he snuffles, as obedient as a rowdy teenager who’s just been tasered.
“And Phil?” I call just as he’s about to stagger from the kitchen. “Put a shirt on.”
I hear the phone as I’m putting away the groceries, but I let it ring through. It’s Rita’s brother Frank who leaves the following message: Marcie? It’s Frank Romano. I was thinking you might want to go out for a grinder or something. Give me a yell.
Sorry, Frank. No grinders. I’m going to have to do this according to nature. Maybe it’ll never happen, maybe it’ll happen tomorrow afternoon. I don’t know much, but I know I want what they once had. Speciality. Something worth the wait.
For some reason this whole thing reminds me of Lent. When I was a kid and I gave up candy for six-and-a-half weeks, and then Easter came, and I wanted the good stuff.
I figure I’ve got time. Not to make a value judgment for anybody else, but starting now I’m looking for the solid chocolate. After going this long, the last thing I want is those fucking pink jellybeans. You know. The ones buried at the bottom of the basket under all that phony plastic grass.
Z. Z. Boone’s fiction has appeared in many literary magazines, and his story ‘The Buddy System’ was one of the Notables in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014. His films (written under the name Bill Bozzone) include Full Moon in Blue Water and The Last Elephant, and his produced plays (also written under the Bill Bozzone) include Rose Cottages, House Arrest, Korea, and Buck Fever. Boone lives with novelist Tricia Bauer and their daughter, and he teaches writing at Western Connecticut State University.
A relingo—an emptiness, an absence—is a sort of depository for possibilities, a place that can be seized by the imagination and inhabited by our phantom follies. Cities need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.
— Valeria Luiselli, Sidewalks
It’s my first time in Beijing and I find myself reading Valeria Luiselli. We’ve come separately to Beijing to attend the Bookworm Literary Festival; Luiselli is promoting her new novel The Story of My Teeth, whereas I’ve come to sit in the audience and learn about literature in translation.
Luiselli is a writer of empty spaces, or ‘relingos’, an architectural term she adopts as a motif in her 2013 essay collection, Sidewalks. Her book maps out the landscapes of Mexico City, Venice, New York and elsewhere, with a focus on areas, real and imaginary, left to abandon. It feels appropriate to read Luiselli in Beijing. It’s a city so geographically large, so densely populated, yet to the keen eye, filled with absences.
Beijing has been knocked down and rebuilt many times. When the Communists took control in the middle of last century they wanted to destroy all vestiges of feudalism and their solution was to smash any reminders to the ground. So how do you read a city like Beijing? How do you look past the gaps, physical and political? How do you look through the smog, thick as concrete?
Cities have often been compared to language: you can read a city, it’s said, as you read a book, so concludes Luiselli’s essay ‘Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces’. But she goes on: The metaphor can be inverted. The journeys we make during the reading of a book trace out, in some way, the private spaces we inhabit. There are texts that will always be our dead end streets; fragments will be bridges; words will be like scaffolding which protect fragile constructions.
Luiselli shows a deep love for cities in her books. I feel drawn to her writing, in the same way I feel drawn to large cities far from the Australian one I call home. Her essays make me want to slide on my boots and explore unknown pavements. I’m never alone when I’m part of the crowd.
Faces in the Crowd
When critics talk about Luiselli’s writing, terms like ‘experimental’ and ‘fragmentary’ are routinely used. It’s probably because her books transcend the tidy three-act structure that we’ve absorbed as the traditional way to tell a story. I make a point of deliberately not calling her writing experimental when I meet her at the festival café, and she thanks me. “I don’t consider my work experimental at all – at all”, she says, raising her voice, in mock anger, her smile dropping, though. “It’s a label that I refuse as much as possible because I think it’s kind of lazy. It suggests that there isn’t an effort to tell a story or build a character or that it’s just experiment for the sake of experiment.”
You only need to read one of Luiselli’s books to see how carefully she’s composed her interlocking narratives. “Small fragments,” she claims, come more naturally to her, never chapters. “I would concentrate for periods of time on creating something very compact and small and very detailed and delicately crafted,” she says about her 2014 novel, Faces in the Crowd. It’s a process which takes time. “Ten years, three books, all very thin,” she says with an air of disappointment. But from this process comes something sturdy.
I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them, one of the characters, also a writer, says in Faces in the Crowd. This quotation is one of the ways we can read Luiselli; one of the ways of seeing scaffolding, instead of scattered debris.
In the station of the metro
Beijing is “knee-crushingly huge,” an Australian expat tells me, and I very quickly see what he means. Fortunately its subway, which services some nine million people each day—one of the largest networks in the world—saves my legs from exhaustion. A large bulk of my trip is spent navigating the dense underground system, crossing one side of the city to the other.
In the days before my interview with Luiselli, I reread Faces in the Crowd. The book is narrated from shifting viewpoints. In it, a woman living in Mexico City, reflects on her days living in New York City, where she was haunted by the ghost of real-life Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, one of the authors she’s assigned to translate. Fact begins to blur with fiction, and Ezra Pound’s poem, ‘In the station of the metro’—The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough—recurs throughout the plot, as characters flash by one another, like a speeding train, only to intersect and diverge in increasingly surreal ways.
I keep thinking about a line from the book: A vertical novel told horizontally. A story that has to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway. Jammed up against all the other peak-hour commuters, it’s impossible to make out the face of anyone, let alone your own. It’s hard to focus on just one thing. I start to disappear.
“Beijing is a terrible city to be a writer,” an American expat tells me. He’s not talking about the government censorship. He’s talking about the noise. There’s no space. You’re too busy reacting to everything around you, he stresses.
What is the ideal environment for writing? I wonder. Is silence really conducive to making art? I repeat to Luiselli what this man said, and she laughs: “I don’t write against the noise or try to create a little bubble of solitude in which to write—quite the contrary. I always rely on what’s accidentally going on around me to nurture and spur on my writing. I’m not one of those clichéd type of writers who sits in a café all day, waiting for inspiration. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of time in my life.
“But I do often walk the city, taking notes, and I bike the city a lot. I’ve always lived in rather noisy places. In my current neighbourhood, everyone shouts all the time. I live in a house with children and chaos, and even though I write in the night, I’m always surrounded by some kind of activity. All that I allow to leave an imprint in my writing.”
This imprint can be heard in the pages of her books—sounds not uncommon to Beijing. Buildings being torn down; the sound of chisel hitting stone. The cry of children in the next apartment. A food vendor pushing his cart along the street. A plane coming into land. The gentle sounds of a writer typing at her computer, long into the night.
The Story of My Teeth
China is one of the largest manufacturers in the world, which is why the air is the colour it is. Some days I swear I taste it at the back of my throat. But for the most part, I catch a rare window of blue, a stroke of luck which colours my perception, literally, of Beijing.
By its nature, art is opposed to mechanical reproduction, but of all things a Mexican juice factory is responsible for Luiselli’s latest book, The Story of My Teeth. In 2013, she was commissioned by Groupo Jumex to write a work of fiction for its art collection, which is housed in what she describes as a “wasteland-like neighbourbood outside Mexico City”.
Luiselli was less interested in writing about the workers than writing for them. So she came up with an idea: drawing on the mid-nineteenth century tradition of the tobacco reader—a practice pioneered in cigar factories in Cuba, where workers were read stories to break up the tedium of their shift—she would write a serialised novel to be read aloud to Jumex’s staff. Chapbooks were produced, and the reading sessions were recorded and sent to Luiselli in New York. She would then write the next installment based on the workers’ comments.
Three years later comes what Luiselli describes as a “novel-essay” about “the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and culture”. Isolating that quote makes it sound kind of earnest, which it is anything but. Less fragmented than her earlier work, and more comedic, the book is a hyperbolic tale about an auctioneer named Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez. We follow his many misadventures, including the bumbled sale of Marilyn Monroe’s teeth.
Luiselli waits until the afterword to explain the book’s unique writing process. (It’s fun to go back and reread it from the start, bearing in mind the many factory workers who helped shape the novel behind the scenes.)
Much like the 2006 video installation, Whose Utopia? by Chinese artist Cao Fei, (who also used factory workers) it’s hard not to think critically about the human side of industry when reading The Story of My Teeth. As Luiselli writes in her afterward, There is, naturally, a gap between the two worlds: gallery and factory, artists and factory… how could I link the two distant but neighbouring worlds, and could literature play a mediating role?
Similar thoughts can be had walking around Beijing’s 798 Art District. There, Soviet-style, decommissioned military factories have been converted into workshops and galleries in the middle of the vast expanse of concrete that is Dashanzi. I visit on a particularly smoggy day and shelter in one of its more expensive galleries. In the window is a sculpture: the words ‘Made in China’ in colourful block letters. Like The Story of My Teeth, it playfully symbolises the tension between art and commerce. Two worlds not so separate.
One day a truck gets stuck down the street—or hutong—where I’m staying. Its carriage gets caught on the overhead guttering of someone’s home, and it takes several men to wedge it free. People live very close to one another in these narrow alleys. Whenever I walk down my hutong I have to stand to the side every few metres to let cars or bikes pass me. Rapid urbanisation over the past decades has lead to the construction of high-rise dwellings where many of the hutongs used to sit. I congratulate myself for staying in what feels like an older, more authentic neighbourhood, whatever that means. It’s considerably more residential than some other hutongs which have been developed to include souvenir shops, bars and restaurants.
I keep thinking back to a line I like from Sidewalks: The more often you spend the night in different places—rooms, pensions, hotels, borrowed couches, other people’s beds—the better.
I’m pleased that I was able to find my hostel in the first place, in a city where my normal anchor point, Google Maps, is blocked by the government. Walk towards the 400-year-old tree and there you will find the entry, read the rather Confucian directions from the hostel. And fairly quickly that tall tree, sprouting from the concrete, its bare limbs framed against the alternatingly grey-brown-blue sky—the hue depending on the air-quality index that day—becomes my anchor home. The unfamiliar quickly becomes the familiar.
Luiselli has lived in the US for eight years but travel has been a big part of her life. Born in Mexico City in 1983, she’s lived in places as different as South Korea, South Africa, India, and now New York City.
I ask her if she can see glimpses of Mexico City—a city which recurs again and again throughout her three books—in other places she visits. Of course, it’s unfair to ask someone to evaluate a city they’ve only spent a few nights in. But I’m aiming for the perfect bridge between my thoughts, to construct some symmetry. Interviewing can be parasitic like that. She tells me, “One is always trying to understand through comparisons. Thought is comparative. One also has to guard not to compare too much because often comparisons blur important nuances and differences.”
This has always been my biggest weakness. Isn’t all writing about building some connection?
“When you walk along the hutongs there’s something not unlike certain parts of downtown Mexico City, and of course certain parts of India where I lived for two years.
“The hutongs have a Mexican version which are the vecindades. In these, clustered dwelling spaces are organised around a central patio where neighbourhood life is very intense because people live close together, often sharing small rooms with many family members and just basic living quarters with others. And that is very interesting because it’s extremely similar to how the Mexican working classes originally lived in the city. What’s happening now with the hutongs being torn down and re-edified in their prettier version didn’t quite happen in Mexico, although vecindades in Mexico were to a degree romanticised through film and books and stories and photography.”
Often, when I walk along my hutong, I peek into the open doorways of people’s homes, but quickly turn my head if someone appears in the entranceway. I never want to intrude. I never want to be that tourist who blatantly interferes, who romanticises, who waves their camera, trying to take a souvenir of something that isn’t theirs to take.
If the disappearing hutongs feel like Beijing’s past, then the expat neighborhood of Sanlitun where the festival is held feels like its shiny future. Here, the booming Chinese economy of recent years glitters. Skyscrapers and shopping malls tower into the smog, and billboard-sized screens loop advertisements for Givenchy and Apple. Some people—by whom I mean Westerners—refer to it as the ‘most Western’ part of Beijing, erasing any nuances or differences that exist, in order, I guess, to feel at home.
It’s an interesting backdrop for an international book festival. In Australia, I wonder if our reading cultures are too focused on the Anglophone world, too insular? Where is the hunger for Asian translations in Australia? I share my thoughts with Luiselli, who argues this is not just an Australian problem.
The idea is foreshadowed by her narrator in Faces in the Crowd, who works as a translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems’. This sarcastic description is followed by the deadpan remark: Nobody bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is treated with suspicion.
“In society there’s still little space for anything foreign that doesn’t in its foreignness confirm the prejudices or the ideas that one has about that foreignness, whatever it is, be it Chinese, Latin American,” Luiselli says.
When she arrived on the scene in 2008 “there were few contemporary Latin American writers translated into English. There were some paradigmatic, experimental-ish—I hate the word, now I’m using it—a specific type of writer similar to [Enrique] Vila-Matas but that was it. There was very little translation between the boom and [Roberto] Bolaño, except for the commercial, post-magical realism cheesy writers. Now there’s more writers than I can count with my hands that are translated or are being translated into English. Writers who are very interesting.” She lists some of her contemporaries: Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Álvaro Enrigue, Guadalupe Nettel, Yuri Herrera.
“The only problem is we skipped an entire generation in the middle—people that were writing at the time when Bolaño was. We’ve just jumped to the writers that are about my age and a little bit older.”
She mentions a Chinese writer I haven’t heard of, Can Xue. I add her name to the growing list of authors I’ve learned about at the festival but am yet to check out: A Yi, Shuang Xuetao, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Of course, once you fill one reading gap, another opens. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the idea of all the books I’ll probably never get to read, all the places I’ll never travel to.
The Cartography of Empty Space
On my days off from the festival I walk and walk and walk around the huge city that is Beijing, ticking off all the tourist sites. I try and imagine CPC officials taking a sledgehammer to the golden sandalwood Buddha at the Lama Temple, or the green and red pagodas of the Forbidden City but I can’t. The recklessness is too much. I feel thankful for the politicians who had enough foresight to spare them a dismal fate, who stopped them from becoming relingos in the patchwork of Beijing.
Genre-wise, Luiselli’s three books span different territories but they all converge at some point: wandering, both the physical and mental kind, is an ongoing theme. “A lot of the books entail going out into the city and just walking around and taking notes and observing,” she says, describing her creative process. “Sometimes it’s not something I do programmatically, it’s just that while I’m writing a book I’m writing it all the time so wherever I walk, whatever happens, is kind of being written inside my head while it’s happening and eventually becomes part of what I’m writing.”
But in this moment there is no writing. We’re both sitting in Sanlitun. A day ago the cafe surged with people but now the festival is over it feels empty. No one has turned the music on; the only disruption is the whirr of a coffee machine, the jangle of plates dropped in the sink. The city disappears.
She tells me a nice anecdote about The Story of My Teeth: “The recording was full of these little accidents that were so beautiful. One day it was pouring outside so you could hear the voices of the workers but really more than anything you could hear the pouring rain outside. It was like this very deep contact with Mexico City while I sitting there in my New York studio, closing my eyes, being there somehow with them.”
Writers need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.
Emily Laidlaw is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She was recently awarded an Australia Council ArtStart grant to research literary cultures in Asia.
Alice Robinson produced this piece during Noted, Canberra’s independent writers’ festival. She was asked to write a memoir for a real or imagined character using LinkedIn, and these are the results. You can view Coralie Jones’s LinkedIn profile here.
Chick ‘N’ Chips
I prepare and stuff roast chickens. Day in, day out. Twelve-hour shifts. Hand inside the bird. My skin smells strange: cold flesh. At night I dream of fists. Of breadcrumbs. My ankles swell from standing. Heat from the ovens bursts capillaries, red needlework sewn on my face.
(I remember what he said to me in the wings of the theatre, his first compliment, as I pulled a T-shirt over my rehearsal leotard, dressing for the street. “You really do have such beautiful skin.”)
Sometimes I catch sight of myself, a clumsy flightless bird, reflected in the shiny silver oven doors. But I try not to look. I remember how it felt to leap and spin across a stage, heart hammering blood, legs trilling with the effort. The scaffolding for such magic remains there somewhere under my baggy clothes, under the sag and padding of my skin, but it’s hard to reconcile with painful knees and abs gone soft with disuse. I listen to talkback, not music. Music only urges me to move. Music forces me to see, with clarity I cannot bare, the distance I’ve fallen.
After work I return to the one bedroom unit. A beer, a ready-made meal peeled open. The phone sometimes rings. I never answer. It calls into the darkened kitchen, forlorn. Mail piles up in the hall. But I’m not hurting anyone. I work. I’m contributing. I’m pulling my weight.
Blinded by grief, a migraine. I longed to bury myself in a darkened room with a damp cloth over my eyes. But I couldn’t stay at Father’s. Couldn’t walk the streets I walked with her, past the park where we played, her kindergarten with the rainbow mural on the wall. Everything hurt my eyes to see. There was the place she fell off her bike. There, the hill she loved to run down. “I’m flying, Mummy!” I couldn’t stop myself from going to look at the faint trace of her shoe in the footpath outside the new shops. I was angry that day, yanking her away from the freshly poured concrete, “Hurry up, Giselle. I’ll be late for work.” Why didn’t I just let her play? Why didn’t I tell her to press her feet, her hands, her face into the soft, grey matter?
I came to Melbourne, took the first job offered. The manager knew I drank at work. He let it go on. A nice man really, doughy and disappointed, with his worn polo shirts and pants too tight around the thighs. He had his own stresses. Two kids in New South Wales, private school fees. “What’s wrong with the local state school?” he groaned every week. “I mean, I ask you? What in God’s name am I paying for?”
The first time, he cried afterwards, standing up against the boxes in the cool room with his pants around his ankles. “You’re so tiny,” he said. “Like a doll.” He told me I was beautiful, but it wasn’t true by then, long hair cut roughly short, purple welts below the eyes from lack of sleep. My strength had melted over months, limbs so thin I could circle my arm above the elbow with forefinger and thumb. I was always cold, unless very drunk. Then, mercifully, I couldn’t feel anything at all.
He wanted to save me, wanted us to save one another. But his kindness made me livid. I raked his back, drawing blood with my nails.
Kayla’s School of Dance
Father agreed to babysit two nights a week and on Saturday mornings so that I could work. At first it pained me to leave my darling and I dithered, anxiously imparting instruction with my bag over my arm. “If she won’t stop crying, take her for a walk,” I told him. “She should go off to sleep after the bottle, but if not…”
I was always late for class at first. But as the months went by and she grew larger, and I saw how much they adored one another, how fine they were at home without me, I took to arriving at the studio a little early, turning my attention to the contours and limitations of my own, new body.
In the brief interlude before my tiny pupils came clattering up the stairs, needing help with their ribbons and buns, noisy with excitement for the coming lesson, I was alone in the big open room. I left the lights low and played the same, worn classical CDs I had been trained on, tentatively stretching my limbs to breaking point across the glossy wooden boards.
The Australian Ballet
In his tight black pants, legs like chords of rope, he called my name. “Step forward.” His hands were cool on my bare shoulders, adjusting the angle of my arms above my head for the opening position. The music played. I inhaled, moved. Famous for withholding compliments, he was silent as I danced, but I felt the approval in his gaze, a spotlight. My muscles elongated, humming. Wall of heat at my back, their jealousy, the faceless girls.
When I saw my name on the list I exploded, a firework, glittering particles of joy. I still remember that. The way I hugged myself in the hallway, dizzy with my own success.
Rehearsals. Of course I loved him. We all loved him. I loved him the very first day. I loved him pushing his dark curls back in frustration, screeching, “You’re butchering it!” I loved the sweat on his brow. I loved his moods, the way he closed his eyes and collapsed onto the barre under the window, whispering, “We’ll never be ready in time.”
Extra practice after hours, one on one.
Yes, I thought in that one moment that he really did love me. I was foolish, a sheltered twenty-two. I saw his naked back reflected in the mirror over his shoulder, pale and muscular. His beauty seemed to refract light.
Afterwards, wet sat on the floor together and he rubbed my feet, kneading the painful knot of bone, swollen knuckles. “Thank you,” I said shyly, lacking something more profound to say.
Six weeks later and a stick with two pink lines. I stared, uncomprehending. Numb.
Corps de Ballet
The Australian Ballet
Mother threw me a party to celebrate. Speeches were made. “To think, our little girl!” Pink champagne she wouldn’t let me drink. Presents on the table: a new satin robe, name embroidered on the chest. Sheep’s wool slippers for bruised feet.
Mother, father, my friend Belle from the school (she hadn’t auditioned; she wanted other things, she said. But I know what they told her. Too fat). Congratulations!
In the circle of light from the candles they called for me to dance. Friends and family hushed, watching. I saw myself in the darkened kitchen windows, a flame. The rose satin party skirt flared up my legs, toes like shards of glass from all the audition prep, but I smiled, thinking I had made it. In pirouette, the kitchen of my childhood turned. Brown and white tiles, flashing. I felt the ambition, my dream, all those hours at the barre, like a rod right through me.
I didn’t know then what I know now. That dreams are a danger, waiting to crush.
Australian Ballet School
High School, Classical Ballet, Years 11–12
Sea of skin. My toenails blackened and dropped. At lunchtime I lingered over the apple, the low-fat yoghurt, lightheaded with longing for this to be my life.
Traralgon High School
High School, Years 7–10
Sit down, sit down, sit down they said, so I practiced under the desk, rolling up through the balls of my feet.
Activities and Societies: Little Athletics; Calisthenics; Choral Choir
Kayla’s School of Dance
A photographer came from the local paper when I was twelve. Rising Star, they called me. A photo on the front page, a perfect midair split.
Activities and Societies: Classical Ballet; Jazz; Tap
Volunteer Experience and Causes
Grief Support Group Facilities Officer
That first year I tried hard to say her name then sat silent. Rocks in my mouth. So much styrofoam tea. Cheap chocolate biscuits wept in my hands. I stared and stared at the circle of shoes: other parents’ feet. Couldn’t bare to meet their eyes. When invited to share I shook and shook. Head, hands, everything. At night I woke screaming, saltwater burn up my throat.
Second and third year I couldn’t stop talking. She loved The Wiggles, I shared. The colour blue. Winnie the Pooh. Perfect arch, perfect point. While I saved for her lessons we practiced at home. First position. The bow of her lips. Second position. Her body against mine in my bed. Third position. Her knees still dimpled, babyhood not yet disappeared. Fourth position. My mother’s blue eyes, also mine, in her head. Fifth position. The funny things she said. Some people leave the bedrooms intact, shrines of furniture and toys. But that second year I packed her room and gave away the boxes. Empty space: a wound in the house.
That fourth year I volunteered: the circle of chairs, the biscuits, the urn. I can see myself at fifty and sixty and seventy and eighty, still vacuuming over the stains in the church hall carpet every week, hobbled by arthritis in my feet. And there’s her, still on holiday, still five, laughing, jumping waves, before I momentarily let go of her hand, turn away, to grab my new sunhat blown high on the wind.
Traralgon Mothers’ Group
I went home to have her. Mother was dead by then; I think father was glad for the company. He never cared much for ballet, not really, was so consumed by his grief that my situation seemed just one more bad thing to cope with. When I knocked on the door of the house it was open so fast I wondered if he had been waiting behind it for me to arrive. We fell together across the threshold, clinging, holding each other up.
On the train out of the city, satin shoes like corpses stuffed deep in my bad, I felt her move for the first time. Already I looked ridiculous, like a bird swallowed a pumpkin. But as the buildings gave way to farmland I felt sandbags, my disappointment, empty. The voices of the faceless girls, their whispers and snickers, receded. (I couldn’t yet think of his face, his voice, his body without cringing, cowering within the hair shirt of my shame).
Months later: the birth. Belle held one hand, father the other. The midwives marvelled at my strength as she came torpedoing out. Panting, torn and bleeding, I looked into her perfect face and thought, Oh! It’s you!
Alice Robinson has a PhD in creative writing from Victoria University. Her debut novel, Anchor Point (Affirm Press), was long listed for the Indie Book Awards (debut fiction) and The Stella Prize.
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I am fantastic at forgetting to eat. I learned early that food is best ignored, otherwise you feel ostracised over the simplest slice of birthday cake.
Since the age of two I was a strict Coeliac. Other people would worry more about my eating than I did.
Boyfriends would eat how I would, friends would choose (and still do) restaurants based on the vegetable count, parents would have a stash of my favourite crackers, I’d be taken off working the toast counter at a cafe because one week I said I felt ill because of ‘toast’ fumes rather than admitting that I just hadn’t had breakfast.
In 2008, the blue linoleum floors of the Prague YHA stuck to my feet like the sweat cloying to my forehead. I assumed it was just from humidity. A sharp dullness in my stomach, spilled nuts and I was in hospital, again, for a familiar bout of ulcer inflammation. All caused by poor eating and sleeplessness. Sitting beneath an old stamp of the Soviet hammer and sickle, a man was resting his leg in a red ice bucket, his foot dislodged, meaty, his face green with infection. They saw me first and not him because I could afford it.
If we are not being accountable for our own balanced day-to-day health (the controllable measures like consumables, sleep, sex and exercise) then the negative impact on those who need it more can be detrimental.
On discharge, thirty hours later I found five Irish boys, drank absinthe in tyre clubs and blacked out in their dorm rooms, waking up half clad, graffitied. Pain numbed by the reckless abandonment of my own welfare.
Rather than caring properly about why I was putting food in of my body, I was more consumed by the physical act of consuming. Not using utensils at dinner where potential in-laws were present, putting my fingers in other peoples’ jars of peanut butter.
An old party trick I had was to lick all the flavouring off rice crackers and return them to the packet, then watch people eat the crackers to see if they noticed that they were an odd texture and flavour.
George Monbiot writes,
“We are often told we are materialistic. It seems to me, we are not materialistic enough. We have a disrespect for materials. We use it quickly and carelessly.
“If we’re genuinely materialistic people, we would understand where materials come from and where they go to. But, at the moment, the entire global economy seems to be built on the model of digging things up from one hole in the ground on one side of the earth, transporting them around the world, using them for a few days, and sticking them in a hole in the ground on the other side of the world.”
We handle materials in our hands, put them in our mouths, in our bodies, into the environment. The main ‘hole’ of focus has become our mouths, our taste buds, with all waste going back into the ground or atmosphere.
Efficiency, where food is not something you have to worry about attaining, has gone out of the window for an individualistic pleasured experience dictated by marketing. Wouldn’t it be great if Apple for their next product made a human-skin cover so then you wouldn’t need any human engagement, ever?
I think I should eat kale.
I think I should eat kale because that will give me a twenty-four inch waist. Despite a kale shortage imminent, I still eat kale rather than Spring Green Veg which is in abundance.
Eating was for me:
Tactile contact with food did change my perception of it: it became something other than food, something intimate that was removed out of the sustenance frame.
I did not want to think about the repercussions of eating because my response would be severe: I would stop eating, because I wouldn’t know how or what to eat, rather I would slip onto my knees in front of a toilet bowl at any moment of anxiety, or stare bemused, selfish, into my own reflection like a chimpanzee when they are given a mirror, or just never look in a mirror, too ashamed by the consequences of what I had been eating.
This algorithm worked so easily in my head:
you + what you eat = don’t worry about eating
At New Years in 2011 a friend and I came up with the idea that it would be fantastic to not have to eat meals. Instead you would eat a tablet of sustenance so that you had enough energy to do things. At the time small round white pills worked just as well… We utilised chemical convenience for a thorough exploration of our surroundings.
This is what Small Acts of Disappearance is about: hunger. It would be very easy to marginalise this work within eating and disorder and eating disorders. But Wright’s work is an investigation of her hunger. She shares her meals, cooks for others so she has the appearance of partaking in the ritual of food, but there is a sharpness, an alertness to being fragmented by her hunger.
“You don’t choose your hunger.”
I was in a bath, in Bath when I read this, and I argued with her. She would be sitting on the toilet seat, smoking, gestating as she read to me from her book and I would be exasperated:
“Of course we choose our hunger!” My fist shakes at her.
We choose what motivates us. Don’t we?
My attitude toward myself is one of military-esque hardness: Food is a privilege.
When I was five my grandfather was visiting Sydney. It was his and my day to explore the science museum, the maritime museum, to eat ice cream and dip our feet in the harbour as we watched the tall ships. My mother had given me new shoes: white Mary-Jane Clarks that she told me not to wear because they would give me blisters. I was determined so Mum said, “If your feet start to hurt, don’t complain to Granddad, he won’t like it if you complain.” So I didn’t. I said nothing. My feet by the end of the day were torn to shreds, but I had the satisfaction of knowing I had not complained.
So Wright is right when she says, ‘You don’t choose your hunger.’
Severity of self is hard for others to watch or be understood but it is needed, at times, for improvement.
You discover that you can be just as hungry for touch as you are for food, or light, or time.
So Wright is right when she says, ‘You don’t choose your hunger.’
The protagonist in Hunger by Knut Hamsun likes to be hungry. His sensation and experience is greater because he is trying to fill his need, his emptiness.
“The intelligent poor individual was a much finer observer than the intelligent rich one. The poor individual looks around him at every step, listens suspiciously to every word he hears from the people he meets; thus, every step he takes presents a problem, a task, for his thoughts and feelings. He is alert and sensitive, he is experienced, his soul has been burned…”
Being hungry is a good thing. Starving rats apparently run faster around turning wheels than satiated ones.
I went back to Australia for the first time in 21 months and enjoyed the rejigging of remembering how to read old friends. It’s much easier than attempting to read new friends (the cryptic joy of moving cities!). Stern looks, hand gestations while making an argument or the way they hold their pinky up sipping a gin and tonic. And then why you warmed to them: bitten bottom lips, raised right eyebrows, apologetic eyes.
I asked people about hunger.
Someone said that for them food and hunger are two distinguishable practices. One is an enjoyment and best enjoyed alone and the other is misunderstood and in the pursuit of finding meaning in it you can do great things.
The main response was ‘I would like more time.’
More time to sleep.
A few Saturdays ago, just before midnight an Uber driver picked us up from Shoreditch, to take us to a house party in Holloway. I spilled my apple-vodka-tizer tin onto the car door as I bent into the front seat. The driver was listening to a video through his headphones, his eyes staring ahead, traffic and sloven bodies transparent.
‘Who is Tesfay Temnewo?’ I asked, pointing to his phone.
‘A rebel warrior in Eritrea.’
‘What’s he saying?’
‘How we can achieve freedom.’
I looked at his iPhone screen. There are 37 parts to the interview. He was listening to part 26, which had 30,578 views.
‘Can you go back?’
He looked at me. Blinked. Looked back the standstill neon traffic at Old Street.
I keep looking at him, his name unpronounced on his Uber app by the steering wheel.
His head was a shape you see drawn in anatomy books. Eyes sunken in his face, ageing him as being centuries old rather than his forty-something years. He had a tattoo on his left forearm, hand drawn, half hidden under a crumpled linen blue shirt. His hunger visible.
“I fought in the Eritrean-Ethiopian war from 1998-2000. We thought that after independence there would be real democracy, but today it is absolutely impossible to return to Eritrea as an opposition member. If you do, they will pick you up upon arrival and you will disappear.”
Killing is a hunger.
Disappear. I wondered how many people think he has disappeared. Driving Ubers in London for the flexibility so that he can be with his daughters (four and two) or work his other job/s.
I wondered what Spotify requests people make at 3am in the morning. Destiny’s Child, Wheatus, Drake, Natalie Imbruglia, TLC?
I wondered how many people he has killed and if he likes killing.
Some people do. Killing is a hunger.
“Do you get hungry?” I asked him.
“What do you mean?”“Do you find you’re hungry in London?”
“Only to be home.”
We arrived at the house party, twenty-somethings loitering with cigarettes looking to see who is in the car and not who is driving. I offered him my can before I left, he took a sip, not removing his eyes from mine, the most fixed I felt all evening.
Time is infinite yet scarce. On a film shoot, when everyone is told to be silent you can always hear the ticking of the watch; I buy coffee to stay awake, to buy more time.
I grab someone’s wrist and ask for the time. No one at the party is wearing a watch; instead their wrist bones sit stoic.
We have an extra hour and the clocks go back at 14:00. It’s 12:33.
I thought about the mass of time or the time of mass. Time disappears like mass disappears from bone, and both are kept going by incomprehensible theories that make the sun sharpen the senses.
A clock set at the peak of Mount Everest would be about thirty-nine hours ahead of a clock set at sea level. Clocks that are far from massive bodies (or at higher gravitational potentials) run more quickly, and clocks close to massive bodies (or at lower gravitational potentials) run more slowly.
Does the same apply to watches? If you are smaller, mass inconsequential to others, does time slow down? So that when I’m sitting in the shower of an almost stranger’s house, their warrior frame twice your size, twenty-five minutes seem only five. He told you that you had ‘eaten time for breakfast’ while buttoning up his cufflinks, even though the night before, the force on height distorted 5.5 hours into a weekend.
Time dilations due to height difference of less than one metre have been experimentally measured and verified in laboratories. The clocks aboard the aeroplanes were found to be slightly faster with respect to clocks on the ground. The effect is significant enough that the Global Positioning System’s artificial satellites need to have their clocks corrected.
I’d like to test time dilation theory against human experience. Does time disappear for you? How fast do you see it leave? Or does it manifest into energy for other activities? Or will you keep it lingering on your wrist, activity and behaviour and pulse recorded into data sequences to be received by Silicon Valley and arrive back just as quickly in your inbox, or on your Apple Watch.
‘An apple a day keep the doctors away.’
‘An Apple Watch keeps media consumption at play.’
I never feel hungry.
I never feel hungry. I like being in a state of desire, because at least I am aware that I need something at undisclosed moments.
Although I still haven’t worked out what I desire, so I never messaged the warrior back, too scared of rejection, the memory of his weight saved until someone comes along and replaces him.
If I could mould time, buy time, compact all the one-hour time differences into a single day or time travel I would go back to A. And with each hug I would actually hug hjm, rather than being scared of his knowledge that humans are made to be close. He always made me feel wanted and whether or not I wanted to be wanted would dictate if I wanted him.
My first proper memory of him is catching his breath in mine on a desk on the forty-something floor of a science University of Technology Sydney tutor room. There, in that moment, I would open my eyes to look at his, tell him to write, wipe the sweat from his brow down his left cheek.
And I would send a package of time, which we sometimes send in instant words, in response to his last message before he was hit by a boxtruck on his motorcycle in North Carolina.
‘Clare, I want to write. Where do I start? How do you do it?’
I don’t, A.
First there was you but by the end of the month three of you had gone.
The shimmer of the end transforming you to memory.
It’s that dense, this thick, this feeling of time -
this feeling of walking back alone under
the tree. As if somehow, the whole world’s in
[‘Walking Back From the Dam’, Martin Harrison]
At the party, I sip on bottles of beer that I don’t know how managed to arrive in my hand. Two hours in I’ve drunk two Stella long necks, danced under street lighting and felt confused amongst other wanting bodies.
People can sense hunger. They can smell it. Last year the European Research Council published a report that claims to have shown how the endocannabinoid system controls food intake using the sense of smell.
Endocannabinoids are cannabis-like chemicals that are made in the body and are used to send “messages” between cells. The endocannabinoid system is a network of neuron receptors, enzymes and endocannabinoids that exists both in animal and human brains. The receptors in the endocannabinoid system are associated with sensations such as euphoria, anxiety and pain.
Scientists know that when we are hungry, our bodies boost the performance of our sense of smell in order to improve our chances of finding food. But our sense of smell can also smell when others are hungry, also hunting for food, or other hungers. Eyes are rounder, more intense, processing smells until we can either satisfy our hunger or at least momentarily satiate it.
The best smells are those that are unattached, ripened, slightly sweaty, close.
Are kebabs the secondary alternative to what we all want at 2am in the morning, a loitering hyper over tiredness where we try inhibit the liver from functioning even further? The liver is the most active between 1am and 4am and helps to keep our body from becoming toxic. Toxic kebabs are intoxicating.
I’ve manned up. I’m no longer a Coeliac. Which has shocked me more than it has shocked anyone else, including a very irritated ex. But being able to care about eating enough to enjoy it has made me aware of other cravings. Other sensations that I was not aware of before, like listening to the kettle boil. How cheese burns onto plates. Or the sounds matched by the smell of opening a can of tinned ravioli. Or licking the foam of an espresso martini from my top lip or nose.
There isn’t a simple hunger. And we do not choose it. But in being hungry, as much as it can make people aware that you don’t eat, you gain a history, an understanding of survival, an imaginary friend full of what you have noticed that you think no one can see.
Clare Cholerton is a freelance writer/person from London. Her first collection, Missive, was published by Poetry Australia in 2013. Her writing has appeared in The Bohemyth, The Lifted Brow, the UTS anthologies, Seizure and Plumwood Mountain.
George is picking his teeth and thinking: I should have known purgatory would be a waiting room. He turns to the girl waiting next to him and says, “I should have known purgatory would be a waiting room,” like it’s a smooth pick-up line. She gets up and moves two seats to the left, so there’s a gap between them and now she’s sitting next to this really old, chain-smoking lady.
George turns to the empty air in front of him and mouths, “YOLO,” feels proud about the artful irony of it all and kind of sad that none of his friends are there to appreciate it. The waiting room is lit by fluorescents and doesn’t smell like anything. The décor has a neutral colour scheme with some light accents, like a waiting room at Centrelink. When George looks around he can only see these rows of chairs, plastic and fused together, just rows and rows and nothing else. He wonders who will call him, and when, and where he will go.
After that nothing happens either for a very long time or no time at all. Time is elastic and George spends it wondering why he is still in a body. He wonders if he’s made of ectoplasm, like a ghost, and if the chairs are ectoplasm too and all of purgatory is ectoplasm. He looks to his left and the girl is gone and so is the chain-smoking woman. He wonders if the cigarettes were ectoplasm. He starts to touch parts of himself to feel whether they are ectoplasm or skin and bone. He is kneading the balls of his ankles when his name is called. The results are inconclusive.
PULL QUOTE: He wonders if the cigarettes were ectoplasm.
As soon as George stands up he sees that there is a long aisle and he walks down it really quickly, and it moves like a travelator at an airport. At the same moment that the travelator feeling stops a new feeling starts, the weight of a door handle under George’s hand. He turns it and a door opens and he is standing in an office with walnut-panelled walls, like a dean’s office. There is a man behind the desk in the office. The plaque on the man’s desk says: FRANK GRIMES.
“Frank Grimes is a character from The Simpsons,” George says and sits down in the chair before Frank Grimes’s desk.
“Huh,” says Frank Grimes. “That’s new. Last kid your age I had in here was calling me Walter White.” He laughs and then he holds out a hand for George to shake. The desk is so narrow that they can shake hands without having to stand up, which means they hold hands for longer than they need to, but it’s nice, for George, to hold on to something.
Frank Grimes pours them both a Coke without even asking George if he wants one. He puts the glass by George’s left wrist and for a while they sit in silence, watching the bubbles rising rapidly from the bottom of the glass.
“Well, kiddo.” Frank Grimes leans back in his swivel chair. It squeaks. “I hope you don’t mind I call you kiddo. It’s a paternal thing. I used to have kids.”
“Kiddo is fine.” George drinks the Coke. It tastes like nothing but he can feel the bubbles burning the inside of his nose. The more he thinks about that episode of The Simpsons with Frank Grimes in it the more he starts to notice things from it in this room, yellow pencils with Frank Grimes’s name embossed on them, a framed picture of a nuclear power plant. This is too weird. He wonders if the last kid his age just saw a bunch of meth baggies on the desk.
“Well, kiddo,” Frank Grimes says again, and lets out a sort of sigh that’s half sad like he feels sorry for George and half content like he’s really looking forward to what’s about to happen. “Your unfinished business has been assigned. Looks like an easy one. Don’t mess up, and you’ll be signed off and on your way upstairs by the end of the day.”
Frank Grimes looks at George very steadily. His voice is flat. “Heaven.”
George tries to make sure that the look on his face conveys total belief and lack of surprise. “Oh. Yeah. Right. Heaven. Sure. Haha.”
“So.” Frank Grimes clears his throat and shuffles some papers on his desk. One of the papers is a menu for Saigon Massage and Noodle House. “Here it is. Kid your age, uh, name’s Bevan Trent. He’s the revenge type. Worked at a dodgy pizza restaurant, wants to teach the boss a lesson. Pretty standard haunting.” He slides a contract over to George. “You’re getting off easy, kiddo. All you have to do is ruffle a few feathers and you’re home free.” He puts a hand on his stomach and does a little burp with his mouth closed. It’s from the Coke, but George is still grossed out.
The contract is printed on very white A4 paper, with carbon copies attached behind it in pink and yellow. At the top it says in a very broad serif font: UNFINISHED BUSINESS CHARTER. There’s a place at the bottom for George to sign.
There are so many questions George wants to ask but he chooses the one he thinks will make him sound the most cool: “Why can’t I finish my own business?”
PULL QUOTE: “The glory days are over, kiddo.”
Frank Grimes gives George a look like he’s been waiting to answer this question all morning. “When people try and finish their own business,” he says, “they get lost easily. Find something from their own life to hold on to, stick around, get seen. We can’t be risking that anymore. Misdemeanours. They’re bad for our stats.” He rolls his chair to a filing cabinet behind him and opens a drawer. The whole drawer is filled with one very fat file, labelled: TUPAC SHAKUR, 1996-CURRENT. Frank Grimes wiggles his eyebrows and closes the drawer again. “You see what I mean.”
“I guess. Okay, a haunting. What are the rules?”
“Oh, the usual.” Frank Grimes pulls a pen out of the breast pocket of his shirt and hands it to George, who uses it to sign his name. “You’re not allowed to do anything really violent anymore. Occupational Health and Safety.” He sighs. “The glory days are over, kiddo. You’re just there to give this guy a little fright, make him feel sorry for whatever he did to Bevan Trent. Place is called the Mona Pizza, pizza chef named Nicky, should be easy to scare. Most people are. Throw some stuff around, drop the temperature, groan at night. Whatever works. As soon as this Nicky feels sorry, we’ll have you out of there and checking in up there.” Frank Grimes points to the ceiling significantly. “Try and be quick. I hear they’re doing bottomless Mojitos until Thursday.”
George left the world in the back of an ambulance, so it’s in the back of an ambulance that he returns. He sits up on the gurney this time. This time he can breathe, and nobody is crying, nobody is pressing hard on the palm of his hand where the sting is, or maybe nobody was pressing the other time either, and it was just the hot pressure of swelling.
Frank Grimes is studying his fingernails in a way that makes it obvious that ambulance is a really common way to travel around here, and George feels embarrassed about it, like how he used to be embarrassed of his Mum’s rusty old Berlina when she picked him up from school. He thinks about his Mum opening the front door to receive wreaths of flowers with his name on them. It seems like it would be insensitive to send flowers to a woman whose son just got killed by a bee sting, but also like it would be even more insensitive not to send her flowers at all. George imagines his Mum telling everybody she is fine, making cups of tea and forgetting to drink them, throwing all the flowers onto a pile and spraying them with Mortein. Thinking about his Mum makes George feel shitty, so he tries to stop. Instead he stares at the palm of his hand. It’s not swollen. It’s not even punctured. The scar he got trying to uproot a cactus when he was twelve is gone, too. His hand is cleaner and more whole than it ever was in life. George thinks that if he is stuck with this hand for all eternity he will miss that cactus scar. It had become a kind of friendly marker, a reminder of his body being a place that he would always, for the rest of his life, be in.
The sirens wail loudly enough that George and Frank Grimes do not have to talk to each other and their mutual relief is palpable. Outside of the little window in the back door of the ambulance is a flat, shallow blackness, like a blackboard, the red and blue lights thrown onto it periodically. George watches the light and time sags again or maybe stretches tight and he has the same feeling he had when he left the ambulance last time, a feeling of being torn from something, a violent severance, right in the navel.
The air feels thin to George and he can move through it really fast and light like all the walking he has been doing before now was under the water with clothes on. The pizza restaurant where Bevan Trent used to work looks like every pizza restaurant George ever saw on American TV but didn’t think existed in real life. It has a black and white checked linoleum floor and a couple of shabby booths along one mirrored wall. There are some formica tables and, near the wooden counter, a salad bar. Behind the till a pretty good likeness of the Mona Lisa eats a slice of pepperoni pizza, framed in fake marble made of Styrofoam. Propped up between the till and the tip jar, facing the customer, is a picture of a really generic face that must once have belonged to Bevan Trent, wearing a Vans beanie and a soft goatee. One of those battery-operated candles is flickering next to it with a handwritten note on a post-it that says R.I.P. BEVAN WE WILL MISS U. The ‘i’ in ‘miss’ is dotted with a sad face like this: ☹.
The kitchen has a little window with a ledge where pizzas sit steaming and a bell the chef can ding when the pizzas are ready. It dings now, a couple of times, insistently, and a girl with two green plaits and chunky orthodontics rolls her eyes and takes the pizzas from the ledge. George guesses straight away that she is responsible for the post-it. When she walks over to table nine with a pizza balanced on the palm of each hand George watches the self-conscious inward curve of her shoulders, the very deliberate wiggle of her hips, the way she smiles at the customers with her mouth closed so they won’t see her braces. Her lips don’t quite stretch over them, so the bottoms of her two front teeth are visible, and with her wide eyes and high, arched brows her otherwise plain face has this stunned naivety which reminds George of the pink rabbit from The Ferals. She’s wearing a badge that says HI, MY NAME IS GINGER!! and it’s pinned to her boob kind of crooked. She seems nice.
At about this point George figures out that the reason he feels weird is because he doesn’t have a body. All the glistening cheesy pizza smells like nothing, the sticky linoleum floor feels like nothing under his nothing feet, but he still has this feeling in his mind like phantom limb syndrome, like he can move his arms, clench his fingers. He’s pretty sure he could touch something, pick it up or push it over. There’s one of those metal straw dispensers on the wooden counter, and he pushes the lever, watches it go down and release an orange bendy straw. The straw rolls from the metal lip onto the linoleum floor, where it sits looking lonely and abandoned until Ginger stoops to pick it up with a click of her tongue.
George looks at his nothing hands, flexes his nothing fingers, sees only the unmoving linoleum underneath them. There is a feeling deep in his nothing stomach like a nervous bursting, like he can do this, he can do this. He begins to hum aggressively the chorus from the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Let’s Get It Started’ and goes into the kitchen. Probably the best way to get this haunting started is to find this guy Nicky. On his way to the kitchen, George rolls his shoulders like a dance move and ups the groove factor of his humming, chucking a couple of rhythmic “uh, uh” kind of noises. He is thinking: I have never felt more alive.
In the kitchen, Nicky is squatting on the floor watching dough rise through the oven door. There is a tender look on his face as he watches it, and when George gets close enough to see the reflection of his face in the glass he sees, against the soft yellow pizza bases in their metal deep dishes, a cheek shiny with tears. Nicky looks around him, over his shoulder, through the window with the little ledge and towards the kitchen door. George stops humming immediately.
“Who’s there?” Nicky stands up, pulling up his chef pants where they sag in the back. “Who’s singing? This kitchen is staff only!”
George clears his throat, thinking: let’s get this pizza party started. He opens his mouth and goes, as loudly as he can: “oooOOOooOooo000oooOooo!”
For a second it looks like Nicky isn’t going to react, but just as George decides he can’t be heard after all, Nicky swears, surprisingly quietly but very fervently. There’s a loud clanging noise from the floor of the restaurant, and seconds later Ginger’s face appears in the little window between the kitchen and the counter. It’s really pale and she looks stricken. George feels like a total dick.
“Nicky? What was that noise?”
Nicky hasn’t taken his eyes away from the door, where George is still standing. “Nothing you need to worry about,” he says slowly. “Get back out there and pick up whatever it is you dropped.”
Ginger blushes and ducks her head out of the window, and Nicky continues to stare right at the point where, if he could see it, George’s abdomen would be. George doesn’t want to frighten Ginger any more, so he whispers his next scary moan quietly enough that only Nicky will hear it. It’s more like a slow exhalation: “waaaooooaahh.” For effect, he gently flings a serviette to the ground. Both he and Nicky watch it slowly floating down. It lands in a little bit of grease on the floor and begins to soak it up. Nicky looks at it for a really long time.
PULL QUOTE: The sauce looks like blood, and he has to fight the urge to write THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED.
The kitchen is a world of inspiration to George right now. He looks at the dough in the oven, rising slowly, and concentrates really hard on speeding it up. It works, and the dough puffs up out of control, bursting and very quickly cooking onto the hot glass of the oven door. Nicky is like, what the, and while he’s turning the oven off and opening the door George dips his finger into a tub of tomato pizza sauce and begins to write on the kitchen wall. The sauce looks like blood, and he has to fight the urge to write THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED. Instead, he writes: BEVAN WANTS REVENGE. He adds some handprints for good measure. In his head he creates the portmanteau “Bevenge” and begins to think of this haunting as Bevengefest 2014. This makes him laugh out loud, which only heightens the sense of terror for poor Nicky, who at this point is sitting in the corner of the kitchen with his hands on his cheeks in a pretty cute imitation of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.
George floats back down to sit on the edge of the kitchen bench, swinging his nothing legs. He looks at Nicky, cowering there, and instead of feeling powerful he just feels totally shitty. Half an hour ago this guy was weeping at an oven full of dough. George can hear Ginger chatting to a couple of customers as she refills their drinks. Jay Z is playing on the restaurant’s sound system really quietly, like way more quietly than anybody should ever listen to hip hop. It’s dark outside, and the street is busy with drunk kids in tight jeans. The bell on the door rings again and again as they come inside in herds to buy Nicky’s pizza by the slice.
Nicky isn’t moving. His hands are over his eyes now like he can’t bear to look at the message George left on the wall. To be fair, it’s pretty grisly. The tomato sauce has begun to drip. George can’t see any reason why anyone would want to scare the crap out of this poor guy, with his badly fitting chef pants and his big shiny bald spot. Maybe Bevan was just kind of a dick. At any rate, Ginger’s out there on the floor by herself and she’s already run out of both BBQ Chicken and Mushroom Supreme.
The air, which up until now had continued to feel thin and light, begins very rapidly to feel thick and dense like George is moving through panna cotta. The sound of Jay Z’s very quiet rapping grows distant and starts to sound gurgly, and Ginger’s green plaits become a blurry green blob bouncing up and down as she walks around the restaurant. This can’t be good. George looks at his nothing hands and sees that, against this new, thick air, they are shimmering a little bit, they are tangible. They are still the reupholstered hands he noticed earlier, new and without scars, but they are no longer clean; the half-moons of his fingernails are caked with tomato sauce.
George looks around desperately and sees that Frank Grimes is standing in the doorway, right where George stood to moan before, bathed in the flashing red and blue light of the ambulance. With each change in light his shadow leaps from his left side to his right side. Away from his desk, Frank Grimes does not look like a man you would want to shake hands with.
“Good job, kiddo,” Frank Grimes says in the same voice he used before, but which now sounds more patronising than anything else. He jerks his head to the left to indicate Nicky, who appears to have pissed himself. “Whatever he did to Bevan Trent, he’s sorry as hell now.” Frank Grimes gives a short, barky laugh at his own reference to hell. George doesn’t join him. There is a silence, during which Frank Grimes looks around at the kitchen carnage and smirks a little bit. “Well, happy hour’s about to start,” he says, reaching into his breast pocket, the one he pulled a pen out of in his office, and brandishes a cocktail umbrella. “I’m here to escort you. Ready to go?”
George looks back at his weird, smooth hands. At the oven, with its door open, caked in burnt dough; at Bevan’s name, in George’s own handwriting, drying to a flaky crust on the white wall. He thinks of the napkin floating to the floor and the smug, revered gaze of Bevan himself, and feels a hot, sick roll in his stomach at the thought of the Vans beanie, the sparse goatee, the sense of vindication that must have followed Bevan to Frank Grimes’s office, or to Walter White’s or Morrissey’s or Nancy fucking Drew’s, and here, to George, to this mess of a kitchen and this mess of a man on the floor. He thinks of his mother and the Mortein flowers, of his mother in the black pantsuit she wears for job interviews, graveside. He wonders whether, if he thinks of his Mum hard enough, the scar on his hand will grow back.
Frank Grimes is watching this inner monologue unfold with a look on his face that is unashamedly bored, bored enough to be rude. He is twirling the cocktail umbrella between his forefinger and his thumb. There’s something comforting in knowing that this post-mortem existential crisis is probably normal, some kind of inevitable adjustment period. George slides down from the kitchen bench and puts his hands in his back pocket, as though to precipitate action, while he tries to decide what he should do next. In the dining room, Ginger flirts loudly with a couple of customers, angling for a tip, oblivious and beautiful for it.
‘Unfinished Business’ originally appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 14, Issue One: The Spooky Edition.
It had taken them five hours to drive up to Opouri Bay. The sun had sunk low by the time camp was set up, so Moll wasn’t allowed to go down to the beach. They were having sausages for dinner and she had to stay and play Squatter with Bronwyn and Cass.
The nights out in Opouri were bigger than back home. The sky was higher, more stars fit into it. They had forgotten to bring the coils again so the mosquitoes hummed around their heads. A couple of days before they left, their cat, Possum, had died on the driveway and they’d buried him in the backyard. Moll had sat beside him and stroked his fur as her dad dug the hole. Later, she had lain in bed, listening to the sound of her parents’ voices rock like small waves against the tent wall.
PULL QUOTE: The nights out in Opouri were bigger than back home.
“Do you think they were very upset?” her mum said.
“Nah,” said her dad.
At Opouri Bay, the sea was crashing and the bugs were pinging against the tents. Moll found it hard to get to sleep. Nature was louder than she thought it would be. The night seemed very big and open when there were no walls. Somewhere out in the dark Moll could hear the quolls growling.
The next morning they were all down the beach. Her dad took the others up the tops of the dunes and they ran down full pelt, their steps getting longer and longer until they tripped over and slid the rest of the way. Her friend, Justine, was burying Bronwyn in sand then shaping it to look like a mermaid’s tail. Moll was poking around some rock pools at low tide and sticking her fingers into anemones to see them pull their tentacles in.
“You know that there are rockfish in these pools?”
Justine was standing there with one hand on her hip. Moll looked at her straight, golden hair. Justine’s bikini was red with white spots and little white ribbons around the top.
“People die from stepping on them,” she said.
“Like cockle shells,” said Moll.
“Or stingrays,” said Justine.
Justine’s family had been coming every year the same time as Moll’s. They usually had dinners together and after the kids would play card games in the tents while the adults sat outside, their laughs loud and uneven with wine and holiday time.
The sandflies came out in the middle of the day and by the afternoon everyone had raised, red bites across their legs. The sun was still high but pretty soon the other kids began to whinge and say they were hungry. Moll’s mum began to fold up the towels. It was still warm and the sea was glittering like a beaded dress.
“Can me and Justine stay for a bit?” Moll asked.
Her mum’s face paused.
“Mum,” she said.
“Be careful,” her mum said.
Mum said just a few days ago some kid stepped on a broken bottle that was tossed into the water. People came down to the beach for parties and made it dangerous for everyone else. There could be other stuff down there too. Like nails or syringes or anything. Mum said tetanus injections were the biggest needle you could get and that’s what you had to have when you stepped on rubbish.
They ran off to the part where the bay curled around towards the rock pools and the waves were small and even. Moll let the breeze that was coming low off the water catch her towel and carry it back behind her. She ran straight at the sea, her feet hitting the surface so hard that it felt, for a moment, solid. Justine was wearing her towel around her neck like a cape.
The sea was shallow where the waves broke but then it sloped down from underneath their feet. It got deep really fast. Justine stayed on the edge of the deep part; the droplets from where the waves had risen up her legs were running down her knees.
“You know that my mum got me a bra,” she said.
“Yeah?” said Moll.
The seafloor dropped away again past where Justine was standing. Moll felt the cold water slide up her thighs.
“She said it was probably time.”
“I don’t know.”
“Has your mum gotten you one?” Justine had to cup her hands around her mouth and yell as the wind whipped her words back towards the shore.
“Nah,” said Moll.
“When they get big you have to wear one,” Justine yelled. “Otherwise you get cancer or something.”
Moll was up to her waist now, the water calm and empty in front of her. Then she walked right into it. The shark was there in front of her and then it was sideways and her belly was between its jaws. Moll thought it was weird that she couldn’t feel anything, just a sudden lopsided heaviness. She didn’t scream because the air was gone from her throat. Then she was under the water and there were bubbles in her face. The shark twisted, her face was in the air. Her hands flapping around, she put them down on the shark’s head. Its skin was rough and cool, like sandpaper. Its tail-fin was sticking up above the water. Then the shark moved again and she was under, the bubbles in her eyes.
PULL QUOTE: You were supposed to go for their eyes weren’t you?
You were supposed to go for their eyes weren’t you? Try and get your fingers in there. She couldn’t feel them. The surface of the water was just in front of her face. The sun was hitting it. It looked laced with gold. Her lungs were fire. She could reach up, maybe, and stick her mouth out. There was a tearing down on her belly, or a bursting. She screamed then, and it came out in bubbles. Her fingers scratching and ripping at everything. Her feet trying to kick up and tear it with her toenails.
She felt the pressure release from her belly and she shot to the surface. Mouthfuls of water were sucked into her lungs with the air and she spluttered. She was still screaming. Her feet scrabbled for the seabed, she grabbed handfuls of water to try and pull herself back to shore.
“Juz!” she screamed. “Go get Mum!”
Justine’s face was stiff like she had stepped on a bit of glass underwater. Moll looked down at her hands and saw red trickling over her fingers.
“Go get Mum!” she screamed.
The shore was so close that Moll could see the lacy pattern the waves left behind on the sand but her legs had stopped working. She lay on her back, her ears just underneath the surface. It was quiet. All she could hear was the sea rubbing the sand together and the hiss of the waves.
Her hands were tingling. There was a sickness in her guts that felt very far away. She could feel the blood all around her. It made the water sticky. Her skin always felt sticky after she’d been in the sea. She was probably going to have wrinkled skin. The sun was shining through little bubbles in the shallow water, leaving star-shapes on the sand. Fairy trails, her mum called them.
Moll remembered the inside of Possum’s mouth. He used to yawn so wide that Moll thought his jaw would crack apart. The roof of it was ridged like the bottom of the sea. Like it had been shaped by tiny waves lapping over and over. The waves were tugging her hair back and forth. You could sleep here if it didn’t get too cold.
When a person gets hypothermia they get so cold that they stop feeling it anymore. Then they get really sleepy and they fall asleep. A car had shot a stick out from underneath its wheel and straight into Possum’s stomach. He had dragged himself up the driveway a little, before just lying there. A trail smeared on the concrete.
PULL QUOTE: “That was my favourite cat,” her dad had said. Then he put Possum in a garbage bag and went to get the hose.
“That was my favourite cat,” her dad had said. Then he put Possum in a garbage bag and went to get the hose.
Moll looked at the sky. The sun was setting lavender above her. There was pulsing in her stomach. Like her heart had fallen down through her body. When things died, something went out of them and made them all stiff and smaller than they were. She could taste metal in her mouth. Possum hadn’t looked like Possum. She couldn’t feel the fabric of her bathing suit. She was pretty sure it wasn’t there anymore.
Movies said that sharks could smell one drop of blood in one hundred litres of water. She didn’t know how many litres of water the bay held but she must have lost heaps of drops of blood by now. Any minute the sandpaper skin would brush against her feet again. Her dad would stand above her and say, “That was my favourite daughter.” Maybe he would punch the sand. Her mum would say, “Just like the cat.”
Possum had his tongue out when they found him, and a stick in his stomach like a tiny, wooden missile. Movies said it was better to leave the knife in because you bleed to death once it was pulled out. Old blood was brown, not red, like movies said.
She heard movement and looked up to see what it was. Two men were standing there with fishing rods.
“Are you okay?” they said, their voices uneven. They were looking at her with wide eyes, their mouths at a funny angle. She thought they were staring too hard. She was pretty sure she was naked. She didn’t want them to look at her.
“Yeah,” she said. There was water in her ears.
“You don’t look okay,” they said. Her eyes were getting sore from straining up in her head and she couldn’t move her arms to cover herself.
“I am,” she said.
Her cheeks were hot, there was a scream in her throat as they splashed into the water and lifted her from the waves. The world was spinning like on a roller coaster. There was a theme park down near Nelson. All the Year Sevens were going next month. The water was gleaming purple and gold like an Indian sari. They had done a project on India last term. Moll had got a really good mark. Her skin was prickling but she didn’t feel cold. Her heart was still in her belly.
The fishermen’s arms felt solid under her knees and back. Her head stayed loose and hung backwards, and she was looking at the sand like it was the sky. They must be running. Her body was jolting up and down. Deep hollows in the damp sand from the fishermen’s feet turned shallow and shapeless as the sand became drier. Moll’s head was still facing back the way they had come. The footprints made a pattern back down to the water behind them. Moll could see the red smudge on the water’s edge. It might have been the sunset. She couldn’t hear much anymore, she felt really sleepy. If they stopped rocking her in their arms she might be able to stay awake.
This story was first published in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 12. It is a work of fiction based heavily on This American Life episode 476: Just Keep Breathing. You can listen to the podcast here
Harriet McKnight is a writer from Melbourne. She is also the Deputy Editor of The Canary Press.
Brothers on their backs, side by side at the end of the spit, feet over ocean, sun everywhere else. No one but them – no fishers for the moment and no other kids.
“We going in?”’ Joshua said.
Pat stared at a far-off sailing boat, a gentle floating leaf in the havoc of zipping speedboats. Joshua scratched his hair, didn’t know the point of running from home if they weren’t going to be out there in it. He’d been in by himself but it was less than it could be. Joshua was an athlete, with an athlete’s mind. Nothing called to him more than a pack of boys running rhythmically in the dawn fog, dew-juicy grass, or kicking cold water in the school’s thirty metre. He was on the football team too, the engine. All of the world he saw as sport. If there was no competition, no Pat to measure against in smooth cutting backstroke, there was nothing. He licked his full lips, not knowing they were beauties – long, brown and shirtless, wearing similar shorts. Dark as bunya nuts, but sun-blonde in hair. Joshua’s chest and stomach had the rippled beginnings of an older, teenage body. Two stomach hairs sat around his belly button like dark lace.
“It was nuts of Mum, eh?” he continued.
Pat didn’t do much more than nod.
“Stupid. But you should try and to forget it. Don’t think she would have done it if she knew you still were going to use it. You know her.” He pinched his brother’s arm until he got a response. Pat moaned his name and pushed him away.
To Philippa, their mother, he was Joshua Tree, her favourite LP. She had been with their father to it, and now it gave her impetus for late night cleaning.
The end of the school holidays was close and that morning Pat had woken up to a displacement, his mother’s efforts on his room. He and Joshua had fallen asleep in the sitting room over the obsessive combination of a puzzle of King Kong and build-from-parts skateboard. Not only was his patterning and harmony disrupted, she had gotten rid of things of his she’d thought he’d outgrown, and the absence of his wetsuit was the most upsetting. He hurried to the bins, they’d been emptied hours ago. He marched to his mother’s room in a huff, begging her to bring back the suit. He got closer to the bed.
She thought she had done him a favour. “You’re too big for it.”
“No!” he’d caught the belly of a wave for the first time in that suit. And Joshua had nicked some kids longboards and they’d sweetened every day of the summer holidays at Alex, the in-between beach that was a lucky charm for them. Snorkelled too, with Dad. Had the best times he remembered. He sunk down on the bed, looking down at his legs. He had a skinned knee that hadn’t closed over, still oozing serous fluid, sorer than he’d admit. Protesting even from the short dash to the bin.
“From the way you’re reacting, I think there’s something else you’re mad at me for.”
“No! You can’t just mess up my stuff and get rid of things without telling me.”
“Your room’s lovely now. You’ll be able to do your homework on your desk and it doesn’t reek anymore.”
“I liked it how it was.”
She rubbed her neck, “I’ll make that puzzle disappear too if you boys don’t clean it up. Can’t get to the dinnerware.”
Pat wanted to howl at the lack of understanding. Instead he walked out and continued out the front door and she didn’t say what was needed to make him stay. Joshua ran after him and quickly caught the edge of his shorts, but wasn’t going to pull him back. The boys walked to the sea in silence. They peeled off their newish shirts and left them on the rocks, other kids would take them, and it would upset their mother. Joshua flopped in like a second chance fish.
Pat wouldn’t go in for reasons other than sulkiness, the knee. He’d heard at school a boy got a flesh-eating bug in the same waters, a little way down. Pat hung to information like his mother. April light crystallised the coast. Pat didn’t like it much cooler than this. In a few weeks he’ll have to pull on the holey jumper hand-me-down from Joshua, musky under the arms and neck. Joshua had fouled him on the school oval, flattened him from behind just to get a reaction from the crowd so curious of brothers. Every time he moved his knee he felt the flap of skin tense and he felt weight on him.
He flexed his limbs, stretched out on his side like spooning the sea. Maybe they couldn’t appreciate this view, so familiar. Mountains straight ahead they had climbed after meeting Uncle Prue. Skyscrapers to the left. Pat knew a childhood before the development. Eyes closer to rocks and scraped knees weren’t remembered.
He had mumbled something.
“What?” Joshua said.
“Where were the dolphins?”
“Over there,” Joshua thumbed.
You wouldn’t know he was a boy comfortable with being alone.
Pat turned, propped up on his elbows and gazed into the space.
Joshua did too. He’d seen the pod of dolphins when he was out there alone, in the late afternoon after training. Before everyone left, he looked at the people of all ages fishing. Girls he might have known walked up and down the sandspit, but he didn’t go up to them. He was addicted to the smell of his own sweat carried in the salt air – it was satisfaction. If you’d observed him on the pitch or in and out of the classroom, you wouldn’t know he was a boy comfortable with being alone. He needed reflection too, and he found it in the scan of the water for a fin. It had been a secret until he’d told his brother over the puzzle.
He felt his spine tingle sighting the pod, and watched them feed until the dark quickened. Uncle Prue said the old people would tag-team with the dolphins, rallying the fish together to corner in tricky flaps like these. The dolphins were an impenetrable moving wall, and there’d had been easy pickings for both.
Joshua would not be too keen on going home to another peas and pie in front of a talent show that made him self-conscious; he wasn’t too young in his athletic career to know disappointment. Here he worried what it might mean to be older and be expected to do things like girls and jobs, things that would affect sport and who he was. He would do it and then Pat would do it and he would have to help Pat, and he didn’t have a father.
“Joshua Tree,” Philippa would start. “Your father liked me and he liked you and Pat alright, but he didn’t like being treated differently. Five years ago we were the only darkies on the spit. Look now.”
The adrenaline of the escape had worn off and the day was ahead of them now like a big block they didn’t know what to do with. Pat was thirsty and couldn’t think of staying here any longer. But every time he thought of Philippa he felt betrayal and shame. It was like the time she had the new boyfriend after their dad. It was just like Hans. The first time Hans stayed over he woke up early and made his brother and Pat melted cheese over eggs and ham before they went to school. Philippa got up just before they went out the door and said, “Did you use the cheese at the bottom of the fridge? Was off, I reckon.”
“Blue eggs and ham!” Hans said cheerfully. “Tastes alright, boys?”
He said he thought blue eggs and ham were the best.
Afterwards Pat had written to Hans. He said he thought blue eggs and ham were the best and he’d like Hans to do dad stuff with him and Joshua but some things just with him. Of course he didn’t give it to Hans, he had no intention to. Too shy to tell people how he felt, he wrote. His mother had found the note while tidying his room.
“Don’t show Hans!”
“I won’t,” Philippa said laughing.
He snatched it out of her hands. “Don’t tell him.”
The next morning she came home hungover but smiling about the previous night where Hans had taken her to see Icehouse at the Caloundra pub. “Hans thought you were cute,” she said, ruffling Pat’s hair.
A few weeks later he saw Hans along the waterfront with the blonde twenty-year-old barista. She doesn’t need you as much as we do, he wrote to Hans in another letter. Mum’s a big fat liar.
Joshua had stood up and walked down the spit and Pat thought he was going to jump into the water but he just stood there. “Haven’t seen those dolphins for a while.”
“I want to see them,” Pat rushed out his sigh.
Pat got to his feet.
“No chance when you’re around.” Joshua’s expression was firm.
He held him above the water and Pat struggled.
Their eyes were locked together for a second or two and then Pat launched himself, trying to get Joshua down and they hit the deck, Joshua writhing underneath. Pat tried to hold him, but they were soon tussling, and Pat felt the muscle memory – they’d done this before and here he was young again, before controlled by their mother. At the thought of their mother he slapped Joshua on the back of the head, and the stronger boy reacted, picking him up by his ankles. He held him above the water and Pat struggled.
Pat felt the spit of the sea. “Don’t.”
“What?” Joshua said with no aggression. “You deserve it.” He dropped his brother in.
As he went under, he felt his knee first, attacked by the salt. He shook and kicked frantically until he could find his feet on the bottom. He hugged his knee and spat and shivered again and faced away from his brother.
Joshua saw the old man on the beach. He must have been looking at them the whole time. He had been fly-fishing but had stopped and was just looking, squinting. Could have been a glare screening the beach from the spit.
Joshua stepped off the spit, an eye on Pat still sulking in the surf, and one on the old man.
“Hey!” the man shouted.
“Hello!” Joshua walked closer.
“There’s a woman looking for her boys. Youse those boys?”
“Maybe those boys,” Joshua said. “You caught anything?”
“Nothing for dinner,” the man said.
“For your wife?”
“Just for me.”
The water touched his feet.
I shouldn’t have got him in the water, but he was being a real baby.
“Your brother alright?” The man picked up his fishing pole.
“Should be. I shouldn’t have got him in the water, but he was being a real baby.”
“He hit you good I saw.”
“He hit me, but I still was too hard on him.” Joshua said.
“Your mother’s a lot darker than youse.”
“Yeah, so,” Joshua swept his hair back, almost dried. He concentrated through the glare. “I’ll get him out.”
“Water’s as flat as a model,” the man said behind him as he waded in.
Glasses of cold water down throats a reprieve. Sand and blood wiped on the furniture on the way. They were marched into showers, and into new skins. Dolphins moved on the tiled walls. Steam everywhere. They let the tap drip until they didn’t hear it.
They were coaxed to come out and sit on the carpet in the warm living room. Philippa put oil on Pat’s knee, a raw white circle. The puzzle was half done in front of them. Joshua yawned when Philippa wasn’t watching, the end of the holidays seemed a breath away, and the nights needed to be long. Pat had his face scrunched up, though he had smiled a little at Philippa noticing the sunburn on his feet, the week-deep line of his thongs.
“Should get you to the doc’s tomorrow with that knee,” Philippa said.
“Nah,” Pat said.
“What if it’s still bad when you go back to school on Monday?”
Pat shrugged. He reached over and put a dark piece in the gorilla’s nose.
“Alright,” Philippa put the lid back on the oil.
“Alright?” Joshua said.
Pat nodded. He touched a mark on his shoulder caused by their tussle. The soon-to-be bruises hadn’t been noticed. Philippa got up to put on U2, pop open a packet of chips. The brothers shared a look.
‘Wetskins’ originally appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 8, Issue 2: The Emerging Writing Edition.
Ellen van Neerven is the 2013 winner of the David Unaipon Award, and the author of Heat and Light (UQP, 2014).
First we pretend it is America. I pretend that we are having a barbecue in the backyard, that we have green grass, that our neighbours are white, wholesome and bringing the beer. Kennedy pretends that he knows about lawnmowers but ruins everything when he says mort-gages, like it is two words.
“Why is there a ‘t’ then?” he asks and seems suspicious when I tell him I don’t know, but that’s how they say it on TV.
Our America brims. It is filled with frosty mountains, obesity and blonde, beautiful women who blow kisses at us and call us sand jockeys.
“We’re INDIANS,” I shout at them. “Fucking racist bitches.”
“Show us your tits,” says Kennedy.
The blonde, beautiful women tell us to go fuck ourselves. The frosty mountains melt into something dark and menacing that swallows our feet.
Then we pretend it is England. Kennedy has been to England and says the light is exactly the same, so we surround ourselves with rolling green hills and Scottish people. We try to focus on strawberries or fish and chips but after a while it is like we are waiting for something that isn’t going to happen. The light begins to fail and we start thinking of the wrong things: General Dyer, the word blackguard, section 377.
“What was England like?” I ask.
“Can’t remember,” says Kennedy. “Must have been ok.”
The rolling green hills dissolve into something grainy that sticks to our lips and eyelids. The Scottish people leave without saying goodbye.
Sometimes we don’t pretend. We sit with our backs against the wall, looking at our two pillows, one mattress, at the water bottle, the dirty clothes. We trace the cracks in the floor and try to remember where we are, but we keep thinking of barbecues or Scottish people instead. We think of mort-gages. We think of blonde, beautiful women who tell us to go fuck ourselves.
Sometimes we don’t pretend and the room bends under our feet. We watch it shake itself out while the frosty mountains lunge at the ceiling, like they are ready for anything.
Kuzhali Manickavel’s collections Things We Found During the Autopsy and Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings, and echapbook Eating Sugar, Telling Lies are available from Blaft Publications, Chennai.
This story first appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 11, Issue 1.
My mother had a house in the Blue Mountains, has a house up there still. I went up to there after I did the Bad Thing to myself. I knew the house would be empty that week, and I knew under which pot plant the spare key was hidden. I was meant to be in classes, so I emailed my professors with unclear stories. A sick grandmother, I told one. Appendicitis, I told another. I borrowed my housemate’s car and drove out along the highway the two hours from the city, the radio on, yellow lights slipping by. Far beyond the road flames vaulted up into the night from the chemical plant at Silverwater where the poison turns fresh air to fire. It was almost beautiful. In the dark.
Red and white lights darted past me until the traffic disappeared just before Medlow Bath and the turn-off. My mother had owned the house for ten years. She had inherited it from a great aunt who’d lived and died a quiet death, up there amongst the bushfires and rhododendrons and tea. My mother adored the house. It was too far from her office for her to consider living there permanently, but she used it every other weekend, tending roses and tramping through the vegetable patch in gumboots, leaving them at the door so as not to trail mud through the kitchen and its hardwood floors. The house was warm, it smelt like roast dinners even when there was nothing in the oven. In the morning the air was sharp in your lungs.
PULL QUOTE: I needed time for the Bad Thing to settle
I had spent the past week walking into the graffitied bathrooms in the university library, closing the door and sitting down on the closed toilet lid. I needed time for the Bad Thing to settle. I stared straight ahead. Now. Now is when you cry.
I stared still.
But nothing happened.
There were advertisements taped to the bathroom door. International students offered tutoring in Korean and Mandarin, flyers for the Rape Counselling Hotline, invitations from the Psychology department to be involved in experimental research on the condition that you had a long-standing and potentially troubling affinity for certain types of over-the-counter pain relievers. I stood up, opened the door, cupped my hands in the sink to splash water on my face and gazed at my reflection in the mirror.
There was only a very small vanity mirror in the Mountains. And no internet. Once I had turned off my phone the night was silent but for the heat rising in the pipes, the rustle of possums in far off trees. I turned off all the lights and I slept. In the morning the daylight filtered through the blinds. I looked at the closed door and the cold light and I lay very still, in the quiet, in the room. In my on my own. Where there was a mirror that was empty. Where my shoes lay turned at acute angles, kicked off my feet to the floor. Where the bedspread was rumpled and kicked to the side. The smell of empty spread out through the air.
The next morning I wrapped myself in an old, tartan dressing gown that reeked of cigarette smoke and stepped out into the icy garden. In the air drifted the scent of firewood and eucalyptus trees – a sharp, clean smell I supposed had always been there.
I wanted none of it. I went back inside and crawled into bed. I read the novel I had, about artists in New York, and when the light crept to the western wall of the room I watched films on my laptop, about artists in New York. When evening came I drank steadily. A bottle of cooking sherry I’d dug out from the back shed. I ate chocolate, an orange, and salmon from a tin. When I slept, I slept without dreaming. I kept the curtains closed. The whole house was sterile. Nothing could fester. Although nothing could grow, either. I was inside a parenthesis. And there was no reason to leave the clean, white plane of the sheets.
I had been sitting at the edge of the university grounds when I called Luke, at the end of the empty veranda that ran down the side of the Holme building Engirded by oleander. Deserted and worryingly quiet. As though the whole campus had been abandoned after some catastrophic tropical storm.
There were things I knew that I had to do. Things I had absorbed from films or books maybe. There was a special choreography to the whole thing that I couldn’t get right without talking to him, and I knew, distantly, there was some moral imperative to doing so. But I didn’t know how to get through to him anymore. The month before he had taken to wearing a hoodie which shielded most of his forehead and everything in his peripheral vision. He was afraid that his eyes might stray to the space around him. His world had become so narrow that it had filled out and acquired depth, a canopy, a sterile ecology. It grew so densely around him that he had become lost in it.
PULL QUOTE: And all I could do was apologise for ruining his birthday.
We hadn’t spoken in two weeks because we’d agreed it was for the best.
It was his birthday.
I wanted to present him with a conclusion, a scenario in which there was no choice that needed to be made. His voice sounded distant. Very far away.
He said he couldn’t come with me. He just. He. Just wasn’t. No.
I should tell somebody else.
And all I could do was apologise for ruining his birthday.
I stayed longer. I liked the emptiness of the town. It reminded me of mornings when I was little, waking up warm under the eiderdown, the few moments I could lie there in the soft sheets before padding down the hallway in my slippers to my grandmother.
My grandparents had lived on a small farm on the coast before they died. My mother would drive me down and leave me to spend the school holidays with them. I collected eggs from the chickens in the morning, swam in the nearby ocean, fed the pigs and horses, set the table at night with wildflowers snatched from neighbouring hedgerows and scrub. In the photographs I have of myself from then I’m forever racing about in blue dresses, strawberry blonde curls a tumult around my head.
PULL QUOTE: I saw the knife, heard the sound of her cry, almost human
In the autumn my grandfather went down to the paddock and killed one of the pigs. I wasn’t supposed to see, but the year I turned ten I managed to find a hiding spot and watched. My uncle and grandfather restrained her. I saw the way her body went stiff in their arms, as though it hadn’t occurred to her that she could struggle. I saw the knife, heard the sound of her cry, almost human, then my grandfather and uncle rolled the body into the trough. I sat for a long time looking at it from my place in the garden. The longer it laid there the less it looked like the dirty pink thing I had patted and fed. My grandfather spent the rest of the afternoon storing and preparing the butchered parts.
My grandmother explained how she preserved the meat. The pork belly would sit in an airtight Tupperware container in the garage. Each morning she would take it out and meditatively rub it with a mixture of salt, brown sugar, pepper and bay leaves. The salt was what preserved the meat, she explained. The bacteria and fungi couldn’t survive in so much salt, so there was no decay.
When I went to the beach by their house that day I swam out to a flat rock and sat drying in the sun. I looked at the fine dusting of salt across my shoulders, and I remembered the dark room and the pork in the Tupperware container. I thought about how much salt it would take to preserve me as I dried my hair on the flat rock, far from land. Where no decisions needed to be made, where there was no going forward and no moving back. Like Lot’s wife looking back upon Sodom and longing for it.
PULL QUOTE: Scrawled doctor handwriting. Like thorns.
There is no part of me that wants it, I said to her. She snapped her eyes away from me and back to the prescription pad she was writing on. Scrawled doctor handwriting. Like thorns. I needed to say it. Because it was close to frightening. That I couldn’t feel anything about this idea in my belly. This is a thing people feel things about.
She glanced up at me, her eyes full of disdain. She was round, pink in places people usually aren’t pink. Her skirt was faded around her ankles, her jacket long, boxy and tight around her upper arms like it had been tailored badly in 1986 and she’d never fixed it.
Don’t be ridiculous, she said. Of course you want it.
No, I said. I wanted her to understand. I don’t. There’s nothing. This isn’t even a choice. I wanted her to understand how astonishing it was that I felt nothing.
After four days in the house I ran out of food. I walked up the road to the bakery, my boots crunching through the frost hardened to the grass overnight. I ordered black coffee and a chocolate croissant and then I went outside to the long table. I sat reading, picking at the pastry with buttery fingers.
Look who it is. I looked up and saw Ian, the old man from three doors down, heading towards my table. I thought it was your mother there for a minute. You look so alike.
Many men before him had apprised me of this.
Ian’s voice gave the impression of being issued from a powerful man. He walked like he was marching. But Ian was unemployed, and had been for some time before they found the thing that was eating him on the inside. Now he looked deflated, the skin on his face papery and loose, dark rings under his eyes which could have been as much from the illness as from the three bottles of wine he’d put away between lunch and bedtime the day before.
I’ve seen the lights on in the house, but I haven’t seen you out and about. I told him he must have missed me. I willed him not to sit down with all the hostility I could hold in my shoulders.
What have you been up to? he said, shifting the discarded sports section further down the bench. Not much, I told him.
Did you hear the racket last night? he asked.
No, I didn’t hear anything.
I had, in fact, been woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like something crying out. Quiet again. And then screaming. The blood pounded in my ears and I was unendurably alert to how alone, how trapped, I was in the house. The room expanded around me as though all the darkness was crowding in. I couldn’t move.
I went to The Rose after a seminar, and came back from the bar with a bottle of the cheapest red wine. There were three on the table already. We sat on long benches outside in our coats, sitting snug to one another for the warmth. I drank the whole thing away. I wanted to be resolute. I thought, somewhere in a place that wasn’t quite thought, that even if I kept what was inside, it would be damaged. Broken. The cells too fractured to grow. Too broken to make anything nice.
I didn’t want a nice thing.
I drank until I was slick with it. Pure alcohol. We left the pub and bought more wine and drank as we walked, drank in parks. Played on swings. I laughed. I loved the. Something of it all. Feeling weightless, empty.
In the Erskineville tangle of a garden I sat on a stolen plastic chair smoking cigarettes with someone from my seminar, a man whose voice was low and deep. He looked at me with a directness that felt explicit. I floundered in it helplessly. In some secret CinemaScope part of myself where the artificial rain falls I could hear him say to me that he would have me, take me, that he would build me a house at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.
I climbed the stairs to his room and turned out the light on my almost naked body and crawled into bed beside him. His body swallowed mine and I wanted to tell him that he could, that it was safe, inside of me. For the first time it was safe. But I didn’t. He held me and when I woke up the next morning there were moments, the first moments, where I felt easy in his arms. He threaded his fingers through my hair. I lay there with him for a long while. My mind thought to the side of the Bad Thing, as though it wasn’t a thing at all.
I walked home from his house in the late afternoon, along a busy road during rush hour. The six lanes of traffic made the pavement vibrate beneath my feet. It was ugly, noisy, fume-clogged. But I walked that way so that I could be alone with it.
PULL QUOTE: I wanted people to keep away, like an animal caged in the house of my body.
I wanted to bite somebody. I wanted to growl. I wanted people to keep away, like an animal caged in the house of my body.
I told Ian I was going to go to Pope’s Glen and then to walk down into the valley to Bridal Veil Falls. I guessed. I wasn’t sure. It was misty. There would be fewer walkers. I hadn’t thought about going anywhere at all, but I didn’t want him to think I would be home to visit if the mood struck him.
That’s a bit of a walk, you know, Ian said. I agreed.
You heard about the body they found around there? I had not.
He only knew what he’d heard from the bloke at the pub whose brother-in-law was one of the local policeman sent down to deal with it. The table rasped as he leant toward me. I closed my book as he spoke. There was a woman, a little while ago.
The woman had left some clothing behind at her sister’s house when she hopped into a taxi one day in 1969. As though she were coming back. She had been jilted by some Canadian, or maybe an American, nobody seemed entirely clear. Nobody reported her missing. Because of the clothing. They carried on, thinking she must be having a nice time somewhere, with somebody taking care of her. But she had taken the taxi away from the airport, into the middle of the bush. She paid the driver in fresh ten-dollar bills and he left her along the side of the road with two suitcases, surrounded by trees.
She walked along paths cluttered with dry leaves and twigs, deep into the remotest parts of the canyons. She found a cave with a high ceiling, which sheltered the entrance from the rain. She set up a banana lounge, her treasures, some canvases. And she lived there until she died. From exposure, they said. Some poor kid discovered the skeleton a couple of years back – stretched out on the sun-bleached banana lounge, surrounded by jewellery, handbags, a bank passbook, a knife, fork, and a vinyl record of The Last Waltz recorded in French. She still wore her mother’s wedding ring on what had once been her finger.
No, I said. I hadn’t heard about the woman they had found.
Well you just be careful, said Ian. People get lost out there, and it’s not easy to find your way back.
Back at the house I found a parka and some cheap sandshoes in the laundry. I put on an extra pair of tights and a jumper over the flimsy dress I’d brought. The only dress I’d brought with me. I put some things in a backpack: some water, Band-aids, a tattered Visit the Blue Mountains guide from 2003, with a sunscreen-thumbed map printed on the back. I drove over to Pope’s Glen, parked the car under a blue gum and walked down the hill.
Since I was a child, I had never felt at ease on the thin dirt paths, mapped badly onto an unmappable terrain. They had an eerie, malevolent quality. When I was six our teachers first herded us onto coaches and drove us two hours from school, and they emptied us out into a national park so that we could go walking through the bush. They did it every year, and always when it was hot, the kind of hot you should stay in the shade for. They told us to look at the flowers, the tall trees and the leaves, but everything was always the same interminable middle-shade between green and grey. The scrub scratched at my legs and stung me, and I was forever falling and scraping my knees in an endless kind of surrender to the thing.
PULL QUOTE: I was scared of the bush. I was sure it did not want me.
But as I walked towards the Falls and the sun cast bars of darkness across the path I thought that perhaps it wasn’t dull so much as a medium for light. There was a painting that hung over the bed I slept in at my grandparents’ house. Before I fell asleep I’d stare at it, thinking about what it could possibly mean. A young girl in a blue dress clutched a sprig of mistletoe in her apron, all but trapped in the vertical bars of a eucalyptus forest, the bush swallowing her up in the glare of the sun. That painting was muddled up in my subconscious with stories of dead explorers, fallen women, lost children, firemen on the television the summer before, families poking over charred photo albums, smoky late afternoons when the sun turned blood red as it moved away from the coast. I was scared of the bush. I was sure it did not want me.
After an hour, we came to a clearing, and we sat cross-legged on the rocks. A park ranger accompanied by an Aboriginal man in paint-stained boots showed us faint drawings on a rock, the animal figures sealed off behind logs mounted on smaller logs. They explained how the people who painted the animals and the plants had loved them. Had understood this place. And I felt rebuked because I was scared of it, felt like it could swallow me up along with all those men who walked out into the landscape to conquer it and died.
The ranger pointed to the trees growing around the rock, black and dead. The fires had gotten to them. He held up a spiked burnt-looking thing, something that might once have been a blossom, and asked us if we knew what it was. We all shrugged.
He explained that it was a flower fallen from the branches of a banksia tree. And that, despite how black it was, the fire hadn’t killed it. The trees needed the fire to grow. The ranger handed us the black thing so that we could feel the woody, two-valved capsules opened up like hungry mouths. He explained that the trees wouldn’t spread their seed unless they are exposed to extreme heat, the kind of heat you only get in a fire. That the trees grow on ashen ground, sterile, empty, cleaned by heat.
PULL QUOTE: Breathing tasted strange, like peppermint, with all the sensation and none of the flavour.
The further down the hill from Pope’s Glen that I walked, the quieter it became. There were plaintive cries from birds, the rustling of lizards and small animals, and sometimes the sound of water. Breathing tasted strange, like peppermint, with all the sensation and none of the flavour. The sunlight acquired a murky quality. Gum trees and ferns grew at implausible angles, and there was a lot of obstreperous bush and things with thorns that discouraged straying too far from the thin dirt path.
Everything down there undulated to the beat of some subterranean music. Everything was dancing: fronds, leaves, twigs, everything. I understood why the woman who they found in the cave might have sought solitude out there, why she might walk so far into such inhospitable country. When things grew so densely between you and the world it was easy to become trapped, until all that was left was a knife and fork, a banana lounge, and a recording of The Last Waltz in French.
I walked for hours before stopping to eat the sandwich I’d bought myself in the village. I emptied a bottle of orange juice. The trees were all grey, or maybe green. I put one foot in front of the other and kept an eye out for snakes on the path. Although I did not know whether it was the right time of year for snakes.
PULL QUOTE: There were charred banksias, their little mouths open.
In a shaft of light I walked into a grove of ashen trees, back burnt, in preparation for the summer. On one side of the path there was green, the other was burnt out, ash, branches of chalked bones. There were charred banksias, their little mouths open.
After ten minutes of silence I heard a cry. I turned to look behind me. Something white flickered amongst the trees. Distant, shadowed, child-height. Something alive. Excruciatingly alive and encaged. There was another cry, and a nickering giggle, branches crackling underfoot. A milky, melting light moving swiftly through the trees. Ash stirred from the ground and floated in the air, obscuring my vision. But in that flicker it had looked like a little girl. In a blue dress, her hair a tumult around her head.
I gazed out into the trees long after the bush was silent once again. Waiting. But there is only so long a person can wait. It had sounded human. But I knew that not all things that cried out were human. Pigs screamed at the knife.
An hour more of walking and the path began to tend right, across a creek, to the hill I needed to ascend to get out of the valley. I was tired. As I walked I stumbled, taking a header into a thorned bush, gasping, embracing it dreadfully.
When I got back to the house I peeled off my cold and dirty clothes and threw them in the laundry sink, wrapping myself in the smoky tartan dressing gown. I stood on the kitchen steps and looked out to the back of the garden, across the grass to where the roses grew. I was drinking gin. I had taken three sleeping pills.
My limbs felt longer than their length. My cheeks were warm. I was drunk. I thought about hoods, bottles, banana chairs, the little thing in the trees. I thought about the drive up there on the highway, and how the factory threw shapes of flame into the night.
PULL QUOTE: Some howl came from me.
I thought about the green shapes my pulse had made on the heart monitor, when they had attached the clip to a finger of my right hand. And I thought about how I shivered, how they couldn’t make me stop shivering, and how, when the anaesthesiologist had rolled up my sleeve to past my elbow so that she could insert the cannula I had been surprised by how pale my arms were, I had not remembered that my body was so pale, and I thought about how I had looked away, as though I were six years old so I could bear the fear of needles, and I thought about how when I’d come out of the ether I was crying, and the nurses asked what was wrong and I had said it hurts, and the pain had wrenched through my abdomen and I’d whimpered but I had been too weak to lift my head to look at them. And then they had left me alone in the bed behind the curtain.
And some howl came from me.
And I thought about how strange it was that that was the only time I had cried.
I went to bed very late, tangled in the sheets that were beginning to grow sweaty and sticky with liquor. I opened up the curtains, and the window was huge. From bed I watched the lights snap off in the row of neat cottages until all that was left was Ian’s shadow moving through the rooms of his empty house. In the middle of the night a thunderous diesel train reverberated through the leaves. Heading east to the coast, to be engulfed by the shapes of the city. In the dark.
Madeleine Watts is a Sydney-born writer of fiction, essays and journalism based in New York. Her writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, The Hairpin, Junkee and Griffith Review amongst others.
This story has been edited since it was first published in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 15, Issue 2 to amend a minor and unintentional resemblance to another piece of published fiction.
For a long time I dreamt that all the dead pets of my life were coming back to me, one by one. Dogs and goldfish, some rats — their resurrection was a gift, my husband’s way of thanking me for my patience while he was in space, doing the President’s work. He brought them to me and Constance with a red ribbon tied around each of their necks.
In my dreams he tracked them down to their burial places in secret and lifted them out of the earth. He took one up with him each mission, each trip into orbit. During breaks on the shuttle, he gave up his free time to revive them by way of the miraculous cosmic radiation zooming constantly through space. He held them cradled in the arms of his spacesuit while huge waves zapped their little bodies, opening the blockages in their hearts, putting fire back into their brains. I still see him drifting outside of his shuttle, tethered by an umbilical cord. Through the fishbowl of his helmet his eyes are closed. His brow reflects the rising sun like it’s the light of Christ.
Soon, I wake up.
At four years old, Constance refused to understand much about her father’s work. I read her the brief, censored letters he sent, the labelled photographs of the scientific knick-knacks that kept him alive. They were things familiar to me. This distracted her from biting through an electrical cable, or leaping from a bookshelf into our glass table, or putting a knife through an outlet and being obliterated by energy.
My sister wasn’t concerned about this. When I called about a dream journal she sent me, she said, “Constance isn’t long for this world. She’s just trying to go out in style.”
PULL QUOTE: She would tell her friends her father had an alien family on the moon, one he loved more than us, for whom he would endure the trouble of space-flight.
“What would you do?”
“I can’t think I’d do much,” she said.
“She just misses daddy, maybe.”
“She has a funny way of showing it,” I said.
Constance had a wide, open forehead, which gave the impression that she could be fooled easily. But she didn’t listen when I took her into the yard on cloudless nights to point out constellations that I predicted her father was attempting to observe, or the areas of the sky he was probably moving through. She would tell her friends her father had an alien family on the moon, one he loved more than us, for whom he would endure the trouble of space-flight.
She seemed to understand only the tremendous pressures his body went through twice a year: once being shot into orbit and once falling out of it. In the interim — those six months between the pressures, while he was talking to aliens for ninety thousand dollars a year — who’s to say what happened to him? In orbit, your heart floats free inside the barrel of your chest. The cells of your bones go into decommission, and you return palsied, too exhausted to speak about your journey, about your moon family.
I would close my eyes and imagine that feeling in my own body. I would think, What I wouldn’t give to have someone shoot me up there, all alone, into the blue eyes of god.
“Are you drinking?” my sister asked. I could hear her watching television as her husband spoke loudly in another room.
“Yes, are you?”
“Yes, I am. What’s she doing now?”
Constance sat under our heavy oak dining table and tried to pry loose the screws that kept it from collapsing on top of her. I hooked my toe into the waistband of her pants and pulled her towards me across the linoleum. Her dumb, little hands reached out for work.
“Nothing. She’s just sitting there.”
“It’s easy to get lonely,” my sister said. “You should remember to write down every dream you have.”
“I will,” I said. “I’ll remember.”
“He’s probably lonely too,” she said. “I bet he doesn’t have a dream journal.”
“I don’t know, maybe they give him one.”
The last time I saw my husband, the weekend before the launch, all the astronauts and their wives got together to barbecue meat and talk about nothing other than what aliens look like.
Drunk, he’d dragged me away from this conversation into the bathroom and turned off the lights and pulled my dress up over my hips. He kissed me in the way he did — moustache scrubbing my cheek, his small mouth closed like he’s playing a flute — but when the lights came back on I was almost surprised that he wasn’t someone else: another astronaut, or a technician from mission control, with their thick glasses and tiny office-worker’s calves.
I said goodbye to my sister and walked out to the patio to breathe. Where we lived there was a vacant field behind our yard and, in the distance beyond that, the clouds were opening up over the space-flight command centre. The night was suddenly bright with shadows. The base was huge and humming and ever-awake and somewhere inside the computers of mission control blinked endlessly, watched over by those men. But in the light there was something else, too: a rocket-ship sitting in the field. Someone was moving from it towards the house.
“Who’s that?” I called.
I could just make out its antennae twitching to the sounds of the base. It stopped at our back gate and rested its little hands on top.
“Are you looking for my husband?” I said.
“Yes,” it said. It’s voice sounded like it was coming from very far away.
“Well, he’s not here. Can I help?”
“No,” it said. “Is he back in space?”
“He flew up a few days ago.”
Inside, the table began to groan as it buckled over Constance. The stranger turned slowly around and moved back the direction it came.
“I’m sorry,” I called out after it, but the clouds had closed back up and the light dropped back to nothing. In the kitchen I picked the receiver back up and held it to my ear, listening to the tone, waiting for someone to speak.
The military families’ liaison colonel wasn’t worried. His walls were covered in helpful information for military wives regarding benefits, local societies. There was advice in the event of air attacks, or in the event of spouses returning with intimate sicknesses. The colonel’s eyebrows moved a little when I first mentioned the visitor, but then sat still.
“Well,’ he said. “That’s really something. What do you think he wanted your husband for?”
“I thought you might know,” I said.
He took a few notes and asked me to describe what it looked like and, as an afterthought, if I took any photos.
“It was dark,” I said.
“You didn’t have a flash?”
“I didn’t have a camera with me.”
“Was it frightening?” he said. “Did it threaten you, physically or verbally?”
“It seemed polite,” I said.
“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to try something.”
“Should I be concerned?”
PULL QUOTE: In the sunlight I could see it had the broad, sad face of a moth.
He looked up from his notes. “No, no, of course you shouldn’t be concerned. Unless it tries something. Then, who knows?”
“I need to think of my daughter.”
“Did your daughter take a photo?”
It was waiting for me when I returned, standing again beyond the gate, hands clasped on top of the gate. In the sunlight I could see it had the broad, sad face of a moth. Its antennae, too, were soft and wilting. A mother-bird from a nearby tree wheeled in and snapped at it. I told Constance to be ready to call the police like I showed her.
“My husband’s still not here ,” I called out.
“That is okay,” it said.
“He won’t be back for a while.”
“That is fine.” Each time, before it spoke, there was a leading pause, as if a spring were being wound up inside it.
The alien didn’t move from the gate, and we watched each other for a little while as, inside, Constance began smashing the phone onto the floor.
“Did you want to come in?”
“Yes,” it said.
It had to stoop to get in the doorway, blocking the light coming into the kitchen. Constance stared but didn’t stop destroying the phone.
“Sweetie, don’t,” I said. But she didn’t stop, and so we stood together and watched her, the telephone bell chiming every time her fist came down.
The alien visited us only a few times in the first month, but was soon coming several times a week to have short, quiet conversations in my living room, or in my bathroom, where it was easier to clean up the soot that shed from underneath its carapace. What it was searching for became a distant concern.
The first time, we stood in silence looking at photographs in the living-room: trips to the ocean; the two of us at flight school before Constance; my mother and father when they were young.
It took down a graduation photo and brought it up close to its face. In the photo, I was wearing my own flight-suit. My head popped out of the mouth of the suit like it was a creature swallowing me.
“Do you have photographs?” I asked.
“Where you’re from, I mean.” It was a dumb question.
“No,” it said, making a chuckling noise. “No, no, no.”
If I suspected it was coming I would lay down newspaper on the living-room carpet, but often there was no warning. Sometimes it visited in the evenings as I put Constance to bed, sometimes in the very early mornings. I would wake to find it staring through my window or waiting patiently at the back door, its black eyes shining in the patio light.
“You do not keep animals,” it said one afternoon. The day had been warm and red and we stood outside at the gate, watching the sun set over the centre.
“Not anymore,” I said. “Only Constance.”
“I found her sitting in your garbage with the lid closed,” it said.
“Do you think that means she’s depressed?”
“I can try to take care of her,” it said. “I can probably fix her. With medication.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think I want her having alien medicine. I don’t know if it’s meant to be. But I think you are helping, being around.”
The alien nodded slowly by bending its torso backwards and forwards – a movement only recently adopted. I told it about the animals I had, growing up, and the dreams of my husband resurrecting them. I found myself mentioning him less and less – soon, too, the dreams had ceased.
“I know radiation can’t do that,” I said.
“Bring dead animals back to life?”
The alien made its chuckling, noise. “Maybe there is a way.”
“I don’t want them coming back to life,” I said and it stepped towards me and pulled me close to its body. Its long arms were wrapped around my back; I could hear its insides humming like a machine. I closed my eyes. “I hope it’s just a dream.”
“Do not be concerned,” it said. “They would be too decomposed anyway.”
With the summer came news that the mission would be wrapping up shortly. The other wives began arrangements for the return of their astronauts. I declined invitations to their meetings: Constance’s birthday was quickly approaching, I told them, and I needed time to prepare.
The temperature rose and the alien began complaining about the humidity in our part of the world. It didn’t seem to have sweat glands, and so I offered to spray it down with cold water.
“This feels awful,” it said, chuckling.
In truth, Constance’s party would be a small affair, just the three of us spending the afternoon together. My sister said she would visit, too, with a gift. We walked, hand in hand, with a picnic basket and balloons to the field behind our home, under the shadow of the alien’s rocket ship.
“This heat,” said the alien. “I am going to die here.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “None of us are going to die.”
Since the alien’s appearance Constance had lost her recklessness. She stared into space, or slept on the carpet as the alien made chittering noises at her. One morning after it stayed over she called it “Bug Daddy”.
But in the bright light of her birthday she was sweaty and alive, running in circles too fast for me to grab her and put cake into her mouth. She crawled between the alien’s legs and slapped its feet and squealed. She threw grass and stones. The alien chuckled loudly. Soot shook down onto Constance’s face, and I couldn’t help but laugh too. “It’s your birthday!” I said. “It’s your birthday! It’s your birthday!”
Soon, my sister was calling from the house.
“Where’s the birthday girl? Hello!”
We’re out here,” I called back.
I headed in to retrieve her. “I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet,” I said.
“I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet,” said my sister. “Where’s Constance? Get her in here. I’ll go get her surprise.”
But back in the field, something was happening. The alien had caught Constance and was hoisting her into the air, holding her high, extending its arms to their full length. I smiled, but as I got closer I could see that her top half was disappearing into its mouth, which had become long, like the jaw of a snake unhinging.
PULL QUOTE: After a moment of swaying it shifted its weight and, shaking terribly, began to spit Constance back onto the grass.
“What are you doing?” I called. “Are you playing?”
Constance kept going and soon her feet were gone too.
“No!” I said. “What’re you doing? What’re you doing?”
The alien looked at me as it gained its balance
“I don’t like this,” I said.
“She would not stop,” it croaked.
“Wouldn’t stop what? It’s her birthday!”
“I do not know what that means.”
After a moment of swaying it shifted its weight and, shaking terribly, began to spit Constance back onto the grass. Soot rose into the air in clouds as it crouched over her like an animal, chuckling heavily. She lay unmoving. Her eyes were open and staring into the sun and I lifted my hand to block it from her face.
“Sweetie, don’t. It’s bad for your eyes. Sweetie.”
She didn’t move. Back at the house, my sister called again. “Hello? Where’d you go?”
“What did you do, you maniac?” I said.
“I am sorry,” said the alien, rocking from side to side. “I am sorry. I made a mistake.”
“Why’re you laughing?” I said.
“This is not laughing!” Its attempts to speak were strained. Its voice came through in a rasp. “I was trying to calm her. She would not stop moving. I can fix her, I promise.”
Standing up, it lifted Constance by the legs and laid her over its back and began to waddle over to its rocket ship waiting nearby. I tried to grab her arms but it pulled her away quickly.
“Where are you going with her? It’s her birthday!”
“I can fix her,” it said again.
As it approached the rocket a hatch opened and a platform began to descend.
“Don’t try and follow me,” it called back. “You will die in space.”
“I know that!” I said.
Then the platform began to retract back into the belly of the ship with the alien and Constance along with it. The alien watched me the whole time, making some gesture with its free hand, but it did not translate. The hatch closed and they were gone.
Quietly, effortlessly, the ship began to rise. There was no movement in the air. There were no windows for me to see my daughter’s face, there were no signals. I opened my mouth to call out but before I could it was gone. It lifted away and suddenly I was alone, left in the field with the cake and the picnic blanket, my neck and arms burning in the sun.
Inside my home there were more calls for me. “Come here,” my sister yelled. “Come here, come here, come here.”
He was inside, of course. They all were: my sister, the military families’ liaison, all the other wives. They stood in the living room in a semi-circle behind my husband, their hands clasped to their chests and their eyes filling with light. My husband leant heavily on a walker. There was a gift balancing on top, wrapped in a red bow.
“Look who came home early for his baby,” my sister said, beginning to cry. “Look who came back from heaven.”
Jack Vening is a writer and bartender living in Brisbane. He has taught in the writing programs at the UQ and QUT, and in 2014 was awarded the inaugural Queensland Literary Awards Young Writers Fellowship.
This story first appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 11, Issue 1.
‘Coming of age’ is a stupid phrase: that’s what you realise on finishing Abigail Ulman’s debut collection of short stories, Hot Little Hands. It implies a point of completion, unfettered access to knowledge and wisdom, some superior state that doesn’t require further development. But we are constantly ‘coming of age’, again and again and again. At twelve, at fifteen, at eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-seven, thirty. Coming of age is a continuous process. And that’s why life is sometimes so painful.
What follows is part review, part memoir – a review of Hot Little Hands interspersed with reflections on my own ongoing coming of age.
I was seventeen and he was fingering me on a bed in our friend’s parent’s penthouse. I called him Jesus. His name was John but that’s my dad’s name. His last name began with a C – JC, Jesus Christ.
Outside, our friends were drinking Cruisers and playing Guitar Hero or making out on the balcony. It was Schoolies and everyone was frantically trying to do whatever it is you’re supposed to do at Schoolies. I wasn’t drinking. I had a rule that I wouldn’t drink until I was legally allowed to. That’s the type of girl I was – law-abiding, shy, straitlaced. I also had a rule that I wouldn’t have sex until I’d been dating a guy for at least a year. But here I was in a dark room, on a bed, with Jesus, who was having trouble removing my too tight, too short denim shorts.
I wasn’t even sure I liked Jesus. He was ginger and I liked gingers but he was a ‘bad boy’ – into drugs and definitely not into Jane Austen, absurdist theatre or Doctor Who. He called me Coco-Pops and all my friends told me he was really into me by playground logic: he teases you because he likes you. I was flattered so I went along with it. I went along with it when he kissed me on the balcony. I went along with it when he led me to the bedroom. I went along with it when he shuffled my body up the bed with one hand while the other undid his belt buckle. His orange stubble scratched the edges of my lips. His fingers hurt inside me. I opened my eyes while we were kissing and stared at his freckles. I decided I didn’t want to go along with it any more. I made some excuse, slipped out of the bedroom, grabbed my friend who was also sober and bored, and walked with her back through Surfers Paradise to our apartment. We watched Northanger Abbey and ate a packet of Tim Tams each.
Disquieting and strikingly familiar, the stories in Hot Little Hands are linked by themes of desire, friendship, and sexuality. Each character, no matter their age, heritage or geographical location, exists in that murky unmapped area after innocence but before knowledge and understanding, somewhere between childhood and adulthood, girlhood and womanhood.
Over the course of nine stories we meet eight young women. Sascha, a high school student, is testing boundaries with her science teacher, Mr Ackerman, and beginning to notice her sexual power – “I was yet to work out exactly what it was that guys found sexy in women, but I knew whatever it was, I had it.” Jenni and Elise are best friends who become disenchanted with the wild parties, unsatisfying sex, and endless stream of text messages, of their teens. Amelia is a young writer with a book deal who decides to have a baby to avoid meeting her deadline – “It was an idea I had sitting there one day: […] I could just have a baby and forget about everything”. And Claire, well Claire is probably the character who best illustrates the idea that coming of age is a continuous (and haphazard) process. We meet her in three separate stories: first, as a PhD student in San Francisco when she discovers she is pregnant to her clingy ex-boyfriend; again at twenty-seven as things unravel and she falls hard for a beautiful nineteen-year-old; and finally, strangely enough, in an airport when she is refused entry into America.
I remember being fingered by Jesus in a penthouse.
These characters, mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings, are self-absorbed, confused and painfully relatable. It is a testament to Ulman’s skills that she is able to conjure deeply personal emotions – shame, lust, envy, regret – and render them universal, while also carefully illustrating the nuances of each girl’s transition or ‘coming of age’. The stories in this collection triggered in me a literary Madeleine moment. I remembered being fingered by Jesus in a penthouse. I remembered the thrill of testing boundaries. I remembered the first time I wanted to have sex and the first time I thought I was in love. I remembered being arrogant and cruel, naïve and vulnerable, thoughtless and heartbroken.
I took his hand and placed it between my legs.
I liked to call him Teach even though technically he wasn’t my tutor anymore and technically we were just friends. The first movie we saw together was Argo. He’d seen it twice already. Afterwards he drove me back to my flat and kissed me on the cheek. We saw The Bling Ring and played ‘212’ by Azaelia Banks on repeat all the way to his place where he put his hand on my knee while I cried with homesickness. When we sawThe Great Gatsby he cried and I looped my arm around his and squeezed his hand as Carey Mulligan threw dress shirts into the air. We kissed in I Give It A Year. Once, while we were watching the ads, waiting for the film to start, I took his hand and placed it between my legs. I don’t remember the movie we watched that night. It was French.
I knew what to do when he stood watching me as we waited for a bus. When he sat down I pulled his face towards me and kissed him. I liked knowing the security cameras were capturing everything, I liked knowing that this time I kissed him, I was controlling the rhythm and pace of this interaction, not him.
While each individual story in Hot Little Hands is well balanced and structured, as a collection it is uneven. There is little definition, particularly between those stories set in Australia. Characters tend to blend together, linked as they are by the common search for a sense of identity, purpose and belonging, the usual coming of age tropes.There are, however, a few standouts such as Sascha in the opening story, ‘Chagall’s Wife’, and Claire. These characters are more fully realised, their voices more authentic. Perhaps the strongest, most astounding story follows thirteen-year-old Kira, a gymnast from Vladivostok, as she travels to America, her first trip away from her family. This story punches you hard in the gut leaving you gasping and sore.
Where Ulman succeeds is in the little details and phrases that are all too relatable. In each story there is a nugget of something familiar. In each story something will hit just a little too close to home. When Sascha goes to a movie with her teacher she wonders what people will think: “She’s too old to be his daughter, probably, and too young to be his sister. I wondered what they’d finally decide.” I knew this thought, I’d had this thought before, because in a way I’d been there, done that. When Bradley, Anya’s crush, leads her into his bedroom and lies back on the bed she says, “I had never touched a boy before, so I don’t know how I knew exactly what to do next, when he unzipped his fly…” I remembered the inexperienced seventeen-year-old me who tried to go along with it. I feared for my seventeen-year-old sister who had called me as I finished Hot Little Hands to ask whether she should kiss a boy and whether, if she did decide to kiss him, he’d want to have sex.
I desperately wanted to touch him.
I can remember the moment I decided I was ready for sex. I was eighteen and studying for a semester at the University of Manchester. His name was Jamie. He was tall and lanky and ginger – about as close to an Andy Murray lookalike as I was ever going to find. He was also my flatmate. Our rooms were directly above each other. We used to say we’d install a bucket and pulley system outside our windows to send snacks and notes to each other.
It was O-Week and there were a lot of strangers in our kitchen. A couple were making out against the ironing board, a few dishevelled boys with names like Dafydd and Cillian were discussing ketamine, others were throwing scrunched up balls of The Guardian at each other. Jamie and I were sitting beside each other on top of the freezer, watching. We barely spoke but I immediately imagined an affinity. I knew he would be thinking exactly what I was thinking, thinking that this wasn’t our scene, that we should be somewhere alone together, having intellectual conversations and sharing a cider. I desperately wanted to touch him.
I would visit his room late at night, slipping in while our other flatmates were in the kitchen or showering. His pants never came off, neither did mine, though my shirt and bra often did. We’d make out furiously, sweating through our clothes, until we were both exhausted. I waited patiently for what I thought would be the next stage, the natural progression, when we’d both take our pants off and actually do something. But still, pants on, belt buckled. One night I asked, “Could we… would you like to have sex?” Jamie was the first person I’d wanted to have sex with, it was the first time I could pinpoint lust in my body, recognise it, feel something other than ashamed about it, act on it. I didn’t think he’d say no. “It’s just that you’re leaving in a few months and I’ll get too attached if we have sex, y’know. It’s too intimate.”
Despite the familiarity of characters and situations, Hot Littles Hands as a whole feels strangely lifeless. It has been too meticulously polished and edited; all the ragged edges, which would potentially have enlivened the stories, have been trimmed and hemmed. The pop culture references peppered throughout feel contrived, inserted to mark time or scrounge a laugh. It feels unnecessary, for example, for the reader to know that Claire’s housemates are making a video response to the ‘Ow, Charlie bit me’ YouTube sensation. Claire’s age, her status as Gen Y, is implicit already in her character.
Perhaps it is a bad idea to read the collection in one go, perhaps individual stories would shine if given more space in the reading experience, but these stories feel over-workshopped. There’s a fine line between well crafted and drained. And yet there is a subtlety and sympathy to these stories which almost makes up for the collection’s flaws. Ulman perfectly captures the confusion, awkwardness and general ennui of each young woman as they navigate the pivotal moments in life. Sascha articulates these moments best in 'Chagall’s Wife’: “I knew as I sat there in my uniform…that I was being admitted into a new world – that I was growing old or dying or changing or something. A sensation passed over me then, like, insects crawling around on my back.”
Sometimes we’d fool around. He never let me stay the night.
Almost a week had passed since he’d said sex was a bad idea. Still, every night, when the rest of the flat went to sleep, I’d sneak down the stairs and tap on Jamie’s door. Most of the time we’d just watch Doctor Who, lying beside each other on his single mattress like chopsticks. Sometimes we’d fool around. He never let me stay the night. After David Tennant had once again saved the human race Jamie would go brush his teeth. He’d stand at his door, toothpaste foaming around his ginger stubble, and say, “See you tomorrow.” I didn’t mind because I thought I loved him.
One night he didn’t feel like watching Doctor Who. He sat up in bed and reached over me to switch the light off. He was a gentleman, of sorts. He asked first. Confused and reluctant, I didn’t answer. But as things progressed he guided me down. I had no idea what I was doing. I had read once, probably in Dolly, that it was hot to treat the dick like lipstick, gently rubbing it over your lips. But my hair kept falling in my face and I had to pause every few seconds to pull strands from my mouth. In the end I probably had more of my own hair in my mouth than Jamie’s dick.
Afterwards he got up to brush his teeth. He kissed me on the forehead, held the door open for me and said, “See you tomorrow.”